His appearance into the crowd had the same effect as shooting the ceiling in a bank or using the word, "Oops," anywhere in a nuclear power facility and reminded me that a long, long time ago, dynamite had indeed won the first Nobel prize. As if struck by divine intervention the eyes of children, Cheese-oids and Fanny Packer wearing parents locked into non-blinking mode. Each smile faded and every pallor bleached with vampiric precision, from arm's length to the farthest corner, one by one until the ambient fun factor had dropped fifteen decibels, like a shockwave blossoming from ground zero and flattening everything in its path. It was as dramatic as a child's arm sweeping a platoon of toy soldiers or supply-side economics.
Al shuffle-limped through the battlefield silence of the game room, hunched over a carton of low-fat twinkies, nervously plucking the box and littering the shreds behind in a snaking trail of nervous humiliation. He was also hugging a large, shaggy white-paper donkey pinata which I led by the foreleg like a demented leash. Julia aided in elbow-steering the mummyhead, and the three of us clopped pathetically, relentlessly, e n d l e s s l y like post-punk wise men looking for an ethereal forty-watt light bulb in a crib. In the crowds stillness we were surfing that edge where it had yet to be determined whether we'd pushed the envelope too far; much as a water balloon, filled past its recommended pressure, jiggles ominously under the faucet. At any moment I expected a child to burst and begin shrieking in a psychotic snap that would jump from tot to tot like an explosive chain of lethal transmission, crashing & burning their fragile intellects with the subtlety of Ebola in extreme amplification. The prospect of Chuck-E-Cheese-Corp. kicking our asses in a half-decade long judicial battle paled in comparison to the imminent and mountainous psychotherapy bills we'd be levied for the rest of our garnished minimum-waged lives. Especially if any therapist paraded a Ken-sized doll of "Al Riley" and asked the hot potato, "Show me where Al touched you," and each and every fucking rug rat pointed to the brain. Trust me, when a child fingers you accusingly and babbles something along the lines, "The monster touched my soul," your only chance is an L.A. based trial and Marta Waller giving commentary spin six hours daily on KTLA. And then maybe -- maybe -- you can make bail and abscond to Ojos Negros by nightfall. A place where the beer may be warm but you can kill anybody you want 'cause.... well, there's nothing else better to do.
I mentally defrosted some contempt in anticipation of leaving this joint a charred and smoking ruin. There wasn't gonna be any V-Chip for this nightmare, ya fuckers. But to our surprise the children accepted the brutal vision with the vapor weight of a cable channel, oohing and ahhing his passing like he was the White Power Ranger or something. Hell, he coulda been. He was bandaged as one would expect a man after having crushed a dixie cup against his forehead -- With a sledgehammer. Instead, it was the parents who stared, mortified, mouths frozen agape in horror. Having apparently tripped the circuit breakers in their frontal lobes they were incapacitated beyond covering their own eyes much less their children and reduced to producing scraps of handwritten directions and double-checking their right turns, Northridge and Bosnia having the same number of syllables. Hell, stranger things've happened.
We hobbled to our table in a perverse banquet room interrupted every ten minutes by the unintelligible squawk of the animatronic band on stage -- the kind of non-union, scab robots that keep Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland on his paternalistic toes. Supposedly the jingles are top forty sing-alongs reworked into crass advertisements for the Chuck-E-Cheese empire but one would be hard pressed to name any of the tunes given the unintelligible squawk. A volume request only raised the bombast from a gibber to a squelch which was just as well for as far as I could tell the quintet hadn't demonstrated any rehearsal chops since their aborted Cheesalooza gig earlier in the winter.
"SIT HERE, AL!" I shouted, as if his hearing was damaged along with the twelve layers of facial skin. That's method acting, baby -- Ya can't teach that. As our party divvied seats a funereal pall blanketed the neighboring table like russian snow during the fall of Leningrad. Surrounding a plastic cake with the name "Joshua" sharpied across the crest the entire family imploded and the festivities seemed to solidify in the air and fall to the ground with the hollow, muddied thump of dead starlings. Joshua's father was singularly mortified, spiritually collapsing until all that was left of his cognizance was a wild, wide-eyed stare, never wavering from Al's bandage's and never, ever blinking. I'm no professional but judging from the haunted, hardened black coals his eyes morphed into I'd say he was somewhere north of the Da Quang Triangle relieving a particularly nasty fragging of an army superior. So there he sat, catatonicaly, tripping the jungle-war fantastic, his soul sandblasted to a shoe shine polish, denied his God given right to celebrate little Josh's birth. And as Al Riley's presence testified, for the rest of the afternoon God would be elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the waitress doled arcade tokens and presented our Faceless Boy with a plastic travel cup shaped like Chuck-E's skull which we promptly filled with beer. Al double-fisted the domed goblet and lipped the straw so that it disappeared into the gauze almost surgically and slurped from the corporate mascot's medulla oblongata with a disturbing demeanor that reminded me of my Uncle trying to whistle without his dentures. We belatedly ordered munchies and between the veg-heads and the carnivore's I threw up my hands and agreed to four pizzas of each, returning my attention to the task at hand: Disturbing the other patrons.
"AL, IT'S YOUR BIRTHDAY!"
"It's good that he gets out."
"WHAT'D THE DOCTOR SAY, AL?"
"You know he can hear."
"GET A SECOND OPINION, AL!"
"He looks like an advertisement for Ace bandages."
"Hey, where'd you git the beer?"
"DON'T PICK THE SCAB, AL!"
And so it went, ad lib ad nauseum rising like cartoon dialog balloons to the ceiling where they collected en masse into tangible cells, dividing and multiplying in the psyche of the Fanny Packers and their children, taunting them to pack up and get the hell out of there or else. And sure enough they did, accelerating their festivities and leaving the scene with the swiftness of seagulls scared off a rotting sea lion carcass. When the eight pizzas arrived it overwhelmed the dozen Cacophonists and downright frightened me. If genitalia had appeared it would've been bacchanalian. I argued with the Cheese-oid waitress, convincing her she had made the mistake. "Oh no, I meant four total," I lied, mentally reviewing the Cacophony credo. I was pretty sure they'd used the word "anarchy" somewhere and felt guiltlessly secure in my review of the available fire exits in case it became necessary to abandon these malcontents to labor the difference in the kitchen or worse. ¨Donde esta los banos bola? The Manager, a Goering-Goebbels type in polyester, and already unhappy before we showed up, made the startling announcement he'd trade the pizzas for more beer, in the mistaken upper-management theory that fire is best doused with gasoline.
When probed by the waitress on Al's condition we replied simply that, "He can't speak or see, but he can hear, so we'd appreciate if you'd go on with your birthday song," as Al rammed a slice of pepperoni through his mouth slit with the subtlety of a pile driver. Right on cue the big gray Chuck-E rat waddled to Faceless Boy and "Ta Dah'd" itself with a mighty polyfiber paw on the shoulder which, apparently, hid a 10cc syringe of insulin because Al immediately shook in terror at sight of the big sewer marmot and was reduced to violent epileptic seizures in no time. Spittle and low grade cheese substitute bubbled and sprayed from his lips as the Reverend's pyloric valve slammed shut audibly and his fingernails sought purchase in the linoleum table. Julia and I grabbed Al's wrists and LAPD'd him as he shredded the happy plastic tablecloth. Deep in the mouse suit the McLaborer, presented with an emotional emergency in progress, proceeded to Page 9, sub-section 4 of the Big Rat Employee Manual, and opted to salve the situation by wagging his massive, 27-inch trinitron sized head as adorably as possible. Bad move, mouse. Welcome to the next level. Al exploded dangerously backward bringing Julia and I along for the ride. "I think you better go!," Julia begged and *poof* the big varmint scuttled off with the agility of Alaskan elk. I was impressed. If I was wearing a sofa I couldn't move that fast unless there was a lighted rocket rammed up my ass.
"THE BIG RAT'S GONE, AL!," I bellowed, leaning down on him hard. Although I was unsuccessful returning him to his seat, I did exercise my lats simultaneously and briefly considered lying on the ground and attempting to chest press the lout. In the scuffle a paper leg amputated from the pinata donkey exploding penny candy and uncooked beans. "CHRIST, AL, WOULD YOU GO TO DISNEYLAND AND FUCK WITH MICKEY TOO? YOU'RE A GUEST, BEHAVE YOURSELF!" Julia offered helpfully, "It's time for his medicine." But that only accelerated the paroxysm until I roared, "GODDAMMIT AL, YOU'RE EMBARRASSING US! CALM THE FUCK DOWN OR NO CAKE!" and broke his spirit like a neutered sharpei. With that we all took seats and Al breast-fed the rat cup until the straw dried the well and vacuumed air irritably. Somewhere deep in the back of the room I heard a toddler query his mother, "What does 'fuck' mean?" Well Kid, it's a lot like ordering eight pizzas when all you need is four. Comprendo? I foot-swept the pinata innards under the table and picked up a single pinto, presenting it to Al's eyeholes with the satisfaction of helping the elderly or mentally retarded, "THIS IS A BEAN, AL. YOU EAT THEM!" But the mummyhead would have none of it and busied himself in a fetal position.
"Kirby, wipe his mouth," I ordered, tossing the bean. As the napkin toweled his jaw what I mistook for a slice of pizza plopped onto the tablecloth, which when retrieved, unfolded and revealed itself to be the disfigured latex mouthpiece. Painted and wrinkled, it resembled nothing short of decayed body tissue. "His skin's coming off!" somebody shouted horrifically. That's when Josh's Dad bolted to the men's room, his disappearance punctuated by Al squeezing another twinkie until the bag burst, oozing animal lard cream and sucking the sponge cake like a gooey popsicle. Who knows maybe the viscous putty had anesthetic qualities, for it seemed to tranquilize him much as the slut-killer Lenny's furry pet in "Of Mice and Men." As for Joshua's family, they waited patiently but without reward and we never saw his slap-happy Pappy again. I assume he'd retired to the restroom mirror to lubricate his dry, cracking eyeballs with the liberal use of Smart & Final sized drums of Visine and a garden hose.
At one point Al leaned his fat white bowling ball of a head over and whispered, "I'm gonna crawl under the table!" But I wasn't sure if he meant literally, or figuratively. At least he had it easy, the rest of us were suffering internal hemorrhaging trying to control the laugh reflex. Cloaked as he was I assumed he'd already smiled violently enough to swallow his ears. I retreated to the men's room and practiced stretching my face so it wouldn't accidentally freeze in a permanent poker mask while others walked Faceless to the arcade where he played every game as if it was a zig-zagging mosquito to be palm swatted. While at the "refreshment bar" trying to decide between sugared water or water with sugar our waitress appeared.
"Is it okay if Chuck-E. comes back over?," she asked helpfully.
"I know there was a problem the first time."
"Uh yeah, y'know what? Can you give us a few minutes?," I warned.
"We just gave him his medication and it takes a little bit to kick in?"
"Sure, no problem," she replied, now properly motivated, "Let me
know when you want the cake --"
"Oh, bring the cake out NOW. We need to get him home QUICK." And she high-tailed it with the Big Rat swiftness that was the trademark of those unsung minimum-wagers slinging pizza at Chuck-E-Cheese's.
Upon returning to our Dresden-bombed table
Julia suggested gaily, "Let's unwrap presents," with the immediate effect
of a .22 caliber pistol at a Tijuana dog race. Al leapt for the festive
packages and clawed the gifts free while I started mumbling an apology
when he clutched my gratuity. "I'M SORRY, AL. NOBODY TOLD ME ABOUT... YOU
KNOW. YOUR FACE!" Squeals of glee groans and fused as Faceless Boy displayed
his gift for all: A bubble pack of plastic disguises including all the
necessaries for facial replacement. To the horror of what few partygoers
we hadn't already chased away we promptly hooked the groucho glasses, nose
and mustache into Al's dressing and moored the plastic lips into his blowhole
albeit upside down. He looked like a man that, God having created, had
erased his face and started over. In pencil. Just in case.
"LOOKY THERE, GOOD AS NEW!"
"Does anybody else think this is sick?" a Cacophonist chided.
"Listen," I defended myself, "I was told he'd just had a cut. Okay, a deep cut. Not that his whole head was wrapped up like a dead pharaoh."
"HE CAN'T HEAR ME! LOOK AT HIM!"
"Yeah, look at 'em. He's happy," somebody offered.
"LAUGHTER"S THE BEST MEDICINE, AL!"
"He's gotta get on with his life."
"LAUGH YOURSELF TO RECOVERY!"
"He shoulda never left the hospital," Mr. Chide added.
The waitress led a squadron of Cheese-oids and a particularly unpleasant cake to the table, stabbed with a thicket of thirty-five candles indiscriminately fisted into the center like a quiver of arrows. "Okay, everybody ready?," the waitress asked after two false starts to synchronize the animatronic band. Finally she thumbed a zippo and straightened her arm toward the cake when suddenly Al began to rise with the determination of Frankenstein's monster, his massive hands gripping opposite hemisphere's of the cake and cleaving it in one colossal spattering of shortening and Betty Crocker boxed dutch chocolate.
"No! No fire!," Julia warned. "It was a fireworks accident!" she explained to the terrified Cheese-oids, already parting like the Red Sea and becoming dangerously excited themselves. Chuck-E himself grabbed Al's shoulder, injecting another dangerous insulin dosage, and sending him into convulsions at the realization he was being mounted from the rear by a walking carpet with a nose the size of a four-slice toaster. "AHTRA BAD!" I thundered and with that, *whoosh*, the big rat disappeared again, this time for good, and probably to hide along with Josh's father and tremble with post-traumatic stress syndrome DT's. Meanwhile, we wrestled Al, his pizza stained, plastic disguised countenance, resembling nothing short of a diseased Mr. Potato Head. Across the room, The Manager took one look at Faceless Spud Boy and pulled the plug. Literally. Once second the puppet band's air guitaring "Happy Birthday" and the next it's folding at the waist listlessly as the playback recording s l o w s like molasses into a fermata.
Oh sure, they never came right out and spray painted Big Game numbers on our backs but we were tagged nonetheless. Strangely, they didn't seem to comprehend that it was all a gag. They still bought the bullshit, otherwise why not eject us from the premises? I would've. Hell, this was Northridge; you got a big mouse working tables you sure as shit gotta scattergun under the register. And a monster one too, like the Ithaca Mag-10 Roadblocker; a semi-automatic chambered for the mighty 10-guage shell. And although it only holds three rounds, by the time they're gone, somebody's dead. No it was even weirder: We were just too much trouble. And now that we'd practically emptied the room they just as soon leave us alone, barely an audience and waiterless, surrounded by so many empty banquet tables it may as well been a moat. Well, what the fuck'd he expect, trading us the four pizzas for piss hued Budweiser? At Chuck-E-Cheese's? I mean, for Christ-sakes, you know why Hitler didn't drink? Because when he did he got mean. In my humble opinion I'd lay the entire debacle of this sociological experiment on his shoulders.
"I HAVE TO GO TO A BAPTISM, AL!," I shouted. While Al bobbed his Jackson Pollack stained dressing I realized by the horrified audience that I couldn't have uttered a more incomprehensibly tasteless statement on a Sunday in a predominantly catholic Chuck-E-Cheese's. Jesus, what next? Maybe we'd shit in the salad bar for an encore. I hadn't planned on cattle-prodding anybody with that announcement since it was true. But they seemed so offended I said it again, "I GOTTA GO. I'M LATE FOR A BAPTISM!" Whose? Mine? They couldn't be sure. Hell, we could be Ku Klux Klanners. Sure, we weren't dressed like 'em but if Al didn't look like the Grand Wizard himself from a distance I'm a ham sandwich.
After I left the later highlights included
Al's prolonged communion with the costumed mouse. At first refusing to
let go of his nose and then insisting on "washing" his hands in the public
urinal in front of the staff. And a final bout of hysteria upon leaving,
grabbing a wayward pizza on the pickup counter which resulted in another
pinata amputation and a one last great scattering of beans.