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Before I started writing about games, I worked a bunch of crappy jobs. The first one was at a bar owned by my uncle in Archer, just outside Springfield. My responsibilities were breaking down boxes, taking out trash and stocking the freezer. My uncle preferred to pay me by the month, due to what he called a “high turn-over rate” amongst his employees. The energy I pretended to put into the job never really paid off; I worked for minimum wage until I was fired. Even so, the five dollars I earned every hour made me feel rich.

It was this sense of prosperity that led me to spend every last penny of my first $800 check, even though it ended up amounting to a lot less after federal tax, social security and some bitch named Fica, who apparently stole 50 bucks out of my check.

My biggest expense was the $300 I had to pay for a room above the bar. I had no qualms about the price, as I was just excited to get out from under the thumb of Marion Cox, Sr. Sure, the room was small and smelled like mothballs, but the TV had unscrambled smut. I paid my sister $20 in gas money to help me move my stuff out of dad’s trailer. It took two trips, so she demanded I buy lunch – that set me back another fifteen-dollar’s worth of Chinese food.

I worked until 1am every night except Mondays. That was my day off and also my payday. I woke up early to go to the mall in order to spend my newfound wealth on a computer capable of playing a new game by the mysteriously Spanish name of Diablo. I had seen the game at my friend Jim’s house. It promised demons, death and dismemberment – and its alliterative goodness would soon be mine. I spent another dollar on the bus and $3 on a breakfast set at Mickey D’s before heading to Circuit City.

Beverly, as her red Circuit City nametag proclaimed, turned to me and asked, “Can I help you?” She might as well have asked, “Why are you wasting my time?” It seemed obvious to her that a teenager in a Pantera t-shirt wouldn’t be able to afford anything in the store that would earn her a fat commission.

I’ll admit her condescending tone offended my delicate sensibilities. I proved Beverly wrong by walking out of the store after spending $349 on a new computer, mostly just to spite her. I didn’t feel bad about spending that much money though; I had got what I had come for – well, mostly. I had taught Beverly not to prejudge people and that alone was worth having only a bunch of ones and a pocket full of change left in my pockets. Diablo, unfortunately, would have to wait until my next paycheck as I had only $28 dollars to my name.

That’s not a lot of money on which to live for the next motnh. I was able to feed myself only because my job allowed me time alone in the freezer, which is where they kept the green olives. For dessert, I discovered that maraschino cherries and whipped cream were a balanced part of a starving teenager’s diet. Incidentally, the freezer is also where I first discovered whippets.

For the first week or so, I supplemented this diet with 99-cent bean burritos from a local bistro that specialized in food for broke people. If I felt particularly extravagant I would pay for a soda, but if not I would grab a slightly used cup from another table.

After I’d spent all my money, the hunger and Diablo was all I could think about. After my shift, I would go upstairs to play Minesweeper and try to imagine that the mines were traps and I was slashing my way through demons and skeletons, leaving a trail of death and destruction in my wake.

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After about two weeks of this, I became an expert at finding mines and lost about 10 pounds. I borrowed $50 from my begrudging sister under the condition that I pay her back when I got my next paycheck. If she’s reading this now, I swear, sis, I fully intended to pay you back.

Fifty bucks in hand, I went to Subway and ate three feet worth of sandwich. The resulting sickness caused me to miss two days of work (or $80 worth of food). The good news was that I was not hungry for two days. It’s pretty hard to think about food when you’re staring into the bowl of your toilet every half-hour.

At no other period in my life had I ever been so aware of the passage of time, even waiting for Christmas morning to come. When you’re starving, or waiting for a game that you’ve hyped in your mind, time seems to pass so slowly until the need gets satisfied. Eating was for people with money, and Diablo might as well have been a diamond-encrusted hamburger and fries.

Eventually, the days of waiting became hours until I could cash the check at the bank. That soon turned into time I had to wait for the software retailer to open. But before I could go, though, I was waylaid by my uncle who demanded rent, utilities and $40 for some missing jars of bar olives and cans of whipped cream.

After the ambush, I barely had enough money for the game. I had a decision to make: I could spend my remaining $50 on food-which would have been logical– or, I could go down to my software emporium, get Diablo and return to pilfering bar condiments. It was an easy decision. After all, who knew when, or if, I’d get paid again?

I waited for the bus to come. I waited for some jerk with a missing leg to get off the bus. I waited for the manager of the shop to open the goddamned door. I waited for him to slowly browse the boxes of Turbo Tax and Pascal 4.0 until he found the only remaining copy of the game. I was barely able to get to the food court before I opened the 8 by 6-inch box.

And it was just as amazing as I had imagined. The instruction manual was like a 20-page treasure trove of information like “If you wish you can adjust the game’s volume by choosing the Options selection.” and “Left-click on the location that you want your character to walk to.” I committed these facts to memory – perhaps I was a little over-excited.

I had Diablo – and at least for today, I would not be eating my dinner from a jar.

I got it home and placed the shiny metallic disc in the tray. The installation went well but, as I have come to learn with PC games, you don’t know how it’s going to work until you actually play the game. An error message popped up that said, “This application requires direct draw support, please restart the application and try again.”

And so I restarted the application again. And again. That failed, and I realized that Diablo was not meant to be. My heart broke, and thereafter so did my monitor as the result of a bit of kinetic troubleshooting. I considered turning to a life of crime as a method of paying for a new video card and monitor but, alas, I had no gun. I returned to eating bar olives and was fired a few weeks later. I never got a chance to play Diablo.

I sold the computer to buy a bass guitar and some 99-cent bean burritos.

Marion Cox needs food badly.

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Question of the Day, Feb. 20, 2010

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