With bright eyes and sweat-slicked hands, Spencer pulls me by my pinky finger up the stairs. He's taller now than when I last saw him, and instead of jutting into a mohawk, his hair now lays flat, prim and obedient. His knees are grass-stained and scabbed. On the back of his maroon Spiderman shirt, a popsicle stain marks a dark bulls-eye. Vaguely I wonder by what mechanical miracle he managed to get such a large, purple blob at the exact center of his shoulder blades (especially since I'd seen him eat the culprit popsicle just half an hour before). But Spencer is eight, and eight-year-olds have their own physics, to which we mere mortals are not privy.
"C'mon, Cousin Lara!" he says. He's in some curious phase where he designates all family members with an honorific, as if he or we might forget our relationship to him. Uncle Alan. Sister Devin. Mother Mom. He pulls harder. "C'mon, I want to show you!"
Like a bulldog on a leash, he tugs me through the hallway and into the office, where sandwiched between my grandfather's writing desk and his eight-foot family tree is a television. I grin. I know this set. It is older than Spencer, older than me, maybe even older than televisions. For all I know it might have been dropped here millions of years ago by well-meaning space aliens, like some electric black obelisk destined to introduce our species to violence, intelligence, and Richard Strauss.
Perched above the TV is my old NES, the one my grandmother had snatched from the clutches of some unworthy opponent at an auction in Maryland. She had salvaged the console from flooded basements and tornado wreckage and dusty storage spaces, if only because I, her eldest grandchild, had once played this NES on this TV and loved it. I silently remind myself to give her a hug later.
Spencer furiously works some knobs, pretending to know what they do, until he finally switches on the power. I cringe when he jabs the NES power button. That's my job. The picture wobbles into view, and there on the screen appears a monochrome vision of the menu to Super Mario Brothers.
"Okay, Cousin Lara," Spencer says intensely. His brows are furrowed. I think he might be nervous. "You've got to see this." He presses the Start button on the controller (which he handles with ease; he must have built up his calluses) and takes a deep, slow breath.
The music begins, that eternal melody, that sweet siren song that leads you home; that digital, pivotal, ethereal tune, which, no matter how old you grow and how violently you swear off mustachioed plumbers and magic mushrooms, you still know by heart. Mario waits, as he always does, as he always will, by that lumpy hill in World 1-1. Some things never change.
Spencer bursts into action. Mario stomps on the first Goomba, breaks the second block and grabs his mushroom. Then it's over the four pipes with breathless, running leaps, not stopping to pound the enemies trapped in between. On the fourth pipe he halts, inching ever so slowly across the screen, and bam! He leaps into the air and grabs a 1-Up.
Suddenly, I frown. I never taught Spencer where that 1-Up was.
Mario flies through the rest of the level effortlessly and confidently. He snatches the Star, whirling like a dervish through Koopa and Goomba alike. Without hesitation, he bounds across the block ramps, not stopping, never stopping, and it's across the pipes and up the stairs, where he flies off the edge to sit-slide down the flagpole, and, with a flourish, scurries into the fort ahead. Music swells. The time runs down.
The little bastard got six fireworks. When did he figure that out?
Spencer is right to be proud of himself; he's good, very, very good. He's improved so much in the three months since last I saw him, when he begged me to show him how to dodge the Koopa shell and line up the jump across the pit. He's become much faster than I am. More accurate. More confident. Better all around.
"Good job, Spence!" I pat his shoulder. "You've really been practicing."
"Did you see me jump that pit?" He beams up at me, bouncing with barely contained joy.
I smile. "Yep! You did great." I want to stab his eyes out.
The game chugs on, and Mario plummets into the pipe zone. Spencer turns back to the TV, hopping onto the Goombas and taking his flower. "Hey, Spence," I say evenly. "Let me show you something."
He grins and hands me the controller. Poor kid. It's not his fault he's better than me. Still, that's not going to stop me.
I leap over the columns and through the strange hanging bricks, across the trio of pipes and up the small stairs to the vertically moving platforms. Then it's over the first one and onto the brick ledge. There I wait, lining up the jump.
"But Lara," Spencer chirps. "Aren't you going to get the mushroom?"
I smirk. "Where I'm going, I don't need mushrooms."
Then it's onto the second platform and up, up, and there we go. I'm on top of the ceiling, on top of the pipe, jogging along, Mario's rotund little belly obscured by the numbers at the top of the screen indicating POINTS and TIME: [02:31].
"Wow!" says Spencer, clearly in awe. "I didn't know you could do that!"
Mario falls down into a secret chamber, where friendly and terse text proclaims, "WELCOME TO WARP ZONE!" The numbers 2, 3, and 4 hover over three evenly spaced pipes, and I pick the one underneath "4".
"That's so cool," he murmurs. Grabbing the controller back from me, he resets the game. "Let me try!" Gracefully he blazes through World 1-1 again, and then, as he falls down to World 1-2, he pauses, thinking. I can see the gears turning in his head.
"Cousin Lara"…" he begins.
"Of course, Spence," I grin down at him. "I'll show you again."
Maybe he's good. But there are still a few things left I can teach him.