Nerds Need Love Too
Around 8:30 p.m., I idled outside the main entrance to the shopping mall on the east side of Knoxville. It is one of only two malls in Knoxville, the other being on the west side of town, about twenty minutes away. The mall on the east side is less frequented, a place folks on the west side don't go out of their way to visit, whereas folks on the east side will make a special trip west for dinner at The Cheesecake Factory or to have the cracked screen on their 5s fixed at the Apple Store. At the mall on the east side of town, there is a Chinese buffet, Mandarin Palace as it is known, and a Mythic Airbrush, where you can get a custom T-shirt, perhaps emblazoned with a blood-red heart, an arrow piercing it, your true love's initials etched on either side. Or perhaps a Southern phrase: "Bless your heart" maybe.
As I waited for "Aaron" to show up, I looked out over the three-quarters empty parking lot and thought about the multiple shootings that have occurred here, dating back to when I was a kid, incidents that have created an invisible barrier around this mall, which has been buttressed by stigma and stereotypes over decades. To paraphrase Drake: The Cheesecake Factory is for people who go to Disney and have families and drive the latest Camry and can afford the 7 plus. The mall on the east side of town has Mandarin Palace and Mythic Airbrush.
I'd texted Aaron when I arrived, but no response. So I called. After several rings, I was transferred to the voice mailbox of a woman named "Tracy." I hung up. I waited five minutes before cancelling the trip and selecting "rider no show," meaning Uber would at least pay me a small fee for my time.
There are several ways to exit the mall, which is nestled back in what was once a heavily wooded area that is now crisscrossed with highways and onramps leading to the interstate. Just as I was preparing to hook a left onto one of the connectors, I received another request. It was Aaron. My phone rang.
"Hello, sir. We're on the other side of the mall. The movie theater side."
"Got it," I said. "I tried to text and call."
"Uber wouldn't let me update my number until now," he said. "Dang technology..."
"Dang technology," I said. "Coming around now."
By the sound of Aaron's voice, I didn't expect to find anyone other than a young white guy. Which is what I did find, although the backlighting of the mall cast Aaron and his friend in silhouettes, obscuring defining traits other than one was six feet and change and lanky, the other stocky and about a head shorter. I could also see that they were both holding white Styrofoam cups and sipping from straws. Both also appeared slightly disheveled, their clothes a half size too big, like maybe they hadn't bothered to take them off before bed or when they woke up.
They climbed in and I learned that Aaron was the shorter one. He sat up front with me and in the brief moment of the interior lights being on, I noticed his dark hair and glasses and the scraggly beard of an early twenty-something who hasn't bothered to use a straight razor enough for his beard to grow coarse and thick. He reminded me of Vincent D'Onofrio circa Full Metal Jacket, except his beard was more Edgar the Bug circa Men in Black.
"Sorry for the confusion," Aaron said. "I've been trying to change my dang number, and Uber wouldn't even recognize my Google voice."
"Geez," Aaron's friend chimed in from the back. "Step into the 21st century why don't ya?" Aaron's friend was a pitch-perfect, un-ironic Napoleon Dynamite. I kept waiting for a "Gosh!" or a "Freakin idiot" to punctuate, but it never came.
"Who's Tracy?" I asked.
"My ex," Aaron said. He let out a sigh. I left it at that.
"All you Uber drivers have good-smelling cars," Napoleon piped up. "Uber must've just gave you this thing, like, yesterday or something, huh?"
"Thanks," I said. "But, no, it's mine. I try to keep it clean."
"I see," Napoleon said and paused for a beat. "Bet you don't smoke."
"Good bet," I said.
"This isn't a smoker's car," Napoleon said. "We're smokers. It's a bad habit. We'll quit when we get older and it's not, like, something to do when we're standing outside and needing something to do to waste time."
I nodded. "Sounds like a plan," I said.
"I heard most of the drivers in Knoxville own their cars," Aaron said, switching the subject. "But I heard in the big cities Uber leases the cars to drivers and takes it out of their checks. Like, how weird is that, huh? Driving around to pay for the car you're driving."
"Super meta!" Napoleon said.
I was still in the circular maze of the mall parking lot, my GPS not quite sure which route out was the fastest, offering multiple "similar ETAs" to choose from.
"What's the best exit?" I asked.
"You not from around here?" Napoleon asked.
"I know Knoxville," I said. "But I don't know every nook and cranny. And I don't spend a lot of time at the mall."
"I see," Napoleon said, letting the same beat pass. "Up to the stop sign and hang a right, then a left, then it's a straight shot to my house."
I followed his directions and maneuvered beyond what woods hadn't been chopped down back in the mid-'80s. We hit a red light before I could make the left onto the straightaway.
"I haven't come here much since they quit calling it East Towne," I said, reminiscing in my own mind of a time when my cousin lived close to this mall. Her mother and my mother would take us to the movies here, back when it was seen as "safe" and brand new, just more for the folks who didn't get out as much, who preferred the all-you-can-eat buffet over a single filet.
"We still call it East Towne," Aaron said. "Doesn't seem right to call one West Towne and the other one some made up name so folks don't think the east side of town ain't the place to be."
"I don't disagree," I said.
"Yeah," Napoleon said. "Still got a good food court." He took a slurp from his drink.
The light turned green, and I went left, a ten-minute trip headed farther east, deeper into farmland and churches and a gravel turnoff here and there that led to a trailer park hidden in the darkness of undeveloped land.
"What movie'd you two see?" I asked.
"We just came out on that side," Aaron said. "We wanted some food, and we were pricing some cards we might trade."
"Like baseball cards?" I asked.
"Heck no!" Napoleon said.
"You ever hear of Yu-Gi-Oh?" Aaron asked.
"Can't say that I have," I said.
"Where have you been living?" Napoleon said. "What are you, like twenty-five?"
"Thirty-one," I said.
"Do you at least know Japanese anime?" Aaron asked, going easy on me. "It's a trading card game based on Duel Monsters."
"I know what anime is," I said. "But that's about all I've got."
"You don't play cards?" Napoleon asked, still incredulous.
"I play with cards that have kings and queens on them," I said.
"Poker," Napoleon said. "Poker's kinda fun but you can lose too much money at poker. You can lose money in Yu-Gi-Oh but not a lot of money. Not like a whole paycheck from Burger King."
"Stay away from casinos," Aaron said.
"I learned that lesson," I said.
I noticed Aaron scrolling through his phone and could discern numbers next to dollar signs. I had a tinge of regret for charging him the cancellation fee, knowing now that it was an honest mistake, the ex and all. I thought he might question me about it, irritated that he was charged five bucks, which perhaps would put him halfway toward a new pack of Yu-Gi-Oh cards. He pushed the sleep button on his phone and craned back at Napoleon. So did I. The kid's mouth was hanging half-open, no glasses, but the same Napoleon puff on top, minus the curls, plus a caterpillar mustache.
"Yo, I actually underdrafted last week," Aaron said. "I can buy us some video games."
"Underdrafted?" I asked.
"I started my first checking account—on my own," Aaron said with an emphasis on own. "I set it up where the bank only lets me have so much a week. I was like a hundred under this week."
"Good you're budgeting," I said. "Smart."
"I've seen a lotta people be dumb," Aaron said.
"What video games you play?" Napoleon asked.
"I don't," I said. "Not since Sonic the Hedgehog."
"Freakin A!" Napoleon said. "What do you do?"
"I read," I said. "You know, books?"
"You watch Family Guy at least, right?" Napoleon said.
"I watched a few seasons in college," I said, "a decade ago."
"It's called the internet," Aaron said, laughing until his shoulders bobbed up and down.
"I've heard of it," I said.
"The No. 1 game-changer for porn," Napoleon said. "Hands down the best thing the internet did."
"Um, sure," I said.
"You married or something?" Napoleon asked.
"I'm not," I said.
"I see," Napoleon said. "So you're in the same boat as me—unless you have a girlfriend, and then you're not in the same boat as me."
"I can't even get Tinder to work on my phone," Aaron said, laughing and bobbing again. "If I could, I bet I'd be like Quagmire!"
"Giggity!" Napoleon said on cue.
"You two roommates? Classmates?" I asked.
"We've been friends a while, huh, Dustin?" Aaron said. "Like eight, nine years. We actually met at a Yu-Gi-Oh tournament."
"Yeah, I had to take up for this guy," Dustin (aka Napoleon) said. "He came in wearing a Power Rangers costume for no reason. I had to be like the Power Rangers are an underrated Americanized spinoff of a high-quality Japanese genre. Supreme special effects for its time."
"What color were you?" I asked.
"Green!" Aaron said. "Green Ranger for life!"
Before I could reveal my ignorance about the green Power Ranger: "Tommy the Green!" Aaron yelled. "Tommy does not go down. Tommy Oliver cannot be defeated in the green suit."
"Dude," Dustin said. "Don't get started on the Green Ranger rules the world crap. Every guy wants to see Amy Jo in the pink suit. So many guys hit puberty on the pink suit."
"They're coming to Knoxville," Aaron said. "The real life Tommy and Kimberly."
"I'm gonna fight Tommy," Dustin said. "I don't even know how to fight, but I'm going to fight him."
"Dude, he knows like fifteen kinds of martial arts," Aaron said. "He like invented his own kind of karate. You would get killed, like literally killed."
"Whatever," Dustin said. "It'd be all over YouTube. I'd be viral for kicking the Green Ranger right in the shin."
Aaron laughed and bobbed at this, meaning he was genuinely delighted at the prospect of his friend kicking the shin of his favorite Power Ranger. "I'd be filming it," Aaron said. "My YouTube account would go nuts. I could start my own channel like PewDiePie, just not racist."
"Yeah," Dustin said. "We'd be like the second coming of Jay and Silent Bob just cause I kicked the Green Ranger in the shin."
Dustin leaned up and put his long, skinny hands on Aaron's shoulders and shook him in that "you're my boy" way.
I was less than half a mile from their turnoff, then another half mile more to their house. The highway was two lanes, street lamps spread out every quarter mile, hardly a house in plain sight, most of them nestled behind a thick of oaks and magnolias, clearings cut out into the woods and hillsides, rooftops only visible from an airplane.
"You two always lived in Knoxville?" I asked.
"Born and raised," Dustin said.
"Same," Aaron said. "I'm trying to get this one to go to Orlando with me. Been saving since last summer for Universal."
"Makes me nervous," Dustin said.
"Afraid of roller coasters?" I asked.
"I've never left Tennessee," Dustin said.
"You have to go then," I said.
"That's what I told him," Aaron said. "How're you gonna be twenty and never left Knoxville?"
"What're you afraid of?" I asked.
"People are different in big cities," Dustin said. "They eat different stuff and talk different. I wouldn't know what to order. They probably couldn't understand me."
"Think you're afraid you might like it?" I asked. "Maybe you won't want to leave."
Dustin didn't say anything to that. "You'd like the rides," Aaron said, breaking the silence. "I always wanted someone to ride the rides with."
I'd pulled off the highway, steering around sharp curves until there was a lone house set off in the dark acreage. There wasn't really a gravel drive so much as a gravel lot, three cars parked out front, faint lights in a few of the windows of the one-story vinyl rancher.
"More roommates?" I asked.
"My family," Dustin said.
"I needed a place to get away," Aaron said.
"So I told him my bedroom floor was wide open," Dustin said.
"Good man you are," I said, doing my best to channel my inner nerd, although, full disclosure, I've only seen each Star Wars film once, as part of my civic duty.
"Friends are for what?" Aaron said in his obligatory Yoda as I wheeled across the gravel and pointed the car back toward the road.
"Have a good time we do," Dustin said. "It's like a lock-in except we can leave, but we can come back too. And Aaron doesn't have to leave."
They opened the doors and the interior lights clicked on. I didn't look much older to them, but they looked like boys to me, all smiles, Family Guy reruns to watch, ice cream to sneak into Dustin's room, girls to discuss, or boys, or both. They had a roof over their heads and that was about it, no car, no fashion sense, not a clue what a woman or a man might want beyond the porn they watched. But they had smiles. They had Orlando and the prospect of what might lie beyond this gravel lot.
"Orlando," I said before they shut me in.
"Orlando," Aaron said and shut the door. Dustin shut his too, and I watched as Aaron put his arm around Dustin and squeezed his shoulder. It was an "I love you," and I wondered if they'd lose this feeling, if life would come between them, or if maybe they'd always have Orlando. Or if Dustin's bedroom would hold the smiles and the late-night talks and the video games, a place to always come back to on the east side of town, if only in their minds.