The summer I was 16, I worked on my grandfather’s farm. I wanted to get a real job in the city, but my mom insisted. I guess she wanted me to build some lean muscle, or maybe she had some hang-up about her first and only growing up too fast. I still don’t know. I do know that I was two hours out of town for most of that summer. My friends were too busy to drive out. They all had their first cars and first jobs. First girlfriends, too. Deaver would phone and tell me all about it, how they’d crashed some co-worker’s party, how someone had made out with some improbable girl. Meanwhile, I was cleaning barns and sweeping grain silos for minimum wage—I wasn’t allowed to drive the trucks or tractors, because I didn’t have my license. All I had was an N64 and WWF WrestleMania 2000.
I didn’t watch wrestling anymore—but god—I loved that game. I was infatuated with its create-a-wrestler feature. I spent more time making edits than I did playing the one-player matches. Every evening, as the summer sun gave way to pinkish prairie dusk, I’d come in from the field and create. I’d spend hours perfecting a guy’s look and giving him a meaningful move-set, my soil-lined thumbs springing around the buttons and d-pad. You could fit 16 edits on the cartridge and 16 on a Controller Pak. What little money I earned went into N64 Controller Paks.
While I was out picking rocks and fixing fence-line, I would think about who to create next. They were never wrestlers qua wrestlers. My main inspiration was jobs. I’d think of every possible job a person could have and try to make a character for it. I made doctors in scrubs and lawyers in suits, jobs I thought maybe I’d want to do—any job but teenage farmhand, really. I’d make celebrities, too: Eminem, who was big that summer on the strength of The Marshall Mathers LP and Bill Clinton, who, post-impeachment proceedings, was running out his second term and making way for Al Gore.
I also made my friends. I found clothes and faces that resembled theirs, but their personalities were pure caricature—exaggerations or inversions. Kirkham was this beefy, blue-collar guy who got goofy at parties, so I gave him Big Boss Man’s body and Dude Love’s dance moves. Girls gravitated to Deaver, so I cloned him from the Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels and then made cosmetic changes. Fornsy was an incorrigible weirdo—gangly, bald, and given to public obscenity, so I gave him Stone Cold Steve Austin’s middle fingers and Vince McMahon’s awkward version of the Stone Cold Stunner. Pappy was openly gay, so I made him flaming: bright pink singlet and all the most mincing moves and taunts. As for Keats, he was a quiet, reserved guy who had taken some karate. I gave him a black-belt and gi getup and all the martial arts counters, and I made his taunts over-exuberant and almost manic (read: constant use of the “crane pose” as per Karate Kid). I made myself zealous, trim, and insuperable.
If I could have, I would’ve created Cathleen. She was a year older and sometimes showed up at parties we went to. She wore guys’ jeans and a Kangol hat. Like me, she talked about being a writer. She had a husky voice and she would over-enunciate the F-word, which she used a lot. She sang beautifully and she liked rap.
When I wasn’t thinking about create-a-characters, I thought about Cathleen. Maybe some Saturday night when my friends were packed into Kirkham’s 83 LeBaron cruising the main drag, as 16-year-olds did and still do in the summer in the small city I’m from, they would run into Cathleen by chance. Maybe there would be a party they’d all go to. And if somehow I could be there, I knew all the things I’d say to her. I’d rehearsed it in the field. I wanted her out there with me, too, but it wasn’t to be. You couldn’t create female wrestlers in WrestleMania 2000.
School started our senior year, and everyone came back like they’d come of age. Some had steady girlfriends, some had eyes on something more serious than a summer fling. They had money to burn and condoms in their wallets. They had plans for after graduation. I had spent the summer shoveling shit. I had a slop pail full of N64 Controller Paks.
On the cusp of winter, WWF No Mercy was released. It was an improvement upon its predecessor WrestleMania. You could now, for instance, create female wrestlers. But it wasn’t the same. Cathleen had moved out east.
We all graduated and moved on too. Some did more school, some worked. Some went away, some stayed in town. Some of us came back.
I never did get accustomed to working for someone else. I did the grad school thing and held any number of quasi-jobs like teaching fellow and tutor. Now I live with my dad in the house where I grew up. My mom’s out at the farm nearly all the time now taking care of my nonagenarian grandfather, and she phones and tells me about it. I’m not working at present. I’m single. I never did get my driver’s license. I don’t listen to Eminem anymore, and I can’t fathom why I ever would have. “Stan” is the only track that aged well—the Dido part reminds me of Cathleen, for some reason.
I still play video games. More than I did twenty years ago, perhaps. My N64 still works. So does my copy of WrestleMania2000, and when I say I play it, I mean I really play it. All the creation slots are full, and N64 Controller Paks don’t come cheap, if you can even find them. I think I spent enough of my youth creating the careers I might have wanted and the people I wanted in my life. Who’s left to create now? My elderly father?
I turn on WrestleMania 2000 and there are all my friends from when I was 16, as real and as vivid now as they were that summer. I play as Kirkham, who’s still in town, I think, working a steady job at the railyard. I play as Fornsy, who twice ran for the Green Party, who once got arrested at an anti-George W. Bush rally. I play as Pappy, who was at one point a gay rights organizer out west, and I find it funny now how my 16-year-old self found being gay funny. I play as Deaver, who’s got an MBA from down east somewhere and is doing consulting, or at least last I heard. He’s always on Facebook itemizing his workout routines and posting pictures of himself with Junoesque businesswomen. I don’t go on Facebook anymore because Facebook feels like that summer, a bunch of distant dispatches from people inching ahead. I don’t like playing as myself because it’s just too easy.
The only one I know for sure about is Keats. “Suddenly and unexpectedly” was how the obituary glossed it. He had always been the quiet type. He lives on in WrestleMania 2000. I play as him the most. He and I are the reigning WWF Tag Team Champions.
As for Cathleen, there’s nothing left of her. Twenty years later, playing WWF WrestleMania 2000 in my parents’ basement, I’m almost convinced she never existed.
BIO: Darry Dinnell grew up in Saskatoon, Canada, and attended McGill University. His fiction has appeared in Washington Square Review, The Oddville Press, and Defenestration.