Beat the game

Beat the game

Atari was born c. 1972.

Atari means “to hit a target.”

Atari is associated with good luck.

The video game system is iconic, but the cat of the same name is iconoclastic. The records say Atari was born in 2008, but she swears she was here for the Bicentennial.

She swears quite a lot. She swears when she smells a cat. She swears cats smell like injustice. She swears “like a longshoreman,” as my grandfather would put it, although she’s a long way from the shore (and would probably swear at all those beach bums who should be doing something more useful with their time anyway).

She swears she is not always exasperated, but it would help if we threw her an asteroid now and then. She would then be properly armed against cats and change, which are her least favorite things after fat-free “cheese” (which smells like treason).

Atari is not here to play games. At fifteen (or fifty-two, depending on who you ask), she had already reached the “Congratulations” screen. She had a home. She had a person. She had a brother with hair like a haystack.

She had conquered the final level. She did not take shortcuts. She did not use cheat codes. She simply persevered all the way to the final boss, and bit him squarely upon the patoot.

And now we tell her there is no final boss?

Now the target moves like an eight-bit space cat?

Now, in her languid age, life asks her to level up?

Cats of all species assume the controllers are in their paws. But Atari’s analog feet felt the earth move, and the very stars shrugged. By no fault of her own, Atari and brother Barney were bound for (in his case, pinballed back to) the inscrutable arcade called Tabby’s Place. Wins that were once clear became pixelated, a digital dust storm of loss and leveling.

And cats. Infernal cats.

While Barney was game for shuffleboard and canasta with any old tabby, Atari twitched at the thought of play. This was no time for fun. This was a time to write sharp op-eds and letters to editors. Someone had to do something. No one should be forced back into a game she had beaten.

And then there were goombas like Harvey, a hapless landmass whose very existence enraged Atari. The old tabby would have loved to share a Mario Kart with the dowager princess, but Atari made it clear there was precisely one seat in her spaceship.

Kicked off Atari’s platform, Harvey proceeded to rack up wins. He leveled up to the lobby, and then to the community room, where he plays Battleship with such diverse gamers as Gulliver and Beckett. He has faced neither his final boss nor his final fantasy. There will be medical mysteries and meat nuggets yet to come; it’s all part of the game.

Someday Atari will understand. Her humid, harrumphing heart is a game we will win.

Someday Atari will glimpse her own wins, wiggling their wry fingers between the losses. Her heart was broken and her Barney was borne away into forever foster, but there are power-ups and promises everywhere she looks. She just needs to stop looking down.

Cats may be beneath her, but starry eyes are above her, smitten and steadfast no matter how much she swears. Had she never lost her home, Atari would not have won our hearts. Had she never read the fearsome words “Game Over,” Atari would not have known she has a lifetime supply of lives.

Had she never run out of ammo and luck, Atari would have never learned the meaning of her own name: Japanese for “hit a target.”

Our ancient archer may be sharp-tongued and short-fused, only hobbling her way back to humor. But a win is always pixelated at first.

Cats of all species come to victory kicking and screaming. We fall into pits and profane the world with our protests. We blind ourselves to the bliss in our midst, the friendly fingers and the full-fat fish nuggets and the meekness of Nola, a cat even Atari could love/permit to live. (Translation from “Atari” to “English” is inexact.)

We have permission to rage and lament, which is victory.

We have time to drop the controls, which is our power.

We have dish after dish of do-overs, which means the game is not over.

We have Atari, which means we have good luck.

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