Where else to begin besides admitting that I was once the ecstatic 5-year-old boy on the back of the Candy Land board game box. Yep, that was me—the exaggerated fist pump, the lunatic eyes, the pudgy embellished grin, not to mention that goofy bowl haircut and obnoxious striped shirt. Even back then I knew that haircut was fucking dorky.
Dig deep in that pile of rubbish in the mustiest corner of your basement and unearth your old board games—if you haven’t already sold them for a nickel a pop at a garage sale. Don’t be surprised if I’m in the midst of a frantic celebration on the backs of most of those rank boxes. Looks like I’m having a goddamn blast, right? Believe you me, being a child board game model was a lot like a game of Chutes and Ladders—every step forward ended up being a long, long slide down.
I still vividly recall when I was ensnared by the machine. One day, I spotted a crinkled-up dollar bill on the ground at the mall. My jubilant little face erupted while my tiny fists shot into the air. I think I even yelped. As I bent down to grab the bill, a shiny black shoe pinned the dollar to the tiles. I peered up to witness some slick-looking fellow wearing a gaudy tie towering above me. “Hey kid. Do what you just did when you first saw the dollar.” I was frozen for a second, but then repeated my exuberance. “Yeah kid, you got the right shit. You’re a natural.” Then he swiped the dollar and handed it to me himself. A few days later, and several signatures later too, that man had become my agent.
My first gig, which yielded the famous Candy Land photo, launched me to stardom about two weeks after I wiped my own ass for the first time. The shoot itself lasted a whole ten minutes—show me "find the dollar" my agent instructed throughout. The picture of me and my festive faux family was pasted to every Candy Land box, which were selling like discount mattresses on President's Day.
“Finding the dollar” soon became too easy; I was finding the dollar—a lot of them—every time I received another royalty check, or I obliged any parent who asked me to replicate my enthusiasm in front of their dumbass Polaroid cameras. “Sign this: To my best buddy Todd,” they’d say. They’d have to spell the friggin’ words out for me; I didn’t even know the alphabet yet. And what’s money when you’re in kindergarten? All I wanted was to play on the teeter-tooter and eat paste.
Word of my drawing power soon spread amongst the board game manufacturing elite. My agent began booking me all over the place. I began spending less and less time in my kindergarten classroom and more time at the studio with small-time board game models that could never grasp my internal begging for normalcy.
One day I signed a Candy Land lunch box for a chubby little blonde girl—a lucky one-and-done Uncle Wiggily model. I wanted nothing more than to cram myself into that lunchbox and let her sneak me out, away from the torturous lights and sneering camera lenses.
“Find the dollar. Find the dollar,” my agent kept barking. My nauseatingly chipper image was springing up on the bottoms of all kinds of board game boxes: Connect Four, Hungry, Hungry Hippo and Sorry just to name a few. Jesus, just seeing those names in print disturbs me.
Every time I counterfeited an outburst of sheer joy upon pretending my token had just reached the finish line first, a part of me of was pouting and weeping as though my token hadn’t even made it a single roll from start. Soon my mind became nearly robotic. I’d hear “find the dollar” and I’d simply react. I was no longer human.
Things changed momentarily, though. While my parents and agent where in our kitchen, negotiating a deal for an upcoming shoot for Mouse Trap, I snuck through the patio doggy door. I bolted as fast as my puny legs would allow, all the way to the playground about seven blocks away. It almost felt like all the innocent, pent-up energy I hadn’t been able to expend doing normal kid things suddenly surged through me. When I tore through the open gate, climbed the sliding board ladder, and then whooshed toward earth for the first time in what seemed like several eternities, I’m sure my face looked like it did on the backs of all those goddamn boxes—only this time it was real. And then, wouldn’t you believe it, that little girl whose lunchbox I’d signed suddenly appears from the other side of the merry-go-round. That day began magical. She pushed me round-and-round; I gave her an underdog on the swing; we played hopscotch, and so on. The only thing that yanked me back to reality was when my agent snatched-up my collar and dragged me back home like I was a sack of soiled linens.
That little spark inside of me—the one that burst into an inferno that day on the playground—remained largely comatose as the years darted by like the pewter car on the Monopoly board. As I got older, the board games which I promoted became more adult; I was eventually posing for Scrabble and Yahtzee, shit like that. But then one day, as a pimply face tween amid a shoot for Trivia Pursuit Junior, something occurred to me—I had outgrown my kid’s clothes, so to speak. While I had been portraying a child—one as jubilant as all hell—my own childhood had completely passed me by.
Upon realizing I was too “mature” for the playground, I had to spend time there at any cost. I’d begun to sneak out at night so I could play while the park was closed. One night a police car pulled up so I darted away from the monkey bars and into the shadows. I was less concerned that he would call my parents, and more concerned that he’d be like “Holy shit, it’s the Candy Land boy. I won’t arrest you if you make the face.” I remained hidden until he disappeared.
Since I became too worried about being caught in my fantasies, I began playing them out alone in my room. I dug out old, unused crayons and coloring books I’d been stashing under my bed, and I’d color the living shit out of those blank cartoon characters. Eventually there were no more pages left, so I stole Play-Doh from the toy aisle in the grocery store and began to roll snakes and mold people. But the stuff eventually hardened, and I didn’t want to get caught stealing more (imagine all the gawkers in the county jail). Finally, I began munching on paste in the wee hours of the morning after begging for a sleep that wouldn’t come. But then, the paste supply ran dry when the craft store filed for Chapter 11.
My last gig was a promo for the game of Life. I stumbled into the set, barely awake and my teeth practically glued together from an all-night binge. I was in no fucking mood to find the dollar, and for the first time in my nightmarish career, I simply was not mentally capable of it. My agent pulled me aside before the first camera even blinked. I wasn’t totally surprised when he told me that the industry had been noticing both the decline in my “ambition” (hah-hah), and sales of the games in which my happy-go-lucky mug had graced.
That was it; he gave me the proverbial axe. Becoming emancipated from my contractual obligations had been long, long overdue.
The few years since that day have been mostly a blur. While struggling not to regress to my kindergarten tendencies, I also didn’t progress in any meaningful way. I was like a rickety coat rack in the corner that no one ever hangs their shit on anymore. No Polaroids, no autographs, and no little girls nearly passing out at the sight of me…just a fucking defunct coat rack. In one moment of particularly dark despair, I recalled the game Hangman. Hangman...maybe my past could liberate me.
I’d already purchased the length of rope and selected the rafter in the attic when a story came on the local news that awakened me something fierce. That chubby little blonde girl, who had exposed me to the enchantment of the playground and helped provide a fleeting escape from “finding the fucking dollar”, had died of some kind of rare sickness. They said that she requested that she be buried with her favorite possession—that stupid Candy Land lunch box that I’d signed years ago.
I’m party ashamed to admit it, but I definitely felt a measure of relief upon hearing her story. I mean, I was upset that the poor girl had passed away, but I think my subconscious detected a metaphor—my tribulations inflicted by my past as a cardboard cutout board game model were being buried with the chubby little girl.
I was strolling through the mall a few days ago and my eyes stumbled upon a one hundred dollar bill. At first, I felt a tiny flicker of excitement. I’m sure my eyelids even began to widen, and my clenching fists began to rise. Thankfully, the wherewithal to swiftly squash my excitement had somehow evolved throughout my years of misery. Until that moment, I was unaware that it had. I casually bend down, plucked the bill off the ground, and then coolly stuffed it inside my chest pocket.
To hell with fanfare.