By Tony D’Aloisio
You could see him through the glass of the front doors as we came walking along up the sidewalk of the Kilkenny shopping center. Chuck. Standing in front of that one pinball machine, all slouched over it. It was the only machine Thrifty’s had, the only one that would fit into that space right before the turnstile to get into the main part of the store, across from the counter where they served their ice milk.
We went inside. And stood there watching him play for a minute, without saying a word. As usual, Chuck was acting like we weren’t even there. Making his shots while tossing these glances up toward the scoreboard. Allen gave a smile over in my direction, and I just shook my head.
“Hey–” Allen finally let out.
Chuck gave a flip of his head without really looking up. At the same time slapping the glass as it gypped him on the ball he’d been playing.
Then he took a slow drag from the cigarette hanging off the edge of the machine, before pulling on the plunger again.
“Man, you’re always here–” Allen let out a laugh.
“I just got here half an hour ago. On the bus.”
There was a big stack of quarters at the top of the glass. All of them turned out to be his.
“You must like this machine, man,” Allen grinned.
“I do. I do like this fucking machine.”
“You don’t have to get mad about it–“
“I ain’t mad.”
Chuck’s hair was long and stringy, and his face practically covered with zits. He had on that same pea-green army jacket he always wore, the one with all the pockets that stuck out on the sides.
Somehow it made him look like he was wrapped in a life preserver.
“You took the bus here to play pinball?”
“Don’t make it sound like I’m nuts, man.” He let that out through the fringe of his hair without looking up. “I don’t have to listen to that shit.”
“Well, don’t act nuts about it–” Allen gave a mild laugh back.
“I’m just saying, it’s not that fuckin’ strange.” Chuck picked up his smoke and took a quick puff while the ball was bouncing around the top bumpers. “I like this machine. It’s the only reason I would ever come to San Sereno.”
“You don’t live around here?”
“Nope. I live in the city.”
“You come all the way up from San Francisco to play pinball?”
“And this machine?” I said.
“Hey, I like this machine. Don’t be saying shit about this machine.”
“It’s like their ice milk.”
Allen let out a snicker.
“I told you, man. I like this machine.” Chuck made a one-two slapping combination that barely saved the ball. “Just keep that negative shit to yourself.”
“Well, it’s not going to rub off on you, man,” I said. “Like we’re going to give you bad luck.”
“I didn’t say it would. Just shut up while I’m playing. You’re ruining my concentration, you and him. You’re both a couple of runnin’ dummies.”
Allen gave one more smile to me, while Chuck was making another last-second save.
“We were just drinking coffee,” Allen told him.
“Yeah, over at Ray’s.”
“We cut class again. All morning.”
The two of us snickered.
Chuck didn’t seem all that impressed though. He just kept staring down at the glass, concentrating on the action.
“Aren’t you guys afraid you’ll get busted?”
“Nah.” Allen shook his head with this rueful little smile.
“Who’s going to bust us?”
“What if one of your teachers comes by?”
“They’re all over there, man.”
“Yeah. In class.”
“Well, I don’t want to get arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”
“That’s not going to happen, man. Shit.” Allen had a scowl, like he was dealing with a total crackpot.
“The only way we’ll get busted is if one of our teachers sends a progress report to our house,” I said.
“Yeah.” Allen’s mouth was a grim line.
“You’re cutting too, right?” I asked.
“I ain’t in school.”
“How old are you anyway?”
“Nineteen.” Chuck slammed the glass again as the ball disappeared down the chute. He took another puff off his smoke.
“Don’t you have a job?” Allen said.
“I got a job. Full-time. I work nights.”
Allen had this amazed smile. “So how did you even know about this machine?”
“I used to live around here. A few years back.”
“You went to San Sereno High?”
“That’s right. I went to that fuckin’ hole.”
“As soon as I get out of there I’m never coming back,” Allen laughed.
“Me neither,” I said.
“I’m not here for the school. Shit. The only reason I come back is to play pinball.” Chuck stood there watching the ball float around at the top. “I knew a girl who used to work here too.”
“Yeah. We went out for a while.” His face was hidden by his hair. “A long time ago.”
“You ever been to the Pizza Depot?” Allen asked.
“Yeah, they’ve got some good machines over there,” I said.
Chuck was staring over at the two of us now. “Just here, man. What, do you work for those guys or something?”
“You trying to drum up some business? Fuck.”
The ball took a quick veer on him, straight down the pipe. You could see it coming from the top of the key. Chuck tried a combination with a bump, but it was too late; it drained on him like some fish hopping off the line and diving back down into water. One bloop and it was gone.
“Shit!” He slapped the glass again. Then took out another cigarette. “You guys wanna play doubles?”
“How about triples?”
“Can you even play triples on this?” I asked.
“Nah, it only goes up to doubles.”
“No thanks, man.”
“What a piece of crap.”
Chuck acted like he hadn’t heard me say that. He just shrugged, stuck in another quarter, propped the cigarette back in its usual spot. “Whatever you guys say. Fuck. You’re both a couple of runnin’ dummies.”
“‘Runnin’ dummies.'” Allen laughed. “I’ve been using that one a lot.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Just like a couple of runnin’ dummies. To say everything they hear.”
Allen gave me a chagrined smile, while Chuck was busy fending off another disaster.
“You should hear what this guy calls you–” Allen said with a laugh.
“What?” Chuck was staring ahead at the back glass, watching his bonus get tallied up. “What does he call me?”
I was practically laughing about it. “No, don’t tell him that–“
“What do you call me? What do you call me?” Now he was standing there staring at us while holding the plunger, getting ready to send the next ball up into play. “What does this fuckin’ guy call me?”
“He calls you…”
“Fuck–” I let out with a grin.
“He calls you Ragmuffin, man.” Allen’s laugh was like a rusty hinge creaking on a gate.
I was smiling. “No, I didn’t mean it like that, man…”
“Hey–” Now Chuck was getting back to the game, pulling back on the plunger extra-hard to shoot the ball up the lane. “Well, you should hear what I call you sometimes.”
“Don’t get mad.”
“I ain’t mad.”
We stood there watching him play without saying anything for a minute. Chuck lost the ball one more time and gave the machine an extra-hard shove. It tilted.
“Well, fuck that. Just fuck that.” He reached up toward the stack of quarters, picking off another one with this swipe of his hand. “And fuck you too. Both of you.”
I was trying to grin it off. “Shit, man, I knew you’d take it like that.”
“Well, how the fuck am I supposed to take it?”
I sort of gave a laugh.
“I mean, how would you like it? What if I started calling you Dirtbag? ‘Hey, here comes fuckin’ Dirtbag. Hey, Dirtbag, how’s it goin’?'”
Allen was in silent hysterics.
“Don’t call me that…” I said.
“Well, it’s the same thing, man. The same fuckin’ thing.” He put the latest quarter in and spent the next few seconds watching the path of the ball. As it burned him again. “Shit!” He slammed the glass with his palm. Just before reaching out to take another couple puffs off his cigarette, which was getting down to the nub. He ground it out under his heel without looking, on the tile floor beneath the machine.
“Don’t be calling me Ragmuffin, man. That shit has gotta stop.”
“Alright, I won’t.”
“I never did. It was this guy.” Allen gave a thumb jab.
“You always laugh–” I said.
“Shut up.” Allen scowled over at me.
And so we were ready to take off. Both of us.
“You guys going to the Pizza Depot?”
“I hope you win a bunch of games. A whole shitload.”
“Thanks.” Allen raised his eyebrows with a smile.
“Don’t mention it.”
And we left him there for the afternoon. With the rest of his stack of quarters, shooting another ball up into play.
About the Author
Tony D’Aloisio was born in San Francisco and attended Sonoma State University, where he obtained B.A. in English in 1984. He is also a chess master, and was once ranked in the top 100 players in California.