“The towers are still there,” he’s shouting, “Look east, please, the towers are still standing!”
I’m ducking into a mess of people. These street-crazies always seem to single me out. He’s a block ahead, wandering through traffic, yelling, staring at something just past the horizon. He is black with a dingy, blue sweater and greasy, grey sweatpants on.
“In Autumn time,” he looks around, “they still there! Come on, people!”
I consider turning left and going around the block, skirting him. But I’m caught in the liquid, city-flow of bodies. They propel me near him. I look down at the stained sidewalk, start counting the black bubble-gum spots, the pigeon-shit newspapers. My eyes keep darting up at him. His bellows are closer now. I turtle into my suit.
“Please, people, they still there,” he shouts, “Still standing proud this autumn.”
My eyes find him again and he’s looking at me. Red, worn eyes, druggy eyes; I know the huge pupils, that half-crazed incinerating look of confusion and immediacy, staring back at me. I look down and push forward, knocking people aside, hearing mumbled groans from those that take time to care.
“Sir, Sir, have you seen the towers?” He rises in intensity, “they still there, people! Look east! Look east! Sir …”
Why me? Why always me? I’m the sickly one, straggling behind. My eyes find the sidewalk again. If I just keep walking, I think, I’ll get back to my apartment and not get hassled into something.
“Sir, Sir … the towers, have you seen them?”
I can smell he’s on me. That dumpster juice smell of sweat and ancient bones is on me. I look up. He’s there. I go to move around him, but he blocks me in.
“Sir, have you seen them?”
“Seen what? I, I have to get home …”
“East! Sir, the towers are still standing!”
“Look, OK, alright, whatever it is, I don’t want any.”
Pieces of his dry, shredded lips fall off as he speaks. His lips are white, eyes bloodshot and his breath smells like rot. He is missing too many teeth. He punches his lips out at me; his mouth is a black oval emptiness inside red gums. I reach out to push him aside. He is taller than me; I’m six foot two.
He still doesn’t move, doesn’t act like I touched him. I wipe my hand off on my suit pants and try to rush past him. While looking over my shoulder, he sidesteps and blocks my path again.
“Hey, buddy, what the hell?”
People swirl around us.
He keeps looking past me, “Look east! Look east!”
His smell, his filth, his presence overwhelms me and I turn, darting into the first open doors I see. It’s a bar. I look behind me. The street-crazy is standing outside in the sunlight squinting in at me. A rainbow of cars race behind him. Two security guards sniff out his poverty and step into the doorway, blocking his entrance. I see him turn back against the stream of people and sway onward, yelling out his insanity. I step away.
There is a group of older men standing up at the bar, heads turned to a gigantic plasma screen television, watching a tennis match. They drunkenly roll their eyes back and forth following the little yellow ball. Its glow illuminates. The occasional mutter goes through them. I walk up to the bar. A beer would do me good.
“Please; I’m 35.”
“I have to see it, sir, even if you look 85.”
I frown and paw my wallet out of my suit pants. Its leather is smooth and warm in my hands. I slip the hard plastic out and hand it to the teenager pulling drinks.
He hands it back to me, “What’ll it be?”
“Mac and Jacks, please”
“Glass or pitcher?”
He opens a small fridge and pulls out a glass milky with frost. I turn back around, take in the room. There are rows of tables that stretch behind me. Each one is black, surrounded by chairs and people. They flow back through the room to a door with flashing lights, the faint sound of bells, whistles and other odd noises coming through it. A lighted sign above it reads “Calypsos Island.” It is decorated with fluorescent lights of all colors slowly zapping off and on in a mimic of explosion.
“Ahem, sir … your beer.”
I twist back towards the bar. The shaven-headed youth is staring back at me with ice-blue eyes, holding the deep-amber beer up to my face. I grab it and set it down. I thumb my wallet back out and hand him a credit card.
“What’s through that door, by the way?”
“No shit? Can I bring my beer back there?”
“Sure, if you want. Just don’t take your eyes off it. There are a lot of teenagers back there.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
He slides the receipt towards me. His hands are pudgy with baby fat.
“Can I get your signature on this please?”
“Thanks,” I mumble and give him a fifty-cent tip.
The beer numbs my hand as I walk back towards the door. The sounds grow bigger as I approach, more distinct. I can hear rifle-fire, shouts and explosions, grunts, a familiar movie-punch sound like a stick whacking a side of meat. I can hear the rustling of change, frantic thwap-twap-twap button pushing, thumps and thuds…
“My button was stuck, no fair! Someone spilled a soda on this, or something.”
Game over, Game over, screams, buzzers and car-crash noises are followed by: Insert three credits to continue playing…
I walk through the doors into a seizure of lights. To my left, there is a row of ten glossy plastic jeeps stationary in front of a giant pull-down movie screen that shows a battle in a jungle clearing. Kids in each jeep are steering frantically, swaying and leaning with each imagined shove of inertia. To my right, a clique of middle-schoolers are swarmed around two skinny kids dancing on a raised pad. Their individual movements are completely in sync with each other. A scoreboard above them flies into the millions. The onlookers clap and cheer; their multicolored hair and chains swing and bounce. I walk on.
All around me, the noises and lights continue. On some screens superhero characters fight against a background of apocalyptic scenes, on other screens hundred-thousand dollar sports cars dive forward, crashing and twisting into lumps of metal to the muttered obscenities of fifteen year-olds. There are kids holding pink and blue toy shotguns. The shotguns are chained to a machine called American Zombies. The kids are shooting frantically, laughing, and reloading their weapons in the nick of time.
I haven’t been in an arcade for years; they were much different when I was young. I remember playing Pac-man, Space Invaders and, before that, Pong. Simple 2-D characters and square shapes, two colors, maybe three was all that would flicker on the round screens; simple sounds were all that came out of the tiny speakers. I sip my bitter, fruity beer and remember the whipped-cream filled, strawberry milk shakes I would drink back then. I paid for it all in nickels.
At the back of the room, the arcade machines give way to a row of smooth, inclined skeet ball tracks on the left and a row of miniature, netted basketball hoops to the right. I walk up to the basketball hoops, a little excited. Now here is something I can get into. I look at the price, fifty-cents.
“Jesus,” I mutter. Nevertheless, I jab my hand into my pocket and mouse around for quarters. I used to play in high school, used to be pretty good.
I find the fifty-cents and feed it to the machine. There is a loud clunk and the machine shutters as a row of balls comes rolling down at me. Lights flicker to life: red, white and blue. The basketballs are much smaller than real basketballs. I can palm one of these easy; I couldn’t palm a real basketball. Despite my height, my hands are small and bony. A timer on the machine starts to count down the seconds. I throw the first ball: it’s too high. Second ball: it’s too low. Third ball: it’s to the left. Slowly, I get used to the weight of the balls. Then I hit one … swish … and the machine makes an excited cheering noise. I land a second, a third. Thirty seconds left, I turn into a free throw machine, sinking one after another. It’s easy.
A memory: high school, thirty seconds left in a game and the crowd is alive with excitement and noise. We are down by two and I have the ball. I’m turning left, spinning right, leaving my guard behind me. My feet are lithe and I float across the hardwood, dancing the ball off each board. I come to the three point line, soar into the air. I can see the flashes of cameras; I can hear the cheers, the gasps. I see members of the other team running up to meet me, but they are too late. I’m floating high. The ball leaves my little hand with a flick of my wrist.
The machine is a storm of lights and electronic buzzes and cheers. Time is almost out. I am gunning the net with these little balls, dipping down for one after the other. The clock reaches zero and a hole opens up beneath the net, sucking all the balls I shoot down into the machine. Time’s up. The machine flashes my score. It’s 58. Not bad, I think, and the whole thing goes dim and quiet. I feel a little sweaty and flushed. I really went at that thing. I pick up my beer and take a long, deep swig, and then I turn to leave.
Blocking my way is a group of kids. There are seven of them, all look on the verge of puberty, standing around me in an arch. The kid in the middle, a short, skinny Mexican wearing jeans that would be too big for me, a large puffy jacket and a huge necklace, steps forward. His face is young, but he has a little black mustache peeping out from under his round nose.
“Not bad, ol’ man,” he says nodding.
The rest of the kids are standing back staring at me, heads cocked sideways. They are all dressed similar, except one older, larger girl that is dressed all in black. Black hooded jacket, black jeans with unnecessary zippers crisscrossing them from her waist down to her glossy, black boots; her hair is dyed black; her lips are painted black; her eye shadow is black. She is staring at me with a deadpan, pale face. She looks like she doesn’t belong amongst the living.
“Thanks,” I mutter and start to move away, beer in hand.
“Hey, old man, you wanna play?”
“Do I what?”
“Wanna have a little free throw competition, is what I mean, man?”
“Uh, no, no, I should be getting home,” I say and pull back my sleeve to look at my watch, insinuate my feigned urgency, “need to get dinner and all that.”
“Shit, I thought so, you’re just a chicken shit old man wandering around confused and lost in here.”
“Whoa, little man, I’ll have you know that in my day, when I was your age, I used to be quite the basketball player,” I say and stand up a little straighter, staring him down.
“Prove it, old man.”
“Fine, fine, I’ll take you on,” and I take a big swig of beer, slipping off my overcoat. I hunch a little and clap my hands together, then work my arms around in circles. Here we go.
The rest of the kids just stand there watching us. He steps up to the machine next to me and puts his fifty cents on the top. I spelunk down into my pocket for more quarters. He looks over at me.
“We count down from five, alright, old man?” He says as he sheds his coat. Without the coat, he is much skinner than I thought: just a twig.
“Yeah, sure, kid.”
I feel a little nervous. I don’t think I’ve had an audience in some time. Behind me, I hear the black-dressed girl start to count down. Her voice is light, cool and absent.
I work my hands open and closed, staring at the hoop.
I take a long, slow, deep breath…
My hands fly out for the money in front of me and I force it into the machine. It springs to life again. Lights flash, I hear the same clunk as the balls start rolling toward my open hands. I don’t even look over at skinny. I find a zone.
I’m on fire. I’m missing nothing and moving at a rate I don’t think I’ve moved at for years. To others, I must blur. My muscles are pistons, my blood petrol. I can feel my hair start to dampen with sweat, can feel it on my back and thighs. I don’t look at the clock, don’t stop. My eyes follow the balls toward my hands then swing up to meet the net. I push myself, groan a little, and feel old, rare muscles come out of slumber. I’m a hunter, a warrior and I can’t be stopped.
When the hole opens and starts to suck up the balls again, I am breathing heavily. I throw the last ball … swish … and I stop. I look at my score: it’s 117.
“Hah, I more than doubled my last score,” I say with a big grin and look over at the competition.
He’s just staring blankly at me. His score is 83. I hear his friends mutter behind us and I clap my hands. I feel exhilarated, excited, like my smiling head is about to rocket off toward the ceiling, plow through it and head straight for space.
“Wanna go again? Come on, I’ll take any of ya on.”
“What the hell was that? You on speed or something?” says the Mexican kid.
“Am I on what? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Drugs, man, meth or some shit. You’re sweatin’ like a damn doper.”
“Oh, oh, I see, you can’t be beat by some old man fair and square. I’m 35, you little punk, and I’ve never done any … speed, or whatever you call it. I’m an investment banker.”
“Shit, look at him get all worked up. His face is red. That’s a fiend if I ever seen one. What do you think?” He nods at one of the others.
“Hell yeah, he’s freakin’ out, look at the eyes,” says one of the kids to my right.
I flip around on the others, “My ass I’m on drugs you little jerks. Who said that? I’ll take any of you on. Come on!” I raid my pocket for more change, take out a handful.
I cup the change and show it to the kids, start dabbing it around with my index finger, “See, see, I got enough for a game with each of you little punks. Come on!”
I stare at each of them. They are all looking at me grinning. My eyes pass them, stopping on the girl dressed in black. Her eyes are black rocks in little pale pools sunken into her face. Her eye shadow is all around them, dark, black and empty. I sink into those eyes for a second and forget what I’m about to say.
“Man, screw this weird ass dope fiend,” the Mexican kid says as he motions to his entourage. They slither back into the arcade, disappearing behind machines. Little assholes, little punks, can’t take a fair fight. I shrug it off. I know I beat him fair and square.
I pick my beer back up, take the last swig and leave the empty glass on a table, throw my overcoat across my arm and start to wander back out of the arcade. I go back past the jeeps, the big, slouching machines, the same noises, same kids all hunkered down in pleasure. I wonder if they all feel as exhilarated as I do? Are they all lost in those little, fiery pixels, smashing away in satisfaction on the buttons and levers? I smile and walk on. I guess the arcade hasn’t changed much.
I go back out the door, out under the fireworks of the “Calypsos Island” sign. The bartender nods to me as I head back out towards the city. It’s almost dark now. Why did I come in here in the first place? My head gets a little chilly as I turn towards my studio apartment. It overlooks the Sound. It’s expensive, but well worth the view of the San Juans: the little green sea monsters littering the aqua sky. I feel myself tense. From behind me, far back, but still too close for comfort, I hear it again. A warning bellowed out into the night sky, reminding me of something, something …
“Look east! People, look east!”
I glace over my shoulder. He’s there, the street-crazy. He is a few blocks back, still yelling, still wandering, still there despite the onset of darkness. A metro bus slides in front of him. Its windows are dotted with faces, each one gazing downward with a frown, a black expression. The side of the bus is covered in a billboard for a new Hollywood blockbuster. It is made to look like a fallen tower, each window is a light. It drives on through Seattle.
I put my overcoat back on and turn towards home, moving faster with each step.