Published in the fall 2011 Clare Literary Journal
He put a quarter in the machine just as he’s put quarters in machines much like this one for over three decades. The coin hits the bottom of the empty cash box and responds appropriately, to spec, lights turning on, translite fireworks on the backbox arching and flashing and making recorded explosion sounds for exactly six seconds. Looking good. He checks his clipboard, running down the list. Lights in the four thumper-bumpers: check. Crossover tube lit: check. Ramp lights on: check. One by one, all the tiny lights are checked visually and then literally on the clipboard, and all are deemed satisfactory. The machine—a product born of art design from the guys upstairs, expert circuitry layout from the engineer, quality manufacturing on the part of the suppliers, careful handling and soldering of a half-mile of color-coded wires from the line staff—now benefits from the experienced quality assurance, “QA,” of Felix Hoyt.
—Good, he says, laying the clipboard down on the old, handmade wooden tool cart next to him. The cart was easily as old as Felix, maybe older. Felix is fifty-nine. The Rally Pinball Company is sixty. The factory has moved on three occasions—the first time being in fifty-five, when it first expanded; in seventy-eight, when it expanded again after the company’s best year, selling twenty-five thousand machines all over the world; and again in ninety-five, when the company contracted, that year selling only thirty-six hundred machines. ninety-five was also the year the family who started the business sold out to a group of investors, a group of crooks according to many, who promptly moved manufacturing from an old brick building downtown to a modern concrete rental in an industrial park in Bloomington. The cart, well, no one would be surprised to learn that it made all those moves.
Felix made two of those moves himself. There would be no more moves for Felix, since these were the last minutes of his last day, as it was for all the employees at Rally Pinball. The last business exclusively manufacturing pinball machines, Rally sold just over a thousand machines this year, the victim of a slow bleeding that started with Pong and Asteroids and slain finally by a tidal wave of electronics. Who needs a chrome ball, as in a physically real metal ball, not to mention all the other bricks and mortar of bumpers and plungers and flippers and thousands of other props, when you can download an app for free?
He examines the plunger. Twisting it, pulling it back, feeling the compression in the spring. Somewhere there’s probably a device that would tell him the exact compression of the spring in pound-foot. Such a device may have been purchased by the group of investors as they sought to “improve” operations sometime in the past. Such a device may even be in the cart right next to him if he looked. Instead, Felix checks it by feel, the way he’s done it since ’80 when he moved off the line and took over from Horace Portchek. Horace showed him how in his last days before the going away party and he and his wife heading out on the road in their Winnebago, the achievement of his retirement dreams, all paid for by his Social Security and the defined benefit plan the family who owned Rally provided for retirees. If Felix of the present stood next to Horace of 1980, one might easily remark how much they look alike—a coincidence, one can assume—in that they are both, shall we say, robust men, a product of a lifetime of beef-eating, both with baby bird hair and lined faces, both with calloused hands and stubby, tar-stained fingers. Horace doesn’t look like that now; he died many years ago when he flew off Highway One into the Pacific between San Francisco and LA with his wife and Winnebago. And Felix didn’t look like that in nineteen-eighty. He was younger and very handsome: dark wavy hair, blue eyes, and solicitous smile. He was not only good looking, he was a catch. A young man with a steady job. A young man living the dream.
He was single then. He met the woman who would be his bride in ’83 when he backed his Caprice into her Civic in a grocery store parking lot. All his fault, he got out of his car, apologizing profusely. He found a true beauty. Later, when having a beer after work with his friends from the factory, he said it was love at first sight. As they courted and then married, they made love knowing in their hearts that no one could ever have had what they had, that they were the sole proprietors of that kind of passion.
Around Felix, fixed to their workstations on the factory floor, are the last seven employees, the final shift, putting their tools into boxes provided to them by the latest investment group, boxes destined for auction. They do this painfully, reluctantly, grudgingly, with no joy or passion. Many of these people have worked here for almost as long as Felix, one even longer. Now they are all going home for the last time. But that’s not what Felix is thinking about. No, he’s not thinking about his friends and co-worker’s pending unemployment; nor is he thinking about his job, his unemployment, about the mortgage, about health insurance, about college tuitions. No, Felix is thinking about his last game, this last machine.
First things first. If there’s one thing Horace impressed upon Felix, it’s the need to follow procedure. Felix presses each flipper button, and the corresponding flipper works. He tries different tempos, trying to illicit errors—better now than when the machine is set up in some bar or bowling alley somewhere. It seems to be fine; however, Felix knows the real test is when the ball hits because the cheap solenoids they’ve used for the past ten years can fool you. Next, Felix looks at the ball. Looks good. He gently uses the plunger to make it roll just a bit up the entry lane to see its roll. He’s seen a few off balance ones in his time, but this one is straight and true. He sighs, pulls back the plunger, and launches the ball. As has happened the vast majority of the thousands of times he’s done this, it follows the prescribed path up the entry lane, arching across the top, until it reaches the upper left corner, a slingshot, sending the ball back across to the other side and another slingshot, which sends it back again, only this all happens in less than a second, each time it’s momentum eroding, just like it should, until it finally finds the left rollover, lighting the letter “U” above it. Exactly how it is supposed to be.
Now Felix has to play the game for real. Up until now it’s been all by the book, but once the ball comes through the rollover at the top, there is no by the book. No two games are the same. Felix has to play the machine and play it well, testing each component, making sure when it says double bonus, it is in fact double bonus, making sure that the playing field isn’t a hair off six and a half degrees—something that has been measured, but measuring isn’t the same as playing—making sure the playfield isn’t warped causing the ball drain to the right or left, making sure the bumper is tuned just right so that the ball doesn’t bounce in the same place forever, making sure any of a hundred-plus details are just so. Felix has played this particular machine since its introduction in nineteen ninety-five. While there have been refinements since, it’s still largely that same machine. Old school. No whirling spinners, toys, electromagnets, or ball captures. Two flippers, just the way it should be.
When Felix got a job at the factory at twenty-three, fresh out of a tour in Vietnam, he thought he was king shit. And he was, among his friends, all of whom grew up playing pinball at the bowling alley. As did Felix, who was well known among a certain set as a real master of the game. Now he would work to build the machines. Later, after he and his comrades had long moved to playing pinball at Jake’s off the freeway, he got to tell them that he would now be the new QA officer, no longer making the machines, but playing the machines for a living, all day, eight hours a day. Plus a raise. His friends all looked up to him, envied him. King shit indeed; truly, living the dream.
The ball bounces around between the thumper-bumpers, dropping finally to a flipper for the first time. Felix fires it back up with the right flipper via the spinner on the left. The flipper feels right. Strong, with the right amount of authority. That solenoid’s fine. The ball is above the slots again bouncing right and left, before picking a different rollover than the last time, lighting an “S.”
While he plays, he’s not thinking about going home to an empty house: his daughter off to college, his son in the Marines—he volunteered, not like his old man—and his beautiful wife…his beautiful wife…What happened? One day she got her own bed, then she moved into another room, and finally she slept in another house. People say they drifted apart—it happens that way sometimes, no one’s fault, no one to blame. And Felix didn’t harbor a grudge, but none of that made it easier.
After this game, he’ll slap an inspection sticker on the back of the machine, put on his coat, say goodbye to everyone and go home to a frozen pizza and some boob-tube. When he’s safely in his recliner, clicker on his thigh, pizza on a plate in his lap, paper towel tucked under his neck, Sports Center on, he won’t think about how the house still looks like his wife is in the other room, same trinkets, photos, furniture—minus a few things she took of special sentimental value—representing a clean, drama-free break two years ago. He won’t think about how he’s one man in a three-bedroom house, the other two bedrooms set up as if his son and daughter still live there, beds made, shelves dusted. No, he’ll be thinking about what’s next. Too young to retire, and, even if he could, no pension like the one Horace got, since that beni ended when the family sold out to those thieves. Skills limited to making pinball machines, he might as well be a mail sorter on a train. He’ll say to his empty house,
—What am I supposed to do? Somebody tell me, what the hell am I supposed to do?
But now he plays. As always, he plays because that’s what he’s paid to do. But this time, he also plays for his co-workers. This time, he plays for honor. And he plays brilliantly. Already he has double bonus, first ball. He’s racked up seven hundred and fifty-six thousand points before draining for the first time. He watches the score tally, the bonus points add up, all according to spec.
It seems fine, passing inspection, but he should play another ball and test the tilt with a little nudging. He launches the next ball and picks up where he left off. The ball almost drains down the middle, but he executes a delay shot off the end of the flipper that fires the ball so hard it bangs against the top glass. He smiles.
—Hey, Felix, take it easy. We need to get that out of here in one piece.
The foreman, Charlie, slaps him on the back and walks on. Felix doesn’t like it, mainly because it interrupts his concentration, but also because he wishes Charlie would die. That child, that skinny little college kid, got the job only because he is some nephew of the managing director. Charlie doesn’t know shit about pinball. Screwing around with his blackberry, now that’s more in his wheelhouse. The little weasel probably spends his day twittering or whatever that is. He feels his face getting red. How could he respect someone who doesn’t understand the game?
The madder Felix gets, the better he plays. A loud knock announces a free game.
—Way to go there, Felix, someone says behind him.
He considers, just for a moment, tilting the machine as he’s supposed to do, to make sure that works right, but for the first time ever, he decides not to. Instead, he plays.
He becomes aware of someone standing next to him, then on both sides. He traps the ball, holding the ball back with the flipper, takes a breath, and looks at his two co-workers on each side of him, both fine men, both people he’s worked with for most of his adult life, guys who stood up for each other at their weddings and at their sides at funerals. He drops the flipper letting the ball roll and fires it through the spinner on the left and up the ramp to the overhead, where it lands in a saucer. As designed, the ball pops out of the saucer to the thumper-bumpers. Felix nudges the game with his hip, keeping the ball moving between the thumper-bumpers longer than it would naturally, the oldest pinball trick in the book. He’s not sure what that is testing, and he never does it, generally, but he wants to now. He senses more people are standing behind him. The ball comes off the bumper and flies down the right gutter. Felix looks around. All his co-workers are there, crowding around him.
—You almost have another game.
—Will you look at that.
Charlie walks up from behind the machine. —Hey, guys, let’s say we wrap this up. Time to go home.
No one says anything, all looking at the foreman, and then, —Charlie, do we have to explain this to you? The man on Felix’s right says.
—Leave us alone, says a woman behind Felix.
—Leave Felix alone, says a man.
—You don’t have to get nasty about it, Charlie says, looking like a mix of threatened and uppity. —I want to go home. Don’t you all want to go home?
—Yeah, Felix. Play.
Felix launches the third and last ball. It goes through the “U” rollover again.
But his hot hand continues, ball taking on a life of its own. It comes down from all angles and with various speeds, but Felix is able to dig it out every time. He hits the last of the drop targets on the right, granting triple bonus and setting off the fireworks display on the backbox for exactly four seconds. Spec. The ball comes down and he executes a perfect dead flipper pass from the left to the right, seamlessly launching the ball back to the ramp and the saucer.
There’s no memory now on Felix’s part about QA, clipboards, and stickers; there’s only him and the machine. There’s no unemployment, no divorce, no disappointment, no empty rooms. There’s only a steel ball and lights.
A second game knocks, and his friends cheer.
—Come on, guys. Really. Let’s go home. That machine passes, Charlie says, now next to the backbox.
Without missing a shot, without breaking concentration one bit, Felix yells,
—Charlie, this machine doesn’t pass until I say it passes.
—What’s wrong with you? Don’t get all mouthy with me.
Felix fires the ball back to the top, through the spinner, but it goes down the “S” again, still one light to go.
—Charlie, someone behind him says, —I swear to God, if you don’t leave Felix alone right now…
Charlie doesn’t say anything else, drifting off, teeth clenched. The ball finds a rhythm between the three thumper-bumpers racking up points as Felix takes the chance to stretch his stiff back. But that lapse of concentration costs him, as the ball comes off a slingshot too high and drain lane left. The group groans, but instead of game over, Felix puts the left flipper up and gives the machine a hip-nudge on the left side at exactly the right moment, causing the ball to bounce up out of the drain to the right flipper. He fires it back to the top, through the spinner.
—That’s a “death save”!
—Felix did a death save!
His friends and co-workers cheering, fully appreciating a move all have heard of but few have seen. The ball bouncing back and forth, before it goes through the right rollover, finally lighting the last letter, the letter “A,” setting off the fireworks display, this time for a full seven seconds.
The bank of lights overhead flick off and the machine goes blank. The ball hits a silent bumper and, momentum deadened, finds its way down the middle, past the useless flippers, into the drain.
—I’m telling you, go home, Charlie says from across the floor, standing at the breaker panel.
—What did you do that for? Someone says.
—Charlie, what’s the matter with you? He had over two and a half million!
—Have a heart, will ya?
But there’s nothing else to do. The last seven employees drift off in different directions, show over. Felix takes a day-glow green sticker off the cart, initials and dates it, and places it behind the backbox. He opens the cash box and retrieves the quarter, returning it in its rightful place on his cart. The next day that very same cart will not go in the truck with the rest of the stuff headed to auction, but will be thrown in a dumpster as worthless, quarter and all. And the next day, one of the investors will arrive with two hired movers who will load the last Fourth of July model pinball machine by the Rally Pinball Company into a pickup and deliver it to the investor’s rec room. But now, Felix walks across the floor, to the break room, and to his locker. The others don’t look at him, not knowing what to say, not sure what to do. Felix, without fanfare, takes his coat out and puts it on, and says goodbye to no one in particular.