“Can I have a dime?”
“To play pinball.”
Guido’s was the pizzeria on the other side of town. Literally on the wrong side of the tracks. The one that had the pinball machine.
On the side where James and his father lived, there were several pizza places. They catered mostly to the students at the state university, who ran through their summer savings and spending money every September. The pizza places on that side of the tracks offered delivery to dorms, and employed other college students who were more industrious about how to feed their fast food habits. James had been to a few of them, mostly with classmates after school or for pizza parties. They were loud, with music from juke boxes and the inscrutable conversations of the students about one another, Nixon, and educational psychology. The college pizza joints were OK, because you could get a pretty big slice of pizza and a small coke in a waxed cup for fifty cents, total, and there were days when James had that much money when he and Steve and Jimmy-not-James from the other third grade class wandered by them after school on a roundabout route home, poking into the Woolworth’s or the McCrory’s and walking on the other side of the street from the bars their moms worried about, ostensibly on behalf of their children but really because they were afraid their husbands would walk in one day and meet a co-ed and that would be that. The bars, James knew, had pinball machines, too, but not ones he was going to be allowed to play.
Guido’s was different. Guido’s backed on to a freight siding, tucked between a company that made aluminum window frames and an old brick mill that made nothing. Guido’s had a picture of Frank Sinatra, framed, over the cash register on a back wall, and another one of somebody James had never heard of named Garibaldi, who looked like an old opera singer. Guido’s had pizza that tasted like grown-ups made it. James didn’t have the vocabulary of spice identification to be able to describe it exactly, but it definitely wasn’t the cheese-delivery device of the college places, heavy with grease and sugar. At Guido’s, the pizza came out on a little stand, so there was more room on the table at the cramped booths for real forks and knives. At Guido’s, James sprinkled on hot pepper flakes and fake parmesan cheese, even though he hated hot pepper flakes and any kind of parmesan cheese. It went with the pizza.
Guido’s had a different clientele than the pizza joints, that was certain. Men in crushed hats and fat neckties so old they were coming back in style sat in the rear booths at Guido’s, speaking foreign languages that James’ father identified as Italian and Yugoslavian. Women, old or young, seemed rare at Guido’s. Certainly James and his father came only when his mother was away or busy, and James’ older sisters always seemed unavailable, booked for a sleepover or a scouts meeting or some rehearsal or another. James couldn’t quite determine the chicken and egg order of the women in his family not coming to Guido’s, much, but then again it was a rare occasion even when he and his father came.
At Guido’s, just the two of them in the booth, they’d wait for their pizza and James would finish his root beer too fast and James’ father made slow but steady work of an entire pitcher of very pale yellow beer, $2 with the large pizza. The conversation between them while they waited varied from perfunctory to non-existent, most visits, as James’ father watched invisible things in his beer and James looked nervously from the men in the crushed hats over to the machine, with hope.
“Can I have a dime?”
The pinball machine took only dimes. There was a slot for a quarter, too, right along the top of the machine, which the printed card in front said would give a player three credits, but the quarter slot never worked. You put a coin in, and if you were lucky it would slide through into the return slot, and if you weren’t it stayed inside the machine and the pinball machine blinked mutely at you, the start game button inoperative and immune to repeated pressings. James learned about the dime slot being the only one working the hard way. When, prompted by his father’s instructions, he went to ask for a refund for his quarter, the pizza man - who was not named Guido, but Mr. Gaspucci - told him that to get money back he had to call a phone number written in ball point on a card on the front of the machine. He pointed to a phone booth, where the phone required a dime as well, but the phone booths were always occupied by one man in a crushed hat or another. That day’s hat had a funny pattern James’ father called herringbone. It took a dime to get a quarter back. So it was a dime that was the key currency.
The first time James played the pinball machine, it was because he was “being a whiny brat”, according to his father. James knew he was acting a little fidgety in his seat and complaining about the pizza taking too long, and that there was a danger to that when the pale yellow pitcher was almost empty, but he couldn’t help himself. He was surprised, though, at the reward of being given a dime, and marched to the pinball machine, where James’ father showed him how to drop it in, and to press the button, and a silver ball about the size of James’ aggie shooter popped out and the pinball machine made a sound like a cash register complete with a ding of a bell and a whir as a set of numbers on the back of the machine spun until they all read “000”. A light glowed, behind words James could read: PLAYER 1. Like the words on the cover of a board game box.
James’ father showed him the flipper buttons and plunged the first ball for him. It ascended with startling speed, all the way over to the top left of the machine, where it bounced off what looked like a blackened drum mallet head. Then right, and then a swallowtail left where its momentum stopped and it hung pendulously on top of a white piece of plastic, as if it might not choose to fall left or right. Then it fell: to the right, with a few whirs, and then a sudden burst of bells announced it hitting left and right and left and up and back off the flowers of the bumpers.
James was frozen with fascination, and then suddenly the ball darted left and off a series of plastic squares popped up vertically on the left side of the machine, halfway up. “A K Q J 10” they were labeled, and James’ ball ran into the K and Q and the plastic squares disappeared. For a split second James was worried he’d broken it, but the ball started rolling down toward him, and he could he his father saying “flip! FLIP!” behind him. Flip? “Press the buttons, Jimmy!” James looked down at his fingers, perched on the sides of the machine where his father had placed his hands. He squoze. The plastic pieces at the bottom, angled as if they were about to fall down into the hole at the bottom, just above James’ belly button, HUMMED. And sprang up. Meanwhile the ball had hit a rubber band around more plastic, with a picture of a black King of Spades on it, and was shot upward and to the right, as James’ fingers finally engaged and hit the buttons. The plastic flipped - aha, “FLIP!” - like his older sister’s thumb did when she showed off by snapping her fingers, something James had tried and failed on many occasions to imitate.
But the plastic whooshed through air, hitting nothing, while the ball having decided to continue on a tiny parabola up to the right side, where it brushed more plastic squares that James now realized were meant to represent cards in a playing deck. The ball arced gently back towards the center of the machine. James noticed - how had he not seen these? - more comical playing cards and words written around the surface below the glass. He could read some of them: HIT and LIT and 100. The ball started coming down.
With a panic, James hit the buttons on either side frantically. The ball hit the left flipper on the down arc, and caromed up and to the left again, hitting the “10” and angling back towards the right. James had hit it. A new feeling came over him. He had done that. Down to the right rubber band thing, which again sproinged out with its own life to propel the ball back to the left, this time to the right side. Then, as James continue to flip, the ball went on a swift and straight line to a little metal pin with another very tiny rubber band on it on the right side, and James, flushed and flipping madly, watched it slide down the right side behind his flipper, and disappeared at the bottom. He looked helplessly at his father, not knowing what to do, thinking again he might have broken the machine.
“You get more balls, Jimmy. Four more, I think.”
James wasn’t sure now how long ago that had been. It felt like a long time ago. Nowadays he had to spend his own allowance if he wanted to play pinball, and sometimes even then his father wouldn’t let him play.
The expeditions to Guido’s were very unpredictable. One time his mother was away, his sisters out, and James was sure his father was going to tell him “hop in the car, sport” and they’d be off. But that night James’ father had fried bologna in a pan and served it on top of a piece of toast and that was dinner. The bologna was burned in a circle around the edge, and bubbled up in the middle like the mound on hole three of the miniature golf course. James stuck his fork into the top and smelly steam rose out. James knew better than to ask to go to Guido’s, but he did say, “You burned it, Dad.” His father wordlessly gave him the look that said “fine, you can cook next time”, but to James’ surprise, also leaned over and tousled his hair. When he had first played pinball, the very very first time, James remembered, he’d said “thank you, Daddy!” Not “Dad”, like now.
You burned it, Dad.
Still, at one point James had, in a pique of industriousness and self-discipline, decided to save his allowance up so he could play as much pinball as he wanted whenever that next trip to Guido’s came. Thirty cents; sixty; ninety; a dollar five (he’d bought a couple of Hershey bars that week, momentarily forgetting his plan); a dollar thirty five. He found a nickel and a dime in the bottom of his drawer and he had a dollar fifty. Still his discipline remained, and his savings mounted up, with another fifty cents earned mowing the neighbors’ lawn with his grandfather’s old pusher mower, he was at the heady number of two dollars and sixty cents. Twenty-six games of pinball, James worked out. Wait! He could play the three games for a quarter slot! If the guy had fixed the quarter slot. Had he? James worked it out, patiently, on the back of an envelope he’d fished out of his parents bill trash can, next to the desk that always seemed to have piles of mail on it and at which his mother audibly sighed every time she passed. Thirty six…Forty two games! Forty three with the dime!
But the trip to Guido’s didn’t come. Spring came. More fried bologna. His mother had a new job now, and there were more nights where odd combinations of the family were at dinner, and none seemed to occasion an imprecation to hop in the car. James thought about asking, but thought better of it. One night, to his shock and delight, his middle sister, looking at their father rummaging around the refrigerator and pulling out the Oscar Mayer’s package, said quite audibly,
“Dad, why don’t we go to Guido’s?”
Hope sprung up in James, and then a brief start as he momentarily forgot where he had hidden his stash of two dollars and sixty cents. His mouth watered at the thought of red pepper flakes.
“Because we’re eating in tonight,” their father answered, making eye contact with Oscar Mayer.
The last few weeks of school, and allowances stopped being delivered on Sunday afternoon. James’ oldest sister informed him of this, that he was old enough to make his own money and their parents wouldn’t be providing allowance any more. James was unsure about how this would work, as the old pusher mower had lost a bolt and sat useless in the back of the garage, and he wasn’t allowed to use the gas mower and wouldn’t be for a few more years, his mother told him, until he was old enough to sew his own toes back on.
At that point James was owed two weeks back allowance, and thought at least he could get that added to his stash. So he approached his father, sitting at the bill desk with a pen in his hand and a half-written-on yellow pad by his elbow, but trying to watch a baseball game in the living room that was flickering in and out, the vertical bands giving a staccato rhythm to the announcer’s voice and inaccurate ball and strike counts.
“Dad, you owe me money.” Instantly James knew he’d taken the wrong approach.
“Oh, I do, do I?” James was all in now. He explained to his father about the last two weeks allowances. His case was just. He hadn’t been told about the new no-allowance policy until just yesterday. He was owed sixty cents. He wouldn’t charge interest! James said with a grin, hoping to catch his father’s sense of humor.
“It’s not happening,” James’ father said, turning back to the bill desk and ignoring a home run call on the TV. James searched for an appropriate rebuttal point, and was frustrated to discover he couldn’t come up with one that wouldn’t make things worse. He retreated.
One visit to Guido’s, James and his father, with his middle sister that time, had walked in and they saw the pinball machine open, with the playfield - James now knew what this was called - on its end, exposing wires and light bulbs in a linguini on its underside. A man had his head on the inside of the machine, working a tool on something. James skittered over and then quickly drew back as the man pulled his head out. He examined James.
“It’s OK, you can watch!” he said to James with a small grin. “But stay back so I can work.” James solemnly nodded his head slowly, and backed into one of the high stools along the counter at that end of the shop, by the double swinging doors leading to the kitchen.
James watched, but he couldn’t make out anything the man was doing. He was more fascinated by the puffs the repairman made periodically as his head emerged from the machine and he grabbed a cigarette from an ashtray perched on a metal pizza stand, teetering on a small table next to the pinball machine where the grown men who played it put their beers. The smoke made its own kind of arc towards the ceiling, where air currents pushed it this way or that, its tentacles illuminated by the room lights. Unlike the pinballs, which inexorably, always went down, eventually, the smoke lifted itself up before diffusing into its own self-supporting haze. James was watching one particularly long and persistent smoke strand when he heard a thunk, and turned to watch the man slide the long sheet of glass back onto the pinball machine and thunk a metal bar on top, then swung the little door in front and locked it with a single motion.
“I left some credits on it for you.”
James looked blankly at him, and the repairman grinned and said
“You can play a few games for free. Go ahead.”
The repairman hit the start button, and the reels clicked back to zero.
To James’ annoyance, his sister had appeared at his side, still looming over him by an inch. “Oh, let’s play, James! It says ’Two Players’, how do we get it to play two players?”
“Just press twice,” to James’ heightened annoyance, the repairman explained, and he pressed it twice. The counter on the back of the machine rolled with purpose from 7 to 5.
James prepared himself to explain to his sister how to play, particularly the all important bit of advice that you didn’t have to flip the flippers at the same time and in fact it was usually better if you didn’t, but waited until his sister had flailed at a ball or two before he swooped in with his expertise to the rescue. But James’ sister didn’t cooperate. She deftly flipped the ball and knocked down a whole row of drop-down targets, and the ball caromed back up into the bumpers and then back up to the top. The ball came down again, and bounced off a post by the outlane, and instead of flipping madly when the ball trickled down over the triangle on the right hand side, she held her flipper up. With a steady HUUUUMMMM the flipper throbbed, and the ball came to rest at the bottom. Can you do that? James was aghast. His sister talked during her games, too, yelling out OOHS and AAAHs, and the unkindest cut of all “Watch this!” followed by a perfect shot to the little saucer, where bonus points counted off in a long series of dings on the back of the machine.
He couldn’t help it: he just said it.
“How did you learn to do that?” He had no way of hiding the envious incredulity in his voice.
His sister, with the advanced knowledge of her years, said “Oh, they had a pinball at the Girl Scout camp last year. You could play it for free, all the time, when it rained! Much better than board games. We couldn’t play a match, like on this one, because it was a one player only one, but it was fine because I was the only one who wanted to play most of the time.”
James silently reevaluated Girl Scout camp, which he had previously imagined to be the most boring thing invented, ever.
James, as player two, played nervously. He flipped too soon. He drained balls fast. His sister, with genuine sympathy, said “Oh, that’s too bad!” which only annoyed James more and made him play with more tense fury with each successive ball. He drained fast.
There was still one credit left when the pizza came, and their father called them over to come eat, and James objected they hadn’t finished yet, and their father said to leave it in a voice that indicated he really meant it, so the credit was sullenly abandoned. James eyeballed the machine from his place buried next to his sister in the booth. Another customer came up to the machine, and started playing off the ball that had been sitting in the launch chute, waiting to be plunged.
“Hey, that’s my ball!” James said just loudly enough that he couldn’t be heard by the player over the pinball’s rattling, but clearly by his father and sister.
“You didn’t pay for it anyway, James,” his sister said. “Why don’t you mature a little and learn to SHAAAARE?” she said in what was quite intentionally an immature way. James fulminated and ate the pizza with slow anger, plotting secret future practices on the pinball machine. His mastery of the pinball machine was his special power. It wasn’t fair she could come in and be so good.
Trips to Guido’s became rarer, and never again did James see the machine with its intestines exposed, its healer at work, offering free games. On two disappointing successive visits, James arrived with change in pocket only to find the machine darkened, with a hand written sign taped to it with the masking tape used to close up pizza boxes, scrawled “OUT OF OrDEr” and with the words “NO rEFUNDS” underlined below it.
Just a few days before school was out, he was down on the street with the college pizza places and the McCrory’s, alone this time, and saw a new display in the back of McCrory’s. He went in and found a section of plastic models had been added to the section between sporting goods (mostly baseball mitts and kickballs, with one badminton set that looked like it had been opened and inspected several times over a few years) and the toys (baby stuff James studiously ignored). There were hot rod cars with gleaming chrome pipes, planes with funny shaped wings and swastikas on the cover diving towards smudges of green so well painted James could hear the ACK ACK ACK of the machine guns and the scream of the bombs, and James’ favorite, ships. He’d spent the previous summer at his grandparents’ house using rainy days to complete a model of the USS Massachusetts, nine big guns, with turrets that really swiveled. It didn’t quite look like the picture on the box, which showed the battleship blasting away at unseen targets in a night battle, but it came out OK, especially with his grandfather helping him attach a little line of tape across the hull to help paint a perfect, thin black waterline. He was excited to see a box labeled: HMS ARK ROYAL. It was an aircraft carrier, had Japanese writing on the box, and there were a weird variety of old planes depicted on it, biplanes and strange fat-winged fighters. It was all James could do to keep from opening the box to look at the parts. The price tag on the box read: $4.50.
The next morning James counted his change stash, stored in his old Charlie Brown lunch box he was too big to take to school anymore. He had $4.11, counting the pennies he’d found on the street the previous week. School was ending soon, and he didn’t know when he’d been down my McCrory’s again. The ARK ROYAL beckoned. He ducked his head into his parents’ bedroom. His father had already gone to work, he could hear his mother at the other end of the house. He went over to the Lion Sock and jangled the bottom.
The Lion Sock was an improbably long red sock, although one that would probably fit his Dad if his Dad had needed one long red sock to wear. At its top, instead of a regular sock opening, a wooden disk had been sewn in through tiny holes drilled into the rim of the disk. The face of a lion had been burned into it using a wood burner (like the one James got to use at Cub Scouts sometimes), and in the middle, where the lion’s cat nose was etched, a cross forming its nostrils had been cut out into a slot. The Lion Sock formed a weird parental piggy bank, where his mother and father’s spare change went. Mostly his father’s, coming straight out of his pocket at the end of the day, since his mother kept a change purse with a small notebook inside it where she carefully entered in how much went in and out.
James was sent home from school sick one day, the winter before. His mother worked too far away to come pick him up, so the school called his father. His father acted annoyed, the difficulties of explaining at work how he had to pick up the kid and his mother wasn’t available fresh on his mind, but when he opened the car door he spoke sympathetic words, and gave James a ginger ale at 9:30 in the morning when they got home. James didn’t feel that sick, and the barking cough that had gotten him bounced from teacher to nurse’s office to the back seat of their station wagon in mere minutes had faded by the time lunchtime came around.
“I’m hungry,” he told his father, who was actually reading a book, a big thick book, in the living room while James watched very dull television. It was a few minutes before noon. James’ father had a startled look on his face, as if the concept of lunch had just been invented.
“What about the lunch your mother packed for you?”
“It’s at school,” James replied, thinking ahead to the sad state his banana would be in this time tomorrow. James’ father glanced with consternation at the kitchen, and then asked,
“Do you feel well enough to hop in the car?” It was a miracle: soon they were at Guido’s.
Before James even asked, his father pulled a pair of dimes out of his pocket, pointed at the pinball machine, and said “have a good time.” He ordered sandwiches for the two of them; having pizza on a school day, when you were supposed to be sick, was apparently too much. James put a dime in the slot, and uncharacteristically, waited, staring at the lit backglass, waiting for something, instead of plunging his ball as soon as he could. His father finished settling the order and came over to watch. No beer pitcher at lunch on a work day, even a sick day.
James asked, hesitatingly: “Do you want to play, Dad? It’s a two player game.” He wasn’t sure whether he wanted his Dad to play or not.
His father did want to play, on the sick day. The unexpected day off. They had nothing better to do. James put the second dime in and pressed again.
James let his father go first. He thought it was an adult, magnanimous gesture to make, or at least wanted to show it to his father. But he had another agenda as well. He wanted to go second, to watch how the ball bounced, and see how his father scored. So he could beat his father. He had to be better. The machine was his.
His father, it turned out, knew about not flipping both flippers at the same time, and he was a good shot. He had good reaction times. But he obviously didn’t know the order in which to shoot the targets for the best score. And he never stopped and caught the ball. After only four or five flips, the ball dribbled down the outline, and it was James’ ups.
James surged with confidence. He collected the straight, the full house, and all the bonus in the saucer, and then was halfway to doing it again before his first ball was over. By the time he got to his last ball, he was ahead of his father by a two to one margin, and had already won the game. He looked up at his score, and saw he was starting with over 900 points. He’d never scored that many before; the machine only went up to 999.
James played with an alacrity, a clearness of sense and purpose, of confident knowledge he’d never played with before. He quickly dropped all the targets on one side and methodically started on the other. Then a ball hit off a lower slingshot and rocketed up, around the circular half-orbit, and teetered into the saucer. James looked up as the machine counted up, and to his horror his score turned from 980 to 990 to zero, and then counted up again until he got to 110. A small dial on the right that had always been stuck at zero moved to one, and then to two again when James passed 200 points. James desperately tried to collect the face cards again, but drained, and looked crestfallen at the thought he’d lost to his father. The scores read 440 to 272.
A man in one of those odd hats, a regular, was watching from the corner, holding a cigarette, and looked up at James’ Dad. “Pay him, Gooch,” he said casually to the man behind the counter, not Mr. Gaspucci, but some daytime employee whom we’d never seen before. "Kid turned it over!"
“It’s just a kid,” the counter man said with a scowl.
“Then pay the Dad, You his Dad, ain’t you?” he said, peering at his father.
James’ father said nothing, but the counter man waved two dollars at him.
James’ father looked uneasy, as if unsure what to do; but he took the two dollars after only a brief pause. “C’mon James,” he said, “our sandwiches are ready.” They weren’t actually ready, but his father went back to the booth and sat down, looking with a very small glare back at James.
The man standing in the corner hit something on the bottom of the pinball machine, and the small reel reset from 2 to 0.
James said, “But there’s credits! Can’t I play?”
“No, James,” his father said with a disapproving glance back at the machine, and the man in the hat, who’d turned back to the payphone in the corner and was busily writing on a pad. The meatball sandwiches arrived; they were cold. James felt sick again on the way home and spent the following day in bed, with his mother staying home from work this time. There was no TV, not even dull TV, and Campbell’s for lunch instead of Guido’s.
James had no idea how one was supposed to get money out of the sock. It hung soddenly down from a doorknob, attached by a loop of red yarn, but there was no bottom to it with a door to pop out, like a real piggy bank. But James, playing with it one day some years earlier while on an illegal foray into his parents’ sanctum, had discovered that holding it upside down and shaking it would spew out a few coins on every sixth or seventh shake. Today, James shook: out came, eventually, two quarters, two dimes, and a penny. James did a little math, and feeling virtuous, put one quarter and the penny back in.
When he came home after school that day, and opened up the Ark Royal, he realized he’d forgotten model glue. Another raid on the Lion Sock. James thought: my parents owe me that sixty cents in allowance. With interest, he’d told his father. That money is mine, actually.
Three weeks later, after the Fourth of July and after baseball ended but before James and his sister were due to be sent off to their grandparents’ house for the rest of the summer, the Ark Royal was still on the TV tray James had requisitioned as a model-building platform. It stood in the dark corner of his room, approximately one-third finished. It hadn’t seemed as cool as it did on the box almost immediately, and James found that trying to hide his work from his mother’s occasional entries into his room by keeping the model behind the hamper, meant there was almost no light to work on it. He made a mess of the glue, and had to pull apart a few pieces with gut-wrenching plastic cracks when he realized he had skipped some instructions. The instructions had no English writing in them, only a diagram to follow. James realized he had no place to display it, either, once he finished, without an explanation of how he’d gotten it. Surely the robbery of the Lion Sock would be a necessary detail he couldn’t fib his way past. James took care to keep his room clean and to his mother’s shock, brought his own laundry out on Saturday mornings, all the better to keep any unexpected entries to his room to a minimum. James covered the Ark Royal with a cut-up shopping bag which he labeled “secret please don’t look for Dad’s birthday”. The only one in the house who took any interest was the cat, who poked up under the shopping bag one day and emerged a few moments later wrinkling her nose and looking vaguely disgusted. The Ark Royal lay in its TV table dry dock, first nagging at James at random moments, and then gradually forgotten.
His mother was working late, and his sisters were at friends’ houses, as James watched Gilligan’s Island in black and white. Most summer afternoons were like that. James was deemed old enough to look after himself, and his sisters had things to do, and his oldest sister even had a job, and babysitting was expensive, he can take care of himself, he had heard the conversation go, as if he weren’t even in the same room.
He jumped, startled, as his father came in through the garage door and said “turn that off! hop in the car!”, just like that, and dashed off to the parents’ room to change out of his suit. James, with dawning awareness that they were going to Guido’s, went to check Charlie Brown. But the change stash was gone, except for a nickel and two pennies. The memory of the Ark Royal came back with pain. He glanced at the TV tray in the corner, regret mixed with shame forming a ball of self-pity.
“Can I have a dime?”
The sweet acrid smell of overcooked tomato sauce hung in the air. A large fan on a pole, with wheels at the bottom, made a whir in the corner of the restaurant which mixed in with the usual sounds of customers bantering with Mr. Gaspucci and one another and the steady soft hiss of traffic on the state road at the corner coming in through the open door. James’ father stared at nothing, as if he hadn’t heard James ask this time.
“Did I ever tell you I was in Rome for a summer?” He had, James was sure, but that was all he could remember, so he didn’t say anything.
“Well, not a whole summer. Maybe five, five and a half weeks. It was the first time I’d ever gone overseas.”
“I thought you went to Korea.”
“I did. That was afterwards. Anyway, I didn’t really get to see Korea.”
“Mom said you were there for a year?”
“I was an orderly. Do you know what an orderly is? Somebody who takes care of patients, cleans up after them. Janitors. But I was a psychiatric orderly.”
He paused, briefly, as if to consider whether to continue.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time in Korea. I flew on the planes back to the States with patients, the ones who had combat fatigue. Shell shock, they called it when your grandfather was in World War I.” James hungered for the pizza.
“I flew with them, fed them, got them to the toilet, sometimes had to clean them up. Half of them were in straight jackets, strapped down.” He now talked like James wasn’t there at all, to nobody in particular. “Delivered them to ambulances, except for the one who died on the way back the one time. Then flew back again on an empty plane, or with almost no passengers, just cargo stacked in. And then did it again. Some days I didn’t know whether I was in Korea or Guam or Hawaii or California.”
James asked, forgetting about pizza: “How did you get THAT job?” Unspoken by James: I thought you shot people, with a gun, you know.
James’ father glanced back, as if realizing where he was.
“I was picked out as a B-A-R man in basic infantry training. A B-A-R, you know what that is? A Browning Automatic Rifle. Big gun, fires fast. Very heavy. They picked me because I was the biggest guy in the squad. That’s all, I could never shoot it well.
“One day, we were out on maneuvers — that’s where you sort of play war, but with real guns and against a pretend enemy army, only they’re real but they’re other soldiers from your unit — anyway, we were out on maneuvers, and I stepped on a rock jumping over something, and down came everything, all my ammo, my pack, and my leg snapped. I was in the hospital for four, five months. My unit shipped out, I was left alone. They didn’t want to put me through the infantry course again, because I’d basically finished it, but they didn’t have a unit for me. So I sat around, doing nothing but cleaning latrines and peeling potatoes — we were what were called ‘casuals’ — and eventually they told me to show up at an office one day, and the officer there said, ‘you’re an orderly’ because they needed a big guy to hold down patients and I was who was around.”
James just stared, He wasn’t sure what to say, and hadn’t heard his father talk at that length since the year he gave a long speech at the New Year’s party that James wasn’t supposed to be still up for.
James’ father snapped back. “Anyway, I was in Rome. My father, your grandpop, was working there, post-war relief. World War II. He and your grandma didn’t live together anymore, and grandma wanted me out of the house. I was supposed to go to college, but had gotten sick and missed the start and they wouldn’t let me back in until the following September. I worked a while, doing different things, but grandma wanted me out of the house and Pop, your grandfather, said, come to Rome, see the ruins, learn something. He sent me a ticket on an ocean liner, that was so low in the ship I didn’t have a window, a porthole they call them.” James’ father looked away again, as if trying to see through the side of his ship.
“The weather was terrible, anyway, when you went up on deck you couldn’t see anything because of the rain and waves. Just a little speck of gray ocean. I got to the port, lemme see, I can’t remember the name of it. Rome’s not on the ocean, so when you come over by boat, you come to this little port city and take the train to Rome.
“It was evening when we docked, I didn’t speak Italian, I got pointed to the train station. I said ‘Roma, Roma’, the guy at the ticket booth looked at me and pointed me in the right direction, I got on the train, and the whole trip, I didn’t see anything. Pitch black. Nothing. I got to the train station in Rome, and there was nobody there, of course, my Pops thought I was coming the next day, the boat was early. It was still dark out.”
He paused, as if that was the end of the story. James said: “What did you do?” The thought of his father being stranded, alone, in Rome, was suddenly of great importance to him.
“I had a tourist map, I figured out where I was. I had a little Italian dictionary, I could ask one word questions. I just started walking, figured I’d go to my father’s address at the end of the day and see if anybody could let me in or just stay there and wait for him to come the next day.”
“You mean you’d sleep outside? Like on his lawn?”
James’ father chuckled. “Well, his steps. No lawns, Too old and crowded a city. I walked around, I thought, wow, all this rubble from the war, and then I remembered, Rome hadn’t had a battle. They called it an open city, there was no fighting in it. The rubble, the ruined buildings…they were just there. Just old buildings. Not a lot of cars still. Where my Pops lived, there was a little gate, and I slept on his steps that night and he came and found me sitting there the next day. I’m getting ahead of myself.”
His expression darkened again.
“Anyway, I was wandering around Rome, that first day, and it was the middle of the day by then and I realized I was pretty hungry, I hadn’t eaten since I got off the boat the night before. So I went looking for a little restaurant, a little Italian restaurant. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I looked at the menus, when they had them, but mostly looked to make sure they weren’t too fancy. Anything in my guidebook was going to be too expensive.
“So finally I found this little place, on an alley, that just said ‘Ristorante’ on the sign. I went in, there were only a couple of people sitting around drinking little cups of wine.”
James’ father peered out at the men in funny hats sitting at the rear booths.
“I never thought there’d be guidos in this town,” he said. He seemed amused at himself.
“No Guido’s? Why not? This is a good place!” said James.
James father laughed. “That’s a good one, James.” James felt puzzled but tried to hide it from his father. He nodded, and remembered to add a little knowing half-smile, as if he’d meant the joke he didn’t know he’d made.
James’ father continued, staring down at his foamy beer glass. James wasn’t sure whether he should be bored at this point. The story had gone on a while, and his father seemed to be on the verge of something, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the pinball machine, standing unplayed, away from it all.
“So I went in, took out the few lira I had — lira is Italian money” — James made a face to indicate he knew that already, even though he hadn’t — “and said ‘hero sandwich per favore’ and the owner and his wife looked at me and said ‘no capisce’, they didn’t understand. And I went through the dictionary, and the owner did too, who spoke a little English but not a lot, and eventually I worked out what I was trying to order. I couldn’t understand anything they had on their menu. Finally the owner said, ‘no no not for rich American, poor people food’. He was trying to tell me, as my Pops explained to me later, they don’t have pizza or submarine sandwiches or even the same kind of pasta we have. Nothing like spaghetti. Which I figured out as the summer went on, those are sort of American inventions. I started trying to tell him I wasn’t a rich American, I didn’t have any money, or at least not a lot, but they saw me in a suit — everybody wore suits all the time those days, even young guys like me — and figured I was rich, which maybe I was by comparison.
“So, Jimmy, the guy brought me out some food — some pasta with something, I couldn’t tell you to this day what it was, but it was good — and I sat there eating, and I was watching this thing in the corner that was lit up. I didn’t even realize they had electricity in this place, it was so dim, a lot of places still didn’t have electricity. But this one did. The thing in the corner, it was like a pinball, like the pinball machine there” - James’ ears opened, and he sat upright, listening intently again - “but it had no flippers. Old machine. They didn’t used to have flippers, did you know that?” James didn’t, and couldn’t imagine it.
“So I finished my lunch and was fishing out the right number of lira to pay, not really sure what I owed, when the owner came out I thought to pick up my money but he said ‘you like to play, hunh? you play game?’ He pointed over to the machine, ‘La Bagatella’ or something he called it.” I said no thank you, or tried to in Italian, but the owner said, ‘go go, you win machine, you no pay for lunch’ something like that. I figured it out, I went over to the machine, and you just shot the ball and it came down, and you scored points on it, no flipping, pretty much all luck. I figured, hey, it’s a nickel or penny arcade machine back home, I might as well. I didn’t have any Italian coins but I gave the guy a paper note, he gave me some change, showed me where to put the coin in.
“So I plunged the ball, and then another, and I don’t know how many balls but one of them really rattled around and the score, which was just lit up behind glass, no number reels like that one, went up and up. There was a girl in a bathing suit on the back, that’s all I can remember about that, and a light went off and a reel clicked over.”
“And the owner, he looked at me, he was watching me play the whole time, he said ‘win, win, you no pay for lunch’, something like that, and I said no of course I’m going to pay for lunch, in English because I couldn’t make the Italian, and he said ‘you play again, OK?’ so to settle it, I figured I’d just play again. So I put in a couple more coins, maybe played three times, didn’t really have my heart in it but it was just luck anyway.”
“So I turned to go and the owner was looking mad for some reason, and he said ‘you pay now you pay now’. And I wasn’t sure what had happened, with his free lunch and all, so I opened my wallet up and showed him what I had, figuring he’d take the right amount. But he took it all and said ‘not enough, you owe, you lose game’. And I was mad now, because he’d taken all my money and I thought he was trying to rip me off, thinking I was a rich American. And we had a kind of ridiculous argument for a few minutes, neither one of us understanding what the other was saying, except he kept insisting I owed him more money, and I kept trying to get some change back for my lunch.”
James looked up with fear in his eyes. He was afraid for a moment his father was going to get up and leave, and James had no money to pay for the pizza and his father’s beer and his dixie cup of soda.
“So I turned around to leave, figuring I wasn’t getting my money back, wondering if I could find a policeman but then thinking no a policeman would probably be on his side, and as I was moving to the door these two guys stood in my way. They were both smaller than I was, but there were two of them. I hadn’t noticed them before, or maybe they came in later.”
James’ father paused, unsure whether to continue. He looked at James, as if to say there’s a point to the story, hang in there. He gulped the remnants of his beer.
“So these guys, long story short, beat me up. They took all my books, the little suitcase I had with me, and my wallet, although fortunately I had my passport in a pocket in my pants leg they didn’t find. My mother told me to do that, I laughed at her but I promised I would do it, and that’s the only reason I still had my passport and my return ticket afterwards.”
James was distraught. “What do you mean, they beat you up? What’d they do? Did they hit you with their fists?”
James’ father’s eyes narrowed. He looked directly at James and slowly said,
“Yes. And they kicked me, I had blood running all over my face. My suit was ripped up. They dragged me out, I couldn’t even see, I don’t know how far, and dumped me by a fountain. I had no real idea where I was.”
“How’d you get to Grandpa’s?” James was on the edge of crying.
“A lady came by. She was English, was looking for the fountain or something, and saw me catching my breath and bleeding a little. I was just sitting there, I dunno, maybe waiting for a policeman to come, but everybody ignored me. This lady, she figured me for an American somehow, I don’t know how. She listened to what happened to me, and walked me to get a cab, and spoke to the driver in Italian and paid him some money. I didn’t even think to get her name and address to pay her back. The taxi took me to my Pops’ address, and I stayed there until he showed up the next day, on his stoop.”
James was frozen, unsure of what to say or do.
James’ father looked at him again, with a weird smile that looked to James like a smirk. The kind of smile that annoyed his sisters and teachers alike, when he made it.
“Still want a dime to play pinball?” he said to James.
James snapped out of his agony. “Yes!” he said with excitement.
James’ father rummaged around his pocket.
“I don’t have a dime. Here’s a dollar. Get change.”
James hesitated, took the dollar, and asked
“How much do you want back?”
James’ father said, “None of it. Spend it all on the pinball machine. Or you have to walk home.”
The pizza arrived just then. James looked at it, then back at the pinball machine.
“Go play,” James’ father said.
James went to the counter, got his change, and played a dollar’s worth of pinball.