Arcadium

 

His father, Robert, lay on the ground between two deconstructed pinball machines. The old man lay there as he stared at the bright fluorescent bulbs shown white off of the removed glass of the machines. Sean approached his father. He stepped between the complex motors and gears that were strewn throughout the floor and a small half circle of parts encompassed his aging father like a halo of rusted metal and bolts. The old arcade was failing. The old coin changer machines had grown silent, the flippers collected dust and the old Mortal Kombat cabinet held stains from old pop cans and the left stick had been sticky for months.

“Are you still the only one around here who can fix these things?” He asked his father as he sat down beside him.

“I suppose so.” His father sat up. The aged arcade owner sighed leaving the exasperation hang in the air for a few minutes.

“You close up early tonight, Dad?” Sean sat on a stool nearest to the broken down F-14 Tomcat pinball machine. He had spent the entirety of his childhood running in between these machines and grabbing the coins from inside them. He loved to watch his dad tinker around with the insides. He was always shocked by the intricate gears and bumpers that made up the insides.

“I was hoping to do some repairs on these and fix them up, but I just can’t remember how they go back together.” His dad stood up, tools in hand, and brushed off the dirt from the ground. He left the parts on the ground and carefully returned his tools to his case.

“What do you mean you can’t remember? I watched you do this a hundred times.” Sean leaned forward and reached to get a good look inside the dusty machines. They looked well worn. It was clear to him that these machines had gone too long without repair.

“I’m probably just tired. This place has been running me ragged lately. I’m sure your mother has told you all about it.” His father had run the arcade for the last fifteen years; since the business had been booming. Now with the evolution of the home video game consoles business had been dropping. Even chain stores were hurting.

“She said things were rough. This looks worse than that” Sean said.

“I don’t need someone who lost their job coming in here to tell me how to do mine.” Robert slammed his tool bag on the counter and hustled his way into the back office.

Sean sat there for another minute and stared at the bits and pieces of machinery around him. The floor was covered in tacky carpet with stars on it. It was so old and faded you could barely tell what color it was. Sean had seen all his life and never noticed the rundown drab blue that was showing through the gray dust. Machines buzzed and flashed; each row of cabinets was full of older and older machines. Everyone had been meticulously cared for by his father and even then their age showed.

Sean knew it would be no help waiting for his dad to come back out and decided to walk home. The night was warm in Chicago and the streets would be lighted by the full moon. The muggy summer air stuck to his skin and drew out the sweat on his arms. He made his way home through the city. He had just returned from the west coast and he missed the streets of his hometown.

Two days later Sean sat on the front porch of their Chicago home. He held a Miller Lite in his hand as he talked with his cousin John. The beer was cold when he removed it from the cooler but it had grown warm. He probably would not finish it. The city streets were quiet with the hot summer air which had grown punishing since the heat had finally taken the city. They were reminiscing about the time when they were preteens and left the arcade unattended to go chase girls they knew from school. Sean’s sister had been left to manage the arcade on her own and being a loud-mouthed ten year old she had not done well to keep the kids in order; although she would have you think she bullied ten boys that day.

“I think he’s going to run the arcade into the ground.” Sean said. He took a sip from his warm beer and stomached the lukewarm fluid. It was still beer and he had not yet had enough. The blue and green mesh lawn chair he sat on creaked as he recoiled from the warm beer.

“He’s run that place for years now. He never mentioned anything about there being problems with it.” John replied. He was a few years older than Sean and his sister but they had been close all throughout Sean’s time in Chicago.

“I just don’t think he’s going to be able to do it anymore. He told me that he couldn’t remember how to put the pinball machines together.” Sean had finally given up on the Miller and poured it out over the side of the porch. He felt something break a little deep inside him. He hated to pour out good alcohol.

“He owns the building, doesn’t he? You could always sell the place or rent it out. Those machines have got to be worth something. Hell, I’ll buy it and turn into a gym.” John had been trying to make his way into the wonderful world of real estate and assumed he could turn a buck off of every new investment he could find. Sean had witnessed him convince people that he was a real estate millionaire and had a genius marketing sense. Last weekend they had gone to the bar as a welcome home for Sean and John tried to convince some ladies that he drove someone else’s Mercedes. He was not able to go through with John’s lie.

“Do you honestly think you would be able to make money off of that? It’s a shitty building in a Chicago suburb.” Sean could feel the hair on the back of his neck raise in frustration. Talking to his cousin had become an exercise similar to the effects of slamming his head against a wall.

“Listen I can make anything a cool place to be, brother. If you find a way to get your old man to shut the place down I can cut you in on the deal.”

“It’s not a fucking drug deal man.” Sean had reached down for another beer and proceeded to drink it quicker than normal.

“See. This is why you couldn’t make it in New York doing whatever it was you were doing. Stock portfolios, trading money or god only knows. There’s always money in land my friend.”

“I was making a website and everything went under. I didn’t spend all the company’s money.” Ever since he came home people assumed he was eaten up and spit out by one of America’s more brutal cities. A lot of people lost their jobs and that was not his fault. He had almost given up on trying to correct people.

“Well you’re back living at home and I’m living life in my high rise apartment downtown. Let me know if you have any interest in the future of your family’s business.” John set down his full, warm can of beer and stepped down off of the porch in the suit he insisted on telling everyone was tailored. Sean did not care either way.

 

Sean lived at home for the next several weeks. Trying to find ways that were not clichéd for him to spend the rest of his life on; without any money he should have been looking for more work. Instead he was drinking beer and watching the cars go by on his street. He wanted to go to a Cub’s game but that amount of letdown could not do him any better. His mother would just stand in the kitchen and watch him sit on the front porch and drink Miller Lite. Every night Sean would wait for his dad to come home from the arcade. Most nights neither of them said anything to one another.

One Friday night his sister came down from Milwaukee. She found him one night in his usual place beneath the porch light as he waited for his father to return from the arcade. She sat down next to him with her feet hanging off of the concrete step. She was the youngest but their mother also referred to her as the more mature one. Kate shad come to see him. Sean had not let on but he overheard his mother talking on the phone about him. Or at least that is what he assumed. He guessed she was not happy with his new life choices of porch sitting and drinking low end beer. She did not understand that this was something he needed to do.

“So what’s got you sitting out here?” Kate asked him.

“What do you mean? I just like to be outside.”

“You have never once liked to be outside.” She replied.

“Maybe I picked it up in New York. You know I was close to central park.” He tried to feign happiness.

“Right, right. That’s why it was so many subway rides away when we came to visit.”

He nodded his head in compliance and leaned forward as if to get up. He set down his last empty beer and reached for his cooler. It was empty; as it always was at the end of the day.

“You’re just sitting out here waiting for life to find you?” She was always the one his parents sent out to deal with him and his perceived moodiness.

“I’m just trying to figure things out. I don’t just sit out here. Did you know the arcade is in real trouble?” He tried to change the subject.

“Nice deflection. Dad said things are starting to pick up again. I don’t think any of us has really been down there lately.” She said.

“I went down there last month. It looked like no one had been in there for a few weeks. He said he forgot how to put the pinball machines back together.” He relaxed back into his seat and a group of kids walked down the street. He waited for them to pass and continued. “John wants to turn it into a fucking gym.”

“John is an asshole. You think dad’s losing it? The arcade’s been losing business for years. I don’t know why it would only start bothering him now.”

“Maybe I should take over for him.” Sean said. He had not looked at her yet.

“What else would we do with the place?” Kate’s voice trailed off and was drowned out by the passing cars.

They sat on the porch for a while not saying anything to one another. Sean retreated to his head again and watched the city breath around him. He thought about those days he spent waiting in line to play Street Fighter and the noises that the bumpers made on one those late Saturday nights. The feel of the quarters stained his hands with the scent of old metal and muscle memory of the fighting sticks still buried somewhere deep inside his mind.

“Nothing lasts forever. We need to get dad to the doctor.” Sean said as he finally broke the silence. “I don’t think you can forget as much as he has been lately.”

“What did he leave his car keys in the fridge or something?” She asked.

Sean let himself laugh a little as he got up from his chair.

“I’ll have mom talk to him.” Kate said. She stood up from the porch and started the long walk to her car in the driveway. She was going back to Wisconsin late tonight.

“No, I think I’ll take care of it.” He gathered the cooler and went to bed.

 

The next day Sean woke up late and waited for his father to leave before he made his way down stairs. His stomach was in too tight of knots for him to eat anything. Instead he drained an entire pot of black coffee and kissed his mother goodbye. The long walk to the arcade mounted the tension in his back. His back tightened with each step closer to the family business. By the time he made it there his shirt was sticking to him like it was painted on with wet, sticky sweat.

The sign on the front door of the arcade said closed but Sean let himself in anyway. All of the games called to him. He wanted badly to forget about what he had come here to do and sit in front of them and push quarters into them until it was time for him to go home and sleep. The lights were on and the machines were loudly whirring away as their screens blinked. It would not be open for a few hours. The pinball machines had been cleaned up from the middle of the main walkway. Sean did not see the machines along the wall where the rest of them were. Dad must have given up and move them into the back.

He found his dad with his head deep inside the back of another arcade cabinet. He was hooking up the new NFL Blitz machine. Sean leaned on the nearest cabinet and watched his father work. Something was probably wrong with this unit or he would not be so deep inside of it. He remembered years of watching the old man tinker around with the hundred or so machines they had stuffed into the place and some that were now beginning to take over some of their basement. His father knew that he was there.

“Come here to insult the running of my business?” He asked from within the giant wooden box that was decorated with lightning and football players.

Sean did not move. He continued to watch his father work. He thought about what he really wanted to say. Taking the man’s livelihood away from him was not going to be an easy task. His father loved seeing the delight on kids’ faces when they finally managed to master a fatality or beat the ninja turtles game. The endless flow of quarters did not hurt that fact either. But what was a man to do when that silver river of coins started to dry up.

“You need to go home.” Sean said as he finally broke the silence.

“Have you decided what you’re going to do with my business? Son this isn’t your decision I can manage just fine.” His father pulled himself out of the bully of the best and looked up at Sean.

“I’m not going to do anything to it.”

“Bullshit. I saw you talking to that degenerate cousin of yours. You two are probably going to turn it into a goddamn back-alley gambling shop.” Robert reattached the side panel of the Blitz cabinet. He was done with the inside

“I haven’t even thought about that offer in weeks. You can’t remember how to do things you’ve done a million times. It’s time for you to go home and rest.”

“You think you’re just going to come in here and act like you’re helping me from myself by pushing me out of my own business.” His father began to look enraged. Robert stopped making eye contact with him and stared off at the rows of games.

“No. I want to run the place today. At least for a little while. You know I’ve been sitting on that porch for too long.”

“Too long? Jesus it’s like you’ve become an incoherent bag of socks we keep on the front porch. I can see that you at least took a shower today,” Robert said.

“Just take the day off. Go talk to mom. Try to savor these days before you can’t.”

“And what does that mean?” Robert’s eyes lit with electricity.

Sean put up his hands in defeat. He cut off the conversation and returned to the front of the store. He got out a broom and began to sweep the dirty carpet. No amount of broom loving was going to free the faded blue carpet from its years’ worth of dirt but he wanted to the place to look the most presentable it had in years if he was going to be seen in here. When he was done he sat behind the counter on the old stool that had been there since the eighties. His father came out of the backroom with his bag and left out the front door without looking at his son.

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