Excerpt from “Skeeball Sam’s”

Leo waded his way through the black-lit section of fighting games with wobbly joysticks and shooters with red and blue pistols attached to their machines by rigid, black umbilical cords. Every few steps a vacant machine would challenge passers by with High Scores. Leo didn’t stop to look when his three letters LEO flashed at the top of each list. He knew they were there and that no one had touched them. This was his section. He knew it. Jaime knew it. Jake knew it. Violet knew it. Skeeball Sam knew it. Anyone who ventured into this section of the arcade knew it. They all knew LEO even if they didn’t know Leo.

He had a few minutes before it started so he shook two quarters into his hand and dropped them into Time Crisis II and grabbed the blue nine-millimeter. The grip had been blackened by palm sweat and unknowable grime but Leo didn’t even think about that. He liked the artificial weighting of the artificial weapon. On one hand it felt real and on the other he knew it wasn’t. Not that Leo had any frame of reference. He’d never held a gun before and probably never would. He smiled when he pulled the trigger and the slide kicked back like it was ejecting an actual empty casing. Satisfying feedback. Weight to each shot. But most of all the clacking of the plastic slide could be heard throughout the arcade. It got people’s attention. If it wasn’t almost time maybe people would have gathered around. But Leo’s round didn’t last long. A stupid pedestrian had caught a stray bullet while Leo had the machine-gun power up so he shot at each pedestrian he saw until it was game over. When he’d slaughtered enough innocents, he gathered his cup of quarters and a stubborn set of initials remained: AAA.

The skeeball machines were on the far side of the arcade. Leo circled around Wheel of Fortune, Deal or No Deal, coin pushers, kiddy gambling, Blackjack, and other games of chance that spat out long tongues of orange tickets when you dumped enough change and misplaced faith into them. A boy in a Duke sweatshirt yelled and swore when he failed to stop the wheel in the narrowly divided Jackpot section in a game of Quarter Roulette. Leo wanted to stop and tell Duke Kid that the odds were against him. That magnets and statistics determined who won. Chance was a factor and merit was not. It was out of his hands.

When Skeeball Sam emerged from behind the Final Bosses Only door, he was wearing his purple vest and a white t-shirt under it tucked into khakis. White light slid into the arcade, casting strange shadows. Whenever this light caught his eye, Leo would try to look into the office and see what people whispered about even when Sam was safely in his office but as always the door closed too quickly. Sam’s hair still hadn’t been washed and was parted right down the middle. It brushed his shoulders when he turned his head to menace the machine. He hadn’t shaved either. The white shirt gave him a glow in the black light. It made him hard to look at. As always he didn’t say anything, he didn’t look at anyone. The crowd had already taken it’s lower case L shape so Sam had unimpeded access to that middle machine. A while back, Sam preferred the machine at the end of the row. But some kid ate too much cake on his birthday and vomited white and blue icing onto the middle of the lane. Ever since Sam had always chosen the middle one. Once he was in position, the L closed into a U and ceremoniously, he stuck his thumb, index, and middle finger into the left vest pocket and plucked out two quarters. After dropping the first one in, he rested his right hand in the slot where the balls would appear and dropped the second.

The eight brown balls clacked into his hand and Skeeball Sam, still hunched over the ball slot, tossed the first one from his right hand to his left and bowled it across the lane. It flipped up off of the lip at the end and flew and landed in the 100 point ring before the timer could change from 60 to 59. Sam was never without a ball, the lane was never without an occupant, and the 100 point ring was never left in peace. The drone of rolling was almost unceasing except for that pause and moment of faith in physics and Sam.

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