by Stan Hollingworth
In his early twenties, Boyd was husky, almost square-shaped, with arms the size of legs draping out of a sleeveless sweatshirt. His hair was combed back in a pompadour and squared off in the back. Finding a place among other crew members eating lunch in the shade of an elm tree, he bit into a cheeseburger he’d picked up from Dairy Queen.
Across from Boyd, Elton lounged on the grass with a bologna sandwich, potato chips, carrot sticks, and a thermos of coffee. Thin and wiry with a small head and a long torso, he sported hair that was parted and swept back on the sides.
“Alice fix your lunch?” Boyd asked, dipping a fry into a mess of ketchup.
“Damn right,” Elton responded proudly and reached into a generic black lunch box for a carefully wrapped piece of cake.
“How long you been married now?” Ned, the backhoe operator, asked. In his mid thirties, he was short and scrappy and wore a formless work hat that sat on his head as though glued.
“Two weeks Sunday,” Elton answered.
“Still gettin’ a little, then,” Warren, the middle-aged crew foreman said. “Enjoy it while you can. My ol’ lady cut me off long ago. Like sleepin’ with a goddam refrigerator.”
“Jus’ don’t buy a house,” Ned advised. “Velma kicked my ass out after we made a down payment and now I’m stuck with the mortgage and live in a fuckin’ trailer.”
“Alice ain’t like that,” Elton said. “We get along.”
“I recall sayin’ that once,” Ned commented and stretched out on the lawn.
Elton shook a Lucky Strike from a crumpled pack into his waiting lips and fished awkwardly in his pants for a lighter.
“Gimme me one a those,” Boyd said. “Left mine in the car.”
“Funny how that happens every day, ain’t it?” Elton complained.
Elton grew up in a family of construction workers and never considered doing any other kind of work. He gave up on school as soon as he turned sixteen and took a job as a flagman on a road construction crew. After stints as a hod carrier for a home builder and an oiler on a blacktop gang, he was hired by his current employer as a pick-and-shovel man on a crew replacing gas lines in aging residential areas. Life, for Elton, was a matter of work, greasy spoons, beer, and a car. He lived from one paycheck to the next and never questioned his place in the scheme of things.
His life changed, however, when he ran into Alice one day, a moderately attractive girl with shoulder-length blonde hair he’d known casually in junior high. She showed an interest in spending time with him, which was surprising because other than picking up a leftover in a bar occasionally, he didn’t fare well with women. Soon he could be seen in drive-in restaurants with Alice sitting close to him or in movie theaters with his arm around her shoulders. One weekend he and Alice drove to Las Vegas and came back husband and wife.
“Well, let’s get back at it,” Warren, said, flipping a cigarette into the street. “It’s Friday, payday.”
After the pipe was laid and the welding completed, the trench was refilled. Boyd handled the air-driven tamper and Elton smoothed out the dirt.
“All right, beer time,” Warren announced. Beer after work on Friday was tradition.
Boyd slipped into his new, black, ’57 Chevy with chrome spinners and dual exhaust pipes. Elton had a lowered ’49 Ford with skirts on the back wheel wells.
After stopping to cash his check, Elton pulled into a crowded dirt parking lot next to a rectangular cinder block building with a sign that spelled Connie’s extending over the sidewalk and neon beer advertisements decorating otherwise inconspicuous windows. Ducking into a phone booth, he called his wife and told her he’d be home in an hour.
Connie’s on Friday afternoon was a packed madhouse of frantic conversation, laughter, jukebox music, and the dings of a pinball machine. A blue haze of smoke hovered over everything like smog and the odor of spent tobacco and draught beer permeated the dead air. Elton joined Boyd, Warren, and Ned in a booth. Ned was relating a work tale.
“We were replacin’ lines, like we are now,” Ned said. “We had a new foreman, a wise-assed bastard who was tryin’ to make an impression. We slipped a pipe into a house but didn’t connect up to the furnace or fill in the trench on account of it was four o’clock an’ the foreman didn’t wanna turn in overtime. Next mornin’ I pulled up to work and the house was pile of rubble, all blown to hell. Company big-wigs in suits were runnin’ around and newspapers takin’ pictures. The foreman was standin’ off to the side talkin’ with the police. The stupid son of a bitch had opened the valve in the street before we left the day before so that gas was flowin’ right into the basement. He forgot we hadn’t hooked up to the furnace. The gas found a pilot somewhere and that was all she wrote.”
“Jesus,” Boyd said. “Anybody in the house?”
“A teenage boy was knocked silly by a beam and hauled off to the hospital.”
“What happened to the foreman?” Warren asked.
“They fired his ass for one thing,” Ned said.
A barmaid in tight jeans, western boots, and a low cut blouse hurried by the table. “Another pitcher?” she asked and Boyd nodded affirmatively. She delivered the beer and picked up two dollar bills. “Keep the change,” Boyd said with a wink. He fancied himself a lady killer but was actually clumsy and tongue-tied around women.
A loud thud and the sound of broken glass stopped all conversation as though a switch had been turned off. A carpenter with curly reddish hair was on the floor with blood at the side of his mouth. A cowboy type was standing over him, fists clenched like a prize fighter.
“Oh, oh, here we go,” Warren mumbled.
The carpenter pushed himself up and tackled the cowboy. Together they crashed into tables, ricocheted off the bar, and banged into the jukebox, causing the music to sputter and stop. Blood streamed from the cowboy’s nose and his shirt was ripped. A nasty cut opened up above the carpenter’s eyebrow.
A bartender jumped over the bar and managed to grab the cowboy in a bear-hug and pull him away. “I’ll kill the bastard,” the cowboy yelled, squirming to free himself. Two patrons restrained the carpenter while the bartender wrestled the cowboy to the door and roughly pushed him outside. “Don’t wanna see you in here, again,” he said, pulling the door shut.
“Tell that piece a shit I’ll be waitin’,” the cowboy screamed and kicked the door. “I’ll wipe up the goddam parkin’ lot with him.”
The bartender swept up the glass, arranged the furniture, and started the jukebox. The noise level returned and the barmaid brought a pitcher. “On the house,” she announced.
“Elton,” Boyd said, pointing to a pinball machine in a far corner of the room. “The dingers free.”
“Naw, I can’t get on the machine,” Elton said. “Alice is cookin’ up some ribs; I gotta get my ass home.”
“Pussy-whipped already,” Boyd said and Warren and Ned laughed. “Come on,” Boyd continued, “we’ll win a few quick bucks and you can buy Alice roses or chocolates.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll have to make it quick,” Elton said and handed Boyd a ten dollar bill. Boyd added his own ten and hurried to the bar. Two hundred games ratcheted up on a counter that resembled a car odometer – each game representing a dime in value. Although a sign indicated the machine was for amusement only, it was common knowledge the bar paid off for winning games.
Elton was good on the pinball – able to nudge the corners hard enough to direct the ball without tilting the machine and nimble with the flippers. Before he became involved with Alice, he spent long hours and extra cash honing his skills. Boyd, although he’d never admit it, didn’t have the touch and reactions Elton had so he liked to go halves and take advantage of Elton’s expertise.
Garishly illuminated in bright orange, purple, and deep green, the machine had a square of numbers laid out on the backglass like a bingo card and sets of possible winnings below the card. The playfield had numbered holes between bumpers and flippers and the object was to make balls fall in the numbered holes in such a way that three, four, or five numbers in a row lit up on the bingo card. The number of games one could win could be increased by sacrificing games on the counter.
Elton clicked off fifty games and the possible winnings shot up to two hundred for three in a row, four hundred for four, and six hundred for five.
“That’ll do,” Boyd said.
With the plunger, Elton propelled the ball on to the playfield and watched as it bounced off bumpers, causing the machine to ding and flash. Becoming strangely animated with jerky movements, he nudged the corners to direct the ball to a certain number. After several tense seconds, the ball dropped in the desired hole and a number lit up on the card.
“Good number,” Boyd said and stepped up to take his turn.
The next two balls cooperated and a line of three lit up. The machine added two hundred games. The fourth ball went awry, but the fifth and last ball turned on a fourth number in a row and another two hundred registered on the counter.
“We’re fuckin’ hot,” Boyd screamed.
Their initial good fortune, however, was not an indication of what was to come. Confident and loosened up by beer, they began using too many games to run up the potential winnings and their luck didn’t hold. They won occasionally but lost often and the number on the counter gradually ran down until nothing but zeros registered.
“What the hell happened?” Boyd asked.
Elton knew he should go; it was already six-thirty. But he’d lost ten bucks – a half day’s pay, and he wanted it back. After using the bathroom, he tried to call his wife but the line was busy. “Damn party line,” he mumbled and slammed down the receiver.
“Put another twenty on,” he said and handed his half to Boyd. Two hundred games clicked on to the machine and an hour later the counter was once again at zero.
“Jesus,” Boyd exclaimed. “We’re into this fuckin’ machine twenty bucks each.”
“Yeah, we gotta get it back,” Elton said.
It was seven-thirty and dark outside. The crowd had thinned out, patrons heading off to bigger bars with dance floors and women. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash played over and over on the juke box. The barmaid counted tips.
The next time Elton checked the time, it was ten thirty and things had gone from bad to worse. He’d had lousy nights before but nothing like this: he and Boyd were down ninety dollars each. The bar was almost empty and no one was playing the jukebox. The bartender was washing glasses and rarely looked up.
Elton handed his last ten to Boyd. “Can’t stop now,” he said.
“If you want my advice, you’ll keep the money you have left and go home,” the bartender commented as Boyd handed him another twenty dollars. “Nobody wins on that damn thing in the long run, no matter how good they think they are.”
“Jus’ put twenty on,” Boyd said impatiently.
Time passed unnoticed and at twelve-thirty, the bartender yelled, “Last call!” Bright overhead lights came on, exposing the cheap, fabricated paneling on the walls and the grimy linoleum floor. One hundred games remained on the counter.
“Go for it,” Elton said.
Boyd ran off all the games and luckily the potential winnings jumped as high as possible (six hundred for three in a row, twelve hundred for four, and eighteen hundred for five).
Nudging, using body English, and talking to the steel balls, Boyd and Elton managed to line up two in a row and two more in a row separated by one number. If they could get that one number, they’d have five lined up and could cash in for a hundred and eighty dollars. It was Boyd’s turn to shoot but he deferred to Elton. “You shoot it, man,” he said.
The number they needed was nine, which was fortunate because it was located near the top of the playfield. Elton just had to get by the first row of numbers and bumpers, keep the ball on the left side, and jostle it into the nine.
Carefully measuring how far he pulled back the plunger, Elton shot the last ball and it made its way down the left side. He nudged the machine to keep the ball out of a number on the first row and nudged again to keep it on the correct side of a bumper. The ball rimmed around the nine but refused to fall and Boyd and Elton gasped and cursed. Nudging again and again, Elton managed to keep the ball rolling until it touched a flipper and he expertly propelled it back to the top of the playfield. Again, he kept it out of numbers on the first row and waited as the ball settled into a path that led to the vicinity of the nine. The ball kissed a bumper, rimmed a number, skirted by the nine as though hitting a patch of ice, and began to settle into the ten.
“Get it outta there!” Boyd screamed.
Elton nudged extra hard and the ball jumped out and headed back to the nine. But the machine made a crude buzzing sound and a bright red light appeared with the word tilt flashing on and off. The playfield turned dark and lifeless.
“You fuckin’ idiot,” Boyd yelled.
“I had to keep it out of the ten,” Elton said.
“Eighteen hundred games on the line and you tilt the goddam machine,” Boyd fumed, his face red and his body trembling. He looked down for a moment and then came up with a left hook that caught Elton on the right side of the face and knocked him to the floor.
Boyd turned and walked away, kicking chairs aside as he went. When he reached the door, he screamed, “Fuck”, and walked out.
The bartender helped Elton to a chair. Blood was flowing from his nose and his right eye was turning crimson.
Although Elton drank and hung around bars, he usually nursed beers, drinking three or four a night. He knew the difference between a buzz and sloppy inebriation. When he was a boy his father used to
come home dead drunk in the wee hours on a payday. His mother, long-suffering and disgusted, locked herself in the bedroom and his father, reeking of smoke and beer and unable to control his bodily functions, crawled in bed with Elton. The bed soon smelled like a mixture of a barroom and a nursing home.
The next morning, his mother would scream at her sick and hung-over shell of a husband for hours. Two, maybe three days of not speaking followed until a semblance of civil behavior returned. The next payday, his father would fail to show up for dinner again and the scenario would repeat itself.
While losing his entire paycheck and trying to cope with the guilt of not going home to his new wife, Elton had lost his usual restraint and drunk beer after beer after beer. The accumulation of alcohol hit him as he trudged out of the bar and dragged himself into the Ford. His vision was distorted and he could barely stay conscious. The right side of his face was numb and blood still dribbled from his nose. Feeling sick, he opened the car door and leaned out. After several false starts, he threw up a sour yellow stream that mixed with the dirt of the parking lot. Pulling himself back upright in the seat, he was breathless and wincing from the acrid taste in his mouth.
Managing to start the car but unable to coordinate the clutch and gas, he ground into low gear. The car, moving in fits and starts, bounced over a curb and crawled along the road without the lights on. Elton wanted a cigarette but the pack in his shirt pocket was empty. “Fuck,” he mumbled, crumpling the package and tossing it out the window. Passing through a stop sign as though it wasn’t there, he pulled up in front of a convenience store and angle-parked in a parallel parking space. Inside he waited as a line of low-lives paid too much for six packs, cigarettes, and junk food.
“A pack a luckies,” he said to the humorless clerk who had been robbed at gunpoint just a week earlier. Reaching in his pocket for change, Elton found nothing but keys, so he checked his wallet.
Where there had been tens and twenties just this afternoon, there wasn’t a single bill of any denomination.
“Move on, asshole,” a behemoth in a black leather motorcycle jacket said from the back of the waiting line.
Elton stumbled back to his car and somehow managed to find his way home. He parked in the gravel driveway to the side of his small, rented, frame house. The house was completely dark and barely visible on the moonless night.
Pulling himself from the car, he weaved to the front door, separating his door key from others on the key chain. He just wanted to lie down and pull a pillow over his head – sleep off the alcohol, put the bad night behind him. But when he turned the key in the lock, the door wouldn’t open because of a bolt on the inside. “Damn,” he exclaimed and felt his way around the house to the back door. Again the door was secured from the inside. He had to piss and moved up against the house and tried to unfasten his Levi’s. The buttons didn’t cooperate and before he was able to open the fly he felt urine run down the inside of his leg. “Jesus,” he mumbled and finished peeing on the side of the house. Moving to the bedroom, he tapped on the window but there was no response. He tapped harder but still no response.
Finally a bedside light turned on and Elton returned to the back door, expecting his wife, seething and speaking only with body language, to open the door and then disappear into the bedroom, locking the bedroom door like his mother had done. But the light turned off and everything became dark and quiet again. Suddenly enraged at not being able to get into his own house, he yelled and pounded on the back door until a neighbor screamed, “Knock it off, you crazy bastard, before I call the cops.”
Elton walked back to his car and climbed in the driver’s seat. He switched on the inside light and looked in the mirror. His eye was an ugly blackish purple, dried blood was caked around his nostrils.
He’d get Boyd for this, he thought. It might take a while, but he’d get him. Maybe let a jackhammer slide on to his foot or the large drill used to penetrate foundations slip on to his hand.
The need for nicotine gnawed at Elton like an itch he couldn’t scratch. He found a butt in the car ashtray but discovered his lighter was out of fluid. His stomach was still upset and his eye ached. Lacking alternatives, he tumbled into the back and curled up on the seat.
Stan Hollingworth is a character actor and short story writer. His stories have appeared in The MacGuffin, A Few Lines Magazine, Open Minds Quarterly, and other publications. He lives in San Diego, California.