My dad opens the door. Light streams into the dim interior. Electronic lights flutter softly. Video games line the walls. We have arrived in Vegas.
Vegas is the first arcade I can remember. It occupied a long, low building on the north side of the southern Maryland town where I grew up. One side faced a go-kart track and was painted like a checkered flag. The other side had darkly-tinted glass on the front door and few windows.
My dad and I went on Saturdays. My mother likely worried that it was a biker bar. I think they came to some détente. I probably pleaded. We were only there late mornings or early afternoons. Given the size of the building, there was probably was a bar, but I don’t remember it.
All the games cost a quarter. I rolled a coin into the slot. My body flooded with anticipation. The game chirped to attention, registering the credit. Or it remained quiet, the coin clanking sharply in the return.
Conking out in Pole Position during the introductory stage. Banging both hands on the pinball flippers while the ball rolled between them. I possessed energy but lacked skill. The three or four dollars of my allowance disappeared quickly. Once I was out of money, I stood at his side, watching what he did. His face illuminated in the glow of the screen.
He played Ms. Pac Man most often. Objectively, he was an above-average player. To me, he was a legend. Methodical, he waited for the ghosts to align in an array where he could capture all four of them after eating the power pellet. He repeated this for each power pellet in the introductory stage. He abandoned that strategy later. He used the power pellets at precisely the right time to escape and continue onto the next level. He approached pinball the same way. He caught the ball on the flipper. It sat gleaming while he looked at the playfield. I recognize this now as patience although I did not understand it then.
Once he finished, we squinted in the daylight, walked back to his grey Ford pickup.
We are much older now. The classics that I played for a quarter are still my favorites. When I get a high score, I text him a picture. I hope that in his mind, there is some distant chirp, the memory of the coin falling, bringing the game to life.
Sarah Smith is a Baltimore librarian. She loves fried chicken and sheet cake. She writes essays, mostly on travel, at hampdenunicorn.com