Free games or tilt …

On occasion during a lazy afternoon while on summer vacation, I played the pinball machine at Abe’s Variety Store across the street from my old elementary school. Abe went home for lunch and reopened at one. Head down, melancholy, he murmured something, unlocked the door, groaned it open, and did not look up until he gave me my Chunky and my change.

Abe was a small, pale, balding man with a stubble of a beard. He wore frame-less glasses like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. Though slight and thin, he wore suspenders.

I loved the Chunky; a dense pyramid square, maybe a rhomboid (now in junior high, I had taken geometry) of chocolate loaded with nuts, cashews, and raisins. Abe stored his candy behind a smoky, glass counter next to the gumball machine. On this quiet summer day, I gave him my quarter, he returned four nickels and the Chunky. I strolled across the oily, buckled floor to a machine tucked in the corner against the window, stood behind the controls…flippers, plunger, and spring, and for a moment I draped my hands over the sides, slid them up and down along the smooth, worn wood, caressed the flippers’ buttons and paused.

I reached into my pocket and pulled a nickel. Near the plunger was a little door with a lock where the nickels dropped. I stared at the glass ahead; the command center that displayed points, flashed lights and made noises…. knuk, knuk, knuk…for bonus games.
Nickel in…blurt, bang, ring-a-ding, ding, bop, blurp, a sound deep within of silver balls dropping…one, two, three, four, five. I pushed the plunger and into the slot arose the first smooth, shiny beauty.

I pulled the springer back, held it there a moment and finally let go, shooting the ball, cannon-like up the right side to the uppermost curve where in slow motion it straddled the bend along the top, stopped and made its descent. The silver beauty zigged, zagged and picked up speed as it moved down the slant of the table. It fell into holes … bing, bing … and popped out … ka-ching … as if shot from a cannon, ricocheted through a thicket of wickets, bumpers and poles that lit up when hit, racking up points along its way while heading toward my flippers.

Flashes of electrical energy, lights, chimes, bells and buzzers meant more points and more points meant free games! At the bottom, dead in the middle, was the cavernous dreaded drain, the sinkhole into oblivion where eventually all balls disappeared, the widespread flippers no longer able to protect. I rocked the machine when Abe was not watching, but the predictable tilt foiled me.

Perhaps Abe’s was a training ground where I learned that pinball was a little like life…wins and losses, chances to win again, replays, tilts that should be avoided, manageable disappointment.

Was the trip to Abe’s and the challenge worth it? You bet. There was always The Chunky.