Lucky & Wild
My roommate Matt needs a project to help him deal with the breakup, he says, and this is why he bought the arcade game. He has shoved the coffee table and entertainment center into the corner to make room for the thing, a cabinet with a built-in bench wide enough for two people to sit on. Steering wheel, floor pedals, two light guns sheathed in plastic holsters, big orange letters on the side that say Lucky & Wild. I eat a sandwich and kick off my work shoes, watching Lucky & Wild cycle through its demo mode. It’s a driving game where you shoot things. Cars explode. The bodies of thugs roll across the highway.
Matt says he spent all afternoon getting the game running, fiddling with soldering and wires inside the dusty sarcophagus of the cabinet. He says he found it on Craigslist, left work early, and borrowed Sarah’s brother’s truck to go pick it up. Sarah is the ex-girlfriend, and I don’t think he should be talking to her family, but I don’t say anything. The game is an eyesore—paint faded, screen scratched, initials of punk-asses from twenty years ago etched into the seat—and I’m not thrilled to have it crowding out my living room, but I don’t say anything about that either. I know he’s having a hard time.
Last week, I did the best friend thing and got him drunk, gave him the pep talk, mulled over his troubles. He told me he wishes he didn’t have to go to work while he was breaking up, that there was some kind of sick leave for that. Heartsick leave. I get it. I’m far enough into my working life to feel each weekday like a stunning blow to the back of the head, but not so far that I’m completely unconscious—I want nothing more than to sit in my apartment with the blinds drawn and never go back to the bank where I work, ever. Anyway, I told him that this was a good chance to focus on himself, and maybe that’s what Lucky & Wild is, Matt focusing on himself.
He asks me if I want to play. I say yes and he shows me how. We are the eponymous police officers, Lucky and Wild, a Japanese reinterpretation of Starsky and Hutch, but way more violent. We shoot pistol-wielding thugs out of the backs of cars, blow up helicopters, jump gorges in our red sports car (in the early nineties, we decide, all truly badass cops drive sports cars), blast through the concourses of shopping malls while civilians flee in terror and food carts explode.
Matt is tired, he says, of the dating scene. He’s too old, and there’s too much pressure. When you’re pushing thirty, there’s no more casual dating; everybody is a potential spouse.
Not really, but maybe she should have been.
I tell him to quit it, don’t get all second-guessy. Matt has always been the kind of guy who makes decisions and then worries about them in past-tense. Did I go to the right college, he wondered at graduation. Could we have found a better apartment, he asked me a month after we signed our lease. It’s my role to reassure him. I say if they weren’t right for each other, they weren’t right for each other.
He nods and says he guesses I’m right. Late into the night, our apartment is full of the companionable chatter of electronic machines guns.
When I get home from work the next day, there’s a Ms. Pac-Man machine, a little tabletop one, where our coffee table used to be. Matt says he picked it up for a hundred bucks off of Craigslist. I ask him if he intends on turning our living room into an arcade museum. He laughs.
I am making spaghetti and marinara when the doorbell rings and Matt jumps up from the Ms. Pac-Man machine. It’s Julie and Chester, our next-door neighbors. Julie shouts when she sees the arcade games and asks if she can play, too.
I dread spending time with Julie and Chester, not because they aren’t nice or I don’t like them, but because it’s impossible not to unfavorably compare my life with theirs. Julie is a med student and Chester works for a tech company; I manage accounts at a Bank of America attached to a grocery store. They live in a beautifully-decorated little red cottage; I live with my college buddy in a concrete box of an apartment with stained carpets and mold on the bathroom ceiling. We are all the same age, twenty-nine, but my life has the trappings of a younger man’s life, the life of a fuck-up.
But they are non-judgmental. They exclaim over the arcade games, and Matt shows them how to play Lucky & Wild. We buy beer and spend the night hanging out with them and talking video games. Julie kissed her first boy in an arcade. Chester collected Nintendo cartridges in college. Matt talks about his plans to restore the Lucky & Wild cabinet to its original glory—repainting, replacing components—and by the time Julie and Chester leave, I’m convinced Matt’s project is working. He seems distracted and happy. He’s talking to people. He hasn’t mentioned Sarah all day.
A few days later, there’s a Street Fighter II machine and a janky-looking Smash TV cabinet with exposed circuit boards and wiring in our living room. Matt says that the new games are Chester’s, that he’s roped Chester, who has a lot more disposable income, into his new hobby, and also that Julie and Chester are coming over with some of their friends, maybe.
I tell myself it’s in the name of Matt’s mental well-being, and clean up the kitchen, pull the extra chair out of my bedroom. Our apartment fills up with neighbors and friends, the fuzzy pows of explosions, solo cups, laughter. People walking by on the street hear the noise and see the red light and walk in. Somebody Chester knows dollies in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cabinet (in mint condition, Matt yells, mint condition!) and we put the couch on the porch so everything will fit. I joke with Chester about him enabling Matt’s new addiction and he smiles down at the flickering Ms. Pac-Man screen, stoned on his friend’s weed and quiet. Eventually somebody in our building calls the cops and Matt, who revels in his ability to sweet-talk landlords, old women, and cops, has to step outside to talk us out of a ticket for noise violation. When I go to sleep, with earplugs in, the party is still going.
The next night is quiet. Matt and I make dinner and talk while he replaces the joystick switches in one of the cabinets. He’s overnighted a bunch of arcade repair stuff from Amazon and talks about his wires and cleaning fluids and little metal bits, explaining what each does. He shows me how to take apart a coin mechanism.
Matt’s so into this. In a way, I’m jealous of him. Sometimes I feel like there’s this great force inside of me, waiting to move. It’s not intrinsically good or bad, it’s just kinetic; springs ratcheted down tight. Late at night, or when I haven’t talked to anybody all day, or walking to the grocery store with a hangover, I feel it there, ready to change me. Matt has it too, and I’m watching it change him. His springs are springing right now.
I ask him what he plans to do with the games. Is he going to start an arcade? Is he going to fix them and sell them? Matt shrugs and tells me it’s just a hobby now. It’s good that you’ve distracted yourself from Sarah, I tell him, and he says yeah, he’s enjoying his abdication—abdication, as if he’s resigning from the presidency or something. He says it makes him feel like a kid again and I nod. Video games will do that. Nostalgia. But Matt shakes his head, like I’m not understanding him.
The next night is Friday, and when I arrive home, the blinds are shut and I can hear the music from the street. Matt has moved our kitchen table onto the porch, next to the couch, to make more room for the arcade games. I take a deep breath at the front door, feeling preemptively awkward in my blazer and loafers, and walk into the party.
Inside, it’s a mix between a fifth-grade sleepover and a bacchanal. Alcohol has already amplified the noise, and the air is fat with joystick clatter and the smell of sweat and beer and unfamiliar perfumes. Matt has replaced all of our regular light bulbs with novelty red ones, so that our apartment is lit like an arcade. Julie, wearing a hypercolor tee-shirt with luminous hand prints on her stomach, fully into Matt’s vintage theme, yells my name and hands me a piece of candy from a plastic bag, a Now and Later. I unwrap it and put it in my mouth. Tang, pink and sharp and half-forgotten. There are two new arcade games, from god knows where. I go to find Matt.
He’s playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with some guy in John Lennon glasses I’ve never seen before. He tells me that they’re about to start a Street Fighter II tournament, and do I want to join?
I tell him I need to talk to him and pull him into my room, the only private space in the apartment. I ask him what he did to our lights and he says don’t worry, he saved the normal bulbs in a drawer in the kitchen, and we can change them back. I ask if he thinks this is a good idea, if he knows that this is sure to draw the cops a second time.
Not to worry—he invited the neighbors who called the cops and they’ve been drinking here for hours. Nobody’s going to complain.
For hours? I ask him what about work.
He says he told them he had to leave town unexpectedly. A dying grandparent in another state. He’s got the next week off, maybe more.
I ask him does he know how he’s always looking back and asking if he made the right decision? This is not the right decision. This is a bad decision.
He’s got it all figured out. He’s already made enough to cover rent for next month, and by then he’ll be back at work. Or maybe he won’t, he says, and shrugs. Anyway, he tells me, come join the Street Fighter II tournament, or at least watch. Then he leaves me alone in my room.
He is abdicating, I think. The arcade is a resignation from real life, but it doesn’t seem to scare him. It’s like he’s happy to do it. It’s like he’s stepping onto a carousel.
In the living room, everybody’s mouth is neon from the candy. Matt is watching John-Lennon-glasses-guy and one of Chester’s friends turn a villainous hatchback to Swiss cheese with Lucky & Wild’s light guns, but when he sees me he ushers me over to the Street Fighter II machine. You’re first up, he says.
I’m playing Julie, who smiles up at me, her lips and the spaces between her teeth stained red with candy. I’ve never stood next to her before—she’s short, and her blond hair is very straight. I can see hot hypercolor fingerprints on her sides. What would it be like to kiss her, to forget who I am and let our tongues slip across each other, flashing electric green and blue?
Hurry up and pick, she says. She’s chosen Ryu. I scroll over to Guile and select him, because as everyone knows, as I remember from my childhood, Guile is legit.
IAN DENNING‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Five Chapters, Corium Magazine, A Cappella Zoo, Rio Grande Review, Mid-American Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Seattle, tends bar at Richard Hugo House, and blogs at http://ian-denning.tumblr.com/.