There was a time when I was another person. Same body. Same mind. But I posessed a power. A power that was wild, unabashed, sterling, massive. All I needed was a slim plastic puck, a white plastic hand-held form that resembled Speedy Gonzala's hat, and a table.
Not any ordinary table. Oh no siree. A table with a million holes. A table that, through these millions of holes would do something that no other table could do.
An air hockey table.
When these four forces were combined:
PLASTIC WHITE HAND-HELD FORM RESEMBLING SPEEDY GONZALA'S HAT!
TABLE WITH A MILLION HOLES THAT BLOW AIR!
I became... The One-Armed Bandit.
I earned this name in the mean back rooms of Putt-Putt Golf and Games when I was just a kid. A kid that had talent. Raw talent. Jimmy knew talent when he saw it.
"You, kid.," he said, stepping from behind the snack bar, wiping his hands which were heavied and sticky with coconut flavored snow cone syrup onto a dirty half apron.
I turned my head away from my game and faced him for the moment. Easily, I unfolded my left arm which I tucked behind my back to make my playing technique more aerodynamic; more unbeatable.
"You talking to me, old man?," I said as I blew my crimped bangs out of my face with the corner of my mouth.
"Yeah. I'm talking to you. What's your name?"
"Buzz off, old fogey." I laughed a snide laugh and folded my arm back into playing position.
Jimmy swaggered quickly up to me and pulled me by the shoulder. I was only inches away from his face, his breath smelled of Lemon Heads and menthol cough drops. His grip was hard, his eyes squinted, his teeth were clenched tight, but not so tight that the words couldn't esape his mouth, "You listen to me, punk. I've been working at this joint for the last two months. And I've seen alotta kids come in and play this here air hockey machine. And there messy. Real messy. Touch the puck with their other hand while it's still in play. Don't guard their goals because they're too enthralled with the whistles and bright lights and the air. The air, they can't get their brains off of thinking about the damn air. But you- you- You got something. Something I never seen before. Where'd you learn to tuck your arm in like that?"
I didn't know if I could trust Jimmy. He was, after all, the snack bar attendant. Rumor was that he pissed in the Mr. Pibb to make it taste more like Sprite. But there was something electric in his touch, in his words. The way my shirt clung to the syrup residue that he had not entirely wiped off. But I wasn't gonna let him in. I wasn't going to let him know that air hockey just came naturally to me. That there was just something about my brain and air hockey that clicked. Click! Like that. He didn't need to know that, instead of sleeping, my brain played over and over again different patterns that would result in the perfect goal. How my heart secretly jumped every time I heard four quarters being slid into a air hockey table; the muffled sound of them falling into the money pit hidden from view.
"I dunno. It just feels better when I stick my arm behind my back."
"Yeah. Yeah. More balanced? More centered? More in control."
Control, that was it. I had suffered the mocking of others for my folded-behind-the-back arm technique. Ignored laughter when I got into position for a game. I knew that they wouldn't be laughing for long.
I nodded. "Yeah, control. I guess."
Jimmy pursed his lips and unhooked my shoulder from his talon-like grasp. "What's your name?"
"Not anymore, you're not. From now on, you're The One Armed Bandit."
In the distance, a Slushy machine whirred.
The next year I spent every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at Jimmy's. He lived down the street from Putt Putt Golf and Games in an old church that had been converted into a four-plex. It smelled funny in his place, like Murphy Oil soap and cole slaw. But these were easy to tolerate when Jimmy unveiled the centerpiece of his home.
"It's a Darion 3700. German. Only 15 of these left. The best air hockey machine money can buy. Hand drilled holes. The goal guards are made of a type of plastic that you can only find on things that are really old. Look at that score board. No LED display there. Nah. That's your genuine dial-operated score tracker right there.." he'd mumble as he folded up the dust protector he kept on the Darion when it wasn't in use.
And Jimmy would make me play. Play until my pinky bled from banging up against the plastic safety guards on the side of the Darion. Until my thighs were battered black and blue from slamming into the table, reaching that extra inch that was needed to make the shot. Tears would streak from my face and fall onto the table's surface where they'd mix with the hot air that blew from the Darion and turn into steam.
"You're almost there, One Armed Bandit. But you're not there yet."
"What the hell do you mean? I've been busting my ass these last months. I've beaten you the last 36 games we played. I think I'm there already."
"You've got the fire, but you haven't found the heart. Once these two merge, then, and only then will you become the Best Air Hockey Player Evah."
My throat choked with a fistful of anger. The sound of the Darion blowing in the background slowly disappeared as my ears were overwhelmed by my heart beating in my brain. A small bead of sweat dropped from my brow and landed in my eye, causing my contact to become blurry. But that didn't stop me from grabbing my special hand-held-plastic-form-thing's carrying case and walking to the door.
"I'm outta here.," I said, slamming the giant wooden doors behind me.
As I walked down the road, I hoped that Jimmy would run after me. That I'd feel the talon-like grip on my shoulder as I did a year ago. I wanted him to stop me. To make me listen. To make me understand and tell me the secret of how to play with my heart.
Because I didn't know how.
Two more years passed and I made my way through the touring circuit. Wowing folks near and far with my ability, my stamina, my hard-core playing power. But it didn't matter to me any more. Didn't feel the same. My heart no longer jumped at the sound of falling quarters, my brain lulled me to sleep not with playing patterns, but with the image of Jimmy standing next to the Dorian 3700, shaking his head in disapproval.
Finally, the touring circuit took me through my old playing grounds. Out of respect, I decided to stop by Putt Putt Golf and Games to pay Jimmy a friendly, cordial visit. I was surprised to see that the interior had changed completely. No longer were there the old air hockey tables and ski ball and bumper pool tables from years ago. Instead there were fancy-looking video games and blinding, luring lights that encouraged the youths to spend their tokens in hopes of winning a ticket or two. Things had changed. Changed alot.
The high school gal behind the snack bar just shook her head. "Nope. I don't know Jimmy. He musta left when they redid this place. Ayup. That's what he musta done. Ayup."
I nodded in appreciation and decided to walk to the old church four plex. At first, I had thought that my memory had deceived me because the old place wasn't where it usually was. Instead, there was just a large, charred concrete foundation left behind. I walked up to the blackened block and recognized the floor plan of Jimmy's old place.
"What happened here?," I whispered to myself.
An old newspaper clipping blew into my face. It was burned on the corner and had been yellowed by age. I read the small font and shook my head in disbelief.
"How can they sell 4 tires for only $99? That's unbelievable.," I said to myself.
"Not as unbeleivable as the fire that took place here the day you left."
I turned. Standing in front of me was someone who looked like Jimmy, but was unfamiliar otherwise.
"Jimmy? Jimmy is that you?"
The figure nodded. "After you walked out that door.......," the figure dropped its head and looked at the ground.
I turned and looked back at where Jimmy's old place had once stood.
"It all went up in smoke. Everything."
"The Dorian 3700?"
"Burned in the fire, haven't you been listening?"
"Jimmy. Jimmy, I'm so sorry. I- didn't know. If I did I would have come back."
"And done what? What could you do? You already did all you coulda done."
"No. No. I could have helped you. I could have stayed and learned to play with heart."
Jimmy cocked his head back. "You did play with heart."
I looked at his eye- the left one as the right one had a weird vein in it that made me uncomfortable. "But you-"
"I know what I said. And I know why I said it."
He pulled out a small chain from his apron pocket. "I want you to have this. It's all that was recovered from the fire." Hanging from the chain was the quarter coin slot.
"The Dorian's coin slot? I can't take this Jimmy."
"Take it. Wear it. Remember me."
I took the chain and put it around my neck. The coin slot was large and bulky and looked pretty stupid hanging against my chest. I knew that as soon as Jimmy was gone, I'd take it off. "It's beautiful.," I whispered, fondling the cold metal between my fingers.
When I looked up, Jimmy was gone.
"Jimmy? Jimmy?" My head turned every which way. But every way which I turned there was nothing. I was alone. Was it all a dream?
Yes. Yes it was. It was all a dream. And I got out of bed, brushed my teeth and went to work. Then I got home, ate some Ramen noodles, memorized some lines and cursed myself for not updating in the last 5 days.