High Score

The use of apostrophes and quotation marks, for the most part, are an arbitrary convention. In some special cases, like can’t/cant, won’t/wont, I’ll/ill, et cetera, they are necessary; however, there are no other words in the English language like dont, doesnt, et cetera. Writers, I believe, must reimagine the possibilities of the language.

***

Anthony had spent a short stint in an internment camp as child without his father, and because no one was there to teach him any different, he got into fights and only stopped when the other boy’s blood covered his fists and the guards pulled him off. But after he got out and they reunited, his father remained just as distant, and now, all these years later, that desire for blood remained—even when it came to video games.

He didnt just want to win: He wanted the high score.

He practiced everyday and learned the enemy patterns and the most efficient techniques for dispatching them and the glitches and the bugs, and after a long day at the machine and after he went home and he slept, he woke up to play again before his young and pregnant wife had even thought to stir.

Tommy Falcone hipped him to it and got him playing Pong in bars after work between drinks. He introduced him to the latest machines and explained the rules and always had the inside juice on the pile of bricks and mortar that would soon become an arcade. He fathered him for a long time until Anthony got tired of waiting around for Tommy to show. They were still friends and traded tips, but Anthony had finally decided to strike it out on his own.

Tommy said Jimmy D’Angelo was the best around at Space Invaders, and if you wanted to play him, you went to Mickey’s. So he went. He drove from Philadelphia to Jersey and waited at the machine with his money on the buttons, and when Jimmy walked in, Anthony thought the kid looked like a ragged pair of jeans. He must have been eighteen or nineteen and could scarcely grow a mustache but tried regardless; Anthony, on the other hand, felt powder‐fresh in his leisure suit, sporting a neatly‐trimmed beard.

Jimmy heard Anthony was looking for him.

I thought youd be younger, he said.

And youre shorter, said Anthony.

He lit a cigarette and puffed, adding: You wanna play?

What else did you wanna do? Box?

Jimmy put up twenty‐five dollars, and Anthony doubled it, and Jimmy called without hesitation, and the old man wearing a green plastic visor crept from behind the counter and collected the money and explained the rules. The game was Space Invaders, and whoever got more points on three lives and a quarter won. It was simple.

Anthony liked that.

Boxing was simple too. You fought until one guy was standing and the other was on the ground. But boxing was for the young man. It broke your bones and made you bleed and caused your mind to slow. Space Invaders, however, kept the fast pace and the sense of combat, but it didnt leave you crippled or broken or crushed—save for a few sore fingers. Space Invaders was the sport of the future.

Jimmy had first crack because it was his home arcade and was the right thing to do when you were a guest, and there wasnt any advantage to it, so, as a result, Anthony got to watch him as he played. The kid didnt toss the joystick but guided it, and he didnt slap the button to fire but caressed it. It was like watching the guts of a clock at work, and Anthony admired it because it was so different from the jostling and the punching that he used to dictate the machine.

After twenty minutes went by and the game ended, Jimmy walked away with thirty‐thousand points, but Anthony knew it wasnt the kid’s best because the high score was a little over thirty‐seven so he gave it the same lack of intensity and finished with twenty‐eight and raised the bet another fifty.

***

By 1 AM, they grew hungry and sent out for food and liquor, and both of them sat at about even and neither had come close to breaking the high score. The food boy brought back some hoagies and a bottle of whiskey for Anthony but did not come back alone. Behind him walked a woman who wore dark sunglasses that hid her eyes. She took a seat in the corner and shuffled some cards and sipped every so often at a cup of coffee.

Jimmy went over, and the two talked closely. But Anthony chewed through the hoagie, which he drowned with whiskey straight from the bottle, and gave them little attention. When the food was gone, he stood up and asked if Jimmy would like to raise the stakes. Jimmy looked at the woman in the dark sunglasses, and after she gave him a nod, he agreed.

***

Five hours later, Anthony was up by five‐thousand bucks, but the whiskey had worked its way into his brain and slowed his actions and made him weak. Every toss of the joystick was a struggle, and the aliens onscreen were an indistinct blur. He tried to keep his wits and played his best, but the high score seemed to be forever out of reach. He had peaked at thirty‐five thousand, after he had really got going, yet as the hours passed, the points eroded game upon game until he only had the change left jiggling in his pocket. All he wanted was another shot at the machine.

Jimmy D’Angelo was counting the money.

Come on, said Anthony. Let’s go again. No money. Just play to play.

Jimmy looked at the woman in dark sunglasses.

You dont know when to quit, she said, do you?

I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to Jimmy.

And I talk for him. Now that’s it. Youre done.

I’m just getting started.

Youre starting to get desperate.

Youre starting to get on my nerves, lady.

My name’s not lady. They call me Daddy.

She turned around and took Jimmy with her, and the old man in the green plastic visor came over and unplugged the machine.

Hey, old man, said Anthony. I’m playing here.

The old man raised his eyes.

Youre done playing, he said. What youre doing now is losing.

Anthony wanted to knock him flat. He wanted to sock him right across the cheek, but he wasnt drunk enough so he told the old man to go fuck himself and walked out.

***

It was morning, and the air was cold and crisp and his breath showed as fog and even though the sun was present, it did not shine. The light was hollow and waning, and the day did not feel new. It felt more like twilight.

After a short walk, he stopped at a phone booth on the corner and called the house. No answer. He hung up and tried again. Same thing. Then he called his mother.

Where have you been? she asked.

Out, he said.

You couldnt think to call? Your wife is about to explode, and you couldnt think to call.

Just send pop to pick me up.

You took yourself there, and now you can’t bring yourself home?

I’m a little drunk.

It never stopped you before.

The line was dead for a moment. Neither of them spoke. But then his mother cleared her throat to start again.

You didnt even bother to ask where she is, she said. Have you even thought about that?

No, he said.

She’s here—with us—because she can’t find her own husband, because he goes out and never comes home.

Can you just send pop?

Are you even listening to me, Anthony? I’m trying to tell you something.

Can’t we talk about it when I get home?

You dont get it—do you? She doesnt want to see you. She doesnt want to hear from you. She’s tired of it.

What are you talking about?

Your wife, she said, wants a divorce.

***

He walked into the first open bar he found and ordered a whiskey. The bartender obliged him even though they wouldnt officially open for another hour. Anthony removed the little straw and sucked the whiskey clean before taking a sip from the glass.

How much do I owe you? he asked.

A buck‐fifty, said the bartender.

Anthony spilled the coins from his pocket and started to count out the dimes and quarters.

Put it on my tab, called a voice from the darkness behind him.

He turned, and Daddy stepped out from the shadows. She carried a glass of amber liquor and gulped it down and asked for another. Anthony scraped his change from the bar.

You drink? he said.

Like a fish, she said.

But not while you work.

Exactly.

He finished his drink, and she ordered him another. They left the bar and found a table in the darkness, and she removed her glasses and showed her eyes. They were blue and bright and full, the kind that glistened even in dull light. A scar had marred her cheek that seemed more like a beauty mark than an imperfection. She wore with pride, as if to say: You should see the other guy.

You know what your problem is? she said. You dont know when to quit. Even when youre beat, you dont give up.

Is that what you figure? he asked.

That’s what I know.

He sipped his whiskey.

Do you ever play blackjack? she asked.

Here and there, he said. Mostly craps.

Craps is a loser’s game. Blackjack is what you play when you want to win.

She reached into her pursue and took out a deck of cards and dealt them out. Anthony was sitting on a hard twelve, and she was showing a seven.

Do you hit or stand? she asked.

Hit, he said.

She went on quizzing him about whether to hit or stand on certain hands against certain hands, and sometimes he answered correctly and sometimes he answered wrong, but the lesson was lost on him and he quickly grew tired.

Listen, he said, what’s the point of all this? I dont play blackjack. I probably never will.

The point, she said, is that there’s always a way to play it. You just have to know how. Everything is a risk. I make it my business to make that risk as small as possible.

She was talking crazy now. Maybe it was the liquor or maybe it was something else, but he didnt like where this was going. He was sure, if stayed and listened, he would regret it. He got up to go.

I appreciate it, he said, but I think I better leave.

But you havent even heard my offer, she said.

I’m sure I won’t like it.

Instead of playing by yourself, why dont you let me help you?

He had heard this kind of talk before. People buying one another. He knew how they played that game, and he didnt like it. He didnt like the way they sold you out, the way they made you beg, the way they told you what to do and how to do it. When you box, it’s only a matter of time before somebody with enough money shows up and asks you to take a dive—or worse, pays off the other guy. It makes you feel dirty, and for a while, the mornings dont feel like mornings but another day you woke up to die. He didnt like being dead, but he wasnt drunk enough to be rude.

How much will it cost me? he asked.

Seventy percent, she said.

That’s pretty goddamn steep.

It’s fair. And right now, I’d say it’s a better option than youve got.

Which is?

Youre here, instead of home—with your wife. I’d say you dont have anywhere to go, with anything to do.

He covered up his wedding ring with his other hand and said: Maybe.

No, she said, I’m right.

She saw right through him. Every part of him told him to run, but curiosity dragged him right back. He sat down, and the bartender brought over two more drinks. They drank quickly and resumed the conversation.

So what? said Anthony. You already have a horse.

Jimmy? she said. He’s just one in my stable. Game players, card players, pool sharks, boxers, theyre all a part of my business. If there’s a dollar to be made, I find it. I recognize talent, seek it out and prop it up. Besides, dont think of yourself as a pony. You—youre a fighter. Youre not in it for the money. Youre in it for the pride.

Making a collection then?

And you could be my prized possession.

Daddy, youre out of your mind.

He had heard enough. He didnt need this. There’s only so much you can take, and when it’s enough, you know it the way you know the song is ending, when everything starts to fade, and after so many whiskeys, things started to fade. He put his coat on and stood up unsteadily, but before he turned, she reached her hand across the table and crawled her fingers up his thigh.

It doesnt have to be just business, she said.

They didnt play that game when you boxed. They broke your hands, and your wife spooned you dinner like you were a goddamn infant. They never tried soft, never put the silk on it. He was getting a divorce, so what did it matter? It didnt matter. He was drunk enough, so he followed her out and back to her apartment.

***

He woke up mostly sober. His vision was blurred, but his legs were sturdy and his mind raced. The sex came back to him in snapshots, little clippings here and there. It would have been a dream if she wasnt next to him, breathing out in heavy, contented sighs.

You had to feel wrong about that kind of thing. It was the only way you could feel about it. But he couldnt bring himself to call his wife and ask for her forgiveness, so he stayed in bed and pulled Daddy over for a second go.

Nothing hid pain like pleasure.

And for the rest of the week, he stayed with her, and the two of them drank whiskey and wine. They laid in bed for most of the day like invalids, only moving to close the blinds or pour another drink or to kiss, but at night, they came alive and played poker or rummy. And Daddy continued his education. She taught him about risk, about winning, about losing. It was the kind of thing you didnt pay attention to until you were outside it.

Why would you bluff? she said, collecting the chips.

He picked the cards from the table and said: I believed in those cards. That was the hand I was playing, and I was going to play them for all they were worth.

Sometimes, she said, it’s good to fold.

In that moment, he knew exactly what she meant.

And when the bottles were empty, they left for the arcade. Sometimes they played in Philadelphia, sometimes in Jersey, once even in New York. But no matter where they went, he always seemed to win.

Daddy knew how to sniff out a dollar and lined up his matches the way a pimp lines up johns, but after he was done with them, they felt like the whore. He liked that about Daddy. She was a woman in control. His wife, on the other hand, was completely helpless. Daddy didnt need him, and that’s what he needed. She pulled him away when he was up too high, stopped him from getting too drunk. She kept him straight, and he won because of it. But she didnt let him beat them, not like he wanted to. She was only interested in money, and when it ran out, so did they. But he still wanted something else. He wanted to leave them with nothing. He wanted the high score. It wasnt about the money. It was the knockout he wanted. That was when you knew. That was when you won.

***

They went into Philadelphia that weekend to the places where nobody knew his name. South Philadelphia could spot him whether he shaved or not, and the owners were pouring whiskey in anticipation of his arrival, but in West Philly, he could be anybody.

A guy by the name of Dwayne, a man with a heavy face and stubby legs who everyone knew as the best at Sparky’s on Spruce, greeted them warmly when they arrived. He kissed Daddy on the cheek and shook hands with Anthony. He played one of the newest games, one Anthony had never heard of, Asteroids, and it was quickly becoming the latest thing. Anthony was sure he could win. He just needed to learn it first.

What’s the matter? said Daddy. Do you want to play him or not?

Of course, said Anthony.

She tossed up the money.

Anthony watched Dwayne nervously, trying to pick up on the rules, what scored the most points and how, the patterns of the asteroids as they hurled towards the player’s ship, Dwayne’s technique, and most importantly, the controls.

He understood it on the most basic level, and soon it was his turn, and he cautiously popped in a quarter and hesitated before pressing start.

Youve never played this, said Daddy. Have you?

How would you know? asked Anthony.

I know, she said. And it took me fifty dollars to find out.

You werent yourself when you played. Your mind was empty save for the smoke. You didnt think. You didnt have the time. You reacted. And if it appeared that you had a plan, it wasnt something you came to consciously, even when you were doing it. It weaved itself into your hands and governed your every move. It controlled you, and you only served as a vessel for its expression.

Damn—he finished up a hundred points behind Dwayne.

Anthony turned to Daddy, but she was standing over by the Pong machine, talking to some goon whose jacket was three sizes too large. She twirled her hair and laughed without so much as a glance in his direction. He walked over and asked her for more cash.

You lost? she said.

Yeah, he said. I’m just getting warmed up.

Who are you hustling? Me or him?

Anthony nodded.

This is Mark by the way, she said. He’s new talent.

They introduced each other and shook hands, but when Anthony looked at Daddy, he raised a brow.

What? she said. This is business, Anthony. Now go win my money back.

They played again, but even though he got closer, he still lost.

Are you playing horseshoes? asked Daddy.

No, said Anthony.

So you lost.

Yeah.

Why should I give you any more money? That’s a hundred dollars, a hundred dollars of my money gone.

I’m gonna do it this time. Just gimme another hundred.

Looks like youve really got him on the ropes, said Mark.

Anthony inched closer and stared him down.

You ever have you jaw wired shut? he asked.

What? said Mark.

Unless you want to have every meal through a straw for the next six months, shut the fuck up.

Mark seemed to deflate at the sound of the words. He didnt push it any further and hung his head.

Fine, said Daddy. You want to lose, lose. What the hell do I care? It’s only my money.

She handed it over, and he walked away.

***

Dwayne counted out the money slowly, stripping away the bills from the stack as if peeling flesh. The first twenty‐five hundred was on the machine when he looked up in a daze. He took a drag from his cigarette and asked if he could pay the rest in installments.

Daddy shook her head, and he doled out the rest and collapsed in the nearest seat.

She gave Anthony his share, and Mark, the goon from earlier, was still stalking around, and she said the three of them would go back to the apartment together for a drink. Anthony, however, wasnt too keen on that idea. He loosened the collar of his shirt and told her he would drop by later. He’d take a cab back.

You sure you dont want to come with us? she said.

I need some air, he said. I just need some time to think.

Come back, Anthony.

Yeah, yeah.

The two of them scampered away, and Anthony went outside and lit a cigarette. He hadnt had a drink all night, and even though he wanted one, he didnt think it was right to have one now. He had never played Asteroids, didnt know it, but he had won. He had beat the best. He imagined just how good he could be. But that wasnt the game to do it. Space Invaders was the game. He still hadnt beaten it. It wasnt just his opponents that he needed to defeat; it was the game itself. He needed the high score. He needed to be at the top of the list. He turned around to go back inside, maybe he would try his luck on Space Invaders again, but when he did, he bumped into a familiar face. It was Tommy Falcone.

He gave Anthony a hug and a pat on the back and asked how he was doing.

You clean the fuck up tonight? he asked.

I did pretty good, said Anthony.

I destroyed those fucking mooleys, Ant. I’m telling you: Easy fucking money over here.

They got some good players.

They aint that fucking good—not like us.

No, I guess not.

There was a pause. Tommy smacked his own temple like he had forgot something.

What the fuck am I doing? he said. How could I fucking forget? Congratulations.

Congratulations? said Anthony.

Yeah, man. It’s great fucking news. I’ll have to buy us a couple of cigars and a bottle to celebrate it proper.

For what?

For what? What are you? Fucking being a fucking jerkoff? For the fucking baby you just had.

The baby—how could he miss it? What would he name it? Was it a boy? A girl? That was the kind of thing you didnt miss unless you died, and now, he began to feel as if he had. What the hell kind of father was he? He didnt know the answer, but if he did, he wouldnt have liked it anyhow. He didnt want kids in the first place. A child was a responsibility: It wasnt something you could toss off when you tired of it: It was real and cried and needed you for the rest of its life, and now he was stuck with it. But at the same time, he wanted it. His own son, his own little boy who he could raise, who could be the man he never was. There was still hope in this world, just not for him. But he was too ashamed to face it, and when Tommy called out to him as he walked away, the words fell dully on his ears and lost their meaning.

***

He had drunk most of a bottle of whiskey by the time he made it back to Daddy’s apartment and stood in the doorway and fumbled with his keys which were wet from sweat and liquor, but as he drove the key up to the hilt into the lock and the tumblers fell, he heard the faintest cry. He pushed the door open quickly and stumbled forward and moved through the darkness blindly, and the sound became more distinct and pronounced. It was definitely crying—or something like it. Someone was hurting her, and he readied himself for the coming fight.

When you threw a punch, it required your whole body. A lot of people made the mistake of throwing from the shoulder, but those were only jabs. You had to twist your whole side and push through to make it really hurt.

Light seeped out of the cracks of the bedroom door, but after he opened it, now bathed in the light, he discovered the truth. It wasnt pain or harm she was feeling: It was pleasure. She rolled off Mark and covered up and tried to explain that she wasnt the kind of girl you kept waiting. Anthony didnt bother to talk. He gazed at her in his drunken stupor and shook his head. She asked him to leave, and when he didnt, Mark hopped out of bed and stared down Anthony face‐to‐face. He got slammed in the jaw for his troubles and fell to the floor, and Anthony picked him back up and hit him again, and Daddy stood up and rushed over and commanded him to stop. He seemed like he was going to fall over at any minute.

Stop, goddamnit, she said. What the hell is the matter with you?

He looked at her and then at Mark. He answered with a fist to the goon’s face and caused blood to spill from his nose. He raised his arm again, and Daddy ran towards him, blocking his shot.

Stop! she said again. Goddamn, just stop. Isnt enough ever enough with you?

He tossed Mark to floor and left.

***

After he slept off the whiskey and night had fallen, he drove to Mickey’s because he couldnt go home and face his wife like this: He had to bring something back with him, either pride or money or both—maybe then she would understand.

That was thing when you all youve ever done stacked up to less than anthill, you had a hell of a time being any kind of man. You didnt have anything to make your family proud. They couldnt look at you and say, for an instant, you were the greatest there was at something. What kind of life was that? And his son, if it was a son, what would he think? You couldnt go around your whole life being a loser. You can’t raise a family and support a wife on losing, but he had tried. He tried when he boxed, when he took money to fall, when he fought without fighting. That was losing. He lost when he left his family, when he drank too much, when he played for Daddy. That was losing too. And now he was tired of losing.

When he walked in, everything was dead. Even though machines were all lit up and dinging, somehow, it was quiet like a church. Daddy was shuffling cards next to Mark, who shuttered with the closing of the door. She reached a hand across his chest to calm him, and Anthony brushed by them with little regard and approached Jimmy D’Angelo.

Jimmy, he said, Ive got fifteen‐hundred in my pocket. That’s my whole wad.

He put it up on the machine.

Five games, he continued, fifteen‐hundred. You win once, and I’m gone.

Jimmy looked to Daddy for an answer. She nodded. The kid agreed.

***

He didnt come here to lose. And he was proving it one game at a time. Every time they played, he got a little closer to the high score: thirty‐three, thirty‐four, thirty‐five. He only needed three‐thousand more to break it. This wasnt hustling. This was winning, and Jimmy didnt know how to take it. He was flustered, and it showed. He fired rapidly and wantonly, missing the easiest shots. But Anthony cut through them, made a hole in their numbers which he used to rack up points by shooting down the passing ships. Every so often he would turn and say: Daddy, you aint seen nothing yet.

And Jimmy would say: Dont talk. Play.

And Anthony would look over his shoulder and say: I am playing, Jimmy. When I die, you can play.

And now, thirty‐six, thirty‐seven, the high score was in reach and he had three lives in stock, but he kept playing even after he passed thirty‐eight, thirty‐nine, kept playing until he was finally spent at forty.

He did it.

He put in his initials, and Jimmy took his quarter off the machine.

That’s it, he said. I can’t beat you. I’m done.

Anthony collected the money from the old man with the green plastic visor and stuffed it into his pockets and put on his coat and got ready to leave.

Where are you going? asked Daddy.

I’m leaving, he said.

You think you can just walk out with my money?

What are you going to do about it? You gonna send Mark after me?

Mark twinged at the sound of his own name, and Anthony walked over toward them and craned his neck to seek out the goon, who hid his face behind Daddy.

I thought so, said Anthony.

Anthony lit up a cigarette.

You know something, he said. For a while there, I thought you were something special. That you really knew something about people. But you dont know shit. You know how to control them, know how to make them beg, but you dont know how to care for them, treat them with respect or kindness. Youve gotta own them.

He blew the smoke in her face.

But you can’t own me, he said. And that’s what bugs you, doesnt it?

He turned around to go but looked back one last time and added: And dont you think about sending anyone after me. Because if you think what I did to Mark was bad.…

He shook his head and finally left, and as he drove home to Philadelphia, he dreamed of the words he would say to his wife and the man he would be from now on.

About the Author

Vito Gulla

Vito Gulla’s fiction has previously appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Los AngelesPithead ChapelSubtopian, and Mulberry Fork Review. He holds an MFA from Wilkes University in creative writing. He teaches English and film at Delaware County Community College and resides outside Philadelphia. You can follow him on Twitter @vitogulla.

y648

ADVERTISEMENT

In This Issue

Fiction

Nonfiction

Follow Us

Follow us online at Twitter or Facebook, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed.