Most of the high-schoolers and college kids who frequent Palace Park Amusements here in Irvine don't know the debt that they owe the late Jules Butler. They'd idly pop hundreds of tokens into Dance Dance Revolution or The Mine Cart Game without pausing to consider, even for a moment, the mechanical and electrical genius who kept them running smoothly in the decade since this facility was built. That man was Jules Butler.
It was almost ritual. Friday mornings I'll dial up his warehouse and we'd banter for a bit about what's hot and what's selling. He'd no doubt tell me about his latest score -- a mint Dig-Dug one week, a fixer-upper Twilight Zone pinball game the next. Then we'd get down to business, and I'd tell him which machines he needed to stop by and fix. That afternoon he'd show up in his battered green pickup truck, steal a handicapped spot, and stroll in with a box of tools and replacement parts. He was lanky and wore a long-sleeved work shirt that was two sizes too big and covered with dust and greasy thumbprints. His hair was clean but uncombed, his beard in different stages of development each time he came in. But the dude could find circuit boards for machines that had been out of circulation for 20 years. He was a God.
And every Friday evening, just as the crowds started to thicken, he'd step up to Elise. "Elise" was what he called our upright Pole Position II game. Mind you, we have like 36 racing games scattered throughout the Arcade, all the latest ones, but he had a thing for Elise. He'd play one game a week, always struggling to top the world record of 75,000 points on the Fuji track. After a couple of laps he'd always get a little crowd watching over his shoulder -- it was quite a show. "C'mon, Elise," he'd coo to his honey, swerving around a corner. "Oh baby you LIKE THAT!?" he'd yell, slamming his way between two cars, pounding the shifter into high. Then -- inexplicably -- it would all go wrong. He'd smack into another car, exploding in a pixellated cloud of debris. Or he'd swerve a little too far and go off the road at an important curve, losing valuable seconds as he downshifted and raced to catch up. He'd cry expletives; he'd call Elise a slut or a whore. But she always had her way, and he was lucky to break 70K.
"I will not rest!" he cried out. "Until I have bested Elise!"
...and then he would leave. It was funny. In the years I've worked at Palace Park -- first as a token boy and now as a manager -- I've seen hundreds of games come and go. And I've seen them all break down. Except for Elise. Week after week Elise was there, waiting for her man, without fail.
Until last week. I remember it clearly, and with that uncertain sense -- you know -- when you know that something happened but it still feels like you remember it from a dream. It was Thursday night. It was a half an hour past closing time -- 10:30, about. I was in my office on the second floor making all the notes that I was going to give to Jules the next morning. Notes about which machines to fix before our busy weekend. I hadn't powered the place down yet and the whole floor was lit by the eerie green and blue flashing glows of a hundred electronic amusements. And suddenly there was a screech, and my head shot up. It sounded like a human scream, but then I recognized it as the squeal of electronic tires.
From where I sit upstairs I can't actually see the game floor, so I swiveled out of my chair and walked downstairs. Elise was in the far corner, but I could hear her wailing -- she made the high-pitched rumbling noise that the game makes when you pass another car, then made a stuttering explosion sound that grew awfully loud and made her speakers crack. When she came into view I could see her screen cluttered with random characters and colors. She started to play the "game over" music but it skipped frantically and then ended with a shrill burst of static that finally marked the end of her. The screen froze completely and fell silent. After all these years she'd finally broken. I powered her down and added the sad sad phrase to my notes for the next morning: "Elise dead."
The next day the phone rang and rang at Jules' warehouse. Normally he picks up right away. Hell, he knows to expect me -- normally I hear his chipper voice chime in: "What'd you break this week Dan?" before I even got to identify myself. But instead his assistant answered. "Hey, can you hook me up with Jules?" I asked. There was a silence on the end of the line, a silence just long enough for me to realize something was wrong.
"We're kinda shaken up here," his assistant said, trying to find the words. "Jules was killed last night ... car accident. Just found out."
The color drained from my face. I opened my mouth and condolences should have poured out; instead I couldn't stop myself from asking. "...what time did he die?"
"Cops said 10:30."
I don't remember hanging up, just staring at the reciever on the hook for minutes on end. I felt cold and prickly all along my arms. It had to have been coincidence -- I mean, you hear stories like that all the time, but ... c'mon, it was an old arcade machine. It was long overdue for a breakdown. It shouldn't have freaked me out. Those old arcades are always busting.
I hung an out-of-order sign on Elise, cleaned out the token bin, and taped shut the token slots. No telling when I'll find someone to replace Jules. That day I was silent as I ran the place. It was your typical Friday night. But those kids walked right past Elise without even looking. Nobody asked where Jules was. They didn't know. They didn't care.
Maybe that's why I decided to try to fix her. I don't know. It was 1:00 AM (we stay open later on weekends). Everyone had cleared out and I just stared at her. I felt like I was being watched. Now, friend, I gotta admit I don't know dick about these machines -- I just play 'em and clean out the money afterwards. But I couldn't help myself. I walked up to Elise and shifted her away from the wall.
I opened the back and peered inside with a mini mag-light. It smelled old and decrepit in there, musty like a tomb. Dust had settled thickly in every crevice. I blew and then had to close my eyes as the dust cloud erupted from the innards. Sometimes with these old machines, Jules had explained to me, the boards just shift out of place or an important contact gets covered with crud. I carefully pulled the main board out of its socket and looked it over. It was like a foot and a half long and covered with chips -- hard to believe that that bulky hardware was only a tiny fraction of today's computer power. I blew on the contacts (sometimes I saw Jules cleaning them with alcohol) and then plugged the board back into place. It was worth a shot at least. I powered Elise back up and she hummed as the monitor turned on. The attract mode started up; Elise was working!
Puffed up with pride, I pushed her gently back into place and headed upstairs to count the day's cash. I guess a half an hour had gone by when I heard the noise. In my excitement over fixing Elise I'd forgotten to power everything down. I rolled out of my seat and was about to head downstairs when I realized what the noise was. Beep ... beep ... beeeee! It was the noise of the race starting in Pole Position II. I froze in my tracks, right there on the stairway. Starting with my tailbone a quivery frozen sensation crept up the length of my spine. It was almost 2 AM, the doors had been bolted shut for over an hour and the alarm would've gone off had anyone come into the building. I steadied myself with hands on either side of the stairwell, and strained to listen. The roar of an electronic car motor. Low gear, then high. Squeal of tires around a curve. Someone was driving.
There was a simple explanation -- I mean, Elise was on the fritz. My mucking around inside was no permanent fix. She probably registered a credit and was idly driving. Maybe I trigged off a DIP switch and she was playing sounds in her attract mode. That was it. That was it for sure. But I just couldn't will myself down those steps. My legs grew numb and I realized I had been tensing them. My arms felt rubbery and detached from my body. Something was very very wrong. And Elise, she kept driving. One lap. Then another.
Finally I somehow willed myself to step down into the Arcade. All around me the screens were flashing, blinking their colors in every direction. The room was dark but for their glow, the black fingers of individual machines towering up like tombstones amid the blue haze of a hundred monitors. I desperately wanted to cut the power and simply make it stop, but I knew that the main switch was in the corner behind Elise and ... and I was terrified to go near her.
Tires squealed. Cars hummed as she shot past them.
I moved slowly, partly from fear and possibly so as not to be heard. The roar of an engine suddenly stopped and victory music began to play. I rounded a bank of machines and saw her in the corner, her screen aglow. The race was won. That wouldn't happen in attract mode; I closed my eyes and tried to wipe my brow -- it felt like I was sweating yet my skin was cold to the touch. Elise fell silent again.
I crept toward her, slowly, slowly. I didn't take my eyes off of her screen. "Pole Position II" it said. "1 coin 1 credit" it said. Soon I was standing in front of her, my face lit by the pale blue and brown of her monitor. Then the record times for the Fuji map came up.
Jules' initials were at the top of the list, next to a 75,000 point score.