Beatty’s gas station was located next to the First National Bank in the heart of Three Springs. Deb Smith sat on black wooden bench inside the air-conditioned store and smoked Marlboro cigarettes until it was time for her late night shift at a sowing factory to begin. Her shaven white legs, although slightly jaggy to the touch, rested as if on lazy-boy recliner. Deb’s freckled arm moved slowly up and down as a cold soda bottle chilled her skinny lips. Her freshly painted fingernails dripped with dew from Mountain Dew.
The view from that black wooden bench was the best in town. By glaring out a large, glass window, Deb watched every car come and go; of course there was not much traffic in the little town, so keeping an eye on traffic was like baby sitting a kid that slept all day.
At the intersection outside that big window there was one flashing traffic light that coordinative all movement through Three Springs. It blinked red on one side, and flashed yellow on the other, throwing caution to all traffic coming into town from the town of Waterfall.
Deb sat there like a cat all afternoon, just watching cars come and go into the gas station—it was the perfect location to see and be seen by everyone, unlike Deb’s back yard on the outskirts of town where she often sat in a lawn chair woven from synthetic, nylon straps, from which she read thick romance novels under the sun. I could see Deb from my own back yard and often passed her sitting on that chair on my way to play with her son Chris.
“What’s that stuff you are putting on your skin?” I asked, “You are getting really dark.”
“Well, hello, Charlie Taylor,” she said looking up from the book with a nearly naked muscular man on the cover. Deb always greeting me using my full name, “This is a mixture of egg yolks, baby oil and melted butter—it makes a tan last longer,” she explained.
I robbed the junk drawer inside our trailer every morning before heading out the door and over to Chris and Deb’s trailer. Often, my stepfather, while emptying his pockets of ‘junk’ tossed in his unwanted pennies inside the drawer. There were always enough pennies for me to get a mouthful of gumballs sold at the gas station where Deb hung out in and where her son played video games until it was time for the pool to open.
It took an entire quarter to play the popular video games that Chris and almost all the other kids in town were addicted too. Only the quarters that I found at the bottom of the Three Springs pool gave me access to these new technical machines, and I would much rather buy a can of snuff than waste money on a machine that really did not offer anything, other than a few moments of thrills that ended with a sad “Game Over”.
No one was better than Chris Smith on Ms. Pacman—he got the highest score every week. Old man Beatty offered $5 prizes every Friday night to the kid who made the highest score on any of his pinball machines or newer video games.
Randy Marlin, also from a single child household like Chris Smith, had handfuls of quarters to spend on those machines. One Friday afternoon, Chris topped Randy’s high score on Ms. PacMan. Old man Beatty came through a door from behind the cash register counter with a piece of white cardboard—the back side of an empty cigarette carton, and wrote “Chris Smith—160,000’ and hung the card above the video game that Randy Marlin had “dominated” with the high score and little billboard since Monday morning. Randy was angry. He dropped another quarter into the machine and his skinny hand rotated the red joystick like a paintbrush—
“You’re mother’s a fucking whore,” Randy Marlin noted to Chris, rubbing his sweaty hands on his jeans. “Your mother hangs out here all day, picking up any man who she thinks might marry her and feed you. No wonder you can play so fucking good. You have no home to go to, but this dirty old gas station.”
Chris Smith, who had just got a curly perm in his long brown hair giggled at Randy’s comment and replied, “Well at least my dad ain’t a drunk like some people’s. My dad is a photographer for the ‘Daily News’. If ya don’t believe me, go right out there and look at today’s paper. His name is on the front page again,” Chris gave Randy the middle finger as Randy pretended not to see; his skinny white hand rotating that stick a mile a minute.
Chris, plucking his new curls with a pick that “black people used”, turned to me and asked– “Hey Charlie, you want a pop before we go to the pool?”
I knew what Chris was talking about when he offered me a soda—it was not a pop from Beatty’s, that I knew. Chris would never give away a quarter for a soda when he could use it to play Ms Pac Man instead. Chris learned a new trick outside of the video game screen. He could steal cans of soda from a pop machine in front of the Three Springs Fire Hall.
Chris could reach his hand inside the machine, somehow without getting cut, and pull out cans of soda—mostly the brand Mello Yello, because, Chris explained, it was closest to the chute where he could reach over a cold metal bar down into. Chris pulled the beach towel he had around his neck over his head as we walked back outside, under the hot sun.
“I’ll see you in the morning, Mom,” Chris shouted as we left Beatty’s.
Randy never came to the pool with Chris and I, or the rest of the little league team for that matter. It was a well- known fact that although Randy could play second base better than anyone, he could not swim or go under water without holding his nose. He played video games all day instead—just he and Deb Smith inside that cool store as the daylight hours passed.
Every time Randy Marlin, who was no fish, ran back to the store counter for more quarters, there she was—Deb Smith with her feet up, drinking another orange or grape soda, just staring out that window as if the world itself was a video game. It made him sick, in a way, the way she was, not a good housewife like his own mother. Randy hated swimming, and more than that, he hated the fact that Deb, Chris’s mom, hung out at Beatty’s with him all day.
“Hey, there, Randy Marlin,” Deb said. “You were good in the little league game yesterday. I saw you hit that double.”
“I’ve been having trouble with my wrist, that’s why it wasn’t a homer,” Randy explained, holding up his skinny arm to show off a new pair of sweatbands he was wearing.
On hot afternoons with the rest of his friends and team at the pool, Randy stayed inside that air conditioned, windowless arcade, wiping his head with those sweat bands, and permitting his mind to roam within the graphics of the fancy new game in town—his pencils and brushes were now somewhere in a box under his bed. HIs creativity had been re-focused due to technology. He was now obsessed on topping a new high score, one that would last even after the machine was unplugged at night.
Deb just waited there, watching out that window for a car to come down the hill and pass through the intersection with the flashing yellow light—Ms Pac Man she was, in a way, at least according to Randy Marlin.