I was eleven when a new strip mall opened on Laurel Canyon and Roscoe. There was a Mervyn’s, a 31 Flavors, a supermarket, a Filipino restaurant, a hallmark store and a Chuck E. Cheese. I think that was the first Chuck E. Cheese in the valley. Daddy called me when he discovered it. He was very excited, like he’d invented the idea of combining pizza, video games, robotic rats and beer a long time ago and someone else had finally made it happen.
One night we ordered pepperoni pizza and then Daddy bought me ten dollars worth of tokens for the games. While we were waiting for our food we played skeeball. Daddy made trick shots, banking the wooden ball against the side of the alley to get it in the forty or fifty point hole every time. I was okay but I usually only got it in the ten point hole. Daddy played so well that by the time our pizza was ready he had already won enough tickets for me to trade in for something good like a small stuffed animal. I only ever won enough to get an 8oz chuck e cheese drinking glass or glow in the dark vampire teeth. The little metal slot under Daddy’s skeeball lane had already spit out a strip of red tickets long enough to make some little kids stop and stare. I grabbed those tickets and tore them off at the base, folded them and put them in my jeans pocket to save for later. We decided to keep our tickets until we had enough to trade in for a really big stuffed animal. I had my eye on a sitting white lion with clear blue plastic eyes and a black nose whose head almost reached my chest.
After we ate I went back into the arcade and Daddy went into the room with the big screen TV to drink red wine and watch sports. That room had the biggest TV I had ever seen. In my memory it takes up the entire rear wall of the restaurant and the football players are life-size.
First I played Centipede. I kept the shooting button pressed down continuously so as the fluorescent yellow or green or red centipede made its way back and forth and down the screen I just had to manipulate the trackball. I liked the sharp little sound the bullets made as they hit the insect and separated its body into segments. There were different electronic tunes that would signal an occasional spider, flea or scorpion. All the insects would kill you if you didn’t kill or evade them first. Sometimes you could trap a centipede between two mushrooms and destroy all of its segments in a matter of a few satisfying seconds of rapid firing. Centipede was like a warm-up for Zaxxon, a newer game which I played like an expert. Zaxxon was one of the first 3D arcade video games and the object was to shoot everything in sight from your plane as you flew forward in a floating fortress, rising up and swooping down in order to avoid walls and laser barriers. When you reached the end of the fortress you were in open space and you had to destroy a fleet of enemy fighters. Then you were back to flying through a different, trickier fortress. After making several passes you fought a final boss – a giant robot who fired missiles. I was a natural at Zaxxon and I had learned to finish the whole game. I knew one of the secrets: shoot at every transparent laser barrier—your bullet’s impact will show you exactly where the barrier begins and ends.
I played Zaxxon for another hour. I got one of the high scores and put my initials in. I watched the other moms and dads come and tell their kids it was getting late, time to go home. I could stay as long as I wanted. Daddy would keep on drinking and sitting in that TV room until I told him I wanted to go home. When I was tired of the game I went back into the dark room and stood next to his table.
“Hey ali pali,” he said.
“We should go home,” I said, “they’re going to close soon.”
“Let’s just rest here for a little while,” he said.
I waited. He was watching highlights of a football game and finishing a glass of wine. As the clip changed to a commercial he turned to me.
“You can never be a cheerleader, Allison,” he said. His gaze was unfocused.
“Why not?” I asked. I had no intentions of becoming a cheerleader and I kind of knew this answer already but I didn’t like to be told what to do.
“Cheerleaders are sexual objects,” he said flatly.
“They are like dancers or gymnasts,” I argued.
“No,” he said, “they are just for sex. Men look at them and want them. They are wearing short skirts. It’s dangerous.”
I wouldn’t win this argument; my father had ten years’ worth of playboys under his bed.
“We should get going,” I said.
He got up, a little unsteady on his feet. He complained he had a stomachache. I thought it was probably the red wine. Usually at Chuck E Cheese he got a pitcher of beer. At home he drank vodka and told me it was water.
As we pulled out of the strip mall parking lot Daddy started talking again. His voice sounded low and crackly, like he was straining his throat muscles to speak. We turned right onto Laurel Canyon. The car was moving very slowly.
“Someday I might have someone, a woman in my life, Alli,” he said. “I’m an adult and your mother is not here. Your mother was interested in other men. You have to understand if I go out with another woman.”
He waited. I didn’t say anything.
“Okay,” I said and stared out the window. I studied the signs we passed: Liquor, Wine, Beer; $1 Chinese Food; Chevron; Rocky’s Raquetball; Bob’s Big Boy.
“Because I am a man and I still need some things from a woman. I might go out to dinner with someone. A lady. I’ll still love you more than anyone else.” He paused again and I felt like he was waiting for some response from me.
“Mm hmm,” I said.
“No one will ever replace you Alli, you know that. I couldn’t live without you. You are everything to me.” He stopped talking for a couple of minutes. I was watching the light bulbs around the sign for Al’s Alibi. They were timed so that it looked like one light was racing around the perimeter of the sign. But one bulb was broken, right above the apostrophe. This had the effect of making the racing bulb pause for a second, like it needed a rest.
“You need to be careful, Allison.”
I finally looked at him. His eyes were on the road, his head was tilted a little to the side.
“Okay,” I said.
“You need to be careful, Allison,” he said again, “there are bad guys, boys, they will want things from you and they will try to persuade you. You should not ever be with boys. It’s not safe for you.”
I felt a familiar nausea rising up inside me and a lump forming in my throat.
We pulled into the driveway and as soon as he put on the parking brake I opened my door and got out of the car.
“Hold on Allison,” he said while he got out of his side, slowly. I waited.
“You know I love you Alli?”
“You know you are everything? I love you more than anyone. I can’t live without you.”
“I know, Daddy.” I didn’t want him to see that I was upset. I wiped a tear from the corner of my eye because I didn’t know what would happen if he saw me crying. He would either sink into self-hatred so horrifying it would make me guilty for weeks or he would become so attentive I would become desperate for escape.
Daddy opened all the locks on the front door and we went into the darkened house.
“What do you want to do? Watch TV? Play Atari?” We had a new big screen TV and a smaller TV that was used only for Atari.
He turned on the TV and reached into the console and changed the channels until I found something I liked. It was “Love Boat.” I knew after “Love Boat” there was “Fantasy Island.” “Love Boat” was funny but the show I really liked was “Fantasy Island.” When Daddy stayed up to watch with me he would imitate Tattoo saying “The plane, boss, the plane!” I would say “Smiles everyone, smiles,” just like Mr. Roarke. I desperately wanted to spend a vacation on a tropical island with Mr. Roarke and Tattoo. I heeded the barely-hidden message in every fantasy – be careful what you wish for – and I didn’t want to be one of the regular guests. I wanted to be a host. I wanted the satisfaction of showing people that appearances can be deceiving. I thought I would be a kind and gentle host and when I wasn’t helping my guests realize the true value of their lives I could just run around in the bamboo and swim in the ocean. I wasn’t allowed to change the channels myself because the set was new and tricky and Daddy thought I might reach in and get an electric shock. I would be fine if he fell asleep. I had programming for two hours.
The next morning it was difficult for me to wake Daddy up. When he finally sat up in his bed, clearing his throat and rubbing his forehead, he said he wanted to go out for breakfast. We went into the bathroom to get ready and I started crying while we were brushing our teeth. He brought me back into the living room. Sitting down next to me, he put his arms around me.
“What is it, Alli?”
I leaned into his white tee-shirt and took some deep breaths.
“You were different last night,” I said. I sniffed, swallowed, rubbed my knuckles in my eyes.
“What do you mean?” Daddy looked down at me. His eyes looked sad and old.
“Daddy please don’t drink red wine,” I said. “You acted funny and I didn’t understand what you were talking about on the way home.” I started crying again but I kept it under control, swallowing air whenever I felt a sob rising up.
“Okay Alli, okay.” I knew he didn’t know why he was agreeing to this. I knew he probably didn’t remember our conversation. But he hated it when I was sad. It tore him apart.
“Allison, please stop crying. I won’t drink red wine anymore. I’m sorry.”
“Promise,” I said. I knew he couldn’t keep a promise not to drink anymore. But he didn’t get the same way when he was drinking beer or vodka. He hugged me and held me close to him for a long time. He still smelled like wine but now it was mixed with sweat and sleep and toothpaste.
“I promise, Alli,” he said. “I don’t want to make you cry.”