Iowa Writes

JOSHUA UNIKEL
Funhouse


      The best pinball in Pittsburgh was in his basement arcade. It was a wood-paneled room that Harold, our father, filled six or seven pinball machines. Classic games like Eight Ball Deluxe and newer ones, like Silver Ball Mania. But our favorite game was Funhouse, an amusement park-themed machine with a ventriloquist head named Rudy toward the top of the playing field. Rudy watched the ball roll around the game with his royal blue eyes, side-slicked brown hair, and freckles. When you put a quarter into Funhouse, Rudy welcomed you with his wise-guy voice. He said, "Come on in!"
      Harold was half the fun of playing Funhouse or any other game in his basement. My brother and I forgot about the supervisor who was always watching somewhere nearby. We forgot about our sister who wasn't allowed to be there with us. When we watched him play pinball, we forgot about the afternoons in court and the way we could only see him on certain days for certain amounts of time. All we could see was the way he towered over us. The way his massive, bony hands hesitated then hit flipper buttons with forceful, quick slaps. His muscular forearms and lean frame. Pine needle green eyes. The way his frizzy red hair shifted as he nudged the machine, glanced at neon orange numbers mounting into millions, hundreds of millions on the scoreboard while he powered into the machine.

      The best pinball in Pittsburgh was in his basement arcade. It was a wood-paneled room that Harold, our father, filled six or seven pinball machines. Classic games like Eight Ball Deluxe and newer ones, like Silver Ball Mania. But our favorite game was Funhouse, an amusement park-themed machine with a ventriloquist head named Rudy toward the top of the playing field. Rudy watched the ball roll around the game with his royal blue eyes, side-slicked brown hair, and freckles. When you put a quarter into Funhouse, Rudy welcomed you with his wise-guy voice. He said, "Come on in!"
      Harold was half the fun of playing Funhouse or any other game in his basement. My brother and I forgot about the supervisor who was always watching somewhere nearby. We forgot about our sister who wasn't allowed to be there with us. When we watched him play pinball, we forgot about the afternoons in court and the way we could only see him on certain days for certain amounts of time. All we could see was the way he towered over us. The way his massive, bony hands hesitated then hit flipper buttons with forceful, quick slaps. His muscular forearms and lean frame. Pine needle green eyes. The way his frizzy red hair shifted as he nudged the machine, glanced at neon orange numbers mounting into millions, hundreds of millions on the scoreboard while he powered into the machine.


      Mom was the one who told us what happened to our sister, Emily. She called my brother, Daniel, and I down to her room. We sat on the foot of her bed. Emily, our sister, was sitting on the far side of the bed, staring at nothing through her pink plastic glasses. Daniel immediately apologized for whatever we'd done to Emily. I agreed. Mom told us that we hadn't done anything. She told us that Harold had. He had touched Emily while we were staying over at his apartment. Daniel and I wept and didn't understand while Mom held us and apologized.


      When you started racking up points on Funhouse, Rudy squawked, "I thought we were friends!" Or, if you fired the silver ball into his wooden lower lip, Rudy said, "Hey! That's not funny, bub." Or he said, "You're making me very angry!" He told you that you'd never win the game, you'd never make the midnight chimes sound on the clock at the center of the game.


      When Daniel was sixteen, he told our mom that it happened to him too. He remembered two times clearly that Harold touched him. After Mom told me, I went down to Daniel's room, and even though he was sleeping through another afternoon, I asked him if I could come in. I told him that it was important, it was about Harold. But when he said okay, all I could do was cry and sit next to him on the bed, hug him at the chest and tell him that I was so sorry. I was so sorry. I was too little to know what was happening to help, too little to help him.


      The Funhouse clock that had lights for each hour, lit at one o'clock at first, then—if you could ignore Rudy and hit all the right bumpers and make all the right ramps—you could advance the lights to two o'clock, to three, to five, to nine, to all the way around. If you could make it to midnight, the lights went out. Rudy squawked, his eyes fluttered and fell shut. He yawned and let his mouth fall open. He started to snore and with his mouth open, you could fire a silver ball right down his ugly little throat.


      Now, it's been over a decade since I've had any contact with Harold, and it's been almost as long since I played pinball. After he started seeing my brother and I less and less, it became clearer that he didn't care about us so much. At least not as much as the time he could spend in arcades while we were there with him.
      And for almost a decade, I had trouble looking at a pinball machines or even hearing the clatter of them in the background of bar. Even now when I see one, now that I can play them again, I have trouble not thinking about him. Not about Harold now but how he was then, before we faced him for what he was.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


JOSHUA UNIKEL

Joshua Unikel is an MFA candidate and Iowa Arts Fellow in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. He also serves as the assistant editor of the Seneca Review. His work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from TriQuarterly Online, The Normal School, kill author, and Essays & Fictions.

This page was first displayed
on April 29, 2011

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