The arcade

The fact is, the tops of arcade machines get dusty, and someone has to clean them.

The first time I was assigned that duty, the summer of my fourteenth year while at my first job, I was momentarily stunned. Me? Climb on the chairs of the claw machines? Walk up the skeeball lane without slipping? I was so embarrassed, in that 14-year-old way.

But up there, crouching on top of the machines, I was afforded a whole new view. I could see the entire arcade, empty and gleaming. The machines were powered on; their songs were singing. Without the rush of the crowd, the arcade sounds were too loud, the colors too bright, the arcade too dark. My best friend was vacuuming; my sister was cleaning the doors and windows. Girls who would become close friends the next summer, when I wasn’t so shy, were wiping down counters and powering on lights. Outside it was sunny and bright, a perfect beach day, and I knew the shift would drag.

That was the summer Radiohead’s “Creep” played on the radio, and I would try to memorize the words while I was up there on those chairs, those ledges, dust flying. My first summer on my own, sort of. So I dusted and watched everyone else doing their morning chores. My rag turned grimy.

Mostly, from up there, I watched Billy. He was older. Even then I knew he wasn’t cute, but he was hot in that teenage boy way—all attitude and ego, all confidence none of us girls yet had. I didn’t like Billy, not really, but I knew I was supposed to—all the young girls did. Billy flirted with me, a lot. He stood closer than he needed to. Once, he grabbed my ass and I froze, hoping no one had seen. There were children around. Moms. Maybe even my mom.  

So that morning, dusting the machines, singing along to “Creep” and trying to block out the machine songs, I saw Billy come in—late—and disappear behind the office door, smirking. The skeeball and claw machines always got stuck, so certain staffers had keys to unstick them, and Billy would twirl those keys around and around, his other hand nestled in his coin apron. When he came back out to the floor, twirling those keys, he caught me looking and winked. I wanted to throw up.

Listen, he had spiky blond hair and this was the 90s, and my best friend was talking about sleeping with him, and I watched "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" a lot, and I hated that I knew what he was thinking every time he talked to me, or to any of us. I hated that wink.


I don’t think Billy came back that next summer, or if he did, I don’t remember seeing him.