Pinball, 1973


Translated by Alfred Birnbaum


I used to love listening to stories about faraway places. It was almost pathological.

There was a time, a good ten years ago now, when I went around latching onto one person after another, asking them to tell me about the places where they were born and grew up. Times were short of people willing to lend a sympathetic ear, it seemed, so anyone and everyone opened up to me, obligingly and emphatically telling all. People I didn’t even know somehow got word of me and sought me out.

It was as if they were tossing rocks down a dry well: they’d spill all kinds of different stories my way, and when they’d finished, they’d go home pretty much satisfied. Some would talk contentedly; some would work up quite an anger getting it out. Some would put things well, but just as often others would come along with stories I couldn’t make head nor tail of from beginning to end. There were boring stories, pathetic tear-jerkers, jumbles of half-nonsense. Even so, I’d hold out as long as I could and give a serious listen.

Everyone had something they were dying to tell somebody or shout to the whole world –who knows why? I always felt as if I’d been handed a cardboard box crammed full of monkeys. I’d take the monkeys out of the box one at a time, carefully brush off the dust, give them a pat on the bottom, and send them scurrying off into the fields. I never knew where they went from there. They probably ended their days nibbling acorns somewhere. But that, after all, was their fate.

That was the thing about it. There was so little return on all the effort involved. Thinking back on it now, I’ll bet if there had been a World’s Most Earnest Listener contest that year, I’d have won hands down. And I’d probably have won a box of kitchen matches.

Among the people who talked to me were a guy from Saturn and another from Venus, one each. Their stories really got to me. First, the one about Saturn.

“Out there, it’s . . . awful cold,” he groaned. “Just thinking about it, g-gives me the willies.”

He belonged to a political group that had staged a take-over of Building 9 in the university. Their motto was “Action Determines Ideology – Not the Reverse!” No one would tell him what determined action. No matter, Building 9 had a water cooler, a telephone, and boiler facilities; and upstairs they had a nice little music lounge complete with Altec A-5 speakers and a collection of two thousand records. It was paradise (compared to, say, Building 8, which smelled like a racetrack restroom). Every morning they’d shave themselves neat and clean with all the hot water they wanted, in the afternoon they’d make as many long-distance calls as they felt like, and when the sun went down they’d all get together and listen to records. By the end of autumn, every member had become a classical music fanatic.

Then one beautifully clear November afternoon, riot police forced their way into Building 9 while Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico was blaring away full blast. I don’t know how true all this is, but it remains one of the more heartwarming stories of 1969.

When I snuck past their “barricade” of stacked-up benches, Haydn’s Piano Sonata in G Minor was playing softly. The atmosphere was as homey and inviting as a path along a bluff blooming with sansanquas bushes leading toward a girlfriend’s house. The guy from Saturn offered me the best chair in the place, and poured lukewarm beer into beakers lifted from the science building.

“On top of that, the gravity is tremendous,” he went on about Saturn. “There’ve been chumps who broke their instep spitting out a wad of gum. A r-real hell!”

“Well, I guess so,” I prompted after a couple of seconds. By this time, I had command of nearly three hundred or so different small-talk phrases to throw in during awkward pauses.

“The sun’s so small, too. J-just one of those things. Take me–as soon as I get out of school I’m going back to Saturn. And I’ll start a gr-great nation. A r~rev~revolution!”

In any case, suffice it to say I enjoyed hearing about faraway places. I had stocked up a whole store of these places, like a bear getting ready for hibernation. I’d close my eyes, and streets would materialize, rows of houses take shape. I could hear people’s voices, feel the gentle, steady rhythm of their lives, those people so distant, whom I’d probably never know.

* * *

Naoko often spoke to me about these things. And I remember her every word.

“I really don’t know how to put it.” Naoko forced a smile, sitting in the sunlit university lounge, elbow on the table and cheek propped up on her palm. I waited patiently for her to continue. As always, she took her time, searching for just the right words.

We sat, red plastic tabletop between us on which a paper cup spilled over with cigarette butts. A high window let in a shaft of sunlight straight out of a Rubens painting, splitting the table down the middle into light and dark. My right hand rested on the table in light, the left in shadow.

The spring of 1969, you see, we were in our early twenties. And what with all the freshmen sporting brand-new shoes, carrying brand-new course descriptions, heads packed with brand-new brains, there was hardly room to walk in the lounge. On both sides of us, freshmen were perpetually bumping into one another, exchanging insults or greetings.

“I tell you, the town is really nothing to speak of,” she resumed. “There’s a straight stretch of track, and a station. A pitiful little station that the trainmen could easily miss on a rainy day.”

I nodded. Then for a full thirty seconds the two of us gazed absently at the cigarette smoke curling up through the beam of light.

“A dog’ll be walking from one end of the platform to the other. You know the kind of station.”

I nodded.

“Right out in front of the station there’s a bus stop and a circular drive so cars can pick up and drop off passengers. And some shops . . . real sleepy little shops. Straight ahead, you run into a park. A park with a slide and three swings.”

“And a sandbox?”

“A sandbox?” She thought for a moment, then nodded in confirmation. “It’s got one.

Once more we fell silent. I carefully put out the stub of my cigarette in the paper cup.

“A terribly boring town. I can’t imagine what possible purpose there could have been for making such a dull place.”

“God works in wondrous ways,” I quipped.

Naoko shook her head and smiled to herself. It was a sort of straight-A coed smile, but it lingered in my mind an oddly long time. Long after she’d gone, her smile remained, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. And it occurred to me how much I wanted to see that dog pacing the length of the station platform.

* * *

Four years later, in May of 1973, I visited the station alone. Just to see that dog. I shaved for the occasion, put on a tie for the first time in six months, and brought out my Cordovan shoes.

* * *

Stepping down from the sorry two-car local train that seemed ready to rust up any minute, the very first thing to hit me was the familiar smell of open grassy spaces. The smell of picnics way back when. Nostalgic things, all blown my way on the May breeze. I cocked my head and strained to listen, and I could make out the twittering of sparrows.

Letting out a long yawn, I sat down on a station bench and dejectedly smoked a cigarette. That invigorating feeling I’d left the apartment with in the morning had utterly vanished. Nothing but more of the same, over and over. Or so it seemed. An endless deja vu, growing worse at every turn.

There had been a time when friends and I used to fall asleep sprawled out any which way on the floor together. At dawn, someone would invariably step on my head. Then it would be “Oops, sorry,” followed by that same someone taking a leak. More of the same, over and over again.

I loosened my tie and, cigarette dangling from the corner of my mouth, I scraped the soles of the not-quite-broken-in shoes on the platform. To lessen the pain in my feet. Not that the pain was all that bad, but it gave me the uneasy feeling that my body was somehow broken into bits and pieces.

No sign of any dog.

* * *

An uneasy feeling ...

This uneasiness comes over me from time to time, and I feel as if I’ve somehow been pieced together from two different puzzles. Whatever it is, at times like these I toss down a whiskey and hit the sack. And when I get up in the morning, things are even worse. More of the same, one more time around.

One time when I woke up, I found myself flanked by twin girls. Now things like this had happened to me many times before, but I had to admit a twin to each side was a first. The both of them sleeping away, noses nestled snugly into my shoulders. It was a bright, clear Sunday morning.

Finally, they both woke up–almost simultaneously–and proceeded to worm into the shirts and jeans they’d tossed under the bed. Without so much as a word, they went into the kitchen, made toast and coffee, got butter from the fridge, and laid it all out on the table. They knew what they were doing. Outside the window, birds, which I couldn’t identify either, perched on the chainlink fence of the golf course and chattered away rapid fire.

“Your names?” I asked them. I had a nasty hangover.

“They’re not much as names,” said the one seated on the right.

“Really, nothing special as names go,” said the one on the left. “You know how it is.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said.

So we sat facing each other across the table, munching toast and drinking coffee. The coffee was good.

“Does it bother you, us not having names?” one of them asked.

“Hmm ... what d’you think?”

The two of them gave it some thought.

“Well, if you simply must have names for us, choose something that seems to fit,” proposed the other.

“Call us whatever you like.”

The girls always took turns speaking. It was like an FM stereo check, and made my head even worse.

“For instance?” I asked.

“Left and Right,” said one.

“Vertical and Horizontal,” said the other.

“Up and Down.”

“Front and Back.”

“East and West.”

“Entrance and Exit,” I managed to get in, not to be outdone. The two of them looked at each other and laughed contentedly.

* * *

Where there’s an entrance, there’s got to be an exit. Most things work that way. Public mailboxes, vacuum cleaners, zoos, plastic condiment squeeze bottles. Of course, there are things that don’t. For example, mousetraps.

* * *

I once set a mousetrap under my apartment sink. I used peppermint gum for bait. After scouring the entire apartment, that was the only thing approaching food I could find. I found it in the pocket of my winter coat, along with a movie ticket stub.

By the third morning, a tiny mouse had flirted with fate. Still very young, the mouse was the color of those cashmere sweaters you see piled up in London duty-free shops. It was maybe fifteen or sixteen in human years. A tender age. A bitten-off piece of gum lay under its paws.

I had no idea what to do with the thing now that I’d caught it. Hind leg still pinned under the spring wire, the mouse died on the fourth morning. Seeing it lying there taught me a lesson. Everything needs an entrance and exit. That’s about the size of it.

* * *

Skirting the hills, the tracks ran so straight they seemed ruled. Far ahead you could see woods, like little wads of dull green paper. The rails glinted in the sun, merging into the green distance. No matter how far you went, the same scenery would go on forever. A depressing thought if there ever was one. Give me a subway any day.

I finished my cigarette, then stretched a bit, looking up at the sky. It had been a long time since I’d really looked at the sky. Or rather, it had been a long time since I’d tried to take a good look at anything.

Not a cloud in the sky. Moreover, the whole of it was veiled in that languid opaqueness unique to spring. From above, the blue was making a noble effort to penetrate that intangible veil, as sunlight silently sifted down like fine dust from the atmosphere, and unnoticed by anyone, seemed to form a layer over the ground.

Light was swaying in the warm breeze. The air flowed as easily as a flock of birds flitting among the trees, grouping to take flight. It glided down the gentle green slope alongside the tracks, crossed over, and slipped through the woods, hardly stirring a single leaf. The call of a cuckoo rang out straight across the softly luminous scene, the echo disappearing over the ridge. A succession of hills rose and fell, like sleepy giant cats curled in the pooled sunlight of time.

* * *

The pain in my foot grew still worse.

* * *

So let me tell you something about this well.

Naoko had moved to the area when she was twelve. 1961. The year Ricky Nelson sang “Hello Mary Lou.” It was a peaceful green valley at the time, not a single thing to claim your attention. A handful of farmhouses with a few fields, a stream full of crayfish, a one-track local railroad, barely a yawn of a train station, that was it. Most farmhouses had persimmon trees planted in the yard, and weather-beaten old barns standing to one side–or rather, tottering and ready to fall apart. And there were those cheap tin signs advertising tissue paper or soap nailed on barn walls that faced the tracks. The place really was like that. Not even a dog anywhere, Naoko had said.

The house she moved into was a two-story Western-style villa built sometime around the Korean War. Nothing very spacious, mind you, but the sturdy post timbers and quality lumber chosen for each part gave the house a comfortably solid look. The exterior, painted in three shades of green, had faded handsomely in the sun and wind and rain to blend in perfectly with the surrounding countryside. There was a huge yard, and in it several stands of trees and a small pond. In among the trees was a quaint little octagonal arbor that had been used as a studio, its bay windows hung with lace curtains faded to a nondescript color. Down by the pond, daffodils were in riotous bloom, and every morning birds came to bathe.

The first owner of the house, who was also its designer, had been an elderly oil painter, but his lungs gave out on him and he died the winter before Naoko moved in. That was in 1960, the year Bobby Vee sang “Red Rubber Ball.” It had been an awfully rainy winter that year. Snow hardly ever fell in these parts; instead you got a freezing-cold rain. The rain soaked into the ground, stinging the topsoil with a damp chill. But deeper down, it made for a table of sweet groundwater.

Five minutes’ walk along the tracks from the station lived a well-digger. There in the dank bottom land by the stream, summers brought hordes of mosquitoes and frogs in around the house. The well-digger was a difficult, ill-natured man of fifty or so, but when it came to digging wells he was a bona fide genius. When hired to dig a well, he’d first spend a couple of days just walking around the site muttering to himself as he sniffed handfuls of dirt he’d scoop up here and there. Then, when he’d found some spot that agreed with him, he’d call in some co-workers, and they’d dig straight down.

That’s why people hereabouts could drink sweet well water to their heart’s content. The water was cool, and so crystal clear you’d almost swear there wasn’t a glass in your hand. Some folks claimed the water came from the melting snows of Mt. Fuji, but that was impossible. No way it could come that far.

The autumn of Naoko’s seventeenth year, the well-digger was killed by a train. A driving downpour and cold sake and a hearing problem were to blame. Several thousand chunks of his body were strewn over the fields. Five buckets’ worth were collected while seven policemen with spiked prods fended off a pack of hungry dogs. Even so, a whole bucketful of the stuff got spilled into a pond. Fish bait.

The well-digger had two sons, both of whom left the area without following in his footsteps. Nobody went near his house after that, and abandoned, it slowly but surely rotted out. And ever since, sweetwater wells have been hard to come by in the area.

I like wells, though. Every time I see a well, I can’t resist tossing a rock in. There’s nothing as soothing as the sound of a pebble hitting the water in a deep well.

* * *

It was all her father’s doing that Naoko’s family moved into the area in 1961. He had been a close friend of the dead painter, not to mention, of course, that her father liked the place.

He apparently had been a well-respected scholar of French literature, when all of a sudden, while Naoko was still in elementary school, he quit the university and thereafter spent his time leisurely translating curious old texts and the like. Fallen angels and debauched priests, diabolists, vampires, tracts on sordid and sundry topics. I don’t really know the details. Only once did I come across his photograph, in a magazine. According to Naoko, he’d led something of a colorful and offbeat life in his youth, and the photograph betrayed more than a hint of that style about him. In it he wore a hunting cap and black-rimmed glasses, his piercing gaze focused a few feet above the camera. He must have seen something.

* * *

Back around the time Naoko and her family moved in, something of a colony of these cultured eccentrics had congregated in the area. By all accounts, it had been like one of the Siberian penal colonies for exiled ideological criminals in Imperial Russia.

I’ve read a little about those penal colonies in Trotsky’s memoirs, but for some reason, the only passages I remember clearly had to do with cockroaches and reindeer. So here goes about the reindeer.

It seems Trotsky escaped from a penal colony under cover of night by stealing a reindeer sleigh. The four reindeer raced headlong across the silver expanse of frozen tundra, their breaths turning to white mist in the cold air, their hooves churning up the virgin snow. Two days later when they reached a train station, the reindeer keeled over from exhaustion, never to get up again. Trotsky hugged the dead reindeer and made a vow, tears streaming from his eyes. Whatever it takes, said he, I’ll bring justice and ideals, and above all, revolution to the nation.

And to this very day, standing in Red Square is a bronze statue of the four reindeer. One facing east, one north, one west, and one south. Even Stalin couldn’t bring himself to tear down these reindeer. Visitors to Moscow should be sure to go to Red Square early Saturday mornings. That’s when rosy-cheeked middle school children come out, breaths all white in the cold, and mop down the reindeer.

But to continue about the local colony: The group purposely avoided the more accessible flatland near the station, choosing instead places back in the foothills to build their dream houses. Each and every one of these had incredibly spacious grounds, with ponds and hillocks and whole groves of trees left intact within their boundaries. One estate even had its own brook teeming with real live sweetfish.

These free spirits would wake to the early morning cooing of turtle doves, tread on beechnuts while strolling the gardens, stop to take in the morning light cascading through the leaves.

But times changed, and little by little the exponential sprawl of suburbanization made inroads here. Right around the time of the Tokyo Olympics. The vast acreage of mulberries that once spread out below the hills like a fertile sea was bulldozed into a dark, scarred wasteland, which gradually took the shape of your regular tract town, fanning out from the station.

The new residents were for the most part middleclass commuters. They’d spring up like clockwork at a little after five, have barely enough time to wash their faces before they’d be off to board their train, and return late at night looking half-dead.

Sunday afternoons were the only times they could relax enough to appreciate their new town and homes. Also, as if by consensus, most had dogs. The dogs interbred, and strays were everywhere. That’s what Naoko meant when she said there used not to be a dog around for miles.

* * *

One whole hour I waited, and not a dog showed. Ten cigarettes I lit and crushed out. I walked to the middle of the platform, and took a drink of the crisp, cold water from the faucet there. Still no dog.

To the side of the station was a large pond. A long, serpentine pool, as if they’d dammed up a stream. The banks were overgrown with tall marsh grasses, and from time to time a fish broke the surface of the water. Spaced out along the banks sat some men, tightlipped, fishing lines cast into the cloudy water. The lines never so much as twitched; they might as well have been silver needles stuck into the water. Yet there under the lazy rays of the spring sun, a big white dog that one of the men had probably brought along was eagerly sniffing around in the clover.

When the dog came within ten yards of me, I leaned over the station fence and called to it. The dog looked up and gazed at me with the most sorrowful light brown eyes, then wagged its tail a couple of times. I snapped my fingers, and the dog came over, thrust its nose through the fence and licked my hand with its long tongue.

“Hey, come on in,” I called to the dog as it withdrew. The dog turned away hesitantly, then resumed wagging its tail as if the message hadn’t quite gotten through.

“Come on in. I’m tired of waiting.”

I fished a stick of chewing gum out of my pocket, and held up the wrapper for the dog to see. The dog stared at the gum for a while before making up its mind to crawl under the fence. I gave the dog a few pats on the head, rolled the gum up into a ball in the palm of my hand, and chucked it toward the other end of the platform. The dog dashed off straight as an arrow.

I went home satisfied.

* * *

On the train ride back, I told myself over and over again, it’s all over with now, you got it out of your system, forget it. You got what you came for, didn’t you? Yet I couldn’t get it out of mind, that place. Nor the fact that I loved Naoko. Nor that she was dead. After all that, I still hadn’t closed the book on anything.

* * *

Venus is a sweltering planet covered with clouds. Half the inhabitants die young from the heat and humidity. It’s a feat just to live thirty years. But by the same measure, that makes them all the more tenderhearted. Every Venusian loves all Venusians. They don’t hate or discriminate or hold grudges against anyone. They don’t even curse. No murders or fighting, only love and consideration.

“Even if, say, someone dies, we don’t feel sad,” said the guy from Venus, an ultra-quiet type. “We’d rather just show that much more love while the person’s alive. That way, there’s no regret afterward.”

“So it’s like you get your loving done ahead of time?”

“Hmm ... the words you folks use sound so strange to me,” he said, shaking his head.

“And everything really comes off with no hitches?” I asked.

“If it didn’t,” he said, “Venus would be buried in sorrow.”

* * *

I returned to the apartment to find the twins in bed, snug under the covers like two sardines in a tin, giggling away to themselves.

“Welcome back,” said one of them.

“Where did you go?”

“Train station,” I said, loosening my tie, and snuggled in between them. I was bushed.

“What station, where?”

“What did you go for?”

“A station a long ways away from here. Went to see a dog.”

“What kind of dog?”

“You like dogs?”

“A big white dog, it was. And no, I’m really not so crazy about dogs.”

I lit up a cigarette, and until I’d finished, the neither of them said a word.

“You sad about something?” one of them asked.

I nodded silently.

“Why don’t you get some sleep?” said the other.

And so I slept.

* * *

So far, I have been telling this story as my very own, but it is also the story of another guy, whom we’ll call the Rat. That autumn, the two of us – he and I – were living nearly five hundred miles apart.

September 1973, that’s where this novel begins. That’s the entrance. We’ll just hope there’s an exit. If there isn’t one, there wouldn’t be any point in writing anything.


First of all, we’ll need to know the name of one Raymond Maloney. It seems that there used to be someone by that name, but he has since died. That’s about all there is to know about his life. Which is to say that nobody knows him from nothing. Not any more than they know a water spider at the bottom of a well.

To be sure, it’s a historical fact that by this man’s very hands the first prototype of the pinball machine was brought unto this realm of defilement in 1934 from out of the great, golden cloud of technology. Which is again the very year that, across that giant puddle called the Atlantic, one Adolf Hitler was getting his hands on the first rung of the Weimar ladder.

Raymond Maloney’s life story has none of the mythic color of the Wright Brothers or Alexander Graham Bell. No heartwarming episodes of youth, nor any dramatic “Eureka!” Only scant mention of his name on page one of a strange tome written for a scant handful of curious readers. A reference which may be summed up: in 1934, Raymond Maloney invented the first pinball machine. Not even a photograph with it. Needless to say, we find neither portrait nor statue to his memory.

Now you’re probably thinking, had this Maloney never existed, the history of the pinball machine would have been entirely different from what it is today. Or worse, it might well not have come into existence at all. And hence, might not our hasty underestimation of this Maloney amount to the height of ingratitude? Yet if we had occasion to personally examine that very first prototype “Ballyhoo” created by Maloney’s own hands, all such thoughts would surely vanish. For there we’d find not one single element to stir our imagination.

The progress of the pinball machine and of Hitler exhibit certain similarities. Both have dubious beginnings, coming on the scene as mere bubbles on the froth of the times; it is through their evolutionary speed rather than any physical stature per se that they acquire their mythic aura. And of course, that evolution came riding in on three wheels: to wit, technology, capital investment, and last but not least, people’s basic desires.

With devastating speed people kept providing the singularly undistinguished protean machine with ever-newer capabilities. Someone proclaimed, “Let there be lights!” Someone else shouted, “Let there be electricity!” Still another shouted, “Let there be flippers!” And so there came to be lights illuminating the field, electricity to deflect balls magnetically, two flipper arms to whip them back into play.

Scoring came to numerically convert players’ proficiency by a factor of ten, while tilt lamps guarded against rough handling and rocking of the machine. Next came the metaphysical concept of sequencing, which led to such variations as the Bonus Light, Extra Ball, and Replay schools. Actually by this time, pinball machines had come to possess a magical fascination.

* * *

This is a novel about pinball.

* * *

The introduction to Bonus Light, that exegesis of pinball, has this to say:

There is precious little you can gain from a pinball machine. Only some lights that convert to a score count. On the other hand, there is a great deal to lose. All the coppers you’d ever need to erect statues of every president in history (provided, of course, you thought well enough to erect a statue of Richard M. Nixon), not to mention a lot of valuable and nonreturnable time.

While you’re playing yourself out in lonesome dissipation in front of a pinball machine, someone else might be reading through Proust. Still another might be engaged in heavy petting with a girlfriend at a drive-in theater showing of Paths of Courage. The one could well become a writer, witness to the age; the others, a happily married couple.

Pinball machines, however, won’t lead you anywhere. Just the replay light. Replay, replay, replay .... So persistently you’d swear a game of pinball aspired to perpetuity.

We ourselves will never know much of perpetuity. But we can get a faint inkling of what it’s like.

The object of pinball lies not in self-expression, but in self-revolt. Not in the expansion of the ego, but in its compression. Not in extractive analysis, but in inclusive subsumption.

So if it’s self-expression or ego-expansion or analysis you’re after, you’ll only be subjected to the merciless retaliation of the tilt lamps.

Have a nice game.