The tokens – metallic coins – clattered across the cabinet tops, rang against the glass. The employee pacing circles in the pit between the two rows of sixteen machines collected them wordlessly, yet with a purposeful snap of her wrist that took each token from the corner over to the center of its cabinet – through the fields of vision of those otherwise mesmerized by the shiny silver balls bouncing between the bumpers on their respective Lite-A-Line playfields.
“Now, I want to get it into a hole, but there’s no humping here,” I explained.
“Excuse me?” my date exclaimed. “I admit this is a low-cut top, but that doesn’t mean I have even the slightest interest in ‘humping’ you in – what, the bathroom of? – a pinball parlor!”
“In a pinball parlor, to ‘hump’ is to gently nudge with the hips—”
“How is that different than the definition of ‘hump’ outside a pinball parlor?”
“The ‘gently’?” I deadpanned.
She started to stand up.
“Not again,” I groaned.
“I have the worst luck with first dates here. It’s always the same. I just start trying to explain the rules of the game—”
“The rules of the game? You mean Lite-A-Line? What does that have to do with you ‘gently nudging’ me with your hips?”
“You mean, you honestly thought—? I meant ‘to gently nudge the pinball machine with the hips,’” I clarified, “to try to direct the ball toward a hole.”
“Oh, I honestly thought—”
Both of us began to laugh about the misunderstanding. She sat down next to me again.
“So,” she asked, “how do we win at Lite-A-Line, if there’s no humping here?”
“Honestly, I’ve never won,” I admitted. “I mean, it seems simple: You pull this spring-loaded plunger, which shoots this silver ball up to the top of the playfield. Then these ten rubber bumpers rebound it toward one of the five color-coded scoring areas – green, yellow, red, white, or orange – each of which has five numbered holes.”
I pointed to our respective scoreboards in the pit. “When you get the ball into a hole, the corresponding circle lights up. Basically, it’s a combination of pinball and bingo. To win, you need to ‘Lite-A-Line’ of five circles – either a vertical line, which would be five of the same color, or a horizontal line, which would be five of the same number.”
“Or a diagonal line?” she asked.
“Or a diagonal line,” I answered.
“But there’s no humping…,” she smiled, “I mean, no ‘nudging’ the machine?”
“No nudging with the hips. Or with the hands,” I added. “This is actually a family-friendly first-date destination.”
“I appreciate that,” she said. “But there’re no flippers, either? So, all you can control is how you pull the—”
“—the ‘plunger’? Right,” I confirmed. “Allow me to demonstrate.”
I pulled the plunger as far from the bottom right of the cabinet as its spring would allow. The ball’s parabolic trajectory rocketed it into the bumper at the top left, and – maddeningly – it ricocheted right back to the tip of the plunger.
“Allow me to demonstrate, that is, how not to pull the plunger,” I sighed.
“You’re trying too hard.” She laughed a little, then slipped her left hand onto my right thigh. “Relax a little.”
At first, though, I felt uncomfortably constrained. If I didn’t want to elbow her arm, I couldn’t pull the plunger as far as I had ever other time I’d had an – admittedly unsuccessful – first date at Lite-A-Line. But then, as soon as I stopped trying too hard, the ball started to roll into the holes. And I wondered whether the “gently” was, indeed, the difference.
Maybe that was the lesson still left to be learned from this mechanical arcade amusement in this digital age. The black letters on the white sign outside insisted that Lite-A-Line is “a game of skill,” but I had always assumed that was simply a legal loophole – that its proprietors’ denial of the fact that it was, instead, “a game of chance” or “of luck” was all that allowed them to operate outside an actual casino.
But the outcomes of all those games of Lite-A-Line – and all those first dates – had seemed, to my mind, to be a matter of “luck” only because I’d never before been able to understand the significance of the moves involved.
Putting her hand on my thigh, though, that was significant. That was meaningful.
That was the difference between winning and losing – a gentle touch.
“Lite-A-Line” was originally published by Flash Fiction Magazine in 2014.