At the Gaylord’s Department Store, they had a video game called Submarine Commander. It was in the corner, over by the snack bar and made sonar noises as you shot torpedoes at passing battleships. You looked through the lens of a metal periscope, gripping it by two handlebars on the side. This was in the early ‘70s, so the passing battleships were made of cardboard or aluminum, and the missle was a red light that moved across the painted ocean. You had maybe two minutes before the game went dark again, no matter how well you did.
Once a week or so my mother and I went over there—for paper towels, fish food, a crock pot, a garden hose, Halloween candy, or athletic socks. The store smelled of stale popcorn and hamster shavings, both of which Gaylord’s had in great abundance. And throughout the days in between, I could hear the eerie pong of the submarine in my head. I imagined myself the ship’s commander and pretended to receive briefings on the enemy ships seen in the area.
In the parking lot my mother would hold out a quarter for me and say, “This will have to hold you.” She said that because she couldn’t spare another. My mother would wear her pale yellow raincoat because it had deep pockets, and that let her carry her Texas Instruments calculator so that she could total up her items before she got to the register. A few times she had found out too late that she didn’t have enough money and had suffered the humiliation of having to figure out what she would have to put back as impatient customers peered over her shoulder and exhaled loudly. My father had just added a third job to his schedule, and my mother worked to stretch everything as far as it could go.
You probably think this is about the time when my mother realized at the register that she was 17 or 21 cents short, and so I eagerly surrendered my quarter. And how outside she rubbed my hair and told me what a good kid I was. But that never happened. My mother also wore her yellow coat because she could slip in a lipstick or candy bars or Tang packets or a scarf or razors. Sometimes I’d see her empty her pockets with her bedroom door partially cracked.
When we were in Gaylord’s she encouraged me to wander around as she shopped, and I’d meet her in the front of the store, after I played my game. But one Friday afternoon, 15, then 20 minutes went by, and she didn’t show up at the register. I noticed an older kid come into the store and walk over to the game, his skateboard tucked under his arms, and I went over to watch.
His problem was that he fired too early, and seeing the red torpedo land constantly in front of the battleships was excruciating. When he was done he fished out another quarter, which I studied with envy.
“Give me some space,” he said. I stepped back a little, but he did no better the second game. He hit three ships, then walked outside and dropped his skateboard on the sidewalk. I stepped onto the little platform that helped you see through the periscope and stared into the blackness.
“There he is,” I heard from behind. It was the store manager, a guy who looked like he was still in high school and had a chin colored by acne. I had seen him around the store plenty, and he was always smiling, fixing his lips as if he were about to whistle, but he never did.
The woman from the jewelry counter was standing behind him.
“Hey guy,” the manager said.
“Hey,” I said, finally.
“Look, your mother asked me to find you. She’s talking to some folks in the back of the store.” Just then I noticed a police car parked out front, and a police officer with a stomach like a helmet strolled past, his walkie-talkie squawking loudly.
“And she might be a little while,” the manager said, “so how about you and I hang out here for a little while.”
I looked at the woman, whose black hair hovered over her head like a storm cloud, and she offered me her version of a smile before saying to the manager, “OK, I’m going to get back, then.”
The manager nodded. “Thanks, Myra,” he said.
“Yeah, I’ve seen you around before,” he told me, and fiddled with his red vest. All the employees at Gaylord’s wore red vests.
“You play that game a lot, don’t you?” he said.
I nodded again. I imagined my mother in some little cinder-block room talking to the fat police officer, with Myra slipping back in. I knew she wouldn’t have the same smile for my mother.
“Why don’t you and I play?” the manager said. “I’m a seasoned pro at that game myself,” he said.
“I don’t have any money,” I said and looked down at the dirty floor.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of quarters sheathed in clear plastic. “Guy, I have money,” he said. “No problem.”
He opened up the top and plunked a quarter in, then put the roll over the console. I guessed we might be here a while.
“OK, so show me what you’ve got.” He spoke to me as if I was a neighbor, as if we’d been hanging out for years, as if he didn’t have some hand in keeping my mother in a back room until the police showed up.
The first ship emerged form the right, and before it was even fully visible I fired off my torpedo. The red light made its slow journey across, but I didn’t need to watch it to know it was a direct hit. I kept my eyes trained on the edge, waiting for another ship. The deep pong blurted out of the tinny speaker, and I pressed my face hard against the periscope so that there was no light at all in my vision. I pushed the fire button again, then again and again, and the sound of little explosions filled the corner of the store. The enemy ships were slow and predictable, but they were also relentless.