The soft saltwater taffy melts into my pallet as I tour the graveyard of my childhood. My girlfriend wanted to come to this place. Back in Jersey she was a ski ball champion, out
on the coast where the game can be found in droves. Here in the Midwest we have it at pizza joints and fun zones as a novelty for children’s birthday parties. The penny arcade is different than
those brightly polished new arrivals. It has stood in the same spot for ages. Dance Dance Revolution does not have a home here, but pinball machines that predate the Who’s famous rock opera by
several generations do. The taffy was for chewing when I was a child. Now I have to move it carefully around my fillings and let it dissolve onto my tongue to avoid the pain that should have me
sitting in a dentist‘s office instead of tossing ten wooden balls up a slight incline into numbered slots. The feeling of hearing those tickets slide out of the dispenser as each round begins costs
a quarter per go, but in reality it is priceless.
The evening slips through our fingers faster than the change we are pumping into the machines. Our tour is not limited to the ski ball exhibit, for there are so many other sights to take in. Vintage shooters that boast an extinct breed of foe, ones that you can actually reach out and touch. They are not the realistic three dimensional characters from the Wii or the Xbox but actual characters that taunt you and clunk as they fall down slowly with each direct hit. I don’t remember anything specific here. The general atmosphere of Manitou Springs draws forth many memories, most powerful of all are the smells of the metals and woods that were used in the construction of these games, and the flavor of the taffy as I pop another piece into my mouth.
Each color is a flavor that is distinct. As a true aficionado I know that one must first look at the piece of taffy, see the color, squeeze it and get the texture as it feels through the plastic; unwrap it slowly and take a good long whiff before partaking of said taffy. White with red stripes is easy, that’s peppermint. Yellow has a vague hint of lemon without the tart. Orange is quite naturally orange, all quite easily explained, until you come across blue. The blue pieces have a flavor that cannot be described unless it has been sampled. Quite simply put, it tastes blue. This is my favorite, not for the flavor itself but for what it does to my senses. It transports me to a more simple time, back to the days of my youth.
For the five years I spent between relationships I led two very different lives. By day I was a grown man making my way in this unforgiving world, jumping from job to job and living on a tight budget, on the verge of destitute right up until the next paycheck was slapped into my desperate hands. By night I was a collector, which is why I constantly found myself broke and hungry. It all began when I received an old twenty dollar bill from the ATM one random afternoon. It was such a little thing but it really did something to me. The small head on Andrew Jackson was trapped within the oval frame in dead center of the note. The chunkier more vertical foursome of the number twenty placed in each corner, the feel of time and wear as apposed to the crisp, fresh off the press from the Denver mint feel of the newer models. This old bill was more than money, it was a work of art. I held it to my nostrils and sniffed. The smell awoke something that lay dormant inside me. A barrage of images flew into my mind, the images of my past.
Longing to reclaim it, I soon found myself tossing most of my money into my bank account. This was a good move on its own but it was only the first step. From there it would be sucked out, tossed into cyberspace and into the account of whomever’s online auction I had most recently won. Soon packages began to pile up at my doorstep and in the office at my apartment complex. I’d struggle to wait until the following day if I found a notice on my door that there was an item for me in the office when I got home after hours. I could no longer take the suffering, opening up the largest available post office box at my local branch for more immediate access.
I would stay up all night opening boxes. The neighbors complained of the noise. Midnight ripping of packing tape from cardboard, the popping open of one action figure box after another, cries of aggravation whenever an item had even the slightest flaw. These occasions sent me furiously typing and posting negative feedback against the sellers of this misrepresented junk. My addiction quickly took me over, it changed me. I’d arrange my vintage Ninja Turtles and Spider-Man action figures carefully on my bookshelves, the ones I had bought not for literature, but for the sole purpose of housing and displaying these tributes to days long since gone. In the background I would play my DVDs, collections of old cartoon shows and even entire discs devoted only to vintage commercials for the very toys I was holding in my hot little hands.
Then came the needle that finally burst my bubble. She arrived over the internet like everything else in my life that held value and meaning to me, only she was real. We talked for hours on end as I simultaneously perused the ongoing online toy auctions. Slowly I began to ignore the auctions, focusing all of my attention on the little dialogue boxes filled with her charm and wit. My bank account began to retain money and I found myself on a date with this girl, then another, and before long a relationship seemed to bloom. My first kiss in years, kind eyes and soft lips invaded my miniature plastic world. Her hair smelled of exotic shampoo, her cute dimples thrust a smile onto my face every time they appeared.
Deeply in love, rid of my toys after my own set of online auctions, I now found myself knocking back blue taffy and venturing through my true memories. I stop dead in my tracks upon noticing a very old friend hiding in a thin alley between two buildings. His eyes, like the rest of his body are frozen stiff, even in the warmth of the summer evening. I run my fingertips over his temple, his trunk and his tusks. He is so much smaller than I remember. Time has worn away his color, he has aged and faded. As I notice this about him, I see the back of my own hand. My knuckles are coarse and rough, tiny shards of black hair dart out from random points on my fingers. Yellow lettering on his red base begs “Ride Dumbo”, hand painted onto the metal most likely years before I was born. It is still only ten cents to ride my old friend. As I look this metal elephant statue with the yellow saddle over I think to myself, they don’t make ’em like they used to. I feel like a man fondling a classic muscle car, disappointed with the newer plastic models, missing the old ways and the old days.
As I take my girlfriend’s arm I finish off my taffy. She rolls her eyes at me as I show off my blue tongue like a schoolboy. I tell her about the old elephant and how I used to seek him out as a child coming to this arcade. I wonder to myself if he still runs. I doubt I would fit atop his saddle anymore but nonetheless I want to pop a dime into his coin slot, maybe stand back and enjoy the show. Hunger strikes us both however, and the lovely lady on my arm tugs at me slightly, toting me away from my past. As I look back into the old elephant’s eyes I smile. I never did fully grow up, and perhaps I never will. As I am led down the street towards a local Mexican restaurant I feel a sense of great comfort come over me. I am not just heading away with this woman to gab some tacos, I am heading into my future. As for my elephant, he remains in the alleyway between the gaming rooms of the penny arcade. Frozen in time he is perhaps neglected and mostly forgotten, but not by me. Never by me.
© Copyright 2016 Alan Dale Dalby. All rights reserved.