Down the Drain
A short story about a pinball wizard
Thanks as always for reading Story Cauldron. Today I’m sharing a new short story I wrote in response to the April Fictionistas Great Substack Prompt Celebration, and am submitting to the first-ever Lunar Awards on Substack (wish me luck!). The prompt was:
Pinball machines were banned from 1942-1976. Write about an illegal underground pinball club.
I deviated a bit from the prompt, but I think the important bits are there. Anyway, let me know what you think!
Down the Drain
His date carried a car jack as she led him to the middle of the street.
Harrison stared at her as she knelt down on the pavement in her skimpy dress and easily pried up the manhole cover.
“What are you doing?” He had just met June at Franny’s Cafe, but she hadn’t been interested in a meal, instead grabbing her purse and heading out to the parking lot. And now she was lifting a manhole cover like a Tupperware lid. This is one hell of a blind date, he thought to himself.
“Do you trust me?” she asked sweetly.
Trust you? he wanted to ask. Lady, I don’t even know you! But everyone knew Harrison Poe was a sucker for a woman in a halter top. And the last time he’d been out with a woman this attractive, he was still an undergrad. He loosened his tie. “Sure, why not?”
He watched as she climbed down a ladder into the darkness. Once she reached the bottom, she clicked on a flashlight to guide him down.
He rubbed his hands together nervously. His coworker Paul said she’d be fun to hang out with, but this was a bit much. Staring down the drain, Harrison wished he had worn different shoes. If he got mud on his wingtips, it would take forever to get it out of all the nooks and crannies before work tomorrow. After a deep breath, he started climbing down the ladder.
Once at the bottom, he had only a moment to stare at the rust stains on his palms before June waved him onward. They traversed a dark tunnel, with water seeping down the walls. Harrison tried to keep his breathing normal and regular and wondered if this would be the last thing he’d ever see.
They rounded a corner and came upon a heavy metal doorway. June turned the handle and warned him to watch his step.
The door opened to a full sensory assault: loud rock music; a strobe light bouncing rainbow lights across the ceiling; people dressed as fantasy creatures, complete with horns, wings, and hooves; and jasmine incense masking the dank smell of the underground chamber.
But Harrison paid little attention to all that once he spied the rows of pinball machines lining the walls. Grinning, he approached one he knew well: Bally’s Captain Fantastic, featuring Elton John.
How did June know how much he loved pinball? Back in his college days, he’d made quite a bit of money winning tournaments, aided by a strong magnet that disabled the tilt sensors. But tonight, no magnets. He’d just show off his skills.
As he rolled up his shirt sleeves, his eyes scanned the familiar backglass design depicting Elton playing pinball on stage and an audience filled with women in tight shirts holding up signs encouraging Elton to “score” and calling him the champ. His nose twitched as he noticed one that said “death before defeat,” his motto back in the day.
“You’re the new guy June brought along?” A blonde woman said by way of greeting. “I’m Maeve.” She handed him a bottle of scotch.
“Harry,” he replied, sticking out his hand. Wow, he hadn’t been ‘Harry’ in years. He took a swig from the bottle. “Have any quarters?”
“How much money do you have?” she winked in return, and silvery coins spilled across the glass.
As he dropped the first quarter into the machine, June pulled up a stool.
“You wanna play?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “I just want to watch.”
“Sure.” Truth be told, Harrison struggled to focus on the game with her sitting so close, especially since she was dressed just like the women depicted on the backglass.
A while later, after Harrison just missed topping the high score held by “JEM,” after his wallet had been stripped of the $50 in cash, and after he had more than a few swigs of scotch, he was done.
June had wandered off to watch other players, but now she returned.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
“Do you trust me?” she replied as she twirled her hair between her fingers.
Harrison’s head was swimming from the booze, and all the bing bing bing chucka chucka pop boing sounds bouncing between his ears. “Uh, sure,” he said, eager to discover what she had in mind.
She grabbed his hand and pulled him to the back of the room, and Harrison thought he was about to get lucky. Instead, she pushed open a second door, just like the first one.
They stepped into a huge arena. Harrison blinked at the sight. He was dwarfed by bright stars along the walls and mushroom-shaped statues. Lights danced across the floor, and he heard the sound of bells.
June pushed him out in front of her with a giggle.
That’s when a huge boulder careened toward him.
“Hey, what the hell?” he cried out, but when he spun around, he discovered the door was closed. Dizzy from the booze, he stumbled and fell. Just before the boulder smashed into him, he rolled behind one of the giant mushrooms. He watched as the boulder bounced against the mushroom, leaving a trail of tiny glowing flowers as it headed in a different direction, only to rebound against the wall.
Wait, was he inside a pinball game? What was in that scotch? He pushed himself up and dusted off his slacks.
Think, Harrison, think. He jogged along the outer wall, heading down the slope. The boulder headed towards him again, and he narrowly avoided it as it ricocheted off the nearest mushrooms.
Trying to stay one step ahead of the boulder, he looked for an exit. His years as a pinball shark suggested his only chance was to find the drain, where the ball would fall out past the flippers. There! He sprinted for the narrow space between the massive wing-shaped flippers that even now swished back and forth like windshield wipers. If he aimed just right…
But the ball returned, trapping him in a dead space as it rebounded against the bumpers near him, a deafening bing-bing-bing-bing bumper frenzy. He’d never escape now.
Suddenly the playfield tilted, releasing the ball from its loop and causing Harrison to crash into one of the mushrooms. Unlike the boulder, however, he didn’t bounce off but instead slumped to the ground.
“Had enough, magnet boy?” June reappeared as the playfield righted itself, standing guard in the gap between the flippers, and rolled the bottle of scotch to him.
“Wow, you know about that? Look, I was just trying to pay off college.” He instinctively kicked the bottle back towards her. It was a straight kick, but he noticed it listed to the left.
“You cheated—and I lost.” She neatly caught the bottle between her feet. “Winning that tournament would have given me my freedom.”
“Freedom from what?” As he swayed back and forth, he considered how he had played those tournaments to get ahead, but all he had to show for it now was a dead-end office job and a shitty apartment. “If you can do all this,” he said, waving his arm over his head, “you have way more freedom than I do.”
She blinked. “That’s easy for you to say. You’re not in debt to the fae lords.” She frowned as she rolled the bottle back. “This is boring now. Why don’t you have another drink?”
He grabbed the skittering bottle. “I have a better idea. Seeing as you think you’re the better player—”
“Obviously.” She rolled her eyes.
“Fine. Then prove it. Let’s play this game as regular pinball. If I win, you let me go." He glanced around. “But it has to be this game,” he said emphatically.
June raised an eyebrow, intrigued. “And if I win, you’ll take over my debts.”
Harrison had no idea what that entailed, but he knew pinball. He wiped the sweat from his face. “Fine.”
"Deal. But no cheating." She jerked her hand, and suddenly Harrison stood in front of the very game he had been inside seconds ago, now normal size. “I go first.”
“Go for it,” he said, stepping aside.
Positioning herself at the edge of the machine, she placed her slender fingers on the flipper controls and pulled back the crystalline plunger handle. From there, she skillfully used the dragon-wing flippers to keep the boulder-ball in play. But eventually, fatigue and gravity caused her to falter.
Harrison stepped up. As he sent the ball into play, he was astonished to discover the boulder-ball slid rather than rolled, and as such, it was much more difficult to control. He played well, but his first-ball score was barely half of hers.
With a triumphant smile, she took her next turn and widened her lead, and his second turn was no more successful than the first. When she completed her third turn, the machine’s bells sounded a high score. She grinned as she used the buttons to select her initials: JEM.
“Your turn,” she sang.
Harrison grimaced as if he was worried. But when he stepped up, he rolled his shoulders back. Now that he had been inside the pinball game, he knew its tricks. Twice he almost lost the ball, but at just the right moment, he saved it. Then, as it crested the top curve, sliding across the wall in a perfect arc, he hit the corner with his hand. It wasn’t enough to cause a tilt that would lose the game, but it sent the boulder-ball ricocheting between the mushroom bumpers in another continuous loop. Bing-bing-bing-bing-bing. The ball kept racking up points without losing momentum until all the lights were lit.
He was going to win!
But before the ball could fall down the drain, Harrison was back on the ladder, and his head surfaced through the manhole.
"Man, that was nuts," he muttered, relieved to be free. He didn’t care that he never saw the final score.
As he looked around, the neon lights of Franny's Diner reflected on the wet pavement, their distorted colors blurring, making him feel as if he were still trapped in that surreal pinball game. I need to get out of here, he thought.
His hands pressed against the sides of the hole as he prepared to hoist himself onto the pavement. Just then, blinding headlights appeared, bearing down on him at an alarming speed.
What the hell?
A BMW i8 Roadster raced toward him, its top down, and the driver — wearing a halter top and a big grin — laughed manically. Panic surged through Harrison as he attempted to scramble to safety.
But it was too late. The car struck him, sending him hurtling back down the hole. The last thing he saw before the darkness swallowed him was the license plate:
Thanks for reading Down the Drain. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think! And if you’re new around here, I’d love it if you subscribed.