The Arcade Keeper

If you’ll pardon a momentary break in the narrative, the following is an account of my dream, as I remember it.

I woke up late, alone. Everyone else was already upstairs. It was the reunion, and we were staying at the home of K’s family, and I was disoriented. We’d been given use of the furnished basement. I got up and made my way to the hall, and saw there were three people loitering in the hall by the bathroom. I didn’t know who they were, but I assumed family. I ducked by them into a bathroom draped with wet towels that covered almost every surface.

I was unsure about the protocol in this situation, and worked up the nerve to ask the people if one of the towels was supposed to be mine. They were friendly enough, but laughed and told me there weren’t any more towels left. Just then K poked her head in and told me not to worry, she’d get another towel for me.

As she headed off I said, “Oh… yeah, everyone here uses the same bathroom.” I felt a little elitist saying it, and chastised myself. Different lifestyles were easy to denigrate, but I had to be more accepting. I hoped they didn’t take it badly.

Waiting for K, I wandered out into the hall, through the growing crowd of people, and saw that several more had gathered around a table for an informal meal, even as others stood in conversation clusters. From the kitchen, K returned with a large ceramic plate heaping with food, most of it made with white beans. I felt disappointment that she’d brought me all this food when all I’d wanted was a plate, and frustrated at how dependent it must make me look in front of her family. Did she think I couldn’t handle getting food on my own? She sensed something was up, but I just glowered and retreated through the crowd with my plate, looking for a secluded place to eat.

I headed down an immense wooden stairway that lead into a relatively quiet foyer. I hadn’t appreciated before just how large the house was, but the foyer was fairly cavernous. Still, there were some people about, so I continued to look for an out of the way spot. The foyer was lined with rooms, each behind glass French doors, and several other halls lead away. On instinct I took a left at the base of the staircase, toward a pair of doors beneath a curiously low overhand. In fact it seemed like the ceiling was sagging as if to block entrance, and in the glass of the door I caught a reflection of two figures, one right behind mine. I looked around, but I was alone.

As I approached the doors, I sensed a presence, and a strong feeling of hauntedness came over me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself through this just now, and stood for a moment, and reconsidered. But I heard people behind me, not very far away, so I went with my first instinct.

Inside was a chamber so immense that I couldn’t see the other end of it, and the ceiling was a dome hundreds of feet over my head. The floor was strewn with pipe organs of every conceivable vintage and make, most of them fashioned of dark wood. In the background I heard the faint sound of organ music, but otherwise all was in complete silence. I strolled among the instruments with my plate out before me, appreciating the craftsmanship in each piece. They had been built in many configurations, from towering multi-decked monstrosities to the small living room variety. They lay scattered, abandoned, and through maze-like passages I found myself stepping over thick ropes of cable that snaked over the floor, which terminated in immense bell-like copper plugs.

I was drawn to the organs, wanted to play one of them myself, however none of them were plugged in. Eventually I had circled back around to where I’d first entered, and saw that several of the cables lead to a larger outlet in the middle of the floor, on the top of which was a toggle switch set to “off.” The finality of it effectively dissuaded me from my thoughts of bringing one of the machines to life.

I wandered a bit more, and saw that one of there was an active machine after all, but it was a video game console—Ms. Pac Man. The word “arcade” occurred to me. That’s what this was, an arcade, but in the classical sense. Visions of old boardwalks, and carnivals made me smile—this must be where they kept all that old stuff after retirement. Or, I thought as I passed by a row of vintage arcade machines, perhaps they actually held carnivals here. It was large enough.

A man in overalls approached me. He was tall, and gaunt, and his gray hair was tucked under a cap. “It’s something else, isn’t it?” he asked.

I was surprised to find someone else here so suddenly, but he seemed quite friendly. I assumed he was either another family member. Or maybe he was the keeper of the arcade hall. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s amazing.” We spoke for a time as we wandered, following the alleys until we came to a stand with a stage-like platform. I set my plate down just as the man leaned in close. He said with a twinkle in his eye, “You may want to visit the fortune tellers!”

He swung his left arm up toward two life-sized animatronic figures, male and female, who stood positioned on a high platform several rows away. They faced away from us, but I could see enough of their stand to appreciate the whimsical mural painted on the placard behind them. The male figure was dressed in a tuxedo, but the female figure was far more interesting. She wore a dress that stood out, with frilled bloomers beneath. Two pigtails sprang from her brown hair, and… As I studied them they both stuttered to life. The male figure turned his head slightly in our direction, as if trying to gain a better view. But his movement was limited. The female figure was not nearly so constrained, and as her body fully pivoted in our direction I saw that her face was almost entirely white, with circles of rouge on her cheekbones. Her eyes were also oddly close together. Her neck craned forward, and she seemed to be reciting her recorded lines directly to me. Her mouth was made up of two strangely-articulated pieces, both the mandible and the oddly-protruded upper lip able to move individually as she spoke.

I couldn’t hear what she was saying over the sounds of the other machinery, which had buzzed and whirred and rung to life gradually as the hour grew late. There were people wandering about too, whom I hadn’t noticed before. Despite the gayety, I felt that the arcade keeper was unnaturally fond of the fortune tellers. He was still talking about them with glowing praise, saying that they were once the main attraction of the arcade.

Personally, I found them—and the female in particular—a bit spooky. The way he talked about the female figure, I could imagine that he was secretly in love with her. In my mind’s eye I saw her as she might be were she alive, and gesturing to me from her platform. And indeed there was something eerily compelling about her… but I said nothing to my companion of this thought. The arcade keeper’s motivations didn’t seem so clear to me just then, and I thought it better to resist his overtures to seek the counsel of the fortune tellers.

I sipped on my drink—where had that come from?—as he made small talk, and as I looked out over the people my eyes became heavy. In fact, I fell asleep right there.

Which I only realized when I woke up in the same spot. The arcade keeper was still at my side, and welcomed me back to consciousness. I was confused. Something didn’t add up. I looked down in front of me and saw that there were several empty cups now. How much had I had to drink? And, more importantly, had the arcade keeper supplied me with drink to keep me by his side? Why didn’t I remember drinking them?

The hall was now filled with people wandering the arcade, enjoying the entertainment. The woman fortune teller, I saw, was still leering at me from her platform, only something about her had changed. Her features looked more refined than they had initially. Maybe I hadn’t gotten a good look before, but she was definitely a little more realistic than I had given her credit for.

A movement overhead caught my attention, and I looked up and saw the night sky—stars, a full moon, and wisps of white clouds whipping by at many times their usual speed. It was all a projection, and the dome ceiling was like that of a planetarium. “My god,” I said. “It’s amazing.”

The arcade keeper looked up and seemed distressed. “That wasn’t supposed to come on,” he said. It occurred to me that I had spent far too long down here. Surely my absence had gone noticed by now. Would everyone upstairs be gone already? Had they been looking for me?

“Shit,” I said. “It’s night time! I’m really late, I need to get back up there.”

The arcade-keeper’s hand was firm on my shoulder, but his face was friendly. “No, it’s not night time at all,” he said with surety.

I knew he was right. The projection was misleading. In fact it was already the next morning. My internal clock told me this.

The keeper gestured over his shoulder. “I have to go take care of this,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” And he got up and headed through the crowd.

This story—my story—suddenly seemed all too familiar to me. The entire plot was to get me to visit the fortune tellers. The complimentary drinks would keep coming, and I would hear whatever I needed to hear. It would be too early to go upstairs now, everyone would be asleep. And later on the excuse would be that another hour or two could hardly matter. Or was I the kind of person to ask how high when anyone told me to jump?

The disorientation would grow, and time-cycles would become more out of synch, and in the end I knew my character—the person through whose eyes I was watching—would at last be convinced to stay for three days. Three whole days. It was a binge, and the arcade keeper who haunted this hall would convince me. And I would never be able to explain to people how I’d been so easily duped.

Related Tales

» “Pooh Dream” (15 of Jan, 2004)
» “The Perfect Line” (26 of Jun, 2003)
» “Gas” (18 of Nov, 2002)

Her face was almost entirely white, with circles of rouge on her cheekbones. Her eyes were also unusually close together