by Justin Briley
And in the winter of 2009, the chief was nineteen and home on leave from the Navy for the first time when Boston suggested they break into see the King again, just once more, for old time’s sake. “You were the one who left, you know,” Boston said. “You don’t have to go.”
The chief thought about it. Thought about this dead town and its dead punk scene slowly sprouting EDM shows like gravemold. Boston mentioned how the strobe lights gave him a headache. The chief had a bank account for the first time in his life and was staring at ass for the first time in months, and Boston got headaches.
But the chief was a magnanimous type of dude. So when Boston pitched going to see the King instead, even though he was home on leave, looking to rage, and practically a war hero already in a town like this, the chief groaned and went along with it. No harm in it; provided Boston did the breaking part of the breaking-and-entering, that is. Can’t catch a charge, the Navy wouldn’t like that, and so on.
But it wasn’t necessary. Whoever owned the depopulated stripmall hadn’t bothered to fix the hole they’d made in the door six months before, the last time they’d done this for the last time. Boston peeled back the plywood. The lady at the laundromat, which was the only stone still giving water in this dying commercial oasis, watched them as she smoked a cigarette, and never said a word. Just like last time.
“You bring a flashlight?” the chief asked, swatting at the dark as if that would make it better. There was a tightness in his balls that felt like fear and fun at the same time. Adrenaline.
“Just my phone,” Boston’s voice failed to echo in the tight walls. He flipped it open and the weak blue light made a bubble maybe three feet in front of them while the chief grumbled, “How’s that headache?”
“It’s fine, man.”
The light was just a courtesy, a gesture for their eyes. Their feet knew the way. Gerry’s Pizza Arcade. They’d been kids when the place opened, and something like grown when it closed, and they’d spent enough time here in between to know it like home.
“You didn’t have to come,” Boston said. “You could’ve gone to the show.”
“Nah,” the chief answered. “EDM’s not super my thing.”
“Me either. Those kids—not like us kids, but like kids-kids. All that molly and all the lights and shit. Can’t do it, man. Can’t be one of those dudes.”
The office was just ahead on the right, already looted by the scavengers who got there first. Just like last time. Past that the kitchens (full of shit to break if you were into that), then some coolers you did not want to open, then stairs to a basement that was actually very boring and small, and finally the arcade floor.
Most of the old arcade cabinets had been hauled off when the place closed. A couple others had been stolen, and the rest had been smashed beyond interest. A lonely skeeball bank sat unmolested against the wall, and of course, they threw some rounds to get their juices going, to establish their own noise in the silence of that little bankruptcy. Two scrawny apes making a ritual gesture toward territory, or something about the end of an era. Nothing the chief could explain. Nothing to do with war and the chief he would become. Just the sound of perfect little planets sliding into holes blacker than black in the dusty fog of repeated disuse.
“We should make our grand tour of the royal court,” Boston said. Something was off. Something besides Boston’s bad British accent. The spike of adrenaline was gone. Boston bounced off into the black. The chief began to feel ridiculous and the silence between them seemed to yawn into years.
Wallaby Washington was first, his axe slung over the exposed hydraulics of his shoulder, the Constitution in his pouch. His bent apple tree had finally given into gravity. The only thing worth discovering was that the apples, which should’ve been cherries, for the wallaby, who should’ve been literally any other, more appropriate animal to embody the first president, were functionally cheap Christmas ornaments. Shards of thin plastic crunched under the chief’s boots. Boston stopped to salute the generalissimus, and he watched the chief out of the side of his eye while he did it. With the wrong hand. The chief couldn’t have told you why he noticed that. The building groaned as the night grew colder.
They passed by the stage where a band of animatronics used to play Americana outdated before their parents were born. Nothing was left of them except bolt holes in the floor. The tables where they used to eat cold pizza while their parents did whatever parents do were now draped in dusty sheets as if laid for a feast for ghosts. “We could turn on the lights,” Boston said.
“I think they’d notice.”
“I dunno. Somebody.”
“Someone who washes their clothes past midnight? I don’t think so.”
“Maybe later,” the chief said. It was weird. Tenuous. Like a string pulled past tight, but also like the air in the building was heavy. He kicked at the stage and Boston lit a smoke. The chief decided to move on. Past Dolly the Dino with her incomprehensible bosom that, when he came here less ironically as a kid, had heaved with high notes just enough to press against her keyboard and end “Jolene” on a dischord that made his dad laugh. Now her chest was concave where, last fall, just after it all fell apart, some other explorers had made off with her breasts.
Past Cool Crocodile. You could still see the divot between his teeth where a fake cigar used to glow. No looting there. The owners had removed that years ago. Past Larry the Pizza Guy, who was a possum and a late, desperate addition.
“Can you believe this used to be a thing?” Boston asked. “And like, this place made bank.”
“Dad used to bring me like once a month,” the chief said, sliding fingers over all the assembled characters of the simultaneously post-human and prehistoric theater troupe. Big Bubba Black Bear, who still looked like the gorilla he must’ve been intended to be, before someone realized the implications would be unpleasant with his jersey, his accent, and the rows of gold chains. Eli the Elephant. Gerry the Giraffe himself, of course—one of three in the gallery.
“Such a shitty idea. Look at this,” Boston slapped a hand on the snout of Carl. Carl was…something. Definitely mammal. A subservient character in the mechanical vaudevillian soap opera, as indicated by his purple vest, his newsboy cap, and his nametag lacking any qualification beyond his first name. Either a llama or an anteater. Possibly a coyote.
“I mean, really, who asked for this? Who was this made for?” Boston asked.
“Us, I guess. But now—”
“We’re too old for it, and no one else cares.”
“I bet parents miss it. They sold beer here back in the day. My dad definitely drove home loose when we left.”
The gallery bent into a storeroom that must’ve been a lounge abandoned even before the place closed down. It had that logic. Clear discoloration from old neon signs, places where you could read burns in the wall. Here’s Looking At You Kid in a cold script. Silly shit. A hollow smear of bare concrete where a stage used to be. Red velvet curtains suspended from the wall like a movie theater. The ropes were gold but the chief didn’t trust them because everything here was at the point of never quite collapsing.
But at the center of the room, moved there by their own contrivance on their first expedition, where what had been the six of them had circled around it and bathed it in dopesmoke incense like it was the shit god of a forgotten future—the King.
“There’s our boy,” Boston said.
“Wish I could get him outta here.”
The chief tugged on the King’s cape. Elvis was definitely the central reference, but this guy had picked up cuts and curls of kitsch from every monarch available to the corporate imaginations of that generation of Americans raised by Looney Tunes and adopted by Ronald Reagan, so the metaphor was mixed. His hair was styled to capture both the 1950s and the 1750s. But it was black, and at some point, it’d caught fire, so there you had the kings of France, Rock and Roll, and Pop on the head alone. He had a tail that might’ve been meant to suggest a lion, but the felt had worn off long ago. A white suit, but with no sequins left on the cape, it was less Vegas than bedraggled Mafia don.
“I dunno, man. Shit weighs a ton.”
“Let’s just plug it in.”
“Power’s not on.”
“We can turn it on, dude. The breaker’s right there.”
The chief felt the pinch of the trap. Such a Boston thing to do, to set up a moment. “Fine,” he said. Maybe it wouldn’t be too painful. He stood by. Boston felt up the breaker in the blue haze of his flip phone flashlight. There were clicks, pregnant silences, and re-clicks. Winkings seen down the hall. Brief gusts of air and sourceless purrings.
“Okay. Got it.” One final click. “Plug it in, man.”
So the chief did. Like that, The King lived again. He opened his great mouth to fire off whatever lyric laid waiting in the depths of his programming, orphaned by an uncertain and endlessly consequential housing market the year before. But before a single clear note could emerge from the fuzz, before a key could be recalled, just as the lights behind his aviators kicked to life, everything went black.
“The king is dead,” the chief sighed.
“Aw, what the fuck? He worked yesterday.” Boston punched the royal chest.
The chief felt his lungs relax as the moment passed. “It’s cool, man. It’s just a goofy ass robot.”
“Yeah,” Boston said. “Whatever.” He pulled out his cigarettes. He offered the chief one in a comradely gesture that the chief appreciated and regretted at the same time. “No, thanks,” he said.
Boston shrugged and leaned into the mechanical majesty.
“Why’d you come up here yesterday?” the chief asked.
“To see if it was worth the trip.”
They stood in the tiny orange circle of the cigarette as the cavern of dead neon signs and concrete yawned in the smoke and listened to the soundless space where Boston’s voice had been.
“We better split,” the chief said.
“Somewhere to be?”
“On a plane in the morning.”
“Yeah. I know. Sucks, dude. I miss you.”
The chief plucked the cigarette from Boston’s fingers, pulled a long, seductive drag, felt the nicotine caress the inside of his veins. “Sure, man. Same.”
Later, long after his title had been properly bestowed and arcades had given way to online games, then those to other things, so the world constantly shifted without changing, the chief found himself standing outside the old stripmall once again, one last time. He almost called Boston, but decided it wasn’t worth the sounds he’d have to make. Too many missed calls, too many texts that sat too long unread. The world changed twice over and twice again from the world where His Majesty reigned. Only now the chief finally felt like he’d found the plot.
He’d done his research before flying back. The nearest working model was two hours away from where he lived now, in Spokane, and cost more than his car. There was a museum-quality specimen in California you could go see perform. There were weird hats and t-shirts of unknown manufacture. He had his own fan pages and forums with thousands of subscribers. A guy ran a YouTube channel dedicated to restoring working models.
The King was dead, some forgotten revolution had toppled him, and in the new world every possible search the chief plugged in for him lit up with results, even the darkest ones. Someone in eastern Oregon had one they’d dressed up as the Fuhrer. They made him a Twitter account that boasted five thousand fans for that niche audience for whom every nostalgia is window-dressing for some world where the lights never go out, childhood and it’s long string of novelty never ends, everything broken in the night is restored in the morning to be broken again, and every sad fuck who subscribes gets a kingdom of their own.
Possessed. That’s how he felt. He almost pulled the trigger on one in Ohio that was semi-functional and fully more than a semester of his daughter’s tuition. He looked at the laundromat, now long closed. He wondered what the hell he was doing as he dropped his tailgate and arranged the straps and tarp that would be the King’s palanquin.
The door came off the hinges easy with a crowbar. Everything else would harder alone. The lifting, the dragging, the listening to himself grunt and cuss. But not the stealing. He wasn’t worried about getting caught. One more truck hauling an uncertain shape down a nighttime highway.