Great Balls of Steel
Wednesday, my boss calls me into his office. He pours me a glass of tea and tells me to play pachinko for him. He’s a pachinko junkie, my boss. He buys all the magazines, gets the daily updates on his mobile phones, surfs the net for the insider tips and hackers’ hints.
“I’ve been studying the form of this one machine for a month,” he says. “It hasn’t paid out in all that time and tomorrow it’s ripe. It’s ready to drop. I’m sad to say that tomorrow I have to go to Kyushu on business. You’ll be playing it for me.”
I haven’t got a clue about pachinko and I tell him so. He taps the screen of his knock-off Chinese Palm Pirate and hands it over to me. On the screen’s a story about some Hokkaido salaryman. The guy had suffered a fatal heart attack playing pachinko, but his corpse had stayed with its hand rigor-locked around the machine. The parlor’s security camera footage showed he hadn’t been doing so well when he was alive, but after he’d died he’d hit the jackpot four times, won ¥80,000 post-mortem.
“Look,” says my boss; “all you’ve got to do is sit there. It’s easy. Don’t leave until the money’s gone or the parlor’s closing for the day.” He hands me four brown ten thousand yen notes and the Palm Pirate. “All you need to know’s in there…”
When I get home and tell my girlfriend I’m going to play pachinko, she pulls a face like I’ve farted in her Louis Vuitton handbag. “Pachinko parlors are so bimbo-kusai.”
She uses that word a lot, my girlfriend. When she’s explaining why she doesn’t take the buses or certain dead-end train lines, when she’s talking about ¥100 shops or government housing estates.
Bimbo-kusai (adj.): the smell of poor people.
I arrive at the parlor thirty minutes before opening time. It’s all chrome and glass. On the roof’s a 20ft Newton’s Cradle that hasn’t been switched on yet. Outside a few men are milling around, smoking and drinking nicotine drinks from four-inch brown bottles. One of them takes me under his wing. He’s got bleached blond hair and he’s a long-distance truck driver just in from a steel run between Nagoya and Chiba.
“You know what?” he says. “You could make six million pachinko balls from those twenty meter girders I was hauling just now. Ten million from those 40 meter ones. That’s a lot of balls.” I nod in silence. What’s there to say, he has it all worked out.
At 9:50, the doors slide open. We push our way past the line of bowing staff. Inside smells smoky and metallic like the morning after a fireworks show. The Palm Pirate’s got a plan of the parlor in its memory. I turn it on and find my machine, sit down. It’s called “Sea Tales” and the backboard’s decorated with fish and big-titted girls in bikinis.
“Good choice,” says Blondboy taking his place at the machine next to me; “these ones are ripe today.”
He shows me how to feed the money into the machine, the LED display that tells you how many balls you have left. It comes up 10,000. I’m entering the number into the pocket computer when suddenly the lights go dim and banks of ultraviolets glow on. Pounding Euro-techno starts up on the PA and an MC welcomes us to the parlor, wishes us all good luck. Blondboy takes out an inch-long vial of amyl nitrate and cracks it into a tatty Adidas face towel. The machines whir into life and he puts his hand on the wheel. I follow his lead. He takes a deep hit from his hankie. His smile’s a blue slash. I turn my fingers an inch. Half a dozen balls shot-gun into the machine, pepper its face with steel.
11:00am : 8,402
12:00pm : 6,990
2:00pm : 4,021
At twenty past two I drop a ball into a hole beneath the LCD screen and up pop three mermaids in a row. The machine goes ape-shit. White lights explode like landmines, the wheel starts buzzing and a siren begins to mewl Dolby sound from the ceiling above me. Jackpot. Dozens of balls fly into the machine and every time they hit a nail, two drop out into a plastic punnet near the ashtray. Blondboy slaps me on my back. He points at the three hula-dancing mermaids and screams “Fever!” over the wail of the sirens. There must be fifty balls screaming about behind the glass. I’m worried the screen will crack.
More balls keep flying out the bottom of the machine, pouring into a plastic box between my legs. Soon, it’s overflowing. I jump up and start stuffing them into my pockets, a plastic carrier bag. Blondboy bursts out laughing. He punches a call button on the side of the machine. A girl comes over and smoothly replaces the full box with an empty one. She whips out a DustBuster and sucks up the spilled balls from the floor. Blondboy passes me a vial of amyl and I break it into the hankie – snailshellcrack – take a five second breath. My heart starts pounding. The lights the sirens clatterball strobeflash deep-deep bassline a trance party without leaving my seat.
Still the steel keeps flying.
By the time the fever round finishes, there are six full punnets stacked behind my chair. My girl-assistant loads them onto an airport luggage trolley and wheels them off to be counted. When she comes back, she hands me three brown notes. I slide them back into the machine. The counter soars to 13,000. I’m on a roll.
At night in rural towns, for kicks, kids with slingshots knock out the first neon syllable of the pachinko parlor signs.
Turned on the next day, they flash chinko.
chinko (n.) : penis, dick, cockshaft (vulg.)
By half past four, the counter reads 11,002 and I’m in a world of hurt. I’ve got a pounding headache from the amyl and techno. I can barely focus on the run of balls. My hands feel frost-bitten. I’ve been alternating them on the wheel but it hasn’t helped – now they’re strangers to me: gnarled things stinking of steel. When I try to lift a cigarette, it drops into my lap and burns a hole in my trousers. Blondboy notices my distress. He folds a bottle-cap flat and shows me how to lodge it into the wheel. The balls keep firing on auto-pilot – I don’t have to do a thing.
It’s a different world released from the machine, two foot, twenty miles away. I rub the blood back into my fingers. I plug my ears with tissue paper and sit back. The ball goes round. The counter ticks down two a second. 10,992. 10,991. 10,990. 10,989. 10,988…
a massive metal sphere
and a sparrow
that lands upon it
once a decade,
with its wings
until it is reduced
by the end of time
to a small steel ball precisely eleven millimeters across.
I wake up. Heart pounding. Blondboy has his hankie beneath his nose and he’s laughing.
I jump up, swing at him, miss, sit down, apologize, rub the sleep from my eyes. I check my watch: it’s seven forty. I’m beginning to get my bearings. I check the LED counter; it’s up to 15,000. I’ve hit Fever three times in my sleep.
Blondboy offers me his last bottle of nicotine drink. I down it in one. Ten minutes later it hits me like a pack of Marlboro Reds. At eight o’clock I’m squirming in my seat. The DJ’s playing some deep trance. The balls are leaving traces on my retinas thick as pressure lines on a typhoon weather map.
I lock my hand around the wheel for the next seventy minutes.
Last summer in Saitama, a housewife left her toddler twins in the car while she popped into a local
parlor for a couple of rounds. She was in there for three hours. When she left the parlor, the kids
had suffocated like a couple of dogs in a supermarket car park.
At 9:40pm, the MC announces closing time’s coming soon.
Blondboy’s still next to me. His counter’s reading 990. He’s taken the bottle-top off the wheel and he’s firing off the balls manually in salvos of five or six. Nothing hits home. He bums a cigarette off me, breaks off the filter, smokes it down to a stub in four fiery drags.
At 9:55, the techno music cuts mid-track and Auld Lang Syne starts up, our cue to pack up our shit and get the hell home. Blondboy’s got 100 balls left. His eyes are orange from nicotine. There’s a twitch in his left cheek. That guy in Hokkaido must have looked like this before he copped it.
Blondboy grips the wheel and shoots off the last hundred balls one after another into the maze of nails. It takes less than a minute. The counter drops to zero and starts flashing. He takes his hand off the wheel and lays it on the plate glass. The balls hang there for an instant, then begin to drop. He traces their fall with the tips of his rusty fingers. They slide down the face of the machine as though the nails weren’t even there.
taktaktak – taktak – tak –tak
tak – chikusho – shit!
[he mutters, a perfect haiku]
Me, I enter the final tally into my boss’s computer. I’ve been in there for twelve hours. I’ve done better.
10:03pm : 10,062.