The Return of the Orange Virgin
Chapter Ten―Video Poker

High yellow sodium lights on sixty-foot pylons ringed the gas pumps, casting few and deceptive shadows. Arsenault’s One-Stop and Family Sundries was also the bus stop. To this it owed no small portion of its success. In an age of specialization, Theo Arsenault was generalist, with gas pumps, a soda fountain, over-the-counter drugs and notions, and a wall of coin-operated gaming machines. Plus lottery tickets, tobacco and magazines. Canadian taxes added over five dollars to the price of one pack of cigarettes as soon as you crossed the bridge. The tobacco trade was stay-at-home: Canadians proud to do their share for National Health by shelling out the excise, and tourists who had money enough not to care. Pen and Prince were regulars during the weekend benders when Pen reviewed his career mobility and the slights and indignities of the week just past. The man and the dog received only a cursory glance from the two teenage toughs playing the video poker machine. They leaned in, sweaty with unaccustomed thought, and shucked slick black leather jackets that were let fall to the floor. Matching packs of Pall Malls were rolled up in their T-shirt sleeves. Pen was comforted that the great mandala had come around one more time.

A bewildered-looking woman was pressing a sheaf of  claim stubs on the night clerk. “Lady, I’m sorry, but it just hasn’t gotten here yet. Freight isn’t like check-on baggage. They send it on when they have the room to spare.” He was gesturing to the empty shelves behind him emblazoned with the Atlantic BusWays logo.

“But there was lots of room. I was the only passenger on that bus.”

“That bus, miss. There are others and they are full. Your bag will probably come along tomorrow.” Seeing Pen, he reached down a pack of Players from the overhead cigarette stacks. “S’cuse me, got a customer.” He favored the woman with a smile, a wall of friendly, attentive indifference.

The woman turned and gave Pen the once-over, sizing up this latest manifestation of the local life forms. Pen’s hands and feet felt oversized and his neck started throbbing. He was very conscious of his condition and appearance and wished he had met this woman sober and by daylight. She was magnetically beautiful and he spun a fantasy scenario of the two of them walking barefoot on the beach. Compelling, that was the word. He found her compelling. She radiated a spirituality usually lacking in bus passengers, something ennobling. Prince sensed this too, and made a small whimper of recognition.

They made eye contact and Pen quickly diverted his attention elsewhere, very aware of how he must look—human refuse, it might be catching. Mothers hastily draw their little ones to them, clearing a path, holding their breaths as he passes, protecting their children from the fumes of failure and neglect. He was a spreading stain of social wreckage at a spiritual and magnetic moment.

Pen tried to look busy. There was the urge to check in a mirror: “Sorry, forgot my tie; it’s at home with the good suit.” He cast about for a plausible object to hold in his hands. Snatching a copy of Modern Fly Fishing from the magazine rack, he furiously leafed through it. Resentment flared against himself, the world at large—everybody and everything that was not him, could not understand. Prince also felt the call, but had none of his master’s inhibitions. Trailing his leash, he walked up to the woman and stuck his nose between her legs.

“Well hello there, big fella. You’re not in the least bit shy are you?” Not intimidated by a dog almost her size, the woman knelt down, and putting her nose to Prince’s, shook his head by the ears.

Pen hurried over, muttering apologies. “Sorry about that. He just likes people is all.”

“Well, I like him, too. He’s just a big love.” She formed her words well, an educated, big city girl. She rose and extended a hand. “Hi, I’m, I’m...” There was no name. She scanned the shelves for an inspiration. “Granola. Uh... Margaret Granola. Call me Maggie.”

The simple, everyday gesture caught Pen off balance. He was prepared for a quick getaway, but in that instant it was all over. Pen was awash on the shoals of beauty, his compass demagnetized, his ready anger put to flight by her directness. He heard himself mouthing formulas of apology for his dog. Modern Fly Fishing was twisted into a paper party favor.

Her hand hung between them. She pressed it forward, coming closer; there would be no easy retreat for Pen Harrington. “Are you a fisherman?” She had noticed the crumpled magazine in his hands.

“Oh, me? No.” There was a pause. Prince thumped the floor, approving. Her eyes were dark and clear, friendly without a trace of amusement at catching him out. His rage flushed and faded. “Lose your baggage?”

“No, my baggage is fine, or so the man here assures me. It’s just not here yet. I’m the one who’s lost.”

The hand was still extended. Pen dropped Modern Fly Fishing and took it. “Welcome to Loupe du Jour, New Brunswick, Canada. Pen Harrington.”

“Well, Mister Harrington, it’s simply grand to make your acquaintance. And besides, my arm was getting tired. I’m... actually, I don’t seem to know who I am. Maggie is probably not my real name. I hope that doesn’t bother you. It should bother me, but it doesn’t. My ticket says I got on in New York City, but I don’t remember a thing.”

Pen chilled. “Amnesia, huh?” She was too good to be true. “There’s a lot of that going around.”

Immediately, he regretted the wisecrack, but she seemed not to have taken offense. Such openness, such sincerity. This had the all hallmarks of a setup for an unnecessarily elaborate con game and Pen Harrington didn’t care. His eyes must have given him away; she picked right up on it.

“It does sound awfully bogus. I mean... doesn’t it? It’s all so involved,” Maggie said. “Don’t worry, your life savings are safe. I mean... wouldn’t it be simpler for me to just ask for spare change?”

“You can’t remember anything? I mean who you are, where you came from?”

“I know came from New York, it’s right here on my ticket, and I was hoping I’d find some clues in my suitcase, only it’s not here yet.”

Pen allowed that if she were an adventuress out on a big money scam and posing as an amnesia victim, a cruise ship or international air terminal were more likely locations to stalk her prey. “You know your name, that’s a start.”

“Oh, Maggie? That just popped into my head when I saw you and, and...?”

“Prince.”

“Prince...” More thumping and the nose was back in place—a low, happy glottal rumble as ears were scratched by the exciting, wonderful woman, “...I knew introductions would be in order. Prince and I are going to be close. Very close.”

Pen Harrington was in love but did not trust the feeling. He examined it with the pitiless precision he usually expended on the level of the bottle waiting on the table at home. Love, too, was perhaps important. She was beautiful, wonderful, pure and fine, and all Pen could think of was getting her in the sack. He despised himself. “You could stay at my place.”

For Prince, big and yellow, the arrival of Margaret Granola known as Maggie was another fresh event in a life already crowded with newnesses. The great yellow Lab rolled over at her feet and fell asleep, snoring loudly. By comparison, the moment of recognition for Pen Harrington was pretty tame stuff.

“I know I should be more concerned, but I’m not. I am on a mission—that I remember. That and a voice.” Maggie regarded Pen archly. This was a test.

And Pen passed the test with flying colors: she heard voices; she was a whacko and it didn’t matter.

“And I suppose I am a jogger,” said Maggie. “Because of the shoes?” She lifted one foot, showing off an expensive, high-tech sneaker.

Pen Harrington was feeling the wandering, unpredictable itches that were never where they said they were when you went to scratch them. His body wanted a drink. At the same time he wanted this woman more than he had wanted anything in his life. His attention strayed; he had lost her for a minute. She was talking to him.

“Are you all right? I asked if you were a jogger.”

“Not lately.” He had done no exercise of any description in over eighteen years. “Track in high school,” he added weakly. In the operating manual we are given at birth there is a hidden command. It tells the bearer, This is it. Put down your pencil, wrench or screwdriver, land the airplane, bring this ship safely to berth and cease all superfluous activity. You are in love; go for it. This is the big one.

Maggie took him by both hands and looked deeply, closely into his eyes. “That’s all right, we’ll get you back into shape.”

A decision had been made to which Pen did not recall being a party. All his life had been quick flings and easy liaisons. He looked at himself from space, a satellite photograph. Its taut surface mimicked depth while being shallow and immensely, incalculably wide—a great sullen puddle after an unexpected passing shower, calm in the repose of easy commitments soon forgotten.

“I am on a mission. You don’t think I’m crazy, do you? It doesn’t matter if you do. You know what they say: ‘A pretty girl can always find some nice man to look after her.’ You are a nice man. I trust you.”

Pen Harrington fell like the last of the forest giants before the chain saw of wide-eyed disingenuousness. Prince snored and dreamed of a child astride a great chestnut horse.

The three left together and Maggie moved in. “Some soap and hot water and a little elbow grease and we’ll make this place sparkle.”

At times like this one is expected to overlook little flaws in one’s intended. You make small talk and the phrases ring down the ages.

*  *  *

Meanwhile back at Arsenault’s One-Stop and Family Sundries, the night clerk, Gerald Bronson MacKechnie, had replaced the toughs at the video poker machine. He slammed it with the heel of his hand. He was a solid citizen who saw himself as a free spirit.

Thwack!

He found this satisfying and did it again with the same minimal results.

Thwack!

Inside the gaudily painted cabinet the tiny fields of a memory chip collapsed, sending its stored contents winging away to chip heaven. On a video display framed by irreverently stenciled plywood, a Jack, deuce, nine and a pair of red tens blanked out leaving a field of low-resolution scan lines. Gerry MacKechnie had been plugging in the quarters he boosted from Arsenault’s till hoping for a twenty-dollar payoff. He was the lone dweller left remaining in Arsenault’s, the woman and man with the big yellow dog having sorted out some misunderstanding over luggage and left thirty minutes earlier.

No one had seen and he could hope for a quiet getaway. He had put off going home until he had broken even and now he had broken the machine. Three AM. Sheila would give him a frosting—no nookie, cold feet in bed and up with the kids at six. And Arsenault was sure to notice the missing money. He would blame the teenage slackers. Drinking beer, driving back roads with the radio cranked, hanging out at the truck stop were heady medicine.

He knelt to see if the plug had come loose from the wall. It had not. “Shit.” Gerry hit it again. Thwack!

Nothing. Not even the satisfying jingles and rattle of springs and linkages you got in the good old-time pinball machines. “I thought there was a special Providence that looked out after these things,” said Gerry, meaning the Provincial Lottery Corporation.

“There is,” replied the machine, “and it doesn’t like muscleheads abusing Church property.”

A cascade of coins fell into the trough. “But for you this night there will be a plenary indulgence. Take a cab.”

Gerry looked around. Theo was fussing with a clipboard out at the gas pumps, getting totals. This must be some new program from the Lottery Corporation. He scooped up the money and reached for his jacket.

“Be fruitful and multiply,” said the machine.

Struggling into his jacket, Gerry hurriedly backed from the store, hoping to be unobserved. Arsenault’s was a blaze of light, the only human habitation in Loupe du Jour, New Brunswick with lights on.

“Quack, quack, quack,” said the video poker machine as a duck appeared on the screen, stalking back and forth with a big cigar and a painted mustache. Doing a Groucho. The screen filled with the Corporation’s usual come-on—Youth, Beauty and an annuity somewhere in an ill-defined future all for a dollar investment. El the sky demon was pleased with himself. The parceling out of human fortune was going well...

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