by Phil Berry
Carl starts early, in life, in the day. He walks along the promenade under the blue fabric of his hoody. The still feminine fingers of his right hand are curled around a loose column of copper coins. Low denomination, tuppences, thin discs you wouldn’t double over to pick off the street.
The coins have taken up the blood heat. In anticipation of the bout with chance that he is soon to join, Carl brings the hand out of his pocket and up to his mouth. He gets the tang of freshly opened skin.
At this hour there is only Carl and the owner, Sidney, who has grown translucent in the perpetual shadow of the penny arcade. He sits behind glass in a narrow booth, though he does not need protection in a seaside town that growth has forgotten, which the sea kisses with distaste on its diurnal surge.
Carl selects a slot. Left or right, that is the only choice. He has made a strategic, no a tactical, decision. It came to him at night, while his parents murmured about life’s hard choices and Carl pretended to sleep. Choose one cabinet, and feed it, feed it till it’s full. It will pay you back.
Carl has very little control over a coin’s final destination. But he can time the release well enough to ensure that it comes to lie flat on the metal before the pusher returns; no slip-overs for Carl.
Now, because he has tied himself to the one cabinet, because the heap of coins that lies near the precipice was formed by his own hand, he can predict how each new arrival will fit in. Chance accretes around practise, and sacrifice; chance builds, like the calcium in the joints of his creaking thumbs.
His fibrosed heart tightens. There was a shift, a near-tipping moment. The fall, when it happens, will be incessant. Coins will fill the tray, they will spill out onto the floor. Kids passing on the windy promenade will hear the insistent thrash of copper on the curved metal tray that juts out at shin level. They will gather near the entrance and watch in awe.
Sidney takes a circuit around the arcade. Standing behind Carl, observing the regular’s bowed back, he places a hand on one of his shoulders. The fabric of the coat gives way into a concavity of wasted flesh beneath. “That one’s looking ready to go, Carl,” he says, nodding toward a neighbouring cabinet.
Carl has no bodily needs when he is playing. Nothing in, nothing out. Not even a cigarette. Looking down at the spread of coins, poised agonisingly, he catches his own reflection in the glass. The once unruly shock of hair is white and thin now. Nicotine has deepened the grooves that run vertically from cheek bones to jawline. Where is that hoody? Did he lose it on the beach?
They gather near the entrance, the kids, magnetised, until their concerned elders steer them away.
Phil Berry’s short fiction has appeared in Ellipsis Zine, Bunbury Magazine, Hypnopomp, Liars’ League, Headstuff and Metaphorosis, among others. He lives and works in London.