Immoral Woman

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Beginner’s luck is usually bad,” Ruan said with the same slight smile. “Try again.”

When I had fumbled away the second ball, the machine had bestowed only two hundred points on me.

“Do not be afraid to hit the machine,” Ruan Lingyu told me. “Come here.” I bent down to her, and she whispered so close to my ear that I could feel the hot hiss of her breath: “Remember — it is a woman! It is an immoral woman!”

At first I slapped and pushed the machine, as I had seen Ruan do; but gradually, as my confidence increased, I began actually to imagine that the pinball machine was a woman, that it required a more gentle, empathetic touch, that I could bring to bear on it all the subtlety — even, strange to say, the affection — that a man can feel toward a woman. I came to understand that a machine can be caressed as can a woman, as gladly and as gratefully (had the circumstances of our meeting been vastly different) as I could have caressed Ruan herself. It was the first time I had allowed myself, even so indirectly, to think of her in this way; but this fantasy, far from distracting my concentration from the machine I held in my hands, sharpened my sensitivity to it. While I played I could feel Ruan watching me, watching as I knocked down rows of drop-targets, sent the bonus lights whirling toward the maximum. By the time I had finished with that third ball I had earned a replay. And when I turned around, Ruan was gone.




The World of Hurt



The elegant ladies and gentlemen had vanished from the Pair-o’-Dice Lounge and been replaced by another class of customer: middle-aged men, drowsy from alcohol, in shabby flannel shirts and brown corduroy pants. Harsh-bright fluorescent lights exposed the bamboo plants as artificial, and the jukebox bore an out-of-order sign, curled and yellowing. The lounge smelled like an overturned beer truck. The only remnant of its hour of glory was the elderly customer at the end of the bar, who had folded his arms and fallen asleep beside the chessboard.

The bartender tapped the old man on the shoulder and informed him, “You left your queen en pris.”

“Be my guest,” grumbled the old man, slipping off his stool. “Every game’s got to end some time.” He left the lounge, shaking his head and buttoning his tuxedo, as if he had gone to sleep in a dream and awakened to a nightmare.

On the other side of the beaded curtain, the league players were still chalking up their scores on the overhead projectors, and the man in lane five still stood at the line urging his ball with his hips. “Where is Ruan Lingyu?” I asked the cashier.

“Hey!” he shouted, dropping his racing form and pointing. “Outta here! Out!”

An old woman had pushed halfway through the entrance with a supermarket shopping basket full of distended plastic bags. Three policemen in riot gear followed. “Keep it moving,” said one, ringing her cart with his billy club.

“I was just asking — ” sputtered the woman.

“Ask somewhere else,” another cop interrupted, shoving her cart back outside.

The three ambled jerkily to the counter, as if their armor were too heavy for them. One lifted his face shield and whined, mimicking the woman, “‘Just wanna go to the bathroom, Sir?’




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