Monday, April 12, 2010

A Pizza My Heart

At some point between the loss of Sarah’s infatuation with mechanical dancing bears singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and my first liver spot, the Chuck E Cheese on Burnet Road closed. A couple of them remain in Austin, one on Ben White and the others on the fringes of suburbia where paper-thin trophy moms still cart their knocked-kneed, apple-cheeked little darlings in their Lexus SUVs straight from cheer or soccer or kickball practice to Chuck E Cheese for a few hours of high-pitched mayhem and pizza that’s as hard as particle board but without the pine-fresh indigestion. I have no desire to visit either, and my only interest in the Chuck E Cheese on Burnet Road stems from the days shortly after my divorce. It was 1989 or thereabouts, and Sarah was five or six, and her best friend was Rachel Something. Rachel’s dad was a carpenter, and her mom was a nurse, and their marriage was no more successful than mine had been, so suddenly, Rachel’s mom and I are ferrying the girls once a week to the closest Chuck E Cheese, which happened to be on Burnet next door to a Ross Dress For Less and what seemed to be a half dozen paint stores, about a mile north of my home in Allandale.
The new Chuck E Cheese franchises may be paragons of high-tech hygiene, but the Chuck E Cheese on Burnet then was as stale as a knock-knock joke. The place consisted of two rooms: an entry chamber with laminate tables and rickety aluminum chairs and the cash register and a bank of video games, all of which glistened with grease. Even the wait staff glistened with grease, although most of that was acne.

The back room, of course, showcased the dancing bears, who had the good sense to sing the Beatles instead of Guns & Roses or Tiffany or INXS, so Rachel's mom and I ordered two cheese pizzas, purchased a handful of tokens and turned the girls loose to chase each other and squeal and drown in the plastic ball pit while we kicked back two or three pitchers of what had to be the coldest beer in Austin.

I don’t think it was an accident that Chuck E Cheese served ice-cold beer at competitive prices. The recently divorced like Rachel's mom and myself slouched in our rickety chairs and slugged down mug after mug of Bud Light and commiserated and flirted and bitched and flirted and cursed our former spouses and wondered how it all went wrong, and then I leaned across the table and said, “Dang, you’re pretty,” and asked, “Do you want to play air hockey?” which, of course, Rachel’s mom did not, so I popped to my feet and announced, “Well, watch this.”

Half-snockered, I staggered to the air hockey table, deposited a token and took on all comers: mostly thuggy 10-year-olds who hated the Beatles and dancing bears and their parents for splitting up, not that I gave a damn.
“Wanna play,” I asked one of them.

“Absolutely, old man,” a stupid little son-of-a-bitch answered.

And so I kicked his ass. And then I kicked the ass of the next stupid little son-of-a-bitch. And then I kicked the ass of the first stupid little son-of-a-bitch again, and then I returned to my chair and pronounced myself the Air Hockey Stud of All Time and demanded more beer, which Rachel’s mom gladly poured. I had hoped she was thinking “Dang, you’re pretty,” but she wasn’t.
By then, it was 7:30 going on eight, and all of us young parents needed to get home, so Rachel’s mom and I slogged to our respective restrooms, splashed water on our faces, sprayed cheap mouthwash down our throats, shook our heads as if that would sober us up, rustled up the girls, hugged, promised to do it again next week, drove home, sent the girls to bath and bed, poured ourselves a glass of Pinot Grigio and watched Jay Leno alone.
This went on for maybe six months. Nothing ever came of it, but like Merle Haggard sang, “It’s not love. But it’s not bad.” That was true back then for everything at the Chuck E Cheese on Burnet Road except, of course, the pizza.