As I Command

First published in Atticus Review, July 17, 2023. Copyright 2023 by Tetman Callis.

            I still have the ledgers that show how much I spent—two-bucks-fifty on September 20—dollar seventy-five on October 5—four bits October 25—two bucks November 13—on and on, I was in the groove. Chump change in a greater scheme of things, but this was a while back. My hourly wage was four-and-a-quarter, plus tips. I was the senior bartender at a respectable establishment, part of a chain.

            This was during Reagan’s first term. The times, they were dire. Like, whenever are they not? Nuclear sabers were a-rattle. Old Cold War animosities were the rage. And there was a new rage, in the machines—arcade style video games. The big, old-fashioned kind—old-fashioned now, but the newest cool thing then—you stood at them and dropped in your quarters, played your play.

            There were several and various from which to choose. Some of the goofier ones, like Pac-Man and Centipede, did not entice me. I was into war trash. Science fiction slugfests like Galaga, or one that was my favorite, Missile Command.

            Missile Command was a perfect game for a Boomer raised in the Cold War. We had been taught from early on—took it in with our mother’s milk, you could say—that we lived under the unremitting threat of atomic cataclysm raining down from the sky. The Russians were our mortal enemy from longer than anyone could remember. They were waiting, itchy fingers on nuclear triggers, for their earliest opportunity to launch a devastating first strike, missiles incinerating our peaceful cities.

            But with Missile Command, you could launch the defending anti-ballistic missiles, destroy the incoming warheads before they could impact their targets, save your cities and their people. Except, you couldn’t. Each level of the game was more difficult than the one before, more missiles arcing down, faster and faster, until at last, you were overwhelmed, your defending missiles expended, your cities rendered into piles of glowing radioactive rubble, your friends and family all gone.

            Every night on my way home from my bartending gig, I would stop by the Circle K closest to my apartment—they were open 24 hours at that Circle K—and I would drop quarter after quarter into the Missile Command game, playing with compulsion until I was out of change or it had grown too late—too early, really, I didn’t get off work till two in the morning. And half the time, I was three sheets to the wind, having treated myself to closing time triple Margaritas—but hell, it was said that drunk the Russians beat Napoleon, and drunk they beat Hitler, so if they could do that drunk, and in a real world, who was to say a drunk American couldn’t defeat the Russkies in some fantasyland?

            Well, this one couldn’t. Final game over, I would go home, pass out fully clothed on my bed. Tomorrow was another working day of a night, more chump change to pull in, more closing time Margaritas to swill, more quarters to rock into the slot at the all-night Circle K, more imaginary missiles to launch into a sky in a war everyone hoped would never come.