While I heard myself say, "Yep. I'm still planning on it - sounds fun," I immediately knew it was wrong. But instead of heading home after school, I left with my friend in the opposite direction. As I exited the school yard, I passed my mom's friend in her burnt orange station wagon. She was parked as usual, waiting to pick up her two daughters from school. I saw her look at me inquisitively as I turned right instead of left outside the chain link fence. But I pretended not to notice.
By the time we got uptown, I could see the brick exterior of our destination on the far end of town square. It was next to the only hardware store in the area. I had been to the hardware store with its bell donning, single door entrance many times. Often, I had gone with my grandpa to gather supplies for a home improvement project. He always completed something special each summer he visited. Thanks to him we had a great swing that hung from the tallest pine tree in our back yard and monkey bars by the garden.
One time I even went to the hardware store by myself. I remembered that day clearly, even though it was several years prior. Probably because it was the first errand I had ever run for my mom all alone. I felt so grown up getting on my bike with the money carefully tucked deep in my pocket so that it would not accidentally fall out. A direct result of mom's phone call, the small package of miscellaneous supplies was gathered in a brown bag with dull red stripes sitting by the register when I arrived. To my amazement the store clerk immediately recognized me, even though I was certain I had never seen him before. Or maybe Mom had explained, probably in more detail than the clerk cared to hear, that an eight-year old girl in a red and white polyester top with red shorts and two long, brunette pig tails would be arriving soon on her bike. There couldn't have been many that fit that description. So maybe it shouldn't have been so amazing after all.
However, this trip was not an errand for my mother. And I was not headed to the hardware store. For the first time in several minutes, guilt suddenly crept back into my thoughts as I recalled what I was about to do. I started to feel strangely nervous. But that was ridiculous. Everyone did this. Everyone but me anyway. Until now.
Each step I took toward the building made it more difficult to turn and walk the other way. Like walking through thickly wet cement, with each stride my decision was more distinct and more impossible to change.
My friend seemed oblivious to my pounding chest and clammy hands. Of course she had been here before. Many times, in fact. She walked along like it was no big deal. And that is what I kept telling myself it was: no big deal. But it was a big deal. And I knew it. At least for me. But for some reason I kept walking toward the wrong, instead of turning back.
It would be so simple too -to do the right thing. I could even make up a white lie. Except lying was wrong too. But some things were more right or wrong than others. I imagined that all I would have to do is stop short and gasp,
"Oh no! I forgot. My mom needs me to babysit after school. Sorry, I gotta go, maybe another time."
And then I could quickly turn around, and run down the wide, mostly empty, small town sidewalk. When I got to the corner lot with only a shell of a building, covered in white peeling paint and framed with a couple lone gas pumps covered in rust and missing their hoses, I could head west. From there I would be home in only a few minutes. I could walk inside the familiar craftsman that probably smelled faintly of dinner already in some stage of preparation. And since I would only be less than five minutes later than usual, Mom would probably not even notice.
But I couldn't bring my mouth to utter the words.
Suddenly, we were at the front door of the circa 1950's brick building. It was too late. However, uncertain I was about the decision before, it was made now. I saw a couple bikes on the outside of the entrance, dropped there no doubt by a couple kids from my school. This meant my friend and I would not be the only ones. It should have made me feel better, but it didn't.
As I followed my friend's soft blond curls inside the smoky room, it took a minute for my pupils to adjust from the bright afternoon sunlight to the dingy darkness of the establishment. The neon signs on the wall cast a soft glow in the haze. I suddenly thought about Mrs. Greedy's 3rd-grade class. She asked us each to promise not to smoke. And we all raised our hands together to make the commitment. I wondered how much breathing that air felt like smoking. If it were similar, it made no sense to me why anyone would ever smoke anything.
A couple rough looking guys with bellies as round as pumpkins sat on barstools in front of us. They slowly turned to look at the newcomers. And then, just as dully, wheeled back around on their swivel seats.
I was genuinely surprised not one of them tried to tell us to leave. I knew we didn't belong here and I was only twelve. Didn't grown-ups know what's right and wrong? And wasn't it their job to keep kids from doing wrong things? But since there was no one to stop us, we proceeded through the room over to the far corner.
And there it stood. It was flashy and beautiful. I felt my stomach do a little leap for joy. My goal. The one thing that had caused me to break so many of my parent's rules.
In only a few minutes I had used numerous quarters, saved from small jobs like babysitting the karate teacher's kids. After awhile, I reached deep into the pocket of my Lee jeans, and only felt string and fuzz. I bent down and then handed my friend a damp, rolled up dollar from inside my sock. I had brought it for an emergency like this. She was plenty brave enough to ask the bartender for change. I was not.
The arcade game that started out so new and unfamiliar soon became more rhythmic and easy to maneuver. However, it wasn't long before I was completely out of money. I was hugely disappointed. The time had gone by far too quickly. I impatiently watched my friend finish her last game on a neighboring machine. Then we grabbed our school books, and walked out the door and headed home.
The sun was low in the late afternoon sky. I had no idea what time it was, but I knew it was late enough that I needed to work on a very good excuse for Mom and, by this time, probably Dad too. I considered all the trouble I'd be in and wondered if a few minutes on the brand new Ms Pac Man game would be worth the punishment I'd be given when I got home.
In the fresh, early autumn air, I thought I caught the smell of something terribly rank. Cautiously, I sniffed at my shoulder. Hmmmm...this excuse was going to have to be really good.