Book: Ask the Right Question

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Bud’s Dugout is where it’s been for about seventeen years, out a little on Virginia Avenue. Past the railroad tracks. Southeast Indianapolis. Prices are up but Ma keeps the menu pretty constant. The pinball machines are about the only things that are changed regularly. She has four, and one gets replaced every three or four months. They wear out, you know, especially when they get a lot of action. They can be adjusted for a while, but it takes more and more servicing and they lose their liveliness. That’s sad in a good machine. But humans seem to make their machines with the same inherent sadnesses they have themselves.

“Hello, boy,” she said when she looked up and saw me sitting at the counter. She had only a couple of customers when I came in, so I stayed in the front. When it’s crowded I go to the back. Like me, she used to have a separate apartment, but when Bud finally died she moved into the back of the Dugout. Bud was my father.

“How’s the baby? You hear from her recently?” She was asking after her granddaughter.

“I haven’t heard in the last week or two, but I sent her a note.”

“When are you going to see her next?” She passed me a bowl of her chili. And tea, real pot-brewed tea.

“Not sure, Ma. Soon maybe.” I come around every few weeks, to check up on her. See she’s OK. We’re not close, exactly, but we’re not far either. Tonight she was doing pretty well, well enough. Tired but unbowed. She owns the place, not a mortgage. I paid that off back the one time I was doing well.

Two people came in, a young couple. They picked a table, then conferred a moment. The girl went to play Hayride, while the boy came to the counter to wait for Ma. He ordered cheeseburgers and french fries, and then he joined the girl. They each played one flipper.

Ma bent over and whispered in my ear. “They like the machines. What do you think they do?”

I looked, but could get no clues from clothes. While I watched, they missed a replay and traded flippers. I shrugged and shook my head.

“Teachers!” Ma looked smug and I could see why. They were so young! “She told me,” Ma continued. “They teach high school. He teaches math at Tech; she teaches French and Latin in some private school. I forget the name.”

I shrugged and shook my head. I had had my schools for the day. It reminded me of business. I took the one thousand dollars from my hip pocket and passed it to my mother. “Keep this for me, will you?”

She looked in the envelope. “What for?”

“Bail maybe. I got it too late to put in the bank, and it isn’t safe to carry.” She knew I meant—not safe if I was arrested.

“You expect trouble?”

“No, but it can’t hurt to be prepared.” The young couple cooed and chortled. They had won a free game.

“All right, boy. Take care though.”

“I will, Ma.” I don’t often go to Ma’s just to eat, but when I do I get the strange feeling of being like a cop. I leave without paying.

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