The Rock-afire Explosion at Pat’s Pizzazz Parlor
by Alicia Bones
A couple months back, a local guy bought a Rock-afire Explosion animatronic animal band for his amusement center, a strip mall birthday place frequented by kids whose parents couldn’t afford Chuck E. Cheese. Even with the new old electronics, Pat’s Pizzazz Parlor was the kind of place that had been over for decades; its appeal was that it wasn’t real anymore. That was OK for some kids, skating around on brown leather roller skates with neon orange wheels, playing the Addams Family Pinball and the Mrs. Pac-Man. Some kids didn’t have any other choice. It was a Pat’s party or no party.
I don’t have kids, but when the band from my ‘80s childhood debuted, I had to see them. The robot animals weren’t in the best shape. Not like I remembered them anyway. One of Mitzi the mouse’s eyes stayed closed, even when she raised her eyebrows. The bear Billy Bob’s mouth didn’t move, so he just lurched around with a vacant stare, his tongue lolling. The gorilla Fatz Domino was supposed to play piano, but his hands just hung high over the keyboard, moving side to side in mid-air. Their jaws twitched, their hands moved, their half-metal bodies shook with pneumatic air. I didn’t remember the characters’ movements being so herky-jerky; as a kid, their blinking seemed natural, almost human.
I got a sinking feeling when I looked at Billy Bob, his matted fur and his messed-up motions, but I couldn’t look away. The animatronics had no choice but to perform again and again, careening forward and back, hitching their arms up and down. Their fur was all falling down to reveal metal-and-mechanics buttcracks, both funny and sad, nightmaring up the kids who looked like the ones that had loved them. I know that’s what getting older is about, but nobody expects me to sing with the same sweet voice I had at 16.
I don’t care about people, but I can work up sincere feeling for animatronics.
Soon, I was at Pat’s every night. The kids wouldn’t come near the band, but that was OK because they were for us, the thirtysomethings and the fortysomethings. I’d order a couple of slices of pretty good pizza, just cheese and a little sauce on thick dough, and sit on wooden benches on top of Astro-turf and tap my toe as the band played the same songs and modulated through the same pre-programmed banter every night. All day at work I itched for the time I’d spend watching Mitzi, Fatz, Billy Bob, and the rest singing Michael Jackson and telling jokes.
I don’t often catch obsession. I’m old enough to know I should enjoy it while it lasts. I wasn’t alone in my interest. The same haggard white woman came night after night, giving her kids handfuls of quarters for arcade games. We didn’t say anything to each other, but we’d nod our hellos. A middle-aged black guy in Converse tennis shoes watched without comment until one night he said, “Damn. Billy Bob’s seen better days.”
“Yeah, but Rock-afire is still way better than Chuck E. Cheese,” the mom added.
“Hell yeah!” I said too loudly. We old kids were a type; we were a team.
Word spread about the Rock-afire band, and more people started lining up at Pat’s for its daily opening at 4pm. One night, somebody asked to share my bench, and another night two people squeezed in with me so I had to wedge myself uncomfortably against the metal railing. Not long after, people crushed into Pat’s even though they had to stand around the already-occupied benches and chairs and tabletops. No kids came anymore because they couldn’t fit inside. Instead, adults elbowed in shoulder to shoulder on the roller rink and packed into the empty spaces around the arcade games, peering through the clear glass of the claw machine.
Soon, we were out the door and down the block. Not just people from Orlando either but from other places too, bribing their way inside and buying pizza and beer that almost felt illegal to drink and watching the dingy animatronics shift unnaturally on the bright stage. We piled on top of the bumper cars with our scuffed sneakers and sat on the pizza counter, just waiting for the pimple-faced employee to yell at us to get the fuck down. Somehow, we’d become both the kids we’d been and the kids we’d been afraid of.
Nobody wanted the Rock-afire gang to be perfect. Maybe it would’ve been nice if they were fixed up a little better, but we still wanted them to be wrong. Worse off than they’d been. Everything these days is getting better and better; who doesn’t want to see something shittier sometimes? Everybody liked feeling sorry and a little bit sick about the place where Beach Bear’s mask was melted and his metal jaw peeked through.
After all, we were a little rougher these days, too. None of us had been maintained well, and we were showing our age. Even in their dilapidated shape, the band was better off than we were because when we’d seen them last, we’d been supple-skinned and easily-awed, and now none of us could think of a thing, not a single thing, that would excite us besides revisiting what had once surprised us. We couldn’t stop looking at Billy Bob’s scuffed-up eyeball or his drooping jaw, but we understood him better than we did back then. We used to be young enough to constantly reinvent ourselves – donning a second skin and a third and a fourth and a fifth and on and on, but they didn’t make Billy Bob masks anymore. This is it, he seemed to say, but that’s OK. Under all that fur, he was a machine, and machines have always understood better than we do that everything’s destined for nostalgia, then obsolescence.
A Nebraska native, Alicia Bones is now a Seattle-based writer and college instructor. Her work has been published in Paper Darts, Fairy Tale Review, Pidgeonholes, Necessary Fiction, Maudlin House, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere.
Image source: Franck V. via Unsplash