The Sheriff of Paddy’s Pizza
Grace Abbott never expected how far she’d travel, on the power of a single quarter. Her journey began in October 1982, with her shift as assistant manager at Paddy’s Pizza. The pizza boxes at Paddy’s featured a dancing green leprechaun. The man running the place, Don Barton, owned half of the small West Texas town where Grace lived with her mom and twelve-year-old daughter.
“Game time?” T.L., the cook, pushed through the swinging doors opening into the kitchen. At 6’2” and 240 pounds, the teenager looked like he belonged on the football squad, but he opted for playing tuba in the marching band instead.
“You know the rules. Quarters back before midnight.”
Grace twirled her keys and unlocked the coin doors on the machines. She scooped out a palmful of coins for T.L., then looked through the rest, searching for one dated 1970, her daughter’s birthdate. Grace found a shiny new quarter, and one silver quarter from 1964 that she pocketed to keep and replace with one from her purse. No lucky coins.
T.L. dropped a quarter into Pac-Man and Grace chose the game tucked in the back corner of the game room, Wild West Showdown.
“No one else plays that lame-ass game,” T.L. said. The glow from Pac-Man reflected across his face.
“I feel sorry for it, stuck here five years. Like me.” The quarter fell clinking into the game. The screen winked to life with a tinny tune and Grace became the Sheriff with the silver star badge.
With a shimmy of the joystick, Grace swaggered through a town populated with soiled doves and schoolmarms, gamblers and merchants, farmers and ranchers. Black-garbed villains popped up behind posts and barrels.
“Whoa!” T.L.’s voice jarred her from the Old West.
Grace glanced at the screen and blasted the last outlaw, a red-haired cowboy. He collapsed onto the pixilated dirt as the score rolled up in brilliant yellow. The clock in the dining room showed one A.M. They’d been playing for two hours.
“High score!” T.L. said. “Put in your initials.”
Grace punched the red button three times—GKA. Grace Kelly Abbott. The letters gave her a moment of satisfaction. Not as good as seeing her name on a diploma, but still good.
At home, Grace eased open the closet door to hang up her jacket. She brushed her fingers across the brim of a tan Stetson stashed on the shelf. Her Dad’s Texas Ranger hat. “You left some big boots to fill,” Grace whispered.
She tiptoed to her daughter’s room. Beth slept burrowed under the covers. The oscillating fan on her bedside table fluffed the wisps of her bangs. Grace blew a kiss. She wouldn’t have given up Beth for anything, but she hoped her daughter wouldn’t make the mistakes she’d made, knocked up at seventeen. Grace newly appreciated what her mother had been through—a widow raising a teenager and a baby.
In the quiet kitchen Grace poured a glass of milk. A stack of crumpled paper, an application to the police academy, lay centered on the kitchen table. Grace had dumped it in the trash that morning. A yellow sticky note taped to the front read, “You can do this, Mom!”
Grace brushed a line of coffee grounds from the papers, then opened the kitchen cabinet junk drawer and tossed the pages inside. She wasn’t getting any younger working at Paddy’s, but facing down bad guys in the Wild West wasn’t the same as the real world. In the real world the guns had actual bullets, and you only had one life to lose.
When she reported for work later that week, Don called Grace into his office. “Can you come in early on Sunday, the 28th?” he asked. “I’ve got someone coming by to appraise the Wild West game.” Don rubbed his hands together, like a pot-bellied cricket. “That game is rare, there’s only one in the whole United States.”
“You’re selling it?” Grace asked.
“If I can get a good return. No one plays it. I think I’ll put in another Donkey Kong console.”
Grace worked her shifts at Paddy’s, returning home each evening with the scent of pepperoni in her hair, the red stain of tomato sauce streaking the front of her clothes. She avoided the Wild West game. Dust settled on the screen, softening the animated display. The Friday night after-football crowd left crumbs and greasy fingerprints on the console. When Grace swiped it clean, she glimpsed a shadowy figure leaning out the swinging doors of the saloon.
The last Saturday of the month, she waved T.L. out the door as the final customer left. Doors locked, registers emptied, dining room mopped and tables wiped—Grace paused at the arched entrance to the game room. She jingled the keys in her hand, then stepped to the Wild West machine. If there was a quarter left in there, she’d play.
She opened the metal front of the cash box. A single quarter sat at the bottom. Grace lifted it and checked the date. 1970. She had to play this one, her daughter’s birthday on the only quarter in the game? It had to be a sign.
The longer she played, the more the outside world dropped away. Grace flinched as the pow and whistle of shots rang past. The bad guys never gave up. At level 120 she hopped on a stagecoach and interrupted an armed robbery for 1,000 points. She lost a life on level 200, when one of the town merchants got between her and a cluster of bandits, spoiling her shot.
“Damn!” She hit the screen with her palm and felt herself jerked forward. Spinning, she fell hard. Grace opened her eyes to packed dirt, gritty under her palms. She looked up into a midnight blue sky, pin-pricked with more stars than she’d ever seen in her lifetime. The air smelled of manure and sage and a hint of something else. Gunpowder.
“What the hell,” Grace muttered. She pinched herself, slapping her arms across the leather vest on her chest. A silver star pinned there winked up at her. She took a step and her boots jingled. “Spurs,” she said, “I’m wearing spurs.”
Grace spun to take in the town. Illuminated by the light of a full moon, she recognized from the game, the dry goods store, the blacksmith shop, and the hotel framed with weathered gray wood. At the far end of the street the swinging doors of the saloon swayed as though someone had just passed through. The sharp cry of a hawk pierced the otherwise still night.
“Hello?” Grace called, the sound of her voice muffled, like a static-filled phone call.
A hundred yards away, a stranger stepped from the shaded porch of the saloon. Grace’s hands went to the guns holstered at her sides. The challenger strode forward. Tall and lanky, he was dressed all in black. He had silver spurs, chaps, black hat, and a gun belt Grace hoped did not carry live ammo.
“Halt!” Grace shouted.
The stranger paused, then took off his hat and pulled out a grey cloth to mop his brow. His red hair looked almost black in the moonlight. Dreamlike, the stranger’s hand drifted to his gun. It floated from the holster, aimed at Grace.
The six-shooter at her side felt heavy, like a real gun, not like the plastic controller on the video game. This can’t be happening, Grace thought. She took her stance and fired, remembering lessons learned from her father when she was thirteen, before they lost him.
The sound of the shot was deafening, not the musical pop of an arcade game. A blow struck her chest and Grace fell. Shaking, she scrambled to her feet as the crunch of approaching footsteps sounded.
“I’m okay. I’m okay,” she chanted. She brushed dust from her clothes. No blood. The stranger marched toward her, fifty yards away and closing. Grace turned and ran.
Teeth chattering, Grace crouched at the side of the dry goods store. She watched for the stranger’s moonlit shadow to appear. One life lost before being sucked into the game, then one more just now. Three to start. She had one life left.
Grace checked the cylinder on her gun, then cocked the hammer and stepped out into the street. She faced the red-haired stranger and fired as smoke flared from the barrel of his gun. The world faded to black.
Grace woke staring at the game room’s ceiling. The Wild West game ran out, losing the last of her play with a warbling note.
At home, later that night, Grace pulled the police academy application from the drawer. She dusted off her Dad’s Stetson and settled it on her head, tipping the brim just so. She sat down at the kitchen table with a pen and wrote, filling out the application for the police academy. A silver star rested at her elbow.
Writers’ workshop and writing group