Solitary Zen Pinball

Solitary Zen Pinball

In 1974, Brian Theodore was a legend of sorts in the world of pinball design. Pinball gaming was fully into the electronic age and Brian Theodore was at the forefront of the revolution. He had designed and built several of the most popular games of the era, including Dragon Dragon (a game in which hitting certain bumpers switched the player between being the dragon and earning fireball points and being the knight and earning sword points) and Sexy Ladies (an adult oriented game in which the object was to shoot the ball into—Brian always got a little embarrassed when the game’s premise was discussed, so it’s best left at that).

All of these games (including Indian Warrior Battle, Cosmic Destroyers, and the much under- appreciated Mummy!?!), successful as they most certainly were, paled in comparison to the masterpiece he was working on. It was a game that directly defied the mentality of the age and brought pinball gaming back to its purest and most unadulterated form.

It was a game that wasn’t dictated by bells and whistles. It was a game that players would play to develop a deeper relationship with pinball and not simply to escape the world by surrounding themselves with bells and whistles. It was a game that would redefine not just pinball but the very way human beings concentrated on the things around them.

It was called Solitary Zen. Brian Theodore stood in the middle of 1974 and was destined to create a pinball machine that would change everything.

“So nothing happens?” Bill Feller asked. Bill was a skinny balding man who was in charge of idea development at Do or Die Pinball where Brian worked.

“No,” Brian said. “A lot happens, it’s just set up differently from most pinball games.”

“It’s set up differently from ALL pinball games,” Bill said. “Look, Brian, I trust you and your track record is undeniable, but we can’t build a pinball machine that doesn’t even keep score.”

“It keeps time,” Brian said, trying to be tough, but sounding meeker than he’d like.

“So you’ve got a stopwatch in there. So what? People play pinball to get big scores and make a lot of bells go off. Your machine is a ball, a plunger, two flippers, and a goddamn clock. And that’s it? Who is going to play that?”

“I would play that,” Brian said.

“Then you’ll have to build your own and leave it at that,” Bill told him. “You know our players need bells and lights and stimulation. Hell, you’re the guy that designed Sexy Ladies, so I don’t need to tell you this. This game–Zen whatever–”

Solitary Zen,” Brian said quickly.

“Yeah, it’s just not something that will make an impact in the marketplace and that’s my bottom line. I’m sorry,” Bill said. “But it’s a no-go.”

And at that moment Brian decided to kill himself.

He went home to his wife and explained the conversation with Bill.

“I’m sorry,” his wife Cindy said. “Can you get what you like about the game into another machine?”

“What’s great about this game,” he said passionately, “is that what makes it great is already in every single other game. It’s the pinball machine broken down to its absolute essence. It’s the machine stripped down to its essentials and only its essentials. Playing this game will be the only way for a player to truly understand the soul of pinball.”

Cindy sat still for a bit. “I don’t know what to say,” she said. “I know how much this means to you, but if the company won’t let you have it–”

“I have to kill myself,” Brian said quickly.

“Wait. What?” Cindy answered.

“I have to kill myself. I’ve been planning for something like this for a very long time, buying life insurance for myself and building it up. If I die in an accident—a car accident, for example—you will get a lot of money.”

“Brian,” Cindy said, turning around. “I don’t even want to pretend we’re having this conversation.”

“We are,” he said. “Look, I don’t want to die. Not in a car crash, not anywhere, but if I do, I want my death to be on my terms and not someone else’s. This machine has to be made.”

Cindy stood up out of her chair and walked toward the kitchen. Brian followed behind. She turned around abruptly and looked up to his face. “It’s a game,” she said. “Don’t mess around like this when you’re talking about a game.”

Brian was taller than Cindy by nearly a foot and he raised his voice to make himself even taller. “If this is a just a game,” he said. “you’re right. But it’s not—this is the most important thing I will ever do in my life. And if it means dying in order to make it happen, then to hell with living. To hell with trying to play by the rules. To hell with Bill and Do or Die Pinball. To hell with you if you’re not willing to help me.”

“Build it yourself!” she yelled. “Put the necessary pieces together in the garage. It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve pieced a pinball machine together.”

He took a deep breath and looked carefully at Cindy. “I am not afraid to die for this,” he said. “I have thought about this a lot and it’s important for me to be willing to die for something. I will leave you a notebook with instructions for what to do after I die. Just hold onto that. You know how many friends I had who died in Vietnam? I’m willing to die.”

“Vietnam? Good God, Brian,” Cindy shouted. “You know people who died there, but what in the hell does that have to do with pinball? You’re comparing Vietnam to this damn machine?”

“This damn machine is a revolution!” Brian said, slamming his hand against the wall. “It’s a revolution!” He picked up a potted plant and threw it on the ground. The container was plastic and it didn’t break, but soil spilled across the floor. “No one else can understand this until it happens. Until these machines are in every arcade in the country, no one will understand.” Brian sat down on the kitchen floor and put his head in his hands.

Cindy sat down beside him. “We’ll do this,” Cindy said. “Together, you and me, we’ll make this happen.”

“I don’t want to die,” Brian said quietly.. “I know you don’t,” Cindy said. “And you won’t. Let’s just figure out what you need.” Brian leaned his head onto her shoulder and she grabbed it with her hands. Though she looked odd, so much smaller than he was, she cradled him gently and let him cry.

Three days later, Brian Theodore died in a car crash on the highway. Cindy was told Brian was driving (likely thinking of Solitary Zen, she assumed) when the pick-up truck in front of him stopped abruptly. Brian didn’t stop his car quickly enough and his car hit the back of the truck. The semi truck behind him didn’t stop at all and Brian’s already compact car became further compacted when the pick-up truck and the semi truck smashed it in-between them. If fact, the semi truck and the pick-up truck were touching bumper to bumper after the accident, as if Brian’s car was a temporary obstacle that they quickly smashed in order to get it out of the way.

Obviously, many people were upset by Brian’s death, most notably Cindy who at first thought Brian had indeed killed himself and then realized that whether he had done so on purpose or not, he was dead either way and she didn’t want her thoughts about her newly deceased husband to be about blame and suicide. She came to the scene of the accident and it looked like an accident.

She assumed she would never know for certain, but visiting the site assured her that the accident was caused by neglect and perhaps a driver with too much on his mind, but not a suicidal death wish.

So her thoughts moved from blame to regret. Her regret was significant and numbing. Brian had told her his life’s plans and she had disregarded those plans and him in general. She was overwhelmed with grief.

She went to a bar and ordered a succession of very strong drinks. Cindy was an attractive woman, blonde and short but still somehow leggy, and several men came over to her while she was drinking, but she merely turned to them with a demonic look and scared them away. She was not sitting in the bar to get lucky—she was attempting to kill the pain in the same way that Brian had indirectly killed himself.

All the time she was thinking of Brian and the accident and her life alone without him, one thought kept coming back into her mind—Solitary Zen. When Brian described it, the game sounded stupid and impossible to market, but he was gone and creating that game was indeed his dying wish.

She slammed down another drink and walked slowly out of the bar. She was a woman known in many circles for her ability to hold her liquor (and nights with Brian and his pinball designing friends often ended with her being the most cognizant), but she had swallowed so many drinks, even she was having trouble walking toward the parking lot. She stood there for a moment, her legs wobbly, and thought of the first time she met Brian.

That night, she was at a bar and Brian walked over to her and told her he had to come over to talk because she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Cindy was a fairly vain woman and knew she was beautiful and didn’t necessarily doubt he was telling the truth, but she smelled a standard come-on line anyway. She asked him how often he used that line.

He asked her to clarify if she meant all time or just tonight. She smiled. There was something endearing in him—his eyes were green and intelligent and his hair was boyishly shaggy and blond. He was funny and quick and he seemed honest, though she couldn’t be entirely sure of this.

They talked all night, first about bad pick-up lines and later about careers and lives and goals. She was skeptical about the pinball machine thing, but he was passionate and didn’t seem completely childish. They had sex back at her apartment, but she knew this wasn’t a one night stand or a chance random encounter. They connected in so many ways that first night, there was no way this relationship wasn’t going to develop.

It did. She sat down on the curb in front of the bar and cried into her hands. They had a great life together and while everything wasn’t always perfect (and all the talk about pinball certainly got on her nerves), she never seriously thought of ending it and she couldn’t believe it was over now. She sat on the curb with the sounds of traffic and the lights of the stars around her and continued to cry.

She took a cab home and collapsed to sleep. When she woke in the morning, the alarm clock told her it was only seven, much earlier than she would have guessed. Evidently her sleep was thorough enough to be short.

She woke slowly but as her thoughts collected back into her head, she was glad she got a early start on the day. She had work to do.

She went into the den and searched out the notebook Brian mentioned to her before he died—the notebook with the instructions he had left for her. She was worried that it would be difficult to find, but it wasn’t. She discovered it under a stack of papers. The notebook was pointing out under those other papers in such a way that the words “Solitary Zen” were easy to spot.

She slid the notebook out of the pile and opened it and looked over it carefully. His notes were detailed, not just in regard to how to build the machines and which of his friends would be the best help, but the notes were also filled with information about how to claim insurance money and be able to fund everything. She realized that Brian was absolutely serious about killing himself for this and she was somehow sorry that he had died before he had the chance. She still thought it was a stupid thing to kill yourself over, but how romantic and brave to find something in your life important enough to lose everything.

So over the next several months, Brian’s notes guided her along. She cashed the life insurance checks and used the money for parts and equipment. He seemed to anticipate everything that would happen and knew what to do—if she had trouble building one certain thing or another, his notes told her exactly who she needed to talk to.

He even anticipated that Bill Feller, the boss at Do or Die Pinball, would feel badly enough about his death to help carry out his legacy. Brian’s ability to read people and know what they’d be willing and capable of doing was amazing and slightly unnerving.

After the prototype was built, Bill allowed Cindy and her crew of Brian’s friends to use the Do or Die facilities to build the machines. Brian was very specific in his notes that only 1,000 should ever be built. He wrote, “The number of this machine should never exceed 1,000, regardless of its popularity. Finding a Solitary Zen machine should be an event—an opportunity for someone to meditate upon the troubles of the world. This isn’t a game about profit—it’s about moving toward a necessary future that will ultimately ascend the pinball machine and allow its players to reach a higher state of consciousness.”

And after months and months of working on virtually nothing else, Cindy had torn through every word of Brian’s notes and overseen the creation of 1,000 “Solitary Zen” machines. Also, based on his instructions, these machines were sent to locations across North America in order to be found, as Brian wrote, “by those who needed to find the game.” In fact, Brian even had a list of the locations he wanted the game to be sent. Since the game wasn’t manufactured by any company and Cindy wasn’t looking to make a profit off the machine, she didn’t sell any of them. They all arrived as gifts from the late Brian Theodore and his wife. This gesture from beyond the grave would remind the world how much Brian cared about making pinball better and also cared about bettering the lives of those who played pinball.

Once the work was complete, she could admire what she had accomplished. The final product was indeed majestic. The machines were simple and elegant—freeing the games of all the bells and whistles and bumpers and ramps did something to make them feel more important somehow. The playing surface of the machine was yellow. The flippers were brown. The ball, of course, was classic silver. It was simple and beautiful and it was Brian’s legacy and Cindy allowed it to happen. She wanted to hug her personal copy of Solitary Zen (in his notes Brian requested one machine be put in their house) and thank that machine for making her life feel so much more necessary at a time in which it could have very well lacked all purpose.

She didn’t hug it—she thought that would feel more stupid than comforting—but she did spend a fairly considerable chunk of the day, every day, staring at it. She never played it because she thought about Brian’s feeling that this game was a meditative device. Nothing could ever bring her comfort in the way that simply staring at the machine in its most pristine condition could. So Solitary Zen sat in her living room and she watched the silent flawless machine as often and as interestedly as other people would watch television or movies.

Cindy slowly began to recover and, day-by-day, the loss of Brian started to become easier to take. Certainly the Solitary Zen experience and her personal machine helped and the relatively warm review the game received from pinball enthusiasts was comforting. She wasn’t sure people were telling her the truth about how they felt about the game or if they were merely being kind for the sake of her recovery, but it was nice to hear.

Several months passed after Brian’s death and then a few more months passed after that. She never dated and spent a lot of her time reading and thinking about what it would be like to not be alone but not doing anything about it. She was in living L.A., but she drove down often to San Diego to visit her parents.

No matter where she was, one thing seemed constant—she felt Brian almost everywhere she went. When she was at the grocery store, she thought he was somewhere else in the store—maybe an aisle or two over—keeping an eye on her. When she was at the gas station, she thought he was in a car a few pumps over. When she was sitting alone at home, she even imagined him on the other side of her telephone, prepared to dial her number but lacking the courage to do so.

The thing that worried Cindy most about all this was that she was fairly certain it wasn’t completely of her own imagination. In fact, there were times at the grocery stores and gas stations when she tangibly saw Brian. She would turn around toward wherever she thought he was and find only an empty space or a person who wasn’t him.

Brian was dead and she was trying to move on with her life, but there were these moments when she realized she hadn’t moved on with anything. One day while was driving to San Diego, she saw Brian in the car behind her. She studied him in her rear view to the point of it likely being dangerous, but she didn’t care. He had a mustache and his hair was long but the way he tapped the steering wheel while he drove was unmistakable.

She had to decide whether to keep going or try to get away, so she decided to get away to see if the person in the car would follow. She turned earlier than she normally would have—an exit into Escondido—and waited to see if the man would get off on the same exit.

He didn’t. But she continued to drive into Escondido, thinking of her dead husband and her sudden connection with ghosts and wondered what in the hell went wrong with the healing process. She wondered how she could feel so stable and healthy most of the time, but know that deep down she was doing nothing in her life if not falling apart.

Since she had driven into Escondido and was too distraught to keep driving, she pulled into a small Mexican place she and Brian used to eat at on their way to San Diego and decided to have lunch. She sat down at a booth that she imagined was “their booth” but dropped the fantasy when she looked around the place and realized they would have never romanticized seating areas in seedy Mexican restaurants, no matter how good the enchiladas.

The waitress came over and Cindy ordered a Coke and a chicken enchilada and sat alone at the table staring into words carved into the table—“John 1971”—and was reminded of Bible verses and wondered if the John who carved this, likely out of rebellion and self-gratification, knew he was attempting to communicate with a woman several years later and give her advice on what to do. She had no idea, of course, what the advice was.

She looked around the place and noticed a few pinball machines. She stood up from the table and walked over to them. There was a Solitary Zen machine. She smiled. Brian knew they used to come here and specifically sent this one as a tribute to the place. It was charming. There was even a kid playing the machine, and Cindy saw that as a sign that the creation of the game wasn’t simply an act of self- indulgence (like John’s name carved into the table) but was truly an act of generosity and grace. The boy playing the machine was focused and unflappable.

She glanced back to her table and started walking toward it. Her eye was caught by a man with Brian’s shoulder slouch sitting on a table outside the restaurant smoking a cigarette. He had a moustache and longer hair, like the guy in the car behind her. This time he was wearing a baseball cap, but she could tell it was the same man. She motioned to the waitress that she was going to step outside and the waitress nodded. Cindy approached the man. He tensed up and looked at her and loosened up enough to smile.

“Hello, Cindy,” he said.

It was Brian. Cindy had already known it, but now she knew it definitively and without question. A million things hit her alongside the head at once about his death and why he was following her and what had happened in the last several months, but she instead asked something else.

“So you’re smoking now?” she asked, surprising even herself with the randomness of the question. The other questions she thought of were abstract and larger than the moment could handle. She wanted something tangible and approachable.

He looked at the cigarette and flicked it away. “That’s what you ask me?” he asked. “Couldn’t wrap my brain around anything else,” she said. He stood up from the table and walked toward the front door of the restaurant. “Makes sense,” he said. “I’m not dead,” he added. “I noticed that,” she said. “How long have you been not-dead?” “Since the crash. I wasn’t in that car. It was a pretty elaborate, really. I’m sorry I didn’t tell

you everything,” he said, trying to be sincere. Cindy looked at him and then looked away. She turned toward the parking lot and refused to look back at him. “So you faked your fucking death,” she said. “So I would do all the work and you would do nothing.”

“Keep your voice down,” he said. “Nobody needs to hear anything about any faked deaths.”

She spun back around and pointed in his face. “Listen,” she said. “Maybe I’m supposed to relax when the man I’ve been mourning for what seems like ever strolls into my life just to, what, let himself off the hook for his guilt?”

“That’s not it,” he said, his voice even and self-conscious. “I mean, I am guilt-ridden and that, but I just wanted to see you. I thought it would be easy. It’s not.”

She rubbed her eyes with her fingers and only managed to make them red. “Tell me!” she said, raising her voice. “Where in the hell have you been?”

The waitress opened the door and let Cindy know her lunch was ready. Brian nodded on Cindy’s behalf, while Cindy continued to stare at him.

“I’ve been living in Arizona,” he said. “I got a new name.” He paused and swallowed. “I remarried,” he added.

She shook her head and walked past him angrily back into the restaurant. “You left me to do the dirty work while you were living large in Arizona,” she said, shaking her head. She turned toward the small nook near the entrance where the pinball machines stood and she motioned dramatically to Solitary Zen.

“There it is,” she said. “Your legacy and you get to enjoy it while you’re alive, because I was stupid enough to be tricked into doing it.”

Brian stared at the machine. The young boy who was playing it was small, smaller than average, even if neither Brian nor Cindy knew how old he was. His legs were both in braces and he stood on several books to even step up high enough to play. But the boy, through his glasses and determination, was playing Solitary Zen in the way that Brian had imagined. The timer was ticking and the boy was focused on only the ball.

“It’s beautiful,” Brian said. “The game. Everything about it.”

Cindy was still angry, but was drawn to the boy at the machine. He was unable to look away from the game and she could tell that the kid was in his own world—a world in which they didn’t exist and only he and the ball and the flippers had any bearing or relevance in the world.

“I’m sorry,” Brian said, watching the kid play. “I know it’s not enough, but I’m sorry. And thank you. Maybe I went about it the wrong way, but this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and it’s because of you.”

Cindy tried to watch the kid’s eyes as he played. She didn’t have the best vantage point to see his eyes, but the kid couldn’t look away from the game, so she was able stand directly in front of him and stare and, even though she knew nothing about this boy, she game him a back story—she guessed that his life was difficult and friendless and his disabilities made everything a struggle. But in his eyes she could see the ball bouncing both in the machine and in his mind and she knew that this kid was the reason Solitary Zen needed to exist and this kid was experiencing something transcendent and, even if she was no longer capable of feeling anything the way she once did, this kid was being saved by this game. Cindy stared at the kid and didn’t break her gaze.

“You’re welcome,” she told Brian. “It’s our gift to the world.”

Brian nodded and he and Cindy watched the boy play and he not only didn’t know they were there, but he had ceased to be aware of anything in the world at all. Brian and Cindy envied and loved him for it and he played that game as if there wasn’t anything else in the world worth thinking about.

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1 Comment

  1. Whoa! Loved it every bit :)

    Extremely well conceived… (Wonder why people don’t read and comment on the longer pieces)

    While I was reading it, I couldn’t stop picturising it. I think it makes for a superb 30-45 minute show.

    My congratulations to Jason.

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