A Girl Named Letter

I was playing the arcade video game classic Galaga in a nondescript convenience store focused on the task at hand–kill the bad alien/insects. I became aware that someone was staring at me to my right. When I had an opportunity to look away form the game, I saw what I thought, with that split second look, was a homeless woman in a wheelchair.

She wasn’t saying a word but was clearly looking at me and possibly trying to engage. When the game’s current stage was complete I was able to look again. A few jarring details came into focus. Her lower right leg was amputated but instead of simply being gone, she had her limb tied on a string and held it close to where it once was. Her hair was dirty blond and was pretty clearly cut (not styled) by her own hand. She was younger than my initial impression and my new guess was that she was in her forties. I said, “hi” with my usual awkwardness.

My attention went back to my game as the enemies descended from the top of the screen in organized waves. I heard her voice, “Hello. Do you have the double fighters?” she asked. I did in fact have the double fighters. What do I look like, some kind of rookie? I nodded in response and I could sense her acknowledgement of my answer. When that level ended, I looked over again and noticed that she had come a little closer and had angled herself in position to watch the game’s screen.

Was I on her turf? Were “LLL” her initials that currently occupied the high score on this machine? Why is she bugging me? “How am I doing,” I asked? There was no response, just silent observation. I passed another level without losing a ship and turned again to engage. This time I saw that she wasn’t in her forties, she was much younger, maybe early twenties. She could be half my age. Her beat up white t-shirt was her disheveled style, not homelessness. She gave me a half smile, for about one tenth of a second. As my view returned to the game, she gave me a “let’s see how you handle this next level,” with a skeptical tone.

To my disappointment, she was right to be skeptical. I lost one of my double ships and quickly thereafter I lost my original ship. I was on the ropes. I wasn’t happy with my situation and re-focused my attention on my game. I made it through that level and was rewarded with the challenge stage, where you can’t die–you just get bonus points. It was a much needed break. When I turned again to look, instead of the ‘I told you so’ look I expected I found a very sympathetic grin. My mood shifted quickly as I returned my gaze to the screen.

“You might try disarming them,” she suggested. I’d heard rumors of this, but two things quickly crossed my mind: How did she know about this? and is that a real thing? “Isn’t that just a myth,” I half asked. Her silence made it clear–disarming the bad guys was no myth and I became more convinced that “LLL” was the woman behind me. “You have to kill all of them except one or two and avoid dying for about 20 minutes,” she said giving me the secret to the trick.

“You’ll be almost invincible then, because they won’t shoot back anymore,” I heard from over my shoulder. I was playing the traditional way. Just because I knew the trick didn’t mean I had to use it. Not right now, at least. I mumbled, “Thanks,” just to let her know I understood the technique and my lower place in the gaming hierarchy. Then, abruptly, I was dead, “Game Over,” across the screen. I wasn’t anywhere near that high score but I did get fifth place and entered my initials, “JFX.” “Not horrible,” she said with a very encouraging air. “Are you up next,” I asked?

“Nah, I’ve played that game to death and I already have the high score,” as she confirmed my suspicions. “I just like to see how other people play,” she revealed. “Not everyone likes an audience though,” she said as I turned away from the game to face her all the way for the first time. I noticed a slew of stickers on her wheelchair: gaming companies, skateboard brands, bands and random markings in paint marker. It didn’t have much original paint showing anymore. “Did I look non-threatening,” I asked, “is that why you watched me play?”

“No,” she replied, “most people who play this game are awful. They don’t have any patience and just fire away willy nilly.” Not horrible and now she’s complimenting me on my play even though her kung-fu is clearly superior. She moved closer and leaned in like she was going to whisper something in my opposite ear. I bent over slightly and I heard, “My name is Legend.” “Legend,” I asked with confusion. “No. Letter. My name is Letter.”