The Claw Machine

by M. ROTH

There is a stuffed animal case outside of the restaurant where I work. Some call it a machine, but not me. A machine is something that helps someone complete a task. To me, what sits outside Fenochie’s is just a glass case with a claw inside, which people pay to continuously disappoint them. Fenochie’s is the sort of place you find gourmet pizza and a full bar. It has a few video games in a covered awning out by the parking lot so that adults can forget about their children for a while. Instead of paying a babysitter, they pay the glass case, because the glass case isn’t going to have sex on their couch.

The kids fiddle with the “throttle” and steer the claw toward the toy they want. The claw grabs the toy and then opens on the way back up, dropping the toy back in the pile. This happens every time. The point of the case is to teach people early that you rarely get exactly what you want from life. Life, in fact, is not a well kept vending machine. You don’t put in four quarters and get out the Snickers bar you want every time. You put in six quarters because the first two get lost in the slot, and usually the window gets stuck and you can’t do a damn thing about it.

To make matters worse, you start shaking the thing just as someone enters the doorway, and that person walks away thinking you were trying to steal food. That, or you end up getting 3 more candy bars than you paid for because the thing that weighs the coins malfunctions in your favor. It’s not an input equals output situation. And no one has bothered to explain that to these damn kids.

This eatery sits with its legs crossed smack in the middle of the sea of high-rent property and capri-panted soccer moms of Mountainview, Alabama. Mountainview is a suburb of Birmingham, which is a suburb of everywhere else, oblivious to everything. Women come in covered in high-dollar workout apparel that’s never seen a drop of sweat or a public gym. They saunter in leopard heels or rhinestone cowboy boots, with David Yurman jewelry and Marc Jacobs purses. They follow their husbands, and well-dressed kids trail behind cashmere pashminas and white linen slacks.

In the doorway, the small ones run straight outside to the covered patio for the games. They’ve already got a twenty in their palm that they got to shut up in the car on the way over. Over the course of cocktails, they’ll resurface a few times, hands cupped, demanding more quarters, more ones, more fives. They don’t need attention, just more money. The adults sip their Long Islands and Gin & T’s, holding out a ten each time a kid walks by.

By the end of each night, there are one or two parents frantically searching for a manager, insisting that we unlock the machine at once because one particular Eva or Christopher needs a yellow bunny from the case, and absolutely will not leave without it. We patiently explain that we don’t have the key to the machine, and that only the maintenance man who refills it monthly can unlock the thing. This frantic father then negotiates a new agreement, insisting that he’s already put forty-eight dollars into the machine trying to get the yellow bunny, and is willing to fork out another twenty-five dollars if we can just get that bunny. At this point, I typically look down at the seven year old who was blue in the face from crying and holding her breath, and try to consider exactly what my own folks might have done to me had I acted even remotely similar in a public place. Then I realize that these sorts of visual thoughts are perhaps too violent for a story like this one. After all, Mountainview is a quaint town that rarely bats an eye. It’s a place where children are raised. And that has always been the case.

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