Coffee and cigarettes…

December 18, 2008

strange luck, stranger fate…

Filed under: we need... a purpose — techrat @ 11:48 am

Long-time readers of my random scribblings will recognize this from back in 2000, when I originally scrawled it out in a fit of insomnia-powered rambling and posted it to a couple of the writing groups I was involved with at the time as sort of a “holy crap, dude, life just kicked me in the ass” thing.

For the rest of you… I present one of the few reasons I’m willing to tolerate this time of year. It reaffirms my belief in real magic, fate, luck and the fact that little things often have bigger results than anyone’s biggest or best efforts.

Crane machines.

Yeah, I said crane machines. That what this story’s about…

We’ve all seen ’em. Flashy, glitzy lights, stuffed to the brim with trinkets and plush animals, with a three-fingered hook hanging from a track and roller setup. Put in your money, usually fifty cents a shot, and use either buttons or a joystick to move the grabber over your plunder of choice. Push the button, watch the claw go down, and usually slither uselessly over your target. Teasing you with the idea that you can get it if you just try again…

I have a weakness for these things. I can’t pass one up, except for the ones at Denny’s that have the ridiculously huge claws with the gripping power of a sedated kitten. I’m hopelessly, utterly hooked on these things. Maybe it’s the nascent gambler in me, unwilling to not take the risk… or maybe it’s just that Spendthrift disadvantage. I’m not sure, and I’m not sure I want to know.

Y’see, at least to me, these things are magic.

Over time, my skill has progressed with these machines. I can usually nab something within the first couple tries. Like anything that mixes luck with skill, I have runs where I couldn’t get a thing to save my life, and other runs where I could probably walk away with the One True Ring if it were in there somewhere. More often than not, my ‘luck’ runs to the high side – for an average investment of about $3, I can usually walk away with at least one goodie, sometimes two.

Unfortunately, my luck appears to be limited to just these machines. The only way I’ll ever win the lottery is if someone puts the winning ticket in the machine for me to grab. But, hey, I’ve got a little kid, and a stuffed animal habit of my own to support as well.

Sometimes, though, my luck takes a turn for the insane. As in, every drop brings out something nice. This is where the magic starts, boys and girls. Because, over the years, I’ve taken to indulging in a little payback for the Fates being kind and letting me get that elusive Harley Davidson pig for my son who’s so into motorcycles it’s painful.

Generally, after a good run, I’ll have procured one or two beasties that I have absolutely no use for. Sometimes they come from the super-cool double-grab, sometimes they’re just extras that I had to move out of the way to get what I really wanted. Since most of these things are in public places like restaurants, very early in my crane-machine career, I took to doling out my extras to the nearest wide-eyed child. Invariably, I’m rewarded with megawatt smiles from the kiddies, and looks of mixed appreciation and wariness from the parents – after all, who in their right mind would give away something they’d just won by brute force application of a few wrinkled dollar bills and some nervous twitching, right?

I never said I was in my right mind.

Y’see, I think my strange luck is a gift, or a blessing, or just karmic imbalance in my favor from something that happened about ten years ago. It’s the reason that, to this day, I still nab every toy I can get out of the machines and dole ’em out like a younger, clean-shaved Santa Claus in Florida. Allow me to take you back there to that very different-in-a-good-way night…

The place is a Wag’s restaurant, and the time is a little over ten years ago. I’m about a week away from heading off to Basic Training, and I don’t normally come to this restaurant anyway – I just happened to be driving by and hungry at the same time, and it looked like a good place to stop. In the corner booth, there’s an older woman, maybe in her early 30’s (I *was* 18 at the time, after all) and I notice she’s looking pretty sad, and the three kids she has with her all look equally bummed out.

I didn’t say anything about it, of course; it’s taboo to do such things, I was raised to believe. “Don’t talk to strangers” and all that. I feel for her, of course – here I am feeling generally good about my life, and she’s apparently not. Sympathy, not pity; pity’s not my style.

So I eat, and pay my check, tipping generously because the waitress was cute, and I’ve still got a few ones in my hand when I spy my friend the crane machine in the corner. Naturally, of course, I fail to resist and am drawn to it like a mosquito to a bug zapper. Zzzt! It eats my dollar bills greedily and increments the retry counter accordingly.

First drop… bam! A cute little bear-like thing, though it’s got panda-ish markings and a long, skunk-like tail. Someone needs to teach the Chinese a thing or three about real-life creatures.

Second drop… I get a grip on a big fluffy bunny, but it slips out of my clutches just before the drop chute and falls onto its side, staring up at me with big black plastic eyes. That’s alright, ‘cuz I nab Mr. Cottontail on the next drop because hey, I’m a gamer, and I ain’t about to get whupped by no rabbit. I need the XP to level up.

Fourth drop… goose egg. Ah, well, can’t win ’em all. I’d been trying for the Marvin the Martian doll that getting the rabbit out of the way had revealed. Fifth drop got him loosened up a bit more, though, and that’s good, ‘cuz the next one’s my last one.

YES! The elusive double-grab! Marvin is pinned into the crane’s grasp by something – I couldn’t tell you to save my life what it was – and both get deposited into the pile of plunder behind the heavy black-painted plywood door.

I quickly gather my well-earned gains from the bin, paying more attention to the coveted Marvin than any of the others, and from the corner of my eye, through the glass partition between the dining area and the foyer, I see the lady still sitting there with her kids. Some quick mental math – three extras, three kids – and I know instantly what to do with my surplus instead of just letting them moulder at home while I’m off in Texas.

However, there’s this little shyness bug I need to get around. So, like an idiot, I stand there for a couple of minutes in the entrance, holding a horde of dyed polyester fiber chunks, wondering just what to say and how to say it. Finally, I decide on the low-key approach… I don’t want her to think I’m hitting on her by cleverly bribing her kids into liking me, after all.

Walking up to her table, I’m the epitome of cool, or so I think. “Hi,” I said brilliantly, which just got her to look up from the tabletop with painfully huge puppydog eyes that send the rest of my well-rehearsed speech flying out of range.

Plan B – stammer and look stupid. Got it!

“Um, well,” I begin, proving beyond a doubt that I have a firm grasp of the English language. I should point out that I was muttering a little. “I got these animals, and well, um, d’ya think your kids’ll want ’em?”

She stared at me. Just stared with those black-hole eyes, sucking in everything around her. I should have known there was trouble afoot when her lower lip started quivering a bit, but by the time all the neurons got in line to do their jobs and warn me, the waterworks had opened for business and I saw the tears welling up.

Time to leave.

Clumsily, almost spilling something, I set down the animals, one per kid, and hoped to God I could get out of range before she lost control. That’s when I heard her reciting the “Oh God” mantra over and over, and the near-panic turned into full-fledged panic as I realized she was about to scream bloody murder and get me arrested or something. This would be bad, all things considered, considering I’d be in Texas when my court date came up.

Then I heard her say “Don’t leave.”

To my back.

Just as I’m ready to make my bold escape running into the night. (Screaming optional.)

So I stop. The voice I heard was so open, so painfully vulnerable, that I’d have to be even more of a heartless bastard than I was (and am) to leave after that request. When I turned around, it was just in time to catch her as she threw herself at me and fully opened the tear valves, pouring out gushers all over my shirt. What the hell can I do but let her? She’s got this death grip on me, and the only thing keeping her from breaking windows with her keening sobs is the fact that my chest absorbs sound fairly well.

The kids are equally affected, all of ’em but especially the littlest one holding their animal like it was the last Golden Ticket for the Chocolate Factory tour. I eased Mom back into the booth, flagging down the cute waitress to bring something suitable to the occasion to us if at all possible. All the while I’m just hearing a little voice saying “thank you thank you thank you”.

What the HELL?

A little water and some wet napkins later, she’s back in control of her breathing, and I get the explanation I’d been praying silently for while Niagara Falls was streaming down her face.

She lived in an apartment building a couple of blocks away from the restaurant, and when she’d gotten home from work and picking up the kids, the door had been forced open. Everything was gone, down to the bare walls. She was at the restaurant because the cops were at her apartment, giving it the full treatment looking for some clue as to who’d do such a thing. Her pet theory was that her ex-hubby had done it, but she wasn’t sure.

Those three stuffed animals were the only toys those kids had in the world.

See? Magic. The random kindness of a dumb stranger with a knack for grabbing toys with a robotic claw turned the worst night in four people’s lives into something not quite as bad.

Now, flash forward ten years.

Tonight, I’m at the local Chinese eatery, the one I get my regular fix from. Friday nights are payday nights, and I’ve got my order in the back cooking – a bunch of pints and quarts of all kinds of goodness that will become my lunches for the coming week. And, as always, I’m near the back of the restaurant sacrificing George Washingtons to the crane machine that lives there.

I grab a Harley-Davidson eagle for my son, the one really into motorcycles, that’ll go well with his pig and the 12″ Riddler doll from B:TAS. The owner’s wife cheers as always when she sees me get something; I half-believe she thinks I only come there to loot their crane machine of anything valuable. For me, there’s a plushie of Marvin the Martian’s dog, the green one with sneakers. That one takes a few tries because of the awkward shape, and in the process I got a little Pokemon beanie-type thing – the orange lizard, whatever the heck its name is. I toy with getting the Joker that matches the Riddler my son already has, but to get it I have to get an oversized Richie Rich out of the way. Miss Kidd will like him; she has a thing for “animals” with yellow hair like hers.

Bloop. Richie goes into the chute, too.

Vaguely, behind me, I hear some voices, but I’m not really paying attention to anyone but Minh, the owner’s wife, waiting for her to tell me my goodies are ready. It seemed my luck had fled, as after scoring those three animals, the well dried up pretty quick. So I grab my loot from the bin, ready to head out to the car and put ’em there before gathering up tasty Chinese cuisine to sustain myself against the rigors of programming heck.

When I turn around, only then do I realize I’ve gathered a crowd around me. (Hey, this is a sleepy redneck town. Entertainment’s where you find it.) There’s something vaguely familiar about a couple of them, but I’m not sure what and not really in the mood to discuss it.

The one of the vaguely-familiar ones says, “I told you it was him.” And then I found myself sandwiched between a couple of mid- grade teenagers, each trying to out-hug the other.

I’m just about to ask, “Do I know you?” when the younger girl of the two says, “Y’know… I still have that albino raccoon you gave me.” Then the older one – maybe 17 on a good night with lots of makeup – nods, adding “I’ve still got the bunny, too.”

And then everything I’ve just told you came back to me in a flash.

I found out the rest of the story from that night a decade ago. The break-in had been their dad alright; his intent was to try and force their mother to come back to him. They got most of their stuff back, but some of it had been broken when the police served and searched the place and he’d put up a fight… but, at least according to the two girls, none of it mattered as much to them as the gifts from a stranger who’d wanted nothing more than to put a smile on their faces.

All three of us got dewey-eyed in the few minutes we spent catching up on ten years. Mom was doing alright; she’d pressed charges and the ex was long gone in prison. Their younger brother was fine, too, and yes, he’d kept his animal too, though none of us had ever been able to figure out quite what it was… other than special.

Minh waved them over to the counter, where their orders were waiting, and they disappeared back into the steamy Florida night. I never did get any names, and I think it might’ve made it a little less magical if we’d exchanged them. To them, I was a rarity – the kind stranger, the Good Samaritan come to life. I wished them luck and waved goodbye, then swiped a napkin to dab at my eyes.

My order came out next, carried in the oversized paper tote bags that Minh’s husband ordered special just to take care of big orders like mine. Another smaller bag comes out, and into it went the eagle, the Richie Rich, and my Marvin-dog. (I’ve got this thing for Marvin the Martian; coolest character ever IMAO.)

What to do with the extra was never in doubt, though. On the way out the door, I make my pass through the restaurant and find a little boy about the same age as my daughter. I’m not one of these weirdos who extort things or give patronizing orders – “open your hands and close your eyes” has always seemed to me to insult the intelligence of even your average 3 year old. I just walk over and ask, “You like Pokemon?”

Of course, the anklebiter says yes.

So he became in that moment the proud owner of the little orange lizard that I had no use for – I run a Pokemon-free house and like it that way. But in the end, I got what I wanted… the unique megawatt smile that only a kid in their own personal version of heaven can provide. A softly spoken “You’re welcome” accepts the parents’ thanks, even if they are looking at me wondering just what my real intent was.

Then I got my mountain of Chinese boxen and my bag o’ plunder and headed home.

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