We had driven from Grayton Beach all the way to Montgomery, with a several hour stopover in Brewton to see my grandmother and aunt. It was past dinnertime and Eli and Liza were hungry and tired, vibrating at frequencies that make experienced parents nervous. There was a Red Robin next to our Montgomery hotel, so we all piled into the restaurant.
Red Robin is an upscale burger joint, which means it piles all kinds of toppings on hamburgers. It’s very kid-friendly, with balloons at the front and waitstaff who know to bring fries out early so your children don’t melt into a puddle of distress. Liza got a balloon and squeezed it until it popped in her face. She looked up to see if the balloon had floated away, looked down to see if it had fallen to the floor, and then burst into tears because her toy had vanished. Fortunately, Red Robin has a lot of balloons.
To distract Eli and his cousin Sam until the fries appeared, my brother and I took them to the front of the restaurant, where the video games and gumball- and toy-dispensing machines are.
Eli is obsessed with those machines. His greatest joy is to feed quarters into a machine, turn the knob, and have a small toy in a plastic capsule fall out. Quarters are the highest currency known to man, and the little green aliens and small grey robots that come from those machines are loved and played with for weeks. Whenever he loses one, he mopes and sighs as if he’d lost the one thing that gave his life meaning. He has a lot of those little toys, and he has my ability to put things down and forget where they are, so there’s a lot of moping and sighing to be had in any given week.
He’s also in love with the claw machines. He would happily feed $100 into one of those machines one quarter at a time while he tried unsuccessfully to nab a toy. We don’t let him play with those machines, since they’re the kid equivalent of Vegas slots. He’s been known to cadge quarters off of innocent bystanders after we told him we wouldn’t give him a quarter for the machine. I worry that, if we let him play with it, ten minutes later he’d be slumped next to it, dark circles under his eyes, dirt smeared like beard stubble on his face, sipping from a root beer bottle wrapped in a paper bag.
So there in Red Robin he gazed longingly at all of the machines and punched buttons and twisted knobs. One of the machines involved shooting small rubber balls at targets. If you hit enough targets, you got a prize. If you didn’t, you got a small rubber ball.
At one point I turned around and he had one of those balls. “Where did you get that?” I said. He pointed at the machine. I blinked. “Okay, how did you get that?”
He promptly opened the flap that covered the place where the prizes fell, reached his small arm in up to the elbow, and triumphantly pulled out another ball. “See? My hand fits back in there and I can get one!”
We let him keep the balls, but we quickly ushered Sam and Eli back to the table before an employee discovered his larceny. It’s a little disturbing how well Eli lifted those balls, but given the state of the economy, it’s comforting to know that he can be Oliver to my Fagin if I need.