The Claw Machine

CAS for Database

Eileen Miller

Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

Bainbridge High School

Fiction

               There were teddy bears of every color except their natural tones, orange foxes in blue pinstriped suits, top-hatted raccoons, fluffy ducks, and countless others. Now, it was grinning crocodiles. One grinning crocodile.


               The subway station was shedding its last few commuters, but its years-old claw machine refused to let its final tenant depart. The announcement that the last train would be leaving in ten minutes echoed through the station, but the station’s final commuter paid it no attention.


               Craig watched the crocodile slip once again out of the machine’s silver claw. Too focused on his prize, he didn’t notice his eyes, burning from hours of staring into the bright lights, the absence of the earlier buzz of commuters, or that his backpack, earlier tossed on the floor, had long since been snatched away by a faceless thief.


               The crocodile’s jaw crashed down onto the walls of the chute, and tipped backwards into the box. Craig was too tired to kick the machine or grumble any curses. He didn’t need to check his watch to know it was past nine, hours later than when he usually arrived home. Soon he would leave the machine for the last time. He would ride the empty subway nine stops to his apartment and tell his wife, who doubtless would still be up, waiting for him with his cold dinner in frosty silence, that he lost his job.


               By habit, Craig reached into his pocket for another token, forgetting he already used his last one. He moved next to his wallet, which housed only a few cards and a single bill. The token machine only took cash, so he pulled out the bill, relieved to see its value was five dollars.


               He clamped his hand around it and turned to the machine that distributed tokens to use at the claw machine. Five dollars meant twenty tokens. Craig wondered if every token the machine dispensed had passed through his hands by this point. He fed the machine his five dollars, but when he turned the knob for his anticipated flush of tokens, only five were spat out.


               This time, Craig cursed and kicked the machine, half-hoping it would cause the fifteen tokens he was owed to roll out. The slot remained empty, and Craig gathered up what wasn’t even a handful of tokens and returned to the claw machine.


               The first token slid into the machine with a clunk. The controls lit up and the machine began to sing merrily.


               It started with the teddy bears. It was the last day of a hard week, the last week of a hard quarter, and the last quarter of a disappointing fourth year at P&P.


               Had he been over-optimistic to expect a promotion? Perhaps, if hints and compliments by his supervisors meant less than he convinced himself they did.


               Distracted by disappointment, Craig let himself be pushed through the crowds of  unsmiling commuters in the station like a boat slapped around by the waves. He found himself pressed against the side of a claw machine filled with plush teddy bears. Through the glass he saw a man hunched over the machine’s controls, navigating the claw towards a teddy bear in the far right corner. The teddy bear slipped easily out of the claw, and the man slunk away from the machine and rejoined the crowd.


               Craig slipped to the front of the claw machine and examined its controls. They were simple enough, why not give it a try? Determined to best the man who failed to capture a bear, though he told himself it was to get a gift for his daughter, Craig stayed at the machine all night, abandoning his original plan to get off the subway a few stops early and then return home drunk at midnight.


               He didn’t win a bear that night, or any night for the next two years. Instead, he spent his evenings at the claw machine, a clenched fist around the joystick, telling himself he would stop once he won a toy for his daughter. As his eyes followed the movement of the claw, he would think over the events of his workday, going over the highs and the lows (the lows rising steadily as the highs decreased), and the injustices he felt on those days when he was again passed over for the promotion he thought he deserved.


               It was a chance to relax, de-stress, and put his mind off work. He felt some stress at the claw machine too, but it was different. Everything was in his control. He had the tokens in his pocket and the controls in his hands. He didn’t need to worry about the whims of his supervisor or the reports of customers.


               When he passed by the machine or any of its twins throughout the subway system on outings with his family, he would keep his eyes away from it, as if he was avoiding the eyes of a person he didn’t wish to speak with. If someone else were trying their luck at it, he couldn’t bear to watch, lest that person succeed where he failed.


               Then the claw machine, too, became a poisoned place. Instead of being a refuge, where he could review his day and return home refreshed, it added to his daily stresses. The nerves he felt playing at the claw machine, nerves that once were almost welcome, became overwhelming as he failed to win a toy. Craig’s guilt about the time he spent there, hunched over the machine, his wallet growing lighter as the crowds thinned behind him, began to grow.


               Tearing himself away from the machine after rounds of failure, his head was foggy and his back stiff. As he slunk towards the subway platform, he always told himself tomorrow would be the day he won.


               When the teddies disappeared, he tried his luck with the foxes, which morphed into raccoons, ducks, and now, crocodiles.


               His shaking hands ruined the first attempt before the claw got near the toy. His grip on the joystick slipped and the claw descended, closing its taunting fingers around empty air. Craig and the crocodile watched as the claw rose, mockingly empty, and sauntered over to the chute where it dropped its empty contents.


               Craig took out his second token and dropped it into the machine, hoping to redeem himself with his second token.


               It was his wife who suggested he go for the job at the textbook publisher Peet and Pearson.


               “They’re growing fast. I hear there’s lots of room for upward movement there. Most people see themselves promoted within a few years.”


               “I don’t know… maybe they made a mistake.” Craig said, incredulous at the idea that he received an offer. He applied on a whim, to P&P and a number of other companies in town, but this offer was a surprise. “It’s so far away,” he frowned, “I won’t be able to walk to work anymore.”


               “Don’t make that a factor,” his wife laughed, “you don’t want to be rooted at the same company going nowhere for years. And it can’t be that far. Nine stops on the subway, tops.”


               She was right about that. Their apartment was exactly nine stops from Peet and Pearson’s main office, and nine stops exactly from the claw machine Craig would become well acquainted with.


               The crocodile was motionless as it rose with the claw. Craig felt a kinship with this toy, the only one left, so close to being chosen. He couldn’t leave it here. Craig refused to breathe, lest any change in the environment jeopardize his crocodile. The claw began its inch towards the chute. Seconds tugged away at the speed of hours in Craig’s head. Closer, closer…


               The grin of the crocodile seemed to fade as it slipped from the grip of the claw, falling back onto the floor of the claw machine. Craig exhaled sharply. Why did he think holding his breath would help?


               “Third time’s the charm, isn’t it? Maybe next time…” His back was slapped, and people milled about around him, but he couldn’t process any of it.


               His wife was wrong. People weren’t promoted within the first few years here. Craig certainly hadn’t been. It had been four years. The first two times he shrugged it off, congratulating his promoted peers. Going through school he never was at the top of anything, so he wasn’t fazed as he watched others rise through the ranks before him. Now it was just him.


               Doug Willis, a second-year employee who just received a promotion, flashed him a grin. It faded as Craig failed to smile back.


               “You okay? I know it’s been a while…but maybe Carol has bigger plans for you. I’m sure she’ll meet with you soon. She can’t throw you off to some other supervisor if she’s planning something big for you…right?”


               “Yeah, sure.” Craig pushed away through the crowd. He watched those with promotions chatter gleefully about their futures. Even Doug, his attempt to cheer up Craig complete, was mingling with his peers.


               Craig returned to his cubicle, the pile of folders he received earlier to review still there. The plant his wife gave him when he got the job, “to brighten up your desk a bit,” she said cheerily, was saggy and brown.


               The crocodile dropped with a soft thud to the floor of the claw machine as it was pulled up. The claw continued, unfazed, with its transit to the chute.


               Two tokens left. Craig heard them clink together in his pocket as he reached for his fourth one.


               When his meeting with Carol finally arrived, she seemed apologetic.


               “It’s been good to have you in the company Craig. You showed so much promise when you started here, but your motivation seemed to drop off sometime around your fourth year. And honestly, the quality of your work hasn’t met our standards. We’re going to let you go.”


               That was two weeks ago. Carol gave him two weeks to train his replacement, a woman named Kate, three years out of college. She arrived two days after Carol gave him his notice. Craig couldn’t blame her for getting his job. Maybe she would be better. He recommended she avoid taking the subway home and wished her good luck.


               The claw grazed the crocodile’s jaw, tipping it up and letting it slip away.


               Craig looked away from the empty claw and focused on retrieving the last token from his pocket. He fed the machine his last token and watched the claw machine light up and sing for the last time. The crocodile watched him as he hovered his hand over the joystick, took a breath, then grabbed it for the final time.

EDITORIAL PRAISE

With the seamless interweaving of past and present, each scene poised to paint a bigger picture of Craig's situation, "The Claw Machine" is at once about a broken man as it is about a claw machine. The way the narrative outlives its premise by the last word is truly breathtakingly intimate, as if the reader has been whispered a secret by a stranger only to never see the stranger again.

Eileen Miller is a high school junior from Washington State. When she isn't writing she enjoys reading heaps of books, working on sewing projects, chasing her dog (or getting chased!), and playing piano. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and been featured in Hiatus Magazine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR