I had Kai and Ryan with me in Wisconsin Dells for some family time recently. I was going to type “cheap” family time, but that is not actually true. By the time we hit the arcade, the frozen yogurt place, the ropes course, the laser maze and the go-karts, not to mention the bar bill, it’s a pretty spendy 24 hours. But everyone loves it and you can get a 48 oz bloody mary and that’s pretty magical stuff.
This particular morning, we were at the arcade. This was our second trip to the arcade in like 12 hours, so when I put money on the kids cards I told them that this was it, I wasn’t going to refill them, so spend the money wisely. I retired to a table to wait for them. This particular arcade is two stories, so both kids were largely out of my line of sight.
Kai, who on his best day isn’t known for his restraint, spent all of his credits trying to win a giant stuffed ice cream cone, and was thus divested of his resources in about 15 minutes.
He came to sit by me at a table. Literally by me, as in in my same chair, and sighed heavily.
“I really wanted that stuffed ice cream cone,” he said. I could hear the emotion in his voice.
“That’s too bad, buddy,” I said.
He signed again.
I ignored him.
“I wish someone would win that giant ice cream and give it to me,” he said.
This time I sighed.
“I seem to recall you spending all your money there another time. It seems like it’s a hard crane game to win.”
I was not going to refill his card so he could try to win the dang ice cream, a pointless boondoggle that was unlikely to result in winning the ice cream, which I also didn’t want in my house. This would have to be a lesson in consequences.
“You chose to spend all your credits, buddy, so that’s it. We can do the laser maze when Ryan’s done.”
Ryan, meanwhile, was raking in the prizes from the more generous cranes, and went downstairs to find more games. Kai followed her. And I was feeling pretty good about myself. This, of course, was my mistake—feeling good. Feeling good is when it all turns to crap. You know, like I was feeling good until I got a cramp during the race. Or I was feeling really good until I realized there was a bear outside my tent. Marian Crane was feeling pretty good when she got into the shower, you know?
Anyway, I was feeling good. I hate to see either of my kids with their hopes dashed, even if their hope is something stupid like a stuffed ice cream cone. And yeah, I could have refilled his card for a few more moments of peace. But I stuck to my guns and I felt good about it.
I gathered up my purse and walked downstairs to find the kids and buy tickets to the laser maze, and ran into Kai. He was holding a stuffed gorilla.
“Oh, hi, Mom,” he said. “Ryan let me use some of her credits and I won this!” He was standing next to a different crane game filled with stuffed gorillas. Another family was gathered around this machine as well, and they were all looking at me. I processed this fact at the same time Kai said, “Well, I may have reached in and just taken it.”
It took me a long moment to process the scene. Kai standing there with a stuffed gorilla, the man and his two sons staring at Kai in…wonder? Astonishment? The attendant behind the counter eyeing us as she helped someone pick out prizes.
“He’s awesome,” the dad said, finally. “We’ve been playing this game for forever. I must have dropped twenty bucks he just reaches in and takes a prize.”
I turned to Kai. “I wish I didn’t know about any of this,” was all I could think to say.
“If he could reach in and grab two more, I know my boys would be his best friends for life!”
I looked at the dad and tried to laugh in a “kids will be kids” kind of way and told Kai to walk away from the machine. I thought our best course of action would be to flee the scene and figure out what to do away from other people.
“I’m sorry,” the dad said, “I don’t mean to encourage him. It’s just that we tried so hard to win those gorillas.”
“Well, Kai just showed you how to do it,” I replied.
“I mean, if he could just grab two more…”
I grabbed Kai by the shoulders and steered him toward the laser maze and away from this guy who wanted Kai to steal for his kids. Like it’s okay for my kid to do it, but not for his own boys. I assumed he didn’t want to feel like a bad parent, which is exactly how I was feeling, and in all of this I still hadn’t taken away the gorilla or made him turn it into the attendant or reamed him out or any of the many things I should have probably done.
I bought laser maze tickets, which was going to be the last thing we did before hitting the road, and it seemed like the best way to steer the ship back on course. Laser maze, leave. Laser maze, leave. After signing the credit card slip I looked up to see that Kai was no longer by my side. Rather, he’d gone back to the gorilla crane machine, and was laying flat on his back, his arm in the prize dispenser all the way up to his bony shoulder.
By the time I got there, he’d given each of the boys a gorilla and received hugs from both. They were over the moon over the dumb gorillas, with Kai acting like a sort of arcade Robin Hood. And while I did not want him stealing, I was vaguely pleased to see him acting in someone else’s self interest.
Of course, acting in someone’s best interest isn’t a great reason to commit a crime. Neither is the promise of friendship, which was the other carrot this dad dangled in front of Kai. I mean, if anyone promises you friendship in exchange for putting an ounce of heroin in your butt and flying to LaGuardia, you should not take that offer.
Later that day I texted my friend Quincy about it, and like all autism moms, she got all excited. Social skills! Developmentally appropriate petty crime! We came up with a list of things we wanted Kai to steal for us, including, but not limited to a golf cart, a cardboard cutout of the Dos Equis guy, a small plane, some bottles of airplane rum. She advised me to look on the bright side, as Kai didn’t get his arm stuck in the machine, necessitating a call to 911. We agreed, however, that I should have a talk with Kai about making people do their own dirty work.
Back at the arcade, the dad held out his hand for me to shake. He was a little too excited about all of this if you ask me, a little too impressed. I wondered if he got out much.
“Your son’s great,” he said, shaking my hand.
I didn’t have a reply to that. I mean, yes, he’s great but this particular moment wasn’t one of my favorites, plus we really needed to leave before we were escorted out.
“Where are you all from?” he asked, like some hayseed who’d never seen anything like us before.
I perked up a little at this. I mean, we might as well do the thing right at this point, you know? Why live in a city globally renown for its corruption and violence if you can’t harness that narrative for your own purposes every now and then?
I stood a little taller and tried to pack some meaning into my expression—somewhere between “I might slash your tires” and “I might have a shank in my purse.”
“We’re from Chicago,” I replied.
And I gathered my children and all of their prizes and left.