Niagara: A short story

Skylon Tower (Photo: Wikipedia)

by Catherine Dehdashti, author of Roseheart

I’ve lost a lot of change in vending machines, but not since a Coke started costing a dollar and a half. At that point, it’s not just change anymore. This time it was my own dumb fault. I was in a foreign land with foreign money and strange Coke machines. I was in  Canada.

It was a warm spring day, and we’d gone to Canada to see my husband’s newly immigrated brother, Ali, and his family in Toronto. They were so new to Canada that the four-year-old boy was still saying, in Persian, “When can we go back to Abadan?” Abadan was their hometown in southern Iran.

I’ve always wanted to visit Iran, but my husband, Rostam, refuses to go back. He says it’s not worth the hassle and that I only want to go because I think the Middle East is so exotic.

Rostam’s brother, Ali, was an electrical engineer in Iran, but now he’s selling shoes until he can get a job in his field. It will probably take years, which shows how badly he’d wanted to leave Iran. Still, his defenses kicked in whenever Rostam said anything bad about the Islamic Republic. I guess Ali is just sensitive because he wishes he’d left when Rostam did, right before the revolution. Incidentally, Ali was all for it at the time. He was in those crowds of pro-Khomeini people you saw on the news in 1980, with their fists in the air, shouting “Death to America.” Now there is a long story behind his involvement that might make you understand why and sympathize more, but I won’t get into that here. Now, all you need to know is that the only reason he isn’t living in the U.S. is because they denied him a visa. This, he hardly admits. He went on and on to Rostam and me about how great Canada is, and how we should move there ourselves.

They wrestled like boys when they first saw each other after all that time. Ali’s wife told me Ali had practiced for that moment. Rostam was older and had always been able to pin Ali to the floor. Ali gleefully pinned Rostam to the floor at our hotel, but Rostam just laughed. It was probably the happiest they had ever been together.

The boys practiced their English on me enthusiastically. The eleven-year-old mustered up his best English to ask, “Aunt Kerry, is Simpson show really like life in United States?”

I congratulated him on his English. He was waiting for an answer, and I was too challenged to explain mockery and exaggeration with my horrible Persian language skills. So I said, “Yes, The Simpson’s is a little bit like life in the United States.” I felt confident enough in my answer.

The boys were knocking each other over to be next to their newly discovered Uncle Rostam. I guess I was a pretty hot item with them myself. They were irresistible to me too. I couldn’t stop mussing with their glossy hair, the older boy’s jet black and wavy, and the younger boy’s straight brown with sandy highlights.

We’d rented a minivan to go spend the day at Niagara Falls, but before we even got a close look at the falls, we became ensnared in one tourist attraction after another, ending by accident with the Skylon Tower.

The point of the Skylon Tower is supposed to be the observation deck at the top, but it was designed by some very entrepreneurial-minded folks so that to get a child to the potty you have to take them down to a concrete basement and walk them clear through a football field-sized video arcade. A ringing, whistling video arcade didn’t appeal to me much, but the boys’ eyes lit up like the lights on the games they ran off to play, and it was clear we weren’t going to even bother with the observation deck. It’s not that the kids didn’t have video games back in Iran—they just had never seen so many of them in one place.

Three hours of nephew-bonding and seventy dollars in game tokens later, I realized my throat was as parched as the Sahara. A vending machine beckoned me. Its graphic design front showed a Coke bottle wet with chilly condensation. I’m not a big pop drinker at home, but the taste of a Coke was a revelation to me when I’d traveled outside of the U.S. before. That reminder of the home I’d taken for granted, I guess. I wanted to see if it held true in Canada, which is North America of course, but another country nonetheless.

I asked my husband and my newly found relatives if they wanted any Coke. Ali’s wife simultaneously offered me tea she was pouring into paper cups from a two-liter thermos. We smiled “no thank you” to one another. I walked toward the machine, getting thirstier by the moment, and hoped it wasn’t like some desert mirage of an oasis cabana. A dollar-fifty. Fine, I’d gladly pay double that, and it was for a really big bottle—quadruple the size of my bladder at full capacity.

I fished out the heavy silver and brass colored two-dollar coin and clumsily aimed it at the slot. It went in, but I didn’t hear the ka-ching. I pressed the button for a Coke. Nothing came. I jiggled the machine a little, then stopped when I remembered hearing that eighty people are crushed to death each year trying to shake a product or a refund from uncooperative vending machines.

Indignant, I searched out Rostam. He and his eleven-year-old nephew were in a virtual motorcycle race, maneuvering their on-screen course by shifting their body weight side-to-side atop real-looking motorcycles. You would have thought Rostam was eleven years old too, instead of forty. I said, “Honey?” and he crashed into the virtual barrier, flipped and burned.

“Oooh! What?” he answered.

“I lost my money in the pop machine.”

“Go get it back.” He put four more tokens in the game for himself and four more for the kid. They cranked their handlebar accelerators, revving their virtual engines. They were poised to race again.

I shrugged and headed to the prize claim counter, where furry pink and purple snakes and bunnies hung against the back wall. “I lost two dollars in that Coke machine over there,” I said.

The teenage boy said, “This counter is just for prizes. You’ll have to go to the administrative office. It’s beyond the escalator and behind the glass wall.”

I walked toward the glass wall and opened the glass door. The blonde girl behind the desk was either just back from spring break or a regular tanning bed patron. “I lost two dollars in the Coke machine,” I said.

The blonde slid a green form in front of me on the counter. She said, “Fill out the fields for name, address, and phone number. Then sign it.”

I signed. She gave me two one-dollar coins, giving me my first inkling that the Canadian two-dollar coin isn’t meant to be used in Canadian vending machines. In the U.S., where there aren’t two-dollar coins, a coin is a coin and you can stick it in the slot. I’m not talking about the collectible Susan B. Anthony or Sacagawea coins that nobody actually spends, or pennies—they hardly count at all. The Canadian two-dollar coin looked like a regular coin. In the U.S., you can stick any regular coin in the slot.

After I thanked her and headed back through the arcade, I walked by my four-year old nephew and my brother-in-law. Ali was trying to keep the little boy happy with the twenty-five-cent kiddie games. I could see the growing discontent in the boy’s eyes, and the growing panic in Ali’s. The child wanted to do the virtual motorcycle race with his big brother and Rostam, but he was too small to sit on the motorcycle and reach the handlebars. If he’d tried to shift his body weight he would have fallen off.

There was about to be a big scene in the Skylon Tower. If the boy couldn’t ride the motorcycle, he wanted to leave and go to Clifton Hill, the amusement area we’d gone to first. He wanted to go back to the haunted house he’d chickened out on earlier. I silently rooted for the rebellious little guy with the sandy highlights. The dark dungeon of a video arcade was getting very old, and it was still nice outside. I was ready to leave, but not before I got my Coke.

I went back to the same machine even though there were four others I could have tried. I’m not good at losing, or maybe I’m just stupid. But I think I’ll blame it on the culture shock. I know it’s not like I was in the South Pacific, but half the culture shock of Canada comes from trying to get over how much it’s like the U.S., making what is different so disconcerting.

The condensation looks so real, I thought, looking at the artistic renderings of silvery water droplets on the machine. I dropped one of my dollar coins in the slot. I heard nothing. I must have been in denial by then because I honestly believed the second coin would do the trick. The second coin didn’t make any noise either. I peered into the slot. It appeared that my two-dollar coin was holding things up in there.

Embarrassed by my mistake, I didn’t want to go to the girl in the glass office again. I wanted to accept the small loss and start all over at a new machine. But my money was all gone now, spent on the kids and Ms. Pac Man, the only video game I’ve ever liked.

Rostam and the older boy were now reunited with Ali and the little boy at the rifle gallery. They must have bribed the little one to stay by letting him play with guns. Ali’s wife looked deathly bored of the dungeon arcade and continued to sip tea from her styrofoam cup as she sat on a plastic bench staring into space. She hadn’t even tried a single game. The other relatives had warned us that she was a little icy, and blamed it on her being a northerner before marrying Ali. She was from a rainy little town near the Caspian Sea. I had taken offense, being from northern Minnesota myself, and so naturally I liked her. Still, I wished she would talk more.

I caught Rostam’s eye. I’m thirty, but I was about to become a very cranky child if I didn’t get my ice cold Coke. Maybe even throw a temper tantrum. Children are a terrible influence on me, as Rostam has noted.

I said, “I lost the money in the machine again.” This time he paid attention, marching off to the prize counter too fast for me to tell him it wasn’t the place to get refunds. I trailed him, catching up as the teenage boy said, “beyond the escalator, behind the glass.”

Together we entered and I confessed to the blonde that I’d lost the money in the machine again. She picked up the phone and said, “Get George to go open machine number five.”

I asked, “Should we go wait by the machine?”

She seemed to ponder this question seriously, tilting her head from side-to-side like the moving virtual pod game I’d seen Rostam in earlier. “It’s up to you,” she said. We waited by the machine, but George didn’t come. I walked back to the glass office again and told her.

“George, our pop expert, is on his way,” she said, as she checked her tan face in a compact mirror and licked her frosty pink glossed lips.

I went back again. If we couldn’t be outside enjoying Niagara Falls or looking at it from the top of the Skylon Tower, at least I was getting my exercise. Rostam stood aside while George, a big guy in a navy jumpsuit, inspected the inside of the machine. George handed me a Coke. The bottle wasn’t exactly covered in chilly droplets of condensation, but I guess deep inside I’d known all along it wouldn’t be.

Rostam said, “Now go back to the office and get your change.” I’d forgotten I had fifty cents change coming to me since the pop was only a dollar and a half.

I looked at George. Couldn’t he give me the change? He explained, “I can’t open the money part.”

So back to the glass-encased blonde girl I went. I held the Coke, not opening it right away. My thirst was gone, maybe because I had finally won the battle. “I guess George can’t give me my change,” I said to the girl. “Can I have my fifty cents?”

She handed me a green form again. “Same thing,” she said and handed me two Canadian quarters from her cash register after I’d slid the completed form back to her.

I said, “Thank you,” and turned to walk out, unopened Coke still in hand, as Ali and his four-year-old came through the glass door. Ali took a deep breath and looked at the girl with pleading brown eyes.

“We lost some change in the rifle gallery,” he said. The boy tugged on his father’s shirt, wanting to be lifted up to see over the counter.

“Fill out the fields for name, address, and phone number. Then sign,” the girl said. She slid the green form across the counter.

With one hand Ali scooped the little boy up to seat him on the counter facing the pink-lipsticked blond. With the other hand he grasped the pen that was chained to the counter and began to carefully write his new address in the fields provided.