Once upon a time, in a faraway land called Florida, we took our children to Chuck E. Cheese’s. The moral of that story was that we vowed not to make the same mistake twice. Fortunately, our transfer to Bangor, Maine, made it an easy promise to keep. The closest Chuck E. Cheese’s is 2 hours south in Portland.
In the past three years, the only time we thought about Chuck E. Cheese’s was when the commercials came on the television, and, trying to hide our relief, we told the boys, “Gosh, it’s too bad there isn’t a Chuck E. Cheese’s here.”
But Lindell, our youngest and the only one never to have been inside a Chuck E. Cheese’s, was growing curious: “They say that a kid can be a kid there.”
“A kid can be a kid anywhere.”
“But they have a giant mouse, Mom.”
I could not argue with that. The commercials persisted, making Chuck E. Cheese’s seem more and more like nothing short of a mini-Disney World.
Then, last month, we were passing through Portland, and I started to feel like a bad mother (the precursor to all regrettable decisions, by the way). There is only a small window of time during which a human can actually appreciate Chuck E. Cheese’s. Ford, 10, had already passed that window. How could we deny Lindell the chance?
“Do you think we should take him to see the big C?” I asked Dustin, who knew exactly what I meant. It was a dangerous proposition. Once we spoke the words aloud, we’d be committed.
Dustin and I peered at Lindell in the backseat. He looked awfully sweet, his head leaning defeatedly into the side panel of his car seat.
“Kids, what do you think about lunch at Chuck E. Cheese’s?” Dustin said.
You would have thought we’d offer him a winning lottery ticket. Actually, for Lindell, at least, this was better than a winning lottery ticket. The backseat erupted in yells and applause.
Dustin and I tuned it out, immediately regretting our decision. We began our traditional argument over directions:
“You need to take the next exit.”
“I know where I’m going.”
“But you don’t look ready to take the next exit.”
“Would you just let me drive?”
Those would be Dustin’s famous last words. Soon after, the red and orange striped building of Chuck E. Cheese’s appeared on the horizon to the right of the highway.
“There it is,” Lindell yelled. “We’re almost there.”
Dustin turned right … onto another on-ramp. “What are you doing?” I asked. “You were supposed to take the next right. Now we’re getting back on the Interstate.”
Chuck E. Cheese’s passed on our left, and then it disappeared behind us.
Lindell pressed his hand against the glass window. “Chuck E. Cheese’s! There it goes. Dad, why did you pass it?”
This was like showing a kid a giant Hershey bar and then telling him he is allergic to chocolate. Lindell was screaming and crying. If he could, I bet he would have thrown shoes at us.
“Parliament! Big Ben!” I said under my breath.
Next thing we knew, we were spiraling around the Chuck E. Cheese’s parking lot and up to another toll booth. Hadn’t we just paid a toll? Dustin handed the attendant a dollar. Then he took another wrong turn. We were headed north again. Chuck E. Cheese’s was but a small dot in the rear view mirror. Lindell continued to scream.
About a half hour later, Dustin finally got us to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Which is to say that about a half hour later, we remembered why we hate the place. It was noon on Saturday; 20 birthday parties were celebrating at the back of the restaurant.
Dustin sat down on a sticky booth and said, “Don’t mind me. I’m just going to close my eyes and pretend I’m not here.”
We left two hours later with cheap loot that Lindell clutched in his hand protectively. At the exit, an employee asked to see our hands under a blue light. They do this to make sure that the correct parents are leaving with the correct children. Everyone’s stamp should match. Dustin put his hand under the light. He was given the OK.
I put my hand under the light, and it was bare. My stamp had rubbed off.
“Sorry,” the employee said. “They’ll have to leave with him.” (Apparently this is all it takes to lose custody of your children.)
Dustin frowned and grabbed Lindell’s hand. For a moment, he looked very very jealous.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her book, “I’m Just Saying …”, is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.