Low Risk

by Michael Melgaard

Michael Melgaard is a regular contributor to National Post’s book section. His fiction has appeared in Grain, Lampeter Review, and Humber Literary Review. This story was written with the aid of the Ontario Arts Council's Writers' Works in Progress grant. He lives in Toronto.

Betty spent a long time thinking about it. A friend of a friend had mentioned to her that a friend of his up in the city was selling some candy machines for forty bucks a piece. They were an easy way to make money, he told her. You buy the machines, get the candy in bulk, and set them up around town. He was honest about no one ever having got rich with candy machines, but it could bring in a little extra money.

Betty raised three kids on welfare. She picked up whatever under-the-table work she could working as a cook, but it never amounted to much, so she sublet the unfinished basement of their split level rental out on the highway to a couple for some extra cash. Her boyfriend, Tom, lived with her and helped out whenever he had work, but that wasn’t too often since he hurt his back. So she always struggled to make ends meet and there always seemed to be some little, unexpected extra she needed to find money for—a school thing for the kids or an unexpected repair on her old station wagon or some broken thing in the house. The “little extra” the machines could bring in was all she would need to take some of the pressure off.

Which was what she kept telling Tom, who wasn’t crazy about the idea. They talked about it while she tried to get the kids away from the TV to eat dinner and while she tried to get them to clean their dishes, which they left in favour of watching more TV. Talking across the leftover spaghetti piles, he wanted to know why the guy who told her about the machines didn’t buy them if it was so easy to get money out of them. She figured it was just not worth the guy’s time; he was making good money at the mill, what was a couple of hundred extra dollars? It was just a drop in the bucket for him, but for them it could change a lot. It could be the difference.

She walked Tom through her business plan every time money came up. When a faucet broke and they needed to scrape together ten dollars for a new one, she pointed out how a little extra money would help. When Tom had to patch a flat on his truck rather than a buy a new tire, she pointed out how a little extra money would help. When her youngest got hit in the face with a soccer ball and needed to see the dentist and she had to borrow money from Tom, she pointed out how a little extra money would help. Eventually Tom had to admit that, at the very least, it seemed pretty low-risk. It’s not like the machines would lose value; if it didn’t work out, she could sell them and just be out the cost of the candy. But he really thought she should have a few places lined up to set up the machines before she shelled out any money for them. Betty saw he had a point.

She called a few friends. Norma, who worked at a garden shop out on the highway, said the guys there were always complaining about not having vending machines. That was enough for Betty to ask Norma to ask her boss if she could set up her machines there. Norma wasn’t so sure, but after a bit of pressing she said she’d see. A few calls later the answer came back. Norma’s boss didn’t see why not.

She got the number of the guy who had the machines and he told her they were actually fifty dollars each and he wanted to sell them all at once, so two hundred for the four. She didn’t have that kind of money on hand. “Could you hold on to them for me for a little while?” she asked.

“No guarantees,” was all the guy would agree to.

So she tried to get the money together. First from Tom, who said he couldn’t help; he’d been driving without insurance for the past month because he couldn’t even afford that. Her tenants weren’t interested in loaning her money against the next month’s rent, and any time she did scrape together a little extra it seemed to disappear into a hot lunch at the kids’ school or some sport day or a spike in gas prices. Every time she came up short, she thought how that extra couple of hundred a month would make these huge inconveniences less of a strain.

She called every week to make sure the machines were still there, always having to remind the guy who she was and that she had called the week before. He would always say, “Oh yeah, sure,” in a way that made it seem like he didn’t remember, but at least they were always still there. And then one of the cooks at the restaurant she filled in at got sick for a week. She got enough extra shifts to have a bit of extra money for the first time in months.

“Grown men can buy their own candy. Why would we want those?”

She drove up to the city to get the machines and was surprised when the directions took her to a warehouse in the suburbs. She’d thought she was buying them from a regular guy, not a dealer. The front of the warehouse was set up like a pawn shop, with shelves and glass cases filled with what looked like junk. The guy sitting in a beat up old recliner by the door didn’t know anything about her calls, but did seem to think he’d seen a few candy machines in the back.

He led her between a gap in the shelves into a large, open back of the warehouse. It smelled of engine oil and mould. They walked through and over piles of paint cans and old car parts to a cold, damp corner with some old arcades and a half-built motorcycle. The machines were behind a pile of bike frames. The guy said, “This is them.”

“They’re a little more beat up than I thought,” she said.

He shrugged and said, “I don’t really know anything about them.”

She reached over the bikes and fed a quarter into a machine. She spun the knob and a crank inside where the candy would be spun around at the same time. It looked like it worked. She asked, “Can I get my quarter back? I want to try the others.”

The guy seemed put out, but went to the front desk, then a back room. Betty stared at the machines. He eventually came back with the key that opened the money collector. She pulled her quarter out and tried the other three. They all seemed to work okay, but without candy in them she couldn’t be sure. She asked the guy about that, he shrugged again and said “As-is.”

“Fifty seems a bit much. The paint is coming off and this one has a chip.”

“Can’t do anything about the price,” he said. Betty wasn’t sure what the next move was; she wanted to negotiate, but didn’t really know how. They stood there, both staring at the machines. The guy seemed to realize more was needed. He said, “These are the big industrial type, not the crappy plastic ones you got at kid stores.”

On the drive home she went over the numbers again. She had tried to be conservative in her guesses about how much money they’d bring in, but she figured that each machine had to get at least eight spins a day; so, two dollars per machine per day. That was sixty dollars a month, times four machines, which was two-hundred-forty. After the cost of the candy, which she picked up from the Costco out on the highway, she was looking at six weeks until she turned a profit. That wasn’t too long, and then she could pay for the things she had to tell her kids they couldn’t do, and they could maybe eat some decent meals every now and then. And if things went well, she could use those profits to buy a couple of more machines. She tried to keep her thoughts realistic, but maybe she could even move up to proper vending machines. Maybe even pop.

She spent the rest of the day cleaning up the machines with a rag in the carport. One had some rust on the spinning thing inside that she hadn’t noticed, but once the candy was on top, she figured no one would see it.

When Tom got home from work he said, “Well, there they are.” He spruced them up with some bright red paint. They stood together watching it dry and agreed the machines looked great. Tom said, “You might be on to something, here.”

Her youngest asked if he could have some candy. She told him, for the hundredth time, no.

Betty called Norma after dinner and let her know the machines were ready. Norma asked “What machines?”

Betty said, “The vending machines we talked about for your store, remember?”

“Oh, you got those?”

“Yeah.”

“… I should double-check with the boss.”

Betty didn’t see the point, since Norma had already talked it over with her boss and he’d said he was interested. And Betty lived so close it was no problem to just pop by. So the next day, Betty put on her best dress and carefully laid the machines on cardboard in the back of her station wagon. She put towels between them so they wouldn’t bump into each other, and took the bags of candy out of the basement freezer where she’d hidden them. She had six different kinds: gumballs, chocolate almonds, Skittles, M&Ms, jelly beans, and Reese’s Pieces. She’d figured the guy might want to pick his flavours.

Betty found Norma on the sales floor. She was trying to stack hoses into a pile. Norma said, “You should have called. The boss isn’t in today.”

“Well,” Betty said, “I could just set them up somewhere.”

“I really think we ought to check.”

“I thought you had checked, isn’t it okay?”

“Well, I ran it by him and he said it could work.”

And then a woman was there telling Norma, “We need you to help unload the delivery once you’re done helping this customer.”

Betty explained she wasn’t a customer, and asked if she were talking to the manager; as it turned out, the woman was the owner’s wife, Gladys. Norma stared at the ground while Betty explained how Norma had talked to the boss about the candy machines and how the guys wanted them and how she had thought it was okay if she set them up somewhere in the store.

Gladys looked at Norma, who said, “Well, he mentioned it could be okay.”

Gladys said to Betty, “No, we don’t need those.”

“But Norma ran it by—”

“Grown men can buy their own candy. Why would we want those?”

“Well …” Betty hadn’t thought she’d need to explain anything; it was supposed to be all set up. And now this woman was staring at her like she was wasting everyone’s time and she felt like she had to say something. She looked around the store and saw an out. “There’s lots of kids coming in here.” She pointed at a toddler standing by a rack of shovels.

Gladys looked at the kid, considering. “So, what’s in it for us? Why would we let you set up a machine on our property?”

Betty hadn’t thought of that either. She’d always just assumed that she could drop the machines wherever anyone would let her. But she felt like she was close; the woman knew there were kids, kids who wanted candy and now she was waiting for a reason to put the machines in. Betty said, “Well, it doesn’t cost you anything.” She knew it that was the wrong thing to say as she was saying it.

“No,” Gladys said. “This whole place costs us something. We pay for every square foot. And we’re not in the habit of just letting people make money off of it for nothing.”

Betty didn’t know how to respond to that. She felt it slip away; the potential future money she thought would make things easier. It was like the woman was taking it away from her. She felt a growing panic, but could all she could say was, “I thought this was all okayed.”

“We don’t want them. Excuse me.”

Gladys went back into the office and Norma said something about having to get back to work, leaving Betty alone on the sales floor. She thought of following Norma, then thought about going into the office and trying again. She ended up just heading out to her car, where she sat until she saw Gladys looking out the window at her. Betty pulled out onto the highway and headed home and put on the TV to take her mind off things.

Tom asked why the machines were still in the back of the car that night. Betty explained the whole thing to him, near tears, saying how Norma had led her on and how awful the owner’s wife had been. Tom tried to be sympathetic, but at the end he said, “Well, it’s no reason to start crying. It just means you’ve got to find somewhere else to set them up.”

“But where?”

“Are you kidding? There’s got to be a hundred places in town. Remember, you were going to ask them anyways. This just means you have to look a bit sooner than you’d planned.”

Tom set the kids up in front of the TV and pulled out the yellow pages. They sat at the kitchen table and went through, underlining the addresses of likely shops, and then they made a list that started on the north side of town and ended on the south. The next day, after she got the kids to school, she’d work her way down the list.

He smiled at her reassuringly and added, “I’m sure someone in town will want one of your little candy machines.”

Tom lent her ten bucks for gas the next morning and she set off, wearing her best dress for the second day in a row and excited about her prospects again. She even treated herself to a doughnut at the coffee shop on the south end of town. When she left, she saw four candy machines against the wall that she had somehow never noticed before. She took them as a good sign—people clearly were okay with vending machines being in their business. And it actually opened up a whole new line for her; she hadn’t thought places that served food would want these machines.

She started at an industrial business complex with a half dozen shops just outside of town. The first place made trusses; Betty wasn’t too sure what those were but gave it a try. The manager was in and gave her a very quick “not interested”—no kids ever came into his shop and his guys didn’t want candy. She tried the custom fabricator next door and got the same answer. The transmission shop, the ATV shop, and custom carpentry place all said no, too. At the brake shop she was excited to see the manager was working his way through a bag of M&Ms.

“You can always have some on hand,” she pointed out.

“But these haven’t been sitting in a machine for five months.”

“Well, it’s only a quarter.”

“For a handful. Sorry, I go to Costco and get a box for like, twenty cents. I don’t need a machine in here.”

The last place in the complex was a cabinet maker. The nice old man who worked there said “It’s just me here and I can’t have sugar on account of my diabetes.” He smiled at her reassuringly and added, “I’m sure someone in town will want one of your little candy machines.”

Betty decided to take the cabinet maker’s advice and skipped the next few places on her list. They were all industrial shops outside of town; there wasn’t much point wasting her time with them, as she now knew. She drove to the mall. There were machines by the entrance, which she knew about, but she thought that the toy store inside might be interested. They had their own machines, as it turned out. Theirs had games and toys in them as well—little plastic domes held sticky hands, mini-ring toss, stickers. She hadn’t thought of any of that.

From the mall, she walked down Main Street, popping into likely shops. She was surprised by how many of them had machines. Those that didn’t have them weren’t interested.

She went back in her car and drove around. She figured the bowling alley already had machines but checked to be sure—they did—and then tried the Laundromat next door. The guy at the wash-and-fold counter seemed interested, but then said, “I could just get one myself. What does one of those cost, like, thirty bucks?”

“They’re more than that.” Betty said.

“Well, whatever it is, I’m sure I can afford it.”

Betty wasn’t sure what to do with that. She didn’t think it was fair for him to just go and get his own machine after she had given him the idea, but she knew she couldn’t say that. Instead, she tried to think of a reason that he should go with hers, but when she couldn’t she started to feel the panic again. She was so close, someone had been interested, even if it had only been for a second, and now she was losing the potential future money again. The wash-and-fold guy said, “Are you alright?”

She said, “Thanks for your time,” and walked quickly out to the car.

She drove home trying not to think about the money she’d wasted on driving around without managing to find a home for one of the machines. At home she made a sandwich and ate it at the kitchen table and went down her list, first crossing off all the places she’d been, and then crossing off the ones she’d passed by after deciding there was no point. Then she went down again, crossing off the ones she figured wouldn’t be interested. The list was a lot shorter, but there were still a dozen places. She thought about heading back out, but then turned on the TV and ate a few handfuls of M&Ms and tried not to think about the money she wasted that day and how, if only the machines were out there, they’d be bringing in enough money that losing ten dollars wouldn’t mean a thing.

She was warming up leftovers for the kids when Tom got home. She watched him get his tool belt out of the back of his truck and walk by her station wagon. He looked in the back and then headed up the deck stairs. He didn’t say anything about it while they ate dinner and she didn’t offer anything.

It wasn’t until they were doing dishes that he asked, “No luck today?”

She shook her head.

“Well, there’s always tomorrow, right?”

She lay in bed that night thinking about tomorrow. She thought about how easy it should have been—the machines in a shop by the door, not in anyone’s way; every few weeks, her coming by to refill them and take out the two dollars a day in quarters that was going to make things so much easier for her. And then she thought about all the people she talked to and all the ones she would talk to; how they could just go buy their own if they really wanted to. She thought about how stupid she was not to have seen that before and she thought of how horrible that guy was for telling her it was easy money and how horrible Norma was for telling her there was a place for them and, finally, how horrible it was that she just hadn’t thought the whole thing through.

Whenever she went down to the station wagon, she would think about how she needed to find a way to make the machines work.

After the house cleared out the next day, she tried to make herself go out and face it all. Instead, she put on the TV and watched what came before her. She made herself a lunch and tried not to think about the money she should be out trying to make. The kids got home and started tearing around the house and then it was dinner and Tom came home and didn’t ask about the machines.

It was the same the next day and the one after that. But whenever she went down to the station wagon, she would think about how she needed to find a way to make the machines work, and then she’d think about all the places she’d tried and about the money she’d wasted, and how spending more money to find a home for the machines was a waste, but then she’d think about how much the extra money would help. After a week, she moved the machines out of the car and into the laundry room to make room for a bag of soccer balls.

A few weeks later she went looking for the candy and found that her kids had got into it; the empty bags buried in the bottom of the freezer. She screamed at them about how it wasn’t just the cost of the candy they were out, but they were out what the candy would have brought in and now she had to get the money together to get new stock and now she couldn’t even find a place to put the machines because she had nothing to put in them. The kids laid low for the rest of the night, leaving Betty in front of the TV, alone.

Tom suggested one day that she try to sell them back; they were just in the way downstairs. She got mad; she still thought that there had to be a way to get it to work. She just wasn’t ready to give up on the potential future money they could make. But she knew he was right. She called the guy who sold them to her the next day. He didn’t remember anything about any candy machines and said, besides, he wasn’t interested in buying them back. “A tough sell,” he said.

Eventually, she got tired of almost knocking them over every time she did laundry and moved them to the closet under the stairs. They ended up behind the plastic Christmas tree where she at least only had to think about them once a year.

 


Michael Melgaard is a regular contributor to National Post’s book section. His fiction has appeared in Grain, Lampeter Review, and Humber Literary Review. This story was written with the aid of the Ontario Arts Council's Writers' Works in Progress grant. He lives in Toronto.

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