See, the problem with the Crane Game was that the claw was basically impotent. Vern mashed the button, and the claw dropped and rested limp on the pile of stuffed animals. Then the claw retracted before the pincers began to pinch. That wasn’t how a real crane worked. Vern knew that.
Vern operated a real crane. Last year, The Birmingham Metro had voted Landry’s Construction “Best Bang for Your Buck!” For the most part, Vern’s job was raising crossbeams to upper stories. He had a battery-powered fan suction-cupped to his crane’s windshield. He wore an FM headset that usually picked up Braves games without too much static. When the opportunity presented itself, he’d attach a wrecking ball and hop on a demo crew for a little extra under-the-table coin. But that opportunity had presented itself rarely as of late.
Now, in the lobby of the Piggly Wiggly, Vern worked the Crane Game joystick, his daughter’s forehead squashed against the case. Her breath fogged up the glass. She was ten years old.
“Fuck, Dad,” Maddie said. “You were really close that time.”
“Honey, don’t say fuck.”
“Shit, Dad. That time you almost had it.”
“Don’t say shit, either. How about crap?”
“Crap, Dad. That time was so fucking close.”
Vern worked his tongue around the corner of his mouth. He squeezed the joystick, his dry knuckles bulging around the smooth plastic. The release button blinked red. He pressed it. The claw dropped square onto the head of a purple ladybug—the one Maddie was ogling. Vern held his breath. The claw began to clasp, but before it took any purchase on the stuffed animal, it started to rise. It opened over the chute, releasing empty air.
Vern flattened his hand against the glass. He drew another wrinkled dollar from his pocket and ironed it against the edge of the case. The machine ate it up, and the gears began to turn.
Today was Sunday. Vern had just gone to church with Maddie and her mother. They’d gone to one of those mega-churches with a rock band up front and plasma screens everywhere, everyone wearing T-shirts with Bible verses on them. Things hadn’t gone well. This was not good, especially considering he had forgotten Maddie’s karate promotion last week.
Vern rarely went to church with Maddie and Shawna, even before the divorce. Staring another workweek in its face, Sundays he’d kept to himself. Now he spent them almost exclusively on the sofa in his underwear, football on the boob tube, remote tucked into his waistband. Depending on the state of his hangover, he sometimes took his Cheerios with High Life instead of milk.
This morning, as badly as he’d wanted to see his daughter—Vern sensed that Shawna was trying to keep Maddie from him, though she swore otherwise—he found himself longing for his cool, dark living room as he drove across the church’s sprawling campus. He parked behind the man-made pond, beneath the half-ton sign with the hulking digital display, missing all the while the comfort of his threadbare couch—how well it held his shape.
In the worship hall, the Botoxed pastor had kissed Vern’s ex-wife on the cheek. He practically crushed Vern’s hand when he shook it, a stupid, toothy grin plastered across his face, then zipped across the aisle to hug a woman in a wheelchair. Vern responded by sulking. He made a show of not closing his eyes when it was time to pray. When they took communion, he went ahead and ate his cracker and drank his juice without waiting.
Maddie and Shawna hadn’t said much while they ate hotdogs afterward at Sonic. Vern started to feel like he should’ve made a better effort.
After the hotdogs, he’d taken Maddie to Piggly Wiggly to pick out her favorite gum. Now Shawna was waiting in the parking lot, where the October air was turning sharp. Now Vern was playing the Crane Game.
He tried again and failed. This time the ladybug shifted deeper into the pile of stuffed animals.
“Are real cranes this hard?” Maddie asked.
“Well. They’re different.”
Vern could’ve just bought Maddie a purple ladybug. He considered how easily he could break the glass case. He might rip that fucking claw from its flimsy rigging, sparks flying from the machine, and they’d grab as many stuffed animals as they could carry and run through the lobby’s sliding doors. But then it would be over. Someone would catch them eventually—there were cameras—and Shawna would take Maddie home. He’d never see them again. Still, for a moment Vern let himself wonder how far he and Maddie could get.
He thumbed a twenty from his billfold. “Why don’t you ask that lady at the register for change?”
“You’ll wait until I get back to play, right?”
Vern watched his daughter skip across the store. He watched her little mouth form soundless words as she looked up to a woman leaning against the counter. His daughter, with the foul mouth. As she bounded back across the lobby with a wad of bills in her hand, she seemed to Vern so perfect, so pure. He allowed himself to wonder which parts of her he might have contributed.
She retook her place at his side and leaned against the glass, her eyes wide as the crane began to move. One day, Vern knew, Maddie would come to understand that the game was rigged. There was no way for Vern or even Maddie to win the ladybug. But Maddie didn’t know that yet, and Vern wanted to keep it from her as long he could. So he went on feeding his lottery change, his beer allowance, his lunch money—dollar by dollar—into the Crane Game.
Every time someone left the store, a woman’s voice sounded over a speakerbox. Goodbye, it said, cheerful as could be. But somehow, now, the sliding door had gotten stuck. A breeze from the parking lot blew dead leaves into the lobby. They scuttled loose circles, lifting and lilting and always coming back down, their brittle edges ticking against the tile. Maddie turned from the Crane Game to watch, and that voice kept sounding: goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
John Thornton Williams is a recipient of Glimmer Train‘s New Writer Award and the Tennessee Williams Scholarship to attend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. His fiction is forthcoming in Glimmer Train and has recently appeared in Story, Witness, Joyland, and The Masters Review. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Wyoming.