The crane games are beautiful beasts, shiny and brightly lit, with a glass belly full of forlorn and lonely stuffed animals waiting to be rescued by obsessive 9-year-old girls with a pocketful of quarters and reasonably good aim. My daughter literally cannot walk past a crane game — not at Shoneys, not in a grocery store, not in an arcade or a Laundromat — without plastering herself like a sheet of badly laid wallpaper against the crane game, her nose pressed to the glass, looking in at the sad assortment of captive creatures, any one of which would be so very grateful to find its way to a little girl’s bed come nightfall.
“Oh daddy, oh daddy, oh daddy,” she half sings, half pleads.
How much is that doggie in the window? About $17, most likely, maybe more. I’m pretty sure that the crane game — or the claw game, as some people may call it — is fixed, set on some mysterious device deep in its internal organs to grip firmly enough to extract an animal from the teeming pile about one out of every 10 or perhaps 20 tries, and that is if the crane has been perfectly positioned by the victim, I mean operator, who has been feeding the crane game beast quarters like Ritz crackers for nearly half an hour.
More often, the crane attaches half-heartedly and very briefly to an extruding foot or arm, pulling it upward gently for just a moment so that the animal seems to be waving to the child, “save me, save me,” only to release the animal back to the pile, while the crane returns mechanically, even coldly, to its original position, waiting to be fed again.
My daughter, bless her, believes she has the game figured, the beast tamed. She doesn’t. She’s a 9-year-old version of Willy Loman from “Death of a Salesman.” Willy figured he was a great salesman and couldn’t figure why he was having such a hard time making ends meet every month. In the end, he relied on his neighbor Charley to pay his bills, essentially to subsidize his illusion of success.
In our version of the play, I am Charley, paying for my daughter’s illusions and obsessions. On her bed are approximately 65 stuffed creatures of various species. Of these, I would say about half of these are the spoils of victory from the arcade and carnival game wars. She has taken in these orphans, made them her children, arranged them in a community in which she is both mayor and head nurse, tending to them and their unpredictable and never-ending assortment of ailments.
I look in on them at night when she is fast asleep, surrounded by them, submerged in them, a foot poking out from under an alligator’s snout, one arm around a koala bear with one ear. Now I find that I am the one with my nose pressed against the glass. Believe this: I’d scoop her out of there and keep her if I could. I’d use all the quarters I could find, all I could afford or borrow, play all night if necessary. But there is no crane above her bed — just a ceiling fan, marking time. I know all too well how this game is rigged. She’s growing up too fast, and there is no rescue I know of for that.
“Oh daddy, oh daddy, oh daddy.” Those eyes.
“Here, baby,” I mumble, fishing out whatever quarters there are in my pockets. “Are you going after that turtle?”
“Nope, the yellow bird.”
She feeds the beast, and studies the bird, moving the crane past it, and then back, a smidge too far, and then over just a sliver. She studies it some more, looking first on one side, and then the other. Perfect. She pushes the button and the crane descends, its massive jaws closing over the bird’s head and upper body, pulling it just slightly before letting go.
It’s the not the letting go that bothers me, I don’t suppose. As I said, I know the game’s rigged. It’s how easy the crane makes it look to let go. It’s infuriating, maddening. My daughter isn’t fazed in the least. She’ll get ‘em next time. She has it figured out.
“Wait right here,” I tell her. “I’ll get change for a dollar.”
We’ll play all night if we have to.