Small Dreams

Originally published in Northern Ohio Live magazine, 2004

By Judah Leblang

She sits behind a counter in a beige and brown Laundromat on East 55th Street and Fleet Avenue, in the Slavic Village section of Cleveland, a neighborhood that used to be all Polish and is now a mix of many colors and ethnic groups, united by their common poverty. A television, tuned to a meaningless baseball game (one that doesn’t involve the Cleveland Indians) drones in the background, while a ceiling fan turns lazily above, weakly stirring the coal-dusted air. But she doesn’t watch television; her gaze is fixed on the middle distance, her eyelids heavy, hooded.

Suddenly she moves, overtaken by a sense of purpose. As she walks, her hair–a combination beehive and ponytail with brown roots dyed black–shakes from side to side. A big girl, 18 or 19, full-figured leaning toward fat, her upper arms fleshy, jiggling, her off-white blouse and blue jeans stretched to the breaking point.

Soon she is standing near the glass front of a carnival-style game that is tucked into a corner, across from her laundry counter. The game is an old-fashioned affair, one that features a silver crane operated by hand and a pile of small stuffed animals and other tchotchkes down below. A quarter drops with a determined clunk, and girl and machine swing into action. Spotting her prey, she swoops down with the open jaw, attacking an aqua blue dog, which waits, unmoving.

The jaw strikes, stumbles against the dog, and rises up-snatching air. The girl’s hair, cascading down her back, waves, and her shoulders slump, just a little. A small burst of air-an unvoiced sigh or cough, escapes her lips. Then another coin magically appears and is ingested into the machine as she aims the crane toward the left back corner of the glassed-in bounty. This time her victim is green, fluorescent, and equally slick.

Turning away from the game, she returns to her counter with another silent sigh, perching on her wooden stool. Resuming the pose, chin on palm, hair cascading, arms fleshy, thick, but no longer jiggling. Scanning the middle distance, she looks for and expects nothing. The gold letters of her T-shirt sparkle in the afternoon light. ‘All American Girl,’ the shirt says.