Just a Game of Chance
by R. W. Nichols
I stare at the pill wrapped in clear cellophane that I hold in my hand. I was told to take it as soon as I got back; it would take away the pain and help me sleep.. But I want to get all this down first. It’s been an unbelievable night. I start with what I can remember, because it’s fading fast; I guess it has to be that way.
I recall sitting nervously in my seat in the fifth row. I recognize several people; apparently they also made the auction. I feel some relief not to be here on my own. What is it they say? Misery likes company. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was miserable, just unhappy. After all, the fifth row isn’t bad. But then again, maybe I’m clutching at straws. More people continue to straggle in, quickly filling the remaining chairs. The murmur of the crowd is a steady white noise, soothing in its normalcy.
There’s old Gordon James sitting three seats down. We nod at each other, still friendly; the competition won’t begin for another twenty minutes. And, really, I have nothing against him, he’s always treated me nice; except for that one time. And I don’t believe that he knew that the car was a lemon. I think that he’s just the typical car salesman; it wasn’t done out of spite.
Across the aisle was Don Westen. A good-looking man for his age, his silver hair still thick and curling up around the dusty white cowboy hat that he always wore. Being tall and long legged, he’s scrunched uncomfortably around and beneath the legs of the seat in front of him. He seems restless and unhappy and I certainly know how he feels.
Ella Parker, my fifth-grade teacher is escorted to the chair beside me. She looks the same; that woman never ages. I remember her small, plump, and with her hair pulled back in a bun. Hers is the image that comes to mind whenever the word ‘teacher’ is mentioned. I learned a lot in her class; she is the one person that I can thank for my success in the business world. Just two weeks into that school year I began to buckle down and actually learn something. Yes, she was a great teacher and a very nice woman. I owe her a lot.
She smiles at me in a confused way. I’d heard that she had begun the slow slide into senility. I feel a tug at my heart, remembering how things used to be. She was ‘sharp as a tack’ when I was in high school, to use one of her favorite expressions.
“What’s this, Johnny?” she asks as she looks at the little bag in her hand. She pulls out five tokens. Only five. I’d heard someone in the crowd say that that was the number of years you were expected to live. I wouldn’t tell her that, though. Instead I just smiled back and patted her arm. She seemed pacified and looked around at the crowd while I looked down at the little bag in my hand. Thirty-seven tokens, I wished that they had given me more. It’s really not very many.
Turning in my seat, I ran a quick eye over the rest of the room. There are a dozen rows of seats behind me and now each one is filled. Should be stiff bidding at this auction and a wild night. Resolve fills me as I turn back to face the auctioneer. I’ve prepared as well as I can and believe I’m ready.
The auctioneer, a large man with a friendly smile, approaches the microphone. The crowd noise ceases abruptly. I feel my calm begin to shatter. A small measure of panic begins to take its place.
The auctioneer begins, “I’d like to thank everyone for coming.”
There’s a ripple of laughter, as if once your number comes up in the lottery that there’s a choice of whether to show up or not. Even I smile, the irony is that complete.
“You sit in your seats in the order you were drawn. But you in the front seats don’t lose hope. That’s what this auction is all about. I trust that you’ve all lived safe, healthy lives?”
Again, another small titter of laughter.
“No? Well then, maybe it’s time to pay the piper,” he says with an even broader smile. “Anyway, we’re going to get this show on the road.”
The hush is now so immense that I feel like I’m in a vacuum. If that proverbial pin drops, it will be deafening. I glance at a young man in the front row. I swear that I see his heart beating against his shirt from where I sit. He’s obviously terrified. Sympathy wells up in my chest and I hope that there’s somebody here he can call on for support. He’s going to need it.
“Adam James Sanderson, please come to the front.” A loud voice reverberates through the room. Bright flashing neon lights spell out “CAR ACCIDENT” above the stage. Canned applause fills the auditorium causing a few people to clap their hands in an automatic response.
The young man stands, wobbling a little, his eyes panicky in his pale face. Slowly he makes his way to the stage and climbs the steps, clutching the rail for support.
“Now Adam, it’s not that bad,” the auctioneer said soothingly. “The car does all the work.” Somebody giggled nervously, before the quiet floods back in.
“How many tokens will we start the bidding with?” the smiling man said as he held out his hand. The skinny boy abruptly handed his whole bag to the auctioneer.
“Fifty-five, right? Okay…I’ve-a-got-fifty-five. Fifty-five, fifty-five, fifty-five. How about fifty-six, fifty-six? Anyone-for-fifty-six? There! Fifty-seven, fifty-seven, I’ve-a-got-fifty-six. Fifty-seven, fifty-seven, there! I’ve-a-got-fifty-seven. Anyone-for-fifty-eight? Fifty-eight, fifty-eight, fifty-eight. Anyone for fifty-eight?… Fifty-eight going once, going twice. SOLD! For fifty-seven.”
Motioning to the huge roulette wheel behind them, he drawled in a carnival hawker’s voice, “Give it a spin, boy! Give it a spin.”
Lips quivering, the young man stepped into position and grabbed the handle. Taking a deep breath, he rotated the handle up as high as he could reach and then pulled down fiercely, releasing it. The wheel clicked round and round, beginning fast and then gradually, very gradually slowing, and finally came to rest.
The crowd gasped and moaned its sympathy. The arrow pointed at sixty-seven. With only one hundred numbers, the wheel, to the young man’s misfortune, had landed in the top third.
The youth closed his eyes and staggered back a step. The auctioneer swiftly grabbed and held him upright. “Now, now, boy. That’s the breaks. Let’s see what your envelope says.”
A shapely woman in a very revealing costume stepped out from behind the curtain carrying a large white envelope. Stopping beside the two on the stage, she held it over her head, turning so everyone in the audience had a view (of her and the envelope), before handing it to the older man.
“What’s your guess? Think it’s a reprieve?” The auctioneer, waving his hands dramatically, using as much pomp and ceremony as he could manage, tore open the envelope, allowing the remnants to fall fluttering to the floor. He held the card that had been inside to his forehead, closed his eyes, and said, “I see… I see … What is it I see?” Smiling at his own performance, he continued, “Well, let’s just find out, shall we?” Turning it over he read, “Didn’t wear seatbelt - minus five.”
The crowd groaned as the boy collapsed to the floor. Two attendants dressed in white coveralls came from the other side of the stage carrying a stretcher. They lifted the boy onto the gurney, popped out the wheeled legs, and rolled him off stage, exit left, into the bright light behind that side of the curtain. At the same time the skimpily clad woman went through the crowd, collecting the tokens that had been bid.
The loud voice echoed through the building, “Don Earl Westen.” I saw Don start, and then slowly unwrap his legs. He rose to his feet in stages. All 6’5” of him finally upright he meandered his way to the stairs and joined the man on the platform. The flashing lights spelled out “LUNG CANCER”, which was obvious to us all as he coughed into his sleeve. Although to be honest, the coughing could have been caused by nervousness.
The auctioneer repeated his performance and was given Don’s tokens. He only had twenty in his bag. I bit my lip, knowing that this was probably the last time I would see him. He had always been a gentleman and an interesting character. When the auctioneer began his spiel there was only one bidder that participated. The odds were too much against Don, and nobody wanted to just throw their tokens away. I agreed with them and sadly sat on my hands clutching my little hoard, somewhat embarrassed that I didn’t want the auctioneer to mistake a wandering hand for a bid.
Don pulled the handle and the roulette wheel arrow stopped on thirty-one. I sat up a little straighter, feeling a sliver of hope. Thirty-one was a low number, maybe he had a chance after all..
The envelope came out with the same flourish as before; they certainly tried to spice up this little ceremony. I didn’t know about anybody else, but I appreciated it. The man in charge read the contents out loud. “Ate fruit and vegetables - plus ten.” The crowd erupted in cheers and hand-clapping that faltered and then stopped. It was a tie. Don’s twenty, the one bid, and the ten from the envelope made thirty-one tokens. The roulette wheel number stood at thirty-one. Now what?
We didn’t have to wait long. The auctioneer said, “In times like this, we always let the audience vote. So what do you say people, yea or nay?” He held his thumb up and the crowd cheered. Then he did a thumbs-down motion and received only a few ill-minded calls in agreement. I was relieved. I was glad that someone could actually come out ahead in this game. I know it sounds selfish. But I also know that what I was feeling was an emotion shared by everyone else.
“You win!” the auctioneer yelled, clapping Don on the back. Don looked startled, but broke into a slow grin and doffed his hat at the crowd, showing the crease line that circled his heavy, curly hair like a bowl. A second showgirl wearing a huge feather on her head, black seamed nylons and heels, and a bright pink leotard came out and grabbed his arm and led him back behind the curtain to the right, into a darkness that closed around him. I was instantly filled with envy; his auction was over for the day and mine had yet to begin. I tried to push all jealous thoughts from my mind, and only allow my good wishes for the man to remain. It was his lucky day.
“Janet Suzanne Michaels,” the booming voice yelled. I looked to my right and left in bewilderment before hearing a noise and turning. I saw a very overweight young woman from several rows behind me, headed for the stage. Apparently I had been wrong. The fifth row would do nothing to protect me; this woman came from at least the tenth row. My inner turmoil caused me to miss the first part of the performance. When I became calm enough to again focus on what was happening, I saw the words “DIABETIC COMA” flashing and the bidding was nearly over. The young woman had turned over forty-five tokens and there had been four bidders. She spun the wheel and I held my breath with the rest of the audience. The arrow hung up temporarily on the ‘forty’ before it suddenly flipped over the peg and stopped on ‘sixty-two’. Everyone moaned and Janet put her hand to her mouth, covering a quivering lip. Then dropping her hand, she stood courageously with her shoulders back and spine straight, staring at the auctioneer. I admired her grace in this, a game that had gone bad; I hoped that I would be as brave.
Again the envelope came out and was torn open. I noticed the paper was starting to make a mess on the floor, and wondered whose job it was to clean it up.
The auctioneer read, “Doesn’t eat a balanced diet and likes to party - minus fifteen.”
The crowd gasped in unison. The unfortunate young woman looked to be in shock, as the men dressed in the white uniforms led her backstage. I felt a surge of pity well up; she really was too young. As she exited left, the bright white light backstage flashed over the crowd for a split second before the curtain dropped.
The voice boomed through the room, “Gordon Smythe James.”
“Smythe?” I thought. Now why would his parents stick him with that for a middle name?
Gordon walked up the stairs and stood in the required spot. I know that he was thinking about past sins and making promises to live a better life. Wouldn’t we all? I was pretty sure that it would be the same when it was my turn.
He handed over his bag of twenty tokens and the auctioneer started his spiel. The flashing lights spelled out “COMPLICATIONS FROM THE FLU.” From her seat beside me, Ms. Parker tugged at my sleeve.
“Johnny, why is Gordon up there? Is he getting an award, too?” she asked in her soft voice.
My confusion was quickly replaced with the memory of the retirement party that the school had thrown for Ms. Parker. It had been a big shindig since she had also received the honor of being named ‘Teacher of the Year”. When she had stood on that stage, the crowd up on their feet cheering, her little frame had seemed two feet taller. I remember the pride that had shown in her eyes as she had wiped away tears. Heck, we’d all cried. Now she was frail and way too thin. I’ve heard someplace that people with dementia forget to eat. Life’s not always fair.
I was suddenly angry. Why had she come to this? Why was I here? Why had the young woman lost at her game? In my anger, all of my questions merged into hers. Why was Gordon up there? I heard the auctioneer calling--
“Twenty-four going once. Twenty-four going twice.”
My hand went up unbidden. I saw the auctioneer’s nod in my direction.
“Twenty-four, I have twenty-four. How about twenty-five?”
Again I waved and caught his eye.
“Twenty-five, how about twenty-six?”
I saw the arrogant sneer behind his smile, and pulled my hand down. I had lost two of my valuable tokens. My precious hoard was now smaller. I had literally bid against myself. My short-lived anger dissipated. What had I done?
“Twenty-six, twenty-six, twenty-six, can I have twenty-six? I’ve-a-got-twenty-five. Twenty-six? Twenty-six once, twenty-six twice. It’s SOLD for twenty-five.
Gordon’s spin was a good one. He got a thirty. His envelope was brought forward and torn open with a flourish. More little pieces of paper found their way to the floor.
“Washes hands and gets a flu shot yearly - plus seven.” Congratulations! You’ve been a wise man!”
Gordon was led off the stage to the roar of the crowd. A momentary expression of satisfaction flashed onto my face, before apprehension again took its place. I felt the slender thread of elation drift away. This night would never end.
The next two contestants were a blur. My shock over the situation I was in made concentration difficult. With my heart fluttering, I went over my life. I’ve eaten correctly - lots of fruits and vegetables, although I have a fondness for meat and have eaten more than is absolutely necessary to keep me alive. I always wear my seatbelt and drive below the speed limit; in fact, I obey the law in everything. I drink no more than the recommended three cups of coffee daily. I’m careful of my liver - I no longer take acetaminophen. I exercise religiously and have kept my weight down, only gaining five pounds since I graduated from college.
I was interrupted from my meditation by the loud, booming voice calling out my name. “John Michael Elliot.”
I jerked in my seat and felt the color drain from my face. My heart jumped around like a panicked bird in my chest. Weakness settled around my legs, but I forced them to stand and carry me forward. One step at a time, I traveled the short distance to the stairs and climbed them, crossing the stage to stand beside the auctioneer. The unfairness of the game brought more questions to my disorientated mind. What had I done wrong? Why me? I shouldn’t be here; hadn’t I been careful?
I felt the man’s perpetual, irritating smile radiating out, covering me like the heat from the wood stove that had been in my grandparents’ kitchen. It was as uncomfortably warm as the flashing lights above me. I turned my head, dreading what I would see. I read the single word in dawning horror.
“STROKE.” I knew then that I hadn’t been as prepared as I’d hoped. So that was why my heart fluttered around in my chest. Atrial Fibrillation. Yes, I knew all the words. I just hadn’t applied them to me. Not me! Not at this age! I’m only thirty-nine, not ninety!
I handed my bag of tokens over in response to the auctioneer’s hand motion.
“Thirty-five,” the auctioneer said. “I’ve-a-got-thirty-five. Who’ll make it thirty-six? There! Thank you, sir. Thirty-seven, who’ll make it thirty-seven? There! Thirty-eight, who’ll make it thirty-eight? Thirty-eight, thirty-eight, thirty-eight. Who’ll make it thirty-eight? I’ve-a-got-thirty-seven, need thirty-eight, thirty-eight. Thirty-eight going once. There!” He pointed out at the crowd.
“I’ve got five here,” a little voice piped up. It was Ella Mae Parker. She was bidding everything in her bag, all she had. “So that’s forty-two, right young man?” I started to shake my head no, but as I looked at her face I knew that she understood what she was doing. A fragile ray of comprehension had broken through the fog, and she was attempting to look after and take care of one of her students like she had done for so many years. I mouthed “thank you” and she smiled, nodding in return.
“Uh. Right, ma’am,” the auctioneer said, his poise shaken. “That’s right. Forty-two, I’ve-a-got-forty-two. How about forty-three? Forty-three, forty-three, forty-three, can I have forty-three?” He paused, looking around the auditorium carefully, not sure now if there weren’t more rabbits ready to be pulled from the hat. Finally satisfied, he continued loudly, “SOLD!” emphasizing the last words with a swing of his imaginary gavel, as he threw his arm downward toward the floor.
I felt like I was drowning; it was hard to catch my breath.
“Spin the wheel, boy! Spin the wheel!”
I heard those words from what seemed like miles away, muffled through layers of cotton. I felt them in my temples, more than actually hearing them. But knowing the drill, I stepped up to the brightly lit, colorful wheel and pulled the handle down. Around and around it went, spinning, still spinning. Maybe it wasn’t going to quit? Maybe this was all a bad dream and I would soon wake up. Maybe.
The wheel began slowing. The ‘click, click, click’ becoming farther apart with every number it passed. Again the arrow was briefly caught, this time on thirteen, before it dropped with a final ‘click’, settling on forty-six. Forty-six. My mind, dazed as it was, still quickly did the math. Four points. Had I done anything that could make up the difference?
The envelope was here, brought out by the tawdry woman. Up close I could see what had not been apparent from my seat, the heavy make-up, too much lipstick and rouge covering a face that was lined and puffy with age. Her breasts sagged, barely supported by the flimsy straps of her costume, but her legs were still shapely, lacking the varicose veins of some older women. I vaguely wondered how old she really was.
I watched the ringmaster tear the envelope open. In fascination, I saw the little scraps of paper spiral lazily to the floor. They seemed to ripple and fall in slow motion. I heard the drawling voice of the auctioneer as he read -
“Takes aspirin on a regular basis - plus five. That makes your total forty-seven.”
The crowd applauded for me as he continued to pretend to congratulate me. “You won, boy! You’re one up on the game!”
The lady in pink walked out from the left wing of the stage. Her smile seemed sincere and real, and I found it comforting. As I looked at her gratefully, she took my hand, murmuring soothing sounds (I couldn’t make out the words), and led me off stage. When I reached the curtain, the crowd noise and loud voice that had began booming again suddenly quieted. The near silence was gentle now, welcomed, and I felt my fears and confusion melt away. The kind lady released my hand and motioned me to go ahead. It was dark here away from the bright neon lights and I moved into it thankfully.
After stumbling around boxes, ropes, pulleys, and other clutter that is common behind the scenes of theaters everywhere, I opened the door that led to the back alley. There was a light rain falling; the night was cold and miserable. But to me everything looked clean and fresh. I smiled as I pulled my collar tight against the damp and began the long walk home. I found it astounding that I had been delivered hurriedly to the lottery, but that I had to find my own way home. As I only had time to grab my coat and slippers when summoned, I hadn’t taken my wallet, so therefore couldn’t call a taxi. It was a long walk that took the rest of the night. I stuck to the back streets whenever possible. I felt that it would be difficult to explain away a man walking several miles home in his pajamas. I got curious stares from the street people and hookers that I met. There was even an invitation, but when I laughingly pulled my empty pockets inside out, she turned her back on me. That didn’t bother me a bit; nothing was going to ruin my newfound happiness. This was it, my second chance.
I shall be continually grateful to Ms. Parker for whatever time I have left. I don’t know how long that will be; the game is endless, there’s always something in play. When I read about her death, because odds are that I will, I’ll call the family with my condolences and at her funeral I’ll sit as near the front as I can. Maybe she’ll see me before she goes into the light. I want her to know that I’ll never forget her and her unselfish act of kindness. That little lady was all style and it was my extraordinary luck to have known her.
R. W. Nichols says: I'm a mother and grandmother who has lived in a small town in northern Michigan for most of my life. I've been content with raising kids, gardens, and farm animals; I would recommend this life to everyone. My husband recently retired and we're now traveling through the western states in a fifth-wheel trailer. Fortunately, WiFi is everywhere and I can continue to write and submit my stories.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
My recommendation for new writers is to write earlier in life. I waited, and I only hope that I haven't lost any of the flashes of inspiration that come from seeing the other side, the amazing world of fantasy. It's all around you, in everything you see and do. Just look for it. Don't waste time.