More free fiction below… Enjoy! – Jacke
The Race: A Novella
Excerpt from Chapter Seven
When I was young, my class took a field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. On the way back from Chicago we stopped at a McDonald’s, and along with the meal everyone received a Monopoly game piece. It was a small square piece of cardboard with the monocle man – Uncle Pennybags – on the front and two perforated tabs running down each side. On the back were rules and the red text in the Monopoly font. And the magic words:
Everyone else tore theirs open. A couple of kids won – a small fries, an apple pie. I put mine in my pocket and got busy with other things. I had a meal to eat, friends to hang out with – I don’t know why I didn’t open mine. I just didn’t.
I was astonished by the reaction. On the bus, everyone went crazy with the rumor – I hadn’t opened mine yet! What was in there? What was I waiting for?
For some reason this made me decide not to open it. I didn’t want to be on display. I figured I’d open it later. So I refused.
By the time we returned to the school parking lot I was surrounded by other kids.
“When you gonna open it?”
“Yeah, when? Come on.”
“I might not,” I said. “I might never open it.”
“Come on. S’amillion dollars.”
They could not fathom my refusal. People got angry. They did not forget about it. I waited. Days went by, then a week, then another, until I began to realize that it meant more unopened than opened. It was a one in 80 million chance of winning the big prize – infinitesimal odds I could live with defying – and who cared about the smaller prizes? Not opening it was worth more than a small Coke.
I kept it in my wallet. I never brought it up. Once in a while a rumor would spread that I’d opened it, and I would produce the piece to verify that I hadn’t.
I became a freak: the kid who turned down a million dollars. The rumor spread to other schools. At parties I’d be pointed at – yeah, that’s the guy. The guy with the Monopoly thing. Never opened it. He’ll show it to us if we bug him about it.
The toughest kid in school grabbed me one day and shoved me against a locker.
“Dude. I admire your willpower.”
“No I don’t, you idiot. You’re so stupid. You could be a millionaire right now and not even know it.”
I saw fury in his eyes and felt lucky when he decided to leave me alone.
I got wind of a plot: a group of seniors planned to demand inspection, then attack me, hold me down, pull my shirt over my head (why this was necessary I didn’t know, but it was an essential step), grab the piece out of my hand, and rip it open, exposing its contents to the world, once and for all. I thwarted this by leaking some counterintelligence. Soon the news spread: the piece was secured in my father’s safety deposit box at the impregnable Farmers & Merchants Bank. It was a fiction: the thing remained in my wallet the entire time. Once in a while I would show it to someone, though I was careful about how and when, demanding a five-foot buffer between me and the lucky onlookers.
I was starting to believe in the power of this thing, not as a talisman but as a phenomenon. It had to mean something that it – and I – had generated so much consternation. I represented something. To some I was a testament to discipline, to conviction, to inner strength. To others I was a fool who needed to be saved. To many I was both. And to a few I became a symbol of something horrible, something wrong with the world, or humanity; I needed to be exposed as a fraud. Whatever I represented, the principle on which I stood, needed to be expunged.
I started receiving threats. Violence seemed real. Would I die for this?
I stopped showing the thing to people altogether. This forced them to accept my word for it that it still existed. For all they knew, I had opened it long ago. The only thing they had to go on was what I told them was the truth.
The school divided into two groups. Believers and doubters.
The contest ended, and I would no longer be able to redeem the prize. It didn’t matter. People were just as agitated – now it was the fact that I didn’t know and didn’t want to know. They could not believe I wouldn’t open it now – before, I guess, they thought I didn’t want my life to change. Now I didn’t possess the requisite amount of curiosity. Except for those who didn’t believe me: who thought I had opened it, learned I didn’t win, and then pretended otherwise. A small sect claimed I had won the million dollars but had not informed anyone for fear of exposing myself to attacks.
I didn’t view this as anything other than a kind of anthropological experiment. I was alone in a sea of insanity. I began to wonder if maybe I should lock the thing up as I had said. I didn’t know where this was headed or what I was supposed to do, but it felt like I should exercise some control, take some precautionary measures. Take my responsibility to this phenomenon seriously. It was getting beyond me.
Our Human Anatomy teacher, Ted Knipschild, was a friendly guy, very funny, and although he was a minister on the weekends he was not above making the occasional mildly dirty joke. Not anything mean-spirited or crass, just a double entendre, a winking reference to sex – edgy for my high school, where the teachers tended toward the parochial and reserved. He was popular, even beloved, and he performed many weddings for recent graduates.
I was not totally on board. I liked his personality, but I found the God side of him to be a little pious. Even then I had trouble with religion and the demands it made on me. I could not get out of my mind the smugness with which religion fought its way out of logical blind alleys with non-answers like “mysterious ways” or “not our place to question Him.”
One day in class Mr. Knipschild finished early. He sat down on his desk, his favorite place to give us a little life lesson. He swung his legs and pushed his glasses higher on his nose, and told us all that he’d been thinking a lot about me, and about the Monopoly game piece that I’d kept in my wallet for the past few months. He walked the class through the story of what had happened and what he thought it meant. It was like a sermon, and it probably was – he had probably drafted it for his Sunday congregation and was using our class as a dry run. It would not have been the first time.
Sitting there, listening, I was not comfortable. I didn’t think it was appropriate. In fact I’d objected before when he’d injected religion into our class. I had pointed out logical flaws and later told him that there were Constitutional prohibitions against what he was doing. Now he told the class that I had taught them all a lesson about the power of faith, that I had shown them the power of mystery, and that this was true in a broader sense of life as well.
I was offended that he would use me in this way.
Suddenly I believed I had my mission: this was the moment it had all been building to. I knew what needed to be done. I would walk to the front of the room, face him, pull out my wallet – oh, this would be perfect! I could show everyone the piece, the great source of belief and the power of mystery and miracle, and rip off the edges. Then I would announce what was there: One Quarter Pounder with Cheese! Or one McChicken Sandwich! Or best of all: Try again next time!
It flashed into my mind that the worst-case scenario would be if the piece were a winner: what if it was a million dollars? And I had turned it down! I would look like a total fool.
This actually crossed my mind – I had never before thought that it actually might be a winner. But now, with complete humiliation on the line, I thought it was not only possible but likely: if I chose that moment to open it, the ticket would be a winner. I don’t know where this view came from but it seemed to me to be a virtual certainty.
But no! In the end I sat still, made no face, did not sigh or roll my eyes. I let him deliver his sermon – who cared? Whatever I was doing with this thing was bigger than that. It was not worth sacrificing it for him or for anyone else. I had turned into a believer in some sense. I believed in it, though I would have struggled to explain what it was.
I know what he would have said: this was belief, and once you know you can possess belief, even in the face of rationality, then you are on God’s turf. If you are not yet knocking at his door, you have anyway started on the path that will lead you there.
His words streamed past me like wind in a tunnel, but my expression did not change. I sat there with my principles, saying nothing, wishing I had a better sense of what I should do, and why.
Why did I matter? I wished I knew.
The campaign lurched into October. Both sides claimed they would debate as often as possible, anytime, anywhere, because it was important to get the issues out there. Et cetera. After this commitment to democracy they started setting conditions. Certain dates were ruled out, and venues, and moderators, until in the end the anytime, anywhere, as often as possible had turned into a single 75-minute debate, with pre-vetted questions. I’m told that this is more or less how these things typically turn out. The moderators were a mix of local news (print and television) and a host from a national news radio program.
The venue was an auditorium at UW-Parkside. I attended in person. I was not in the wings for this one, but in the audience like any other citizen. From this vantage point the empty stage looked like a dock on a pond nobody visited.
Ten minutes before the debate began, the Governor and his opponent took the stage. The Governor peered out at the audience, shielding his eyes with his hand, looking for someone. Finally he waved, and I turned in my seat. This was news – had one of his sons shown up? Some other supporter? But who?
I turned back and realized he was waving at me.
It’s not fun to feel pity for someone in his fifties, who’s not sick or starving, but whose life has crumbled around him. It was his fault, sure – I’m not denying that – but I couldn’t avoid the pity in my stomach as I smiled feebly and waved back. And like all pity, this was laced with contempt that I tried to resist. Contempt why? For having only me.
But he waved again, and pointed and smiled, until I realized that he had no choice. He had to do something. Political survival demanded it. His opponent was surrounded by loved ones, kids, nieces, nephews, her husband, her loving in-laws. Her adorable two-year-old son rushed the stage, his hair combed, a blue and yellow tie around his neck. She hugged him, scooped him up onto the crook of her arm – and took a packet of crackers out of her pocket and gave it to him – and this was on camera! This was her first time running for office, but already she was masterful. (The video went viral; you can still see it with a little searching.) And it seemed to me that she did not yet possess the degree of cynicism that would have made it tough to pull this off without looking like a fraud. She had faced no real criticism. Had not been forced to make an unpopular choice. Had alienated no one. Her fundraising had been simple and pure.
Give her a few years in D.C. and that laugh would sound hollow. That fresh smile of hers would look like a mask.
But now it was not, now it was sweet, a tableau that makes you proud of America. I actually choked up – I, the Governor’s only supporter (who could not even vote in this state) – was overcome by motherhood and family. The tear in my eye told me the race was over. The Governor had no chance.
But he was a professional. He started well. In his opening he framed his apology smoothly. He limited his references to his heart, then said he wanted now to focus on the issues. He made a credible assertion that he believed in doing the job that the people would elect him to do. He knew it would involve hard work; he was ready. He’d done it before and would do it again, if given the chance.
His opponent listened to all of this with a stern expression on her face. When he smiled and asked for forgiveness, her face grew tighter. When it was over, she looked at the moderator, waiting for the signal that it was her time to speak. Then she unloaded the following:
“Yes, I agree that the people of Wisconsin need someone who will focus on the issues. You all know his positions; you’re learning what mine are. I trust that he has some good ideas; I think I have better ones. You can read them and think it through for yourselves.
“But tonight I want to talk about character. I want to talk about what this man did to his wife, and his children, and the people of this state. It is inexcusable. There simply is no other word.
“I happen to love Tina Olson. I think she is an amazing person and I was proud to have her as our state’s first lady. And to see what he did to her” – here she turned to the Governor – “to think about what you did to her, takes me to a place I do not want to be. I think it happened to a lot of us. We hated you.
“I know it’s easy to say we love the sinner and hate the sin – we all try to do that, and sometimes – often – it’s appropriate.
“And sometimes, Governor, it is not. You have not shown forgiveness. You talk about your heart as if it’s the only thing in the world that matters. I’ve seen you on the campaign trail, I’ve heard you for months, and I say this: the people are not ready to trust you, Governor, and they shouldn’t be. You haven’t earned that.
“Governor Olson, we loved your wife and loved your kids. We still do. And we hated what you did to them. We hated you.
“I know people are trying to get beyond that. Some may have forgiven you. I haven’t. I hate you. I want to tell everyone that it’s okay to live with that feeling too. It can be okay, sometimes, to hate.”
She was charming and compelling, with her dairy princess smile and her fresh, dewy eyes. The audience applauded – they actually applauded this, this ode to hate, I guess because they felt relieved to hear her say aloud what they themselves had felt. But I still thought she had taken this too far. She had left an opening for the Governor, an experienced and at times masterful politician, to turn this into a battle of negativity against forgiveness. She had had the better angels argument; now, with one speech, offering hate as a platform, she had left that to him.
Instead the Governor waited for the applause to die down. Then he looked at the moderator.
“I think she went over her time,” he said.
The moderator laughed. “No journalist in the world would have stopped that.”
The Governor smiled, still looking pained. “Well, let’s keep things fair,” he said. “I’d appreciate it.”
The moderator could barely suppress her smile. “Of course. Do you want to respond to that, Governor, or go to the first question.”
“I’d like to respond,” he said.
This was followed by eighteen awful seconds of silence.
“Governor?” said the moderator. “Respond?”
“I meant respond to the first question,” he said, with the same frozen smile. “I’m waiting for you to ask me about something else.”
It was a terrible bit of stagecraft: the writers of Saturday Night Live could take the week off.
The debate continued but never really got beyond that moment. Everyone knew it was over – the whole campaign ended, I would say, in those eighteen seconds.
And the book? How would this end the book? The Governor would maybe allow a sentence about the debate in the book. A last chapter? Who could be so masochistic? Even I already wished the incident had never happened.
After it was over, the Governor met me backstage.
“What did you think?” he asked.
I pretended to think it over. “Mixed,” I said at last. What could I say? It was a bloodbath…
“I thought it got better when we got more into the issues,” the Governor said.
“True,” I said loudly.
“These things always play better on TV than they do in the room,” he said. I saw some doubt flickering in his eyes. Then the smile returned, but it was not quite as clear.
The election was two weeks away. I did not know at that moment that he was already planning a final surprise.
Copyright 2013 by Jacke Wilson. All rights reserved.