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 Chemistry 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.
– Adapted from The Race by Jacke Wilson
High school, high school, high school. Source of everything. What a cheery thought! Ah well, sometimes the truth is best delivered in a minor key.
Those of you interested in dipping another bucket into the high school well can check out the posts about former coaches and teachers (music, science, and eighth-grade English). You can see my stab at teaching my kids, or at least sitting by while they learn, in #14 – The Bass Guitar.
And as always, you can find links to all the 100 Objects on the main page.
My thanks to my reviewers! Small Press Reviews calls The Race “an incredibly astute novella about ego and politics.” My Little Book Blog calls The Promotion an “easy and sophisticated read.” You can find my books at Amazon.com and elsewhere. Very reasonably priced. A perfect gift for anyone interested in the human side of a political scandal or in recruiting season at a biglaw firm. Let me know if you’d like a free copy—I have plenty available and love giving them away!