The Game Show
Words By Ami Hendrickson, Art By Elliot Lang
Elaine Lazarus settled into her chair. The sealed envelope hung heavy in her breast pocket. She stared in front of her, willing her fingers not to tap time with the band’s catchy theme. Throughout the perfunctory introduction, Elaine neither smiled nor frowned. Her mask of understated self-composure testified to the hours of preparation she had dedicated to this moment.
A three-octave trumpet scale followed by a drum roll announced the entrance of the host. An anonymous announcer’s voice, cultivated to denote perpetual laughter, rolled out, “And now, the star of our show! Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Mr. Millions’ himself . . . Bret Fillmore!”
Elaine applauded along with the others, her eyes tracing the spotlight arcs emblazoned on the stage curtains. Soon those curtains parted in the center and through the opening stepped the handsome host, exuding enough charisma to power an old-time revival. The crowd’s cheers and applause escorted him to his place behind a pulpit-like podium. Elaine watched him, awed.
She scarcely heard Fillmore’s welcome to the crowd and to the “audience at home.” She knew, from long experience, that he would first make some witticism about how difficult it was to lead a life of wealth and ease before offering a quick review of the game rules. He would then thank the TV viewers for tuning in (“Glad you could be with us today!”) and the studio audience for attending (“Thanks for coming to support our contestants—one of whom just may become a MILLIONAIRE within the next half hour!”)
After addressing the viewers, Fillmore’s attention turned to the contestants. As the introductions got under way, however, Elaine began to fidget. She had the uneasy feeling that she was not dressed as well as she had thought. Uncertain, she smoothed her skirt, but its classic lines and pleasing fit failed to appease her.
She’d sound like the worst kind of gushing fool, she knew, if she ever attempted to articulate what Fillmore meant to her. She lacked the language to tell him how, from diagnosis to discharge, his unflagging energy beamed a bright spot into the dull dimness of her days. When all was lost—her breasts, her hair, her optimism, her Henry—he remained: the sole, constant axis in her Tilt-A-Whirl universe. She bit her lip—a tiny tell she displayed every time she thought about talking to “Mr. Millions”—and absently twisted the ring on her little finger, the one Nanna Lazarus always insisted was lucky; the only ring worth wearing ever since Henry had left her.
Glancing at the slim pediatrician from upstate New York who was currently occupying the host’s attention, Elaine stifled an involuntary laugh. This is no time to be nervous. It’s not a matter of life and death, she thought, reproachful, stopping just shy of the “it’s only a game” lie. Breathing deeply—in through the nose, out through the mouth, a practice she found useful for banishing butterflies or quelling pain—she pushed fangirl fantasies and wardrobe concerns into the same mental closet already stuffed with worries about relapse, living in debt, and dying alone. Slamming the door on self-doubt, she focused on what lay before her.
The introductions over and her advice taken to heart, Elaine reclaimed her control as the game began in earnest. Tense (“but not nervous,” she reminded herself), she awaited the first question.
“What is the capitol,” said Bret Fillmore, pausing for dramatic effect while looking toward the lineup, “of Pennsylvania?”
“Harrisburg!” yelled Elaine.
“Correct, Contestant Number Two,” Fillmore affirmed. “You have earned first points in tonight’s match. Now for the next question. Finish this famous
quotation . . .”
And the game progressed. No longer tense or nervous, Elaine struggled to restrain herself from standing up to shout out her answers.
“Richard III, Act V, scene iv!”
“The Great Barrier Reef!”
Breathless, she anticipated the host’s queries. Her eyes grew wide, her brows at times drawing together in concentration like magnets attracting opposite poles, only to spring apart and race toward heaven as the answer dawned. Commercial breaks were simply minor interruptions in her experience. She immersed herself in the deluge of questions with all the joy of a believer at a baptism.
Now, Elaine Lazarus was not a person to entertain delusions of grandeur. If she didn’t know an answer (and there were a few she didn’t), she didn’t make a loud, boisterous, preposterous guess. She had seen some contestants do so and thought them ruder than worshippers texting through a sermon. When Fillmore posed a question for which she could find no adequate response, she sat stewing in studious contemplation. These questions she readily conceded to others who knew the solutions.
Never too proud to grow, she learned from others’ responses, tucking away tidbits of information about Elizabeth Gaskell, and properties of antimatter, and the webbed feet of Portuguese Water Dogs. Such questions were educational experiences, but she preferred they weren’t too frequent. They tended to take away something of the edge she acquired when she answered several in a row.
A bell sounded, bringing the realization that a mere five minutes remained for the players to try for the “one-point-three-million-dollar extravaganza.” Elaine checked her score of 2215 against the other competitors. The law enforcement agent from San Jose and the vibrant baby doctor were the closest contestants to her. Each had accumulated 2180 points.
“We need to do something to break this tie,” Bret informed his captive listeners.
“Right,” thought Elaine. “Let’s get on with it.”
She reached up and repositioned the soft scarf on her head, patting it in place just above her temple. The action was quick, a small condescension to vanity before plunging once more into combat.
The minutes played out as she knew they would. Rapid-fire questions followed, piling up one on top of another. Answers rang out, often in mid-question, silencing the query and daring another to take its place. Elaine gloried in the challenge. With hands clenched and feet drumming the floor, she shot down query after query with quick, excited responses.
“Ukranian . . . 144,000 . . . Salisbury Plain . . . Ceres . . . Aristotle . . . triage . . . Cro-Magnum (“Magnon,” she noted) . . . chow chow . . . MCMLXXVII. . . tungsten—Navaho—San Andreas—bonsaiNeptuneColorCaratClarityCut!” she crowed.
Euphoric, she rose from her seat. She heard the audience applauding and cheering as she made her jubilant way forward. Out of the corner of her eye, she recognized Bret consoling the losers while he blessed the beautiful baby doctor with an enormous, oversized check.
A flick of her finger on the remote sent the scene fading away at light speed; soon it was nothing more than a line converging upon itself to form an ever-shrinking dot.
Elaine emerged from the front door of her basement apartment, heart aflutter with resurrected optimism. Shading her eyes from the sun, she made her way up to the sidewalk.
Her shadow trailed behind as she walked down the street to the convenience store on the corner. She would treat herself to an ice cream bar and perhaps a fashion magazine before heading to the pharmacy to pick up the prescriptions waiting for her. She reached into her breast pocket and removed the envelope holding her latest test results. No time like the present to open it. She had won today. Nothing could hold her back.