For what must have been the fifth time in as many minutes, Stacey's mother wanted to know just what the hell he thought he was playing at! And, with each asking, it seemed her voice had risen in decibles, so much so that the last time her voice was like a fire alarm going off in his head. Because that was where he was hearing it, in his head. Stacey's mother had been dead a little over a month, God bless her soul, but her ghost was alive and kicking and haunting his mind.
You're crazy, you know that? Just like your father, that-good-for nothing pussy-chaser! Is that what this is all about? Because if it is, let me tell you a few home truths abo-
"Ten Minutes!" the guard with the machine gun slung over his shoulder shouted in the ominous tone of a drill sergeant chastising his troops. Which, when you got right down to the elemental facts, was exactly what they now were: soldiers. About to do battle in The Arena, man pitted against man in a deadly fight to the end, the victor the last man standing - or hanging, as it would be in this case. There would be no fighting, no actual body contact (that, absurdly, was against the rules) like in the old days of Wrestlemania and The Royal Rumble. Hulk Hogan. Randy 'Macho Man' Savage. The Undertaker. All those legendary heroes were now drawing pensions and pushing Zimmer frames. The Nineties were history; this was the Twenties. A new century, a new millennia, and a brand new national past time for 300 million American citizens. 'Don't Let Go!' was the Tonight show of it's day - exciting, funny and gruesome. The ultimate in interactive TV.
Unless, of course,, Stacey thought sarcastically, you just happen to be a contender, which he undoubtedly was. He waited, sure his mother would intervene with a screaming rebuke, something along the lines of 'Well, what did you expect!', but for the time being - thank God! - she had fallen silent, and he guessed he had the guard to thank for that.
As if on cue, the guard told them there were nine minutes left. His face was a stone mask, unreadable, but the eyes surveyed the contestants like a security camera, looking for possible trouble, maybe even hoping somebody would make a break for it so that he and the carbine resting on his shoulder might get some target practice.
To the best of Stacey's knowledge nobody had ever been executed in 'The Waiting Room' through, perhaps, a sudden case of the heebie-jeebies or a rational thought invading their minds that suggested what they were doing here was tantamount to suicide. Though that wasn't something the network would advertise on the IV, was it? But something - perhaps the not so well disguised look of anticipation in the guards eyes - told Stacey that should one of the contenders reach breaking point, there would be no hesitation on the guards part. Oh no. Here was one jolly fellow who'd be happy to pull the trigger. Just doin' my job, sir. Like the sign on the door says: There's no turning back.
When he had read that only seconds after stepping out of the changing rooms, leaving behind clothes and possessions (a faded pair of jeans, flanel t-shirt, an old digital watch and a signet ring where the initals SL had faded so badly as to be incomprehensible) in exchange for a pair of grey cotton shorts, he had had to stifle what his mother always called deep-belly laughs. Yeah, right. Might as well put beneath it: 'Abandon all hope ye who enter here'. Because, like the sign said, there really was no turning back. Once in, the chances of getting out were fifteen to one, an unlike that ancient British quiz show, if you got it wrong you weren't asked to take a seat. What you did was fall, hard and fast.
Stacey turned his attention away from the guard and focussed on the other contestants in the room. There were fourteen in all, and the only characteristic they had in common was their size. There wasn't a man in the room (women didn't feature on Thursday nights, they had their own slots on Tuesday and Fridays.Tonight was also Fat Night. They weren't packing muscles but lard. For some reason, the Fat nights got the highest ratings, probably because when they hit there was more to make a mess.) who weighed in under two hundred and fifty pounds, Stacey included.
For now, everybody was seated in the moulded plastic chairs specifically designed to ensure the occupants arse spilled over on either side. At the moment they were all caught up in their own personal worlds, some darting their heads out like starving chickens on the lookout for feed, others wringing their hands as if trying to squeeze the sweat out of them. Sweat could be bad. In fact, sweat could be lethal. In every case these actions were silent goads, reassuring gestures translated in to one meaning: We're here, we're ready, let's kick ass!
Stacey envied them, their opportunism, that great American belief in oneself that, given the right circumstances, anyone can lift themselves above their station and thrive in what was still considered as the New World, and prosper. Prosperity didn't figure in his own plans. What they were exactly still eluded him even at this late stage. but the intention to to win was as strong as any other mans in this room. If that happened, then maybe -
- it would have all been worth it.
Crazy! his mother yelled from the back of his mind. Crazy, like a man looking for a pinch of salt in the Sahara desert! You're looking for answers, Stacey, searching for what you already know. Didn't I tell you, on my death bed, the reasons -
"Feel like I'm gonna shit through my mouth at any moment," the man seated on Stacey's right grumbled. "Jesus H Christ on a satelite, what the fuck'm I doin' here?"
Stacey turned his head sharply, glad to be drawn away from his mothers impinging winging. The man had his head in his hands, rubbing, producing a rasping sound from the growth on his face.
"Merryl was right, this ain't the way. Should've thought more about that loan."
To Stacey, the man looked as if he had just awoken from a very bad dream only to find that the dream wasn't as bad as reality. The guy's eyes were wide. His nostrils flared. His jowls puffed out like a frogs. In fact, he even looked like one. An oversized bullfrog.
"You okay?" Stacey asked noncomitally. The last thing he needed was the guy sitting next to him freaking out. Especially if he got to the stage where the guard might think it necessary to empty a couple of rounds into him to reestablish order. And would he really give a shit if he just so happened to hit the fat schmuck sitting next to him? Oh no. Consider that a bonus.
The man looked at him as if he, Stacey, had just stepped out of the bad dream he was having and asked if he wanted an encore.
"Leave me the fuck alone." the man growled. He began to knead his eyes, as if trying to rub something away.
"Hey!" Someone from halfway down the line of chairs stood up and shouted, a stunt double for Jabba Le Hut should the inter-galactic criminal ever require one. "If I wanted a speaking clock I'd've fucking asked for one!"
For a moment the guard tensed and seemed poised to disengage the safety from his carbine and maybe do some weeding, but the fat fucker with the possible movie aspirations regained his seat snd recommenced darting his his head back and forth. A starving chicken desperately seeking feed.
"The name's Pincher," said the man who'd just told him to leave him the fuck alone. "Sorry about that. Sounds like the natives are getting restless."
Yep, that'll do it to you, Stacey thought. How did the old saying go? Time waits for no man, and ain't that the truth.
"The name's Stacey," he told Pincher, "and if this were a different time and place, I'd be pleased to meet you."
"Yeah," Pincher replied, "goes back the same. So, Stacey, what's a nice guy like you doing in a shithole like this?"
That, Stacey thought, was the funniest damn thing he'd heard since his mother's revelations, and since laughter was a rare commodity amongst present company, he tried to keep it down in his belly where real laughs got started. For the most part he succeeded but where he failed it only came out of his nose like a man suddenly beseeched with sneezing.
When he was able to assert some semblance of control over his orfactal senses, this time when he looked at Pincher's face it had lost that bullfrog look. He was no prince, mind, but whatever had been troubling him before had passed lika a flash storm in the night, leaving clearer and brighter skies in its wake.
"You know why I'm here?" Pincher was telling rather than asking. He was looking at Stacey now, his eyebrows arched and underlining the wrinkles on his fleshy forehead. A big man - no, a huge man - whose weight could probably not be determined on any conventional scale.
Stacey shook his head. Whilst he didn't really care what turn of events had brought a man like Pincher to this present moment in time, it beat listening to his mothers scolding and, hopefully, would take his mind of the other thoughts that for now were outside the borders of his conscience, the ones that promised inevitable doom.
"Muriel - that's my smaller and better half - wants to move house." Pincher was saying. "You know that new development on the east side, where the houses look like three different triangles stuck together any old way? Well, Muriel wants one. Doesn't matter that they cost more than she or I will earn in our life time, oh no. What Muriel wants, Muriel gets, and I know from experience it's best to take a back seat when she gets in a driving mood.
"So I say to myself: 'George, there ain't no way you're living on easy street pushing a pen behind a desk that has grooves where your elbows been resting for twenty years.' So I start thinking: What's the quickest and easiest way to draw up the twenty thousand deposit apart from doing a midnight raid on the vaults of the bank where I work? And the answer is suddenly there, staring me in the face like a reflection: Las Vegas!
"I ain't a gambling man, never so much as spent a dime on the lottery, but all of a sudden I'm thinking about Blackjack and Roulette and Five Card Stud like I'm a regular shark eating it up at the tables.
"Now, Muriel, she ain't so hot on the idea, thinks I should cash in on my long career with the bank and ask for - no, demand - a loan. Twenty years. That's a thousand for every year, right? A kind of loyalty thing, Muriel seems to think. But I'm already in Vegas, placing chips and throwing dice, blank-faced though I know the cards in my hand are unbeatable.
"There's eight thousand dollars in our savings account, money with more sweat on it than a prostitute's tits. If I gamble only half of it, chances are I'll double it or even treble it in Vegas. I tell her that if I so much as go five hundred in the red I'll put a lock on my wallet and get the next plane home. Promise.
"There's tears in her eyes at the airport, but I try to reassure her and tell her to start packing for easy street. Three days. Just three days and she'll never have to worry about dusting or hoovering or decorating again. Apparently these new houses carry out your every commsnd; all you have do to is give the order and it'a as good as done.
"I book into a cheap motel well away from the hustle and bustle of downtown. After all, this ain't no holiday. It's just turned eight when I sit down for my first game of Roulette. I'v got a stack of chips in front of me that amount to five hundred dollars. I'm playing it safe, and if I walk out of the casion empty handed I'l pack up and head for home.
"I put a hundred dollars on red, a lot of money for someone who doesn't know where he's at, but I don't want to give that impression. Then just as the guy announces 'no more bets, please' I change my mind and shift the discs to black. Low and behold the winner is red. I'm a hundred dollars down in less than two minutes and I'm sweating like it's the in thing.
"Okay. Slow down. Fifty on red again for the next bet, and no changing my mind. The ball lands in black. One fifty down. One hundred and fifty dollars! That's our weekly food allowance gone in less time than it takes to eat a Big Mac!
"I loosen my tie and glance around the table. Is it me or is everbody looking at me like I just walked out od the desert? I managed to strangle the paranoia before it took a proper hold by placing a hundred dollar disc on the table like I'm guy who's accustomed to throwing money away. Two hundred and fifty dollars? Ha! I spend that on socks!
"It isn't until the ball is in play that I realise what I've done. My chip, all hard earnt one hundred dollars of it, lies on number 17. Giving me a one in thirty-five chance of winning. I can't watch. My face is slipping into my hands when there's a huge roar. Oh yeah, this great entertainment. The fat slob jsut took it in the balls once again. Hip hip hoo-fucking-ray!
"But suddenly my back is being slapped and words of encouragement are being whispered in my ears: 'Stick it to 'em' and 'bet on black, bet on black'. When I look up there is a pile of chips sliding towards me that is easily five times my original pile. I want to count it, see how much I'm up, but the crowd now gathered around me wants blood. I've taken this house for a ride, let's see how far this journey can go.
"By the time eleven comes around I'm a local hero, and the guy in charge of this game keeps glancing nervously over his shoulder at the mirrored glass on the far side of the room, no doubt where the head hochos hang out, watching my game to see if maybe I don't have a magnet hidden somewhere. I couldn't possibly count the chips in front of me, which seem to take up half the table.
Not to mention the fact that because of my winning streak, it seems that everybody in Vegas wants to buy me a drink, and I'm beginning to see two or three balls riding the wheel.
"I finally decide to call it a night and cash in. Even in my current state of mind I find it hard to believe I have won six thousand dollars. Staggering back to my motel, the magical odds of 12-1 keep repeating in my mind. At this rate I can skip the deposit and buy outright!
"The second night I visit a different casino, the memory of the night before a plesant blur but still fresh enough in my mind to know that if you find water in the desert you don't suck it dry. So, tonight a different watering hole and a new game: Poker.
"I'm carrying two thousand dollars this night with the assured knowledge that, if I lose it all, I'm still four thousand up. But I don't lose. All of a sudden it seems as if Las Vegas is just one great big lucky shitheap and I've landed in it neck deep.
"My experience as a poker player is nil, and my understanding of the game equals that. As far as I knew, the object of the game was to stay as stoney-faced as possible and bluff your way through the difficult parts. Employing this strategy I managed to rake in three and a half thousand dollars that night. Hardly as spectacular as the night before, but not bad for two nights work. Nine and a half thousand dollars up. Seven more for easy street.
"Blackjack is a game that requires skill, timing, and a genuine understanding of the cards being dealt. Not surprisingly, I failed on all three counts, and found out the hard way that financial death in Las Vegas is quick and smooth and considerably less painless than winning. When you're on a winning streak you want it to continue, but when you lose it all, as hard as it is to believe at the time, it's a hell of a lot easier. On that last night I had close to fourteen thousand dollars along with me, and by the end of the night I barely had enough to pay for my stay at the cheap motel.
"That last night in the motel I found out the loneliness one must reach to contemplate suicide. I couldn't stop thinking about Muriel's parting tears at the airport. When I finally got home I wouldn't find her crying but wailing. Four thousan dollars. Gone. Just as sure as I'd handed it to every Tom, Dick and Harry and asked them to clean their backsides with it. Suicide seemed like a favourable way out. How on earth could I face Muriel after this disaster?
"I half entertained the idea of withdrawing the rest of the savings and going through it all again, but something Muriel had said to me in the past stopped me: 'Bad luck's like a bitch in heat. It ain't never gonna rest until it gets fucked.'
With that thought still dogging my mind, I boarded the plane and headed home, still not sure of how I'd break the news to Muriel. You wanna know something, Stacey? Women are puzzles, at least they are to me. Puzzles with pieces deliberately left out, and no matter how hard you look for those missing pieces, you're gonna go blind before you find 'em.
"The hysteria and tears I expected from Muriel when I broke the news to her didn't happen. It sunk in and detonated somewhere deep inside her, I know, but there were no fireworks. It's almost as if she had known before I'd told her, perhaps seeing it in my walk or whatever mysterious way women have of sensing something wrong in their man. But the worse thing, worse than any display of bad emotions, was the way she had alread accepted that I would fail. It was as if she'd known all along but watched me go off and blow half a life times savings, anyway.
"It drove me nuts. Every time I raised the subject she'd hold up a hand to quiet me, the kind of gesture that tells you whatever's on your mind it ain't important. As far as she was concerned, the subject was closed. She wasn't even interested in the loan any more. Said we couldn't afford it, now that we were down some. Like four thousand dollars, whether lost or gained, would solve all our problems.
"It got so I couldn't sleep at night and my work started to suffer. Even lost twenty pounds, though you'd be hard put to notice where I lost it. All the while I'm thinking of that magical figure of 20,000 dollars. Where am I gonna get it from? Twice I come close to fiddling the books at work. And then one night, I sit down in front of the IV and it's like I'm staring at my reflection in the mirror again.
"And here I am, one of tonight's main attractions, weighing in at two-eighty and 5-1 to win. And you know what? I reckon I'm a good bet, if you back me to lose."
"Hey!" Stacey exclaimed, "what happened to three, four, five and six?"
"Who gives a shit?" Pincher said. "The sooner this fuckin' sideshow is over the better."
Amen to that, Stacey thought, but the fact that the last four minutes had slipped by unnoticed during Pincher's diction bothered him.
"So what does Muriel think about it?" Stacey asked.
"About you being here now?"
"Oh," Pincher's eyes were glistening. "She doesn't know I'm here. I guess that'll change pretty soon, though, eh?"
"How come - ", but Stacey stopped himself from asking the question. A single tear traced Pincher's cheek and clung to his second chin. He looked like a little kid who had been told his parents were not coming to pick him up from school. Pincher had finally worked out a way to get the 20,000 dollars. If he won tonight, then no problem, he could afford to buy as many houses as he liked. But if he lost, which was a more realistic outcome (nobody weighing in at two-eighty had ever won in the past), life insurance would cover everything and Muriel would get her dream house. Just how the lawyers phrased that in legal-speak, Stacey had no idea; life insurance was a luxury he could ill afford. Besides, if he lost, there wasn't anyone to leave it to, anyhow. But when the cards were all laid out on the table it wasn't the money he was strictlty interested in. Forty million dollars could take you a long way (the prize money was actually twenty million dollars, but the last time America's favourite show aired on Tuesday, there had been noone left hanging around - ha ha - to scoop the booty, so tonight was a rare rollover), but his reasons for being here were not based on financial gain. There was another reason, one more important than the money. At least to Stacey it was. Hearing Pincher's story kind of made his reason seem less important, but he could not afford to start thinking that way. This wasn't a slap-on-the-back-shake-hands-you-deserved-it situation. In less than half an hour - and that was being generous - either one of them could be nothing but a clean up operation.
"I think you're gonna win it, Stacey," Pincher said, startling him. "The eye does not lie. You look hungrier than the rest, and that's kinda hard in a room full of fat people. Do me a favour?"
He sounded like a death row prisoner granting his last wish. Stacey could only raise his eyebrows and shrug.
"Tell Muriel I'm sorry. Tell her I - " he broke off momentarily. "Just tell her I tried, okay?"
It wasn't fair. You couldn't tell the person next to you, sinking in the the same god damned boat, to pass on a message and expect it to be delivered. But Pincher looked pitiful and pathetic. Stacey did not accept or refuse. Just stared straight ahead and tried to think of nothing.
"It's sixty seconds, motherfucker!" Jabba le Hut exclaimed. He had stood up and his face had turned an unhealthy purple.
The guard slid the carbine off his shoulder into the ready position.
"Go on then, shoot me!" Spittle flew from Jabba's lips and his eyes bulged at the guard.
The Waiting Room had become eerily silent. There was no mistaking the snick of the safety being disengaged.
Jabba must have missed it. "Didn't think so!" he mocked. "This circus sucks. I didn't sign up for this shit. I'm leaving."
Fourteen pairs of eyes watched Jabba take two steps away from his seat. Fourteen pairs of eyes heard the muffled phut phut sound from the carbine, no louder than a tap-tap on a window pane. This was after Jabba's body landed face down on the tiled floor with a meaty smack, a pool of blood crowning his head.
"Holy mother of God!" Pincher hissed and his hand came down vice-like on Stacey's thigh.
Stacey let out a yelp but managed to cut it short when the guard's carbine swung in his direction. The grass is just fine here, no weeding required. Pincher's hand loosened its grip and slid away. The guard lowered the carbine, the expression on his face devoid of emotion.
"Contestants, please stand for the National Anthem!" The female voice was husky and sexy as hell. The kind of voice you'd expect to hear on the end of a premium rate number. They all stood in unison. The National Anthem filled the room.
This is ludicrous, Stacey thought. No, scratch that. This was was lunacy in its most concentrated form. Every one of them had signed a death warrant tonight, and willingly. For whatever reasons, driven by desperation or financial greed, all but one of them would be leaving horizontally. Yet here they stood in honour of the Star Spangled Banner whilst a fellow human beings blood congealed before them. Some of them were singing along, for Christ's sake!
It's not too late to turn back, Stacey, a familiar voice whispered in his mind. Not if you tell them who you are and why you're here.
Stacey fought off the sarcastic smile threatening to stretch his lips. Even at this late stage she was still trying to pitch a curve ball. Isn't that why I'm here, mother? The silent question was met with silence.
Entrance to The Arena was by way of a set of sliding doors that opened onto a tunnel. They hissed apart as the National Anthem entered its final verse. A sign above the door blinked into life:
...and the land of the free."
This last line came as a roar rushing through the tunnel, followed by cheers Stacey associated with American football crowds.
The Arena held a capacity of two hundred and fifty thousand. It had been likened to the Colosseum, but this was a simile designed to favour history. The ancient building would have occupied one fifth of the car park space allocated to its west wing. The Arena demanded the respect of the stadium but instead commanded a title no higher than studio.
'Don't Let Go!' holds the largest grossing IV audience in history. In five years it has dwarfed Hollywood, reducing the film industry to an art form of relative importance, which the critics translate as 'Impotence'. If Darwin's Theory of Evolution could be applied to Interactive Vision, there is no higher rung on the ladder.
Stacey followed Pincher, transfixed by the upper crack of his arse, where the shorts had slid down under the rippling of flesh, like an ebbing tide. A catchy tune invaded his thoughts" "Weebles Wobble but They Don't Fall Down". Which was true if you happened to be egg shaped. None of the contestants were egg shaped.
Stacey avoided the pool of congealing blood once the property of Jabba Le Hut, and thought he got off likely. The guy behind him squealed like a Peacock as a foot slipped in Jabba's spillage. Somebody dry heaved twice.
The contestants passed through the mouth of the tunnel, devoured one by one as they disappeared beyond the hiss of the closing doors, towards the incessant hum of The Arena.