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Fiction #386
(published June 12, 2008)
In Jeopardy
by Kenneth Radu
Alex Trebek is a paragon of sartorial elegance in classically tailored suits with exquisite, matching silk ties. Nothing off the discount, ready-to-wear rack. With styled silver hair, he appears in person almost the way he looks on television. One has to allow for the makeup. I have enough pancake on my own cheeks to hide moles, smooth out wrinkles, and cover unlovely skin tones too much exposed to searing sun and blistering winds. I do not fear the sun. His tie probably cost more than my shirt and slacks combined. Lights so blinding I can scarcely see the live audience. We were advised not to look for the cameras, they will find us. Here I stand at last, the middle contestant, thumb on the button, revved up, a line of salty sweat above my upper lip. My affordable shirt of far-eastern manufacture is blue like the high-glossed, studio floor.

Damn! I knew that answer. Frequently there are questions about Amelia Earhart on this show and I missed it. FAMOUS AMERICAN WOMEN. The woman on my left, Didi, a freelance writer and web designer from Ithaca, New York, rushed in where this angel was too dazed to tread. I researched Amelia's life to prepare for this event, memorized salient facts. Date of birth, name of air plane, year of disappearance. That's the way, you know, not simply smarts or extraordinary intelligence, but retentive memory swallowing up disparate and extensive reading. And knowing the patterns of questions which become evident after you've watched for decades. Studying the tapes of categories, clues and answers in the middle of the night because I couldn't sleep, I've discovered recurring questions disguised by different wording, the same answers popping up time and time again, and the emphasis on matters American. Well, inattention doesn't win the game. That's why I missed the Sacajawea answer, another woman often rolled into the questions. Just to show Jeopardy isn't ethnocentric—like hell it isn't—but there you are—the native people have to be mentioned somehow, if only to smother lingering guilt about historical exclusions and slaughters. I do, however, leap in first with Eleanor Roosevelt to finish the category.

"Brown. Who is John Brown?" Right for 200 bucks. American again. Good thing I boned up on the CIVIL WAR, another favourite category: that, and American senators, American history, American geography, American anything. I read all the almanacs, encyclopaedias, compendia of movies and pop culture, went goggle-eyed over websites, or is that google-eyed? Somewhat weak on football and sports generally—can't remember ever watching an American game, forget Canadian, not even close, but I do recall Joe Namath, which demonstrates how far off the contemporary track I am. O.J. Simpson, of course, but more for scandal than sport. Still, I hadn't wasted my time recording all the questions and answers over a twenty-year period since I first began watching the program, never missed a single show, thanks to video tape, determined one day to be a contestant. Canadians compete occasionally, a token recognition of the mice in the attic. Another American category—STATES—brief statements with clues embedded in clever phrasing. The capitol of Delaware. Didi got it right off. I knew it, but was too slow. Whoever said the race was not to the swift? Speed is the highest virtue these days.

What's his name, the guy on my right—Ravi? "Our returning champion, a software engineer from Flint, Michigan, whose two-day winnings total $46,300." Sharp and swift, thumb like a pneumatic drill on the button, Ravi decodes the question and flashes a response before my admittedly slower brain formulates an answer. Ah, KISS ME KATE, a category on women named Catherine, not exclusively on the musical. Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson starred in the 1953 movie, singing Cole Porter songs. Easy. Four hundred for remembering Katherine Howard, adulterous wife of Henry VIII. Off with her head! I knew the next one, too, but Ravi, speedier in Russian history than I, proclaimed Catherine the Great before me, but I got the Katherine Hepburn answer because I'm a fan and I've seen her movies on television, preferring what she did in the forties and fifties. She was stupendous in The African Queen. "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we're put on this earth to rise above." Who else could have said that line in just that crisply righteous tone of voice? And my wife's middle name is Catherine. Joanna Catherine. I wonder if she's conscious now—cost me enough to rent a television set for her room so she could watch this and other programmes. My armpits are soaked. Let me not get swept away by the undertow of despair and rage—there, lost it again! Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand writer's fame has spread even to Ravi's mind.

And who knows more about BOTANY than I, having spent forty years studying plant life, my own gardens open to public tours once a year? Three of the five answers relate to plant life in the United States. For 100, 200, 300 and 400, dollars I leap to my advantage and win the first four, decoding the clue about Koala bears and eucalyptus leaves. But momentarily distracted by the memory of my wife's body eaten by the cancer, I delay. Ravi jumps right in there for the 500 dollar prize which just happens to be the DAILY DOUBLE.

"I've always wanted to say this, Alex. Let's make it a true double."

Many contestants do that in the first half of the game. I would have done as much, if given half the chance. Ravi goes for broke, bets all his earnings and wins a mother lode, matching my bundle. I'm not surprised, just irritated, that a continental Indian immigrant to the US would have heard of or read about the giant sequoia on the West Coast. Like the eucalyptus, it often appears on the show. They don't grow on the banks of the Ganges. You have to know your big trees. Of course, Ravi would have studied the encyclopaedias and surfed the Net as much as I. Can't blame him for benefiting from my preoccupation with misery. How would he know? If he did, would he retreat and allow me to win? What's the American expression? Kick butt. Would he continue to kick butt? Tanya Harding arranged for a baseball bat to wallop Nancy Kerrigan's knees, her major obstacle in the way of winning the Olympic gold in figure skating. I remember that in an interview before the attack Harding used the phrase, "kick butt," betraying the cloacal tendency of the American mind.

Good. First commercial break, after which Alex—we all call him Alex like a buddy—will consult his little note cards and begin a trivial chat with a question or pointed statement and give each of us a minute to reveal some interesting, amusing and/or humiliating anecdote about our lives to entertain the audience. Shall I say my wife at this very moment lies in a hospital bed? On the very day I received a call informing me that I had been selected to appear on the show, Joanna asked me to help her die. How's that for an amusing anecdote? Better not. They don't want to hear a horror story. Jeopardy is not like Oprah or Dr. Phil or God knows how many American programmes where the wretched lament in public. Remember that television show in the fifties? Queen for a Day? The audience clapped for the woman who described the most appalling life story, their response measured by an applause metre. Robed and crowned, the winner was rewarded with, say, three rooms of furniture, including refrigerator and stove, to replace what a house fire had destroyed; reconstructive surgery on her son's face; a year's supply of groceries; and an electric wheelchair for her paraplegic husband. I turned it on as soon as I got home from public school and watched avidly as I gobbled a peanut butter and banana sandwich.

My investments failed, my credit cards maxed, pension barely meets our monthly expenses with little to spare. Disease depletes finances as fast as it ravages the body. Not everything is covered by Medicare and prescription insurance, especially not experimental treatments in foreign countries. On this show I should be able to collect many thousands of dollars—I'm here for the long haul—no one night stand for me—you're going down, Ravi, once I gather my wits, focus, and just rip through the categories like a sexagenarian crossing the finish line first and leaving his younger competitors gasping in the dust. The sweat on my forehead and upper lip is caking the powder, I'm sure. After passing the written examination in Toronto, the potential candidates had to perform in a mock show. It was a bit more difficult than the written part because, well, the other hopefuls had also passed the fifty question examination, having probably read and memorized as much as I. Still, the preliminaries were a breeze, really, and one had only to wait for the call. What a curious sensation to hear my occupation and name announced: "A retired landscaper from Winnipeg, Canada, Oscar Sternhaus." It gave me a kind of authentication. I existed because I was publically proclaimed on the American airwaves.

"It says here that Oscar opens his gardens in Winnipeg to the public once a year."

"That's correct, Alex."

"Do you charge admission?"

"Five bucks, which goes to a local charity."

"What's so special about your gardens?"

"Well, I have three acres of perennials and pathways, so it takes about two hours of casual walking to see everything."

"No dogs allowed?'

"Well, they do have a habit of staking their territory, and I'd rather not see the evidence of that in my gardens, if you follow my meaning."

"Indeed, I do."

Chuckle, chuckle. Pretty lame, I guess. But no worse than Didi who blathered about her Boston terrier's love of escargot, although it aroused the audience to laughter. Fortunately, Jeopardy rewards memory, not wisdom, or who among us would win? I'm not listening to Ravi because I'm exercising my thumb, keeping it flexible and poised to push. The next categories fall right in my areas of expertise and general interest. Forget Joanna for a minute—as easy as forgetting how to breathe. Just how the hell am I supposed to help her die? I can't very well smother her with a pillow? Her bony hand squeezing mine, her lips grey and her eyes strangely dark and bright at the same time as if reflecting a distant fire, she turned her head, a tear in her eye. I want to die, my darling, help me. I wanted to scream in her face "Think of me for a moment, would you?" Christ! Just got that one in before Didi who apparently understands Latin phrases. In my youth there was such a thing as compulsory Latin on the high school curriculum, if you can believe? Never regretted it for a moment, no matter how much I struggled with conjugations and declensions. Pretty shortsighted and narrow of school authorities to drop it. For better or worse, I made a vow at our marriage ceremony. I don't remember promising anything about helping my spouse to die. Sure, I guess we've hit the worst of it—what could be worse?—but aren't we supposed to put our shoulders to the wheel, gird our loins, grin and bear it? Think of her quality of life, someone's bound to say sooner or later. Well, if Joanna's quality of life bothers you so much, why don't you jump off a frigging bridge and leave us alone?

MYTHOLOGY: Flash. Who is Arachne for 100? Flash. Who is Charon for 200? Flash. who is Loki for 300? Flash. What is the Garden of the Hesperides for 400? Flash. I can make it a clean sweep. Win the 500 dollar question and I shoot to the lead, two hundred ahead of Ravi. Is my pancake dripping like syrup down my cheeks? Got to be a hard question in world mythology for 500 bucks. I'm knowledgeable in Greek, Norse, Roman, Egyptian, Aztec, North American Native, even got a grasp of Indian myths. Weak on African. Wonderful. FLASH! FLASH! FLASH! Who is Quetzcoatl? How they determine one question is more difficult than another I don't know, but look how much money I've racked up faster than Minnesota Fats in a pool hall, faster than Ravi—did you see the look he gave me? Did you see it, honey? Has the nurse propped you up comfortably? I can't kill you today, my love, I have a plane to catch. Joanna smiled when I told her about Jeopardy, and her fingers released their hold. I say smile—but I romanticize: an involuntary twitch of the lips, a grimace of pain, not even strong enough to push the button on the morphine drip—here, let me do it—nurse, she's in pain—it's not working very well—can't the dose be increased? Clearly, Ravi wants to win. I'm supposed to apologize for a lifetime of reading in world mythology? Anyway, my cat's name is Loki, a devious tabby if ever there was one, hissed at visitors as he curled up on Joanna's lap, but let me not get on the subject of pets like really annoying people who talk about their dogs and cats as if they're remotely interesting to anyone else.

MOVIES: I've spent a lot of time watching videos and DVDs with Joanna under the afghan by my side. Obviously American movies, although on rare occasions, the show recognizes world cinema. Shirley Maclaine screamed down the hospital corridor demanding painkillers for her beloved daughter in Terms of Endearment. We saw that movie years before my wife's body convulsed, retched and shrank, and that distant fire blazed at the back of her eyes. I was never bold enough to run down the hallway, yelling for chemical mercy and relief, but I understand the impulse. I deserve to win this game, I'm playing so well and I know so much. Isn't that its purpose? To reward the knowledgeable? Dear me: so many lottery tickets purchased over the past two years, driven by a pathetic fantasy of winning millions to help Joanna and me out of this miasma of pain and debt. With money like that I could fly her around the world, to one clinic after another, all famous for their miraculous medicines based upon extracts from peach pits or Amazon tree roots ground into curative powders.

Shit—my thumb slipped. Of course, the answer is The Night of the Hunter, as Didi blurted out. Why does that woman talk as if she's giggling at the same time? Robert Mitchum had Hate and Love tattooed on his knuckles. Magnificent shot of Shelley Winter's drowned body in the car at the bottom of the lake. Unforgettable. Look what Bette Davis ultimately does in Jezebel out of love for her man, a rather limp Henry Fonda, not up to her sexual demands at all, but there you have it—she wants him! He's stricken by yellow jacket fever, but his Yankee wife just isn't equal to the task at all. Bette, pardon me, Jezebel sacrifices beauty and privilege to care for him on some god-forsaken island of lepers. Maybe Humphrey Bogart's right in Casablanca—the problems of little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Don't you just love movie dialogue about good and evil and ultimate purpose?

Bingo! Or should I say Jeopardy! I answer the last question correctly in the remaining category before the second half of the game when all the cash prizes are doubled. Ravi stirs next to me. I can sense his irritation. Didi just giggling over everything Alex says. And what is that perfume she's wearing, a scent like damp leaves? Alex doesn't lack wit, and possesses a terrific ability to mimic accents. He owns a vineyard somewhere in California. And just think: he, too, is or was Canadian. Go south and expand. Life simply becomes larger down here. Somewhat a bit too cribbed and confined in Canada. Big bucks await me even though I'm taking the first plane out of Los Angeles as soon as I collect my winnings. During the second half of the game, I can jump from a mere 6800 to thirty thousand or more—52,000 dollars is the one-day record—if I decode the clues fast, avoid slips and misnomers, and for heaven's sake, concentrate on the little signal button beneath my thumb. It's a good thing I don't have arthritis.

"I'm going to wipe the floor with you." Did I hear right?—Ravi 's competitive spirit, enmity quite frankly, exudes an odour more unpleasant than Didi's perfume. Before the commercial break ends, he turns and spits the threat against my right cheek. No, he doesn't have an accent like Ben Kingsley's in Gandhi. He speaks more like a CBC announcer: unmusical, arbitrary pauses between words and phrases, simplistic, often cliché-ridden language, false stresses in their diction for emphasis, utterly uninteresting to listen to. He does not perceive Didi as a threat.

The rules have changed. Five games used to be the maximum. Now winners continue for as long as they win. Six, seven, ten: if they rack up the most money at the end of the game, they're allowed to come back. It's conceivable now to win a million dollars. Ken Jennings, a lacklustre Mormon, won over two million dollars on this show not long ago. Perhaps God whispered in his ear. I have no God. I've tried to get on this show for years, first as a matter of interest, then as a means of improving my fortunes, then out of desperation, figuring I had a better chance of participating here than winning a lottery. Last month I spent a hundred dollars on lottery tickets. I won ten bucks. SEVEN LETTER CROSSWORDS: all answers contain seven letters. Joanna whizzed through newspaper crosswords in a matter of minutes. Not even the formidable New York Times puzzle defeated her. What a brain, chock full of abstruse facts, synonyms, and more importantly, able to translate clues, to think laterally outside of the box. Puzzles are a major defence against mental incompetence as we get older. So I've read. At sixty-three Joanna is not old, just stricken horribly, and our life together has been reduced to her agonized postures on the hospital bed. What is lunatic? I signal before Ravi whose body is tense with anger. Didi seems to have disappeared from the game, her responses so few and mostly erroneous, a fact she finds hilarious. Her chuckles cease to distract. Nothing concentrates the mind so wonderfully as the thought of impending lunacy. I shall go mad if Joanna's suffering continues. And if she dies? Either way I'm headed for Bedlam. I'm not ready to be left alone in the world. Our two adult children live hundreds of miles away. They can't replace what she will take away. Fast and furious, that's the only method that works with someone as competitive and determined as Ravi—murderous, too, if one judges by the cobra squinting of his eyes.

"I'll take NORTH TO SOUTH, Alex, for 600." Fortunately, I've always enjoyed perusing maps. Joanna and I have travelled in our time, but paper geographies provide a better sense of spatial relationships than plane flights. Three cities: all of them in India: Mysore, Lucknow, Mumbai. Ravi flashes and scores before I've placed them in proper order. Running over Alex's commentary, he demands NORTH AND SOUTH for a thousand bucks—and hits on the DAILY DOUBLE square. Didi gasps. As he always does, Alex states the obvious. If Ravi goes for a true daily, he can regain first place. Directing a broad smile at me, teeth with the sheen of new plastic, sensing the tremendous advantage, Ravi replies without hesitation. Arkansas, Colorado, Nebraska. I answer correctly in my mind, but the rules forbid me from interfering at this point. Ravi gets it right. My congratulatory smile is forced. Didi claps her hands as if she's more audience than participant.

Category WHAT THE "EX?" Each correct response will contain the syllable ex, hence the quotation marks. One has to think fast, but not hastily, to win the game. Well, hexameter was no sweat, nor was hexagon. Beat Ravi to the button both times. I hear him cursing in Hindi under his breath. I'm judging solely by tone, here, not sense. A lapse of attention on my part—the scream of one's beloved carries far and endures—and he answers the thousand dollar question: exhumation. Having flashed answers to all the categories, we have reached the single, last question to determine the winner. Ravi is ahead by a thousand. Didi never really climbed out of the minus position and has lost the right to play the final round. Obviously, despair did not propel her game. She leaves with a thousand bucks and a great giggle. That sum would pay for a plane ticket to a Nevada clinic where the experimental procedure awaits Joanna if I can raise another hundred thousand. Let's see. Ravi has 23,600, and I have 22,600. He virtually has to double his score to win, as I must. That would give me 45,200 before taxes, and the right to continue the next day as defending champion, if he's wrong. Oh please, let him fall into error. Do not ask to whom I am praying. Lord only knows.

Good! US PRESIDENTS is the category, the collective fetish of the American people who believe it necessary to know the nickname or the wife of the president in 1832. Virtually everything is available in the tangles of the World Wide Web. Unable to sleep after coming home late from the hospital, I surfed the Net like an addict. You'd be a fool to appear on this show without sorting out and remembering all the facts about American Presidents, semi-deities in American mythology. At least the pasteurized facts—I doubt the name of Eisenhower's mistress would appear or the ladies JFK boffed in 1962, except for Marilyn Monroe, of course. The passage of time, however, has made it acceptable to recognize Jefferson's slave mistress. The Supreme Court I could have handled just as well, knowing the show's predilection for that area of expertise. Ravi's teeth make a sound like a knife rasping against a whetstone. During the commercial break, I stare into the dark audience behind the lights, if only to avoid Ravi's dagger looks. What are the facts behind his fierce eagerness to win? Do misery and financial need drive him as much as they do me? I don't want to know—I don't want to enter into an arena where sorrows compete. Unless he's simply smitten with a kind of Olympic fever—the illusion that first place in a race won by a tenth of a second, or an elongated nipple crossing the finish line—means anything besides big bucks. Maybe it's my age, but I can't understand obsession over athletics and athletes—the doped-up heroes of the moment. Yes, of course, it helps to know their names and achievements, if you wish to succeed on Jeopardy.

Whatever happened to the fun of the game? You're not supposed to hate your opponent, are you? If I don't continue winning, I'll be carrying a debt load that would have sunk Noah's ark, unable to pay for Joanna's treatment in Nevada or wherever medical miracles occur these days, forced to appeal for donations via the INTERNET and local fundraising drives which produce less and less the more and more desperate people make use of them. Just how many supposedly terminal patients can be saved south of the 49th by public compassion and charity? We all fudge the facts, befuddle evidence, and don't investigate claims with objective rigour because...because we can't let go, can we? The notion of absence is too horrible to contemplate. No wonder aliens and ghosts fascinate us so much: they fill up the void and they block off the final exits so no one really disappears after all, just redirected into other channels of experience. Very consoling.

What shall I bet? No choice but to wager all. It's between myself and Ravi who, once the show has ended will probably assume a friendly demeanour towards me, if he wins. Americans are a friendly people, aren't they? And an American winner spreads good cheer and grace everywhere. Where do they get their glinting smiles and glassy-eyed optimism? Dental insurance? A beneficent deity? I wager all my money in a final gamble that I know everything there is to know in this category, more than Ravi. I have fallen asleep with American presidents, their wives, secretaries of state, and favourite dogs. Joanna said I should at last put my reading to good use. Memorizing information hardly constitutes reading in any sense that matters, but if you're going for broke in this game, you become obsessed with facts and figures on countless topics, knowledge and intelligence indistinguishable from the accumulation of mere data. Yes, well, one does need the ability to decipher, to extract the correct answer embedded in the clues. It's not always necessary to know the fact per se if you can process the information quickly and rely on logic. Will the power of need assume the force of magic, bend the arbitrariness of the universe my way? What is Ravi thinking? Is he hoping and praying? To which Hindu deity would one pray in this circumstance? I wish I knew. Is he impregnable in his self-confidence? Can he topple? Does he pray?

Oh, my sweet Joanna. How shall I save you? Please, don't give up on me, not yet. Have the nurses wrapped the shawl around your shoulders the way you like? Under the hot lights a chill runs through my veins. In Winnipeg, I can endure the winters—snow piercing bright like diamond shards in the sun—but this is a different, paradoxical cold. I shiver, I swear I can see my breath. Ravi stands tall and collected, staring at the monitor which I have avoided throughout the program. I don't want to see myself on television. I mustn't quail before Joanna who's watching and cheering me on—how weak and whispery her voice has become this past year. For her sake, I must stand strong, assume the pose of champion. We've placed our wagers before the commercial break.

During the pause, I concentrate, ignore all extraneous material in my brain, strain to the point of throbbing veins not to think about Joanna, just focus on the prize, which I could double in tomorrow's game as returning champion. Oblivious to the passing of seconds, I'm startled by Alex's polished voice as he reads the clue appearing on the blue screen. Thirty seconds to solve the puzzle. I'm shivering even though it's a climate controlled studio.


See what I mean? It's not enough to know the names of the assassinated American presidents, you also have to know the names of their assassins. Quickly they scroll through my mind in order of demise: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy. Lincoln and Kennedy, of course, are too easy. McKinley shot within hearing range of Niagra Falls. Music plays as Ravi and I ponder. I write down my answer, for it glistens in the cool dark of my mind like an icicle in the Manitoba sunlight. The hand, having writ, moves on. I feel in touch with destiny. Chance is on my side. Hope rises. I have less money than Ravi so Alex asks me first.

He reads my legibly written response.. "Charles Guiteau. Yes, Guiteau assassinated Garfield on Sept 19, 1881. Oscar wagered—all of it—and doubles his winnings." The audience claps. My thrill is tempered. Ravi is no fool. "And our returning champion has written?" One second is an eternity of rioting nerves and overactive sweat glands. Did I hear right? Nothing: he has written nothing, he didn't know. For a moment my mind is devoid of facts except for this one indescribably great one. His ignorance—my bliss. I win. Ravi's shoulders slump and his congratulatory handshake is limp and damp, the audience claps, (perhaps I hear a cheer or two—bravo! Huzza, huzza). How does the audience know of my great and pressing need that they applaud me, King for a Day, so vigorously? I must concoct an amusing anecdote for the next taping.

Joanna, did you see? Could you read the answer? Hang in there, my darling, we're off to Nevada. Or was it New Mexico? Old Mexico? So many websites and e-mails and fabulous remedies, one becomes confused. I have pocketed more than 45,000 American dollars before taxes. This is the land of optimism, indeed. Nothing can get me down in sunny California. Even Ravi will recover from this temporary set back, and rise again to the challenge somehow, somewhere in the glorious USA. But there will be new contestants determined to defeat my aspirations. I've got to move faster than anyone else. Speed is essential. There's no time to waste. Using my laptop seeking arcane facts, I'll surf the net in my hotel room. Sleep is a luxury I can ill afford. If I emerge victorious tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the day after that, if I do not collapse under the weight of all Joanna's pain, I'll be throwing American bucks at the doctors, showering their genius with hundred dollar bills, and leading my beloved by the hand out of the grave.

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