The two things that conjured up that horrible night were his run of luck at the Wheel of Fortune, and the mask. Meet Johnny Smith. A young man whose streak of luck ends dramatically in a major ...(more)
"Hey-hey-hey," the pitchman said without much enthusiasm, and paid off. Two dollars for the teenagers, four for Steve Bernhardt, and then a bundle for Johnny--three tens, a five, and a one. The pitchman was not overjoyed, but he was sanguine. If the tall, skinny man with the good-looking blonde tried the third trip again, the pitchman would almost surely gather back in everything he had paid out. It wasn't the skinny man's money until it was off the board. And if he walked? Well, he had cleared a thousand dollars on the Wheel just today, he could afford to pay out a little tonight. The word would get around that Sol Drummore's Wheel had been hit and tomorrow play would be heavier than ever. A winner was a good ad.
"Lay em down where you want em down," he chanted. Several of the others had moved up to the board and were putting down dimes and quarters. But the pitchman looked only at his money player. "What do you say, fella? Want to shoot the moon?"
Johnny looked down at Sarah. "What do you . . . hey, are you all right? You're white as a ghost."
"My stomach," she said, managing a smile. "I think it was my hot dog. Can we go home?"
"Sure. You bet."
He was gathering the wad of wrinkled bills up from the board when his eyes happened on the Wheel again. The warm concern for her that had been in them faded out. They seemed to darken again, become speculative in a cold way. He's looking at that wheel the way a little boy would look at his own private ant colony, Sarah thought.
"Just a minute," he said.
"All right," Sarah answered. But she felt light-headed now as well as sick to her stomach. And there were rumblings in her lower belly that she didn't like. Not the backdoor trots, Lord. Please.
She thought: He can't be content until he's lost it all back.
And then, with strange certainty: But he's not going to lose.
"What do you say, buddy?" the pitchman asked. "On or off, in or out."
"Shit or git," one of the roustabouts said, and there was nervous laughter. Sarah's head swam.
Johnny suddenly shoved bills and quarters up to the corner of the board.
"What are you doing?" the pitchman asked, genuinely shocked.
"The whole wad on 19," Johnny said. Sarah wanted to moan and bit it back. The crowd murmured.
"Don't push it," Steve Bernhardt said in Johnny's ear. Johnny didn't answer. He was staring at the Wheel with something like indifference. His eyes seemed almost violet.
There was a sudden jingling sound that Sarah at first thought must be in her own ears. Then she saw that the others who had put money down were sweeping it back off the board again, leaving Johnny to make his play alone.
No! She found herself wanting to shout. Not like that, not alone, it isn't fair . . .
She bit down on her lips. She was afraid that she might throw up if she opened her mouth. Her stomach was very bad now. Johnny's pile of winnings sat alone under the naked lights. Fifty-four dollars, and the single-number payoff was ten for one.
The pitchman wet his lips. "Mister, the state says I'm not supposed to take any single number bets over two dollars."
"Come on," Bernhardt growled. "You aren't supposed to take trip bets over ten and you just let the guy bet eighteen. What is it, your balls starting to sweat?"
"No, it's just . . ."
"Come on," Johnny said abruptly. "One way or the other. My girl's sick."
The pitchman sized up the crowd. The crowd looked back at him with hostile eyes. It was bad. They didn't understand that the guy was just throwing his money away and he was trying to restrain him. Fuck it. The crowd wasn't going to like it either way. Let the guy do his headstand and lose his money so he could shut down for the night.
"Well," he said, "as long as none of youse is state inspectors . . ." He turned to his Wheel. "Round and round she's gonna go, and where she's gonna stop, ain't nobody knows."
He spun, sending the numbers into an immediate blur. For a time that seemed much longer than it actually could have been, there was no sound but the whirring of the Wheel of Fortune, the night wind rippling a swatch of canvas somewhere, and the sick thump in Sarah's own head. In her mind she begged Johnny to put his arm around her but he only stood quietly with his hands on the playing board and his eyes on the Wheel, which seemed determined to spin forever.
At last it slowed enough for her to be able to read the numbers and she saw 19, the 1 and 9 painted bright red on a black background. Up and down, up and down. The Wheel's smooth whirr broke into a steady ticka-ticka-ticka that was very loud in the stillness.
Now the numbers marched past the pointer with slowing deliberation.
One of the roustabouts called out in wonder: "By the Jesus, it's gonna be close, anyway!"
Johnny stood calmly, watching the Wheel, and now it seemed to her (although it might have been the sickness, which was now rolling through her belly in gripping, peristaltic waves) that his eyes were almost black. Jekyll and Hyde, she thought, and was suddenly, senselessly, afraid of him.
The Wheel clicked into the second trip, passed 15 and 16, clicked over 17 and, after an instant's hesitation, 18 as well. With a final tick! the pointer dropped into the 19 slot. The crowd held its breath. The Wheel revolved slowly, bringing the pointer up against the small pin between 19 and 20. For a quarter of a second it seemed that the pin could not hold the pointer in the 19 slot; that the last of its dying velocity would carry it over to 20. Then the Wheel rebounded, its force spent, and came to rest.
For a moment there was no sound from the crowd. No sound at all.
Then one of the teenagers, soft and awed: "Hey, man, you just won five hundred and forty dollars."
Steve Bernhardt: "I never seen a run like that. Never."
Then the crowd cheered. Johnny was slapped on the back, pummeled. People brushed by Sarah to get at him, to touch him, and for the moment they were separated she felt miserable, raw panic. Strengthless, she was butted this way and that, her stomach rolling crazily. A dozen afterimages of the Wheel whirled blackly before her eyes.
A moment later Johnny was with her and she saw with weak gladness that it really was Johnny and not the composed, mannequin like figure that had watched the Wheel on its last spin. He looked confused and concerned about her.
"Baby, I'm sorry," he said, and she loved him for that.
"I'm okay," she answered, not knowing if she was or not.
The pitchman cleared his throat. "The Wheel's shut down," he said. "The Wheel's shut down."
An accepting, ill-tempered rumble from the crowd.
The pitchman looked at Johnny. "I'll have to give you a check, young gentleman. I don't keep that much cash in the booth."
"Sure, anything," Johnny said. "Just make it quick. The lady here really is sick."
"Sure, a check," Steve Bernhardt said with infinite contempt. "He'll give you a check that'll bounce as high as the WGAN Tall Tower and he'll be down in Florida for the winter."
"My dear sir," the pitchman began, "I assure you . . ."
"Oh, go assure your mother, maybe she'll believe you," Bernhardt said. He suddenly reached over the playing board and groped beneath the counter.
"Hey!" The pitchman yelped. "This is robbery!"
The crowd did not appear impressed with his claim.
"Please," Sarah muttered. Her head was whirling.
"I don't care about the money," Johnny said suddenly. "Let us by, please. The lady's sick."
"Oh, man," the teenager with the Jimi Hendrix button said, but he and his buddy drew reluctantly aside.
"No, Johnny," Sarah said, although she was only holding back from vomiting by an act of will now. "Get your money." Five hundred dollars was Johnny's salary for three weeks.
"Pay off, you cheap tinhorn!" Bernhardt roared. He brought up the Roi-Tan cigar box from under the counter, pushed it aside without even looking inside it, groped again, and this time came up with a steel lockbox painted industrial green. He slammed it down on the play-board. "If there ain't five hundred and forty bucks in there, I'll eat my own shirt in front of all these people." He dropped a hard, heavy hand on Johnny's shoulder. "You just wait a minute, sonny. You're gonna have your payday or my name's not Steve Bernhardt."
"Really, sir, I don't have that much . . ."
"You pay," Steve Bernhardt said, leaning over him, "or I'll see you shut down. I mean that. I'm sincere about it."
The pitchman sighed and fished inside his shirt. He produced a key on a fine-link chain. The crowd sighed. Sarah could stay no longer. Her stomach felt bloated and suddenly as still as death. Everything was going to come up, everything, and at express-train speed. She stumbled away from Johnny's side and battered through the crowd.
"Honey, you all right?" a woman's voice asked her, and Sarah shook her head blindly.
You just can't hide . . . from Jekyll and Hyde, she thought incoherently. The fluorescent mask seemed to hang sickly before her eyes in the midway dark as she hurried past the merry-go-round. She struck a light pole with her shoulder, staggered, grabbed it, and threw up. It seemed to come all the way from her heels, convulsing her stomach like a sick, slick fist. She let herself go with it as much as she could.