My complete stories & my book ORPHANS

Breaking the Game Show Habit
by Steve Schlich

They drew Lucy Ambesas' name for Cars of the Stars right on the air. That was standard procedure, but it became a memorable moment for the game show when the rotating wire cage of postcards spun off its mountings and steamrollered over the emcee.

Handsome Bill Barton picked up his slender six-one frame and dusted off his leisure suit shakily while production people hoisted the apparatus back onto its supports. He felt a genuine loss for words — rare for him — until he spotted the lone postcard that had snuck out of the cage and onto the floor. Lucy's card.

“We have a new contestant!”

What a thrill! Watching at home, Lucy and a friend raised such a ruckus that the portable TV fell off its stand and exploded on the floor. No one was hurt, but the mishap left a nasty scar on the rug. It and the TV belonged to the friend, of course. Such accidents never happened to Lucy, only to those around her.

New friends called her lucky. Old friends called her poison. Once they understood the nature of her gift, most people ran like hell. If they still could.

Lucy's talent — she refused to think of it as “luck” — had gotten her through the door and all the way to the winner's circle on numerous game shows. Yet she began the day of her Cars of the Stars appearance nervous. When she backed her car over a garbage can on her way to the studios, it nearly shattered her.

Her neighbor, a puzzled young man who had been backing over garbage cans and mailboxes and what-all ever since he moved in next to her, came out to gawk. He found Lucy staring incredulously at the ruined can.

“Never happened before,” she muttered. “Never, never...”

“Happens all the time,” he assured her. “Only to me. This time it was your turn. Hey, don't take it so hard! It's just a garbage can!”

Leaving, he slipped on a nectarine pit and fell on his rear.

And he was wrong: it wasn't “just a garbage can.” It was the first accident Lucy had suffered in all thirty-two years of her life. She'd never so much as stubbed her toe or broken a fingernail. She'd never missed a bus or had a cold or a flat tire. She always won at cards. The hassles and frustrations of everyday life, “bad luck,” never touched her. But now something had. What did it mean?

She drove the familiar twenty miles to Burbank on back roads, to avoid the traffic snarls and fender-benders that always trailed her like a backwash. She had no desire to cause problems. But a tailgating sports car suddenly developed engine trouble and dropped far behind her. She was selfishly relieved: her talent hadn't forsaken her completely.

Lucy never wished bad luck on people. It was simply that everyone is allotted a certain amount of the stuff, and since Lucy was immune, those around her got stuck with the excess. She thought of herself as an immobile rock sitting in the river-like flow of chance. Unlucky events bypassed her, to swirl in currents and eddies around her. Sooner or later, anyone close fell victim to the undertow.

All the more reason to be nervous about this particular show. Handsome Bill Barton! The name made Lucy weak. She'd never been on a show of his, but she'd pined over his television image for years. To her, he was unreachable. What might her talent do to him?

But finally she had mailed her postcard. It was selected. Of course.

A week's run of Cars of the Stars was videotaped in a single day: three half-hour shows in the morning and two in the afternoon. Lucy's segment came at 1:30, “Thursday” in the shooting chronology. At 1:15 she finally came face-to-face with Handsome Bill. Electricity coursed between them as he shook her hand behind the curtains on the sound stage. His liquid gaze melted her into a gibbering lump.

He acknowledged her open-mouthed silence with a knowing grin. “Welcome to my show, miss, umm, Lucy! I've followed your career as a contestant with interest. You've got quite a talent! But please tell me how to pronounce your last name. I must have heard it a dozen different ways!”

Lucy blushed and took three swallows to clear the lump from her throat. “Ambesas. Umm, uh...A! A as in two long A's and a silent E! An arrow shot through a deck of cards. Aims and Ace!” Aims-Ace, that was it! Oh, why hadn't she changed it long ago?

The syllables flowed smoothly across Bill Barton's tongue. “Aims-Ace, Ambesas!” he said triumphantly. “You know, the postcard cage rolled right over me the night I drew your name.”

Lucy had begun to congeal again under the gaze of his steady brown eyes. “I saw it,” she told him. “Sorry.”

He shrugged. “Not your fault. Freak accident. No one hurt and the audience loved it. But I've never been so surprised in my life. Your postcard insisted on being drawn!”

Lucy forced herself to laugh, looked up and saw something that cut the sound to a breathless shriek. A monstrous sandbag counterweight for backdrops had broken its rope and now plummeted directly toward them! Her mind raced.

The sandbag would fall about fifty feet in less than two seconds. It probably weighed three hundred pounds. Alarms went off in her head.

Nooo! Not Bill Barton! Not because of me!!

She did the only thing she could. She grabbed him and hugged so tightly that any harm that came to him would get her, too. Three feet above their heads, the bag swerved as if pushed aside by a giant hand. It struck next to them with a crash that shook the stage.

Production people swarmed over the set like drunken ants, barking orders and bumping into each other as they cleared the mess and studied the rafters for other bags ready to fall. None were, or did.

Handsome Bill's face was flushed when Lucy released him. “I don't usually make passes at contestants,” he sighed.

“Sorry. I keep apologizing to you.” And blushing, she thought. She remembered her morning lapse of luck and shuddered. What if her luck had failed her?

Bill lit a cigarette. He was as shaken as she, but he held it beneath a veneer of control. “Close,” he said to the sandbag on the floor, and led Lucy backstage. He was so poised, so solid!

But what was with her talent? What else lay ahead?

“I'll jinx the show,” she told him tearfully. “You go on without me.”

“Don't be silly, Lucy.” He held her hand and laughed weakly. “We like to get all our goof-ups out of the way early on. Before the show gets rolling. It's too late to replace you, anyway. Come on! Chin up. Go on for me! Okay?”

He squeezed and let go of her hand. She couldn't turn him down, and didn't get the chance because when she looked up he was gone.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, it's time to play . . . Cars of the Stars!”

The house lights dimmed, the curtains drew back, and the show began. Brilliant spotlight beams played across the glittery show title, the huge plastic-and-neon scoreboard, and Bill Barton's grinning visage, all perfectly synchronized with the snappy theme music. He strutted to his podium and clipped on his lapel mike as he was announced.

“Starring — Handsome Bill Barton!”

The crowd, already primed from the sandbag excitement, exploded like a shaken can of soda pop into cheering, catcalls and general disorder. Handsome Bill bantered with them and called out the contestants.

Lucy wandered on in a daze. She was teamed with Girth Wainscot, the rotund star of stage and screen, wine commercials and quiz shows. She noticed a bald spot on the back of his head that you never saw on your home screen.

Their opponents were pop psychologist Dr. Lydia Lambert and Marcus Winston, a long-haired rock musician whom Dr. Lydia eyed with open dismay. He winked a bloodshot eye at her. Accustomed to more applause than his flagging career now provided, Winston acknowledged the audience's whoops and cheers with delight.

Things went downhill from there.

Girth's buzzer stung him during the pre-game test. When his cry of surprise came in place of the expected braaazz!, the audience howled like a spooked animal. Lucy sensed impending doom.

Should I walk off? Could I do it? — No! Bill would hate me!

Dr. Lydia sidestepped the possibility of shock by working her button with a corner of her cavernous leather purse. Girth decided to imitate the buzzer's sound with his voice. And if Marcus Winston's button was electrified, he wasn't complaining. Lucy's equipment worked perfectly, of course.

“Alllrrright, people!”

Handsome Bill took charge. “Pictures, points, and cold hard cash! Win the toss-up by naming the owner of the car on the screen. Win betting money for the final race by naming the year and make, and other facts. Are we ready?”

Heads bobbed in agreement. The first slide flashed on the scoreboard screen. “Now this fine automobile appeared in two feature films of the Fifties. For the first score of the game, who owned it?”

Brraaazzzz! Marcus all but danced on his buzzer. Maybe it was electrified. “Jean Harlow! Oh yeah, Jean Harlow!”

The wrong answer buzzer went MAAAP! “Sorry, Marcus, that's incorrect. Girth?”

Girth had waved his fingers demurely. “Jack Warner.”

“Rrright you are!” The yes bell rang and the show's backstage organist pumped out a short fanfare. “Now you're playing for cash. For one hundred dollars, name that car!”

“Simple,” said Girth, though the sheen of sweat on his puffy cheeks undercut his aura of confidence. “The Solid Gold Cadillac. Only painted gold, of course,” he added.

The yes bell sounded again and the lights dimmed. The bell quit and the lights came back up. Bill blinked and shrugged it off.

“Er...that's right, Girth! Heh-heh, we seem to be having a little technical difficulty today. But the answer's correct, from the film of the same name, starring Judy Holiday. Now. The same car made a cameo appearance in another Judy Holiday film. For five hundred dollars, name it!”

“Uh, ummm...” Girth was stumped. The seconds ticked away.

The answer popped like a squeezed tomato into Lucy's head and she yelled it out of surprise: “Born Yesterday!”

Girth's section of the booth, which sported glittery squares of light and his name in orange plastic letters, chose that moment to collapse. He'd been leaning on it for support and he tumbled through the flimsy facade onto the floor.

The audience roared with delight. Handsome Bill's perfectly formed chin dropped a foot. Lucy wanted to crawl into a corner.

The scoreboard lit hesitantly. The yes bell's absence was not noticed. Handsome Bill looked at Girth's section of the booth and then at Lucy, long and hard.

Oh God, she thought, is he adding it up already?

But he didn't have time to add anything. They had to halt the show's taping because Marcus pressed his button and wouldn't let up. Dr. Lydia reached over to nudge him out of catatonia, and both of them were batted to the floor by a crackling electric charge. Marcus was helped from the stage, starry-eyed and murmuring, “Heavy...”

Dr. Lydia indicated that she was made of stronger stuff than that, and she was ready to go on. Girth moved to Marcus' chair and declared that it was every contestant for him- or herself. But Handsome Bill consulted with the backstage electricians and decided that no, the show would not go on.

The crowd had other ideas. Coins and trash pelted the stage. Complaints turned to threats. A true mob mentality had emerged, and it wanted the payoff. Sweating openly, Handsome Bill said what the hell and announced that yes, they would continue. In fact, they'd be moving straight to the final race. Why not? What could happen that hadn't already?

The race was run in pee-wee cars. Lucy sat in a mini-approximation of the yellow Mustang Steve McQueen ripped up in Bullit. It had no roof and room for one. She watched Girth coax his circumference into a cramped copy of the flashy Charger from Two Lane Blacktop. Dr. Lydia gripped the tiny wheel of her '54 Chevy sedan, a replica of David Carridine's personal car during the original TV run of Kung Fu. It was primer gray.

Before them lay the studio track, a thirty-second course at seven miles per hour. They would lap it twice. The edges of the tire-marked roadbed were lined with a low rubber retaining wall. No one ever went fast enough to be dangerous.

The three eyed each other as production people lugged away the car that would have been Marcus Winston's, a miniature Alfa Romeo from one of the early James Bond pictures. Lucy looked at Girth and wondered absently if the springs on his car would hold. He was riding pretty low.

Girth's craggy eyebrows, slicked with stage grease, jutted from beneath the lip of his crash helmet like hedges. He grinned maniacally at Lucy. His eyes seemed to carry a taunt: I'll get even! The fact that everyone but Lucy suffered accidents had not escaped him.

The track was hooded with an electrified wire mesh that brought to mind the amusement park bump-'em cars. A slender pole climbed from the back of each car and a flat steel tongue on top sparked against the mesh.

Handsome Bill had donned racing goggles and held a checkered flag ready in his capacity as starter, judge and commentator. He'd added a soft World War II flier's cap for style. Lucy thought he looked dashing in the getup. Her fear of disaster dissipated as she imagined him kissing her in the winner's circle.

Do it for him. Do it! Win!

“Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines!” A figurative command.

The flag dropped and Lucy tromped on her `gas' pedal. She and Girth roared out of the start and hit the first turn neck and neck, but Dr. Lydia's car spun only its drive wheel and skewed sideways. It pointed accusingly at Bill Barton and died.

“Oh hell, stop the race!” Bill called, but the cars didn't stop. Lucy and Girth jammed on their brakes. The cars sped up. The studio lights dimmed again and the electric net above the track crackled with energy surges.

“Hey! Stop the race!”

“How? How?” cried Lucy. Girth was silently terrified, his eyes squeezed shut, his mouth gaping.

They rounded the final turn and roared out of control into the home stretch. Dr. Lydia was still climbing out of her dead car when she saw them coming at her. She scrambled to safety just as Girth's car smashed into the back of hers. The bumper and grille from the little replica of Carridine's '54 Chevy hurtled end over end through the air like a silver boomerang. It struck the plastic-and-neon scoreboard above Bill Barton's head with a crash. Lights flashed like fireworks. The bumper and grille stayed there, protruding from the huge board like a taunting steel smile.

A tire torn loose from the Chevy by the collision hurtled past Handsome Bill. It destroyed the podium beneath his hands, but he held his ground. He was still more amazed than afraid. Girth's racer recovered and refused to slow down; he and Lucy began their second lap out of control.

Lucy held a healthy lead, if that still mattered. Girth's Charger had sustained serious damage. Most of the front end had been sheared away, except for the wheels. The steering was ruined. Girth wobbled back and forth across the track, threatening to spill into the retaining wall at any moment.

That moment came on the final turn into the home stretch. It was a sharp one close to the audience. The Charger lurched into the wall and Girth rolled out and into the audience like a huge beach ball. His car slid to a halt across two lanes. Lucy was already halfway through her third lap and going faster.

Handsome Bill's aura of control dissolved. He ran to Girth, who was all right, and then onto the track to move the actor's wrecked car. He never got close. Lucy came around the final corner, fishtailing wildly, and bore down on him. She would ram Girth's car right over him!

Bill backed up until his heels met the retaining wall. No time. His eyes locked with Lucy's for a micromoment. In his was genuine surprise. In hers was the sad knowledge that she could never, never hold anyone dear. She covered her face with a hand.

CRASH! The Mustang hit Girth's crippled Charger and flipped it like a toy. CRUNCH! Its spark pole dug a trench into the sound stage and stopped the car six inches short of Bill Barton's feet. The impact threw Lucy over the wreck and into him. They tripped on the retaining wall and fell over it onto the floor. Sprawled in the debris like two survivors of a holocaust, they clutched each other.

Smoke poured out of the scoreboard; it had been mortally wounded by the Chevy bumper and grille. Lucy watched it sway above them. For the first time in her life, she felt true fear. So many firsts! Now she'd been in her second accident. All charms were off. She was bruised, nothing serious that she could feel, but she'd definitely been injured! Where was her so-called luck now?

The scoreboard crackled and sparked with energy. The audience screamed. Lucy couldn't move. She felt frozen in time. A strange tingling filled her. Was it her talent fading, or struggling to stay alive? It seemed that her once-powerful bubble of protection now had the fragility of an eggshell.

The scoreboard toppled over them and the audience finally gasped in genuine horror. This was it. The board weighed at least a ton and the two of them would be crushed beneath it. The shadow of doom swept across them, obscuring the studio lights. Bill and Lucy fused into a tight, clutching mass.

CAR-HOOM! Lucy looked up while the dust settled. They weren't dead! The bumper and grille had pinned a jagged chunk of scoreboard against the wall behind. In the wreckage on the floor, that hole coincided with the spot where she and Bill lay. They were untouched.

She knew why. She thought that maybe he did, too.

He looked at her with wonder in his eyes. “My God, you are like me,” he whispered. “You really are! I've looked for you all my life.”

Lucy knew it was true. When the sparks were flying and the scoreboard was coming down on top of them, when the end of the world had arrived, she felt a spark jump between them. A special, tingling spark. Like two forces deciding to merge instead of fight. She wasn't alone.

“I love you, Bill. I think I always have.”

They kissed, to the audience's delight. Then there was screaming again as a nozzle cut loose in the sprinkler system above the audience. But all anybody got was wet, and it was dry at center stage where Lucy and Bill picked themselves up. Nothing and no one would ever rain on them.

Lucy took in the crowd and looked at Bill with wide eyes. “We're safe,” she said slowly. “We've got our...abilities. But what about them out there? What about the rest of the world?”

Handsome Bill grinned. “We'll cultivate it!”

Less than a month later, a new show replaced the defunct Cars of the Stars. The co-producers/writers/emcees were Handsome Bill Barton and his new wife Lucy. The show gained instant popularity, perhaps because playing involved no skill. Winning wasn't a matter of what you knew or who was on your team or how fast you could answer questions.

It was strictly luck.

copyright (c) 1994 by Steve Schlich

ABOUT THE STORY introduction from the 1994 book ORPHANS

There's nothing more frightening for a writer than facing an empty page. It's a bogeyman that you learn to wrestle and defeat, but he never really goes away. One of the ploys I used to avoid writing in 1979 was to watch the evening news, and following it, a game show (I think it was Jeopardy!).

They say you should never waste an experience, so I paid tribute to my writing avoidance habit — and the breaking of it — with this tale. Maybe one reason it's an orphan is that the title is more meaningful to me than to the story itself.