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Hit The Jackpot

By Mel Stefaniuk All Rights Reserved ©


Hit The Jackpot

In June of 1993 I won $76,000 on the game show "Hit the Jackpot!" I hit the jackpot, as it were. This wasn't a show where they asked you tough questions or anything so it wasn't something I liked to brag about. I mostly spun a wheel and tried to fill this foam pot up with tin coins that came out of a tube. I felt bad for the guy that had to be sitting in the rafters making sure the tube didn't clog up. I once saw them pass a sandwich up to him by a bucket on a rope during a commercial break and I remember thinking it was one of the most pitiable things I had ever seen. 

My parents were immigrants so they were both befuddled and ashamed that this country awarded spinning some flashy wheel and not hard work. My father had three jobs and it still would've taken him years to make the money I did in a couple afternoons. I remember their faces when I watched the episodes with them. Mother tried to muster up some look of pride but my father slumped back on the couch and seemed to melt into the fuzzy tapioca tapestry. 

I never talked to them much after the show aired. They went back to Brazil a few months later and died when a bus t-boned their car. I had offered to help pay their rent when they were still in the States but mother politely refused.  Father wasn't so polite. I don't blame him, though. It fucks you up to see the American Dream realized as a foam pot.

I was only 21 when I won this money which is way too young for what amounts to a certain kind of responsbility. You get that much windfall from barely lifting a finger and you soon find your arms can't handle lifting that much weight. I was able to live off it for near 11 years but soon I had less than 1K in the bank and the walls start to feel like they were closing in on me. I wasn't a lazy man but my work ethic hadn't properly developed so getting a real job wasn't something that crossed my mind. My parents hadn't left me anything, which kinda proved my point about hard work being pointless, but it also put  me in a tough spot. How do you make a living when your chief skill is spinning a plastic wheel?

I tried to make a go of it on the game show circuit but the years since hitting the jackpot hadn't been too good to me. The life I eeked out of that money wasn't one that offered a lot of, let's call it, exterior living, and I began to realize how isolated a person I had become. I hardly talked to anyone. I only left my apartment to buy groceries or go to the library. I mostly just read books and watched TV and ate canned pasta. You start living your life inside your head and you eventually find out you can't get out. They don't like having people like that on TV. You're a million miles away and they see your vacant eyes and know that the camera will see right through you. 

Someone once told me I had the saddest eyes in the world. I wasn't crying or anything. I didn't even know them. That always stuck with me. 

One time I was sitting in one of these game show auditions when a guy recognized me. It was a tacky hotel conference room. Cold coffee. Stale bagels. You could smell the chlorine from the swimming pool a few halls down. He asked if I had hit the jackpot and I said that I had. He got excited and called a few more people over and soon they were all telling me about how they cheered for me back then, this poor immigrant kid who was making good on the potential that this country has to offer. I didn't have the heart to tell them about the whole "shame upon my parents" thing. 

A producer of the show came over to see what all the hubbub was about and was taken aback when he found out it was me. He had been working as a page at the network when I was on "Hit The Jackpot!" and had given me a go-get-'em thumbs up backstage once. I had no recollection of it. 

I thought the weird sense of nostalgia he had for me might get me onto this new show he was working on but I never made it past auditions. They had some fake version of the game set up and I fumbled my way through the questions until eventually I just stopped buzzing in. Weren't even real buzzers. They had gotten a few bells from the hotel's front desk. 

The producer caught me as I was leaving and said tough luck and all that. I guess he could tell I wasn't in the best of shape as he offered me a job on the show. "You've been in front of the cameras, how about a chance to see behind them?" he said. I hemmed and hawed but eventually he just said I was hired. It seemed like a fitting way for me to enter the working world.

The first time I saw it, the view from the rafters, I felt this tightening in my throat. I could see the contestants at their podiums and the host with his long-stemmed microphone and the audience cheering in their seats. All at once. Contestants always winning. Audience always cheering. I could sit there inside myself and take it all in. Every once in a while I'd have to fill an air cannon with fake money to shoot down onto the stage when somebody won big but that was all that they asked of me. I didn't even mind when they brought my lunch up to me in a bucket on a rope. 

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