Your Response Should Be in the Form of a Question
I wrote this whole story about baby-making, Alex Trebek, leftover merlot, airplanes, God, and paperwork. Our main character is named Carlton Lawrence Yates, but we will call him Bill. Our story details the day on which Bill has just lost on the popular television quiz game, Jeopardy! We’ll get to the paperwork later. For now, let’s watch him walking through an airport concourse, sled-dogging a piece of wheeled luggage and reclaiming the musty air of his Midwestern town (perhaps Cleveland? Des Moines? Omaha? I have never been to these places, and so it would be pure stab of artifice to try and convince you I have. But Midwestern seems like an important detail).

If it would help, please feel free to fill in details of Bill’s life that occurred prior to the day in question. If you want to, give him a sunny childhood with doe-eyed parents and a general lack of curiosity about his place in life. Your version of Bill might wear socks with his sandals. These things will be mostly irrelevant to our story, but if they become important, we can hopefully reconcile these narrative issues in a question and answer session later. 

Bill hopes his car is still parked safely in the lot where he left it a few days ago, before he flew to Los Angeles and lost on Jeopardy! Did you know that if you have a negative cash amount entering final jeopardy, they don’t even let you hazard a guess? Bill probably thinks this is a bit unfair, the way Trebek and the gang captivated the audience for twenty-odd minutes with the drama of what he might utter, but as soon as he was $800 underwater entering final jeopardy, they acted completely uninterested in what he might say next.

Here’s what happens to you instead of getting one final chance at embarrassment: in exchange for your dignity and a quiet exit from the stage, they give you one thousand dollars and a photograph with Trebek. They promise to tell you when the episode will air, not so that you can invite your family and friends to watch, but rather as a warning. You can mark your calendar with a red “x” and take your mother out to lunch so that she won’t be watching. You’ll worry about reruns later.

So Bill is feeling pretty crappy about himself right now; so crappy, in fact, that he is forced into a vague existential crisis. Imagine, if you will, Bill, weeks ago, imagining his upcoming stint on Jeopardy! He doesn’t see himself ending with a negative eight hundred dollars and a slight fear that someone will actually ask for those funds. No, he imagines himself rocketing to victory after dominating a category about sixteenth century Russia and then so nonchalantly answering his final jeopardy question that he inscribes a small happy face next to his answer. Alex finds this endlessly charming and the audience is nearly orgasmic with the anticipation of Bill returning for a second match with opponents as frighteningly inferior as his first two. He revels in this adoration, perhaps clasping his hands together and waggling them on either side of his head. This is, of course, his imagination, which is really in your imagination, which, for all I know, is really only in my imagination. So there you have it. Bill’s version has left him with one thousand dollars, a picture featuring Alex Trebek, unused changes of clothes and three hours to thinkbefore his wife comes home hoping not to find him there.

What do we need from this wife character? Her name is Jacqueline, but since you and I probably qualify as her two best friends (Bill notwithstanding), we’re fine to call her Jackie. She is a very sweet person, the sort of person that you might imagine your mother was like before you came along with your endless line of disappointments. Jackie ought to look however you picture that sort of woman, just as long as she is coordinately attractive with your Bill. I’d rather not bear the burden of a nagging attractiveness gap with our two main characters.

Jackie has been at work while Bill was off playing Jeopardy! Consider this especially important because our lovely couple suffers from a terribly mundane need for money (this story, sadly, is not recession-proof) and they’ve been saving for a very specific purpose. After years of marriage, typical copulation patterns and half-grinning plans about trying for a baby, Jackie and Bill discovered there was a sort of problem with Jackie’s maternal potential. Their options were laid before them: keep trying as normal with little hope for success (a good plan regardless, Bill says), find a surrogate mother, adopt, or, as they chose, enter into a long, expensive process of fertility treatments that threatened a small possibility of transforming Jackie into a multi-fetus maternity factory in her attempts to produce a single Bill Junior.

Breadwinning Jackie has been picking up extra shifts, so when Bill somehow got cast on Jeopardy! (which now seems like a mistake on some intern’s part), they hoped he would win enough money to start making a baby in twenty-first century mode.

But, as you know, and Bill knows, and I know--but poor Jackie doesn’t know—this victory would not come to pass. And what would you say if I told you that this is also the day that Jackie loses her job? It’s going make Bill’s news that much worse. But he doesn’t know that yet.

Bill is in his car now, driving away from the airport and thinking that at least they could have given him a check for the thousand dollars so he could cash it into small bills to wad up for Jackie. But instead they simply told him that a check would be forthcoming in the mail, and as he had just somehow finished the game eight hundred dollars behind the average Jeopardy! performance of broccoli, he left without argument.

So you can see the entire story has turned upside-down on Bill’s abysmal trivia performance. Had he been as good as he imagined, our couple would have visited a top-notch fertility clinic, been pumped full of potential babies and be well on their way to a life of complications of such banality that we’d lose interest and be left shrugging and simply saying, Well, that’s life. And given how likeable this pair is (and the sweet simplicity of their wish to reproduce in a way accidentally perpetrated yearly by thousands of teenage girls with words across their backsides) and the all-important Jeopardy! money so close to their grasp, we can, I hope, really feel the stomach-bottom devastation Bill experiences on his drive away from the airport.

So instead of driving home, Bill stops at an airport hotel and walks into the bar. He’s not a drinker, not really, and doesn’t even fall into any conventional man-I-need-a-drink attitude. He mostly just thinks that getting a drink is something someone ought to do in his situation—don’t you? Bill checks his wallet. There’s not much, but at least it’s more than he finished with on Jeopardy!, so Bill walks into the bar. He orders a whiskey sour and the bartender, who is supposed to ask him some question like, “Buddy, what’s got you down?” is instead preoccupied with counting his till. It is mid-afternoon.

But by Bill’s second whiskey sour, he has begun to talk whether the barman listens or not. Shouldn’t we, at least? Bill has never considered himself truly beautiful, morally superior, or intentionally funny, so it is clear that the reason his wife loves him—and that others tolerate him—is his above-average intellect. He probably says something to the bartender about getting a thirty-three on his ACT, and as this means very little to the bartender, and perhaps less to you, it might as well be treated as an all-out lie.

Bill tells the bartender, either explicitly or through a series of thinly veiled metaphors and teary moments (your choice), that his failure to answer even one question right during his Jeopardy! appearance has shaken his entire confidence. And what makes it worse is that, after being unable to father a child had emasculated him deep down inside, he was given the opportunity to defeat both fate and biology with his mind, and, and, and he failed. Bill’s deep into this existential crisis; he’s working up a self-indulgent lather at this point, and it would be best not to disturb him. Nonetheless the bartender asks what the final jeopardy question was. (He doesn’t know that the correct term is “clue.” The contestants supply their responses as questions.)

Bill tells him: Jack Odell gave his child a tiny vehicle to bring to school inside one of these items, and a toy brand name was born.

Well, shit, the bartender says. Everyone knows that.

Bill looks down at his drink.

Hell, you didn’t know? the bartender laughs. No wonder you lost.

Bill orders another whiskey sour, downs it, slaps a ten dollar bill down on the bar and walks out determined to either prove his self-worth or end his life. If it seems like Bill is taking things rather seriously, you have to remember that he’s been under a lot of stress lately, and he couldn’t recall the capital of Quebec even though he buzzed in. Can you blame him, after three whiskey sours?

He checks his watch. Let’s say he expects his wife to be home at 5:30 and it is now 3:41. Bill is checking the math in his head for a second before settling on “about two hours” left to prove his self-worth. There is a park not too far from the airport, and the park has bench swings, and Bill decides to go there and do some real thinking. From the bench swings, you can watch the planes taking off and landing, and Bill wonders about the massive steel creatures, the sheer human genius that goes into launching those multi-ton metal monsters. He has always considered himself the sort of person who would be good at flying aircraft, given the right training and education, but now he has to admit that maybe he just isn’t in the part of humanity that does these sorts of things. He is more the kind that sits and drunkenly watches the planes take off.

He thinks about dying in a plane crash, what it must be like when you really feel the plane start to nose-dive toward the ground. People must pray, he thinks, and since he prays about as often as he drinks, he thinks he might give it a shot now. Dear God, I don’t really think you’re real, but that’s okay, because I just learned from Trebek that most of the things I think are only real to me. So I figure I might as well come out and tell you the whole truth. I hate myself for not being able to give Jackie a family. It might be her pipes, but it’s my fault we can’t hire a plumber. There’s no forgiving it. But maybe I ought to just agree to keep trying and go home and apologize and tell her. That’s it. I’m not sure how these things normally end. Thank you. I mean, I hope I’ll see you later. Anyway, bye. But not bye forever. It hasn’t occurred to him that if you’re going to ask God for something, there should be some actual asking involved. But, with his prayer finished, he decides to leave the park.

By quarter to five or so, he showers in the apartment he shares with Jackie. Bill’s got the hot water running over his head, getting a very symbolic baptism thing going on after his religious experience on the bench swing. One thing that rarely happens in short stories is the main character actually using the bathroom, and I should make it clear here that Bill is not one of us who pees in the shower. So rest assured he deposited the whiskey sours into the toilet bowl beforehand. His aim, however, was suspect.

He emerges from the shower a new man, and as he applies canned shaving cream to his face, which was recently groomed for his brief television experience, he begins to hum, of all things, the Jeopardy! theme song. Sure, he’s had a crappy day, but sometimes all it takes is a timeout in the park and a few pilfered squirts of his wife’s luxury shampoo and everything is looking up. Bill figures, quite pragmatically, that he and Jackie are in the same spot they occupied before the whole quiz show fiasco, and so it’s certainly reasonable to go on with life as if he had never stood face-to-face with Alex Trebek and found himself unable to name the inventor of the Franklin stove (this clue was categorized under the rarely used but inherently demeaning category “Stupid Answers,” a trademark of the show). Bill only needed to impart this perspective to Jackie, and he could rest assured that his life was no more or less meaningful than it had been just weeks earlier.

You can see Bill now, wearing his bathrobe and stretching out on the couch, skimming without consideration past the History Channel and Discovery. Jackie is about to enter through the front door of their apartment and deliver the news that she has been laid off from her boring office job. She will, in fact, tell him this before he has the chance to explain the peace he’s made with his colossal Jeopardy! fuck-up. She will be so harried by the loss of her job that she will momentarily forget to inquire about Bill’s game show performance. You can see Jackie now slamming her car door, ready to deliver the news. Now look back at Bill—sweet, clueless Bill!—on the couch. Jackie climbs the stairs to their apartment door. Bill scratches at his groin, yawns. Isn’t there anything we can do for him?

After Jackie’s bawling, after Bill has done his husbandly duty of holding her close and hushing reliable phrases like “it will all be okay” and asking if he can get her water, Jackie slumps and discards her high-heeled shoes. She had not especially liked her job, and she is not especially surprised that she lost it, but it occurred to her, before even concerns about the car note or the rent, that losing her job put her months, perhaps years, further from collecting enough money for baby-making.

She aches to be a mother, to be welcomed into the circle of women who have survived and thrived on this pain, and being denied the chance is a much more dull and hopeless thing, an emptiness that reminds her of the first time she closed her eyes and tried to imagine what might happen when people die. At this moment, she feels not destroyed but defeated. She is a prize-fighter hearing the count 6, 7, 8 and weighing the merits of getting up to endure more punches.

But she is a strong woman, the kind you might want to be or at least want to be around, the kind who has fallen in with the likes of Bill and never doubted her affection for him. In fact, if you find yourself liking her more than you like Bill, that’s okay. Bill and I feel the same way. She sighs and rises and goes to the kitchen for a glass of merlot and calls to her husband to ask if he wants one. He doesn’t answer right away, because, as you’ll remember, he’s already had his share of whiskey today and his post-shower optimism has been blown to smithereens, leaving him only a slight headache and indecision. He should have known the whole shower/baptism thing was too good to be true, the sort of thing that only happens in short stories.

Bill must have said yes, though, because Jackie re-enters with the glass of wine and seems, suddenly, to remember that her husband must have just returned from Los Angeles and a high-stakes game of buzzer-pressing and wit. Oh my god, she says, what happened on Jeopardy!? (Wouldn’t it be better if it were Jeopardy? instead of Jeopardy!)?

Bill makes a mumbling noise unintelligible to you, me, and Jackie. She realizes now that had Bill won and gone on taping more shows today, there would be no way for him to be sitting, bathrobed and smelling of her shampoo, in their living room. So she knows the news isn’t good. It occurs to her that there will be no Jeopardy! fortune coming in to offset her new unemployment. This is one of those metaphorical punches she has dreaded. But she sits down on the couch next to Bill, hands him the second wine glass and very purposely places her right knee in contact with his left. Didn’t do so hot, huh? she asks.

No, he says. I’m sorry. I didn’t win.

Oh Carlton, she says (she doesn’t know we’ve been calling him Bill this entire time). I’m sorry. I’m sure it was just bad luck. Was it close? Did you have a shot in final jeopardy?

No, he says, swallowing wine to douse any further explanations.

That happens sometimes, she says. It does happen fairly often; Jackie’s right. Many of Ken Jenning’s seventy-four consecutive Jeopardy! victories involved him doubling up his opponents and therefore leaving them no chance of winning on the last question. Jennings eventually lost due to a question involving H&R Block, and wouldn’t it be funny if we decided that’s exactly where Jackie used to work? Jennings won $2.52 million during his run, which would have solved the fertility treatment issue, but Bill is not Ken Jennings. He would have been outscored by a button on one of Jennings’ blazers.

I’ll bet you knew the final answer and it didn’t matter, Jackie muses. That’s just how it goes, ya know?


What was the final question?

And so Bill repeated the clue: Jack Odell gave his child a tiny vehicle to bring to school inside one of these items, and a toy brand name was born.

Jackie sips her wine and furls her brow. I don’t know, she says. What is it?

And guess what? Bill doesn’t know, or he doesn’t remember. He saw the question this morning. He even memorized the clue. And now he just sits there dumb on the couch, and his despair begins to take over.

I hate it when that happens, Jackie says. It’s the worst thing, when you know that you know the answer, and you can’t come up with it. You know just enough to know that you know it, but you’re not going to get it.

I guess, Bill says. Third place gets a thousand dollars. They’ll be sending a check. And I have a picture of Trebek.

Oh. She finishes her wine.

It’s not going to go very far, he says. I think he left out the last part of the sentence, the for the baby.

And then, with real redemptive power, Jackie begins to laugh. She laughs, hard, doubling over, putting one hand over her face, like she laughed the first time she watched Bill try to ice skate, when he ended up scooting on his ass toward the side of the rink. She laughs and Bill stares at her, and then he begins to laugh, too. It is sweet and unplanned and real, maybe more real than anything else in this story. Pretty soon they are holding each other and laughing, out of their heads with their laughter, and then they are kissing, removing clothes, doing exactly what we ought to do when everything has suggested that even our own little worlds are prepared to move forward carelessly without us. Without any idea how cliché it is going to be, they keep laughing while they make love. Picture it however you want to, as long as you keep them laughing and uninhibited. And then, at the moment of Bill’s orgasm (and this story’s climax, too), he is struck. Breathing hard and curling around Jackie on the couch, he whispers, chuckles, Matchbox.

All about Matchbox cars and John William “Jack” Odell: the English engineer sent his daughter to school with a tiny homemade steamroller, and it was a big hit. So he gave up on manufacturing boring adult things like dashboard parts and rolled out his first mini-car in 1954. The Matchbox name, as you now know, referred to the way he protected his children’s toys. That protecting—that was what Bill and Jackie need so badly to feel. More than 100 million Matchbox cars had been sold by 1966, but the company eventually capitulated to a larger toy conglomerate, and Odell died of Parkinson’s disease in July 2007. That, as we say, is life.

Other writers, other readers will tell me that I can’t leave you without an answer. But I can envision multiple endings for this story. For the most hopeful among us (the ones who might believe God was listening to that inane plea on the park bench swing), let’s say the same thrust giving Bill the answer also gives Jackie a miracle pregnancy. Love prevails in the face of a cold and uncaring universe. The couple goes on to love and nurture Bill Junior in a life of as much fulfillment as we can imagine.

Or, in our second scenario, Bill has regained his sense of self, having answered this question about toy cars and finished up a rousing session of coitus. He accepts his flaws, his wife’s flaws and the evasive nature of true joy in life. They return to their routine, Jackie finds a new job and they journey on, perhaps forfeiting their original plans in lieu of adoption. They have grown in their love and we come to realize that it is the idea of growth—through a child or in a much less physical way—that assures our spot in the universe.

Or, in the third scenario, and this is really only going to sit right with a few of you, Jackie falls out of love with her husband amidst the depression of their childlessness. The couple divorces before the Jeopardy! consolation money even reaches their mailbox, and Bill is left to think that his biggest failure in life was not, in fact, lacking the answers but rather never asking the right questions.

This story belongs as much to you as it does to Jackie, Bill or me, and the ending you pick will say more about you than it does about the rest of us here. So, for one thousand dollars and the chance to compete in final jeopardy, your clue: This is what you were hoping for all along.

ALEX LUFT was born and raised in St. Louis, Mo., before beginning a journalism career that covered everything from Wal-Mart’s sex toy sales to rural county jails. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic, The Barely South Review and Word Riot, and his journalistic work has appeared in multiple venues. He is currently working on an M.A. in fiction at the University of Missouri.