Prize

Prize

After getting home exhausted from another hectic day at work, I threw myself on the sofa and turned on the television. Once again I’d fallen into my routine, lying on the couch, flipping through the channels aimlessly. I was not in the mood to do anything and I just could not bear thinking of the pile of paperwork on my desk waiting for me tomorrow morning.

As I dozed off, it came; that annoying telephone rings that shattered my serenity. Ignoring the first ring brought the second one; more annoying than the previous one and the third which pierced my head. I stretched my torso just far enough to reach the handset.

“Hello!”

“Good evening, Sir. I’m calling from Happy Ending. You’ve been selected to win a prize.”

Another shrewd telemarketer disturbed my rest to sell me something I didn’t need. Nobody just gives away a prize with no string attached. I’ve heard my fair share of sales pitches in this country. I did what anyone would do in the same situation, without giving him an opportunity to continue I gave him a piece of my mind.

“Sorry, I’m not interested. Have a good day.”

I slammed the telephone down, cursing him under my breath.

Nothing is more annoying than listening to a sales pitch. The more reluctant you are, the harder they sell. They wear you down until you give in. Before you know it, you have purchased junk, and there it sits in your living room, you trip over it every night on the way to the sofa. You curse it, and the person who sold it to you, and the worst part is you pay for it every month for the rest of your life. This call was no exception. I hung up. Rude? Perhaps. Sorry? Hell no.

As I turned my attention back to flipping through channels, it came, the ring again. This time, I leapt off the sofa, picked up the receiver.

“Hello.” I snarled a furious greeting.

“Good evening, Sir. I am calling from Happy Ending. You have been selected to win a prize.”

“I said no. When you called me the first time, you were doing your job. Calling me a second time makes you a nuisance. This is an invasion of my privacy, and illegal.”

“Sir, you really won a prize and I am not trying to sell you anything. My job is to ensure winners are properly notified. That’s all.”

“I don’t care about your prize. Don’t you understand English or maybe it’s my foreign accent, you don’t understand?”

I took a deep breath, and calmly added: “I’m tired and not interested in any prize. Spare me the sales pitch. Now, are you a rookie or someone who won’t take no for an answer?”

“Neither one, Sir, please forgive me for disturbing you. Have a wonderful day.”

“But wait.” I said, “I’ve never been lucky in my entire life, my marriage, my horrible job and two car accidents that nearly took my life are just a few examples. So, what is my prize; what have I won? And it better be good.”

“You have won a luxurious casket with a choice of satin interior lining; solid Mahogany construction in a polished natural finish with elegantly rounded corners. It comes with brushed bronze handles and a matching pillow. But that’s not all; you will also enjoy a prime site in the Restland cemetery. Add to all these a marvelous tombstone with up to fifty characters engraved for your epitaph for free.”

Hysteria got the better of me and screamed: “Prize? A casket with satin interior and a chunk of land in a cemetery, you call that a prize? This is why you called me not once, but twice? For a casket, do you really think I care about the color of lining or what I want for an epitaph? I can’t believe this. My life has been unlucky, but I am not dead, not even close.”

The man on the other end of the line was patient as I shrieked at him.

“Sir,” he said, “The casket and the plot are all yours. I have personally seen this land and it is breath taking. It overlooks a lake and the view is stunning. The blue water shines through lush tree leaves. Oh, it’s charming.”

Why would someone waste his time on a prank like this? I wondered. Suddenly, my mind clicked, okay, if he wants to play this game, why not. What do I have to lose? This could be fun, there’s nothing on television and my wife is not due home for at least thirty minutes.

“The issue is that I recently changed my mind about committing suicide, things are looking up these days. Would you kindly hold the prize and check back with me next year in mid June please?”

“All you have to do is sign the paperwork to legally accept the ownership and we will store the casket and save the plot until you need it, and as I said before, there won’t be any charges involved. This way, when you pass on, your family won’t have to do anything, we will already have it taken care of.”

Although the prize was peculiar but it made sense. I’d heard of the high cost of funeral expenses. For goodness sake, those morticians will rob you blind if you don’t have any prior arrangements. But I felt weird thinking about my own death. How could I possibly sign the papers, it was like signing my own death certificate. It was spooky just thinking about it. What kind of luck is this anyway? Why me? Why couldn’t I just win the lottery? Who wins a casket? It can only happen in America.

“Is there a cash option?”

“No.”

“Can I swap the casket for a Lay Z Boy recliner?”

“No, Sir.”

“I cannot possibly be qualified for this contest because I’m not a US citizen yet. Now I see how crucial it is to become an American citizen. You know what? To save your valuable time in the future when you call the next winner, the first thing you should ask is if he is a citizen or not. This country is full of damn foreigners. Please! Don’t waste your resources on illegal aliens. There’re so many of them everywhere nowadays. They live here for free; they live off of our tax money. Don't be fooled by their English accents either. Whoever speaks fluent English and throws in a few “goddamn” and “shit” in every sentence is not necessarily a pure American. Thank you for the prize, but I’m not qualified.”

I was hoping to get rid of him, but it wasn’t that easy. He patiently listened to me and assertively responded.

“The truth is that you don’t know when your time is up, do you? Nobody does. Death can come to you at any time. Let me make a point here. You live near the airport. Just imagine, one night that you’re sitting in your favorite chair watching television, a 747 jumbo jet misses the runway by a few miles and instead of landing on the runway, crashes through your house. It could happen in a stormy night, the control tower makes a fatal mistake.”

Being a sloppy clerk myself, I could very well relate to making mistakes at work.

“I guess so. You have a point there.”

“In that case, what would be your chance of survival?”

“Zip my friend.” I replied cheerfully.

“Now, let’s make it more interesting. Let’s assume that at the time of this tragedy, you and your next-door neighbor’s Latina maid Isabella had taken this opportunity to fool around while your wife was out. And since you were in the basement, you both survived the crash but explosion left you unconscious. Now your wife comes back, frantically searching through the rubble and finds you and Isabella embracing each other naked. Do you think you can explain the situation to your wife when you come out of coma if she lets you come out of coma? You know you’d better die in the plane crash, than facing your wife.”

My knees suddenly buckled and I collapsed on the sofa with the phone clutched in my trembling fingers. How could he possibly know about Isabella and me? There was nothing between us; it was all a fantasy. A chill shot through my body. I’d never mentioned her name to anyone. How could he ever know her name and about an affair I had only in my wildest dreams? Who was this guy? Why was he calling me? What did he want? Oh, my God!

The caller’s voice grew creepier.

“You see! By definition, you cannot predict accidents; that’s why we suggest you prepare for them. The prize is yours; it’s waiting for you to pass on. It won’t cost you anything.”

I wiped sweat off my forehead.

“Who are you? What do you want from me? I have not entered any contest, how could I have possibly won anything?”

“As long as you live in America, you are qualified. And now, you are one of our lucky winners. Our organization is called Happy Ending, based in New York City.”

“You must be from Immigration and don’t even try to scare me back to my country with all of this nonsense about death. We are legal residents waiting for our citizenships. We have already sent our pictures, fingerprints and signed the tons of documents not to mention the damn $200.00 application fee,” I shrieked trying to hide the terror in my voice.

“Next time, do your homework before harassing people.”

“I’m not from Immigration. You were selected because you live in the United States. We do not look at your past; we plan for your future. The prize is yours. You just need to claim it.”

“I’ve got a better idea. I want you to give my prize to my boss Mr. John T. Howard. He is so old he doesn’t even remember when he was born. This cheap bastard will not turn down anything if it’s free. He is the most shameless man I have ever known in my life. He dresses like a pimp in his tight black leather pants and red silk jacket. You can find him at the seediest strip joint in town. He is the one who needs to drop dead soon.”

I could hardly breathe as I was thinking of my goddamn luck.

“Your prize is non-transferable.”

“Please, please leave me alone! This is a conspiracy. Who else but the FBI knows so much about private lives of citizens? You don’t scare me a bit. I am a free man and I will not stop voicing my political opinions and beliefs. I am fully aware of my constitutional rights.”

I was acting like a raving lunatic. The truth was, I had never been interested in political matters. But I didn’t know what to think, what to say and worst than all what to do. I wanted to hang up but I couldn’t. Deep down I knew this man was not a government agent, I knew he was for real. He was calling me to tell me my life was over. I had thought of my death so many times before, but I never thought it would come to me like this. I never thought I would have a prepaid death with a bunch of freebies.

He did not sound like he had been with this death organization for very long. Maybe he was just a rookie. Maybe they reserve their veterans to kill the actors in Hollywood or politicians in Washington. Maybe they send their new trainees to kill the foreigners first to build their resumes and work their way up.

The fact that he was a rookie could be a plus for me. Since I was not religious, I could not expect leniency. So, my only way out of this was to buy him off. Everyone has a price, why not God? But, I had to do it with outmost finesse. This was the chance of a lifetime.

“Did you say the lining is velvet or satin? What choices of colors do I have?” I rattled on, “Is the casket waterproof? I do not want any moisture in my eternal bed. Water damage is the worst. Didn’t you say my plot is close to the lake? Please make sure I am not too close. I don’t want the water to rise and my dead body floats around the lake like fools.”

“I won’t sign any paperwork until I have it checked out by my attorney.” I was grasping for anything to prolong the conversation.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. “You must know though, if you say a word about this to anyone, we will have no choice but to take his life as well, it’s a matter of divine secrecy.”

“I want a painless death. I do not accept a horrible demise and no compromise on this issue.”

“Sir, I don’t have negotiating power. I don’t always agree with the way things happen around here either. We are trying to change the way things are done, but you can’t change them overnight.”

I was carefully listening to every word he was saying to pitch my sale and finalize a lucrative transaction.

“Traditionally,” he continued, “We would take your life without any notice but we have been debating the morality of that practice for some time now. We are trying to modify the severity of death in light of the new millennium. We are asking the Higher Council to add more dignity to death. Take your case for example, you practically hung up on me twice and you are bargaining with me, this is unprecedented. Anyone else in my position would whip your ass in a second and smoke you before you get a chance to put down the phone. But we, the new generation are trying to work with our clients and improve our image.”

Slowly but surely, I was getting on his softer side.

“Can I make amends by doing something good before I go?”

“First of all, we are strictly prohibited from getting involved in our client’s personal lives and I am tired of you asking all these tricky questions to help you beat the system. You sound like a shrewd salesman to me. I am a simple messenger who tries to make death a little easier for you. I have a time limit when I am on the phone with new clients, and all calls are recorded for training purposes and quality control. Please sir, for my sake and yours, let’s wrap this call up.”

His tone of voice suddenly changed.

“I understand your strict rules, but remember, we are on the brink of a new millennium and you are trying to get out of your ancient practices. Think about it, it really does not matter why I’m doing the good work, as long as I do it. Sure, you tipped me off and bent the rules a little, but you are not doing anything against the divine purpose.”

“You don’t have much time. As much as I would like to help you, I don’t know how.”

Finally I had him where I wanted him.

“Let me compensate for being blind all my life. Let me pay for the years of free cable TV. Let me pay for every towel I took from hotel rooms or the head sets and life jackets I walked off with from the airplane…”

“Oh yeah that would cover your sins!” His sarcasm scared the hell out of me.

“What about cash? If I can come up with some cash, would you use your connections to give it to a charity organization on my behalf? That’s least you can do for me. Just give me two weeks to sell everything in the house. Let me sell my car, I will get six or seven thousand dollars for it. I max out my cash advances on my credit cards, the interest rate is high, but who the hell cares about these loan sharks...”

I was begging for my salvation and surprisingly enough he accepted my offer.

“I don’t make any promises, but this gesture does not hurt your case.”

This entire ordeal was about to be over, but in a short time, I had a lot of work to do. For the first time in my life, I felt so pure and unattached to any earthly possessions. I was not thinking of myself but the good for others, the best feeling I had ever experienced.

“I agree to your terms, but you only have one week. Next Thursday, at seven o’clock in the morning, the Salvation Army donation truck comes to your neighborhood. Put the cash in a donation bag, mark it clearly ‘Old Clothing for Charity’ and put it at the closest pick up point from your home. It will go to a good cause. Then, you will hear from me.”

I thanked him profusely for his mercy and compassion. Maybe I was the only man who was blessed to have contact with God or his representative.

“Remember, you only have time until Thursday, seven a.m.”

The line went dead and my torment was over.

The first order of business was to send my wife a way for a couple of weeks. When she came home I convinced her to take a break. I managed to send her on a trip the next day to visit her parents out of state without saying a word about my upcoming untimely death to protect her. God know I’d failed to bring her happiness, so, there was no reason to bring her death now.

As planned, I drew as many cash advances on my credit cards as possible. Then I sold my car at a bargain price and liquidated everything in the house in a garage sale. I even sold my wedding ring to a pawnshop for an extra four hundred dollars.

By Wednesday afternoon, I had turned my entire life possessions into cash. I carefully counted all the money and the total was $48,569.35. Then I placed the cash in a donation bag and marked per instruction.

The next morning I took the bag to the closest cross section from my house and left it with the other donations, but I could not leave it unattended, I had to make sure the truck picked it up and it was not lost or stolen. So I hid behind some bushes nearby and anxiously waited to witness my salvation in the making.

At 6:57 a.m., an old Chevrolet truck approached the intersection with a young man driving. It suddenly stopped at the pile of donations and a seductive young Latina emerged and scooped up my bag. I recognized the next-door Latina maid who barely had time to get back into the truck as it sped off.

*****

Two weeks later, The Messenger of Death and his new bride Isabella sent me a postcard from Acapulco thanking me for the generous wedding gift.