The wheel spins. The lights BRIGHT. Billy wipes his face. Clapping e-rupts around him. Who me? Next to him a blue-smudged eye winks and a cracked pink-nailed hand points away, pppushes him. Light headed. He stands. Knees in his way. Feet trip up. He jumps, waves hands. The appropriate response. Who me? Down the perfect aisle. Mechanical camera eyes swivel at him. He's a star. Who, me? World rEEEEEEls. Shake. Keep it straight. You're live! YAY! Join the others at the line. He's dreamt this moment—years. It's all so pristine. Polished. Even smells sniff-sniff new. "Yes, I made my own t-shirt for the show." Laughter! (some real). The man in the suit thumbs up: "Every day we have winners!" Applause. Woman beside him, her green eyes narrow. Small snarl curls her thin lips. Billy repeats his studied bio. Lights shine HOT. Burning. Squint, tilt the head. Fix the hair, fix the hair! Swipe hand. Smile. Mechanical eyes push forward. (I'm gonna live forever.)
Man next to him. Tall, pores like pennies leak sweat. Cowboy heels. Billy's smile locked tight. APPLAUSE!! (I'm gonna be a STAR!) The man in the suit illuminates white teeth. Big and broad. Sparkles: fireworks exploding. His hand gestures like ballet. Five of them stand at order. Their fingers tremble against their black buttons. The man in the suit. He poses. His question poses. Billy, think. Fast. Faster than that! Cowboy hand slams: DING! The man in the suit pivots. Hand on hip, a rounded teapot. Cowboy spits out an answer like chew. DING DING DING! Co-rrect! "That is the right gauge!" Cowboy, long lanky legs spriiiiiiiiing over the plastic platform, onto the stage. "Hot damn," Cowboy says. Man in headset screams, "DO IT AGAIN!" Cowboy recants, "I'm so pleased to be here." Billy grinds his right back molars. So close.
All he can think is win, win, win, win, win, win, win, win, win, win.
He studied every manual made, over a year, three-hunnert-sixty-five days, mem-ori-zed. Cowboy quicker on the draw. Billy agonizes, Cowboy's turn on stage, his brown pointy boots click clack across the shiny floor: horse hoovish. Cowboy's scored the easy game: "HOW MANY ROUNDS?" Billy could win it in a coma. His scrotum tightens. That feeling he gets when a strong wind roars outside his apartment, whipping the trees, and he waits for something to break. The model in the yellow bikini arrives. Audience ROARS. With manicured fingers, slim, buffed to shine, she reveals each surprise from underneath candy-colored boxes: five of them. Different sizes, types. Sleek and black, absorbing lights from above, suck it in. Billy fascinated, mouth agape, jaw widened. He knows immediately: 6, 10, 30, 75, 6000. Cowboy aw shucks, sucks his thumb, tweaks the drama. The man in the suit lowers his microphone. The model's ever-present smile twitches, holds tight. Cowboy guesses. BUZZERS erupt! Lights FLASH, dark, FLASH, dark, FLASH! The model's nipples HARDEN beneath her crooked yellow top. The man in the suit nods, his lower jaw thrusts out. Cowboy's in the final. He dances offstage model-embraced.
Next round. Last chance. Next contestant: sweet grandma with a t-shirt red marker scrawl—"I'd die for U." Billy sweats. Billy hunched over, eyes closed. Man in the suit challenges. Billy bings! his black button first: "33,636." Pause. The man in the suit twirls his microphone at Billy. Bing-Go. Billy trembles up the stage. (He's finally made it. Years of trying. Greatest honor ever.) From the line, the grandmother fingers him. He shit-ass grins back. The man in the suit walks him over to: MORE OR LESS? The audience OOOOhs. Hardest game here. The model in the yellow bikini saunters over, its flashy title blinking above the rectangular candy-colored boxes. She pulls the first box, an automatic, revealing a price on a card. The man in the suit licks his lips: "More or Less?" "More!" Correct-O-Mundo! Billy knocks down all five. Perfect. He's going to the finals!
Cowboy's reunited with Billy. Cowboy whispers side of mouth, "Gonna kick yer ass." Cowboy's bottom teeth are brown boards nailed like a fence of irregular sizes. The man in the suit removes his jacket, dances sexily, and screams "Field Strip!" Audience ERUPTS, stand-clapping like it's the last song at the last reunion concert ever. Black blindfolds wrapped around their eyes. GO! Billy's done, blindfold off, before Cowboy even removes the recoil spring assembly. (amateur.) The man in the suit raises Billy's right hand to the air. Cowboy handles his consolation prize: a can of baked beans: "My favorite." Billy's the grand winner.
Revealed: From behind the back sliding doors: the backdrop behind it: gold-plated names of all the previous winners: The Booth. (The thing Billy's wanted his entire life.) (So sleek and trim.) (Shiny like a gun.) (The bulletproof glass front glistens like heaven.) "Congratulations, Billy," says the man in the suit. "What do you have to say?" Microphone shoved against Billy's teeth. "It's such an honor. I'm so proud." The man in the suit opens the door to the Booth, bows and waves. Billy steps in proudly. The door closes. Locks with a Clickkk. Billy sits on an unsteady plastic stool—cheap. The Booth smells like dead meat and antiseptic. Billy surprised. On the rusting floor spots of old blood linger. Gouges in the metal, puts out his hand, grooves like fingernails. Billy suddenly dreads. The man in the suit applauds. The audience applauds. Can't hear. The smell rises so strong he gags. "Let me out!" Billy sees something. Scrawled into the metal. Some writing. Scratched in, trailed off: This country sacrifices its young. The back holes in the booth drop open: Bang!
Ron Burch's fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including Mississippi Review, Eleven Eleven, PANK, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His novel, Bliss Inc., was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles.