Here’s the First Chapter of THE WAGER.
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My not-so-romantic comedy: A WAGER
– A Wednesday in October, 1995
Jeff Ogden Brownfield turned his head slowly left. Peeked.
The dull and pitted old black telephone receiver looked way out of place up against the young coed’s straight sunflower-blonde hair. Was she having any better luck getting pledges?
He continued peeking.
She picked up a stick pen, drummed it on the narrow tabletop while chewing on her lower lip. She wasn’t talking. Not a good sign.
Finally she stabbed her scratch pad with the pen, saying, “Ma’am, the Barry Manilow CD is the only premium WPTV offers with a pledge of one hundred dollars.”
After a minute or so, Elizabeth stabbed the pad again. “As I mentioned earlier, the two-hour stereo video of his Las Vegas concert comes with the two-hundred-dollar pledge.”
While Elizabeth dealt with that one caller, Jeff took four calls. No pledges. He peeked once more. Long frown. Not good.
Just then Elizabeth dropped the pen, pulled the barrette out of the back of her hair, tossed her locks left and right before dropping the clip on the narrow tabletop between them. She returned the black receiver to her ear. After another minute, she said in a most assured tone, “Yes, ma’am, I am quite sure that’s what he said.”
Jeff eyed the red barrette, then glanced back at Elizabeth, then chewing on the stick pen. A moment later, the pad took another blow. “Yes, ma’am, he did. It’s a hundred dollars more.”
Even in her current agitated state, Jeff thought Miss Shane the most beautiful young woman he had ever worked next to. It had been months since his last date so sitting next to an early-twenties goddess had him teetering, sheer joy at war with acute hormonal imbalance. He had spotted her at spring’s television auction.
Elizabeth turned, caught Jeff looking and frowned. “Ma’am, I’m a volunteer and I just follow the rules they give me.”
Jeff shrugged his shoulders in sympathy.
She twiddled with the phone cord but didn’t break eye contact with Jeff. Then her eyebrows shot up. “There most certainly is someone you can talk to. Just a moment, pah-leeze.” Elizabeth punched HOLD, then jabbed Jeff in the ribs with the receiver. “I think this one is just your type, Jeffy.”
He flinched, then pushed the handset away. “You don’t really think so?”
“You bet I do. She’s an old lady who wants someone in authority.”
“They’ve all gone home,” he said. “Ouch.” Hard plastic had pained his ribs again. “I don’t do so well with old ladies. Ask my mother.”
“The lady asked if there was someone she could talk to about the Manilow video.” Elizabeth leaned forward, her baby blues stopping just inches from Jeff’s glasses. “You’ve been doing these pledge drives a lot longer than I have – what, seven years now?”
“I’ve only done three or four shifts. I’m better with men, anyway.”
Jeff couldn’t argue that. He blushed, ducked his head, and pulled back from Elizabeth. “Yes, I could see how that –”
“Where’s your spirit? Do it for Public Television. C’mon. Line seven.” She jabbed his ribs once more.
“Okay, if you run for French fries after this pledge break.”
“After this break I’m outta here.”
Jeff’s stomach flopped. “You aren’t staying?”
“This is the last pledge session – duh.”
He sat bolt upright in his chair and picked up his receiver. “I knew that.” He punched line seven. “Ah, ma’am, this is Jeff Brownfield. I understand you require some additional information on the Manilow video.”
“I wanted to talk to someone who really knows what’s what,” came over the receiver in a voice that reminded Jeff of dried-out leather: parched, faded, and stiff.
“That would be me, ma’am.” Jeff smiled and glanced back at Elizabeth.
“Are you sure?” Leather with a squeal on top.
“I’m the senior volunteer on this shift. Our campaign director went home sick a little before nine, so I would be your primary point of contact.”
Jeff listened to scratchy leather for what seemed forever. Her efforts very familiar and totally unfair. How would the station ever break even?
“Is there someone else I can talk to about this?”
“I am the one,” said Jeff.
“Isn’t that face on TV your boss?”
“No, he’s a weatherman from one of the network stations. Surely you’ve seen Wayne’s Weather?”
“You work at another station, too?”
“No, ma’am. I work at State, School of Political Science.” Jeff felt something tickling his left triceps through his shirt, a blue long-sleeve button-down oxford, of course.
There was a pause, then the leathery voice continued, “Can I put this on my American Express?”
Jeff couldn’t tolerate the tickling any more and yanked his arm away before turning to see what was going on. Elizabeth’s beautiful face greeted him, eyes squinted and nose wrinkled.
“I say, young man, can I put this on my American Express?”
Elizabeth discarded the wrinkle and smiled at him while she moved her right index finger back under his arm. Jeff caught sight of Elizabeth’s slender fingers just before the pencil vanished from his right hand. “Just a moment, please, ma’am.” He put line seven on hold.
He turned to Elizabeth. “Please stop this. I’m trying to get a pledge here.”
“She’s not going to pledge. We’re just her entertainment for the evening.” Elizabeth shook her head. “You really are NO FUN.”
The beautiful dream before his eyes was making him feel disconnected and… he wasn’t sure what else. He bolted to the only thing he knew he could do well: work. “Elizabeth, I’ve got to get back on this call.”
She shook her head. “What else could be so important.”
~ + ~
[earlier that morning]
An earsplitting blast crashed Jeff’s dream. What? Where am I? Who the…? He rolled his head from side to side until his eyes fell open. Unable to see the ceiling clearly, he tossed his head back. His skull received the headboard’s return of serve. After an extended period of confusion, his ears found the data path to his brain. Alarm. Clock radio. Morning.
Jeff, twenty-nine and still single, squirmed out from under the covers, crawled to the foot of his queen-sized bed, grabbed the crimson clock radio off the steamer trunk, and punched OFF. What was it that had made 1995 such a bad year?
While he stared at the clock face, the October morning’s chill made its way into his bones, sending his teeth into a spastic clatter. He sought refuge under his down comforter, drawing the edge up to his nose.
He recognized a melancholy cast in the morning’s first light, a singular, lonely, slate blue hue. It matched the deep resonance of his soul. He sighed, released the comforter, dropped his hands, and waited for the hue to brighten.
Some twenty minutes later Jeff sat up. “Wednesday! I work Wednesdays!”
He grabbed his maroon terrycloth robe off the mahogany dresser. As he was putting it on, he stepped on the sash and toppled headfirst onto the carpet. Someday I’m gonna accidentally kill myself and no one will know it for days.
Jeff shuffled into the next room and checked the thermostat. “Seventy-two? It can’t be.” He moved the setting to seventy-five, then walked into the kitchen.
Jeff smiled at the steaming hot carafe of vanilla roast. He brought down a large teal mug from the cabinet above, filled it, and carefully took a sip. Still slightly chilled, he drew open the living room curtains that hid the sliding glass door to the balcony, and looked outside at the temperature on the large rainbow thermometer. Analog thirty-eight. And… it’s only October.
~ + ~
[that evening at WPTV]
Jeff punched line 7. “Thank you for waiting.”
The leathery voice chortled like an old hen, then said, “You don’t miss a beat, do you?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“You leave me on hold forever and then come back on like there was never an interruption in our conversation.”
Elizabeth was right. “This kind of request, requests like yours have come up before, ma’am. As a matter of fact, the matter was discussed at length at the staff meeting just before this pledge drive.”
Jeff was guessing how much longer the caller would drag things out when he saw the floor director lift a clipboard high above his head, then bring it in a roundhouse motion to the floor and say, “And we’re clear.”
A moment later he heard Elizabeth say goodbye and hang up her phone. He turned just in time to watch her hop down from the riser. She was out the studio door in seconds without so much as a wave.
A blast of static on the telephone reset Jeff’s focus to the caller.
“You have all the answers, don’t you Sonny Boy. I can’t get past you, can I? I have half a mind to call back in the morning and talk to the station manager. What do you have to say to that?”
Go for it. “Mr. Watt welcomes calls from our viewers.” Jeff tilted his head all the way back to stretch his neck before saying, “He believes an open dialogue with our audience is an integral part of the public television mission.”
“Yes, do get your manager to call me, young man.”
“Consider it done, Mrs. Simmons.” He obtained her phone number and wrote it down. “Thank you again. Good bye.”
Jeff’s excitement sprung him to his feet but his calves bumped his chair off the back of the riser and he very nearly went with it. Once steadied, he rushed around the table and off the front of the riser, missing the step that wasn’t there, and tumbled into the middle of the television studio, just missing camera two.
He was about to get up and dismiss his summersault with the nonchalance he used four or five times each day to shrug off similar happenings, when he felt something hard tapping his left shoulder blade. He rolled over and caught sight of Wayne the Weatherman a step away, huge grin on his face.
“Hiya,” said Jeff.
“You’re all right, I see, Mr. Grace.”
“I’ll be up in a just a second.”
“Good. I don’t know how to close this place down.”
“Thanks for your concern.”
“Just takin’ care of biz.”