The Contestant

For the first time since his retirement, Alexander Prittle arose before 6 a.m., an hour at which he had punctually arisen every day for ten years. Since four o'clock he had lain awake in a fit of nervous excitement, and now, at ten to five, every inch of the mattress pressed against him, thrusting him upwards.

Standing next to his bed, he began unbuttoning his pajama top, his fingers aquiver, and, when he had it off, he stepped out of the bottoms, nearly tripping in the process, folded the garments and placed them on an old brown coffee table flush against the foot of the bed. He then slid off his baggy boxer shorts and dropped them into a large plastic trash can, his hamper, that stood next to the bedroom closet. From the closet he took out his favorite suit, a gray gabardine he had bought at a thrift store a few years before his retirement, a white shirt, and, finally, from a shoe box piled high with assorted colors of them, a red bow tie. As he was about to place the items on the crumpled bed covers, he shook his head, laid the garments beside the pajamas, and then, with the efficiency of long practice, spread the covers into place.

The task completed, he walked down the short hallway that led from his bedroom, past his study, to a small bathroom at the end of the hall. Before stepping into the shower, a coffin-sized tin box with a discolored rubber mat, he tinkered with the "hot" and "cold" knobs until he coaxed from the nozzle a steady stream of lukewarm water. While he soaped himself, his left foot beat a tattoo against the mat, and several times the bar of soap shot from his fingers, ricocheted off the shower wall and boomeranged against his shin. Once, as he retrieved the soap, he bumped his head against a knob, piquing him to a muffled howl of indignation.

After drying off, he began to lather his face. As he peered into the mirror, speckled with mildew, above the wash basin, he tried to work around his pencil-line gray moustache, but his trembling fingers betrayed him, and, before he was through, his moustache, nose, and ears were streaked with white. While he shaved, the straight razor kept getting off course, making perverse sallies at his temple, forehead, and upper torso. When he at last finished, he had to apply styptic to chin, jaw, and lower lip.

As he slapped on shaving lotion, he surveyed his left profile, then his right, and afterwards, tilting back his head, examined the frontal view. He nodded, despite the nicks, at what he saw. In the high brow and smooth dome fringed with silver, he thought, they will see intelligence and in the thin lips, assertive chin, and long nose strength of character. Before he returned to his bedroom to dress, he took from the medicine cabinet a pair of tweezers and, musing on camera close-ups, plucked from his ears and nostrils a few wayward gray hairs.

After putting on his suit and tie and black dress shoes, which he had shined the night before, he went to the front door, ready to begin his ten-block trek to a small drugstore café where, every morning except Sunday, when the place was closed, he had a breakfast of poached eggs, toast, grape jelly, and one cup of coffee with cream. When he was halfway down the walk that led from his compact frame house, the paint flaked and dingy, to the quiet residential street lined by modest homes and small yards, it occurred to him his stomach was in no shape to receive food, and, besides, he remembered as he pulled out his pocket watch, he was an hour ahead of his usual schedule. The café wasn't open yet.

He checked his watch again. No wonder the sky was dim. 5:40 a.m. Four hours, twenty minutes to go. If he caught the cab at nine, he would arrive at the studio about a half-hour before airtime. He didn't want to get there any earlier. Too much waiting would frazzle the nerves. When the cameras began to roll, he must be the soul of poise, all faculties under control. The stakes were monumental. "Alexander Prittle"-this time tomorrow the name would be on millions of lips.

Swelling at the possibility, Prittle marched back to the house, resolving to make use of the three hours before his departure. Inside, he went to the living room, his study, and stood before a Victrola, the top of which served as a book shelf, the only one he had and, he reminded himself, the only one he needed. Atop the Victrola, arranged in parallel rows of equal length, were the complete Encyclopedia Britannica and Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, the whole of his library.

He had read each, cover to cover, several times. When he was a CPA, he had read every weekday evening and on weekends, holidays, and vacations from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with only a brief time-out for lunch, when he had a liverwurst sandwich, a few chips, and a glass of milk. The all-day schedule he had kept in the years of his retirement. Sometimes, when visions of glory made him forget the pain in his back and the burning in his eyes, he stretched his workday to eight or nine o'clock. His efforts had already paid handsome dividends, nearly forty thousand dollars, the take coming from five quiz shows he had been on during the last twenty years. In that time he had sent monthly postcards to every program whose format boded success to contestants with a vast recall of facts.

Though he was pleased with his performances to date, the big opportunity had, until recently, eluded him. It was exactly three weeks ago to the day that, when he answered the phone, a crisp female voice said, "Alexander Prittle? Congratulations, you've been selected to be a contestant on 'The Million Dollar Question.'"

Now, as he sat in a vinyl recliner a neighbor had thrown away and prepared to re-read the "X" entries in the dictionary, he mentally computed the number of postcards he had sent the show during its twelve-year existence. Around 140, he figured, at a cost of about twenty-five dollars. Not a bad investment, he chuckled, that returned forty-thousand to the buck.

Though no one had yet, Prittle was confident he could win the million. The few times he had watched the show, he had been able to answer every question, including one worth a half-million, the farthest any contestant had gotten. To win the million, you had to answer ten questions without a miss. The hitch was, once you missed, you forfeited all but one percent of what you had earned and you had to keep playing until you either missed or answered every question.

Prittle viewed his participation on the other quiz shows as mere calisthenics, a limbering up for the big battle. He was, he knew, endowed with amazing powers of retention. There was hardly a sentence, a word, in either the Britannica or Webster's he couldn't flash at will before the mind's eye. And since these works were the sources for the questions, a triumph of Olympian proportions was within easy reach. The thing was to keep one's poise, not to be rattled by the glamour of it all.

Shortly, he laid the dictionary aside and leaned back in his chair, his nerves suddenly calm. A short snooze was in order.

At 9:30, a yellow cab screeched to a halt in front of a glistening skyscraper whose third floor housed the studio from which "The Million Dollar Question" aired. Inside the building, Prittle took an elevator to the third floor, got off, and walked down a shiny parquet hallway to a door marked "Studio B Reception." Inside the thickly-carpeted lounge, he walked past several large sofas and easy chairs to a big oaken desk behind which sat Ms. Duper, or so the name plaque read, and in front of which the stalwart contestant came to a halt. When after a few seconds the aging, spectacled receptionist still hadn't looked up, Prittle cleared his throat. The woman looked up from a pad she was scribbling on and said, "Yes, may I help you?"

"Alexander Prittle. I'm here for 'The Million Dollar Question.'"

The woman lowered her glasses and peered over them. "Yes, Mr. Prittle, you are today's warrior. Do you know how the game is played?"

"Yes, indeed. I've watched the show any number of times."

She told him to seat himself on a sofa and shortly before airtime she would escort him to the studio. Once on stage he could take his cues from the show's host, Mr. Clint Gleason.

When the host said, "And now ladies and gentleman, I'd like you to meet today's contestant, Alexander Prittle, who makes his home right here in our fair city," Prittle left the alcove to which Ms. Duper had led him a few minutes before and steered himself in the direction from which his name had sounded. His legs were rubbery and his heart pounding, and he was alarmed at the dampness of his body. Serried ranks of an armed enemy might have lain ahead.

Walking on stage, he had the impression of having stumbled into a giant fireworks display. All about him colored neon arrows shot this way and that, and multi-colored lights blinked on and off and, permeating all, a high-pitched whizzing sound that made him involuntarily duck as though he were in the line of fire of a lethal Roman candle. When he straightened back up, he was relieved to spot the tuxedoed, smiling host, unruffled by the pyrotechnics, only a few steps away with hand extended.

Prittle quickly brushed his right palm against his trouser leg in a vain effort to banish a film of sweat. While wringing the contestant's hand, the host said, "So glad to have you on the show, Mr. Prittle. Please tell the audience in the studio and the millions watching at home a little bit about yourself, sir."

Turning himself in the direction the host was facing, the front of the stage, Prittle could see nothing but bright floodlights, yet knew that beyond them a thousand eyes were on him and in living rooms across America legions more. When he tried to speak, all that came out was a muffled squeak. Rapidly clearing his throat, he tried again. "I am an expir-, uh, retired CPA, a bachelor, no children, I like to read and prepare for . . . contests."

He assumed he had done all right because the host patted him on the back and said, "Well, that's marvelous. And now, strap on your armor, it's time to begin today's exciting game. Please take your seat on the Wizard's throne. Right over there behind you, sir."

When the host spoke, he managed to expose both his upper and lower front teeth and, Prittle would later remember, the mannequin-like display of incisors, canines, and bicuspids didn't cease until the cameras flashed the closing credits.

As Prittle seated himself on the throne, covered with purple velvet, his eyes adjusted to the point where he could make out a receding rectangle of dark shapes beyond the floodlights. Above the shapes, on platforms suspended by wires from the high ceiling and nearly indistinguishable from the cameras they stood behind, were the cameramen. Suddenly, Prittle threw back his narrow shoulders and tilted his head upward and slightly to the left. He tried to affect a relaxed, confident grin but discovered, to his horror, that both corners of his mouth as well as his right nostril were twitching uncontrollably. He flung his left hand over the culprit members but, realizing he couldn't speak distinctly with his mouth covered, he yanked the hand away and jammed it into his coat pocket.

As he struggled to calm himself, a crescendo of whistles and wolf calls came from the audience. Just as Prittle was about to retaliate with a contemptuous sneer, he realized the din was directed not at him but at a shapely young woman in bikini and high heels mincing her way up to Clint Gleason. She handed him a large red envelope, received a "thank you, Daphne," and, accompanied by a swelling chorus of whistles, wiggled off stage.

Pulling a sheet of paper from the envelope, the host said, "Our questions for today. All girded, Alexander?" The ex-CPA nodded and took a gulp of air. The host, eyes fixed on the cameras rather than Prittle, said, "Looks like our gladiator is all set, ladies and gentlemen. Cool as a cucumber. Now, for one-hundred thousand dollars-and, please, no help from the audience-give us the name of the capital of Idaho."

"That would be Boise." Now that the game was underway, Prittle felt a resurgence of confidence, even though he had expected the first question to be absurdly easy. Still, the instant he heard it his twitching miraculously went away and his body relaxed.

"Boise, indeed," beamed the host. When the audience broke into applause, Prittle glanced in the direction of the cameras, wondering how his face looked on television screens across America.

"For two-hundred thousand GWs, Alexander, and remember, you have a full thirty seconds to answer, tell us who, in Greek mythology, abducted Helen of Troy?"

It sounded too easy, too pat, but Prittle could detect no ambiguity: "Paris, as I recall."

He felt a vague anxiety, which at first he couldn't pin down. Then, just as he was about to dismiss the feeling, the idea materialized before him with the appalling clarity of a death blow. They were going to string him along. They would give him, as it were, the first nine questions. Then they would spring it on him, some tricky teaser of a question that he, that no one, could correctly answer. That way, they wouldn't have to fork over the million, and, at the same time, they would give cynical viewers the illusion the million-dollar question was not, as it had up to now appeared, out of reach. And the ignominy of it was, reflected Prittle, he could do nothing to stave off the crass trickery.

Or could he? What if he purposely missed the next question? That would constitute a bold peremptory strike. But, no, he would still, in the eyes of the unknowing world, be just another loser, his derring-do unsung.

Besides, how, after all these years of dedicated preparation, could he bear to miss a question deliberately? Then, too, he would always be pricked by the nagging suspicion he had done himself in. What if everything was above-board after all?

Prittle decided he must proceed, not blindly, but resolutely, with all the courage he could muster to his foredoomed slaughter. Let the chips fall where they would.

He sat erect on his throne and tilted his head higher. He answered the three-hundred thousand dollar question with wry aplomb: "Ah, a 'millepore,'" he said, the Webster's entry looming before him, "is a large, stony hydrazoan reef-building coral of encrusting, branching or massive forms."

In response to the next question, Prittle, with a trace of sarcasm, recited: "'Pr' is praseodymium, atomic number 59, a yellowish-white trivalent metallic element of the rare earth group." Then: "'Xeroderma'? Much what the etymology suggests: a disease characterized by roughness and dryness of the skin, accompanied by scaly desquamation."

As the host's "That is corrects" mounted, Prittle, betwixt questions, tried to sort out what was happening. There was no doubt the questions were getting tougher. Your man-on-the-street would stumble over the likes of "praseodymium" and "xeroderma." But of course that was precisely the point. Contestants on "The Million Dollar Question" weren't average. They were exceptionally well read and had keen powers of retention. Still, the producers were certainly playing it fast and loose. Caution would have dictated more of the "Boise" and "Helen of Troy" types of questions.

And yet, Prittle reflected with a mixture of umbrage and respect for their audacity, they were on the verge of pulling it off. A few more "corrects" and they would have him right where they wanted, hemmed in and weaponless. Prittle's eyes hardened. Nothing for it now but to go down swinging.

A few minutes later, Clint Gleason, shaking his head and, in a genuine Olympian feat, exposing all his teeth, gushed: "For the first time in the history of our show, ladies and gentlemen, a contestant will go for the Big One. The whole enchilada. Okay, all right, Alexander Prittle, brace yourself-and silence, please, in the audience. Now, Alexander, for all the marbles. Are you ready?"

"Fire away." Prittle resisted the urge to add, "Do your dirty work." It would, he knew, be futile. He would be condemned as a sore loser, an elderly juvenile. After all, and this was what made it so diabolic, he could never prove their chicanery. Their question would be technically licit, within the letter if not the spirit. They might have a spanking-new supplement to the encyclopedia, something hot off the press he hadn't had access to. Or, more likely, they would phrase the question so it could be construed more than one way, and then, no matter which way he went, they would say they meant it the other way.

Taking a deep breath, Prittle said to himself, his lips unconsciously forming the words: "Into the valley of death rode the six hundred."

With hostly ebullience, Clint Gleason said: "Okay, here we go! Can you tell us, Alexander--can you tell us: what is The Brut?"

A barely perceptible smile played on Prittle's lips, the gallows smile of a prophet of doom perversely consoled by his own infallibility. They could, Prittle marked, mean the popular cologne, a clipped form of "Brutus," a dry wine-they were now taking no chances. Their quiver bulged with arrows.

Endgame, thought Prittle, with a trace of self-amusement. Might as well go out in a blaze of erudition.

"It's a poem, a rather good one. It has thirty-two thousand lines and dates back to 1200 A.D., an era, I might add, when one's foes showed themselves openly rather than pusillanimously slinking in shadows. It's an English paraphrase of the Norman chronicler Wace and deals with the founding of the British kingdom. The poem contains, I believe, the earliest known reference to King Arthur and his knights."

As Prittle readied himself for the coup de grâce, an "oh, I'm so sorry, Alexander," the host grabbed his hand and started pumping it while shouting hysterically: "That is correct! You are correct! Incredible! Ladies and gentlemen, he did it! Our contestant did it!"

Whizzing noises filled the stage and studio. Offstage, a cannon-like explosion sounded, and the colored neon arrows ran amuck. The audience clapped, whistled, stomped, laughed, shook their heads, and cheered in rabid adulation of the Contestant, the palpable embodiment of consummate Triumph.

Prittle scarcely heard. Out of nowhere, two lines of poetry popped into his head: "That day you won your town the race / We chaired you through the marketplace."

He was dumbfounded by his error in judgment, his baseless suspicions. He couldn't deny what was going on around him. This was no hoax. The laurel crown was his.

For a few weeks, Alexander Prittle basked in his renown. His picture was on television and in all the newspapers. He got long-distance calls from strangers and old acquaintances. He even got a proposal of marriage, which he speedily declined.

Then, gradually, he faded from the public eye. Even before he became yesterday's news, he had fallen into a blue funk. He grieved there was no great quiz show left to conquer, no "Billion Dollar Question."

The End

If you enjoyed this story help us reward our writers for their efforts. Make a small donation to support Writer's Cramp. Every little bit helps.