Sid Darin — mid-sixties, short and fat, with the perception and cunning of someone who’d spent his whole life as a huckster — was having the best season in twenty-five years at the shore. Thanks to the record heat the cash box at Sid’s Fortune Wheel was overflowing with sucker money. For a quarter you’d get a chance to bet on a number. If it came up on the wheel, you had the pick of the stand…any stuffed animal you wanted. There were few winners, Sid saw to that. The word up and down the boardwalk was that his wheel was not completely trustworthy, to put it kindly. But he’d never been cited, even after surprise inspections.
However, one morning, while he was doing what he did best — hawking to the crowd — the world irrevocably changed for Sid Darin.
“Step right up!” he called out. “Winners have the picka the stand! Step right up! How ’bout you, sir? Madam, you look like a winner. Try your luck!”
It almost always worked.
And not far from the stand, under a tree — its leaves yellow from the heat — a tall, sickly man in a dark suit and a tie watched every move Sid made. He seemed to appear out of nowhere. One moment there was no one under the tree. The next, he was there. Sid looked at him, blinked once, then went back to his customers.
Two teenaged girls in one-piece bathing suits cut very high on the hips, invested a dollar each at Sid’s Fortune Wheel. Sid, licking his lips as he ogled the two young lovelies, started the wheel. The number three came to a spinning halt. One of the girls squealed with delight and chose an oversized jackass as the perfect gift. It pained Sid to part with it but he had to. As a purveyor of dreams, he decided to make someone’s come true. Besides, it was good public relations to have a winner now and then,
The anemic-looking man stepped from the tree to the wheel. Those standing nearby shrunk away. No one looked at him. For a second, but only for a second, Sid thought the man was an inspector. When he showed no ID and made no attempt to enter the booth, Sid tried his pitch on him.
“You have the picka the stand if your number comes up,” Sid told him warily, still not sure he wasn’t an inspector. “Just two bits.”
After a moment, the man reached into his pocket and wagered a quarter.
“Red!” Sid called out in his best barker’s voice. “He wants red!”
Other bets followed and he sent the wheel spinning. “Round and round she goes, where she stops, who the hell knows?” It was apparent Sid was the only one who appreciated his humor. The others were concentrating on the wheel.
“Here it comes….” Sid began dramatically. “Any second now And…it’s red!” He walked up to the wheel, looked at it, and scratched his head. Turning to the man in the dark suit, he remarked curtly, “You won. Pick whatever you want.”
Without responding, the man stepped away from the wheel. Others quickly walked up to put down their money, then stood patiently, waiting.
Sid watched the people as they looked for the wheel to begin its magic. After all these years it still fascinated him how the suckers were mesmerized by the rotating disc. Was it the speed? Was it the way the colors blended together? Was it the rat-a-tat-tat sound, the uncertainty of not knowing if their petty, insignificant dreams would soon become realities?
Sid didn’t know and he really didn’t care because in only seconds everything would shatter for them, anyway.
The stranger walked forward and placed a quarter on number one. The people never looked at him.
As the wheel started its journey once again Sid began to sweat, not because of the heat…the stranger wasn’t supposed to win on red. He wasn’t supposed to win at all. Only Sid chose the winners…only Sid decided who would beat the odds…only Sid could make hopes disappear with the flick of his wrist.
The wheel began its descent.
“It’s stoppin’, lades and gents,” Sid called out. “Do we have a winner? Is a winner comin’ up?” He stopped and gazed wide-eyed at the wheel….Seven. A girl cried with joy and pointed to the largest Teddy Bear in the booth. Sid gave it to her and she hugged it as she walked away. He went to the wheel and looked behind it. He couldn’t understand what had happened.
“Again,” the man in the dark suit said as he put down his coin.
“No more!” cried Sid, pushing the money aside. “I’m closin’. I, I ain’t well.” And he wasn’t.
“I have a prize coming to me.”
“Okay, okay. Pick somethin’. Quick!”
The man looked over the stuffed animals clinging to the walls of the booth. His eyes went from row to row. He would stop, look at one, shake his head, then continue to hunt.
“C’mon, damnit!” Sid snapped. “Pick somethin’. I said I don’t feel well, I’m closin’.”
Finally, the man raised a hand and, with a bony finger, pointed to Sid. “I want you.”
Sid staggered to one side and steadied himself against the wheel. He glanced at the people in front of the booth. The man had to be crazy. That was it. He was nuts. “Pick somethin’ and get the hell outta here,” Sid told him.
“You offer the pick of the stand to all winners,” the man said in a monotone. “I pick you.”
Frantically, Sid reached across the counter for the swinging doors. Alone, inside the booth, the noise of the outside world muffled, he turned on the overhead bulb and gave the wheel a thorough inspection. It was working perfectly. The rigging and the weights were in place. Sid could find nothing wrong with the wheel. That man and girl shouldn’t have won. It was impossible.
Suddenly, he stopped, cocked his ears, and listened. The voices, the rushing of the surf, the sound of kids running on the boardwalk, the cacophony from the midway…all gone. Complete silence. For the first time in years, he was afraid. He didn’t know of what but he knew he should be. He pushed on the doors in front of the stand and looked out. No sun…no ocean…no boardwalk…no…people. He slammed the doors shut and shot backwards, knocking most of the stuffed animals from the walls.
His body shook and the sweat poured out. His T-shirt and pants became second skins. He had to run. He had to get out of there. He was suffocating. He went to the side door but it wouldn’t open. It was as if it were part of the wall, as if it were painted on. He pounded on the door with his fists, pushed on it with his shoulders, shoved it, kicked it…nothing happened.
The shutters flew open with a crash, revealing the void, and Sid plastered his body against the door. The man in the dark suit walked into view, illuminated by the bulb in the booth. The shadows were stark and frightening and he looked grotesque.
“I’m here for the pick of the stand,” he said.
Sid rushed to the other side of the booth, grabbed a .22 revolver hidden behind some boxes, and took shaking aim at the man. “Get away from me!” he shouted. “Get away or, or, or I’ll blow your head off!”
“Mr. Darin,” the man said with annoyance, “you can’t fight me. Put away the gun. You’re my prize. Come with me.”
“I ain’t goin’ no place!” Sid squeezed the trigger. Six times. The chambers turned, the hammer met its mark, but the gun wouldn’t fire. He threw it to the ground.
“Mr. Darin, I’m waiting.”
“You can wait till hell freezes over.”
“Mr. Darin, I beat you at your own game. And under your rules, winners are entitled to the pick of the stand.” He paused. “I’m ready to collect my prize. We have to go. It’s getting very late, Mr. Darin. Extremely late.”
But Sid wasn’t listening. He was peering into the darkness beyond.
“Where’s the surf, the beach?” he asked quickly. “Where’s the people? What happened to the sun?”
“Everything is where it should be. This” — the man’s arm sweeping across the emptiness — “is your new reality.”
Sid picked up the revolver from the floor and hurled it at his tormentor, who simply raised an arm to deflect it.
“I’m losing my patience, Mr. Darin.”
The man walked out of view and seconds later the side door opened with ease. The stranger stood on the threshold. “Come with me. Now. It’s time.”
Sid backed away as far as he could, then started to climb over the counter….
The sun baked the knot of people in front of Sid’s Fortune Wheel. Some slurped ice cream, a handful gnawed at pizza slices, several gulped Pepsi from gigantic plastic souvenir cups. All gazed with morbid curiosity at the fat man slumped over the counter of the wheel of fortune stand. He wasn’t moving.
“Anybody see what happened?” asked a police officer.
“I did,” replied a woman. “He panicked for some reason when this guy won on the wheel.”
“What guy?…Is he here?…Anybody know what he looks like?”
The people crowding the booth could remember nothing about the stranger. They couldn’t even recall what he was wearing. Later, most of them would doubt he even existed.
Two police offers gently removed the body from the counter and laid it down on the floor of the booth. As they closed the swinging doors, a tall sickly man in a dark suit and tie walked from the shadows of a nearby arcade, watched the scene for a few seconds, then strode anonymously down the boardwalk, his eyes darting about…searching.