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 utmost 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.