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Take a Shot
by Artie Knapp


Jim Stebbins has received a sign, a sign that he hears tell him he’s the luckiest man on Casino Street. When the fates tell you to take a shot, you have to be willing to wager it all ...
~~~
You could say Jim Stebbins was having a bad day; Jim just found out he was losing his job after 21 years of service. He hated the job, but opportunities in rural Wisconsin are hard to find. Times were tough and he had expected layoffs, but this was still a major shock to him. Jim had no idea how he was going to break the news to his wife, Betty. Betty was taking the kids to her parents for the weekend, so Jim felt he shouldn’t mention losing his job to her yet. Instead, he called her from the road saying he was going to work late, and that they should go ahead without waiting to see him; besides, they were only going to be gone for two days. Betty reluctantly agreed, and after hanging up the phone Jim felt more alone than he had before the call.

The one person Jim knew he could talk to was his best friend Marlin. (Marlin’s real name was Anthony, but everyone called him Marlin because of the big fish he said he caught down in Key West.) As soon as Jim arrived on his doorstep, Marlin immediately sensed something was wrong.

“Jimbo, what’s the matter?” Marlin asked.

Jim was visibly upset. He looked straight up toward the ceiling and uttered, “Marlin, I lost my job today.”

“Wow, I’m really sorry to hear that, Jimbo. What are you going to do?” Marlin asked.

“I don’t know,” replied Jim. “I only have enough money to keep us afloat for about forty-five days; after that I’m in deep water.”

“Jim, you know I would give you my last dime, I had two collectors call me tonight. I’m broke, Brother!”

“Marlin, I know that,” Jim said.

“Yeah, you know I’m a broke bastard don’t you, Jim?” joked Marlin.

“I know you would give me your last dime,” Jim replied in a choked up voice.

“You know what you need to do, Jimbo? You need to go talk with Ellen Bentree,” said Marlin.

“The town psychic, are you kidding?” Jim asked.

“Jimbo, I’m telling you this lady knows her stuff. She gave Ronnie McCalister suggestions on where he lost his wedding band and a day later he found it.”

Jim looked Marlin straight in the eye and asked in a cynical tone, “So, you’re saying my looking into her crystal ball is going to give me my job back, is that what you’re telling me, Marlin?” asked Jim.

“I’m not saying that at all,” replied Marlin. “But I bet she can help you with a game plan.”

As Jim drove home he was thinking about Marlin’s suggestion. He was also thinking of alternative solutions to his problem. Jim recently read about a guy that was in a situation similar to the one he faced; the man walked into a casino destitute, and walked out one hundred thousand dollars richer. A reasonable man, Jim began to question his own thoughts and feelings. The temerity of his situation was obvious; Jim was confused, but the idea of amassing enough money to help his family was starting to overwhelm him.

Jim felt he needed a sign from somewhere and the name Ellen Bentree continuously entered his mind.

After a sleepless night, Jim left early the next morning to pay Ms. Bentree a visit. He knocked on her door at 8:22 AM. Ms. Bentree quickly answered the door and seemed vexed by Jim’s knocking. “May I help you?” asked Ms. Bentree. Jim was surprised by both the tone in Ms. Bentree’s voice, and her appearance. Ms. Bentree was eighty-eight years old, stood only four foot nine, and weighed slightly over ninety pounds. Her skin was wrinkled to the point that her eyes looked lost.

“Hello, Ms. Bentree, my name is Jim Stebbins. I’m sorry to bother you so early.”

Cutting Jim off, Ms. Bentree said, “If you’re here for a reading the sign clearly states I don’t open up until 11:00.” Jim assured her that he would never intentionally show up so early, but the outcome of his reading would determine if he had to be somewhere before noon.

Sensing his sincerity, Ms. Bentree warmed up and welcomed Jim into her home. “I didn’t mean to be so harsh, but I have people knocking on my door at all hours of the day. I try to accommodate as many of them as I can, but when you get to be my age that’s not always easy,” said Ms. Bentree. Jim assured Ms. Bentree he understood and wouldn’t be taking too much of her time.

“In order to get the most accurate reading possible, it’s important that you be completely honest,” said Ms. Bentree.

“I agree,” Jim said. After the equivocation with Beth, Jim knew he had to be upfront with Ms. Bentree.

“Very well,” said Ms. Bentree. “Let’s go into the next room and we’ll begin.” Her place was dirty and the smell of her nine cats was overwhelming to the nose. As Jim sat down Ms. Bentree cleared off a small table. She reached into a cabinet and grabbed a deck of cards. She placed the cards next to a crystal ball on the table in front of Jim.

“To be honest, I was cynical about coming here at first,” Jim said. “It’s okay to have felt that way, Mr. Stebbins. But I’ve been doing this long before you were born,” Ms. Bentree said. “I have more regulars than I do first timers.”

Jim felt reassured and confident about the session and was eager to proceed.

“Okay, Mr. Stebbins, I want you to close your eyes and clear your mind. Just relax,” said Ms. Bentree. Jim did as she instructed and Ms. Bentree rubbed her crystal ball. This went on for over a minute and then Ms. Bentree instructed Jim to open his eyes.

“Mr. Stebbins, images from my crystal ball instructed me to turn over three specific cards from this deck. Those cards will give me insight into your future,” said Ms. Bentree. “Are you ready?” asked Ms. Bentree.

“Let’s do it,” replied Jim.

Ms. Bentree rubbed the deck of cards that were now scattered across the table. She picked up three cards from the deck and flipped them over. The three cards she turned over had the words “take-a-shot” on them. “Hmmm, interesting,” said Ms. Bentree. “’Take-a-shot’, are the three words Mr. Stebbins. These words indicate what you will do in the near future,” Ms. Bentree said. Ms. Bentree laughed hysterically and said, “Jim, it sounds like you need to go to a bar.”

Jim smiled from ear to ear, but it wasn’t because he was the butt of Ms. Bentree’s joke. Jim knew the reading was the sign he had hoped for. Going to the casino was going to pay off and pay off big. Jim laughed along with Ms Bentree and told her he did plan on meeting some friends later at the local pub. That wasn’t true, but Jim believed he had seen his real future, and didn’t want to tell Ms. Bentree he lost his job. Jim thanked Ms. Bentree and gave her a generous tip. Jim’s generosity made Ms. Bentree believe he was sincere, but she had wanted to explore the words meanings in greater detail with him. She just brushed it off as someone who wasn’t too serious after all.

When Jim got back in his car there was no doubt in his mind where he needed to go. Jim went directly to his bank and withdrew his entire savings account. He also got cash advances on all of his credit cards. This was it! Jim no longer had trepidations about the future. He couldn’t wait to get to the casino and win his fortune. Even though it was late October in Wisconsin, that didn’t stop Jim from cranking his car’s radio with the windows rolled down. It was hard for him to contain his excitement. As he pulled into the casino, Jim valet parked his vehicle even though the lot had plenty of open parking spaces. To the amazement of the young man who parked Jim’s car, Jim handed him twenty dollars for his thirty seconds of work.

As Jim entered the casino the bright lights and gaming action intensified his excitement. He started thinking about the games he wanted to play to start his run of fortune. Jim thought he would go ahead and get his night started off by putting two thousand dollars down on a hand of blackjack. Jim brought a little over nine thousand dollars with him so this was a considerable wager. Knowing he was going to hit it big, Jim was undaunted by such a large bet. Because of the size of his wager the dealer called her manager over to witness the bet.

“Looks like you’re feeling lucky tonight,” said the manager.

“Yes sir,” replied Jim.

An old man gambling at the same table as Jim decided he had lost enough.

“Good luck young fellow, hopefully you’ll have better luck tonight than I did,” said the old man.

Jim smiled and wished the elderly man good luck as well. The dealer dealt Jim the nine of clubs, and king of hearts. With a score of nineteen it was obvious Jim had to stay.

Showing the two of clubs, the dealer proceeded to flip over her hole card; it was the queen of spades so she dealt herself another card. Busted! The dealer dealt herself the ten of hearts. Jim was beside himself with excitement.

“Congratulations sir,” said the manager. The dealer also congratulated Jim on his win. He tipped her fifty dollars. He was up, he was down, he was up, and he was down. This went on for several hours. Jim started to feel bored. He was ready to start winning some money; he was ready for the kind of hit that would make life less stressful for awhile. With a little over eleven thousand dollars in chips, Jim placed five thousand dollars on one hand of blackjack. When the cards were dealt Jim knew his moment had arrived. He was dealt the six of diamonds and the five of hearts. Blackjack was in sight. He decided to double down his bet. Jim needed a ten card more than oxygen. The dealer was showing the five of spades. She dealt Jim the seven of clubs. Eighteen was certainly not what Jim had hoped for, but he still had a decent shot of winning the hand. This was it! The dealer flipped over her hole card which was the jack of hearts. Sitting with fifteen, the dealer had to take another card. Jim’s heart was coming out of his chest. The swing of this hand was twenty thousand dollars. In what seemed like slow motion, the dealer flipped over her card; it was the six of clubs. BLACKJACK! The confidence Jim once had was now shaken to its core. He lost the hand and it was undeniably a devastating loss.

“How can this be?” Jim thought. He stood up from the table and took his remaining thousand dollars with him.

Jim tried to stay upbeat, but he knew to change things around he was going to have to hit something soon. Instead of winning a lot of money, Jim was now down more than eight thousand dollars. Having been bored earlier with Blackjack, Jim believed his destiny lay in the hands of a slot machine. Their attraction was eminent. The flashing lights, the big payouts, the pull of the lever, were all so inviting; but more importantly, it was a quick way for Jim to change his fortunes.
Things didn’t improve however; in fact, they only got worse. Jim’s luck had turned as cold as an iceberg. In no time at all he was down to his last hundred dollars. Jim’s eyes filled with tears. It finally started to sink in that perhaps his gut feeling wasn’t right; perhaps, Ms. Bentree’s message wasn’t accurate. Jim felt embarrassed and disgusted with himself. Despite his disgust with himself, Jim felt he had already crossed the point of no return and decided to gamble his last one hundred dollars. Like before, nothing. After the last spin Jim stood up and took a deep breath. He felt numb.

As Jim left the casino he wept. He did most of the way home. He had no idea how he was going to explain his situation to Beth. When Jim got home his feelings turned to pure anger. His anger at himself turned toward his employer, and Ms. Bentree. Jim drank a lot of whiskey and started throwing things. He went into his bedroom and got his hand gun. Jim walked outside and fired the gun in the air three times. He screamed at the top of his lungs to vent his frustrations. After Jim collapsed to his knees, he collected his thoughts and said aloud, “God, what am I doing?” Realizing his anger and outburst wouldn’t change his dilemma, Jim walked back into the house. He was surprised to see what a mess he had created. After cleaning up, Jim went to his bedroom to put his gun away. He saw a whiskey bottle lying on the floor and leaned over to pick it up. The gun slipped out of Jim’s hand and discharged a shot directly into his head.

Two days later when Ms. Bentree read Jim’s obituary she finally decided to retire for good.

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