You could say Jim Stebbins was having a bad day; Jim just found out he was losing his job after twenty 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. 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 for him. Betty reluctantly agreed. 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 is Anthony, but everyone called him Marlin because of the big fish he claims 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.
"Marlin, I lost my job today."
"Wow, I'm really sorry to hear that, Jimbo. What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," Jim said. "I only have enough money to keep us afloat for about forty-five days; after that, I'm in deep water."
"Jimbo, you know I would give you my last dime, but I had two collectors call me yesterday. I'm broke, Brother."
"Marlin, I know that."
"Yeah, you know I'm a broke bastard, don't you?" joked Marlin.
"I know you would give me your last dime," replied Jim.
"You know what you need to do, Jimbo? You need to go talk with Ellen Bentree," said Marlin.
"The town psychic ... are you kidding?"
"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."
"So my looking into her crystal ball is going to give me my job back?"
"I'm not saying that at all," Marlin said. "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 had recently read about a guy that was in a situation similar to his. The man walked into a casino facing destitution, and walked out a hundred thousand dollars richer. A reasonable person, Jim began to question his thoughts and feelings as the temerity of his situation began 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 a.m. 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 that 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 soon. 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 as I can, but when you get to be my age that's not always easy," said Ms. Bentree.
Jim assured Ms. Bentree that he wouldn't take 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 his equivocation to Betty, 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."
Ms. Bentree's 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. I have more regulars than I do first timers."
Jim felt reassured about the session and was eager to proceed.
"Okay, Mr. Stebbins, I want you to close your eyes and clear your mind. Just relax."
Jim did as he was instructed. Ms. Bentree began rubbing her crystal ball. This went on for several minutes 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. Are you ready?"
"Please proceed," Jim said.
The cards were now scattered across the table. Ms. Bentree picked up three cards and flipped them over one by one. Each card had a word on it. The words were: Take, a, and shot.
"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 laughed hysterically and said, "Jim, it sounds like you need to go to a bar."
Jim smiled broadly, but it wasn't because he was the butt of Ms. Bentree's joke. It was because he knew the true meaning of the message he had received. Going to a 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. 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 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, he went directly to the bank and withdrew his entire savings. Jim 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 a fortune.
Even though it was a brisk October day, 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 sixty 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 decided he had lost enough.
"Good luck, young fellow. Hopefully you'll have better luck tonight than I did," said the old man to Jim.
Jim smiled and wished the elderly man well. Then the dealer dealt Jim the nine of clubs, and king of hearts. With a solid score of nineteen, Jim stayed.
Showing the two of clubs, the dealer proceeded to flip over her hole card; it was the queen of spades. With less than seventeen showing, the dealer was forced to hit. And then, she busted! The dealer had 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. He was down. This went on for several hours. Jim was feeling bored. He was ready to start winning some money; he was ready for the kind of hit that would make life less stressful for a while. 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. Jim decided to double down his bet to ten thousand dollars. At that moment, 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 hit. Jim's heart was now coming out of his chest. 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 an undeniably devastating loss.
"How can this be?" Jim thought. He stood up from the table and took his remaining one thousand dollars with him.
Jim tried to stay upbeat, but knew 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 slot machines. Their attraction was eminent. The flashing lights, big payouts, and lever pulls, were all so inviting. But more importantly, it was a quick way for Jim to change his fortunes.
Things didn't improve, though. In fact, they only got worse for Jim. His 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 that, 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. Jim had no idea how he was going to explain everything to Betty. When he arrived home his feelings turned to pure anger. His anger at himself turned towards his employer. And then it was aimed at 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 into 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.
Originally appeared 2006-11-20.
Article © Artie Knapp. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-05-01
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.