Wheel of Fortune
By: Denise Berger
I saw my former boss on Wheel of Fortune. Contestant Number 2. I happened to look up when Pat asked, “So what keeps you busy?” He immediately lit up with responses “Oh! Cycling! Hiking! Skiing…” I didn’t even catch the whole answer, I was so amazed to see him. Not just that he was on TV. I was amazed because there wasn’t even a hint of the ailing body that was so central to the man I knew.
By the time I worked with him, he spoke as though part of his tongue was either missing or enlarged. People reacted to him with the benevolent condescension reserved for the disabled. Sometimes he just powered right through, the force of his will taking over, cheerful and exuberant as when he appeared on Wheel of Fortune. Clients and coworkers would tilt their heads in to hear better and, without realizing what happened, they would be in his swirl. Other times he avoided conversation. His body held pockets of stiffness, not necessarily in the joints but at random intervals. And there were odd angles, as if there were a rusty wire running through his skeleton. It must have been torturous to be trapped in that body, to be treated as a diminished being even as his own essence refused to be diminished.
Interestingly, his mannerisms remain unchanged; those are what I recognize right away. His brows arched in a state of surprise. The Muppet-lipped smile that seems like he might not have any teeth, although his teeth are right there. The hearing aid. The bounce in his step, even when standing in place. The broad waves of his arms, conducting an unseen orchestra as he speaks. And the satisfaction, the split second swelling of his chest, as he beams just beyond Pat when the answer is complete.
Then I see his name. Mike. Check. And it’s “Great American Cities Week,” from Denver. Check. He told me about his house in Colorado, somewhere in the woods where his porch light had to comply with dark sky regulations.
I can’t believe how vibrant he is. The whole show is focused on him, spinning the wheel as a full-body experience; he isn’t really exerting himself, he’s just so excited to be in the present moment, his joy unaffected whether he guesses right or wrong. His hair looks like silken thread, pulled into a small gray ponytail just above the dent where his head meets his neck. I wonder why he chose to dye it black at work.
I check the guide on my TV. Episode is from May 2016. Filming had to have been around February. I met him in November the following year. I could sense what he’d been like before. He had all these stories — about inventing things, about sneaking into the USSR through Finland with a woman he met in a Helsinki bar, about driving all night to his dying mother in Arizona… He knew the Sunday morning lineup on Classical KUSC. He’s someone I could have loved.
At my interview he asked me to describe a fantastic day, and to tell him how I knew when I had done a great job at something. Every word I sent to him landed.
I’m rooting for him to go to the bonus round. Even by game show standards he has an energy that leaps off the screen. I want to see who he has in the audience. I want to know about him, to spend time with him.
I think of when my mom came into the showroom, how he hugged her exclaiming, “Oooooh, you’re Denise’s mother!” and practically spun her in the air. He gave her an employee discount on the clear sparkling candlesticks she got for Shabbat. There was no mention that when I was growing up, our house did not have Shabbat candles on Friday night; our house took spiritual cues from the ACLU. He had no idea that when we learned in school about the plight of Soviet Jewry and sang about trying to worship in secret, I totally identified. I knew what it felt like to be penalized for faith, though I never had the guts to try any clandestine activities. I didn’t tell him. I liked this feeling, of introducing my mom as someone who appreciated what was important to me, who delighted in loving openly.
At some point she told me that Michael was a very sick man, that he didn’t want to be there, that he only took the job for the health insurance. She must have registered some sort of mirror image, the way people with similar interests spot each other in the airport.
At the start of 2018, he and my mom were two of the most central people in my life. A year later, they were both dead.
I cry as I tell Rimma. She assumes I have regrets, that I would have done something, or a lot of things, different had I known they would both soon be gone. That would make sense. That’s how people are taught to think. But what I actually cry about is that over and over it happens: all the signs point to death and yet it feels a surprise — as if Fate just somehow landed, with no predictable warning.
Denise Berger is a Los Angeles based writer. Recent work has appeared in Beth Am Review and Detroit Jewish News.