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Progressive Jackpot: A Short Story

I have authored a novel for Amazon's self-publishing program. It's called The Suit in the Backpack.

Progressive Jackpot


Progressive Jackpot -- A Short Story Set in Edmonton, Alberta

Each member of "The Sunday Afternoon Beer League" served a purpose in society, however, not one of them paid their taxes as a professional bowler. The league average scraped 110 pins per game, the code of conduct for the 5-pin league was not to get too competitive with one another, and, accordingly, it wasn't unusual to see a league member attempt a between-the-legs-and-backward 'trick shot' of sorts in an official league game.

The league had forty-five members, they were of the blue-collar or unprofessional sorts, and they came together almost every Sunday at 1 pm between the start of September and the end of March. The times were good, the scores mattered little, and the beer almost always went down fast in what was a frivolous and non-competitive environment.

Barb Henderson, a middle-aged woman with a beehive hair-do and glasses, was voted treasurer of the league in 1984. She had held the position, which was unpaid and voluntary, for each of the previous four seasons entering the 1988/89 season. It certainly didn't hurt her ability to keep track of money that, unlike almost all of the Beer League members, she didn't actually drink. However, her main 'credential' in the minds of the bowlers was that her husband Harold was the best one in the league.

Harold's average score for the previous season had been 202 pins per game. That was a score that would have made him only slightly above average in almost all of the other leagues at the bowling alley. But with "The Sunday Afternoon Beer League," an average pin count that high far and away made Harold the most reliable shot. It was this marriage, the one between the league's treasurer and the league's best player, that created a conflict of interest ahead of the 88/89 season. It was one that none of the drunks in the league would have ever perceived in a million years.

Barb was in charge of the league's weekly raffle, both designing it and taking responsibility for the funds. In the weeks that lead up to the start of the 1988/89 season, she decided, in no way arbitrarily, that she would institute a progressive jackpot for the weekly raffle. Unlike most raffles and unlike the ones the league ran in the past, the 1988/89 season would have an element of skill to it that was additional to the luck-of-the-draw component.

With Harold's relatively good bowling skills in mind, Barb decided ahead of the start of the 88/89 season that, henceforth, whoever won the raffle draw would have to bowl a strike to take the prize money home. If a strike was not bowled, then the prize pool would be forwarded to the next week.

Barb didn't do any math when she put her self-serving plan forward. She just instinctively understood that the fact that her husband was the best bowler in the league made him the person most likely to win the jackpot. While anyone could have their number pulled Harold was the one most likely to roll a strike if given the opportunity. The progressive component was designed to keep money in play from missed-strike attempts in hopes that Harold would eventually get a shot.

The plan was hardly foolproof. But Harold had won the weekly draw three times in the last four seasons. He bought a lot of tickets and the league was small.

"25%," Barb announced when she was asked what the size of the increase in the price of tickets would be. "Up to $1.25 each."

Twenty-five cents of the proceeds would go to the season-ending party in March of 1989 and one dollar would go into the jackpot. After Barb introduced the details of the raffle over the bowling alley's intercom in Week 1, she certainly didn't foresee the jackpot going unclaimed for the first 22 straight weeks of the 25-week season. Nor did she have the foggiest idea as to the implications.

In Week 1, bowling a strike was only worth $50.

A guy named Brad, a convenience-store clerk who smoked pot on lunch breaks, hit the headpin but it went straight backward. He shrugged it off and then Barb reminded everyone that the $50 would be carried forward to the next week.

In Week 2, the jackpot was worth $110.

Nick, a dishwasher at a restaurant in West Edmonton Mall, likewise missed. He wasn't a good shot at the best of times and certainly not after five bottles of Molson Canadian. He hit the gutter not 20 feet down the 62-foot lane. He was a bit annoyed with himself for the miss but he was too drunk to remain focused on much of anything.

In Week 3, the jackpot was worth $205, and therein laid a clue as to how it would come to be that no one would bowl a strike until Week 22 of the season. The prize pool had gone from $50 to $110 to $205. There was clearly an exponential factor to the bowling league's progressive jackpot. It went +$50, then +$60, then +$95. It seemed that the higher it went, the more tickets that the patrons would buy.

More money meant more pressure and Beer League bowlers weren't good at bowling on any day. They were particularly bad when something they wanted was on the line.

The $50 and $110 jackpots were ones that neither a store clerk nor a dishwasher would lament too long about missing. However, a $205 jackpot was significant. At that time in Edmonton, Alberta the minimum wage was $4.50 an hour. $205 for people that made minimum wage or just a little bit better was an amount worth pondering over.

"If I get this strike, I'm taking a week off of work," a woman named Janelle said to herself after her ticket got pulled in Week 3. "Boy do I need it."

Almost all of the other Beer Leaguers had their own minor-league fantasies about what they would do if they won the money. One lady wanted to be a bar star for a weekend at a local country club. Another guy wanted to place a bet on the Edmonton Oilers winning the Stanley Cup. Another simply would have bought a new RCA television.

For Janelle's part, $205 wasn't quite enough money to make her nervous. That kind of injection of revenue would change the complexion of her week, not her life, and not really even her month.

She calmed her nerves, prayed for a strike with her eyes closed, opened them, and then focused on the headpin with her ball in her palm. She took two steps forward according to proper bowling mechanics, reared back, and then looked to the side quickly.

She made the latter action because a guy named Clifford, the league jerk, yelled "JINX!!!" in her peripheral vision. It was the first incident of bad sportsmanship that the league had seen in years.

Five-pin bowling balls didn't have the finger holes for gripping that larger ten-pin bowling balls had. Janelle, when faced with the distraction, tried to stop her forward motion but as she did so the ball slipped from her hand for what would amount to a legal shot. The ball went down at a 45-degree angle into the bowling lane and then bounced its way to the gutter from there. Some people chuckled as Clifford triumphantly raised his hands in the air. In short order, Janelle protested.

"It's part of the game," a scorekeeper named Beverly said with a shaking head.

Then Barb, who wanted her husband to win, aired her voice into the intercom.

"Alright folks," she said as she dismissed Janelle's request for a do-over with a flick of the hand, "I'm sure next week the jackpot will be up to $250! Wow!"

The word "exponential" wasn't in Barb's vocabulary. She had dropped out of Eastglen High School fourteen years earlier. She was remedial at math even before she did that.

Colin, the 35-year old who owned the bowling alley, did know what the word meant. He had two university degrees and that total equated to the total number of degrees that the 45 Beer League bowlers had combined.

"No," Colin said to Barb when she put the microphone down, "I bet it's more like $425 next week."

His prediction wasn't all that far off. The raffle/strike-contest on the first Sunday in October, which was Week 4 of the league, had a prize pool of $417. If you graphed the prize-pool amounts from week to week and projected the graph, then you might have foreseen a huge jackpot coming in the future. However, after Week 4, the exponential rate of the prize pool's growth tapered off. Waiters, cleaners, and such simply didn't have very deep pockets.

As drunk bowlers missed their strike attempts the prize pool's growth stayed steady for a short time. Then, when the prize money eclipsed a thousand dollars, some of the bowlers cut back on beer consumption in order to buy more tickets. That amount of money also generated a consistent buzz of gossip while Colin noted a decline in beer sales.

"There's too much magnitude," a 19-year old CN railyard worker thought to himself before he bowled a gutterball in Week 8.

By "magnitude," he meant "pressure."

"Way too much magnitude," he thought after he went home. "$1294 to bowl a strike? Who could keep steady with everyone watching?"

The Week 9 bowler likewise choked amidst a not-so-friendly reminder from Clifford about what was on the line.

"Concentrate buddy! Just concentrate! Think about your footwork! One little strike and fifteen-hundred smackeroos are all yours!"

Barb's husband got his chance in Week 10 when the prize pool was up to $1772. She used the clout that came with holding the microphone to silence everyone, especially "Jerkface Cliff." After Harold hit the left three-pin and two-pin a noticeably shaken Barb said that the prize pool would be "up to $2000 next week in all likelihood," an announcement that evoked some cat-call-like whistles from more than one patron.

Colin, who spent his life looking at the trends within the bowling alley, noticed more than just declining beer sales. He saw that the average bowling score for the Sunday Afternoon Beer League actually went up substantially in Week 10.

"Drink less, bowl better," he lamented.

The lament was due to the fact that a game of bowling cost the same amount regardless of the score that was achieved. However, people drinking less beer to buy more raffle tickets had affected his profit margins. A portion of beer revenue went to his income while none of the raffle sales did.

"Someone better win that prize soon," he thought to himself, yet it would still be a long time.

In Weeks 11 to 17, there was more than just money on the line. $2000 to $3500 of extra money at that time of year meant Merry Christmas. Parents that strove to be shift supervisors at hotels and restaurants for $8 per hour never really impressed their kids that much. But they knew that if they won that money, then there would have been enough Christmas-time magic to go around for once.

This dream of 'love' was enough to cause one patron named Ron to try and cheat. He worked his Saturday shift at a south-side warehouse in mid-December. Afterward, he went to a party and novelty store at Kingsway Mall. There, he bought six of the same kind of raffle-ticket rolls that the bowling league used. In his own head, he viewed the purchase as one that might be perceived as odd, a purchase that would have to be explained.

"What should I tell the clerk?" Ron needlessly asked himself as he drove to the store.

This was a problem that he totally concocted thanks to his guilty conscience. Cashier clerks didn't normally question the motives of their customers.

"Yeah," Ron said as he went to pay, "I'm holding a raffle at my kid's birthday party tonight."

"You got six kids?" the party-store clerk asked, referencing the number of ticket rolls Ron bought.

"Uh, yeah...I mean no," Ron fumbled. "I'm planning on holding the same raffle every year until he's 11 though."

"'k," the clerk said with a quizzical look on his face.

On Sunday, Ron bought a dozen legal tickets for the draw and received a dozen consecutive ticket numbers. Then he forfeited a frame of bowling to go out to his car. When he came back he had the matching numbers from just one of the rolls of raffle tickets that he'd bought in one hand. In the other, he clenched the matching numbers from the five other rolls.

During the intermission between games, he showed Colin's clerk behind the reception desk that his tickets, the phony ones, had not been torn in two. She retrieved the bucket that the tickets were pulled out of, ripped his fake tickets in half, and then put one half in the bucket -- thereby doubling his chances of winning.

"Lemme give it a shake," he said as he palmed the sixty other ripped-in-half tickets tightly in a closed fist.

Releasing them inside the bucket, that gave him a total of 84 entrants. A dozen of them were legal while 72 of them were not. He never really did shake the bucket much so nearly all of them sat at the top of the pile.

Minutes before the draw, he warned Clifford to keep his "damn mouth shut" during the strike attempt, something Clifford did as he perplexed himself as to how Ron seemed to know he would win the raffle. It didn't matter much as Ron yelled an expletive after missing his strike attempt. He stormed home early, forfeiting seven frames in the third and final game of the day.

The league took a break for Christmas and New Year's. Then, in January, everyone that proved love by buying people stuff had credit cards to pay off. That included Barb and Harold. For the month of January, she dealt with this by skimming $25 off of each week's draw as the beer-league bowlers continued to miss under the increasing pressure. During this time, beer sales for the league remained very low.

Accordingly, a precedent for the league was set when a good-for-nothing guy that still lived at home at the age of 32 bowled a whopping 394. That put him on the bowling lane's "High Scores Board For the Last 52 weeks," the only time "The Sunday Afternoon Beer League" had ever been represented there since Colin bought the place back in 1981.

The effects would actually be far-reaching for this man. Bowling a score of 394 wasn't a small deal. If it could be maintained, then it was an average that would easily put you in the ranks of professionals. As a one-off score, it was still enough to draw some positive attention his way.

"Congratulations!" Barb said to him over the intercom during a small round of respectful applause.

He then walked with his head a little higher and his shoulders a little squarer. That, in turn, caught the attention of an admirer and things went from there.

"I thought bowlers hated bedposts," he smoothly joked in the sack that night.

In Week 19, clever Colin figured out that Barb was skimming off of the top of the raffle money. As a small-business owner, he knew a thing or two about accounting. It didn't take a genius to figure out that when a dollar-per-ticket went into the prize pool the value of the prize pool's increment should match the number of tickets sold. The latter could be ascertained simply by subtracting the end-of-draw ticket number from the start-of-draw ticket number. This was something that Colin kept track of.

However, he also kept track of profits for the bowling alley. By his calculation, blowing a whistle on a well-respected member of a profitable league wasn't a good business strategy. He decided that bowling alley owners weren't detectives: they sold beer and they sold bowling games. With this, he threw out his moral compass and kept his mouth shut.

When Week 20 came around, "Jerkface Cliff" won the draw and missed the strike. Janelle, the woman that Cliff had distracted 17 weeks earlier, had prayed heavy-hard for that result along with five other people that likewise thought that he was a jerk. The cheering when he missed was so loud with these Edmontonians that you would have thought that the Los Angeles Kings had just traded Wayne Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers -- instead of the other way around.

Clifford no-showed the league in Week 21 as the jackpot climbed. Colin, ever mindful of absenteeism, did a courtesy call and found out that he had lost a customer. That meant that one team had a vacancy and that allowed for a fated new member.

She didn't look like much but she didn't drink on Sundays after church. She also understood, in her terms, that the laws of physics were the same regardless of the pressure you imagined in your head. The route that a bowling ball was destined for after release wouldn't deviate from its course just because there was a ton of money on the line. This, she told herself and it somehow calmed her nerves and gave her a precious moment of clarity that allowed her to do what she needed to do.

People protested when "a non-league member" won in Week 22. They suggested to Barb that the strike ball "wouldn't be legal in court" because the new member wasn't with the league at the start of the season.

Barb would have expressed agreement with them. In her secret thoughts, she did not agree with them but she would have been happy to have feigned agreement so as to keep the prize fund available for her husband to have another shot. Also, she realized she couldn't really skim much off of a $50 prize pool but with a huge one, it was a lot easier to take a little.

During the protests that ensued after the strike ball, Colin robbed Barb of the microphone. Moral compass or not, he took charge of dealing with the problem at hand -- the declining beer sales.

"While she wasn't with the league in Week 1, she's with the league now," he said. "You sold her a ticket. You would have kept the proceeds if she lost. In my mind, that means she gets the jackpot for winning and I'm calling that final."

That's how it went down. Beer sales immediately recovered.

Winning didn't make the 21-year old woman too popular. She felt some tense glares for the balance of the Week 22 Sunday afternoon. To deal with this, she happily bought some $200 worth of beer for the other patrons in hopes that their intimidating anger wouldn't burn so bright.

They did react that way but that one week in February would still mark her only appearance at the bowling alley. When she got home, she decided that the people there really were a bunch of jerks that had tried to screw her out of $5700. Taking their money, taking a month off from stocking shelves at Sears, and taking a flight to Vegas where it wasn't -40 every day in February felt a lot smarter than going back to the league.

The truth was that after Clifford was gone the beer-leaguers weren't such jerks anymore. In fact, the jackpot incremented one more time when they all finally got back to what they'd originally signed up for. In Week 23, the bowling was frivolous, the times were good, the scores mattered little, and the beer went down fast. It seemed a lot more precious than it had before.

Read Another Short Story by This Author

Notes on the Photo Cover

The photo was adapted in accordance with the right-to-remix Creative Commons clause. Use does not mean the photographer endorses this publication. I made changes to the photo: (1) I edited out the string that was attached to the headpin and (2) I used an "artsy" feature to make the photograph appear painted and (3) I embedded the resulting work amidst the text to give the appearance of a book cover.

Description: 5-pin bowling pins in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Five-pin bowling at Stadacona Bowling Lanes in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Date: 10 December 2009, 14:55
Source: Bowling Has Never Before Been This Serious
Author: Benjamin J. DeLong
Camera location: 44° 39′ 34.78″ N, 63° 35′ 38.23″ W
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The cover can be used in the same way as I used the photo.
Disclaimer: the short story did not draw inspiration from the photo.

© 2021 Shane Lambert

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