by Linda McMullen
Lionel Price – yes, that Lionel Price – former wunderkind, current tycoon, Darrow Capital founder and CEO, and ex-husband of that actress who transformed from manic pixie Disney nymphet to Oscar winner – has hired me!
Perhaps I could borrow the British term: He’s engaged me.
Employed might be a better word. That’s the one I use with my parents, who do not regard ‘aspiring actress’ as a career, or ‘Uber driver’ or ‘Upwork professional’ as resume-worthy items. I can’t help it that all the theatres closed.
I submit my antigen test to the hired nurse. I’m the last in the dressing room. I touch up my silver body paint (I get $20 an hour instead of $18 for using it) and step out into the hangover-shattering sunlight. I am dazzled and dazzling.
The – partygoers? spectators? – mill about with champagne glasses, occasionally deigning to accept bite-sized canapés from meticulously masked waiters in white. Four socially-distanced rows of red and gold faux-Louis XVI chairs – under open-sided tents, of course – await them. Six thrones at the height of lifeguards’ seats edge the board.
I sidle up to the other… well, it said ‘performer’ on our I-9s or W-9s or whatever we had to fill out for this gig – so, performers: a young woman with a neat bouffant and a button-down shirtwaist dress and her iron; a distinguished equestrian in his forties, leading a bemused pony; a Chippendale-wannabe in a wifebeater and cargo pants pushing a rusty wheelbarrow; a tartan-clad beanpole with a Scottie; and a formidable dowager with a dreadnaught leghorn hat. She arches an eyebrow – not entirely unfairly, since I look like a deranged escapee from A Chorus Line – and demands, “What are you supposed to be?”
Like I haven’t had that question, ad infinitum, from my parents, throughout my college career and in the year and a half since online graduation. “The top hat,” I say, donning my oversized, glittering headpiece. She looks through me. I’m used to that, too.
Lionel Price, with his trademark rumpled hair, dark-blue jeans and gray hoodie, appears in our midst. With almost imperceptible gesture, he motions the attendees to their seats, the players to their positions, and the performers to Go.
Human chess is passé. We’re playing Monopoly.
I use the word ‘we’ loosely. Mr. Price and the other five high rollers (a paunchy oil man, a faded pop singer, a former franchise quarterback, a descendant of a steel magnate, and a travel-focused social media influencer) have paid for the right to call the shots. They spent $1.5 million on their $1500 starting banks for this winner-take-all game. Inflation is everywhere.
My fellow performers and I will follow the dice. I’m hoping the game goes at least four hours because then I’ll definitely be able to make the rent. And we will hope that our players do well, because one more hour’s work means a splurge on $5 movie night – eggs to add to the ramen – or taking the bus instead of walking, to preserve our soles a little longer.
The host announces that the game will follow the printed rules, reminding players that they should not expect to find $500 bills tucked under Free Parking. Some superficially jovial but pointed discussions ensue over token distribution. The pop singer chooses the Scottie; the oil man takes the man on the horse (minus his frolicsome pony); the NFLer opts for the iron; the influencer gestures to the wheelbarrow, the steel magnate requests the battleship, and I belong to Mr. Price.
I high-step my way to Vermont Avenue on Mr. Price’s first turn (my last role was as a minor player in Cabaret), but I stop when the battleship glares at me. The Scottie dog slips his lead and darts away to conduct business during his turn, causing the stripling to chase him; the pop star pipes, “Hey Aren’t you supposed to be in charge?” and he blushes down his neck. The wheelbarrow asks for a chair while in jail, but Mr. Price conveys that he’s not paying us to have us sit on the job. The sun stands on our shoulders. I can see the housewife starting to burn. Every so often one of the waiters comes around with tiny cups of water for us. This one takes in my getup as he approaches with the tray.
“Thanks,” I say from St. James Place, downing the liquid and replacing my biodegradable cup with non-biodegradable silver fingerprints on it.
“Nice tits,” he replies.
“That count as a pickup line where you come from?” I snort.
“Bitch,” he mutters – not softly enough.
“HEY!” calls Lionel Price, pointing at the waiter. He glances down at his watch. “You’ve clocked two hours and fifteen minutes. Cash out and get off my property.”
The waiter considers self-justification, apology, and retort; ultimately, he flips off Mr. Price and storms away. Mr. Price gives me the shadow of a nod before buying Boardwalk.
No one has a natural monopoly, though everyone has something promising.The players seem to have reached a tacit agreement not to open negotiations until all the properties have sold. Finally, Mediterranean Avenue goes to the quarterback.
The deal phase begins.
Mr. Price allows the tokens a fifteen-minute break, and we gratefully lurch toward the restrooms in a smaller mansion called The Lodge. I remember to hover over the seat. I’ve tidied my fair share of toilets, and I’m confident the cleaning staff don’t need me adding silver paint to their burdens.
We receive individual bowls of fruit salad. It’s mostly cantaloupe, but it’s cold, and it’s free calories. I let the perfunctory mint leaf linger on my tongue as I eavesdrop on the bargaining session:
- The influencer seems bored with the game, ready to write off the time she’s invested, and to get back to her real work.
- The oil man finds himself betting on green, and suddenly looking as though he’s just been forced to suck a lime.
- The pop star, who must have fought through this game endlessly with her five siblings before making it big, gets the reds – and smirks.
- The quarterback looks all too eager to hand off New York Avenue and the B&O railroad to Mr. Price, to gain possession of the fabulous, famous, dark-blue properties. (Good. At least sixty more minutes for me.)
- The steel magnate’s child belatedly realizes his famous name counts for nothing when he realizes he’s got two of the maroon properties and he’ll have to give up his sole railroad and a hefty sum to obtain the third.
I’ve got a big audition next week.Avenue Q. Vaccinated-only theatre. If this keeps up, I could afford some decent headshots. A friend-of-a-friend is offering a $99 package, and her Instagram suggests it’s a worthwhile investment. She’d make me look like something.
The influencer and the quarterback snicker as Mr. Price mortgages his stray properties, Vermont and Baltic Avenues, and plonks down a pair of houses on each of his oranges. But they squeal when the influencer lands on St. James Place on a pair of double threes getting out of Jail, and the quarterback rolls a seven after losing $40 ($40,000) to Mr. Price for the Electric Company bill on his previous turn. Up go more houses.
Oh, for tap shoes.
The battleship frowns at me from Luxury Tax. I adjust the strap of my leotard and beam back at her.
The oil man’s cash-rich and the pop star’s dice seem enchanted. They and Mr. Price take out the steel magnate first (who also got houses up quickly, but unluckily landed the Community Chest assessment and then on Pacific Avenue) – then the quarterback, who flames out on Illinois Avenue. The influencer gets the Advance to St. James Place card and screams like the eerie factory whistle in Sweeney Todd.
It’s not my money, of course.
It’s not even my game.
I can’t believe how invested I am in this.
It’s down to the big three. Every brings the players to the brink; the sun has set now, and I shiver each time the dice land. The oil man goes first, slowly gutted by Mr. Price and the pop star trading off stints in jail rather than passing his property. The pop star has gleaming red hotels on her scarlet properties, and she adds a tiny bit to her depleted bank – $10 – for winning second prize in a beauty contest. Mr. Price, having left most of his captured deeds still mortgaged, digs into his Kobe beef burger with a knife and fork, and waits.
I forget to breathe.
The pop star rolls a five.
She grins. She’s escaped his plastic Levittowns by landing on the Chance square between her smug red properties.
“That’s game,” says Mr. Price.
“You mean you want to concede?” the pop star smirks.
Mr. Price shakes his head. “I think you’ll want to.”
He’s counted the cards. And I realize what Chance has brought her a moment before she draws the card…
“Go back 3 spaces”.
Mr. Price just smiles.
And so do I. New York Avenue with four houses. I’ve got the rest of the rent covered, and I can just – just – afford the photos.
Oh, all right. It’s not literally the end – but the pop star has to reduce her three hotels to three houses in order to foot the bill, and then it’s just a matter of time (another $10 each for me and the kid with the dog, to be precise). Ultimately she lands on Income Tax, then a Chance cards sends her to the B&O and she gets railroaded. She throws the dice at Mr. Price and storms out.
The lad in the tam smiles wanly – probably he’d been hoping for an autograph, not to sell, just to keep on his nightstand – and collects his sleeping dog. Mr. Price pays him in crisp bills and adds a tip (fifteen percent, rounded up to the next dollar). He goes. Mr. Price turns to me, counts out the same amount, and holds it, just out of my reach.
“You could stay.”
I, what? I have no follow-up. I search for anger, outrage, or whatever the word is for that feeling that makes ladies slap gentlemen in period comedies. Nothing.
“I’ll make it worth your while.”
My face must communicate something, because Mr. Price adds, “You’re right, that’s vague. A thousand dollars, and my driver will take you home in the morning.”
I wait for the indignation to come. I wait longer.
“My housekeeper will show you the shower,” he adds, glancing at my sparkling silver legs.
Don’t judge. That’s the game, isn’t it? You roll the dice, you make your way, you take what you can get…
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, daughter, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred fifty literary magazines. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.