The James Gunn series continues with a look at another of his unpublished stories.
Review: “Jackpot for Julie”, James Gunn, 1996.
In the early 1950s, bolstered by the number of stories he’s sold, Gunn decided to crack the slick magazine market. He decided, after analysis, a “light romantic story” was his best bet, and the result was this, his 35th story.
It doesn’t have any fantasy element, but I think it’s a successful story. I’m surprised it was not accepted. Perhaps the competition was just better. I could see this as a light hearted tv drama from the era.
The story is set in Las Vegas and is full of coincidences appropriate to a story centering on gambling. The style is quite different and more humorous than Gunn’s usual.
Our hero, Art Holliday, has lost another bet at a horse track. He notices a woman, a beautiful woman of “crisp, cool frock” matching
her eyes, and her cropped, feathered hair, which matched the frock, was the color of June Bride, the sweet, chestnut filly
that Holliday placed a bad bet on. He thinks this woman is so beautiful she will “never run out of money”. He seems lonely and looking for female company since we’re told “His technique had never been so successful” after he accepts the woman’s invitation to retire to the track’s clubhouse.
The woman’s name is coincidentally similar to the horse June Bride. It’s Julie Bliss. Another coincidence is that it’s June and Julie is soon to be a bride.
Art is instantly attracted to the woman, and we hear about his philosophy that “Life is a gamble!”. You recognize the odds, accept your winnings, and don’t welsh on the losses.
We hear that Julie needs a $1,000 for a wedding. Her parents are dead so can’t pay for it. So far, she has only a $100. Her fiancé comes from a wealthy family, and she doesn’t want to get off on the wrong foot by having others pay for her wedding.
But she also wants it a secret that she doesn’t have enough yet. She hopes to get the difference in Vegas with none the wiser. She tells Art,
“Women have always known that sometimes they can’t be particular. Otherwise the human race would habe been extinct long ago.”
(A practical view long out of fashion.) If she can’t get the money, she’ll go back to Los Angeles and call off the wedding.
Art studies “her objectively” and tells her that gambling isn’t a sport so much as a way of asking Fate to answer a “vital question”. People, he says, have “two reasons for gambling: to win or lose.” She disputes this. But Art tells her that some people want it verified they are unlucky.
Art tells her her odds of getting her $900 are a hundred to one. Art agrees to help her, but first tells her how ignorant she is about gambling. There is nobody, including him, who “knows how to win”. He tells her he does know how not to lose: “Don’t bet!”.
She rejoins that he could help her better understand the odds. Art considers the request and asks why he should help her get money to marry a “stuffed heir from the lakeshore”. Julie tells Art he’ll help. “That’s why I picked you up.”
Julie first proposes betting on horses. Art tells her that a rule of gamblers is “horseplayers die broke, and never bet on anything that can’t talk”. She then asks about gambling systems. He says they have drawbacks. You need a lot of money to start – and “they always go broke”. The only successful systematic gambler he knows only increases his money by 20% a year.
She needs a larger return. Julie tells Art she needs the money by tomorrow morning. Art is entranced by her, watches her with “worshipful eyes” and thinks she will make a “wonderful – and unpredictable – wife. But not his.”
They go to a casino for a meal. Art thinks Julie is “in that nebulous but unmistakable classification of humanity known as ‘nice girls’”. He knows she will not accept a gift over $20 because it comes with expectations. Art notes that the casino can afford good cheap meals and nice, cheap rooms because it’s all paid for by the gambling.
Julie asks Art why he persists in gambling. Art replies his “downfall” and “degradation” started by being born in Vegas and getting a college scholarship from a casino in Reno, Nevada. Julie thinks he’s teasing her. Art insists he was never anything else. Julie tells him he could do something else.
They then go into the gaming section of the casino. Art rejects playing the slots. They don’t pay enough.
They decide Art will play poker for Julie’s money. Art loses Julie’s money at poker, leaving her just a $1.
Julie says she’s going back to LA. Art says his fiancé doesn’t deserve her if he won’t accept her with only a $1 to her name. Julie is resolute. She won’t get married without the money. Art proposes flipping a dollar coin to decide whether Julie gets married. Art realizes he loves Julie.
Art then gets an idea and leaves Julie momentarily. He then puts a proposal to a pit boss: let Julie win and reap favorable publicity. (Gunn mentions a 1950 case where a young man at the Desert Inn one 28 straight throws at craps, and the dice were “enshrined”. He also mentions “two system players” who one several thousand dollars at the roulette wheels in Reno. I have no idea if these are real cases of casino largesse.)
A rigged craps game is set up for Julie. She wants to know the rules. Art tells her to “Just toss’em and pray”. Art says he’s made arrangements, a special game to turn her $1 into $1,024.
Julie tosses the dice several times and makes her target and then quits. She goes into an office to get her payoff check. She’s asked what her fiancé’s name and address is. Suspicious, she asks why he needs that. He says it will make good publicity – which is exactly what Julie doesn’t want. She then realizes the dice were crooked. The casino manager admits the game was rigged. Julie won’t accept charity and tears the check up.
She is angry with Art who says he was just trying to help her get the money she needed, that he would have given it to her himself if he had it. Julie says she wouldn’t have taken it.
Art tells her,
“Ruin your life because you need one grand and you’re particular how you get it. It won’t make me sad if your suburban Romeo has to wait ten years for you to save the scratch. I hope he gets tired of waiting”.
“And I hope you have seven years of bad luck!”, she shots back.
Julie departs telling him she never wants to see him again.
But they do meet again, at the telegram office. Both are composing messages, and they are cold to each other.
Art says Julie’s weakened. She’s asking her fiancé for money. She denies this. He tries to see her message. She refuses unless Art shows her his message.
He initially refuses then does, and he reads hers. Julie has called off the marriage. Art says she wanted Fate to confirm her decision not to marry. In turn, Julie discovers that Art is wiring someone in Lawrence, Kansas for money. He says it’s the bursar. He is, in fact, a psychology professor doing a thesis on “The Psychodynamics of Gambling”. The implication is that he was going to give Julie the money since he isn’t a professional gambler.
Julie admits Art is write about the unconscious reasons she stopped in Vegas. Julie tells him “A psychology professor indeed! You don’t know much about women!”.
Neither sends their telegrams.
Art tells her “I know where we can get the same thing for two bucks. Eh, Julie?” The insinuation is that he’s talking about a wedding in Vegas.
The concluding paragraph:
She leaned back and looked at him critically. ‘If you theory is right, Professor Holliday, I came to Las Vegas to lose – but I’ve got a hunch I hit the jackpot.’
A charming story, the first story among Gunn’s unpublished work that I have no complaints about.