“The Risk Taker”—A Mort Laitner Short Story

The Risk Taker

By Mort Laitner

I first met Arlene in her home on the Jersey Shore. Sitting on her back porch I saw the sun peering through a patch of dark layered clouds. It looked like a half-shut eye winking in my direction.

As we got to know each other, I realized Arlene lived life to the fullest, wearing it down until it was thread bare like her favorite jeans. Moderation was a word that failed to appear in her dictionary. She took risks and held no regrets. She was a player who new how to roll the dice. She lived on the edge.

Over coffee and a devil dog for me, and two glasses of merlot and half a pack of Marlboros for her, Arlene taught me one of the most powerful phrases in the English language and a little bit about life.

At key junctures in our give-and-take Arlene bent over, looked me square in the eyes, and asked, “What do you mean by that?” Then she inhaled a drag from her cigarette, sensually pursed her lips and exhaled the perfect smoke ring in my direction.

I thought this middle-aged woman was interested in my thoughts. Arlene leaned back in her bentwood rocker sipping her wine and flicking ashes to the ground. She looked intrigued as if my answers would satisfy one of her inner compulsions.

I fumbled with my words trying to give them meaning. I was taken aback by her technique. It forced me to think and to explain my thought processes.

She positioned me on her Freudian couch for a barrage of Q and A. She was ready to play doctor.

Psychiatrist: Tell me about your relationship with your parents? Patient: My parents loved my sister more than me.

Psychiatrist: What do you mean by that?

Patient: They gave her more attention, better toys and more kisses.

Psychiatrist: What do you mean by that?

Patient: I was jealous. I wanted the same treatment. I wanted to be the more loved child.

Psychiatrist: What do you mean by that?

I cracked. “Arlene, the problem with your psychiatric approach is that after a few “what-do-you-mean-by-that’s” the recipient of the inquiries tires of the psychoanalysis and usually will end the conversation with, ‘Are you practicing to become a shrink?’ ”

I bit into my devil dog, tasting the mixture of chocolate and sweet white cream. I sipped the coffee to wash the cake down. I stared at the incoming waves awaiting her response, and then I decided to take control.

I gazed into Arlene’s eyes and as our eyes met, I asked, “Arlene, I’m thinking about taking a risk.”

Her ears waited for more.

“With your vast experience, why do people take risks?” I asked.

Arlene held her tongue in thought, scratched the top of her head and slowly enunciated these words. “Here’s why I take risks because I don’t want to end up in a nursing home or in a pine box with the I-wish-I-had-done-that look stuck on my mouth. When I walk into an old age home and look at those “senior citizens” I see faces scrunched up as if a lemon wedge was sutured to their lips. Those folks took few risks. They led a safe bitter life filled with fear and hesitation. They squandered life’s opportunities. There are no second chances.”

Arlene paused and motioned for me to pour her another glass of wine.

She continued, “The cemeteries are filled with risk takers: smokers, drinkers, over eaters, gamblers, businessmen. Invisibly chiseled on their grave stones are these words:

“Here lies a risk taker. He shortened his life span by taking risks but he died a content man.” Arlene lifted her glass as if to toast the risk takers and down the remains.

“Aren’t our prisons filled with risk takers?” I asked.

Sure that’s what makes risk taking so exciting. You stand to lose a whole lot. “That’s life’s eternal balancing act— to decide what risks to take and how much you are willing to pay in consequences for your actions. As the Chinese say, risk taking is the art of choosing wisely.”

I whispered,”Arlene should I take the risk?”

She looked at me with a quizzical stare and said, “What do you mean by that?”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *