2010 First Prize in Prose
Life may be a game, but bingo is serious. And on Mondays at the Guilford Knights of Columbus Hall, after the sun has slung low and the crickets start to strum their violin legs, it’s game time. The weathered, wilted and elastic-wasted flock from far and wide, converging as if summoned by the call of a conch-shell. They come with their cigarettes, knitting, and hard candy, barely able to see over their steering wheels as they pull into the lot, “God Bless America” stickers slapped to the bumpers of their wheezing cars. They waddle up to the arena in pleated pants, their hair, dead-feather domes glued to their heads.
They’re greeted by the balding workers who roam the hall, selling bingo cards and peanut M&Ms. “Hey Ruth, aren’t we looking extra beautiful today!” one jokes, provoking a deep-wrinkled death-glare and the retort, “Aw shut up, you idiot.” They then find their tables and unload their lucky troll dolls and dobbers (the inked circle stamps used to mark bingo cards) with pride, lounging back in the chairs that give slightly under their thick wrinkles.
For two nights in July since I was 12, I’ve become one of them. This tradition began on one quiet night when my family and I were on vacation at a beach house in Madison. We were lazing around our cottage, all of us sun-burnt and water-logged as we drooped on wicker chairs, when my Aunt Carol abruptly jumped up, announcing that the bingo hall a few miles away had a jackpot up to $1500.
Since then, bingo Mondays have become a summer ritual. My aunt and I hop into her hybrid, dusting off our dobbers from the year before, and set off into a night laced with the promise of riches. By the time we pull into the Knights of Columbus parking lot, it’s already crawling with people. Some hobble in on canes, while others hum along on electric wheel chairs. Now 15 and experienced, I too lug my good luck charm, a bingo bear, and my knitting into the battlefield, and can even recognize a few faces from the first summer. There’s the woman with sloppy lipstick who yelled at me once for marking my bingo card too loudly. And another by the vending machine, her jowls hanging loosely, is the one who rings a small gold bell every time O66 is called. My aunt and I can never find seats next to each other so I always feel as if it’s just me against these regulars, who growl as I stride by them, searching for a vacant chair. I always hope I at least look like a formidable opponent, with my full head of blond hair, clothes that fit in the right places, youthful freckles. I get the friendliest greeting from the man decked out in the gold robe who peers down at me from a painting hung next to the TV—the Pope. To the rest, I’m an intruder.
“Who does she think she is? She better not sit in Rose’s seat!” I hear one hiss to another, purposely loud enough so that I can hear. I pretend not to notice and slink into any empty chair, ignoring her knitting-needle eyes poking the back of my neck. And then, with a slight moan of a microphone and the clearing of the announcer’s throat, bingo begins. My face tightens: it’s on, and being a naturally competitive person (and a teenage girl who could always use a new pair of shoes), I am not going to let some woman wearing a “World’s Best Grandmother” sweatshirt beat me. With the first ball called, my dobber springs to life, leaving inky dots that bleed through the bingo paper. My eyes dart strategically down and up, my dobber ready to pounce on any unsuspecting B12.
“O72,” a voice drones from the speakers, and a surge of energy climbs up the rungs of my spine as I search for the number on my card. As the adrenaline claws higher, the others whine about the announcer.
“Go faster!” One man manages to blurt out from under folds of sagging skin.
“You don’t call Bs or Ns for a small round robin, moron!” another spits. I try to ignore these remarks and search the room for my aunt. When I find her, our eyes lock for an intense moment; I can see the determination dripping from her brow.
As the rounds go by and the stakes grow higher, the room gets so quiet you can make-out the hollow clattering of the bingo balls in the background, popping against one another in a swarm. I struggle to keep up with my marking of the numbers called, but notice that the others around me don’t seem to be nearly as challenged, finding time to chew noisily on Twizzlers and play card games simultaneously. Some have even bought twice as many cards to increase their chances of winning, and still keep pace.
“Hey Charlie,” a praying-mantis of a man says, a flannel shirt swinging off his limbs as he dobs, seemingly without looking, “how’s the ol’ Toyota? The transaxle still givin’ you trouble?”
I stare at him, in awe of his effortless technique, the calm he exudes, the way his dobber seems to be part of him, an extra digit. I can’t help but think, shouldn’t I have the advantage over him and all the others, being young and lively? Why am I fumbling through each round as they glide along with ease? How is the lumpy bean bag woman across from me one away from a full house? I fling these questions to the back of my mind and try to make sense of the colors pooling on my card.
Refocused, my eyes widen in disbelief. Wait, is that right? Am I really two away from winning? I’m that close?!
“I29,” moans the speaker. Now one away! This is it! This is my moment! It’s finally here! I just need B2. That’s it, B2 and I win— I can almost taste a new pair of Adidas.
“B2, B2, B2,” I chant desperately under my breath. I glance back at that woman, my blood-thirsty foe, hungrily dobbing, her face sunken into the lump of her hunchback. She looks up and straight at me, her eyes ice behind the glare of her glasses, and she bears her graying teeth. I snarl back, clenching my dobber even tighter as I listen for the next ball.
“B2, come on!” I close my eyes.
“O79.” My heart swells and swan dives. Has the old woman won? I look over desperately, but she remains seated and scowling. The mini Amtrak in my veins regains its speed.
“BINGO!” she roars in triumph, a smile yanking at the corners of her whiskered mouth. The air seeps out of me like a punctured inflatable toy, and I throw my dobber down on the table. As usual, I’m left in the group of groaners, crumpling up our ink-sopped paper in disgust while she extends a gnarled hand, snatching at her winnings.
As I regroup, jealousy pinching at my insides, I can’t help but stare at the victorious old woman, stroking her new few dollar bills adoringly. And then it hits me: I need to pay my dues to win, as this woman has. I, too, need to shrivel up, like fingers after a bath, to reach the summit. The only thing propelling these people forward, keeping them alive, is the possibility of winning a few bucks at bingo night. This is all they have left. Easing back into my chair, I fold my arms across my chest in thought, and my envy fades into sympathy. It’s all clear to me now; the day my hair starts falling out in tufts, my knuckles start knobbing like bark, my skin turns tissue-paper thin, that’s the day I will have finally won the right to spring up, despite rusty bones, and hoarsely shout out, “BINGO!”