by Athena Dixon
The ritual of bingo is weirdly beautiful, a slowed flurry of color-coded boxes and ink-stained fingers, good luck charms, and paper bags of missed opportunity. In a flat-roofed building on the outskirts of my hometown in rural Ohio, my mother and I position ourselves in the same chairs each Saturday night. This tradition started as a way for her to keep her eye on me, her broken daughter suffering the riptide of adultery and divorce. Afternoons of nail appointments and eyebrow threading weren’t enough for her to hold me close. She needed the hours of Saturday evening for her own sanity just as much as I needed them for mine.
Here at the meeting hall of the Disabled American Veterans, the regulars do not know our names, Athena and Diane, but they know we are the one who wears her hair up and the one who wears her hair down. They know my mother prefers the red plastic chair with the D.A.V. logo glued to the spine. I always take the folding metal chair. They know we each play one pack of cards, the tiny master sheet, a few special games, and we always save room for the canteen-style meals prepared by the veterans’ wives. Tonight we are having potato dumpling soup and whipped banana mousse. The air is thick with coffee and the lingering scent of nicotine from those who smoke during intermissions.
My mother and I have given each caller a nickname. Baby Boy, Slick Rick, Tupac, Marc, and The Lady from the Eye Doctor’s Office all call numbers at their own pace and pitch. Sometimes the other players grow rowdy, slapping the flat ends of their daubers on the table and screaming for the caller to “Slow down!” or “Call louder!” They yell “Six Nine!” every time number sixty-nine tumbles out of the hopper and is displayed on the hanging video screens. “Toot! Toot!” they holler for number twenty-two. It took us weeks to catch on to the catchphrases and singsong call and response.
Each Saturday before we begin, Baby Boy reminds the players it’s bad luck to curse the caller. He reminds us the proceeds go to helping the veterans in our community and the more people we bring the bigger the pots will be. We never break the $100 mark for the full card fill-up at the end of the night. No one seems to mind because each week the cast remains the same.
We’ve given the other players nicknames as well. No Bra and Confederate Flag Man win most often and this upsets people. We figure they spend a healthy amount on the sea of cards before them and even more on the pull tab instant games, so it’s their just due and they are likely only breaking even. One weekend my mother hits on the nine-pack game and is awarded just under $80. She’s won on those instant tickets, too. I’ve never taken home any money. I still have fun.
There is hierarchy here. It shows in the small bingo dolls staking claim to certain seats, by the patterned cushions tied to the metal chairs, and outstretched arms across tables. We newcomers sit where we can, but after a few weeks we are regulars and our seats, looking directly through the large wall cutout into the next room, are always empty when we arrive.
In time, the callers and card sellers notice when we are not there. We’ve tried other bingo halls, but this is home. The roughly thirty of us are a family each Saturday night. Our cars are parked outside in a half circle; easy in, easy out. When the games end, we head into the pitch darkness of the farmland, driving towards the brightness of the local Wal-Mart and the strip of downtown Main Street.
But those hours under the flat roof are what all of us each need. Sometimes all there is to hear is the rhythm of daubers thudding onto the paper and the sticky slop of the ink’s release. Other times, the only noises are the muted rips of ink-soaked cards being crumpled just before “Bingo!” is called; those videos screens let some of us see into the future and there’s the collective breath-holding between the sight of the ball and the call of the number.
We don’t know the backstories of those in the room. Nor do we know why some of them are so angry they snap at the slightest misstep. How dare the new players not call their wins loudly enough? How dare someone sip one too many Styrofoam cups of free coffee? And the cardinal sin of calling a win when there isn’t one is not forgiven because the games are a maze of postage stamps, kites, Crazy Ts, and six packs. But by ten o’clock, when the cards are filling and people are whispering, “I’m set,” just loudly enough to rattle the rest of us, the room is calm. It’s that quiet again; the stick and peel of ink pulling each number down the drain until one last person collects a handful of victory and makes a beeline for the door.
When we leave this building, there are no promises to see each other next weekend. Some of us are here faithfully, standing in line for the books of games, and canteen meals. Others of us are snowbirds, only here for the summers. The last of us come here for what we need, those who leave hoping what we’ve given we get back in equal measure.