by Travis Brunn
Friday night, 9 PM. The smell of failing hotel-room de-odourizer engulfs me as I enter through the door. It’s packed, but quiet. Faces are grim, uncompromising. These people mean business. A clerk nods and motions me to take a seat. I draw a deep breath. Does it show on my face that I’ve never done this? I walk straight into the beating heart of the “Bingo Bingo” Hall of Esquimalt.
Smokers occupy the far wall. Grandmothers with leathery skin and clouds of white hair... old men with western ties and tobacco-stained fingertips... middle-aged housewives in sweat-shirts, stretchy pants and slouch-socks. Non-smokers cluster near the entrance. They’re younger, thirty-somethings with mullets and acne-scars... “No-Fear” T-shirts galore... I slide into a less crowded corner, ease down beside a table. I nod to the veterans already seated, but they ignore me.
“N-32,” the announcer calls over the sound system. He holds the syllables in his mouth, draws them languidly over his tongue. “B-8... O-60...” This is the war drum, answered by the rustle of dozens of bingo dabbers stabbing ruthlessly onto bingo cards. Adept players wield two dabbers at the same time, one in each hand. Other addicts carry palm-held mini-computers inscribed with the words “Bingo-3000,” a high-tech bingo-aid.
“I-14...” The beat is relentless. “I-11...” The tension is tangible. “N-33- ”
“Bingo!” an elderly woman with watermelon ear-rings and gold nail-polish calls, erupting out of her chair with a burst of sparks. A clerk descends on her. The hall is silent as the bingo is checked. Then, with a “thumbs-up” from the clerk to the announcer, a collective sigh arises, lifting off the roof of the hall and sailing out into the night. Bingo dabbers are slammed onto table-tops. Cigarettes are stamped out. At the table nearest me, an old man curses under his breath. He crumples his bingo-sheet into a ball, grabs his cowboy hat and stomps out the door. Players stir, stand and stretch. Bingo clerks filter through the crowd, selling fresh cards by the dozens. The weary of spirit make their way to the snack-bar and order rations to get through the next agonizing round.
“Howdy!” says a bingo clerk, swooping towards me like a bird of prey. She is dressed from head to toe in black spandex and is chewing loudly on a wad of gum. “Want into this next round?”
I clear my throat so that my voice won’t crack. “Yes please.”
She sucks in a lung-full of air. “Next game’s a hollywood. After that’s two postage stamps the hard-way. There’s a bonanza jackpot only three rounds away, so if you want into that you should buy your tickets now. A bingo before the eleventh call wins the pot - tonight it’s at 23 thousand. There’s one texas blackout left, then three lines of garbage, and the rest are straight up. There’ll be another round of games afterwards, so hang onto your stubs.” She pauses, draws a second deep breath, then launches into another stream of bingo-lingo. But she could as well be speaking greek.
“Sorry,” I say. “I’m new at this.”
She blinks. “You’ve never played bingo?”
“No, not really.”
She eyes me up and down. A gum bubble expands out of her mouth and explodes. She slurps it back in. “I’ll start you with one sheet until you get the hang of it. You know about dabbing the numbers, right?”
The nearby players are smirking. This is mortifying. I nod.
She rummages through the load of bingo cards tucked under her arm, pulls out a green one and places it on the table. There are six bingo squares printed on it. “One buck,” she says. I pass her the dollar and she drops it into the fathomless depths of her money-belt. Without another word she bustles off to sell more tickets, dust-devils following on her heels.
A wizened old woman is smirking at me from across the table. She’s wearing a sequin encrusted shirt and her mascara is so thick her eyes look like blue bingo-dabs. “Is it your first time, sugarpie?”
My face is growing hot.
Her smirk splits into a carnivorous grin, revealing rows of yellow teeth. She reaches out a claw and pats my hand. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Do you have a dabber?”
I had planned to use a pen. I tell her so. The dew-lap under her chin bobs in consternation.
“No no no, that won’t do. Use one of mine.” She has four dabbers stacked in a row in front of her and she passes one to me. I turn the dabber in my hands. It’s made of pearl-white plastic, long, sleek and elegant, with molded indents that I can grip.
“Thanks,” I say. I heft the dabber. It does feel good to hold.
She winks. “I remember my first time.”
The sound system crackles with electricity. A hush falls. The announcer calls out the start of the game and all around me bingo warriors coil like springs, dabbers poised, ready for combat. The woman across the table hunches ferociously over her cards. I study my own bingo card, imitating her. I pluck the cap off my dabber with a little ‘pop.’
Already the other players are ahead of me, dabbing like mad. I search for an I-13. There are so many numbers on the card they all blur together. Hey! There’s an I-13 right there! I dab, then dab it again to get more ink on it. Something is very satisfying about the feeling of the dabber squelching against the paper. I shake the dabber a few times to soak the tip with ink, then dab in the margins. I admire the blood-red bullet-holes.
I missed that - what was that number? I peer towards the near wall where an electronic bingo-chart flashes the numbers that have already been called. N-31... There you are. Dab! Hold on, I’m looking at the wrong chart - that’s for the last game. The proper chart is on the far wall. I should have dabbed O-63, not N-31! I drop the dabber and search in my jacket pocket for a pen to scratch out my mistakes.
“Sugarpie!” the woman across the table hisses. “What are you doing?”
“I made a mistake!”
Still dabbing with her right hand, she snatches a green dabber from her purse with her left. She pops the cap off with her thumb, then flips the dabber into the air. It soars in a high arc, turning end over end, then falls, like a star, neatly into my upturned palm. Thunk! “Dab them over in green,” she commands. “You have to dab your mistakes in different colours.”
I nod. I smack the green dabber onto my card. But I’m slipping further behind. The announcer has called another two numbers! I scan the columns frantically. I’m on the verge of despairing when the gum-chewing clerk reappears at my side.
“How are you doing?” she asks, peering over my shoulder. Her chewing stops. She sighs. “Here, let me help, you look like you need it.” She plucks the dabber from my hand, spins it in her fingers while her eyes dart back and forth, then fires it like a machine-gun. Before I’m even aware of what’s happened, she has handed the dabber, still smoking, back to me. I stare at her, in awe.
She jolts me on the shoulder. “Quick! There’s one there!”
I dab, poignantly aware of how unprofessional my marksmanship is.
“And there and there and there!”
My hands are cramping up
“Look, I can’t stay with you,” she warns. “I’ve got work to do, so you’ve got to keep on top of this. Concentrate!” She gives me a fierce look, then heaves up her stack of bingo cards and departs as abruptly as she came. Once again I am on my own.
There are people here who are playing as many as six bingo-sheets a round, each sheet with six squares on it. That’s thirty-six bingo squares a game - entire legions of bingo cards. Granted they have the help of their Bingo-3000’s, but if they can keep track of that many cards, then surely I can keep track of six. I close my eyes. I relax my grip on my dabber. My pulse slows. There... Good... I feel calmer. I open my eyes.
“O-64... N-28... I-16...”
I dab and dab and dab, murdering each number as it’s called. I’m clumsy, yes, but now I’m at least keeping up. I’ve recovered from the initial bingo shock. I’m even beginning to enjoy this. With every dab a thrill shivers through me. This is how cavemen felt, hunting woolly mammoths with their spears. Dab! This is how Odysseus felt, blinding the cyclops with a stake. Dab! It isn’t long before my blood is singing with battle-frenzy and my bingo dabber is vibrating in my hands with a life of its own. Minutes? Hours? Who can say how long this game has been going on - I’ve lost all track of time. All I know is that I’ve got four dabs in a row in my top-left bingo square, the B-I-N-G of bingo. To complete the line I need an O-57. I can taste blood on my tongue. I mouth a silent prayer. Numbers and more numbers are called. They ricochet back and forth through the hall like flights of angels. Then, incredibly, astoundingly...
“Bingo!” I cry, leaping to my feet and waving my card above my head. “Bing-oooo!”
All eyes turn on me. The breath catches in my throat. I have made myself the centre of attention. The bingo clerk hurries towards me to collect my card. She scoops it up and studies it. The seconds creep by.
Well!? I want to scream. What are you waiting for?
She gives me a look of ultimate exasperation. “This game is a hollywood. You need an H across the square, not a line.” She flashes a “thumbs-down” to the announcer and he steamrolls over my interruption like it never even happened.
I’m numb. I slouch into my chair. I realize that I have dabber ink all over my hands. It’s sticky and hot.
“Sorry,” says the clerk with a shrug, laying the card on the table. She backs away. One number later an old man in smoking calls a bingo. It’s good. The game ends. He stands up and the back-lit coke-clock in the ceiling shines gloriously onto him. He makes his way to the front of the hall to collect his prize, leaving me and everyone else to writhe under the merciless florescent lights. It’s too much for mortal flesh to bear. No cup-o-noodles or bag of popcorn from the snack-bar can console me. I have to get out of here. I offer the dabber back to the woman across the table.
“You keep it, sugarpie. You earned it.” Her tone is mothering, but I don’t want her sympathy. She isn’t even sweating! Her endurance makes me sick. I rise from the table and stumble towards the door.
“Come again!” the bingo girl calls after me, but I’m already passing outside.
Away from the heat and the light, I slump against the building. It’s done. I am no longer a bingo virgin. Every inch of me is smarting and soar. I hug myself tight to catch my breath. My head aches. I look at my watch. 9:15. I’ve only been at this for fifteen minutes? I feel like I’ve aged years. I push away from the wall and start across the parking lot. A gust of wind sends a flurry of leaves racing after me.
Half-way to my car, I pause.
There is a foreign sensation in the very center of my stomach. At first it’s so indistinct I’m not sure what it is. But it grows stronger by the second. When I recognize it I’m both amazed and horrified. I continue towards my car. I unlock the door with shaky fingers and get in.
I want to go back... I want to play bingo games by the dozens...
I start the car and back out of the parking lot.
I want to taste hot bingo ink... I want to massacre armadas of bingo cards... My mouth is watering... Bingo-dabs are dancing in front of me...
I drive down the road. I glance at the rear-view mirror.
On the horizon, the bingo hall shimmers...
I can’t go back. Not after my defeat - I have my pride.
At least, not immediately...
In my pocket, the bingo dabber is buzzing like a bumblebee...
Did I have any plans for tomorrow...?
was born and raised in Victoria, BC. He doesn’t write
as much as he should, and he feels guilty about this,
but the fact is, he’s so busy fighting crime he hasn’t
got much time.