The place smelled like overcooked green beans and dirty rinse-water. The way all school cafeterias smelled, even at night when the long, metal tables were set end-to-end in parallel rows with metal chairs facing the rear of the room.
“B–3,” Courtney Wilson called from her perch behind the Formica desk directly under the large, round clock. She leaned over to mark one of the cards spread neatly in front of her. “B–3,” she repeated loudly, and waited.
Harry glanced around, fidgeting in the uncomfortable seat. The place brought back ancient memories. He looked down at his three cards to check again. He had no “B–3.”
“A full house tonight,” Colette said, bumping Harry’s right shoulder with her left. “Must be at least fifty people here. Two buses worth.”
Harry grunted. He didn’t like Colette, or many of the other retirees from his Golden Palms Independent Living Community.
“Not doing so good tonight, Harry,” Randy Messinger said from his left. “Not a single one, not a single hit.”
“N–42,” Courtney, their entertainment coordinator, yelled, her voice cracking. “N–42,” she tried again.
“Oh, oh, oh,” Colette panted. She ceremoniously lowered her hot-pink dauber and pressed firmly on the square under the letter “N” with the number “42″ inside. She raised the marker, leaving a hot-pink blotch behind. “One more to go!” she said in a loud, sibilant whisper.
Harry shook his head. How was this possible? No “N-42.” All three of his cards remained free of his own red, indelible splotches. He was getting frustrated. He tried to tamp down the annoyance. It’s just a game. Stupid Bingo. I didn’t even want to come, he thought. But he was bored, and even riding a school bus to this place was better than sitting alone in his small, empty house.
“O–63,” the cloying voice of Mrs. Wilson announced. “O–63.”
Harry closed his eyes. He heard “Yes!” and “Okay!” and “Yay!” and “Alright!” from around the room. He was almost afraid to look. He squinted and peeked at each of his cards in turn. His teeth clenched, he felt his blood pressure soar. No “O–63.” Nothing. Nada. What the fuck? he said to himself. Is that you, Arsine? he asked silently. “Are you doing this?”
“Am I doing what?” Randy asked, then laughed. “You missed again? Har, har, you gotta little dark cloud over your head, don’t-cha buddy.”
Harry felt his face darken. Okay, Arsine, you may be dead, but I know your style, he silently said. You promised, we both promised, we wouldn’t goof around. He peered carefully at his cards; they seemed to blur, flow, and coalesce once more as he watched. “Mmm, hmmm,” he mumbled through his grinding teeth. Arsine, it ain’t funny, sweetheart. Harry immediately saw that his middle card displayed a diagonal of red dots, and the second column from the right, too, was completely marked except one square. The number “47.” Two down, and two in. He slid his eyes to either side, expecting some kind of outburst from his neighbors. But no one seemed to notice.
Courtney called “B–7″ and “G-52″ and “I–18.” Someone at the back, near the locked doors to the cafeteria kitchen, screamed, “Bingo!!!” but then in a moment, said, “No, I’m sorry!” There was an uncomfortable silence broken only by the whirring of two large floor-fans near the windows.
Courtney Wilson scrunched up her features, a sign that she was displeased. “Well,” she said, putting her chubby fists on her ample hips. “It sure is taking you-all long enough to get a Bingo!” As no one answered, she moved once again to the little cage with the numbered balls, and cranked the handle. She opened the trap, reached in. “Well, I sure hope this one is a winner for someone,” she said. And she absently read, “M–47.” As she heard the low rumble of confusion, she sucked in her breath, stared at the ball, and read again, “M–47?!?” She brought the ball close, then held it at arm’s length. She adjusted her glasses. “What?” she said.
Harry tilted his head and gazed at his middle card. Yes, it did, it did indeed read “B-I-N-M-O” along the top. And “M–47″ was just the number he needed. “BINGO!” Harry shouted, then said, “No, I mean BINMO,” and fell back in his chair, laughing.
Colette and Randy both stood at once and bent over his cards. “What in the hell is that?” Randy asked, jabbing his forefinger at the “M.” Colette started waving her arms, “Mrs. Wilson, Mrs. Wilson, Harry is cheating. Come over here!”
“Arsine,” Harry said, wiping his eyes, “I miss you.” And he squeezed his lids shut, concentrated, and put everything back the way it was supposed to be. He also erased all their memories of the last few minutes for good measure.
A moment later, Courtney Wilson cried, “G–47,” and Colette whistled between her dentures. “Look Harry,” she said, punching him in the arm, “you got one!”