Jac Jemc


Phyllis laid out the lucky charms before her: the green mini beanie baby bear, the purple mini beanie baby bear (released in commemoration of Princess Diana’s death), the statue of the Virgin Mary that had been her mother’s, the small strand of jingle bells, and the spider toy she’d watched her upstairs neighbor, the young boy, playing with on the front stoop, before carelessly leaving behind when his mother called him up for dinner.

She felt a pang of guilt looking at the spider, but then remembered it was that same little boy who kept her awake as he stomped around without a care, heavy-soled and monstrous, as she lay in bed wide-eyed, exhausted but absent of the instinct necessary to lose consciousness. Even on the quiet nights–the nights when she couldn’t hear a single sign of life above her–she stared at the dim ceiling, praying and telling herself not to think about the possibility that the footsteps and high-pitched whining could start at any moment. The anxiety was enough to keep her awake until it was nearly light out.

Phyllis had purchased the minimum number of bingo cards, which still seemed like a heck of a lot to her. 18 cards on a single sheet. She pulled out her bright blue dauber and got to work on filling out the bulk of the coverall numbers she saw already up on the board. Phyllis sat alone, in front of the women she’d dubbed Henny and Penny. Henny and Penny talked non-stop, narrated every little thing that happened. Henny made a soft cooing noise every time she stamped her dauber down and Penny spoke the name of the most recently called number aloud like it was the most interesting thing she’d ever heard.

At the table beside her sat Carlo and his mother-in-law, Bette. Carlo rented one of the computers with 144 cards. Phyllis thought the computers took the fun out of the game. When was the last time I saw someone win without a computer? She tried to force herself not to think about it. She was on a strict budget and the $15 for the 18-On pack was all she could afford. It’s more about the fun and anticipation than the winning, she told herself, though wouldn’t it be nice if just once she got a return on her investment? Computers, she thought, were basically cheating. Only the true gamblers paid for a computer, like the women at the river boat who pressed the button on the slot machine instead of pulling the lever, so anxious for the rush they couldn’t even bother to anticipate.

Phyllis waited for this night every week. She slogged through her schedule of television shows each evening, drifting off more often than not, left to dream about the resolution of each episode. Thursday nights, though, represented the climax of the week. Getting on the bus down to the bingo hall caused a particular sense of eager freedom to rush through her. As she descended the stairs into the fluorescent church basement, the humid, artificially air-conditioned atmosphere felt at once comforting and disappointing. As she walked through the double doors, she’d glance around at the people already there, seeing them for the sad and lonely individuals they were, but only in flashes. Her eyes would focus in and out feeling joy in the recognition that this was the best night of the week for many, and palpable anxiety that in the span of the next two hours, the night would be over. The church basement was run down, but she only noticed it for the first few moments. Like quickly adjusting to the smell of another person’s home, she shifted from seeking out tiles that needed replacing and paint that needed touching up, and focused, instead, on the bright Bingo board, displaying the first of the numbers, already posted to keep the early birds occupied.

The big tension of routine is what kept her coming back. She had a bad heart, and she wondered about getting herself worked up, but a woman can only take so many milquetoast evenings full of fill-in puzzles and word jumbles and hour-long police procedurals. If this was the way she would go, then so be it. Stanley had died years ago and she had waited long enough to with him again.

When the first winner was called, the applause was light. A volunteer ran over, her apron full of pull-tabs, to look at the screen of the woman’s computer. People had torn off the top sheet of their packs and were stuffing them into the trash bags taped to their tables before the winner had even confirmed; the computers were never wrong. Phyllis watched as the player’s friend nodded in approval at the win, unable to muster even more enthusiasm than that.

Phyllis began daubing her free spaces on the next card. The typical rustling that happened between games rose up, until Phyllis felt a small thrill at seeing a number come up on the monitor, unnoticed by others. She marked off her spaces and quietly folded her hand around the small string of jingle bells. When the caller finally sang out, “I-22,” it was Phyllis that led the charge with her bells. Phyllis felt the luck rise in her. 22 was her number and she would prove it. If she won, it was possible that she might avoid the vicious boiling down of her choices for an entire week. She might buy the nicer brand of decaf coffee at the store. She might treat herself to the full rack of ribs from the takeout place on the corner so that she’d have leftovers for lunch the next day. She might sift through the bin at the dollar store and pick out a new pearlescent pink nail polish to cover the white, hard ridges that had started showing up on her nails.

Phyllis didn’t need to focus when she was daubing her numbers. Her mind could wander. She could think of all of the fortune she’d had in her life, all the loving family that surrounded her, even if their visits fell few and far between. As the next BINGO was called, she ripped off her top sheet and placed it into her trash bag. She remembered when she’d started coming to play, how she’d thought what a waste it was that each player had their own plastic trash bag, but it wasn’t long before she’d blinded herself to this detail, too.

Her son: she missed. He lived far out in the suburbs and had health problems of his own. He was mostly homebound, but he rarely answered the phone. She wondered who he thought he was fooling. Her grandson, Tip, in his early thirties, came to visit every couple weeks. He brought her a few items she couldn’t round up in her neighborhood, and sometimes cookies from the Polish store or French crullers from the donut chain. She liked both equally in theory, but on a given day she always hoped for one more than the other, and had trouble not letting him know if he brought the wrong treat.  When he visited, she always ended up running through her list of ailments, past and present. She rambled off the list of surgeries she’d had. She showed him her arthritic hands and rolled up her pant leg so he could see the swollen bulb of her knee. It was during these visits that she made up for the lost time of being alone for at least 22 hours of each day. She spoke non-stop for his two-hour visits. She had to; he was near silent. She wondered at how young people got by without the art of conversation. In her mind, a story retold trumped silence. The one where her grandson slipped on the droppings in the chicken run. The one where he said nonsensical things that turned out to be true and profound. The one where he would play with her best friend’s son. Oh no, that must have been her own son, and not Tip. Silly her. Now that he was grown, Tip reminded her so much of her son, Alvin. Who would blame her for getting them confused?

Phyllis programmed her mind to the next version of the game that was called: Postage Stamp. Four numbers in a small square in any corner of a card. The numbers began appearing on the small screen before they were called and she got to work. Very quickly, BINGO was called at the table next to her. A young woman, an amateur, Phyllis thought silently, was beaming and holding up her card. Even with Phyllis’ eyesight what it was though, she could see it was a false call. The girl had a regular bingo, not the postage stamp she was supposed to be looking for. Phyllis shook her head and thought back to when she was just starting and she’d made a false call. It was embarrassing enough that it gave her an extra rush of adrenaline in future games: the pressure not to draw undue attention racing through her system as she double-checked her card before silently raising her hand.

She was also equally embarrassed to call BINGO when it was a legitimate winner; a sadness accompanied the motion to ending a particular game, a sense of letting the rest of the group down, taking away the private hope of the others in the room to bask in her own singular success, one game closer to the end of the night.

Phyllis daubed and let her mind drift to her home and how to empty it. She thought about what she could give to her grandson to make the space blanker and easier to clean. She remembered a three-tier cookie tray she could offer him to give to his girlfriend.

She clucked at Henny and Penny paying fifty cents for a small bowl of popcorn the volunteers popped on the cafeteria stovetop, and listened to them coo over it for the next three games. “Doesn’t that just hit the spot?” Henny said, and, like clockwork, Penny responded, “Right on the nose. Isn’t this a treat?”

Phyllis always felt a bit stunned by how quickly the evening broke up after the last Bingo was called. She packed her dauber and lucky charms into the free tote she’d gotten from the library, and by the time she looked up, most everyone else had gone. She worked her way slowly to the door and up the wide stairs, one rise at a time.

The heavy doors were propped open, letting in the heat and the thick sound of cicadas weighing down the night. “Going so soon?” Don said. Don, in his polo shirt and ball cap, stood there all evening, every week. She smiled politely at Don and felt the urge to ask him if he knew her name. She felt the urge to ask him, “What is it you do here exactly?” But instead she said, “I’ll see you next week then,” and Don nodded once.

As she walked to the bus stop, she looked up at the dim sky, at the deep contrast of the power lines against it. She passed an alley and heard a rigid skittering, half-hoping she’d see a rat, but found none. She passed a house where children still jumped about the yard, even at that hour, and didn’t allow herself to wonder at how their parents were raising them.

On the bus, a young man careened wildly around, stumbling up to people, trying to make conversation. He bumped her shoulder and apologized, hollered up to the driver to learn how to drive, placing blame for his own lack of control. As he passed, she said a prayer for the young man, and chided herself for feeling inconvenienced by his misfortune. She rang for her stop, and the bus driver wished her a good night. She waited for the hiss of air to indicate the bus had knelt itself down to deliver her more safely to the curb.

At her house, she opened the screen door and, on impulse, gave the rotten wood of her front door a swift kick, breaking through the bottom panel. She felt an immediate satisfaction that she no longer needed to live in fear of someone else doing the same. She locked the screen door and slept without fear.

The next day, while Phyllis waited for the handyman to come fix the door, her neighbor stopped by to bring tomatoes from her garden. They chatted on the front porch for a while, Phyllis wondering if she should invite her neighbor in, but worried about making her feel obligated to stay. They talked about the family across the street whose television had been stolen the week before, and the neighbor shook her head sadly. “I don’t lock my door because of criminals and thieves. They’ll find a way to get in,” the neighbor said. “I lock my door because of the good people faced with unexpected opportunity.” Phyllis nodded, but inside she felt turned around. She tried to wrap herself around what her friend had said, but couldn’t make it work.

She tuned out what her neighbor was saying and looked up the street to see the upstairs tenant approaching, pushing her son in his stroller, passed out from the heat and excitement of a trip to the park. So gentle-looking compared to the monster she imagined bumping around above her each night, and it was then Phyllis thought of his spider, the boy’s toy she’d found and claimed as her own lucky charm. She thought of chance and opportunity, honesty and integrity. For a moment she could see herself clearly, but just as quickly, she looked away.