The mood around the BINGO table changed immediately when Mack, the caller, suggested we up the ante to $.50 for the final cover-all game. No more banter. No more snacking on popcorn and sugar cookies. No more knitting, nudging, or rolling of eyes when Mack called out numbers. Such high stakes required focus.
Sad to say, I needed that focus. Until this final round, my $.25 bought two cards and I was distracted - however pleasantly – by all the in-jokes and rivalry among the players. Several times, I realized I’d missed a number that might have cost me a win.
Dave and I were visiting his mother, and the BINGO regulars welcomed us warmly. They are a gracious group, yes, but I think the extra quarters in the pot held even more allure than the pleasure of our company.
Mack is about 58, I’d say. He’s a big guy, a Viet Nam vet, and usually the only man in the game; it was clear he relished Dave’s presence. While he frowned upon conversation among the rest of us, he chattered away to Dave, filling him in on his BINGO background and the stories behind the inside jokes.
Dave, Mack, and I were by far the youngest in this circle of residents at the senior community center. One woman was on oxygen, and two had healthcare workers in attendance. Everyone, except for Dave and me, had brought a good-luck mascot to coax the numbers their way; a motley squadron of trolls, stuffed animals, and charms stood vigil before each card.
With a ping of a bell, the kind used by Victorian hotel receptionists, Mack called us to attention for each game. Some numbers passed without remark or drama, but many sparked a choral response, a snide or slapstick aside, or a performance. The B’s were a minefield of memories and rivalries. If Jane - petite, spectacled, and ladylike - happened to be among us, “B-10” evinced an over-the-glasses glare from Mack. Apparently she’d won a few too many times with that number. When “O-69” was called, Cheryl lifted an invisible trumpet and toot-toot-tooted with gusto. “B-4” required a group response of “…and after.” And “N-44”? With disgust, Mack expelled air between flapping lips in a vigorous Bronx cheer. Barbara, God rest her soul, used to win big with N-44, and one time she asked Mack to change the battery in her hearing aids. His horror at the thought had tainted N-44 for good.
For those within reach of a BINGO win, praying for a particular number, Mack could be cruel. “B-4…” he’d intone, then add at last minute, “…teen.” Oh, so evil! A potential $2.00 win snatched away with that extra syllable!
Mack knew most of the players “favorite” numbers and would glance meaningfully their way when those numbers came up. Over 25 games, I’ve won only once at the center, so he hasn’t caught on to my “B-7.” In 1965, I won $17.00 in a split BINGO win at the Weekapaug Inn, and B-7 has been my hero ever since.
Dave and I love BINGO. It has always been our favorite attraction at the annual Easton Fireman’s Carnival. During the nineties, the town's agricultural heritage was reflected in the corn kernels used as markers on the BINGO cards. Now they use thick, colored, magic markers and tear-off pages – three cards to a page! Near impossible to manage! At Ma’s place, they use the fancy version with the orange slide-down windows.
A cover-all game takes time, and as I said, the four-dollar pot ended any funny business. Mack intoned the letter-number combinations with crisp severity. No one asked him to repeat a call; they didn’t dare ask and they didn’t need to. The tense silence stretched on as a satisfying orange slick covered my card with five-in-a-row-straights and an early “4-corners;” they would have been thrilling developments earlier in the day, irrelevant now when the goal was a cover-all. My chest was tight and I barely drew breath. With only three numbers open, I was so close.
But it was not to be. As is always the finale in this game, a spirit-crushing “BINGO!” rang out from the end of the table accompanied by a resounding chorus of disappointed, “Noooooo’s!”