Published on D Magazine
I don’t remember the last time I prayed. but inside this place, surrounded by a thick cloud of smoke that penetrates everything and everybody, I feel a sudden urge to do just that. Not a formal prayer but more of a plea that the bald man—the one who chain-smokes cigarettes and washes down that burn with coffee so dark the liquid shines as black as crows’ eyes—gives me what I need.
His calm, matter-of-fact tone is soothing. He says, “Thank you,” after someone gives him his cut. A tip, for speaking softly into the microphone amplifying his voice across this large room. Speakers beneath once-white ceiling tiles that have turned different shades of beige. The carpet, if it wasn’t already a dark hue, would be equally stained from all the smoke. Everything in here looks ruined.
The first time I saw this bingo hall was on a Saturday morning two years ago, from across the street, while getting my state inspection sticker. My wife and I had just moved from the Village, in Dallas, where we felt too old, to Arlington, which is more like my hometown of Juárez, Mexico. There aren’t as many squirrels here. It feels familiar. That morning, while waiting, I saw the large building on Pioneer Parkway. Despite the sign suggesting “Come Join the Fun,” it looked abandoned, like it was once a large department store that could have been the centerpiece of a proud neighborhood. But decades later, the building looked so decrepit that I couldn’t imagine it had once been new. Buildings aren’t constructed to house bingo halls. They get built for something else. When that something else fails, bingo moves in.
There’s a 99 Cents Only store next to the bingo hall. Next to that is a check cashing place. A bit farther and there’s a Jack in the Box that never closes even though nothing good ever happens there after sundown. This is where bingo halls exist. Anywhere else and they’d be as unseemly as fast food restaurants or military recruitment stations in an affluent part of the city.
My mother used to play bingo. We lived in Colorado, where, during the winter, the sun set at such an early hour that it felt ungodly. The Army stationed my father there, about a nine-hour drive from our home and family. A couple of times each year, the Army would take him on monthlong training exercises. When my father left, it was just my mother, little brother, and me. As a child, I spent many evenings inside bingo halls with Mom. That’s why, as soon as I saw the bingo hall in Arlington—with its large BINGO! sign in faded red and yellow—I thought of her. I thought about how, in the parts of American cities where you hear more Spanish than English, she had confidence. She spoke for herself. Outside of those enclaves, though, she was lost.
“Dile, Roberto, dile que”—tell them, Roberto, tell them that—she’d begin each of her frustrated sentences. Because she didn’t speak English and her young son had to translate for her, she felt we were being judged. Or worse. When you don’t know what’s said, every conversation around you sounds conspiratorial. Every half-smile accompanying a dumbed-down explanation of why certain items aren’t eligible for layaway looks like a mixture of pity and disgust. And yet, partly through playing bingo, she learned to pronounce words and letters. I remember the joy in her voice on the few nights we drove home after she’d won. “Gracias a Dios,” she’d say, thanking God for answering her prayers.
Play bingo once for money that offers weeks of financial relief, and you understand why its popularity rose during the Great Depression. And because it doesn’t require skill so much as sheer luck, you also understand why some play with a talisman within arm’s reach.
So, after driving past the bingo hall for two years, I came to play. In here, I can hear the soft mumblings that sound like prayers. The same prayers I, having made peace with my hypocrisy, also silently recite. “Please, God,” I think. I still can’t remember the last time I earnestly said those two words. “Please, God, B9.”
The B9 ball would mean I’d be able to mark the bottom left-hand corner of my bingo card with my blue dauber. With that ball, I’d not only fill the entire B column but also the bottom row. That, along with the N column already filled would mean I’d have a triple bingo and win the highest prize, $750. Theoretically, one can win $10,000 a day here. But to ask for that much feels greedy. Praying to win $750 sounds measured.
The closer one gets to winning, the more one makes plans for spending the money. One feels a hope. I would pay some bills, buy something nice for my wife and daughter, send some money to my mother. Or maybe I won’t tell anyone. I can spend it all on myself.
“I need this money,” I think with each ball sucked out of that low-humming vacuum contraption. The bingo balls make a soft thumping sound when they land at their resting place. The bingo caller then rotates the ball toward the camera so all can see on the television screens hanging in the corners and middle sections of the room. No B9 ball again, but I need it. To lose it—something that was never mine, something that everyone in here also wants—would be a disappointment.
B9. Say it, you son of a bitch. Whisper it softly into the microphone so I can yell out, “Bingo!” and hear others curse me the way I’ve cursed those who’ve won. I want to feel that envy. I want to feel what it’s like to hold back a cackle of greed or a devilish smile as I watch the cash getting paid on the spot. Those $20 and $50 bills rapidly peeled off a stack and placed on the picnic table in front of me. I want to win despite what may come.
I wonder: what if winning does more harm than good? Win once and maybe I’ll spend the rest of my life chasing that high. First, I’ll play a few nights each week. Then every night. When that’s not enough, I’ll play a few days each week at noon. Then every day. I’ll mark my birthday by taking advantage of the opportunity to play for a penny on that special day. I’ll eventually come here for the New Year’s Eve special. Then Valentine’s Day. Then every holiday after that until Christmas. I’ll play so much that no matter how hard I scrub my hands, the blue ink from the dauber will never wash off my fingers. Nor will I be able to rid the smell of cigarette smoke from my hands since, already here and surrounded by it, I’ll also start chain-smoking—the way my mother did when she played and prayed inside a place like this.
I overthink many things. I can feel when it’s happening. Perhaps everyone in here is happy while my dark thoughts force me to smile at the absurdity that I might lose everything I’ve gained because of a game. Bingo, of all things, which doesn’t even require speaking English to play. Bingo, of all things, makes me miss my mother. I think that if I miss her that much, I could just call or even drive those nine hours to visit more often.
But at this point, those thoughts aren’t as important as winning. I can’t remember wanting anything more than this. “God, let B9 be the next bingo ball and I’ll never ask for—”
After you hear that yell, you see a wave of disappointment roll across the entire room. Many look up to find the face that goes with the voice. Sometimes you hear curses from the same mouths that mumbled prayers just a moment before. A few throw their hands up and declare, to no one in particular, which ball they needed. They, too, had hope. They likely made plans for that money.
Hear that yell—“Bingo!”—and you feel betrayed. By your talisman, by those daydreams that happen at night, by the old security guard staring at you after you finally look away from the person counting their cash. Betrayed and forsaken by those unanswered prayers that turn bingo, that simplest of games, into something dark and cruel.