In which Citizen Jim arrives where Chicken Sheets works and nearly turns her posse against her in fifteen minutes’ time.
At the retirement home where I work, Tuesday is Bingo Day. The rhythm of my entire week is set to the beat of this fact. There can be no Tuesday without Bingo, just as there can be no rain without water, no fire without flames, no headache without a head. If Tuesday ever rolled around and our game didn’t begin precisely at ten o’clock until exactly eleven o’clock, my head would be served on a platter to my elders at noon.
So imagine my shock and dismay this past Tuesday when I noticed it was three minutes after ten and nobody had shown up to play Bingo. I just wrote it off to tired, creaking bones and to beauty salon appointments and to the general forgetfulness that we all suffer from time to time.
Sure, there were some activities we did that my residents needed to be reminded of. But Bingo had never been one of them. By five after the hour, I was a little concerned. I stood up as the nurse walked into the activities area. “Where is everybody?”
She looked right at me and said, “…No, listen. I called the place back and said, ‘I don’t care what you say, this isn’t what I ordered,’ and they said it was the only thing they had on file for me. And I said your files must be some nasty kind of screwed up, and then–“
“What?” I said, very confused by this answer.
“Hold on,” the nurse said. “What?”
“What did you say about the residents?” I asked.
“I didn’t say a damned thing about the residents,” she said, scowling at me. She tapped her ear and put a finger up to her lips to hush me. “I’m on the phone.”
Oh. “It’s ten o’clock and there’s no one here for Bingo,” I said.
The nurse shrugged. “Maybe you need to be giving better prizes,” she said, giving me a “slow blink.” She went back to her Bluetooth conversation without answering my question.
I started walking down the hall, poking my head into every room and calling out each name. The rooms were empty, but as I got further away from the activities area I could hear the faint sound of voices. The faint sound got louder and louder until I found the source.
If I had only wondered where they were before, now I had a new concern: Why were all my residents in the dining room between mealtimes? Also: why were the doors of the dining room closed?
“All right, that pot goes to Mrs. Lincoln,” a voice said. “Everyone ante up.”
“How much?” a woman’s voice asked.
“Same as last time, twenty dollars. Mrs. Lincoln sets the next bet limit.”
“Two dollars,” the voice of Mrs. Lincoln said.
“All right! Two dollars a card–“
“Per point! I want to bet two dollars per point!” said Mrs. Lincoln. “And a five-dollar penalty if you don’t say UNO when you’re supposed to.”
“That’s—wow. I guess you really are in it to win it. Mrs. Lincoln says two dollars a point at the end of the game, five dollars if you don’t say UNO–and don’t forget when the next person goes out, it’s fifty bucks per wild card if you’re holding any.”
I threw open the doors of the dining room to find all my residents seated around a table while Citizen Jim dealt UNO cards in a whirl to each player.
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
Either they didn’t hear me, or everyone was ignoring me.
“Oh, hey Stimpy! We’re just playing some cards here,” said Citizen Jim.
“I can see that!” I said. “It’s Tuesday! We’re all supposed to be playing Bingo right now!”
“Yeah, I think we need to talk to you about Bingo,” said Citizen Jim, winking at the ladies as he dealt out a few more cards. He slammed the draw pile onto the center of the table and turned one over from the top of the deck. “We’re gonna start with a blue five.”
“I’ve only got six cards!”
“You gave me eight!”
Citizen Jim snatched up the draw pile to correct his misdeal. “I’m sorry! It’s not my fault!” he said. “I got distracted by the Prison Matron.”
That got a big laugh. Not from me, but everyone else thought it was hilarious. This gave me a wormy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“I still need to know what’s going on here,” I said.
Mrs. Taft looked at me and said, “No, you need to jump in the game or make yourself scarce.”
“She’s got to ante up,” said Mrs. McKinley, shoving a finger at the center of the table.
Mrs. Hoover also pointed at the pile of money beside the draw deck. “You can’t play if you don’t pay! Come on now! Twenty dollars!”
“But what about Bingo?” I said. “I thought you all loved playing Bingo.”
“Weelllll,” started Mrs. Nixon.
“Ugh,” said Miss Buchanan.
“You got that right, Joanie,” said Mrs. Hoover. “I’ll see your ugh and raise you an ugh.”
“Look here! We can talk about it later,” said Mrs. Lincoln. “Let’s just get on with this game. I’m losing my rent while we’re sitting around talking.”
“I could be losing my job if I let you people keep going with this,” I said. “I’m shutting it down.”
“You see? This is what we were talking about! It’s not just that she won’t give us anything except candy for winning at Bingo,” said Mrs. Nixon.
Mrs. McKinley placed her cards face-down on the table. “Deed honest, she’s a spoilsport about everything we like to do,” she said.
“Yes, I’m definitely starting to see it, now,” Citizen Jim said. “Don’t take it personally–she’s always been a real stick-in-the-mud.”
“She never lets us have the kind of fun we want to have!” said Mrs. Washington.
“I can’t even tell you all the times she’s stopped me from having the kind of fun I wanted to have,” said Citizen Jim, shaking his head.
“And I can’t tell you the lives I’ve saved by stopping him from having the kind of fun he wanted to have,” I said, “and that includes my own!”
Citizen Jim picked up the cards from the middle of the table and threw them at me. “Shut up! You’re drunk!” he shouted.
“And you’re crazy!” I said. “I’m calling security!”
“Oh, dear,” said Miss Buchanan, her chin touching her chest as she hung her shaking head. “This does not bode well.”
The women started plucking their twenty-dollar bills from the pile on the table and within a few minutes they’d started shuffling, rolling, and electric-scootering out of the dining room.
“Everything’s ready for the Bingo game,” I called down the hall as they slowly made their ways. “I’ll be there in two minutes!”
None of them turned around, but they weren’t shy about making their complaints heard.
“We want real prizes from now on!”
“We’ll all have sugar diabetes before all’s said and done!”
“We want nice hand lotions!”
“That’s right! Real prizes!”
“Soft toilet paper!”
This last demand started a chant that went on even as they meandered out of sight.
“No candy! We want cash! No candy! We want cash!”
That wormy feeling in my stomach was snaking out into other parts of my body, now.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself, parceling out fun-size Snickers bars and Hershey Miniatures to those sweet ladies when they beat the odds and get a Bingo,” Citizen Jim said. “Don’t you know they’re the real American heroes?”
I was too busy gathering UNO cards off the dining room floor to dignify Citizen Jim’s babbling with the attention he craved like a booze hound craves whiskey.
“How did you even get past security into the building?” I asked.
“Hahaha! That’s pretty funny,” Citizen Jim said, sweeping the now-abandoned cards off the table just as I finished picking up the ones he’d thrown at me. “All I had to do to get waved through the security gate was hand that guy in the guard shack two quarters, a box of Luden’s cough drops, and a Conway Twitty cassette.”
“I don’t have time to deal with you right now,” I said, “but I will. You can count on that.”
Citizen Jim started walking away, but stopped and turned around. “Oh, and hey–don’t be mad, but they’ll probably be asking you about your wedding. I kind of told them you’d finally tricked some poor man into marrying you. I said you ordered him from a catalog on the Internet. His name is Boris Buttchiko. He’s from Belarus.”
I grabbed the UNO cards off the table where I’d placed them and flung the entire deck at Citizen Jim as he ran away from me.
I left them where they lay. I knew if I didn’t start calling the Bingo game soon, they’d be rioting out in the parking lot. And I wasn’t sure how to enter that activity onto their charts.