Millicent was one of the four o'clock regulars, a face known well at the Bingo Hall. Every Sunday and Tuesday she'd be there, at the corner table on the right hand side, in the middle of the rows perpendicular to the Caller she'd sit, her small army of trolls and porcelain houses lined up in formation, each having its own particular station from which it would best transmit its special powers.
She'd buy books of five boards across and three down for a total of fifteen sets of numbers, just the right amount for her to keep busy, but not so many that she'd be frantically looking. She'd keep track with the numbers posted on the electronic board, and watched the t.v. monitors that showed each ball as it came out so she'd always be one step ahead.
When she first started bingo they used printed wooden boards and small translucent plastic circles in colours of red, blue, green and yellow. Now the boards came in paper sheets glued together in books and you dab them with ink in fluorescent shades, some even gold or silver. She'd be hard pressed to say which method is better, for the paper is wasted whereas boards and plastic chips last a lifetime. In fact she still had her chips somewhere. But this method was faster, more accurate, and the prizes are bigger now.
She was much younger when she started going with the girls on the block on Saturday nights at the Catholic Church down the street. They'd take turns minding the children while the others played, and they always shared the winnings with the one who was left behind. It worked well for ten years, the decade in which their children grew from toddlers to teenagers, and they went from young to middle-aged.
So much happened during those years. She thought of Amy giving birth to a still-born son then swearing off sex forever; Amy's husband moving in with somebody else who gave birth to three sons in succession.
Millicent remembered the night when, over too much wine Amy told her that no living soul could replace the one who had lived inside her, that she believed they were joined by a spiritual umbilical cord for her son had never known life outside her womb and now she was just waiting and yearning for the day she could join him in heaven.
Millicent never had the heart to ask Amy who was holding him now, or what if still-born babies came back to earth right away for another chance at life, or worse yet, what if there is nothing after death, nothing at all?
All that is moot, Millicent thought as she set up her dabbers and cards. Amy died of cancer four years ago, not once losing her belief and now Millicent liked to think that Amy was up there in a bright nursery cradling her baby eternally. There were days that she wished her own children had stayed babies; life was much sweeter then.
Millicent played bingo alone now, no longer the young mother taking time out from her children. Two of her friends left the city, three got divorced and moved into apartments across town, Amy and Joan were dead. She didn't know her new neighbours better than to say hello.
Things had changed, that was for sure. Almost no one stayed home to raise kids anymore; the streets that once rang with the sounds of little ones playing are silent and still during the day. She felt obsolete for she'd never worked and probably couldn't find a job if she wanted one, being nearly sixty with no experience at all.
Her revery ended with the announcement that the early bird draws were starting in five minutes, last chance for the snack bar! The anticipation rose; women rushed back to their seats, pop in hand, cigarettes burning in ashtray, the jackpot about to be theirs. Like all seasoned gamblers, the regulars got down to business right away, rarely talking, knowing that not concentrating meant possibly missing a number and losing the prize through their error.
Blessed by their trolls and rabbit feet and their optimism they all planned that today they would win big, and could finally pay for a trip or a down payment for a car, or maybe just fritter it away.
Millicent had another reason for wanting to win the special. One she'd held in her heart for a while and thought, now I'd be brave enough to do it, if only I had the money.
Last time she'd read in the Bingo News of an annual tournament in a town called Golden, near the American border. The prize was one million dollars it said. She'd never heard of a town called Golden, nor of any annual tournament, though she supposed that she probably hadn't paid any attention to it before because she would never have allowed herself the luxury of contemplating such an expensive and frivolous thing.
But last week her husband Charlie came home with the news that he had been offered early retirement and he would be home all the time, effective December 1st. She greeted the announcement with a tight-lipped "How nice," while in her heart she saw the door of her cell clang shut before her and knew that there would be no parole or pardon for the good little housewife.
That night after supper as he sat watching baseball, a rum and coke in hand, she went out to the backyard and prayed to the darkness for something to save her from the man on the sofa she'd long ago forgotten how to love.
Her children were grown, sweet Emily living in Vancouver and working as a nurse, son John married and living in Toronto. She hardly ever saw them at all. And of course with her friends gone she was very much alone so she enjoyed peaceful days reading and going for walks in the park. That will be taken from her as she catered to her husband with no time left for herself.
"God," she whispered to the moon and the stars, "if you are there, please listen. I've never asked much of you, not even when Emily came down with that horrible fever and I thought she would die, but I'm asking you now to tell me what to do. Just a sign would be good, I can do the rest. You see it's like this Lord, Charlie's retiring soon and I don't want him around. It's not what it sounds like, I don't want him dead, it's just that we don't know each other any more. He goes to work, comes home and just sits there drinking 'till he passes out on the couch. He's done it for years. It used to bother me a lot Lord, I tried counselling and you see how that worked, and Oh Lord, I'd rather live with the loneliness of being alone than the loneliness of living with a stranger all day every day for the rest of my life." She cried for a while, then took a deep breath.
"Lord can I ask you to show me the way to find peace? I'm not asking for happiness, you get only what you deserve and I know I've done nothing to be entitled to that. Anyway, it's not a man I'm after, not at my age. All I want is my own quiet corner to live out the rest of my days, doing what I like to do."
And then Charlie roared, "Where the hell are you, Mil?" and she went back inside, thinking, now I've left my prayer unended, I've forgotten to say Amen.
When the early bird draws were done Millicent was no richer than before, but that was okay for the prizes were small, barely enough to make up the money she'd spent. Today she needed much more than that, she needed to win just enough to take her to Golden and to win the one million or perhaps five hundred thousand so she could live well for the rest of her life. The idea of not being dependent on anyone filled her with such a comforting glow.
She even had a plan all worked out she'd tell Charlie; she'd say Erma invited her over to see her new apartment in Paradise Towers. She hadn't spoken to Erma in over six years but Charlie had never shown any interest in her friends and wouldn't know that.
"I feel lucky," the blonde woman next to her said, "I think the jackpot is mine. You know why? Because my old man and I, we need to get away. My last kid's just gone to college so there's no reason not to. Just to spend one week on a boat somewhere warm with my man, oh wouldn't that be wonderful."
Sounds like torture to me, she thought to herself, and me, I've said a prayer. You'll just have to wait until next week my dear, 'cause this time it's mine. She smiled shyly to the woman then said, "Oh look, they're starting the regular games. Good luck."
"Same to you," the woman replied as she lit up a cigarette. "What will you do if you win?"
"I'd go to a place called Golden. B5, did you get that?"
On the third game she won $100 for having two lines, and on the fifth her neighbour won $200. "A weekend away!" she exclaimed.
At last came the seventh game, the $3000 one, with consolation prize of $1000 if you don't win in 52 numbers. Millicent needed only two on the 48th number; when they called G59 she felt faint, only one number to go. On the 51st number a little old lady in the front row jumped up yelling "Bingo!". The board was checked and good so Millicent's chance was lost. But not completely, for there was still the remaining prizes of $100, $50, $1000 and $500.
She kissed the green haired troll. The lady beside her stifled a laugh. "We all have reasons to win," Millicent told her, "and I need at least three hundred dollars."
She nodded and lit another cigarette. The next game began and ended, no luck. Same with the game after that. The $1000 prize went to a bald man two tables over. There remained only the $500 to be won. Millicent said a quick little prayer, remembering this time the Amen.
They called fifty numbers, she needed only one, and then, hand shaking, her dabber coloured I17 and she heard her own voice cry Bingo! and another from the back of the room called the same. The boards were checked and both were good. At least she'd won $350 today, and that was just enough.
"Your lucky day!" the woman said cheerfully, "And mine too. Well, see you next week, perhaps we'll do even better then, eh?"
Next week I'll be in Golden, she thought, making all of my dreams come true. Enjoy your weekend away, lady, and I hope that I never see you or this Bingo Hall again.
That night while her husband snored she counted her winnings twice, still stunned by her fortune. In her purse was the page about Golden, and with her money stashed carefully in a sock in her drawer, she read over the details again.
The tickets were $200 it said, to keep down the number of players. Millicent thought, if I had $200 to throw away on bingo normally, I'd never need to play it at all. But here I am, with heaven sent money and I'll be on that bus if it's the last thing I do.
She ordered her ticket the next morning after Charlie had gone off to work. She wondered, as she often did, how he could get up for work at all after drinking nearly a mickey of rum the night before, but he did, every day, and she assumed he performed as he was supposed to because he'd never been fired or disciplined that she knew of. How did he do it? She didn't care. Not anymore. She had a seat on the bus.
She picked up her tickets on Wednesday, cleaned house and packed on Thursday, fed her husband his favourite dinner on Friday - rib roast and pan fried potatoes. Then she told him about Erma, he grunted his assent and she spent the rest of the night in happiness knowing tomorrow morning at 8:00 she'd be off.
She met the bus at the shopping mall parking lot, where there were others just like her, clinging to the dream of the freedom of wealth and the excitement of just possibly winning it.
She overheard conversations; some couples were hard-core addicts who spent all of their spare cash on bingo; others, like her seat-mate were single mothers looking for money to have some time off work. This young woman had won enough for a new car at the reserve a few weeks ago, and with what she had left over, she was going to Golden because she was tired of being a clerk.
They talked for awhile and then both fell asleep while the bus travelled on to their destination. At eleven o'clock they were checked into the motel, and then back on the bus for the big game ahead. It started at twelve, and there was food to be had so the only thing they needed to do was to get there.
They pulled up to a huge white square building that looked like a warehouse, with a high roof that was pointed in the centre. A lightening rod attached to this gave the impression of a church steeple and Millicent smiled, thinking, surely this must be a place of worship for those of us who have dreams.
Inside was large enough to accommodate five hundred players or more, and like most Bingo Halls there were electronic boards and t.v. monitors, people selling extra boards who also doubled as checkers, and a snack bar that sold everything from popcorn to chili.
Millicent had never seen a hall so big and looked to find her favourite spot. All see could see was podium, with a lectern of burnished wood and she thought that had to be the caller's corner. So she walked the length of the hall to this area, promptly set up her trolls and houses and sheets; once established she went to the snack bar to get a sandwich before the games began.
The air was electric as noontime approached. The loud chatter of hundreds together died down to an expectant hum. The lights dimmed slightly and a squeal of feedback from a microphone announced to all that the tournament was starting.
A thin black-haired man sporting a goatee stepped up to the lectern. The crowd burst into applause to which he responded with a smile and a slightly raised hand.
A hush fell on the crowd. Millicent felt this was very strange. She wasn't sure she liked the wiry caller, and she'd never seen people so mesmerized as they were. But then again, she'd never been to such a high stakes game before.
All eyes were fixed on the man, glistening with excitement. Give into the mood, Milly, she thought, you're here to have fun, it's what you prayed for, so go with it.
And she did.
"Welcome friends," said the man in a voice as smooth and as deep as an underground lake, "we're in for a special day. Very special indeed. This is our first annual tourney and that is perhaps why many of you have never heard of our fair town. But not to worry! Before this day is through, I'm sure you'll all feel like you've known us forever! We've invited you, " he thundered with a wave of his arm, "yes, you! Because you are no ordinary players. Any blue haired babe can play bingo, but you have transcended this simple little pastime into the marvellous, glorious gamble it is! No mere church basement for you, you seek a cathedral to work your magic of numbers and colour and chance! You are the dreamers of dreams and takers of risk - you yearn for the best, the biggest, the most. And we, your humble servants are here to grant your innermost wishes, there's something for everyone! LET THE GAMES BEGIN!" He roared to the crowd's approval; the hall was wild with cheering and the stamping of feet.
Millicent thought, that man is crazy, and these people aren't far behind him. Why am I here? I don't understand this at all.
And then the sound of balls bouncing was amplified through the building and seasoned player that she was, she grabbed her dabber. The electronic boards flashed on in bright neon, the t.v.s hummed to life and a battalion of bettors sat poised at the ready, their markers awaiting the call of the ball.
"B2!" the man said and all were absorbed in the game.
By the seventh game, Millicent had lost track of the winners. There was always two or three, and the combinations were strange - inside squares, outside squares, full card and consolation; cross, star, triangle, board; she had to admit this whole thing was far beyond her comprehension.
By the twelfth game she was tired and nervous, for the prizes so far had been $50,000, $100,000, and $25,000 and more and the winnings weren't shared. She didn't know how this small town could afford it; surely the house was losing, didn't they know the prizes should never exceed the take in order to make a profit?
By the twentieth game she was starting to worry, for after each win the winners were led from the hall. Their numbers had thinned noticeably and even the elegant dinner of lightly steamed vegetables and smoked salmon, handed out free no less, did nothing to make Millicent more comfortable.
By the fiftieth game there were twenty souls left, scattered singly throughout the hall. But while Millicent was tired, the million hadn't been won yet, so she stayed just to see who would get it. At this point she was hoping for only enough to make back the cost of the trip.
By the sixtieth, there were only two of them, just her and a man in the centre. Millicent was exhausted, could barely keep her eyes open, and unnerved from coming so close to so much money her whole body was shaking. In the back of her mind lurked the thought that everyone in here had left a winner and now it was only herself and that man. There was always subsidiary prizes so this would really be a game to the last. But the difference with bingo is, the first winner is not the one who wins the whole pot.
This game was unusual, it called for an inside diamond and then a whole card. Quite possibly the full card could come first, Millicent thought, but even if it doesn't happen that way, they could be playing for ages.
And then the balls were rolling and Millicent, remembering the reason she was here, said to herself, I've lasted this long, the million just has to be mine.
The man called the numbers, his voice clear and cool as when just begun, reverberating in the near empty hall; I27 came up and the other player leapt to his feet. Bingo!
Millicent could barely contain her excitement. The million dollars! She only needed three more numbers.
"Well dear, here we are," said the caller, "just you alone, doing what you love most. So many happy memories. Happy! Are you happy?"
She nodded her head, hand poised for the final numbers.
"Are you ready to go?"
She put her dabber down. "Sir, why are we doing this?" she asked him. "I'm the only one left. Haven't I already won?"
"Not 'till your board is filled. Until then, it's just you and me. Are you ready?"
"Yes," she sighed, "I'm ready."
"Okay. Under the I, 19. Under the N, 37. Under the O, five hundred and seventy-two."
"Wait!" She cried out. "That can't be!"
"It most certainly can dear," he replied sweetly, "this is Golden, and we do things our own way here. Haven't you noticed?"
"O nine thousand and forty-two!" He shrieked, one hundred numbers later.
"Sir, won't you just let me go home?"
"Why lady," he intoned, his eyes burning red, "we give you everything you ask for. Didn't you say you wanted to be alone? Didn't you say you wanted to do what you liked? Aren't we doing that now?"
"Oh dear God," she screamed, "that's not what I meant!"
She ran for the door.
The aisles seemed longer than she remembered and she ran and ran until there was nothing left to do but crawl, the whole while the man calling numbers like J274 and Q9749 when, hands bleeding, she reached the door.
It was locked.
"Oh please," she yelled, "just let me go. Let me out! I don't care about your money! Take it! Take it all!"
Cruel cackling laughter filled the hall. "You've won! Don't you know you've won? You'll play your cards forever and ever Amen! Don't you feel like a winner? DON'T YOU?"
She slumped against the door crying, her head against her arm. A lifetime of abuse passed through her mind; first her father with his leather strap, then the years of bitter fighting and stony silence with her husband. All she wanted was to be free. She dared to wish for such a simple thing; didn't she know that for her this was not to be?
And then a white rage infused her, burning. Slowly she stood and turned to face the man. When she laid eyes on him, in her mind's eye she saw her husband standing there, sneering drunkenly.
"No." She said softly, then louder, "No! You're wrong, you bastard! I haven't won. Yet! I wanted the freedom to live by myself, on my own and no more. I came here to play bingo and just win enough to live out my dream and that's all. You're a liar and a cheat."
She walked towards him, determined for once to get what she deserved. Facing him, she pounded the lectern with aching fists. "We will play bingo, to the end. But not with the numbers you've used. Call me the numbers on the balls. You insist we play by the rules, well so do I!"
She took her seat, picked up her dabber. "Call them!"
The balls rolled again and she scrutinized every ball as he pulled them out. O70, B3, N33, G59, 062. She dabbed the last number. BINGO!
The caller stepped down, went to her and shook her hand. "My dear lady," he said softly, "in Golden we believe in dreams and in getting what is rightfully yours. What you receive from us is merely money, a means to an end. But what else have you gained? Would any of this had been necessary had you had the courage to speak to your husband as you did to me? If you do dear, then you will truly have won." He handed her an envelope and slipped away as swiftly as a shadow in the light.
Millicent sat on her bed in the motel room, envelope in hand. There was nothing special about it, no writing or markings to indicate its origins. It was sealed, but for now she felt no compulsion to open it. For all she knew there was nothing inside, yet somehow it didn't really matter.
She picked up the phone and dialled, making the call she should have made years ago.
"Hi Emily, it's me," she said, "are you busy? I need to come see you for a while..."
C.M. Harris Davies. First published by Storyteller Magazine.