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   by Kristin Walrod

"B ingo," Fran answered, and it was settled.
    "Good. You'll see I'm right. Forget the doctor," John said, lowering his raised voice. "All you need is to get out and do something you love."
    He grazed the buttered knife across his burnt toast. "You'll see," he said again. His wife sat across the kitchen table, holding her coffee cup in both hands, and did not respond.
    John bit into his toast and looked up at her. She was wearing her blue, terry cloth bathrobe tightly around her body, like a blanket, and John wished she weren't always cold. He noticed that she had not bothered to brush out the short, tight spirals of gray hair that sprung from her head. The lines on her face reminded him of the rings around trees—the way you can tell a tree's age by counting them. He wondered what would happen if he did count her wrinkles—how close the calculation might come. She looked older than her sixty-six years, and John thought that she must have aged very suddenly—while his back was turned.
    "Is the air on too high?" he asked her. She nodded, but he was looking down, scraping at his charred toast.
    John felt better now that he was back in charge. "I'll be back around two," he yelled, closing the kitchen door behind him. He walked to the car, swinging his arms through the sticky summer air. He set his roller-skates and bag down on the back seat, climbed into the driver's seat, checked the mirrors, adjusted the radio, turned the AC on high and started the car. Slowly, he backed down the driveway, looking over his shoulder for that deaf neighbor kid before rolling into the street.
    If only she'd stay busy, John thought, pulling up to a red light. Chemical imbalance or not, it just wasn't healthy for a person to sit around the house day and night and never leave. He'd told Frannie over and again the key to being healthy was to stay active and clean, eat plenty of potatoes and meat, and go to Mass—it was plain common sense. This depression, it was new, and Frannie insisted on going to doctor after doctor and getting pill after pill, so that John couldn't keep track of which was for what—and he liked to keep track, it was in his nature. He had started a color-coded chart to hang on the fridge. He added a stroke of color to the labels of each of her prescriptions. The painkiller for her back he colored with the pink highlighter; her blood pressure medicine in the light, sky-blue marker; the migraine pills with his old, paper-grading red pen; and then these new pills, the anti-depressants, they didn't have a color yet. He noticed Fran never consulted his chart.
    "But Doll, how will you keep track?" John had asked.
    "I just will," Fran had answered. "I've had to keep track of a lot more than that."

    John waved at Chuck Donovan in the Spring Dale Roller Rink parking lot. "See you inside," he yelled out. John pulled out his bag and carried his skates over his shoulder like a coat. He liked the Wednesday morning crowd at Spring Dale. Almost everyone was vibrant. There was little talk of aches and pains and hospital visits, not like on Friday afternoons at Columbia Heights or Saturdays at Copeland. He set his bag and skates down on a carpeted bench near the lockers. "Bah Pah Bum," he sang over the music as he laced his skates up.
    The room was already warm, not muggy like the outside air, but full of exertion. The first skate had started, and most of the seniors were paired off; John looked out with disappointment to see Nancy Murray warming up with Chuck Donovan. Nancy was wearing a yellow skating skirt with tan brown hose; John liked the way her skirt twirled, revealing her legs, which were aged, but not too bad for sixty.
    John looked over at the concession stand. He was hungry. At first when Fran had stopped cooking, he had thought it had to do with the women's liberation talk his daughters used to bring up. Like Frannie was on strike, but without notifying the manager or making demands. She could be a pepperpot when you convinced her that something wasn't fair, and it always took him a few days to sort things back out. But they hadn't seen or talked to their daughters Coreen or Jessica in what seemed like months. He'd said to her then: "What's for dinner? Frannie? Frannie?" "I don't know," she'd said, nothing more, no fight in her voice at all. He pushed a little harder, "What are you going to eat?" But when she didn't look up from her crocheting and just repeated, "I don't know," he opened the cupboard and pulled out a can of vegetable stew.

    That was three months ago—John thought as he bit into the powdery concession stand donut—and he was still eating toast. He had begun to worry about his diet and he told her so, but she just shrugged. Last week, when his ache for eggs and bacon had become too much, he finally agreed to let Fran see the special doctor—the shrink. He had hoped that this doctor would have some sense: tell her to get out and breathe some fresh air. That all she needed was to get back to her routine—visiting with family, cooking, and Bingo—but instead, the shrink diagnosed her with a chemical imbalance, gave her a prescription, a hefty bill, and an appointment weekly on Tuesdays.
    "You don't have to go back to see him," John had told her on the drive home. He was driving her car, as he always did, it was newer and more reliable than his old Pontiac station wagon.
    "You heard what he said, a chemical imbalance. I need to be treated," she said.
    "That's what they always say: Need to be treated. Need to see me again. That's fifty dollars we paid him. After insurance. And these pills, I bet they'll be another ten dollars, and pretty soon he'll say you need some tests—and tests, they can run up into the hundreds."
    "There ain't a test for what I got," Fran had answered, clicking the door lock button open and closed.

    John set his Styrofoam coffee cup down on the railing, brushed the powdered sugar from his lips, and skated to the entrance of the rink. The polka was next and he wanted to get a few laps in before the dance started. He pushed off the carpet and onto the smooth surface. He stayed in the rink's outside lane, skimming past the orange-carpeted wall. Many of the women and men were changing partners in the rink's innermost circle; they were laughing and flirting like teenagers. John knew that most of the women were widows, and he liked their carefree laugh. He had a hearty laugh himself.
    He rounded the rink again; sweat streamed down his forehead and gathered under his arms, soaking into his white undershirt. He had hated to yell at Frannie this morning, but he needed to put his foot down and restore order in his house. Unlike Frannie, he had not been depressed a day in his life. Sure, he had been frustrated. Angry. Things had not always gone as he had planned or how he had hoped, but there was no sense getting depressed about it. He had fed and clothed his family until one by one his kids were grown and gone. Gone and grown. Maybe he was too tough on them and on Frannie, maybe he made a few mistakes. But should he be punished? He worked hard and he wasn't going to squander his retirement years: his freedom from grading math equations, sending uncivilized children to detention, and breathing chalk dust. No, he wasn't. Now, after he had worked so hard and the kids were grown and doing just fine, he should really be enjoying himself. This morning, well, he didn't like to yell, but it was for her own good. Frannie had to leave the house—chemical imbalance and all. He'd let her choose: either come with him to the science fair on Saturday, or go to Bingo by herself on Sunday night.

    Fran chose Bingo because she thought the odds were better that she'd have an alright time. She used to go to Bingo four times a week, even after Gram died. Fran was lucky at it—what with the eight cards, the scratch-offs and the raffle drawing—she'd always come away with something. She dressed slowly, stretching her elastic waistband over her dimpled stomach, choosing polyester instead of cotton because the smoke didn't cling to it as much. She grabbed her Bingo bag, tucked in the corner of the TV room almost buried by books of crossword puzzles, maps and old National Geographic magazines.
    "I'm going now," she announced. John pulled his reading glasses down to the point of his nose and looked up at her. This week's TV Guide was spread open on the tray in front of him. Fran looked down at her husband's notes next to the programs in the guide.
    "You sure you don't want me to drive you?" he asked. "It'll be dark when you get done."
    "No, I'll be fine." She grabbed the keys off the rack shaped like Ireland, fumbled through her purse until she found her glasses, then closed the kitchen door behind her.
    Fran wondered who she'd find at Bingo. It had been months since she'd been, and although most of the ladies were religious about their attendance, a few were sure to have died, or ended up in the hospital, a retirement home, or with an inhospitable relative. Fran didn't feel particularly close to anyone there. No one had rung her up wondering where she was and what she'd been up to. No, Bingo was a heartless place, everyone striving to be a winner at the expense of their neighbors. She pulled into a parking space, the left side of the car over the parking line hogging the space next to her. She noticed her mistake, but let it be. She walked into the lobby of the building, paid admission, bought her cards and pushed through the second set of swinging doors. Long cafeteria style tables were pulled out across the skating rink—the same rink that John came to on Wednesday mornings. Already, the smoke hung in thin layers above the players. "The Bingo haze" is what Gram had called it when she was alive.
    Fran surveyed the tables, feeling fidgety and unwelcome. Elderly and obese women sat staggered throughout the room. Their eyes did not leave the table; their heads were bowed down as if in prayer. Their daubers were the only thing that seemed animated, they bounced across the cards smudging the numbers with a watercolor stamp. Spindly women in frilly aprons walked the long, lonely distance from one end of the table to the other selling scratch-offs, cigarettes and candy. Most times the players didn't look up; they just left their money on the table. Or they did look up briefly and gave the waitress the apathetic sort of nod that they'd seen their husbands use to get the check at Denny's.
    Still standing at eye-level with the fog of smoke, Fran wondered when the thrill had gone. It seemed to have happened all at once, but she couldn't place when. Just one day, she didn't have any stories left. Nothing. No stories about growing up on the farm in Michigan, about having an evil twin sister, about falling in love and getting married, about the joy of giving birth. No explanation of her life, of her children's childhood, of her marriage. She hadn't realized how much she relied on her stories until they ran out. At first, it was like a choked scream into a pillow—a muffled pain. Then, she felt it in her limbs, a heaviness like gravity. She had tried to talk it out, to think around it, to avoid thinking at all, to keep her hands busy, her mind busy, but it was there—the thing in the back of her mind that she never forgot and never remembered.
    Only once did someone call her a liar to her face—there were so many other ways to phrase it. Like the policeman who had said that her story was inconsistent or Jessica's doctor who had said, it seems unlikely that it happened that way. It was her eldest daughter, Coreen, who at her own wedding reception had yelled, I'm tired of your lies, straightaway, in front of the dressed-for-church guests. Fran had smacked Coreen in the face without a second thought. What else could she have done?

    Fran found a seat next to a woman that she didn't recognize at first. Before, the woman's hair had been a kind of purple in an attempt to make it black. Now, it was just gray. Flat and gray like cement. The woman muttered, "Is he ever going to call any Ns?" Fran didn't know the woman's name, but seemed to vaguely remember that she lived with her overweight daughter who couldn't even drive a car. Fran didn't answer. She set her cards out side-by-side and one on top of the other, waiting for the next game.
    In the past, she had felt invigorated by the hum of the amplifier, by the buzz of swearing and praying all around her. But the thrill was gone. While she waited, she watched her neighbor's cards, bleeding with orange ink. With every number now, the tension in the room increased. Her neighbor chanted under her breath "N-32—N-32—N-32."
    "B-4," boomed and echoed throughout the rink. A chorus of "Bingos" rang out.
    "Next game," the caller began, "Four Corners."
    Fran poised her dauber above her cards and stared down at them, absently ready to attack. She scanned her numbers. What was this game she was playing? She no longer knew the rules, to this game, to life. Her eyes blurred and the numbers and letters seemed to arrange themselves into mathematical equations, the foreign kind that only John understood. All this time she didn't want to know what John was doing to the girls. She didn't want the answer. He was there beside her, nodding at her outrageous stories, listening to her cover up the truth. He never had to lie. She didn't question him. How could she? She'd have had to raise the girls by herself. That was unheard of. Impossible.
    Fran stamped her orange dauber over every number on her card, pounding into the table with her fist. She remembered how Coreen had tried to tell her that day on the front porch: Fran was sweeping the steps slowly, letting the sun warm her face. Coreen didn't say it exactly, but her helplessness had come through in the way she tugged at her mom's skirt. Fran brushed her off the steps with her broom and her booming voice and Coreen didn't look Fran in the eye ever again. He could not have done that, Fran knew. It was unheard of. Impossible.
    "Bingo," Fran cried out. The caller tried to ignore her and took the third number, twirled it in his hand and was about to yell out I-24, when Fran screamed Bingo again.
    "Uh, ma'am? You know that's not possible. I haven't called enough numbers yet." He stared out at the sea of women as if he were looking into bright lights and was blinded to their existence. "Shut up and play," a woman from across the room yelled.
    "Bingo. B-I-N-G-O!" Fran cried again, raising her voice with each letter. She gazed into the smoke plume above her. All her numbers were covered; she had blotted everything out.

    In the past, when Fran got home from Bingo she would tell John that she won—and she meant it. But tonight, she did not lie. When he asked her if she won, she said no. John turned his head.
    "What?" he asked.
    "No," she said, still standing in front of him. "No, I didn't win." He clicked Johnny Carson off. Fran looked down at him; his stomach bulged against the edge of the TV tray in front of him, his legs were sprawled out from underneath it, his striped socks were pulled up and his slipper dangled helplessly from his foot.
    What else could she have done? It seemed clear now. For the first time in forty-three years of marriage, they were exposed for who they really were: Fran, shivering with the weight of their secret; and John, trapped behind the TV tray, without the strength of his logic, his religion, or his fist.
    "Bingo," she whispered at him.

Copyright©2003 Kristin Walrod


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