Three quick raps from the back door, followed by two slow ones. I peeked through the shutters and saw an old lady leaning on her cane. It was Big Mouth Betty. I cracked opened the window on the door and hissed, “What do you want?”
“Governor Gavin’s a gasbag,” she hissed back. That was the correct passphrase, so I opened up and let her in.
Betty was our first arrival for Black Market Bingo. The bingo hall had been shut down two months ago, due to the coronavirus lockdown. Bingo regulars, such as Betty, had been going stir crazy, itching to get back to their favorite game. My wife and I were bored and needed something stimulating to do, so we organized a game for them.
We had to be careful, so we only invited those we knew and trusted. But anyone wanting admission had to remember a secret door knock and passphrase. That’s standard. It was a habit we insisted our clients got into.
Another door knock. Four quick raps, and that was it. I felt suspicious. I peeked out and there stood Madelyn. All 81 years of her. Yikes! I always had to be careful around Madelyn. “What do you want?” I hissed.
“The Governor’s in a . . . a . . . b-bag of gas,” she hissed back. Close enough. I let her in, then gave her a wide berth. Yet still she managed to brush her fingers across my thigh as she moseyed past me.
George, Lucy, and Lil the Pill arrived next, and all managed to get the passphrase right, more or less.
Lil the Pill was last to walk into the room, and greeted everyone with, “Good evening, good evening, good evening, good evening, good evening, good evening!” with one good evening for each person present, other than herself. We each returned her greeting with a good evening, because we knew that if we didn’t, she’d get in our face and keep saying good evening to us until we said it back.
We also made sure we smiled when we said good evening to Lil, or she’d order us to smile. Everyone hated Lil the Pill, but nobody dared admit it.
The bingo players sat at least six feet apart from each other, in our spacious livingroom. Lucy had a cough that left everyone feeling nervous, so we put her a little further away, off in the corner.
“You better not have the virus!” Big Mouth Betty remonstrated to Lucy.
“No, no, [cough, cough] I just swallowed something wrong,” Lucy defended herself.
Madelyn made sure to sit close to the front, where I would be calling the numbers, and might perhaps stray within arm’s reach. George sat near my wife and leered at her. And Lil sat in the middle of the room, because she always liked to be in the middle of things, making demands of everyone.
Big Mouth Betty was rambling on and on, like she always did. My wife stood up and clapped her hands for about 30 seconds. That finally shut Big Mouth up and got everyone else’s attention as well. “Alright, listen up! There’s a $10 buy-in. Has everyone paid?”
“All but Lil,” I informed my wife.
“I forgot my money. I’ll pay next time.” Lil firmly declared.
“Okay, Lil. But you can only play for fun. You can’t win anything tonight,” my wife said sweetly, while smiling like a cherub. She knew how to handle old bitches.
Lil the Pill rummaged through her purse, and after a minute her bony fingers produced a ten-dollar bill. That settled that.
[cough, cough] went Lucy.
“Now we all have to be very careful,” my wife continued. “If anyone knocks on the front door, we all have to be quiet. No talking at all!” she cast a hard, meaningful glare at Big Mouth Betty. “My neighbor across the street is very nosy, and she might call the cops on us.”
Everyone nodded in agreement. They understood. Lucy coughed.
“Lucy, you shouldn’t have come here with that cough!” railed Betty. “You’re making us all scared!”
“It’s allergies,” Lucy pleaded. “I always get them this time of year.”
“None of us are wearing masks,” my wife pointed out, “And the county no longer requires it. So if you cough, be sure to cough into your arm,” she said to no one in particular. But we all knew she meant those words for Lucy.
My wife sat down, then stood up quickly. “Gaah!” she yelled. George had scooted his chair near hers and put his supinated hand on her chair’s seat, just as she sat down.
“Whoops, sorry,” George grinned, “I didn’t see you there.” George was a 75-year-old widower. His wife had been my wife’s friend, and while she lay on her deathbed, George started making passes at my wife. He’s been pursuing her ever since.
“Okay everyone, let’s get started!” I announced. I stood before a TV tray with two bowls on it. One bowl contained folded paper slips with letters, and the other contained folded paper slips with numbers.
My wife and the other five contestants sat poised with their bingo daubers and cards. I reached into each bowl, randomly selected paper slips, and unfolded them. “B-16,” I announced.
“What? What? What? What? What?” came a chorus, back.
“Speak up!” my wife reminded me.
“Beeeeeeeeeeee–16eeeeeeeeeeeeen!!!!!” I shouted.
“Oh, this is so exciting!” Big Mouth Betty proclaimed. “When I was young I knew someone who was in the mob during Prohibition. He was a big tough, guy, and he blah blah blah blah blah . . .”
I continued with my job, selecting paper slips and announcing numbers. And Big Mouth Betty continued with her job, yacking and yabbering away.
“Would you shut up!” Lil finally snapped at Betty. “I can’t concentrate!”
“Oh sorry,” Big Mouth apologized.
But a minute later her logorhea kicked in again. She just couldn’t help herself. Big Mouth Betty was always the most reviled contestant in the bingo hall, and she continued to live up to her blatherskite reputation at our Black Market Bingo.
“Geeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-55iiiiiiiiiiive!!!!!!” I shouted.
“[cough] Bingo!” Lucy shouted back with glee.
“Shit!” everyone else muttered.
Sure enough, her card checked out. I paid her $54, which was the $60 prize money, minus our 10% vigorish. Then we prepared for a new round. Lil managed to find another ten-dollar bill in her purse. Everyone was in. But then Lucy raised her hand.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she announced.
“Number one or number two, Lucy?” my wife inquired.
“[cough, cough] Number one. But I can’t get off the toilet once I sit down. Do you have an old spaghetti pot I can use while standing up? That’s what I do at home.”
Note to self: Don’t ever eat Lucy’s spaghetti.
Madelyn stood up. “While Lucy’s using your spaghetti pot, I’ll use your bathroom.”
“No wait, Madelyn,” my wife stopped her. “Lucy, I’ll help you get up. You’re not using my spaghetti pot. Madelyn, you’re next after Lucy.”
About ten minutes later it was Madelyn’s turn. But as she walked past, heading toward the bathroom, she somehow tripped and fell against me. I instinctively grabbed her by the waist to keep my balance, while she steadied herself with her hands all over my ass, and her lips and face pressed against mine. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized, with a huge smile on her face. Then she triumphantly proceeded down the hallway, while I brushed my face and clothes off the best I could, feeling grossed out and dirty.
Finally everyone was seated and ready for the next round. I announced the first number. But before I could announce the second, there came a rapping on the front door. Front door? My hackles went up. My wife cast a worried look my way. I put my finger against my lips and shushed everyone, especially Big Mouth Betty.
I crept to the door. “Who is it?”
“It’s your neighbor, Mrs. Javvits!” we all heard. That fucking nosy bitch! “Is there a party going on in there? What are all these cars doing parked by your house?”
“I don’t know, Mrs. Javvits!” I shouted through the door.
“Aren’t you going to open up so I can talk to you?”
I had to think of something quick, and I don’t think well on my feet. What should I say? What should I say? I frantically searched my brain. Finally, “No, I just got out of the shower. I’m naked!” I heard Madelyn sigh, somewhere behind me.
Silence. Then, “Okay, well, I hope you’re not having a party. We all have to do our part to fight the virus, you know. Have a good evening!” I heard retreating footsteps.
We resumed our play. But after this scare, everyone was subdued. Even Big Mouth Betty lowered her voice.
“Innnnnnnnnnnn-42oooooooooooo!!!!” I hush-shouted.
“Bingo! [cough, cough]” announced Lucy.
“Shit!” from everyone else.
Betty turned on her with daggers in her eyes. “Lucy, you shouldn’t have even come here! You sound like you have the virus!”
“No, no,” Lucy pushed back. “It’s my heart condition. It makes me cough sometimes.”
But Lucy’s win, after my neighbor’s visit, broke up the game. Everyone decided they’d had it and it was time to go home. But they all said they’d had a good time, and vowed to return in a week for more Black Market Bingo.
“Can you come to my house someday?” George whispered into my wife’s ear, as he walked out the back. “I have something that my wife wanted you to have.”
“Ohhh, okay, we’ll see,” my wife patted him on the back while pushing him out the door.
This unnerving exchange distracted me, and Madelyn managed to sneak in a goose, as she followed George outside. Dammit!
After everyone was gone, there came a pounding on our front door. It was a cop.
“Excuse me sir, but we got a complaint that there was a party going on here. Are you aware of anything like that around here?” the young officer inquired, while peering over my shoulder and observing my wife straightening out the furniture.
“No sir, not here,” I told him. “It could be my neighbor across the street, though. She has family reunions there all the time. You might want to keep an eye out on her house. I think she’s been breaking the lockdown rules a lot.”
He looked me over carefully. Finally, “Okay, well sorry to disturb you. Have a nice evening,” and he left.
That was a close call, but we got away with it. And with a total vig of $12, plus $29 in net profit from refreshments and snacks my wife had sold, we’d netted $41.00 under the table.
All-in-all I think we did okay for our efforts. We got together with some screwy, but fun old people, and filled a vacuum of loneliness that months of lockdown had created. It had been a successful night for everyone, at Black Market Bingo.
This story is fiction, but the characters are not. They’re real people who frequented my wife’s beauty shop for many years, before she retired. Her beauty shop was connected to our house, so for better or worse, I got to know them well.