No Heaven

by J.D. Scrimgeour

The second floor of the Salem Senior Center, where the weekly bingo game is held, feels as big and bright as heaven. The giant windows above our heads flood the room with sun. They are too high for us to see anything but the sky. No view of the disheveled graveyard on the eastern side. Rows of cardboard tables stretch across the expanse of floor. They seem small and squat, like thumbtacks on a huge bulletin board. The few elderly curled at those tables seem even smaller. Their slow movements seem even slower in proportion to the huge space. From above they must look like snails in a terrarium.

I had never been to a Bingo game, but my two neighbors, seventy-something sisters named Donna and Deborah, play here occasionally. It’s down the block from where we live. The sisters aren’t hardcore players; for them it’s just one more senior center activity, like the bus trips to New York or Foxwoods (the gaming casino) —one more daub on their busy schedule.

I suspected the senior center game wasn’t cutthroat, but social. Still, when I asked Deborah if people take it seriously, she gave out a high pitched coo and said, “Some do.” And when I arrived, the players seemed, well . . . experienced. Almost all of the players had their own equipment—little metal ringed chips, knit holders for those chips, and a “wand,” the brush-like magnet that sweeps over the cards after each game, clicking the chips up off the boards. And, of course, there were the lucky talismans. Bernie, the woman who ran the senior center game, had a penny with two tiny googly eyes glued onto it that she put in the free space of one of her boards.

Bernie played a lot of Bingo. After this game ended around two thirty, she was going to go home with her “friend,” Arthur, a cheery bald man with glasses who helped distribute the money to the winners after each game. They would stay home for just fifteen minutes before going out to St. Joseph’s for more Bingo, and dinner too, and wouldn’t get back until ten or eleven.

Arthur was an anomaly; the players were almost entirely women. Out of fifty players—“exactly fifty today” said Bernie–there were six men. When things got a little noisy after someone had declared “Bingo,” the caller would beg for quiet with the plea, “Ladies, ladies . . .”

Bernie did not use the word “ladies,” but “girl.” The “girl” who was a caller during the first half of the game also worked down at Salem Willows arcade in the “money cage.” And Bernie took over this game when the “girl” who ran it got sick. “I was supposed to do it until she came back,” Bernie said, “but she’s six feet under.” Bernie made a what-are-you-gonna-do face.

It was a face that she probably had to make a lot. Most of the players were in their eighties or nineties. “It’s good for some of them that they just walked in,” Bernie said, and when the caller declared that the game to be played was “triple bingo with two wilds,” she pointed out, “this is a pretty complicated game for ninety year olds.” It was kind of complicated.

Before the games began, the talk was of money — the fifteen percent senior discount at a clothing sale, how to get cheap movie tickets, how big the jackpots would be today—and food. Not only was I offered a gingerbread cookie when I sat down with some ladies (girls?) before the game, but Bernie stressed how good the dinners were at St. Joseph’s, and she told me about the two dollar lunch that was going on downstairs while we were playing—it was a “pretty nice looking lunch,” she said.

As the game was about to start, the maintenance man closed the blinds to make it easier to see the two televisions that display each ball after it pops up. No more sky, no more heaven, no hint of graveyard. One of the men let out a loud, “Yee-hoo!” The caller reminded everyone of a rules change, and the game began. The talking stopped.


There is a certain basic fascination to the game. One watches the cards fill up, patterns taking shape and disappearing, the way one might watch rain make paths down a window. One notes the oddities—that’s three “I”s in a row, “71” hasn’t come up once all day—as if they might hold a secret, as if there might be a reason behind the randomness. And, of course, there is the thrill of victory. The opportunity to win the $4.25 pot keeps your eyes moving from the televisions to the sets of cards before you.

There is also something soothing about the game’s rhythms. It’s simple and quiet, like meditation. The caller’s voice repeating the number twice, the hands floating over cards, the chips dropping here or there. And in between games the lovely clacking of chips as they leap onto wands and are shed into the personalized holders.

Yet, ultimately, over the course of the two and a half hours I was there, I came to realize an incredibly sad fact: Bingo is boring. It’s not like chess, or poker, or even rock, paper, scissors; there is no strategy, no challenge. If it “keeps your mind sharp,” as one of the ladies told me, it’s a butter-knife sharp. One follows directions, and one might win. One will probably lose.

When it was over, and I walked through the sunny parking lot down the leaf-strewn street to my house, a question arose, a question I’m not sure I have the right to ask, but which I will ask anyway: why do so many people choose to spend so much of their last few years of life playing this game?

Perhaps they play Bingo because they are dying (we’re all dying!), and the simplemindedness of the game—the fact that it is only about fate—seems to mirror how they view their lives, and the inevitability of death. What are you gonna do? Someday your number will come up—Bingo! You’re dead!

But that seems to make Bingo a game for the morbid, and perhaps it is the flip side of the game—the fact that it is a game—that makes it attractive. If you are still able to hear the caller well enough to know the number and letter, if your eyes are still strong enough to spot the digits on your cards, your fingers still nimble enough to drop the chips quickly and accurately, then you are still in the game. Bingo is a reminder that you are still alive.

Or is it the competitiveness? Some last chance to beat other humans, to feel that you are blessed, on top of the heap, to believe that you still can be president (even if you are a woman). After one game, Bernie commented on the winner: “Joyce is so lucky.” Was I imagining it, or did I hear a tinge of jealousy in her observation?

Maybe not. Maybe the game was, like the room it was played in, appealing because it was a version of heaven. There is one voice that people attend to—the caller, whose pronouncements reverberate throughout the cavernous space. Unlike on earth, God’s words have little ambiguity. There aren’t even words, which would require interpretation. The world, or language, at least, has been broken down to its most basic elements: numbers and letters. God commands G54, and the dutiful angels cover square G54 on their holy charts. Nothing could be simpler, or more just. There is no argument over the text. No strategizing, no plotting, no way to know God’s will but to listen and to look. The mind is at bay. There is no evil here.



J.D. Scrimgeour is the author of Themes For English B: A Professor’s Education In and Out of Class, which won the AWP Award for Nonfiction. He’s also the author of two collections of poetry, The Last Miles and Territories. With musician Philip Swanson he formed the performance group, Confluence, and released a CD of poetry and music, Ogunquit & Other Works. He runs the Creative Writing Program at Salem State University.