A Stranger Calls
A short story by reader Stephen Nolan
The Knights of Columbus Hall offered the same scene every Tuesday evening. It was bingo night and the smoky room held a variety of newcomers and regular visitors all waiting for the call to begin. The haze of thick smoke gave the room a slightly seedy atmosphere; a tinge of impropriety hung in the air.
I arrived just barely on time and quickly purchased three cards for myself and three for my friend, who had left my side in search of a pair of seats. As I looked through the mist I found my companion near the edge of a long table waving at me to approach. I walked forward, handed my friend his cards and sat down.
The evening did not appear unusual. The elderly women chatted amongst themselves. The neglected housewives looked down upon their numerous cards in what seemed to be contempt for what they felt assured would be losers. The middle-aged men with their large bellies shifted impatiently, waiting for the balls to drop and caressing a warming beer in their hands.
I sat across from my companion with a look of resignation on my face. I thought of bingo as one of those games that old ladies played with cash secreted from their pension cheques, not for someone of relative youth and vigour. Yet, I arrived in the same hall every week and all for the same two reasons: first, it was the only time I could see my friend whose busy schedule would make meeting otherwise impossible; second, I had no where else to go.
Suddenly, a deafening screech burst out of the hall microphone and everybody let out a silent sigh. The squeal of the microphone meant only one thing: an announcement. Announcements were universally despised in our bingo circle. Not only were they boring, but they also delayed the game. Pat, a short rotund man, cautiously approached the phone again, after shocking himself with the noise of the feedback from his first attempt.
"Excuse me, everyone. I have an important announcement to make. We have a new caller here tonight, a man from away who asked if he could have a crack at calling a bingo. So if you have a bit of bad luck tonight, for once you can't blame me." With a slight smile, Pat seemed satisfied with his performance as he stalked away from the mic and sat down, giving the tall, slim man with a beard a chance at the action.
I had never before seen the man who was to call the bingo, yet he radiated a sense of good will. The whole room seemed to feel uplifted in his presence, as if we had been reintroduced to an old friend whom we were delighted to see. All round the hall I heard people whispers that they felt this was their lucky night. Even I felt my mood change somewhat, as if I might be in for some small stroke of fortune myself.
The game began and as the first number was spoken it was like sweet music suddenly filled the room. I never knew that "B7" could sound so lovely to my ear, even if I didn't happen to have it on my cards. As the symphony of letters and numbers continued, the players got swept up in the melodic call of the bingo. Every few minutes someone would shout "Bingo!" Strangely enough, it seemed to me that the most deserving players had won. Miss Anstey, who loved her cats above almost all else, won $50; Mr. Kelly, who was all alone in the world, won $25 and old widowed Mrs. Kent won $100.
For the first time in my memory, no one complained about being on the hitch; instead, all the players were happy with the outcome of the games. All the players of the smoky hall, that is, except Mr. Gladstone. Mr. Gladstone is, to be brutally honest, a miser who complained constantly about anything and everything. Tonight he objected from his seat at the back of the room that the new caller should speak up, as he couldn't hear one number that was spoken from the stranger.
This came as a surprise to those around him, who testified that the new caller had the clearest calls they had ever heard. They suggested Mr. Gladstone stop his complaining.
After this brief interruption, the games continued and it was at this time that I realized our new caller was not even using the sound system to amplify his voice. Yet this was the strongest bingo call I had ever heard. I thought it odd that Mr. Gladstone could not hear the game.
The night waned and the luck continued to be held by the nicest of the crowd. I myself shared a prize of $25 with my companion, though I found it strange that the sign of the cross would be used instead of the usual "T" as a winning pattern. Another odd moment was when Mrs. Doyle was about to call bingo but the caller stopped her, called her by name, and told her that N41 was not out yet.
At last there came the jackpot game. Everyone became very silent. The caller announced that the jackpot was worth $3330. With a small smile the stranger added "Plus a free pass to heaven." Everyone laughed at this and the game began.
I was close, so close to the jackpot that even now I cringe a little when I think of it. But in the end it was Mrs. Casey who won the prize. Everyone clapped, knowing how this frail individual deserved the cash and all being genuinely happy that she had won the big prize.
After the jackpot game it was time to leave. As I got up from my hard seat, I casually looked at the stranger who had called bingo that night. As people filed past him they paused and asked if he needed a lift home. He refused them all, ensuring them he had a lift to his Father's house.
Finally, I left the hall and headed to my friend's car. Behind me I heard two men say to each other. "Who was that fella who called the game tonight?" "I don't know him from Adam, but he sure could call a good bingo."