My friend Ericka was addicted to Bingo, which is a weird thing to be addicted to when you’re young. We were at the community center downtown and I was wearing an old acid-washed dress I had with a zipper all the way up the front and Ericka and I had lipstick on. I went along because there was nowhere else to go and also I found out Troy Gallant was calling out the numbers. Troy Gallant had curly chestnut hair, and he was tall. By far, he was the cutest and nicest boy in the neighborhood. He would never try to put the moves on you at the Laundromat while you were folding your underwear, for example. He volunteered for things. He was a lifeguard. He could save your life. His parents were still together, and their kitchen counters probably had clean glass jars on them that were labeled flour, sugar, tea, and actually had these things in them. I thought if I stared up at him long enough he would look over. Everyone knew he had a crush on me. I caught his eye just after he pulled one of the little balls from the little silver lip of the Bingo cage, and I slowly pulled the zipper of my dress down, all the way down to the top of my bra, so he could see the purple lace, and he saw it just as he was opening his mouth to call out the number, but instead of speaking his mouth just sort of hung open, and he held the white ball in the air with his fingertips and continued to crank the cage with his other hand.
Around the time I started to get interested in boys I read dozens of Harlequin Romance books. My sister had them hidden them under the couch in the living room. This partly accounts for the precocious streak I was often accused of. I took them behind the dresser in the upstairs hallway and snugged myself in between the dresser and the wall with a bag of ketchup chips and licked the salty red dye #40 off my fingers as I read. The picture in my head of the men in the story shifted between Troy Gallant and a particularly striking painting of a handsome young Jesus with blue eyes and a burning heart hanging in my grandmother’s hallway above her floor model radio. There were rats living in the farmhouse we were staying in then and I could hear them behind the wall as I flipped to the pages I’d folded over to read again. Probably all of this reading and fantasizing was very sinful, I thought. Maybe that somehow accounted for the rats. One of my aunts found me there once and told me I was going straight to hell if I kept up like this and I said anywhere is better than this one horse town and she told me to go wash my hands. Probably I would go to hell. When I went to confession I usually said the same sorts of fake sins. I stayed away from the mention of impure thoughts especially. I’d say I got in a flight with my brother. I took the Lord’s name in vain. Surely it was a sin to think about Jesus as the wealthy landowner in Where the Wild Wind Blows. Maybe it was only venial sin though. Either way it didn’t stop me from doing it.
Troy was holding the ball in the air and I was inching the zipper down and the rows of old ladies and gents scanned their cards like hawks, looking for what they needed to win, each with their own particular talisman next to them on the table – the handkerchief from a long dead lover, a small teddy bear key chain from a son who lives away given on Mother’s Day, a lucky penny found flattened on the railroad tracks on a walk with a crush in 1964, a crystal bird. The collective anticipation was palpable, for that momentous rush of happiness and validation when the dots on the card fall into a perfect line of bright red or yellow or orange circles. The whole room waited with stampers held and hovering, and ashes grew on the ends of cigarettes, and everyone holding their breath because maybe this was the number they needed and when no number was called everyone looked up at Troy at exactly the same time, including Erika, and then they all followed his gaze over to me. I had the zipper back up in a flash, but Erika narrowed her eyes at me, and Troy called out B10 with a sort of longing edge to his voice. He cleared his throat and said it again, and a lady, whose row of troll dolls with rainbow hair were lined up watching over her cards, stood up and called BINGO!