King of the Bingo Game Ralph Ellison (Audiobook)


“King of the Bingo Game,” by Ralph Ellison
The woman in front or him was eating roasted
peanuts that smelled so good that he could
barely contain his hunger. He could not even
sleep and wished they’d hurry and begin the
bingo game. There, on his right, two fellows
were drinking wine out of a bottle wrapped
in a paper bag, and he could hear soft gurgling
in the dark. His stomach gave a low gnawing
growl. “If this was down South,” he thought,
“all I’d have to do is lean over and say,
‘Lady, gimme a few of those peanuts, please
ma’m,’ and she’d pass me the bag and never
think nothing or it.” Or he could ask the
fellows for a drink in the same way. Folks
down South stuck together that way; they didn’t
even have to know you. But up here it was
different. Ask somebody for something, and
they’d think you were crazy. Well, I ain’t
crazy. l m just broke, ’cause I got no birth
certificate to get a job, and Laura ’bout
to die ’cause we got no money for a doctor.
But I ain’t crazy. And yet a pinpoint of doubt
was focused in his mind as he glanced toward
the screen and saw the hero stealthily entering
a dark room and sending the beam of a flashlight
along a wall of bookcases. This is where he
finds the trapdoor, he remembered. The man
would pass abruptly through the wall and find
the girl tied to a bed, her legs and arms
spread wide, and her clothing torn to rags.
He laughed softly to himself. He had seen
the picture three times and this was one of
the best scenes.
On his right the fellow whispered wide-eyed
to his companion, “man, look a-yonder!”
“Damn!”
“Wouldn’t I like to have her tied up like
that…”
“Hey! That fool’s letting her loose!”
“Aw, man, he loves her.”
“Love or no love!”
The man moved impatiently beside him, and
he tried to involve himself in the scene.
But Laura was on his mind. Tiring quickly
of watching the picture he looked back to
where the while beam filtered from the projection
room above the balcony. It started small and
grew large, specks or dust dancing in its
whiteness as it reached the screen. It was
strange how the beam always landed right on
the screen and didn’t mess up and fall somewhere
else. But they had it all fixed. Everything
was fixed. Now suppose when they showed that
girl with her dress torn the girl started
taking off the rest of her clothes, and when
the guy came in he didn’t untie her but kept
her there and went to talking off his own
clothes? That would be something to see. If
a picture got out off hand like that those
guys up there would go nuts Yeah, and there’d
be so many folks in here you couldn’t find
a seat for nine months! A strange sensation
played over his skin. He shuddered. Yesterday
he’d seen a bedbug on a woman’s neck as
they walked out into the bright street. But
exploring his thigh through a hole in his
pocket he found only goose pimples and old
scars.
The bottle gurgled again. He closed his eyes.
Now a dreamy music was accompanying the film
and train whistles were sounding in the distance,
and he was a boy again walking along a railroad
trestle down South, and seeing the train coming,
and running back as fast as he could go, and
hearing the whistle blowing, and getting off
the trestle to solid ground just in time,
with the earth trembling beneath his feet,
and feeling relieved as he ran down the cinder-strewn
embankment onto the highways and looking back
and seeing with terror that the train had
left the track and was following him right
down the middle of the street, and all the
while people laughing as he ran screaming.
. .
“Wake up there, buddy! What the bell do you
mean hollering like that! Can’t you see we
trying to enjoy this here picture?”
He stared at the man with gratitude.
“I’m sorry, old man,” he said. “I musta been
dreaming.”
“Well, here, have a drink. And don’t be making
no noise like that, damn!”
His hands trembled as he tilted his head.
It was not wine, but whiskey. Cold rye whiskey.
He took a deep swollen, decided it was better
not to take another, and handed the bottle
back to its owner.
“Thanks, old man,” he said.
Now he felt the cold whiskey breaking a warm
path straight trough the middle of him, growing
hotter and sharper as it moved. He had not
eaten all day, and it made him light-headed.
The smell of the peanuts stabbed him like
a knife, and he got up and found a seat in
the middle aisle. But no sooner did he sit
than he saw a row of intense-faced young girls,
and got up again, thinking, “You chicks musta
been Lindy-hopping somewhere ” He found a
seat several rows ahead as the lights came
on, and he saw the screen disappear behind
a heavy red and gold curtain; then the curtain
rising, and the man with the microphone and
a uniformed attendant coming on the stage.
He felt for his bingo cards, smiling. The
guy at the door wouldn’t like it if he knew
about his having five cards. Well, not everyone
played the bingo game; and even with five
cards he didn’t have much of a chance. For
Laura, though, he had to have faith. He studied
the cards, each with its different numerals,
punching the free center hole in each and
spreading them neatly across his la p; and
when the lights faded he sat slouched in his
seat so that he could look from his cards
to the bingo wheel with but a quick shifting
of his eyes.
Ahead, at the end or the darkness, the man
with the microphone was pressing a button
attached to a long cord and spinning the bingo
wheel and raking out the number each time
the wheel came to rest. And each time the
voice rang out his finger raced over the cards
for the number. With five
cards he had to move fast. He became nervous,
there were too many cards, and the man went
too fast with his grating voice. Perhaps he
should just select one and throw the others
away. But he was afraid. He became warm. Wonder
how much Laura’s doctor would cost? Damn that,
watch the cards! And with despair he heard
the man call three in a row which he missed
on all five cards. This way he’d never win
. . .
When he saw the row of holes punched across
the third card, he sat paralyzed and heard
the man call three more numbers before he
stumbled forward screaming
“Bingo! Bingo!”
“Let that fool up there,” someone called.
“Get up there man!”
He stumbled down the aisle and up the steps
to the stage into a light so strong and bright
that for a moment it blinded him, and he felt
that he had moved into the spell of some strange
mysterious power. Yet it was as familiar as
the sun, and he knew it was the perfectly
familiar bingo.
The man with the microphone was saying something
to the audience as he held out his card. A
cold light flashed from the man’s finger as
the card left his hand. His knees trembled.
The man stepped closer, checking the card
against the numbers chalked on the board.
Suppose he had made a mistake? The pomade
on the man’s hair made him feel faint and
he backed away. But the man was checking the
card over the microphone now, and he had to
slay. He stood, tense, listening.
“Under the O, forty-four,” the man chanted.
Under the I, seven. Under the G, three. Under
the B, ninety-six. Under the N, thirteen!”
His breath came easier as the man smiled at
the audience.
“Yessir, ladies and gentlemen, he’s one of
the chosen people!”
The audience rippled with laughter and applause.
“Step right up to the front of the stage.”
He moved slowly forward, wishing that the
light was not so bright.
“To win tonight’s jackpot of $36.90, the wheel
must stop between the double zero, understand?”
He nodded knowing the ritual from the many
days and nights he had watched the winners
march across the stage to press the button
that controlled the spinning wheel and receive
the prizes. And now he followed the instructions
as though he’d crossed the slippery stage
a million prize-winning times.
The man was making some kind of a joke, and
nodded vacantly. So tense had he become that
he felt a sudden desire to cry and shook it
away. He felt vaguely that his whole life
was determined by the bingo wheel; not only
that which would happen now that he was at
last before it, but all that had gone before
since his birth and his mother’s birth and
the birth of his father. It had always been
there even though he had not been aware of
it, handing out the unlucky cards and numbers
of his days. The feeling persisted, and he
started quickly away. I better get down from
here before I make a fool of myself he thought.
“Here boy,” the man called. “You haven’t started
yet.”
Someone laughed as he went hesitantly back.

“Are you all reet?”
He grinned at the man’s jive talk, but no
words would come, and he knew it was not a
convincing grin. For suddenly he knew that
he stood on the slippery brink of some terrible
embarrassment.
“Where are you from, boy?” the man asked.
“Down South.”
“He’s from down South, ladies and gentlemen,”
the man said. “Where from? Speak right into
the mike.”
“Rocky Mont,” he said. “Rock’ Mont, North
Car’lina.”
“So you decided to come down off that mountain
to the U.S.,” the man laughed. He felt that
the man was making a fool of him, but then
something cold was placed in his hand, and
the lights were no longer behind him.
Standing before the wheel he felt alone, but
that was somehow right, and he remembered
his plan. He would give the wheel a short
quick twirl. Just a touch of the button. He
had watched it many times, and always it came
close to double zero when it was short and
quick. He steeled himself; the fear had left,
and he felt a profound sense of promise, as
though he were about to be repaid for all
the things he’d suffered all his life. Trembling,
he pressed the button. There was a whirl of
lights, and in a second he realized with finality
that though he wanted to, he could not stop.
It was as though he held a high-powered line
in his naked hand. His nerves tightened. As
the wheel increased its speed it seemed to
draw him more and more into its power, as
though it held his fate; and with it came
a deep need to submit, to whirl, to lose himself
in its swirl of color. He could not stop it
now, he knew. So let it be.
The button rested snugly in his palm where
the man had placed it. And now he became aware
of the man beside him, advising him through
the microphone, while behind the shadowy audience
hummed with noisy voices. He shifted his feet.
There was still that feeling of helplessness
within him, making part of him desire to turn
back, even now that the jackpot was right
in his hand. He squeezed the button until
his fist ached. Then, like the sudden shriek
of a subway whistle, a doubt tore through
his head. Suppose he did not spin the wheel
long enough? What could he do, and how could
he tell? And then he knew even as he wondered,
that as long as he pressed the button, he
could control the jackpot. He and only he
could determine whether or not it was to be
his. Not even the man with the microphone
could do anything about it now. He felt drunk.
Then, as though he had come down from a high
hill into a valley of people, he heard the
audience yelling.
“Come down from there, you jerk!”
“Let somebody else have a chance. . .”
“Old Jack thinks he done found the end of
the rainbow .. .”
The last voice was not unfriendly, and he
turned and smiled dreamily into the yelling
mouths. Then he turned his back squarely on
the on them.
“Don’t take too long, boy,” a voice said.
He nodded. They were yelling behind him. They
had been playing the bingo game day in and
night out for years, trying to win rent money
or hamburger change. But not one of those
wise guys discovered this wonderful thing.
He watched the wheel whirling past the numbers
and experienced a burst of exultation: This
is God! This is the really truly God! He said
it aloud.” This is God!”
He said it with such absolute conviction that
he feared he would fall fainting into the
footlights. But the crowd yelled so loud that
they could not hear. Those fools, he thought.
I’m here trying to tell them the most wonderful
secret in the world, and they’re yelling like
they gone crazy. A hand fell upon his shoulder.
“You’ll have to make a choice now, boy. You’ve
taken too long.”
He brushed the hand violently away.
“Leave me alone, man. I know what I’m doing!”
“The man looked surprised and held on to the
microphone for support. And because he did
not wish to hurt the man’s feelings, he smiled,
realizing with a sudden pang that there was
no way of explaining to the man just why he
had to stand there pressing the button forever.
“Come here,” he called tiredly.
The man approached, rolling the heavy microphone
across the stage.
“Anybody can play this bingo game, right?”
he said.
“Sure, but . . .”
He smiled, feeling inclined to be patient
with this slick looking white man with his
blue sport shirt and his sharp gabardine suit.
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “Anybody
can win the jackpot as long as they get the
lucky number, right?”
“That’s the rule, but after all . . .”
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “And the
big prize goes to the man who knows how to
win it?”
The man nodded speechlessly.
“Well then, go on over there and watch me
win like I want to. I ain’t going to hurt
nobody,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to
win. I mean to show the whole world how it’s
got to be done.”
And because he understood, he smiled again
to let the man know that he held nothing against
him for being white and impatient. Then he
refused to sec the man any longer and stood
pressing the button, the voices of the
crowd reaching him like sounds in distant
streets. Let them yell. All the Negroes down
there were just ashamed because he was black
like them. He smiled inwardly, knowing how
it was. Most of the time he was ashamed of
what Negroes did himself. Well, let them be
ashamed for something this time. Like him.
He was like a long thin black wire that was
being stretched and wound upon the bingo wheel;
wound until he wanted to scream; wound, but
this time himself controlling the winding
and the sadness and the shame, and because
he did, Laura would be all right. Suddenly
the lights flickered. He staggered backwards.
Had something gone wrong? All this noise.
Didn’t they know that although he controlled
the wheel, it also controlled him, and unless
he pressed the button forever and forever
and ever it would stop, leaving him high and
dry, dry and high on this hard high slippery
hill and Laura dead? There was only one chance;
he had to do whatever the wheel demanded.
And gripping the button in despair, he discovered
with surprise that it imparted a nervous energy.
His spine tingled. He felt a certain power.
Now he faced the raging crowd with defiance,
its screams penetrating his eardrums like
trumpets shrieking from a jukebox. The vague
faces glowing in the bingo lights gave him
a sense of himself that he had never known
before. He was running the show, by God! They
had to react to him, for he was their luck.
This is me, he thought. Let the bastards yell.
Then someone was laughing inside him, and
he realized that somehow he had forgotten
his own name. It was a sad, lost feeling to
lose your name, and a crazy thing to do. That
name had been given him by the white man who
had owned his grandfather a long lost time
ago down South. But maybe those wise guys
knew his name.
“Who am I?” he screamed.
“Hurry up and bingo, you jerk!”
They didn’t know either, he thought own names,
they were all poor nameless bastards. Well,
he didn’t need that old name; he was reborn.
For as long as he pressed the button he was
The-man-who-pressed – the-button-who-held-the-prize-who-was-the-King-of-Bingo.
That was the way it was, and he’d have to
press the button even if nobody understood,
even though Laura did not understand.
“Live!” he shouted.
The audience quieted like the dying of a huge
fan.
“Live, Laura, baby. I got holt of it now,
sugar. Live!”
He screamed it tears streaming down his face.
“I got nobody but YOU!”
The screams tore from his very guts. He felt
as though the rush of blood to his head would
burst out in baseball seams of small red droplets,
like a head beaten by police clubs. Bending
over he saw a trickle of blood splashing the
toe of his shoe. With his free hand he searched
his head. It was his nose. God, suppose something
has gone wrong? He felt that the whole audience
had somehow entered him and was stamping its
feet in his stomach, and he was unable to
throw them out. They wanted the prize, that
was it. They wanted the secret for themselves.
But they’d never get it; he would keep the
bingo wheel whirling forever, and Laura would
be safe in the wheel. But would she? It had
to be, because if she were not safe the wheel
would cease to turn; it could not go on. He
had to get away, vomit all, and his mind formed
an image of himself running with Laura in
his arms down the tracks of the subway just
ahead of an A train, running desperately vomit
with people screaming for him to come out
but knowing no way of leaving the tracks because
to stop would bring the train crushing down
upon him and to attempt to leave across the
other tracks would mean to run into a hot
third rail as high as his waist which threw
blue sparks that blinded his eyes until he
could hardly see.
He heard singing and the audience was clapping
its hands.
Shoot the liquor to him, Jim, boy!
Clap-clap-clap
Well a-calla the cop
He’s blowing his top!
Shoot the liquor to him, Jim boy!
Bitter anger grew within him at the singing.
They think I’m crazy. Well let ’em laugh.
I’ll do what I got to do.
He was standing in an attitude of intense
listening when he saw that they were watching
something on the stage behind him. He felt
weak. But when he turned he saw no one. If
only his thumb did not ache so. Now they were
applauding. And for a moment he thought that
the wheel had stopped. But that was impossible,
his thumb still pressed the button. Then he
saw them. Two men in uniform beckoned from
the end of the stage. They were coming toward
him, walking in step, slowly, like a tap-dance
team returning for a third encore. But their
shoulders shot forward, and he backed away,
looking wildly about. There was nothing to
fight them with. He had only the long black
cord which led to a plug somewhere back stage,
and he couldn’t use that because it operated
the bingo wheel. He backed slowly, fixing
the men with his eyes as his lips stretched
over his teeth in a tight, fixed grin; moved
toward the end of the stage and realizing
that he couldn’t go much further, for suddenly
the cord became taut and he couldn’t afford
to break the cord. But he had to do something.
The audience was howling. Suddenly he stopped
dead, seeing the men halt, their legs lifted
as in an interrupted step of a slow-motion
dance. There was nothing to do but run in
the other direction and he dashed forward,
slipping and sliding. The men fell back, surprised.
He struck out violently going past.
“Grab him!”
He ran, but all too quickly the cord tightened,
resistingly, and he turned and ran back again.
This time he slipped them, and discovered
by running in a circle before the wheel he
could keep the cord from tightening. But this
way he had to flail his arms to keep the men
away. Why couldn’t they leave a man alone?
He ran, circling.
“Ring down the curtain,” someone yelled. But
they couldn’t do that. if they did the wheel
flashing from the projection room would be
cut off. But they had him before he could
tell them so, trying to pry open his fist,
and he was wrestling and trying to bring his
knees into the fight and holding on to the
button, for it was his life. And now he was
down, seeing a foot coming down, crushing
his wrist cruelly, down, as he saw the wheel
whirling serenely above.
“I can’t give it up,” he screamed. Then quietly,
in a confidential tone, “Boys, I really can’t
give it up.”
It landed hard against his head. And in the
blank moment they had it away from him, completely
now. He fought them trying to pull him up
from the stage as he watched the wheel spin
slowly to a stop. Without surprise he saw
it rest at double zero.
“You see,” he pointed bitterly.
“Sure, boy, sure, it’s O.K.,” one of the men
said smiling.
And seeing the man bow his head to someone
he could not see, he felt very, very happy;
he would receive what all the winners received.
But as he warmed in the justice of the man’s
tight smile he did not see the man’s slow
wink, nor see the bow-legged man behind him
step clear of the swiftly descending curtain
and set himself for a blow. He only felt the
dull pain exploding in his skull, and he knew
even as it slipped out of him that his luck
had run out on the stage.

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