Jackpot

When I was little, my Auntie Jill’s gaming prowess was legendary. She played games of chance with a mysterious aura of luck; that, combined with a no-nonsense, opinionated Midwestern attitude, evoked a sense of awe in me. Her ability to pinpoint magic with her small hazel eyes still thrills me: even today, she can pick out four-leaf clovers amidst vast colonies of weeds as if they were sunflowers.

She and my uncle, Frank, who I’ve always called Buddy, never had kids, so I was the closest they came to having a child. Even today, he calls her, “Wifey,” she calls him, “Hubby,” and they both call me, “Kid,” as in, “Hey–Kid–get in the car so we can make it to the lodge on time.”

People who don’t have children often speak down to them in baby talk, or, only knowing how to relate to other adults, they treat them like short grown-ups. My uncle and aunt always leaned toward the latter, which appealed to me, a precocious only child who preferred adult conversation and coffee from infancy, to the horror of most waitresses.

This began in Dearborn, Michigan, where we lived in the 1970s. I’ve been back only a handful of times, usuallly to visit someone sick or dying, same as this time. Over the years, memories of the brown roads and houses, gray skies and roofs, and white snowy yards grew fainter until they became a hazy portrait of an idyllic childhood: summers spent digging up my mother’s rose bushes in search of worms for bait; visiting with our neighbors, the Emrichs, who grew strawberries that I coveted; talking over the low chain-link fence with the Schembrei family where my godfather, Roger, lived; getting bundled up by my mother into a tiny freezer suit to go play in the snow with my best friend, Andy Steiger.

The last time I visited was June 1991. I was sixteen and it was a few months after my mother died. It was sweaty as hell staying in the attic bedroom at my aunt and uncle’s house where insects drifted in and out of the open windows. That week, when I wasn’t distracted by lightning bugs, I daydreamed about my first love, Joe, who I believed was pining for me back in Phoenix. Writing him letters of longing each day was the perfect ironic build-up to my return–when he broke up with me to date his ex-girlfriend, an older woman of 18.

Twenty years later, Michigan seems eerily the same–brown, patchy earth and stretches of snow; dry, yellow reed grasses and chalky skies; miles of fast-food restaurants, boarded-up retailers, and pothole-pocked asphalt–but this time, I’ve gone where before I was not privy.

A few years ago, Auntie Jill and Uncle Bud moved from their brick house in Dearborn Heights to a master planned senior community in Brownstown Township, built on marshland. Wildlife bursts from conservation plots that surround the development–deer, geese, hawks, foxes, egrets, herons, ducks–making tracks in the snowmelt as they search for food in vacant lots that will someday hold cookie-cutter single-family homes by Del Webb.

Within this community is a lodge where residents gather for exercise during the day and card games at night, which is where we played on Friday. For the first time, Auntie Jill brought me with her to a card game, hoping to teach me Euchre in case she needed a fourth on Saturday. After several practice rounds with Bob and Irene Johnson,who were adorned with name tags bearing a blue lighthouse logo, we agreed that many more lessons were in order before I was ready for a real match.

With a can of Bob’s Bud Light in hand, we gave up on Euchre to join a game of “Oh Shit,” which thankfully took little skill. Tension built with each round as we traded our bad hands for what we hoped were our neighbors’ good cards; low cards cascaded from player to player in sequence until someone got stuck with an ace or a two, eliciting the catch phrase, “Oh shit!”” from each hapless victim.

It quickly became a spirited competition between men and women, much like games between people my age, though with an inherently Midwest tinge. One woman read from her iPhone about a prayer circle that they all referred to as “Fish Club,” while Bob bragged about the 24 home-cooked meals that Irene had frozen for him to eat while she’s away visiting their grand babies next week. The youngest and sassiest woman, Pat, who was in her early 50s, joked about the shriveling of men’s endowments with age, to which her husband replied, “Hey, everybody knows it ain’t about size – it’s how you use it. Besides, I never heard you complain!”

I was out 75 cents at the end of the evening, but left the lodge rich with stories.

The stakes were higher on Sunday when Auntie Jill and I entered the Knights of Columbus nearTelegraph Road. Her weekly bingo excursions were legendary, so I felt lucky just to be invited along; this was a place that even my uncle has never gone. I wore my favorite necklace with a crucifix from Civita and a medal of St. Michael from the Vatican–I was knee-deep in Catholic country, after all. We purchased several sheets of bingo cards and small blue electronic bingo players that reminded me of the Speak-and-Say I had when I was ten.

I was surprised at how challenging real bingo is, simply because of the speed at which the emcee calls the numbers. With 24 boards in front of me, I could barely keep up. I was, again, in awe of Auntie Jill, as her keen eyes and deft hands skimmed through twice as many boards in less time. She looked over often to make sure that I kept up, helping me dab ink on numbers that I had missed. I felt tentative about yelling out, “Bingo!” in the large room when I won $4, then tried again when I won $8.50. A few minutes later, Auntie Jill came away with $50.

As the rounds went on, I soaked up the warm, cliched atmosphere: fake plastic plants and a large crucifix hanging on the front wall; scratched, yellowed TV monitors that displayed the bingo ball between the emcee’s wrinkled fingertips; and the occasional exclamation of, “Balls!” when someone won a round involving special bingo ball cards. There were so many special rounds of gambling happening that I could barely keep up with the main game.

Between rounds, I looked down the rows of old card tables at which sat elderly and middle-aged people, mostly apple-shaped women surrounded by personal arrangements of lucky stuffed animals, colored ink daubers, and insulated coffee mugs. Most wore glasses, crosses, and false teeth that slipped from their jaws when they talked or smiled, which was often.

Next to me sat a wreck of a girl, one of only three thin women in the place, though wasted is a better description than thin. She stank of cigarette smoke, alerting me to her furtive approach as she and her mother quietly took the table beside me. I smiled and said hello, to which she smiled back with a partially toothless grin as she shyly but enthusiastically whispered, “Hi.”

The skin under her dazed eyes was bruised and hollow; her dull, wavy hair unwashed. I heard her rasp into her mobile phone that she had planned to “go smoke” with friends of hers, but that her mother insisted that she come to bingo instead. Game after game, she texted messages to her boyfriend, at first laughing with a loose cough, then tossing her phone violently into her purse, sobbing, “Mama, I can’t do this anymore.”

As the afternoon went on, I honed in on the squeaky, shrill sniffs she made every few minutes, and the dark marks on her forearms that appeared when she pushed up the bulky sleeves of her sweatshirt.

Her mother, clad with long, limp brown hair, crooked yellowing teeth, and a pilled blue sweatsuit that billowed over her generous body. She peered sideways as her daughter struggled to keep up, daubing her bingo boards furiously between text messages and laughing coughs. Bingo was the only safe place she could bring her daughter, but bingo only lasted for a few hours. Her daughter was a junkie.

It was then that I wondered what kind of life I would have had if my mom had stayed in Michigan–what kind of people I might have grown up with. My uncle mentioned the other night that, right before we moved to Arizona in 1980, my mom asked if she should stay here with me rather than going with my father to Phoenix. “Well, he’s your husband; you have to go with him,” was my uncle’s response. And that’s what happened.

In the final round of the last game, I watched the markers change on one of my electronic boards. I only had three spaces left to cover. At first, I thought, “32, 32, 32…”–and sure enough, forced air pushed the 32 ball up into the emcee’s hand. Seventy-five of us tensely competed to be the first to cover our boards.

I took a deep breath and thought, “41, 41, 41…” and 41 rose up next. I could hardly believe it. Auntie Jill looked over with interest. “Look at that, Kid. You’re one away.”

To my disappointment, the 54 ball popped up next as I chanted, “70, 70, 70,” in my head. I reached up to nervously tug at the silver medals that hung around my neck. Praying on a gamble wasn’t new, even if this particular situation might be; I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, daring to believe even though the odds weren’t in my favor.

“Come on, 70, 70, 70… 70,70, 70…” I whispered out loud, like praying a rosary. I was dumbfounded when the 70 ball popped up on the monitor. Hoarsely, I croaked, “Bingo!” and stuck my hand in the air.

At first, no one heard me. It was only at the last instant that a monitor came by to check my machine, complaining equally about my soft-spoken cry as much as me taking money out of Michigan and back to Seattle.

“What are you doing to us, Jill, bringing a ringer in here?” Sam asked grumpily, returning with a cool thousand that he counted out on the table before me. Was it the proximity to my aunt, the religious charms into which I’ve imbued my spirit…or perhaps Lady Luck finally taking notice of me after all these years?

As I prepare to depart for Las Vegas, continuing to reflect on how far I’ve come from where I started, I feel lucky indeed. I’m beginning to understand how small the fishbowl was in which I was raised; it may have been a product of Michigan, but it was transplanted around me in Arizona. Only when I arrived in Seattle did the world broaden, a product of both intention and fortune: the intention of relocating to a metropolitan city, and the good fortune of finding sharp friends who support and inspire me–to learn, experience, risk, and ultimately, to grow.

A mutual friend mentioned that Joe lives in Vegas now; he’s a casino pit boss who does personal training on the side. The other day, Facebook suggested that we might know each other. I recognized his eyes looking out from the thumbnail photo, but his lumpy shaved head, swaddled in a gray hooded sweatshirt, didn’t evoke any of the warmth I remembered from when we were teenagers in love.

As I moved my warm clothes to the bottom of my suitcase, and my swimsuit to the top, I concluded that, sometimes, luck isn’t about what you win, but what life gives you. Sometimes, it’s different than what you thought you wanted, but it’s often surprisingly more satisfying.

The gamble, I think, is learning which to put your money on.

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