Every Wednesday, on Writing Under Pressure, you’ll find a post based on Today’s Word (from Wordsmith.org). Check Wednesday’s Word on the sidebar for past essays, poems, or flash fiction pieces.
Hobson’s choice. noun. an apparently free choice that offers no real alternative.
I began the first draft of this post with “Write whatever…,” since I woke up void of inspiration and lacking in time. Still, I wrote, which is the whole point of this exercise: write, even when you don’t feel like it. What resulted is more than flash fiction; we’re talking short story here. That’s what happens, I guess, when you chew on a story all day — it grows.
After oversleeping, I had fifteen minutes and sixty dollars to get to the bus station.
I begged my college roommate, Andi for a ride. “Come on,” I said as I shook her for the third time. “If you don’t drive me the two miles to the station, you’ll be stuck hauling my butt all the way to Minneapolis.” I tossed her car keys onto the bed. “And don’t ignore me. You’re the one who got me into this mess in the first place.”
Two weeks earlier, I made the mistake of whining – for the thousandth time, she said – about no work for the summer and the horrible prospect of begging my parents for another loan. So, Andi signed me up for catering gigs with the company where she works.
“You earn a chunk of change for each job,” she said. “The only problem is, newbies get stuck manning the Bingo Marathon in Minneapolis.”
“A marathon playing bingo? It can’t be that bad.” I said.
“You’d be surprised.” She had loaned me one of her catering shirts and told me not to spill anything on it.
Knowing I couldn’t miss this bus, I stood at the foot of her bed and threatened her again.
“Get up, or I’ll have a run-in with some chocolate cake. And, you know I can’t afford to buy you another shirt.”
At the bus station, I bought a round trip ticket from Duluth to Minneapolis – fifty dollars even with my student discount. The Ticket Master said he wouldn’t override the automated seat assignment, and I didn’t have time to plead. So, with ten dollars left to my name, I traveled three hours in the last row of the bus, on the side with one seat.
I avoided random conversations with strangers, but I panicked when a waft of diesel fumes sent me hacking and hallucinating. I saw flashes of light and old women shooting craps down the aisle of the bus while smoking cigars. Asking my parents for a loan would have been easier and less traumatic, I thought.
At 4:30 sharp that evening, I stepped in line, against the back wall of a large conference room, with four other newbies. We surveyed our course: rectangular tables set up like a grid, each table fitted with a pole and a yellow flag. We received strict instructions from the on-site catering manager, Buzz: one waitstaff was in charge of two columns of tables, about one hundred bingo players, and we were to run – not walk – to a table when the flag went up.
“You may get drinks, you might get food. But whatever you do, get it fast.” Buzz didn’t mince words. “These bingo freaks hate to wait around, and they don’t have time for chit chat. Get their orders right the first time, or you’re out.”
No pressure, I thought.
Flags went up every few minutes, and I understood why they called it a marathon. I didn’t run, but I walked Olympic style back and forth with trays of Pepsi, coffee, mixed drinks, and once with a bottle of prune juice.
“My nightly cocktail,” the old man said to me as he winked and tapped the glass with his bingo marker.
Most of my customers never looked up, just held their hand out for their drink. And, I don’t remember that any of them ordered food. But there was one old woman, at table 19, who always raised her head and smiled at me.
“Thank you for the coffee, dear.”
Everyone had their good luck charms around their cards, things like a rabbit’s foot, a plastic troll, or a two dollar bill. The woman at table 19, though, had a framed picture of an old man to the left of her cards, and a brochure for the Apostle Islands Cruise to the right. Each night, after the games ended, she wrapped them together in pink tissue and placed them in her purse.
On Friday, she squeezed my arm as left for the night. On Saturday, I brought her extra ice for her coffee without her asking. And, by Sunday, we addressed each other by our first names: Rebecca and Helen.
“Rebecca, I’ve had so much coffee I think I’ll burst, but I can’t afford to go to the restroom. I’m about to win, I can just feel it.”
“You do have that winning look, Helen.”
But, come two o’clock on Sunday, the last bingo game ended and Helen still hadn’t won. I brought her another coffee and a piece of rhubarb pie.
“On the house,” I told her.
After we cleared the tables and washed the dishes, Buzz lined up the other newbies and me and passed out our money – $450 cash – and details on the next gig. I was in, thank God. Just as I turned to leave, I saw Helen still sitting at table 19. I walked back to her seat.
“Excuse me, Helen,” I said. She turned and smiled slightly.
“Oh, Rebecca dear. How did you make out?”
“Over $400,” I said, waving my wad of cash. “Plenty of money to get back home and celebrate.”
“Well, you deserve it after all your trouble.” She put her hand to her cheek, sighed, and turned back to the picture.
“What are you still doing here?” I asked her. “You haven’t wrapped up your things.”
“Oh, no. I’m just gathering my thoughts,” she said, quiet.
I had time before the next bus left town, so I pulled out a chair and sat down. Helen said the picture was of her husband, Harold, who had died six months ago. He was cremated, but she hadn’t had a chance to spread his ashes.
“He wanted me to pour them into Lake Superior, right off of Madeline Island. That’s where we celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary. I can’t drive, so I can’t get to the Island, or even to Bayfield, without money. I thought if I brought his picture and that brochure, the Bingo gods would look down on me and smile.”
“But, if you can’t drive, how would you get there even with money?” I asked. “I don’t think a bus goes all the way to Bayfield. It barely goes to Duluth.”
“Hire a driver, I guess. I’ve got some time to figure that out, now.” She said, defeated but still hopeful.
I asked her where she lived. She told me in an assisted living place not far from the conference center. She said it was a nice enough place but that no one seemed interested in helping her out.
The $450 took up all the space in my back pocket and made it difficult to sit. I figured it out quick: the money to rent a car, the distance between Minneapolis-Bayfield-Duluth, the time.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
“Do what, dear?” She pulled out her tissue paper.
“I’ll take you. It’s on my way, sort of, and I don’t think I can bear another ride in the back of a charter bus. We’ll rent a car. We’ll be there by sunset.”
She looked like she might protest a second, but then her eyes sparkled again. “Well, honey, I can’t leave from here! Harold’s sitting at home on my kitchen table.” She held his picture to her chest. “We’ll stop at my place first, grab my things and Harold, and a bite to eat.”
We stood up together.
“I knew I was feeling lucky this weekend,” she said. She hugged my arm and held my hand.