JESUS WINS AT BINGO

1998 by Michael J. Vavrek, Jr.

* Georgie *


As each of the Bingo players filed into the hall--collapsing their umbrellas, shaking off the water, rushing to grab a seat in time for the Early Bird Special--they were literally stopped in their tracks by a unique deja vu kind of experience. Confronting them was a sight so familiar, yet so out of place, that for a second their cognitive abilities completely failed them.

To all outward appearances, a painting had come to life right before them. As they shook their heads and rubbed their eyes, they couldn't help but believe they were being presented with their very own tableau vivant of the religious painting The Last Supper.

Central to the creation of this impression was a man--across the way, his back to the far wall--who looked strikingly like Jesus Christ. He was seated at one of the long rows of Bingo tables and his posture and seeming serenity were exactly right for the famous da Vinci, the painting that many players had just whisked past on their way out the door at home.

But then each entering player was finally able to snap out of their fugue state when they noticed what the man was doing: just like the rest of those already seated, the Jesus-looking man was methodically laying out on the table in front of him the nine colorful pasteboard cards he had received for his $4.50 admission. When each entrant grasped this, they were able to process other information again and resume forward momentum to thei seats; however a buzz of discussion circled the room about the strange man.

Ignoring their stares, Jesus continued his preparations for that night's game. A white jacket was draped over the back of his chair, and he dug around in its pocket until he pulled out a wrinkled brown paper bag. Ceremoniously he placed the bag on the table in front of him. He then withdrew two things from it: a snap-locked, clear-plastic container filled with small, transparent-purple disks, and a white plastic dauber bottle filled with red ink. The bag stayed put on the table. It wasn't going anywhere. It was not empty and he had further plans for it. He smiled grimly as he acknowledged to himself that he was going to use it to blow the lid off this place and expose the corrupt priest that ran this sham of a show. Verily, verily.

Regulars in the hall recognized the bag and its displayed contents as the Bingo paraphernalia having once belonged to a lady named Madge Restin. Formerly a fixture at these Friday night events, Madge had a customary spot five chairs from the front and against the opposite wall. She had lost her spot approximately six months ago, however, when, according to the papers, she had died of complications from a diabetic coma. The picture the paper had run in Madge's obituary had looked just like her; it showed a heavy-set, coarse woman with a pinched face who looked like she had just finished sucking on a lemon. What it failed to capture, however, was the seemingly-untended yellow-grey color of her hair and the piercing, nerve-rasping timbre of her voice. And, of course, in the newspaper picture you couldn't see the way she was dressed; Madge had always favored those roomy, flower-printed dresses, and on her feet she had worn fuzzy, unbleached-white bobby sox, and scuffed blue tennis shoes.

The regulars in the hall truly missed Madge. While she was alive, she had played a continuing character in these Friday night dramas, and, since her death, her role had not been recast.

Madge had been memorable. Accompanied by exaggerated sighs of exasperation and plumbing the lower depths of her vocal range, Madge had functioned as the resident hectorer and heckler. From her venomous mouth had spewed forth an incessant tongue lashing of Bingo's "management." Indeed, of all the players who regularly attended Bingo there in St. Francis Church's basement hall on Friday nights, Madge had probably been the harshest, certainly the most vocal, critic of the parish priest who ran these games, Father John Mulvehill. The price of her admission, she had figured, granted her full license to severely criticize the priest at every juncture--especially, needless to say, when one of her losing streaks extended for any significant length of time. But she was merely the stalking horse for the other players; all pretty much felt the same as Madge.

The man who looked like Jesus was Madge's son George. Why did he appear as Jesus? For as far back as he could remember Georgie Restin was someone else, and he had existed over the years as a series of someone elses. His personal sense of self was just so weak that his personality was continually overpowered and beaten into submission by the more charismatic personalities that he encountered, and thus he ended up assuming their personas.

During the course of the past year Georgie had been, among others, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, and Winston Churchill. Then, six months ago, a short while after his mother had died, he saw the Zeffirelli version of Jesus of Nazareth and he immediately put aside his deerstalker cap and his pale imitation of Basil Rathbone's erudite Sherlock Holmes, whom he had succumbed to in a Holmes marathon on TNT, and he had taken on Robert Powell's sensitive portrayal of Jesus Christ.

To give visual substance to his empathetic performance of Jesus he had allowed his already long brown hair to attain shoulder length, parting it in the middle, and he had also cultivated a neat beard and moustache. And, wardrobe-wise, he began wearing white, billowy-fitting, collarless shirts.

Georgie had come to Bingo to avenge his mother. He was the one who had listened to her each Friday night following those games, as Madge had furnished him with a blow-by-blow account of the night's events. Occasionally, on those rare occasions when she had won something, she regaled him with the details and he was treated to her warm afterglow; then she would boast of her brilliance and the shrewd technique of her play. Usually, however, Georgie was forced to listen to endless invective when she had lost and lost miserably.

Madge, on a losing streak, had been clinically depressed. Frequently she also had become obsessed with the logistics and interworkings of the games. She suspected that Bingo at St. Francis was fixed, and she even went to the point of developing her own conspiracy theories and muttering darkly about her paranoid fantasies. Georgie always listened to her. Respectfully.

Shortly before she died, Madge had gone so far as to claim that she actually had proof that Father John was rigging the Bingo games. But whatever her proof had been, she had taken it to her grave. But that was okay: Georgie had figured it all out on his own. And his logic was impeccable. Elementary, my dear Brethren. He had brought the proof with him. Right there in the bag. Christ will reveal all. Then there will be the gnashing of teeth and the renting of clothes (and no tuxedos.)

Earlier, before he had entered the Bingo hall, Georgie, had broken into the locked church upstairs. He had left a message up there for the priest. That was also part of his plan, and now he was prepared to pay the priest back for the way his mother had been cheated over the years.

Georgie understood that this night might be his last chance to confront the priest--where was the creep, anyway? He looked around the hall and the priest was not there yet. Tonight had to be the night. Georgie's neighbors had already complained about him to the police. In his neighborhood, he was usually referred to non-affectionately as "THAT NUT UP THE STREET." His neighbors had always feared him, he knew--they had always wanted him hauled away and committed--and now that his mother was no longer there to protect him and assume responsibility for him, his neighbors would probably get their way. It was only a matter of time.

His most recent encounters with them in fact had been disastrous. He had left his cross in the front yard and some kids had poured gasoline on it and set it on fire. He had began to preach off his back porch in the evenings--they had yelled at him to shut the hell up. And when he began confronting them on the street, teaching them with parables--they fled from him in fear. His Second Coming was not being appreciated.

Prepations for that night's games continued. The other players, still arriving in drenched condition at the back of the basement hall, had to come down a flight of stairs from ground level outside. The rain had not let up; as a matter of fact, people discussed the news reports that a bad weather system had stalled overtop of their community and would dump lots of water on them.

As they went through the doorway at the bottom of the stairs, the new arrivals stopped at entrance tables and paid the $4.50 entrance fee and received nine cards; they could buy additional cards if they so chose. Then they filed up the long rows, often stopping at "reserved" tables where someone, usually the ladies who sold specials, had placed cards on the tables to make the seats look occupied. There were several of these staked-out spots surrounding Georgie, and when the men and women arrived at them and began settling in, they kept glancing over at Georgie with curiosity and amusement.

Soon, within a five minute period, the bulk of the people began arriving in throngs and depositing themselves in the remaining empty chairs around the hall.

Suddenly, a man's voice, amplified through a speaker, announced the Early Bird Special, the Powerhouse, three paper cards for ten cents. Georgie found his dime, held it up over his head, and it was snatched from behind, and three orange sheets were torn from a pad and dropped in front of him. He reached for his dauber, unscrewed the cap, turned it over, and the red liquid soon moistened the foam tip. As he tested it in the palm of his hand, it left a red smear which he found fascinating. Smiling to himself, he then marked his other palm to match and touched the two red splotches together.

Before long the hall was totally full of boisterous players, some stragglers still milling about, drying off before sitting down. Then, of course it didn't happen this way, but it seemed like, almost in unison, the whole hall pulled out their cigarettes and lit up. A blue cloudy haze suddenly appeared and hung in the air above the tables.

Along the two walls and on the stage, three enormous, lighted number boards were turned on, ready to display the numbers that were going to be called. On the stage in a square tray tilted for all to see, each of the seventy-two sequential square slots was filled with its own properly-numbered ping-pong ball. At this time the balls were unceremoniously dumped into a clear-glass air blower case that looked like a popcorn machine, the air was turned on, and soon the ping-pong balls were popping away merrily within the glass case to the sound of a whirling motor. When a control lever was opened, the air inside would force one ball up into a vacuum area where, before it was announced, it would be picked up on a closed-circuit TV system and displayed on three black and white television sets, one suspended high against each wall and one above the stage.

A male parishioners took his seat as caller next to the ping-pong popping machine and the games began.

On the Powerhouse special, the first fifteen people to achieve any kind of Bingo didn't win money but received three free paper special cards to use for each of the six specials that would be played the rest of the evening. Each special used a different-colored card.

Surprise, surprise! Georgie was one of the Powerhouse winners! Or at least he thought he was. He raised his two fingers in a sign of Victory, having formed a daubed cross in the middle of his orange card. As it turned out, it WAS in fact a winner, but it was referred to not as a cross but as an inside diamond. Some of the players nudged the person next to them and pointed at Georgie. A murmur went through the assemblage, "Look. Jesus-over-there won." Several people sniggered at this snotty observation.

Georgie ignored their sarcasm, glad to have won. The small amount of money he had pilfered when he broke into the votive candle box upstairs would not have been enough to play all of that night's specials, each of which would have required that he buy paper cards three for a quarter. He had very little other money because, without his mother's social security check, funds at home had all but dried up. So he took his Powerhouse win as a sign from his heavenly father that He was very pleased with his earthbound son and that He approved of his plan to expel the moneychangers from the temple and expose the transgressor, Father Mulvehill. Georgie was so self-satisfied that he reached in his jacket for a cigar or a pipe, then remembered that it was Churchill who smoked cigars and Holmes who smoked pipes, not Jesus. Too bad, though, Jesus still had the habit.

Esther Elliott, in the middle of the hall, was another of the Powerhouse winners. She was an attractive older woman with a bushy head of chestnut hair. Esther looked prim in every way imaginable except unaccountably she always wore a bullet bra that protruded her green sweater sharply out in front. As she held up her paper card for her Bingo to be acknowledged, one of the special-sellers, Wanda, took the card and asked Esther, "Where is it?" "Diagonal, from B2," Esther replied. This conversation was necessary because Esther hadn't marked the card. In fact, she hadn't marked any of her nine special cards, nor was it going to be her practice to mark any of her thirty-six regular-game cards, for Esther was one of those amazing people who could remember each card, what numbers were on it, and what numbers had been called on it. Furthermore, she knew immediately when she achieved a Bingo configuration on any of her cards.

Esther's ability was comparable to those people who can play several simultaneous chess games while blindfolded.But she could, on top of that, perform her prodigious feats of mentalism while at the same time chain-smoking and gossiping and discussing with her neighbors what numbers were being called--or more often than not what numbers were NOT being called. Her natural facility with numbers gave Esther, over the course of a night, the ability to realize what numbers were, in fact, conspicuous by their absence; and it became her habit, or maybe the job had simply defaulted to her as part of the dynamics of this group, to let out with a mock-orgasmic "Oooooh," when that long lost number finally got called. Or, sometimes, at the end of the night, she would announce in a crystal-clear voice that she had been set six times and each time needed the same number, G54, for instance, and it never got called the whole night.

A lot of people thought she was full of bull, but Madge Restin had never known her to be wrong and had told Georgie so. Madge had told Georgie that the Number Lady was highly intelligent and could have been a rocket scientist if she had had the opportunity.

Esther turned in her seat and ordered a cup of coffee from a young boy carrying a tray of food and drinks. The boy ironically was wearing a yellow Richard Guindon shirt that reminded, "Bingo is Not an Exact Science." If anyone was close to being exempt from this dictum, it was Esther. She would be able to drink that coffee while smoking while kibitzing while keeping track of thirty-six cards and a maintaining a running tab on all the numbers called.

Now that the Powerhouse special quota had been filled with fifteen declared winners, Esther began to perform her feat of mental gymnastics on the thirty-six pasteboard cards, for regular Bingo had begun.

As numbers continued to be called and the game progressed, Georgie observed that the moneychangers certainly WERE rampant in the temple, especially their leader that fat Father Mulvehill. Christ would have to settle this matter.

Speak of the devil, thought Georgie. Father Mulvehill, arrived on the scene, cigarette in hand, and began strutting back and forth across the front of the hall in his accustomed spot below the stage. He was a tall, fat man and wore old-fashioned wire-rimmed glasses on his round, ruddy face; he combed his grey-templed, thinning hair straight back. Dressed in his black clericals, he was a commanding figure--the lord of all he surveyed--and he bid welcome to some wet parishioners as they stashed their umbrellas beneath their seats. He paused in his capacity as official greeter every so often to take a generous bite from a chocolate-covered donut that was sitting chest-high on a blue napkin on the stage.

Ironically, thought Georgie, Mulvehill had been the one who had, in fact, said the requiem mass and had presided over his mother's funeral. The man had even said nice things about her. What a magnanimous act, the Bingo crowd must have felt, considering all the times Madge had berated the priest unmercifully in this very same hall. What a hypocrite, thought Georgie.

Verily, verily, thought Georgie, I wonder if the priest recognizes me from the funeral? He hoped not, because he was there to exact revenge, to even the score.

The next five games were played on the pasteboard cards. Following that, there would be a special where it was necessary to buy paper cards from the ladies who crisscrossed the aisles wearing money aprons. And that was the normal course of the evening's entertainment: five games on the pasteboard cards would alternate with a special played on the purchased paper cards.

On the paper specials, though, there were four progressive ways to win: first, a regular Bingo, second, forming a giant "T", third, covering the outside edge, and finally, filling the entire card. And then the night's final game, as was the custom, would be a special special, the jackpot game, a special weekly-carryover Bingo, where if someone filled the card before the 47th number had been called, the payoff would be $500; after the 46th number, however, the prize for that night fell to $100, and the jackpot's grand prize payoff would get carried over till the following week. Next week, then, the players would vie to fill the card and they would have one additional number in which to do it and the grand prize will go up by $50, so the possible payoff would be $550 if someone filled the card within 47 numbers. Ultimately the grand prize amount accumulated week by week until it topped off at $1,000 for 56 numbers (or however many it took).

* Father Mulvehill *

For some strange reason defying all logic, the bigger the payoff, the more people that showed up on Fridays and the more paper jackpot specials that would be sold, so if the top prize was not captured for a while, Bingo for the parish became increasingly more profitable. Unfortunately, Madge Restin was correct when she suspected Father Mulvehill of rigging the games; the priest was taking devious, underhanded steps to insure that the jackpot was not won each week but got carried over to the following week; thus he increased attendance and profits. He, in effect, was taking up an involuntary collection.

Periodically, as the night got under way, the outside weather became a concern. Thunder resounded many times and the lights flickered. As a precaution, Father Mulvehill gave Martin Thompson his keys and sent him up into the church to locate some candles and flashlights.

Henry Izzi, Bingo aficionado, was another fixture of each Friday night's ritual. A short, red-faced round man with a bald head and owlish horn-rimmed glasses, he always came decked out in a white shirt, suspenders, and a red bow tie. He was another one of those people, like Esther Elliott, who had a continuing but unassigned role to play during these proceedings. By tradition every time three or more I-numbers were called in a row, Henry had to bring this to everyone's attention by squealing, "I-yi-yi- yi-yi." He now delivered his line with howling success as Martin Thompson returned from upstairs.

The priest noticed that Thompson, who always wore a suit and loved to assume an officious air of self-importance, was now noticeably shaken when he approached, handing back the priest's keys. For the first time Mulvehill could recall, Thompson's neatly-combed grey hair was unkempt and drooped forward onto his forehead. Also, the blood had drained from his face.

"Father," Thompson reported. "Someone broke into the church."

"Damn," said the priest, dropping his cigarette onto the floor and then having to retrieve it. "Any damage?"

"You'd better come look for yourself. You're not going to believe . . . "

"Okay, let's go."

The two of them walked away from the stage, and then traversed the length of the hall, to a door to the left of the rear entrance. Through the door a flight of stairs led up into the church. As they climbed the stairs, the rain and thunder outside echoed hollowly through the walls.

The priest, breathing heavily, opened the upstairs door with his key, and Thompson followed him into the vestibule. Automatically moistening his right hand in a porcelain holy water font, Thompson crossed himself and then continued to follow Mulvehill. Besides the red vigil candle and the flickering votive candles, some very dim electric sconces lit the church. The priest parted the double doors and passed from the vestibule into the nave, and then, still breathing heavily, he began scanning from side to side as he strode up the main aisle toward the altar. Half-way up, though, the priest stopped; his mouth fell open and he unconsciously made the sign of the cross. Thompson halted a respectful distance behind.

High above the altar, the gigantic cross--certainly the centerpiece of the church and its most prominent feature--was empty. It had been thoroughly desecrated. The statue of the crucified Jesus was missing. He had departed his cross and left three protruding nails exposed, piercing empty air. On the white cloth of the high altar and on the floor below it was some truly bizarre plaster debris--some recognizable fingers and toes--amidst the powder.

"What else?" Mulvehill asked shaking his head.

"All that I noticed was that someone broke into the money box over at the votive candles. The money is gone."

"How ridiculous. Why would anyone do anything so stupid and destructive?"

"I don't know. Vandals? Kids?"

"Any sign of the missing statue, Martin? That thing was heavy."

"Not that I could see. They must have taken it away; I looked in the sacristy and in the storage room on the far side of the altar and it's not here. It's probably in some kid's dorm room somewhere."

"Well," said Mulvehill, trying to hide his irritation, "call the police and make certain everything else is secure. I'll be downstairs. Let me know when the police get here. And call Fred; he's our insurance agent."

On his way back to monitor the Bingo, Father Mulvehill, still shaking his head in disgust, paused in the back of the Bingo hall, then he went through the other door and up the back stairs to ground level. Huffing and puffing from the exertion, he pushed on the crash bar of the outside door and swung it open. The high wind whipped the drenching downpour from side to side, while lightning flashed and illuminated the streets, already overflowing with surging water. The storm had overwhelmed the drainage system, and the priest hoped the nearby creek could handle the runoff. Back inside the hall, as he approached the stage, he noticed that many of the players were glaring toward the far side of the hall. Their ire was directed toward a person who looked, of all people, like Jesus Christ himself. Mulvehill was momentarily staggered by the man's appearance. Here was the fugitive statue.

"What happened with the guy over there?" he asked Rudy Ryan, the caller, between numbers.

Rudy put his hand over the microphone and reported, "He raised his two finger up in the air, so someone called 'Bingo' for him, but he didn't have it. Did that twice. Said something about a cross appearing on his cards."

* * * * *

The night's Bingo, three plus hours of sedentary entertainment, plodded along to its eventual conclusion. The police had been by to view the vandalism in the church and did a cursory look around and promised to be back in the morning. Jesus, the Bingo player, had raised his hand in the Victory salute several times since his initial "no-Bingos," but his gestures were now disregarded and no longer raised anyone's dander. The storm raged outside, and the lights inside had dimmed several times but had never actually gone out.

As a further indication that the night was drawing to a close, Esther Elliott, who had won $120 up to that point, arrived at a subtotal in her head and announced, "6 and 66 have never been called tonight." Her comment got on Father Mulvehill's nerves. He was leaning toward the stage at his customary spot, huddling with Martin Thompson, reviewing the night's receipts. He heard Esther's words and lost track of his count.

Of course 6 and 66 hadn't come up. Mulvehill had surreptitiously arranged to have the pink Bingo sheets for that night's jackpot Bingo printed separately by a different out-of-town printer; it was an an excellent, official-looking forgery and even included the Imprimatur. Every pink card, except one of the cards given out to a Powerhouse winner, had either a B6 or an O66 on it, because the priest was certain those two numbers would never be called that night. So, there was only one jackpot card that could possibly be filled and win. And, although it was not impossible, the chances were extremely remote that the one legitimate card would Bingo within the 46 numbers, so the jackpot would almost certainly carry over.

Father Mulvehill had been tinkering with these games for the last six months; church bills had gotten out of hand and the collection plate hadn't provided much help. It would have been a godsend, he had figured at the time he began to consider intervening, to be able to count on the extra revenue that would follow from a weekly carryover of the jackpot Bingo. So he had begun looking for a way to delay the winning of the grand prize. And God, of course, had sent him the means to this end. On balance, he didn't feel that cheating his parishioners was so bad; it was a small contribution for them to make to keep the church on a financially sound footing.

It was ironic that Madge Restin, his perpetual critic, had been the one to provide him with the idea. Being able to eliminate her and her mouth at the same time was just an extra bonus, he admitted; it was frosting on the cake. But he was glad that she was no longer there to torment him. No more of her constant carping in that caustic voice: "The Protestants give bigger prizes. Hell, even the Jews give bigger prizes." "No one wins the jackpot, and Father gets himself a new car." "The same people always seem to win." "Father's always asking for more money." "There's no toilet paper in the ladies's room." "It's too hot in here." "It's too cold in here." "Where's that draft coming from?" "I'm going to get hemorrhoids sitting on these cheap wooden chairs."

He often wondered if people believed he was deaf and didn't hear the things she was muttering. He had heard every word and her voice had pierced his consciousness and reverberated down his spine. That voice had sawed away at the ends of his raw nerves. And he had always wondered, doesn't she do anything but complain? Run off at the mouth? And every thing she had said, just like his mother, was critical of him. She sounded, in fact, just like his mother, the mother he had fled from when he had entered the monastery in the first place. Anything to be away from that whining, nagging, griping woman. Nothing he had ever done had ever seemed to please her. All she could do was show her disappointment in him by screaming and beating him within an inch of his life.

He was glad Madge had left her insulin injector kit in the ladies's room, and one of the women had turned it in at the rectory. He was glad he had emptied out the vial of insulin. He was glad he had decided to make rock candy just like he had as a boy. He had boiled the water so he could dissolve more and more sugar in it, and he had kept pouring in the sugar and kept pouring in the sugar, stirring it so it would dissolve. And then when it was almost a syrup, rather than adding a large chunk of rock candy to allow the dissolved sugar to crystallize on it, he had injected the heavy sugar water back into her vial and returned the kit to the old bat. And he was glad she had evidently injected this concoction into herself. And he was especially glad no one had ever gotten suspicious.

And now that the voice of the snapping turtle was no longer heard in the land, he felt relieved his verbal assailant had been silenced, her mouth shut for good. The only thing that worried him now, though, was the man seated over there against the wall.

Had Jesus himself come to punish him? Perhaps Jesus had come down off that cross upstairs to make him confess. But that didn't make much sense. The world was a better place without that woman and her voice and those abrasive, grating, derisive, complaints, complaints, complaints. And even if that really was Jesus over there, well, Bingo paid a lot of the religious bills, perhaps out of curiosity he was just there to play the game himself. Why not?

The lights flickered in the hall. Was that a sign? Did that mean that, no, it really was an angry Jesus over there?

While the priest wondered about the man who looked like Jesus, the man absentmindedly held his uncapped dauber in his left hand, left elbow on the table, his tongue stuck out in rapt concentration, and, as the numbers were called, he placed markers on the pasteboard cards with his right hand. While focusing on the one task, like a child with a crayon and a coloring book, he didn't realize that he was streaking his forehead with the red ink with the other hand.

When Father Mulvehill looked over again at his Jesus, and saw the red marks on his forehead and then caught sight of the red marks on the man's palms, he lost his breath. He flushed and fell back against the stage. He suddenly realized he was about to be exposed to the world as a murderer and a cheat.

But maybe not. The last Bingo of the night, the jackpot Bingo, was about to begin. Daubers hovered over pink cards.

Suddenly, there was a loud noise in the back of the hall, like someone banging insistently on the door to be let in. One of the ladies who sold specials went to investigate. Two numbers had been called on the jackpot by the time she returned; her forehead was furrowed with concern, and she raised her hand.

"Attention," she said loud enough to interrupt the game. "The water is rising in the streets. It up to the bottom of the door, and it looks like this area may soon flood. Maybe we ought to stop and finish this game some other time."

"I was just listening to the radio," said another of the volunteers, stepping forward, "and they said the storm front is stationary over this area and it's not moving. The weather bureau fears that with all the rain the ground could soon become supersaturated and the water would have no where to go. There's a flood warning. I think we ought to leave."

"No. Finish. Finish the Bingo," the audience in various voices and from various directions implored.

"Maybe we should conclude for tonight," said the priest.

"Finish the Bingo," said Georgie, and all eyes turned toward him. He looked a bit loony with the red marks on his forehead and with eyes that were fiercely blazing. "There's something Father John needs to confess."

The priest's face turned ruby red at this remark and the rest of his body seemed to shrivel up and turn to the side, cringing; he nodded to Rudy Ryan to continue and then he lowered his head to his chest as though defeated. Ryan recommenced by calling another number. When Ryan called the 46th number with no Bingo on a full card and the prize fell from $500 to $100, several in the crowd moaned loudly in disappointment. By the time someone finally Bingoed, on the 56th number, the crowd looked up disgusted and could just see, through the smoke-filled air, Father Mulvehill was half-way up the first row skulking toward the entrance.

But then with a boom and a loud snapping of wood, the door to the outside buckled and a tidal wave of water appeared at the back of the hall and began to rush forward. It stopped the priest dead in his tracks as it moved towards him.

People screamed, they overturned chairs, and they clambered over each other trying to get away from the water as it overtook them.

Then to make matters worse, the lights shorted out and the hall was plunged into darkness. Voices cried and wailed and called out to one another.

Someone suggested the raised stage would be the safest place. It would be tight but there should be enough standing room for all, and so people could be heard thrashing around in the water, and then they talked to each other as they climbed onto the stage.

Someone had dry cigarettes and matches and the stage was soon sporadically aglow with lit matches and the glowing points of cigarettes. Thompson remembered the candles and flashlights. He located them and they were lit, and the situation could now be surveyed in the flickering light of the candles and the beacons of the flashlights. The crowd discovered that the water had filled the basement hall to a depth just above the tables.

Missing was Father Mulvehill but he soon surfaced in the water near the stage, looking disoriented. He was pulled out of the water, and he lay on the stage dazed, holding the top of his head where a gash showed he had been struck with something.

Suddenly in the wavering light of the candles the figure of Christ appeared out in the depth of the hall. A flashlight caught him as he walked purposefully on the far tables toward the stage, water splashing up from his feet. He then bounded from the end of the last table onto the stage.

Mulvehill came alert with the noise, eyes wide, and he shrank back in fear. Jesus had a paper bag in his hand.

"Is he dead?" asked Jesus. "He'd better not be. He needs to tell about Madge Restin."

The priest moaned. "I just wanted to shut her up, that big-mouthed battle-axe. I had a right to shut her up."

"No, you didn't," said Jesus, "but look here." He reached into the bag and grabbed hold of something and allowed the bag to fall away. In his hand was a plastic container, and he snapped it open and extracted a hypodermic needle from it. "My mom told me you had her insulin kit for awhile. When you gave it back, there was an injector missing. Tell them what you did with the injector."

"I used it to fill her vial with sugar water."

"No, not that! Tell them what you do with it now."

"No. They'll kill me."

"Look," said Georgie, going over to the Bingo blower machine, opening a trap door, and reaching in, the shadows obscuring his movements. When he withdrew his hand, he was holding two ping-pong balls, which he shook in the air. "See, the Number Lady was right; here's B6 and here's O66. Father John injected liquid into them tonight so they'd be too heavy to reach the top and get called. That's how he keeps from paying the jackpot; he cheats."

Rudy Ryan grabbed one of the balls from Georgie and shook it next to his ear, so did Esther Elliott. Liquid indeed sloshed around inside. The look on their faces told the rest of the crowd everything they needed to know.

"Why, I'll be a son of a bitch," said Esther, "this bastard has been cheating me. He's been cheating all of us."

The crowd surged forward toward Mulvehill, and he rolled away and over the edge of the stage back into the water. When he stood and looked up, even in the candle glow he saw the intense anger in their faces, and he backed away. Then when they made as if to climb down off the stage after him, he trudged away through the water toward the back of the hall. Several of the men and women did enter the water and slogged along behind him, cursing and yelling for him to stop.

The priest fled them, but more so he fled Jesus, who he knew would catch up with him and punish him. The last thing the priest saw when he looked back was the shadowy figure of Jesus running toward him across the top of a long row of tables, water being flung up from his feet.

At the back of the hall, water followed him as he went through the unlocked door to the stairs; he locked the door carefully behind him. Immediately he heard the people on the other side, pounding, and he grimaced to himself as he hurriedly stumbled up the stairs in the dark. Gasping for breath on the landing, his pulse galloping loudly in his temples, his hands shaking as he fumbled with the keys to that door. Finally he got it open and emerged into the vestibule, even as he heard a loud thud from downstairs and the sound of splintering wood.

Luckily, there were just enough candles burning to allow him to see, as he locked this second door behind him.

Why doesn't Jesus understand? he wondered. He should know how tough it is to run St. Francis. He surely has to realize that saving souls is an afterthought anymore; he has to know this is simply a business and a business that has been going sour for some time. Electricity to keep these lights lit and gas to heat this building--these cost money. I just had to find a new source of revenue. So what was the big deal?

Moreover, he couldn't understand why there was such little concern over Madge Restin. He had killed her, after all. His guilt over her death suddenly distressed him more than his guilt over swindling them at Bingo. But Jesus didn't seem to care. Maybe no one else could stand Madge's endless jaw-flapping either. I couldn't go through it again, listening to that voice every week, every single week. I just had to shut her up. But maybe my confession wasn't heard or understood. Wait till Jesus realizes what I have really done. He'll surely beat me like mom used to do, punish me.

There was really no place to hide inside the modest church, no upstairs choir, no belfry. He unlocked one of the front doors and looked outside. The street directly in front of the church was a natural disaster; the water was four feet deep and surging so that the wind sailed branches and other debris on an erratic course. He considered the possibility of going out the back, through the sacristy, and then, unless it were also flooded, to the rectory. But where then? He allowed the door to swing shut.

Oh, I know he'll hurt me if he catches me. He'll hurt me.

As he was about to go through the vestibule doors into the back of the church, he heard the basement door splinter and crash and then he heard the parishioners on the stairs. Almost immediately the scuffling of shoes sounded on the steps outside the upstairs door, and suddenly, crunch, an axe bit into the wood. The fire axe. They would be through in a few seconds. He wouldn't get far.

He passed through the doors into the nave. Then, rather than run up the main aisle, he crossed the back and started up the side where he knew he would be hidden in shadows. Mustn't let Jesus catch me. I've been real bad. Real naughty. He'll hurt me for sure. He'll beat me, punish me.

He looked back just in time to see them come through the vestibule doors; they hadn't seen him yet, but they had a flashlight.

The light of the flashlight moved across the wall toward him. He saw a temporary refuge. As he opened the center door to the confessional and rushed inside, pulling the door shut behind him, he was immediately paralyzed, and began involuntarily gagging with a delayed realization of horror. The light had briefly entered with him and illuminated the face of Jesus who was already in there waiting for him. He squirmed in revulsion and kicked out and suddenly Jesus lunged out at him in the darkness. Mulvehill, at first frozen with fear, now screamed and pawed frantically at his adversary, trying to keep him away. But he was trapped, restrained; there was no where to go in the small confined space. This Jesus was incredibly strong and had unbelievably taut muscles like strung steel cables and his arms were absolutely unyielding. And that breath in his face was nauseating like the stench of overturned graveyard earth.

The priest somehow in his agitated frenzy managed to trip his opponent but then Jesus was abruptly leaning forward now with those wiry muscles flexed like a drawn bow and Jesus was crushing Mulvehill, pressing the priest's back against the door and forcing the breath out of him.

A burning sensation took the place of air in the priest's lungs. Mulvehill tried to scrabble behind himself to find the door knob. Have to get out. He's going to hurt me, beat me, punish me.

If he could only get the door open but his arms were now somehow pressed against his body, and he felt the terror of his inevitable doom, caught like a stabbed butterfly on the end of a pin. His reflexes wanted him to scream again, but all that he could manage were some choking gasps of "Aah-nah-naaah," the inside of his chest constricting as though it were about to implode. Then his body shuddered with successive pulsating mule kicks of thoracic impact.

The pursuing Bingo army entered the church, heard the struggle in the confessional, and rushed over to the source of the noise. When they unlatched the confessional door, the priest with his antagonist intertwined surprised everyone by bursting outward. The two toppled over backward and sprawled into the aisle.

"Get that off him," yelled Martin Thompson, approaching the scene.

Rudy Ryan and Henry Izzi each grabbed one of the outstretched arms of Jesus the statue and rolled the heavy plaster form backwards off the unconscious priest.

Thompson knelt next to the priest and examined him and felt the pulse at his neck, then he immediately started CPR with the heel of his hand on Mulvehill's chest and he said, "Call 911. I think Father's had a heart attack. There's a phone in the sacristy."

One of the people said, "I'll call," and left, just as Jesus the Bingo player arrived. Viewing the fallen priest, Georgie seemed almost to gather himself and then he took on a certain visible aura of otherworldliness. Perhaps it was his Father's divine inspiration he felt as he made the sign of the cross in the air over the priest.

Thompson continued his alternating procedure of blowing into Mulvehill's mouth twice and then pushing down six times on the priest's sternum with the heel of his hand.

Georgie spoke. "Now that you have made your confession, Father John Mulvehill, I forgive you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. I sense that your life as a child was impossible, that there was no escaping your abusive mother. I sense that your life as a priest was a disappointment--no one warned you that your church would be judged as a business. You will be welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven for your efforts, however unsuccessful. Given your origins, your efforts were, in fact, commendable."

As he made the sign of the cross in the air again, many of the spectators also crossed themselves. With that he turned and headed toward the back of the church.

That night the Bingo players struggled to get home in the wind and the rain of the flooded city. Those who lived close crossed streets in waist-high water by pulling themselves along ropes that had been strung between telephone poles. Those who lived a distance and had cars parked outside the hall couldn't get their cars started, so they had to make it to a dry area and have someone pick them up. But when the participants of that night finally got home and dried out, they thought about what had happened and what they had seen, and they cursed Father Mulvehill in one breath for having cheated them and they prayed for the poor man in the next. Then as they lit up their cigarettes, they wondered what they would be doing next Friday night, whether they would cancel Bingo or not and what the jackpot prize would be.

Father John never recovered, despite the heroic medical efforts of many dedicated people. He did pass away, however, forgiven and absolved of his sins.

For Georgie, his ministry as Christ pretty much concluded that night. Two weeks later he was picked up by the police, taken into custody, and he henceforth became a ward of the state.

There had been several complaints that he had been bothering people again, this time trying to sell them animals made from balloons. Many who had seen Georgie at Bingo would not have recognized him when he was picked up. He was clean-shaven and his hair was by then neatly trimmed but he had powdered it white and there seemed to be an arrow sticking out each side of his head. To the police he made a tantamount admission of guilt: "Well, excussssse me. I'm just a wild and crazy guy."

THE END

ARE YOU INTERESTED? Where did this story come from? First, I've always wondered what Christ would have thought of Bingo. Second my father, before he died, used to drag me to Bingo when I visited him, as he loved it. I, on the other hand, was always terrified I'd mark something wrong, call Bingo, and make a fool out of myself, but I was fascinated with the dynamics of the people and the game. Third, people like Esther Elliott DO exist, I swear, and you may find several at any given Bingo. Fourth, my father, who lived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania--the town of the flood fame--spent such a night on stage at a Bingo when a storm hit and the hall flooded (and it wasn't even a basement); he was lucky to get home that night. Fifth, the three-digit number in Pennsylvania Lottery actually was rigged the way I detailed in the story--they injected all the balls except the sixes, and the number for that day came up 666; the local "Bowling For Dollars" guy who hosted the Lottery TV Show was later sent to prison over this fraud when they caught him cashing in his tickets.

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