How I Became Famous
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Mary Southbert is younger than I expected. She greets my knock on her glass door with a smile and a firm handshake. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses hangs by a bead chain from her neck. She slides on the glasses and looks at me with green eyes.
"You must be here to write the story on the bingo tournament," she says. "Are you the paper's new intern?"
"I'm the new community reporter."
She nods and leads me down the hall to the residential section of Pleasant Hill Retirement Center, which she manages. She is wearing a light wool shirt and skirt. Her shoes are black heels. A blonde bun crowns her head.
Mary speaks softly to the residents we pass, glances in rooms where televisions cast the only light. Her voice warms the ears. She is like the curator of a museum.
"This is the cafeteria," she says.
Inside the gym-size room she introduces me to residents seated at round plastic tables. An orderly in a white shirt is preparing the ball-hopper on stage. The room is clean and well lit. Green trees wave outside wall-height windows.
"I'm Ken Kesey's mom," says a woman with a purple beret. "Do you know my son? He's a great writer. He has a conscience." She frowns, tightening thin lips. "Pynchon's a punk. Stop scribbling on that pad. I'm not the stereotype of an old woman who wears purple. Don't make me the opening anecdote in your stupid article."
Mary smiles genially. Her teeth are white. She has a finely shaped nose. The black glasses make her skin glow.
"Linda is one of our special ladies," she tells me.
She leaves me in the room as numbers are called. Each player has a small set of talismans and charms arranged on the table in front of them: figurines, family photos. They mutter and search their bingo cards. There are more women than men.
Sitting at a table with an empty seat, I receive smiles from two women and a scowl from the old man beside me. He marks numbers on his card with a government-issue ballpoint pen.
"Got that in Korea," he says.
I listen to numbers being called. I watch shadows pivot on the residents like they are sundials.
"Did you meet Mary?" one of the old ladies asks me, leaning close. "She's too beautiful to work in a rest home, isn't she?"
"That's because she uses the basement for a dungeon," the other lady interjects. "She's a dominatrix."
The old man looks at me. His eyes are blood-shot. "They're lying to you, kid. Mary was a clerk in an ice cream shop before she came here. She wore a white paper cap and a white apron."
A small woman at another table hisses: "She was not. She was a gym teacher. She handed out clean towels to all the girls after every shower."
A man's voice behind me rumbles that Mary was a candystripe girl at a Shriner's hospital, where she wore a fez and a cheerleader's skirt.
"D-9," says the loudspeaker. Faces fall to cards.
I'm fidgeting in my seat. Mary Southbert stands near the door with her arms crossed. I can see the long muscles in her legs.
A tiny man with hairy nostrils says, "She laid carpet in office buildings. She wore knee-pads and held the extra nails in her lips."
"She was a plumber's assistant."
"She baked bread in huge ovens."
"She was a sex therapist with a very small office."
Mary is watching me. I put my pad down on the table.
"B-5," the loudspeaker declares. "Mary was a dishwasher at the county work camp. She wiped down the tables with a wet rag after the prisoners were done eating."
Mary appears to be walking toward me.
"Bingo!" someone yells.
The room goes into uproar.
The air smells like ammonia.
The Korea veteran beside me wipes his eyes. I hadn't realized he was crying. Mary is nearly at the table.
Suddenly the veteran has a pistol sitting on top of his bingo card, next to the black ballpoint.
"She broke my heart, kid," he says. He is cringing away from the approaching woman. He looks at me. "Remember one thing: Violence isn't funny. Don't end up like Hunter Thompson."
He picks up the pistol.
"I'm about to make you a famous reporter, kid."
James Stegall continues to please