King of the Bingo Game

by Ralph Ellison

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

A young black man sits in a movie theater in New York waiting for the featured film to end. He has come to the big northern city from North Carolina but has been unable to find work because he does not have a birth certificate. His wife is ill, and he is hoping to win the bingo game that is played at the end of the feature so that he can take her to a doctor. He has not eaten all day, and the smell of the peanuts that another viewer is eating increases his hunger. Two men near him are drinking liquor, and he wishes that he had some, remembering how people used to share with one another down south. He drifts off to sleep but has a nightmare, which causes him to shout. The men who are drinking ask him to be quiet and offer him some whiskey, which he takes.

After the feature ends, the lights come on, a curtain hides the screen, and an announcer and an attendant come out to preside over the bingo game. Players who get “bingo” climb onto the stage and spin a large wheel by means of an electric switch. If the wheel stops at double zero, a player wins the jackpot, which is now $36.90. The young man plays five bingo cards, wins, and mounts the stage.

He finds being on stage confusing. The lights are blinding, he does not understand the jokes and comments of the announcer, and the crowd laughs at him. Even the smell of the announcer’s hair oil unsettles him. As he presses the button that controls the wheel, he is drawn into its whirl of light and color. He realizes that so long as he presses the button that makes the wheel spin, he controls it—that he is the “King of the Bingo Game.” So long as he keeps spinning the wheel, he controls his fate; his wife will be all right.

The young man’s thoughts are unknown to the announcer and the audience, who grow impatient. The crowd wants him to finish his turn, and the announcer tells him that he is taking too long, but he brushes the man away, then calls him back and explains that he is going to show everyone how to win the bingo game. He shouts, urging his wife to live, and the audience, thinking him crazy, quiets for a moment, then begins to taunt him again.

Two men in uniform approach him from the side of the stage, wrestle him to the floor, and take the button and cable away from him. The wheel stops on double zero. One of the men signals to the other, who hits the young man on the head. Just before he loses consciousness, he realizes that his luck has ended.

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