King of the Bingo Game "The King of the Bingo Game"
By Ralph Ellison
"The King of the Bingo Game"
There is a woman sitting in front of the (nameless) protagonist eating roasted peanuts. The smell triggers his hunger and fuels his impatience for the bingo game to begin.
On the protagonist's right, two guys are drinking wine out of a paper bag.
Our protagonist reflects that, if he were in the South, the woman with the peanuts and the men with the alcohol would willingly share their goods.
We learn that the protagonist is flat broke. Lacking a birth certificate, he is unable to find work. Without money, he cannot afford a doctor to save a woman named Laura, who is close to death.
We learn that the protagonist is actually sitting in a movie theater. He is watching a movie he has already seen three times. He remembers that this is the moment when the hero of the movie finds a woman behind a trapdoor. The woman is tied to a bed with her clothes ripped.
The two men with alcohol are excited about this scene, saying they would love to find such a woman tied up like that. They regret that the hero is releasing her.
The protagonist is tired of watching the movie. He is concerned for Laura. He looks backwards in the theater to where the film is being projected from. He wonders how the beam always hits the right position on the screen, eventually concluding that "everything was fixed."
He speculates as to what would happen if in the film the woman on the bed simply stripped off the rest of her clothes.
The men next to him continue drinking.
The protagonist falls asleep briefly. He dreams he is a young boy walking on the railroad down South and trying to run ahead of the oncoming train. He dreams white people laugh at him as he runs screaming away.
He is screaming in real life as well – the men next to him complain.
One of them gives him a drink. The protagonist realizes that it is whiskey, which rapidly burns through his system. He has not eaten all day. He switches his seat as the lights come on and the bingo game begins.
The protagonist is playing with five cards, which seems to be against the rules, but it increases his chances of winning the jackpot so he can save Laura.
The bingo caller begins. The protagonist soon grows nervous, thinking that he should pick just one card and throw away the others. He achieves bingo on one of his cards and is stunned for a moment before lurching to the stage.
As he goes from the darkness of his seat into the intense light of the stage, he is momentarily blinded.
The bingo caller checks the numbers on the protagonist's card, then directs him to spin a wheel. If the wheel stops at the double zero, the protagonist will win the $36.90 jackpot.
The protagonist grows increasingly tense, convinced that the wheel will control his entire life. He tries to leave, but the caller tells him to come back. He is nervous, sure that he will embarrass himself.
The bingo caller asks the protagonist where he is from. The protagonist answers that he is from the South. More specifically: Rocky Mont, North Carolina.
The protagonist stands in front of the wheel, knowing that he should give the button a short and quick press in order to have the best chance of landing on the double zero.
Once he presses the button, however, he finds that he cannot release it. The bingo caller and the audience recede in his consciousness and he realizes that he alone controls the jackpot. He alone controls his fate.
Soon the audience begins yelling at him, but the protagonist pays them no attention. Exalted with his newfound discovery, he yells into the crowd: "This is God!"
The crowd continues to yell as the bingo caller insists that the protagonist make a choice.
The protagonist shakes the official away, telling him to simply watch. The protagonist tells him he wants to show the whole world how to win.
He continues to press the button, ignoring the increasingly angry crowd. He feels powerful. Suddenly he realizes that he has forgotten his own name. He asks the crowd: "Who am I?"
No one answers.
The protagonist continues pressing the button, convinced that as long as he presses the button he can be King of Bingo.
He screams: "Live!"
Blood builds up in his head and, as he leans over, trickles of blood come out of his nose.
Desperate to save Laura, he begins to identify the turning of the wheel with her survival.
The audience begins to sing. They clearly believe he is crazy. When they begin applauding, the protagonist realizes that two policemen have entered the stage.
He avoids them, but quickly realizes he cannot go far without breaking the vital cord connecting the button with the wheel.
He ends up running in a circle around the wheel. Finally the men catch him and wrest the button away from him. The wheel spins to a stop and "without surprise he saw it rest at double zero."
The protagonist is happy; he is going to win the jackpot. One of the men smiles at him.
The protagonist fails to see the same man winking at someone else as the curtain comes down on stage, and the protagonist experiences a blow to the head.