A Women’s Thing partnered with “Desperate Literature,” an international bookshop in Madrid, to publish original stories by writers shortlisted for their Short Fiction Prize. Below is Caitlin Ingham’s story, “Chicken Shit Bingo.”
I bumped into Josie Faulkner at the Borios Clinic. I hadn’t known she was doing an internship there, but it made a lot of sense. I was waiting for Mary Alice to finish her appointment and reading a leaflet on Living with Mouth Guards when she took me by surprise.
“Sweetness! Why are you here?”
“Mary Alice is here having a check up.”
“Mary Alice?” She pursed her little nose.
“Yeah. Why?” I asked.
“Oh, she just doesn’t seem like someone who’s very ‘checked up,’ if you know what I mean.”
She laughed and did little air quotes when she was talking.
“Right. I mean, it’s not a big thing. Although she’s kind of taking a while today,” I said.
“Do you want me to try and find out what’s going on?” Josie asked, like a responsible adult.
“No, no. I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Okay,” she shrugged. “If you’re sure. Come hang out with me while I’m on my break?”
We went outside to the parking lot, where a gaggle of people had gathered outside Ye Olde Ranger. The noise and heat were aggressive. I vaguely hoped I might pass out and cause a stir.
“What’s that squawking?” I asked Josie.
“Chicken shit bingo,” she replied, unfazed. “They do it every Thursday. Come on, let’s go steal some gum off someone.”
There were a lot of men wearing t-shirts with grainy images of wolves or guitars. Alongside them was an unsettling group of young, corporate people, sweat stains on their bellies and backs. They all looked like they were in the process of making a terrible decision.
I caught sight of the chickens, who looked manic, squeezed in the cages piled up around an enormous mat with painted numbers. The pavement scalded like hot glass and I half expected to smell the sizzle of chicken feet as they charged around, flapping their wings stupidly. Josie undid some of the white buttons on her medical shirt. She had a captivating forehead framed by mahogany wisps; her nose was an angelic snout. She had quit smoking cigarettes when she was 15 and was very self-possessed. It had taken years to even verbalize in my own thoughts that I was envious of Josie, but there wasn’t another word to describe the spiky distraction I felt when I was around her. She made my mind race and my features twitch. The powers of the universe were quite right to lead her to a medical internship and leave me with the responsibility of accompanying Mary Alice to her quarterly appointments.
The chickens cawed in cupped hands. They were holding them around the huge bingo mat which was encircled by a knee-high mesh cage. Some guy held his chicken higher than all the others, its scrawny claws massaging the air devilishly, like it was riding a little bicycle. Someone yelled at everyone to quiet down and move away. Once satisfied, he pulled out a pistol and shot up into the air. Josie hoisted herself up on top of a truck and I joined her. It was hard not to be whacked out by the heat, especially as everyone else clung to beers or milkshakes. I used my lack of one of these beverages as reasoning for me not having a great time. I wanted to leave but it felt like a situation I should suffer through, like it would be beneficial as part of my early 20s, although I honestly would have preferred the atmosphere in line at the grocery store. The chickens swarmed over the mat. I didn’t know how anyone was going to actually see the shit on the numbers, with the amount of hens there were there. The store next to Ye Olde Ranger had a great big sign that read HERRING’S PEN STORE. The windows were littered with posters for closing down sales 50% off, 70% off, 90% off and then Exciting New Retail Space. I looked out at all of the heads and silently berated them all for not buying any pens. Josie was whooping and clapping her hands like a little kid.
“This is such a fun game!” I said. Josie looked at me briefly and then ignored my comment. She clearly did think it was a fun game but didn’t wish to be reminded of the fact. I switched my face to a cool scowl and made a note to myself to try and display my authentic feelings more.
I had to keep pulling myself back into the game. A woman was yelling, “Shit on my number! Shit on my number, you beautiful cocks!” Her hair was blow dried and she wore a pearl necklace, but her voice was deep and randy. There was no chance she’d be able to keep track of her points with that blind level of excitement, but she did seem to be having the most fun out of anyone. There were several dogs, getting more and more revved by the action, snarling around the pen. Someone tried to pull a foaming spaniel back, but the others yelled, “Keep him there! It’ll make the chickens shit faster.”
The corporate crowd was ignoring the chickens and doing tequila shots; clearly a heavy lunch break. Three grizzly old women sat on stools on the outskirts of the crowd, calmly ticking off numbers every minute or so. I couldn’t understand how they could see which bingo numbers had been shat on through all the people until I noticed one of them was holding a rearview mirror taped to the end of her walking cane. They all peered up in the little mirror and then nodded as they confirmed numbers to each other, which was frankly genius and made me feel less hateful.
Josie was staring right past the birds at something in the crowd. She stood to get a closer look. I followed nervously. There was a fight going on between two men, already full throttle. All the younger people had moved around it to whoop and smirk. We leapt off the truck and moved towards the action. One dude was claiming to have won, and another dude was contesting it. They started to punch each other with crunchy thwacks. I would have marvelled at their passion for something outside of themselves, except the passion probably had more to do with themselves than the bingo. Josie looked religious as she beamed at the commotion. Sweat was bubbling in the folded chub of my armpit. I closed my eyes and listened to the yells.
“Sock it to him!”
“SHIT YOU DUMB ASS CHICKENS!”
“39! Did that one just shit on 39? Oh it’s 37, I have that one too.”
“Bingo! Bingo! Why is no one fucking listening to me?”
Whenever I asked Josie a question, it felt like I was pleading for her autograph. I wished I gained some sort of excitement from all of the poison I was witnessing. Perhaps there was some superiority to be had in the fact that Josie enjoyed it and I didn’t, but I felt no access to it. I edged around the crowd. Everyone was absorbed in the chickens or the fight. I felt nearly invisible, which was unusual for a woman of my pert age. So many people were yelling BINGO by this point, the chart must have been laden, every number splattered and conquered. Meanwhile the two men were still going at it, possibly breaking bones. The fight was sagging the crowd, pulling people down around it diagonally, like a human sinkhole.
“Josie!” I yelled, “Josie—what’s happening?”
She didn’t hear me; she was busy talking to a boy I hadn’t seen before. Her vape gun was in action, chuffing out its flavors. I stared at what I could see of the fight, basically a hairy elbow jerking all over in the air. The corner of this elbow bobbed up and down, looking laughably similar to a little hairy chicken wing. I’d seen fights before, of course, but they’d always been center stage. I could stomach them as a sort of gladiator-style dramatic spectacle, but I really hated the idea of a fist fight as part of the background noise. Josie had wandered off to get a better view. I thought about going back to Borios but I wanted to at least get a laugh or even that piece of gum out of this.
Most of the kids Josie was talking to were in bathing suits; they must have been on their way to Schleeterbomb. The ease with which they moved around in this swimwear made me hesitant to approach them. It was a funny contrast, Josie in her nurse-like uniform sharing a cigarette with a girl in banana-print two piece, but I suspected it would have been lame and prudish for me to point this out. I wandered off and found a little boy wailing on the curb. He cried out and sucked the air, a depressed little dumpling. I sat down next to him and asked where his mommy was. He pointed into the crowd. I scooped him up on my lap and stroked his little hair for a while. His skull was like a warm, hard cat and I felt wonderfully mature. Hopefully Josie would come over and ask if I wanted to go swimming and I could affront her with my godlike care for this stinky child. I could give her eyes that would emit, “Obviously, Josie, in an ideal situation I’d love to go swimming, but some of us have real responsibilities. I’m not sure you’ve noticed but some of us live in the real world.” Except Josie didn’t come over. The curb smelled awful. The whole place was so rancid and sweaty I suddenly wasn’t sure entirely whether the kid had shat on my lap. I could call BINGO, maybe, if he had.
The throng of people made way for some of the bar workers to collect the chickens in shoe boxes so they could shove them back into the owner’s trucks for the break.
“You wanna have a look at the mat?” I said. “Come on honey, let’s go.” He was still whimpering, but more mildly and I think I might have felt him nod. I was going to make a beautiful mother. Just as I navigated us closer to the shit numbers, a redheaded man wearing a suit jacket and sweat shorts started yelling at me and my baby.
“Randall! Boy, where did you get to?” He hoisted the pooping cherub out of my arms and glared into my eyes. “You shouldn’t wander off with people’s children, lady. I doubt you had anything nasty in mind, but that’s a mighty strange way to be spending your afternoon.” The baby fondled its father’s fat ears with familiarity and cute rage. I wanted to weep. Perhaps that was the relief talking though.
“Josie! Josie Faulkner! Over here!” I yelled. The crowd had diluted itself fairly quickly and she heard me this time. I wondered if she and Jennigrad had ever come out here together. Surely he must have picked her up from her internship; they must have bought slushies and admired the cut of her uniform. Josie came over with a tall boy in a sports jacket. Her vape flavor was toxically sweet. The boy was wearing a plastic hard hat that held two cans of Lone Star and a giant straw which wound down and hung just by his mouth. He looked very serious.
“Sweetness, this is Dee. Dee came here to watch the bingo for an anthropological experiment. Sweetness was accompanying her aunt to the clinic over there. She’s morbidly fat, possibly due to thyroid issues but more likely personal greed.”
“She’s not morbidly fat, Josie.”
“I would say she is.” It was extraordinary how sure she was of what she was saying, which was objectively cruel. Did Jennigrad know she was cruel? He must have. He might have been too stupid to care, though. Her cruelness was attractive, in its own way. I would have liked to have been in cahoots with her cruelness.
Across the parking lot, the woman who’d been screaming at the chickens to shit on her number was vomiting into a garbage can. A trio of awful-looking men stood laughing around her, cheering her on. I felt as ashamed of myself as they should have, but the shame came from the elaborate fantasies I held. Josie stood and looked at me as if we were merely kids who lived on the same street.
“Well, either way, you clearly haven’t taken her genes.” Dee was talking. He was talking about my body?
“She isn’t actually my aunt,” I said
Dee shrugged and took a sip out of his hat beer. I liked the humility of his response. Josie was looking at me.
“What did you think of the bingo, Dee?” I ventured.
He beamed at my question. “There is so much I could say about what we just witnessed there.”
Josie and I looked over at him expectantly, but he just kept on smiling.
“Oh Sweetness, look at your face, you’re melting.” She picked up her bag and kissed me on both of my cheeks. “I’m going back to work, see you both around.”
“You’re not going swimming with the others?”
“No, I have to go back to my job. I have a lot to learn from my role at the clinic. Between you guys and me, some of the other staff are totally jaded. They don’t particularly care if the patients get better or not, they just try to get through the day via standard procedure. I’m sure some of the nurses and doctors will see that guy over there with his broken limbs and they’ll just keep on walking to their cars, not a second thought in their minds.” I hadn’t realized the guy from the fight was lying on the street. Dee’s nipple was pierced with a dolphin ornament but I didn’t hold it against him. He nodded in response to Josie’s comment, as if he had tasted some good sauce.
“I always think the best time to work is when you feel like working.” He said. “It’s like eating when you’re actually thinking of a meal. The food tastes so much better if you’re, like, actually aware of your empty stomach.”
“Like sleeping when your eyes ache?” I offered with a bright smile.
“Exactly!” Dee cried. “Exactly.”
“Come on,” Josie pulled at my hand. “Let’s go back to the clinic.”
I could feel Dee watching us as we walked away. It sounded like Round 2 of the Chicken Shit Bingo was cranking up, and I was glad to miss it. The woman with the pearl necklace was screeching like a hog. Maybe I would look Dee up on the Internet at some point.
The clinic waiting room turned my sweat so cold it seemed to encase me. I let my head hang and rest a little on my lap, then perused watering features in the gardening magazines. Josie greeted her colleagues and even some patients and busied herself with tasks, seemingly rejuvenated from the sports we had witnessed. She might have been about to learn something about hernias, or something about babies who cannot latch on to the nipple, or something about congestive heart failure. Maybe they would give her a lesson on the computer and show her how to process medical insurance. I hoped the staff at Borios weren’t as jaded as she made out; Mary Alice seemed to think her doctor cared a great deal about her. By then I had already forgotten about the baby I had mothered briefly, I had discarded that situation with blissful ease. Did chickens shit that much usually or did they mix in some sort of laxatives with their pellets? I supposed people had done stranger things. I could learn about any of these things. I could learn as much or as little as I wanted about these issues or other things entirely. I could do all of this at my own leisure and without any need for guidance.