Updated: Mar 16, 2021
A game-playing Baby Boomer gets a surprise last chance to ask her first crush on a date.
Sal Skupien plays Bingo in the Our Lady of Czestochowa church basement every Tuesday.
I know. I can’t believe it either.
“Smokin’” Sal Skupien—the hero of Haven High, former swim team captain and very first King of my Heart—back in town after all these years, just marking off B2s and N43s and O70s with a worn No. 2 pencil.
He looks different, of course. The last few decades have drawn lines all over his face and shriveled his ears and rounded his head into … well, a shiny cue ball. But his eyes are still bluer than Paul Newman’s and his voice has that unmistakable timbre.
We haven’t talked much since his return. I doubt he remembers me. Still, I relish that baritone every time Sal reaches the front of my check-in line.
“One please,” he roars.
“We’ve … we’ve got an Early Bird special this time,” I stammer because clearly, I’m 70 going on 17. “One card for $5, but...but three for $10.”
Sal shakes his head. “Just the one,” he says. “Thanks, though, Sara Beth.”
My rusty heart jumpstarts. My heavy eyelids flutter.
* * *
“If he remembers your name, you’ve got no choice,” Midge says as she counts the church’s cash. Her thumbs are masked by neon pink finger grips. “You have to ask him on a date.”
“Oh, please.” I pick at a piece of leftover coffee cake. “How do you figure?”
“Easy,” Midge says, pushing back the brim of her cerulean “Bingo Boss” hat. “Your first crush materializes after 100 years. It’s, like, you know...”
“Fate,” I whisper.
“A no-brainer.” Midge sets aside a pile of five-dollar bills. “You’re old as fuck. What do you have to lose?”
I look down at my liver spots. “We don’t even know if he’s single.”
“Oh, he’s single,” Midge says. “Never married, in fact, unless you count ‘to the job’. Retired police chief. Back in Haven after inheriting some property from a deceased aunt in this church district.”
“Polly Poniatowski, The Haven Maven, 1945,” I recall before crinkling my nose. “How do you know all that information?”
Midge rolls her eyes. “Facebook.”
“Ah.” I shake my head. “I haven’t gone on a real date in thirty years. I won’t pretend to know how to ask Sal Skupien on one.”
Midge pops the pink grips from her thumbs and flexes her fingers. “I have an idea.”
* * *
Sal Skupien sits at a corner table, sipping black coffee from a Styrofoam cup. The harsh basement lights burn a bright yellow. It is Saint Andrzejki’s Day, so the kitchen ladies put together a spread. The room smells of kielbasa and sauerkraut. I squeeze the tightly folded note in my pants pocket. Its sharp edges dig into my thigh.
“Oh, my, Midge, Midge,” I whisper. “This is a mistake.”
“Come on,” she says, setting a plate of pierogis on the refreshment table. “It’s a throwback. Everyone loves a throwback.”
I glance at the corner. Save for a solo Bingo card, Sal’s table is empty. No neon daubers, no bright waiters, no magnetic chips or cheery card-clearing wands. I think of the note, written in purple pen, covered in curlicues. “I suspect Sal Skupien is not into whimsy.”
“So?” Midge says. “This isn’t about him.”
“No!” She whisper-yells. “It’s about you! Not dying with regrets, specifically.”
I smooth my lace-print poncho and notice the wrinkles in my beige linen pants. “You know, I’m fine dying with regrets …”
“SARA BETH!” Midge pulls the note out of my pocket. She slaps the wad of loose-leaf over my heart. “You can do this.”
“I can do this,” I say, but my head is shaking, left to right.
“You can do this,” Midge repeats. Her head shakes, up and down.
“I can do this.”
“You’re not a 15-year-old nerd anymore.”
“Well, I’m certainly not 15...”
“You wrote two books...”
“...and lost your virginity.”
“So, so long ago.”
“You had a husband.”
“Richard.” I nod. Gone ten years. May he rest in peace.
“And a hip replacement!”
“I am rather spry.”
“Quite spry,” Midge smiles. She whips me around by my shoulders and slaps my rear. “So, go get him, Tygrys.”
* * *
Fifty-five years ago, Sal Skupien and I were in this very church basement. He wore a crown and a sash, and everyone agreed he was a worthy Homecoming King. I wore a paisley dress and Coke-bottle glasses and spent most of the evening staring at the black-and-green linoleum. A lifetime has passed since that night, and yet, as I watch my feet shuffle across the floor, the feeling is all the same.
I’m a bit grateful for that once I reach the table.
“Hi, Sal,” I say.
“Sara Beth.” He nods.
“I...wrote you something.” I slip the note across the table. Sal cocks an eyebrow as he picks up the paper. “It’s a throwback,” I explain.
He turns the note over in his hand, looking for the opening flap. I watch him twist squares into triangles into parallelograms into squares into triangles. “Please come to Donut Sunday with me,” Sal finally reads aloud. “Circle ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
I hear the closest table of church ladies snicker, but the laughter fades as soon as Sal picks up his pencil. Graphite grinds against paper. I’m dead, I think. I’ve died. Across the room, Midge mouths “no regrets”.
Sal returns the note without refolding it. I look down.
Behind me, someone yells: “Bingo!”
By Jeanine Skowronski
Jeanine Skowronski is a writer and journalist based in New Jersey. She was a finalist in NYC Midnight’s 2019 Short Story Challenge. Her work has appeared in Lunate Fiction.