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The Bingo Cheaters
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The Bingo Cheaters from or from fine booksellers.


by Belinda Anderson

    I was made from star light, my grandmother told  me. She took me to raise after my momma died. My grandmother was born a slave on a piddling tobacco farm in Virginia, but she was the proudest woman I ever knew. She told me I was somebody. “You got divine light in you, child,” she would say, taking hold of my chin and staring straight into my eyes for so long that I felt the universe start to swell inside me.  I still hold the universe, even though my joints crack and my hair looks like bleached steel wool.

    My name is Twilight Dawn Johnson. I am an old, old woman, but I got a pile of work to do before I can go. There’s a lot more folks need my quilts before I can lay down my needle and thimble.

    It don’t seem like my sight is as good as it used to be, and I know my mind wanders like a cow in the woods, but somehow my stitches turn out just as small and even as ever. My hands seem to move now without my guidance, the silver needle winking in and out of the cloth, stitching one little ridge after another.

    If I thought my eyes were bad before, this quilt will blind me. Some fellow brought over enough bolts of fabric to make a rainbow. I’m talking scalding red, yellow,  orange, blue and green. “It’s for a special friend of ours, a young woman who hasn’t had it very easy,” he said. “Mother asked me to see if you could make a starburst pattern.” I examined his kindly face and I knew he’d adopt every orphan in the world if he could. I also knew right away that I’d make a Star Everlasting quilt. 

    Orphaned is just what one blonde-haired woman was feeling when she stood in my living room clutching her daddy’s beach shirts. She said she wanted me to piece a quilt from those clothes, but I could tell she wanted to run when she spotted the scissors lying beside my cardboard diamond pattern.

    “They say you do wonderful work,” she said, ready to cry.

    I took the shirts from her. “Honey, I’m going to make you a happy memory quilt. You just leave all this with me.” I already knew I’d make her a Trip Around the World, even though cutting and sewing all those little bitty squares is hard on my eyes. 

    People seem happy with what I give them. Well, I had one complaint about price from Wanda -- hmm, right now I can’t recall her last name. All I said was, “That’s what it’s worth to me to do the work. If you want to find somebody else, that’s fine.” I quit arguing with people a long time ago. I’ve never seen an argument yet that changed anybody’s mind.

    “Well, I’m already here,” she said, and handed me a Wal-Mart bag filled with small triangles her grandmother had cut from feed sacks, but never got around to quilting. Wanda wanted me to make a quilt for her cousin Dotty.

    “If I was you, I might be tempted to keep this for myself,” I told her. “There’s history here.”

    “Dotty never had much growing up,” she said. “Besides, I’ve held on to these old scraps too long.” Then I knew her for a woman who was generous, despite her vinegary words. I sewed those triangles into diamonds and made a Lemon Star quilt.

    And so they keep coming to me, from Lewisburg, Bluefield, Princeton, even out of state. I don’t go anywhere. I’ve lived on this border all my life. It’s always made me a little uneasy, roosting where West Virginia parts company with Virginia. I am one hundred percent West Virginian and proud of it. But there’s a lot of West Virginia I don’t know anything about. Never been to a coal camp. Never even toured the exhibition coal mine in Beckley. I hear there are glass factories all over the state, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about them.

    My piece of West Virginia looks more the way my grandmother described the Shenandoah Valley of the Old Dominion. Monroe County is an earthen quilt of green farmland patches, stitched in place by chains of mountains. My trailer roosts in a valley, so I can quilt in my living room and look out the window at those beautiful hunks of blue and green.

    My land may resemble parts of Virginia, but those folks don’t seem like my people. When my grand-niece left her husband and went to work in Roanoke, people at work teased her, called her a hillbilly, told terrible jokes about incest. I believe they’re still smarting over losing a big chunk of land during the War Between the States, so they try to make themselves look bigger at the expense of others. They keep gnawing that old bone. Of course, this part of West Virginia was mostly sympathetic to the Confederates. I’ve heard politicians used the war and the issue of slavery as an excuse to grab power from Richmond.  All I know for sure is what my grandmother taught me, never to take freedom for granted.

    My grandmother taught me the secret of the Underground Railroad when she taught me to quilt. Slaves couldn’t read, but they could creep up to a yard and see a cotton quilt hanging on a clothesline. Certain quilts spelled freedom. Birds in the Air, that was safe. And Tail of Benjamin’s Kite. The Evening Star pattern gave directions. 

    Most folks today hem themselves in. Take my grand-niece’s ex-husband, for example. Randall is all right for a white boy -- who knows what that girl was thinking when she took up with him --  but he doesn’t have a lick of gumption. He’s just waiting on life to happen. His cousin, Jason, doesn’t have any gumption, either. He wastes his life drinking beer and chasing women, just because he thinks he was cheated out of his chance at the Big Leagues. He’s still grieving over what might have been. And don’t even get me started on that other cousin that headed south to find himself, leaving his wife to raise their boy alone. I worry about the boy. He’s got a dark, inky shadow in his heart.

    I worry just as much about that Serena. Her mother brought her by when she came to pick up a quilt. That young woman has the attention span of a chicken and a tongue that loves to flap. She went on and on about how she’s going to become a famous writer, just like Louisa May Alcott.  That girl doesn’t know enough to doubt herself. I fear she’ll get bruised in this old world.

    It would be hard to raise a child like that, trying to make her understand without ruining her spirit. I never had children. Never married. Never been away from these hills. Got my heart broke once and decided to keep the pieces to myself. I learned a lot about life, anyway. People bring their stories to me, telling me more with their bits of fabric than they ever could with words. A girl gently unfolds a tattered old gown, running her fingers over the rough lace before she hands it to me. A widower brings me a dozen silk scarves, as bright and fine as the woman who wore them.

    “Jimmy! Edward Thurman Junior!” Sounds like I’ve got company. By the time I get to the screen door, two moon-faced rascals, one with red hair and one with yellow,  have beheaded half a dozen of my tulips.  “Quit it, y’all,” hollers a good-sized woman unloading herself from a minivan. They pay her no mind whatsoever until she says, “I reckon you don’t want to go to the Cracker Barrel, after all.” The boys leave the flowers and start chasing each other around the yard.

    “I’m sorry, hi, I’m Margaret.” For such a big voice, it holds a lot of doubt. “Are you--um, the quilter?”

    “That’s me, honey. Come on in.” I hold the screen door open for her.

    “Oh, no, I don’t have time.” She’s carrying a plastic bag. She starts to give it to me, then stops. “Could you make a quilt from the boys’ baby clothes?”

    She wants something to hold and remember the sweet clean smell of her newborns. When the boys are at school and her husband’s at work, she’ll wrap herself in that quilt and think back to the time when sticky, chubby little hands used to wind around her neck.

    The woman whips her head at a big cracking noise, the sound of wood screaming. “Jimmy! Junior!” And then I see them. Those boys have ruined my grape trellis trying to play Tarzan. They’re standing there, looking mighty disappointed at the  vine lying torn and shredded on the ground, the vine my grandmother brought from Virginia. “That’s it -- you can forget about the Cracker Barrel.”

    The boys start howling. “You promised,” the redhead says.

    “You said we could order breakfast for supper.” The blond one wipes his nose with the back of his hand.

    “I said we’d stop if you behaved yourselves.” Margaret turns to me. “I’m really sorry. Can I pay you for that?” 

    How could she ever replace the one living, breathing tie to the woman who showed me my soul? I feel my blood heating and percolating through my thready old veins. Well. There’s a surprise. I thought I was done with anger. Anger don’t do a thing but eat at the spirit, unless you can do some good with it, like Dr. King.

     “You must think I’m a terrible mother.” Those eyes are the palest blue, but I can’t see any light in them.

    “I’ll make your quilt,” I say, reaching for the bag. I’m going to piece Grandmother’s Flower Garden. I’ll cut those powdery pale baby clothes into real delicate-looking blossoms. She needs something soft and pretty.

    “We’ve caused you enough trouble,” she says. 

    “Honey,” I tell her. “Let go of the bag.” And all of a sudden, she does. She starts like a deer that just heard the first blast of hunting season, grabs hold of her children and drives off. I walk over to the trellis, but I’m too stiff to bend down and pick up the vine. I wish I could hold it just one time before it withers.

     Letting go is the hardest thing. I was just seventeen when I found my grandmother slumped over a Log Cabin quilt she had just finished. When I lifted her cheek from the cloth, I looked more closely at the pattern. Instead of using red patches in the centers of the squares, she had sewn the dark blue signal of freedom.

    I didn’t see how I could live without her. They found me rocking her in my arms, petting her hair, singing her favorite hymns. It took me a long, long time to learn that holding on hurts worse than letting go. 

     I look at that old vine again. It will return to the earth. The earth is part of the universe that lives in me, and my grandmother’s spirit rides the Milky Way.

    I go back in the house and settle down at the quilt frame again.  I need to finish this Star Everlasting. Got a lot of work to get done before my century is completed. People need these quilts. With every pull on the thread, I try to  stitch them a little hope. 

Copyright © 2001 Belinda Anderson