Winning Scrabble

by Alexandra Thompson

North Hollywood, and the fan purrs left to right and back again, blowing hot air into our faces. The card table is set up in Grandma Lucille’s living room, and I’m sitting across from my mom, with Grandma on the left and my great-aunt Pearl on my right. We’ll play Scrabble until the day cools off and Grandpa gets home from work, same as we do most every day now.

The adult’s foreheads are knit in concentration, but not mine. I knew my next word as soon as I picked up my new tiles. My fingers shuffled, C-N-D-P-I-O-E, placing them in order, P-I-N-O, to be used with the ‘A’ already on the board. It’ll give me a triple word score, and I’ll be leading the game by 112 points.

Grandma Lucille takes out the handkerchief she’s pushed down between her breasts and dabs the sweat off her upper lip. “Gloria, look up ‘malign’. L-i-n-e or how is it spelled?”

I stare across the card table at my mom, but she ignores me and opens the heavy dictionary she’s put in its place on her right and flips through the pages. Her fingernails are still stained from old red polish. Her glasses sit on the edge of her nose.

“M-a-l-i-g-n. Malign.” My mom spells out the word and closes the book.

“Well shit,” Grandma says. Her eyes dart at me but she smiles a little. I smile back.

“Shoot!” Grandma says, and then she raises her eyebrows and winks. “Looks like you’re gonna win the game again, Rosie.” I think she’s happy about it, but then her voice drops and she adds, kind of sneery-like, “You being all of nine years old.”

“Personally, I think she just might be a genius, Lucille.”

“She isn’t a genius, Pearl. She just sleeps with that dictionary is all.”

“You got a ‘C’, Mama?” my mom asks Grandma Lucille.

Grandma turns as quick as fire to flame and snaps, “If I had a ‘C’ I’d of put down ‘malice’, Gloria.”

Mom rubs the scar on her forehead, just above the bridge of her nose. It isn’t swollen any more, and the red is soft pink now.

Despite what Grandma says, I think my mom still looks real pretty, especially with her hair loose. Before the car accident, Grandpa always talked about the studio talent scout who had called Mom “a more exotic Marilyn Monroe”. But I like her better this way—with her hair out of that old French Twist.

“How about some iced tea?” Aunt Pearl asks.

Grandpa invites Aunt Pearl, his brother’s widow, for a visit every year since her husband died. After Mom’s accident, she was asked to come a few weeks earlier than usual, even though I heard Grandma say Aunt Pearl never does do much around the house to help.

“Now I’ve got to cook this big meal cuz she’s coming, and afterwards I’ve got to work twice as hard cuz she’s here,” Grandma complained to my mom the day before Pearl got here, the three of us sitting on the porch, stripping the strings off the string beans and dropping them into a bucket. “The woman doesn’t lift a finger. Not one Goddamned finger.”

D-a-m-n. I spelled it inside my head. The ‘n’ was silent.

Now I study my Aunt Pearl, who’s got her eyebrows drawn in with a pencil, as she studies her tiles. This year I don’t think she looks so good. She and Grandma Lucille are wearing the same identical sleeveless shirt, only in different colors; Pearl’s is a pale mint green that makes her white skin look see-through. Plus she smells bad, I think, like very old people who totter down the aisle in church on Sunday, the ones who start going to service just before they pass away.

Maybe Aunt Pearl is going to die soon. Just imagine how awful my grandma would behave if Pearl up and died on her while she was visiting. Grandma has been having bad spells all summer. It makes me break out into a sweat worse then the one from the heat just thinking about it.

Aunt Pearl heaves a big old sigh and places both her hands flat on the card table and starts to lift herself up from her chair. She gives a little grunt and a spot of spit forms in the corner of her mouth. Grabbing the edge of the table for support, she looks just pitiful as she glances toward Grandma, who keeps her eyes on her Scrabble tiles.

“Sit yourself down, Pearl,” my mom says. “I’ll get us the pitcher.”

Aunt Pearl drops herself back into the chair and the thin metal legs strain under her weight. I’m afraid they’re going to snap outwards and break off like twigs, dumping Aunt Pearl in a heap on the floor.

“Come on, Rosie, you can help me make some sandwiches.”

“That’s right, honey,” Grandma mumbles, without looking up from her tiles, “Go and help your mama. This is gonna take awhile. I’m not gonna let you beat me again.”

I look over Aunt Pearl’s shoulder before following my mom into the kitchen. The tiles that spell ‘cave’ are away from the other letters on her holder. Boy, if Aunt Pearl were a better speller, she could form the word ‘avarice’.

The kitchen isn’t much cooler than the living room. The refrigerator hums, working hard against the heat. My mom turns on the water at the sink that’s all scratched up with silver marks from the pots and pans. Mom leans up against the white counter.

“It is sure one hot day,” she says, looking out the kitchen window into the backyard with the overgrown mulberry tree in the middle.

“It sure is, Mama. Wanna share some ice cream?”

Before the accident we would sneak away from “the adults” and get ourselves a big bowl of ice cream and eat it quick before we got caught.

“After your sandwich, Rosie.”

When the water runs cold enough, my mom bends down over the sink and splashes some on her face, getting the counter wet. The sweat spreads out along her back as she cleans the counter and dries it off with a dishtowel, slow back and forth motions. The flowers on the back of her dress turn darker with the sweat, brighter than the ones at the bottom of the dress where the colors are dull.

There’s still a little bit left of the two big bruises on the back of Mom’s legs. My own bruises from falling out of the mulberry tree go away after a few days. Her bruises aren’t like mine.

“Mama? Do car accident bruises last longer than other kinds?”

She turns to look at me and fidgets a stray hair into place behind her ear. “I don’t know, Rosie. I guess. Maybe so.”

“I wish we could trade bruises. That way you wouldn’t have any.”

My mom squints at me and I bet I’ve made her mad or upset or something. Usually if I say the right thing, something really nice like I just said about the bruises, my mom would give me a big hug. But she’s been acting funny since the accident, and I think maybe her arms hurt too much for a hug. I heard Grandma talking about it with Aunt Pearl one night when they thought I had fallen asleep on the sofa in the living room.

“Disgusting,” she had whispered. “They was drunk as skunks, driving up on Mulholland Drive like that at midnight. God knows what they was up to up there.”

“What’s she gonna do about her face?” Pearl had whispered back. “Studios don’t like their starlets with scars on their faces, I betcha.”

“Course they don’t,” Grandma said, forgetting to whisper. “No hide or hair of that jerk either, and she’s blown her career for a fucking roll in the back of a car.”

“Never mind, Lucille. Gloria was never much interested in a career or any of that star business anyway.”

Grandma got real angry at that. “Sure she was, Pearl. We moved the family all the way out here from South Carolina so she could be a star. What the hell you thinkin’?”

Maybe we’ll go back to South Carolina now. I don’t know what my mom is going to do here with those scars on her face. I spell the word to myself.


* * *

“How long is Aunt Pearl gonna stay with us?” I ask my mom while she spreads white bread slices over the counter.

“Probably a week or so, it depends on when she feels like going back.”

On the other side of the sink I read the fat, black numbers on top of the plastic medicine containers, written with a felt tip marker—seventeen containers in two neat straight rows lined up along the wall according to size.

“P-h-l-e-b-i-t-i-s,” I spell, lifting a vial up to read it. “How come Grandpa puts numbers on all his medicines?”

“I don’t know, honey. Rosie, it’s so hot, I don’t feel like talking.”

She spreads Grandma’s homemade plum jam on half the bread slices and peanut butter on the other half.

“Well, I guess it reminds him which ones he has to take.”

The big green and black oval pills look mean, and I wonder how anybody could possibly swallow something like that.

“Your pills are so much smaller, Mama,” I say, thinking that maybe if they were bigger they would have worked better by now and my mom would be strong enough to give hugs.

“Gloria,” Grandma yells from the living room, “How’s it coming with that iced tea? Need any help?”

My grandma says help without the ‘l’, and I wonder if I say hep at the end of the summer after spending so much time around her.

Mom yells back. “Nope, everything’s fine. Be done in a minute.”

She takes the pitcher of iced tea out of the refrigerator and sets it on the counter. Little diamonds of sweat roll down the sides of the pitcher as I help my mom pile sandwiches onto an oval platter. I go ahead and skip ahead of her back into the living room.

“Ah, that’s fine now,” Aunt Pearl says. She picks up a sandwich wedge with her thumb and middle finger. She sticks her little finger way up like Bette Davis when she plays the queen on TV.

“I’ll get the tea,” Grandma hisses at Mama, and I see that she hasn’t put a word down on the Scrabble board yet.

“No, no, I’ll get it,” my mom says, but Grandma hushes her down with a flick of her hand.

Mom shakes her head and sits down, taking one of the sandwiches for herself.

I peek at Grandma’s letters, E-S-R-Q-A-T-U, and then at the board.

“Quatrain,” I think.

Grandma Lucille might get angry if I try to help her. On the other hand, I feel sorry for her.

If I tell her the word in private she might go ahead and use it.

* * *

I hear her before I see her. She’s on the service porch at the pantry closet with the door open. I step back quick and peek around the door, and my heart is thumping loud.

Grandma Lucille has one hand on her hip and with the other she’s tilting a liquor bottle back into her mouth. Her throat works hard when she gulps.

Grandma twists the cap back on the bottle and reaches up high to put the bottle back on the top shelf of the closet. My stomach goes into a cramp and I wrap my arms around myself and tiptoe fast through the kitchen and into the living room before she spots me.

* * *

“Well now, Lucille, that’s just fine,” Aunt Pearl smiles and pours the iced tea into the plastic long glasses that Grandma has brought back into the living room with her. “You thought yourself out a word while you were in the kitchen, or is that child gonna win us all again?” She grins at me and pats my knee.

“Soon enough, Pearl, soon enough,” Grandma smiles, and her lips are pulled tight against her teeth and her eyes sink into her head.

I know that smile. Grandma used it last weekend when company was invited for dinner. Grandpa wanted to celebrate the fact that Aunt Pearl was with us again, but Grandma got mad and said he was just letting acquaintances have a good look at my mom, letting them know that besides the scars and bruises, she was still starlet material.

I stand next to the table, looking at Grandma. “Mama, can I go get myself some ice cream now?”

“You haven’t eaten a sandwich yet.”

“How much time will I need to eat half a sandwich?” Grandma clears her throat and I start to chew, thinking again about last weekend.

Grandma was cooking pot roast and mashed potatoes, my favorite. She had gotten real quiet, and didn’t even shoo me into the backyard, not even when I stuck my finger into the mashed potatoes.

I saw Grandma pay a few visits to the service porch. Her pupils were big and black, and she didn’t bother wiping the sweat off her upper lip, just kept looking through the steam from the pot roast to the wall behind the stove.

“D-i-s-t-r-a-c-t-e-d.” I spelled the word quick and thought maybe Grandma would be impressed or maybe she’d laugh or something.

* * *

“Slow down, child,” Aunt Pearl was saying, “You’ll choke eating your food that fast.”

M-a-s-t-i-c-a-t-e. I would have spelled out loud, but I’m now allowed to talk with my mouth full.

“Well, she’s not a cow, Pearl,” Grandma says, not looking up from her Scrabble tiles.

“Never said she was,” says Aunt Pearl.

I look from Grandma to Aunt Pearl and I don’t know what would be better, to keep chewing fast or slow down. My mom doesn’t look at me. I wonder if I can swallow with my throat all tight. I hope I don’t cry.

“Lord, it’s hot,” my mom says.

“Sure is,” Aunt Pearl agrees.

“Well you gals sure do know what heat is,” says Grandma, “And you sure do know how to break a person’s concentration during a game. I would say you don’t want me to continue.”

Grandma Lucille says ‘continue’ with an ‘uh’ at the end. Continuh. I know they talk that way where Grandma and Aunt Pearl come from.

Aunt Pearl says where they come from they would be called southern belles. I have seen Gone With the Wind. I’ve studied Grandma Lucille and Aunt Pearl very carefully, but I can’t picture them as southern belles.

All at once Grandma yanks her handkerchief out from where she has it pushed down between her breasts and she gives this awful, high pitched moan. My mom starts to say “Mama, Mama” and sends me off to wring a washcloth out with cold water.

It was worse last weekend with the house full of people. The company had been sitting at their places around the table in the dining room, their plates filled with food, when Grandma Lucille had begun moaning in the kitchen. After that their plates stood still, the food didn’t get eat, and the mashed potatoes grew hard.

Mom scraped it all off the plates and into the garbage the next day.

Grandma was lead away to lie down. The company got their belongings and paid their respects to Grandpa, who was blotting his forehead with his handkerchief and saying how sorry he was.

I caught Aunt Pearl at the pantry closet holding Grandma’s empty brown bottle.

P-i-t-i-a-b-l-e. I spelled softly to myself, standing on the service porch and staring at the closet door as Aunt Pearl hobbled to the living room to wait out Grandma’s spell.

* * *

My mom helps Grandma up from the card table and takes her into the bedroom to lie down with the washcloth on her head. I’ll be real quiet, lest Grandma Lucille howl.

It was impossible to keep things quiet last weekend with the house so full of people. My skin crawled every time Grandma made those animal noises from the bedroom, like she was dying. None of the company said good-bye to me when they left, but I sat very still and didn’t move.

* * *

Aunt Pearl sits fanning herself with the TV Guide. “Well child, I guess that’s it for our Scrabble game this afternoon.”

We listen to the fan whir back and forth and it’s kind of nice. We don’t have to say anything for a while.

Finally Aunt Pearl says, “I wonder, could it get any hotter?”

I go ahead and go to the kitchen, take the ice cream out of the freezer and get down a large bowl from the cupboard. I scoop out the ice cream, top it with a handful of peanuts and pour a fourth of a bottle of coke over the top. Ice forms a hull on the ice cream’s surface. I bring my bowl back with me into the living room and set it up on a TV tray in front of the television.

My mom comes back in from the bedroom and drops down into her seat at the card table next to Aunt Pearl. She starts fanning herself with the instruction manual from the Scrabble game.

“Well, I guess that’s it for the game,” she says.

“That’s just what I was saying,” Pearl nods.

“Rosie, that bowl of ice cream is disgusting.” My mom looks tired.

“Want some?” I continue to crack the ice on my ice cream with the back of my spoon and slide it into my mouth.

“D-e-l-e-c-t-a-b-l-e,” I spell out loud. “S-e-n-s-u-o-u-s.”

I almost think about taking time out and turning on the TV, but in this heat ice cream melts fast and there’s nothing I hate more than melted ice cream. So, concentrating very hard on the white bowl with tiny pink flowers circling the edge, I spoon the ice cream faster and faster into my mouth, because that is sure one thing I’ve learned about the heat—it melts ice cream fast.

Alexandra Thompson‘s publications include a story, “Driving Over Mozart”, nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2001.