I was four years old the first time I beat my mother at Scrabble. She loved the game and fancied herself something of a master, goading my father into games on weekends, and hosting parties for her girlfriends once a month. The ladies would drink and smoke, talk about their husbands and then turn serious for Scrabble. Not Words with Friends like the ladies played in secret on their phones. Not my mother. She was old-school. She liked the feel of the tiles: their smooth, polished wood, the grooves of the letters, the weight in her hand.
They bet bits of money, those ladies, stacks of silver and copper coins, and my mother, though the consummate hostess, almost always won the pot. She’d wait until the ladies left before sweeping her winnings into a jumbo-sized coffee tin, the clang-clang-clang ringing brighter as the tin filled higher and higher. She never spent any of it. That coffee tin was still there, on the high shelf in the living room, brimming full after she died.
I was supposed to be in bed when the ladies arrived, but I seldom was. I’d watch their games from the top of the stairs and quickly learned the rules: the common words, the way to leverage high-point tiles and hit multiple words in one turn. One time my mother saw me there, at the top of the stairs, watching, and she called, “Get to bed this instant, young lady!” But she didn’t really sound angry.
The next morning she took out the board and said she would teach me to play. I humored her through an explanation of rules, a demonstration of turns she played for both of us, and I went so far as to ask a few questions. But I knew I could beat her before we even started. I’d seen her play, and I’d seen her miss things.
In the beginning, I chose age appropriate words, short ones, like ‘cat’ and ‘dog’, ‘man’ and ‘girl’. Sometimes I’d leverage the triple-letter or double-word squares, but mostly I avoided them. She seemed pleased with our games. She knew I’d learned to read early, and my spelling was strong. If I managed a word with four or more letters, she’d smile big at me with those bright red lips, clap her hands, and say, “Great job, Panda.” And inside, that made me both proud and ashamed.
She took longer on her turns, studying the board, leaning over one corner then another. I’d finish my turn before she could even twist the board my way, and she’d say, “Take your time. Look for the good moves,” and that made me sad. Watching her face as she concentrated made me sad. I was sad for her struggles, sad for her pride, sad to know I could beat her without even trying. I loved her so much.
The day she took my pacifier away was the day I beat her. I know what you’re thinking—a four year old shouldn’t have a pacifier—and you’re right. She knew it, too: it had gone on too long. But I didn’t care. That pacifier was my drug. Every hurt, every injustice in my world, it cured them all in an instant. A good suck was like nothing else.
Then one day my pacifier was gone. I knew she had taken it. I always stuffed it under my pillow as I was falling asleep, and it wasn’t there that morning. But she wouldn’t admit to taking it. She said it must be lost. I cried and screamed and tore apart my bed, then my room, before crying some more, but she wouldn’t give in. She had finally put her foot down, hallelujah for her.
She didn’t get me to come out of my funk until after dinner. I hadn’t spoken to her all day. But when she approached me with that velvet bag full of tiles, her “bag of goodies” as she called it, I saw a reprieve for my sorrow. I saw vengeance.
So I acquiesced. I crossed my legs on a chair at the kitchen table and drew my tiles. It almost made me smile to wrap my little fingers around those pieces. I started out strong on the first turn. A seven-letter word: JACKPOT for 60 points plus a 50 point bonus for using all my tiles. We were 110 to 0. She didn’t move for a few seconds after I laid out the word. She must have thought it was a fluke. But by the third turn, she knew something was different. Something was wrong.
Her lip quivered. Still, she didn’t let on, never admitted anything, though perhaps that might have saved us. She kept smiling, kept telling me, “Great job, Panda,” kept scratching at the white pad with her half pencil, those numbers that tore us apart. It became a game of will, and her pride compelled her. Round after round, she pored over the board, concentration twisting her features to ugliness. If I had been more mature, or perhaps less angry, I would have put a stop to our little charade. But as it was, we played to the very end. We didn’t let up until I went out and she was left with three high-point tiles and a look on her face I’ll never forget.
I thought I’d feel better sticking it to her, my tongue still aching for one last suck, but in the end, I felt only emptiness. It was one o’clock in the morning—the latest by far I’d ever stayed up—and though she never calculated the final score, I knew I’d beaten her 471 to 229. It was the first and last time that ever happened. It was the end of her innocence.