My grammy was a five foot nothing white lady, but she’d play you so hard in Scrabble you felt like you just got dunked on by Jordan. She’d mutter her watered-down Catholic curses as she shuffled her tiles around with one hand, chewing on the pinky nail of the other. Judas Priest, I got nothin. Nothin. Flipping through the dictionary of her brain. And then she’d sigh, and then she’d sigh in a different way, and you knew it was coming, her just tossing those tiles down, disgusted that eighteen points was the best she was gonna do on that turn, when you’d been happy with the eleven you’d managed with COUGH and no double or triple point spaces.
She was good with the sneaky two-letter words, like ZA and JO and QI, and she’d manage to insert them where you hadn’t even seen there was any kind of opportunity, blocking you from playing the seven-letter stunner you’d been about to lay down. Maybe she felt a kinship with these short but powerful words. Maybe they understood each other.
Grammy drawing the Z or the Q meant her opponent’s death sentence. Me drawing it meant turn after turn of agony, not wanting to waste it on ZIP or QUA and have her show me how I could have done better. She played QI for, I shit you not, sixty-six points once. It was the first time I’d seen the word. When I questioned her, she tapped her hard yellow fingernails on the brown wood kitchen table where we always played in her sunlit kitchen.
Is that an abbreviation? You can’t play abbreviations.
Qi is a word. It’s a Chinese word. Qi is the life force that inhabits everything. You can also spell it C-H-I but you’re not gonna get half the points doing it that way.
Because she didn’t just know the words. She knew all the definitions, too. She was full of words, and full of meanings, and, that day, I learned that my tiny, feisty, take-no-bull grammy, who slept five hours a night on a hard bed without a pillow, was also full of qi.
I beat her for the first time when I was twenty-two.
I don’t think I was supposed to do that. I know neither of us expected it. I only beat her by seven points, just a couple twists of luck, an extra double letter score on a C and a B when I managed to coax the word CABBIE out of a rack full of nothing and the minusing of the single vowel left on her tile rack.
Judas Priest, Emily.
She was smiling, not scowling. I got it. She couldn’t have been prouder. She’d been training me for this moment since the first time we’d played, when I was ten and sitting at that same brown wood table, in that same splay-legged colonial chair, my legs not reaching the floor, spelling things like POOL and TUTUS.
It was only seven points. But it could have been one point, or it could have been a hundred. She would have been the same amount of proud.
I won a few other times, but not once did it feel the way it felt that day when I was twenty-two, in the middle of summer, right after tomato sandwiches for lunch, my grammy in her sleeveless petal-pink housedress with the stripes on it, her huarache sandals kicked off onto the linoleum. We sat inside in the air conditioning and traded wins back and forth that whole summer while my poppa went outside and mowed the lawn and tended his compost and talked to his tomatoes. He talked more to them than he ever did to us, and sometimes I wondered how smart he was. And then it would be as if he could hear my speculation. He’d come inside, look over my shoulder, flick a few tiles around, and point to a spot on the board.
He found unseen words for me. He never helped my grammy like that. I guess he figured she didn’t need it. They both coached me in their own ways, and never did a word pass, never did either of them let on that they both knew how the other was helping me.
My poppa died five summers after the first time I won.
He died in the hospital, after a short illness. That was the euphemism they used in his obituary in the local weekly. A short illness. My family’s not the best at communicating. I still don’t know what exactly took him.
I guess the qi just went out of him.
My mom flew across the country to be with my grammy. When she returned, she was subdued, but we still didn’t talk too much about anything too personal. She said they played a lot of Scrabble when she was there. She and her two brothers and my grammy, taking up all the seats at that small kitchen table, played late into the night. They formed the tiles they drew into the words they never spoke.
The last time I played against my grammy was at my mom’s house, the last time she visited us, at the heavy oaken table in the formal dining room we almost never used. This was fine, because we could leave the game out in case we felt like playing again later. Which we almost always did.
Let’s get one more game in before I leave in the morning.
She was eighty years old then, shrinking in upon herself, and she wasn’t as good as she’d once been. She struggled and cursed Judas Priest’s name more often than I’d ever heard. She scratched her dry scalp through her thinning hair that she still dyed maple syrup brown.
I was well on my way to winning, and as she fell farther behind with each turn, I slowed down. I began making deliberately mediocre choices, missed triple letter score spaces, lied about what was on my tile rack.
Judas Priest. I got nothin
When she played OJ two ways on a triple word score, though, I couldn’t let that go. Right away, I opened my mouth to tell her that was an abbreviation and it wasn’t allowed. Which of course she must have known.
She tapped those hard yellow fingernails against the spinning board, the Diamond Anniversary model I’d bought in advance of her visit.
Fifty-six. And don’t you tell me that’s not a word. Your poppa drank OJ the whole time he was in the hospital, so I know it is.
So I shut my mouth and wrote down her score and I didn’t say a word. I didn’t ask her about my poppa, and I didn’t ask her why she was playing a word she absolutely knew was invalid. OJ put her forty points ahead of me, and that was comfortable. I started playing for real again, not holding back, but she still won that game. I was left with the Q on my tile rack, and not for lack of trying. I couldn’t even stick it in to spell QI somewhere. She’d managed to bury all the I tiles in cul-de-sacs of consonants.
She died not too many months after that last game. This time, it was a long illness. I don’t know what that illness was.
I guess the qi just went out of her.
But it’s not gone. She passed it on to me. Some people drain your energy, and some people energize you. That’s what my grammy did. She listened to me talk about my life from the time I was small, with small concerns, and she fed me nutritionally balanced meals, and she gave me the best bed in the house when I slept over, and she gave me the gift of strategic thinking. I’ll never understand words the way she did, but I understand them better because of her. That’s her qi, and that’s what she left me. The life force that inhabits everything.
Emily Jane Cayer is a writer and a BA student in English at Arizona State University. She lives on the US/Mexico border in the tiny art town of Bisbee, Arizona with her partner and their three rescue dogs, and can still play a mean game of Scrabble.
© 2020, Emily Jane Cayer