All Stories, General Fiction

The Scrabble Player by Alison Kilian

He was on his way to our weekly meeting when he slipped on a patch of ice, fell backwards and cracked his head like a piñata, spilling its candy-colored contents onto the asphalt. I read about it in the paper the next day or I would have never known, would have simply given him up for another one who lost interest. We had never exchanged numbers. I didn’t even know his last name until last week. But they ran his picture with the obit and the announcement of the memorial service to be held Wednesday at 2pm. Today. Today is the day I will see his wife for the first time. Today she will find out. 

This is why I am now wearing all black, two sizes too small, the same that I wore to my mother’s funeral five years ago. My mother was 56 when she died, giving in to the tumor in her left breast. John was 45 the day he cracked his head like a chestnut instead of meeting me at the coffee shop. His widow is only 32. I am 48. I am older than John was and older than his wife is now. What does that say about me?

John and I met every Wednesday at Starbucks for two cups of a coffee and two games of Scrabble, interrupted by a single cigarette break. He wasn’t supposed to smoke, he told me, his wife hated it, had made him quit for the babies. This was how I found out he had a wife in the first place. I don’t know how he hid the smell from her when he got home.

So that’s where I was waiting for him one week ago, sitting at the same Starbucks table on the patio outside, cupping what may as well have been the same coffee as the one the week before, thinking about smoking yet another last cigarette. I wanted to quit; at a certain age, bad habits stop being endearing and are just bad habits and I have many of them. But that day I savored each drag as I pictured the two of us playing naked twister.

It was his idea. “Maybe we should switch it up sometime – nix the Scrabble, try Parcheesi, Backgammon – or twister” he had said with a grin. Strip Twister. Not that we could play there, in the coffee shop where I waited for him every Wednesday. We’d have to go back to somebody’s place, my place I guess, since he was married. I didn’t want his wife there. He didn’t want his wife there. Did his wife know about me? Does she? Shouldn’t she?

I had been hanging on to it all week: the dream of Strip Twister, the image of us hovering over the multi-colored circles in awkward positions, the uncomfortable touching until he inevitably would slip, falling on top of me and lying still like snow on the ground, a blanket of flesh covering flesh. I didn’t really believe it would happen but it was something to think about, something to keep me awake at night, masturbating over creaking bedsprings. Isn’t the definition of fantasy that it is in fact impossible?

But I did wear a scent last Wednesday, which was something new. What does a high school English teacher need to smell nice for? It’s abnormal. People will be suspicious. I can’t afford to have people wonder about my personal life. I teach at a boys-only academy. I slept with a student once and got away with it. His name was Eric. I was 42 at the time. He was 15. He left for Princeton and I never heard from him again. I have been paying my penance in ounces of fear ever since, worrying at night that maybe he will come flying back into town with a girlfriend and a desire to see me and show off his good luck.  

This is not significant. It was a one-time thing and it hasn’t happened with another student since. Eric was an exception. Now I just look at some of my students. There is nothing wrong with appreciating beauty. There is nothing wrong with me. There is nothing. Wrong.

But John was not a student, he was a grown man, so seduction was permitted, encouraged. Games were played. I chose the right words during Scrabble and so did he: “lascivious” “sultry” “sexualized” from me; “fetish” “fear” and in one exciting play, “affair” from him. The same day he suggested Twister. One week before he died and left me waiting, a sad cloud of perfume sitting alone at the coffee shop. I didn’t cry until the next morning, when I read the paper and found out. It was almost funny because I had just been fantasizing about John’s death. I’m never sure I love a person until I’ve fantasized about them dying – that’s the sign. I started when I was about 9. I would curl up in bed at night and imagine my mother dying and cry myself to sleep. When I got older, fantasies of death and grief became my secret code, a signal confirming it: you’re in love again.

John’s real death was not the one I had planned for him in my head. It was all wrong. It was supposed to be long and drawn-out. But then the whole scenario is wrong because I was not supposed to fall in love with a man over games of Scrabble. Now I need to take charge of what’s left. I want his wife to know. Stupid Bitch. I want her to know. Maybe I can tell her in a game of Scrabble after the memorial service, spelling it out neatly with the shiny little tiles. She should know, I’ve decided. She deserves to know. I polish my glasses, the black frames perfect for funerals, and spritz on the same scent from last Wednesday—Angel. Appropriate. I survey myself and straighten my tragic smile. I’m the Grim Reaper cloaked in truth, the lead in a three-act play called revelation.

His wife is pretty at the service, demure in black. Her skirt is a little too tight. I wanted her to be a cliché: blonde hair, blue eyes, big boobs, bimbo. He never showed me any pictures and I am disappointed by what I see now. She is tired and quiet with glazed brown eyes that stay steady and soft but fluttering hands that never stop moving except to rest every so often on her swollen belly. She does not cry. Why wouldn’t she cry? I am not allowed to cry. I hate her.

Nobody talks to me. Speeches are made, flowers strewn, tears shed. The wife is three rows in front of me and I am watching her the entire time, watching for the tear that never comes. Everyone else is sobbing, even the windows are streaming tears of condensation from the cold outside. It’s absurd. Four dry eyes in the house, mine and hers.

Afterwards I find her but she beats me to the first words: “I don’t think we’ve met. John had so many friends I never even knew.”

I introduce myself and then she asks the question I’ve been waiting for: “How did you know John?”

I sense my power, taste it, shift it to the other side of my mouth with the tip of my tongue. I have been waiting all week to tell her the truth, that she never knew her dead husband, had no idea what he really was. What does she know? Maybe she knows what he liked to eat for breakfast. That’s all. The memory of a dead man is in my hands. I want to shout, scream “your husband loved me, wanted me, wanted to play naked Twister with me, probably pictured me while he was fucking you, if he ever did anymore”. And more. But I swallow. It’s best to be subtle. Calm people are powerful. Powerful people are calm. Nobody pays attention to shouting lunatics in a case like this.

“We were like… like intimate friends I guess…” Jesus. “Like” twice in one sentence, twice in only eight words. I have the speech tic of a teenage girl; I hate myself. I’m a god damn English teacher. I will physical pain upon myself, envision my kneecaps spontaneously shattering. No I will this pain on her for forcing me into this, for asking me these questions. But she wants more, I can see the question marks in her eyes, so I give it to her. “We met for Scrabble. Every Wednesday.”

“Oh.” Her smile is forced. She shuts her eyes slowly in the world’s longest blink, lids sealed for full seconds before opening. In this span of time my insides are exploding, galaxies are forming, I am fully aware of every inch of myself in the pain of the moment. I enjoy the fact that I have caused her this pain. A single mascara’d eyelash falls onto her cheek as her clouded eyes focus on mine. I can see the realization shadowing her face, the hurt surging upwards into her valium-laced eyes. She’s a mess. I almost feel sorry for her and I want her to know this. I’m sorry for your double loss, losing your husband twice, once to me, once to death. She wipes the eyelash from her cheek and her smile grows to garish proportions, becomes an inappropriate Cheshire cat’s grin.

“Oh yes, John told me. His Wednesday Scrabble at Starbucks. He really enjoyed his afternoons with you, I know.” She is smiling. She knows me. She knew the whole time. Is this a joke? Bitch. I feel my face turn red, more and more. I can’t stop. It feels like my skin is peeling off in bloody sheets until I am nothing more than a smiling skeleton scrubbed bare. She knows all about me. He told her. Bastard.

I can’t find words as I feel the delicate glass sphere of power I had been holding all week shatter in my hands. “Thank you for coming” she finishes and moves on to the next mourner before I can respond. That was it. I reach my hand into my pocket and finger the scrabble tile there, cool and smooth against my fingertips. I wish it were a gun in my pocket and that I was running my index finger over cool steel, not plastic-coated wood. I clench my fists and remind myself to look sad.

Outside there is a wax paper moon veiled by clouds, a thin crescent slicing through the cool November sky like a cut made with a well-sharpened knife. I turn my naked face upwards and am surprised to find that I’m crying now that my jaws are no longer sealed shut. I light a cigarette. I still haven’t given it up. When someone dies, that’s not the right time to quit smoking. 

At home I pour myself a drink, strip off my clothes and sink into bed where I run through the conversation over and over and over again. I should go to sleep. There is work tomorrow. Instead I lie in bed, chain smoking as I rewind and replay the angry details of our encounter. The flutter of her eyes when she spoke, the single hand pressed against her stomach, the lone ring on her left hand. I can cry now but what’s the point?

I stay up through the night until the sun is teetering on the horizon, an unpeeled orange, juicy, sexy and full of promise. So she knew about me. She knew about the Scrabble. Did she know there was going to be Twister, Strip Twister? No. I imagine John’s face, picture his body contorted into painful positions: left hand yellow, left foot blue, right foot red, right hand blue. I slip my hand down my pants. I still have time before I need to wash off the smell of perfume and leave for work.

Alison Kilian

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay 

8 thoughts on “The Scrabble Player by Alison Kilian”

  1. Alison

    This is an excellent look at a character. Her reactions are constantly unexpected but they are not out of line with her personality. For me she appears damaged by loneliness to the point that she is unaware of her own implosion. The scene with his wife is brilliant. A twist on the Lady in Black.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Alison,
    I enjoyed this.
    The first paragraph is excellent and it makes you want to read on.
    I’m not for most of these angst ridden type of stories but this is very well done because there are so many things in this – Sadness, bitterness, nastiness, self-indulgence, delusion and selfishness. It also makes you think on the character of the wife??
    Hope you have more for us soon.


  3. Scrabble is a powerful portrayal of a severely twisted sister. It forces me to examine myself. Only obsessive thoughts here, so don’t send cops. The naked twister part put me in mind of all the erotic accidental tumbles in anime, but without the ultimate payoff.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was an enjoyable read. I particularly liked the put down by the widowed wife and wondered if this was her way of blocking out her husband’s infidelity. Perhaps, she didn’t know but at least she held the moral high ground.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A lonely, dark character into her own thoughts, her own self-centred world. The idea of chance is quite interesting, in scrabble the first chance to win comes with acquisition of the letters and only after that, skill becomes a factor. The protagonist thinks she has control but there’s only so much control a person has over circumstance. Too bad the guy dropped dead. All you control is your own reaction, which is clear in this piece. I like the protagonist’s definition of fantasy, quite ironic in this case re: her emotional affair with the scrabble man.

    Liked by 1 person

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