I volunteered at the Jewish Family Service for many years visiting lonely elderly people who could no longer get out. When they called me for Marge they were looking for someone who liked to play Scrabble because Marge needed a partner. I was an English teacher, so it looked like a good fit. I could not remember the last time I played Scrabble but figured how good could a 96 year old be?
The first time I came with the social worker and all three of us played. Marge was on a walker and lived alone in a lovely condo. The units were shaped in an open rectangle and in the middle there was a swimming pool surrounded by lush flower gardens and trees. It was immaculate. I figured maybe we could go out and sit by the pool if we got tired of Scrabble. The social worker must have played with Marge before because she was pretty good. Marge was a shark, totally alert, she demonstrated a prodigious vocabulary which she manipulated on the board like a pro and beat the two of us handily. I played so poorly I was embarrassed, but I figured I’d improve.
For the first six months I did not win one game. It was horrible. I kept thinking I was improving, but Marge showed me otherwise. Here’s the way it went. I rang the doorbell. Marge answered it and without preliminary conversation turned off the tv and brought out the board which we got fast at setting up. She would then beat me handily, the whole time the beginnings of a smug smile breaking out on her face. If I complained she said, and this was often, “I like to win.”
I fervently believed I was getting better. I watched Marge closely and soon learned some of her tricks, but it never seemed enough for me to win. As I got closer and closer to her score there were times I thought I was going to win. Then she would pull a triple word score with something like the word quiz and I would be finished. “Shit,” I’d say. When this happened, Marge whose face never left the board would show her smug smile a little bigger and whisper, “Language,” as of she was secretly pleased she had reduced me to swearing at a 96 year old woman because I was such a poor loser.
Finally, finally after six months I won a game. Marge was not pleased. Her eyebrows went up in surprise and her little smile vanished. “If I can do it once, I can do it again,” I said jubilantly.
“Doubt it,” she retorted. “I’ll see you next week,” she said with a confidence that scared me.
OK, so I didn’t do it again for another two months. But, this time I KNEW I was getting better. I was so confident that when I lost the next week, I called my husband to let him know I’d be late for dinner, so I could play Marge one more game. She was tickled pink and that day beat me twice.
It wasn’t the first time I’d be late for dinner. For months, as my skills improved and the times I won increased, there were many days I called home. “I’m going to be late again,” I told my husband. “I know I can beat her. I was really close the first game.”
“Right,” he said, but I could hear the smile in his voice.
Once when I got to Marge’s she was very upset and told me her cable tv was down and she couldn’t get it to go on. I knew when I wasn’t there Marge had the tv on for company. Without it her condo felt desolate and lonely to her. I knew because she always turned it off as soon as I arrived. I was a technological idiot and seriously debated calling my husband to come over and help which is what I’d do at home. But home wasn’t that close so I told Marge to get the bill so I could find the 800 number. She sat silently looking at me while I talked to some kid in Florida while he told me which buttons to push and I described what appeared on the screen. This went on for at least a half hour. Finally, miraculously, the picture appeared. I felt so relieved I cannot begin to describe it. I looked over at Marge. She was still sitting silently looking at me, but a tear rolled down her face. “I love you,” she said.
I knew she didn’t love me just because I got the cable working, because I knew I loved her too. “I love you too,” I said. After that we went into the dining room and got out the game so she could beat me again.
The last time Marge and I played Scrabble she was in a nursing home. She would die a week later. Neither one of us won. After I set up she looked at the board and told me she had forgotten how to play. I started to cry and told her I didn’t want her to die. She said she would die. “You’ve become a good Scrabble player,” she said.
“I know.” I told her.
I have never played Scrabble again. I wonder sometimes if I could still recall all her old tricks. One thing is for sure. I will never have a Scrabble partner I cared about more. And it will never again be more fun.
Diana Sher is published in over 75 literary and commercial magazines including New Delta Review, Foliate Oak Magazine, and Concho River Review. Her chapbook, After I Cut the Cord, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2003. She is currently retired from the English department of Metropolitan State University of Denver.