by Bruce Petronio
Before they start the game, she asks him to get the kitchen timer. She’s sitting upright in the Barcalounger, in a flannel nightgown and a Buff head scarf, the Scrabble Deluxe board on a TV table between them. He gives her a look; they never use a timer, only the Merriam-Webster Collegiate she’s had since grad school a quarter century ago.
“Let’s have a knock-down, drag-out,” she says. “Y’know, like after I started beating you regularly.” She lays on the wry smile that these days totally melts him.
“Sure,” his voice squeaks. He clears his throat. “Anything, okay?” And when he gets no response, “Okay?”
“Okay, okay, alright already!” She does the exaggerated eye-roll thing. Then muses, brightens, “Anything?” And before he can respond her eyes widen and she cries out, “Vino rosso!”
“Probably not a good idea,” he says.
“Probably? Wait. What? You’re still into fucked probabilities?”
He flinches as if struck. And there’s the F word again. “It’s two in the afternoon.”
“Yeah? What’s your point?”
He nods to her logic. As always. She’s the most lucidly rational human he’s ever known. She seems able to accept joy and dread equally, as if there were no difference. He’s always been in awe of that, of her. After they met, it was six months before she off-handedly mentioned she’d studied in India for a year. After that revelation, whenever her mental toughness made him doubt his own, he would say, “So, you attained your super power from some swami, right?”
He gets up and a minute later comes back with the timer, a glass of pinot noir for her, water for him. “Ach!” she scoffs. “Live it up!” she cries. Lately she’s been bristling at the things he’s given up: wine, long bike rides, his outspoken atheism, pot (heretofore a weekend pot user, he doesn’t join her now that, after all these years, she tokes nightly).
“Anywho,” she says, lifting her glass to him, “thanks. Coulda, shoulda fetched it meself.”
“Sure, yeah, of course, but the thing is…” He starts to lose control of his face. “It helps. Capisce?”
She nods, softening, “Capisce, amore mio.” But in the next instant, suddenly animated, “You’re only giving up stuff temporarily, right?”
A shrugging grimace. He makes a show of shaking the cloth bag, then picks a letter to see who goes first. Of course, he picks an A; and then she picks a U. He reaches into the bag and one by one places them on the tile rack—Blank! E, N, T, R, A, S! “Fuck me,” he mutters.
“You’re using the F word a lot lately,” she snickers.
Great, he thinks, she believes he’s got shit letters. Because right off he sees he can use all seven. So right off, a dilemma. At the end of yesterday’s game, she accused him of letting her win. She got startingly emotional about it. Teared up. He pushed out of his chair so suddenly it clattered to the floor but when he bent to hug her, she pressed hard into the Barcalounger.
“You’re right,” he had confessed. “So sorry.”
“Please stop saying you’re sorry every other minute!”
“Okay,” he bobble-headed. “Sorry.”
The eye-roll thing. “Hopeless,” she concluded.
Now she ratchets the old timer and as it starts clacking, “Time’s a wastin’.”
He doesn’t react but feels the pressure. His primo letters, that obnoxious timer. And she’s jacked up the thermostat again, it must be eighty in the room, he can feel the sweat beading the hair at his temples. When he’s down to fifteen or so seconds, she intones, “Like sands though the hour glass, so the days of our lives.”
“Not funny,” he says, and defiantly lays down a weak five letter word. “Twelve,” he announces, and jots it down on the scorepad.
“Suck letters,” she sighs, and turns her rack to him. The Q without a U. One vowel.
“Trade ‘em in,” he says, inwardly groaning.
“Picking letters is such a fucking crapshoot,” she says.
An hour later, only two letters left in the bag, she asks, “What’s the score, Hon? You’re being super quiet about it.”
He turns the scorecard her way. “Three-o-nine, three-o-one, you.” Praying she doesn’t check the math, how he neglected to carry the two tens his last turn, he should have three-twenty-one. She narrows her eyes at him. “I’m ahead? For real?” He leans over the board, nods absently, pretending to ponder his moves. All the while fearing she’s deciding whether to believe the score. All at once she leans from the barcalounger and grips his forearm, hard, looks him full in the face and says with sudden desperation, “What do you think happens when we die?” He’s taken aback, literally, but she holds him in place with her grip. The voice in his head is panic; the sudden tinnitus a tsunami surf roar in his ears. She squeezes his forearm, prompting an answer. He needs to consider. But a tightening vice-grip on his forearm. And so, what spills out of his mouth: “Hon, you will always be in the hearts of those who loved you.”
She flinches as if from a blow, then quickly but not quickly enough reboots. She releases his arm, sits back. Slides her eyes to the side, as if they would give her away. Sparing him; always, always sparing him. But this time too late. That flinch is seared onto his memory banks. The image will haunt him, nightly, between 2-3 AM, for the rest of his too-long life. How he failed her: his principled stand against that concept, that comfort available in the hour of need to those who accept that there is a reward, an afterlife, for a life well-lived.
Bruce Petronio splits his time between a northwoods cabin in the Adirondacks and a desert home in Tucson.