"The Gods of Scrabble" by Mo Srivastava
2013 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize winner
"Should no be cheating, young man!"
Struggling to find my footing on the bottom of the pool, I rubbed water from my eyes and turned to the voice, accented and shrill. Sitting on the edge, plump and paisley in her bathing suit, was an elderly woman. A granny. An irate granny.
"You is cheating for to be in this lane!" Eastern European. An irate Eastern European. She hung onto the "ng" longer than usual, pushing it halfway to a "k"; a "z" nudged aside the "th"; the "ch" was closer to "sh". She snapped on her bathing cap, glared at me and repeated emphatically "Sheetingk!!"
I hopped slowly through the water to the edge and pulled myself up to sit beside her and explain: "I actually don't swim very fast; I've been in a cast for 17 weeks and the doctor suggested swimming laps." She blushed as I gestured to my emaciated right leg, still scarred from the motorcycle accident. "Sorry for my mistaking," she said, "Young mans always using slow lane when is not for them. Is fast lane is for them."
I knew what she was complaining about. Trying to rehab my leg, I was often a bit put out when one of the young mans would use the slow lane just because it was less crowded. Dolphins like space to move.
I returned to my laps and she followed along behind me, bobbing up and down in an exaggerated breaststroke. I couldn't make any distance on her, and she seemed to have no wish to pass me. So we puttered back and forth for half an hour together.
She climbed out when I was done and asked, as I toweled myself off, "Vat you doingk now?"
"Umm, I don't know. I don't have any plans. Just going home I guess."
"Should be joining to me and my friends." I was confused, and hesitated long enough for her to add "Is nothing fancy. Is club for Scrabble in room beside of library. We need other player. Is missing the old one, Agi. Is sick today." I agreed to join them; it seemed rude to decline the invitation. And I like Scrabble.
I changed into my street clothes and found my way to the room beside the library. My swimming partner was already there, setting up the board. I introduced myself and she beamed "Mo! Is Hungarian name!". I hated to disappoint her, but I explained that it was actually a shortened form of an East Indian name, Mohan. She was undeterred. "In my country, is shortening of Moric, which is meaning of black person."
"My name is Mancy. Is meaning of graceful." I shook her hand and helped her turn all the Scrabble tiles upside down in the lid. "Friends vill be soon. Zsóka and Márta. Zsóka she is sheeter, always making words not are words. Márta not so good; but she is lonely so be with friends is good."
When Zsóka the Cheater arrived, she gave Mancy a knowing look. "Always with the young men, Mancy." I saw Mancy blush again; she seemed easily embarrassed.
Zsóka turned to me, introduced herself and said "Mancy, she's not so good with English; doesn't know so many words like me. This is why Scrabble is so good for her: to learn new words, to discuss them, to practice using them."
Mancy dismissed her friend's patronizing commentary. "Is why you lose last time, Zsóka? Or maybe you no so good with words like you think." I liked these two. Scrabble, attitude and trash talk mix well.
Márta breezed in. Chiffon scarves and make-up. We were missing a chair, so I stood up to get her one from across the room, limping visibly as a carried it back. "Such a gentleman!" said Zsóka.
Márta waved the tip of a scarf at me, Zsa Zsa Gabor style, and winked. "Too bad for Agi. Not so bad for us." I must have shown some sign of discomfort because Zsóka jumped to my defence. "Don't make our guest feel awkward, Márta. He is polite young man and we want him to come back and play again. Right?"
Mancy concurred emphatically, "Good young mans are not so many. Always bad words and baggy clothes. Are not so many like you who will keep company of old ladies." I told them I was glad they'd invited me, that I enjoyed the game, and would be glad to play with them again if they needed a fourth.
Zsóka declared that she would keep score. "And Moric will be checking," added Mancy.
"Youngest goes first?" I asked, venturing a joke.
All three of the Hungarian matrons glared at me. "Must be taking of tiles and first to be closest to letter A," Mancy decreed. On this, they managed a rare moment of agreement.
Zsóka drew a "B"; Mancy mouthed "sheeter" at me; Márta winked again. We each drew our seven letters and started the ritual of shuffling them on our rack, hoping for inspiration. The Scrabble Gods were not smiling on me, having saddled me with six vowels and a consonant. Was "ee-i-o" a word? A greeting, perhaps, on Old Macdonald's farm.
Zsóka opened up play with "gym" and Mancy immediately complained. "What it is with no vowables?" Zsóka said it was the same as "gim-nah-sium" and looked to me for confirmation. Before I could offer an opinion, Mancy pointed out "Is ab … abreef … is shortening and no shortening not allowed. Is in rules." But the rules in the box lid were covered with tiles, and so the women turned to me, Moric the Arbiter of English. I nodded, to indicate that I got Mancy's point, but said that "gym" is such a common abbreviation in English that it probably counts as a legitimate word for Scrabble. Mancy sulked; Zsóka preened and counted her points; Márta winked again. I wondered if it was a tic, and not a wink.
We continued on for several rounds, with every word being debated and discussed. Zsóka was forced to retract "peeple". Márta stuck to solid and uncontroversial words like "road". Mancy kept insisting that she was very close to using all her letters, but never got closer than "chop". I was challenged on "gumbo", but managed to convince the others that it was not a misspelling of "jumbo", but a legitimate soup … "like borscht," I said, trying to be helpful with a culturally relevant example.
"I like, is very good explanation," said Mancy. "Gumbo. I learn new word today. You explain more words, I learn more words."
Zsóka played "rhino", and Mancy asked "What it is rhino?", struggling with the pronunciation. I explained that it was the same as a rhinoceros. "Orrszarvú," added Márta, giving the Hungarian word. Mancy was unconvinced: "But is missing ending. Is like orrszarvú without nose." Zsóka jumped in, pointing out it wasn't a nose, it was a horn. "Is still bad word, like gym. Is not by rules," complained Mancy; but Zsóka had already added her points.
Two rounds later, I had on my rack a seven letter word that could be played onto a triple word score, with my "M" landing on a double letter score ... nearly 100 points. But the Scrabble Gods weren't smiling on me, they were snickering; this was a joke, not a gift. The word they'd blessed me with was "orgasms".
Having no wish to field Mancy's inevitable question … "What it is orgasms?" … I chose, reluctantly, to pass on the seven letter word and played "grass" instead, still snagging the triple word score. The Scrabble Gods snorted derisively. Wimp. They delivered to me five more vowels as punishment for cowardice.
On my next turn, when I used the "M" and the "O", Zsóka said "Oh, too bad you didn't have those on your last turn. You could have made orgasms".
"Yes, would be good word," agreed Márta. "Almost the same in Hungarian: orgazmus."
"Can be plural?" asked Mancy.
"Of course," replied Márta, as Zsóka nodded.