One of us mentioned that the Scrabble board didn’t rotate, and that Nigel had been showing off again by playing upside down. In one move, he had leaped a hundred points ahead of the next highest player. When I offered to bring a deluxe model next time, which would rotate, Nigel—at whose house we played every Friday night—sniffed and said, “Deluxe? Don’t make such a big deal about your financial advantage over me.” Amber, his long-time companion, laughed, took a drag on her cigarette and did not exhale, as if there were a place inside her childlike body where un-exhaled smoke could be kept.
My Scrabble game was not the standard thirty-dollar version from Target, but a one-of-a-kind art object, worth thousands. I owned it but had never opened it. According to my mother, the game was more like an oversize jewelry box than a board, almost a foot high and decorated with rosewood inlays and crystal drawer pulls. I had inherited it from her. Her younger brother had put the box together in his bedroom during the early 1960s, near the end of his life. (“He was much younger than me,” she said. “I hardly knew him. The Little Prince, is what I called him.”) The game was, in fact, a box inside a box—and in my imagination had gone deeper, a sequence of increasingly smaller boxes ending in a “singularity,” a blank tile of supernatural density and power from which all legitimate words could explode if we weren’t careful. Billions of words! Trillions!
As soon as I arrived home that evening from Nigel’s, I hauled my uncle’s box out of the broom closet and stashed it in the trunk of the car, then drove around town thinking, poor thing, freezing back there; when am I going to get to bring you to the party? Amber had come down with a chest infection, and whenever I saw Nigel at work, he would give me an update and a hopeful, “Maybe next Friday.” And then, at last, “Definitely this Friday. She’s feeling better, wants company. You still have that fancy board you were telling us about? Or did you sell it to a museum?”
“In the trunk of my car. You and I could break it open and play during lunch.”
“I think not,” he said.
“No mirrors, right?”
“Hey, I never cheat.”
Amber and Nigel finally clear the dishes from the table—breakfast dishes—and set the box in front of me. It takes two adults to lift the thing. There’s a smear of oatmeal where I might otherwise rest my elbow.
Like children, they begin to pry apart the outer box. Nigel goes next door to borrow a Phillips-head screwdriver.
He returns with a six-pack of Summit Pale Ale. “The Knutsons don’t drink,” he says. “They think it’s bad luck to keep it around. Paid me two dollars to take it away, which is the best-paying job I’ve had since college.”
Amber’s laugh becomes a full-body coughing fit.
“You okay, honey?”
“I’ll have a glass of whatever they call it, which should settle me until bedtime. Unless they poisoned it.”
“Which would settle me for eternity.” Smoke comes out of her nose, a mere thread of it, quickly retracted.
Nigel removes the major planks of the outer box and props them against the wall. He fumbles the screws, which roll under the refrigerator. He laughs. The inner box is wrapped in black velvet; I wonder about my uncle’s access to luxury goods.
“It weighs a ton,” Nigel says to me. “What’s in it, anyway? Uranium? Or might I ask, who’s in it? Any relatives missing?”
Amber pulls away the black velvet and wraps it around her neck, like a fancy scarf. “How do I look?” she asks.
“Like a blond Liza Minnelli,” I say.
“I’m not that drunk. Not yet.”
Margo Walters arrives, toting a six-pack of Miller Lite and the latest edition of the Official Scrabble Dictionary, in green paperback, already dog-eared and paper-clipped. “They’ve added a bunch of two-letter words,” she says, then slams the door with a hip-thrust. “They’re all coins, mostly Sumerian. And you know the word HMM? With two M’s?”
“I don’t care for that,” Nigel says. “Not at all. That’s not a real word.”
“Now they’ve included the spelling with three M’s!”
“I’ll never use it.”
“But it’s in the book.”
“He plays by the 1996 edition,” Amber says. “He’s very conservative.”
“Ohmmeter,” Nigel says. “I can accept that, if we we’re talking about HMM. Not a beautiful word, but legitimate.”
Amber rubs her new velvet shawl and frowns. “I don’t trust you,” she says to me. “This thing has little pieces of metal embedded in it, or chopped-up black beetles, from ancient history. Ouch. I don’t feel safe. Why did you bring this crazy box into our home?”
“It is very old,” I say. “Anything is possible. My uncle might have robbed an Egyptian tomb.”
“Was he a cross-dresser?”
“What’s going on here?” Margo says. “I blanked out for a minute. What did I miss? I heard some interesting words. Are we playing already?”
I unfolded the top level of the box, to reveal a surface not seen for several decades. Protected from sunlight, the colors should not have decayed, but the blue of the triple-letter squares had neutralized to charcoal gray, like Lake Michigan on a cloudy afternoon. The triple-word red was now a kind of rust tone, a faded bloodstain. Pastel pink and green had become indistinguishable shades of dirty white. Strips of metal, possibly tarnished silver, separated the squares; they had the look of long-term wear, often noted favorably by appraisers of such objects. “That,” as they say on television, “cannot be faked.”
But they are wrong. Anything can be faked.
The top level of the box rotated above the base, smoothly, silently, without tipping or sliding. We drank to the memory of my uncle, the amateur engineer, the undiscovered genius. The base was made of a dense, dark wood, tropical in origin, and had more than a dozen drawers. “Let’s look inside,” Amber said, squinting over her pink half-glasses. “We might find better rules.”
“The rules have never changed,” Nigel said.
“I think we should get to play with seventeen letters.”
“That’s bananarama,” Nigel said.
“Bananafish,” Amber said.
“Banana-gram,” Margo said, definitively. “And it’s twenty-one letters for each player.”
I speak of this in the past tense because it feels very old to me—completed action, unchangeable. We did not look inside the mysterious box, not for an hour, while Margo called out the strange words she had recently learned, many of which had no vowels. Brrr. Could you turn down the air-conditioning? She worked these new words into the flow of the evening, as if to legitimize them. “Shhh,” she said, to nobody in particular. Why use up all the h’s in one move?
Nigel brewed a pot of coffee. “During this round, I swear, I am not drinking alcoholic beverages,” he said. “One needs to keep his head clear.”
“One what?” Amber said.
“This is getting nasty.” Then he told us of a friend back in Canada, a word freak who had descended into madness while playing a game called “word golf,” which was not supposed to exist in the real world, but had been transplanted from the pages of a 1960s novel. In this game, which required many sheets of paper if you were playing in proper style—with actual golf holes sketched out, in color, as they might appear in an aerial view, from tee to green—in this game, as in real golf, low scores were best. The word “love” would be inscribed next to the tee, the word “hate” next to the flag. In between would lie all the intermediate words that the player had written, changing one letter at a time. There would be two or three, or even four, copies of each hole, and no peeking to see how your opponent was playing it out. It might have looked like this:
Player Number One:[Tee] LOVE—LAVE—HAVE—HATE [three strokes]
Player Number Two:[Tee] LOVE—LIVE—HIVE—HAVE—HATE [four strokes]
Player Number Three:[Tee] LOVE—LOPE—ROPE—RAPE—TAPE—TARE—
Although Player Number Three—a nut case—had come within two strokes of holing out (finishing with HARE—HATE), at this point he or she would have broken a pencil and thrown the pieces out the window; and, upon seeing Player Number One’s second stroke (“lave”), would have said to him or her, You have never, in your entire life, used that word in a sentence.
It’s in the dictionary.
You don’t even know what it means. Use it in a sentence. I dare you.
I lave you, you lave me.
That’s not the way the song goes, Big Bird. And listen to me—I think the winner should be the one who takes the most strokes to get from “love” to “hate.” Get it?
At a certain point, according to Nigel’s story, the Mounties would have arrived, handcuffed the word-freak—now bloody with self-abuse—and taken him away in a secure vehicle. He might have become a serial killer.
“This was in what city?” I asked.
“What the hell is that?”
“Canadian resort town,” Nigel said.
“He worked there one summer as a waiter,” Amber said.
“No, I’m talking about Nigel. He’s a naturalized American citizen now.”
“He should have naturalized his name,” I said.
“Nigeria,” she said, then reached toward the box. “My friend Alexis named her daughter Nigeria, just to rile me. That was twenty years ago and we haven’t spoken since. Let’s see the letters.” She clapped her chubby hands. “Which drawer has the letters?”
“They’re called tiles,” Nigel said. “If we’re playing a word game, we should be precise about words. You know the daily crossword, in the local paper? The Thomas Joseph?”
“Too easy for me,” Margo said. “I always finish in two minutes. Why are you pointing at me?”
“Yesterday morning,” Nigel said, still pointing, “the clue was ‘Mount Everest’s aboriginal name.’ But the answer turned out to be ‘Denali,’ so, obviously, a cog had slipped in somebody’s brain, not Thomas Joseph’s, but in the brain of the anonymous drudge who actually composed the puzzle. They were off by ten thousand miles. I thought they would apologize in this morning’s puzzle. Like, one of the clues might be, ‘Latin for mistake made by crossword puzzle author.’”
“Erratum,” I said.
“I can forgive the occasional verb-tense error, but not this.”
“You should apologize to us,” Amber said.
“I’m sorry,” he quickly answered and stopped pointing.
Amber plucked at my sleeve. “Your box has, like, more than a dozen little drawers. They seem to be stuck. I’m clueless.” Of course, the person speaking this line had never done a day’s work, supposedly arthritic, epileptic, dyspeptic—all of which Nigel must have found attractive in her.
We all breathed slowly, almost inaudibly. The box itself might have breathed.
“Did you know,” Amber says, looking at me, “that one of the drawers of your lovely box has a butterfly living in it? It’s a monarch, or a tiger lily. I’ll look it up after we’re done. The Encyclopedia of Butterflies. If I could only remember which carton I packed it in.”
“That’s what I love about you, dear,” Nigel says.
“What do you love about me?”
“That you didn’t repeat the word ‘box.’ Had you done that, I would have had to box your ears.”
“Oh no.” She holds up her hands, maybe a foot from her precious ears. “You’re going to make me say a hundred words without repeating myself, aren’t you? Not that, please. I never get past fifteen words.”
“Another game you people play?” Margo asks.
“Once in a blue moon,” Nigel says. “Listen carefully. I’m working under this severe restriction. Already my language is suffering from it—”
“Enough,” Amber says.
We have been sitting quietly, waiting for Nigel’s next move. He often takes five or six minutes. Instead of gazing at him, Amber could be productively cleaning the kitchen, rubbing away the oatmeal spill, asking me to lift my elbow. Nigel says he hates his letters. Margo is fifty points ahead of everybody, of course. I don’t care how well I do. I’ve been making ridiculous six-point words for my last three turns, as if mesmerized by the box—this object that Uncle Joe spent so many hours putting together, how it must have sucked away his energy and intellect, a vital force that could have been directed outward, toward some social good. That my uncle loved words speaks well for him, but not well enough. It is not sufficient simply to have the letters and make the words; it is necessary to do something productive with them. I’m only quoting my mother here, not with specific regard to Uncle Joe, but with regard to all her unproductive relatives.
“I guess I better turn in my tiles,” Nigel finally says.
“All of them?” Margo says. “That bad?”
“Somehow I have two Q’s and two Z’s and a bunch of L’s.”
Amber laughs, coughing. She doesn’t cover her mouth; the spray is mostly beer, and harmless. “Which reminds me,” she says. “Back when I was in rehab, they had a day-room with only ten books in it, most of the pages missing, and a bad couch, a TV that got only one station, and a Scrabble game in a smashed box that a fat lady sat on. The game included a little drawstring flannel bag for the letters, like somebody had salvaged it from a castoff pair of pajamas. You know what I mean?”
“Yes,” Margo says. “I have a letter bag made from my dead partner’s plaid pajamas. My one relic.”
“And in that dayroom bag there were eight S’s, five blanks, and no I’s, a letter I hate with a passion. No V’s. Perfect.”
“You can’t play Scrabble that way,” Nigel says. He looks at me. “There’s something seriously wrong with this game. Something askew.”
“La-dee-da,” Amber says.
“You’re packing the words too close together,” Margo says, her be-ringed fingers touching the board. “Too much density. The words start eating each other when they get this close. One of us needs to be more generous, and stretch out a nice long word into the northeast quadrant, make the sacrifice. ‘Sacrifice’ itself would be a good word, in fact.”
“Good, but impossible.” Nigel turns in his letters, curses the replacements. “How do you say ‘fuck’ in Hawaiian?”
“Can’t use Hawaiian,” Margo says.
“It’s an official American language,” Amber says. “Why not?”
“Okay, you can use ‘luau’ and ‘aloha,’ and ‘poi,’ but that’s about it. ‘Ukulele.’ They don’t have curse words. Hawaiians never curse.”
I rub my hands and make the word EQUIPPED, using the E already in place from the word JOKE. “Eighty-five points,” I tell Amber, who is supposed to be writing down the scores.
“A butterfly?” Margo says to her. “Show me.”
Amber opens three different drawers, all empty. “This is some kind of magic box he’s brought into our house. The butterfly folded its wings and escaped through an invisible hole. Actually, I hope it did, because, although it might have been happy to live in that beautiful velvet drawer, it doesn’t make me happy to think about it. They eat dandelions, don’t they?”
“Are you drunk?” Nigel asks.
I say, “My uncle might have been a lepidopterist, and we’ve been playing with something other than a Scrabble board. A specimen box, they call it. I wouldn’t put it past him. There’s a gold bug inside.”
“Gold bug,” Margo says. “What’s that from?”
“Is ‘lepidopterist’ a real word?” Amber asks Nigel.
“Butterfly expert, or perhaps merely a collector. But there’s no way you could ever use it in Scrabble.”
“I beg to differ,” Margo says.
“It’s just,” Amber says with a pout, “I can’t come up with anything right now. I hear a word, I figure I have a right to use it.”
“The story of your life,” he says.
“Very funny. Let’s see what the crazy uncle put in the other drawers. Let’s take a break. I know I’ll never win. Living with Nigel has been pure torture. I don’t think it matters.”
Margo finishes her beer. “If this game doesn’t matter, then what does? Tell me.”
“Excellent way to get rid of a V,” Nigel says.
“You can do better than that,” Margo says, forming the word COHABITATE by adding seven letters to the existing word ATE, for which I had received four points and much sarcastic cheering. “Love,” she says. “Dove, Move, Oven, Over. Shove it.”
We decide to let her play by herself while we investigate the drawers, most of which are jammed.
“Do you have any lubricant?” I ask my host.
He says he’ll check next door and comes back with a spray can plus another six-pack of Pale Ale—of which one bottle is broken.
“Take it back,” Amber says. “Who do they think we are?”
He takes it back.
The board fills up with seven-letter words, of dubious legality. “They tell a story,” Margo says. She cups her sparkling hands around an invisible paragraph suspended in front of her. Words are all she has in life, since her mysterious partner died, so we listen. “The brother and sister should never have moved in together. Such cohabitation was doomed from the start.”
“What?” the rest of us say.
“It’s the box,” Amber says. “The box is telling its story. Shhh.”
We spray WD-40 liberally around the tiny drawers. “Bad for the varnish,” I say. “But who knows? There might be a fortune stashed inside. Gold bullion. My uncle was one of those eccentrics who didn’t trust banks.”
“One of those, eh?” Nigel says.
“Here’s a wheat penny,” Amber whispers. “I’ll make a wish and put it back.”
“No, that’s okay,” I say. “Keep it.”
“Here’s a mirror,” Margo says. “But I don’t see my face in it.”
“Was he a cross-dresser?” Amber asks. “I think your uncle’s been hiding evidence deep inside. He’s a devious little ghost. We haven’t seen even one percent of his stash. Not just the money, but a photograph the size of a postage stamp, or a poem he was too shy to give to his girlfriend if he ever had one. An unused train ticket. They had trains back then, right?”
“I suppose,” Nigel says.
“This might sound weird,” Amber continues, “but I wish I could stuff all my belongings in one single box like that—all my junk—and it would come out in the form of words, beautiful words. I’ve been waiting for a miracle like that. Did you know you can vacuum your clothes, suck out all the air, and stick them in your back pocket?”
I remembered a magic trick I had witnessed during my childhood, in which a person—a lovely assistant—would be folded inside a red lacquer box, into which swords would be inserted, then pulled out, clean, or only slightly bloodied. This box in front of us on Nigel’s dirty table was not lacquered and surely not large enough for my uncle to have been folded into it. Though I understood the temptation.
“Lookit,” Amber calls out, “the drawer popped open all by itself. And there’s a slip of paper, with words and numbers written on it.”
“His last will and testament,” Margo says. “The uncle, right? I bequeath this box to the unlucky person now in possession of it.”
“Here’s the score sheet,” Nigel says. “Three columns. Three players.”
“X, Y, and Z.”
“Did you have an Uncle X, Y, or Z?” Nigel asks me. “Xavier, Yogi, or Zedediah?”
“I think his name was Joe.”
“Ten points,” Margo says.
“Give it to him,” Nigel says to Amber, nodding toward me. “It’s his private property. A family treasure. Looks like Player Z ended up with 399 points.”
“And I’ve never broken a hundred,” she says. “Something smells funny.”
“It’s the spray. We overdid the spray.”
“No, I like the spray. It’s delicious. I would actually spray it on my bagel every morning if certain people weren’t always monitoring my food intake. Every single bite. I would spray it directly into my mouth. People do that on TLC.” She wrinkles her nose. “Formaldehyde? Maybe? Not so nice on the bagel. This reminds me too much of Biology Lab. I was always running from that room, eyes streaming with tears, remember?”
“I didn’t know you then,” Nigel says.
“That’s no excuse for not remembering,” Amber says.
“Try another drawer,” Margo says.
“More vanilla spray, please.”
“What in the world is that?” Margo sets down her new dictionary, in which she has been checking words before using them, completely against the rules.
“It’s rolled up in gauze,” Amber says. “About the size of a finger.” She holds it three inches from her face.
“Don’t eat it,” Nigel says.
Uncle Joe. I’ll call him that. I wasn’t even born then.
Back then, if you had a brother who had never married, never had children, you didn’t talk about him, even within the family. Although you might have maintained contact with that brother, you told other people that he had disappeared, honorably. Maybe he hadn’t come back from the Korean War. Maybe he had crossed over into North Korea. The pity was tolerable, certainly better than shame.
The hidden brother had taken a clerical job in the back room of an insurance office, a genius with no credentials, too shy to have attended college. He lived with his parents. He had a small black and white television in his room, one chair, one desk, a dictionary, a notepad, a pencil. He paid his parents ten dollars a week. They would argue about raising it to twelve. They would argue about the cost of the food he consumed, though he lived mainly on beer and paid for it himself.
He would keep the door to his room closed. There was no lock, so he would barricade it with a dresser. He set up a workbench. He would sneak bags of things into the house when his parents weren’t watching. While they were in church—praying for his salvation, he assumed—he would be in his room, creating useless objects of preternatural beauty. Clocks, picture frames, tie racks. The room had its own window overlooking the driveway, a good place from which to monitor his parents’ comings and goings, which were infrequent. Late summer, it was also a good place to watch the butterflies, especially the monarchs, who were attracted to the screen of his window, or to a plant that flourished nearby. Milkweed. He was happy for the one day of the year when the butterflies swarmed in that one place. And happy when they had gone, because the box was finished and he wanted to use it. He had not built the box merely to look at it.
He played Scrabble against himself, even while his parents yelled at him to open the door and come eat dinner. He would be X. And Y and Z. He was careful about the score, about maintaining the integrity of the game. It was only in later years that the extra letters turned up, and he felt bad about using them.