Seven Points for Love

By Alexander Luft


Thirteen months of marriage echoed in the valley of the couple's queen mattress. The space had spanned wider, a quarter inch at a time, until Darion hung, slothlike, on the edge of that wedding bed. He had hung on until an argument over mismanaged laundry—how hard could it be to separate the goddamn whites—unraveled their marriage. So he had returned to his mother's home, to sun in that most primary love and to learn the new and tannic aftertaste of the word wife (10).

You can always come back to me, his mother had told him, perhaps too insistently, perhaps too often. When he moved back into the Williams house, his bed was made. His mother welcomed him back with boiled hotdogs and tomato paste. Not spaghetti, but that was their word for it. She didn't ask about the dissolution of his marriage, though he'd wanted her to, as if she had sandbagged some wisdom and the right conversation might help him reclaim wedded bliss, or at least wedded complacency. But his mother only spooned at the spaghetti and told him he could stay.

Within a week, he received divorce papers drawn up by Hannah's father. He fingered the legal stationery a sheet at a time, insistent on reading each of its words, its terms, as if those considerations of subject and noun could mitigate his burgeoning shame. This agreement is intended to be a final disposition of the matters addressed herein and may be used as evidence and incorporated into a final decree. He wondered about the legal shades of a word like final (8).

When he'd first met Hannah's parents, D felt the twitch in her father's handshake, an animal reaction amidst the squeeze that said, I am going to show you especially that I am copacetic about my daughter and a black boy. Her mother's eyes so wide and her smile tethered to her cheeks made him wonder if this mask was donned for him especially or if that was how Mrs. Virginia Harper condescended all of her daughter's disappointing romantic prospects.

Disappointments. His wife—ex-wife? just Hannah now?—had told him about receiving the last of her college rejection letters, of learning that she'd be forced to attend the second-rate school at which they'd one day meet among sociology textbooks, and the way her mother had besieged that shame with cheer. Hannah had whispered this story to D among Sunday morning bedsheets, before their marriage, embarrassment still possible. He wanted then to tell her that he'd felt shame about going to the college, too, that he'd hated facing his own mother—well I guess you go if you really want to, if you really think you're too good for this place. But he'd dammed up that revelation, knowing that his words would only mangle the feeling, that Hannah could not have really understood, and that her definition for disappointment was the better one.

Now they had agreed to return to their apartment to sign the papers and meet with the landlord, to be named, officially, vacated. Those practical considerations fortified their smoldering desires to reunite and to consecrate the domestic battlefield. Perhaps they wanted to reassure themselves of the novelty of their relationship--a white girl and a black boy, we are the twenty-first century in America; married at twenty, we are the nineteenth century in America. They agreed on dinner, pizza from the joint on Savannah Street where they had idled in their courtship. Hannah would bring a bottle of wine left over from the wedding.

D gripped the pizza box as he stepped into the elevator for the ride to the fourth floor. The first time they'd taken the elevator together, he'd insisted on working the buttons—this is what my people are good at. These things once had been such brave jokes for them, like when she asked if he wanted to chase down the street after the bomb-pop man, if they'd get lunch at the chinaman. But, he knew now, she'd taken up the language only in irony, her suburban childhood with its diction of the ice cream truck and the Chinese restaurant. When they had canvassed the city for a love-nest apartment, months before the wedding, she'd said it was so funny how he talked not about a place to live (9) but a place to stay (10). And now he wished she had understood the difference.

She waited for him in the apartment with a pair of lawn chairs, a trunk of Hannah's clothes and cardboard boxes with the last newlywed trinkets. She looked startled when he entered the apartment without knocking, her wine glass already full. It had been weeks since he'd seen her, and though he'd never forget what she looked like, her sallow eyes and auburn tresses recalled gut-feel memories. They exchanged a hello (8) and, with the pizza box doubled on the floor, they broke their last meal.

Do you think you'll miss this place? he asked her.

No.

Not the radiators knocking? Not the smell in the fridge?

It's still there.

It was our place, though. He struck two long syllables when he said our (3).

She jawed a piece of pizza and leaned forward for her wine glass. When she did this, the lip of her blouse drooped just enough that her still-husband couldn't ignore those canteen-shaped breasts. He remembered the St. Patrick's Day party, behind some wastelanded college house, when they'd sloppily kissed and he'd slipped his hand into her T-shirt. Into the precious border between the cup of her bra and her breast, the duality of manufactured softness and the real version crowned by a hardening nipple. It had been easy to tell her he loved her breasts (9), even if he told his friends he liked her for her tits (4). She wouldn't have wanted to hear that, he thought.

Hannah asked him if he'd read the papers, and though he wasn't sure the word read (5) was wholly accurate—more like suffered (14)—he said he had. She spread a copy on the floor, and he saw she'd already signed Hannah Harper-Williams. Her name, he supposed, would change back now, and that hyphen ought to have signaled impending doom.

Instead of inking his name, though, he stood, stretched as if waking up from a bad dream. She watched him with suspicion. D rummaged through one of the boxes. He was stalling, not looking for anything in particular, and so he was surprised to find there the rectangular red box. I can't believe I forgot this, he said.

His Scrabble board.

The one he'd grown up with was short a Z (10), a V (4) and two Os (1) but had never been replaced for a more complete version, even when he was in middle school and the only black kid showing up for the state tournaments. He had soldiered on then despite the way the officials infallibly eyed him while reading rules against slang and colloquialisms. If there weren't official boards, the white kids always wanted to play on theirs: the collector's editions or the latest reprints or at least boards with all the letters complete. And that was fine with D, because though he'd confessed to Hannah he'd never cleared the semifinals in any tournament, he swore heartily that no one had ever defeated him on his home board.

I didn't know that was in there, Hannah told him.

Probably just forgot it, he offered. He swept the dust from its top. I have an idea, he told her.

She eyed him. You want to play?

It wouldn't hurt, he said. We have to wait for Richard anyway.

They unfolded onto the floor and she began to lay the board out, its spine tattered and flimsy from years of use, its two halves threatening fracture. She offered him the velvet sack full of letters and he began fishing until his fingers tallied seven. He spread them out on his placard, hidden from her view. Enough consonants and vowels to help him get by, he thought.

Who goes first? she asked.

Why don't you?

No, he said. You.

It's your game.

I'll go first next time, he said, as if there would be one.

Fine. She placed her tiles one at a time, sandwiching the middle star with double points for going first, force (20).

A decent first play, D thought. He looked around for a place to keep score. He grabbed the divorce papers, flipped to a blank page and wrote a 20 next to her name. During their marriage they'd played Scrabble only once, partly for Darion to prove the authenticity of his childhood stories: how he'd learned from an English teacher named Mr. Mason, who had convinced him that diction could be like a chess match, how he'd played games with himself because his mother would rather forfeit than try and keep up with him; how he'd pocketed vocabulary words like treasures impossible to share among the neighborhood boys.

We really need to keep score? she asked.

You afraid I'll win?

Not afraid. I know you'll win. I suck at Scrabble.

I remember, he said. But what if you win? Wouldn't you want to know?

She shrugged. Does it matter?

Instead of answering, he played wager (11, triple letter on the A) from her E. Perhaps he could have scored more points elsewhere, but he knew this was his word. I'll tell you what, he said. Let's make a bet on this game.

Don't, D.

Hold on, he said. You're so sure I'm going to win. So I'll make the bet easy on you. If I win, I'll sign the divorce papers.

Don't.

And if you win, we can talk some more.

Talk about what?

He shrugged.

She played felt (9). You have to promise not to lose on purpose.

He marked down her points. Okay, he said. You know I'd never let someone beat me on my home board. You'll get my best.

And with that, he played off his own W, lining out women (20, double word score).

How, he had wondered in that premarital twilight, did he imagine life with one woman? He lingered on the prospects of the unknown, the women without Hannah's crystalline laugh but with their own lovable marks. D watched women's buttocks piston as they walked past. When he pleasured himself in the shower, sometimes he thought of the bulging woman from his history class and felt guilty. Sometimes he missed black girls. He imagined all of the bodies he would never undress, all of the naked (9) and the nude (4). He'd believed marriage would change this, but even his honeymoon—the red-laced lingerie, indulgences in a hotel Jacuzzi—hadn't fulfilled, much less satisfied, his aspirations of sexual adventure. Disappointed in this discovery of lacking, he'd meant to hide it from Hannah, but she had known of it without the mediation of words.

She clucked at his play of women, prompted by its subtext or its score. In response she played more (7).

Once she had told him, after she'd found those text messages from the girl who worked at the barbershop, that she should have listened to her friends about black boys. That word, player (11), meant he was not to be taken seriously. What else had those girls told his wife? I'm surprised he went for you; black boys are all ass men. If you go black, you'll never go back. Are they really bigger down there? Jungle fever. Nothing to be taken seriously.

His first slice gone, D reached for more pizza. He noticed Hannah had picked off her pepperoni. She didn't like pepperoni? How long had this been going on, and how had he not noticed? Maybe unnoticed pepperonis were breadcrumbs on a trail to ruin. In one smooth cast, he spelled out duties (14 points on a double word score) on the board and regretted using so many letters for so few points.

Duties? Hannah raised an eyebrow. I was beginning to think you didn't know what that word meant.

What does that mean? he asked.

He saw her about to mention the laundry, that last fight, or perhaps his habitual scattering of used socks, or his lax approach to dishwashing, or his inability to calm the knocking in the apartment's radiators, or the time she woke to a midnight bumping, telling him to check on it only for him to reply what do you want me to do about it, get stole in the dark? In Hannah's face he saw all of these possible objections, but when she turned back to the game, he wished that she'd chosen to fight instead. She added A-N-Y to her more to hit on a double-word score, anymore (24).

Nice play, he said, contemplating his own options, which were few. The world is peopled with two kinds of Scrabble players, he believed. The first kind, when faced with consonant scarcity, will rub at their temples, tongue the corners of their mouths and stall the game indefinitely. The other kind accepts the game's occasional poor luck and moves on. He was the former and wished to be the latter; no sense in delaying the inevitable. He played long (10) and marked his score.

How are you? Hannah asked him, her eyes sincere. She played tender (24, triple word score). He thought of the first time he'd cried in front of her. The first he'd cried, really, since he'd been six and someone stole the cupcake from his lunchbox. He'd been dating Hannah a few months when Uncle Reg—and his tooth-pick chewing and plum-colored fedoras and consistent presence—died of a heart attack. Sobbing, D almost told Hannah that Uncle Reg had been like a father (12) to him, but he wasn't sure a white girl with a dad (3) would understand. And anyway she wouldn't want to hear that Uncle Reg preached against settling down with any woman, much less some white girl. D didn't need to say any of it, he thought at the time, for Hannah to hold him, shush him, dot light kisses across his shoulders as he curled on the couch. In the aftermath he'd gone ring shopping, love gorging on tragedy.

I'm okay, D told her. How are you?

She shrugged. Okay, too. I'm graduating in May.

As if he didn't know she were graduating. As if it weren't a stab at his failure in Comm 4350: Business and Technical Writing. He'd be taking a fifth year to finish, a disappointment to Hannah that had once constituted a barrier to their adult lives. He ground his teeth and swallowed some of the leftover-wedding wine.

He played dirty (26, double letter on the Y and double word). He glared at her when he played it. There had been one day when she came home with brochures for a graduate school on the coast and plans, pointedly ignorant of his Comm 4350 grade. The brochures didn't include a remedial black husband. She'd chattered on about faculty and assistantships, degree tracks and seminars until he bent her over the bathroom sink with her T-shirt still on. Afterwards she cried and claimed that her tears came because the instinctual sex felt so good, but he knew this was a lie. They'd never spoken of it again.

Hannah looked at the word and shifted uncomfortably. She asked, What's the score, anyway?

It was closer than D would have guessed. Hannah had 84, Darion 81.

I'm losing, he said.

They both studied the board, and D saw his mistake. Playing dirty had left the Y open for an easy triple-word score, if Hannah had the right letters.

She played joey (42, triple word) in that void.

No good, D said. Joey's a name. Proper nouns don't count.

It's also a thing, Hannah said. Baby kangaroo.

They'd been asked about babies; marriage demanded it. Not while we're still in school, they pronounced in unison. This answer satisfied their interrogators because D and Hannah had always been in school and couldn't imagine its ending. So often they'd talked wistfully of their children's names and how Hannah would overmother them. But they'd never talk of the serious things, D knew—how to afford a child, what to tell mixed kids about bullying from both sides, whether or not Darion could know how to father when he'd only had an Uncle Reg. Perhaps they'd delayed a discussion of children because it would unearth so many of D's inadequacies.

In response Darion could only play even (21 points, triple word). He knew, pragmatically, Hannah's joey had given her a profound edge. He pulled more tiles from the velvet sack.

Hannah pinched a tile, thinking, and then giggled. I don't know about this, she told him. She lined out hater (12, double letter on H).

I don't think that's a word.

Isn't it one of your words?

It doesn't count.

She leveled her gaze. It does, she said. You want me to find a dictionary? It's one who hates.

They paused on the familiar brink of argument until D marked down her score on the back of the divorce papers. Okay, fine, he said, and began playing I-T-C onto her H.

Itch? she asked.

No. He played a blank tile atop the I. Isn't this one of your words? he said.

He'd never used that word for her before, and she recoiled. This jab might have ended their game, ended the armistice, ended their reunion, if it weren't for the knock at the door.

The landlord--lank, bespectacled, with his ill-concealed Chicano boyfriend tapping away time in a sedan parked out front--entered the apartment as if to make clear the knock was only a courtesy, his key ring hooked in one hand. Before Hannah could offer a slice of pizza, he'd produced a clipboard and began his inspection of the apartment by surveying the living room walls and opening the kitchen cabinets. Anything I should know about? Any holes in the wall you've puttied up? Anything weird you tried to flush or put down the drains?

From the freezer, Richard pulled the slice of wedding cake saved from D's wedding day. Hannah threw it trashward without asking. They had already been separated by their first anniversary.

As Richard slid windows up and down, he asked why they were leaving.

Splitting up, Hannah told him.

Ah, too bad, Richard said. That happens. Happened to my marriage. It's true what they say, communication's key. You can't talk if you can't listen.

Right, Hannah said.

They promised to get the rest of the stuff out and lock up before they left. They signed papers and handed over keys, a sort of choreography of endings. When Richard left, D sat back down at the Scrabble board.

We don't have to finish, Hannah said.

Sure we do, D said, checking the score. You're up by 27.

She smiled wryly as she looked over her letters. From the blank tile he'd set down on his previous turn, she extended an R-A-M-A, drama (7). You must have played ditch last turn, right? she said.

It was that sass, D thought--why he'd fallen to her on their first date. Darion had knocked on the inner-ring-suburban door of her parents' house, his rust-armored Toyota Corolla stabled at the curb. Hannah spirited through the door ahead of parental questions, and before D could even say hey (9), they were draining a pitcher of beer with cheeseburgered fingers, their laughter sputtering in a twilight din. Later, in their breach of lovemaking, D posted up between her legs in his bed and feared he would torpedo the mood with the mention of the word protection (14). But condom (11) would have been worse. Sheathed, he was welcomed back with a kiss and her nice you know how to dress for the occasion. Their laughter halted their bodies, waking them to higher intimacies, an aperitif for sexual collision.

I'm sorry, he told her now. I've been such—he laid out the tiles as he spoke—an ass (5). It was a measly play, a waste of a turn, but seemed worth the apology and the smile it provoked from his still-wife.

Yeah, yeah, she said. How many points was that? Are you trying to lose?

No. I just didn't have better letters.

You're trying to lose, she repeated. You're trying to let me win so you don't have to sign the papers.

D held out his palms. It's not me, he said. It's the tiles. The tiles want us to talk.

She shook her head. Okay, she said. What are the tiles telling you now? She played quit (15, triple letter on the U).

He gawked at her move, thought it was a senseless waste of the Q. She'd left so many points on the board. D jumped on the opening, using the second blank tile and Hannah's Q for quiet (42, double word score). With that, he'd recovered her joey ground. The score was 160 to 158 in Hannah's favor, and the apartment was silent as he tallied the scores and she considered her options.

This sort of hush had backdropped their entire wedding. It had resembled a Martin Luther King celebration at a white church, a paralysis of political correctness. So many very-nice-to-meet-yous, strange inclusions of greens and fruit punch by the caterer. No one was sure what that wedding ought to be, much less the marriage. Table settings segregated officially by last name and implicitly by color—this was a source of some vague shame for Hannah's mother, and she struggled to ameliorate it with strains at Hannah's father to mingle (9) and hand-wringing over the coincidental choice of both a chocolate and a white cake.

Long ago D had learned what separated the white kids from the black ones, more than their neighborhoods, more than the particular brand of their hip-hop heroes. They didn't speak the language. The white kids would never understand him saying I'm finna go home now. What is this finna (8)? the white kids wondered. Why not say manners instead of home-training? So they didn't mix in the cafeterias because they lacked the words to say to one another.

And the Williamses and the Harpers filled that wedding day banquet hall without any matrimony of their dialects. They ghosted there like aged projections of the children divided into those who found a kitchen at the back of their heads and those who found one at the back of their homes. He and Hannah had believed they'd be able to make their own language, to fill in gaps and wed terminology.

But now, he thought, perhaps they'd been wrong that words could have ever meant the same thing to both of them. Marriage (10) hadn't.

Hannah clapped her hands once, excited. She played profit (10) and was excited before D told her that even though it was a big word, it hadn't netted many points. Besides, he thought, why would she play a word about gaining something, a word that scored less than divorce (13)?

Well, I'm glad I played it, she said. I needed new tiles. She returned to the bag for more. His next word, head (12). There could have been more of that, he felt like saying and, fortunately, didn't. She countered with wind (8). Wind, she might have told him, was far more likely to blow.

The words slunk shorter, space becoming precious and letters dwindling. When he played bar (5) and she replied with tab (11, triple letter on the B), he could not resist the memory—or the memory Hannah had constructed for him afterward—of that most abject demonstration of his unfit companionship. She'd left a waitressing shift early to pick him up from a bar where he'd whiled away part of their get-out-of-here savings, buying drinks for strange women, adding to the drunkenness of two King Cobras he'd guzzled at the apartment. He'd been complaining about white people, the bar crowd watching in horror as this pale, busty girl nearly begged, I'm tired let's just please go home please, and he turned on her, You think you're the only one who wants to fuck me? There's at least a half-dozen girls I've met tonight that would do it just if I asked, until she started crying. In ten minutes he'd passed out on her chest, and in the subsequent morning, he'd rolled over, infantile, clueless, telling her he loved her. Later that day he'd been jack-knifed by her story of his behavior and her retreat from the apartment to figure some things out. The end of their beginning.

Now he played balls (9, triple letter) because he could.

Hannah asked him about the score. She was still up, 189 to 184. It was going to be close, the velvet sack nearly emptied. Hannah played plum (9, double letter). To her it was a fruit, a color. For D it conjured memories of Uncle Reg and his doctrine of bachelorhood. He shrugged off the sentiment. It was a nine-point word, that's all.

D could only play no (4, double word score).

He considered words beyond scoring, the ones he'd memorized in his vows before the wedding: to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse. Words with mass and no sustenance, Styrofoam words.

Why, do you think? he asked her without hesitating.

Why what?

Why are we getting divorced?

She shrugged. Because we never should have been married in the first place. You know that now.

He was quiet.

She looked over her letters, chewed at the inside of her cheek, and thought about the game's final moves as a lifeboat of distraction. I don't think I can go, she said.

What?

I don't see any moves I can make.

There's got to be something you can do.

She shook her head. I pass.

Are you sure? You're only up by ten.

A pause. Yes, she said.

D could play from behind. He held good tiles in reserve for these moments, these comebacks. He knew now, with a level of certainty as crisp as a new collar, that it wasn't about having the right words to play but being able to play them in the right times, the right places. He set down exit (20 points, double word). I guess I win, he said.

Wait, she said, no. I've got one more. And then she played ex (9). A new word for both of them.

It was over. Neither could play another tile.

I guess I still lose, she said. One point.

Hold on, he said. You've got to subtract whatever letters you have left to play. We have to subtract those from our scores. What you've got left matters.

Her G (2) and D (2) nearly matched his K (5). As Darion rechecked the math, Hannah blinked. They had tied at 203.

D shook his head. Less than three Scrabble games in a thousand end in a tie. The missing tiles from his home board only complicated matters. They'd once laughed at fifty-percent divorce rates, considered themselves as the destined lucky half, and so this improbability left them in wonder.

But the addition held. In the game between ex-husband and ex-wife, there would be no winner.

 

Alex Luft's fiction has appeared in The Adirondack Review, Midwestern Gothic, The Barely South Review and elsewhere.  He holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Missouri and is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  His journalistic work has taken him to rural county jails, into burning buildings and in search of sex toys at Wal-Mart.

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