Darwin walked back into the house through the front door. The usually closed, double sliding pocket doors to Granny’s rooms were open. She lived in what had once been a ballroom with two rooms added in the back, one converted into a TV room for her, the other into a bedroom with a full bath. Granny was rolling around in an electric wheelchair and came at Darwin as if he were a stunt-ramp and she was attempting to make a record jump. She was thin and wiry. Her gray hair exploded from her skull, and she’d made no attempt to control the wild look of a jungle savage it gave her. Her face was lined, her mouth sour and downturned, but her blue eyes were bright and quick and shifted here and there without obvious purpose.
She braked her vehicle and looked up at Darwin.
“Hello,” he said, lacking memory of an appropriate greeting for what might be an insane person.
She was already looking around the room, making hissing sounds with her mouth. “I know what you’re thinking. It’s not on your face, which is sadly void of any expression, but your thoughts come to me in the mind, emerging like the odor from a fetid pond.”
There seemed no useful response. He turned to go to his room to read.
“Don’t run off before I speak my mind,” Granny said. He stopped.
“You started school yet?”
“You smart enough to play Scrabble?” He knew the game.
“Have you played it?”
“A few times.”
“Then join us tomorrow night at six thirty. Here in my quarters.” She jiggled her joystick. “And don’t make noise. I don’t like noise.”
She backed up her vehicle, shoved it into gear, and disappeared back into her bedroom. She hadn’t given him enough time to decline the invitation.
The next time he walked through the foyer, the doors to Granny’s rooms were closed and had a bolt lock visible in the crack that indicated an ominous finality to their ever being opened again.
Darwin showed up for Scrabble on time. Granny sat in a straight- back chair, her wheelchair parked haphazardly near the door to the bedroom. Mrs. Thomas was the other player.
“Sit there,” Granny said to Darwin, pointing although there was only one empty chair left.
“I keep the dictionary.” Granny patted a small pocketbook edition of Webster’s that she had near her left hand. “I’m good at this,” she said. “I don’t want you going away crying. We’re not going to play to let you win because you’re a boy-kid. Is that clear?”
Granny took five dollars from Bonita Thomas and added money of her own that she put under the dictionary. “You play for free this time,” she said to Darwin. “You’re our guest tonight. Winner takes all,” she said with a knowing smile that she would win.
She passed turned-down tiles in the box top to determine who started. “Show me a letter,” she said to Darwin. He turned up a “B.” Mrs. Thomas an “S.” Granny a “Y.” “You start,” Granny said sharply to Darwin, her faced creased with irritation that she’d come in last in the draw.
The game progressed. Soon Darwin’s score was twice Granny and Mrs. Thomas’s combined.
Granny’s mind wandered as her loss became obvious. She was already thinking about the next game. “Luther be home tomorrow?” she asked Mrs. Thomas.
“Not till late Monday,” Mrs. Thomas said.
“Can I still see him then?” Darwin asked Mrs. Thomas. “I haven’t gotten any word about my allowance.”
“Maybe around eleven on Tuesday or Wednesday,” she said. “But I think he’s determined for you to make it on your own.”
Darwin played Scrabble by rote for a few minutes, concentrating on what he might say to Luther.
Minutes later Granny played “ZANEY.” “There’s no ‘E,’” Mrs. Thomas said.
“This is not a seminar. You don’t think it’s right . . . challenge!” Granny said. “But you challenge wrong and you lose a turn.”
“I know the rules,” Mrs. Thomas retorted. She challenged. “You don’t need to look it up,” Darwin said. “No ‘E.’”
Granny looked it up in her dictionary anyway and silently removed her tiles.
“I don’t think this Sweeney Pale girl is attractive at all,” Granny said as Darwin played. “So skinny . . . no flesh on her at all . . . and always flashy.”
“She could be a natural beauty . . . if she’d allow it,” Mrs. Thomas said. “All that makeup . . . the hair treatments.”
“She’s desperate for a man. I can see it.”
“From the tabloids, you’d think she and Luther were married.” “She’s sullen around me. Doesn’t say a word,” Granny said.
“She’s shy, Aritha.”
“She can’t be shy. She sings in concert for thirty thousand people.”
“And Luther with all those other girls up there in his rooms even when she’s around sometimes. I think it’s disgraceful.” Granny added a “D” to a “B” and “E.”
“I think she’s a good girl,” Mrs. Thomas said. “She looks innocent enough.” She exchanged tiles.
“She’s too young to be so rich,” Granny said. “Few hit records can turn your life around mighty early.”
“It’s not a blessing,” Mrs. Thomas said.
“Your turn, Granny!” Darwin said impatiently.
“I’m thinking.” Granny frowned and looked at her tiles. Then she looked up again.
“She’d do better to grab you, boy. You’re about the same age.
And you’re a lot better looking than Luther.”
Darwin glanced away. “She’s a celebrity,” he said, aware he was responding with a touch of uncontrolled awe for Sweeney, whom he had never met or seen in person, but every teenager knew—and half the world—through her music.
“Don’t make her any different than the rest of us,” Granny said. “Look at Luther. He’s a celebrity and he’s worse than us. Barely human.”
“He’s your grandson, Aritha,” Mrs. Thomas said.
“And sometimes I’m not proud of it,” Granny said.
“He’s taken you in,” Mrs. Thomas said.
“He makes me pay my own way.”
“Well, he deserves some respect.”
“That’s family business, Bonita. Best you don’t comment.” Mrs. Thomas closed her eyes for a second at the rebuke.
“Please play, Granny,” Darwin said again.
Granny laid down two tiles. She scored only three points, but it made no difference. The game was already lost. Granny and Mrs. Thomas anted up for the next game and they played on.
Darwin won all six games.
“Thank God, I’m a little up on you,” Granny said to Mrs. Thomas and took the money from under the dictionary.
“The boy is the winner,” Mrs. Thomas said. “The money is his.
That’s what you said. Winner takes all.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. He didn’t expect to take the winnings, did you boy?”
Darwin didn’t speak or move.
“It’s not right, Aritha,” Bonita said. “He won.”
“It’s really none of your business, Bonita.”
“I beg to differ. I put my money on the table expecting the rules to be followed.”
Darwin waited. With each game, the total pot ante had increased to more than three times his savings.
“I made it clear he was playing for free.”
“You said, ‘Winner takes all,’” Mrs. Thomas said again.
“Just the players who put in money. That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
“We’ve never had this situation before.”
“Well . . . it’s the policy,” Granny said and stuffed the winnings into the slit in her blouse.
“I won’t play if it’s not fair,” Mrs. Thomas said.
“If he plays again, he’ll up five dollars a round like the rest of us.”
“I’d like to play again,” Darwin said, pleasantly aware of the potential for income.
“It’s settled then,” Granny said, clearing the table and walking to her bedroom without the slightest sign of a disability that might need a wheelchair.