In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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She hadn’t seen the grand boy for months and found, when his mother dropped him off, that he’d changed from a delicate blond, hazel-eyed boy into something larger, fueled for conquest. It wasn’t testosterone. Not yet. He was only nine.
“You’ve grown,” she said, instantly regretting the cliché.
“I guess.” He followed her into the house, carrying a violin case and a Monopoly set. “Isn’t it funny that everyone else can see when someone is taller, except for the person who’s grown?”
“Yes, it is.” She opened the glass doors into the living room. “And it’s funny how adults can tell kids they’ve grown, while kids aren’t supposed to mention that adults look the least bit older.”
She had no grandchildren; he was a substitute. She thought of him as her “grand boy.” He wasn’t unrelated, being the grandchild of her father’s sister. She remembered the first time she’d seen him, on his father’s lap in a baby’s stretch suit, fisting the keys of her piano, amazed at the sounds he could produce.
In the living room, white curtains deflected an intense August heat that could have been global warming or simply summer. She cleared the coffee table of magazines and said, “Put it here,” indicating his Monopoly set.
“I creamed my dad,” he said with an I-gotcha smile.
She’d planned to suggest the colorful labyrinth of Chinese checkers or some peaceful digging in her garden, maybe a walk to the river where they could skip stones — just not in the cove, where everybody’s used detergent bubbled up in foam. But never mind, Monopoly was fine. “How’d you manage that?”
“He landed on Boardwalk with a hotel. Three thousand buckaroos.”
“Three thousand bananas, you say?”
“It’s the same thing where I come from. Let’s play.”
He used to ask her for instructions. Today he gave them: “You be the banker. I’ll handle the properties.”
She doled out the paper bills: the orange five hundreds, the pink fives, the tawny one hundreds — a color she associated with her older brother. He’d always clutched the one hundreds close to his chest as he’d proceeded to roast her game after game — until the time she’d beaten him, after which he’d never played Monopoly with her again.
She mustn’t win. That was clear. And she mustn’t lose on purpose, either. That might humiliate him. Her own grandfather had let her win at Chinese checkers once, and she’d responded by refusing an ice-cream sundae afterward.
“You go first.” She handed him the dice.
He rolled and landed on one of the properties in the cheap corridor. One by one he counted out the bills. He could handle adult nuance with wit but couldn’t add or subtract with any speed, his school favoring self-esteem over arithmetic skills. She rolled, landed on Chance, paid a poor tax of fifteen dollars.
“I will crush you!” he said.
“Oh, no. I shall crush you!” she replied, figuring that was what he needed now — tough talk for surviving recess with sturdier boys. On the grand boy’s previous visit, they’d sorted her grown son’s toy soldiers into Keep, Give Away, and Dump. She’d offered him the Give Aways: a cave man hoisting a rock, a Greek wielding a spear, a Union soldier aiming a rifle, three World War II marines firing mortars. There it was, the whole dark history of the species, set before them on a screened porch redolent with lilacs. He’d declined, confessing, “My mother doesn’t let me have soldiers.”
He rolled and bought St. James Place from the lower-middle-class oranges. “Your turn,” he said, bright eyed for her demise.
She rolled and landed on Electric Company, the single worst property on the board, worth nothing without its partner, Water Works. Never mind, in the real world oil and water would soon be worth everything. People had killed to get a pipeline across Afghanistan. Others were dying in Africa for water, if not yet in California.
“I’ve still got more property than you!” he crowed, handing over her first deed.
He rolled doubles and bought Indiana Avenue in the reds, where players so often seem to land, and then the ominously yellow Marvin Gardens. The yellows had been her brother’s favorite. Many times she’d met a sickening bankruptcy upon them.
“You’re so dead,” he said.
“You are so mistaken, buddy.” She rolled and landed on Free Parking, losing another chance to procure property. “I vill get you zoon,” she said, using the German accent rife in the war films of her childhood.
He turned the corner and landed on the wealthiest side of the board, among the greens. Those were her favorite properties. Pennsylvania Avenue was such a beautiful name, with a pleasing color to match. Once you bought it, you could breathe easy. He bought it. “Wait till it gets hotels,” he said.
“You’ll need Pacific first,” she reminded him sharply. “And North Carolina.” Sets were the whole point, after all. You couldn’t do much without a monopoly.
“No problem. I beat my dad.”
On her next turn she landed on Go To Jail and was forced back to the crummy side of town, losing her chance to pick up two hundred big ones at Go.
He passed Go, collected his two hundred dollars, and bought Mediterranean. “Don’t you feel awful?” he asked, with a terrible smile.
So it went. He acquired two sets — the reds and the greens — and several pairs. She got a couple of railroads, Water Works, some singles, two of the purples. Worthless or not, the purples were her only chance for a set. He landed on the third purple, but he had spent all his money. He rifled through his properties, mortgaged several of them, and bought the purple. All sets were closed to her now, unless she could convince him to bargain with her. She made an offer: “How about I give you five hundred buckaroos for that lousy alley covered with cat poo and nonbiodegradable plastic bags.”
“Dream on! That would give you a set.”
“Hey, you’ve already got two sets!” She hoped she wasn’t whining. “I’d have only one.” She refrained from lecturing him on justice and mercy.
He wasn’t moved. She remembered her consciousness-raising group in the years of feminism’s second wave, when Minny Bauman had said they shouldn’t let their kids play this capitalistic game. She herself had argued for Monopoly as preparation for careers in a capitalist country.
The next time he passed Go, he bought a house for Indiana. “That’ll be ninety dollars, if you land on it!” He was looking a little flushed.
Without a set of properties, there was no way to rise from poverty. She was an African country in debt to the World Bank. She was a farmer in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. No wonder this game had been created during the Great Depression. It gave at least the illusion of a chance at wealth. Still, she played along. “I ain’t landing on no Indiana,” she said, but her tone was off. She was getting bored — was that it? — not just with the game but with the necessary bravado. Or was it that the grand boy was acting so much like her brother?
On and on it went. Roll, play, pay him something. Roll, play, pay him something. Eventually she reached a point where she felt she could surrender — and did so with some relief. “I’m throwing in the towel, kiddo. I’m dead,” she said, hoping to model good sportsmanship. “You win. I lose. Good game.”
He looked at her in disbelief. “You’ve got to play to the end!”
She played to the end. She mortgaged everything down to the last dollar, but it wasn’t enough to cover her debt.
“I creamed you!”
She narrowed her eyes and managed to regain the right tone: “Next time, buddy, it is I who will cream you!”
He began to sort the money, then paused. “Want to play again?”
“Some other day. How about a little iced tea?”
“OK.” He gathered the property deeds, the dice, the miniature green houses and red hotels. This was an improvement on her brother, who, bloated with fake cash, would kick the game board and scream, “Losers pick up!” When the grand boy looked up, he said, “Should I play my violin now?”
“That would be lovely. I’ll be right back.”
She returned from the kitchen with tea and a plate of the kind of molasses cookies her aunt, his grandmother, used to make and store in an earthenware jar during the Cold War, with its nuclear weapons waiting in silos.
“They’re good,” he said. He drank half his tea and put the glass down, then sprang open the latches on the violin case. He adjusted the chin rest, brought out the bow, and settled into the posture he’d been taught. Turning his attention inward, he raised the bow and played “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” He went on, playing “Frère Jacques.” There were occasional squeaks and failed notes.
“I haven’t practiced for a while,” he explained. “My dad just got my violin fixed.”
“I love it. Keep on.”
“This is my favorite,” he announced, his face tilted to the instrument. He deepened his concentration before bringing forth the opening notes of “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. She watched the grand boy’s thoughtful, vulnerable face and listened to the triumphant hymn that extols a brotherhood of nations. Yet in her mind’s eye she saw city towers collapsing and the red glare of rockets over Baghdad.
The nine-year-old face remained earnest as he played through the circling notes. Was it enough for redemption, this arm held at a perfect angle, this chin firmly on the rest pad? She thought of all the things this delicate, crazy, rational, greedy, loving species had created from the time of the ice to the time of global warming while other species were going extinct, and yet somehow this one tree sloth or whatever, this chimpanzee, was growing up to be 6 billion people who didn’t just drown in their own waste or shoot each other into unrecognizable pieces. They also played the violin.