Monday, January 22, 2018

#254: "N.O.M.E." by Hildie Block

~This story was previously published in The First Line (2005).

"That was the best game we've ever had!"  Her eyes were shining as the setting sun glinted off her long dark hair with the pink streaks.  She looked like a little girl instead.  Instead of the 25 year-old with a wasted B.A. in English, suffocating as an administrative assistant that she was.
He dumped the Scrabble tiles into the box without another thought.  She suddenly looked like she'd been stabbed. 
            "What are you doing!"  She was standing and looked agitated.  She was digging her nails into her palms.  The blood started to drip again.  He wondered, not for the first time, why she filed her nails to a point.
He looked shocked.  "Wha' "
"The perfect game!  The perfect game!  It's gone!"
She sat down and looked about to sob.  He looked around the park to make sure no one was looking.  "Look," he said covering her hand with his, "we know we played the perfect game.  We know we did it, finally, we used every tile, and we know the score was exactly even."  The wind stirred the leaves at his feet.  He put his hand in his pocket, fingering the blue velvet box that he kept there like a talisman – the box that would come so close to making a public appearance and then disappear again-- and instead grabbed a clean napkin from lunch.  "Here," he said, handing it to her so she could dry her hands.  She stood, wiped her hands, shook her head, as if to shake a thought out of it and then smiled -- off they went for coffee at the new place around the corner, as planned.

Standing in the toy store with another box of Scrabble under his arm, he debated walking to the register.  She'd freaked on him last night.  Again.  For not putting the cap back on the toothpaste at his place.  Not her toothpaste like last time.  "Suppose everyone is entitled to pet peeves," he thought to himself, not convincingly.
But except for these random explosions, the rest of the month, and the incidents did seem to happen monthly, she was wonderful, cheerful, fun and full of life.  She'd been the answer to his prayers, to his lonely burrito and Jeopardy dinners, that didn't happen every night, but were lonely enough when they did occur.  She kept him up and moving, she kept him from sinking into the couch and disappearing from view.
Even a board game like Scrabble, for her, was played in a park, was an adventure, an outing.  He thought of her, of the life that sparkled in her eyes, and he marched to the register and bought the box.  Just for the extra tiles. Just in case. 
He put down the tiles for the word "M.A.R.R.Y." and looked up.  He used the "R" from L.U.N.A.R.  She was staring at her tiles.  He stared at the board.  He'd done it.  He'd put down all the words:  W.I.L.L., Y.O.U., M.A.R.R.Y., and M.E. with the help of the extra tiles stealthily retrieved from his pockets.  The words were scattered all over the board.  He still had the homemade question mark tile, he wasn’t really sure how to make use of it.  He fingered it and flipped it over and over in his pocket.  He was sweating from the stress of sneaking the tiles out of his pockets, and kept checking his watch.  On the ground was an empty Starbucks cup from when he'd knocked her coffee down to create diversion so he could get a chance to check his pocket tiles.  W.I.L.L. had been in his left shirt pocket.  Y.O.U. had been in his right shirt pocket.  M.A.R.R.Y. was in his left pants pocket, and M.E. had kept the velvet box company on the right side.
She started to put down her answer, wordlessly.  N.  O.  Oh god, what had he done?  He'd scared away the best thing he'd ever had.  He'd gambled and lost.  He'd . . . M.  E.  The M from M.A.R.R.Y.
"As in Alaska," she said, watching his face for a reaction to the illegal proper noun.
He sat there, crestfallen.  There in his right jeans pocket was a formerly blank Scrabble tile with a question mark drawn on it and in his left pocket a small blue velvet box, the corners getting worn – in his back pockets were all the tiles he'd switched out for the "special" ones.
She'd used her last tiles on N.O.M.E.
"Want to go for sushi?" she asked.  "There's a place two blocks from here, someone was talking about at work.  They have bubble tea!"
He stared at the board and tears welled up in his eyes.  He blinked hard. 
She took the box and dumped the tiles off the board.  Into the box slid his proposal, instantly mixed with all the other letters, like a blender full of possibilities.
They walked to the sushi place in silence.  Sort of.  She was humming, humming a familiar song.  That "Minutes" song from Rent he guessed. Something like that.
Along the way, he, for no good reason, kicked a trashcan that was sticking out of an alley.  A hard kick.  Harder than he meant to.  A cat mewed and ran down the alley.
He stopped to rub his sore foot; she bent down to the toppled trashcan. 
"Kittens!" she said, and it was true.  Five blind, squirming kittens, behind the trashcan, next to the dumpster of the sushi place that was their destination. 
            "Smart mother," he said.  She wrinkled her brow at him and looked down the alley.  She looked back at him scrutinizing his every feature.  He felt like he was on display. 
            "What?  Next to sushi.  That's what I meant.  Food.  Fish.  Close by," he bent down, crouching next to her to get a good look at the new kittens.  As he did, the tile and the box popped out of his pockets, the tile fell right on top of one kitten's head.  The box hit the cement with a clunk and bounced under the dumpster.
She picked the tile up off the kitten's head.  "I knew you were cheating!" she glared through him, as though he'd broken some sort of solemn vow. 
"No," he answered, and grabbed her wrist, harder than he meant to, trying to turn the tile over so she could see.  So she could see what was on back and understand what she had done by dumping the game. 
"Hey!" she yelled standing up, "Ow – what do you think you are doing?!"  She pulled her wrist away and dropped the tile.  "I can't believe you would cheat!" It fell question mark down and she stepped down on it, grinding it into the ground. 
"Wait!" he yelled at her, harder and angrier than he would have liked.  He grabbed her wrist again and got down on his knees, pulling her down with him in the alley.  He used his other hand to reach under the dumpster for the box.  Feeling around, he yelled, as something bit him, pulled his hand back, bleeding and hit his head on a jagged piece of dumpster.  "FUCK!" he screamed, in both frustration and pain. 
She looked at him as if she'd never seen him before.  He was bleeding, crazed, and had pulled her into an alley.  She looked around for help.
He had to practically lie on top of her to get her hand under the dumpster to help him look, he had to give it to her and now.  He had to or she would never understand.  She tried to wriggle away, looking at his bleeding forehead, his glassy eyes. 
"I'm trying to ask you something here!" he yelled, and at that moment she broke away and ran back onto the sidewalk and out of sight.  He leaned his face against the dumpster, as he found the box and shoved it back into his pocket.
"FUCK!" he yelled loudly enough to make people on the street turn away.


It was one of those “Dark Nights of the Soul” moments with my best writing buddy.  (This is not something I’m proud of, so you should definitely keep reading.)
I questioned writing, the meaning of it all, but really whether I was any good, whether I should keep at it and what-on-earth-was-the-point-of-me-writing-at-all, really.  (If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably had one of those nights, too.)

And my friend, she didn’t deserve what came next.  She said, brightly, “Aww, you just need to keep writing. There’s this mag, and they give you a first line, and you write a story.  I’m doing it, too.  It’s going to be fun. Here’s the link.”

I went to The First Line litmag site.  The line was “That was the best game we ever had!”  Stupid line.  Stupid magazine.  Stupid me not writing.  Stupid Chris (we’ll call her “Chris” ‘cause that’s her name) for making me, MAKING ME, do this.

That was the best game we ever had!

That was the best game we ever had!

That was the best game we ever had!

I hated that prompt.  I hated Chris. I hated that it was even later and now I had something to prove. 

Chris’ engagement story:  Her (now husband, father of her two beautiful daughters and a production manager at St Martin’s, of course) boyfriend (we’ll call him “Jim”) had proposed to her during a Scrabble game in a park.  It’s the most darling story about how he snuck the proposal into their regular game of Scrabble (of course, they played Scrabble. In the park. In NYC. Regularly.).

Happy Ending.

I was mad at Chris.  I stole her beautiful story—her real engagement story and I co-opted it for “N.O.M.E.”  I’m not even really a Scrabble person.  I’m not a romantic.  I wasn’t even *really* mad at her or jealous, just frustrated that night that she called me out my writing.

SO I took her story and turned it upside down.  I made the girl a bit troubled (not at all like even-keeled Chris), the guy a bit awkward (not at all like charming Jim) and the whole thing took off from there.

Not nice.

Not nice at all.

But here’s the kicker.
They took it.
Accepted it.
Published it.
Paid me for it.

It gets worse.

They only take about 10 stories.  Chris, as you might have guessed, well she’s a Scrabble person.  And honestly, a better writer than me, harder working, more of a perfectionist.  A real word crafter. We went to grad school together and worked side by side at the University together.  I know her and I can say, she is, quite simply a better person.  And her story revolved around Scrabble, too.

They weren’t going to take two Scrabble stories for one short issue.

I didn’t say life was fair.

But you wanted to know the story of the story and here it is.

Sorry, Chris.  Sorry.  Sorry.  (She, of course, was never mad.  And was even happy for me.  Because she’s Chris.)



Hildie Block is a writer based on Arlington, VA.  She has published over 50 short stories (and many essays, too) and was the co-editor of the 2007 anthology Not What I Expected.  Work has appeared in a variety of literary journals like Gargoyle, San Francisco Review, Cortland Review, Literary Mama, MotherVerse and others.  Her story "People" was a DelMarVa Review prize winner and was published as a Kindle Single. "Just Talk" was a Pushcart Nominee, and "Spectre" (an essay) received a 2004 Best of the Fray.

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