Death and Board Games

“One, two, three, four, five, and six,” my grandma Aronson announces, each number simultaneous with a click of the miniature terrier on the game board. “Marvin Gardens. Now, Nicole, do you own that one?”

I search the tiny pile of Monopoly property cards in front of me: Reading Railroad, St. Charles Place, and Waterworks. Finally, I come upon the yellow heading of Marvin Gardens.

Coffee House Readings

“Yeah, it’s mine,” I answer my grandmother. “So you owe me—”

I’m interrupted by the slow creak of the front door. It’s the middle of December, and the freezing weather always makes the front door squeaky. I turn in my chair towards the sound, pulling my Barbie robe more tightly around me. Like the smell of fresh baked bread, the frigid air seeps through the open door, permeating the house. My flimsy pink robe and pajamas are a weak shield against the icy blade of cold that follows my parents into the hall.

“Hey, Nic,” my father greets me, stamping the snow off his boots like a Clydesdale horse. “You beating Grandma in Monopoly again?”

I giggle and shake my head; I never win at Monopoly, and my father knows it. He says it’s because I don’t buy the railroads.

“If you want to win at Monopoly, you need to have the railroads. Owning the railroads is the only way.”

I currently own one railroad, but I am hardly on my way to a sweeping win. Like Vanderbilt himself, my grandmother has acquired the other three railroads and is giving no indication that she will soon be getting rid of them. In fact, Grandma seems pretty comfortable owning the entire board, and I resign myself to an eventual loss. Marvin Gardens just can’t compete against Boardwalk.

My parents have finished their winter disrobing ritual in the front hall: boots placed on the rubber mat to prevent puddles on the floor, gloves and scarves placed on the heating vent to dry, and coats thrown carelessly over an empty arm on the coat tree. They stand, now in the kitchen, where my grandmother and I sit at the table playing board games.

I thought it was the cold. I thought it was the arctic temperatures of the Rochester winter. I thought it was the powder-light flakes of snow that fell from the sky. I thought it was the wind—howling like a dying animal—that caused their faces to be so red… their noses to run and sniffle.

Turning back to the game, I roll the dice in a futile attempt to get myself out of debt. I pray to land on Free Parking, although, at this point, I would settle for a good Community Chest card. Shaking the dice between my cupped hands, I chant the number five and let go. One die falls from my hand placidly and burns itself on the middle of the board. The other, like a demon from hell, shoots out of my hand with destruction on its mind. Knocking over little green houses, the second die crashes through the plastic world, taking down red hotels and my grandma’s silver terrier. I have rolled a seven; no good.

“That roll doesn’t count,” I begin to explain. “The second die—it didn’t land on the board. I get a re-do.”

Too tired and unconcerned to argue, my grandmother allows this small infraction of the Monopoly rules. Scooping up the dice once again, I begin my pre-roll shaking, this time hoping for a three. The dice have barely rolled out of my palms and down my fingers when my father calls me to him.

“Peanut, you want to talk to me for a second?”

His question is really more of an order, and I can tell by the sound of his voice that something isn’t right. I wonder if it has anything to do with my grandpa Lupiani, whom my parents have just been visiting in the hospital. A smoker through his entire life, my father’s father lived with one lung and a constant supply of oxygen, which he carried in a bottle that looked to me like a miniature fire extinguisher. A clear tube running from the bottle to my grandpa’s nose provided the oxygen a pathway, and was responsible for the slight hissing noise that so often marked my grandpa’s presence.

Leaving the dice on the board, I go to my father without seeing what number I have rolled. Although in the third grade, I am old enough to detect the seriousness in my father’s voice, and it frightens me. Curling up in his lap, I hear my mother and grandmother speaking in the next room. Too far away for me to make out specific words, they seem to be speaking in a low mumble reminiscent of that used by Charlie Brown’s teacher. This whispering worries me as well, for it seems as if the lowering of their voices is deliberate—as if they do not want me to hear what they say. As soon as my father speaks, I am no longer sure I want to hear anything, even if I could.

“If you had to tell Grandpa one more thing… one more, and then you could never see him again, what would you tell him?”

I huddle closer to my father as the sting of tears blurs my vision. The burning ache of sobs covers the back of my throat like a heavy quilt as I struggle not to cry. I have no answer.

“You’d tell him that you loved him, right?”

I manage to nod my head, even though what I really want to do is shake it, shake it back and forth and scream “NO! NO! NO!” because I realize now that my grandfather has died.

My grandfather, who gave his approval with the statement “That’s the ticket,” and referred to grapes as “Louie’s,” was dead. I missed him already.

It wasn’t until years later that I would connect the redness of my parents’ faces to my grandpa’s death. What I had thought was the result of trekking through the bleak winter night was actually the result of a deep sorrow. The red blotching of my parents’ cheeks was independent of the physical world; it was not due to the cold, the arctic temperatures, the snow, or even the howling wind. It was because they had been crying.

To this day, I recall my grandfather’s death and Monopoly simultaneously. The Rolodex of my mind has stored both death and board game on the same card; flipping through my memory, I encounter them at the same time.

And that redness… that redness I attributed to the cold; it sticks out like a scarlet mitten on a memorial field of white snow.