Lynn Lipinski - Fiction

Boggle on the Train

by Lynn Lipinski

My nephew Ryder was the kind of plump pink-skinned know-it-all I would have thrown in a garbage can had this been middle school. He had something to say on every topic. In the rare moments he refrained from speaking, his mouth hung half open, perpetually poised to start yapping again the minute you took a breath. He’d only gotten worse since landing his first software job out of college. My brother Powell told me how much money that firm offered him, and I knew right away that I was in the wrong business. Writing never paid that good and I’ve been doing it for two decades.

“This is a huge opportunity for me to learn product development at one of Chicago’s top tech companies. Now maybe doing scrum and pre-production code deployment isn’t exactly saving the world right now, but with a few years under my belt, I’ll be able to create my own destiny. Write my own ticket, you know, Uncle Drew?”

The kid spouted cliches so earnestly he must have thought they were his original ideas. My brother hung on every word like they were undiscovered Lennon/McCartney lyrics. Christ. And was I supposed to know what scrum meant? I wasn’t about to ask wannabe Steve Jobs.

I hadn’t believed Powell when he told me the kid wanted to come on our annual train trip across the Rockies. The trip was one of the few things in this world that my brother and I agreed on. We disagreed on the merits of a Catholic school education, whether the stock market was going bearish or on the significance of the television show Breaking Bad. But we both loved being on the move and the way traveling by train allowed us to savor the experience.

Growing up, Ryder had never shown desire to leave his Chicago suburb with his video games and his online friends and coding conferences.  But somehow, here he sat on the Amtrak, shaking my vintage 1980s Boggle box much harder than he needed to mix up the letter cubes, and talking about the importance of “stretch assignments” at work. I hoped that meant they were making him do yoga because he certainly needed the exercise.

Playing Boggle was as much a ritual as the train trip itself. Powell and I were well-matched, though I did win slightly more than he did. Ryder, I assumed, didn’t know how to play anything without a joystick, just like the fresh-faced college grads they kept hiring for less and less money at the magazine where I worked. And who were nipping at my heels every day to take the best assignments.

Powell kept his eyes focused on the box, competitive and ready to win. The difference, I knew, was that Powell would throw the game like Jake LaMotta if he thought Ryder might get upset. After all, this boy was raised in the generation that got trophies for putting their soccer cleats on the right feet. Powell watched that high-strung boy’s moods with the intensity of an abused woman waiting for her boyfriend’s next violent outburst. Yes, I chose that metaphor on purpose. Ryder held his dad hostage to his every fleeting happiness. It was abusive, at least to watch.

I had no such inhibition about beating Ryder. He blew off my offer to explain the rules and set the box down with a bang. Powell flipped the tiny plastic hourglass and I ripped the plastic top off the box. Go time.

I focused in on the jumble of letters in the five-by-five grid. The thin lead of the mechanical pencil broke the first three times I tried to write, and I punched the eraser to extend more. The splintered pieces of lead rolled around the table like tiny logs with each lurch and push of the train.

Ryder bit his fat bottom lip in concentration; I could hear him breathe with the wheeze of an out-of-shape middle-aged man.

Words piled in my head, and I rushed to get them on to paper. ATTENDS snaked through grid, ALOUD was nearby, DENSE ran diagonally across the board.  I listened for pauses in their writing, enjoying a sweet feeling of triumph when Ryder’s pen faltered for ten seconds or more, then resumed but only for a few letters before stopping. Meanwhile, I found a new run of words with ENDUES. No way Ryder would even know that word; he would probably burn precious seconds trying to make ENDURES not realizing he had a word staring right at him without that pesky letter R.

Powell called time. Ryder, impatient and bouncing like child on the upholstered seat, demanded to be first to read his list.

ENDUES, he said. I scratched it off my list, then another, and another and another. Damn. My mind immediately concluded he was cheating.

“Do you even know what endues means, Ryder?” I asked.

He grinned at me. “Hey, this isn’t the SATs. I don’t have to know what the words mean.”

“Ryder’s good at seeing patterns,” Powell said, almost apologetically. “It’s what makes him good at computer code.”

“And Boggle,” the kid said.

“Rematch,” I said.

Words were my thing. I paid the rent by stringing them together for America’s last greatest sports print publication. I finished the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in 13 minutes last week. And I’ve played Boggle for 30 years. Experience had to count for something, I thought. I got this.

I snatched the box out of Ryder’s hands and shook it with a deafening rattle that made the several of the other passengers turn to look at us. I didn’t care; all I wanted to do was to take the stupid childish pleasure of shaking the box out of his baby hands. Mine, I wanted to say.

“Play nice, now,” Powell muttered under his breath at me, his eyes sliding between my face and Ryder’s, like we were two toddlers gearing up for a tantrum showdown.

I put the box down on the table, popped the top off and turned the timer all in one fluid movement. See, I thought, I don’t need any of you. It was a ridiculous gesture, but I was coiled tight now, nerves jangling and eyes scanning the board.

“Just a game, Uncle Drew,” the kid said and I grunted at him.

He reminded me of every smart-ass kid who’d come into the magazine the past five years, talking about social media and click-through rates and info-graphics. They made shitty little videos on their phones to go with their ubiquitous blogs. They were like vacuum cleaners of information, sucking it in and churning it back out in this endless vortex of new, new, new. They laughed behind their backs about old-timers like me who refused to tweet and who took three days sometimes to turn in a thoughtful, well-written article. These kids didn’t value quality, only quantity.

And it all came so easy to them. Just like my nephew, as smug as a middle-aged man, counting on his gift for pattern recognition and his ability to write robot language.

RAW. RAM. LOSIL? CHOMA? FAOS? The letters turned into nonsense. My mind went blank, worse than writer’s block. Like I lost my language abilities. Nothing registered. My mind panicked.

“Time,” Powell said, his eyes on my list of two words. He licked his lips like he did before delivering bad news. “Why don’t I go first,” he said.

“ARF. ALSO. FAR. JAMS.” He continued reading while I watched Ryder looking through his list, marking some words out, still smiling, still expecting to win.

“RAW,” Powell said. I marked it out.

Ryder read his list next. “LOAM. MAW. MISO. OVALS.” I saw him pause, his lips just starting to form the word RAM. I raised my pencil to mark it off my list when he did the inexplicable. “RAMS,” he said, “SIM, SOLAR.”

“Give me that sheet of paper,” I said, fury stacking in my gut like stones and forcing hot bursts of anger out of my mouth. I tried to snatch it from him but he pulled it in tight to his man breasts.

“If you wrote down RAM you should say it,” I spat at him. “You can’t tell me you came up with RAMS and not RAM. That’s Boggle 101, pattern recognition boy. And isn’t RAM even a computer term?”

“I missed it, Uncle Drew. I didn’t write down RAM.” His eyes were on his father’s, not mine, and they were pleading. The kid didn’t know what to do. He wanted his dad to bail him out, just like always.

“You look at me when I’m talking to you, Ryder,” I shouted. Powell stood up and clamped his hand on my shoulder to keep me in my seat. Ryder stared at the table as though the veins of fake marble were the most fascinating pattern he’d ever seen.

“Drew, come on, man,” Powell said. “Doesn’t matter.”

I made one last grab for the piece of paper and tore a small piece. Ryder shoved the rest of it into his mouth and started to chew.

My fist balled around the scrap of paper and shot across the table to hit him in the ear. The cartilage turned bright red on contact and Ryder stared at him with glassy eyes, stunned.

The carriage went silent. Powell pressed down on my shoulder, his fingers digging in painfully between tendons and muscles. I heard our collective breathing, rising and falling in adrenaline-fueled concert.

After a few moments, Ryder started chewing again, then swallowed the paper with a loud gulp.

Powell must have figured I was no longer a threat to his boy and slumped into his seat.

“You all right, Ryder?”

The kid nodded. “Uncle Drew, I was only trying to...”

“I don’t need your pity, kid,” I said. I glanced at Powell who watched his son with shining approval. I could practically hear the pride bursting out of his heart. He couldn’t wait to call his wife and tell her what a nice boy they’d raised. Ryder unsheathed his tablet and poked it to life. I stared out the window at the green and brown slopes of the Rockies, until the train entered a tunnel. In the blackness, I  saw only my face looking back at me. I looked like an old man.