I play mahjong. Hbu
A story based on a morning in Fort Myers
I’m living in Fort Myers and don’t have any friends. I went to synagogue to try and make some. The next morning, I was invited to play a game.
“Well, that’s because you don’t have any crack,” said Jodi, the loud 74-year-old woman who sat across from me, trying to teach me Mahjong.
“I don’t understand this at all,” I said, staring back.
Jodi had short grey hair, was round but not fat, and possessed daring eyes that were always ready to kill.
“Well then, pay more attention. They’ll be here any second,” she said, stacking the ceramic white tiles in what’s called a Mahjong Wall.
There were 144 tiles with numbers and symbols. The symbols were all nonsensical, with words like BAM or DOT or CRACK. When you play a tile you must announce the name of the tile aloud. If you misspeak and name the wrong tile, let’s say instead of Five Bam you say Five Dot, then that tile is now in drag, acting as Five Dot for that round. If another player wins the game using the drag Five Dot tile, which ONLY was in drag because you misspoke, then you, as the misspeaker, have to front the losses for all other parties at the table. It’s a game that takes a typical gameplay error and levers it with social and monetary shame.
Jodi and I were sitting at her living room table. It was a beautiful, bright room filled with colors that were as loud as she was: a royal blue couch with purple pillows, an orange flamingo sculpture in the corner upon which rested a bowl of hard red candy. Walls covered with photos and drawings and paintings of nature and animals, none of which went together, but all of which had meaning.
Everything had a story.
“What’s that picture from?” I asked, pointing to an oil painting on the wall with a bunch of people hanging around a park, all of whom were lacking eyes, noses and mouths.
“Oh, I used to work at a schizophrenia home and one of the patients painted it for me.”
“Oh, that’s very sweet of him.”
“When he gave it to me I said, ‘Jim, very pretty, but why don’t they have faces?’” she said. “And then Jim looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘well, they don’t have faces because they’re close-ups.’”
I didn’t understand.
“That’s how crazy he was,” she said. “When people are up close, they don’t have faces.”
“Maybe he was just far-sighted,” I said.
She thought about this but then shook her head, having decided that she liked her reality better.
Mike, her husband, walked by the table.
“Are you gonna play Mahjong?” he asked.
“YES MIKE, OBVIOUSLY WE’RE PLAYING MAHJONG,” she yelled back. She didn’t mean to sound angry. It was just that,
“I’m 40% deaf,” Mike told me. “I was using a landline on one of our construction sites and an electrical burst ended up frying the phone, along with my ear.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “That sucks.”
“What?” he asked back, as if making a terrible joke. Sigh.
Mike and Jodi had been together for 30 years. Both of them had been previously married and neither of them cared to talk about it.
Someone walked in the front door.
“Helllllooooooo!!!” and “We’re here”, shouted a few cheery voices from the foyer.
In walked four other women. I recognized Rachel and Sarah from synagogue, but then there was also a woman with a cross necklace, along with a woman who happened to be black.
“Alex, this is Paulina,” Jodi said, pointing to the white woman with the cross-necklace, “and this here is Black Rachel,” Jodi said. Rachel nodded in consent.
I said hi to everyone, shaking Paulina and new Rachel’s hand, feeling like it wasn’t my place to tell everyone that there were probably other ways to tell the Rachels apart. Perhaps nicknames even. Though I guess that’s what those were.
We cleared the Mahjong board and sat down to play.
Mahjong is a priced-win game. I don’t know if that’s how you say it, but basically there are different hands, and if you win, whichever hand you end up winning with determines how much money everyone at the table owes you. It’d be like poker, but upon winning, if you won the game with Two of a Kind, every person at the table would have to pay you $10, versus if you won with a Flush, every person might have to pay you $20.
The women here played every Saturday and had a routine. They each took out a coin purse and placed it on the side table. Their coin purses only contained nickels and dimes, which meant that the max amount that anyone could win from a single game would be $1.20. I didn’t think to bring coins.
“Oh, don’t worry, Alex. We’ll sponsor you,” they said.
They’d only be fronting twenty to forty cents, but regardless, it was very nice of them.
One by one the women took turns being paired with me. I was very bad at the game, so each time it was assumed that I would be losing the round, and that whoever was paired with me for that round would take turns eating the monetary cost of our loss. I didn’t think this mattered much, again, it was under fifty cents, and all of these women seemed comfortably retired.
“Okay Alex, so should we pick that tile up?” Paulina asked.
“Yes. We can use it for this combination,” I’d say, pointing to the how-to-sheet, letting her know my master plan.
“Absolutely not -- that’s a--,”
“-Let. Him. Play. What. He. Wants,” New Rachel said, knowing that I’d be messing up Paulina and my hand.
Paulina’s face soured. And then I’d play. And then we’d lose.
“This fucking sucks!” Paulina would say, tossing thirty cents over to New Rachel to pay our debt.
Other times, it wasn’t the money that bothered the women, but rather my newness.
Once, while paired with Sarah, I was taking my time to strategize,
“Um,” I said, scanning the how-to-sheet, “How about...” thirty seconds or so went by as I created combinations in my head. I thought I maybe had an idea, but then-
“—what the fuck, Sarah. Just go for him!” Jodi yelled. “He’s not gonna figure it out.”
“It’s okay,” I said to Sarah. “She’s right.”
Sarah nodded and played for me. I had already set us up for failure, so we still lost, but it felt better having Sarah hold some of the blame. She tossed thirty five cents to Jodi before standing up.
“I’m gonna go have a cigarette,” Sarah said, as she walked out of the house.
We all rebuilt our Mahjong walls, scraping the white tiles and placing them back into formation for the next round.
“Jodi, how’s Sam doing?” Paulina asked.
“Oh,” Jodi took a breath, “He’s okay. Thanks for asking.”
Sam was Jodi’s brother. He’d recently been diagnosed with dementia and was slowly starting to forget all the more recent events of his life.
“It’s still very early. We’re putting him on something called Aricept, so that should help.”
“My mother is on that,” old Rachel said.
“How old is your mother?” I asked.
“Ninety seven,” old Rachel said, taking a sip of her bottle of Lipton green iced tea.
“Is the drug working?” Jodi asked. “Alex, pick your tiles,” she said, in a tone that said ‘Pick your tiles, idiot’.
“Well...I mean, we don’t know if the drug works or not. The doctor said it’s helping, but I can’t tell at this point. The other day Mom yelled at me because Dad was late for Michelle’s birthday.”
“Oh dear,” Paulina said.
“My dad and sister both passed away a few years ago,” old Rachel said to me. “My mom usually thinks it’s 1995.”
“Oh, wow. I’m sorry.” I passed a tile to Rachel. “Wait. Weird question,” I said. “When your mother looks at you...and she thinks it’s 1995, does she not realize that you look older and that you don’t look like 1995-you?”
“Four crack,” Paulina said, starting the game.
“Nope. She doesn’t even think about it,” old Rachel said. “She’s just always confused.”
A soft sadness held the room for a bit as they all went around and shared. They all seemed to know at least one or two people who had started to cognitively decline.
“Yeah. Mike’s last friend just got diagnosed,” Jodi said, implying that all of Mike’s other friends had passed away. “It’s been terrible,” said Jodi.
As if on cue, “ALEX.” Mike yelled from the kitchen.
“YES, MIKE,” I said.
“DID JODI TELL YOU I USED TO BE AN ACTOR?”
“NO MIKE, SHE DIDN’T TELL ME THAT, WHAT DID YOU ACT IN.”
“EVERYTHING. I USED TO DO COMMERCIALS. ONE TIME I WAS IN A CHEKHOV PLAY. IT WAS INCREDIBLE.”
“It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” Jodi said in a very audible tone.
“THAT’S GREAT MIKE,” I said.
Sarah walked back in the house from her cigarette.
“Three bam,” I said, tossing a tile into the center.
I had gotten to the point where the ladies didn’t need to tell me how to play. I was now consistently losing all on my own. They each kept taking turns as Sugar Grandma.
“Does Mike need friends?” I asked Jodi.
“Yes, definitely. It’s harder for older men to make friends,” she said.
“Oh,” I said, learning something new. “Well, I have someone he should meet,” I said.
Stephanie picked up a Three Bam.
“You have someone Mike’s age who you just...know?” Jodi asked.
“Yeah. I mean. I have two friends here, besides you ladies. And one of them is this guy Dave who has an art studio in the building next to the farmer’s market. He paints there every Saturday morning until around two. He’s in his 90’s. You two should go.”
“MIKE ALEX HAS A FRIEND FOR YOU HIS NAME IS DAVE,” she yelled to the kitchen.
“DAVE? WHO’S DAVE?” he yelled back.
I felt fortunate to be surrounded by these women. To be invited to their inner circle. To learn that Sarah’s daughter started a coffee company, or to hear old Rachel talk about backpacking the world, choosing not to have kids and still seeming incredibly, if not more, fulfilled than anyone else there.
“Dave’s an artist,” I told Jodi.
Jodi passed this on. “HE’S AN ARTIST WE’RE MEETING NEXT WEEKEND BEFORE MAHJONG.”
“DAVE WANTS TO PLAY MAHJONG WITH ME?”
“YES. MIKE. DAVE WANTS TO PLAY MAHJONG WITH YOU.”
Jodi rolled her eyes. Everyone named Rachel laughed.
My losses totaled $2.20, which was a price worth paying to be able to grow my friends in Fort Myers from just two to seven. Also, it wasn’t my money.
There are lots of YouTube courses on Mahjong. I’ve watched a couple of them.
I’m going to take some time away from Jodi and her crew. Gotta sharpen my skills, so I can return with my own bag of coins one day and fuck these women up.