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Winter 1997
Monopoly
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"My father has one this big in his office," Mary Beth said. "It's full of lawyer words."

I thought Mary Beth was as delighted as I was with Mother's dinosaur, maybe even a little envious. When one of us got stumped on a word, we exclaimed, "Use the dictionary!" And that way, we not only found the correct spelling of the word, but also its meaning. It was amazing to us how many words we could spell and yet did not understand.

Use the dictionary. It's what Mother heard when she came in to take Mary Beth home for dinner. She must've figured it was protocol, a long-established study technique, because later that night when she sat down with me she said the same thing. She snatched the word list out from under my nose and began pitching words. Granted, she couldn't pronounce half of them correctly. Pot-poor-we for potpourri. Pay-pie-er-match for papier-mch. We worked far into the night, past my bedtime. Then, just as quickly as she'd picked up the list, she set it down.

"Iris," she said. Startled, I looked up from the dictionary, met her eyes. "Don't let white people impress you. Win because you want to win." Her eyes were black and sharp. She sat back, resting her hands on the dirty apron she hadn't taken off, waiting as if she had asked me a question and wanted an answer.

"I want to win," I told her.

She looked at me and nodded. "Go to bed," she said as she got up and made her way to the closet. But, before I could move she was back, standing alongside the table. She opened her fisted hand, her fingers slowly unfurling, and there in the exact center of her palm sat a small square of Angelica. The dried, gnarled root was about the size of a single dice and looked like a tiny Monopoly house built into her palm. After Mother knew I'd seen it, she tilted the flat of her hand ever so slightly, letting the root roll and fall on my papers. "To protect you," she said.

I knew about Angelica, the cut-up, celery-smelling pieces of root Mother kept in a brown bag on the top shelf of the closet. And in her purse, whenever she sent me in there looking for money, I'd see it a chunk the size of a grown-up's thumb wrapped in Kleenex and secured by a rubber band. For our protection, Mother always said, against bad spirits, against bad things in the world.

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