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Winter 1997
Monopoly
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We were in rows, me in the back row, and before long, only three of us were left. It was then, looking at the other two contestants Allison Witherow and Sammy Finley, a long shot that I realized Mary Beth was no longer on stage. I hadn't seen her stumble. The school principal, Mr. Ridgeway, had been throwing the toughest words at us, going up and down the lines, hitting each student with a sinker. He was a tall man, bald, smelling of cigars, and he sounded so bored, so uninterested, that each word he pitched seemed to drop on the floor with the spittle that flew from his thick, wet lips. "Sorry," he would say flatly before moving on to the next student.

I looked at Mother. She was so close now, and clear, that I could see the half-dollar buttons on the front of her dress were bone white, not pearl white or alabaster, not plastic shiny, but bone, bone white. Her eyes were so close that I saw how they caught each of Mr. Ridgeway's words and reflected them back to me clean as a cue card.

First Allison was out, and then Sammy Finley. "Sluice," a short, easy word, but Sammy couldn't see it. He forgot the "i." I saw it a long trough of water and remembered the "i." For the longest time I stood there expecting I don't know what, perhaps for Mr. Ridgeway to toss another word, before I realized that I was the only one left and that all of the clapping was for me.

I was ushered offstage and made to wait in the dark for what seemed like forever. What happened to Mary Beth? Where was she? It wasn't until I was brought back on stage with the winners from the other two contests -- seventh and eighth grades -- that I realized we were to be pitted against one another in a final spell-off. I thought we were going back for our prizes. Mary Beth had never mentioned a spell-off. What would we have done? Before I knew it, I was in line with the other two winners, and Mr. Ridgeway was pitching words again.

The audience was still. Mother looked enormous. She nodded ever so slightly, as if she had read my thoughts and agreed. I hadn't a prayer in hell; the other contestants were older. Yet 11 words later it was between me and the eighth grader, a gawky boy with horn-rimmed glasses who looked like he could spell the dictionary backward and forward. "Argillaceous," of or having to do with clay, clay-like. He forgot the second "l." I didn't. Iris Gonzales. My name sounded through the loudspeakers, and the stunned crowd looked as if they were expected to rise up in unison and spell it back. Mr. Ridgeway handed me a certificate and then slipped a silver medal strung with blue ribbon over my neck. When I turned and found the other contestants standing at the edge of the stage, I saw that they were looking at me just as Mr. Ridgeway was: with disbelieving eyes. You'd think a Martian had landed right in front of them, and her name was Iris.

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