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2020 Essay Winner: “Telefunky”

This essay originally appeared in our December 2020 issue. 

I lie curled up in a towel, drowsy on mama’s lap. My green psychedelic-print bikini is wet and cold, but mama is warm. She runs her fingers through my damp hair, teasing out snarls with one hand. The other hand holds a fan of cards. Bella, two years younger, is curled up in her own hotel towel asleep on a nearby lounge chair, shaded by a big blue parasol.

Rosemary spreads a set of three threes and a set of three eights on the table, and before she discards, my mother feigns a scowl and asks, “Terremoto?”

Rosemary discards an ace with a dramatic flip and responds with a sly smile, “No, Clara, todavía, no.” Not yet, she answers.

The water shimmers on the pool, a gathering place for ex-pat families in Santo Domingo. We joined friends for lunch there so frequently that the place is as imprinted on my memory as our house with the enormous red-tiled patio or the beach with the crystal-clear water and the field of red and black sea urchins lazing beneath the gentle surf.

In Telefunky, an ace is worth 25 points. If you can’t use it, you’re best off discarding it so you don’t accumulate too many points. The person with the fewest points wins.

Relieved, Esmerelda picks up a card from the deck and begins her turn. Esmerelda murmurs something about her hand. She has so many cards that a terremoto would be ruinous. Mama laughs. Sleepy, I’m not listening. I just feel her body shake against my back and her fingers gently tugging at my hair. Mama always laughs. She finds humor in everything. She also laughs when she’s nervous or confused. So mama is always laughing.

Mama is the keeper of the rules of Telefunky. There are seven rounds. You play your sets of cards, then the first person to discard their last card wins the round. In the first round, your goal is to lay one set of threes, but you can’t use the joker for that set. In the second round, you can use the wild card, but only in one of the two sets. Each round gets progressively more difficult, moving onto laying down one set of fours, then two sets of fours, one set of fives, and two sets of fives. In the seventh round, you lay down an escalera, or a ladder, a sequence of seven cards. The rules in each round are a little different.

When I was 5, we moved to Massachusetts from our tropical island. Santo Domingo was a loud place where calypso music blared, palms flapped in the wind, and everyone talked at the same time. Massachusetts was a silent place. A huge moving van filled with all the custom-made furniture that we brought with us parked in the long driveway lined with pine trees taller than the house. I imagined the truck driving over the ocean to get here. We arrived the summer after the blizzard of ’78, and people were still talking about all the snow. We knew what snow was. We felt snow when we visited my father’s family in Holland. My father loves to tell us about the first time mama saw snow. Captivated by the white flurries, she ran outside in bare feet and pajamas to catch the flakes. She lasted seconds before the cold entered her feet, and she ran back inside to dress for playing in the snow. We spent winters in Holland ice skating and building snowmen. In Massachusetts, neighbors liked to tell us all about winter snow.

Telefunky is a weird mix of Gin Rummy and Yahtzee, a dice game that was commercialized by toymakers in the 1950s or thereabouts. Telefunky is a card game that only a handful of people in the world know how to play. Only a handful that I know of, that is. Mama taught my sisters and me. I learned to write my numbers playing Telefunky. Sitting on the oriental carpet on the living room floor, she let me keep score on pages from her English notebook. While my sisters played nearby, I practiced the loops and lines of numbers that she dictated. Clarita would steal garbanzo beans from the game, and we’d check her mouth when we noticed some missing. When Bella was old enough to learn the game, I was old enough to practice my math and tally the scores. We were the only people in the world who knew how to play the game.

Snow days in Massachusetts were days of building snow forts outside and lounging in bed reading books with mom. Snow days were days when my mom didn’t get calls from the school suggesting we sign up for special education because the teachers didn’t understand my accent. They were days when the principal didn’t insist we sign up for the special lunch program because I forgot my lunch again. I always forgot. I wanted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and graham crackers, not rice and beans and home-baked pastries. Snow days were days of hiding from the world and playing Telefunky after lunch.

In Telefunky, we can buy cards. We start the game with 12 beans (or tokens, or pennies, or anything small). We used garbanzo beans. If someone “throws” a card you want, you can buy it with a bean. Buying cards is useful if you have a terrible hand because each time you buy from the discard pile, you have to pick two new cards from the face-down pile. If you’re lucky, you might pick some good cards, maybe even a joker. To buy a card, we shout, “I buy!” The first to call it gets to buy it.

My mom has an explosive laugh. Sometimes it’s a burbling, contemplative laugh when she’s feeling shy, but when she’s comfortable, it’s loud and fun. I inherited her laugh. My laugh is explosive and often so alarming that it can stop a conversation in a cozy restaurant. I’ve learned to not care when people look over at me, the woman with the big open-mouthed laugh. I ignore the looks. I got that from my mom, too. Not the ignoring the looks. My mom had a hard time ignoring the looks. People always looked at her because she was both beautiful and foreign. Some people loved her, and some people wanted her to go back where she came from. She always laughed, though, even as she told me to watch what I said and not attract too much attention. That’s what I got from my mom, defiance.

The terremoto is a coup de gras move in which the player plays their entire hand without relying on anyone else’s game. The move doubles the opponents’ points. A turn is only over when a player discards their last card. A player can’t make a terremoto unless they have that last extra card ready to discard. If their opponents haven’t “played their game” and put some of their cards down in sets, the points in their hand can be steep. Two jokers? That’s 200 points. A player may not recover from losing that round. Unless they terremoto on a subsequent round. Terremoto means earthquake.

The rules of Telefunky are part of us. We don’t really know them, we feel them. It took many quiet days playing the game to embed the rules firmly into my psyche. We played on snow days, on summer days after swimming at the beach, and on ski holidays after days on the slopes. I’ve tried to teach the game to friends, but I only remember the rules as we play, so it looks like I’m making them up as we go along. When my nieces and nephew were learning to play, they’d try to cheat by adding new rules or ignoring existing ones. Maybe they thought that no one really knew the rules, so they could sneak them by us. Not so. I might not be able to explain the rules, but I breathe them. When we were old enough to know the rules in our bones, we knew when to buy, what cards our opponents held, when to discard our high-point cards, when to play our game early, or when to lay out an earth-shaking terremoto. When we knew the game well enough to feel the rules, we talked, we laughed, we challenged, and we played. We entered a special place with my mom.

In the Dominican Republic, I spoke English and Spanish. English with papa, the engineers, and our pool friends; Spanish with mama, the maid, and everyone else. In Massachusetts, we only spoke English. The teachers said we’d never catch up. I repeated the first grade. Bella took special needs classes. Clarita only ever learned English. I didn’t like to hear Spanish.

Explaining Telefunky is complicated because I learned it from my mom’s translations, so parts of the game are spoken in Spanglish. I never learned proper card game terminology. In poker, I think the escalera, or “ladder,” is called a “straight.” A “round” might be a “hand.” The sets of cards you laid on the table were your juego, your game. In my house, we say “throw” instead of “discard.” The terremoto is the ultimate goal for a savvy player. The words weren’t Spanish, they were Telefunky, and I never noticed that they were wrong. My mom’s English always made things interesting. Once when she played with friends, she ordered everyone to “put your asses on the table!” She meant aces.

On school holidays, my mom took us into Boston on the bus. We met my father at his office on the wharf in Boston. The other engineers came out to greet us. Some of them knew my mom from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, or other places my parents had lived. We ate lunch at Faneuil Hall. My favorite was the spanakopita at the Greek stall. My mom took us to the Museum of Fine Arts or the Museum of Science. She talked with everyone. She laughed out loud. She spoke Spanish with strangers. Our neighbors said my mom was fearless. They meant she was fearless for going. But really she was fearless for staying.

When we play Telefunky, it’s just us. Words aren’t Spanish or English, but a language in between. Playing the game is a safe place. My mom didn’t get words wrong, or at least no one told her she did. The game was an inter-dimension. My mom could rest in a place somewhere between a home that she missed and a place where she vigilantly monitored every word she said. It’s a place where she could hold her children and trust they’d hold her without the judgment they were learning in school.

In Texas, we don’t have snow days, but we do have cuddle-under-the-blanket rainy days. Now, instead of garbanzo beans, my 8-year-old and I use pebbles picked from the beach in Massachusetts. Joaquin practices his math and learns how to lose with grace. When we play with his grandmother, he learns her the way I know her. He sees her quirks and forgives them easily. Growing up speaking Spanish, in a city where diversity is celebrated in a way it wasn’t when I was his age, he’s more patient with her mistakes than I was.

I recently did an internet search for Telefunky. It turns out that the game is played throughout parts of South America, and it’s called Telefunken. It was introduced from Germany during WWII. Our rules are not the same as the rules online. But that’s OK. We’re not playing with anyone else. Those rules are for people who live in an outside world. We play by rules that take us to an inter-dimension, that place where my mom can be herself. Joaquin speaks Telefunky and says “throw” instead of “discard.” He travels easily to that space where they happily enjoy each other’s company.

 

Lynda Boudreault, Ph.D. is a documentary linguist and independent researcher specializing in Zoquean languages spoken in Mexico. When she’s not immersed in language research and writing, she enjoys teaching the magic of science through gardening to grade schoolers and spending time in the woods with her family.