Wendy Fontaine

Game of Life

Hungry, Hungry Hippos

My brother and I play Uno. We play Battleship and Operation. But our favorite game is Hungry, Hungry Hippos. We sprawl across the floor of our mobile home, furiously smacking at levers, gathering white marbles into our plastic hippo mouths. It’s a four-player game but we are just two, home alone while our parents make shoes in the factories of western Maine.

Two hippos each means twice as many chances to win. We smack and smack until our hands hurt or our hippos break, whichever comes first. Then we shake our throbbing wrists, rig up the hippos with rubber bands and play again.

Until recently, I never realized how often I stole food as a child. When no one was looking, I’d sneak off to the kitchen at my Aunt Marilyn’s camp to snatch Ritz crackers from the cabinets. The summer humidity had rendered them stale, but I shoved them into my mouth anyway, two at a time. At the Methodist church in town, I tiptoed to the basement during Sunday worship to pilfer fellowship pastries and gulp the grape juice used for communion.

Back home, we had food. We had bread and milk, canned tuna, boxes of elbow macaroni and Hamburger Helper. Sometimes, bright orange cheese and peanut butter from the food bank. But we didn’t have the fun stuff. The things kids crave. No Doritos. No Poptarts. No thick, syrupy juice.

Maybe I stole food for the thrill of taking it. Because it was forbidden or beyond my family’s budget. The delicate sweetness of church-baked cakes. Those soft, buttery crackers melting on my tongue. Or maybe I was just really, really hungry.


My brother and I arrive home from school one day to find our father already there, playing solitaire at the kitchen table, an open beer and a pile of hearts and spades in front of him. Creedence Clearwater Revival spins on the record player, the raspy-voiced singer asking if we’ve ever seen the rain.

No one should be home until after three o’clock, but here is our dad, nursing some kind of wound. One minute he complains about Ronald Reagan or the smart-ass foreman at his job. The next, he gets sappy about how much he loves our mother. Then his eyes begin to droop, slow and lazy, like worn-out window shades.

Why is he home early? We don’t know. And we certainly don’t ask. We go outside to play hide and seek or cops and robbers. We ride our bikes and throw the football. No matter what, we do not go inside until Mom gets home, until there is another person to stand between us and our father’s shifting moods.

I used to think he drank because of me. Because I wasn’t a good daughter or because I didn’t do my chores. Maybe he drank because my brother and I bickered and left our Star Wars toys around the house. Maybe we weren’t the family he’d wanted. Now I know it wasn’t our fault at all. Beer softened the edges of his life. It gave him a way to forget what needed forgetting.

The Price is Right

In the summer, we are home alone. Dad has a new job at the shoe factory down by the lumber yard. Mom’s still at the one on the other side of town, making penny loafers and suede bucks for customers in Connecticut and Long Island, places I’ve only heard about on TV.

My brother and I eat macaroni and cheese and watch game shows like Press Your Luck, Let’s Make a Deal, and Joker’s Wild. The Price is Right is a little boring, but we have the board game, which is only slightly more fun. Instead of playing the way we’re supposed to, which would require at least three people, we simply take turns guessing the prices of things. A bag of apples. A jar of spaghetti sauce. Clock radios and microwave ovens. 

Money was tight at our house, but Mom and Dad always managed to put presents under the tree at Christmas. They always had 20 dollars for a report card with all As. For me, that good-grade money meant new clothes. Mom drove me to Ames, where I wandered the racks for an hour, comparing blouses and skirts and ruffle-hem dresses. Once, I bought a pair of white pumps to wear on a school field trip to the state capitol. Five dollars, plus tax, and worth every penny, though I don’t remember ever wearing them twice. They made no sense, those pumps, but Mom let me buy them anyway.

Don’t Break the Ice 

My brother and I take turns with a miniature mallet, trying to knock ice blocks out from under a red plastic man. Tap gently and the ice will drop clean. Too hard, and the surface tension breaks. The man will fall through. Whoever knocks him to the floor is the loser.

I couldn’t bear the feeling of being alone in a room with my father, of sitting next to him on the couch and waiting for the yelling to begin. Maybe the TV was too loud. Maybe the dishes weren’t done. It was always something. I listened to his lectures, his warnings and his punishments. I listened to all the things he said and all the things he didn’t say. Like I love you. Like you’re a good daughterI’m proud of you.

Alone in my room, I played music and wrote poetry. Once, I ate mashed potatoes and chicken pot pie until my stomach ached. Then I threw it all up in the bathroom at the end of the hall, just to get a little relief.

The Game of Life

We move small plastic cars around a winding road, buying stocks and houses and life insurance policies. Things that make no sense to us yet. Spin the wheel and win the lottery. Spin again for jury duty. Should you take the college path or get a job? College means more money, but the business path is shorter. Everything there goes by much faster.

This game is all about the money. Tissue-thin, pastel paper money. So thin it slips right through your fingers. Whoever finishes with the most is the winner. What a strange message for two kids growing up in a factory town.

I went away to college when I was eighteen, though the campus I chose was only a two-hour drive up the turnpike. Far, but not too far. I studied journalism because it seemed glamorous. I imagined walking into a busy newsroom, leather briefcase in hand, an assistant to bring me coffee. In reality, there was no assistant. No briefcase either. Just a desk and a phone and a pile of free notebooks. When I got my first paycheck, I almost fell out of my swivel chair. Eight hundred dollars. More money than I had ever seen in my life.

On my lunch break, I went to TJ Maxx and bought a sleeveless cashmere turtleneck, the most impractical thing in the world.


Stars, moons, squares and squiggles. Each small plastic shape must land in its place on the board before the timer goes off, or else the whole game pops up, launching pieces around the room like a car bomb explosion.

It’s all or nothing, this game. 

On summer days, Dad took us fishing at Schoolhouse Pond or Moose Hill, trips that almost always included yelling. My brother and I would get distracted. Our bobbers would begin to drift. Before we knew it, our hooks tangled in the weeds or snagged on a log. That’s when Dad’s temper flared. His face went beet red, his lips forming words we’d never heard before. He grabbed each pole and tugged it left and right. Eventually he’d give up and cut the line, then stomp over to his tackle box to re-rig the whole thing.

Once, things went very differently. He took us out to The Chimney, a fishing spot on Echo Lake, where I caught a bass so big it took the both of us just to hold it. On the drive home, Dad stopped at my aunt’s house, my uncle’s house and every relative’s house he could think of, showing off my catch. Life never felt so good.

Connect Four

My brother and I don’t play Trivial Pursuit (too hard), Monopoly (too long) or Scrabble (too slow). But Connect Four is quick and easy – like checkers but instead of jumping over your opponent, you make rows of colored disks, either black or red. Horizontally, vertically or diagonally like stairs. The first person to get four in a row wins.

I beat my brother at this game all the time. The trick? Have two lines going. Maybe even three. Utilize the art of distraction.

Our family of four seemed small by local standards. One family, over on High Street, had 14 kids. Another out past the Hyde Road had six or eight. I always wondered how their parents fed them all. How they clothed them all. How did their parents love them all? In our house, there was barely enough to go around.

I have a daughter now. She’s 14, an only child. She comes to me for everything, to share every thought that pops into her head. She might show me a funny text or complain about her homework, maybe play a new riff on her guitar or tell me what her friend said at swim practice. To be honest, I’m not always listening. Parenting is a lot harder than it looks. 


For Christmas, we get an Atari and start playing games like Frogger, Enduro and Pitfall. We fight over the joystick, over who gets to maneuver Pitfall Harry through his pixilated jungle, jumping over tarpits, quicksand and open-mouthed crocodiles, gathering gold bars and bags of money along the way.

At some point, one of us discovers that we can go through the game backwards by moving the joystick to the left instead of the right. The obstacles are all the same, but at least we have a different point of view. 

I didn’t like the place I grew up. My town or my home. I didn’t like living with my father. So I left as soon as I could, off to college and then out of state. Each year I moved further away. Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey. Another job, another city. Divorce sent me back but only briefly. Lose a turn. Do not pass go. Soon enough, my daughter and I packed our things and moved all the way to southern California, the opposite end of the country.

The distance somehow made it easier for my father and I to talk. I’d tell him about the tomatoes growing in my garden, about the lack of rain or the coyotes howling at night. He’d tell me about the birds at his bird feeder. Then one day he was too sick to talk at all. He could only listen. I told him I loved him. I didn’t say I love you even though…although that is exactly what I meant.

My daughter and I return to Maine every summer, and I can see all the games my brother and I used to play. I see the yard where we once tossed the football. The dead-end street where we rode our bikes. Our mobile home, worn and weathered by the seasons. Inside, the living room rug where we sprawled out, snapping hippo heads and fetching wayward marbles. And that old couch where my father used to nod off, another beer on the TV tray in front of him, open and waiting, like a crocodile.


Wendy Fontaine‘s work has twice appeared in Longridge Review, as well as in Hippocampus Magazine, Jet Fuel Review, River Teeth, Sweet Lit, and many other literary magazines. Her writing was nominated for the Pushcart and Best of the Net anthologies, and in 2020 she won the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize. A native New Englander, Fontaine now reside in southern California. Twitter: wendymfontaine