The House of Words
JOHN K. WHITE
THE MATCHES WERE all twenty-five minutes
long, but thankfully today they passed quickly. I was in the basement of St.
Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue with a couple hundred
or so wannabe Scrabble champs, looking for ranking points and bragging rights
at the state finals in Buffalo next month and the Nationals in Washington in the
summer. You could hear the syncopated din throughout, the shuffling of tiles
and muttering of point scores. But I was more worried about Suzy, who hadn't turned
up or answered my calls all day.
Still I had to get past
my last opponent. I shuffled my rack again, trying not to sweat the time. There
was only a minute left on the clock and I was behind by 40, stuck with six duff
letters and an S, my opponent trying
hard to muffle a snigger. If I couldn't find something soon I was done. I
looked over my letters again - an A, I, O,
U, two Rs, and the S. Nothing.
When I finally found ouraris, there
was only a second left, a handful of onlookers applauding my unlikely win, good
enough for twentieth place and my best ranking ever.
Suzy was next, but I
couldn't find her anywhere. I scanned the hall again and asked around to a few
familiar faces, but no one had seen her. Where was she? I was starting to
worry. Scrabble was her life.
I thought back to when
we had first met after my first weekend tournament, and how she offered to help
me over a cup of coffee after I had lost every game. I remembered how cold it
was and how losing ten games in a row hadn't done my winter funk any good. My
New Year's resolution to get out and about after Billy's death was going down
"Rule number one: know
how to spell," she said, bringing the coffee to her lips and blowing lightly
over the edges. We were at The Greasy Spoon, a fifties-style diner around the
corner from St. Patrick's on 51st Street, the juke box spitting out
oldies amidst the minutiae of bad weather talk and lives gone wrong.
"That's obvious isn't
it?" I replied.
"Sure, but you'd be
surprised how easily you forget in the heat of battle."
"The heat of battle?"
"All games are a
battle. No point playing if you don't play to win."
That smile. Those coral
lips. How her eyes darted about, taking in the world around her in furtive gulps.
"Yes, I suppose, if you
put it that way," I offered meekly.
"If you want to win,
you have to make yourself as perfect as you can," she continued.
"Perfect?" I quizzed,
my face scrunching in a perfect mix of awe and confusion. My juke box choices
from Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme cooed from the corner. Suzy was a dream
Anyway, that was the
first of many après Scrabble coffees, followed by an occasional game at my
apartment, and, as was becoming more regular of late, our own nocturnal
adventures. The last time I saw her, we had even talked about moving in, having
exchanged the standard list of boy-girl expectations. Today, though, I didn't
know what had happened to her, let alone the status of our seemingly cemented
Had our lives already become
lost in a misbegot stream of words?
Words aren't what they
seem, that much I had learned, playing tournament Scrabble in New York against
an army of English majors, math wizzes, and various other assorted word nerds. My
first challenge, Zaire, was a proper
noun, or so I thought, but there it was in the official word dictionary, zaire, a former currency, along with zaires, my first lesson in the
peculiarly pedantic world of competitive play. When I finally broke down and
bought a dictionary, zaire was the
first word I looked up, followed by za
(n. pizza), zin (n. zinfandel), zine (n. magazine or fanzine), ziti
(n. type of pasta), and zori (n. Japanese sandal). I hadn't ever expected to find zaire or za in any
dictionary, but any guilt over using words I hadn't known in 30 years of living
was soon lost to my slowly climbing ranking.
I looked outside for
Suzy, quizzing anyone who knew her. I tried across the street at Rockefeller
Plaza. The usual hordes were lingering by the stairs, but no Suzy. She wasn't
at The Greasy Spoon either, or Diabols, another Scrabble hangout off Broadway.
Was she creeped out about moving in, I wondered, as I finally gave up and went
home? It had only been three months. But the moving in was her idea. She had even
joked it might help her game.
I trudged back to my
apartment, a rent-controlled, two-bed on the shady side of Seventh Avenue, just
high enough to see a few trees in the park if one leant out far enough from the
back-room window. The abrupt rain settled to a constant drizzle. When I got
there, the police were waiting at the door.
"We're looking for Suzy
Quest," said the taller of the two, motioning for permission to enter. His
gruffness hurried my response.
"Suzy Q?" I answered,
waving them through to the hall.
"Everyone calls her by
her handle, Suzy Q. She hates Quest."
"You know, online
moniker, identifier, alias? For game purposes."
"Yes, Mr Graves. And
you? Your handle?"
"Yes, James Graves, Aahing."
The shorter cop eyed
his way in further and I invited them to sit down. The rain outside blew
harder. I wasn't aware of any undue suspicion.
They explained that Suzy
had been reported missing, someone leaving an anonymous message on the precinct
hotline. After a few routine checks turned up nothing, they found me. I didn't
want to ask how.
"And your relationship
with Ms Quest?" asked the taller cop.
I told him how we had met,
how we had been spending more time together, and had even talked about moving
in. I saw no reason to be untruthful. The taller one seemed surprised when I
told him I didn't know much about her past or her family. Suzy and I weren't
much on details.
Apparently happy with
my explanation, he motioned to the door and arose.
"Do you know what curare is?" he asked as he lingered at
the door, reading from a folded notebook.
"Curare. It's a poison
resin used to relax muscles. Used in blow darts and the like. South American."
"Yeah, I know what curare
"Someone left a note at
Ms Quest's apartment on top of a pile of boxes. It had one word on it,
scribbled in red ink. Curare."
"Curare," I mouthed.
After they left, I
puzzled over their questions, opening a half-full bottle of Glen Breton, my
thoughts screwed on Suzy as I drank. Had I missed something? Had she said
something I misunderstood? Or was it me? Something I had said? A casual remark
gone astray? Words and nuances of the game?
Or was it worse? Curares, a variant of ouraris, the very word I had played only
an hour earlier in the basement hall of St. Patrick's to finish 20th
in the New York City Scrabble final. Very strange, I thought. Very strange indeed.
IN THE MORNING, I woke with a start,
imagining Suzy in bed beside me. She had been staying over most nights, and we already
had a settled routine, making coffee, showering, playing a few games of
Scrabble before work, a regular couple, zigging while the other zagged,
although lately I went to work while she stayed and practiced. I felt for her body.
The feeling was hard to shake.
I worked for Computer
Services at NYU, taking a job as a systems officer after exhausting the last of
my small inheritance and after a few stabs at gigging musician hadn't landed
anything stable. Nothing too taxing. Basically, I made dubs and backed up data
or, as was typical now, resurrected hard drives when an academic threw a laptop
against a wall in frustration or downloaded something they shouldn't have. That
was the fun part of the job, figuring out if Professor So-and-So was addicted
to rage or porn.
As I showered, I could
hear Suzy's voice pouring out, her Scrabble rules ever on my mind. "Know your
lists. Greek and Hebrew letters, NATO phonetic alphabet, currencies. And the
two-letter vowel words, aa, ae, ai, oe,
oi, for when you're stuck but don't want to lose a turn changing tiles."
I circled the large OI I had scrawled on the bathroom mirror,
watching the letters disintegrate as I shaved.
"And their meanings?" I
remembered asking her.
"What?" she giggled.
"Who cares? You need points to win."
"I care. I don't want
to play without knowing. What's the point of that?"
That was our first
disagreement. We were wedged into a corner booth by the window at The Greasy
Spoon as per usual after the regular Thursday night club meeting, the
unofficial hangout for Scrabblers, deadbeats, and the Rockefeller types who had
grown tired of the sterility and sameness of Starbucks. I had earmarked the
entries in my now well-thumbed dictionary, reading aloud as I turned through
each page: "aa, volcanic rock, ae, one, ai, three-toed sloth, oe, grandchild,
and oi, shout to attract attention or
raise alarm. But isn't it more fun to know?" I quizzed.
Her smile suggested
otherwise as I eyed the faded and grime-laden photos lining the walls, showing
Scrabble champs through the years and various locals who had made good. Suzy
was in more than a few, her same poised smile hiding her delight at having won.
Suzy Quest, New York State Scrabble champ, four times running.
Eventually, she said
she was like me, only playing words she knew, but couldn't ever hold her
ranking. And so, she decided to memorize them all: every two-, three-, and four-letter
word in the dictionary. There were thousands, 6,960 to be exact. Words I hadn't
ever heard or read, let alone knew, words like xi, xu, mib, zep, ajee, awee. The hieroglyphics of the hunt she
irrelevant in tournament Scrabble," she returned, that same hidden smile
painted across her face. "After I started learning words as patterns, my
ranking soared. You have to do the same James if you want to win." I hated to
admit she was right, that words didn't need meanings.
On the way to work, I
remembered more of her rules, "Beware the rage of others. Behind every happy
Scrabble player is a demon waiting to crush you." The rage of others? Was there
more to tell about her disappearance?
I remembered one guy who
spooked her to the core after hurling abuse at her in an online game. Onkus was
his handle. "I got all the power tiles," she had told me. "Z, Q, X, J, the four S's,
both blanks, but when I played quirted,
he started in with the taunts, how I could only win by luck. His invective was
full of vacuity. If ever a handle fit - Onkus. You can write that down, onkus, adjective meaning bad."
Unfortunately, the foul
language hadn't stopped with the game and Suzy hadn't wanted to play for ages afterwards.
Was Onkus somehow connected to her disappearance?
In the end, I didn't
make it to work, trying Suzy again on her cell and then buzzing her at her
apartment without luck, before backtracking to the 18th precinct. I
had to do something. Anonymous phone messages, notes, curare? The cops had totally weirded me out.
When I showed up, it
was hard to get anyone's attention, the news of a gangland hit scurrying a
Manhattan style phalanx of cops in patrol cars down Broadway, sirens wailing. I
didn't mean to sound overly critical when the lead cop from before, Detective
Jones, finally showed up to enlighten me. He told me they still had no leads
and that they couldn't follow up until they did.
"Mr Graves, please call
if you hear anything," he said, slipping me his card. "But no need to enveigh
us. As you can see, Ms Quest's is not our only case."
"Verb, meaning to
criticize strongly," he said, his face pockmarked with intent. I hadn't noticed
how big he was, like a linebacker without padding, his oversized hands
protruding from his jacket, his beefy face staring me down with polite
restraint. I thought he looked like more like a primate dressed up for a
charity ball than a New York City detective.
It didn't take long for
him to sally me out the door, his hands guiding me through the front foyer,
down the stairs, and out onto the street. I watched as the returning phalanx of officers
disappeared less urgently inside the precinct doors. I got his drift and
politely legged it off.
Maybe it was all a
misunderstanding. Maybe there was a good reason why Suzy had disappeared
without telling me where she was going. Or had missed one of the top Scrabble
tournaments of the year, for which she was favoured to win. Or why the cops
showed up unannounced at my place full of questions about our relationship, but
were now underwhelmed by my interest. I had to admit I didn't like how the odds
When I tried her
apartment again, the odds stacked even lower. The door was wide open and the
place empty, save for two postcards and a letter stuck in an old Encyclopaedia Britannica
on the mantel, opened to a page on the Conquistadors and the fall of the Aztec
empire. Weird had just got weirder.
THE OPEN PAGES were marked Corsica to
Cortés, but I think the intended mark was another page, showing a highlighted
entry for curare. Perhaps someone had
been here and opened the encyclopaedia, the post cards and letter dropping out,
only to return them to the wrong page.
I read the entry for curare. Poison darts were not the only
use. Curare or curare-like agents were major pharmaceuticals, investigated by
the FDA for a string of unexplained side effects in general anaesthetics.
I turned my attention
to the letter. It was from Suzy's mother, Liz Mandrel, not terribly effusive,
telling her news about her father, how he wasn't coming back, how she had done the
best she could. Her stepfather, her mother wrote, Suzy didn't want to know.
The postcards were both
from the Albright-Knox art gallery in Buffalo, colourful reprints of Roy
Lichtenstein paintings, each showing a disconsolate woman crying, blank and slightly
worn. I muttered aloud the captions: "That's the way it should have begun / But
it's hopeless" and "I don't care / I'd rather sink than call Brad for help!"
The postmark on the faded oyster-white envelope was a decade old, with a return
address in Buffalo.
I returned the
encyclopaedia to the mantel. The pages flew over as the wind whipped through
the open window. Conquistadors, curare, captioned Lichtenstein postcards.
Fathers and stepfathers. I couldn't imagine any meaning, but I knew I had to
look for her. I took the next short hop to Buffalo. It was better than doing
I knew the trip from a
few gigs I had played after college as the keyboard player and saxophonist for Fartlek,
a band that fused more styles than any paying public wanted to hear. We had a
couple of low-rent hits, covers played in different time signatures than the
original. The best was Judy Garland's 'Over the Rainbow' done up as a punk piece.
I even sang on one and made an appearance on a local breakfast show to
highlight an upcoming summerfest, DigOut. It took ages to give up that ghost.
I played a few games on
the way to distract myself. The good thing about online Scrabble and Wi-Fi (a
good word, but not allowed because of the caps and hyphen) is that you can play
In the first game, I
drew seven vowels at the start and had to exchange them all - not every set of
duff letters can be mined for ouraris
gold. I then made the same dumb move twice against a lower-ranked player,
giving away an easy double triple, forgetting Suzy's fifth rule: "Play
aggressively with good tiles, but not when the leave is too big." I smiled,
having done just that, my opponent's two-way, front-end fez followed by a crushing pudgy
on the end of my curd costing me the
lead before he hooked the d on the
front of jinn for remated and an easy win, knocking my
ranking back under 1700.
I had also missed an
obvious quoin, smiling again as I
remembered Suzy scolding me for not memorizing all the Q and Z words. "The hot
spots James!" I asked her if she thought too much about Scrabble. "Not always,"
she smiled as she grabbed me full and dragged me to bed, our bodies syncing to
a serenade of sultry sounds. Not all of Suzy's life was words.
I tried not to think
about what triggered her disappearance, hoping the answer lay somewhere in
Buffalo and not in the pages of a police report. I stared out at the silent
landscape, wondering what lay ahead. She hadn't mentioned her family once, but
then we hadn't fathomed much in each other's worlds besides words and sex. In
the cold of a New York winter that seemed enough. I hoped I hadn't booked
passage on that unsinkable ship again.
But what did we really
know about each other? Three months.
"I express things people don't want to hear," she had told me. "Most people think
something, I just blurt it out."
Me, I was no good at
filtering, or so I was diagnosed. All the signals come at once and when the
wires get crossed I lose it. Inanimate objects are at risk: chairs, computer
mice, printers that send out-of-bloody-cyan messages.
Our pasts were like an
unfinished paint-by-numbers, neither of us keen to fill in much.
"One learns to be
reserved when playing open-ended words," her Scrabble voice tumbled into my
thoughts again as we started our descent into Buffalo, a suggestive laugh
following, waiting to add the twist to another of her rules. "Rule number six: The
re words are great, but not all are
good. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you can redo it." Her voice dug further into my
head. "Recheat, replumb, reexpel, but
not rekill, relick, rejimmy. Don't
ask me why."
Indeed. But what the
hell was remated? To mate once and
mate again? I'd like to see one instance where remated was ever used in a
sentence. I felt like breaking the laptop over the seat in front of me.
After we landed, I took
a taxi to Jewett Parkway, the return address on the letter, a set of steel
chimes dinging gently on the veranda of a spacious century home in a leafy
suburb near the Albright-Knox. The screen door was closed but with the main
door half open I could hear the sound of a radio inside. I rapped out a quick
hello. When no one answered, I sung out a louder hello. The woman answering wore
a worn-out apron that hid an elegant, peach-coloured dress. Flour was smeared
across her front. I was startled by how much she looked like Suzy, but there
was no way she was Suzy's mother. If anything she was her twin.
After a short
introduction, Suzy's double invited me in. The resemblance was striking, but her
sexy stroll was more Rembrandt than Suzy's Modigliani. Over an iced tea, I told
her I was Suzy's guy and she filled me in. I nodded at her offer of sandwiches
and a tray of freshly baked buns.
As it turned out, Suzy's
double was her sister, Dahlia, although they weren't twins. They weren't full
sisters either Dahlia told me, having shared a mother but not a father. Suzy
was older by a year.
Dahlia was very open
about the Quest family history, and how their mother had gone missing four years
ago. I eyed the wry sexiness in Dahlia's face as she spoke, more deliberate
than Suzy and not as cerebral. It was easy to see Dahlia was not as angry at
the world as Suzy.
"Mom worked at the
Albright-Knox, walked to work every day, and raised the two of us after our
fathers left," she told me. "Suzy and I were inseparable and knew every square
inch of the gallery. The Lichtensteins, Bill Viola, Victor Vaserely. But she
always had her sights on more. And then one day she left to work at a
publisher's house in the Big Apple. A year later mom disappeared. I still can't
believe how everyone vanished." The paint-by-numbers picture was being filled
in with the thickest of brushes.
I nodded my puzzlement
and asked about Suzy. If she had seen or heard from her lately.
"I haven't seen her much
since she left," said Dahlia, "But she calls occasionally. She called the other
day, said she had to go away, that someone had information about Mom. But she wouldn't
say more." Dahlia rose to retrieve a letter. "And she said to give this to you...
if you happened to come by." Dahlia
smiled approvingly. "Her exact words. It came special delivery. I tried calling
her, but I think she may have lost her phone."
Dahlia passed me the
letter, the envelope crunched at the seal. "Did you read it?" I asked, not in
an accusing way.
"No, I looked at it to
see what it was, but I saw it was for you."
I read the letter
aloud: "Dear James, I can't explain everything. But I have to see you. Dahlia
will tell you where - a place we went on Sundays during school holidays. I'll
tell you more when I see you. XO Suzy."
"Mysterious as ever,"
said Dahlia, eyeing me as she refreshed my drink. "Anything wrong?"
"I don't know," I
offered, not wanting to suggest something of which I had no idea. "One last thing,"
I added. "Have you ever heard of curare?"
"Curare?" answered Dahlia, fidgeting over the word. "No, what is
"Nothing, I was just
wondering if you knew what it was."
On Dahlia's insistence,
I freshened up, dowsing my head in a sink of warm water in the bathroom and
combing back my rag of hair, all the raggier from a day of intrigue and travel.
I started imagining what had happened, running through the possibilities that
existed in the mystery crash course in which I was now enrolled. I had to admit
I'd seen my fair share of crazy times, traipsing around half the country
playing piano for The Replicants and the other half playing synth and sax with
Fartlek, the wannabe pop band that had reformed from its disbanded remnants.
But I never could have imagined this - a quest for Quest.
Copyright © 2013 J. K. White