(Note: I started this a few months ago. Set it aside and forgot about it.)

A few hours before the flight to the Dallas Open Scrabble Tournament, Marty is organizing and reorganizing t-shirts, vitamins, lucky pens, and protein bars as the washing machine spins a load of necessary socks.

“Where’s my vinegar?” he yells.

The vinegar is always in the same place, wedged between the soy sauce and the olive oil on the second shelf of the kitchen cupboard.

I bring him the bottle, which he swaddles in a towel as if it were a baby. Vinegar, according to Marty, helps with memory and digestion, prevents headaches, and fights fatigue.

A worn green gym bag contains items deemed too important to be packed in the big circa-1972 suitcase: color-coded index cards, special Scrabble tiles, and the clock used for keeping time in games.

The latter has caused delays at airport security.

“What is this?” a guard once asked, holding up a rectangular box with two analog clock faces.

“It’s my Sam Timer,” Marty said. “See how it ticks when you press the button. In Scrabble, every player gets twenty five minutes to complete all the plays, so a game is rarely more than fifty minutes, though sometimes players go over the limit. I once took too long with one play and lost the game.  It’s called a Sam Timer because the manufacturer is a Scrabble player named Sam Kantimathi.  Sam Timer is a take-off on sand-timer, the little hour-glass that comes with the games.”

The guard waved Marty through. It worries me that the individuals hired to safeguard our airports so easily dismiss people with ticking devices. I realize most people see Scrabble as an innocent, harmless pastime, unlike, say, automatic weapon collecting, but even terrorists might conceivably play board games.

Another time a guard saw the equipment and, after discovering that Marty was a championship Scrabble player, decided to quiz him: “What word has three letters that are repeated three times consecutively?”

“Well, there’s a word like atlatl, which means boomerang. But that’s only two repetitions.”

“The letters are back to back,” the guard explained.

“How many letters in the word itself?”

“Eleven.”  He paused dramatically. “A lot of people don’t get this one.”

“Hmm. Eleven letter words are tricky. In Scrabble …”

“It has to do with credits and debits. Money stuff.”


“All right. Now you can tell people you learned something at the airport.”


“Hey, should I take along another set of tiles?” Marty now asks. “The reds ones with white typeface?”

A non-Scrabble friend once asked what’s wrong with the simple wooden tiles that come with the game.

A serious player would no more dream of using the wooden squares than Lebron James would consider playing basketball in Keds. Plastic Braille-proof tiles are the only kind allowed in tournament Scrabble. You can get a set of double-injected molded tiles from a company called Protiles for twenty-seven dollars and fifty cents. They come in a variety of colors with names such as Plum Crazy Purple, Agave Blue, Taxi Cab Yellow, and Café au Lait. The Protiles website claims the tiles “are pleasing to the touch and have a textured finish guaranteed not to reflect the glare of overhead lighting at any angle.”

Marty, however, is loyal to Sam Kantimathi and therefore plays with his PermaTiles, which last forever and, as the website states, “Fit every Scrabble board ever made in the known universe!”

Speaking of boards, Marty prefers playing on Sam Boards; they are round, sturdy, and easy to twirl around when it’s your turn to make a move. A correlation exists between the skill level of a player and the type of board he or she uses; the top-ranked players, in general, favor simple, non-decorated boards. Lower and mid-level players will pay a Scrabble artisan to cement the regular board onto a large wooden or plastic circle, then adorn the peripheral area with bright little mosaic tiles, or fancy fabric, or pictures of their cats.

Some players go overboard with boards. I once played a man whose board background was a huge cross surrounding by flames. An American flag was superimposed over this, as if Jesus were getting ready to play George W. Bush in Scrabble. (Jesus would have clobbered the bejeezus out of Bush.)

No respectable player uses the flimsy burgundy tile bag that comes with the game. At tournaments there are tiles bags made of velvet, fur, corduroy, bags intricately embroidered with flowers, musical notes, and Scrabble tiles.  My favorite has the phrase “I love this game,” embroidered on one side. The other side says “I hate this game.”

Marty’s tile bags haven’t been washed in years. There is a particularly ugly one made of brown faux fur that looks matted and stringy. I call it the Dead Otter Bag and refuse to draw tiles from it.  I glance into Marty’s green carry-on and see that he has, indeed, packed the Dead Otter Bag.

“Do you think this old Bears t-shirt looks scary?” he asks.

Marty’s ideal Scrabble wardrobe consist of shirts that are either scary or distracting, or, ideally, both: Chinese dragons, grizzlies.

He holds up another shirt, puts it down, picks up another and looks in the mirror, fussier than a sixteen your old girl preparing for her first date.

“We need to get going, Marty,” I whine.

“We have plenty of time.”

“They say you should be at the airport at least one hour before a domestic flight.”

“They they they,” he drones.

“I won’t have time to get my Cinnabon.”

I hate flying. I hate everything about flying with the exception of the Cinnabons found at most large airports. I hate going through security since I’m always subjected to the full-body scan (whereas some people with ticking devices get off without consequences of any kind.) I hate the cramped airplane seats and the dismal airline food. Most of all, however, I hate the take-off, the being in the sky part, and the landing. When I drank heavily, which was pretty much the entire third and fourth decade of my life, flying was not such an ordeal. When I first quit, I was a nervous wreck, constantly pressing the call button at the slightest noise or unexpected movement: “Excuse me, stewardess. How long do you think this turbulence is going to last?”

“We’re not going through turbulence at the moment.”

Over the years, I’ve learned to handle flying in a more mature and reasonable manner. I know that the seats by the wings are best because turbulence is felt least in that section of the plane. I know that the greatest danger to a plane in flight is not turbulence, but lightning and pilot error. I realize that airports have state-of-the-art lightning detection equipment.  If I have the chance, I like to say hello to the pilots to make sure their breaths are not reeking of alcohol.

Most importantly, I have my equipment: Sennheiser noise-reduction earphones, expensive but worth it; IPod with calming music: Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Smetana’s Ma Vlast, and anything by Bach; memory foam pillow; rosary; Dramamine; and valiums.

I take a Dramamine and a valium as we leave for the airport—Marty’s driving is often turbulence-producing.  I put on some music and close my eyes.  There is no rest for the anxious, however; Marty insists on anagramming.

“What do we find in the letters RGTANESI?”

“Angriest,” I answer.

“Yes, angriest, but also astringe, gantries, ganister, granites, ingrates, rangiest.”


We get to the airport with no time to spare.

My dreams of a Cinnabon vanish as we stand in line to check our baggage.

To compensate, I take another valium.

At security, I am, once again, required to undergo a full-body span, spreading my legs apart and holding my hands above my head like a convict as Marty breezes through with his Sam Timer.

Once inside the plane, I connect my IPod to the Sennhauser device, click to my favorite Bach fugue, click on my seat-belt, place the memory foam pillow over the seat-belt, argue with the stewardess who says she needs to see the seat belt. “And while you’re at it,” she adds, “no electrical devices until the pilot says it’s okay.”

I sigh and debate whether another valium is in order. Marty frowns as he sees me searching for my pillbox.

“I will be your valium,” he says as the plane rises.

I hold onto him, clutching his arm, breathing into his neck. “I just want you to know I love you very much,” I murmur. “And if anything should happen, you have always…”

Marty cuts me short. “What do you mean ‘If anything should happen.’”

“I want you to know that I love you and your Dead Otter Bag and your vinegar and your special pens.”

Once the plane is at cruising altitude I relax, entering a fugue-like state. The valium is working, the pillow is comforting, the music fills my head, drowning out the low whirring of the plane. There is no turbulence, yet—but I take out the rosary just in case.

“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,” I murmur.

Marty has his own litany, which he follows with his finger on a page marked Unusual Five Letter Words: facia, faena, fanga, fatwa, feria, folia, fossa.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>