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Though their mothers have big plans for them-Stanley will become a senator, Vera a mathematics professor-neither wants to follow these pre-determined paths. So Stanley hatches a scheme to marry Vera in a sham wedding for the cash gifts, hoping they will enable him to pursue his one true love: crossword puzzle construction. In enlisting Vera to marry him, though, he neglects one variable: she’s secretly in love with him, which makes their counterfeit ceremony an exercise in misery for her.
Realizing the truth only after she’s moved away and cut him out of her life, Stanley tries to atone for his mistakes and win her back. But he’s unable to find her, until one day he comes across a puzzle whose clues make him think it could only have been created by Vera. Intrigued, he plays along, communicating back to her via his own gridded clues. But will they connect again before it’s all too late?
Wisdom comes to us when it can
no longer do any good.
—Gabriel García Márquez,
Love in the Time of Cholera
Vera took a step forward, put one hand on her hip, touched the microphone stand with the other, and said, “Excuse me?”
“Charlatan,” said the official pronouncer, Mr. King, exactly as he had the first time, with Old Testament rectitude.
The overhead lights, as well as those pointing up at her from the edge of the stage, bubbled with heat. She could feel the eyes of the eight remaining contestants seated behind her penetrating her back, their little hearts thumping in unison. She gripped the microphone stand. Charlatan. How did they know?
“C-H…” she began. She felt so light-headed that it seemed as if the entire ballroom in the belly of the great Hawthorne Hotel lifted slightly, and the crimson curtains lining the stage seemed to sway. There was no escape. Yes, she was a charlatan. She didn’t belong here, little nobody Vera. There was her mother in the front row, hands in her lap, encouraging her with furtive lifts of the eyebrows. Of course she knew this word. It was a freebie, a stroke of luck. The previous word had been dhurrie, and after the atrociously peppy California girl with the long braid running down her back misspelled it, omitting the “h,” the bell tolled with all the mercy of a scythe’s blade.
Charlatan. She had been feeling like one all week, ever since the first day in DC when the kids got a view of bullet-shaped President Eisenhower waving from across the White House lawn. She didn’t belong here. In fact, she didn’t belong anywhere in that hotel, where a team of maids placed your toothbrush in a little porcelain stand, and room service arrived on fine china under silver domes delivered by a pair of men wearing white gloves. No, Vera was only really comfortable in her little nest of red leather and auto fumes, windows that roll up and down, roadside billboards drifting by. She had gotten used to spending quite a lot of time in the backseat of her mother Vivian’s red-and-white 1955 Ford Fairlane Crown Victoria. That is, when she wasn’t at their apartment in New York, where they’d been spending less and less time lately, and which felt as if it were their residence in name only. More and more now, she found herself biding her time in musty hotels settled into the crotches of crumbling East Coast towns, hotels that were made of cinder block and smelled of wet clay, or rickety wooden motels that smelled of attic and peeling paint, perched on the shoulders of lonely highways. The Hawthorne Hotel, however, had delightful odors floating nose-high on the air: lavender and rose and mint, fragrances that Vera associated in her mind with Paris, although she had only read about it, fantasizing a jolie existence there during her French language studies.
“I’d like to begin again,” she said. Starting over was permitted, as long as the speller repeated the letters she had already spoken. “But first, may I have the definition?” She told herself that it was a good tactic to ask as many questions as she could, especially when feeling uncomfortable—even if she knew the answers. At the age of fifteen, Vera had already developed a coquettish, sly attitude toward adults, who, she found, could be surprisingly easy to fool.
“Charlatan. One making especially noisy or showy pretenses to knowledge or ability; fraud.” Mr. King’s careful voice seemed disembodied from the solid bald head that glistened in the haze behind the lights.
Vera took a deep breath. She was ready. She was alert. She had been preparing all her life to face the challenges of a merciless world. This is nothing, she reminded herself, compared to what’s coming. If you’re a charlatan, then be a good one. She stated the letters with pride. “Charlatan: C-H-A-R-L-A-T-A-N. Charlatan.”
She turned to take her seat before the head judge even began to say, “That is correct.” Applause lifted her like a wave and deposited her in her folding chair. She liked applause. Most charlatans do.
A small boy, Arthur Ito, who had all along seemed undefeatable, handling daguerreotype and incunabula easily, approached the microphone, pushed up his glasses, and clasped his hands behind his back.
“Aretalogy,” stated Mr. King.
The boy squinted. “May I have the language of origin please?”
“The word comes from the Greek,” answered Mr. King.
Arthur closed his eyes, and proceeded without pause. “Aretalogy: A-R-A-T-A-L-O-G-Y.”
The brief, devastating chime of the misspell bell preceded a few groans from the audience, which, despite lasting mistrust of the Japanese still lingering from the war, was very much on Arthur’s side. He pushed up his glasses and walked off with the same blankness of expression he possessed when he spelled correctly, only dropping his head into his hands once he passed into the wings.
Vera, motionless and defiant in her folding chair at the back of the stage, allowed herself to look side to side. Only seven of them left now. She still had a chance, a 14.29 percent chance. But they were in the final rounds, where the words get treacherous, and the pitfalls were much more sinister than the simple “e” that had felled Arthur.
As she awaited her turn, Vera tried to imagine what life was like for these kids who lived in permanent homes in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Denver. She was both jealous of and curious about the solidity of their lives but, at the same time, assumed that they were exceedingly dull. What were their houses made of? Were they fancy or plain? Did they have long straight driveways and dogs resting on the living room rugs?
Vera sighed in a dismissive way and said to herself, “Tedious children.” She spelled the words in her head that felled two more contestants—katharometer, crepitant—until it came around to a handsome, slender boy, fifteen years old like herself, who she’d heard lived in a hotel too. Only he lived in one hotel, this hotel, the palatial Hawthorne in Washington, DC, only blocks from the White House.
His name was Stanley. A strange boy. She didn’t know quite what to make of him. He seemed languid and self-effacing, nearly melting into his chair when he sat down, but at the same time his manner was unbearably aloof and much too confident for a boy his age. The way he loped up to the microphone in his tweed jacket and oversized wing tips, took hold of the microphone, cleared his throat, and leaned down into it as if it wasn’t at all an awkward thing to be doing—like he was a professor at a lectern, or a magician.
Exactly right, Vera thought. Incorrigible. That’s exactly what that boy is. And maybe a little conceited too. Incorrigiceited. There’s a word for him.
“Incorrigible,” Stanley repeated. He spelled it gently, pronouncing each letter as if it were a tender thing—a puppy or a seedling—waited politely for the head judge to affirm that he was correct, although he clearly knew it, said “Thank you, sir,” and turned and walked soundlessly back to his seat. For an instant, his eyes settled on Vera with apparent disinterest and then moved on. I will beat him, thought Vera. By the end of this day, he’ll have Vera Baxter burned into his memory.
When Stanley settled into his folding chair, he felt a bit exhausted by it all for the first time. He had spent his entire life pretending to be somebody he wasn’t—somebody ambitious, hardworking, responsible—when in fact he was just naturally gifted, with a mind that never let go of a fact. The truth was, he had no ambition besides lying on his back on his bed, looking at the ceiling, and thinking about things. He would have liked having a girl by his side now and then, but that was about all he really wanted out of life. To be left alone. Now here he was on the stage, pretending once again to be somebody he wasn’t. The words themselves hadn’t become very challenging just yet, but the strain of having to compose himself and walk all the way to the microphone, spell his word under all of that crushing attention, in particular the pressure of his mother’s gaze, and then walk carefully all the way back to his seat was taking its toll. When Arthur Ito went out Stanley started to feel that he had a real chance. Sitting calmly in his chair he had tried to tell himself that he wasn’t interested in winning, but now, as he turned to look at the trophy that flashed distractingly on a table at the edge of the stage, he had to admit that he was eager to take it back to his room.
Up next was a blond boy from a farm in Indiana, with whom Stanley had chatted in the hotel lobby, the place where Stanley spent most of his time. For as long as he could remember, he had made it his living room. He talked to senators there, generals and admirals, members of the diplomatic corps from pages to ambassadors, political speechwriters, lobbyists, reporters from the Post and the New York Times, Douglas Edwards from the TV news. Very seldom did he have the chance to talk to another boy, and never a farm boy from the Midwest. When he arrived, Stanley and this boy sat in the plush leather chairs between the marble pillars of the lobby and quizzed each other on word lists. Stanley silently wished him luck, hoping that if he weren’t the winner, this boy would be.
His word was bioluminescence. There’s one he’ll know, having seen plenty of fireflies in real life, Stanley thought.
“Definition, please?” the boy asked, his voice amplified and cracking.
There was a pause as Mr. King placed his fat finger upon the word in question in Webster’s 2nd Unabridged. “The emission of light from living organisms as the result of internal oxidative changes.”
The bell chimed when he spelled the end of the word as “essence,” a careless mistake. Stanley could see the frustration register on the boy’s face as he quickly wheeled about to leave the stage, his long journey over. It was clear that he knew he should have gotten it, but he was tired or anxious or both.
Then came the quiet, nervous girl in the blue dress, Vera, and he suddenly felt that he had figured out what it was that struck him about her. Bioluminescence. Her pale, almost bluish skin seemed to soak up the light from the stage and glow with it. It was enchanting, but something about her also repelled him—her reticence, her ferocious concentration, maybe. She was good. She was a threat. He didn’t know why he wanted to win—this whole thing was his mother’s idea—but he did want to win, and he hoped for a wickedly difficult word.
“Brujo,” said Mr. King, his finger on the page as if he were ordering a rare bottle of wine.
“May I have the definition please?” Despite how delicate she looked, the girl’s tone was strong, almost challenging.
“Sorcerer, witch doctor; especially one who works black magic.”
Stanley found himself staring with fascination as she dispatched it in a burst of letters and seemed to make a show of walking slowly back to her seat.
He saw his mother in the front row, wide-eyed and recoiling like a trapped animal. With the help of their friend Sonny Jones, one of the hotel’s managers and jack-of-all-trades, she had pried herself out of her reading chair and made her way down from their room to watch the bee. This pilgrimage was a testament to Sonny’s abilities, because Stanley’s mother was deathly afraid of people—anthropophobia was what it was called—and this was one of her rare appearances outside Suite 512, the William Henry Harrison Suite. The hotel gave the suite to his mother after the death of his father, who had been the hotel’s concierge and whom Stanley never knew, in the Second World War. Ever since then, Stanley and his mother lived there for the token rent of one dollar a month. It was the least desirable suite in the hotel, and Stanley assumed that factored into the hotel management’s largesse. The sort of people who could afford a suite wouldn’t be pleased with this cramped one named for a president who died after serving only one month in office.
Stanley’s mother, who’d sat fixed in her chair by the suite’s window overlooking Vermont Avenue since the early 1950s, had learned about a local spelling bee in the Washington Post. What caught her eye was not the bee itself, but the fact that the winner, if he or she went on to win the regionals, could then compete in the National Spelling Bee, which was to be held that year right there in their very own Hawthorne Hotel.
“How about that!” she said to Stanley, smacking the paper with the back of her hand, an unusually enthusiastic gesture for her. “Right here in our very own ballroom.”
Children would travel from all over the country to compete, but her Stanley, her senator-in-training, could simply walk the crimson carpet down the hall to the elevator and ride the golden car down to the ballroom. It was this nifty convenience, rather than a strong interest in spelling, that started her off on a course that eventually saw her son become a master speller, win regionals, make it to nationals, become one of four spellers out of an original 103 still on stage, and lope up to the microphone to await his next challenge.
Mr. King examined the word he held in captivity beneath his forefinger.
Vera’s feeling about Stanley had gone from curiosity to strong dislike. He was too arrogant, too self-assured. She could sense something duplicitous about him from the start. And now she was disappointed with his word. She had hoped for something more difficult, a real assassin.
“Brummagem,” Stanley repeated. “May I have the definition please, sir?”
“Spurious,” said Mr. King. “Especially in a cheap and showy way; phony, sham.”
Vera tucked a hand under her thigh and scrutinized Stanley as he spoke.
“Does it originate from the city of Birmingham, England?”
“Yes, it does,” said Mr. King.
Vera pulled her hand from under her leg and quickly covered her mouth. What a showoff, she thought.
“And does its meaning come from the fact that counterfeit coins and other cheap and flimsy things were manufactured there?” Stanley asked.
Mr. King, whose emotions played out clearly on his face, looked down at his tome and said, “Why, yes, it does.”
Soft laughter rippled through the audience. Stanley waltzed through the word with ease, spelling it in a careful cadence, and returned to his seat in an insufferably dignified manner. Maybe I’m not the only charlatan here, Vera thought.
Vera found herself searching the audience, wondering which of the faces belonged to his parents, and she missed hearing the next word. Donna Walker, the very brainy-looking thirteen-year-old from Seattle with spectacles thick as security glass, was beginning to spell. She tested the letters as if stepping out on a frozen lake.
What was the word?
Vera knew she’d misspelled. Automatically she covered her eyes with her hands.
The bell rang. Mr. King delivered the correct spelling of puissant, and the quietly sobbing girl was led offstage by one of the bee coordinators.
Only three of them were left. Vera cocked her head and stole a glance at Stanley.
Up stepped the only other remaining girl, Agatha, who lived in Alaska with her parents, her grandparents, and several dozen malamutes. Her father was a chemist and her mother bred dogs. She was an outgoing kid who had befriended Vera on their very first day in DC. Vera had met her parents, and spotted them in the audience now, straining forward in their seats like the very dogs they harnessed to sleds.
Agatha asked for the definition and got it: a censer used in religious services.
Agatha asked for the language of origin and got it: Middle English, from Middle French, from Latin, from Greek.
Vera spelled it in her head and waited. She knew she was next. A tremor of nerves ran through her and she tried to squelch it. She crossed her arms and knitted her forehead, willing Agatha to succeed even though they were competitors. Agatha’s allotted time of ninety seconds ran out.
Stanley knew then who his final challenger would be. He watched her sashay up to the microphone, looking utterly in control of all those judges and spectators. She was virtually glowing in all of her bioluminescent splendor.
As she stood there awaiting her word, Mr. King announced that because there were only two spellers remaining, they would move on to the championship words. They were taken from a fearsome list of twenty-five of the most difficult words in the English language, devilishly selected from the remote depths of Webster’s 2nd Unabridged. If one of the two remaining spellers were to make a mistake, the other would get a final word, and if he or she spelled it correctly—victory.
Vera tightened her grip on the microphone stand. Mr. King cleared his throat. The thickness of the air was visible in the dusty beams of the stage lights. A chair creaked in the audience. With the utmost gravity, King delivered oligopsony, and Vera crumpled to the floor.
The audience got to its feet in a great wave from front to back. Stagehands rushed from the wings and the judges’ table cleared as they surrounded the girl. A figure cut through them all with the purpose and authority of a doctor. She cradled Vera in her arms and the others made room. With practiced efficiency the woman administered raisins from her handbag to Vera as she regained consciousness.
“Low blood sugar levels,” the woman said to the judges, the stagehands, and Stanley Owens, who craned his neck to get a view over the others. “She’s…”
“Hypoglycemic,” Vera said flatly, lying on her back and staring up at the insectile underbelly of the stage ceiling.
The woman was apparently known by Mr. King and the other judges, but she introduced herself to those standing nearby—“I’m Vera’s mother, Vivian Baxter”—and briefly described how she’d been unable to coax her stubborn daughter to eat her oatmeal that morning, when Vera’s voice broke in.
“Oligopsony,” she said, still lying on her back and staring at the ceiling. “O-L-I-G-O-P-S-O-N-Y.”
Mr. King leaned over so Vera could see up into his fleshy face and said with delicious bemusement, “That is correct, young lady.”
Back in her seat, among the empty chairs of all the departed spellers, Vera ferociously chewed raisins and watched Stanley ruffle his hair. She couldn’t forgive herself for losing control. She would have liked nothing more than to sneak outside and puff furiously on one of the Chesterfields that she hid from her mother, not necessarily because she needed a cigarette, but because she enjoyed the image of herself doing risqué things that were beyond her years and forbidden.
His word was seigneur. She knew he didn’t have to ask the origin; of course it was French. The ending was easy. She knew he knew it. It was the first syllable he was considering. But in French there aren’t a lot of possibilities for the spelling of a sound like that. It wasn’t that difficult. Was he stalling to give her time to recover? She hoped he wasn’t patronizing her. Finally, he sighed, spelled the word correctly, and returned to his seat. As he passed he looked down at her and smiled. Suspicious, she couldn’t decide if the smile was genuine or smug.
Stanley tried not to look at his mother. Sonny sat with his hands on Martha’s shoulders as if holding down a wet cat in a bathtub. Sonny, the avuncular figure in Stanley’s life, was forty going on eighteen and somewhat the opposite of Stanley. Sonny smiled all the time. He had fabulous teeth and was as lean as a bundle of sticks, even though he was always helping himself to a bit of whatever food passed by his nostrils. He had the metabolism of a lion and a squirrel’s appetite for the busywork of life. In the absence of a father, Sonny watched over Stanley as he grew up, administered fatherly advice, and taught Stanley how to serve a tennis ball in the indoor court and how to throw a pitch on the hotel roof. Now he was helping out with Stanley’s mother, whom Stanley couldn’t look at without fearing what would happen if he didn’t win. At the back of the room he saw a few men enter: senators from Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, with whom he was particularly friendly. The watchful eyes of these men didn’t give him anxiety, yet his mother did, motionless in her seat with her chin on her fist.
Vera’s word was Thucydidean. Vera was the caretaker of a small collection of nervous ticks: the eye rub, the elbow flex, the neck crack, the finger extension, the hair flip, developed under the pressure of her own expectations for herself. She ran through them all as Thucydidean waited. Vera asked if the word was related to the Greek historian Thucydides. Then she spelled it correctly. Stanley’s mother sat back, removed her glasses, and polished them with her handkerchief.
Vera watched her mother watch Stanley. Her mother was a smart competitor, and Vera imagined her wishing to climb up onto the stage and finish off the bee herself. During their years together living part of the time in New York City and part of the time in hotels as Vivian sought a husband and traveled for her work as a secretary to a sales executive, sometimes with the hope of the latter leading to the former, Vera escaped into her books and fashioned herself into a sharp instrument of learning. She grew to love learning, especially math. She was perplexed by the common perception of math as a dry subject. To her it was a playground of the imagination, rich with ideas and fascinating magic. Vera also loved languages, finding pleasure in French novels that could transport her out of her mother’s car and into entirely different worlds of adventure and passion.
Stanley got scopperil. Vera knew her mother couldn’t spell it. She could see her trying to work it out, anticipating a Stanley stumble, but she also sensed that her mother was fascinated by that precocious kid. Stanley made a little wave to the important-looking men at the back of the room and proceeded to spell. Every eye in the place was on him as he pronounced each letter as an honored member of the alphabet. The men at the back applauded as Mr. King declared his spelling of scopperil correct, and Stanley gave a nod and thanked Mr. King.
The competition moved along briskly without either fifteen-year-old showing any sign of weakening. Vera spelled mycetismus.
Stanley spelled pyrrhic.
Vera spelled ageusia.
Stanley spelled chopine.
Vera got piscivorous. She ran through the eye rub, the elbow flex, the neck crack, the finger extension. She stumbled and gripped the microphone, and the audience briefly rose from its seats. “I’m okay,” she said, and a nervous laugh ran through the room. With composure, she asked the judges if it came from the Latin root pisci, meaning “fish.” Once that was confirmed, she cleared her throat and with impeccable posture laid out the word with ease. When Mr. King pronounced her spelling correct, she performed a celebratory hop before taking her seat.
When Stanley spelled insessores after a moment’s contemplation, his only show of joy was a smile and a slight lift up onto his toes before walking back to his chair near Vera. His world had tightened to a small triangle containing his mother, the judges, and his seat near the enigmatic Vera. All else was a haze. Behind Vera’s static exterior Stanley sensed a tiger pacing in its cage.
“Damascene,” said Mr. King.
“Damascene,” repeated Vera. “D-A-M-A-S-C-E-N-E. Damascene.” She spelled without a single question or show of emotion, singeing Stanley with the blaze of her concentration as she passed on to her seat.
Mr. King himself seemed exhausted. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. Silence in the audience. Silence in the ballroom, save for the hum of the ceiling fans and the amplified crackle of papers on the judges’ table. Stanley approached the giant microphone in its mesh cage.
“Exsiccosis,” said Mr. King rather grandly.
Vera watched the movement of Stanley’s jaw and his shoulders as he asked for the definition and language of origin. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. His shoulder blades made marks on the back of his jacket.
Mentally she took a stab at the word just before Stanley began to spell it.
“E-X-S-I-C-O-S-I-S,” he said.
The bell rang. Disaster. The judges at the table couldn’t seem to look at him. His mother gazed up at a distant corner of the ceiling, and Sonny held on to her tightly. Stanley’s legs carried him back to his seat.
“If the next word is spelled correctly,” said Mr. King, although everyone knew the rule, “we will have a champion.”
Vera approached the microphone.
“Dioscuric,” he said.
“Dioscuric,” she repeated. “Is its origin Greek?”
There was a long pause, during which Vera’s mother crossed and uncrossed her legs several times, adjusting her skirt, adjusting, adjusting.
The audience collectively inhaled.
Ding. The audience flared up with chatter and motion. Stanley was back in.
- On Sale
- Aug 4, 2015
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing