Suburban Soliloquy

125. The

Twice a week, if she can, Ms Keogh, my more significant other, goes out to play Scrabble. I blame myself.

We were playing the game together a few years back and I was always beating her. She found my success incomprehensible, especially when she was putting larger, more exciting words onto the board. She was vainly showing off her vocabulary while I was somehow scoring higher with ordinary words. In a generous moment for which I shall never forgive myself, I taught her my strategies.

I taught her to not build opportunities for her opponents. I revealed how I could watch her eyes to see where her attention went on the board, then I would craft a word to fit the same place just to block her. I showed her that even small words could generate plenty of points; I would tuck a couple letters into the interior of the mosaic crafting multiple words vertically and horizontally while leaving fewer places for her to build. After teaching her all I knew about the game's strategy, I was never to beat her again.

She grew more obsessed with playing as I grew fatigued with losing. What started to happen is she began acquiring a Scrabble-specific vocabulary, learning odd little words like qi and xi and zek and cwm. Her vocabulary exploded with words she couldn't use in a sentence, whereas I not only want to know the definition, but also the etymology. Fortunately, one day, I was relieved of the burden of losing to her.

While we were in Philadelphia drinking coffee in one of those ubiquitous Starbucks, I noticed two women our age intently engaged in a game of Scrabble. I pointed them out to Ms Keogh. Usually a shy person, this time the cause was important enough that she could not resist going over to watch them play to see if they were any good. One was the ivory-skinned Susan R, a writer/editor/mental health advocate for a non-profit agency. Susan started up a conversation and soon Ms Keogh was playing with them. The other, with long hair of antiqued silver, was Marion Cohen, a teacher of mathematics at Arcadia University and a poet.

It has become a fairly regular meeting on Monday evenings. Sometimes just two show, other times it is the full complement of players when Bonnie S, a photographer whom Ms Keogh introduced to the gathering, joins the game.

It was the four Scrabblers tonight when I accompanied Ms Keogh to her game. I didn't join in the play, but came to converse and kibitz with the ladies when they were waiting their turns.

As it happens, when I thought to myself I should write about this, I began looking about at our mise en scène. While the four were caught up in their game, I grew intrigued with the place, occupied mostly with medical students studying from tomes, often in their scrubs.

The entry takes several steps down from the street. This Starbucks occupies two rooms below the sidewalk. The rooms have shallow vaulted ceilings made from bricks, appearing like furrows. The ceiling of the first room has been plastered, as they probably all were originally. Air-conditioning ducts, fire extinguishing pipes, and tubes of electrical wires for the hanging lamps have been added and were incongruous. I examined doorways and moldings trying to determine which were original and which were not.

It was evident from the vestiges that the rooms were in the beginning something more than an area for storage or to stable horses. The tall windows along the exterior walls had doors in their deep jambs from which I suspect shutters unfolded. None opened for me, so I couldn't prove it to myself.

I studied the outside of the building. Whatever it had been, it was now nearly finished being converted into the Victory Condominiums.

It wasn't until I arrived home that I learned the whole of this building's history, perhaps Philadelphia’s first commercial building. The Victory Building, so christened after the Great War, started life as the New York Mutual Life Insurance Company Building in 1873, their Philadelphia headquarters. It is an ornate office building, the Second Empire style with mansard roof. In 1890, three more stories were added capped with a new mansard roof less impressive than the original. The insurance company moved out in 1920 and so began the buildings long decline. In the fifties, the authorities broke up an illegal gambling ring using the penthouse. In the seventies, the building contained a notorious nightclub. In the eighties, it caught fire. By the nineties, while trees grew from it balconies making it look like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, it was marked for demolition. Fortunately, the citizens of Philadelphia saved it and today it is on the National Register.

But as I had mentioned at the beginning, Ms Keogh tries to get out twice a week to play Scrabble. One Friday, I accompanied her to Café Olé in Trenton. They had offered their walls for her to hang a one-person show for a month. And while she was taking a measure of the place, studying the walls and imagining how she would lay things out, I made my way across the street to investigate a used bookstore, Classic Books.

Bookstores are for me a painful pleasure. I am no longer buying books. Not only can I not afford to buy books, particularly the fine press books I most adore, but my study is overflowing with unread volumes. I have no business being in bookstores, nor do I have the fortitude to resist them. I passed the sidewalk tables loaded with books and entered Classic Books in hope of not finding anything I didn't know I wanted. Two aisles squeezed between the shelves of books in this deep and narrow shop. As I slowly studied the rows of spines, I inevitably reached the back of the shop and made the unexpected discovery I didn't want, groups of folks gathered around multiple tables playing Scrabble.

How do you define love? As I wrote in one of my earliest Soliloquies, I have never been able to define love, but I can recognize it by its manifestation. The manifestation of love is sacrifice. I briefly considered never telling Ms Keogh about my discovery of the Scrabble kabbalah. But, alas, I love her and I want to see her happy. Thus Monday and Friday nights are Scrabble nights. Sometimes I join her. Sometimes, but very rarely, I join a game, yet I never win.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions,
the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"