As the square dance was wrapping up, I stayed by the wall concentrating on my beer. I didn’t know anyone there. My friend Carl was talking to a guy in overalls, and more intently, to the girl who’d played the fiddle all night. Square dancing is always a love fest. Most people don’t wear shoes and the whole idea is for strangers to hold hands and have fun in a rootin’ tootin’ kind of way. It’s big in Portland.
Carl eventually joined me by the wall. “Want to go play Scrabble and drink milkshakes at a bar?” he asked.
Apparently the violinist had a Scrabble hook up—a friend with a board who would meet us anywhere in the neighborhood. Minutes later, we were unlocking our bikes, steaming off the sweat and hippie love vibes into the rainy night.
It was string band jam night at the bar. I blindly polished off my fogged-up glasses to the sounds of a banjo, a guitar, and a stand up bass as we snagged a booth. Since the place didn’t serve milkshakes, Carl bought us both White Russians.
While we waited for this rumored Scrabble board, the violinist wandered off to join the jam night, and Carl and I made conversation with a cute choppy-haired gay girl who sat down in our booth. (She'd been at the square dance too.) It turned out she ran a circus camp for homeless youth, and we were just beginning to discuss the basics of at-risk-youth trapeze acts when the Scrabble girl showed up. Her name was Jem. She had blonde hair and a done-up face and she carried a travel Scrabble board in her small bag.
She squeezed into the booth with us, and we all drew letters and chose team names. Carl and I were team Toot. The circus girl was team Squidface. Jem chose team name “Win.” It turns out she wasn’t being ironic. Jem was a Scrabble bitch.
The game started alright. We all played low-scoring words, raking in 10 or 20 points each. Squidface got another team member and we explained to her about triple word scores and double letter scores and other Scrabble basics. Things were chill. Until Team Win started to lose.
See here’s the thing about Scrabble. I fucking kick ass at the game. I grew up playing Scrabble on the back porch during the summer, and my family plays Scrabble at the dinner table. My parents gave each other an engraved travel scrabble board for their 25th wedding anniversary, so now we can conveniently continue to play Scrabble even at restaurants. One whole section of the bookshelf in my parents’ house is packed exclusively with dog-eared Scrabble dictionaries—a couple basic paperback ones, plus a large print edition—the megalith “Ultimate” version, and an international copy for when my grandpa’s Canadian girlfriend visits. And the list of playable two-letter words are better known among us than the nutritional pyramid or the family tree.
So when Scrabble Bitch started drawing all consonants, she started getting huffy and making a scene. She whined about her vowel-less draw and took big sighs before playing her words. When it wasn’t her turn, she wandered off to listen to the music and then hassled team Toot for taking too long with our word, giving off a hostile stare when I put down “vim” for 26 points.
A few turns later, after a good long while staring at her letters and sighing, Jem picked up three tiles and laid down “QAD”. I knew immediately she had mistaken the word for “QAT.” Everyone who knows anything about Scrabble knows and loves QAT, an African shrub that is, blessedly, the only Q word not requiring a U.
“What’s that?” asked circus girl.
“I don’t remember,” said Scrabble Bitch. “But it’s totally a valid word.”
They both looked to me. I thought of the long row of Scrabble dictionaries on my parents’ shelf. QAT is a holy word in my family and Jem’s was an obvious, pretentious error. But it was still just a word, in a game, in a bar, between strangers. Even if Scrabble Bitch was more interested in winning than making friends, I was fresh from square dancing. I held my tongue. She netted 36 points. I wrote them down on the napkin under her column, trying to shake off the Scrabble family pride, trying to pretend I was such a laid-back, non-petty person that I didn’t care at all about the rules of some dumb word game.
After our next turn, Carl reached his hand into the bag and drew two blanks. That is the Scrabble equivalent of winning the lottery. While Jem scoffed off her next turn with a swift, messy play, Team Toot took its fine time and played a seven-letter word on a triple word score. Bingo, bitch. We won by 158 points. Not that I was counting.