My town holds an annual spelling bee for adults. A gleeful audience pays cash to watch the hapless contestants shoehorn an extra e into "eleemosynary" and mix up the consonants in "fuchsia"; the money goes straight to the schools. More than 40 teams of three compete in preliminaries, semifinals and a final, all in one night.
Several weeks before the contest, the players receive a notification that costumes are permitted, together with a list of 3,000 words, any of which they may be required to spell. The words are separated into 20 categories. Architecture. Shapes. Weaponry. Each category includes a few straightforward words, many difficult ones and at least a dozen impossibilities. Horses, for instance, offers "cheekpiece"; also "apishamore"; also "encolure" and "piaffe."
The three women on my team live on the same street, have reached a certain age and are unsuasible and temerarious. Lise is a city planning consultant; she works in a little freestanding office in her yard, a miniature alcazar surrounded by whorlywort. Sasha is a dentist, with large cairngorm eyes. I am Edith, who composes essays on a typewriter and spell-checks with a dictionary: an atavist though no avatar.
When we received the word list, we considered dividing up the categories on the basis of our professions and training. But after a horrified glance at Elements, Sasha announced that too many of them — "molybdenum" and "ytterbium," for instance — had been slipped into the periodic table when she wasn't looking and were probably hoaxes. Lise reviewed Shapes and felt not altogether comfortable with "urceolate" and "botryoidal," and positively sick about "botuliform." The Printed Word category terrified me: the orthography of "misspelling" was a shocker, and "bibliothecarial" wasn't even in the American Heritage, though my fading French suggested that it means a keeper-of-books — librarianish, so to speak.
And so, forgetting expertise, we each took on the whole caboodle. We quizzed each other from the list. At my house we peeked into the O.E.D. At Sasha's we pulled stems from her Latin dictionary and scrabbled in her Russian one as well. In Lise's office we drew leaves, honeycombs and rowboats to help us remember "phylliform," "faveolate" and "scaphoid." And we played music on the gramophone — a bagatelle, a berceuse, a scherzo and a sonata, graced with appoggiaturas.
On the night of the contest, we strode off to the high school auditorium practicing the hardest list of all, Nautical Terms. We shouted out "jibboom" and "bathyscaphe" and even "hawsehole," gentlewomen though we are. We were making sure of "ravehook" as we clambered onto the stage for our preliminary bout. "Does 'rhumb' have an h?" Sasha whispered. "Think of 'rhomboid,'" said Lise, confusing the issue. "Buttinsky!" I hissed. ". . . i-n-s-k-y," she replied.
We took our seats facing the audience at a table for three. There were five such tables, arranged in a shallow crescent. Ours was the middle one. On our far right sat the team from the local hospital, intimidating in their white coats. One member was a petite Asian-American, one a bespectacled African-American and the third a turbaned Pakistani-American who had recently told me my cholesterol was elevated. At the next table giggled three employees of a popular boutique. They wore satin pants and sequined tank tops. To our left, three householders from another part of town perspired in rented academic gowns. The final team was composed of a grinning young man whose 4-year-old whooped encouragement from the audience, his beaming middle-aged father and his ecstatic grandfather. They wore ordinary jackets.
I would like to say that this array of high-spirited competitors, most of them my acquaintances and some of them my friends, made me thrill to the virtues of community. But I just looked daggers at everyone. Lise's smile glittered falsely. Sasha held her head fixedly so as not to jostle the words packed inside. She had not smiled in days. "Lobscouse," fired the moderator at the doctors.
Their heads bent together as if over a corpse. The delicate woman spelled the word correctly. "Myrmecophagous," the moderator flung at the threesome in sequins. They remembered the y but replaced the e with an i, alas. Alas? Who was I flimflamming. . . "Prolusory," he said to us.
We fell into a collective panic. In a whispered conference, we invented "prolouserie" (Sasha), "prolusary" (Lise) and "prolucery" (Edith). We opted for Lise's version which, it turned out, was just as wrong as the others.
The academics couldn't agree about "suffrutescent" and went down wrangling. The patriarchs sailed through "gurney." Three teams had now been eliminated. In the second round, the doctors got "bradawl" and the patriarchs "degauss." On the third round, the doctors missed "crocheting" and the patriarchs triumphed with "wirrah," everybody's favorite fish.
Our match was over. All 15 of us, foes no longer, descended from the stage, chattering and in some cases scratching. "This damned gown has some kind of ectoparasite," fussed one of the academics. "Siphonaptera," clarified a sequin. "Fleas," said Sasha, smiling at last.