A week later, Scootie left his office to find Juliana in the hallway, studying a Roman bust. He had recently been outfitted with a ten-gallon hat and checkered bandana.
“I call him Guido,” said Scootie. “Last month, he was going through a Sam Spade phase: fedora, trench coat, cigarette Scotch-taped to his lips. We tried to teach him to talk like Bogart, but these Roman emperors, they think all you have to do is go around saying ‘shweetheart.’”
Juliana let out an amused smile. “And good afternoon to you, Scootie. So how did he make his way here?”
They were doing a big basement cleanup. When I saw him on the cart, I kidnapped him immediately. Legend has it he was dug up by a little girl during an Easter egg hunt, back in the seventies.”
“Guido,” she said, and shifted his bandana to the left. “I always called him ‘Marcus Aurelius.’ You see, I was that little girl.”
“Yes.” She ran a finger along Guido’s nose. “You can’t imagine what that was like, finding this... face in the dirt. My father had passed away the year before, and... well...” She patted Guido’s marble cheek and turned to face Scootie. “I did actually have some business. I’m setting up meetings with various staff members to go over plans for the gala. When’s good for you?”
“Oh,” said Scootie, still distracted by Juliana’s story. “Um... early next week?”
“Mmm, no. I’m crammed all week. Any way you could meet me for lunch tomorrow?”
Scootie ran a quick scan of his day. “Yeah, I can do that. Where shall we go?”
“Why don’t you come up the hill? I make a mean pasta primavera.”
“I hope not too good. Italian food puts me right to sleep.”
“Maybe it’s the company. One o’clock?”
“Yes, that’s fine.”
Scootie hesitated, seeking the orchestrations of departure. He was muttering something about a press release for a Kabuki troupe when Juliana interrupted.
“So what are you doing tonight?”
Scootie looked at her quizzically.
“I like to keep track of the single people,” she explained.
“Oh. Um, tonight is Geoffrey.”
“And what is it you do with Geoffrey?”
Scootie felt suddenly like he was on a talk show. “Cigars.”
“Cigars and Scrabble.”
“Wicked combination. Well, see you tomorrow.”
She gave a pat to Guido’s Stetson and started for the northward stairs, clicking her pumps on teh hardwood floor. Scootie watched her go till she was no more than a chestnut wave over the top step.
Geoffrey Urban was the manager of the Shorefront, one of Hallis’s two motels. The motel afforded its second-story guests a generous view of Hallis Beach, and was described in the brochure as a “well-kept but inexpensive motor inn.” The well-kept part was due largely to Geoffrey’s wife, Flora, a pretty Filipina twenty years his junior.
The differences in their age and ethnicity lent an air of mystique that Geoffrey did nothing to dispel. It was common knowledge that Geoffrey was a merchant marine who had saved Flora, a poor Manila street urchin, from certain starvation. In fact, Geoffrey had gathered his many foreign curios as a buyer for an import chain in Oakland, had never set foot outside California, and met Flora when a Daly City photo shop mixed up their prints. His street-urchin wife was a Berkeley grad who grew up in Marin County.
They conducted their sessions in the Urban apartment, adjacent to the registration desk. When they first began, their play was often interrupted by the service bell. This exacerbated the already-intolerable playing habits of Geoffrey, who would rather stare at the board for twenty minutes than settle for a ten-point word. Rather than force himself to make quicker choices, Geoffrey chose to swap shifts with Flora. This led to a four-hour game followed by twelve hours of work, but he considered it a small price for an uninterrupted match with “the second-best Scrabble player in Hallis.” (To which Scootie replied, “But Geoffrey, if you were playing the second-best player in Hallis, why, you’d be playing yourself!”)
Scootie greeted Flora at the front desk, then slipped through a back door to the apartment, where Geoffrey was shuffling through a desk topped with green marble (Hong Kong). He extracted a case of silver cigar accessories (England), an antique Scrabble board inherited from his mother, and a blue silk bag (Japan) containing the wooden letter-tiles.
“Do you know how they define ‘scrabble’ in the dictionary?” asked Geoffrey. “To scratch or claw about clumsily or frantically.”
“Describes my game perfectly,” said Scootie. “Are we ready?”
“Yes we are. Is that a cigar in your pocket, or...”
“Don’t you dare finish that line, young man.” Scootie turned to slip the band off his cigar, then extended it to Geoffrey, who ran its length under his nose.
“Mmm,” he said, flipping through his database. “Mellow, creamy, touch of vanilla. Light-colored wrapper – Connecticut, probably – and the filler is either Dominican or... Jamaican.”
Scootie squinted as Geoffrey got closer.
“You know, I’m gonna cheat. This thing is so skinny it’s got to be a Pleiades.”
“Aigh!” Scootie cried. “Your nose is a lethal weapon.”
“Hee hee.” Geoffrey flipped it back and forth in his fingers. “Haven’t had one of these in years. Here’s yours.”
He reached into his shirt pocket and handed him a thick, medium-brown robusto with a rounded tip.
“Ah, I give skinny, you give stout.” Scootie gave it a sniff. “Wow! A little chocolate, some walnut – maybe I’ll eat the damn thing. I’m thinking... a Don Tomas?”
“Further east.” Geoffrey smoothed a hand over his beard and tried not to smile.
“Big island. A place where neither you nor I can go...”
“No! You devil. A Cuban? How’d you get it?”
“A Bolivar Royal Corona. Here’s the band. Friend of mine took a trip to Victoria, British Columbia. Saw this shop, Old Morris Tobacconist. Thought of me.”
Geoffrey clipped both cigars and offered Scootie a light, then reached under the table for a crystal ash tray (Switzerland). Scootie let the first dose waft around his head like a tulle fog. “My my my my my.”
“Five my’s,” said Geoffrey. “I believe that’s your top rating.”
Where Geoffrey found his success in stamina and strategy, Scootie was a pure linguistic sharpshooter, a chaser of large, impressive words – sometimes at the cost of points. That evening, however, he was dead in the water. He had sunk to the level of three-letter punts like “cow” and “dot,” without even a double- or triple-word score to make them digestible. Geoffrey, meanwhile, managed to string the word “semaphore” over two double-word scores, earning 64 points plus 50 for using all seven tiles. His next move was to place the word “franc” with the C over a double-letter score.
“Isn’t that a foreign word?” asked Scootie, tipping the ash from his Cuban.
“Yes,” said Geoffrey. “I was trying to get your attention. You’re playing like some evil, stupid Scootie Jones clone.”
He replaced the C with a K. Scootie stared at his tiles with dyslexic vision.
“Geoffrey, you’ve always been, um, ‘frank’ with your stories of women...”
“Sure. Because you’re not the type to repeat things, and because I gave Flora a full account before we married. She forgave me... about two weeks ago.”
“I’d like to be frank with you, Geoffrey. I may be in trouble.”
Geoffrey grinned like a pirate. “How so?”
“I am under the spell of a beautiful, brilliant woman.”
“And this is trouble?”
“I work with her.”
“And she’s married.”
“And she’s on the board of trustees.”
Geoffrey performed a spit-take with his cigar, then broke out laughing, raising a hand in apology. “Sorry. But when you go up a creek, you don’t even take a boat, do ya?”
“Yup. And tomorrow, I may be faced with an ethical crisis. She’s invited me to lunch at her house.”
“And no one else will be there,” he guessed.
Geoffrey took a drag from his Pleiades and drew a line of smoke in the air. “Being a devil-may-care world traveler, sadly retired from the shenanigans of bachelorhood, I would generally tell you to go up there tomorrow and give Juliana Kross whatever she wants...”
“Wait a minute. How did you know it was Juliana Kross?”
“I’ve met most of your trustees, pal. Who else could it be?”
“You’re an observant bastard.”
“I’m a smart businessman. A certain percentage of my trade is local, and, shall we say, illicit. A few of them have been Fetzle trustees. One time, two of them together.”
“Scootie, Scootie. Does a priest repeat gossip from the confessional? Does a psychiatrist tell party jokes about his patients?”
“Geez, I didn’t realize innkeeping was so top-secret.”
“If I gave out such data, it would be like... fishing in my own backyard. Shitting off the company pier. Which is exactly what you seem to be contemplating, and here’s my point: No matter how these rich folks talk about philanthropy and egalitarianism, you are a member of the working class, and Juliana is the wife of Scott Kross,a great shining marble fucking pillar of American commerce. You’re gonna get screwed, and in more than one orifice.”
“What if the attraction is simply too great?”
Geoffrey rubbed his beard. “I need... an illustration.”
“The reason you are smoking a cigar with seven stars on it is that Juliana Kross is one of them.”
“Ooh! Poetry. And astronomy. This is bad.”
Geoffrey studied his hands, as if it were there that he held Scootie’s dilemma, then folded them, into fists. “I guess all I can say is, if you need a little secrecy in a small, small town, you can always come to the friendly folks at the Shorefront Motel.”
Photo by MJV