The Spelling Game
By Bob Liter
I was a disgrace the day Millie Crawford, me, and two boys represented Woodrow Wilson High in the regional spelling bee at Collingsworth High in Springfield. The boys wore blue jeans and clean running shoes. All the girls from the various schools, except me, had their hair combed, their makeup on and wore dresses and dress shoes.
Millie’s mother picked me up an hour earlier than I expected because she had to run an errand for her boss at Interland Insurance Company. I pulled my hair back from my face and secured it with a rubber band. My face was bare of makeup and I had on faded blue jeans and raunchy running shoes.
Once there, we killed time until a beautiful young man appeared on the auditorium stage, fussed with the microphone and placed eight folding chairs in a row.
“Oh,” Millie said, “that’s the radio disc jockey who plays that cool stuff. He’s on television on weekends. Does the weather. Mark Shane, that’s his name.”
“Spellers please take your places here on the stage,” Mike Shane said.
We paraded to the chairs. He smiled at me. I sat down and tried not to stare at him.
“Robert Ward,” Mike Shane said in a clear, intimate voice. Robert, a tall guy with a butch haircut, marched to the center of the stage.
“Your word is intangible.”
“Intangible.” Mike Shane pronounced it again, loud and clear. Robert Ward spelled the word correctly without hesitation.
I fidgeted, released my hair, fluffed it out so it came down to my shoulders and waited as each of the other spellers got through their first word.
“Elizabeth Jones,” Mike Shane said. I sat there for a moment, still dazzled by his smile. He had said my name. I rose and moved to the center of the stage.
He looked directly in my eyes, smiled, and said, “The word for you is alluring.”
He pronounced it again, slowly, clearly.
My mind finally engaged.
“Alluring,” I said. “A-l-l-u-r-i-n-g.”
It seemed a lifetime before he said, “Correct.”
When we were down to four competitors and were on a ten-minute break, Millie said, “Gosh Liz, I thought you were going to be eliminated on that first word. What happened?”
“It was as though he was telling me I was alluring. Isn’t that ridiculous. Me, plain Liz, alluring? Still it seemed like that’s what he was saying.”
“Yeah, you wish. He was telling you what word you should spell.”
"I know, I know," I sighed.
Millie and I both lost in the next round. I misspelled accelerator by spelling it acceleratEr. We were disappointed, of course, but we stayed until the end. Robert Ward won by spelling thermoelement.
At home I listened to Mark Shane’s radio show and watched him on television. Millie was there the next Saturday waiting to go to a movie with me.
“If we don’t leave soon we’ll miss half the show,” Millie said as I sat in front of our living room TV.
“We’ll get there in time,” I insisted. “It’s only a movie.”
“Have your parents noticed how interested in weekend weather you are all of a sudden?”
“Don’t you dare tell ‘em,” I said. “I know it’s silly, but he’s so handsome and has the nicest smile.”
While Millie and I were at the movie Mike Shane telephoned my house.
“Who is this Mike Shane who called last night?” Dad demanded the next morning.
“Mike Shane called me?”
“That’s what he called himself. Said he was coming up from Springfield to get permission to date you.”
“To date me?”
“That’s what he said. Who is this guy, anyway?”
“When did he say he’d be here?”
“Some time this evening, I think,” Dad said.
Mother fixed my hair and we decided on my blue dress. Dad let me get a new pair of shoes and Mother had a cute little matching box purse.
Mike arrived at our house, the one with the porch that needed painting, the one with the broken front step, the one with the worn living room carpet and the one with the dining room table that had more dents in it than my Dad’s Ford pickup.
Mike looked like something out of a men’s magazine. A beige sports coat rested on his broad shoulders, contrasting with a dark brown shirt open at the throat. His slacks matched the shirt and his shoes were soft leather loafers.
“May I come in,” he said.
“Oh sorry, of course,” I said.
He shook Dad's hand and said something to Mother that made her eyes shine.
“I’m here to ask permission to take Elizabeth out to dinner and a movie. If you approve. And if she wants to.”
“Liz, aren’t you going to say anything?” Mother asked.
I managed to draw my eyes away from Mike’s and said, “Yes.”
Dad said, “Lizzy doesn’t appear to know much about you. How did you two meet?”
Mike folded his hands in his lap.
“My father is a physician in Springfield. My mother is an attorney. I’m about to finish college with a journalism degree. I’ve been working as a radio disk jockey and a part-time television weatherman. We met at the spelling bee. I was the announcer.”
Finally the questions were over. Mike promised to have me back by eleven. Parked in front of our house was a maroon convertible with the top down. My parents stood on the porch. I heard Dad say, “Look at that car, just look at that.”
We were out of town in no time and breezing down Interstate 55 toward Springfield.
“I thought we’d stop at Carletta’s and have dinner before we go to the movie. We have plenty of time.”
Near Springfield, it was one of those places you took people to impress them.
“Why me?” I asked.
I’d been trying to get up nerve enough to ask the question for the last five minutes.
“I’m twenty-three years old, thinking about settling down, and I fell in love with you at the spelling bee. I can’t explain it. You’re different and so, well, maybe I shouldn’t say it.”
“Well, I never saw any woman look more sexy than you did with your hair so wild and free. Your image followed me around like a happy cloud.”
He called me a woman and sexy. I knew what he meant by falling in love so quickly. I’d done the same thing. What if he changed his mind after he got to know me? The food and service were excellent. The waitress called him Mister Shane. He charged the meal on a credit card and the waitress thanked him for what must have been a generous tip.
The movie? Harrison Ford was in it. And somewhere after the first few minutes Mike held my hand. He kissed me on the porch after he brought me home at ten minutes to eleven.
“I’ll call you,” he said as he waved good-bye from the side of his car. Was I dreaming? I looked around to make sure it was my house.
Saturday we went on a picnic. It was raining by the time we got to an isolated grassy area beside a small stream a few miles out of town. Tall elm and oak trees formed a canopy over the grass but eventually rain dripped through the foliage.
We sat on a blanket and ate sandwiches and drank champagne. It tickled my nose. He said, “Close your eyes.” I did. He took my left hand and slid a ring on my finger.
“Look,” he said. I looked. The stone in the ring -- I remember thinking it had to be imitation because it was so big -- sparkled as rain fell on it.
“Will you marry me,” he said, his voice strong, his eyes gazing into mine. They were blue, sometimes with a hint of green in them.
“Please say yes,” he said. He got up on his knees and put his hands together as if in prayer.
“Yes,” I said.
Later, when his kisses had completely disarmed me, we struggled out of our wet clothes. I hid the ring when I got home but that night, when I saw Millie, I wore it.
“I’m engaged to Mike Shane.”
“My God, Liz, are you really? After two dates? What a rock. Is it real?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”
Three days later, I hadn’t heard from Mike. I spent a lot of time in my room thinking about what I’d done and wondering if I’d ever see him again. He appeared at my house the fourth day right at supper time. Dad was annoyed, but Mother urged him to join us. He said he’d just eaten.
“I’ve got something important to discuss. Take your time, please. I’ll wait in the living room.”
Between bites of meat loaf and potatoes Dad said, “Something important to discuss with us?” He glared at me.
At last the meal was finished. Mother didn’t even clear off the table. We paraded into the living room. I sat on the couch beside Mike. Mother sat across from us in her knitting chair and Dad sat in his recliner.
Mike took my hand and held my ring finger. After a questioning look, he took a deep breath and said, “I’ve asked Liz to marry me. I gave her a ring, but she isn’t wearing it. I don’t understand.”
“I’ve got it right here,” I said. It was attached to a silver chain I wore around my neck. I pulled it from under my blouse.
Dad said I was too young. Mother smiled. Mike said he would have a full-time job at the station when he got his degree and that he hoped we could get married then. Somehow, after lots of questions and discussion, it was agreed that I could marry him.
The wedding was a mother’s dream. Wedding gown, garter, brides’ maids, all the trimmings in a huge Springfield church. We met Mike’s parents, of course, and lots of his friends, including young women. Finally all the innuendoes, the toasts, the dancing and drinking ended. Mike and I slipped away while the partying continued.
Our wedding night was so fabulous I won’t even try to describe it. We started our married life in Mike’s four-room apartment. The days flew by. Morning sickness and the growing size of my stomach were unpleasant, but Mike was considerate and complimented me on how my face had taken on an angelic glow.
One day Mike’s father visited while Mike was at work and said, “This place looks better than the last time I saw it. Mike never learned to pick up his clothes.”
“I know,” I said.
“I’ll come right to the point, got to get to the hospital. I’ve started a bank account in your name.” He handed me a black bank book.
“Mike has no fiscal responsibility. There’s four-thousand dollars in the account. Three thousand of it you’ll have to use to pay off his credit cards. They still come to our house.” He handed me five credit-card bills. “Just pay them off without saying anything to him. I’ll add a thousand dollars to your account each month. You manage the money. There’s no sense in my keeping the money until I die. I’ll talk Mike into getting rid of those damned credit cards.”
A few days after that I had cleaned the apartment, washed the dishes and done the laundry. I was folding clothes on the kitchen table when I started crying. The thought of taking care of a baby and Mike overwhelmed me. I was so tired. I was in bed when Mike’s, “Liz, where are you?” woke me. He came into the room and sat beside me.
“Do you know what day it is?” he asked. His eyes glistened.
“Thursday, isn’t it?”
“It’s May 28.”
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. May 28th?
“The day we met. The word for you is beautiful,” he said.
“Oh, I’ll bet.”
“Spell your word, please, Miss.”
“Congratulations. You are this year’s spelling bee winner.”
“What’s the prize?” I asked.
He opened a small, black jewelry box and displayed diamond earrings.
“These are for you to wear tonight when I take you to dinner at Carletta’s,” he said.
The years rolled by. He remembered every time. The fourth year, after I had thrown a fit when he bought a new convertible, my spelling word was “frugal.” I spelled it and pouted.
“I know you expected something better than frugal,” he said. “I made a mistake. That wasn’t your word, the word for you is sensual.”
I spelled it and said, “At least that’s more romantic.”
“And because you’re so sensual, so beautiful, so loving, so so, I . . . well here.”
He handed me the keys to the convertible. I tried to give them back but he wouldn’t take them. I retrieved my purse from the kitchen table and handed him the keys to our ten-year-old Chevy sedan. We laughed and hugged each other.
My small two-ring binder eventually had twenty-one cards in it, my spelling word for each of the years.
That last year Mike sat beside my bed in the hospital after our daughter had left to get some sleep. I shuddered to think how I looked, I’d lost all my hair because of the chemo.
Mike said, “I know you’re not asleep.”
I opened my eyes and said, “You don’t know what day it is, do you?”
“Wednesday, isn’t it? ”
“It’s the anniversary of the day we met,” I said, “and the word for me is grateful. G-R-A-T-E-F-U-L.”
Bob Liter is a retired journalist. Renaissance E Books – renebooks.com -- has published eight of his novels. He may be contacted at bobliter.verizon.net