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Word Booth by Michael Landau

 

Michael Landau's previous claim to fame was as lyricist/bassist for the seminal post-postpunk band Forgotten Pasta. He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter and spends his time reminiscing about his curling days, DJing at WUNH-FM, and appreciating Bernie Sanders.

In the center of town was a square, and in the center of the square was a huge green lawn, and in the center of the lawn was a booth. Six feet wide, it was a long table with pieces of cheap wood fastened to the front and sides, giving the illusion of something solid. Two poles on either end of the table supported another piece of wood stretched between them, creating a makeshift marquee. All of the wood pieces were painted bright yellow. The marquee read, in bright blue paint, “Words 5¢.” On the lower piece, the front of the booth, were the words “The word dude is IN.”

Arlin, upon seeing the booth for the first time, was not the first person to think of Lucy’s psychiatric booth in the old Peanuts comic strips. This, he would learn later, was the intended effect. They’d just moved to town and were taking an afternoon stroll.

“What’s that?” he asked Susan.

“Oh, that’s the word booth,” she said. She said this in a way that made it seem like word booths were common on town squares everywhere, which Arlin did not think was true.

“What is it… for?”

“I guess you can get definitions for a nickel. At least, that’s the general idea as I understand it.” Susan did not seem to find the booth interesting in the slightest.

“You’ve never been?”

“To the word booth? No.”

“Why not?”

“Why pay a nickel for a definition when I can get one in the library for free? Or I can look it up on dictionary.com and get definitions from a whole bunch of dictionaries.”

“Won’t some of them be wrong, though?”

Susan struck her exasperated look. “There are wrong dictionaries out there?”

“Well, you said you could get definitions from a whole bunch. Wouldn’t some of them have to be wrong?”

“Arlin…”

It was easy to see how she’d be frustrated, but Arlin thought these were good, serious questions. It wasn’t his fault that he’d been laid off a month after she’d quit Strontium Satellite LLC in order to become the Outreach Coordinator for the local SPCA. It was just unfortunate timing.

“They’re all essentially the same thing,” she said. “It’s just the phrasing.”

Arlin couldn’t imagine how they could be the same thing if they were different. Of course, he understood the concept of synonyms, even if he was just an engineer. But words that were similar weren’t the same. That would be like saying current in an electrical system is equivalent to air flow in a pneumatic system. They’re similar, but they’re not the same.

He looked over at the booth. The shabby man behind it had his feet propped up on the counter and he leaned far back in his chair.

“Come on,” said Susan. “We don’t need any words right now.”

.  .  .

The next afternoon Arlin went back.

Susan would be at work, which made it a logical time to go, and Arlin knew she habitually took lunch at her desk, but it would be just his luck for her to come downtown today. Not that there was anything wrong with him going, but if he did, and she saw him, that would lead to a conversation, or a hassle.

The man sat behind the booth, hands clasped behind his head. He seemed to be closely examining a passing cloud. Arlin wondered how he’d phrase what it was he wanted.

“Hi,” he said, holding up a nickel. “I need a word.”

“I’ve got those.” The man wore a gray t-shirt that said “Watertown Recreation Department” in green letters, jeans, sandals. He could have been anyone out for a walk, were he not clearly in charge of this booth.

“I need a word to describe a situation,” said Arlin.

“Go on.”

“You know when you’re feeling like you’re at a crossroads, and you don’t know whether to turn right or left?”

“I do.”

“What do you call that?”

“A lot of things. A critical juncture, a turning point, the moment of truth.”

“But is there one word that would fit?”

“Hmmm.” The word dude lit a cigarette. He thought for a moment. “How about climacteric?”

Arlin blinked.

“It’s originally from the Latin climactricus, ‘of a dangerous period in life.’ The more modern definition would be ‘a critical stage, period, or year.’ Assuming your hypothetical crossroads is critical, of course.”

 “I’ve never heard of a climacteric,” said Arlin. “And that’s really what it means, a critical stage?”

“Absolutely. I could look it up, though, if you don’t believe me,” said the word dude, reaching for a book.

“No, no, it’s just… even if that book…,” he pointed to the American Heritage Dictionary in the word dude’s left hand, a dark blue dustcover with several rips in it, “even if that dictionary agrees, to the exact word, that climacteric means ‘a critical stage,’ aren’t there other dictionaries that will have different definitions, however slight?”

“Probably.”

“So how can you know the exact definition?”

He looked at Arlin. “Does it matter? You can only use one of them in your sentence.”

Arlin was puzzled. “So why not use the one you gave me?”

“Right.” The word dude put out his cigarette. Arlin put his nickel in the can with the coin slot that sat on the booth countertop. It landed with a hollow ting at the bottom of the can.

.  .  .

On the third consecutive day of visiting, there was an empty chair beside the booth. The word dude was doing the crossword from USA Today. Arlin knew Susan had a class somewhere nearby but he didn’t care. He’d done his daily search of the classifieds and he’d sent out three resumes. He could do what he wanted with the rest of his day.

“Morning,” said Arlin.

“Hey.”

“I brought you a coffee,” said Arlin, handing a cup across the counter.

“Swell,” said the word dude. “Did you bring a five letter word for boat?”

“Hmm.”

The word dude searched under the booth and pulled out a small cardboard box filled with sugar packets. He plucked two and held the box out to Arlin.

“Canoe?” offered Arlin, taking a packet.

“Swell,” said the word dude, filling in boxes.

“Can I sit down?”

“Absolutely.”

He then stirred his coffee and filled in another crossword box, probably a clue made easier by the addition of “canoe.” Arlin settled into the chair, which was orange and red and meant for the beach. There were only a handful of people milling about the lawn. Arlin had no real concept of what time it was. It was after noon and before six, he figured.

“So are you here every day?” Arlin asked, turning to the word dude.

“Absolutely,” he answered, not looking up.

“Weekends too?”

“No, man, my weekends are sacrosanct.”

Arlin was going to ask but he didn’t care enough to spend a nickel.

“Don’t you have, uh, weekend help or something?”

“Nah, but maybe someday,” said the word dude, looking up as though dreamily imagining the day.

.  .  .

Arlin’s visits continued, lasting longer each time. The word dude didn’t seem to mind. Customers were rare, perhaps one an hour.

One day, a man approached the booth with a cocker spaniel on a rhinestone-studded leash. He was older than the average visitor, who tended to be young and uncertain. He looked over 30 and seemed distracted.

“Can you tell me what ‘rapscallion’ means?” he asked, addressing the word dude.

“Rapscallion. Good one,” said the word dude, pressing his index fingers together into a steeple and looking up at the sky. This meant he was thinking, Arlin knew.

“Nice leash,” Arlin said to the man.

“It’s my girlfriend’s dog,” said the man. “The leash was her idea.”

“‘Rapscallion’ usually means a rogue, or a scoundrel,” said the word dude. “It’s, like, a combination of a rascal and a scamp. What’s the context?”

“The context is that my girlfriend called me it.”

“She called you a rap… rap what?” said Arlin.

“Rapscallion. I asked her what it meant and she said ‘look it up,’ not very nicely, either. So I took the dog and came here.”

“It doesn’t have anything to do with actual scallions,” offered the word dude.

“Okay,” said the man, “but why’d she use that word?”

“Hard to say,” said the word dude. “If she’s aiming in the scoundrel direction, that usually means ‘rogue,’ which can literally be interpreted as a deceitful person, or someone without scruples. Sometimes that’s in a playful sense, though. If she’s aiming more for rascal, that’s something different. That’s usually playful, though the word is probably from the Old French ‘rasque.’ meaning ‘mud, filth, dregs.’”

“Why do you know this?” asked Arlin.

“Years of experience,” said the word dude.

“I’m ‘mud, filth, dregs?’” asked the man, becoming agitated.

“Not necessarily,” said the word dude. “You may just be a man without principles. To her, that is.”

“Have you been deceiving her?” asked Arlin.

“Who are you?” asked the man, turning.

“Sorry, just trying to help. Was she really angry?” asked Arlin.

The man looked away. The dog sniffed around the booth. “Yeah.”

“Guys have been dealing with difficult women forever,” said Arlin sympathetically.

“Happens to all of us,” said the word dude. “No man treads this earth alone. We are all together, one generation taking up where the other generation left off.”

“Yeah, I guess,” said the man.

The word dude looked the man in the eye. “The first thing you have to do is turn around.”

“Turn around?” said the man. The dog found a dropped piece of doughnut and devoured it.

“Yeah. The future is that way. You need to face it with determination.”

“Okay,” said the man, a bit more confidently.

“Great,” said the word dude. “Five cents, please.”

The man turned away from the future and fumbled in his pocket for a nickel.

Arlin waited until the cocker spaniel man was gone to ask.

“Who said that? The bit about generations? Is that from Ecclesiastes?”

“No, Peanuts, man. Lucy.”

“Lucy said that? Have you memorized everything she ever said?”

“No. I keep a list here on the clipboard. The ‘turn and face the future’ stuff was hers, too.”

“You keep a list of stuff Lucy said?”

“Absolutely. Many people don’t really come for words, man, they come for wisdom.”

“And Lucy has all the wisdom?”

“Good as any.”

Arlin thought about that. The generations quote certainly seemed to cheer the cocker spaniel man. He reached over and took the clipboard.

“‘You are a seven-ten split in the tenth frame?’” read Arlin.

“Sports metaphors. Handy for a certain audience.”

“‘You are a missed free throw, a shanked nine iron, a called third strike,’” read Arlin.

“Obviously advice for Charlie Brown,” said the word dude.

“Sure,” said Arlin. “Who did she say this one to—‘living is living! Living is what counts! To live is to live! Living is what makes living!’”

The word dude pressed his index fingers together again. “Could be Charlie Brown, could be her brother Linus.”

“Maybe Schroeder,” said Arlin. He couldn’t remember if Schroeder ever went to the psychiatric booth, or even if he ever left his piano.

“Could be. I for sure don’t remember,” said the word dude. “Maybe it’s for you, man.”

.  .  .

By the following week, Arlin’s chair had moved behind the booth. He’d brought a cushion from home to make it more comfortable. He’d learned what else lay behind the counter (trail mix, a carton of Mild Sevens, recent issues of NME and The Nation, a “Yes and Know” invisible ink book about reptiles) and also that the word dude—real name Bernie Kabik—preferred Sumatra shade-grown coffee, with vanilla flavor syrup if they had it. The only reference books Arlin ever saw were the American Heritage Dictionary and a beat up copy of Strunk and White that he’d yet to see Bernie crack open.

He still had not told Susan about his regular visits. It never seemed to come up. At dinner, he continued to give her the daily job search report, but he made sure to tuck a specific question about her day at the end, so that she wouldn’t have time to ask a follow up, or worse, contemplate the actual time his completed tasks took.

A confused looking girl approached the booth. She wore pink sweatpants with the waistband rolled down a bit and a white tank top. This must have been that “sexy slob” look, figured Arlin.

“Um, I was wondering if you could help me with a word,” she said.

“Absolutely.”

“What does ‘bucolic’ mean?”

“Pastoral,” said the word dude. “Five cents, please.”

“I… I guess….”

“What’s wrong?” asked Arlin.

The girl looked scared. “I knew that. I mean, that’s what the dictionary said. But I don’t really know what pastoral means, either.”

“Ah,” said the word dude.

“Pastoral’s like sheep,” said Arlin.

“It is?” asked the girl, looking at the word dude for approval, uncertain his assistant or whoever really knew what was up.

“It is,” he agreed, nodding appreciatively. “It’s all about life in the country, often idealized. A description thereof. Or a work that depicts that sort of thing. A literary work, that is.”

“Huh?” said the girl.

“But that’s not what it means when used as a definition for bucolic,” added Arlin.

“It isn’t?” said the girl.

“No,” said the word dude. “That one means, like, sheep.”

When the girl left Bernie went right back to his crossword. Arlin thought that she was the sort of girl who would have gone to trade school back in the day, before the world made college mandatory for all, even if they were only going to be assistant managers at Hardee’s.

“Maybe we could expand,” said Arlin.

Bernie looked up at the sky. “Yeah, man. Open another branch? Maybe out at the Capitol? We could become a chain.”

Arlin hadn’t thought of that. “I was thinking more in terms of what we could offer here, like maybe histories of words, or famous usages, or foreign spellings.”

“We could do that now, if someone asked,” said Bernie.

“But we’ll need more references.”

“Maybe a booth up at State U. I know some guys there.”

“I mean, Strunk and White alone isn’t going to cut it. I thought about borrowing Susan’s copy of Fowler’s, but she’d miss it for sure…”

“I know a dude up at Cal, too,” said Bernie.  “Well, he was there in ’98, when I last hitched through.”

“We should be able to get a thesaurus cheap. What’s a good version of a thesaurus? Actually, are they called versions? Or… makes? Editions?”

Bernie tapped his pencil on the table. “T-shirts are where the big money is….”

Arlin realized Bernie wasn’t listening to him. Maybe expanded offerings weren’t such a good idea. It seemed the word dude was more interested in the pecuniary aspects of expansion, anyway. But they could really provide better services. If they did that, they could up their fee. Maybe even double it.

“Um, Bernie, how much money does the word booth have at its disposal? What kind of assets does this place have right now?”

Bernie rattled the can. “Sounds like about a nickel.”

“You mean all we’ve got is today’s take? What about the last… how long have you been here?”

“About three years,” said Bernie. “But a man’s gotta live, you know? Rent’s not gonna pay itself. Shade-grown coffee doesn’t grow on trees. Not brewed, anyway.”

Arlin knew of a good used bookstore, but he doubted thesauruses—thesauri?—went for a nickel.

.  .  .

That night, over a fine Arlin-prepared dinner of red beans and rice with homemade cornbread, Susan let the other shoe drop.

“May told me she saw you downtown at the word booth today,” she said.

“Oh, yeah. I stopped by on my way home from the market. I was feeling a little peripatetic,” said Arlin.

“Was that right before lunch?” asked Susan.

Arlin sensed trouble. “Um, yeah.”

“That’s when she said she saw you,” said Susan. “Right before her meeting.”

Good answer, then, thought Arlin. Whew.

“She also said she saw you after her meeting.”

“Yeah, I stayed a while.”

“Her meeting was three hours long,” said Susan.

“Wow. Time sure does fly,” said Arlin.

“She said you have your own chair.”

Arlin didn’t know why he couldn’t just tell Susan, straight out, that he’d spent the last five weeks sitting at a booth in the center of town with a man society would call a homeless drifter, dispensing definitions and occasional Lucy Van Pelt quotes to random strangers for a nickel apiece. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t even the one earning the nickels (although Bernie had graciously bought them both cherry Italian ices from the vendor at the end of the day: a reward, Arlin imagined, for his innovative, entrepreneurial vision of expanded offerings), but he knew it was more than that. He knew Susan would think it was ridiculous, a waste of time, even though the idea of the word booth was much closer to her passions (Jane Kenyon, those NPR shows with Ira Glass, crocheting doilies, and cartoon elephants) than his usual work designing circuit boards.

“You certainly are perspicacious today,” said Arlin.

“Working through the Ps, are you, Arlin? Is that how you’re spending your afternoons? Why haven’t you told me about this?” She waited for his answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t put my finger on it, exactly.”

.  .  .

That night, Arlin took a walk across town. He didn’t intend to go to the booth, but he wound up there. The large oak tree looked genuinely spooky in the moonlight. Its branches loomed over the lawn like tentacles, the gatekeeper to knowledge. He sat in the word dude’s seat, feeling the overnight dew making the seat of his pants damp. Damp buttocks aside, it seemed like the perfect night for Arlin to contemplate his life. There were so many things to consider. Susan. Unemployment. His mother, living social security check to social security check, alone with the squirrels in Eugene, Oregon. Susan. The word booth.

The word booth. No spurious venture, this. In some ways, Arlin felt the booth epitomized plain wisdom. It promised answers, simple ones. But it provided them with a touch of humanity. The word booth was more than just another answer provided by a Google search. No, it was service with a smile, a gentle laugh, and a discussion on word origins, roots, and colloquialisms, if one were so inclined. Was it the concept or the camaraderie that drew people to the word booth, to the tune of a dozen or so per day? Arlin couldn’t say. He was just an engineer—the only sort of attraction he understood was electrical.

But he, too, felt something for the booth, the way one retains fondness for the general store as opposed to the supermarket, for sports on radio rather than TV, for using the bank teller instead of the ATM. He sat in the word dude’s chair and inhaled the scent of the good old days.

“Excuse me?”

Someone, surely underage, broke him out of his reverie. Arlin struggled to make out the speaker. He was young and bedraggled looking, holding something—a brown bag?—that looked to contain a bottle.

“We’re closed,” said Arlin, hoping that would be enough to make the drunk go away.

“Knock knock,” said the guy. His shirt was untucked.

“We’re closed.”

“Knock, knock.”

“Fine, who’s there?”

“Tequila.” The guy gave his brown bag a shake.

Arlin sighed. “Tequila who?”

“Tequila mockingbird.”

Arlin laughed in spite of himself as the drunk staggered away.

.  .  .

On Monday, the booth was gone.

Arlin stood at the edge of the quad and blinked. He must have been standing there a while, because a young guy in an orange basketball jersey approached him.

“He’s gone, man. He split,” said the kid in the jersey.

“Maybe he’s out sick,” said Arlin.

“The whole booth’s gone, man,” said the kid. And except for a small patch of grass that was even a lighter green than the rest of the parched square, no evidence of the booth existed.

“Hunh,” said Arlin.

“I heard the cops busted him for dealing. Might be a good idea to steer clear in case they pick you up too. Heck, I shouldn’t even be talking to you, you’re an accomplice,” said the kid, looking around fervently.

“Dealing… words?” asked Arlin.

“No, dumbass, weed. Plus pills. Oxycontin, Percoset, Ritalin. You know, man, don’t pretend you don’t. You’ve been his right hand man for weeks.”

Arlin blinked. “I didn’t hand out pills… only definitions.”

“If you say so.” The kid walked away, still scanning for cops, the blue 16 on his jersey receding into the mass of lunchtime workers crossing the square.

Arlin walked slowly to where the booth had stood. He sat on the grass where his chair once had been. The booth was gone. He couldn’t remember seeing any Oxycontin. Or any pills, really. Aspirin, even. Not that it mattered. If Bernie was really gone—if Bernie was really his name—he’d have to find something else to do with his afternoons.

As he sat there, the ‘pastoral’ girl approached him. This time her sweatpants were orange. Arlin looked up at her and said nothing.

“Are you guys not open today?” she asked.

“I guess not,” said Arlin.

“A girl in my Sociology class said that guy who worked here got a job in Seattle with Microsoft, making computer dictionaries or something.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I guess he was really smart or something,” said the girl, not sure if she believed it.  The crowd was thinning as it approached nine o’clock. Arlin could see a police officer across the square, near the Nebald Building, but he didn’t seem to be looking Arlin’s way.

The girl looked down at him. “So are you going to keep the booth going? I was kind of hoping to find out what ‘winsome’ means.”

Charming, thought Arlin, usually in a childlike or naïve way.

“Um, he took the dictionary,” Arlin said instead.

“Oh,” said the girl. “Bummer.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, if you end up getting a new one, I’ll be by here on my way to Psych tomorrow, so I’ll look for you.”

“Great,” said Arlin.

As the girl walked away towards downtown, Arlin shifted his gaze straight ahead. That’s when he saw the envelope on the trunk of the oak tree. He stood up and walked over to it. The envelope was duct-taped to the tree. In pencil on the outside it was labeled “Amigo” and Arlin knew it was for him, so he pulled the tape away from the bark, working carefully so as not to rip the envelope or its contents.

Inside was a note in a scrawl he took to be the word dude’s:

AMIGO: HEADING WEST TO WORK ON EXPANSION PLANS. MIGHT SEE THAT GUY IN BERKELEY. KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING. AS LUCY SAYS, ‘TRY TO LIVE IN-BETWEEN.’ SYDNEY OR THE BUSH, MAN.
-B.

So that explained everything. Either Bernie was under arrest, or in Seattle working for Microsoft, or hitching up the Pacific Coast Highway. Three possible definitions, none similar.

.  .  .

When Susan came home from her women’s book group the following Tuesday, Arlin was waiting for her on the front porch. They’d rented an older house with a huge porch featuring a swing. Real estate agents were always sticking business cards in the mail slot asking if they wanted to put the house on the market. Cats regularly traipsed across the lawn to flop on the porch as if they owned the place. For five consecutive weekday afternoons, Arlin had sat on the porch and watched the leaves roll across the lawn, kids on bikes pedal down the road, joggers flash across his sightline.

“Enjoying the porch tonight,” said Susan from the walk.

“Yep. I’ve got an interview tomorrow,” said Arlin.

“Really?”

“Yeah. DeLonghi needs someone to design toasters.”

“That’s great.” Susan remained on the walk. He could tell she was happy, or relieved, or both.

“They’re going to have a southwestern theme. On the outside, not the circuitry, of course. It’s better than some gigs. My old roommate Matt is designing hand-held biological weapons sensors, which sounds cool, but it turns out it’s a bitch.”

“Of course.” Susan smiled.

They looked at each other. Finally, she ascended the porch stairs and sat beside him on the swing.

“I’ve noticed your friend in the booth hasn’t been around,” she said.

Arlin tried to sound nonchalant. “Yeah.”

“Where is he?”

“Oh, he had to go to Seattle,” said Arlin. “To see a friend… who’s in trouble with the law, apparently.”

“That’s a long trip.” Susan turned to him. “When will he be back?”

“Don’t know when, or if.”

They looked out at the street together. A breeze blew through the wind chimes making uneven ringing sounds.

“Well, I hope you get the job,” said Susan.

“Yeah,” said Arlin. Toasters, if not a growth industry, were unlikely to become obsolete. People liked toast. If toast was the future, he’d have to turn and face it with determination.

“I was worried you’d have to start your own word booth,” said Susan.

“Yeah, me too,” said Arlin. He looked at his wife. “But, you know, living is what makes living.”