The first person I ever saw light Fitler’s water on fi re was my old roommate Rich. The sight of flaming tap water scared the hell out of me but Rich was from Ohio and had seen whole rivers burn.
Like many great discoveries at our sad, cold boarding school in northeastern Pennsylvania, Rich made his by accident. He was smoking by the sink when the water burst into flames and an orange fireball shot up to the ceiling. In a flash, I thought about all the times I’d seen my friend fall asleep with a lit cigarette in his mouth. The time he stubbed one out but, then, flicked it out the window at a gas station. I won’t say it made sense that he could light water on fire. But I felt this must be it and that the fearless, foolish Richard Urlacher would finally be burned alive.
dude we r gonna rock this thing c u soon Richard Urlacher
It’s my fault that I got this message three months late. Too late to ask the Hale School for a different roommate. I got my own phone in June — a Jitterbug designed for senior citizens — and spent the summer feeling bad that no one had called me. Finally, I called the phone company and was told that all my calls and messages were going to a man named Crow.
My name is Winston Crwth and most people called me Win. The Crwths came to America from Wales a long time ago and most had the good sense to change their name to Crowther, Crow, or McWhorter. Crwth was ugly, awkward, and, most of all, boring because people assumed it must be a typo. Teachers who knew how to say things like “prix fixe” or “!tong” would stare at Crwth, shake their heads, and ask me to say my name.
“Crwth,” I’d say, “it rhymes with truth.”
“Oh, so with a u?”
“No, it’s with a w.”
I straightened things out with the phone company and was sitting in the car when I got Richard’s text. (My father was driving me to Hale for the start of my junior year, and my phone was almost drained from searching for a signal in the Endless Mountains.) I had been hazed at each of my last two schools — the thugs at Hannah Penn making fun of me for using “Scrabble words,” and the flakes at Clovis Friends publishing my Scrabble words in the school newspaper as if they were poetry — and now had a bad feeling that I would be hazed with rocks. Hale was in coal country and had just leased a lot of its land to Dark Oil & Gas. A school whose existence had always been precarious had suddenly struck it rich and had given me one of their new Dark Scholarships. Dark “fracked” for natural gas in the hills above the Hale School, and while I didn’t really know what fracking was, I knew it involved drilling through a mile or more of rock.
“Don’t worry,” my father said. “Texting makes all young people sound like idiots.”
“Dad, I don’t know, you used to say the same thing about email.”
“That email made Mom sound mad at you.”
“No, that was the phone,” he said.
My parents got divorced when I was six years old. Since then I had been living with my father in Philadelphia during the school year and spending my summers with my mother in San Francisco. My parents met at a Scrabble tournament, and sometimes it seemed like this word game was the only thing a friendly kid from Philly and a surly girl from Fog City had in common. Although, after their divorce, they both said the exact same thing about my suddenly fractured childhood — that growing up in Philadelphia and San Francisco would make me “cosmopolitan.”
I did not know what this meant and was too ashamed to ask. Thanks to Scrabble I knew a lot of words for a six-year-old, almost all of which had eight letters or less. (You get seven tiles at a time in Scrabble and words with more than eight are rare.) As a kid I loved the game because playing meant that my parents would not fight — or not fight with each other. Instead they would curse the Q or vilify the I or talk trash about Noah Webster himself for arbitrarily removing the u from words like “colour” and “humour” to make them more American. After their divorce I played in my room, against myself, because it was too painful to play against my parents anymore. I would read their words for some clue to what they’d done; and while I knew better than to take their words literally, I began to cry when my mother turned WIN into TWIN, as if she wished there were two of me and she could take one of us to California. Maybe it’s true that an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of keyboards will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. But you’d go mad reading all of their rough drafts, just as you’d go mad reading Scrabble as if the words have meaning.
Hale would be my third high school in the last three years and I was beginning to wonder if, instead of cosmopolitan, I was just a well-traveled fool. As a freshman, I went to the public school where my father taught U.S. history. Hannah Penn High smelled like a tuna fish sandwich and had a fiendish boiler that made the air so hot, so dry, that kids got nosebleeds and walked around with tissues crammed into their nostrils as if they’d all been in fights. I drank coffee and lay low with my father in the faculty lounge, and was doing fi ne until an older kid threatened to cut my tongue out if I used any more “Scrabble words” around his girlfriend. All I’d done was say “cwm,” which means “a valley in Wales,” but the kid thought it was some obscure part of his girlfriend’s anatomy.
After this, my father got a second mortgage on our house so I
could go to Clovis Friends, a Quaker school just north of Philadelphia. Clovis had a café instead of a cafeteria and served coffee its own students grew on trips to Costa Rica. Kids called teachers by their first names. I became the captain of their Scrabble “team.” Clovis Friends was one of just a few high schools in Pennsylvania with its own interscholastic Scrabble team — the Hale School for Boys was another one — but I put “team” in quotes because while these kids knew all the two-letter words, things like “aa” and “oe,” many did not believe in keeping score, or sticking to the rules and might just walk away in the middle of a game. Or they used their tiles to write dirty poetry, or play a kind of linguistic Twister in which they had to
T O N G U E
K I S S
or attempt other things that were anatomically impossible. Hannah Penn was rough but Clovis Friends was not rough enough, and I hoped with Hale that I was finally going to get it right.
“Maybe writing on his phone makes Richard sound like an idiot,” my father said. “Or maybe he really is an idiot. Girls all love his dad but I’ve never liked his stuff .”
“Stuff ?” I said.
“His father is the Pee-Ay poet l...