The two elder statesmen file through the café door, ready for battle amid the sounds of jazz that spills from the speakers, blending with the intoxicating waft of coffee.
For several seasons, they have entered faithfully on Monday and Thursday mornings prepared to battle. Theirs is a battle of words. Words mostly formed from the letters inside a box that Jerome Roberts, a former U.S. Marine, carries in a star-spangled cloth bag for his twice-weekly wars with his friend Alex Boyd.
Words that emanate from within their heads in what both men say has become a ritual that helps refresh, if not also stimulate, their minds. Words like “hurled,” “dimmer,” “fist,” “thickens,” “wiles,” “id,” “zig,” “extras,” “nervy,” “quoin.”
Quoin — as in “an external angle of a wall or building; a wedge or expanding mechanical device used for locking a letterpress form into a chase.” (I had to look it up.)
The two men occasionally check the validity of each other’s words with a turned lip and raised brow on an electronic gizmo that looks like a calculator. Big words. Little words. Words like “od.”
“That’s a lot of points for that. That’s a lot of points for that, o-d,” one man says, his words rinsed with sarcasm.
“You whining, or what?” the other quips.
The two men chuckle.
The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary is laid out on a glistening wood-top table. Boyd stabs the digits of his electronic dictionary, appearing deep in thought. The routine is always the same.
At his turn, each man finally peels square letters from their narrow kiosks and lays them on the board to form a new word. Then he reaches into his cloth bag and blindly pulls more letters for his next turn.
The two friends, both with salt-and-pepper hair sprouting from beneath their caps, have sat for hours at a table for about a year now. They wrestle with letters, strategizing, blocking, and counting up their scores as morning slips into afternoon.
Roberts, 67, wears brown-rimmed spectacles and is philosopher-like. Boyd, 70, is tall and regal with a good sense of humor. A former college basketball star, he is a pragmatist, like his friend. Both men have a penchant for poker on Wednesday nights.
For their Scrabble matches, Roberts serves as scribe, penning the scores with a black pen on white notebook paper. It is intense, like a chess match.
And the way they play is sometimes gamey, like one-on-one basketball, with a verbal elbow thrown here and there, just for good measure. It is braggadocios, like a game of bid whist, where one’s gamesmanship includes being quick-tongued.
Mostly, they are poker-faced as the Scrabble board unfolds before them. Eventually marked by a crisscross of words, each game takes on a different shape in between sips of coffee, a nibble from a cheese Danish and friendly banter.
Sometimes the silence in between forming words is broken by a spectator. But it is mostly unimpeded by the goings-on that surround them on their Scrabble isle.
“I don’t know why I send myself through this,” Roberts says, smiling wryly during a match.
Boyd laughs. “I’m a good brother,” he fires back.
“I’m not saying you’re not a good brother,” Roberts says. “I’m saying I don’t know why I send myself through this…”
They do know.
It’s the company. The camaraderie. The idea that friends who have known each other just 10 years could seem to know each other for a lifetime, could find solace in something so simple, even as time and life stake their claim.
And the best four-letter Scrabble word I have learned from them? “L-I-V-E.”