Paper Games

by Melanie L. Henderson

 

My favorite restaurants have brick fireplaces, soft lighting, decanters of oil and vinegar on every table—and lots of white paper and crayons at my fingertips. It must have been a full-spectrum hospitality genius who first pulled heavy white butcher paper, tarp-like, over white table linens in grown-up restaurants; there’s something delightful about a jumble of crayons at the foot of a slim vase with one long stem. The paper is a simple acknowledgement that life can be messy—but that’s nothing to be ashamed of; truth and beauty are affirming twins, not adversaries. That grand expanse of wide-open paper is an invitation to run out and play, even if you get a little messy.

As we settle into our seats around the blank canvas table, somebody warns nobody in particular to keep those crayons away from me: She’ll drag you into one of her word games. But they’re already passing the crayons.

I didn’t invent the game. I borrowed it from a lesser-known game show for which (I have to think) a bored committee in a conference room somewhere chose the flashy and combustible title, Chain Reaction. In fairness, word games aren’t known for being action-packed, so for the sake of television, I understand forcing a little flair. But for the sake of dinner out with friends and family, I want to call it something better than “The Word Game.”

• • •

I reach for a green crayon while someone scoots the oil and vinegar aside.

K O S H E R

D __ __ __

C __ __ __ __ __ __

I __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __

Q U O T I E N T

It doesn’t matter how long or short I make the first puzzle; someone says it’s too long or too short or demands confirmation that none of the words are too obscure. Yes, I promise. You know all the words and I’m sure you know how to spell them. Someone offers Dill!  and I reply, No, the “d” word isn’t “dill.” Or “diet.” They want a letter after “I.”

I N __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __

Hm . . . Now give us a letter after “D.” Then stop! They say. No more letters unless we ask.

D E __ __

 • • •

I’m in the habit of playing this game by myself with found time. Waiting at a red light, standing in line at the grocery store, sitting in the dentist’s chair, I’ll start linking pairs in my mind.

candy bar / bar code / code red / red square / square root / root canal

Just about anything can serve as inspiration.

county jail / jail bait / bait shop        [or maybe]         greeting card / card shark / shark bite  

But sometimes, random inspiration turns out to be inadvertently misleading:

G O L F 

C __ __ __  

S __ __ __ __ __ __ __

C O O K I E

If you see golf cart instead of golf club, you’ll never arrive at club sandwich. You might conclude that I miscounted the number of spaces, or that I’m misspelling something. (My ego, of course, is involved. No. I don’t misspell things.)

• • •

Over appetizers, the sequence filled in from top to bottom and bottom to top, but there was a hole in the middle:

K O S H E R

D E L I

C O __ __ __ __ __

I N T E L L I G E N C E  

Q U O T I E N T

Sometimes I’ll tear the puzzle from the paper tarp and spin it around for the other side of the table to solve while our side eats. If they solve it, they’ll scratch out their own puzzle and send it back for my side to solve.

• • •

I don’t want to call it “Chain Reaction,” but so far, “The Word Game” is the best I’ve got. It’s a worthy game, and it deserves distinct and legitimate identification. So I rough up a few alternates and ask for some feedback:

  • Think Link:   Sounds too “math-y” or tech-industry  =  evokes numbers, not language  =  misleading.
  • Crazy Chain:   Sounds too close to “Crazy Train”  =  Ozzy Osbourne  =  too rowdy (also misleading).
  • Pair Dare:   Sounds like you’re mis-pronouncing something in French, mon amie. Non.

I don’t like any of my ideas, either, and this bothers me. A lot. Someone who can come up with clever word game sequences on the spot should be able to come up with one decent name.

• • •

My dinner companions are sure the absent word is “company” (though this makes little sense) until I fill in the spaces during dessert:  C O U N T E R.  Ahh . . . “deli counter,” “counter intelligence”! The men slap their foreheads. They should have known. . . . Tom Clancy books and all that.

 

Then a server from another table happens to notice the crayon scrawl at my elbow.

“Hey! Is that like a word game?” He picks up a blue crayon. “Awesome! I love this stuff! Mind if I try?”

We nod, but I offer no explanation or instruction. (I figure seven, maybe ten seconds before he admits he can’t make sense of it and has to ask how to play.) He studies the sequence for about five seconds.

 

K O S H E R

D E L I

C O U N T E R

I N T E L L I G E N C E 

Q U O T I E N T

Then he leans in with his blue crayon and adds something at the bottom of the sequence, changing the ending.

 

Q U O T I E N T

G R A P H

Everyone else reads his addition out loud and smiles. They’re impressed. They congratulate the grinning boy, who drops the crayon and shrugs.

“I’m a math major. But that is a rockin’ lexicological mash-up!” The boy thanks us for letting him play and strides back to the kitchen.

 

And they all suddenly agree: The name of the game is officially “Lexicological Mash-up.” “Lex-Mash,” for short, they say. Or maybe just Mash-up.

Whatever.

 

We pay the check, empty our water glasses, complain that we ate too much. I find the math major’s intrusive G R A P H a little distracting, so I casually drape my napkin over it. I fidget; I scoop the crayons into a tidy pile. As everyone stands and shuffles toward the door, I linger. I push the napkin away. I reach for a red crayon.

I reclaim The Word Game.

 

Q U O T I E N T

 

G R A P H

P A P E R