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Excerpt from

Spell This!
Andrew Killmeier

Pintar Das steps up to the microphone. He is a short boy—ten years old, thick black hair and an oversized pair of glasses. He wears the Scripps National Spelling Bee placard around his neck. He is speller number 87. Pintar fumbles with the mic stand, using his clumsy hands to adjust the gooseneck to his height. Eleven-year old Sandy Fields (speller 154) had gone before him. She is at least a foot taller than Pintar. All the kids refer to Sandy as "the giraffe."

When he is satisfied with the placement of the mic, Pintar taps the metal diaphragm to test the connection. A brief blast of ear-splitting feedback rips through the large auditorium. The grimacing soundman quickly mutes the PA to kill the noise. He brings the volume back up slowly. Pintar smiles nervously, then clears his throat. He is ready for his word.

Ryan Poundstone, the annunciator, checks the pages on the desk before him for the next word on the list. The judges and officials of the contest sit on either side of him. They look grim and proper, dry. Ryan adjusts his glasses, scans the page one last time to double check the pronunciation, and then, much like Pintar, he clears his throat. He leans forward over the pages and dictionaries to bring his mouth close to his microphone.

"Cavernosum," he says clearly and evenly.

The word seems to physically affect Pintar. As soon as it is pronounced, his ears wiggle to pick the syllables out of the air. His forehead contracts ever so slightly as if the letters are physically formulating themselves directly below the surface of his skin. His eyes close briefly. His lips move with ghost whispers of the word.

"Cavernosum?" he asks, taking his time.

"Caver-nosum," Ryan repeats in the same even tone.

Pintar repeats the word a few more times to himself, trying different stresses and cadences. He is searching for the right one, the key. It's like the peg toys he had when he was younger. You learn to fit the square peg in the square hole, the round peg in the round hole, the star-shaped one in its own special place and so on. Words are the same way. You just have to turn them around a few times until they fall into a slot.

"Cavernosum," he says again. "What's the origin of the word?"

Ryan glances at the page.

"From the Latin caverna or cavus meaning hollow."

"And could you use it in a sentence please?" Pintar asks.

Ryan reads: "The doctor told Frank that his recent personal problems were most likely psychological because he could find nothing wrong with his corpus cavernosum."

This does not help Pintar. He stares ahead into the far distances of the auditorium. The bright foot lights glare off the thick lenses of his spectacles. His lips continue to open and close softly as if he is whispering to himself. He still searches for the key.

"And could you read the definition please?" he asks.

Ryan consults the page once again.

"From Corpus Cavernosum. A mass of erectile tissue with large interspaces capable of being distended with blood; especially: one of those that form the bulk of the body-," Ryan stops short. The grey judges turn to stare at him. The crowd awaits anxiously. Ryan decides to continue: "those that form the bulk of the body of the penis or of the clitoris." When he is finished reading the definition, Ryan's face is slightly crimson.

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