It was games night at Ellen’s, and she had assembled a motley crew of erstwhile musicians: her friend Candace, her friend Andrea, plus Goldfarb and his new, we thought, girlfriend, Grace. We were supposed to play a game Ellen liked which had some passing resemblance to Pictionary.
I don't know where it came from. As far as I knew, we were the only people who played it. We were like a lost Amazonian tribe.
As usual, we had dinner first so didn’t get started until well after midnight—most of the crowd disinterested and, those who weren’t, drunk. That included Ellen, who, despite having played over a dozen times, seemed to have forgotten the rules and couldn’t manage to do much more than distribute the torn pieces of paper and pencils.
I appointed myself as moderator and called out the first, and what would ultimately be the only, word. The idea was to make up a definition of this fake word. We would then guess who made up which definition. Believe me, it is more fun than it sounds.
Anyway, my made-up word was: Tulatski.
Tulatski. I can’t tell you why I picked it. It was random.
This would have been the time when people started writing their answers, but then someone started strumming a guitar, and then another started beating a bongo, and pretty soon I had lost the crowd completely. I looked over at Ellen, shrugged my shoulders, and tried my best not to make an I-told-you-so face. She giggled and refilled her glass.
The musicians began to make their way to the basement. I didn’t play and couldn’t sing worth shit. Besides, it really wasn’t my scene, so I decided to go home.
Goldfarb and Grace were leaving too. We said goodbye at the door and did the usual nice to meet you hope to see you againritual. Then Grace handed me her torn piece of paper. On the top she had written ‘tulatski’.
Her definition was: ‘Remembering a clever or witty comeback five minutes too late’.
I looked up at her and smiled.
“I pronounce it with the hard A,” she said, smiling back. “Toolateski.”
“Very clever,” I said. “Too bad we didn’t get to play. You would have been good at it.”
“We still had a lot of fun,” she said with a wide grin. “I think the quality of your wine helped.” Then Goldfarb, who hadn’t said much of anything all night, said, “Trepverter.”
Grace and I looked up at him, and he repeated it.
“Trepverter. It is Yiddish. It literally means stair words. Thinking of a witty comeback when you have already walked down the stairs. The French call it l’esprit de l’escalier. There is no equivalent word in the English language.”
“Until today,” laughed Grace. “Tulatski.”
“That’s right,” answered Goldfarb, not laughing or smiling. “Until today.”
Goldfarb was not sure if he believed in love. He maybe loved Amanda. He probably loved Amanda. No, he definitely loved Amanda. And now he had these feelings for Grace. He had been thinking about giving her something but had struggled with what. He had read that you could name a star after a loved one for $100. It sounded romantic. Had even gone online to research it. But the more he researched, the more he realized everyone was doing it. It was unique. But not unique enough.
He wasn’t going to give her a star.
He was going to give her a word.
Goldfarb had no idea how he was going to make it happen. But he knew who could.
Or at least, who would try.
That was the thing about Lewberg. He took his friendships very seriously. He gave as good as he got.
Goldfarb did not have 100 friends. But if he did, and if he called them and said he wanted to give his girlfriend, Grace, a word, 99 would tell him he was out of his fucking mind.
But not Lewberg.
Lewberg would almost always say the same thing. It really didn’t matter what you asked, because Lewberg would always reply, “I think I’ve got a guy.”
Lewberg answered, as he always did, on the first ring. If the phone rang twice, it probably meant Lewberg was dead.
Goldfarb explained his situation.
Lewberg did not say, “I think I’ve got a guy.” Instead, he said, “What’s the word?”
Goldfarb said, “Tulatski.” Pronouncing it, like Grace, with a hard A.
Lewberg said, “Tulatski?”
And Goldfarb said, “Yeah.”
Lewberg said, “Spell it.”
Goldfarb spelled it.
Then Lewberg asked, “What is it supposed to mean?”
“Ah, like trepverter. I love that word.”
Goldfarb was impressed. He had never seen Lewberg read. Never seen him with a book.
“Yes. English language doesn't have a word for it. I want to create one.”
“Isn’t it a little on the nose?”
Goldfarb could not disagree. It was a little on the nose.
“And maybe sounds like the punchline of a bad Polish joke? Are you married to the name?”
Again, Goldfarb had to concur. It is what it sounded like. But Grace had come up with the definition. It was now her word.
“Lewberg, I am married to the name.”
“Well, what about the spelling? I’m looking at it and hard-pressed to pronounce it with a hard A. Maybe you want to throw in a Y? I’m just saying.”
Goldfarb thought about it and then thought about the torn piece of paper Grace had written her initials and definition on. The torn piece of paper he was going to frame.
“I’m married to the name.”
“Okay, if you’re married, I’m married.”
And then Lewberg said the magic words: “I think I have a guy.”
Lewberg’s guy was not a guy, but a young, skinny African American woman in a leather motorcycle jacket, with purple dyed hair, Janice Joplin glasses, and a nose ring. She was out of central casting. Goldfarb and Lewberg met her in a vegan restaurant that still somehow managed to smell like an abattoir.
She had her nose buried deeply in a bowl of tofu and something that may or may not have been ramen noodles.
She didn’t introduce herself.
Finally, after finishing her soup concoction with a satisfied slurp, she looked up at Lewberg and said, “This makes us even, right?”
Lewberg smiled and said, “Even Steven.”
She nodded, wiped her mouth with the sleeve of her jacket, and pulled some crumpled paper from its inner pocket.
“This will get posted tomorrow,” she said, handing the paper to Goldfarb.
Goldfarb looked at the paper. It was an article. The title was, “20 New Words Introduced to Our Vocabulary This Year.” The author was Jackie Lamour. Goldfarb scanned the list. Some he knew. On-Brand, Buzzy, Cheesemonger. Some were foreign to him. What was Swole?
Number 17 was Tulatski.
‘Ever think of a witty comeback when it’s five minutes too late? That’s a tulatski.’
Goldfarb looked at Lewberg and then at the woman who called herself Jackie Lamour.
“How does this work?”
Jackie looked at Lewberg.
Lewberg nodded in her direction and said, “Tell him.”
“Gets posted on social media. Some real accounts, some fakes. Gets reposted by real people and by some bots. By a lot of bots. Eventually the real media picks it up. They love lists.”
“Isn’t it false news?”
“Hell no! That’s the most truthful article I’ve posted in two years! But hey, none of my business and all, but tulatski—that’s a little on the nose.”
A week had gone by, and a Google search was now bringing up thousands of hits for the word. Grace, however, was oblivious. Goldfarb didn't want to tell her. He wanted her to find out organically. He decided to wait a few more days and reassess. And now she wanted him to hang out at her apartment all afternoon, because the fridge repair guy was coming between 1:00 and 5:00 to fix the ice maker. Goldfarb didn’t get it. He used ice trays. But he didn’t want to start up.
Things had been a tiny bit off between them. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, so he wanted to be on his best behaviour. At least until the word hit. Then he would be golden. But now. Now he had to wait for the fridge repairman.
Goldfarb had invited me over to his house to play some backgammon. He had been a world-class player back in the day. He had some crazy stories about his gambling days. Some huge wins. Some big losses he could not pay. He had once actually shown me a story he had written in a Raymond-Chandler-type voice about one incident. But now he almost never played except for with Lewberg or me.
He gave us points in order to make it a bit of a game, but he still almost always won. I didn’t mind losing a few bucks to Goldfarb. He could use the money, and watching him move the pieces on the board was like watching art. We usually played on the dining room table, but he had set up the board on the couch in the den where he had his flat screen TV. The Cooking Channel was on, but he had the volume on mute.
Goldfarb wasn’t big on small talk. He let me know there was beer in the fridge and then established the number of points, wager and handicap. He didn't wait to hear if I agreed with the terms.
We had played three games, two gammons, and a conceded double before he spoke again.
“The weird thing is neither of us are ever at home at 4:00. You know?”
I had no idea but nodded my head.
“The fridge guy said he would come between 2:00 and 5:00 to fix the broken ice machine, and she asked if I could come over and be there for when he came. You know?”
I still didn’t, but I kept nodding my head.
“I’m going to double here,” he said, pushing the cube in my direction. I accepted even though I was way behind. I didn’t want to interrupt his flow.
“So then she shows up at 3:30. She said she got out early. But what bank teller gets out early? She came because she didn't trust me to stay.”
Ok, that offered some clarity, but not much. Grace, I knew, worked as a bank teller.
“Anyway, so we get into it. And she doesn’t deny it. As if fixing the ice maker is going to change her life. So then the repair guy comes, and we have this undeclared cease fire. It’s four o’clock, and she turns on Ellen, saying she never gets to watch this.”
Goldfarb was already taking off pieces, and it looked like I was going to suffer a doubled gammon. But at least I was beginning to understand the story.
“So we’re watching Ellen. She announces her guests. I think the Indigo Girls are the musical guests.”
“I like them,” I said.
“Yeah, me too,” said Goldfarb. “You want to play another?” He started setting up the board again before I could reply.
“So then Ellen starts talking about the 20 new words introduced into the vocabulary this year. And she puts up the article on the monitor. Then she walks into the audience, and then she asks the audience if they know the word for thinking of a funny comeback after the person has just left. And somebody yells out tulatski.”
“I made up that word,” I said.
“I know,” replied Goldfarb. “I was there.”
Now Goldfarb stopped playing. Something on The Cooking Channel had distracted him. He looked me in the eye and gently placed the die on the board.
“The whole thing is surreal. It is a Nora Ephron film that would never get made.”
“Back up,” I said. "This is the first time you see it mentioned?”
“No. I Google it every day. Thousands of mentions. Then hundreds of thousands of mentions.”
“Not once. Has no clue.”
“And you don’t tell her?”
“I want it to be organic. You know. I want it to be perfect.”
“Like on Ellen.”
“But it’s not perfect.” I was not asking. I was stating. I already knew the answer. Lewberg had told me everything.
"She looks at me like I’ve killed her cat and says, ‘What have you done?’
And so I say, ‘This is my gift to you. I gave you a word.’ And she says, ‘You gave me a word.’ And I say, ‘Yeah. Remember when we had games night at Ellen’s—the other Ellen—and you made up the definition? I decided to give you the word as a present.’
And she says, ‘You gave me a word?’ So I say, ‘Yes,’ but now I am beginning to realize that maybe this is not going the way I had hoped. So she says, ‘It’s on Ellen.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, pretty cool, right?’ But I know she doesn’t think it is cool. She then turns to me and says, ‘We have been dating only three weeks, Harold.’ So I say, ‘What does that have to do with it?’ And she says, ‘Three weeks. Three weeks is, I don’t know, a silk scarf. Maybe one you found on sale. It isn't a word.’
I say, ‘I thought you’d be pleased. I didn’t just want to get you a star.’ But she didn’t really know what I was talking about. She just kept shaking her head.”
I didn’t know what to say to Goldfarb. “Jesus. Jesus H Christ. And that was it?”
“She pays the fridge repair guy, he gathers his tools and leaves, and then she looks at me with these really sad eyes and says, ‘You can’t give someone a word, Harold.’”
“And that was it?”
“Yeah. And then I left.”
“Wow. You didn’t say a word?”
“No. What could I say? There’s no coming back from that. Another game.” He started setting up before I could answer. Then he said, “Scarves are nice.”
I said, “Yeah. Scarves are nice.”