On entering the chthonic tenebrity of my favourite den of iniquity, I spied Maury on a bar stool, gazing at his iPod, apparently spellbound, earphones jacked in. I ambled up.
“Mind if I join you for a spell?”
He looked up at me. “That’s just what she said.” He did not indicate any present person. I surmised that her absent position might have something to do with his present disposition. “I said ‘O.K.,'” he sighed. “I should have said ‘N.O.'”
I saw that he was watching a video. He held up the iPod. “Do you know how many songs have ‘spell’ in them? And how many people have done ‘I Put a Spell on You’ and various songs called ‘You Put a Spell on Me’?”
I looked at his screen. He had a playlist including Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Nina Simone, and Diamanda Galás for the former, and some I hadn’t heard of before for the latter – The Lucky Cupids, Devil Doll, Kirka… I also noticed Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.”
“Are you trying to dispel the gloom?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “I’m just compelled. Funny… there’s no relation between the pel in compel (and dispel) and spell, but a magic spell tends to compel. And she put a spell on me.”
“Was this ‘she’ an abecedarian or an abracadabrian?” I asked.
“It’s all one. She told a tale so compelling… spelled it out. I took her word as gospel. But it was just a good story.” (Only Maury, in the depths of the blues, can make sophisticated puns: gospel comes from gód spell, Old English for “good story,” a translation of Greek euangelion.) “I saw the end of a dry spell coming, but, oh, she spelled the end, alright. She also spelled trouble – spelled disaster. And I let ‘er! I was under a spell.”
“Well, spill the beans,” I said. “How come you to be so spalled?”
But, although he knew I knew of his checkered romantic history, he was uninclined to tell of the spell checker. He gazed at his glass of J&B, which I surmised was far from his initial. “Only when the spell is finally broken will I have the will to spell it for you – will I even regain my words, man of letters that I am. And that will be a good long spell yet, I fear.” He emptied the glass. “And yes,” he said, “of course I know that spell meaning ‘length of time’ comes from a different Anglo-Saxon root than spell meaning ‘tell the letters’ and ‘magical incantation,’ both of which come from –”
“– the same Germanic root, meaning ‘tell,'” I said, nodding.
“Indeed,” he said. “Proving there’s no telling where words will lead.”