The Last Word (A Short Story)

I love crossword puzzles. The labyrinth of letters keeps me company— a distraction, a small reprieve from the throes of life. But I’ve only ever completed a few. I become bored or frustrated, and I crave a fresh page full of empty squares. I’m too proud to flip to the back of my booklet. As in most situations, I’d rather find my own answers. Why should I cheat myself out of the thrill?

You hated my crosswords— said I should spend time with you instead. But now I’m in “the zone,” and I push your pouting face out of memory.

The lamplight stains the paper. I begin the puzzle, confident, composed— I write in pen. At first, I fly through the words. No. 4 down- “professional pig-wrestling.” I think of law. Whoever thought to compare those two things was doing the pigs a serious disservice. No. 5-“Saxophonist Parker.” It’s Charlie Parker, whose arduous, golden tone displaces my thoughts and swallows the eggshell walls of my apartment. No. 6 is “trivial”- like this crossword, like the word itself, like my existence and your musings.

Then, a certain clue catches my eye: “a state of perfect peace.”

I remember your obsession with Nirvana, this happiness that was supposed to transcend all secular pleasures. But I am a cynic, a realist, if you will, so I laughed in your face. “Nirvana must be a gentle word for insanity.” Still, this dream of yours disturbed me. I didn’t want you to reach it, to leave me behind. And as long as I was here to anchor you to this world, you could not.

No. 3 across reads: “flew too close to the sun.” If you were Icarus trying to reach the cosmos, I was the inferno that scorched your wings and melted your dreams like the wax beneath your feathers.

Other words flood the page in angular script, and with them the images.

“Everlasting”- An apple spinning on a pretty green axis; the world at our fingertips

“Leaves”- The eye of your camera shutting on an autumn landscape

“Electric”- The smell of wet concrete, the warmth of your hand in rain

“Pious”- How often I thought of you each day

“Prudence”- something we both lacked

“Ephemeral”- The joys of youth, the pleasure of company

“Existence”- I breathe vapor on the window and sign my name, so that I don’t disappear

“Accident”- Icarus falls, time stops, and everything ends

The word “Flashback” sweeps me off the couch. I step into the hospital-bright sterility of your room, dodging the blank glazes of other patients; heads swivel in my direction like marionettes on a single string. My eyes fall on your solitary form, and I go numb— no fear, no anxiety, little thought. I contemplate the whiteness of the walls and how nice you looked in red. No. 60 down is “atlas,” like your body: a map of dark legions as foreign continents, a pallid swell of ivory skin. Some twenty-thousand leagues below, the heart still beats. For its sake, I would pollute the world with my shallow words; I would riddle my tongue with comforting lies.

No. 86 across- “rigor mortis.” You don’t move. Your smell clean and impersonal, like iodide, like the bead of discharge from a syringe; the scent is not your own. Nirvana draws closer; I still don’t want you to reach it, but how can I see you in pain?

“They say we create our own loneliness,” you whisper. How true.

My guilt spreads in two directions. You only give your jade dragon’s grin, as forced as a design in wet plaster. I pull the plug. The universe flat-lines onto a single note, dissolves into the steady horizon on the monitor.

Between “Love” and “Transgression,” I fit “Contrite.” But I’ve held my ballpoint to the paper for too long; the ink bleeds. When I begin again, each push of the pen is more difficult, as if you’ve clasped your hand over mine and locked the words in. You won’t let me write; closure is as far off as eternity. In this moment, my life is this puzzle. I am inexplicably unable to move forward.

The key lies in 54 Down. The final clue reads: “Redemption.” The idea seems so abstract, so hard to comprehend. In misaligned letters I try to squeeze in “Forgiveness,” but there are only seven squares– -not enough room to be forgiven. I search my petty crossword-puzzle vocabulary, but to no avail; I can’t grasp the word. I give up and close my book; my name fades from the window, an apple stops spinning, the shutters of a camera freeze in mid-blink, your jade dragon’s grin is crushed to a fine talc, and Charlie Parker’s saxophone tapers off into silence. Alone again…

I don’t think I can ever finish a single crossword.

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