Another Form of English
He was wasting his money. By now he should have been getting new crossword puzzles in the Leader Tribune, not repeats of what he’d already solved back East a month ago when they first appeared in The New York Times. The first clue he noticed in the current Trib’s puzzle was “[Six-letter word] Brennan from ‘Private Benjamin.’” It looked familiar, not the kind of clue that would appear more than once a decade, anywhere—unlike “Spanish bear” or “Spanish gold” or “Hockey’s Bobby [three-letter word beginning with O],” which appeared so often in dumbed-down puzzles in dumbed-down tabloids that Bobby Orr himself could not avoid looking at them, no matter what gated community’s illiterate monthly newsletter he subscribed to, featuring puzzles with nothing but three-letter words, his own name being the most prominent.
Aileen, Ailene, Ileane, Eileen.
His routine was to solve the three-letter words first: err and era and ore and ire. This helped with the longer words and the names of rap singers and Harry Potter characters he’d never heard of. As for these three-letter names—he cared more about the spaces that the names filled than about the person, often dead or forgotten. Bobby Orr and Mel Ott were more famous now for their recurrence in crossword puzzles than for their athletic prowess.
Actresses Ida Lupino and Uta Hagen and Uma Thurman. Vowel-consonant-vowel. Yoko Ono, incorrectly identified in the clue as a “singer.”
The clue for Ava Gardner often mentioned Frank Sinatra, the most famous of her husbands. “Frank’s wife [three letters}.” Eva Longoria was a problem—for anyone who thought her name was actually Eve, but if “Eve” were the answer, then there were better clues, such as “Second Person,” which didn’t require any belief in the Bible, just a superficial familiarity.
Forty years ago, that clue would not have worked. Forty years ago—indeed, centuries ago—who could have guessed?
He hadn’t watched “The Simpsons” since the Nineties. At one time, Ned Flanders had managed a store that sold only items for left-handed people.
He would have gone to the local library and saved money by photocopying just the puzzle page of the Times, but the library had cancelled their subscription, or there was a kink in the supply line due to year-long bad weather or general ineptitude. The latest edition on the periodical shelf was a Sunday Times magazine from three years ago—an ugly orange cover with ugly white letters spelling out the name of a plague that was no longer plaguing anybody in the civilized world—and he still remembered the puzzle from that week. It had a “lock-box” in the middle, a five-box square completely surrounded by a black border.
He had left the lock-box empty. There was supposed to have been a single clue that un-locked that box. He was clueless.
Ken, Len, Mel, Bob, Gig, Ned, Ron. Val, as in Kilmer; Jim, as in Morrison. Consonant, vowel, consonant. The usual male pattern, with four exceptions well-known to puzzle addicts: Ira, Idi, Ali, Ari.
His own name, Brad, seldom appeared in puzzles.
Brad would find a quiet place in the library tucked between endless shelves of newspaper microfilms and government documents, a place where nobody else sat, where the murmur of young people socializing or using their phones would be no more distracting than the hum of an air-conditioner. He would sit on a hard chair and do his puzzles. Later, after “Jeopardy,” he would call his mother, and give her a hint, first asking, “Have you filled in those long answers, the ones that stretched across the entire width? Sixteen boxes wide?”
“Not yet,” she would say. “The clues were awful.”
“Each answer is a string of four-letter words, in which one letter is changed as you move from left to right.”
“Okay, so far. Can you give me an example?”
“Well,” he said, “I’m not going to help you cheat on this puzzle—I’ve been doing too much of that lately—but an example would be something like, ‘Rent gent went west,’ where the clue could have read something like, ‘Real estate guy relocating to California.’ That kind of thing. I experi-enced very little pleasure doing it.”
“Word golf,” his mother said.
“It’s a game played by characters in a Nabokov novel.”
He couldn’t believe that his mother had ever read a Nabokov novel. She was ninety-eight years old, and her favorite author was Dorothy Sayers.
“On a golf course?”
“No, Brad,” she said. “On a sheet of paper, and the characters only talked about playing it. ‘Love’ to ‘Hate’ in as few strokes as possible. Think about it.”
That night he fell asleep thinking about it. He went from live to dead, though it wasn’t easy: live-hive-hire-hare-hard-herd-head-dead. Four over par. He wanted to recite the sequence to his mother so she could picture it; there were, after all, a couple of animal references in the sequence. It might fill an emptiness for her, the space between the two important words that now seemed to define her.
Love to hate, though. They already shared a letter in the same position.
The next day, clueless about romance, he asked his mother to tell him the quickest way between those two words, but she hung up on him. Not deliberately. The problem was that she often held her push-button phone too close to her wrinkled face, and her cheek would regularly activate the button that terminated the call. As she spoke, he could hear the sounds of a phone being dialed—bing, bing, bing—and occasionally, it would disconnect. He didn’t really care. His mother had another phone on her bedside table, the kind that you had to actually dial, the kind that would work during a power outage (her other phone was a cordless), and sometimes, if he called after nine in the evening, she would already be in bed, and pick up that particular phone call after one ring (instead of the usual six), and her voice would be clear and loud, as if it were 1960 and they were calling each other from adjacent rooms in the same house. A sultry voice. A deep alto, not at all raspy like Lauren Bacall or Ava Gardner or Lizbeth Scott, but more of a purr, as if his mother had a lover who called her at night and she had mistaken her son for that lover.
“Love” to “Hate”? Okay: love, lave, have, hate. There was no depth of meaning in the space between the words. Could it be done in such a way that the sequence meant something beyond “after love, you wash up, and get possessive, and then despise the person you once loved”?
Another possibility: love, rove, rave, have, hate. More strokes, but more interesting, with “rove” and “rave” implying betrayal and madness. “Have” still bothered him, too passive in its possessiveness. He would work on it. He had a lot of time on his hands.
Love, rove, rave, rare, hare, hate.
Actually, he wanted to go the other direction, from hate to love.
According to custom, if there was an abbreviation anywhere in a crossword clue, the answer would also take the form of an abbreviation. For example: “ABA member [four letters]” would always be “atty.” It had nothing to do with basketball or bravery. Lately, too many puzzle makers had been using abbreviations to get out of a jam—a tight corner, as it were.
“I hate abbreviations,” Brad told his mother.
“They should be outlawed,” she said. “Especially the French.”
When they were done talking about crossword puzzles, they discussed the Daily Jumble. His mother’s local paper had shrunk the cartoon clue so small that the caption words were unreadable except through the magnifying glass that she had misplaced.
“Would you read it to me?” she asked in her old sweet voice. “And describe the picture, too?”
He told her that the picture showed a beatnik with a bad goatee about to kick a football through the goalposts, being cheered on by several fat women in grass hula skirts. The text was, “The place kicker missed the extra point because of [three-letter word, four-letter word].”
“That sounds impossible,” his mother said.
“It is,” he said. “I have all the letters and I still can’t get the answer. I keep rearranging them and I get nothing.”
“Don’t feel bad,” she said. “Were the girls pretty?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“The next one will be easy,” she said, to the accompaniment of various ring-tones that must have been inaudible to her. “Monday is always the easiest. That’s what gets me through the weekend, just thinking about Monday and how you’ll call me, and we’ll both have the right answers.”
“Blue” always turned out to be “sad,” if the answer was three letters; otherwise, it could be “azure” or even “pornographic.”
“Regret” was always “rue” (which made him think of Rue McClanahan, who played Blanche on “Golden Girls,” now deceased), and “hubbub” had to be “ado.” Who would ever use such words in a sentence, even when they spoke the truth about their lives?
His mother would use them, but seldom spoke the truth. She would make up stories based on the words from the Jumble. This was decades ago. His mother’s name was Yma, like the Peruvian soprano with a five-octave range. Yma would write out the stories on index cards and read them over the phone to her Aunt Martha, to compensate for the lack of anything better to talk about.
Bongo, brass, police, secret. The stories were never very long. A story might simply consist of all four words in the same sentence: In secret, the police captain played his brass bongo drums. Aunt Martha would chuckle, then ask for more details, like, “What song could he have possibly played on the bongo drum?” or “What part of the bongo drum could be made of brass and how would that affect the sound?”
The two women would talk late into the evening, their voices urgent, as if the subject were a fatal illness or a family secret.
Haunt, privy, sachem, carver. He is not privy to the sachem, only to the carver and his wife, who haunt the perimeter.
Think, spray, jaunty, arroyo. The jaunty landscaper would first think, then spray the bug-infested arroyo.
These stories were told in the days before you could put your phone on “speaker,” but Aunt Martha was loud, and Brad could hear everything. It got to the point where Aunt Martha began to believe the stories. She began to get emotional and say, “I cried myself to sleep seven nights in a row.”
“They’re supposed to make you happy,” Yma said.
“I’m never happy.”
Aunt Martha grew deaf, and all communication ended, as if she had retreated into her own personal “lock-box,” the same twenty-five words in a tight little grid, five by five, from which she constructed her verbal universe.
Yma then began a weekly ritual of calling Brad, who had moved west to take a teaching job. They would talk about words and about English grammar, how one of the clues in the Thomas Joseph crossword puzzle had been misworded (wrong case or verb tense, usually) and had thrown both of them off for a minute. Their newspapers were two time zones apart but carried the same puzzles, which gave mother and son a common topic.
Eventually the two papers fell out of sync with their puzzles, and mother and son had nothing further to talk about. They couldn’t talk about “Jeopardy” or “Wheel of Fortune” either, because those shows had also fallen out of sync. “Jeopardy,” in his time zone, came on at nine-thirty in the morning, when he was asleep. “Wheel of Fortune,” in his time zone, had a hostess who looked nothing like Vanna White. She wore tent dresses and towered over Pat Sajak. That’s what Brad told his mother.
“So you didn’t watch The Wheel?” she would say.
“It’s not the same,” he would reply.
Helplessly, he kept buying the Trib. He would peek at the Variety section to see if the puzzle was new (and not some repeat from two months ago that he’d solved while visiting his mother in New York) until the sales clerk caught him. She said, “Buy it, then read it.”
And he said, “I don’t want to buy it if I’ve already done the puzzle.”
“You did it while standing there?” the clerk said, simultaneously outraged and impressed. “Just now?”
“No, in another paper, in another town.”
“Well, there’s more to the paper than the puzzle.”
“No, there isn’t,” he said.
She looked at him closely. “I have you figured out,” she said. “You’re the kind of person who lives only to criticize other people.”
“Tell me more,” he said.
“You probably correct their grammar.”
“More!” he insisted.
“You’re nothing but a bunch of words.”
He smiled and handed over his crumpled dollar and then peeked at the puzzle, looking for the familiar clue that would prove he had wasted his dollar again. Was “Inca” really the correct word for “Andes dweller”? Or was it “Incan”? Later, at home, he would test both words on his laptop, typing them out to see if they were red-underlined. They weren’t. Maybe it was “llama.” And what about that puzzle in which he learned that “camel’s cousin” could be a llama? Maybe it was true. Could they interbreed? He had learned all of his Spanish vocabulary from doing crossword puzzles. He had learned to count to ten in German. He had even learned a bit of philosophy. “Hegel” had turned up several times as an answer. Also, “Locke” and “Hume.” Never “Schopenhauer” or “Kierkegaard.”
He sat in the library, at the usual table, staring at a three-letter word, of which he had only the middle vowel. Then the rest came to him. The word ended in d. Not a man’s name, but a category of men. Cad—consonant, vowel, consonant—a word he would probably never use in a sentence, but knew when to use in crossword puzzles. It flowed easily from his pen. The pen intuited certain words. Brad always did his puzzles in ink, and liked to tell people about it.
The real question was this: had anybody ever used that word when speaking about him? Any number of women might have—Brad the cad—but there were plenty of four- and five-letter words that worked more effectively, that sounded better when shouted from a car backing down a driveway, or from the top of the stairs by someone who was about to throw a heavy object at him. A “cad” was a character from an old novel, possibly wealthy, often wearing a tuxedo, sporting a thin mustache, etc. The word, as he understood it, was somewhat forgiving of such characters, unlike “rat.”
Crossword puzzles never included that level of information. It would be giving away too much.
Sometimes the clue was a complete blank.
Sometimes you had to cram more than one letter into a box.
Sometimes the answers were Yiddish words spelled backwards, like leimelhcs.
Once, a friend—also a crossword puzzle addict—had asked him whether he thought it was possible to answer every clue wrong and still have legitimate words that fit in the boxes and crossed each other perfectly. And he had told her that in an infinite universe, with its infinite number of Earth-like planets, anything was possible. In an infinite universe, there could be a planet where the residents spoke and wrote English, but a more flexible form of the language, where the words, if you bent them hard enough, could always be made to cross.
Roger Sheffer is the author of Music on the Inner Lakes: Stories and Lost River. He is also the founder of The Mankato Poetry Review.