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It was a warm day, the bees fulfilling their contractual obligation with the flowers. Their movements were cold, economic, the exact antithesis of today’s Indian summer- arabesque swoops and dives that, apropos nothing to do with the story at hand, should have been aerodynamically impossible. Samuel O’Rourke watched them for a time before finally settling back into his seat and, in turn, the task ahead: Simon and Schuster, the hitherto unchallenged kings of crossword. O’Rourke, in defiance of the day’s unseasonable warmth, was lost in a black and white world spanning two axes, sacrilegious for all its cruciform suggestion. He was masochistically following through with the day’s promise to himself: the completion of an S&S crossword in bright blue pen and a steady hand, having left the house determined not to return until all but the page’s margins were filled with script. The first dozen answers had been a proverbial breeze: Elizabeth Taylor’s beau, a nine-lettered synonym for doubt, a podiatrist’s favorite vacation locale (Richard Burton, Misgiving, and Sandals, respectively.) 23 down had seemed daunting, until it turned out D-A-U-N-T-I-N-G neatly filled the vertical boxes. He’d had to cross out his first answer for “Message in a Bottle Songwriters” upon learning that Abba had penned the quasi-hit, not The Police or F-U-Z-Z, as he first had written. This lead to his contemplating the probable etymology of the word Fuzz as colloquial synonym for Police, a line of thinking entirely tangent to his original.
All this until number 43 across: “Button-Up.” Six simple letters ending in an “e.” He tried all he knew to try. C-O-L-L-A-R fit but for the word’s last letter. Button-up fly made sense, but didn’t fill up the entire row. A-T-T-I-R-E was awkward and he knew just somehow off. Samuel filled in the rest of the puzzle with relative ease, but still with a gaping hole where number 43 should rightfully be. How many possible combinations of five fixed letters (with replacement) were there? An ungodly amount, to be sure. Of course, there were considerably fewer if he ignored those that formed the nonsensical non-words of a private language (Wittgenstein arguing that such a language is both impossible and untenable.) Less even still if one discounted those that didn’t constitute a noun, verb, or modifier. The statistical probability of choosing a word that fit the clue was slim to none, but who is to say what the quote-unquote correct denotation of a word should be?
Unfortunately, this approach to wordplay didn’t get him any closer to his answer and he was becoming increasingly aware that the puzzle couldn’t be satisfied with a guess.
Samuel sat up and looked around for anybody who might be able to offer some sort of suggestion. He did not want someone who would tell him the answer explicitly, but a nod in the right direction and he would be forever grateful. The problem lied in finding a body that might have an idea as to what the answer was and who’d be willing to walk him through it. S&S had printed a 1-800 number on the inside cover of the purple paperback, but it was undoubtedly run at a rate upwards of twenty-five cents a minute. Samuel had no coins for the pay phone and harbored a strong suspicion that the publishing imprint wouldn’t deign to accept collect charges. Even if he’d had the loose change required for such a call, it was highly probable the hotline operators would give him the answer right off, not having the patience to dole out clues to people who’d like to solve a puzzle with some semblance of self-sufficiency. Simon & Schuster’s customer service line was well out of the question.
He neatly folded the book’s left page over to the back cover and creased it along the spine, brushed himself off, and left—determined to find someone who could help him resolve this pressing concern.
“Excuse me, sir. I don’t suppose you could do me a quick favor, could you?”
“I don’t suppose I could.”
“I sincerely doubt it.”
He asked anybody and everybody he could pull aside into conversation as he made his way through the park. No one seemed able to spare the time, even fewer concerned with the level of psychic distress this problem was causing Samuel O’Rourke. Those white boxes running left-to-right across an otherwise full field of text were depraved, unholy things- aesthetically loathsome. This puzzle had to be answered, and if he could not do it himself, it fell to him to find someone who might be able to.
The path’s course took him due west and eventually ended at an angle perpendicular to two lanes of opposing traffic, splintering in several directions at this juncture and picking up as a sidewalk on the far side of the asphalt. He left the park and crossed the street. Continuing for any length of time would lead him straight home –probably not a bad place to be in light of his current dilemma. His boy could no doubt help him, having a savant-like comprehension of the twin fields of semantics and pop-culture. Metonymy. Synecdoche. Metaphor. The only adolescent the elder O’Rourke had ever known who would diagram a sentence for fun. Surely he could help, more qualified than most in the art and science that is the word puzzle. And so, Samuel set off for his family co-op.
Button-Up. Six letters ending in an ‘e.’
He kept his eyes fixed to the paper as he walked, awkwardly shuffling by fellow pedestrians at either side, in hopes of having some sort of spontaneous solution come to mind. Nothing came, and it seemed there was no word in the English language that would satisfy the clue. “Button-Up,” six letters ending in an “e.” He studied the paper, learned its every texture and tooth. The more intently he examined the page, the more fibers he counted and subsequently categorized, the further and further he seemed from ever reaching a satisfying answer. Some cruel cruciverbalist had given him a clue that was surely unsolvable. Cruci-, it turned out, was a more appropriate prefix for the profession than he had originally thought. Crucifixion. Crucible. Crux. The sound was onomatopoeically painful, an abrasive agglomeration of noise beginning at the back of his tongue and ending at its tip, dorsum to apex.
With that, he came to his building. It was smaller than he’d remembered it to be in his mind’s eye—squat, gray. The doorway sat just beyond a wrought-iron gate, itself covered in a non-native species of some ivy or other. The entryway was a baroque ordeal, the ornate metalworkings entirely out of character when viewed within the larger context of the square apartment-house. Samuel found himself looking up, not sure that this was indeed the right place. Muscle memory dictated that it was. He found it increasingly hard to believe that he had just left home a few hours prior. Did he not live another block or two away? This state of thought-paralysis was becoming the norm of late. Progressively so. He felt for his key, found it, and noted a small amount of surprise as the latch drove home and the entrance swung wide. The door beyond the gate again gave way and he entered the lobby, attracting more looks from his fellow tenants than he would have judged standard. “Fellow” in this context used in want of a better word—he felt little-to-no fellowship or kinship or even acquaintance with his neighbors. He sidled past, trying his best to avoid eye contact with anyone or anything, his crossword puzzle clutched in a quickly-becoming-sweaty hand and his son surely waiting for him upstairs.
The elevator was out of commission and Samuel took to the stairs. He was a story down, just below street level. This fact had caused him considerable claustrophobic distress in his years of residence. That this fear was compounded with mild agoraphobic tendencies as well did little for his social or professional life during those days. It was something of a mental medical mystery as to how these two seemingly mutually exclusive phobias could exist in one psyche. His compulsion to stay inside was counteracted by a fear of the crushing pressure just beyond his four walls. That he even got out of the house for the occasional three, four hour stretch was a triumph of psychiatry. As was the fact that he even stayed inside his apartment for any length of time.
Button-Up. Six letters ending in an ‘e.’
The steps were dilapidating, brown and wilted. A water stain wound its way around the stairwell and continued for a long length of time down the hall. The light quality was poor and the few fluorescent lamps lighting the way flickered incessantly, buzzing and humming in blasphemous chorus. The whole affair laid limp, flat, and left Samuel O’Rourke wondering how any landlord could let such a building rot so. He made his way down the hall at stopped at his door. Again, hesitation. Again, the key fit and O’Rourke entered. The room was small. More importantly, the room was just a room—no outlet other than the doorway he was currently straddling. He called his son’s name and, as was to be expected, heard no response. There was a single bed, single-wide and unmade. An ominous, ashen dust sat on almost every surface of the room and was ground into every square-inch of his fading wall-to-wall. O’Rourke let his crossword fall to the floor and took a seat at the foot of his bed. This apartment was no place to raise a child, its four bare walls not all welcoming to someone stuck in their formative years.
Suddenly, horribly he came to the realization that he lived very much alone. This horrific insight came with a crushing weight and the sudden urge to do something irrevocably self-destructive.