Crossword puzzles were just a way of filling some time, like knitting or whittling. He’d pull one out of his pocket if he had to wait for a pot to boil or his name to be called at the doctor’s office. If he was tired or worried or bored, he’d work his way through one or two as a distraction.
“Just one more,” he’d promise himself. Then, “One more and I’ll definitely stop and do something productive.” Sometimes he’d go through six at a time that way.
Not for him the easy ones in the daily paper. He got his puzzles at a bookstore, paid for a book of three hundred printed in good black ink on bright white paper. He worked with a pen, scorning the need for an eraser. If he made a mistake, he could always cross out the wrong letters and fill in tiny-sized right ones, but he didn’t make many mistakes. Nor did he often need to resort to the answers in the back of the book.
His wife compressed her lips and shook her head when she found him with head bowed over a black and white grid. “It keeps him out of my hair,” she told her girlfriends, but she did begrudge the way he wasted his time. He could have been helping around the house. Or maybe they might have talked, although they’d run out of conversation years ago. When he got out a puzzle, she shrugged and turned on the television.
His days rolled on uneventfully, one after another. He went to work, came home, ate dinner, worked a few crossword puzzles, went to bed, got up and did it all again. Sometimes just before he fell asleep he’d wonder if this was all his life would ever be.
Some of the puzzles contained jokes or quotes you could only read after all the squares were filled. He didn’t pay much attention; it was all about solving the clues for him. But one day, he noticed that the line across the middle of a puzzle read,
“Y o u c o u l d d o b e t t e r.”
“Huh. Well, I suppose any of us could,” he thought.
The bottom line of next puzzle said, “G e t o u t m o r e.”
Down the right side of the next one: “B i g w o r l d o u t t h e r e.”
Then, across the top: “L i v e b e f o r e y o u d i e.”
He put those pages through the shredder. His wife asked what he was shredding, and was he sure they wouldn’t need it? He just shook his head.
“It’s silly to pay any attention to messages from crossword puzzles,” he admonished himself. But he couldn’t stop thinking about them. The enigmatic lines rang like prophecies in his mind. He began having dreams, vivid dreams he didn’t mention to his wife. Not that she would have been interested.
One day, on an impulse, he stopped at a pub after work and had a beer instead of going straight home. He sat in restful solitude and worked a crossword puzzle. No one sighed or turned up the TV. No one paid any attention to him at all. It was nice. It became a regular thing. One evening he was nursing his drink, staring into space, trying to come up with the five-letter answer for “Christo Redentor sculptor Alonso,” when he felt a presence at his shoulder.
“Marin,” she breathed in his ear.
He turned his head, feeling no surprise. He’d known she was out there somewhere. She looked exactly like she did in his dreams.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.
He nodded, swallowed hard. He couldn’t have broken eye contact if he’d tried.
“Go to pieces, seven letters,” she said.
“Shatter,” he whispered.
She took his arm. He left his crossword puzzle book on the bar.