THE PUZZLE MASTER (Formerly The Crossword Puzzle)
Once an octogenarian hesitated over the last entry in a crossword puzzle. Not that there was any doubt about what to write in the few blank squares remaining. The final clue wasn’t particularly challenging by comparison with those for the blanks already filled. In fact, the satisfaction normally enjoyed when completing a crossword faded into a feeling that the end of this one wasn’t worthy of the rest of it. Instead, it seemed to be almost a denial of the many levels of knowledge and experience needed to reach this point. The octogenarian looked up from the puzzle and around at the tables neatly arranged in the dining hall of the old folks home. Four to a group, the residents sat waiting for their lunch as plates heaped with steaming meat and potatoes were carried out from the kitchen. What possessed the management to serve up such heavy fare? Did they really suppose an aging stomach could do much more than churn this load around during a long afternoon nap? Or was that the intention in sending them tottering back to their rooms like bloated cattle: bed them down for a while so they wouldn’t cause any problems until sing-along time with the Activities Director at half past four? Who among the residents would have believed that all the pledges made to oneself in a lifetime and one’s efforts to honor those pledges would come to this? All the commitments, discoveries, and fulfillments that a life involved or should involve, how could they have come down to daily bingo or chair yoga three times a week and loudspeaker warnings about high blood pressure five times a day? The octogenarian looked again at the puzzle. The block letters already filling all but the last empty squares had a firm presence that held off the darkened spaces bordering them. Yet these lines of neatly arranged letters also suggested a warning. Their steady march across or down the page seemed in its way much like the cruel reduction to little old women and little old men that had trapped the octogenarian’s fellow retirees (in disregard of all they might have been and achieved during their lives) here at their tables as strangers to themselves. Who among them wouldn’t long to go back decades and declare, “This is who I am or hope to become”? But the only escape from their situation now led in time’s other direction. Residents vanished from the dining room every week, and yet the management never mentioned their departure, as if any acknowledgement of the reality of death was the one thing the old must be spared. Nonsense. If the people sitting in this room weren’t on a first name basis with the Grim Reaper already, who was? They didn’t deserve the silent, squeamish pretense after their disappearance that they’d never really been here at all: that life left nothing of significance to report about them, even their passing. The octogenarian eyed the one remaining line of unfilled squares in the crossword puzzle while tapping a pen against lips that spelled out the missing word and then, rather than write it in, looked once more at the other diners about the room and laid the pen down, slowly but firmly.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans