Ed was late. He hurried over to the cashier at a London Drugs Store and placed a TV Guide, a bottle of mouthwash, a can of cashews and a jigsaw puzzle on the counter. He then requested a carton of cigarettes.
The cashier looked up at him as she pulled the puzzle box across her scanner. Ed was just over six feet tall and had a thin, wiry frame. His hair was graying at the temples and thinning on top. His hands were calloused and his nails were dirty and split. He wore blue jeans and a red golf shirt. His biceps and pectorals bunched like bags of mud under the too-small shirt. By contrast, his skinny legs looked like denim covered match-sticks.
A mental picture of the poor old bugger formed in the cashiers mind. He was sitting in front of a small TV set eating the cashews and fingering the puzzle pieces. So many lonely people.
“It's a beautiful picture. The puzzle, I mean.”
“It's for my daughter.”
“Oh, well she'll love it. Those puppies are so cute.”
“Oh aye, I hope she'll like it.”
“Have a great evening, sir.”
Ed hastened to his car, an olive green Chevy Nova. He tossed the shopping bag gently on the seat and got inside. After lighting a cigarette, he opened the cellophane wrapper of the puzzle box with a long, dirty nail.
The cardboard smell reminded him of the paper mill where he worked. After digging out a random piece of the puzzle, he tossed it out of the car window. Then he closed up the box, replaced it into the bag and drove to his apartment.
There, Glissandra rocked back and forth in her chair by the window. She moaned from time to time and clutched at her shoulders with milk-white hands. Her shawl had slipped off and fallen to the floor. She had been staring at it the entire afternoon, a black pool of soft wool on the scratched wooden floor. It was too far away to be retrieved.
Upon hearing her father's footsteps in the hall, she moaned louder and a string of saliva escaped the barrier of her lips and fell to her lap. She stared at the little pearly puddle and rocked rhythmically.
Glissandra was excited, for today he would bring a brand new puzzle.
Across from her window, less than ten feet away, a set of stained curtains opened in the apartment next door. A young single-father, noticing Glissandra for the first time, regarded her for a moment. He felt a bit ridiculous to be in such proximity. Noting the drool and the way in which she rocked like an autistic child, he wanted to close the curtain again.
As he moved away, Matthew decided that he had better get used to seeing other people at this window because he needed the sparse light that filtered in between the two buildings. He put some music on and caught a glimpse of a man fussing over the red haired girl. Their eyes met briefly a while later while the man was setting his table for supper and Matthew was watering a philodendron on a desk by the window.
Matthew thought, “I need the light. I will learn not to stare.”
Ed thought, “She is not normal. I am doing my best.”
Hearing a knock at his door, Matthew turned away and let in his girlfriend, Jill. I was her first visit, so he gave her a five minute tour of the aged one bedroom apartment. Over dinner, he told her about the neighbors across the way. The two couples ate their respective meals in view of each other. While Jill washed up the cups and plates, Matthew put on a new record album. On the way to the stereo he could see the man prostrate on his living room floor pressing weights while watching TV upside down. At the adjacent window, the girl sat at a little table, rocking back and forth and working on her new puzzle.
Later, Jill closed the curtains and Matthew turned out the lights. They had a shower together. Giggling loudly, they went to the tiny bedroom and continued their play. They heard the man across the way turn off his TV and hoped that he hadn't heard them.
A siren wailed in the distance and dogs began to howl. A train whistle cut through the night air and Matthew decided with a grin that the little extra noise he and Jill contributed couldn't possibly be out of place in an ant-hill such as this neighborhood.
As he cuddled with Jill, they could hear the red haired girl moan and gibber. Matthew turned on his radio just loud enough to drown out the sound. They discussed her until they fell asleep. It was agreed upon that she was really lucky to have such a father who obviously cared so much and that it was far better to be home than in some institution or hospital. Matthew thought of his son, Steven and gave thanks that he had been born normal.
The following weekend it was Matthews turn to keep Steven. Jill joined them after her work and they all sat down to a big spaghetti dinner. They smiled and waved at the man across the way as he spooned bits of fish sticks into his daughter's mouth.
Just before his bed-time, Steven crawled up into Matthew's lap.
“Pa-pa, what that girl over there playing?”
“She's doing a jigsaw puzzle, Stevie.”
Matthew looked up at the now familiar sight of Glissandra rocking at her little table. She moaned softly.
“Why the girl sad, Pa-pa?”
“Stevie, she's sick. Some people are born with a problem in their head. Maybe she's not sad, maybe she just never learned to talk like we do.”
“Pa-pa, her sad.”
“Stevie, her Pa-pa loves her. Remember we saw him feeding her, just like I used to feed you when you were really little?”
“Oh, yeah. Pa-pa?”
“I want a puzzle too.”
“Sure, Stevie boy, but you'll have to get an easy one to start with. We'll pick up one at the market tomorrow.”
“That's a GOOD idea, Pa-pa.”
“OK, buddy, it is story time.”
Several months passed before Matthew spoke to Ed for the first time. Matthew had been at the record player, turning over an album of bag-pipe music. He had bought it second hand at the Salvation Army Store for fifty cents. From habit, he looked out the window to see if the red haired girl was at her puzzle and instead he saw the man leaning out the open window smoking a cigarette and obviously enjoying the music. The man had spoken first.
“Hey, you can turn that up louder. Are you a Scot?”
“Hi. Uh, no. Originally American. I just like all types of music.”
“Oh aye, personally I can do without that Hindu stuff you play, but I'm no complaining.”
“Right, well I'll put on the flip side. It's the Royal Scots Dragoons Guards.”
“Have you any others?”
“Nope. Hey, I bet you could tell me which ones are good to get.”
“Ah, well, the truth is that the Simon Fraser Pipe Band is one of the very best. They take ribbons nearly every year, even back home.”
Is that right? I'll try to find some of their recordings.”
“You do that, lad.”
“Well, good night.”
“Nicht. The name's Ed.”
“Ed. My name is Mat.”
After this encounter, Matthew played the record frequently for the remainder of the summer. He felt like this was his way of contributing a small ray of happiness to the long lonely evenings of his unfortunate neighbor.
Across the way, Glissandra moaned loudly. Three pieces to go! Before her on the table was a picture of a field of wild flowers. It was a two thousand piece puzzle and it had taken her most of a month to assemble the pieces. She rocked violently and jammed the small pieces of cardboard into place. There now, the last one.
Something was wrong. A portion of the birch wood table top showed through in the upper right area of the completed puzzle. Glissandra moaned and began to sob. As she stared at the blank spot, her mind was sucked down into it. She fell faster and farther. The feeling made her nauseous. Everything went black as the field of blue flowers disappeared into the puzzle shaped piece of table top.
Hearing the noises from across the way, Jill remarked to Matthew on the couch where they sat cuddling, “I guess she finished another one.”
Glissandra's mind stayed on the table top as Ed placed his hand gently on her shoulders and guided her across the floor to her bedroom. She remained perfectly still as he took off her dress.
Matthew rose from the couch and put on the bag-pipe album.
“Why do you keep playing that awful record, baby?, asked Jill.
“It's kind of a treat for Ed, the Scotsman across the way. I caught him listening to it at his window one day. I think it reminds him of home.”
“That's nice of you.”
“Let's go to bed. The music will shut itself off, huh..”
Months passed by in the inevitable routine of the working class. Steven grew increasingly independent and began to play outside with more frequency. His latest craze was catching ants to put in his ant-farm. Jill had bought it for him at the market and it was his main toy when he came over to stay. The red haired girl assembled an unbroken procession of puzzles at her table by the window. Matthew and Jill discussed marriage and decided to go through with it. A new war started in the Middle East.
One evening Ed came home from his pilgrimage to the London Drugs Store. He was late again. Once inside his apartment, he went to Glissandra and picked her shawl off the floor and smoothed it over her shoulders. He wiped her damp face with his handkerchief. Opening the shopping bag, he showed her the box containing a brand new puzzle. He slit open the cellophane wrapper and turned away. He lifted the edge of the box lid, fished out a piece and tossed it out of her window. Satisfied, he turned and placed the open box on his daughter's little table. She moaned softly and began to rock back in forth in her chair. This one would take her at least a month, Ed figured.
Steven came over for his alternate week-end visit. Once inside he ran to his father's desk where the ant-farm was kept. He smiled when he saw that everything was as he had left it two weeks before. He immediately asked to go outside and get some more ants. It was now early autumn and they were getting scarce. After gathering the necessary tools, he bounded down the creaky wooden stairs and started to hunt. He poked with a stick along the flower beds between the apartment buildings. When he finally saw an ant, he carefully followed it to the place it went underground. He began to dig with a soup spoon he carried in his jacket pocket, since taking on his ant hobby.
A smile spread across his face like the sun rising over a mountain when he unearthed the brood-chamber. Lots of babies! Steven scooped up ants, dirt and loads of little pearly cocoons into a jam jar.
He couldn't wait to show his father and Jill. Halfway back to the front door of the building, he saw it.
A puzzle piece. It was lying right underneath the red haired girl's window. The colored side looked like water from the sea or a big lake. It was a little dirty. Steven clutched it proudly and glanced up at the window far above his head before racing upstairs to show his treasures.
“Pa-pa, look! I got a bunch of new ants and I got a puzzle. Red haired girl dropped it.”
“Well, what a successful hunting trip you just had.”
“Hey Jill, hey Jill, look I got brand new ants!”“
Jill came to see, “Wow! Holy cow, Stevie. You got baby ants too.”
Matthew turned the puzzle piece over in his hand, “Hey Stevie, do you still have that Ninja Turtle Sword?”
“Can you go get it for Pa-pa?”
Steven ran to his toy box and rummaged out a long orange plastic sword. He handed it to his father.
Matthew stuck the puzzle piece to the end of the sword with a tiny bit of tape. He the fixed the sword onto a broom handle with duct tape and opened the window wide.
“What you gonna do, Pa-pa?”
“I'm going to see if I can reach it all the way over to the girl.”
Stevie took up a position on his father's chair and watched as Matthew leaned out and stretched to span the distance to the window opposite. The girl sat rocking and didn't look up, even when Matthew had maneuvered the sword's tip right over the box of pieces. She moaned softly.
“I wish Ed was home,” said Matthew.
“Hey girl, my Pa-pa is giving you your puzzle”, shouted Steven.
Long moments passed as Glissandra found placement for the piece she was working on. When she went to get another from the box, her concentration was drawn to an orange object in her field of vision. She then noticed the puzzle piece and methodically plucked it off the sword and let it fall into the box with the others. All this without looking up at her benefactors.
Steven cheered and Jill clapped softly. Matthew pulled the broom and sword back into the room and began to undo the duct tape. Steven and Jill were already busy loading ants into the bustling ant-farm. The red haired girl rocked back and forth and worked on her puzzle.
Ed came home a little later and fed his daughter supper. He then lifted some weights and watched TV.
Three weeks passed. Glissandra let out a yelp. In front of her on the table was a beautiful picture of some freighters, junks and tugboats in Hong Kong Harbor. The box held only three remaining pieces and she excitedly pressed them all into place.
She searched the picture for the empty spot. Her hands began to tremble and she started to stomp both her feet. Her heart was pounding and racing as her gaze darted back and forth over the picture in vain.
A powerful jolt of pain shot through her being. She moaned with a new intensity and began to cry hard. She gasped like a fish out of water and tried to find the empty space she could disappear into.
An unwanted movie began to play itself in her head. It was her in there! It was wrong! He was real!
Her chair clattered on the wooden floor as she stood abruptly. A mighty pain and an unfamiliar power coursed through her like a prairie electric storm. Her shawl fell off. She felt him for the first time. Dirty fingers unbuttoning her dress. Heavy and grunting on top of her. His smoky cashew breath.
Glissandra strode to the kitchen and jerked open a drawer. She went back to her room and righted the chair. She picked up her shawl and carefully adjusted it on her shoulders. She sat again and rocked back and forth. Clutching something under her shawl on her lap, she stared at the puzzle picture.
Across the way, they were playing the bag-pipe music again.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.