Crossword Puzzles

Short pieces of creative nonfiction. Anything under 1000 words as long as it's true.

Sometime between Christmas one year and Thanksgiving the next, Aunt Caroline’s brain disappeared. Someone popped off the top of her perm-curled head and vacuumed her memories out one by one. I imagine they started with things you probably wouldn’t miss at first: Her breakfast one morning, a number, a name, the fourteen-across of a crossword puzzle. But on and on it went, synapse by synapse, until they had sucked away months, whole years, a face, a friendship, a sister, and me. My mother, who would call every month or so, could probably tell you more specifically when it happened, or at least walk you through the many whens, the moments where it suddenly became clear that another piece of her had gone missing. But I didn’t see the slow disintegration. For me, she just vanished. From one visit to the next, Aunt Caroline was gone.

After my grandparents died, we stayed with her whenever we made trips to Vermont, which were frequent at the beginning. I was always the first one to shed my cocoon of warm bed sheets and silky sleep strands to make my way along the brown hallway toward the burbling of the percolator, bare feet stinging as they made contact with the chilled floors. My reward was to sit with Aunt Caroline at the table, a jug of orange juice and the morning paper propped up between us, and watch her fill in the squares of the day’s crossword puzzle. She read the clues out loud to me as her chipped pencil nub scratched out the answers in blocky capitals. It was a secret, mystical ritual we shared and to me it may as well have been magic. It seemed impossible to me that anyone could have that much knowledge stashed in their brain, ready to be used at a moment’s notice. As I got older, I could solve more and more of the clues on my own, but I still preferred watching while I chased cereal around the milk in my bowl. Somehow it still felt like magic.

She doesn’t remember those mornings anymore, I’m sure, but sometimes I wonder whether they would emerge, if I asked her, from a cobwebby niche in her diseased hippocampus, a corner that was perhaps missed in the ransacking. But I don’t ask, because I don’t want to see her pretend to remember, like she pretends to remember who I am. Maybe it’s selfish, but sometimes it makes me angry. All that limitless knowledge gone to somewhere it can’t be returned from, gone to nowhere at all, like it never even existed.

*   *   *

It had been a long time since I visited. After introducing ourselves, we ate lunch out on the sunny porch. She had lost a lot of weight, skin collecting in fatless dewlaps under her skeletal neck; her cheek bones punched forward while her eyes retreated farther back into their caverns. But she still looked like Aunt Caroline, still sounded like her, even though I knew she was not, and it was tempting to imagine that nothing at all had changed. The house was the same, the brown hallway still creaked in familiar spots. I wandered back through the kitchen while my parents repeated the same circles of small talk on the porch. The newspaper lolled wearily across the table, as though tired of the small-town headlines scrawled over it, and I knew that somewhere a few pages down was the crossword puzzle, and for a moment I wanted to sit, pick up a pencil and start filling in letters. But I couldn’t, because the magic didn’t work like that, and more than that, I was afraid to see the rows of white squares, untouched and unfilled, because there was nothing left to fill them with.

The End

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