The Crossword Puzzle (#2)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
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The Crossword Puzzle

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all published chapters of “The Crossword Puzzle” click here

 

Part 2 – NOLA GETS TO KNOW HER PATIENT

 

Their first meal together was not without both problems and pleasure.  Mrs. Eglington assured her that she knew how to feed Mr. Ghent.  She’d been doing it since he was a child.  “Milk never hurt a human being.  We probably wouldn’t have survived without it.”

“Just the same,” Nola said, “there will be no more dairy products served to Mr. Ghent.  You can give him soup – just so it is not soup with a creamy base.  And green tea and sherbets.  Later he may have steamed vegetables.  Do you have a steamer?”

“Oh, it’s probably down in the basement with all of the other junk we have no use for.”

“You’ve got a use for it now.  So please locate it and thoroughly clean it.  We’ll have our meals – you can just duplicate his tray for me – at the regular time.”

Nearly an hour later Jules came to the room carrying one large tray.  “Where do you want this?” he asked.

There was a card table in the room that was covered with the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle.  He pushed the pieces into a box, and covered the table with a linen cloth.  He also placed a centerpiece of chrysanthemums on the table.  “I hope they’re as you ordered,” he said to Spencer.

Spencer Ghent looked at the soup Jules served.  “No more milk-toast?”

“Consider it a thing of the past,” Nola said as Jules stood in the doorway, waiting for an opportunity to speak.  Nola and Spencer looked at him expectantly.

“I know that the tray should be taken downstairs,” Jules said, “but I’ve sustained a serious but manageable cervical spine injury and if you don’t mind I’ll leave the tray here outside the door.  It’ll save me from having to carry it down and back to collect the dishes.”

“That’s fine,” Nola said.  “And if you’re ever in any particular distress and could use my help, please don’t hesitate to ask.” Jules bowed his head, closed the door, and turned down the hall.

She helped Spencer to sit at the table. “That,” he said, referring to Jules, “is his way of discouraging you from asking to be sent up anything other than the three meals he’s obliged to carry. They all have their little tricks.  You’ll get used to them.” He looked up at her coquettishly.  “Would you do a sick man a favor and close the drapes and then take those candles on the mantlepiece and put them here on the table.”  He reached across to a book shelf and pushed the play switch of an old CD player.  “I hope you like Errol Garner.  It’s his Concert By The Sea. I haven’t listened to it in months.”

“I love Garner,” she said.  “Play on.”

With the drapes closed and the candles lit, everything became soft and lovely in the room.  Spence smiled. “This is such a pleasure… eating without stuff dripping down my cheeks into my collar and pillow.”

“We aim to please,” Nola said, noticing how pale his blue eyes were in the candlelight.  He once must have been extremely handsome.  “Who is your favorite composer?” she asked.

“I know that one,” he said, grinning.  “I’m supposed to say, ‘You mean… after Mozart?”

They laughed and talked about music and the things they liked and disliked.  For dinner, they decided, they would play the Garner disc again only this time they would listen to the music.  When Spencer finished dessert, Nola helped him back into bed and sat quietly with him while he listened to the end of the CD and fell asleep. Then she went to her own room and called the kitchen to tell Mrs. Eglington that though Mr. Ghent was sleeping, if the procedure could be quietly done, Jules could collect the dishes.

 

Spencer Morton Ghent, 42, had suffered for more than five years with ulcerative colitis, a condition which caused him to experience frequent bouts of diarrhea.  He was the head of a firm of financial consultants and, since his position afforded him his own private bathroom, he stubbornly thought he could manage the disease.  And then, after one particularly nasty episode which caused him to be hospitalized, a proctologist whistled ominously at the condition of his anus and suggested that the removal of his rectum would soon be necessary.  At that point, Ghent accepted an alternate solution offered by his physician, which was to resign his position in his high tension work environment and stay home until rest and decompression could assist the medicines prescribed for him and help him to rid himself of this affliction.

Paige Ghent was not, however, appreciative of having her husband at home with her twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Ghent was physically weak: over a period of several years his weight had dropped from one hundred eighty pounds to one hundred twenty pounds.  A gradual weigh loss is not much noticed by those who see the person every day, and so it was generally assumed by those who saw him when he weighed close to one hundred fifty pounds, that he worked out by choice in this private weight room, swam in his private pool, and hiked or rode horses through his wooded estate.  Retired, he became much thinner and few people knew that he owed his thinness to a disease of his digestive system – not even Paige who slept in the opposite side of the house.  She remained indifferent to his condition until he called out to her in anguish one evening; and when she came to help discovered the extent of the debilitating episode.  The work she was forced to do embarrassed her and she lived in terror that their servants would spread the news of his infirmity – and her part in it – around town.  For a week she tried valiantly to keep the patient, his underwear, pajamas, and the bed linens clean without anyone else being aware of such laundry, but it became too much for a woman who had had full-time nannies diaper her three children.  The stench and the filth encountered when diapering a husband, impinged seriously upon her sense of self-worth and were he not already so worn-out by the problem, would have adversely affected his, too.

Candidly, she explained her problem as she saw it to her sister.  “I know I’m a spoiled brat of a woman.  But I’m simply typical of my circle of friends.”  Though this group regarded themselves as independent, they limited their existences to sex, beauty parlors, fashion shows, luncheons, charitable committees, and the places to which they brought art and its refinements to those in the community who were in dire need of them.  And none of this was compatible with putting her hands or nose near the former contents of her husband’s bowels.  Not without reason did Paige fear that if news of his disease and her part in it ever became publicly known, she’d become a laughing-stock.  Her class simply did not dabble in such things.  She was comforted by the ethical requirement that bound Nola, a registered nurse, to a certain confidentiality.  Her friends were not unlike the ladies who formed the Zen council.

It wasn’t that these ladies who were in the same economic class as the Zen Council were uneducated. No, like the others, they had unfortunately majored in French Literature, Art History, or Philosophy, subjects which rendered them virtually unemployable, which was a fact of no consequence since they always seemed to marry Wharton School of Business graduates who went into Philadelphia regularly to their offices and made enough money to keep fat portfolios and summer homes.  At cocktail parties and other obligatory functions, French Literature, Art History, and Philosophy were considered meritorious achievements. Otherwise, they maintained a coffee-klatch mentality and contented themselves by doing the things that prosperous wives were supposed to do, including unrestrained sex.

Perhaps it was an exercise in psychological compensation that let The Council decide that Christianity lacked a certain patrician cachet, and one and all they happily turned to the more exclusive Zen, which, after all, provided better opportunities for meeting new friends.

 

Once Spencer was asleep, Nola got her coat and purse and went to the kitchen to tell the cook that she was going to an organic vegetable store she had seen on her way to the house.

“What peculiar vegetables are you planning to buy?” Mrs. Eglington asked with more accusation than curiosity.

Nora, offended by the cook’s attitude, saw Jules’ laptop on the kitchen table.  “If I buy something you’re unfamiliar with, I’m sure Mr. Grover will do a net search to provide you with instruction.  I suspect that Mr. Ghent is lactose intolerant so I’ll be getting special milk for him and also some probiotic pills that I regard as most effective.  Don’t forget to scrub that steamer.”  She pulled on her driving gloves, “Now if Jules will see to getting the other things from the drug store, I’ll leave – with your permission, of course.”

The departure was not tearful.

Nola became a regular customer of the health food grocery store.  On her first visit in September she chatted with the clerk who managed to get more information than she gave.  But on the check-out counter was a stack of flyers announcing the presence in town of the new Zen Buddhist Assembly of Morton.  She read that meditation services were held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.  The clerk watched her read and then gushed, “If you’re interested in Zen you really ought to go.  They’re wonderful people!”

“Soto or Rinzai?” Nola asked.

The clerk did not know what she was talking about and simply shrugged. They’re the kind that just sit there for fifty minutes and then take a break and sit another fifty minutes.  Somebody told me that they try not to think.”

“That sounds like Soto Zen,” Nola said as she noted the address of the Zendo.

When she returned home she told Spencer about the new facility.  He had not heard about it.  “So,” he said pleasantly, “you’re a Zen person.  I used to go regularly to a temple in Philadelphia.  I miss the quiet contemplation… the peace and that great sandalwood incense they use.”

“When you’re strong enough,” Nola promised, “I’ll take you to one of their Tuesday or Thursday meditation sessions.  She did not mention that she followed Rinzai Zen and did not care to spend hours sitting on a cushion trying to erase thoughts from her mind.

 

In the weeks that followed, Spencer’s health improved remarkably.  He gained weight, ate more and slept less. His depression vanished and he began to avail himself of a stack of books that contained crossword puzzles, formerly his favorite pass-time. Nola was happy to compete with him in solving the puzzles.  Since Spencer did not like electronic equipment, he would also get daily exercise going up and down stairs to his study to consult his many reference books. Soon the two of them got so good at solving the puzzles that they began to create their own.  This challenge created much good will and they began to act as old and trusted friends.  Spencer liked to follow a single theme, one that would be appreciated by members of his economic class… equestrian, nautical, social dances and events, and such.  Eventually, he had to expand the theme to include names and terms people of every class would appreciate.

His moods and his adherence to routine also began to change.  He asked Jules to air-out clothing he wore when he weighed one hundred fifty pounds.  The garments were of course too large for him, but he explained that he didn’t like to go downstairs in pajamas and robe.  This was understandable, but what was beyond Nola’s comprehension was that on some days he would take his medicine, eat his breakfast, and then dismiss her, locking his bedroom door.  When Nola would ask, he’d say he had private phone calls to make.  He would never explain and some days Nola was frantic wondering what she had done to cause him to exclude her from his bedroom.

It became so troublesome that she asked her sister why Spencer behaved in such a way.

Paige laughed and said, “Look at the phone bill when it comes in.  There won’t be any calls made.  At the rate he’s improving, he’ll fit into those clothes and then he’ll say that he had personal business to attend to and he’ll leave the house.  Usually, he won’t say anything. He’ll just leave.  You’ll wonder where the hell he went or what he’s doing, but he’ll nicely say that his private life is no concern of yours.  Then you’ll see new garments… shirts, ties, pants, suits…  and they didn’t just materialize out of thin air.  So all his personal business was visiting men’s shops, and if you take the trouble to look, you’ll find a few movie ticket stubs in his car or pants’ pockets.  Same thing with his moods.  Usually he’ll want to do thepuzzles.  But you’ll find that some days he just locks his bedroom door without any explanation.”

“Paige… That’s exactly what he does.  Not often, but enough to concern me. He’ll say, ‘I took my medicine.  I’ll see you later.’   I go back to my room and worry about him.”

“Do yourself a favor and don’t worry.”  With that advice, Paige ended the discussion and announced that she needed to buy a new pair of heels to go with a dress she had just purchased.

 

The three kids came home for the Christmas holiday early, and Jules took them into town to buy a siamese kitten for Paige and a boxer puppy for Spencer. Nola did not spend enough time with them to form an opinion about any one of them.  But, she did assure herself, they certainly looked and acted like normal teenagers… even better behaved than most.

At Christmas dinner, as dessert was being served, Roland looked at a collection of puzzles.  “These are really great, Dad,” he said.  You ought to have them published.”

“Surely,” Paige said sourly, “not under the Ghent name.”

“Let’s make up a name!” Samantha gushed.

Nola secretly had been thinking about a joint name for them to use.  “Spenola” she had decided on and was just about to blurt it out when Paige shouted, “Chat R. Box!”  Chat for my Christmas cat and box for Daddy’s new puppy!”

Every one squealed in approval and the name “Splenola” stuck in Nola’s throat, nearly choking her.

Although she was responsible for at least half of each created puzzle, Spencer was being given full credit.  It was a small thing, but so, she reasoned, was a mosquito bite. It itched her psyche, but with discipline, she almost overcame it.  “What the hell was I thinking?” she asked herself when she went to bed that night.  She wondered why she was so upset by Spencer taking – no… being given – the whole credit for the puzzles.  The problem disturbed her far more than it should have.  First of all, it was only natural that at a celebratory moment he was not going to stop and correct his son.  Well, then, what was it?

As Nola lay on her bed and pondered the problem, applying the harsh self-defacing requirement of a Zen inquiry into one’s mind, it soon became clear that what disturbed her was that she wanted to link her name with his.  It wasn’t love, she told herself, although she had to admit that she felt years younger when she was with Spencer.  In fact, she felt a little high… like a good marijuana high… when they worked on the puzzles.  Yet she still did not realize that she had eradicated boundaries.  They were neither nurse and patient nor sister and brother-in-law. In either case, he was off-limits to her.  She had allowed herself to cross a forbidden line.

Before the New Year, the family left for a ski trip to Gstaad, Switzerland.  Everyone except Spencer returned in a few days.  Friends had advised him to get a kind of make-over in a spa in Lucerne.  The regimen was strict, but guaranteed to clean old unpleasant memories from his mind.  He’d be a new man.  Communication with the outside world was limited.  There was one public-use computer that functioned for one hour each day and phones and visitors were not permitted. He could get and receive mail though this was not encouraged.  Nola, wanting to keep her dispute with him out of the Ghent house, wrote a brief note to him asking that he include her as co-author of the crossword puzzles.  She received no answer.

In the middle of January he returned and did seem much more pleasant.  In addition, Editor John Daly began to relay the compliments the newspaper received about the puzzles. Everyone loved the name Chat R. Box and perhaps, Nola thought, the euphoria of such a clever name and enterprise drew Spencer even closer to her.  Whatever the reason, the two of them began to discuss family secrets in a critical way.  It was on Ground Hog day, she would later remember, that they were in the study, at ground level, watching Paige return from the carriage house, her hair and clothes disheveled, Spencer said, “It’s getting worse with Paige.  Rougher.  You do realize that she’s sexually insatiable. She’s bopping the Bulgarian now.” He nodded quizzically.  “Gregor looks strong.  I hope he can handle her. The last groundsman we had sent up a white flag after three months.” Then he added impishly, “I was afraid we’d  have to bury him in the front lawn.  Or…” he began to laugh and could not complete the statement.

Nola finished it for him.  “Or have him stuffed and put on display in the game room.”  They laughed so hard that Jules came to the study doorway to hear what it was that had made them laugh.

“No,” Spencer wheezed, “not the game room.. the front lawn  We cold play quoits with his Johnson.” They laughed again and he assured her that they had, ”A meeting of the minds.”

Jules then turned around and went back to the kitchen to tell Mrs. Eglington and Gladys that Spencer and Nola wanted to stuff Gregor and put him on the lawn for Paige to play with his penis.  Gladys told Gregor who naturally told Paige.

The following day, Friday, near noon, as Nola and Spencer sat on his bed surrounded by reference books on the theme of “Horses,” they were laughing and could not think of an “across” word that had an “s” “t” and “u” in the spaces that would meet the same letters required in three “down” slots.  Suddenly Nola shouted the obvious, “Stirrups!” and they laughed more as they felt the excitement of solving a puzzle.  Spencer offered the “across” clue:  “audio and sole.”  They were howling triumphantly at the word and the clue as Paige burst into the room.

“How cozy!” she snarled.  “You,” she indicated Nola, “no doubt found something else about me that amuses you!  Well you can just pack your things and get the hell out of my house.  Go find your own man to have a good laugh and fuck with.  This one’s taken!”

Nola stood up.  “What has gotten into you?  We’ve been laughing about a puzzle word.”

“Don’t bullshit me!  You can just get your spinster lust out of my house!  My husband?  You lay there in bed with my husband!  My own sister! I brought you here to care for my husband not have an affair with him.  And then you mock me? Oh, no. Get out of my house, and get out now!”

Spencer was indignant.  “Where do you get off calling this ‘your’ house.  We have a prenuptial agreement and no part of this estate will ever belong to you.  It’s Ghent property and lady, you’re no Ghent. “

That he spoke no word in her defense against such a licentious charge, stunned Nola.  Dazed, she realized that he was more worried about his property than he was about her reputation; and she was not only innocent, she was the woman who had restored his health. She went into her bedroom and packed her suitcases.  She carried everything she owned without assistance to the garage, and with no idea about where she was going, she began to drive towards town.

Driving down main street she noticed that she needed gas and pulled into a station. She fretted with disconnected thoughts.  Finally, the gas pump clicked off when the tank had filled.  In a state that was purely automatic she withdrew the nozzle, hung it up, put on the gas tank cap, and withdrew her credit card.

She got into her car and for the first time experienced a clarity of mind that made her feel appalled by the rejection she had received.  A car behind her beeped and she roused herself, immediately deciding that she would not drive aimlessly.  Instead she’d check into a motel at the edge of town and try to figure out how she should respond to Paige’s tirade.