Palmate Antlers for Bullwinkle

“Yeah, so let’s just say you’re looking at the 1992-93 Crossword Puzzle Champion of the Midwest. 16-18 year old division. I moved up. I was that good.”

Adam Resnick sits on the yellowed couch, suckling a beer and nods as he regales his crowd of three underclassman — all too intimidated by his size and status to leave halfway through his reminiscence.

“You know the clue that nearly destroyed me?” he asks, and then he leans forward, a great showman, pasting his sour breath into the gazing faces of freshmen who would much rather be enjoying other aspects of the party besides Adam’s blurred memories of glory days. He spreads his hands apart and in a whisper he says “The clue was ‘Palmate antlers.’ And so of course, I’m trying to figure out what the hell the word ‘palmate’ means, and then I remember Bullwinkle. I remember Bullwinkle’s antlers, and how they looked like hands, like palms and…palmate. What animal with five letters has palmate antlers?

The answer was moose. And I filled in the squares, put my pencil down, and collected first prize. My future was forever shaped because of a cartoon moose.”

He smiles proudly, finishes the dregs and glows as the freshmen smile politely and one by one, stand to “use the restroom” or “grab another drink.” But they never return, and Adam doesn’t notice. He just sits, arms spread over the spine of the couch, waiting for people to fill in the blank spaces on either side. Somehow, they remained hollow for the remainder of the evening.

*

If it weren’t for Petrie Malloy, he could have stayed protected in the warm, safe shell of his retirement, lost in the annals of crossword puzzle history, a name among others, swimming in a sea of uniformity, every letter matched correctly with its owner.

But Petrie provoked, peered over Adam’s shoulder at Oak Borough Public Library and said “Navajo,” and something stirred inside Adam.

“What kid?” he asked, turning to face him. In a sniveling voice, the response leapt to him.

“Largest remaining American Indian tribe? Six letters? It’s simple: Navajo. And, you know what? You can use the ‘j’ to start the word Juniper going down, of or related to the evergreen tree.”

Petrie Malloy stood stoically in glasses and pocket protector, nose like a funnel, air sifting in through plugged portals, the sound of congestion playing like a French horn with every inhale. At thirteen, he too had been bumped up to the 16-18 division, and Adam glared at the kid, a former image of himself, and then turned away, filling in the letters without responding.

“Perhaps we could have a duel sometime,” Petrie suggested, and flicked a pencil from his left khaki pocket. “Perhaps tomorrow? I’m training for the Midwestern division championship. It might be a fun exercise, you and I. Might be good practice.”

This kid is going for blood, Adam thinks, and his head pounds at the way Petrie says the word “practice,” as if the crossword duel meant nothing to him but another victim to be crossed off the list.

Now, Adam was excited, and Petrie had provoked, and they agreed to meet the following day, at the library.

“Fine. I look forward to tomorrow, Adam Resnick. I wonder if you’re everything people said you once were.”

And then he walked away, and Adam leaned back in the chair, book bag beside him, and smiled at the thought of people saying much of anything about him anymore.

*

Adam sweat a waterfall as Petrie filled in the crisp letters “B-O-I-S-E,” the capital of Idaho.

And he gnawed on graphite as Petrie carefully labeled seven boxes leading across with the letters “P-H-O-E-N-I-X” to finish the clue for “a mythical ashen bird.”

Feet tapping, his mind soared, but it was not the mind he once had, and the feeling of numbness that four years of college had impressed upon him now made him slower than before, dim-witted in comparison to the thirteen year old prodigy with the distinct handwriting, letters written in all caps.

Six minutes passed, and Adam was a quarter of the way done with his as Petrie victoriously flicked him pencil across the table and asked Adam if he had gotten beryllium for number 56 down, that he wasn’t quite sure of the spelling, “But hey, if the word fit, then the boxes don’t lie.”

Adam glared at the boy who was struggling with the growth of armpit hair and newly discovered pimples long burrowed under his flesh. He glared as the boy who cracked fingers and began gnawing on nails obsessively, and Adam wondered if he had ever kissed a girl, if he knew how many letters were in the word “imagination” or “adventure” or any number of similar words with which he had no comprehension of.

He hated Petrie, and pitied him, and rose to leave, congratulating the boy on his good fortune, when he glanced over at seven letters written darker than the others, in boxes where they didn’t belong. The word: Washout.

Petrie grinned menacingly.

“Next week is the tournament. Maybe I’ll see you there.”

And Petrie had provoked, and Adam had excited, and he walked away, thinking of a seven letter word that could describe his opponent as well: asshole.

*

The tournament head was Arthur Fichenstein, the same balding, skeleton man who had been in charge years before.

Adam stared at him from afar, and then walked to the registration table and asked to be registered in the 16-18 division.

Name?

Bill.

Last name?

Uh…Clinton.

The woman with the librarian glasses glanced up at Adam, did not see Bill Clinton staring back at her, and put down her pencil and asked if he’d like to try again.

“Kenton. I meant Kenton, sorry. Bill Kenton,” Adam said, unable to provide his true name, afraid for the uproar that might ensue, although he doubted it.

The contestants were placed at large tables, ten to a side, and were handed a puzzle facing down.

Arthur, dressed in a suit coat with a purple scarf wrapped eloquently around his neck, smiled to everyone, welcomed them to the “exciting world of cross wording” and asked that “everyone please keep it civil.”

Adam had read about a pencil stabbing that had taken place the year before, one contestant jabbing lead into the neck of another, an assault which now deemed the civility comment necessary.

How much has changed, Adam thought as he stared at the sea of faces, mostly pimpled, mostly awkward.

A whistle was blown and paper cuts took every finger by surprise. In a whirlwind of flips, blood gushed from unfortunate pointers, and three of the milder children ran off crying, forfeiting their position for a band-aid instead.

But Adam’s fingers were calloused, prepared for the flip, and he began scribbling, letters and words that siphoned to his cerebral cortex as if God himself were guiding his hand. The first five finishers would move to the next round, and Adam finished a respectable third, just two places behind the squinty eyed Petrie, who just happened to flick his pencil in Adam’s general direction, a wink of confidence caught between his glasses.

*

Five whittled to two, and Petrie went off to the bathroom before the final round as Adam wiped the sweat from his face with a towel handed to him by one of the previously eliminated contestants.

“Hey man, we’re all rooting for you, alright?” the boy whispered. He too was young, probably below the age requirement, and he patted Adam on the back, a vote of confidence. “Petrie is…he’s just one of those guys who has nothing going for him but letters, just letters that he tries to fill in. His entire life is a crossword, and he is so smug and…please beat him today, alright? Someone needs to take him down a few notches, okay? Please?”

Adam nodded, agreed he would try his best, and then watched Petrie return to his plastic chair across the table from Adam, his shoes squeaking on the tiles before positioning himself.

Arthur Fichenstein announced Bill Kenton and Petrie Mallow to the audience, and Petrie shook his head disappointedly at Adam’s inability to use his own name.

“We’re trying to be invisible today, are we?” he asked, but Adam ignored. Petrie provoked, but Adam ignored.

And Arthur gave the countdown, and at the sound of a whistle, the papers were flipped, and Petrie flooded the milk white paper, crushing lead into letters, creating order out of clues.

But Adam couldn’t move. Frozen, frozen for the first time in his life, he watched a boy that he knew well, and he watched his facial expressions, his tongue seeming to fill his entire mouth, his eyes squinting in anger, in competitiveness.

The boy had told him that Petrie had nothing but letters…that his entire life meant nothing but blanks than needed filling.

And Adam thought of palmate antlers, and the author of The Metamorphosis (K-A-F-K-A) and a birthday cake fixture (C-A-N-D-L-E-S) and Saturn’s Moon (T-I-T-A-N) and the first letter of the Greek alphabet (A-L-P-H-A) and Napoleon’s downfall (W-A-T-E-R-L-O-O) and a burial vault (C-R-Y-P-T) and condiment brand (H-E-I-N-Z) and winter Olympic sport (C-U-R-L-I-N-G) and the Egyptian underworld god (O-S-I-R-I-S). He thought of these clues and these words, and what they had once meant to him, the victory of putting everything in its right place.

He stared at Petrie Malloy, and thought of the palmate antlers of Bullwinkle, and didn’t transcribe one letter. He just watched, until Petrie finished, tossed his pencil, pushed his hands into the air in victory.

“I win! Oh yes, I won!”

Adam forced a smile, nodded, shook his hand and congratulated the winner, unable to tell him about the losses that would come later, in a world where letters grew and shrank, no longer fitting where they were supposed to, or making amends for their transgressions in terminology.

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