A Five Letter Word for Rabbit Fur

Bill kept himself sharp by doing crossword puzzles ever since he retired from the rubber factory. He got the paper every morning just for the puzzle. They printed the name of the person who’d finished yesterday’s puzzle first below the clues. He had never finished first. In the beginning, it had taken him the better part of a day to do the puzzle, and even then, he didn’t finish. He remembered the first one he’d actually finished. He’d guessed a couple of them, didn’t even know if they were real words. It was like gauging the weather the day before a trip, waiting for the next day’s paper to come out with the answers to the day before. When he compared them and saw that he’d done it, that’s when he knew one day it would be him in the paper. “Bill Waszlewsky. (68) completed yesterday’s puzzle at 5:42 a.m. Way to go Bill!” Like that Virginia Wilson. She was in there at least a couple times a week.

That’s when he started to take the crossword puzzle seriously. He timed himself, modeling his approach after speed chess, only giving himself five minutes for each answer. (He didn’t actually know how one played speed chess, but he imagined it was something like that.) He did the puzzles in the morning and got books of them at the dollar store to practice in the afternoons.

It wasn’t necessarily that he liked doing puzzles. But they were a challenge and they filled the day. And Bill considered himself to have never done much worth mentioning in his life. Oh, he’d done the usual things, been married, had a couple of kids, but everyone was married and everyone had kids. If anything, someone who remained single his whole life would’ve been more impressive to Bill. But now his wife was dead, his kids called and visited every so often, and Bill felt the need for competition to add a little oomph to his life.

This morning, Bill woke early, as always. He’d gotten into the habit of waking around 4 a.m., having found that the paper usually arrived between three and four. He refused to wake at 3 and wait. “There is a fine line,” he told his daughter many times, “between competitiveness and obsessive-ness.”

He ate his oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar while he worked on the paper. There was a story on the cover about a series of murders in the area. A body had been found mutilated in a warehouse on Kellough Street. Bill paused for a moment trying to formulate a joke about a cereal killer. Readers Digest paid $300 for “Life in These United States,” but this was probably a little too risqué for them.

The body was missing its hands and feet. All of them were, he’d been reading about them for days. The paper said the police had closed down a post office nearby, but no one knew why. Maybe it was some crazy mailman killing people.

He flipped back to the puzzle and started working his way through. He came to a hard one he couldn’t get. 17 Across: Rabbit Fur. Five letters. He spent more time on it than he should have because it was on the tip of his tongue. He ended up skipping it and coming back and when he’d filled in the rest of the squares, realized that it couldn’t have been the word he was thinking of after all.

He finished at 8:32. He didn’t even bother calling the paper. The latest time he’d seen in the year or so he’d been pursuing crossword puzzles was 7:38. That had been the puzzle of Christmas morning, completed, of course, by Virginia Wilson. It was damned disappointing, but everyone had bad days, he told himself. He did another puzzle from a book he’d picked up at Goodwill for thirty five cents. Some of the answers were already there, but he ignored them.

Bill spent the next few hours puttering around the house and waiting for the mailman. This was his second biggest event of the day. Bill prided himself on the fact that he never watched TV before noon. He was familiar with the stereotype of the retiree as some shut-in chained to a boob-tube. Bill went for walks every day. He kept himself in shape. He didn’t eat TV dinners. Unless they were on sale.

The mailman came a little after ten and Bill met him at the door.

“What’s this?” Bill asked.

“Package,” the mailman said.

“Who’s it from?” Bill asked.

The mailman (a new kid Bill didn’t recognize) pointed to the return address in the corner. “It just says “Important,” he said.

“There’s no address,” Bill said. “What if it’s Anthrax?”

“We have a machine that detects that,” the mailman said.

“Well who’s it from, then?”

The mailman shrugged and left. Bill hesitated in the doorway and finally took the box inside and set it on the table. He looked at the cancellation on the stamps, but he couldn’t make anything out but a circle of black ink. No matter what the kid said, Bill was afraid it might be Anthrax. Or worse, a package from his sister Doris in Wichita. He hadn’t heard from Doris in awhile, though he counted the days like those little signs they used to have in the break room at the rubber factory that said “Six months since an Accident.” And here was this package. Of course she meant well. She just happened to ignore sixty three years of shared experience and managed to be surprised every time he reminded her that he had his own individual tastes, that he was still allergic to peanut butter, that his wife was still dead, etc. You never knew what a package from Doris might entail. Often, it seemed as though she went through her house filling boxes with all the trash. Once, she’d sent him a hamburger from a restaurant she wanted to try next time he came to visit. A hamburger. With cheese.

“It was in a baggie,” she’d said when he confronted her about it.

The sad thing about it was that she hadn’t remembered that he was lactose intolerant and couldn’t eat cheese.

She got it from their mother, rest her soul. That woman had once frozen a cake for three years and thawed it out and served it to some men who came to work on the roof. He could imagine them politely trying to choke it down.

Bill went to the phone, and dread it as he might, called his sister.

“Doris?” He said. “I can’t talk for long. Did you send me a package?”

“What sort of package?” she said.

“A package, Doris. In a box. Wrapped in brown paper. Did you send it?”

“Where did it come from?”

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you.”

“Huh. Maybe Ruth Anne sent it.”

“I’ll try her next. So what you are saying is that you didn’t send it?”

“I don’t think I did. Did I? What’s in it?”

“I don’t know. I’m afraid to open it. Might be Anthrax or something.”

“Did it come through the mail? Cause they have machines now that can detect Anthrax.”

“That’s what the mailman said.”

“Did you ask him who it was from?”

“He didn’t know. I have to go, Doris. Peak rates.”

“Who?”

“Goodbye.”

“Okay. That reminds me, I was going to send you a package. Maybe I already did and forgot. No, no I didn’t yet because I was going to put in this picture frame Janet made from popsicle sticks in bible camp. Oops. Forget I said that, it’ll spoil the surprise.”

“That’s fine,” Bill said. “I’d love to talk but I have to go call Ruth Anne.”

“Oh, is she okay?”

“She’s fine,” Bill said, tapping his fingers on the kitchen table.

“Well, tell her to call me. I have a recipe for her,” Doris said, oblivious.

“Okay. I will. Bye, Doris. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Bye-” She said.

He hung up, cutting her off.

Next he called Ruth Anne, but no one answered. He left a message on her machine about the box. “And Doris might be calling you soon. So good thing you have the machine on,” he said and hung up.

He was out of ideas. He considered calling his son Terry in California, but they hadn’t spoken in months. Mostly because they didn’t like each other.

The box sat on the table. Maybe Doris had sent it and forgotten. Maybe it was anthrax.

Looking at the box, Bill felt very tired. He was an old man and he didn’t have time for games. He picked it up, took it to the trash can under the sink, and threw it in. Of course, it didn’t actually fit in the narrow plastic can, so he tried to set the box on top of the can. But there wasn’t enough room. So he set it in the sink.

Bill sat at the kitchen table, bent over another puzzle from the Goodwill book. That damned Virginia. He knew she probably was some old lady all by herself with nothing to do but puzzles. Sad, really. Oh, she probably had kids or some sort of family that probably hardly ever called her or visited. Sometimes, on long mornings in between puzzles, he thought of trying to find her to learn her secret. She must be an intelligent woman. Probably could use a good conversationalist. And Bill had stories to tell, but they were all about rubber.

He focused his attention back on the puzzle.

7 Across: Famous Boxer Floated Like a Butterfly

6 Down: Bach’s Toccata and _ (Hint: Sounds like a monster movie)

12 Down: Rebellion in 18th century China

5 Across: A type of ballroom dance. The _ Step

“Oh for the love of Mike,” Bill said, throwing his pencil onto the table.

He went to the sink, grabbed the box and brought it back to the table. Something inside it rattled when he shook it, but it had a solid feel to it, as though whatever was inside was all one piece.

He got a pair of scissors from the drawer by the sink and split the brown paper wrapping. The box was heavily duct taped without any identifying marks or logos or anything. He cut the tape. Inside was a layer of plastic. He cut through it, releasing a strange sort of a vanilla smell, with a vitaminy aftertaste. This was because of a small object Bill recognized as a plastic air freshener, which he imagined was also what caused the rattling.

There was something wrapped in more plastic. He poked it. It felt solid. He ran the sharp side of one of the scissor blades along the object, slitting the plastic.

Whatever was inside was shaped kind of like an L. He reached into the plastic and pulled it out. It was soft and cool. Solid. He held it up to look at it. It had toes. The nails were painted red and chipped. It was a foot. He dropped it back into the box and stepped away. It was a foot. He went to the sink and washed his hands off thoroughly. He dried them on a kitchen towel and threw the towel in the trash. It was a foot. The box sat on top of the table beside the book of crossword puzzles. He was fairly certain the package wasn’t from Doris.

He went to the table, looked into the box. It was a foot. Probably a woman’s foot. It was slender and tanned. As pretty as a foot could be.

He went to the phone and called the police. “Somebody mailed me a foot,” he said.

When they were on their way, he went back to the table and stared at the puzzle again. He couldn’t keep his eyes on the page. His mind was working more frantically than it ever had. He put his pencil down and went into the living room and laid on the couch to wait for the police.

The next morning, Bill woke later than usual. He went out onto the stoop for the paper. The sun was just starting to stain the sky orange. A breeze was coming in, rattling the branches in the oak he’d planted in the front yard when he and Margaret bought the house. He felt a twinge of loss, but in a way, he was almost glad she wasn’t around to have seen this. He went back inside and poured a cup of tea and brought it outside before sitting on the stoop and opening the paper. There he was, not only finally in the paper, but on the front page.

“Hello to you, Ms. Virginia,” he said.

He read over the story twice. It didn’t help make sense of any of it. No one knew anything. Then he folded the paper and set it down. He didn’t know if he was happy about it, but there it was. He sipped his tea, already going cold, and leaned back against the door, closing his eyes and enjoying the feel of warmth spreading over his face and body.

“Hello to you,” he said again, and woke up an hour later stiff and confused, having dozed off leaning against the door.

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