for Piero Ghezzi
Every afternoon Inaco’s daughter is called Io, Aar is a river of Switzerland, and Somerset Maugham wrote The Moon and Six Pence. Gold’s chemical symbol is Au, Ravel composed Bolero, and there are dots and lines which, thanks to Morse, can be letters. Insipid is bland, the initials of Lincoln’s assasin are JWB, the country houses of the Russian elite are dachas, Puskas is a great Hungarian soccer player, Veronica Lake is a famous femme fatale, and Citizen Kane’s keyword is Rosebud. Every afternoon Benjamín Laredo consults dictionaries, encyclopedias and past works in order to create the crossword to be published the next day in The Piedras Blancas Herald. It’s a routine that has been going on for twenty four years: after lunch, Laredo puts on a black suit that is too tight for him; a white silk shirt, a red bowtie and patent leather shoes that shine like street puddles on a rainy night. He shaves, applies cologne and hair gel, and then locks himself in his study with a bottle of red wine and plays Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Using fine point Staedtler pencils, Laredo crosses words in horizontal and vertical lines, together with black-and-white photographs of politicians, artists and famous buildings. A phrase wriggles across the width and length of the box, Wilde’s being the most used: “I can resist everything except temptation.” One by Borges is his current favorite: “I have committed the worst sin: I have not been happy.”
Sitting on the walnut chair that has caused him chronic back pain, gnawing at a pencil’s splintered end, Laredo faces the rectangle of Bond paper with urgency, as if in it he will find, hidden in its vast clarity, the ciphered message of his destiny. There are moments in which a chemical fact does not want to combine with the synonym of imperturbable. Laredo drinks his wine and looks up at the walls. Those who can help him are there, in yellowish photographs, one polished silver frame after another crowding the four sides of the study and leaving room only for one more frame. There is Wilhelm Kundt, the German with the broken nose (people who are into crosswords are very passionate), a Nazi fugitive who in less than two years in Piedras Blancas invented for himself a past as a celebrated crossword maker thanks to his exuberant command of Spanish (they said he was so thin because he would only eat pages of etymology dictionaries for breakfast, synonyms and antonyms for lunch, galicisms and neologisms for dinner); Federico Carrasco, a Fred Astaire look-alike, whose descent into madness was due to his belief that he was the reincarnation of Joyce and had to attempt, in each of his crosswords, an abridged version of Finnegans Wake; Luisa Laredo, Benjamín’s alcoholic mother, who used the pseudonym of Benjamín Laredo in order for her crosswords –full of slighted fauna and flora and forgotten women artists — to be accepted and gain prestige in Piedras Blancas. Benjamin’s mother, who raised him alone (finding out that she was pregnant, her sixteen-year old boyfriend took the next train to Chile and nothing else was ever heard of him), and who, when discovering that at five Benjamín already knew that a whole seed of cereal was a kernel, had forbidden him to solve her crosswords because she was afraid he would follow her footsteps. “It is tiring to be poor. You’ll be an engineer.” But she had left him when he turned ten, dying in the midst of a delirium tremens in which words became alive and followed her around like unbridled mastiffs.
Every day Laredo looks at the crossword in its chrysalis shape, and then at the photos on the walls. Whom will he invoke today? Does he need Kundt’s precision? Carved stone used for arches and vaults, six letters. Carrasco’s arcane and esoteric facts? John Ford’s cinematographer in The Fugitive, eight letters. His mother’s diligence for giving a place to that which was left out? Adviser of her Catholic majesty, Queen Isabel, author of commentaries on Aristotle’s work, seven letters. Somebody always comes to direct his carbon-stained hands to the right dictionary and encyclopedia (his favorites being María Moliner’s, with its scribbled edges, and the Britannica, outdated but still capable of telling him about poisonous plants and card games of the High Middle Ages), and then a verbal alchemy occurs and those incongruously grouped words –Cuban dictator of the fifties, Mohawk deity, poison that killed Socrates — all of a sudden acquire meaning, and seem to have been created in order to lie side by side.
Afterwards, Laredo walks the seven blocks that separate his house from The Herald’s building, and gives his crossword to the editor’s secretary in a sealed envelope that cannot be opened until minutes before the lay-out of page A14. The secretary, a fortyish woman with flowery shirts and immense black glasses like a pair of sleepy tarantulas, tells him every time she has a chance that his works are “diamonds to be preserved in the jewelry box of memory,” and that she prepares a chicken fetucchini that “would make you lick your fingers,” and that he should consider taking a break in his “admirable labor.” Laredo mumbles an excuse, and looks at the floor. Since his first and only woman left him at eighteen because she had met a poète maudit –or, as he preferred to call him, a maudit poète –, Laredo spent his life looking at the floor when a woman was around. His natural shyness became more pronounced, and he withdrew into a solitary life dedicated to archeology (third-year dropout), and to the crosswords’ intellectual labyrinth. During the last decade he could have taken advantage of his fame on some occasions, but he did not because he, first and foremost, was an ethical man.
Before leaving The Herald, Laredo stops by the editor’ office, and collects his check while receiving warm pats on the back. It is his only demand: each crossword must be paid upon delivery, except those of Saturday and Sunday, which must be paid on Monday. Laredo takes a close look at his check, and is surprised by the amount although he knows it by heart. His mother would be very proud of him if she knew he could live of his art. “You should have trusted me more, mom.” Laredo returns home with slow steps, chewing over possible definitions for the next day. Would he be able to use one of Babylonia’s first kings? Or a tumor produced by the inflammation of the lymphatic vessels?
That evening, everything seemed radiant to Laredo, even the beggar sitting on the curb with a dislocated waist bone between the back and the inferior extremities (six letters), and the adolescent who ran into him in the corner and almost made him fall and had a grotesque, protruding shape in the neck produced by the thyroid gland (two words, ten letters). Maybe it was the Italian wine he drank that day in honor of the quality of his last four crosswords. Monday’s, devoted to film noir –with Fritz Lang’s photograph in the upper left corner, and the author of Double Indemnity to his right –, motivated an immense pile of congratulatory letters. “Dear Mister Laredo: I only write these lines to tell you I admire your work, and I am thinking about quitting my studies in Industrial Engineering in order to follow your steps.” “My esteemed Benjamín: I wish you would continue with thematic crosswords. Have you thought about one with references to Pynchon’s work? What about one with diverse forms of torture invented by South American military forces in the twentieth century?” Laredo touched the letters in his right pocket and quoted them as if reading in Braille. Was he already of Kundt’s stature? Had he acquired Carrasco’s immortality? Was he now superior to his mother, so he could recover his name? Almost. Very little was missing. Very little. There should be a Nobel prize for artists like him. Making a crossword puzzle was as complex and transcendent as writing a poem. With the subtlety and precision of a sonnet, words were interlaced from top to bottom and left to right to create a harmonic and elegant unity. He could not complain: his fame was such in Piedras Blancas that the Mayor was thinking about naming a street after him. Nobody read poems anymore, but practically everybody in the city, from veterans to delicate Lolitas —Humbert Humbert’s obsession, Nabokov’s character, Sue Lyon on the big screen — spent at least one hour each day solving his crosswords. Better to have the people’s recognition in an undervalued art than a multitude of awards in a field taken into account only by pretentious aesthetes, incapable of feeling the air of the times.
On the corner one block from his house, a woman in a black furry coat waited for a cab. The streetlights were on, their orange glow vain in the pale afternoon light. Laredo walked right by the woman; she turned and looked at him. Her face was of an undefined age: she could have been seventeen or thirty five. She had a white lock falling over her forehead and covering her right eye. Laredo continued walking. He stopped. That face…
An old Ford Falcon was approaching the curb. He turned around. “Excuse me,” he said. “It is not my intention to bother you, but…”
“But you’re bothering me.”
“I just wanted to know your name. You remind me of somebody.”
“I’m sorry. Good night.”
The cab stopped. She got in and did not give him time to continue the conversation. Laredo waited until the Ford Falcon disappeared. Of whom did she remind him?
He was awake until dawn, tossing and turning in bed, ramsacking his memory in search of an image that would somehow correspond to the aquiline nose, the dark skin and the prominent jaw, the apprehensive expression. A face seen in his childhood, in the waiting room of a decaying hospital, holding grandpa’s hand and expecting word of his mother’s return from her alcoholic stupor? In the entrance hall of the neighborhood movie theater, eating popcorn while the girls in shiny miniskirts walked by with a brother or boyfriend at their side? There was the image of Jayne Mansfield and her unreal breasts, which he cut from a newspaper and glued on a page of his Math notebook, the first time he tried to create a crossword, the day after his mother’s funeral. There were the brunettes whose hair smelled of apples, the blondes beautiful thanks to nature or to the tricks of make-up, the women with vulgar faces and the charm or dissatisfaction of the ordinary.
Sunlight filtered shyly through the blinds of the room when Laredo remembered another woman with a white lock over her forehead. The owner of the Palace of the Sleeping Princesses, the store in the neighborhood where Laredo, as an adolescent, used to buy the magazines from which he cut the photographs of celebrities for his crosswords. The woman had approached him, a hand full of silver rings, when she saw him clumsily hiding, in a corner of the place that smelled of humid newspapers, an issue of Life between the folds of his brown-leather jacket.
She would catch him and call the police. A scandal. In his bed, Laredo relived the vertigo of that forgotten instant.
“I’ve seen you around. You like to read?”
“I like to make crosswords.”
It was the first time that he said it with such a strong conviction. One should not be afraid of anything. The woman drew a smile of complicity.
“I know who you are. Benjamín. I hope you don’t like to do silly things like your mom, may God have mercy on her.”
The woman pinched him gently on his right cheek. Benjamín pressed the magazine against his chest.
“Now leave, before my husband shows up.”
Laredo ran away, his heart beating as fast as it was beating now, saying over and over that nothing compared to making crosswords. Nothing. Since then he had not returned to The Palace of Sleeping Princesses out of a mixture of shame and pride. He wondered what had happened to her? Maybe she was an old woman behind the counter of the store. Maybe she was playing with worms in a cemetery. Laredo, his body fragmented into parallel lines by daylight, said: “nothing compares to. Nothing.” He should turn the page, send the woman back to the oblivion in which he had imprisoned her for so many years. She did not have anything to do with his present. The only resemblance to Dochera was the white lock of hair. “Dochera,” he whispered, his eyes fluttering about the naked walls. “Do-che-ra.” It was an odd name.
Where could he see her again? If she took a cab so close to his home, maybe she lived nearby. He trembled at the thought of such hypothetical vicinity, he bit his already bitten nails. It was more probable that she had been visiting a friend. Or relatives. A lover?
The following day, Laredo included this definition in the crossword: Woman who waits for a cab at dusk, and who turns solitary and unconsolable men into lovesick beasts. Seven letters, second vertical row. He had transgressed his principles of fair play, his responsibility to his followers. If the lies that filled the newspapers in the declarations of politicians and government officials extended to the holy bastion of the crossword –so stable in its offering of truths easy to prove with the help of a good encyclopedia — what possibilities did the common citizen have of escaping the general corruption? Laredo suspended these moral dilemmas. The only thing that mattered was to send a message to Dochera, to let her know he was thinking about her. It was a small city, she would have recognized him. He imagined that the next day she would do the crossword in the office where she worked, and she would find that message of love and it would make her smile. Dochera, she would slowly write, savoring the moment, and then she would call the newspaper to say she had received the message, they could go for coffee any afternoon.
The call never came. Instead, there were calls from many people who vainly tried to solve the crossword and asked for help or complained. When the solution was published, people stared at each other. Dochera? Who had heard of Dochera? Nobody dared confront Laredo: if he said it, he had his reasons. Not for nothing did they call him The Maker, and The Maker knew things that nobody else knew.
Laredo tried again with: Disturbing and nocturnal apparition, who has turned a lonely heart into a wild and contradictory sum of hope and disquiet. And: At night, all the cabs are gray, and they take away the woman of my life, and with it the principal organ of circulation of my blood. And: One block away from Solitude, at dusk, there was the awakening of a world. The crosswords kept their habitual quality, but now they carried with them, like a scar that could not heal, a definition that incorporated the name of seven letters. He should have stopped. He could not. There was some criticism; he did not care. Laredo’s followers got used to it, and began to see its positive side: at least they could start to solve the crossword knowing they had one correct answer. Also, were not geniuses eccentric? The only difference was that Laredo had taken 24 years to find his eccentric side. Piedras Blancas’ Beethoven could be allowed outlandish actions.
There were 57 crosswords and still no answer. Had the woman disappeared? Was Laredo’s method wrong? Should he lurk around the neighborhood until meeting her again? He tried that for three nights, with his Lord Cheseline gel shining brightly in his black hair as if he were an angel in a failed mortal incarnation. He felt ridiculous and vulgar stalking her like a robber. He also visited, with no luck, the two cab companies in the city, trying to find a list of the drivers who were working that Wednesday (the companies did not keep the lists, he would talk to The Herald’s editor, somebody should write about it). He considered placing a one-page ad in the newspaper, describing Dochera and offering a reward to whoever could tell him about her whereabouts. Very few women would have a white lock, or such a name. He would not do it. There was no greater ad than his crosswords. Now everybody in the city, even those soulless people who were not into crosswords, knew that he was in love with a woman named Dochera. For a pathologically shy individual, Laredo had done more than enough (whenever people would ask him who she was, he would look at the floor, then he mumble something about a priceless out-of-print encyclopedia of the Hitites that he had just found in a used bookstore).
What if the woman had given him a false name? That was the cruelest possibility.
One morning, Laredo decided to visit the neighborhood of his youth, in the northwestern part of town, full of weeping willows. The intercrossing of styles through the years had created an area of motley temporalities: mansions with big patios coexisted with modern residences; the Colonel’s kiosk, with its dusty window displaying old pharmacy jars with confections made with sugar and often flavoring and filling (seven letters), stood beside a hairdresser’s shop offering manicure for both sexes. Laredo reached the corner where the magazine store was located. The sign with its elegant gothic letters that hung over a metal door, had been replaced by a coarse beer ad under which it read, in small letters, The Palace of Princesses Restaurant. Laredo took a look inside. A barefoot man was washing the tile floor. The place smelled of lemon detergent.
The man stopped mopping.
“Sorry to interrupt… There used to be a magazine store here.”
“I don’t have a clue. I’m only an employee.”
“The owner had a white lock.”
The man scratched his head. “If she’s the one I’m thinking about, she died a long time ago. She was the original owner of the restaurant. A Corona beer truck hit her the day the restaurant opened. It was a quick death.”
“I don’t have anything to do with it.”
“Someone in the family took over?”
“Her nephew. She was a widow, no kids. But the nephew sold the restaurant a few months later, to some Argentinians.”
“For someone who doesn’t have a clue, you know a lot.”
“Nothing. Good day.”
“Wait a minute… Aren’t you…?”
Laredo left hurriedly.
That afternoon, when Laredo was working on crossword number 58 A.D., he had an idea. He was in his study wearing the black suit that looked like it was made by a blind tailor (the uneven sides, a diagonal cut in the sleeves), the red bowtie and a white shirt stained by drops of red wine –Merlot, Les Jamelles –. There were 37 reference books on the floor and the desk, their spines and wrinkled covers caressed by Mendelssohn’s violins on the stereo. It was so cold that even Kundt, Carrasco and Laredo’s mother seemed to be shivering on the walls. With a Staedtler in his mouth, Laredo felt that he had demonstrated his love in a repetitive, insufficient way. Maybe Dochera wanted something more. Anybody could have done what he did; in order to distinguish himself from the rest, he had to go beyond himself. Using the word Dochera as the foundation stone, he had to create a new world. He heard himself saying: “Capital of the United States, five letters: Deleu. Romeo and… six letters: Senera.” After a pause, he added: “Ganges’ tributary, four letters: Mard. Author of Doctor Zhivago, eight letters: Manterza. To go somewhere, three letters: dax.”
He put the five definitions in the crossword. He had to do it little by little.
Adolescents in the schools, employees in their offices and old men in the squares asked themselves if this was a typographic mistake. The next day they discovered that it was not. Laredo had gone way beyond the limits, some thought, irate at having in their hands a crossword of impossible solution. Some applauded the changes and felt they made things more interesting. After so many years, it was time for Laredo to reinvent himself; everybody already knew by heart all the tricks in his verbal juggler’s repertoire. The Herald started publishing a normal crossword for the dissatisfied. After eleven days it was discontinued.
The nominalist fury of Piedras Blancas’ Beethoven increased as the days went by and there was no news from Dochera. Sitting in his walnut chair each afternoon, Laredo destroyed his back and built a world, superimposing it on the one already existing, the one to which had contributed, since the origin of time, so many civilizations and centuries now converging in a disordered study in Piedras Blancas. Laredo saw himself dancing with his mother in the Maker’s Heaven –where Crossword Makers occupied the top floor, with a privileged view of the Garden of Paradise –, while Kundt and Carrasco looked up and down at him. He saw himself letting go of his mother’s hand, becoming an ethereal figure and ascending towards a blinding source of light.
Laredo’s work gained detail and precision while his provisions of Bond paper and Staedtlers ran out faster than usual. Venezuela’s capital, for example, he called Senzal. Then, the country of which Senzal was the capital became Zardo. He rebaptized the heroes who fought in the Independence wars, and he did the same with the orography and hydrography of the five continents, and the names of presidents, chess players, actors, singers, insects, paintings, intellectuals, mammals, planets and constellations. Piedras Blancas was Delora. Author of The Merchant of Venice was Eprinip Eldat. Famous crossword maker was Bichse. Nineteenth-century vest was frantzen, and object of cloth that one wears on the chest as a sign of piety became vardelt. It was an infinite labor, and Laredo enjoyed the challenge. A delicate bird feather sustained a universe.
On day 203 A.D., Laredo returned home after turning in his crossword. He whistled La cavalleria rusticana out of tune. He gave some coins to a beggar. He smiled at an old lady running after an ugly pekinese (pekinese? zendala!) The sodium streetlights flickered like enormous glow-worms (erewhons!). There was a mint smell flowing from a garden in which a bald and melancholic man watered the plants. “In a few years, nobody will remember the real names of those geraniums and peonias,” Laredo thought.
On a corner five blocks from his house, a woman in a black furry coat waited for a cab. Laredo walked right by the woman; she turned and looked at him. She was young, of an undefined age. She had a white lock falling over her forehead and covering her left eye. The aquiline nose, the dark skin and the prominent jaw, the apprehensive expression.
Laredo stopped. A Ford Falcon was approaching the curb.
“You are Dochera,” he said.
“And you are Benjamín Laredo.”
The cab stopped. The woman opened the back door and, with a hand full of silver rings, made a gesture inviting him to enter.
Laredo closed his eyes. He saw himself stealing issues of Life in The Palace of Sleeping Beauties. He saw himself cutting out pictures of Jayne Mansfield and crossing horizontal and vertical definitions in order to write a crossword. “I can resist everything except temptation.” He saw the woman in the black coat waiting for a cab that faraway afternoon. He saw himself in his walnut chair, deciding that the Ganges’ tributary was a four-letter word. He saw the phantasmagoric course of his life: a pure, amazing, translucent straight line.
Dochera? That name had to be changed too. Mukhtir!
He turned around. He started walking, first with slow steps, then with little jumps. He ran the last two blocks that separated him from the study in which, on the walls crowded with photographs, there was a space waiting for him.