Johnny America


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.



Last name?


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.

Filed under Fiction on April 18th, 2005

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Reader Comments

Jay wrote:

I liked this one a lot.

Jum wrote:

I ‘gree. The pathos of ag­ing and the bit­ter dam­age of dim­ming acu­ity is did nice­ly here…

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