Johnny America


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.”



“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.

Filed under Fiction on November 10th, 2007

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