The Puzzleist

by Shannon Connor Winward

"There's just something about Pepsi in a Styrofoam cup.  It's better than any other kind of Pepsi."

"I've heard that."

"Especially with those little ice cubes that they had—kind of square but not exactly square?"

"I know what you mean."

"And I used to get the Swedish fish, because that's what my brother liked—"

"You usually bought Raisinets, actually."

"I did?"

"Yes, but that's not important.  Go on."

"Oh.  Well, I remember the way Swedish fish and that Pepsi went together."  Susan wrinkled her nose, thinking. "And also... the concession stand always smelled like ketchup and French fry salt."

"What else?"

"Um... the color of the rocks on the road before they blacktopped it, kind of grayish blue? And the way it felt walking over the rocks in my sneakers.  The feel of the sun on my neck while I was trying to decide what to buy with the money my parents gave me. I remember how those afternoons felt like eternity—we went to so many ballgames, between my two brothers.  I used to play on these huge piles of rocks and dirt behind the chain link fence. They were mountains to me, with my little dolls, or even just my fingers as people. I felt like the queen of my own little world," she added with a wistful smile.  

"I can still hear the thunk of a bat hitting a ball, people clapping or yelling.  You don't hear a cadence like that anywhere else. I remember all the dads smoking and drinking beer in lawn chairs.  They don't even make that kind of chair anymore, with the, what, nylon? Braided over aluminum frames? And those ball fields, they're not there anymore.  It's all industrial parks now... I'm sorry," Susan sniffed. "I've been going on forever. I thought I'd spend my whole life waiting for ballgames to be over.  But, god, that was a lifetime ago. I don't even remember your question. How did I start talking about baseball?" She glanced around the room, bemused. "How did we start...talking...?"

The old woman recognized the moment—the soul was losing its anchor, urging faster towards dissolution.  But she'd held on long enough to pass on her treasure, her pearl, polished to perfection by a life's work.  

"You told me just what I needed to know, dear," the old woman said.  "Just the piece I've been looking for." She kissed Susan on the brow, infusing her with the fullness of peace everlasting.  Then, with a twist of her hands, she spun, folded, and reduced Susan to a tiny orb of swirling color. This she carried into the next room, where she kept all of creation—an omnidimensional panoramic display of every perspective, experience, and memory.  

Pausing to savor the moment, she held up this last unprocessed soul (Susan McInnes Wild: 1977-2061, poet, advocate, mother of three) and sighed.  The final piece. How many eons had she spent on her creation, deciphering the framework, the order, the angles, placing each precious and perfectly unique being with painstaking precision.  Painstaking precision. She giggled, congratulating herself for the alliteration—as pleasing, perhaps, as the taste of warmish Pepsi and a particular candy on the lips of a seven-year-old girl from Montchanin, Ohio.

With a satisfied little smile, she set Susan's soul, with its memory of the Kirkwood Junior League field, into place between Bryan Vince O'Dooley (who worked that concession stand as a teenager in the spring of 1985), Alison Marie Fray (who cut her bottom lip on Bryan's braces, kissing against the concessions' clapboard wall), and Jamal Malcolm Keith (the young pitcher widely believed to have a future in the pros until he was killed by a drunk driver in '93).  Perfect, perfect.

But as she stepped back to admire her work, she saw what she'd previously overlooked. Her smile faded.  The puzzle was not, in fact, complete.

With a tsk and a tut, she cast her gaze over the floor.  Perhaps a soul had come loose and popped out. Perhaps she'd been distracted, skimped on the adhesive. There were so many wars and disasters toward the end.  But surely the stray was nearby, tucked under the rocking chair, or stuck in the shag carpet.

She found nothing.  

In fact, now that she thought about it, staring at the singularly-shaped void in her creation, she realized, no.  She'd never put a piece there in the first place.

But there was nothing in the box where she kept the unsorted souls.  Nothing was stuck behind the tape or in the folds where the edges overlapped. Nothing on the bottom of her shoes.

Had she miscalculated, mis-engineered? No—something belonged in that spot. Somewhere out in her vast universe floated an unprocessed soul.  She had no idea where. She couldn't remember who.

She tsked again.  She was getting old.

She got herself a cup of tea.   

Her puzzle was beautiful and tragic, by design.  Exquisitely bittersweet... but even she was surprised by the effect of the gaping hole.  For all the color, depth, and careful nuance, in the end her eye returned always to that empty space—to her mistake.  

It was... imperfect.

It was, she thought, her best one yet.

She took one last, lingering look, a final sip, and put down her cup.  Hooking a finger into the void, she pulled. The whole of her creation fell asunder, all the many splendid pieces spinning back into chaos, ready to be imagined (if infinitesimally smaller) once again.