Gerald gave himself twenty-four hours to do the jigsaw puzzle. He rose at 6AM, brewed coffee, went into his den, and spilled the thousand pieces on to a four-by- four section of cardboard that sat on a space he had cleared on his desk the night before.
Standing over the empty box, he memorized the picture. He put it in a closet. To continue consulting the picture would be cheating and he wanted to check his ability to remember, which, of late, was suspect.
"Remember the details," he drilled himself. With a steeling breath, he sat.
Many of the pieces were already joined. Gerald mixed them. He let pieces fall through his fingers and an insolent little pile formed which he promptly toppled.
Next, he turned pieces picture side up and sorted them. He wanted to start with the sky, the most difficult part since there was so little variance. This required the utmost concentration and as the hours elapsed his faculties would certainly wane. He also chose border pieces, the straight edges easy to spot. It was a rather chaotic sky, not completely blue, and the pieces with their wisps of cloud reminded him of his youth. A free time, a random time, a time without responsibility. And a time when things fit with the same chaos. He assembled five border pieces and his wife came in.
"Gerald, I didn't even hear you get up!"
"You were sleeping," he said without looking up.
Joan was sixty-five, a year younger than Gerald. She had aged well, and moved to Gerald's side with an enviable vitality. She held her own cup of coffee, and with her free hand ran nimble fingers through his thinning hair.
"You're still going through with this wacky idea?"
"It's not wacky."
"What's the point? What are you trying to prove?"
"I don't know! It's a challenge, that's all."
"You didn't even say good morning to me."
Only now he looked up, and puckered his lips. "I'm sorry. Good morning, sweetie."
She bent down and kissed him. "Are you hungry? Toast, maybe?"
"Only if I can eat it in here."
She set her face. Gerald adjusted his glasses.
"There's no way you're going to go twenty-four hours without eating, Gerald! What about your blood sugars? Are you telling me that you're so hell bent that you'll only eat in here?"
"What I said was, that I'd only have the toast you just offered in here."
"Did you take your pills?"
"Not yet. Give me a few minutes; I'm on a bit of a roll right now. And don't worry, I've got my insulin right here." He slid open a drawer to reveal the needle and bottle.
"Where are your pills?"
"On the kitchen counter, where they always are."
"So you have time to get up to take your pills but no time to get up to eat toast?"
"Joan!" he spluttered as he sank in his chair. "I'll get all that done," he finally said, sitting back up. "But I'd appreciate it if you didn't break my concentration. Or my balls!"
She left, an ill humor in her wake. Gerald watched her go, again envious of her youthfulness--that unchanged posture that he had first seen so many years ago at the Gabriel and Fulton High mixer.
He had been with his two friends, Sal Terreri and Spongy Moon. They were sitting in Gabriel's gymnasium bleachers, half way up, Spongy blatantly casing the joint:
"Man, there's some leg here tonight!"
Gerald's eye, as ever, roosted on Marsha Long. Light brown hair, curvaceous, she stirred his loins. She returned his glances that evening, and smiled a time or two. But he stayed in his seat, and watched Phil Hickman lead her to the dance floor. Sal noticed, and said, "She's not in your league, Ger. Better lower your sights."
"Yeah, Ger," said Spongy. "Get that dopey look off your face and come back to reality."
"Oh, like you guys are real Casanovas," was all Gerald could muster.
"Never said that," said Sal. "Just that you have to take what you can. You wanna get laid? Trust your instincts. When that gut feeling hits you, ya gotta move on it. My gut tells me that you'll look like a fool making a play for Marsha Long."
"Sal, if it had a pulse, you'd poke it."
Sal shrugged. "Yeah, what's your point?"
"My point is that you have to have a little pride--have some real goals!"
Sal's reply was arched in skepticism: "Is that right? Well you can keep imagining those goals while you jerk off! You'll be waiting to get laid forever!"
"I don't jerk off!"
Spongy's head snapped left. "Here comes some strange stuff!" he said as three girls made their way toward them. "Three of them, too," he leered.
"Sponge, don't slobber," said Sal. "You're hopeless."
The girls sat right below them. "Definitely Fulton," said Sal. He leaned down and said with just the right measure: "Are yous from Fulton?"
"That was smooth, Sal," Gerald admitted with a secret bit of envy.
Sal winked at him and said to the girls: "Well?" The girls giggled yeses and Sal motioned to join them.
Joan was one of those girls. Still smarting from Sal's intuition, and as if to prove him wrong, Gerald made the play for her. He found her attractive enough, and an okay substitute for Marsha Long. He coaxed her into a slow dance, got her phone number, and married her a year later.
Gerald spied two connecting pieces and fit them together. People got married so young back then, he thought. And the Phil Hickmans married the Marsha Longs. Sal was right. The right yangs for the right yins. Like these pieces. They all have a predetermined partner. No way I could've gotten Marsha Long, I'd have just embarrassed myself. But what about her smiles? Look at this sky piece. It's me, and Joan was my speed.
He held his namesake piece between his thumb and forefinger and rubbed it. It was certainly an ordinary piece, with two yangs and two yins. Guessing where his piece would go in relation what he had built, he placed it accordingly.
A sip of coffee set him back to steady work. His progress was slow, and he completed seven more pieces when Joan arrived with his toast and pills.
"Why do I get the sense that I'd better feed you in here?"
Straightaway Gerald realized that he'd better start looking for Joan's yin piece. "I want to try to get this done, Joan. Am I testing myself? Yeah, I'd say I am. Retirements been kinda boring, you know."
"Can I help?"
Should've expected that, he thought. "If you really want to."
"Only if you want me to. And it certainly doesn't sound that way. I just thought we could do it together. If you don't want me to, just say so. That's okay."
No, it won't be. "Joan, I set this challenge up just for me. If I knew you wanted to help, I'd have gotten a bigger puzzle."
"You could've asked. Gerald, we don't do enough things together."
"Next week we'll do a fifteen-hundred piece puzzle. Target had one you'd like, windmills with a dike in the background. From Holland."
"And still I can't understand why this puzzle is such a secret!"
He had not even been shopping for a puzzle when he bought it. When he saw it, the subject matter took him aback. Under a strange calling, he purchased it at once, and refused to let Joan see the box.
She put the food on the desk and left.
The toast made him realize his hunger and the need to prepare for the long haul. He devoured it, hardly appreciating the tasty marmalade. With twelve border pieces assembled, part of the puzzle's outline showed.
He found a corner border piece. It was mostly sky but there were also tree branches with red leaves. A good reference base from which to build. He searched for border pieces containing red leaves and sky.
A base from which to build, he ruminated. If I knew as a young man what I know now, I'd have retired long ago, with a castle on top of a mountain. I pissed so much money away. Married at eighteen, not an adult until my thirties. Fed my head for two decades; imagine what that money would be now if well invested? Paid twenty grand for my daughter's wedding and she's divorced in a year. Then my other daughter expects the same spread. And what if I'd bought a house early on? Aaah! This piece goes here! I should have followed my heart as a young man. Should have listened to Spongy at the fifteen-year reunion.
He had been sitting at a table with Spongy. Spongy had moved to Florida and started a successful construction company.
"Lots of old people moving to Florida, Ger. Talk to Joan, come on down, aren't you tired of photographing weddings? I'll hire you. Those old people need places to live. Business is booming!"
"I don't know. Joan and I are really set in our ways right now and I still want to go back to school. Sal tried to talk me into it before." Then came a half-truth. "Joan doesn't want to move."
"You've been talking about that for years, Ger! Paleontology? Come on! You should be digging up foundations not dead things!"
"It's what I'm interested in, Sponge."
"Then do it. Times a-wasting. Sallie was doing great before he died. At our ten-year I convinced him to come down, did you know? In two years he made a hundred grand and had himself a 2500 square foot house. Shame he got sick. But our company has a great insurance plan and his family and mortgage are taken care of!" He sucked on a cheap swizzle stick. "Paleontology! Since we were kids you've been hooked on that!"
Gerald played with his Gerald-piece and smiled at the irony. Digging dead things up. Now he had to be satisfied watching Dinosaur Planet and a hotshot young narrator from some name University who he could of been.
The trees in the puzzle were red and yellow, an autumn scene. The beautiful dying season, he thought with more irony. He spent some time searching for red tree pieces.
Sal's death forty years ago had been tough. After the diagnosis, his one-year life expectancy uncannily accurate. Glioblastoma. The deadliest brain cancer. The operation barely made a dent in the malignancy, the rest inoperable. Gerald flew to Florida to visit him. Bald from the chemo, the scar indicating how they must have lifted the top half of his skull off, Sal sat in his lounge chair as they watched football and proclaimed that he was going to beat the thing, his normally aquiline features a desolation. Gerald could not help thinking if he could still get women with such ravaged looks. Sal's wife and children went to visit friends; before leaving they kissed Sal goodbye with optimistic â€˜I love yous' that really sounded like death knells. As their car backed out of the driveway, Sal's old glint returned and he said, "Hey, Ger, I know a couple of broads who won't mind us calling at all." Sal did well for almost a year, then it took him quickly. Gerald looked for Sal's piece, an easy find, one of the granite ones. "Sort of a Rock of Ages, Sallie," he breathed to his long gone friend. He set it aside.
Better take my insulin before I join him, he thought. He opened the drawer, and administered to himself.
He worked steadily. Marking the time, at eight o'clock he gauged his progress. It was slow, yet he was satisfied. The more pieces he found, the less searching. Plus, he was making good inroads into the sky; he had done puzzles before and knew the sky's tedium.
Such patience is an essential virtue for a photographer, he thought. And I was a good one. Nobody could outwait me for a wailing brat to finally smile. Or outsit me in a tree stand while deer or bear find the bait. But Spongy was right. I barely scratched out a living snapping pictures. Not the calling for a married man
He decided to deviate from his puzzle plan, and work downward into the red tree. His eyes were succumbing to the monotony of the blue sky.
Red leaves. With fresh impetus, he looked for the pieces.
In an hour he had half the tree done, a disappointment. He began to realize that a lot of the pieces he had tried belonged to another red tree, and he chastised himself for not remembering the details. Time had been wasted, and if he had stuck to his original plan he could have worked on both the red trees simultaneously. Stick to a plan, Gerald. When will you learn?
Joan opened the door and poked her head in. She wore her beige overcoat and from her forearm swung her red pocketbook.
"I'm going to buy the fabric for the bedroom swags."
"Okay, that's good."
She hesitated before coming in the room and kissing him goodbye.
She's good at sticking to her plans, Gerald thought. At least when she gets home she'll be so excited with the fabric that she'll sit down at her machine for the rest of the afternoon and be out of my hair.
Feeling a little disappointed in himself for the sentiment, he went back to his puzzle. Still he had not found Joan's yin, although he had come across several solid suspects. For two full hours his only lapse was a bathroom trip. He heard Joan pull up in the driveway.
She came in displaying the new fabric, a cheery blend of gold and chartreuse.
"I like it," he said sincerely. "It'll go with the wallpaper."
"I thought so. Gerald, you really made progress on the sky! Isn't that the toughest part?"
It took him a moment to absorb how much he'd done. "Yeah, it's just about done."
Joan glanced at her watch. "It's eleven. How do you think you're doing?"
"Not bad, not bad."
Joan's sharp eyes ranged over the project. "Why is that piece set aside?" she said, pointing right at Gerald's self-styled yang. She darted back to the unused pieces and plucked one out. It was a piece that was half sky and half stonewall. To Gerald's complete dismay she fit it perfectly on to him, and he realized that his guess about its location would have to be wrong.
"Just one little help doesn't count, does it?" she teased.
Gerald dipped his head and held his temples. "No, I suppose not." He imagined that a stone condom had been slipped on him.
"That would be easy to build, wouldn't it? Look for pieces with combined sky and wall?"
"That's a standard strategy, yes."
"So crabby! Okay, I'll leave you alone."
"You're going to sew?"
"Yes, I am."
Gerald looked up at his wife and smiled.
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing. Come here and let me give you a kiss!"
Joan's pleased expression was more gratifying than the kiss itself.
Over the next hours the barely audible chatter of Joan's sewing machine proved an excellent background, a sound conducive to study. By six o'clock Gerald completed almost half of the puzzle: all the sky, the trees, half the stonewall and the gate through which the winding road entered. When he found where his and Joan's pieces belonged it seemed a pronouncement of sorts, a kind of reaffirmation of the way things were and a rebuke to his wistful notion that his piece could go wherever he chose. He consoled himself by picking up Sal's granite piece. "So, you're not part of the stone wall!" he said to it with a gladsome tone. He quickly shifted to a reverential one. "That's okay, Sal. That's okay. You were always like a piece of granite." They had been best friends.
Joan bustled in with a freshly made swag. Gerald suddenly realized that a guess could now be made at the puzzle and he stood, reflexively trying to shield her from it.
Stephen Vollmer has worked in the Financial Services industry for twenty years. He lives on a mountain in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania. He has been published in Short Stories Bi-Monthly and Aphelion.
Copyright 2005, Stephen Vollmer. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.