Maslow assumes it’s a book of crossword puzzles. Or one of those Sudoku things. The girl never looks up when he puts his key in the door but slides over instinctively to make sure she’s not blocking his way.
Maslow works in a building full of artists and musicians half his age; his office is a throwback to the 40s. Raymond Chandler could put his name on the etched frosted glass, keep a bottle of whiskey in the bottom drawer, put his feet up on the desk, light a cigarette, and wait for a blond with well-turned ankles to walk in. The girl on the stoop isn’t blond. And he doesn’t think Chandler’s femmes fatales had bracelets tattooed on their ankles. Or bright-green streaks in their hair.
Most afternoons she and her friends loosely gather and re-gather like waves far out to sea. Drinking coffee from the café two doors down and smoking cigarettes. Usually hand-rolled. When Maslow sees one with a branded pack, he figures she just came into an inheritance. Most of them start working about the same time he’s done for the day. The next morning there’s always a pervasive aroma of paint thinner with top notes of tobacco and reefer. Occasionally a beer bottle outside a door. But never more than two.
Maslow has seen her in animated discussions with the others. But usually they talk around her, gathered on the sidewalk in a particular configuration that, whether intentionally or not, creates a kind of protective force field.
He figures she’s a late-twenty-something writer amid a crushing Saturn transit and major depressive episode. Keeping her head down and doing crosswords until it passes. During his breakdown, he’d read mysteries. By the time he came up for air two years later, he’d gone through the complete works of Sherlock Holmes, Dashiell Hammett, and Agatha Christie.
One morning Maslow throws caution to the wind. “Sixteen down,” he says, “‘compulsive fragrance,’ nine letters, obsession.” Like she’s doing the Times puzzle for the day, and he already finished it.
Her head only lifts a few degrees but she kind of smiles. They both know that he’s off by three decades and several cultural divides. But she’s doing her best to be gracious about it.
Maslow spends an inordinate amount of time preparing for their next encounter. “Thirty-four across… ‘false instrument,’ four letters, is lyre,” he says with a cheerful lilt in his voice.
She barely acknowledges that one, but the same afternoon she’s still there when he goes out for coffee. Fortunately, he has another one ready: “Twelve across, ten letters, ‘mental way,’ is psychology.”
This time she pauses and taps the pencil thoughtfully on her cheek, lead side in. “Psychopath,” she mutters to herself.
He doesn’t see her for a week. Then she’s back like she never left. “Give me a time period,” she says. He already has the door open and one foot inside.
“Like a day or a week?”
“Which one?” she says impatiently.
“OK, a week.”
“Something you do. An infinitive,” she demands.
The word sounds vaguely old-fashioned coming from her lips—the top one pierced—a tiny, silver ring. He puts his laptop bag down but stays standing: “I don’t know. To write? To play squash? To drink wine?”
“Stop asking me. Tell me. Fast. You’re not supposed to think.”
“Fine. To do crossword puzzles.”
She’s annoyed. He’s not taking her seriously. She sighs. But writes it down. “A feeling,” she snaps like a drill sergeant. “Quickly!”
“Love!” he says back like he’s obeying an order.
She sighs. She expected something more imaginative. “OK, someone you know.”
“My friend Ken.”
She writes it down, nods, and mumbles something to herself.
He breathes a sigh of relief. “OK,” he says, finally accepting there’s no way to finesse her attitude. “What are you working on?”
She looks up, surprised to find him still there. He holds her gaze until she half-heartedly holds up her notebook.
“Like Mad Libs?” Maslow asks, trying to decipher the scrawls with underlined words.
“Making up your own?” he asks, hearing crackles of thin ice.
“Making up everyone’s.”
“Interesting,” he says like this is an everyday pleasant conversation with an everyday pleasant person. “Borges said there are only four stories to tell,” he adds, silently thanking the gods of memory for finding that particular one in his.
She jabs her pencil into the notebook. “Well, Borges was wrong.”
“There are twelve.”
“Really? What are they?”
“That’s what I’m working on.”
“Your Holy Grail, huh?” Maslow grimaces at how patronizing he sounds.
She ignores him. Starts writing again.
“So what’s your story?” he asks, sitting down next to her on the stoop. Neither can believe he finally did that.
She puts the book down, reaches into a floppy patchwork sequined bag, pulls out a cigarette butt, and lights it. Blows the first lungful of smoke toward, but not right at, his face. Enough to level the playing field.
He doesn’t react.
Her eyes slide off to her left, then down at her pad, then back to him. “Just fill in the blanks, man.”
© David Blistein
David Blistein co-wrote Opium: The Agony and Ecstasy of Earth’s Most Powerful Flower with John Halpern, MD (Hachette, 2019), Grover Cleveland Again! with Ken Burns (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2016), and is the author of David’s Inferno (Hatherleigh, 2013). His documentary The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science won Telly Awards: Silver in Writing and Social Responsibility; Gold in History for Television. He was the creative director and then owner of a regional communications and marketing firm.