By Gary Singh
Slim occupies a vinyl bar stool, accompanied by a personalized chalice with hoppy German lager direct from the tanks downstairs. His name is carved onto the side of the mug.
Camille’s alto voice, a younger, more dusty version of Edith Piaf, floats in like counterpoint to the chaos of sports on nine televisions. She emerges from the kitchen right when Slim struggles with the newspaper crossword he swiped from the bar. It was Camille’s crossword, the one she usually folds up and places into her ticket book, the crossword she always works on, between schlepping garlic squid, sliders and identical glassware. He often watches Camille make fun of the brewery customers, usually convention delegates with ill-fitting rack suits, identical lanyards, and tote bags.
Slim remembered one time when every patron was mauling his way through a $25 salad, all of them wearing the same trade show exhibit-floor clothing: a sky blue dress shirt one size too big, khaki slacks and white Reeboks. He looked at Camille’s crossword puzzle and she laughed out loud when she showed him the clue for 27 down: Robots that look like humans. The answer was “androids.”
“We live inside a crossword puzzle,” Slim told her that day. “Every time I come in here, it seems that way.”
“Crosswords will help you with everything in life,” she said. “They’re like therapy.”
On most days, Slim would find time to escape the office for a few hours in the afternoon, deadlines be damned, taking his own copy of the crossword with him, bringing it down here to the brewery during her shift, just so both of them could compare answers and support each other while she worked the bar area, slinging plates of obnoxious Kobe beef sliders, the kind of thing he refused to pay for.
But today is not one of those afternoons. Back at the office, one of the ad reps had snagged the office copy of the newspaper, leaving no crossword for anyone else. So here at the brewery, Slim takes a pen to the crossword that was already lying around on the bar.
He doesn’t think Camille will be upset that he’s hogging the crossword, her crossword, and she proves him right. Just as he begins to get stuck, she appears without him even asking. She glides over, decked out in the brewery’s all-black uniform, a goddess of mercy assisting with the clue for 23 across — It has its charms — the answer of which he’s too confused to realize is “voodoo.”
Growing up surrounded by perpetual conflict had its charms too. Like when he woke up every morning to a different set of circumstances, his parents in harmony one day, dissonant and screaming the next. If dad came home with flowers and a pizza, it was always temporary. The next day, he’d stumble right through the screen door, recently 86’d from the bar down the street. Mom was more obvious. She threw a lamp across the room, smashed his vodka bottles, scratched his face and pulled his hair out. Every day from Slim’s youth until he left home at 16, nothing was constant. His nervous system remained on guard forever, always ready to jump in response to a shadow moving across the wall or anything similar. Inconsistency became necessary and routines became exotic foreign voodoo.
Now it all spirals back to the end of the bar, where Slim sits every other afternoon. Even above the television noise, Camille’s alto voice sails through the chaos. He looks over to the opposite end of the bar, where Camille is showing her phone to another dude. It triggers him to think of the few times he’d attempted to hit on her, only to have her whip out the phone and answer a text from her boyfriend, as if the text had arrived right that moment. They went through this two or three times before he finally got the hint.
So he eventually scribbles in the answer for 23 across, “voodoo,” not with a pencil, but with a pen, because Camille once said this turned her on. Taking a break for a second to finish his lager, he turns to see that she’s come back once again, this time to look over his shoulder at the crossword as it lies on the bar in front of him. With precision, she puts her finger down and taps on the empty boxes designating 47 down.
“I know what that one is,” she says with a slight wink.
“I’m not going to help you. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself.”
“That’s OK, I’m used to it.”
“I’ll give you a hint,” she says. “It’s too many letters for measles, mumps or chickenpox.”
He hasn’t even reached that section of the puzzle. But after hearing her voice, Slim looks straight at the clue for 47 down: Childhood disease.
She’s right. He would have to figure it out himself.
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1100 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry, and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. His website is: https://www.garysingh.info
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