The Tuesday after the West Virginia Incident, I arrive at Auntie’s apartment just in time for a rumcoke. The only midday drink I allow myself is the ritual lunchtime rumcoke with Auntie (with a teaspoon of lime juice; yes, it’s a cuba libre but we call it rumcoke). It sets the pace for the remainder of the day, demarcates the functional morning from the restful afternoon. There will be no going out, no exertion, no stress for the rest of the day. And after that comes the welcome relief of the evening cocktail. We are even more relaxed. Still, it takes me a few days to let go of the jitters I carried with me the whole trip.
The third night she says, You’ve visibly relaxed since you started puzzling.
I realize she’s right. Since I turned my frantic mind to the first wooden jigsaw puzzle the afternoon before, its writhing thrashing threads have calmed noticeably with my deepening absorption in the second puzzle.
I found an aged cardboard box when I finally went through the last of the Colonel’s papers a few weeks before I left: small, sturdy, dirty ivory color, Pastime Puzzle in green on top, Parker Brothers address and logo. Inside the lid a label:
1931. Auntie and I puzzle over whose it might have been. The Colonel would have been twelve. Maybe it belonged to his mother, or one of the aunts. Or maybe it was a puzzle my father did when he was still a sweet smart little boy. The puzzle takes us all afternoon, just 80 pieces. It’s more complicated than it first appears.
I’m still jumpy when we finish it, and after letting it rest a few hours while we appreciate it some more, she puts it apart and back in the box, and I pull out a new Liberty puzzle from the cupboard where she’s had it waiting for my arrival. The first night I beat her twice at cribbage. We don’t get another chance to play once we start puzzling together. It’s a different kind of fun. Just being together, our minds on the same game, we are easy, happy.
Working the same puzzle again today, warmth of the woodstove at my back, insulating fog blurring snow-dusted junipers, fences, gates outside, sun-powered light overhead, again I feel the demons releasing my brain as I turn my mind to more details in the image: how the thin triangle of sidewalk adjoins the woman’s feet, there is a small piece of chimney down by her skirt, how the roof line meets trees on both sides of the chimney, how the roses grow, which way the light glows in the windows, how the pieces are delineated.
Many visual elements of this puzzle were outlined with a jig saw wielded by the man called 37. Each of these puzzles was individually cut by a person (with a number) with a jigsaw, probably an early electric one. This adds another perspective on this little random leftover creation. #37 looked closely at the shapes and colors, the structure of the image, and cut accordingly. This makes fitting many of the pieces even more challenging, the chimney and the woman in blue most obviously, but the second time around, when I’m halfway through and stymied, I see that much of the puzzle is cut this way, with distinct boundaries in the image (sidewalk to grass, roof to wall) cleanly sliced. Well, jiggily sliced. You can almost retrace #37’s steps with the saw: first he cut it in half… With this deeper understanding the second time around, I finish the puzzle in just over an hour.
So I’m home again, like the woman in blue at her cottage. Though my garden sleeps today under snow, the day I arrived home it looked as though I’d never left. The same few patches of snow on the ground, the same soft green things still green, partridge feather, lamb’s ears, powis castle sage, sagebrush, iris leaves. Wait, iris leaves still up and green in December? The deer in the yard. In the house, the kittens have been so well cared for that they hold no grudge at my return after my long absence. They look just a little askance at us for a few minutes before crawling up with me on the futon, prancing about, flopping down on the kitchen floor, waiting for their afternoon food. They are bigger, to be sure, a month older in a fast growing year, but still sleek and happy and full of wit. The houseplants, the orchids, all thrive.
Inside and out, the house seems the same. Elsewhere in the world, terrible changes continue in unsuspecting lives. I also am changed by the challenging journey I’ve just completed, but I’m not sure yet how. I left November seventh, not ready; perhaps it was an inauspicious day. With the Mothership now unloaded and most of my physical baggage stowed where it belongs, I continue to unpack my travels and travails, mulling over blessings and tribulations, fear, love, confidence, and mental stability, natural beauty and human nature. When these reflections overwhelm me, I’ll pull out one of my Liberty puzzles to untangle my mind.