Tales From The Cryptic


Lenny Levine

As it was told to me, on the day George Stone lost the ability to speak, he was sitting in his recliner with a mug of coffee at hand and The New York Times on his lap. As on most mornings since his retirement as creative director for Clarion McCall Advertising, he’d taken the paper into the den and leisurely perused it, while his wife Maureen made them breakfast in the kitchen.

The day being Friday, he paid little attention to the front page and went straight to the crossword puzzle. Only the Friday and weekend puzzles were challenging enough for him, if you could call polishing off a Friday with a pen in under five minutes a challenge.

George was no ordinary puzzle solver. He was a noted puzzle constructor, with a dozen books to his credit. His specialty was cryptics, puzzles whose clues are in code, and the solver has to crack it. Here’s an example: It spreads in all directions (4 letters).

Don’t try to figure it out if you’re not inclined; I’ll tell it to you. It’s news. News spreads, and it’s the abbreviations for North, East, West, and South.

Pretty slick, huh? That was from one of George’s puzzles. One thing that always fascinated him (me too, I might add) is the ambiguity of the English language, how the same word or expression can have different, sometimes opposite, meanings. Like “cleave,” for instance, which means split apart and also cling together. Or “Nothing is better than this,” which, logically, is the same as saying, “This is worse than nothing.”

But that’s neither here nor there (which also means it doesn’t exist). What’s important is that he finished the puzzle and turned to the front page. There, next to the latest horror in the Middle East, was an item about an emergency recall of E-Z Rest, a nonprescription sleep aid. Doctors had discovered that a certain percentage of people who’d taken it had unexpectedly gotten a rest of the eternal variety.

This was a shock. George had been a driving force behind the success of E-Z Rest, his ad campaign making it the biggest-selling over-the-counter sleeping pill in the country. “As easy as A B Z” was a slogan even children were familiar with. It was his crowning achievement.

He pored through the article and, moments later, tried to call out to Maureen, but not a sound came out of him.
He tried again, and the same thing happened. Distress mounting exponentially, he got out of his chair and hurried into the kitchen.

Maureen was on the phone. “It’s John,” she said, holding the receiver out to him. “He needs to talk to you.” John Kearny was George’s longtime protégé at the agency and the man now in charge of the E-Z Rest account.

He tried again to say something and, failing, grabbed frantically for the pen and pad on the counter, but his hand froze above the paper. The words he wanted to convey wouldn’t come out of a pen, just as they wouldn’t come out of his mouth. Desperately, he tried the only thing he could think of and found he could manage it. In shaky letters, he scrawled, Place hint wrongly before orator, without hesitation (4,1,4,5).

* * *

I learned most of this over the phone from Dr. Walter Sherman, chief neurologist at Columbia Presbyterian and my future ex-brother-in-law. “Not a single physical thing wrong with him, Reid,” he said. “It’s hysterical aphonia, and you’d be the perfect guy to treat it. You once published a paper on it, didn’t you? Freud and his patient Dora?”

I had, many years ago. Dora was a young woman Freud had treated when she lost the power of speech after being sexually molested by a trusted family friend. “A paper is one thing, Wally,” I said, “but I’ve never actually seen it in a patient.”

“Well, you can see it now. Another reason you should do this is the cryptic aspect. By the way, did you figure out what he was trying to say in the note?” I’d written down the clue when he told it to me.

“Haven’t thought about it; give me a minute.”

“I’ll give you an hour. Then, when you can’t get it, let me know.”

His mockery was typical. He’d been the one who introduced me to cryptics, and we were always trying to stump each other. It made me concentrate even harder.

The numbers 4,1,4,5 meant that it was a four-word answer, the first word having four letters, the second having one letter, etc. That was the easy part.

Place hint wrongly. The word wrongly in cryptic clues could mean that the letters in place hint were in the wrong order, an anagram. There were nine letters, so that would cover the first three words. Orator, without hesitation. That could mean another word for orator (speaker was what came to mind), but without the er, the sound of hesitation. This is how you have to bend your brain when you do these things. After a bit of letter unscrambling, I came up with it: Help, I can’t speak.

“You’re a genius,” said Wally Sherman. “Did I ever tell you Vanessa’s an idiot for wanting to divorce you?”

I ignored the last part. “So, you’re referring George Stone to me,” I said.

“And his wife, don’t forget her. She’s essential, if you don’t want to spend the whole time deciphering clues. And, off the record, she’s not bad-looking either.”

* * *

“I’m sorry to say I’ve never been good at cryptics, Dr. Fletcher; it’s probably the only interest George and I don’t share. I’m a corporate lawyer, and the idea in my business is for language to be unambiguous.”

Wally’s description of Maureen Stone had been a breathtaking understatement. She was gorgeous, a tall, elegant woman with long, blonde hair and large, hazel eyes that frequently glanced over at her husband, sometimes anxiously, sometimes lovingly.

He was a good 20 years older, but they made a nice couple nonetheless. His face was lined but even-featured, and his graying hair was thick and curly. They sat facing me in the two chairs I use for couples therapy. As she spoke, he’d listen intently, nodding his head, his hands nervously clenching and unclenching in his lap. On the table next to him were the pen and pad he hadn’t yet used.

“It must have been the shock about E-Z Rest,” Maureen was saying. “It’s the only thing we can think of.”

I saw that George was slow in nodding at this. “Is that so?” I asked him.

He shrugged.

“You’re not sure.”

He took up the pen and pad, thought for a moment, and then wrote, Bind up the fissure within me, so to speak (3,2,5). He tore off the piece of paper and handed it to me with a look of hope.

If you took it almost literally, it was a plea to help him speak again by resolving some inner conflict. I’m sure he was aware of the irony, but it wasn’t meant to be literal. It was meant to be cryptic.

I set to work, conscious of the tension in the room, as both of them apprehensively watched me. So to speak I recognized as a standard phrase in cryptics that means the clue is a homophone. In other words, it would sound like you’re saying bind up the fissure within me…in other words.

I agonized for several minutes and, suddenly, there it was: Knot my fault. Or Not my fault.

Relief washed over George’s face as he nodded gratefully. Maureen, less interested in my puzzle-solving prowess, reached out and took his hands in hers.

“Of course what happened with E-Z Rest wasn’t your fault,” she said gently, her eyes filled with concern. “No one would ever think it was.” She looked at me. “Could he subconsciously feel guilt about something, even if he knows he isn’t to blame?”

“It’s very early,” I answered her. “There are a lot of things we need to find out.”

There certainly were. Something like this doesn’t come out of your average, garden-variety feelings of guilt. It takes massive repression of severe emotional trauma. In Freud’s case with Dora, it was repeated sexual molestation and the conviction that no one would believe her; and even that doesn’t begin to describe its complexity. No, this went a lot deeper than E-Z Rest.

Another thing that bothered me was why he couldn’t express a direct thought in writing. At least Dora was able to do that. George was putting up yet another barrier to communication, which, as far as I knew, was unprecedented. This case would be groundbreaking if I could treat it. God knows what it would be if I couldn’t.

* * *

Ten sessions went by over the course of two weeks, and we were getting nowhere. According to Maureen, as George nodded in agreement, life was good. He was glad to be finally retired and away from agency pressures, and their marriage was a happy one. They’d met 12 years ago, when a female copywriter who hadn’t been able to meet her friend at a concert in Lincoln Center offered George the ticket. Her friend turned out to be Maureen.

She was 26, in law school, and unattached. He was just starting to date again, his wife having died of breast cancer a couple of years before. They’d connected right away. A year later they got married.

They both were excellent cooks, and they took turns making dinner, sometimes surprising each other with new recipes. They traveled; they went to Broadway shows, the opera, concerts, and museums. They had the same taste in books and movies; they could make each other laugh; their sex life was great. As I said, we were getting nowhere.

I knew that private sessions with him were impossible, because any progress would take us a millennium. But what I was doing now clearly wasn’t working.

Helpless and frustrated, I came home to my euphemistically cozy, little walk-up apartment on West 73rd, where I’d been living since Vanessa and I separated. Before hitting the four flights of stairs, I picked up the mail in the foyer and saw that The Times’ back issue I’d ordered had arrived.

After Wally’s phone call, I’d gone online and read the article that had supposedly triggered the aphonia. I’d read it several times, for its literal meaning and for anything George’s eye might have seen differently. It was far-fetched, but I’d also ordered the back issue of the paper itself to simulate the exact way he’d been reading it. Didn’t know if it would make any difference, but what the hell?

My cat, Melanie Klein, greeted me perfunctorily at the door, then strode purposefully into the kitchen and noisily let me have it about the blahness of the food in her dish. “This isn’t about cat food,” I told her while I remedied the situation. “You blame me for getting you fixed. If you were in analysis, you’d find that out.”

As with most of what I say, she ignored me. I mixed myself a gin and tonic, sat down on the couch, and began to read the original E-Z Rest article. Online it had been continuous, but in the paper it was broken up, resuming on page 1 of the “Business” section. I put aside Section A, Melanie Klein immediately appropriating it as a place to lie down on.

Once again, no bells or buzzers went off as I read the article. I was just folding it up when my eye caught something in the next column. It was part of a different piece, about media-buying strategy. It was directly across from the last line of the E-Z Rest article, and it was the name John Kearny.

He’d been George’s protégé and successor and was one of the people interviewed for the article. He was describing how he works in cooperation with the media department, and how they let him experiment when it comes to putting ads on radio. “I try some new FM arrangement,” he says, “and I get it on. And it’s great.”

It was the word “arrangement.” I looked at the quote again. Then I reached across the cat, plucked a pencil off the end table, and in the margins of the paper, began to do some arranging of my own.

Juggling the letters in I try some new FM was time-consuming, but it wouldn’t have been for George. He could look at a series of letters and instantly see all their anagrams. Maureen had talked about how people were always asking him to do it at parties. She wanted him to demonstrate it with my name, but he just shrugged. I knew it wasn’t that he’d lost the ability, but only because he couldn’t write down a direct answer.

They have software programs for what I was doing, but I didn’t happen to own one. It took me 25 minutes of blundering around before I finally hit on it. Letting out a low whistle that made Melanie Klein perk up her ears, I stood up, went over to the computer, and Googled John Kearny.

There were several, as might be expected, but I found his particular bio on the ad agency’s Web site. Most of it dealt with his professional career, but there was a paragraph at the end about his personal life. No wife or children were mentioned, which wasn’t remarkable, but the part about his hobbies and interests reminded me of something.

I went back to some of the Internet research I’d done on George and Maureen after the first session, to make sure. Then I thought about it for a while.

It took me 10 minutes of inner debate before I decided to do it. I picked up the phone, called Information, and then dialed the 800 number they gave me.

“Hi, this is John Kearny,” I said to the receptionist who answered. “I stayed with you a few weekends ago, February 16th, to be exact, and I might have left a box with cuff links and a tie tack in my room.”

“You say the weekend of February 16th?” Her voice held a note of skepticism.

“I know it’s been over a month,” I said apologetically, “but they’re very expensive, and I can’t seem to find them. And I realized the last time I wore them was at your hotel.”

“Do you remember what room you were in?”

“Gee, I don’t,” I said. “I never remember things like that.”

“It’s okay, I can look it up. What was your name again, sir?”

“John Kearny, K-E-A-R-N-Y.”

“Thank you, sir; just a moment.”

I waited through the Muzak for her to come on again and tell me there was no record of a John Kearny staying there that weekend, or ever, and what was I talking about? Didn’t happen.

“Sorry for the delay, Mr. Kearny. You were in Room 418, but nothing was reported found there.”


“Are you still at the same address? We can get in touch with you if something turns up.”

“Yes, I am. Thanks.”

“I’m sorry we couldn’t be of more help.”

“Don’t be,” I said, sincerely.

After I hung up the phone, I was too nervous to sit down. I stood there in the middle of the room, fiercely in thought, trying to figure out how to approach the session tomorrow, rejecting every scenario I came up with.

My thinking was interrupted by the sensation of tiny needles digging into my calf. I looked down and saw Melanie Klein kneading her front claws on me while chewing at my pants leg. A dreamy, faraway look was in her eyes.

“We need to work on those mother’s breast issues,” I told her.

* * *

As George and Maureen arrived for the session, they were noticeably uncomfortable. She barely acknowledged me as I saw them in, and he avoided eye contact altogether. There was an awkward silence as they both sat down.

“We don’t think this is working, Dr. Fletcher,” Maureen finally said. “Not that we were expecting a miracle, but shouldn’t there be some sign of progress by now?”

“Not necessarily,” I answered. “But as it happens, I agree with you. This isn’t working, and, unfortunately, it’s the only course of standard therapy I can offer.”

She nodded gravely. “So what do we do now, find another therapist?”

“That’s an option,” I said, “and I’d be glad to refer one to you.”

George studied his fingernails, while Maureen continued to gaze steadily at me.

“But George, there’s just one thing,” I said, interrupting his digital examination, causing him to look up at me. “Maureen said cryptics were the only interest you two didn’t share, but there’s another one. You don’t ski, do you?”

He shook his head no, but with a wariness, as if it had triggered an association. At least I thought so.

“Would you read something for me?” I said, getting up and moving over to my desk. From the top drawer, I took out the piece of paper on which I’d typed John Kearny’s quote. I handed it to him.

Maureen tilted in, trying to see over his shoulder. His eyebrows furrowed as he read.

I waited, my hands squeezing the armrests of the chair. It seemed like every molecule in the room was in suspended animation.

George stared at the piece of paper, his breathing becoming deeper and more pronounced. Then his face twisted into the blackest scowl I’d ever seen, and his eyes began to smolder. He crushed the piece of paper in his hands.

As I watched in simultaneous vindication and dread, he turned to his wife. “You incredible bitch,” he said to her, his voice raspy from disuse but still strong. “You goddamn WHORE!” he shouted. Then he lunged for her throat.

* * *

“He really tried to strangle her?” The prurient interest in Wally Sherman’s voice fairly burst from the phone.

It was two nights later. I was talking to him from my sofa while sitting underneath Melanie Klein, who’d decided to favor me with some lap time. This is as rare as rocking-horse manure, and the slightest movement on my part will send her leaping away, as if someone had put a match to her tail. I try to keep as still as I can, until all feeling in my legs has gone.

“Luckily, I was ready,” I said. “I managed to grab him before he could actually hurt her.”

“And this had something to do with skiing?”

“Only if you think of adultery as a slippery slope. Kearny’s bio said he was an avid skier and so did hers. Of all the interests she talked about sharing with George, skiing never came into it. In fact, everything I read about him indicated he wasn’t athletically inclined at all.”

“Still, how did you know…?”

A beeping sound interrupted, signaling call-waiting. “Hang on, Wally,” I said, “let me see who this is.” I pushed the Flash button to switch over. “Hello?”

“You’re a piece of shit, Reid,” said a gratingly familiar female voice. “Do you know that?”

I said nothing.

“What’s the matter, asshole, that stupid cat got your tongue?”

“I was just waiting for you to finish the question, Vanessa. Do I know that what?”

I heard the whoosh of cigarette smoke being exhaled. I could almost smell it. “Always the smart-ass.”

“I’ve got someone on the other line, Vanessa, can I call you back?” I didn’t say it was her brother, because she hates him almost as much as she hates me.

“Don’t try to blow me off, Reid. What’s this shit your lawyer’s pulling about no alimony?”

When I moved out I’d agreed she could keep our beautiful co-op apartment. She had a practice that was bringing in more money than mine, and her family is worth millions.

“We’re not supposed to be talking about this. That’s what our lawyers are for.”

There was another impatient, nicotine-filled sigh. I was fortunate she was mad enough to call early, before the serious drinking began. Of course, that didn’t preclude her calling again later, but I could let the answering machine take it. “My lawyer’s an ineffectual, little nerd,” she decided to reveal, “and I’m getting a new one.”

“Congratulations,” I said. “When the blessed event occurs, tell him or her to contact my ineffectual, little nerd, and they can both duke it out. Meanwhile, I’ve got to get back to this other call, okay? Enjoy the evening.”

I clicked back over to Wally. “Sorry about that. You were asking me how I knew Maureen and Kearny were having an affair.”
“Right. I mean, just because they both liked skiing…”

“I went to her law firm’s Web site. They’d hosted a convention a few weeks earlier at the Powder Valley Resort in Aspen, and they hadn’t gotten around to taking it off the site. The person who’d organized it was Maureen. I took a shot and called the place, and that’s how I found out John Kearny had been there too.”

I could sense Wally thinking about it. “Okay, that’s how you found out. But how did George find out?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he tried to call Kearny that Friday, and Kearny’s secretary unwittingly gave him the resort’s number. Or he might have found out earlier, if it had been happening for a while. Like many older men in his situation, he’d have his suspicions, whether unfounded or not. But George was in denial of these feelings. Even if he did find the ‘smoking gun,’ he would’ve repressed the discovery. Then his own subconscious smacked him in the face with it.”

My call-waiting beeped again. “Shit, hold on, Wally,” I said and clicked over.

“Reid, why couldn’t you love me as much as I loved you?”

I really had to get caller ID.

“We’re not supposed to be talking about this. That’s what our analysts are for.”

“Please be serious; this is important. Why couldn’t you?” Her voice was soft and pleading now, fragile.

“I am being serious,” I said. “I honestly can’t answer the question.”

By that, thanks to the ambiguity of the English language, I really meant that I couldn’t answer the question honestly. If I did, I’d say that, for her, love is a euphemism for a bottomless need that seeks to enslave anyone unlucky enough to be its target. But I couldn’t tell her that, so I did what we all do; I blamed myself.

“I don’t know if I can ever love anyone, Vanessa. But I’m sorry I couldn’t love you.”

“Are you really?”

“Yes, I am. You’re a beautiful, sensitive, intelligent woman; and someday you’re going to make someone very happy.” Like me, when this divorce finally goes through.

“Thank you, Reid, I needed to hear that.”

“Not at all.” Another ambiguity; what would we do without them? “Good night, Vanessa.”

“Good night, Reid.”

I switched back over to Wally. “Sorry.”

“Can we move this thing along? I’ve got three cerebral angiograms tomorrow, and I’ve gotta get some sleep. Now, how did his subconscious smack him in the face with it?”

“He saw a quote in The New York Times by John Kearny, and his subconscious turned it into a boast about how he was screwing Maureen.”

I’d dictated it to him at the beginning of our conversation, and now I could hear paper rustling on the other end. “I try some new FM arrangement and I get it on. And it’s great. Okay, what does it mean?”

“Do you want to take an hour and get back to me?”

“Fuck you. Just tell me, or the nervous systems of three people will be on your head.”

“Okay, if you disregard ‘arrangement’ as just an instruction to arrange the letters in I try some new FM, the quote reads, My mentor’s wife and I get it on. And it’s great.

A pause. “Wow.”

“Of course, John Kearny had no idea that what he was saying formed an anagram that only someone like George would see. But George saw it, all right. Repressed feelings are always trying to escape, and his penchant for cryptic clues opened the gate. Once they were out, he had to shove them even farther back, and it cost him his voice and even the ability to write down a clear sentence. The only way he could communicate was in a language that the object of his hatred couldn’t understand.”
Another pause. “So what happens now?”

“I’m seeing them for couples therapy. Most of the time it’s people looking for a soft landing, and maybe that’s how it’ll be now. But if they want to stay together, I’ll sure try to help them.”

“Well, good luck,” said Wally. “And if, in the next fifty years, I come across another case of hysterical aphonia, you da man.”

We hung up. I sat there for a while, thinking about George and Maureen and Vanessa and me, and how people tend to fall in love with fantasy versions of each other. It’s what keeps marriage counselors and divorce lawyers in business, and I guess it always will.

I looked down at Melanie Klein, who still hadn’t moved. “You should be glad you don’t have gonads anymore,” I informed her.

With that, she got up and did that stretch-in-place thing cats do. Then she pivoted off mine and left me without a backward glance.


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