Crossed Words

When Papa and I get home, late, on the night the movie has fallen apart, we go instinctively to the kitchen. I open the fridge and he sits in his place at the kitchen table, which he shares with the Washington Post crossword.

He hasn’t always done the crossword every day, but his mother has, at least for as long as I’ve known her. What she does isn’t quite the crossword, actually – not “mots croisés”, but “mots fléchés”, which translates to “arrowed words”. In mots flechés the clues are embedded in the puzzle. They are brief – “organe vitale”, “héros de Spielberg”, “sans valeur” – so they can fit in blue squares identical to those that you fill in with letters. A discreet triangle points in the direction the answer should go.

It makes sense to me that “mots” should lead, for the words are the whole point in this system. A “mots fléchés” more resembles a game of Minesweeper than an acrostic. The shape of the puzzle doesn’t reveal itself as readily, so it doesn’t help you much. This feels quite French to me: exacting, unforgiving, memorization- rather than improvisation-based. Mostly, you just have to know the answers.

I imagine Mamy daily did the mots fléchés before work as a schoolteacher, and then as a principal in the rigid French system. She devoutly believed in its rigor – and that belief was rewarded with a son who won, who left Algeria for the elite educational halls of Paris, and then for the catacombs beneath the école des Mines. Like the mots fléchés and the crossword, my father’s examination and admission results were published in the paper – on the first page, for he ranked in the single digits and was accepted to two of the three Grandes écoles.

Mamy was a mots fléchés shark; even the most challenging days took her under 10 minutes to complete. In my early memories of her, though her hands are already thickly knotted with arthritis, she is rarely without one. Through her eighties she didn’t miss a day. Her body sometimes failed, but her mind persisted, sharp. “Use it or lose it,” my psychologist mom would tell me.

Crosswords are not my pastime. It seems like they would be, as I love any game that lets me combine on-the-fly analysis with trivia I’ve gleaned while skimming the surface of my life. I think in a strange way they reveal how little I actually know.  When I’m good in a crossword is halfway through. I’m kind of a relief pitcher. I come in and glance at the thing and solve a few in the first 30 seconds – facts I remember, or word puzzles my brain can assemble almost instantly. I’m hyper-verbal with a freaky internal spellcheck. I point and act like a deus ex machina. It’s instantly, insanely gratifying. I’m probably insufferable.

But my father loves it. I bring my yogurt to the table and we get to it. His neat black capitals, penned with his Mont Blanc, fill half the squares already. He claims he’s stuck. “This guy kills me,” he says of this crossword-smith, which is the same thing he says about his personal trainer, Vince, of Huggie’s Training Studio. (Vince is a long-standing “gift” from my mom. My father is the only man he’s ever worked with.) I get that “practitioners of magick” is “WICCAN” because I was weird in high school. “Well here goes…” I say is “I’LL TRY”. We argue briefly, and I win. The title of the puzzle is “Ah, Utah?”, which Papa says is the key to unlocking the whole thing. I solve “GUTTED COMMUNITY” – "neighborhood destroyed by fire?” and I realize this means that the theme of the puzzle means As are replaced with UTs. I’m on fire. I feel great.

Then we slow down. I don’t know who the #1 Most Wanted Man was in 1935. I can’t remember where the 2000 Olympics were. It’s not fun anymore. I squirm. I want to give up.

But my father persists.

Genes are so funny. Sometimes I steal my father’s phone to look at the pictures he’s taken, and we frame the world the same way. I’ll find the same photo – of a fire hydrant and its shadow, or a building from below, or a distant person, or a moment of light – composed with eerie similarity, as though we were given the same assignment.

Mamy no longer does the mots fléchés. Now we call her at her residence in Clamart, and she picks up from her armchair in front of the television. These calls are bittersweet, for she misses us most when she hears our voices, but within minutes she’s forgotten she’s lonely at all. She’s 96, and her reality resets in about the same amount of time a puzzle once took her.

Someday my father won’t do crosswords either. But I hope, by that time, those latent proteins will be at work in me. That my father’s doggedness -- key to all he’s ever earned, largely dormant in my own coding -- will awaken. By then, I hope I can finish one on my own.