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I profess not to be any great writer.

These are the ponderings

of a poor man's mind.

  • Nate Barker

The Missing Piece

Updated: 1 day ago

by Nate Barker

© Nate Barker

Phil Huxby loved puzzles. The soft round edges that joined their arms together and interlaced to create a new world excited him. Each piece was a mystery. A blotch of mismatched colors that alone made no sense to the human eye, but when joined with its comrades provided the missing link between chaos and beauty. A picture that let his soul escape from his small home and even smaller town, and look beyond the confines of the four walls that surrounded him. An outward reaching momentum that brought his old tired legs to the Taj Mahal or to the snow-covered Alps. Worlds that only he could create and only he could see through the narrow slits he used for eyes.

Unlike puzzle novices, Phil had vowed early in life to only ever create these fractured works of art, never dismantle them. So, puzzles, glued and mounted, lined the interior surfaces of his home. Some of the most famous works of art hung on his walls. There was Van Gough’s ‘Self Portrait’ in the bathroom, starting sternly at the bent back of the man who washed his old body in the low porcelain sink every morning. Winslow Homer’s ‘Breezing Up” in the bedroom sailed over him as he slept each night in lonely exhaustion from the day’s contemplation and connecting. Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘The Decent from the Cross’ sat by him at breakfast as he chewed silently on stale cereal and ice-cold milk. On his way to the often-empty letterbox attached to the front porch, he passed ‘Whistler’s Mother’, her drawn features and stern stiff back implied his foolishness in checking for correspondence. Phil never really expected any letters but instead pined for the mail order puzzles he ordered from the back of the Readers Digest.

If the mail carrier was even the least bit interested, even for the briefest moment, and peer in through the yellowing sheer curtains of Phil’s front door, they would have seen landscapes that spanned the globe. The French county-side joined the mighty Mississippi as it traveled to the Himalayas. Rocky Mountains and Appalachian joined into one magnificent string of jagged pearls that stretched from floor to ceiling. The coast of Maine and the coast of Alaska joined together to create a rocky seashore that spread the length of the Midwest prairie.

Animals of all sizes, shapes, colors, smells, and breeding habits covered the ceilings. A Sistine Chapel of creatures. Deer and antelope, pythons and puppies, whales and alligators all stretched like a complete zoo across the living room, down the back hall, through the bedroom, with the monkey house in the back closet. Whether he lay on the couch, in bed or stretched to yawn, these creatures would greet him with trunks and tail, hooves and haunches, snouts and staring eyes of the truly wild things of the world.

Puzzles of churches and country gazeboes wrapped around the dinner table. Waterfalls and fruit baskets clung the hall. Cars and trains in the stairwell. Boats and more boats puttered around the tub. Some speeding along, others tugging at the walls as if trying to pull them out to sea.

Puzzles of a thousand pieces, two thousand and beyond. Millions and millions of tiny specks of the world all come together under one roof to pay homage to the master. The master would put their broken worlds back together again. They seemed to cry out to him in the night, haunting his dreams and falling apart when he left them. They screamed and fell smashing into a million pieces, a million pieces that suddenly came together into one gigantic cracked and lined gruesome illustration. An image so horrible that Phil would often jump from his bed at midnight panting, and finding himself alone. He would rise, and return to his newest creation and nurture it lovingly until dawns warm fingers crept up on his windowsill.

He was the craftsman of the lines. Strained and stretched perceptions of what lay in the wide world. Lines that webbed their way through murals. Lines that doubled back on themselves leading a desperate search for an escape to nowhere. The puzzles were broken pieces of memory. Someone’s perception of the world and how, if smashed, would look when placed back together again. Like an image created through the shattered lens of a camera, the puzzles were fractured bits of reality, or like the blurred reflection of a pond in autumn whose colors only represented, never defined.

As his nimble fingers worked over the smooth pieces, Phil could see his newest projection of the world coming together. As a rule, he never looked at the front of the box when they came to his door. He simply left the brown wrapping on while carefully cutting open the edges of the package. He relied on his own fine-tuned skills to delicately save his patient.

The picture that now lay on his workspace was coming together nicely. It was a beach. “Somewhere along the Gulf Coast,” Phil guessed.

He had never seen the ocean or known of its sprawling beauty, but he could imagine it as a small stretch and visualize its cracked horizon. Often the shorelines held strange rocks, broken into conjoining pieces, by the edges of oblivion. But this beach was smooth and sandy, with strands of white and a sunset that set the ocean a flame with a thousand sparkles. The pieces of this fine coast fit together well as their grooved and embossed edges linked together in almost sensual ways.

The sandy seashore was empty except for a few lined and broken birds that flew on the bent breezes or walked along the cracked shore. The waves were frozen in the warm sun as they gently hung suspended above the white sands. Phil imagined what it would be like, to feel the sand beneath his toes and to hear the waves hang there in the air. Was the sand hard and smooth like it felt on this puzzle or was it something different, some feeling that he had never experienced?

The pieces flew into their places with not as much as a second thought. Lining up and standing at horizontal attention to their commander. Rank and file and rank and file and rank and file. Row after crooked row of smooth glasslike pieces.

The ocean was now finished, ending at its perfectly straight horizon and edges. A bathtub of liquid yearning to be free with the rest of the sea. The beach was also coming together with its trails of lines through the white sands that kissed the water. As Phil put fragments of the beach in place he came across one that seemed to have footprints in it, shallow and light, that he had not noticed before. He bent closer and could see, for the first time, a whole strand of prints that entered from the right side of the image. A trail of footprints that led to the unfinished center of the puzzle.

“From where?” thought Phil playfully.

Perhaps from the castles of Scotland or the rainforests in the south (or so he guessed they were.) Or perhaps the footprints came from another beach. A tired sojourner traveling from coast to coast, never finding an end to the wonders of the saltwater vista around them. Suddenly, Phil was up from his work bench and into his house. He was taken with an idea that he could not escape.

Scanning the walls of the kitchen he spotted the desolate stretches of seashore on the Australian coast between the cupboard and the fridge. Next to the bedroom where, laced behind the headboard and traveling towards the nightstand, were the beaches of France. Between the broken and twisted lines from Sana Monica to Cape Cod, Brazil to Borneo – the footprints were there. Small shallow steps in the sand of the world’s beaches. Even on the rocky coastlines he could pick out where the traveler had left wet prints on the rugged rocks.

How had he missed these all these years?

Heading to the pantry he pulled the chain of the overhead light to reveal the pyramids of Egypt. There, surrounding the ancient stones were the marks of the traveler, scorched into the burning sands of the desert. Wide-eyed Phil turned and ran from picture to picture, puzzle to puzzle in search of signs of the prints. He found them in Tanzania’s Serengeti grasses. There, at the North Pole across the ice caps, the South Pole weaving through rugged icy wastelands, through yards where children played and dogs and cats lay, through the mythical Hanging Gardens, and even as wet marks on the decks of pirate ships. The traveler had been everywhere, a journey of a million footsteps.

Phil went on. Now like a mad man. Through the bedrooms, dining room, kitchen, attic, basement, hallways, broom closets, even through the puzzles he had left in drawers and under beds; the traveler had been across them all. Racing back to his workbench, Phil studied the footprints in the crooked sand again. Having completed all but the very center pieces of the beach, he could see the prints led onto the puzzle, but not off. Perhaps the traveler had come to this fragmented scene to pause and watch the eternal sunset as it hung in orange and gold on a ridged horizon.

A few pieces remained in the almost empty box. Phil’s hands flew as he fit the last remaining shapes into their places. The footprints were deeper near the center of the puzzle and two pieces still remained to complete the scene. Reaching into the box, Phil grabbed one of the final pieces, fitting it into place. The completed section lay just beyond the footprints; leaving only solid sand and one final blank. The last curved shape must be where the traveler had stopped. Phil’s hand shook as he reached into the box for the remaining piece, the piece that contained the mystical being that had traveled through so many distorted realties. Phil fumbled and twisted his fingers, searching the inside of the small cardboard box. The piece was missing!

Flying into a frenzy Phil tipped the box upside down and shook it violently. Nothing! Suddenly he was overturning papers and boxes on his workbench. Puzzles and scenes he could not imagine yet flew to the floor. The floor! To his hands and knees he fell, running his fingers through the thick shag of the carpet. The piece must be there somewhere! Again, nothing! Tormented, Phil became a tornado, rummaging each nook and cranny of his workspace. He knocked over lamps and tables he fought his way through the messes of cardboard and glue. Nowhere was the traveler to be found.

Panting from the exertion, Phil stumbled back and stood at his workbench. A tear splashed to the hard flat surface of the ocean and sat there like a bubble, never to blend with its salty brother. He let his fingers trace the edges of the picture and into the missing piece. The frozen sunset held its place on the puzzle’s horizon as Phil closed his eyes and tried to imagine what this traveler could look like. Tall and thin, fat and wide? Black, white, brown, pale, male, female, lover, fighter, human, divine? The faceless forms raced through Phil’s crooked and fragmented mind.

He opened his eyes, wiped the tears and once again looked into the glowing sunset. It seemed more distant and vibrant than he had remembered it. Staring into its rich and beautiful colors he could feel the hard flat sand beneath his feet and feel the stiff blow of the ocean’s breeze. In the sky he heard the cry of a gull and glancing up he saw his workroom above him and the animals of a thousand kingdoms looking down.

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