23 DOWN • by Jerry Constantino

Seventeen across: ‘Wish it done.’ Four letters.

Nineteen down: ‘Baa baa mama.’ Three letters.

Rob was always anxious for The Sunday Times because it had the best crossword of the week. It kept him hummingly busy most of the morning… and he usually finished it. This, however, was not one of those days.

“Damn! What is ‘Carpenter’s key’?” He stretched like a waking bear as he rose to fill his coffee cup.

He smiled with smug confidence. This was war: his intelligence and worldly knowledge vs. the cunningly sly and diabolical Sunday crossword.

“Bring it on, baby. When I fill in that last square, I am king of the forty-two across: Celestial orb… World. Where is the Titanic when I need her?”

The self-appreciating silliness was interrupted by his cell’s “Macho Man” ring tone.

“Hi hon…

“Yeah, workin the puzzle…

“No. Haven’t cracked it yet, but I will.

“What?  You are done already? No way! Did you use the dictionary?

“Okay. Sorry. I know better. Hey, don’t be mad now. I was just kidding.

“You’re not coming over? Why not? We always go for brunch on Sunday. Since when is a sale more important than me? Honest, Steff… sometimes I feel you don’t love me as much as a good bargain.”

Feelings hurt, Rob sat brooding for a minute. And to add insult to injury, he had to admit, she’d done the puzzle and he was stuck. The Sunday crossword was their ritual competition.

With new fervor, he picked up his paper and pen, determined he would ‘break through’. But when he looked at his progress, he could only shake his head at the ink-smeared corrections.

Rob was one of those addicts who always did the puzzle with his silver Cross pen that Steff had given him two birthdays ago. It was simply inscribed, “23 down”, cryptically referring to their little secret that time in the elevator.

Tess, his beautiful golden retriever, snuggled against his leg as he gently scratched behind her ears. “Rob loves Steff, Tessie. Does Steff love Rob?

She gave him a soulful look over her shoulder as if to ask, you’re not done scratching yet, are you?

“I thought so. No answer.”

Sixty-four down: ‘Mother of Jesus.’ Oh, a ‘gimmie’, he thought. Mary.

The crossword’s theme was ‘Happy Daze’. He hadn’t figured that out yet but he knew the shaded squares were supposed to say something important when filled. All he could think of was ‘The Fonz’ and it clouded his mind to the obvious.

“Hi honey,” she greeted him, using her key to let herself in.

“Steff! I didn’t think you were coming today. What about the big sale? Aren’t you afraid you will miss a bargain?”

“Don’t think it wasn’t hard, but I figured you might need my help with the puzzle.”

“That’s right. Rub it in. This is the first time you’ve beaten me in five weeks. Gloat, gloat, gloat.”

Steff smiled, filled her coffee cup, and kicked her shoes off as she curled into her favorite chair with the rest of the paper. To Rob, she looked even more beautiful, and for a moment, he thought, “To hell with the crossword puzzle.”

Steff broke the mood. “Go ahead. Finish if you can. I’ll just read The Times… and if you still aren’t done, I’ll read tomorrow’s paper too when it comes.

“Very funny.”

110 across: ‘Hood, affectionately.’ Three letters.

125 across: ‘Shepherd’s crook.’ Five letters.

“Wait! I’m on to something here.

“Wish it done: Will, of course.

“Baa baa mama: Ewe.

“Mother of Jesus: Mary.”

“Shepard’s crook: Staff… Steff?”

Suddenly, he stopped, startled at his revelation.

“I got it,” he beamed. “Solved it, Steff.”

“Yeah?” she smiled. “So what is ‘Carpenter’s key’, Mr. Smarts?”

“That would be my brother, Chuck.”

“Oh? Why Chuck?”

“Because he would be my best man…

“And yes. Yes. YES!” he said as he plucked her from the chair and danced her around the room, smothering her with kisses. “I am 12 down: One of the seven dwarfs…”

Before he could give the answer, Steff offered, “Dopey?”

“That wasn’t the one I was thinking of, but right now, I’m too HAPPY to argue.”

After he gently put her feet back on the floor and wiped a tear from her cheeks, Rob asked incredulously, “How did you do it? The puzzle, Steff. You proposed in the Times crossword. Sunday edition, no less.”

“I have a friend who knows the puzzle editor. He thought it was a wonderful idea… and would make a great puzzle. I could hardly wait for you to see it.

“And, by the way, I did make my sale.” She pulled the little blue Tiffany box from behind her back. “This is for you, my love.”

The tiny inscription inside the ring read, “Second best crossword puzzle worker. First best fiancé.”

And that was just fine with Rob.

Jerry Constantino is a retired magazine publisher. He smiles a lot and sees the glass half-full, the world half-sane. Among the news media, books, magazines, the coffee shop and life in general, it is the unusual that most often catches his eye. He doesn’t often refer to himself in the third person unless he is trying to pretend someone else is saying this.

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