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Mike's Fiction From The Road #9 - Chasing A Jigsaw Puzzle Master
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i always wanted to be a jigsaw puzzle master but i wasn't born with the talent.

you can't learn it, it has to bubble in your internal chemistry, has to be brewed in the womb and passed along the umbilical cord to your innards, otherwise you are screwed. you will live a life like most of us; ambitiously opening the box with the most complex cover picture and 80,000 pieces, only to complete the perimeter and maybe a dog's face somewhere in the middle. you'll leave a trail of these fuckers around the world if you travel it.

how you put it away says a lot about you too. you ever think about that? what do you do? do you carefully slide the big chunks you have assembled off the table and into the box so the talentless clod after you has a head-start? or are you like me, resentful at every puzzle i fail to complete? this disdain leads me to fuck with the puzzle as much as possible when i put them away; i chew the corners off a few pieces, i color a few over with a black permanent marker, i cover some in butter, and, of course, i throw about a handful into the trash. before i close the lid on the box i usually squirt some glue in and shake it around.

that's not all though; i also like to screw with the picture on the box. i sometimes tear a piece off of it so the next person who attempts the puzzle doesn't know what they are trying to build, like burning the last few pages from the instructions of a model-airplane. my favorite though is to exchange the lids of several boxes with another. i sit back in the corner and watch as the suckers try to complete a picture of a castle out of a puzzle that is really a field of kangaroos. i love the confusion that sets in after they assemble the perimeter.

"wait. this doesn't look like the cover picture. what's that kangaroo's foot doing there?"

idiots.

i'm angry because i wasn't born a puzzle master like kevin simmons. he has all the talent i wished i had, all the talent in the world - and he gets all the things that come with it: admiration, astonishment, respect....women. chicks kill for a guy who can put together a puzzle - it's how my dad met my mom.

anyway, i discovered the guy in new zealand and spent a week and a half chasing him and his completed puzzles all around the south island. i never caught him, never met him, but that didn't stop him from making me look absolutely stupid..and driving me to commit a crime.

something about me you should know is that i like making people look stupid so i feel smarter. that's the kind of guy i am, i won't ever change, and i get pissed off when it turns on me. so you can imagine how i felt when i chased this kevin around new zealand trying to learn his secrets (despite what i said in the first line) but in the end, remained not only as ignorant as before but also....well, let me tell you what happened first.

i had been in new zealand for two weeks, staying at hostels throughout the south island when this business with kevin all started. i entered the common room of the hostel in wanaka where there were about 12 people hovering over a table exclaiming their admiration for the artist who had just left. i approached the circle and got on my toes to look over the top. i peered over their shoulders to get a look at what was on the table.

it was a jigsaw puzzle. a completed jigsaw puzzle. not the most rare thing in the world but this was not your typical puzzle - it was obviously the work of a master. how could i tell? it contained 10,000 pieces and it was entirely black, except for one white dot in the center. impossible for anyone but a genius.

"who did this?" i demanded immediately, my trained eye surely more aware than the others of the calibre of man it takes to build one of those.

"some guy from england," someone said.

"was he here for a week?" i asked.

"no. he sat down at the same time as me tonight and poured this out of the box. took him an hour at the most," the same person (who i noticed was a gorgeous blond) said.

i gasped. "surely the puzzle was mostly complete when he pulled it out?" i asked.

"no, not him. i remember him chuckling at the chunks that were already assembled as he removed the pieces from the box. he looked at me as he broke them up and said 'i never cheat' with a confident look on his face," the blond cooed.

my blood went cold. a master was roaming new zealand. i had to find him.

"where is he?" i asked the girl who was still glowing with admiration over the incredible puzzle.

"just caught a bus to queenstown," she said breathlessly. she turned back to the puzzle, shaking her head in amazement.

i had just come from queenstown but the next morning i boarded a bus back there (the first one i could get on.) i needed to see this english master at work, i had to learn the secret of completing a starry sky puzzle - i was convinced there was some trick to it. if i could only learn it i could be a master like him. i had never completed a starry sky puzzle in 15 years of attempts.

when i got to queenstown i ran to the bungy backpackers, a place i had left just the day before. they had the most extensive collection of puzzles in queenstown and surely a master would know that. i opened the door and ran past the receptionist to the lounge room. i was shocked at what i saw. the table in the orange dining room was covered with completed puzzles. everything from a winnie the pool to an apollo 13 rocketing into space. but the biggest shock came when i saw the starry sky puzzle completed on a bald spot in the floor.

"how could it be?" i whispered out loud. i had eaten four pieces of it the day before and had mixed in 25 pieces from a horse puzzle. "it's impossible," i said softly to myself. the receptionist stormed into the room and told me to leave.

"i will, but tell me, where did the man go who did this?"

"he left to te anau, now get out!"

before i left, i looked through the hostel's guestbook, knowing full well that he would have signed it. sure enough, below a gawdy signature of an ozzie named jamie palmer, i read this:

"brilliant hostel. loved the puzzles, but mostly for slow children or american adults. cheers, kevin simmons."

that fucker!

i hitchhiked to te anau which was about four hours away, surprised that anyone would pick me up with the fire burning in my eyes.

"slow children or american adults," i muttered miserably to myself. "fucking starry sky puzzles are no joke."

the guy who picked me up wanted to talk but i didn't. i just picked my nose the whole time and he was too embarrassed to talk after that. he dropped me at the moose, a bar with a corner full of jigsaw puzzles.

i threw open the front door and looked to the large wooden table in the corner. i swear i saw puffs of smoke rising from the puzzles. all 20 of them. wile e. coyote, a welsh castle, a parade of clowns, an iceberg, a line of camels trekking across a sand dune, and, no way, there is no chance at all, but indeed it was, the starry sky puzzle, all completed.

two days ago i had flushed half that starry sky puzzle down the toilet and poured a bucket of black paint in the box as i chucked in the remaining pieces. i had even glued a placemat from a table to the front of the box so no one could even see what the completed puzzle was supposed to look like! how could he possibly...?

out on the street again (the bartender recognized me and had the bouncer throw me out) i tried to contemplate his next move. clearly this guy knew where i had gone and was cleaning up my mess of abandoned puzzles.

"invercargill," i said out loud. i had come from invercargill to te anau, so i went to the information center and booked a ticket back down there. the mother of all starry sky puzzles had tormented me in invercargill but i had taken it with me on the bus to te anau and thrown it into a gorge when we stopped for lunch - there was no chance kevin could have completed it, let alone found it.

but five hours later at the hostel on day street i was standing over the black picture spotted with sparkling light; a completed starry sky puzzle, the one i had spent four days on, drinking coffee, fighting with the hostel staff, lashing out at the other guests. kevin retrieved it from the bottom of a gorge, dried it off, found all the pieces, and assembled it like it was a five-piece puzzle designed for a retarded six-year old. with this he completely swept away what remained of my self-worth. i could never compete with someone like kevin simmons. he was something i would never be.

so that's how it went. kevin simmons did a tour of the south island of new zealand, following in reverse direction the route i had taken. i had attempted every jigsaw puzzle i found but left every time, frustrated. kevin went back over my trail of ineptitude and completed all of them, even ones that i had tried to destroy. he was the greatest puzzle master i'd ever seen but i could never catch him - i was always a day behind him.

i was in kaikoura staring at another table of mastered puzzles - including a finished starry sky puzzle that i swear i had mailed home to the united states - when i decided, despite the futility of it all, to catch the bus to picton, the last stop on the south island before the ferry to the north island. it is where i started my tour. little did i know what final insult awaited me there.

this is the time to mention that the hostel in picton had taken a picture of me when i checked out. i was flattered at first and asked "is it for your brochure?"

"no. it's to make sure you never stay here again," they said as they kicked me out. they displayed my photo behind the front desk with a note that said: "don't let this guy stay here. ever." apparently they were upset at the mess i had made of their jigsaw puzzles. i knew the picton hostel wouldn't let me back in but i didn't know they would aid a devilish fiend in making me look totally stupid.

sure enough though, as i walked from the bus up to the front door of the hostel, to my great embarrassment, i saw myself staring back at me. kevin had taken that photo, blown it up to life-size, glued some cardboard to the back of it, and had a puzzle made out of it. he cut it into 100,000 pieces and assembled it. there it hung, framed, on the front door of the YHA hostel in picton. my face, my body, all with a bunch of squiggly lines twisting through them.

i looked at it incredulously. the people from inside were looking out the glass doors at me with giggling faces. they laughed and pointed. i scowled at them and then looked more closely at the puzzle. there was a note attached to it. i read it:

you aren't stupid john - you just have no talent.
you have to be born with it. you weren't. accept it.
- kevin


that was it. i had to put an end to this torment. i stormed inside the hostel and grabbed the nearest puzzle box i could find, reading the address on it:

Manufactured in New Zealand by Thomas Holdsworth & Sons Ltd. Auckland, New Zealand

i thumbed through the phone book of the payphone in the lobby and found the address of holdsworth & sons in auckland. after the hostel receptionist threw me out i ran to the bus station and bought a bus ticket to auckland. i left two hours later.

so that was the end of it. i had to get out of there, had to flee the south island and kevin's mocking ways. i just couldn't take it, i couldn't compete with a puzzle-master - or who i thought was a puzzle master. i just received this letter from kevin but i can't go chase him down and punch him in the mouth because i'm stuck here in auckland for a while - a long, long while. i'm sure you know why...

you don't?

you must have seen the headlines? my name is john underwood? the american guy in all the newspapers? obviously you don't read the papers. here, let me hold the headline up to the screen for you, and then fuck off!

POLICE APPREHEND PUZZLE FACTORY BOMBER - UNDERWOOD SENTENCED TO 25 YEARS IN PRISON

i keep telling them: it's all kevin's fault.


July 2005 - Wanaka, New Zealand

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