5-Across

Mehdi M. Kashani

Every one of us has a number of unfulfilled wishes without which life turns in eternal dullness. Until today, Mr. Qiuzarniloke had but one very simple wish. A wish whose significance few people can appreciate. What Mr. Qiuzarniloke longed for was no more than a flash of casual understanding in the people to whom he introduced himself. Every time, he either had to repeat his name syllable by syllable punctuated with an exaggerated twitch of facial muscles, or, when that failed, to spell it out like a child learning his own last name—slowly. Neither method seemed to encourage his listeners to try their chance at parroting his name, either out of indifference or lack of confidence. Upon meeting every new person, his wish would surface with a faint glow of hope only to dismally retreat back to the darkest recesses of his inventory of longings.

It took Mr. Qiuzarniloke forty years to realize he was fighting a losing war, to surrender and adopt a new name. With his birthday approaching, it felt like opportune timing. It felt like a rebirth. On a perfect sunny day, with a messenger bag full of the required documents slung across his shoulder, he sauntered the streets, heading towards the metro. Whistling on his way, he accepted a volunteer’s offer for a free daily paper and entered the station. When the train arrived, he stepped into the nearest compartment. Perhaps the last time a Qiuzarniloke would ever enter a train, he thought to himself. To make time go by faster, he leafed through the paper. No article raised his attention, nothing exciting was going on in the world. So as the train left only the second station on his trip, Mr. Qiuzarniloke backtracked through the skinny newspaper, stopping at the crossword puzzle. He still had a dozen stations to go, plenty of time to kill. Nothing satisfies a voracious mind better than a desire to conquer, horizontally and vertically, a minefield of letters.

He took out his pen and started with 1-Down. He considered himself a reasonably well-informed man and was happy to see how the puzzle attested to his erudition. His knowledge encompassed the name of the composer of Blue Danube, to the garden where Jesus prayed before his crucifixion, to Australia’s conqueror. With a little hint (third and fifth letters), not even the name of the dictator of the Dominican Republic could escape his memory. Mr. Qiuzarniloke was, indeed, good with names. He reached a 12-letter vertical item, half of whose letters had been uncovered. With a victorious smile he shifted his eyes to read the description, but once he did it, they froze in place. He reread, in no small number of repetitions, the words printed across the page. The description said, “Your name”. His eyes hastily traveled back to the vertical column. The six identified letters, scrawled in his very own handwriting, all sat in their correct position.

He looked around, worried. But the train stopped at a busy station. People were getting off and on. Everybody was absorbed in their business. Few talked. None acted as if he existed. He considered that it might be a prank and wondered, were it true, what precise planning was in effect for this to work. Actually, such a scheme was his utter preference, as otherwise he had no other choice than to believe that some extraterrestrial force was behind this affair. But no one with TV-friendly grin came up to him to point out cameras delicately mounted on the ceiling.

He turned to a middle-aged man sitting next to him, who was immersed in a book which our hero had next to no curiosity to ask about.

“Pardon me, sir! Can you take a look at this description?”

As if electrocuted, the man jumped in his place, caught a glimpse of Mr. Qiuzarniloke’s questioning face and leaned over to read the clue.

“You are lucky my friend!” the man said in a congratulatory tone. “How many times do we get a chance to solve such a trivial problem?”

For a moment, Mr. Qiuzarniloke mused over the absurdity of the situation and then explained, “This puzzle, in a paper published all across the country, is asking for my name. I mean the name I own.”

It was hard to explain simple things.

The man replied with a genuine eagerness, “If it’s you who solves the puzzle then it’s your name that should be written there in the column. Isn’t that so?”

“But what if you were to solve it?”

“Then I would write my name.” The man shot a hearty laughter that, to Mr. Qiuzarniloke’s relief, was soon swallowed up by the surrounding din. He heard the man ineffectively try to contain his laughter as he said to his companion on the other side of the train, “This fellow has no idea what his name is.”

The train slowed down and stopped. In a sudden leap that scared some passengers, Mr. Qiuzarniloke reached for the door and got out without knowing where he was. He hung on to the first passenger on the platform, a young lady, and gave her the paper and his pen. “Ma’am! I have a strange favor to ask. Will you solve 5-Across all on your own?”

He knew that both the nature of his request and its delivery were preposterous, but he was far beyond the point of caring for propriety. The lady, a little frightened, held the paper and studied it. With no further thought, she wrote something on it. As soon as she distanced the pen from the paper, Mr. Qiuzarniloke took it ferociously and ran away leaving the pen in her hand. After some steps, he stopped and looked at 5-Across: Q-I-U-Z-A-R-N-I-L-O-K-E in a combination of his and her scrawls.

He sprinted out of the station as if the people inside were infected by a mysterious virus. He clung to people from all walks of society, all ages, and all races—whether they were delicately dressed or clad in ragged clothes. While they narrowed their eyes to read the clue for 5-Across, he stared at them pleadingly, wishing that eventually somebody would evince some sort of bewilderment at this uncanny question. But the more he looked, the more he found Qiuzarnilokes. He was doggedly conducting his survey when suddenly it occurred to him that he was not carrying his bag. He had left it on the train. His bag was gone, and with it his documents, the proof of his identity. Consumed by exasperation, he took a panoramic look around. Everybody on the street looked familiar. He had already asked those around him.

Everybody was his namesake.

He flagged for a cab and asked to be taken to the nearest psychotherapy office. “Doesn’t matter which. The closest one will do.”

The driver gently nodded, as if the destination were a theater or the airport. They crossed the Qiuzarniloke Street, circled Qiuzarniloke Square which turned into Qiuzarniloke Boulevard. Then the driver pulled over opposite the huge sign of Qiuzarniloke Mental Health Clinic. Mr. Qiuzarniloke paid, stepped down and hurried into the office. Dressed in white, a young woman behind a desk invited him in with a gentle gesture.

Mr. Qiuzarniloke sat and the woman took out a form. She turned to him, smiled with the serene expression she reserved for mentally ill patients. “May I have your name?”

Author Portrait

Mehdi M. Kashani lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. Recently, one of his short stories was selected as a finalist for the Tennessee Williams Fiction Contest. His fiction and nonfiction can be found in Passages North, The Malahat Review, Portland Review, carte blanche, The Los Angeles Review, among others. He has work forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Walrus and Catapult. Find him on Twitter @mehdimk.