by Brian Long
“The World’s Largest Jigsaw Puzzle is a Bitch to Solve.”
This was the headline smeared across the front page of Nebraska’s largest newspaper, like a bold font slap in the mouth. Brannigan, Nebraska, which was hailed as being the home of the World’s Largest Jigsaw Puzzle on all of its billboards, was a small town without much money to its name, and its citizens were tired of being mocked for their incomplete roadside attraction. The desperate need for a new tourist trap had been growing since the Great Fire of ’66. Brannigan lost two attractions on that day, when the World’s Largest Match was burnt down by the newly completed World’s Largest Magnifying Glass. The oversized ocular assistant was taken down when it was deemed to be far too dangerous to Brannigan, and any oversized objects that might be constructed in the future. As time went by the town burrowed deeper and deeper into financial ruin. Brannigan’s citizens were looking for any excuse to stage a political coup and with the printing of this article they were certain they had found it. The small town’s mayor, Cal Janson, was certain the newspaper article would become his epitaph if he couldn’t assure the people at the town hall that the puzzle would be finished soon.
“Okay, if we could refrain from throwing anymore bottles or shoes, especially those of you wearing high heels, we can continue with the questions,” said Cal, nervously adjusting the tie that felt way too large around his straw-thin neck.
“We’re the laughing stock of the entire county Mr. Mayor!”
“I don’t think there was a question in there,” Cal said. He dabbed his handkerchief, which was now soaked with liquid fear, against his charcoal hair.
“My question is, why on Earth didn’t we make the world’s largest dictionary instead!?”
The crowd began to murmur in agreement.
“People, we are only forty pieces away from finishing the puzzle! Now it’s true, we still can’t tell what the image on the puzzle is, but I am certain once the last few pieces are put into place it will all make sense. And I hope all of you will be coming out for the big celebration tomorrow where we will be finishing the puzzle; won’t that be great?”
The crowd gave a tepid reaction, and then the mayor continued.
“Also, Mr. Cappello, they turned down your world’s largest dictionary idea nearly thirty years ago, you’ve really got to let it go.”
Cal began to survey the crowd for the next question when one of the townspeople exclaimed:
“He’s only saying that ‘cause he’s porkin’ the puzzle maker’s niece!”
Cal took a nervous glance at his wife, Carli; she had recently been kicked out of her second attempt at anger management and things were always a bit sticky those first few post-therapy days. This time she had been kicked out for proclaiming that “This shit is for pussies!” in the middle of a group therapy session.
Carli stood up from her seat, gently brushed off her purple dress, tucked her brown hair behind her ear and stepped up to the podium.
“Good people of Brannigan, to make the claim that attempting to finish the world’s largest puzzle is the result of nepotism because of my relationship with the puzzle’s creator is ludicrous. My ties to my Uncle Sebastian are strained at best, and as far as the newspaper article is concerned…”
Cal was amazed by his wife; she had always had a calm and levelheaded side that few people besides himself had the opportunity to see; he couldn’t believe this was actually his wife, reasoning and keeping the peace with the crowd. And then she said this:
“Honestly? Who reads the fucking newspaper anymore, for Christ’s sake?”
“This meeting is adjourned, thank you everyone,” said Cal, grabbing his wife and bolting off stage while the sound of boos, shattering glass, and shoes thumping against the wall accompanied their mad dash.
At the ceremony the following morning, Cal remained nervous. It looked as though the entire town had showed up at the grand unveiling. Many of them had stopped at Fiscal Frank’s Flea market before arriving, which was having a sale on angry mob supplies. They had all purchased bargain priced pitchforks, torches, or Molotov cocktails and each of them was prepared to handle their problems in the manner that their town was famous for: a good old fashioned mob scene.
Cal’s attentions were split between the volunteers putting the last few puzzle pieces into place and his watch, which was reminding him with each tick of the second hand that Carli was running late. He still could not determine what the image was that the tiny pieces were supposed to make once they had been put into their proper position. The rabid gerbils that currently inhabited his stomach calmed a bit when he saw his wife approaching the podium alongside her uncle.
Uncle Sebastian had always been considered a pariah in Brannigan and he wore this small-town judgment proudly like a crown.
“Screw ‘em,” he always said. “If I want to be like those cow-humpin’-corn-suckers I would burn all my books and plant my ass on a tractor.”
Sebastian was never one to keep his thoughts to himself, but in the past few years he had stopped speaking. It was as though his voice was a mom-and-pop store in a run-down neighborhood, boarding up its doors forever. All he did now was read book after book about space travel. The idea of flying through the cosmos had always fascinated him. Everyone in Carli’s family always assumed it was because of his disdain for Earth and everyone on it. He collected every newspaper article he could about America’s first moon landing and hung it on his office wall; in fact, it was on July 27th, 1969 one week after the moon landing, that he was commissioned by the town to build the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle. Sebastian was a master toy maker and specialized in puzzles; while the town desperately needed some kind of attraction to get tourists into Brannigan. It seemed like the perfect match. Five years later, Sebastian completed his magnum opus. A 1,000,000,001 piece puzzle that was exactly the length of the open land on the outskirts of the town; and now, nearly thirty years after its creation, it was complete.
“How’s he doing?” Cal whispered to his wife.
“I dunno, silent Sally still won’t say a damn thing,” she said. “I don’t understand, he was always flapping his gums when I was a kid. Ah, damn it! I’m sorry honey; I just can’t keep my cool.”
“It’s really alright, dear. Once today is over I think things will get a lot easier for us.”
Cal loved his wife; some would say in spite of her rage fueled outbursts, but it was rather because of them that he fell in love with her. The two of them were like the two halves of a black and white cookie; unimpressive separately, but once you put them together, they created something perfect.
In college, Carli was the president of the university’s Cause of the Week Club which protested on behalf of a different organization each week, regardless of whether or not this meant supporting conflicting ideologies. In the span of one month they protested on behalf of the Vegans of America Group, the Meat Packing Labor Union, Mothers Infuriated by Lazy Kids (or MILK), and Nobody Asked You Mom, Now Leave Me Alone So I Can Play My Video Games, I’ll Get A Job Tomorrow (or NAYMNLMASICPMVGIGAJT). The club gave Carli the perfect outlet for her pent-up rage. She could yell, threaten, burn effigies, and make signs that had both a social message, and some kind of pun.
Cal was the president of the Indifference Society. The majority of their meetings were spent discussing what they should do that week, but Cal always made sure that meeting time was always set aside for Carli, who came to their meetings in the hopes of recruiting more people for her next protest. Cal fell in love with the way her lips curled back when she snarled, and the way her small mole looked on her cheek when it reddened with fury. He went to all of her protests. It was on the day she punched out a cop to protect him while he was tied to a holly bush that he knew he was in love. Cal asked her to be his campaign manager for his bid at the class presidency, and thanks to her ingenious smear tactics he won by a landslide and finally gained the courage to ask her on a date. She said yes.
“I want to thank everyone for coming today,” Cal said into the microphone. “The last puzzle piece is being put into place now and then one of the brave pilots from Fort Ramrod will be flying over to tell us just what exactly is on the puzzle! Yeah!”
A few charitable claps were given to the mayor as the final piece was dropped into its destined position with a click.
“Oh my God,” Cal said, “oh my God, ohmyGodohmyGod.”
“Shut up, honey,” Carli said.
Cal spotted the jet plane a few short miles from the puzzle; he clapped his sweaty palms together in anticipation and turned on the walkie-talkie he had strapped to his belt.
“This is Mayor Cal Jansen,” he said as the black square croaked with feedback, “are you in position?”
“Roger that, Mr. Mayor, I am in position,” the pilot replied.
“So, what do you see?”
Cal proudly held the walkie-talkie up to the microphone so the rest of Brannigan could share in this moment.
“Well… uh… it looks to be… some kind of… some kind of phallus.”
Cal gripped the podium tightly; the rapid gerbils had taken hold of his stomach with ruthless aggression and were spreading to his entire body.
“It’s a what?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s a big penis, sir.”
Sebastian began to laugh hysterically like a man whose sanity was slowly slipping away. He made no attempt to hide his laughter at his nephew-in-law’s expense; his wrinkled hands clapped together as he watched the townspeople growing angrier and angrier. Cal threw the walkie-talkie onto the ground and looked the old man in his face, which was contorted from the swells of laughter that seemed unending.
“You spent taxpayer money to make a giant puzzle with the image of A PENIS?” Cal screamed.
The puzzle didn’t actually contain an image of a penis. The pilot, Jack Trubee, had been seeing penises everywhere lately. These phallic phantoms were the product of his repressed sexual desire for Ring Pops and his recent completion of a community college course on psychological literary analysis.
“How are you not more upset about this?” Cal asked his wife.
“I think it’s kinda funny,” she replied with a smirk.
The townspeople of Brannigan had had enough. With their weapons ready they rushed the puzzle in unison, all of their anger, frustration, and embarrassment being channeled into the burning light at the ends of their bargain priced torches. Sebastian’s laughter was silenced by the sight of swift revenge heading for his masterpiece. He bolted down the grandstand’s steps to throw himself in front of the wave of bodies that was about to come crashing down; if they were going to destroy his work, they would have to destroy him too. Sebastian thought about the exhausting evenings he spent working until the sun rose to cut each individual piece of the puzzle. There were beads of sweat dripping down his face as he stared into the angry eyes of Brannigan’s citizens; they did not understand his masterpiece, despite the fact that he hoped they would.
At that moment, a black limousine came barreling down the dirt road that ran parallel to the puzzle’s vertical edge. The limo, shining like spilled oil, stopped directly between Sebastian and the mob. Everything was still except for the miniature American flag attached to the car’s radio antennae, which was flapping violently in the mid-afternoon breeze. The flag’s presence seemed to suggest that the car ran purely on America’s can-do spirit. The silence was finally broken by the clicking of the limo’s back door opening. A large man in a blue military uniform stepped out and gave a mini salute to the tiny antennae flag. If his body type had to be compared to a polygon, it would be a square; two squares to be exact, one large one for the body and a tiny one sitting on top for the head.
“Hi there, folks, sorry to stop you in the middle of what appeared to be an ol’ fashioned mob scene. My name is Colonel G.T. Watts and I’m looking for a Mr. Sebastian.”
Sebastian slowly raised his hand and stepped forward.
“Sebastian, I’m Colonel Watts, damn good to meet you,” said the man, shaking Sebastian’s frail hand. “The NASA boys noticed your little project here on one of their satellites a few months back, but we wanted to wait until the grand unveiling before we came to see ya.”
Cal tried to intervene, still under the pretenses that he was standing beside a mural of a giant penis, in the hopes of saving his political career.
“Colonel Watts,” he said, “I am so sorry about all of this; we’ll have it taken apart immediately.”
“No harm done,” Colonel Watts said, with a hard smack to Cal’s shoulder, and returned to speaking to Sebastian. “As for you, sir, I want to tell you that I’ve worked with NASA for a few years now. I’ve circled this little blue ball of ours more times than I can count and I came here to tell you that you’re absolutely right.”
Colonel Watts pointed to the puzzle as he said this. Sebastian’s eyes filled with tears as he finally broke his years of silence.
“Thank you,” he said. “I knew, that if you just took a step back and looked at it… all the pieces would make something great.”
“I think the show is over, folks,” Colonel Watts shouted at the slowly calming mob. “If you gotta burn something down, try the motel I stayed at off the highway! They didn’t give me fresh towels this morning!”
After the crowd had gone their separate ways, Cal and Colonel Watts were left alone with the puzzle.
“It really is incredible, ain’t it?” the Colonel asked Cal.
“I suppose,” Cal said.
“I’ve seen and done a lot of things in my lifetime,” the Colonel said. “I’ve flown at the speed of sound, I’ve seen the Earth from the Heavens, I overthrew the kingdom of the Radioactive Moon Chimps… Whoops, I’m technically not supposed to talk about that last one.”
The Colonel chuckled to himself and went on.
“The point is, it’s this kind of thing that really stands above the rest. An example of the things a person can accomplish when he just puts his mind to it. It’s the only reason I’ve ever been able to fly anything, because someone simply thought humankind could do it.”
“So…” Cal said, “it’s not a penis?”
“No, no, no, it’s nothing like that.”
“So what is it?”
Colonel Watts looked at Sebastian.
“It’s a message,” Sebastian said.
A few weeks later, Sebastian passed away. He died peacefully and without pain, the doctors said. A short month after what became known as the Brannigan Puzzle Panic of 2010, Cal retired from the political game and opened up the Uncle Sebastian Memorial Gift Shop right next to Sebastian’s masterpiece.
Their most popular item is a miniature recreation of the world’s largest puzzle. Once it is completed, you can view the message that was originally intended only for the eyes of those who were miles above the Earth’s stratosphere.
IT’S BEAUTIFUL FROM UP THERE, ISN’T IT?
BRIAN LONG runs the streets of New Jersey with a gang of literary street toughs known as The Broad Set: www.thebroadset.com.