An unpredictable set of circumstances brought me from the Midwest to a confrontation with a failed actress in a tenement on York Avenue.
My Aunt Helena, an artist, was the official tenant, but she had kept the apartment only because it was on the top floor of a six-flight walkup and had good light. After she married Uncle Pete, who was rich, she could paint anywhere in the world.
So, after I was diagnosed with my “mysterious ailment” (I hate the word “disease,” don’t you?) and became an outpatient at Columbia Presbyterian, Aunt Helena said I could stay there as long as I liked. It had few amenities but was decorated with flair, and after each hospital visit, I eagerly looked forward to going “home.” Despite the fatiguing climb, it was snug, charming, and…or so I thought…safe.
I met Angus Derby in the stairwell after my third treatment. I had barely made it to the top step on the fifth floor before I collapsed like a marionette whose puppeteer had dropped the strings. I looked down. Angus looked up. I saw a leprechaun of a man leaning on a cane and wearing a derby hat with a worried expression on his pleasant, rosy-cheeked face. I feebly pushed away from the railing, but as I moved, my purse slipped off my lap. The little man leapt up the stairs, caught it by the strap with his cane, twirled it twice around the tip, and neatly slid it back into my lap.
I applauded as enthusiastically as my weakened condition would allow, hungrier than I thought I’d ever be for the sight of a friendly face. Turns out that the “cane” was a walking stick, and he could spin it like a drum major, or use it to pluck things (like purses) out of thin air. So began our alliance.
Angus Derby was born fifty-nine years earlier in the apartment across the hall from mine, where he lives today. He had been a small child, uninterested in athletics but mad about books. One of his teachers was a fencing master, and when Angus, who’d read every 19th Century French novel he could find, expressed an interest in swordplay – wanting, no doubt, to be a musketeer – the teacher agreed to coach him in the sport.
Angus was wiry, graceful, and fast. He went to Temple University on a fencing scholarship, got a doctorate in literature, and taught college for thirty years. After he retired, he became a competitive crossword puzzle player, won every game he played, stopped competing, and decided to write crossword puzzles instead.
Before we met, I had never done a crossword puzzle in my life. That was to change, and during the third week of our acquaintance, Angus decided to teach me how do them. Since he was a genius, he had every right to be impatient with Little-Miss-Slow-On-The-Uptake. Slow, being a euphemism for hopeless. If the clue was: “three letter word for feline,” I would write “ball.”
I couldn’t count to three, let alone remember that balls aren’t cats. But Angus liked me, and did not give up. Instead he’d read the clue aloud, and prod me gently.
ANGUS: Summer cooler. Three letters.
ANGUS: Excellent, Pia. Last week, you would have said “hippopotamus.”
ME: You mean I’m right?
ANGUS: No, but at least it’s three letters.
After I figured out that “gunk” was “goo” in only fifteen tries, Angus said: three letter word for actress in DUMBBELLS.
ME: From the television series?
ME: Well, that’s easy. You use it all the time. L-E-E. Lee Brill.
DUMBBELLS had gone off the air three years before I met Angus, so I’d never seen the show, but after doing dozens of his puzzles, I felt that Lee must be a superstar. “She lived here once,” Angus told me. “In a sublet on the third floor.”
Lee Brill’s dream had been to become famous, so she immediately began to go out on auditions, and after a year of relentless effort, she finally got a starring role on a television series. DUMBBELLS was a comedy about a gym, and Lee played a personal trainer. Her part required her to be beautiful, toned, and nasty. With her witchy green eyes and body of a goddess, she was easily all of that. The show ran 93 episodes. Seven short of the 100 required for syndication, but long enough for Lee to make a name for herself.
Angus liked her (but Angus likes all pretty girls), and began to use her name in his crosswords “to boost your career,” he laughed, even though he didn’t really believe it would affect her success one way or another.
Shortly after she got the job, she moved across town and disappeared from Angus’ life. After her series was cancelled, she seemed to disappear from celebrity, too. Angus, however, continued to use L-E-E in his puzzles.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it has one consonant and two vowels, and people remember her. Your name would work well, too, Pia,” he mused. “Let’s see…have you ever done anything to make you famous?”
I hesitated. Finally, I admitted, “My father is a nurseryman, and he created a hybrid rose that smells like a lilac. He named it after me.”
“It is obscure?”
“Oh, no. If you search ‘hybrid lavender rose’ on the computer, ‘Pia’ pops right up.”
“Excellent,” Angus purred. “From now on, you’re not just beautiful, you are also a crossword puzzle clue.”
I guess he expected me to clap my hands in glee. Instead, I said mournfully, “I have a better clue for P-I-A. Three letters meaning ‘totally useless human being.’”
Angus walked to where I was slumped on the sofa, kissed me on the forehead and said, “Far from useless, my dear; one day you will conquer the world.” What a sweetheart Angus is.
And true to his word, he began to use my name … well, the name of my Pia rose, in his puzzles.
He went back to work. I went back to the hospital. And we forgot about our conversation. At least, for two weeks.
Now, I want to talk about fame. The dictionary definition is: “Widespread reputation of a favorable character.” Some people love it; some people hate it. And some people are so pathologically addicted to it that when the spotlight fades, they go … well … six-letter word starting with “i” ending with “e” and meaning “bonkers.” Lee Brill fell into that category, but I didn’t know this until the day I heard a loud rap on my apartment door. I opened it, expecting to see Angus. I saw her instead.
I will say this for Lee Brill. Anger and resentment had done nothing to diminish her looks. She was still as beautiful as she’d been in pictures that Angus showed me of her on her old TV show. The venom in her eyes, however, was a different story.
“Um,” I said. I had never met her, but since she had once lived in my building and since we were both crossword puzzle clues, what could I say? “Um,” I said again. “Welcome back.”
A psychiatric assessment was performed on Lee after the incident. It was supposedly confidential, but the psychiatrist was a crossword puzzle buff, and Angus was one of his heroes, so on the QT he gave Angus this summary: certain people define themselves entirely by how they are perceived in the media. When they are no longer cast in television shows or discussed in gossip columns, they believe that they no longer exist.
With one exception, this diagnosis fit Lee to a T, since she hadn’t been able to find any film or TV work after her series was cancelled. The exception was her starring role in Angus Derby’s crossword puzzles. Meaning that whenever she saw her name as a clue, she could look in a mirror and reassure herself that she was still there. Then I came along and appropriated even that tiny crumb of immortality.
Not that she knew who I was, and not that she had ever planned to confront me. Her intention that day was merely to knock on Angus’ door and ask him why he had stopped using her name. Granted, a lot of rage would have been concealed in that question, but Angus didn’t hear it because, when Lee got to the sixth floor, her eyes drifted to Aunt Helena’s apartment, where, on the door, she saw my name: P-I-A. The name that had replaced her name and annihilated her world. It must have felt like a punch to the gut.
Speaking of which, I had barely opened the door before she lunged at me, with exactly that intention. Fortunately, I was so weak that I fell to the floor before she managed to connect. On the way down, I knocked over a small foyer table and a large ceramic ginger jar.
Angus heard the racket from his apartment, flung open his door, and charged across the hall. By then, my visitor was whacking me with her handbag, and had gotten in a few good blows before Angus came at her, brandishing his walking stick like a sword.
Lee was a foot taller than he, three decades younger, and crazy. But Angus was an avenging angel!
The view from the floor was spectacular. First, he thrust the tip of his cane forward, flipped her handbag out of her hands, and flung it away. Then he jabbed her on one arm. Jab. Jab. Jab. Then the other. Jab. Jab. Jab. She waved her arms frantically, as if to ward off attacking bees.
Angus aimed his walking stick at her heart! She jerked her arms together and ducked. He dropped his cane, picked up a lamp, raised it high in the air, and calmly cracked it over her head. Lee glared up at him like an angry troll.
“Are you finished?” Angus calmly asked the motionless figure huddled on the floor.
She jutted her chin forward, and spat.
“Now, Lee,” Angus said gently. “Is that any way for a lovely young lady to behave?”
She blinked. I think the words “lovely young lady” hit her harder than had the lamp. Then she rolled over on her side, grasped her head in her hand, and moaned, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
Which was more or less the end of the episode. We didn’t press charges, Lee agreed to see a therapist, and I never encountered her again. After that, there were a few changes in my life. First, on my next hospital visit, I was told that, for all practical purposes, I was cured. Yay!
Second, Aunt Helena gave up the apartment. From that day forward, it was mine.
Third, I decided to follow Angus’ advice and conquer the world.
I haven’t figured out yet what my venue will be. Produce movies? Open a bakery? Write a book? Or learn how to fence like Angus. Skillfully, gracefully, and valiantly, the way that my dapper friend had saved my life. Weeks later, I decided to press him on one point.
“That bit with the lamp,” I said, trying to restrain a laugh. “Exactly how would that be described in a glossary of fencing moves?”
Angus smiled. His rosy cheeks glowed. His eyes twinkled.
“Sometimes,” he said fitting his derby on his head, offering me his arm, and leading me up the block for a celebratory dinner, “One simply does not have to play by the rules.”
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com