The Story Behind “Puzzle Pieces” by Bernard Grant

Bernard Grant3637_for web useToday’s post is written by Bernard Grant. A piece of his creative nonfiction—”Puzzle Pieces“—appears in our Fall 2015 issue. 

Sometimes an image causes words to sound in my head, looping like a catchy jingle. The only way to lose it is to write. “Puzzle Pieces” was an attempt to rid myself of one such sound: “The woman who pieces puzzles by the window.”

This time last year, I went from running twenty-five miles per week to walking with a cane, slow as the seniors to which I now relate. A couple weeks after my body changed, I lay in a tube for an hour. The MRI showed that my cerebellum had atrophied. A neurologist prescribed physical therapy.

Before I started physical therapy, I made the mistake of Googling my symptoms. Don’t do it. Each time my eyes wiggled, each time my vision blurred, my hands shook, or pain shot through my back or chest, adding to the constant ache in my hands and feet, the soreness in my legs as if I’d been standing five, six hours at a time, I imagined myself in a hospital bed, a death bed, attached to tubes, my neck supported in a brace, drool hanging from my lip.

In the physical therapy ward, in both the waiting room and the gym, I began to notice the smiles that surrounded me: the amputees and senior citizens, and even their partners, spouses and friends, who waited for them. It had been a while since I felt like smiling, but over time as I worked through the exercises in a gym with others who fought their conditions, the fear dissipated and it became easy to return their pleasantries.

In the waiting room are tables with puzzles on them in various states of completion. As I sat one morning, a book in my lap, I noticed a middle-aged woman piecing them together. The words popped into my head like a lyric: “The woman who pieces puzzles by the window.” She was piecing a puzzle by the window my following visit and several visits thereafter. I’d see her other places, in the parking or in the elevator, going up or down. See was always with a patient, a man her age who used a wheelchair and had only one real leg. I’d see him in the gym.

I write fiction and I began to visualize a story about a woman who pieces puzzles by a window. I thought I’d write about her struggles caring for a husband who’s undergoing physical therapy for his missing limb. The scenes, however, were overpowered by that addictive refrain.

Instead of a story, I ended up writing glimpses, following that sound. As I wrote, attempting to get that sound out of my head, I became fully aware of something I hadn’t realized: We were, all of us with broken bodies, a community of sorts. By writing about that community, I acquired a more optimistic view of that couple’s life and the lives of those surrounding them. Including my own.

About the Author

Bernard Grant is a winner of the 2015 Paper Nautilus Press Debut Series Chapbook Contest. He has been nominated for Best of the Net, was awarded a 2015 Jack Straw Fellowship, and is the Associate Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Stirring, Fiction Southeast, and other journals. He is currently enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program.

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