After the Tree book project

Games Children Play

The Puzzle


My son, after completing his first puzzle of the United States of America: a country with a puzzling and peculiar past.


Hangman— just a little game you used to play in grade school.

Your opponent writes his name and yours on the second-grade classroom’s chalkboard, drawing a line between the two of you. The white chalk squeaks and strains against the blackboard as he creates another long vertical line—his hangman’s pole—and a series of short blank lines beneath it. He turns to you with a sneer and the most difficult phrase he can fathom locked in his head. His head is covered with silvery blond hair, a lightning rod of tricks and ideas.

You sit in the middle row of the classroom, surrounded by vacant desks. It is your duty to guess the answer to his puzzle by calling out random letters. You pray your brain will fill in all the blanks, somehow sense the connection between these empty spaces, and solve the completed name of this person, place, or thing. You glance out the window and see the other children running and squealing with laughter, their faces glowing with sweat. You wonder why you have chosen to spend your recess in a cold, quiet classroom now devoid of all moving things except the grin stretching across your opponent’s face and the anxiety over losing pinching at your chest.


You call this letter out first because it seems to be a staple ingredient of most words, but there is no r and there is not even a t— none of the usual standbys apply. Letter by letter, your opponent hangs your errors, drawing in the body parts of the little stick man: head first, then neck, then right arm. If this boy were just a teeny bit nice, he’d give you fingers and facial features, maybe bless you with a triangle skirt, thereby making your body a girl, endowing you with more time.

Time or not, you are stuck. You have run out of the safe consonants and vowels. You know your limits, and the reality of them sinks your stomach. Half of your stick body dangles on the edge of the pole as your opponent greedily waits to shout out your defeat.

You sit frozen in your bone-hard seat, feeling yourself diminishing, centimeter by centimeter. You haven’t yet heard Billie’s strange voice crowing about swinging bodies. You don’t know yet that someone in your family was hanged, but somehow your body remembers, and the line extending from the expressionless, carved-out head on the blackboard is a vein in your neck.


The word swings in your mind, echoes through the room. Fear and saliva rise in your throat.


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