The Burden of the Box
by Michael King
For a summer in Nebraska, a six-day stretch of temperatures in the high 40s was certainly unusual, and it wasn’t long before I decided to use it to my advantage. I had rarely been one to take exercise, but my grandfather had recently died, and I missed him; I needed activity to ease my sorrow, and I needed to do something besides talk.
My wife was available and willing, but I simply couldn’t stomach the image of a 40-year-old fat man shuddering and weeping into the side of his wife’s neck. Hell, I knew that even Grandpa would have told me to buck up.
So without the excuse of overheating to keep me on the couch, I started taking long, nighttime walks. The plan was to switch to mornings when the weather returned to normal. My size had always bothered me, but now, haunted by the recollection of a waxy husk in an open coffin, I gathered up the courage to act.
The issue wasn’t my thyroid, it was inactivity and too much food. My thick fingers and doughy face had been earned in kitchens and restaurants, at movie theaters and fast-food joints. I often told my wife that all I had to do to lose weight was to stop taking the half-hour drive into the city.
She’d usually smile, making eye contact, or she’d tell me she didn’t mind a big guy. Sometimes I thought she still saw me as I looked 16 years ago, when we’d first met. I loved her for that.
The night before it got hot again, it happened. Strong winds bent the trees and soothed my sweaty neck and brow. Looking down at my phone as I tromped along, reading my too-short list of contacts, I realized my wife was one of two people left in the world who made any sense to me at all. The other was my grandmother, who had done the work my parents hadn’t. It was a shame I couldn’t repay her with grandchildren, but the reproductive mechanism simply wasn’t in my genes.
As I avoided a raised portion of sidewalk that had taught me a lesson a few years ago, I guessed I had never been good with people. I had a high-school buddy, Pat Nielsen, who lived about a three-minute drive east, but he had taken up with Jesus and had no time for an old friend never seen at church.
The kids I paid a decent wage to man the register at the gas station were bright and hard-working, but had very little in common with the boss they called Tiny Tim when he wasn’t in the room. If only I could apply myself. Sure, I was friendly and fair-minded, but I never loosened up. I never opened up. I supposed I had little to offer others.
Still studying the brightly lit screen and considering my inability to forge bonds with other humans, I heard what sounded like snapping twigs and sensed something large passing before me. I looked up, seeing nothing but a hazy, greyness and the bluish, white afterimage of an oblong square. It had probably been a bird or a bat. But the false blindness worried me, and I pocketed the phone.
The moon had brightened, the shadows had darkened, and I had stepped off the sidewalk and had been walking the curved, grassless pathway beside a small, man-made lake. I had made good time and, though I had meant to turn back when the body of water came into view, I decided to continue on around it. A moment later it happened again.
Only, this time I saw a man and a creature, real or unreal, skitter across the nape of my neck. My vision was not the best, but because I knew my hometown, Orval, so well, having lived there all my life, I had taken to hanging my glasses on my shirt-collar unless I was driving. I disliked the painful welts I got high at the sides of my nose.
About twelve feet ahead, a man crossed the path. He was shirtless and tall and gaunt; and he seemed to be transfused with moonlight as if he were made of mist.
I snatched up my glasses and jammed them on; but, right when the form came into focus, it faded away. If he hadn’t been a ghost, he must have been a hallucination or a hologram beamed down from the giggling greys overhead.
I peered into the darkness of Mr. Belmont’s huge backyard, scrutinized the uneven footpath, then gaped at the glimmering, wind-rippled water, which was otherwise undisturbed. I stood, wishing someone real would walk by; I kept seeing the bony man in my mind. Even without my glasses on, I had seen the too-sharp elbows, the sagging pectorals and the ribs beneath them.
The hell if I was going to walk around the lake; I wanted to be home in bed with my wife. If I could get there safely, I could open a book and distract myself and things would make more sense in the morning. I pivoted and started running. Yes, running.
Feeling the jounce of my love-handles, I stared at my white, clunky shoes and tried to ignore the rising notion that I was being followed. I focused instead on remaining upright. No broken legs. No skinned knees. But I didn’t want to break my face either. Forcing my eyes upward, I halted in three, jarring steps.
Breathing heavily, I couldn’t help reaching down for my knees. A dark mass rose up from the ground on the side of the path nearest the lakeside and stood erect. The thin man was pale and dense and shadowed. What I could see of his face was made of hard lines.
My chest heaved. The phone dug into my right inner thigh. A few of the hairs on my head were standing; and I realized that the wind had died out and that the atmosphere had gained a charge. A cluster of white sparks appeared above one of the man’s bony shoulders and then blinked out. Then he waved a slow goodbye and strode off into the trees.
Even if I’d had my breath and I’d known exactly what to say, my fear would have kept my mouth closed. I listened to the steadily paced footfalls until they stopped, a fair distance off.
I became aware of an acrid odor, which intensified and then weakened as the charge in the air began to disperse. I imagined the man there and then gone like the sparks above his shoulder. I crept forward, wide eyes darting about, buzzing with apprehension but almost certain I was alone. As I neared the spot where the man had been crouching, my eyes fell to a small wooden box.
I stared at the box for a long time, rubbing my thumb in circles around the tip of my forefinger. I nudged it with the toe of my shoe. Finally I reached down and plucked it up. It fit perfectly in the palm of my hand and the wood was rough, dry, unfinished. It appeared to be a hollowed-out block with a fitted lid of a darker wood. The word “Remember” had been scratched deeply into the lid.
Oddly unconcerned that the strange man might leap from the trees and slit my throat, I looked at the lake and I heard a tiny scratching sound from within the box. Startled, I almost dropped the thing. But then a strong and detailed memory seemed to unfold inside my mind.
I remembered being very young and sitting in the dirt with my grandfather. The baited hooks of our fishing-lines had been weighted and submerged and the moon was shining whole on the flat, black plain. I had asked the strong, wiry man with the greying buzz-cut what he thought was in the water when no one was looking. He gave a one-word reply delivered with a grunt. “Fish,” he said.
But I had noticed as I stood to run a finger along the tight, gleaming fishing-line the quick glance he had given me. When I tried to flesh out the memory, the box shifted in my hand. I dropped it. But I didn’t see it fall.
Because I was there. Then. Seeing through the boy’s eyes. My eyes. Studying an ant making its way across the expanse of his hand, his palm dry, resting against the hard earth. Irritated by the itchy seam on the inside of the dirty sock on his right foot. Shaking off the ant and peering out at the dark mirror of the water. Breathing. Breathing in some earthy, wormy sweetness. Enjoying the slight chill in the air and the thrill of the liquid mystery so close to him.
Thoughts of Tom Sawyer. Memories. Catching a pop fly in the outfield and wishing he had some Dad as witness, while thankful for his grandfather’s roar of approval. Delving into his pensive nature. Grasping at a single question. Getting to his feet. Grinding his shoe into the ground in an attempt to calm his itching foot. Approaching the fishing poles. Reaching out.
But the next thing I witnessed the boy did not. As he turned toward his surrogate father — the silver hair, the wide, clear eyes, the strong hands and muscled arms — I glimpsed, just beneath the surface of the water, the thin man, waving goodbye and walking away.
“Grandpa, what’s in the water when no one’s around?”
I blinked as the world appeared around me, and I wished I could have heard my grandfather’s voice one more time. I held the box. The wind blew, pushing me homeward. I glanced down as I almost tripped onto the cracked and pitted sidewalk. The cold had worked into my fingertips. I stopped.
I turned and eyed the moonlit path, knowing I could leave the box where I stood. I could busy myself. Minimize. Rationalize. Realize I’d been mistaken. But I couldn’t. What had happened to me had happened. And, as I recalled all that had transpired, I doubted that the thin man had meant any harm. I trotted home, clutching the box.
* * *
Three sweltering days later, I opened the box. By then I felt I had regained my senses and had expected to find a locust or a katydid or a praying mantis. But it was empty. I fingered its gouged sides and bottom but it was only wood. I replaced the desiccated lid and waited.
Occasionally when the lid was attached, the little box moved a bit and I heard that faint scratching within, but nothing as wonderful and as breathtaking as my memory-trip reoccurred. Once, while the box was “talking,” I grabbed it up and shook it. Whatever it was rattled inside, but intermittently, as if the thing were there and gone.
Soon I put in an old penny and gave it a shake. And as soon as it entered the quiet phase, I tore off the lid. The penny flew out and landed flat on the section of cardboard I’d put down in case I dropped the box.
* * *
Since that odd, windy night when the thin man left the box for me, my life has come to resemble some of the songs I placed on my wife’s iPhone days before she left me. For a time, the house seemed to resonate with the yelling and sobbing of its occupants, but then the silence of an unused bed pervaded each of its rooms.
What bothers me most about my ex-wife is how easily I let her go; I practically pushed her out the front door. And it wasn’t just her. Because of a defined sense of purpose and my failure to leave it unexpressed, even my grandmother has stopped taking my calls.
Tiny Tim has become Crazy Tim and, according to my old friend, Pat, who loves to speak with my message machine, I’m a misguided, godless hack, to boot. At one point I had a few college kids in to set up cameras and microphones. They left the equipment for several nights and then crumpled their money into their pockets, hardly restraining their mocking laughter.
But I figure eventually I will somehow prove the truth of the box, and they will know what I know. So I keep pushing, trying, making phone calls, reading old books, listing out word combinations for Google searches.
Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I descend the stairs into the basement and finger the word carved in wood. One day I dread I’ll switch on the light just as the thin man vanishes with the box in his hand.
Maybe if the box were to disappear, I’d normalize and stop losing weight. I envision myself so wasted and so insubstantial that a strong breath might disseminate me like the fuzzy head of a dandelion. But I just can’t part with the box. It was given to me. I am supposed to spread its word.
So I continue to endure their flat stares, evidence of the thick walls of the closed-minded. Someday I hope somebody sees me and comes to me, to study the box. My message is this: the world is not as it appears. There are hidden layers, plains, levels. Unseen things and places exist right in front you. Right now.
And the person sitting across the room or on the other side of the property line has an entire, startling universe thriving within. Here and there we glimpse the unknown, but it’s frightening, so we forget. We need to remember.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael King