Men with Boxes
22nd Annual Tamarack Award
Darrell Eager (Photo Illustration)
VICKI SLOUCHED at the kitchen counter with her bathrobe draping loose. One breast lolled against the terry cloth. When Robert spoke to her, she said nothing, just slid her mug a couple inches, sloshing coffee, and Robert stopped spreading mustard and looked at her. He’d begun taking his lunch to work again, just as he had when their son was an infant, when he would stuff a PBJ and an apple in his jacket after Vicki and the baby were down for their morning nap, and hurry to the corner to catch a bus. At the office, he would drink mugs of double-strength instant coffee and process invoices, clicking rapidly through fields to make up for the days he’d missed, counting the hours until he could return home and embrace the new, small crises of fatherhood: a son who wasn’t eating enough or pooping enough, or who was pooping too much, or who, at his three-month checkup, was in the 35th percentile for weight, and what were they doing wrong?
The salad days, he called them, even then. When Robert came home in the evenings (and often in the early afternoons, if Vicki asked him to), he found his tired wife in the nursery or laundry room and took the baby from her. With Evan in one arm, he fixed dinner, folded laundry, picked up bottles and burp rags, whatever needed to be done, while Vicki slept or took a bath. He coaxed the baby to eat or poop or sleep. The boy gained weight. His infected circumcision healed. Robert worked in accounting at a small educational book publisher and thought of himself as a mathematician, a guy who solved problems because all problems had solutions. Even now, four years later and still in the same job, he liked to believe that people thought of him as someone they could depend on.
Coffee dribbled from the bottom of Vicki’s mug as she sipped. Nine months had passed since Evan had been killed in the babysitter’s car—even though his car seat had been securely anchored by Robert himself, who didn’t trust anyone else to do it—and Vicki spent her days now the same way she did the week it happened: paralyzed with silent grief. Sometimes she promised Robert she’d pack his lunch for work, but she never got around to it. Sometimes she started early with dollops of brandy in her coffee, but often she was too exhausted to get drunk. Her longing for Evan was strenuous. Even her dark, soft eyelashes, which had been graceful as birds’ wings, now seemed heavy. Robert accepted that her grieving process was different from his own, more physical, and he didn’t hold it against her that he was the only one working, the only one taking care of the house, the only one talking to people out in the world. Not that he was over Evan, or ever would be. But he focused on his grieving, he dealt with it. He had tried to help Vicki deal with hers, but he couldn’t reach her.
He put down his knife and rubbed her shoulders. “Yoo-hoo? Earth to Vick?”
Out the window behind the counter, the backyard was quilted in fresh snow: smooth mounds over the sandbox and compost heap, smoothed-out footsteps leading to the alley. The sound of glass breaking tinkled over from another alley, where men collected bottles for recycling in their truck.
“Guess I zoned out,” Vicki said, looking at the stove clock. “Don’t you have to go?”
“I can be late. I was wondering if you’d like some eggs. I’ll make you some.”
Vicki smiled and winced, as if he’d made a funny but deeply offensive joke. “I’m fine,” she said, and tilted her head to accept a kiss on the hair.
He slipped the sandwich in his pocket and left her by the window and the yard. They had loved that yard because it was so perfect for a family, but white and blank like this it was hard to remember anything that was great about it. They’d been trying to have a second child, but since Evan died they’d given that up, even though they hadn’t talked about giving it up.
His bus loped up the frozen road and he ran to catch it. Once on board, he rolled his head, trying to work out the ache in his shoulders. For a while he’d shared the burden of grief with Donnie, the babysitter, and it had felt lighter. After the accident, Donnie’s father had asked him to come and talk things over and maybe help his son heal, and when Robert had complied, one morning in October, he shook Robert’s hand with both his own and thanked him profusely, directing him to Donnie’s bedroom. The boy sat on his bed in shorts and a hooded sweatshirt with his back against the wall, as if he’d been there for a long time. His thin legs had scarcely any hair.
“Hey,” Robert said. A racquetball lay on the desk and Robert bounced it on the floor and caught it. “I brought you some videos,” he said, holding them out, but Donnie didn’t move and he left them on the desk. He turned the chair around and straddled it with his hands on the back, like a father on a sitcom talking to his son about sex. It was an automatic gesture, and he felt foolish, but he didn’t know how else to act.
He said, “Your dad thought you might want to talk.”
“I don’t know how to talk,” Donnie said. He had a cast on his left middle finger.
“I think I know what you mean.”
Donnie said nothing.
“I do. That’s how I feel sometimes—just like that.”
Donnie looked at a yin-and-yang ring he wore on his good hand. Robert bounced the racquetball, which hit an edge in the hardwood floor and bounced toward Donnie, who reached out and caught it with the ring hand.
“Is that you?” Robert asked. Behind Donnie on a bulletin board were half a dozen snapshots of shirtless kids diving and doing flips off a railroad trestle into a river.
Donnie turned and looked at them. “Me and my buddies.”
“I know where that is. I’ve jumped off there before.”
“I used to be younger.”
THE BUS BOUNCED over potholes, and vehicles in the road sprayed smoke behind them into the dirty gray air. Someone was hollering into a cell phone: “Password is rock. R-O-C-K.” Robert got off at his stop and hurried past the bus-stop shelter, which smelled like urine, retracing the tracks he covered every day, past the Army surplus store, past the trendy nightclub where pro football players sometimes got arrested, and into his office building.
At 10:30 he was trying to decide if it was too early to eat his sandwich when Diane, his supervisor, called him to her office. He sat in a canvas chair with a photo of her and her husband facing him on the desk.
“I’ve been put in a bad spot,” she said, holding out a tin of mints. “A shitty spot.” Robert shook his head, and she closed the tin without taking a mint for herself. He’d never heard her swear before and understood that she was trying to make things more comfortable by acting as a peer, an ally.
She said, “All the time you’ve missed has been very destabilizing,” and before going on she dipped her head and squinted, as if through great concentration she could make sympathy shoot from her eyes like a superhero’s laser vision, like one of the characters Evan had just begun getting into: “We feel you need time to be with your family—your wife.” Since returning from his leave after the accident last summer, he’d missed another two months of work, an accumulation of single days when he stayed home with Vicki because she seemed dangerous, charged with anger—brawling with him over things like forks being tines-up in the dishwasher—or physically sick, the grief beating on her body. Sometimes he took her to the doctor. Diane had been supportive, if not a friend, through everything. She projected little personality but was reliable in the department, every day, doling out responsibility, praise, encouragement, and help in just the right amounts, just when they were needed. He decided to help her.
“Returns have been awful,” he offered.
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “They have been awful.”
She let out a breath. “This is for the best, Robert.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
The photo showed Diane and her husband inside a stone temple in Rome, and Robert wondered what time of day it had been when it was taken. He’d seen the photo four hundred times before, but now he wondered. Did they go to lunch afterward? Or maybe it was late, and they were about to go back to their hotel room. He tried to imagine it. All these people in Rome, out in large numbers even after dinner, wandering around, drinking coffee, returning to hotel rooms, or not. No worries. Vicki had cousins in Naples and had talked about visiting, maybe when Evan had turned five or six and could appreciate it. He could have looked at the temples and statues and catacombs. But they didn’t talk about that any more.
Diane was standing. “So,” she said.
“Right,” Robert said, rising. “Sorry.”
Together they walked in silence to shipping, picked up a cardboard box, and returned to his desk, and while she watched he filled it with his things—mostly books, and a bag of cough drops, and from the back of a drawer he pulled a framed snapshot of Vicki feeding Evan at ten months. Evan had just wrested the tiny, plastic-coated spoon from her hand, and the backlash from her release had sprayed rice cereal all over his face and space-shuttle jammies and the wall behind him. Vicki’s face was lit up in surprise and delight, her eyebrows leaping, her mouth a happy O. Evan’s eyes were on the spoon. Robert had shoved the photo into the back of the drawer when he returned to work after the accident last summer.
Outside, the sun blazed. Bright snow caked the boulevards like hard sugar; in parking lots it was plowed into piles the size of SUVs. He squinted as he stepped onto the bus, shifting his box under an arm and fumbling with his pass, and after sitting, the box on his lap, he took off his gloves and rubbed his eyes.
The bus chuffed away from the curb. Office buildings glittered, the streets shone clean and wet, people strolled along in sunglasses and no hats, as if the world had been lively and good after all, but only during the late-morning hours, when Robert had been moving figures on a spreadsheet, stuffing envelopes, and stamping checks. Robert had loved his job, was proud of it, and was sad to leave it, but it felt good to be riding through downtown Minneapolis on a beautiful winter morning with nothing to do tomorrow except—what? Make love to his wife, if she would. Or read to her. Shovel snow, listen to music, buy a dog and take it to the park. His day, his week, was blank: a yard of clean white snow.
His body pressed suddenly against the window, and he looked up in panic: The turn was too soon. He was on the wrong bus. “Crap.” He pulled the signal cord for a stop.
Compared to rush hour, the bus was dead. No ring tones or coughs, and none of the dozen passengers spoke. Each rubber handle swayed overhead like a silent wind chime. Whole rows were empty. Strange, then, that Robert hadn’t noticed until now, as he considered his path to the front of the bus, the man across the aisle who, like him, held a cardboard box—loaded with notepads, framed photos, a calculator, books, a toothbrush and toothpaste—wedged between his torso and the seat in front of him.
“Bad day,” Robert called, nodding at the man’s box and scooting from his window seat to the aisle.
The man looked over, registered Robert’s box, and offered the appropriate smile for the moment, one that showed he was strong but concealing worry and pain. They were two men against all the idiots of the world. “No kidding.” He had short hair and a young, fleshy face.
“How long were you at your job?” Robert asked.
“Wow, long time.”
The man nodded, fat bunching under his chin. “In sales. They took my company car on the spot.”
The driver pulled over, but Robert’s panic had subsided now, and he settled back into that feeling, like the yard of clean snow was opportunity. And anyway, when he thought of going home to tell Vicki he’d been fired, riding a few more stops didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
The driver waited.
“Didn’t you signal?” said the salesman.
“Hey, Third Ave!” the driver bellowed.
Robert looked around and shrugged. “I don’t think so.”
The bus drove back into traffic. Robert lifted his box, stood, wobbled briefly in the aisle, and slipped into the seat next to the salesman, pinning a corner of the man’s overcoat beneath his leg. The salesman bridged his eyebrows as if Robert had made a pass at him, but Robert just handed him a book. A column of black ants marched across its cover.
“You work at a bookstore or something?” the man said. He smelled of spearmint.
The salesman opened the book to a close-up photo of a leaf-cutter ant carrying a piece of leaf over its head. The leaf was about 20 times bigger than the ant, but the ant looked graceful. “Look at that,” Robert said, touching his finger to the glossy page. “That’s beautiful.”
The bus slowed to another stop. Riders who climbed on and off looked at the two men with their boxes crammed in right next to each other. Outside, a young woman in heels slipped and fell, and three plastic-wrapped men’s shirts scattered from her shopping bag across the sidewalk. Her friend helped her up. Robert said, “They’re playing baseball down in Florida.”
“That’s where I’d like to be,” the salesman said reflexively.
“Now’s our chance, right? Green grass. Short sleeves. Crack of the bat.”
“Sounds good,” the man agreed, but he squirmed closer to the window. The skirt of his overcoat still stuck under Robert’s leg. He handed back the book, and Robert put it away.
The two men folded their arms on top of their boxes.
Employees were allowed to claim hurt books, a privilege Robert had taken full advantage of because he enjoyed learning about new subjects and because he thought reading nonfiction to Evan was better for his cognitive development than reading him fiction, whether he could follow the logic or not, which, of course, he rarely could, even in the final and most mature year of his life, when he was three. Simply hearing the rhythm and cadence of facts was what mattered. So Robert had brought many books home over the years: Lions, Dolphins, Manatees, Bessie Coleman, Betsy Ross, Canada, Colombia, Kwanzaa, How a Bill Becomes a Law. Dozens of others. Evan got to hear storybooks from Vicki and from Robert’s older sister Carol, and when Carol was over and they had all three together put Evan to bed, and taken turns reading him a book, one apiece, and kissed his forehead and smoothed his hair, and then were back downstairs drinking wine amid the napkins and dripping candles at the dinner table, the women teased Robert because he couldn’t let anything, even something as sweet and plain as putting a child to bed, just be what it was and not a part of an equation. The solving of the problem of how to optimize cognitive development. His and Carol’s dad had never read to them except sometimes baseball recaps from the paper, and Robert was determined to be a better dad than that.
After Carol had gone home, Robert and Vicki crept up the creaky steps to their room, where they undressed without speaking by the light of a small lamp. Vicki seemed already asleep when he pulled the lamp’s chain and crawled in next to her, but after a moment she said, “Read me a story.”
“The light’s off.”
“Read me that fairy tale about how coal is turned into electricity.” More teasing. She touched his ankle with her toes.
He said, “They burn it in these tall silos.”
He said, “The heat rises up and turns these turbines.”
They were quiet for a few moments, and Evan coughed in his sleep, and Robert tried to remember if he’d blown out the candles, and then he remembered he had, and he tried to remember locking the doors, and then he remembered doing that. He’d nearly released himself to sleep when Vicki said, “I’m a lucky woman,” and he was pretty sure she was only partly joking.
Days later Evan was killed, and she hadn’t joked since then. She was filled with rage like a snowstorm—cold and softly building. Soon, she would be snowed in. She hated the babysitter and she hated the person driving the minivan that hit the babysitter’s car, both of whom suffered only minor injuries. Robert, though, had been desperate to connect with Donnie. He’d wanted it to be true that he could help him heal. So he returned to talk again the night after that first night in Donnie’s room. This time he asked about the cast on his hand.
“You know what I did?” Donnie said, looking at it.
“I collected a jelly jar full of bugs. Mostly ants, and a couple ladybugs. Even a potato bug.”
“Got it, like, halfway full. It took forever. I would’ve collected more, but it takes forever.” Donnie bounced the racquetball back to Robert and pretended to pick ants from his bedspread.
“And then I poured a little orange juice in there, and pounded it.”
“Yeah. And I ate a dog turd.”
“From the boulevard.”
“And ate it?”
“Washed all that down with a half gallon of milk. And I held my mouth shut with my hands as long as I could, as long as I could. My eyes were watering, my jaw was shaking, and then I puked for, like, 45 minutes.”
“I thought I was gonna die,” Donnie said. “Do you know what I mean?”
Robert nodded, then changed his mind. “No, what?”
“I held a lighter under my testicle until I passed out. And I took a glass candle stick and laid my finger against the back of that chair and whacked it—as hard as I could.” He gestured toward Robert’s seatback, his eyes level and hard, his lips tight.
For the first time in months, Robert untensed his muscles. His breath came a little easier. He thought he had learned something profound, and he wanted to say something about that, something just as profound, something about pain and its place in the universe, and evolution, and love. But it was hard to find the words.
“Fuck,” he said.
Robert said, “It’s okay, Donnie.” But he knew it wasn’t true, and so did Donnie, so he came back two days later, a Sunday after church. He told him the story of how he met Vicki: They’d flirted in the library of their southern Minnesota college. She was a history major. She’d acted embarrassed, hiding her face behind a book because she was smiling so much, and it made Robert feel good, that smile, because it was such a real thing, and it was for him. On another visit he told Donnie about Evan’s birth, how the nurse had bathed the baby, and helped Robert change him, and taught Vicki how to feed him. And after the accident, when he went to the hospital—he talked about that, too—how a nurse had given Robert Evan’s little tennis shoes in a plastic bag. Robert told other things, confessions, indignities, and through the winter his words collected in the room and grew heavy. Soon Donnie began to speak, too. Not about Evan, but still. He and Robert swapped stories about jumping off the train trestle, the two of them bouncing the racquetball back and forth. They were healing. And then last week, Donnie’s father stood in the middle of the front doorway with his feet directly below his shoulders and shook his head.
“But I thought this was what you wanted,” Robert said, his stocking cap in his hand.
Donnie’s father didn’t move. His thick beard spread almost to his eyes.
“I thought this was good.”
“Please,” Robert said. “We’re friends.”
“He’s only a boy,” the man said. He uncrossed his arms, but only to reach for the handle and shut the door, and Robert saw that he was weeping suddenly, and he saw that all his visits had been for himself and not for Donnie at all.
THE BUS LEFT downtown, then the city limits altogether, humming along a six-lane divided road into a suburb, where they pulled to an intersection big enough for jetliners. Someone in a white apron carried a bag of trash from the back of a chain restaurant to a dumpster. White breaths puffed out from his mouth. “Do you have any kids?” Robert asked.
“Look,” the salesman replied, “would you mind—you know….” He gestured to the empty seats with his fat hand.
“Oh,” Robert said.
“I’m sorry about your job and everything, but, it’s just, there’s so much room. And we’ve got these bastard boxes.”
Robert hoisted his box onto the seatback and stood.
“I’m sorry,” the salesman said.
“Don’t worry about me.”
Here is the story Robert would have told Donnie last week, if Donnie’s father hadn’t stopped him: After he met Vicki that first time, he went back to the library every night, trying to find her again. He always checked the table next to the huge dictionary, where they had talked, and then he filed systematically between the shelves on all three floors, until after two weeks he saw her. She had wavy, black hair. When he sat across from her, she lifted her dark lashes from her book. He said he’d been looking for her a long time, and she laughed. “Well hello, Magellan,” she said. And she smiled again in that way she had before, like smiling was all there was, and inside Robert the idea cracked open that he mattered.
The salesman pulled the cord. The bus rolled to the curb so he could leave, and after the doors squeaked shut behind him, Robert was alone. He waited. At the next stop, a person with a box did not get on. At the stop after that, when a person with a box did not get on, he imagined one did. He imagined many of them: a bus so full of box people they stood with their boxes under their arms, holding onto the rail with their free hands. They shared the parts of their stories it was possible for them to share. They shared snacks. Someone had a thermos of coffee. Robert split his sandwich. This is a true story, they told each other. They agreed to meet on the same bus tomorrow. They decided not to get off this bus at all. They hoped the driver would keep going.
Finally, Robert stepped off. Squinting against the sun and the sun reflected in the snow, he shouldered his box and began to walk. His breath dampened his scarf, and there was no sidewalk, so he walked in the gutter, shuffling through the slush, feeling for ice patches, feeling his way home.
2007 Tamarack Award
“Men with Boxes”
Eric Braun, 36, grew up in Reno. Eleven years ago, he moved to Minneapolis, where he works as a nonfiction book editor with Free Spirit Publishing. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Nevada–Reno and a master of fine arts in fiction writing from Minnesota State University in Mankato. “I wrote my first short story when I was in the second or third grade,” Braun says. “I’ve been writing seriously for the past 10 years.” He is a former participant in the Loft Mentor Series, and his writing has been published in Green Mountains Review, the Great River Review, and the Adirondack Review.