Men with Boxes
22nd Annual Tamarack Award
(page 1 of 4)
To listen to author Eric Braun read this story, click here.
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.”