Mel Bosworth – “Broken Boxes”
I didn’t know Dan very well yet he insisted I meet his wife. He told me this as we dug, side-by-side, sharing sweaty man grunts.
…..“Huff. She’s very excited to meet you. Huff.”
…..I didn’t say anything, hoping my own huffing would be sufficient, that Dan wouldn’t think I was disregarding his comments, that I was just tired, which, in all honesty, I kind of was at that moment. Digging was no easy game.
…..We were planting a small, sickly pine tree that would flourish once its roots settled. For some reason—maybe the heat, the time of year, that we were planting a fucking pine tree, or the fact that she’d recently done it to me again—I thought of my mother and how she too had been insisting on things, not like meeting her wife, which wouldn’t make any sense at all, especially to my father, but on how I should know certain things, things I might be interested in or that might require my knowledge when she was gone, or, “When I’m not around,” as she liked to put it.
…..Just the other day I was helping her move things to the basement. She picked up a box and then stood there, looking at me.
…..“If something happens,” she began, and then she stopped, hearing her own words and what they meant, not so much to her but to me, her son, listening. “If I’m not around for some reason,” she began again. “You might want to know the Christmas decorations are in a box beneath the basement stairs.”
…..I responded with a crumpled face and a grudgingly understanding nod. I wanted to yell at her for saying shit like that to me. It wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t she hit my sister with things like that too? Well, because my sister was married with two children, and a thousand miles away. If my mother happened to go on a prolonged trip somewhere—like another dimension—I’d be the one responsible for knowing where she kept the Christmas decorations because I was the child closest to home. And also because my father didn’t listen for shit, not because he didn’t want to but because he couldn’t. The old man had been growing deaf for decades.
…..“They’re beneath the stairs, Mom. I got it.”
…..And I did get it. I got it real good. And if I ever had to use that information I’d break down like the box my mother held in her tiny hands that day. I’d break down and wait for someone to stack me on top of other broken boxes. Or maybe I’d wait for someone to pop me back open and tape me up. I’d wait and wait and wait, unsure of what I was waiting for but hopeful that it would be the right thing when it came.
…..Dan passed me my water bottle.
…..“You look like you could use it,” he said.
…..Dan smiled, squinting to the sky. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. I tried to wash down a laugh but Dan heard the bubbles dancing in my throat.
…..“Busted again,” he said, winking.
…..The first time I met Dan I couldn’t help but notice the two divots in the middle of his forehead, like someone had struck him years ago with a claw hammer. The divots were vertical and deep, deep enough to hold coins. I remember thinking that if I had a couple of quarters I’d stuff them into Dan’s forehead to see what would happen. Maybe his eyes would swirl like the lights on a police car. Maybe siren sounds would blare from his ears. Maybe he’d just call me an insensitive asshole for plugging his raw memories with dirty silver I’d fished from my jeans.
…..When Dan told me his sister had gouged him with a claw hammer when they were kids I nearly shit myself. I hadn’t even asked. He just blurted it out. I’d later learn that blurting things out was just something Dan was prone to do. I couldn’t fault him for it—it was just his way. But candor was one of those things that were admirable on the surface and loathsome just beneath. I didn’t always appreciate getting struck in the gut with truth. Those shadow punches could knock the wind right out of you.
…..Despite Dan’s willingness to confide in me, I didn’t know him very well and I didn’t want to meet his wife, not because I didn’t think she’d be nice, or that she, or the two of them together, wouldn’t have something to offer in terms of friendship, but because sweating beside an acquaintance—which was all Dan was to me, a glorified co-worker—for a little while beneath a scorching summer sun didn’t obligate me to carry any secrets, to know what was in the top drawer of his dresser behind his socks (a gun), to know the name of the son she’d given up for adoption (Randy), to know how much he loved his wife (so much) and that they once had sex in the back of a parked police car (moving violations).
…..No no no.
…..I didn’t want to meet his wife and I didn’t want to know that shit. I knew too much already. My understanding of the whereabouts of a dusty box of Christmas decorations was all the burdensome, heartbreaking knowledge I’d ever need.
…..Dan rubbed the coin slots on his forehead with his thumb.
…..“So, do you think you’d like to come over for dinner tonight?” he asked.
…..I looked at the ground. I looked at my hands, muddy from the wrists down. I packed the earth with my fists, trying to bury Dan’s words or maybe even Dan himself.
…..I wondered how Dan would die, if he’d be alone, or with friends, maybe family. I wondered if he’d be much older than he was now, and if he’d have found kind strangers, his priest, or simply mere acquaintances like me, to help shoulder the burden of his accumulated knowledge about where shit was in his house.
…..Because Dan was gone. He hadn’t seen the bus as he pulled into traffic. He hadn’t seen the rock just beneath the surface of the water before he plunged. He hadn’t known his sister was only warming up when they were children. He just hadn’t known, and in that sense he was lucky. He’d been cleared to live the remainder of his life with a freedom terminal patients didn’t have.
…..“I’m not sure when I’ll be free,” I said.
…..Then it suddenly occurred to me that we were all terminal and it didn’t matter whether we knew it or not.
…..Dan didn’t say anything as I cried. He just helped me pack the soil, his hands meaty and thick like mine would be when I grew older. He knew I wasn’t going to meet his wife that night, and I knew he’d ask again tomorrow. We mounded the soil into a kind of moat around the base of the pine tree so the water wouldn’t run off.
…..I knew the small, sickly pine would flourish once its roots settled, just like I knew I’d return someday to decorate it with Christmas.
Mel Bosworth is the author of When the Cats Razzed the Chickens (Folded Word, 2009), Grease Stains, Kismet, and Maternal Wisdom (Brown Paper Publishing, 2010), and Freight (Folded Word, 2011). He lives in western Massachusetts and tries to maintain a healthy sense of humor. Visit him at eddiesocko.blogspot.com