The Box
by David C. Kopaska-Merkel


Harry zipped up his pants and rearranged the couch cushions. It was nearly 6 o’clock, and he had to hurry. He bent over to pick up the bottles and saw the door open. A pair of white pumps and white-stockinged legs stepped into the room. It was Louise. He straightened up with an effort and put the hand holding the bottles behind his back.

“Hi honey,” he said, “just trying to clean up the place a little.” His smile faded. She didn’t say a word, but the lines in her face twisted into a mask of revulsion as she stared at him. She had met the hooker coming out the door.

“Look, baby,” he pleaded, “it was the first time. I don’t know why…” Lightning flashed in her eyes. She took one quick step and slapped him as hard as she could. He caught her arm as she raised it to hit him again.

She yanked her arm from his grasp and abruptly stepped back. “Get out!” Her fitted white dress heaved with passion and, gazing at her, he saw again the woman he had married. His loins stirred and he reached for her. She took another step back and folded her arms, leaving an open route to the door. Her I.D. badge, pushed up by her left arm folded across her breast, caught the light and flashed a warning.

Harry started to speak: “I wish…” He stopped. Her white knuckles dared him to continue. Her eyes were blinking furiously. His hands fell to his sides and he walked out the door. It slammed behind him as he shuffled down the steps.
 



 

Harry had imagined this scene ever since the first time he’d cheated on Louise. Louise discovering him with another woman, throwing him out of the apartment, shouting and screaming, maybe throwing things. He, skipping down the stairs and out the door. He had not expected her taut silence. “She handled it very well,” he thought to himself, “much better than I expected."  His own reaction surprised him too. He had thought he’d feel so much lighter. He’d been anticipating this freedom for years. But it didn’t feel that way at all. He felt burdened, and in his mind’s eye he saw himself drifting away from the world and everything in it. He could not think of a single thing he wanted to say or do, or anyplace worth going. Harry stumbled through the crowds, oblivious to
his surroundings. He bumped into someone who shoved him angrily. Harry overbalanced and stepped off the curb. Someone screamed.

A garbage truck loomed right in front of him, the driver leaning on the horn and shouting. Harry jumped out of the way, rolled across the street, and struck his head on a fireplug.
 



 

The bus pulled away from the curb like a drunk lunging for a bottle. Harry was thrown face-first into the lap of an enormous black woman who was occupying both aisle seats in her row and the aisle between them.

"Parmme," he mumbled, but she kept on eating chips and didn't say a word. Crumbs pattered on his back like the first acorns of fall. With considerable difficulty he levered himself to his feet and staggered into an empty seat two rows in front of her. He was breathing hard. Beside him was a small boy with a box beside him. The box looked like a brownie camera, but it was about two feet across. The boy smiled and went back to staring out the window.

Harry did the same, but the view was not very interesting: broken-down warehouses, boarded up businesses of uncertain origin, weedy lots that looked used-up. The air hung heavy, a thick pall of heat, smoke, and dust that Harry thought he could still taste and feel in his eyes even inside the air-conditioned bus. Harry looked down at the ticket in his hand; yes, he still had it. He looked out the window again.

“What’s in the box?” he asked the boy.

The boy took a bedraggled scrap of paper out of his pocket and held it up. Something was printed on it in wavering pencil but Harry couldn’t read it. He shook his head to show that he didn’t understand. The boy smiled and nodded as if to say “I’ll show you,” and pointed the box at the old man reading a magazine in the seat in front of him. The boy pressed the button. The old man vanished. Harry half stood up and looked over the seat back. The old man’s seat still held the imprint of his behind, but nothing else. He leaned way down and looked under the seat. All he saw was a magazine, face down and open, slowly spreading under the pull of gravity. He looked at the boy, who offered him the box. Harry looked through what would be the viewfinder on a camera. He saw the boy smiling at him. There was another small plastic window on the back of the camera, and he looked through that. He saw a grassy hillside. In the distance, someone was running. The running figure disappeared over the crest of the hill.

Harry handed the box back to the boy. “Movie in there?” The boy shook his head, set the camera back on his lap, and resumed looking out the window. Harry looked around the bus. No one was looking at him. No one seemed to have noticed when the old man disappeared.

Time passed. Harry rubbed the inside of his elbow. He looked out the window. The tumbledown warehouses had disappeared. The bus seemed to be traveling on an elevated track, and he could see the city spread out below. He didn’t recognize any landmarks, just saw row after row of roofs stretching off into the haze and heat shimmer. “Dullest trip I’ve ever been on,” he muttered, and closed his eyes.

When he awoke, Harry looked around and rubbed his eyes. It seemed like the bus was emptier. A bunch of people must have gotten off. The boy with the box was still sitting next to him though. He was looking at Harry.

"Are you going home?” Harry asked. The boy shook his head. “Me neither. Don’t really have a home to go to,” Harry went on. “Never did have much of one.” He stared out the window for a minute. “Could I look at your box again?” The boy handed it to him. He looked in the viewfinder, and then the other window. The grassy hillside was empty. No, there was a boy playing with his dog, two other figures running in the distance, and young girl doing cartwheels down the hill. As movies go it was pretty dull, but the kids seemed to be having fun. Harry pointed the box out the window, to see if the image got brighter. It didn’t, but just then the bus went over a bump. He lurched forward, and his finger pushed the button on the top of the box. Click. He lowered the box. The boy who’d been sitting next to him was gone. Harry looked around to see where the boy had gone, and noticed that the fat woman was gone too. How had she gotten past him without waking him? He didn’t see the boy anywhere. Harry looked into the box again. Now two boys were playing with the dog. One looked up and waved. He looked kind of familiar. Harry could almost see him smile, even though the image was very small. He put the box down and looked at the seat beside him. On it, the scrap of paper might have read “Heaven.” Harry put it in his pocket and moved over to the window seat.
 
 

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