Today, Lise Quintana and Frankie Metro explore “Boxing Day” by Austin Price, submitted to Kleft Jaw.
I’ve spent every night these last three months writing stories about people trapped in boxes.
And I mean in real boxes. I don’t write stories about white-collar jerks so caught up in the rat race that their $20,000-a-month luxury apartments with a view of the Manhattan skyline start to feel like boxes or anything about housewives crying themselves to sleep every night because they know the grubby kids, the schlubby husbands, the picket fence and the cocker spaniel are just the bottom, the top and the sides of some kinda Tupperware container. I don’t have a lotta patience for that kind of metaphorical stuff. I prefer to keep my work a little more literal.
One story may start with a bunch of punks chasing after some bony geezer who looked at them the wrong way, another might be about a woman just trying to get out of town – I’ve even got one about a family of astronauts trying to escape a space station’s about to explode – but one way or the other they all end with somebody getting shoved into a box. That old man’s gonna get thrown into a dumpster in some back alley and left for dead, that woman’ll find herself locked into a runaway and shuttered boxcar and the astronauts’ baby’s gonna get plopped into an escape pod. Sure, it ain’t the funnest way I can think to spend evenings. Writing’s lonely stuff. Even when I’ve got ten, fifteen, twenty characters on a page the reality is I’m just sitting by myself at a crappy fold-out table in my trailer, scribbling away. It’s nothing like the nights Mel and I would hop in the truck and go cruising ’round the backroads here with a beer in the cup-holder and a cigarette in hand while the stereo blared that stupid Garth Brooks tape she loved so loud we couldn’t even hear each other.
It’s not that I’m depressed. I didn’t start writing these stories because of some “issue” I got or because any shrink told me the best way to deal with my situation is to “express myself.” And it’s not like this whole box theme is part of some sick torture kink. I may be hard up since Mel left but if I’m looking to get off there’s lots easier ways to do it. There’s plenty’a hole-in-the-walls just crawling with bar flies a ten minute ride away. No, the boxes I write about are just boxes like the people I write about are just people. People who happen to get stuck in boxes because… because… Well, it changes from story to story. Like this one I finished up up just last night about this baseball player. He’s the bench warmer on a recreational team, a loser’s loser, and God if he ain’t just royally screwed the pooch. Got the whole team so mad at him they can’t even look his way without getting so mad they try and strangle him; the catcher, who gave him a ride there in the first place, is so pissed he up and leaves the guy at the field. And who’d blame him? You don’t get walked onto first with two outs, a man on third, the pinch hitter coming up to bat and then throw it away because you’ve got the bright idea to try and steal second. I doubt even a saint’d have the patience for that kinda bullshit! So there you go, Mr. Fuck Up’s out a ride and on his own, his cellphone’s dead – once a fuck up always a fuck up – and he’s left to drag his ass back across the six miles between the sports complex and his house in the middle of the night all while wearing a pair of cleats and his sweaty uniform. If that’s not a recipe for feeling like shit I don’t know what is.
He tries to brush it off – “It’s a recreational league,” he reminds himself – tries to keep his spirits up – “It’s not like we were gonna make it to the playoffs with a 2-10 record, anyway” – but all the logic in the world doesn’t change the fact he lost his team a game they shoulda won. And that there was no point trying to steal that base, that McIvens – that’s the pinch hitter – was gonna knock it out the park or die trying, that the only reason he tried to grab second at all was to make up for a steal he’d ruined last game and show once and for all that he wasn’t a fuck up. So there he is, trudging down the road, slumped under thirty pounds of guilt and self-loathing when this guy with a mean-streak comes racing up behind him in a Bronco. The driver recognizes that self-pitying slouch, the way people get when they’re down on themselves, and boy if it doesn’t stir up something in him he’s just gotta respond to. It’s not malice. ‘Least not completely. It’s more like “nature,” this something, like the way a dog gets all riled up when he sees a squirrel or a possum peeping in the window. Same way an old pointer will get to yapping, this guy just can’t help but flash his brights, honk his horn, swerve within inches of the poor dope and then drive away cackling while his spooked prey goes tumbling end over end into a ditch. You mighta guessed our favorite screw up’s a little rattled by this. The thought of another truck driving, dip spitting sack of shit laughing at him sets his skin crawling so bad he figures he’d rather take his chances hoofing it through a field meant for God knows what – it ain’t for cattle or cane or corn, he can tell that at a glance – and leading God knows where than get back on the road and risk running into more people. Only what our bench warmer doesn’t realize is that the whole reason this field’s not full of cows or crops is because it’s full of bunkers the military dug out here back in the 40s as part of training exercises for W-W-2.
Why ain’t it roped off? Why’d they forget to pave over or fill in the bunkers? Who knows. Who cares. That ain’t the point of the story. What matters is they didn’t and that our hero doesn’t know any of this and that it’s so dark that even staring at his feet he can’t make anything out. Which is why it comes as kind of a shock when suddenly his heels’re spinning over his head which is coming up hard against a concrete floor that’s very, very out of place in what seemed like just another field until seconds ago. For a second the guy doesn’t even realize there’s anything strange about where he’s landed. All he can think is that maybe he’s tripped in a gopher hole and broke his ankle like sometimes happens to cows. Or maybe the truck driver’s mean streak extends to physical assault. It’s only when he puts his hands down on the concrete floor that he realizes it wasn’t a smack on the head or anything a rodent dug that tripped him up but something a whole hell of a lot bigger And it’s only a few minutes after that, when his eyes have adjusted and he notices squirrel and gopher and rat bones scattered all over the floor and how the tunnels which should lead off are sealed, that he starts to get scared. He tries to jump up, to maybe get a grip on the lip of the hole, but it’s no good. He can’t even touch the ceiling. So he ties his cleats together and tries to catch them on a rock or a snag lining the edge of the pit but nothing doing: even when he finally DOES catch his laces on a hook of concrete he doesn’t have the strength to pull himself up. He tries to build a little mound out of all those bones but they’re so dry and brittle that the instant he steps on ‘em the whole thing turns to dust. Finally he starts screaming and sobbing and crying and throwing his shoes up and his shirt up outta the hole just hoping somebody’ll notice but it’s no use: he knows sure as anything that nobody’s coming near this field anytime soon, same way he knows it’s his fault his team lost.
Alright, yeah, so it’s a little unbelievable the whole thing with the bunker, and it takes just about forever before our guy gets there and maybe not too much happens after he arrives but it’s like I told you. I ain’t concerned with the fine print, all the little details that make it seem “real.” That ain’t what’s interesting. What is interesting is the characters, how they get stuck in their boxes. And I do mean “their”: every box is custom-made, no one-size-fits-all packages here. Like with the bench warmer and the bunker. It may sound a little contrived, I’ll give you that, but the bunker’s just perfect for him, the way he gets stuck in it because he was trying to avoid people the same way he lost the game because he was trying to prove something about himself, the way it’s just this forgotten mistake that shouldn’t be there and he’s this fuck up everybody’s gonna forget about if they haven’t already. Or if I’m dealing with a real meat head then the box’s gotta be tough enough that all the muscle in the world ain’t worth shit. Or if the lady getting thrown in there’s smart I gotta make sure it’s a box even Einstein couldn’t escape. But I never design the box before I design the character. At that point they may as well start off in the box, in which case I wouldn’t even have a story and where would the fun in that be?
Yeah, yeah, fun. I know what I said about it being lonely work but I’d be a liar if I acted like some tortured artist. Though that is kinda how it started. I’d come shooting home after a long day at work and an argument with Peter, my manager, that just about turned into a fight. He’d gotten in my face ’bout something that happened when I was chopping up beef for a customer, about a knick I’d made on my thumb, and about how the guy’d raised a huge stink about it and about how dumb I must be to fuck up like that after ten years butchering when I shot back it was my God damn thumb and so what if I cut it, that it wasn’t like I was sick with the AIDS or Ebola or anything, that maybe a cut was a big deal to him but that for me it wasn’t much worse than a mosquito bite. God damn if he didn’t hate that. Or maybe he loved it: it certainly gave him an excuse to chew me out in front of everyone over all the mistakes I’d made over the last couple of months. Like the rack of lamb I’d forgotten to put back in the meat locker – a whole two-hundred-fifty-dollars worth left out overnight to spoil. Or the week I’d forgotten to restock the disposable aprons and hadn’t washed any of my own so that I came in one morning looking like a fucking serial killer. “Jesus, Cody, do we need to get you a handler?” he screeched. “Because it’d cost about as much as leaving you on your own!”
Looking back I’m kinda glad he said that with the customers and half the staff listening because as humiliating as it was it stopped me swinging at him. It’s one thing to have your boss call you a child but to go ahead and prove ‘em right by throwing a tantrum? Hell if I was gonna give him the satisfaction. I just nodded and took it, spent the next three hours of my shift stewing ’till I’d get so mad I started fantasizing about chopping him up and selling him to Market Basket customers at two-fifty a pound and then the next minute getting to feel so stupid the only person I felt like hacking apart was myself. Because it’s not like he was wrong. It was a dumb come-back and a dumber mistake. Nothing too big – I’ve still got my job, thank God – but the smallness of it’s what makes it so terrible. Mel used to give me hell over the same kinda stuff, like whenever I accidentally picked up tomato paste instead of tomato sauce or whenever I forget to send off the electric bill on time. Little things, things that seems so dumb the fact you forgot about ‘em makes you feel even dumber, like how could you possible be expected to handle anything important when you can’t even remember to wear disposable gloves or cut away from instead’a towards yourself?
By the time I got home I’d been stewing on those thoughts so long I was just about ready to explode. I stomped inside and slammed the door hard enough the whole trailer shook and snatched my pack of emergency Reds off the top of the ‘fridge then threw it in the trash when I saw it was empty then spun around to the fridge and reached inside for a can of High Life just to find those all gone, too. Well, mostly: the sick-gold cardboard cube they came in was still there but empty, while sitting right next to it was a half finished can left over from the night before. Definitely flat, I knew, but I wasn’t feeling exactly patient enough to get back in the truck and drive on over to the 7-Eleven. So I downed it.
Let me tell you but if there’s nothing else to turn a man off of drinking for the next year it’s a throat full of flat High Life. Ya know how some people like to describe ‘Nattie or Coors or any cheap, watery beer as “horse piss”? They’re just being cute, don’t really mean it. I worked on a farm as a kid with a shitty older brother with a penchant for practical jokes, though, so when I tell you flat High Light tastes exactly like horse piss I mean it tastes exactly like horse piss. It was so disgusting I’da liked to vomit, so gross I really lost my temper for a second and smashed the can hard enough against the sink that it left a dent. For about a half-second I felt like I’d kinda gotten over my anger but then one of the suds from can exploded right up into my eye – shit felt just like a bee sting right in my socket – and sent me off on a tear. It was so unexpected that it probably seemed a lot more painful than it actually was but I don’t think it would have mattered much even if I’d known it was coming: I just needed an excuse to explode.
I flipped over the table, first, but it being a foldout piece of shit there wasn’t much satisfying about the clatter it made when it hit the floor. And there wasn’t nothing on it, neither, so I didn’t even get the satisfaction of sending shit flying. I knocked over the foldout chairs, which was only about as satisfying as throwing the table, then turned on the couch with a few kicks but man if that’s not the least rewarding feeling in the world. Maybe some couches are good for pounding, like the ones built with a hardwood or a metal frame, but all a big bean bag like ours does is soak up whatever you throw at it like some kinda giant sponge and Christ if that ain’t the least rewarding feeling in the world when you’re looking to just go off. When you’re pissed you wanna feel like you’re making something happen, you wanna feel like you’re actually there and causing some damage but with a couch like that the only real way to hurt the thing is to rip it open which just takes too much time. It’s too frustrating. You’ve really gotta work your hands and get a grip on the seam before you can start tearing it up and that stalls you and makes you feel weak at the exact moment you wanna feel strongest, which is probably why most people having a fit end up breaking all their glassware. Least that’s why I decided on breaking the lamp, then, you know the ugly glass peacock one Mel loved so much, why I yanked it outta the socket and just about chucked it at the wall. And I woulda, too, if only something about the way the thing looked hadn’t stopped me.
Maybe it was those googly eyes that looked like they’d been pulled out of a cartoon. Maybe it was the way the glassblower obviously didn’t spend much time on the beak so it looked more like the little nozzle butterflies got than anything I’ve ever seen on a peacock. Or maybe it was the back, how what were supposed to be the feathers all just clumped together in this weird blob of purple and green. Maybe it was all of these things. I don’t know. Somehow it just looked like something too innocent to kill, like I was about to throw the ugliest, dumbest baby in the world out the window. Something that wouldn’t shatter but would ‘stead make a wet crunch, like a balloon fulla water and bones busting open. I got so guilty thinking about it I just let the thing fall out of my hand and unto the couch.
All that shame didn’t do anything to calm me down, though. Fact is I felt even angrier for getting sentimental over something so idiotic. Worse than that I felt weak, so weak that now I just had to break something big, something that would make a whole fucking lot of noise. Lucky me I still had one of those gigantic CRTs, the ole’ boxy kind fulla glass you could really sink a kick into. You can bet I didn’t hold back for a second when I launched my boot at it and you can bet the sound it made when my foot shot through the screen was a crash like you never heard anywhere else. Maybe it didn’t sound any different than any other bit of shattering glass but right then it was like I’d just thrown a brick through one of those really fancy stained glass windows you see in pictures of the Vatican. It sounded big. It sounded significant. Like I’d kicked in whatever window it is God uses to keep an eye on us.
Now the problem with breaking something that feels that good is kinda the opposite of the problem with trying to break something you just can’t, only it’s… it’s the same, if that makes any sense. It’s like I was saying about the couch earlier. Kicking or punching it don’t feel like much at all and so all it’s gonna do is make you angrier, make you wanna break stuff just to prove you can. Go and smash something like glass, though, something that lets you know you wrecked it by shattering into a bajillion little pieces and you feel so good you’re even more excited about breaking things than before. The sound of that TV busting open was so damn good that I hadn’t even pulled my foot out before I started whipping my head around just looking for anything that could match it: the window above the sink, maybe, or the coffee table, or maybe that whole collection of whiskey and wine bottles Mel and I use’ta collect, the ones still sitting in that stupid rack on top of the cabinet. How great it’d all sound smashing against tree or against a rock. How fucking perfect it must feel to just chuck ‘em at the hardest damn thing and watch ‘em explode.
I was all set to run over and pull the whole pile of ‘em down right there when I found I could barely move my leg. Worse still it hurt like all hell when I so much as tugged on it. Seems it’d gotten snagged on the edges of the hole my foot had made so that with even the slightest movement the glass dug in deeper, slicing up what felt like they had to be my tendons. If I’d been on my ass I could have kicked it with the other leg but standing up in the middle of the room like that, at that weird angle, I couldn’t throw a punch or even lie back without overbalancing and crashing my head against the edge of the coffee table. Only thing I could do was scooch my ankle out slowly, slowly, inch by inch, until it came unsnagged, each little twist hurting so much I figured I was gonna spend the rest of my life a cripple.
And that wasn’t even the worst of it. Because the whole two hours I’m standing there, jerking around like some geriatric practicing his own weird little variation of The Twist, the one thing I’m really worried about is that maybe the ruckus I made when I kicked the TV was loud enough to bring over my concerned neighbors. That maybe Paul’s about to stop in to check on me, see how I’m holding up. That Peter’s got to feeling bad about our interaction earlier and he’s coming over for a friendly chat. Or that maybe Mel’s had a change of heart and has come back to make things right. That I’m gonna have to explain how the fuck I ended up like this without sounding insane. “Ah, sorry for all the noise, Mrs. Nelson, I was just having a kinda breakdown and thought I’d take out all my frustrations on the TV.” “Funny you should drop by, Pete: I was just thinking about ya!” Or best of all: “You’ll get a kick outta this one, Mel: I was just so pissed off ’bout everything – fucking up at the job, the taste of pissy beer, the suds in my eye, you walking out on me – that I just hauled off and wrecked the whole damn trailer.” It sounds nuts saying it now but fact is I’d never been so scared about anything else in my whole life. Wouldn’t that just be the perfect time for somebody to come in and see everything ugly and useless about me on display. Wouldn’t that just be my goddamn luck.
Two whole hours of standing like that and fretting’ll drain whatever piss and vinegar you got in you. By the time I finally pulled my foot out of there, all I really felt – all I think anyone could’a felt given the circumstances – was stupid. Stupid only the way a guy who gets his foot stuck in a TV can feel. So stupid I didn’t deserve to go out in public, so stupid I’d be better off hiding in my trailer forever. So stupid I didn’t even deserve to exist. Not that I was thinking about suicide, let’s get that out of the way. All that would do is leave a huge fucking mess – people still would’a been cleaning up after me, the police bothering my family and my neighbors – and prove Peter about how big a fuck up I was. Would prove Mel right for leaving.
No, all I wanted to do was just vanish so that nobody as much as remembered my name. Which was when I got this whole writing idea. Or at least that’s where it starts. See, I’d written a few stories back in high school, just some crap for extra credit in Ms. Richard’s English class, all of ‘em about this bad-ass super-criminal called “The Ghost” nobody could ever catch because he could just disappear. The police knew the crimes he committed had taken place because the stuff he stole was clearly missing or because he dropped a glass cutter at the crime scene but any trace of the guy himself was just gone. He was invisible to technology: fingerprints, security cameras, bank records, phone calls, nothing stuck. Invisible to people, too. Soon as you stopped talking to him you forgot who he was, second you weren’t looking at him you couldn’t describe him, couldn’t even remember he’d been there. This made it nearly impossible to come up with any challenges for him so the endings were always about the same – and believe me, Ms. Richards gave me hell for that; “we need development, Mr. Graves,” she’d write over and over again, on every story “otherwise we do not have a story” – but man if writing about this guy didn’t always make me feel cool, like I had some secret nobody else even knew about. Like I was a secret nobody else knew about.
Except when I went to write now it didn’t feel cool, it just felt kinda sad and weird, me sitting on my saggy ass couch next to this ugly ass peacock lamp in the middle of this wrecked trailer scribbling out some story about this guy so awesome nobody could ever catch him on an ugly fucking notepad with some crappy mechanical pencil I’d chewed down to the nub. The more I wrote the more ridiculous I felt and the more ridiculous I felt the more pissed off I got about the whole character until after an hour of this I just decided, fuck it, I was gonna kill him. Which is how I came up with this idea for boxes. See, it didn’t make a lot of sense to try and capture him between robberies, he was kinda designed to get around any of that, so the thing to do was catch him in the middle of one. And that’s when the whole “box” thing hit me. Hadn’t I just spent two whole hours stuck in a box? Wouldn’t have mattered if I was invisible or not; shit, I basically was invisible to the rest of the world and that didn’t change a thing. Get stuck in a box and you’re not getting out easy. Holding stuff is what it’s designed to do. Which meant all I had to do to take care of this super-thief was design a box of my own to catch him, and what box is more tempting to a thief than a giant vault? So I sat there tracing out everything this vault would do, how it’d have all these weight triggered locks and doors, stuff he couldn’t get around unless he actually was a ghost, how it would actually start shrinking when triggered until it was so tight you couldn’t even move, just all kinds of elaborate little tricks that meant there was no way this asshole was getting out. By the time he realizes something’s fucked it’s too late, the vault’s already squeezing down on him and all he can do is start panicking.
Oh, don’t give me that face. It ain’t as ugly as all that. These endings may sound a little gruesome but they ain’t graphic. I never “show” anything. Well, OK, at first I did, it didn’t seem like the stories could end without a really big finale, but after about three it just seemed kinda hateful. This isn’t any kind of weird revenge thing, no matter what you’re probably thinking. You can read any of the stories you want, I got about a hundred of ‘em here, and you won’t find a familiar face or name. It’s not about that. What it’s about is problem solving, specifically the problem of how to get Person A into Box B. That’s it. Past that there’s nothing. I’ve tried going farther but when you’re in a box you’re in a box, right? You’re stuck. The only place to go from there is out and I don’t believe in letting out what’s already been caught. Seems sadistic, somehow, like letting a rat out’a one of those new kinds of sticky traps only to chase him right into one of those old-fashioned kinds, the ones with the cheese and the bar that snap down on the neck. It’s the same reason I don’t revise. Same reason I’m keeping these stories private for now.
Somehow putting them out there and making the suffering of these characters public just doesn’t sit with me. I get that what I’m doing isn’t great, playing God with a buncha losers, but it’s different when it’s just me. It’s safe. The second I started pushing these stories out into the world the readers’d open up the boxes I’d so carefully designed and let all these people I’ve spent so much time rounding up back out into lives they just aren’t fit for anymore. Can you imagine somebody fishing the bench warmer out of his pit? Poor bastard’d be so traumatized he’d never be able to look at a person again, probably end up killing himself in a week. Or this other character I’ve got, this one guy who used to operate one of those machines at the junkyard – the kind crunches all the cars and pipes and other metal up into a big cube – before he fell into himself and a seagull he used to feed lands on the switch. He’d be a fucking cube the rest of eternity. No, better to leave ‘em where I left ‘em in the first place, safe from anybody too curious or better intentions than ideas. Certainly I know that’s what I’d ask somebody to do if they found me cooped up in a damn box. I’d just tape a little note to the outside saying, “Leave me like you found me.”
Frankie Metro’s first novella, The Professional Donor, celebrates its first year of publication August 31, 2017, and is available through Kleft Jaw Press and Amazon/Createspace.