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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
James L Carey
I am standing in the center of my apartment surrounded by a Stonehenge of brown cardboard boxes, some half-packed, taped, opened, then taped again as I searched for a phillips head screwdriver or a package of batteries. I have been living in the boxes for a while now. Months, really. It wasn’t that I had plans to move, I was just ready. And so I began to pack the boxes.
Everyone packs their belongings in the same order; the unimportant bits, the sentimental stuff that you drag along with you forever, but can’t quite let go of, then come the treasured items, the display pieces, followed by the everyday necessities, the shirts, toothpaste, coffee creamers.
I am at the everyday stage because I am actually moving. It took me a long time to decide on the destination. In the end it could have been Siberia, the Gulag, I was just ready for the next stage. Living here, in this mid-sized city in the middle of middle American, it’s like an old movie that you kind of like; the point between the many times you’ve watched it, when it still retains a pleasant familiarity and the point when you’ve watched it enough, forever. Well, I’ve watched this particular movie far too many times.
A Rubbermaid tote sits on a black Ikea chair that contains amongst other things: a plastic lei from a wedding reception, an old recipe book that someone else wrote in and the carefully packaged cremated remains of my mother, mislabeled on the box as “Maria” instead of “Marie” by someone who never thought the effect one wrong vowel might have for years to come. I snap the plastic lid on the tote while looking at something else and humming, a technique I’ve developed for distracting myself from dwelling on the contents within. I put the tote on top of another by the door and survey the battlefield.
I’m trying to size up what size truck I’m going to spend too much money to rent and think to myself how cheaper it might be to simply buy a beater van for occasions such as this when a young boy sits down on my Ikea chair.
He’s playing a Gameboy and utterly focused on it. His lower lip tucks up and over the upper lip. What might look like a caricature of concentration I recognize to be genuine. The brick-sized device is a dull gray and his skinny pink fingers stretch around it without touching each other. His small hands make the toy look even bigger to my eyes who have grown accustomed to the microchip and the gigabyte. I can hear the familiar Russian folk song, “Korobeiniki”, which means he’s playing Tetris. He always Tetris. Everything fits together in Tetris, like he wishes it did everywhere else. Like he wishes his parents still fit together before they decided their life together and the child they raised had been a sad reflection of the lives they truly yearned for and set to deconstructing that life.
I pull the bed sheets from the mattress and start to fold them. He doesn’t look up.
“What level?” I say.
“4”, he says without looking up.
“Ah, tough one,” I say while putting the sheets in an empty box.
He shrugs, but doesn’t take his eyes away from the screen, I hear the tap tap of the directional pad as he rotates his tetrominoes, the familiar shapes which give the game its name. His bulky brown hair flops over his forehead as he twitches his head in what is certainly an attempt to psychically influence the speed and direction of his game pieces. I know not to ask too much of him, especially when he’s like this. Best to just let him talk when he feels the urge. You can’t rush him. He might look like he doesn’t realize a whole world exists outside himself, but he’s watching everything, cataloging. You just can’t tell. He doesn’t do it with his eyes, he does it with all his senses put together and something outside of his body too, it’s kind of eerie. 3D pictures that get stored away for later use. They don’t get processed, just filed. I’ve seen him do it.
When he still doesn’t look up I go back to packing, time to start on the bathroom which is how you know when you’re getting close to the end. I open the medicine cabinet which rarely held any medicine and clear out the q-tips, the deodorant, a box of condoms from god knows when. I don’t look at the date.
I slide the door closed and a pair of sunken eyes, so dark brown they’re black under the fluorescent light looking at me from over my shoulder. Inside, my intestines twist in a mad panic and I suck in a sharp breath, but I don’t let my face show it. Instead, I make it seem like I only had a sniffle, something caught in my airway and wipe my nose with the back of my hand.
The man laughs. It’s short, like a shriek, and he looks too pleased with himself for a moment, then it’s gone.
“Yes?” I say while getting back to the business of packing up the bathroom.
His face broadens in a sickly smile showing the yellow stain on his lower front teeth that tells you he’s had too much coffee in his life and for every cup he’s smoked at least three cigarettes. He waves his hand dismissively and walks back down the hallway to the living room and flops backwards on the bare mattress which protests the moment and seems to try and buck him off. The boy doesn’t look up. Instead he plugs earbuds into the Gameboy, one side blue, one side red and turns the volume up with a slide of his left index finger. Practiced movement. He can smell conflict in the air like diesel exhaust and has developed his own brand of self-fortification.
I walk out of the bathroom with the box, tape it closed, put it on a stack and write on the side in all capitals, TOILETRIES as if I speak in military lingo.
The man on the bed, his hair sparse and combed over in places, harsh stubble protruding from loose skin, makes an airplane out of his hand and crashes it down from above him to the floor while whistling the familiar falling-bomb sound that every modern human being unfortunately knows implicitly.
“Help or move,” I glare down at him. “I’m throwing the mattress out. Enjoy it for the next ten minutes if you like, but it’s going in the dumpster.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he grumbles back to me. His voice is ashy and dry and he speaks with the intonation of a moody teenager which seems foreign coming out of his aged body.
“This is where it all goes wrong you know,” he says. “You can’t even see it. You’re as bad as the rest of them,” he says while wave his hand around, seemingly to indicate the rest of the world.
“You always say that. You’re always telling me this, it’s getting old.” I reply.
“I’m always telling you this because it’s true. You’re fucking blind, kid. Fucking blind.” He mumbles the last bit and pulls out a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lights it while still lying on his back. He takes a long, slow drag out of it like free diver just come up for air.
“Take that outside, I don’t like the smell,” I say.
“Pfft. NOW,” he spits back at me.
“Yes, now, whatever, outside.” I say while pointing to the door.
He finally gets up after a long moment in which I stare down at him and mocks my stance before walking out and slamming the door.
I look down at the boy, he has his earbuds in, but he can hear us, he can always hear everything. Even if he tries not to listen.
“You want a Pepsi?” I ask.
“It’s okay to say ‘yes’ if you want one, you know,” I say.
“Sure,” he replies.
“Close enough,” I say and smirk at him while ruffling up his thick hair. He doesn’t fight my hand and he doesn’t fix his hair. He just plays the game. Strange for a child. Purposeful indifference, trying to blend in with the room décor, trying not to exist. He learned it, he was taught it and even though it’s hard to keep up for long, he can make an Olympic event out of it.
I put the Pepsi on the floor next to him without an acknowledgment. When he wants a drink, he’ll know where it is.
The toilet flushes and the bathroom door opens. A well dressed man walks out of it, pulling up the zipper on expensive-looking jeans and points a finger gun at me when I look up.
“Click,” he grins at me. He makes me think of a lizard. His hair is perfectly styled, colored, waxed, combed. He has the same slightly receded hairline as I do, but he has the type of $100 haircut they do at upscale salons for delusional men who have the money to pay someone to tell them they have a full head of hair.
He starts riffling through the cabinets, looking for something to eat probably; he has a generous paunch for a man in his early 30’s, a grazer. He comes out with a pop-tart I didn’t even know was in there and leans smarmily while chowing down on his find.
“Not much to pack, eh?” he says through a mouthful and sneer.
“Just enough I would say, more than I need,” I reply with forced calm. He knows how to press my buttons and doesn’t waste any time doing so.
“I would’ve had somebody do this for me. There are people that do that you know. If you have this thing, what do you call it…oh right, money. Well if you have some, you can get these things taken care of,” he indicates the boxes with a hand that doesn’t seem connected to the wrist with a look on his face like he ate something that didn’t agree with him. That would be a first.
“Yeah, well, I don’t and it’s my stuff, I want to pack it,” I say and force myself to keep packing instead of playing his little game.
He sighs like he’s sees a wounded bird, something to be pitied.
“If only…,” he starts.
“If only what?” I say, a little bit louder than I had intended, almost as surprised as he is that I’ve let go of my cool for a second.
He grins widely, knowing I took the bait.
“If only you hadn’t fucked around, man. Finished school quicker, when you were supposed to. Paid those loans off before you started running up the bills. Seeing the world. Europe. Waste.” He shakes his head and looks around the apartment. “Could’ve had more time too,” he says before his eyes come to rest on the Rubbermaid tote in the corner.
I see where his eyes have stopped and my insides twist in a knot.
“If only, if only!” I spit. “You’re fucking name is ‘if only’.”
“I know that, stupid. That’s why I SAY IT.” He says, putting much emphasis on the last two words.
“Clever. Now do me a favor and just shut the hell up. You’re not helping.” I say.
“Not my specialty,” he replies and goes back into the kitchen where I hear the cabinets being searched again. “Maybe you could work at another dead-end job. Maybe a bookstore this time so you can convince yourself it’s in Education. The kind run by hippies and lesbians. You could talk about science fiction all day and be even more pathetic. You’d love that kind of thing.”
I shake my head and let out a long breath. I try not to let him get to me, but sometimes I just can’t ignore his comments. Even if I know they’re bullshit. I’m always listening.
“You shouldn’t go,” I hear.
The boy has finally glanced up from his game and he looks at me from those dark brown eyes that see everything.
“No one is going to want you. You’ll get in the way. We always get in the way,” he says and looks back down at his game, but isn’t hitting any buttons.
I kneel down next to him and put my hand on his shoulder.
“That’s not true. It’s not always like that, you know. Not everyone is like that.” I say looking into eyes that aren’t looking back into mine. “I want you to come with me. I wouldn’t leave you behind.”
He looks up at the man in the kitchen and asks, “him too?”
I shake my head, “NO. He’s staying here,” I say and the man in the kitchen snorts.
“Sound good?” I ask.
“Okay,” the boy says passively and shrugs. But the edge of his lip turns in a slight smile. I saw it. I pat his shoulder as I stand up.
I walk to the closet and get out a box, a special box, one of my own design. It looks like an ordinary box, but it isn’t. If you glance inside, you won’t see a bottom, only black emptiness and a dull orange light, far off and hazy, like a corner street lamp in a rainstorm.
“What’s that?” the man in the kitchen asks.
“Something special. Come and see,” I say.
“Like you have anything special,” he sneers, but can’t help himself, he has to look. He walks over and looks down into the box and sees the light. I see it reflected in his dark brown eyes which are mine and he can’t blink, he can’t move and he starts to stretch…
His head is pulled first, long and slow, salon haircut and all falls away into the box, then his soft belly and expensive jeans disappear into the black with the far away light. I quickly shut the flaps.
The boy looks up and smiles for the first time. The front door opens and the older man walks in, sullen-faced and defeated. He reeks of hopelessness. It smells like something has gone sour, but you can’t quite figure out where it is or what.
Before his cigarette aura can seep into the room I show him the box. When he’s fully inside I tape the lid closed. Then I tape it again. Just to be sure.
“I don’t want to be him,” the boy says.
“I know,” I say, because I do. “Alright. You’re next, but this one,” I say while indicating a separate box, one labeled, KID STUFF. He nods and gets into the box. When he’s settled comfortably I tape the box shut and put it on the stack. The truck should be here soon. Time to start on the closet.
I put the box with the orange light in it in the dumpster next to the mattress.
© James L Carey August 2011
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James L Carey
James L Carey