The Man Who Built Boxes (excerpt)
This time it hit John Dodge on the morning of his forty-third birthday. He was heading into the giant hardware store that anchored the mall. It happened as he crossed the lot. Usually he didn't feel anything until he'd actually entered a store and the door closed behind him. He steadied himself by looking at one of the snow blowers lined up outside the entrance. He concentrated on the crank and gear assembly that rotated the chute. He liked gears. He liked how they meshed. He liked the physics of ratios. A larger gear turning a smaller one, the rate of the turn precisely linked to the diameter and the number of teeth. He counted the teeth, then took a couple of breaths. He steeled himself to go inside. He needed a miniature hinge for his latest project.
"Maybe you're agoraphobic," Sheila, the divorced waitress at the coffee shop, had observed when he started to tell her about these little moments. "It happens," she said, hijacking his story. "One day someone's just fine as can be and bam! They're filled with neuroses and phobias, can barely talk on the phone or step outside to pick up the paper and look for the cat." She finished their conversation with a confession that she'd been in successful therapy. Her testimony was suspect, however, when she also confessed that she quelled her panic each morning by circling her kitchen table six times before pouring her first cup of coffee.
It wasn't exactly panic John felt. It was more a sense of loss, a sense that he would never be happy. It wasn't unfamiliar. These little washes had come and gone most of his life. He remembered walking into another store in another mall during his doomed marriage. He was looking for a birthday present for his wife. As he entered a cheese emporium, he was slowed with a sadness that he'd forgotten something and would never quite remember what it was. That was almost ten years ago, months before he saw that marriage crumble under the weight of immaturity and discord.
The feeling was stronger today. He felt the energy draining from his body. He was standing by a display of toolboxes. They were familiar. Safe. Inviting. He reached out to touch one, hoping the cold steel would stop the deflation. He liked the red. He liked the silver and black edges of the drawer fronts. The handles. He reached out to try one. The smooth slide of the metal drawer. Ball bearings. A reassuring weight that spoke of quality construction and strength. He opened and closed several of the drawers, listening to the sound. Concentrating on the feel. Enjoying the slide.
"Can I help you?"
John looked up. A young lady with a lip piercing was standing above him wearing a Hinge World shirt and a name tag identifying her as Megan.
John nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Just looking."
"That's fine," Megan said. "Just want to make sure everything is okay. You've been sitting there a while."
John realized he was on the floor, cross-legged in front of the display. The tool boxes were stacked above him, a wall of red metal and dozens of drawers.
"How long?" he asked.
Megan the Clerk shrugged. "Maybe twenty minutes."
"Oh," said John. He took a deep breath and started to stand. Megan grabbed his hand and helped him up.
"You sure you're okay," she asked again. "Want some water or something?"
"I'm fine, thanks," John said. "Easy to lose track of the time, you know?"
"Yeah," said Megan. "Unless you're working extra hours because somebody didn't show for their shift."
John brushed off his jeans and smiled at the clerk. "I'm fine. Really."
"Okay," Megan said. "I'll be over in the tool section if you need anything."
John headed toward a sign that read, "Hinges." He found what he wanted, a pair of brass, half-inch, offset babies that could be used on the inside of a miniature door. He paid cash at the register and headed out to his truck. He drove home counting each of the traffic lights.
He pulled into his garage. It was a single bay off the kitchen of his little house. The garage was one of the things that appealed to him when he'd rented the place. It gave him a workspace. A wooden bench was set against the back wall, next to it a cabinetmaker's miter saw, and an antique, hand-operated drill press. The miter saw was a survivor of his divorce, something Stephanie had forgotten to put on her lawyer's inventory. The drill press was another story. It had belonged to his grandfather. Stephanie not only put it on the list, but fought bitterly for it. In the end, it had cost him his car and the payments on hers.
"Oh, you're home."
John turned toward the open kitchen door. Early the Bird, a colorful Amazon parrot, was on the sill. It bobbed its head, then said, "Did you remember the milk?"
Early had been Stephanie's pet. She'd bought it when John and she first married, then spent hours teaching it domestic phrases.
"Did you remember the milk?" the bird repeated.
"Yeah, yeah, I got the milk, I got the milk," John said.
"Good John, good John," Early said and flew clumsily to the edge of the workbench.
On the center of the bench was John's latest project—a mahogany box about the size of a loaf of bread. The seven sides were not parallel, and the resultant shape was a geometric study with elegant, rounded edges and invisible joints. John lifted off the smallest side and set the new hinges in place. He worked with the precision of a jeweler, inserting the tiny brass screws in holes he had measured and drilled. When he was finished, he opened and closed the panel. A flawless fit.
John ran his fingers along one of the edges. Perfectly smooth. Except for a tiny burr near a corner. He took a piece of sandpaper, removed the offense, then rotated the box looking for other imperfections. The kitchen phone rang: a shrill call that made him grimace and made Early pace.
"It's your mother," a voice proclaimed through the answering machine. "You haven't called me."
"It's only been two days, Ma," John yelled at the machine.
"It's the anniversary, you know," the voice said.
"How could I forget with you harping about it?"
"We should visit. Bring flowers."
"You can bake a nice cake."
"I've baked a nice cake."
"And I should call you ‘cause you'll be waiting."
"Call me. I'll be waiting."
"Hang up, Ma."
"Okay, I'm hanging up now."
She hung up. The answering machine beeped and reset.
"She's your mother not mine. Your mother not mine," Early the Bird chanted from his perch on the bench.
John took a swat at the parrot, but it jumped out of the way and flapped its way into the house.
John put the mahogany box in the center of the workbench and climbed the steps into his kitchen. It was a small room. Nineteen-fifties cabinetry. A lime green gas stove and refrigerator. Tiled counters. And 123 wooden boxes. They were everywhere—on the counters, above the cabinets, covering the table. Of the four chairs in the room, only one was empty.
The boxes were all sizes from a deck of cards to a case of beer, and all shapes from simple cubes and rectangles to uneven-sided forms that would challenge a mathematician. Some with parallel sides were stacked on one another. Others stood in crowded groupings like patrons in a bar. They were a mix of woods, the plainest made of finished ply, the more elegant crafted of exotic hardwoods and highly polished to reveal their complicated grains. The boxes spilled into the living room where another ninety-six covered the furniture and fought for space along the floor. Some of these were large. One was a dodecahedron with each of its twelve sides a perfect three-foot pentagon.
More boxes were in the hall and on the stairs that led to the second floor. A maple one matched the climb of the first four steps, a six-inch-wide series of rectangles joined at right angles that nestled perfectly against the risers and treads. In all, there were three hundred sixty three boxes. Three hundred sixty-five if you counted the one on John's workbench, and the single, large, unfinished one that sat in the middle of his bedroom.
"Wipe your feet if you're going upstairs," Early admonished. "Wipe your feet."
John sighed and said the one thing that would shut the bird up. "Yes, dear."
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