From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Things in the Box

He had enormous black leather boots, which he’d procured out of the Salvation Army box on Adelaide Street when no one was watching. He talked her into coming along one night. She did, but she worried, looking up and down the street, hoping no one she knew would see them.

He fished out a satin quilt, handmade, each vertical stripe a different shining hue. It was very well sewn and had only one tiny coffee stain. She refused it at first, for she knew what agreeing to take it home would mean. She could never again complain about the growing stack of stereo receivers, now on the sidewalk beside the box, in the morning due to arrive at the store belonging to his friend Grey who knew exactly where Fred got these things, and, like Fred, thought it perfectly acceptable. Fred was not his name. That was the anglicised version he chose. His real name no one could pronounce, let alone spell.

“The things in the Salvation Army box ought to go to the Salvation Army, where they’ll be sold to fund dinner programs for winos,” she said.

“I don’t care about those people.”

This was possibly more honest than she could stomach, even if it obviously reflected most people’s feelings about the old men.

“Fred!”

“What I took was a drop in the bucket.”

Objectively speaking, this was also true.

“It isn’t theft. The things in the box don’t belong to anyone, not really. They did once, and they will again, but not quite yet.”

The quilt would be warm. It was beautiful.

She dropped it off at the dry cleaner’s in the morning on the way to work, resenting him for being able to sleep in when they’d spent the entire night sitting in a speakeasy or making mad love or dashes back and forth from his room to the big red Salvation Army drop-off bin, staggering under the weight of tuners and amplifiers.

She’d been the work shirking travelling sort herself once, but more recently she’d been buckling down as a graphic designer. Her boss and his friends were smug sorts, driving around in leased BMW’s, talking on the phone all day. They were half brain dead from too much coke, but they had, for a little while at least, enough money to make sure no one noticed. No wonder she liked Fred. She was at heart a romantic idealistic sort.

#

It began late one afternoon in Grey’s store. All three were seated in comfortable Victorian parlour chairs, drinking tea from a flowered porcelain service, the price tag hanging from the teapot’s handle. Fred passed Grey a watch he’d procured from the Salvation Army box. It was a nineteenth century pocket watch, real silver and not plate. Grey passed it from one hand to the other, as if weighing it. He liked to touch the things he bought and sold. He named a price and Fred said it was too low.

She was grateful; the watch, it was suddenly obvious, was her soul. It was so obvious, in fact, that she wondered how she’d missed it up until now. Suddenly, and without prior notification, she also knew Grey was the devil. His face altered, seeming to reveal his true features which waited just beneath. The utter wickedness of these heretofore hidden features was, in fact, sickening. She stared, unable to remove her gaze, her heart pounding. Told herself her imagination was overheating in reaction to too many deadline filled days at work following sleepless nights at the speakeasy.

Just as quickly Grey was thankfully only Grey again, winking as if now they shared a secret of some magnitude. Why had he done that? She wished terribly that he hadn’t. Fred and Grey continued to bicker over the price of the watch. Name too low a price and she’d belong to the devil, which was, given the wickedness that had once again smirkingly revealed itself, quite an alarming thought. She looked at the watch, she looked at Grey, she looked at Fred, whose face, as she looked, rearranged itself into one of shocking, shining beauty. Was he God? Was he Jesus? What did that make her? Being a woman, it stood to reason she must be Mary, but if so, which one?

She continued to examine Jesus and the Devil’s faces, as well as the face of the watch itself, where the seconds sped by with terrifying rapidity. She hoped desperately that, on one or more of these faces, she might find a clue as to how the transaction might turn out, to which of these two men she’d belong.

What happened next surprised her.

Jesus was staring at her. “Get up,” he said, standing up himself.

When Jesus asks you to stand up, you stand. Relief flooded through her. Surely he’d won. She watched carefully. The devil had not given her soul back. Which meant he still had it.

“Give the watch back,” she said.

“Why?” the devil asked, a little too maliciously, she thought.

“He won.”

“Won what?”

Everyone knew Jesus had saved Mary Magdalene, the Mary she in all likelihood was. She opened her mouth, ready to explain, but Jesus took her by the elbow, tugged her, almost roughly, out the street door. He seemed angry. “I’ll come by tomorrow,” he told the devil meaningfully.

It wasn’t over, not at all. She sickened.

It was night and snowing outside.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“I was going to ask you that.”

“Why?”

“You were acting so strange in there, the look on your face.”

“I thought you were Jesus and Grey was the devil.” Telling Fred this, she had to admit it sounded a little ludicrous.

“You did?” He stared at her. “Seriously?”

“Yes.”

He seemed quite alarmed. They were crossing the street. She was glad he still had her elbow, because of the traffic. She didn’t have the judgement for traffic right now, she knew that.

“You’re crazy,” he said.

“I am?”

“If you really thought that,” he said, as if waiting for her to admit it was some kind of bizarre joke.

But it wasn’t, she didn’t. And now she was even more scared than she’d been before. If she’d really thought what she’d thought, seen what she’d seen, then she was crazy, exactly as Fred had said. She wasn’t sure just then of which she ought to be more terrified; the devil coming into permanent possession of her soul, or being schizophrenic. Which was a worse verdict? She knew that as a choice, it sucked. She watched Fred carefully. What if he, like the devil before him, had just resumed his human cover?

She thought of the loony bin, where she’d visited a friend in the past. It had been full of shufflers and mumblers, every one of them sad, decked on pharmaceuticals and madness. A lot of them had talked about Jesus and the Devil.

By sheer force of will, she made a third choice.

They were almost at her door. She opened it with a key. She could manage that.

They walked up the two flights of dirty stairs, Fred in the rear, as if afraid she’d make a run for it.

In her big front room, a combination of studio and living room, Fred closed the curtains against the streetlight’s glare, the whirling snow. He put on a record of old folk songs and went down the hall to make more tea. In his absence the song’s lyrics seemed momentous, portentous.

Oh, Jack was every inch a sailor,
Five and twenty years a whaler;
Jack was every inch a sailor,
He was born upon the bright blue sea.

Songs and stories with water in them scared her. The people in them often came to bad ends. She was afraid the song would turn out to be about someone she knew, possibly even her own drownable self.

Fred came back and took her by the arms. “Stop it,” he said.

She was able to.

He read aloud to her, from “The Big Mirror,” by Mohammed Mrabet.

This time it was she who asked him to stop. The Moroccan story was so creepy she was almost convinced it was about what was happening to the two of them. Blood and hair and mirrors. Of course. It was all so obvious.

“A drink might help,” she said.

“You have those seasick eyes again,” Fred said. “We’ll go to the speakeasy.”

“I can’t go out. And if you went, you’d be gone too long. Knock on Samantha’s door, downstairs. She always has scotch.”

“She’ll want to visit.”

“Tell her she can’t, I’ll explain later.”

He came back with half a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red.

They drank and listened to old records. Even the record player was from the box. Eventually they went to sleep. She went to work the next day. She worked hard and left early, took the streetcar back to their neighbourhood. Went to Fred’s room. He came downstairs; they walked the block back to her place, which was a whole apartment, and not just a mousy room above a hardware store. Around four in the afternoon it began again.

“We were taught that black was bad and white was good, but that isn’t the case,” he said, looking up from his reading which today was “Beyond Good and Evil,” by Jean-Paul Sartre.

What he said made so much sense it was enough to cause her to slip easily back across the divide. This time he wasn’t Jesus. This time there was a black place across the iron curtain where he was from.

Across the iron curtain there was a piece of glass
when Mary went to sit down
She hurt her little–
Ask me no more questions
I’ll tell you no more lies…

Mary again.

In a place where white shed light on black and black shed dark on light there were shadows that had a life of their own. They would detach themselves from their owners and float away and do whatever they wanted to do. Their owners would run after them and try to catch them and reattach them but it didn’t work. The shadows were too strong. They’d pull themselves away and run off laughing. You knew they were laughing because of the sound.

A world that was as dark again as black is to white. Can you imagine such a dark?

And from that world, only their laughter reached her. Or a white smile.

“I just want to sit with scissors and cut out the moon. I want to paint the moon, and I don’t mean painting a picture of it, but painting the actual moon the way you might a room. The moon is smiling. I want to glue the moon down,” she told Fred.

He nodded, smiling too. He approved of art, all it was capable of, both for the maker and the viewer. Brought her, alongside tea and scotch: paper, scissors, glue, the moon. This time she’d keep it to herself, not tell him she knew. She’d learn more by pretending not to notice. But she couldn’t help herself. After an hour of cutting and gluing, she broke their silence.

“Your country terrifies me because it has no name.”

Even in real life his passport said he was stateless. He’d explained why, once. She couldn’t quite remember, or he hadn’t told her the entire story. Maybe he’d done something bad in Europe.

He nodded and smiled, went back to his reading. Later he made an enormous pot of real goulash with mounds of sweet paprika.

Meat. Blood. Hair. Mirrors.

She ate it anyway.

Before they went to sleep under the astonishingly beautiful striped quilt he turned to her and said, “You will go to the black side two more times.”

She was shocked, but hopeful. Usually he pretended there was nothing strange going on, other than her being a little nuts. “I’m always afraid I won’t be able to get back,” she said.

“I’ve got white tickets.”

You got back from the black place to the white place with a white ticket. Of course.

“Why didn’t you give me a white ticket before? I could’ve used one at Grey’s store.”

“I made you leave with me. Once you were outside you knew who I was, who you were. What was that if not a white ticket?”

“Give me one now.”

“I’ll sell it to you,” he snickered.

She was angry because he loved her, or so he said. He should’ve given her a ticket, not sold it, because of that.

He reached under the covers and into the pocket of his shirt which he’d worn to bed because of the cold that swept through the single paned windows in defiance of the quilt.

“Will it be permanent?” she asked, watching his hand carefully, which she hoped would open to reveal her ticket back to sanity.

It was the silver watch.

“That is up to you,” he said firmly, giving and not selling it to her after all.

She felt ill, but she knew it was true. Make the third choice and only viable one, where all is real in its own way. Learn to step from one to the other, when it’s called for.

They went to sleep. In the morning she went to work at the design place. She tried hard not to fuck up, and she didn’t. Her boss took her out for lunch to a nice restaurant. He liked her, she knew, more than a little. He didn’t understand why she was with Fred. How could a deadbeat compare to sole meunière and goblets of white wine and free coke?

She hated coke, but her boss didn’t know that.

“He reads books from Black Sparrow Press,” she said. It was the best she could do. The rest of it would just get her incarcerated, she knew that now. Better not to tell. She was fine during the day, then when she got home it would start again, a little after Fred arrived.

When Jack grew up to be a man he went to the Labrador
He fished in Indian Harbour where his father fished before;
On his returning in the fog he met a heavy gale,
And Jack was swept into the sea and swallowed by a whale.

Perhaps that was her problem too.

Was Fred a whale?

The scissors and papers and glue helped. They gave her something to do with her hands while it was happening. So did the tea and the scotch and the old folk songs on vinyl and the goulash, which ran out after three days. Grey’s store wasn’t doing much business and so he wasn’t buying many of the things Fred found in the box, hence Fred was broke. He hated asking her for money; he knew she worked hard. Instead, he walked up to Kensington Market and came home with an entire flat of eggs for two dollars. The eggs had feathers and dirt on them.

“There’s nothing wrong with feathers and dirt,” he said a little contemptuously when she pointed this out. Probably his mother had kept chickens. Probably every egg of his childhood had been embellished by feathers and dirt. Probably to Fred, that was just the way eggs came.

Feathers to fly on, dirt to eat. Really, it was worthy of Mrabet.

They ate eggs every night for a week. Fred was good at eggs. He made them a lot of different ways.

Oh, the whale went straight for
Baffin Bay, ’bout ninety knots an hour,
And every time he’d blow a spray he’d send it in a shower;
Oh, now, says Jack unto himself, I must see what he’s about,
He caught the whale all by the tail and turned him inside out.

Indeed. Maybe it wasn’t Fred who was the whale, but she.

#

A month later it had finally stopped. Without it, she no longer found Fred interesting.

He wanted them to discuss the Bowleses and Jean-Paul Sartre in speakeasies at four in the morning, but she didn’t like the people he wanted them to be friends with; some of them used needles, which she didn’t like, whether or not they read literature. Fred even began remarking about her nondescript, comfortable wardrobe, asking her to wear short black things from the Salvation Army box instead. A black leather mini-coat and a white opera scarf. Not only did it seem a little obvious, the black and white part reminded her too much of the tickets.

He could tell she was bored. If it wasn’t going to work out he would leave, Fred said, for a trip around the world. She agreed this would be best. Still, she began to wonder whether maybe it had only happened to her, and not to him. Before he left she asked Fred and he sighed. “It’s better for you this way,” he said.

#

Fred called from Japan, three months later. She was still working at the graphic design company, but she’d enrolled in a night class in English at the university, where she could ace her assignments even in her sleep. She’d already read everything they wanted her to read, some of it twice.

Her life made more pragmatic sense but felt dull compared to how it had been with them. Sometimes, she had to admit, she wanted only to sit with those terrifying things he’d shown her and play with them forever. Paper. Glue. Scissors. String. Paint. Moons. Tickets to hell. White return tickets if she was lucky.

But he was right, it was better this way. Quieter.

“The only place worth falling is in love, and that at least we did do,” he said.

Briefly. Strangely.

She nodded, knowing he couldn’t hear that.

“What I remember is how our knees were always wet,” he said.

She thought.

Don’t forget the buckets. Awash in sea foam, sperm, kelp. Green and brown things, fecund, rotten. Smelling of salt and elopement. How we ran away together, you and I. We ran and we ran and we ran and we ran, buckets sloshing. There were little phosphorescent sea creatures in the buckets. As they sloshed. This is how we found our way. At the party they’d make fun of us, ask why our knees were wet. Or maybe they envied us.

“What are you doing?” she asked at last. She didn’t think he could hear her thoughts, or, if so, only a little.

“I have a young Japanese girlfriend. She’s from a wealthy family. Very spoiled. Next month I’ll go to Java. Also, I’m reading the most amazing books.”

Amazing books she was always interested in. “What?”

“Black Sparrow Press. I bought them all. The Big Mirror by Mohammed Mrabet. You have to read it.”

“But we read that to each other.”

“We did?”

Maybe it had happened to him too, just in a different way.

“Did you ever get a new passport?”

“No.”

Still stateless.

She knew she’d never hear from him again.

She still has letters and poems from him in a box. It’s not the original box, though, wherein she found the rainbowed quilt she still sleeps beneath.

Before he hung up, he said, “The things in the box don’t belong to anyone, not really. They did once, and they will again, but for a brief moment, they’re just there.”

And we found them. Of all the luck.

She keeps her soul on her wrist now, where it belongs. She is more careful of it than she was before she knew him.

Ursula Pflug is the author of the novel Green Music (Tesseract Books, 2002). She has short stories in or forthcoming in Nemonymous Seven: Zencore, edited by DF Lewis; Bandersnatch, edited by Sean Wallace and Paul Tremblay; Bamboo Ridge # 91; and Mapping the Beast: The Best of Leviathan and Album Zutique, edited by Jeff VanderMeer. She is also a produced playwright and arts journalist. Recipient of an Ontario Arts Council Works In Progress Award in 2005 to complete a new novel, Thin Wednesday, Pflug was short-listed for the K. M. Hunter Award the following year. She received a Canada Council grant in the current year for a novel-length flash fiction project, Motion Sickness. Her long awaited story collection After the Fires is forthcoming from Tightrope Books in 2008. 

For more about her and her work, see her website.

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