The Northville Review
an online literary journal
House of Boxes

Timothy Raymond

I watched the man picking cardboard boxes out of the big dumpsters outside. The dumpsters were in the alleyway between my building and the businesses on the other side. The other tenants and I used those dumpsters for our trash. The businesses used them for theirs.

This was around the time when I spent whole afternoons looking through my windows. It was around the time that Mary left.

I watched one man throwing away a bunch of boxes. Then I watched a second man watching the first man from across the street. The second man waited for the first man to leave. After that, he shot for the boxes.

Wasn’t much else I could do. The guy getting the boxes walked like he had big blocks of ice under his feet, like he had harnessed some special kind of grace. He had a fancy air.

I had to talk to him.

I said, “Are you moving?”

He said, “What do you mean?”

I gestured toward the boxes.

“Oh, these,” he said. “No, I’m not moving.”

He didn’t go on.

“I have to know,” I said. “I saw you waiting. Please, what’s with the boxes?”

He looked at the building where I lived, then right back into me.

He said, “Do you want to come to my place?”

I thought about it.

“I want to come to your place,” I said.

His building was a couple blocks down the street. I felt like I should have recognized the man. I must have just missed him all that time.

The man, he had a wonderful walk. It seemed more glorious when I was walking next to him on the sidewalk. I couldn’t fully appreciate it by just watching him through a window. He might as well have been skating on that concrete. He didn’t have blocks of ice under his feet. His feet were just tiny, like part of him was still an infant.

We set down the boxes in his hallway. I wanted to crush him into the wall for the excitement I felt.

“Come in,” he said.

There wasn’t much in his place. It was a bigger apartment than mine. In the bedroom was a mattress without a frame, lying there without sheets. A small bookshelf was in the hallway between the bathroom and the bedroom. The books I didn’t recognize. Books with strange titles and unfamiliar language.

But really it was the living room! The living room that was empty except for an impressive collection of cardboard boxes. They lined the walls. A select few were scattered in the middle of the room.

All of the boxes were empty.

I went back out to the hallway and carried in the boxes we got from the dumpster. I threw them on the living room floor.

In a huff he came to me. In a huff and with short, gliding steps.

“No,” he said. “Leave those in the kitchen. I have an order arranged out here.”

I couldn’t help laughing.

“I’m serious,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “It just seemed like the boxes were scattered.”

“That’s what I mean,” he said.

“All right,” I said. “All right, all right.”

We relocated the boxes and walked back into the living room, moving like soldiers. There was a feeling that I had there that I don’t get often enough. The feeling like being underwater and hearing sounds from above the surface. The feeling of being deprived of your senses while at the same time having all of those senses heightened.

I was aware. I studied the man’s feet.

I said, “Tell me what you do here.”

And he said, “Is your life empty?”

“Maybe,” I said. “I guess right now it’s a little empty.”

“I said, is your life empty?”

I paused.

“Yeah,” I said finally. “Yes.”

“This is the empty space,” he said. “Good. There is the space and there is me, the one who collects space. Don’t ever worry about emptiness. We are all empty and even those who aren’t empty are only on a brief hiatus.”

I couldn’t help laughing again.

“I’m serious,” he said again. “Others agree.”

There was something about the way he repeated that word serious, like he wasn’t used to saying it.

“You’re right,” I said. “It just sounded funny, the way you said it.”

“Most true things do,” he said.

He led me by the shoulders to the corner of the living room.

“Here,” he said. “Now try standing in the emptiness of this box.”

I tried it.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“I feel empty,” I said.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “Let it come over you and make you feel special again. But not too special, because you’re insignificant too. We all are.”

I was too afraid to ask the man if I could get out of the box. I felt a little like I was too far underwater. What I didn’t know was how exactly I had ended up in a box like that. What I did know was that it was all I had.

I kept up with it.

He stepped away from me and closed his eyes. Then he made the slow motions of a man lost and happy and stupid.

I blurted out, “I want to be lost and happy.”

He straightened himself, looking fancy again, and looked into me.

“You’re sure?” he said. “Think about it.”

I thought about it.

“Lost and happy is what I want,” I said.

“I’m not sure that you’re ready,” he said. “Prove to me that you’re ready.”

I closed my eyes. I crossed my arms and lowered myself into the box. It was not a small box.

My offering. I lowered myself until I was half-sitting in that box and waited for his response.

“Very well,” he said. “Come on, then.”

He didn’t tell me that we were going to the lake. But that’s where we ended up. The water wasn’t even five blocks from our street. He didn’t talk the whole walk over about where we were going. The guy just walked like he knew he was going someplace special.

We brought one box with us, one of the boxes from the middle of the living room. It was not beach weather yet, so we were alone out there. We were next to the marina. It looked like a ghost town.

I could tell by the way the man walked a little faster that he wanted the beach that way.

“Stand by the water,” he said.

I did. He stood near me and looked at the sky. He spun a little too, like he was trying to screw himself deep down into the sand.

“Close your eyes,” he said. “Think long and hard about what you are. You’re nothing, I tell you. Think about being one with the emptiness of space and world and universe until you can only not-think. The not-thinking is what you want. You’ll not-think until you’re perfectly nothing and one with the nothing.”

“If that happens is it still nothing?” I said.

He said, “Don’t talk.”

He said, “Just be.”

I was confused but I think I got it. I said nothing with my eyes closed. I kept waiting for something. I tried to not-think. I heard a plane fly by with a sound like it had cracked open the sky. I waited for the stars to fall through.

He said, “Now open your eyes.”

My first sight was of him in the water looking pained. I stood there. I stood there even when he dipped the box in the lake and threw ice-cold water into my face.

It was cold, cold water. I didn’t want to disturb my nothingness though, so I stayed quiet.

I was wrong to do that.

“Let it out!” he said.

So I screamed. I let it out. I screamed and he kept throwing water on my body. After a few throws I started to really love it. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t think.

“The box will disintegrate to nothing!” he wailed.

I was willing to believe him, even though I thought he was wrong. I was cold, but ready.

“The box,” he said.

He stopped for a moment.

I said, “Give me more!”

And then he did.

So it went, the man dousing my shaking body with the cold and clear water. Eventually I fell onto the hard sand. I looked up to find the man lording over me with the box, the box dark with water. It was leaking, crumbling out its bottom. Splashes came one after the next, me choking for life. I screamed more and more until I was too hoarse to out anything but empty, breathless words.

I don’t remember when he stopped. Or when the box crumbled completely. What I remember is the sky going dark and me floating into the air, up through the surface of something grand, feeling like a baby that died before it knew what it was.

About the author

Timothy Raymond grew up in southeastern Wyoming. Currently he studies contemporary American literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he also teaches writing. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, The Owen Wister Review, The Battered Suitcase, Word Riot, Writers' Bloc, and others.