The Lonely Box
~ Manfred Gabriel
Loneliness lurked just beyond the workbench shop light, watching as Jeff sawed and glued and nailed. He was no carpenter, but he considered himself handy, having renovated most of his century-old home himself. Still, a box was different. The sides had to be accurately measured and cut, the lid fitted so that it would close properly, could keep anything sealed inside from getting out. The last thing Jeff wanted was for his loneliness to escape.
His phone played a selection of seventies rock to keep him company, Chicago, the Eagles, the Allman Brothers. Bands he’d listened to in high school, playing on the radio as he cruised with his buddies in his Dad’s lime green LTD, when he thought life would last forever and he was never, ever alone.
His friends were gone. Darren died of an aneurism at the age of forty-one. Greg lived nearby but was always busy with his new wife and a young son. Rick lived in Seattle and it had been years since they spoke. Now, the music, those memories, and working on the box were all that kept his loneliness at bay.
Finally complete, he inspected his work. The joints were tight, but the hinges took some adjustment to get it to seal. He opened and shut the lid a couple of times, flipped the latch. Not perfect, but good enough.
He took the box into the yard along with a spade. His loneliness followed at a distance, drawing nearer with each step, black against the night. Above him, the bedroom light was on, filtered through lace curtains. Janet was no doubt in her usual spot, on her side of the bed, pillows propping her up, the TV turned to some old rerun. She didn’t bother to ask him what he was doing in the garage that late, didn’t bother to talk to him much at all anymore. He could not say when they grew apart. It happened gradually, dinner by dinner, conversation by conversation, until, one day, he realized they were living separate lives.
The rest of the house was dark. Erik and Sonia’s rooms were almost the way they’d left them when they finally moved out on their own, one after the other. Sometimes, he found himself sitting on their beds, replaying conversations from their younger days in his head. They spoke now and then over the phone, but it wasn’t the same.
Jeff set the box on the patio table. If he had taken the time, he could have sanded it, maybe given it a coat of leftover varnish. It’s not like he didn’t have the time. Since his retirement, he had nothing but time. Raising his children, working his job, even renovating the house, had all given him purpose. Those days, how he longed to be able to rest. Now, he only wished the resting would stop.
The dog next door barked. His neighbor, Cliff or Clive, he could never remember, called the dog inside. He was a widower, had a telescope that he sometimes took out on clear nights. Other than that, Jeff knew little about the man. Over the years, they’d exchanged waves and hellos, but that was about it. There was a gate between the two houses. Who had built it and why, Jeff didn’t know. It seemed it had always been there. Perhaps, once, the people in these houses had been friends, even family. The gate hadn’t been used in a long time.
Jeff could feel loneliness at his back, still lurking, ready to envelope him. The idea of a box in which to keep it came to him as he was doing a long-delayed chore. He had the habit of saving the original packaging for anything he bought long after the item had broken or become obsolete and taken to recycling. Boxes for old toasters, TVs, mixers and computers cluttered a quarter of his basement. Janet had been nagging him to get rid of them, and he figured he might as well. He had nothing else to do.
As he whiled away an afternoon flattening all those boxes in a neat stack, he thought, I’ve kept all these boxes in case I needed to return the items kept in them. He no longer had these items. Yet, he had his loneliness, and it had to go back. Why shouldn’t it have a box as well? But not some piece of reused cardboard, no, that wouldn’t do. If it was to work, the box would have to be of his own making.
His loneliness crept onto his shoulders as he knew it would, as it always did when he was still, its emptiness a great weight that made it difficult to move. But move he did. He spun, snatching it before it could react, catching it unaware. It tingled in his hands as he shoved it into the box and shut the lid tight, latching it quickly so it wouldn’t escape.
In Janet’s garden, where tomatoes and squash and carrots were just beginning to sprout, he found a spot to bury the box. He dug deeper than he needed to and set a large rock on top it just for good measure. He refilled the hole and tamped the soil down with the back end of the spade before setting it aside.
He looked up. He used to be able to read the sky, when he was young and people still dreamed of reaching the moon. He could name each constellation, knew a planet from a star by how it failed to twinkle.
Jeff thought about his neighbor with his telescope. He went to the gate. It was covered in vines and the latch was almost rusted shut. He had to put all his weight into it to get it open.
The dog barked from inside. A light came on. His neighbor stepped onto the porch and asked who it was. Jeff answered, to the man, to the moonlight, to the shadow that was not there.
Manfred Gabriel’s short stories have appeared in over two dozen publications, most recently Liquid Imagination, James Gunn’s Ad Astra, and Crimson Streets. He lives and writes in Western Wisconsin, where he spends his days dealing with people and writes at night to keep his sanity.