Moving Box by ChristianReese
Saving a Space
by Karen Schubert
The blueberry ginger muffins were still warm, so I’d left the basket uncovered. I was balancing it and a thermos of coffee with one hand, using the other to get around a box that was nearly wide and long as the entryway. I called halloooo! Lee came in with a handful of socks, dropped a shot glass into each one, and stuffed them into the enormous box between a bag of rice, a rag rug and a few couch pillows.
“Chicago,” he said, holding one glass up to the dim hall light. “This was my first shot glass. I was about seven. My parents took us to the Shedd Aquarium. I found this in the gift shop, and remember thinking it was the kind of glass a fish would drink out of.”
“There’s something about getting out all your stuff at once,” I said. I shifted dishes to make room on the counter for the muffins and poured us coffee. Stacks of cupboard contents teetered everywhere. I reached up to give him a hug. He looked exhausted.
“I could really use some help in the bedroom,” he said.
I screwed open the blinds and combed through my short hair with my fingers, scanning the mess: woven belts, purple rubber-toe trombone-player sneakers, Cleveland Indians cap. A bulky velour robe spilled out of an open suitcase. I paused over the bed, involuntarily thinking scene of the crime. A long time ago, a friend told me she had made her boyfriend get a new mattress when she moved in with him, because she didn’t want to make love on any mattress where there’d been another woman. Perfectly good mattress, I said out loud without meaning to.
“What?” called Lee from the other room.
I pulled the mattress toward me without answering, and shook out the scrunched up sheets and blankets, stacking them in loose folds. I wanted to clear the bed to make a staging area. Something was shoved down against the wall, and I heaved it out and gave a little yelp. Lee appeared. I held up a pillow, mottled and reeking of mold. Jesus God, he muttered, and we lowered it into a garbage bag. There was an earring on the floor below it and I slipped it into the bag and knotted the top. The wall was clammy and we banged open a window. He said he couldn’t believe how fast the place had gone to hell without Marla.
Pretty soon the rest of the band came clambering down the hall, Sonny followed by Fish, shaggy hair sticking out the bottom of his camouflage turban. The guys exchanged head butts, their greeting since we named ourselves the Escape Goats, back when we were kids playing in Sonny’s basement.
“Where’d you get these boxes, Lee?” Fish asked in his scratchy smoker’s voice. “We’ll never lift them.” Lee gestured next door with his chin.
“The funeral home?” asked Fish.
“Yeah. They’re casket boxes. Sure, we’ll lift them. I’m balancing each one, heavy and light.”
“That’s man-packing, right there,” said Fish.
Lee faked punched him. “I’m going to miss you guys.”
“Cry me a river,” said Sonny, shoving his hands in his pockets.
After I finished in the bedroom, I stepped out onto the balcony and watched them wrestle a taped coffin box onto the rental truck. They’d made the three tight turns on the wooden stairs, and down thunk thunk, and Sonny was rubbing his shin where he’d taken a hit. “The things we do for love,” he muttered.
“Don’t even start,” Fish said. “We’ve still got like five hundred books. You’re not thinking about putting books into these goddamn boxes, are you?”
“Nah,” said Lee. “I’ve got paper bags.” Fish and I exchanged looks, and he lifted the turban to rub his forehead.
It’s not like we don’t know life can change from one day to the next, but we always act so surprised. As I watched those three from the balcony, I longed for one of those nights we called Miracles of the Amazing Marla. At the last one, although we hadn’t known it was the last, she greeted us in her green cooking t-shirt, a pink headband clashing a bit with her reddish hair. She sent us to the living room where we talked and joked and waited, good smells coming out of the kitchen. She brought out a plate of stuffed dates, slices of crunchy fennel and a pitcher of vodka tonics. Fish was talking about the open mic he’d been to the night before with his harmonica, saying it was a lot harder to play on his own than it was with a whole backup. I said as his biggest fans, we’d have to come down. We never did.
Marla called us to the table. She was scooping steaming chicken and chorizo paella. We ate heaps, refilled our glasses with San Vicente Rioja, and then had fork wars over the little chorizos in the pan. We carried our heavy bellies into the living room and passed around a joint and talked some more.
Marla looked sad or something, distracted. I followed her into the kitchen with an armful of dishes, but she brushed off my question and redirected me to the living room. She had found a Mongolian film, and casted us as the characters. Marla and Lee were the mom and dad, shepherds living in a yurt on the steppes. Sonny, Fish and I were the kids. We read the subtitles out loud and laughed as our characters moved their lips in Mongolian. After awhile we paused it to fill up our glasses and eat platefuls of cake filled with homemade lemon curd and strawberries soaked in cognac. Fish said the filling was so good, it should have a better name than curd. I said it was probably a shortened version of custard, but he and Lee started making jokes about yurt curd. It didn’t take much.
We went out back and stood around the fire bowl. It was a chilly night, so we pulled in close and sang “Baby You Can Light My Fire” and “Fire” in Pointers Sisters voices. I had some drumsticks in the car and tapped out rhythms on Marla’s belt buckle, the rim of the fire bowl, a couple of wine glasses. We threw in pinecones and watched them flare. I wondered for the millionth time what fire is, anyway. Marla copied down the recipes for me. I have the Rioja bottle, too. Lee wanted to melt it in the fire bowl, but I kept it.
Later in the day, I left Lee and his boxes and went to work in my Lucy’s Caterers smock. Lucy and I were working a party at the dentist’s house. Marla had gotten a lot of food ideas from Lucy, and everything reminded me of Marla. The first time we’d met her was at a gig down at the Cedars. Lee was picking out love songs for us to play, which is fun for me–lots of harmony. Sometimes for the quiet ones, I leave the drum set and come out front with my brushes and snare. Sonny sings the lead to me. Fish is sweet on the harmonica. This night, after awhile, I realized I’d seen Lee talk to the same woman during the break a few times in a row. He was leaning toward her real close, and she was smiling and tracing the red ring around his mouth from the mouthpiece. She was tall, a lot taller than me, with all this hair, and I asked Sonny if he thought something was going on. He got a faux faraway look and answered, “Only fools rush in.”
I suppose we were a little protective at first, and who wouldn’t be? Lee had been through a lot after his dad died and then he’d had that wreck, swerving to miss a dog, which had died anyway, and for awhile we thought Lee would too. But he got better, god knows how, as blue as he was, and then he called me one night to say he wanted to play with the band again and over the phone we sang our signature “Mockingbird” duet, Hey everybody have you heard? And then Marla came along and pretty soon he was down on the dance floor with his trombone, raising and lowering that thing like he was some kind of dancing elephant, and she was our most loyal groupie and then she was our friend.
In the dentist’s kitchen, I wiped my hands on my smock, tipped back a few swallows of whiskey and resumed dousing dinner plates in hot, bubbly water. Soon I’d be taking around slices of cheesecake. The band was playing “Some Kind of Wonderful” on the back patio, lots of horns. I was singing along, tossing my head. “Hey, Eva,” said the dentist in his lusty voice.
“Hey, dentist,” I flirted back. “You’ve got your come hither look.”
“Just one dance, you vixen. Just one.”
I said I couldn’t leave my station, and he stayed there with me and dried a few dishes.
We sang along with the band, a few sultry blues numbers.
“I’ve gotta get back out there,” he said. “You still owe me a dance.”
He slapped my ass and I slapped his, as we always did, but my hands were wet and I left a handprint. I doubled over laughing watching him try to twist around to see. I’d been so heartbroken lately over Lee’s leaving, it was a relief to laugh.
Finally, the last of the chafing dishes was cooled and packed and I had a small bag of containers to take back to Lee. One light was on in his living room, now bare with that weird echo. I should have gone home to shower off the sweat and food, but it was late, and I was tired. My ears were still buzzing from the party. Lee was sitting against the wall on a piece of gray-green half rolled up carpet. I sat down next to him, and looked at how long his legs and feet were compared to mine. He had joked once that there was a foot between us. We were quiet for a long time.
I asked when his mom was expecting him. “Tomorrow night,” he said. He sighed. “Did you bring me food, Evie?”
I took out the container of beef. “Shit. I forgot to grab a fork.” He just sat there, so after awhile I picked up a piece of meat and held it up to his mouth. He took it, and closed his eyes, and then opened them and looked at me. I fed him another. We did that without speaking, and then I took out the cheesecake. It was soft and sticky, and I wiped his mouth with my thumb. He licked my fingers and then he kissed me. I was surprised, since he’d never done that. He held me for a long time, and then I remembered the wine in my car. It took a huge effort to get it. We passed it back and forth between us
“Thanks for dinner,” he said, leaning in. He put one hand in my hair and one around the back of my neck. “I always thought we had the same color gold-brown eyes. I got mine from my dad. In my family, there’s one brown-eyed person in each generation.”
We talked for awhile and then he started telling stories about Marla. He lay down with his head in my lap and told me what had happened that night. So stupid, he kept saying, he was so worried when she didn’t come home, and by the time she got there it was almost morning and he’d had a bunch of tequila. They’d argued, and she told him she’d been with a friend talking, and he didn’t entirely believe her, and he didn’t not believe her, really, you know. His voice was slurring and he started to cry a little. Then he swore and got up and went into the bathroom. When he came back I was nearly asleep and he lay down next to me and unrolled the rug a little more and laid himself really close to me but without touching.
I woke up sore from the seam of my jeans. I watched the street light for awhile. There was a manhole cover outside, and each time a car hit, it clanged twice. The UHaul was down on the street under the small balcony and I wondered who was going to help him unload all those casket boxes. His mom would be glad to have him there. She could use the help. At least it would be good for someone.
I dozed some more and had a strange dream, and when I woke suddenly, Lee was looking at me. After a few minutes he said, “My mom’s cancer has spread.”
“Oh god,” I said, my voice thick.
The plan had been that Marla would come with him, and they would all live in the house together, him, his mom and Marla, although now his mom would be going to hospice. His sister had been helping, but because of the morphine his mom was out of her head, getting up at night and walking right out the front door.
“Marla was getting scared,” he said.
“Of cancer?” I asked.
“No, of living up there, I mean, of being so tied down. She didn’t want to hurt my feelings, I guess, but when she acted weird I thought, well, I didn’t know. I thought she was maybe seeing someone.” He squeezed his eyes shut.
Outside, there was just enough dawn to make the streetlight flicker. Two distant birds were calling to each other, and I wondered why one didn’t just fly over. It seemed so simple. I couldn’t see either one in the foliage, but they called back and forth. They reminded me a little of the guys in the band, calling to each other, Lee’s trombone in sync with Sonny’s guitar, and I felt another punch of sadness.
Lee’s breath slowed and I turned over and he turned too, in his sleep, and I put my arm around him. My hands were sticky from the cheesecake and I had to pee but I stayed there. The birds got louder until it seemed like they were yelling. I must have fallen asleep too, because pretty soon we heard some pounding on the door and Lee and Sonny were calling up.
I poked my head out the balcony door.
“Somebody’s knocking on the door. Somebody’s ringing the bell,” said Sonny. “Do me a favor, open the door and let ‘em in.”
I laughed and shook my head. “You’re gonna run outta words, Sonny.”
“Stand by your man,” he said.
“Ok, Sonny, I’m standing.”
We went for breakfast, to Lee’s favorite place. The coffee was bad, worse than usual, and I thought it was a bad idea to be there, because we’d just be miserable about Marla being gone, and the bad coffee and fake maple syrup would remind us, and so would the pancakes, and so would every stupid thing. And now Lee was leaving, too. His phone rang. He looked at it and I saw that it was Marla, but he didn’t answer. Then it rang again. “My sister,” he sighed, and didn’t answer that one either.
After we finished eating and the waitress took our plates, no one said anything. Finally, Lee looked at Fish. “That your bodywork turban?”
“’64 Falcon.” Fish whistled. “It came in rough, but we’re half done and it’s beautiful.
“Ride, Sally, ride,” said Sonny.
“What?” said Fish, “That’s a Mustang.”
“A pink Cadillac,” said Sonny.
“Baby, you can drive my car,” said Lee.
“And Baby, I love you,” Sonny said. He hugged Lee. “Please come home if you change your mind,” Sonny added.
“Don’t know where we’re gonna find another horn player,” Fish said, taking off the turban for a closer hug.
It’s not that no one ever leaves Youngstown. Of course Lee’s mom and dad had, to be closer to his sister in Syracuse. Well, closer to the grandchildren. We had helped them pack, too, and labeled boxes, and went through a heap of Youngstown Vindicators. We took sections off the top of the stack, and anyone who got the obits honestly earned a quarter from Lee’s dad. The others he paid with a handful of dry-roasted peanuts.
“Don’t let anyone say you never worked for peanuts,” he told us.
Lee and I took a walk. The restaurant was on the corner of one of those old neighborhoods with the big trees and the mansions that no one can afford to live in anymore because all the people with money died or moved away. We watched our feet as we walked, stepping over cracks where massive roots had lifted the cement. He told me his sister wanted the house, his mom’s house. By the time she’d told him that, he’d already broken the lease in Youngstown and was half packed, and with Marla gone he didn’t really know what else to do.
I wished he’d ask me to go with him and I wished he’d say he’d stay, but it all felt strange and I didn’t really know if he wanted me to make wishes like that and so I didn’t say anything. His phone rang again but he didn’t take it out of his pocket.
I said, “I’m sorry everything’s a mess.” I was trying not to say the wrong thing. Who was it? – Lincoln? – who said that the hard part isn’t doing the right thing, it’s knowing what the right thing is. Lee pulled me into a hug, then his phone rang and he answered. He mostly listened, and said he was leaving shortly, and we headed back to the rental truck.
At first, we called each other on the phone. He was living in his mother’s house looking for something else, and then his sister and her family were going to move in. Marla came up a few times but she had taken a job in a bistro in Cleveland, and loved it, and the last time she went back, she stayed. Sonny and Fish tried to arrange a reunion tour. We were going to play in some local venues up there. We bought a set of Youngstown for Lee’s collection and made up a promo poster, but it was just never the right time. At some point Lee’s phone was disconnected, and my Christmas card to him came back. One night after a few glasses of wine I called his sister. She told me they’d argued and he had packed his car and left. Even before that he had taken to walking in the woods the whole day. Just walking.
We never got another trombone player. We wrote a song for Lee, and we sing it in the summer. I buy Rioja and we raise a toast.
“Here’s to Lee walking in here some day,” Fish says.
“To Lee,” we all say. What we really mean is, we wish we were whole again. We wish we had seen that moment when we would crack apart, and maybe if we’d held all our arms around it, we could have stopped it from happening.
Once a year or so, I dream he’s dead. I tell him, “It’s good to see you,” and he can’t answer, but he looks at me in a way I know he can hear me. Those dreams leave an all-day residue, like I got smoke in my clothes or something. I don’t know how someone can just disappear without being dead. I want to tell everyone I see, if you see Lee, tell him to call.