(Originally published in Projected Letters Literary Journal, 2004)
Shards of sunlight flickered off the car’s bumper as it disappeared over a rise in the road. Josh stared at the bright bursts of light and breathed deeply, winded from his run through the woods behind the shack where he lived. As though it had been hiding until the car left, the silence crept back from the woods, oozed from the wild grass and shrubbery pushing through cracks in the pavement where the two highways intersected.
Josh wondered who would be driving out this far from town so early in the morning. With the exception of a few hunters in the fall, burly old Ned Wilkins, the grocer from town, was the only person who ever drove out to the mill road when he dropped by twice a month. Gruff-spoken as he was, he was company–something Josh had little of since his father’s death–and Ned always brought a box of supplies: things like soap, cornmeal, salt, and Josh’s favorite, comic books. Josh could not read, but he enjoyed looking at the pictures of brightly costumed heroes and villains. The villains, he knew, were the ones who were zapped in the end because good always won out over evil. On Ned’s visits, Josh and Ned played checkers. Sometimes Ned let him win. But Ned had not dropped by in three weeks and Josh was running low on matches.
He walked across the weed-patched pavement of the station drive-in and stopped at the concrete stand where the gas pumps used to be. He glanced at the box and looked down the road. The dust had settled now, but a faint odor of exhaust fumes still lingered in the air. It was a rare smell these days, far from the days when Josh was young, when the mill was open and the mill workers streamed through the junction, stopping for gas from his father ‘s pumps. They were happy days, when his father, a big man with a round, red face, brought his sleepy-eyed customers in with a big smile and a good word and sent them off with a full tank and a friendly glow. Josh cleaned window shields while his father pumped gas. And no one ever made fun of Josh for not being too bright, mostly because everyone loved his father, Calvin Wright. They loved the boom of his laugh and the smile that never left his lips.
Then the mill closed. The woods had been stripped by budworms and fire. The stream of cars and trucks dwindled to a tickle and stopped altogether. But Calvin never lost his smile, even when he had to close down the pumps and travel to town for construction work or whatever else he could find. “Things will get better,” he used to say. “Things can only get better.”
One day, about two years after the mill closed, Josh’s father coughed up some blood. A month later, he was dead.
Ned had driven Josh to see his father in the hospital in town a few days before he died. Josh was scared at the sight of his father, withered and stark like a dead tree in a big hospital bed that had seemed as though it would swallow him up. Ned and Calvin exchanged a few words, almost whispering, and then Calvin asked if he could speak to Josh alone. His voice cracked, his breath coming in gasps. “You’ll be looking after yourself from now on, son, but Ned’s agreed to drop in from time to time. I wished it was different. You’re young yet, but strong.”
“You’re gonna be alright, Dad,” Josh said, but he knew from the hazy film over his father’s eyes that the life before him was nearly spent and ready to sink forever into the big hospital bed.
“Yes, I’ll be alright now, Josh, but I won’t be around to take care of you. I figure you can take care of yourself. You’re not smart the same way others are, but your heart is good. An’ what they got in schooling, you got in living your days in the woods, learning about living.” He broke into a violent fit of coughing and Josh’s blood froze. It didn’t seem that his father’s shriveled body could withstand the rack of the cough. Panicking, Josh cried: “I’ll get the doctor, Dad.”
“No, stay here. It’s gone now.” He wheezed a few times, his face gaunt but determined. Grabbing Josh’s arm with fleshless fingers, he said: “You might think my life is finished, but nothing’s ever finished, Josh, nothing.”
Even though his father’s hand was shrunken, Josh felt it tightening powerfully on his arm. “You got to start things with a mind to do ’em, but you can never finish. Like keeping with the box. It goes on. You try to finish up, but you never will. Never.”
Something deep and incomprehensible thrashed about in his father’s eyes. “Never.” The word was barely audible, the last thing Josh had heard his father say as he drifted into a deep sleep, his lips curling into a soft smile as though he had known something all along and found out he was right.
Fifteen years had passed since then and Josh had grown into a bulking and contented thirty-three-year-old man. Ned had offered to take him in and let him work in the store, but Josh had refused to leave the junction. The small shack, the woods and the quiet were his home. Fishing the streams, snaring rabbits and watching the clouds were his life.
And the box. The box tied it all together.
Gray and weather-beaten, the box perched on a post by the road. A tattered cardboard sign hung from the front like a piece of shredded skin with a few faded gray letters: D NAT ONS. It had been there since Josh could remember. He was never sure what it was for exactly, but he was vaguely aware that it had something to do with helping people, and that gave it an air of respectability in Josh’s eyes. He used to watch his father snap open the huge padlock with a skeleton key and remove coins and paper money, which he kept in a cotton bag under his bed. Once a week, a long black car pulled up at the station with silent, unsmiling men who took the money from the bag and drove away.
After the pumps closed, Josh’s father stopped going to the box each evening because there was never anything in it, and the black car had long since stopped coming. One day Calvin saw Josh eyeing the key on its hook by the door.
“Got eyes for that skel’ton key, Josh?” the trace of a smile lined his lips. Josh became flustered. He didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t the key that was important or all that interesting; it was the box. The key was part of the mysterious act of opening the box and helping others.
“Take the key, Josh, it’s yours.” Josh stared at his father. “And the box, too. They’re both yours.”
Ever since then, Josh had worn the key around his neck, tied to a ratty old shoelace. Each evening, like his father had done, he marched dutifully to the box, opened it ceremoniously, looked in and, finding nothing, locked the emptiness back inside.
Now, something moved inside Josh like the smell of gasoline fumes reaching deep into his memory. His hand moved to the key around his neck. His breathing slowed. He walked toward the box and began to hum. It was a low hum, a sound that rose, trailed off and rose again, and the pattern of the hum was the pattern of his life, and he seemed to flow more than walk to the box. Standing before it, he removed the key from his neck and placed it into the padlock, turning it slowly until the lock snapped open with a clunk. He removed the lock, lifted the lid and looked inside. Lying solemnly on the bottom was a shiny new nickel.
He stopped humming.
His first inclination was to drop the lid and leave the coin lying there like a riddle with no answer. He was not used to anything new touching his life. But the coin was there, real and demanding to be acknowledged. He picked it up gingerly and rolled it between his thumb and fingers, studying the relief picture of a beaver hunched on a log on one side and a picture of an expressionless woman on the other. He ignored the letters and numbers. The coin had a nice heft at the end of his fingertips. There was something enjoyable in the weight that seemed so big for an object so small. He was fascinated by the precise edges of the coin, the circularity that came back on itself so smoothly. The roundness pleased him. He closed the lid and locked the box.
Later, sitting on his stool by the wood stove, still gazing raptly at the nickel turning on his fingertips, Josh wondered what to do with it. The men in the black car had not been out to the junction in years, but Josh’s father had never kept any of the money in the box. Josh remembered a time when money was short and he suggested they use money from the box.
“Stealing’s not right,” Calvin said, his eyes icy. “‘Specially from folks that are needier than ourselves.”
“But it’s s’posed to help folks an’ we need help, Dad.” The reasoning seemed apparent to him.
“Then we’ll get our help elsewhere, son.” The ice in his eyes softened. “The money from the box belongs to others.”
Josh knew what he had to do. If the coin was not his to keep, and the box was his responsibility, then he must take the coin to the right people. But he had no idea who they were or where to find them.
An idea crossed his mind. Ned would know how to find them. All Josh had to do was go to town and find Ned. He hadn’t been to Ned’s store since his father’s funeral, but it hadn’t seemed like a long drive in Ned’s truck, and there were lots of streams and trees along the way. And maybe he could get some matches. And some comics.
It was still morning and he reasoned that if he started right away, he would be in town before dark. Humming again, he draped his jacket over one shoulder, left the shack unlocked, and started down the road toward town with big, purposeful steps.
The noon sun spilled invisible fire onto the weather-beaten pavement. Josh had been on the road for hours and his stride was beginning to totter. Walking to town no longer seemed like a good idea, especially without a jar of water. The streams and brooks he had seen as a child had dried up, leaving sun-scorched beds of rock and pebbles. He feet were sore and his head ached from the heat. Horseflies, attracted by the pungent odor of sweat, buzzed around him, zipping in to land stubbornly on his neck, his face and his clothing. He brushed them away, arms flopping back to his sides. And they came again. He no longer hummed, his throat too dry to sustain a note. Hot sweat drenched his clothing and stung his eyes, seeping acridly between his lips and into his mouth. He fantasized plunging into the wavering mirage on the road ahead until the mirage dissolved. Then he fantasized on the next one, and plodded on. The sky was cloudless; the air, windless. Nothing moved but the flies and Josh. He dared not look at the woods lining the road fifty feet from each shoulder. Though sparse and tinder-dry, they might tempt him with shelter from the sun and he would sink into a bed of crinkly leaves and stay there forever, shrouded in budworm webbing.
Josh’s thoughts traveled back to his childhood, back to a blustery winter night when the wind had pounded against the walls of the shack, making it tremble and creak. Inside, it was warm with heat from the wood stove reaching into every corner of the room, and Josh was comfortable and sleepy in his bed as he listened to his father and Ned talking quietly and playing checkers. He stared through the slots of the grill at the flames, and the smell of burning wood was sweetened as it mingled with the smoke from his father’s pipe.
Ned talked around his chewing tobacco: “Nope, Cal, I surely did not want to go over there and shoot up the Kaiser’s army. T’tell ya the truth, I was scared so that I pissed my pants the first time I heard shells boomin’ miles away, an’ we was headin’ for all that noise.”
“No shame in that, Ned,” his father said as he jumped two of Ned’s pieces and removed them from the board. “Fear’s a natural feeling. Keeps a man alive.”
“Right you are, Cal. But that’s not what bothered me so much at the time as wonderin’ what the hell I was doin’ headin’ for all that noise an’ not wantin’ any part of it. But we was all tired, worn down from a long march with full kit, an’ I kept walkin’ towards that boomin’, liftin’ one foot in front of th’ other an’ wonderin’ why.”
A gust of wind battered the far wall and the entire shack groaned.
“There was wounded men bein’ brung back all shot t’ hell,” he said with a distant look. “An’ I wondered if they had any idea why they was wounded, why they’d gone into that boomin’ to get themselves all shot up. An’ I thought about patr’ism an’ protectin’ folks back home, an’ lots of things, an ‘ before I knew it, we was smack in the middle of the boomin’, lookin’ over the tops of trenches at land that looked like it’d bin ripped an’ torn by some giant plow gone haywire.” Rolling the tobacco wad to the other side of his mouth, he added with finality. “Still don’t know what the hell I was doin’ there.”
Josh was beginning to wonder the same thing.
Now, he took the coin from his pants pocket and studied it closely. Turning it slowly between his thumb and two fingers, fascinated by the clean edges and the pleasurable heft. He flipped it a few inches into the air and caught it. He flipped it again, this time a few inches higher. Before long, he was flipping it several feet into the air and the heat and the flies were forgotten. He was humming again, his eyes transfixed by the flipping coin. He watched it tumbling through the air, throwing off sparkles of sunlight as it came spinning down into his palm. Soon, it was as though his mind were spinning with the coin, his being merged with the being of the coin, shooting up and tumbling down. Everything but the coin washed out of his vision, and then the coin disappeared in a flash of brilliant white. Nausea churned tightly in his stomach as he felt his body dropping, his mind still spinning and his ears filled with humming.
He was uncertain how long he’d been unconscious but, judging from the position of the sun, it was not long. He felt rubbery as he raised himself to his feet. He shook the dizziness from his head and stooped to pick up his jacket. As he did so, he saw the coin on the pavement a few feet away. Surprised and elated at the same time, he snatched it up, inspected it closely, apologetically, and put it back in his pocket.
Every exposed part of his body was bright red. He was getting hot and cold flashes, and his body tingled with the imminent danger of not finding water soon. He could not understand how he could have misjudged the distance to town by so much. Nothing was as he remembered it.
He draped his jacket over his head and continued walking.
The sun moved slowly across the sky and Josh was no longer walking a straight line. Several times his wobbly legs carried him onto the shoulder of the road and twice he had tripped and fallen down only to struggle back to his feet and continue walking. The road seemed endless; the town, unreachable. All that was real was the heat, his thirst and the steady shuffle of his boots across the burning pavement. Horseflies bit into unresponsive flesh. The temptation to drift in the scorched woods gnawed at his will, tied itself to his legs.
Then, on the road ahead, he saw the faint outline of a bridge. He quickened his pace and soon the faded green girders were distinct and promising against the blue sky.
He mustered his energy into a slow easy run and, even before he reached the bridge, he could smell the water, hear it crinkling through the woods. He arrived at the bridge breathless and stood by the steel railing, gazing jubilantly at the lively stream, silvery under the early evening sun. A path led from the edge of the railing down through bushes to the stream. He picked his way carefully down the steepest part of the path and then ran with a joyful bellow and belly-flopped fully dressed into the water. He splashed about wildly until his energy left him and then he just sank, neck deep, and savored the cool, life-restoring massage of water.
Half an hour later, propped on an elbow on a patch of grass, Josh finished his sixth raw frog leg. He licked his lips contentedly as a fly darted by collecting air. It was a pleasant spot with healthy trees and alder bushes. Uneven grass, dotted by large rocks left by years of spring high water, sloped gently down to a narrow, pebbly shoreline, and the air was sweet with the smell of water and plants. A crow cawed from the distance upstream. Josh cawed back to it.
A few beer cans littered the area, but these were heartening to Josh, a sign that he was close to town. That would come tomorrow though. Tonight, he would rest by the stream and tomorrow he would finish the trip into town to see Ned about the coin. Remembering the coin, he reached his hand into his pocket and clenched it around nothing.
Something thick and ugly curled inside his stomach.
His hands snapped to his other pockets, rummaging and throwing their small contents onto the ground. No coin. He scanned the ground around him. Nothing. The small shore area grew expansive with merciless glints and glitters from rocks and broken glass. The water sparkled mockingly under the lowering sun.
It would soon be dark.
The last time he could remember having the coin was on the road by the railing when he brushed his hand on his pocket and felt it there before he descended the path to the stream. He retraced his steps to the road and from the road back to the stream. Nothing.
He glanced at the sun. About twenty minutes of useful light. He put his boots back on and waded into the stream. Water ran swiftly around his pant legs, and Josh began to fear that the fast flow would wash the coin down to where the stream deepened. He crouched down close to the water, his gaze trying to penetrate glistening wavelets as his hands slid nimbly over rocks and pebbles. Long shadows of trees crept over the water towards him. Mosquitoes attacked him hungrily. He moved faster, lost his footing on a slippery rock and toppled into the water with a shallow splash. Cold shudders racked his body, but he ignored them as he propped himself onto his knees and stared at the endless flow of water rushing into the imperfect distance.
It was dark when he fumbled, cold and drenched, back to the shoreline. Water squished in his boots, weighing down his steps. He slumped on a patch of grass and tugged his boots off, poured the water from them, and thumped them on the grass a few times. His frustration mounted and he pounded his boots onto the ground, and pounded them again.
“Darn!” he cried.
And then he saw it, outlined faintly by the dim glow of moon and starlight. The coin. Rolling out of his right boot.
He dropped both boots and reached forward slowly, cautiously. His right hand closed around it. Blood throbbed in his forehead as he raised his hand, opened it, and saw the coin lying in his palm, the small heft so familiar. He closed his fist around it and felt a cool spread of elation throughout his body.
After a few minutes, he checked his pocket again. There was a small hole near the bottom where the coin had fallen through, and then had fallen down his leg and into his boot.
“I’ll sew you when I get back home,” he said. He walked wearily back to the tree where his coat was hanging, draped the coat around his neck and, after making sure the coin was still tucked safely in his left pocket, he sat with his back to the tree and fell into exhausted sleep.
The morning sun was still laced with night chill when Josh, muscles and joints aching, lumbered back to the road. His face was red and grizzled and his damp clothes sent chills through his body as he moved. But Josh was humming. The nickel was secure in his pocket and he was twirling the key on its shoelace in slow circles. The movement pleased him, the roundness of it. From the bridge, he looked down at the stream, sparkling in the morning sunlight. It occurred to him that he should retrieve a few empty beer cans and fill them with water for the remainder of the trip. But looking down the road, he could make out the scattered buildings of town about two miles away. He bellowed happily, almost dancing on the pavement and, twirling the key, he was soon passing the first small bungalows, their graveled driveways spilling onto the road where metal mailboxes leaned at odd angles.
The road turned just ahead of him, and Ned’s store, with its two big windows and white, balustrade porch, sat on the outside of the turn. Josh ran awkwardly to the gravel parking lot that fronted the big white building. He bounded up the three sagging steps and opened the screen door.
Behind a long, wooden counter laden with jars and display cases, he saw a weasel-faced man with a balding head stocking wall shelves with tin cans. The man turned his head inquiringly towards Josh as he approached the counter. Josh asked for Ned.
“What d’you want with Ned?” the man asked, looking up at Josh suspiciously.
“I–uh–” Josh had no idea how to explain. The box, the coin, the stream, the road all crowded his mind at once. He thrust out his fist. The weasel-faced man jerked back. Josh opened his sun-reddened hand slowly and the nickel gleamed coolly on his palm. “From the box–” he said with a deep, dull voice. “–the men from the charity.”
The man behind the counter relaxed slightly, but still looked uneasy. Leaning forward to look at the coin, he asked: “Charity? What chari–” He leaned farther, looking at Josh thoughtfully. “Aren’t you Calvin Wright’s boy? The one livin’ by himself out to the old junction?”
Josh nodded, feeling easier at the mention of his father’s name.
“Well, I’ll be,” said the man, pulling at his chin with a thumb and forefinger. “You look like hell. You all right?”
Josh nodded again and said that he was thirsty. The weasel-faced man smiled and took a bottle of orange pop from the cooler at the end of the counter. With a single movement, he opened it and handed it to Josh. “On the house,” he said, and watched silently as Josh downed the pop with a long, noisy guzzle. Josh handed the empty bottle back, burped, and thanked him.
“I guess you were thirsty,” said the man, staring at the bottle. “Now, what ‘s this ’bout a charity?”
“The box to the junction. I brung a donation. Is Ned here?”
The man puckered his lips and parted them with a muted pop. “No. I’m afraid not. Ned passed away last week. Heart attack, while he was unpackin ‘ a box of pickles, an’ was dead the next day. I’m his nephew, Ernie.”
Josh’s mouth opened slowly as he realized why Ned had not been out to see him.
“An’ if you mean the old donation box to the junction,” Ernie went on, “well, that charity ain’t around no more, not since the mill closed down. Hell, that money was for laid-up workers from the mill. Ain’t no laid-up mill workers without no mill. Why don’t you just pocket that nickel.”
Josh looked dumbly at the coin, now a strange enigmatic thing without purpose, lying in his hand.
“Say, now, just hold on a second,” said Ernie, pulling hard at his chin. “Seems to me there was somethin’ here for you. Out back. A box. Just a second now.” He rushed off to a door at the end of the counter and reappeared a few seconds later carrying a large cardboard box, which he placed on the counter in front of Josh. He tore off a strip of paper that was taped to the top and read it: “Josh Wright. I believe this is for you.”
It was the same size as the boxes that Ned had brought on his visits. Josh lifted one of the flaps and saw the glossy cover of a comic book. Inside, there were four more comics, a box of book matches, a bag of flour, cornmeal–all the things that Ned used to bring for him–placed tightly, carefully, in the box.
“I was gonna drive this out to you this week,” said Ernie. “Had no chance so far, with just takin’ over the store, gettin’ settled into things. Hope you didn’t need any of that stuff too urgent.” He thought a moment, and added: “Ned an’ your daddy were pretty close friends.”
“They was,” said Josh, shifting his eyes down the counter. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing at a clear plastic container with coins and a few bills in it. A small, black and white picture attached to the top showed two children who looked as though they were in pain.
“Oh, that’s a donation box for muscular dystrophy victims.”
“Sure, like the one out to the junction, sort of.”
Josh looked at the coin still tucked in his left hand. He picked it up with his right hand and dropped it into the slot of the plastic box. The nickel landed with a clink and settled in its place among the other coins.
“Say, Josh,” said Ernie, “things are usually pretty slow ’round here this time of day, an’ I wouldn’t mind a break from the store. How ’bout if I drive you home. It’s a long walk to the junction an’ it looks to be another scorcher today.”
Josh accepted the offer, and Ernie, untying his smock, said: “Fine. Let’s head out there right now.” He hung the smock on a nail and took two bottles of orange pop from the cooler. “These’ll take some of the bite out of the heat on our way there. You want to grab onto your box of goodies?”
As they pulled away from the store in Ernie’s green van, Josh fingered the key that hung from his neck. He was grateful for the ride home as he listened to Ernie talking about the store. He wondered if Ernie played checkers. But most of all, he was glad that he would be home soon to open the weathered old box by the road and gaze into its splendid emptiness.