The Box by the Nightstand, #174

Its wood sides offered no protection
for whatever secrets were kept
beneath the lid, no lock
and no clasp, only the fear
created by its idols, carved
from the bark and the meat
of an old tree. For years
it sat by my father’s head
while he slept. At times,
covered in books or papers,
a glass of warm milk
or water perched on its top,
leaving a ring. For
as long as I remember
it was dusty and covered
and showed no hints
of ever being opened,
no fingerprints. Once
when I bucked up
the courage to ask
my father why he kept
the box, and what was inside,
asked if I could open it,
if, like a toy, I could play
with it. Was it something
important? He skirted
the answer, danced around
and said something about
souvenirs and long journeys.

Once, while my father was away
on business, somewhere
he promised to bring me back
a gift, I snuck into his room,
sat on top of the blankets
on his bed, rubbed my hand
over his dented pillow, turned
to look at my prey. I could
in this moment remove the lid,
no one was home, and know
what deep confidential matters
make a man quiet. I could
be a man. How old? Twelve,
thirteen. For moments I sat
and ran my hands along the grain,
allowed myself to take in
the smooth and grate
of the wood, the old tree
at one point carefully crafted
and since abused
and ignored. I imagined
great medals, badges, a card
giving entry to a secret
society, notes from an ex-lover
who somehow still held
the key to my father’s scowl,
even a bobble of something
indescribable, a sea shell
or foreign money.

Years later, with my father in a home
for old, forgetful men, in a place
we put him after a car accident,
between moments of lucid
dreaming and disorientation,
he asked about the box, asked
if I could bring it to him. So
on my next shift I show up
with it wrapped in a towel
and placed it next to
the sleeping form
of the behemoth of a man,
this old shell of a once sculpted
and long abused body. While
he struggled to lift the weight
of each day, to make sense of
the disparate images played
in front of the old cameras
of his eyes, he never confused
that soft wooden crate
for anything but itself. Once
while I assumed him sleeping
I ran my hands over the lid
and thought to lift it. His tired,
wrinkly fingers stretched out
on top of mine, patted them lightly
and lifted them from the carved
lacquered grains, and fell back asleep.

The market was like most any place
he had been, bustling is the word
used far too often to describe
such places, which have
too many people for the space
they occupy. This market
was no different. The crowded
aisles and endless vendor
shouting in broken English
at the sight of the uniform.
Try to keep your head down
and don’t make eye contact,
like rules in a firefight. He
walked up and down the rows
looking for something specific,
and came to a table
of necklaces and jewelry,
found a locket on a long
thin rope. Spent the next
hour haggling down a price
that would fit a GI’s
salary. The next day he mailed
it off with a note, knowing
she would never
wear it, but place it
in that infernal box kept
beside their bed. That old
wood coffin she loved
more than him, for some reason.

On his last day, my dying father asked me
to do him a favor. I hoped
it had something to do
with the box he had kept,
and kept from me my whole life,
and death does not disappoint. On
his deathbed, in one of his last
lucid moments my father slipped
the top off the box just long enough
to pull out a folded piece
of yellowing paper, old, lined,
mead, like we all learned
to make our cursive letters
on. In the half-second the top
was free from the box, I breathed
deep, trying to catch a wisp
of what scents might be hiding
inside. The page, unfolded,
was dated just after I left
for my first day in grade school,
dated in a more rounded hand
than my father’s, and asked
when I got married
to please give this box
to my bride, ask her to open it
away from me, in a quiet place
where there will be time
and no distractions to disturb
the moment. Love, Mom.

Now, that box sits by my bedside, still
unopened to my eyes, but my wife–
who on the day after our wedding
spent two hours alone
in a honeymoon suite
at Niagara Falls, who
opened the door to the room
to invite me in, and who
kissed me on the forehead
and reaffirmed how much
she truly loved me–
has seen everything. Now
and again I will broach
the subject and she
will simply laugh
and assure me nothing
I can say or do, no matter
how pathetic or angry
or how cute I try
to be, the box shall
serve the purposes
for which it was
intended. And I
am left to wonder
if my father, at any point
knew what he was holding,
after the passing of my mother.
If he kept it closed out of trust,
or if in a weak moment, he peeked.



A day is not done, until it's filled with words.

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