02. The Box

Mr. Dame pulled out his keys and stared briefly at the number on his first floor apartment: 101, just like the literature class his foster students would likely be skipping in college… if he could get them to successfully pass the test. Or was fired and replaced within a month by somebody who could. Apartment 001 was down below, 201 was up above, and 301 above that — but he hadn’t actually been properly introduced to any of his neighbors.

Mr. Dame used the last of his remaining willpower to not stagger as he entered his apartment. It felt wondrous to be gainfully employed, which is to say he was still wondering how it had actually happened. He also wondered how long it would last. A few months ago, his life was actively disintegrating as his wife left him for reasons she couldn’t bring herself to explain, though the credit card bills he’d gotten stuck with suggested that she was taking a lover or three and a hiatus from any sort of accountability. And then his career left him for being too focused on being dumped by his wife. But today the bizarre vicissitudes of fate made him a substitute for a woman who had, allegedly, done something rather similar to her husband. It wasn’t much of a career choice or direction but he found the ironic solidarity personally compelling, and that would make doing it again tomorrow a bit easier. And after a certain number of tomorrows, there would be a payday. And the payday would cover the rent on the apartment for a few weeks while he continued to substitute teaching literature for whatever it was he was actually supposed to be doing.

He didn’t really know. He had enjoyed history, but his previous position had been at a school full of “under-served” children — the preferred euphemism for a location where everybody’s poor and the school has no tax revenues to spend on getting its students up to par. Officially, he had taught history. Practically, however, had set down some semi-archaic jingoisms next to students who needed to be reassured that the despair their unemployed and possibly even homeless parents were feeling wasn’t as bad as it seemed, George Washington crossing the Delaware be damned and/or dammed. It wasn’t an easy job, and certainly wasn’t a well-paid one, but it had been an obvious enough career to pursue when choosing a college major. It had also seemed responsible, respectable, kind of noble — all those great adjectives that his ex apparently didn’t care for anymore.

The divorce recovery councilor had suggested he try writing poetry to express his feelings which hadn’t actually helped with the feelings at all. After his career collapsed and took the insurance covering his mental health care with it, he’d started mailing his writings off to magazines; any income from being published would be quite welcome — of which there was none. It was, however, the mention of writing poetry as a hobby on his resume that had probably landed him in his new long-term substitute position, he supposed. He hadn’t listed that he was only taking his therapist’s advice at the time. But Mr. Dame’s life was apparently getting back to working itself out.

Mr. Dame’s career, however, had quite a ways to go. He was still in teaching, but now he was a substitute in an unfamiliar field trying to educate almost a hundred and eighty students over the course of the day, each of whom would be writing him a whole lot of very-probably-wretched papers that he’d have to actually read and grade. He suspected that there would be a performance curve in the amount of time it took to grade the papers. The worst of the papers would bleed slow red ink from a legion of wounds inflicted on the language by tortured spellings and brutalized grammar. The most proper of the papers would be kind and gentle to the language, cover the expected key points and conclude in a forgettably sterile fashion. But the most creative of students would submit something awe-inspiringly awful: a freshly half-baked idea, blithely oblivious to the hundred-and-then-some other papers that needed to be graded. Mr. Dame was already afraid of what his AP class might turn in, worried that he’d have no choice but to strike the top of an essay with red ink, decapitating the abominable new argument for the sake of his time and sanity. Castigating the most ambitious young thinkers seemed like exactly the wrong thing for a teacher to do. But he knew the mathematics of teaching English were against him: every four-page paper he assigned would come back to him in a deluge of 720ish pages, all eager to be read and praised regardless of what they contained. Even just spending a minute vaguely proof-reading each page would add up to a solid twelve hours of weekend work — assuming his eyes didn’t glaze over with the numbing sameness of properly regurgitated teachings.

As he mulled over this, he realized that he wanted a cigarette. He reminded himself that he didn’t smoke and that he couldn’t afford to take up smoking, regardless of how much he did or didn’t care for his personal health. He decided he should thank himself for this when he was old and didn’t have lung cancer, though he expected that something more insidious like diabetes or a drunk driver would catch up to him in the meantime.

“MMMMRaaaarrRRR” the refrigerator hollered at him. He flicked his eyes hatefully towards it. It didn’t look particularly old, but it was consistently the noisiest thing the apartment, and its noises were nerve-wracking.

“Shut up,” he snapped at it.

It didn’t. It did, however, mask the specific noise of his upstairs neighbor getting home. But nothing could mask the noise of the giant Newfoundland dog joyfully greeting its feeder. Walls vibrated. The ceiling fan swayed. Mr. Dame shuddered, involuntarily cowering away from the distressingly infirm ceiling. The infant downstairs awoke and started crying fitfully, as infants woken from their naps by earthquakes often do. He muttered an incoherent curse, still astounded that anybody would keep such a beast in an upstairs apartment.

Realizing that he was still standing just inside his door, Mr. Dame shed his coat and shoes like an undersized carapace, dropped his bag, and — noting that he couldn’t make things worse by doing so — stomped off to the bathroom.

“gurrurgurrurgurrur,” the refrigerator continued when he returned. He scowled at it. Sounds of fake gunfire faintly came up through the carpet. The slightly older kid downstairs was probably playing Call of Warfare or something else wholly inappropriate for his age, to say nothing of being in particularly bad taste considering the ongoing foreign entanglements that real people were being traumatized and killed in. Mr. Dame scowled downwards for good measure. The enormous dog — or perhaps very confused pony, Mr. Dame supposed — ran around the upstairs apartment again, shaking the building. He scowled up at it, but didn’t bother raising his fist towards it or cursing its name. He didn’t know its name.

This couldn’t be right. He was home after his first successful day back on a job. It was his home, chosen without any consideration of anybody else’s needs but his — really the first home he could say that about, even if it was small and poorly-lit. And yet he was quickly becoming miserable. He stopped his mind for a moment. He envisioned a bubble of water surrounding him, dampening the noise of the dog, of the video game and the infant, of the refrigerator. The waves of sound would still get to him, but he imagined them muffled. He imagined the dog eating its dinner and falling asleep. He imagined his refrigerator determining that it was cold enough for now — which it did with a violent clank and shudder. He imagined that his downstairs neighbor yelled at her son to turn that damned thing down. No, that wasn’t his imagination; after a moment of whining protest it became inaudible. Now Mr. Dame felt at home.

He walked over to his bag and plucked the envelope that had been the total of the day’s mail out of it. It wasn’t particularly marked. He shrugged at it and peeled it open. Inside, there was a letter: “Dear Mr. Dame, We regret to inform you that your writing is unsuitable for publication. Sincerely, …” Mr. Dame winced at it, holding it at arm’s length and willing gravity to come take the detestable thing away. Gravity was not up to the the task: the hateful paper stuck to his freshly-washed still-damp fingers. Eventually he flicked the thing away. It drifted contemptuously to the floor.

“Ouch,” he said reproachfully to the simple spiteful rejection.

“Well you’re not exactly me, are you?” asked his mildly abused copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods from the coffee table.

“You’re not exactly you, either,” he replied, trying desperately to ignore that he was talking to a book. One of his previous co-workers had recommended it as a great piece of modern literature, so Mr. Dame had picked up a used paperback copy and quickly became unconvinced. He was stuck a third of the way into the book with nothing much going on, other than having his ex show up uninvited in his dreams whenever he read any of it. And yet it seemed wrong to just give up on the book, especially given his current vocation. But given that he never wanted to see his ex again, whether awake or asleep, the book was left in literary limbo to keep a lonely vigil over the coffee table.

Lonely. That was how he supposed he was supposed to feel in his apartment surrounded by neighbors he didn’t know and certainly didn’t like and thus would probably never know. Mr. Dame guessed that he was supposed to be missing his wife right about now, but he couldn’t figure out how. She wasn’t his wife, she was his ex by her choice — and also messily, also by her choice. He sat on the reassuringly beige carpet and tried to feel through what it was he wasn’t feeling. He could visualize a black void where his love for and commitment to his wife had been. Mr. Dame thought about himself reaching out and touching it. He believed the sensation to be odd, like finding that you don’t instantly freeze in a vacuum because there’s nothing to radiate the heat away from your body. Here, however, he wasn’t feeling lonely because he didn’t have a desire for love and commitment to be fulfilled. As far as Mr. Dame was concerned, he had fulfilled them much to his misery and wanted to ensure that no future relations got to the inevitably bitter betrayal at the end. He continued to sit while wondering if his therapist would have been pleased with this analysis, though had to accept that the therapist would have probably just given a non-committal “hrm.”

The therapy had been underwhelming. Everybody had said it was a good idea, but the therapist seemed little more than a self-help book which featured predominantly blank pages into which Mr. Dame dictated his woes, then rearranged and summarized what Mr. Dame had told him. There was a certain usefulness in having problems organized into a more-sensible fashion, but at the end of the day — or end of the months and months in the legal system — the problems needed something more than just to be organized, so when the insurance ran out Mr. Dame stopped seeing the therapist.

He rose from the carpet and meandered into the kitchen to microwave something that might qualify as “a dinner.” Mr. Dame wondered if he could reverse his feelings. If he tried feeling lonely enough, would his desire for loving and committed relationship come back? He wondered how to experiment with such feelings while he waited for the microwave to finish its job, then put the scaldingly-hot dinner on a plate and carried it to the living room, being careful to set it on the mildly abused copy of American Gods. He popped open his laptop and started an anonymous web browser to peruse a dating site. I’m not really looking, Mr. Dame mentally reassured himself, this is just an experiment. What he got was an obnoxious “Sign Up Now” box. He dismissed the box to reveal a plethora of women who categorically loved: life, laughing, honesty, children-if-applicable-or-pets-otherwise, family, sports, God, and camping. He read down the list of results between forkfuls of dinner, slowly at first but speeding up as the keywords started jumping out at him — and even faster when he stopped thinking of how to correct the atrocious grammar. By the third page of results, he suspected that at least a third of them didn’t honestly love honesty by comparing their photo to the age they claimed to be. And the pages kept on going, with each entry expressing a dreary same-ness in one of seven hairstyles.

Even so, it was a surprisingly long list of women.

He rested his gaze on the tepid and rubbery remains of his mostly-eaten dinner and wondered if he was feeling properly lonely yet.

“Sure you are!” his computer piped up, full of cheerful support. “You’re noncommittally thinking about asking the Internet for a date, only to find that not even the Internet has a good match for you. Nothing more lonely than that.”

Mr. Dame bit his lip glumly and looked away. “There’s just nobody here that sounds really relate-able. And even if there were, how are they supposed to relate back to me?” he admitted after a moment. “I’m not exactly even-keeled here, not quite on a career path, not going to be well-endowed with spare time… I’m just not sure that there’s enough of me to ask anybody else to relate to at the moment.”

“So what?” said his computer encouragingly. “You can still sign up! Lots of people don’t know who they are, what they’re doing, or where they’re going. They have relationships anyway.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m really not interested in,” Mr. Dame explained. “I spent too much concern trying to reach-and-teach those people’s offspring in my last job. I think I’d rather wait until I’ve got my life together before I try to find somebody to share it with,” he concluded.

“Have you considered,” mumbled American Gods from under the dinner plate, “that when you’ve got your life together, you may not want a partner? And even if you do want a partner, you’ll expect her to be as together as you are? And if you’re both so together, then you’ll have nothing to bring you together? Hrm?”

“Exactly! Exactly!” said the computer. “That’s why he has to sign up now while he’s still sad and lost and confused.”

“What? No!” Mr. Dame exclaimed, setting the computer aside and taking the inedible remains of his dinner back to the kitchen. “I really don’t want that at all.”

“Oh come off it,” said American Gods with an audible eye-roll, “the only real difference between adults and kids is that adults are more experienced at pretending they’re not making it all up as they go along. Be a real man: fake it with confidence.”

“No, you come off it — both of you. I don’t need this. I don’t want this. I’m going to get my shit together and then maybe later I’ll consider trying to find a nice lady who has her shit together in such a way that we can co-mingle our lives without getting shit all over each other, okay?”

The computer and book did not answer. Mr. Dame wandered into his bedroom to lay down, hoping that the neighbors would continue being quiet for a while longer.

In his dream, he went home — or rather to a house that he identified as his home. It was a tall and gangly townhouse, the type with more stairs than square feet of floor. He entered it and became acutely aware that even though this was his home, he was not alone in it. Cautiously he wound his way up the stairs to his attic bedroom. There was an enormous bulk of a man standing there, at least six feet tall and another six feet in circumference, dressed to burgle with impunity. Mr. Dame caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye: a small door leading off to an attic storage space was closed by somebody retreating into it.

“Um, hello,” he said to the huge man. “I do believe you’re in my home.”

“S’not yer home,” the bulk replied, his tongue stumbling from word to word. “S’ours. My brudda an’me. We won it. Inna raffle.”

“Oh really?” asked Mr. Dame, pleased that he hadn’t been crushed like a grape at this point in the conversation. “So, you and your brother” — he gestured slightly towards the attic door where, presumably, the brother had retreated — “entered a raffle and won a house around here?”

“Oh yeah,” said the bulk, shifting slightly to obscure Mr. Dame’s view of the attic door. “S’wasa big contest-thing. Lotsa entries. Me and me brudda both bought a ticket, to double our chances ya know?, and we won,” he concluded with a brightness occasionally achieved by the particularly dim.

“Well that’s fantastic luck for you!” Mr. Dame replied, trying to continue being non-provocative, “But out of curiosity, are you sure you won this house here? The block is totally full of houses just like it. I think the house two doors down was foreclosed on; it seems likely to me that you actually won that house rather than this one here.” Mr. Dame felt the sweat crawling out of his flesh and across his skin as he contradicted a creature with all of the sensibilities and sensitivities of a wrecking ball. “Is there any way you might double check on that? I’d be ever so grateful if you could.”

The behemoth thought about this — Mr. Dame recalled that some dinosaurs had a secondary brain in their butt — before carefully saying, “Yeah, sure, okay. We’s on the up-and-up here. Don’t want no misund’standings. I’ll go double-check the paperwork. Sh’wo be a shame if I thought we won the wrong house, ‘specially if the right house is jus’ all neighborly oer there.”

Mr. Dame flattened himself against the wall as the enormous man moved past and began clumping down the stairs, to the landing, around the corner. Mr. Dame exhaled deeply with relief, realizing that he’d been holding his breath for a while. He looked back to his empty bedroom with relief.

As he awoke, it occurred to him that the other guy was still hiding in the attic.