The Toybox by James H. Duncan
Kirk opened the door and let it swing shut in the face of a young couple holding hands two paces behind him. They took his parking spot and appeared to be very much in love. Their massive SUV had two infant car seats in the back, both empty, and a bike rack hung from the rear bumper, taunting him. They both wore sunglasses perched up in their blonde hair, and he timed the door perfectly.
Little spiteful hatreds dotted Kirk’s mind, spaced apart by practical Zen meditations and self-righteous thoughts of peace, love, and spirituality. He never actually meditated anymore, the last time being 8 years prior when he was married, but the long periods of time he spent on the can reading books by the Dalai Llama while waiting for it to happen counted as meditation, at least to him. Little else came close these days, and they were beautiful little moments of liberation, spontaneous majesties. Stacks and stacks of Taoist texts, Beat novels, and Chinese poetry filled his bathroom, the only room that made much sense anymore.
Every table in the restaurant was full, though a few people were wrapping up, and he saw Lum standing in front of the eight-foot tall menu beside the ordering register. Kirk cringed on the inside while keeping an even keel on the outside, mentally critiquing Lum’s posture, haircut, clothing, and facial expression all within the first four seconds. He even assessed the manner in which Lum folded his arms daintily over his paunch, the paunch itself, and the thin, weak fingers clasping the opposing arm’s elbow just above the peak of the rolling bulge. They were delicate hands, petite, flaccid, as if the bones themselves were made of melting chewing gum. Kirk eyed Lum’s jowls and flabby earlobes as he walked down the aisle toward the menu. No detail escaped him, and each filled him with a growing awkward revulsion; revulsion because he couldn’t stand Lum, even though he loved him like a brother; awkward because Lum was one of the only friends Kirk had left in Saratoga Springs, mainly because he was his brother.
Kirk wasn’t sure if that said more about his ability to function in a socially acceptable manner or the town’s ability to supply applicable persons to befriend. Kirk leaned toward blaming the town: a collection of glad, obnoxious imbeciles hell-bent on downtown art festivals and Hallmark gift card shops. The only consolation for this was the fact that there were three bars for every block in downtown Saratoga, but since the same imbeciles cohabitated these bars, it was no consolation at all. Kirk detested imbeciles because Kirk was a genius, but only in certain aspects, like naming houseplants and executing small acts of passive-aggressive revenge. Other things eluded him. He knew this, but pretended he did not.
Pretending was another genius quality he possessed, and he knew this. Not lying, but pretending. He created new realities in his mind as he walked through real reality every day. Lying was detestable, and he hated himself whenever he lied, which was often. But he always admitted his lies almost immediately, mainly to himself much later, candidly and for all to hear in his own apartment. Lester the Bonzai Tree knew all of his lies, being the apartment’s designated therapist. Kirk also gave his houseplants jobs: no sense in sitting about doing nothing all day.
Kirk was unemployed again, and could hardly get himself to leave his apartment. Lum knew this and insisted on paying for dinner as they hugged, which Kirk expected and appreciated, and loathed.
“So don’t worry, get anything you like.”
“Jesus, that’s some menu.”
Lum nodded at the eight-foot tall menu. “I love this place, been coming here for years.”
“What’s good here?”
“I don’t know. They have a lot.”
Kirk did not roll his eyes. “Well, can you suggest anything?”
“I’ve only had the Super-Goop Burrito. It’s pretty good. It’s okay.”
Kirk strained to read the menu as Lum explained the menu to him, pausing on each entrée to relate what his coworkers have said about this meal or what reviews from a recent Google dining review search said about that meal. It all sounded the same, massive amounts of hot spicy glop rolled into a tortilla the size of a placemat. The young blonde couple and another family passed them as Lum explained the dessert menu. Kirk wanted a margarita but didn’t want Lum to have to pay too much, or else he might not pay again the next time they met. There was a careful balance to maintain.
“I’ll just get the Super-Goop Burrito,” Kirk decided.
“It’s pretty good.”
“Yeah, I heard it’s okay.”
Lum paused and blinked. “You heard that from me, right?”
Kirk did not sigh. “Yes.”
They stood behind the family and waited to order. Kirk reread the appetizer portion of the menu for lack of something to do, avoiding the process of thinking of something to say. Lum rolled on his heels and happily stared at the ceiling. Then they were next. Lum ordered his food, paused, and asked Kirk what he wanted, as if the thought just dawned on him that Kirk might want something to eat as well.
“I’m getting the exact same thing you’re having.”
“He’ll have the same thing,” Lum told the register girl as he nervously cupped his hands inside one another close to his chest, “the Super-Goop Burrito and a soda.”
Lum hiccupped, eyes wide. “Oh, never mind that then. One Super-Goop Burrito with a soda and one Super-Goop Burrito with a water. Oh, and I’d like a chili relleno, too.”
The cashier placed two identical cups on the counter. “You’re number 16.”
She was nominally attractive for upstate New York, but far too young to flirt with, even for Kirk’s questionably adolescent taste. Her nametag said ‘Becki’ in an obnoxious and festive multi-colored font. Kirk stared at the “i” and tried to use some sort of Tao-inspired, Dharma-powered force to change the “i” into a “y,” but gave up when Lum handed him a cup and walked away. Kirk lingered for a moment, his fingers gliding along the counter as he slid away in slow motion. She never turned to him as he thought she would.
“Bye,” she replied, disinterested, staring at her computerized register.
The dining area remained full, though more tables were empty compared to when he first walked in. Kirk smiled when he saw Lum fill his glass halfway with Diet Coke, then spurt a shot of root beer in the middle before filling the rest with Diet Coke. Kirk taught him that trick. “Tastes better than regular Coke with the same calories as Diet Coke…sort of.” Mixing Diet Coke and Coke was for chumps. Unfortunately, Lum always explained this trick to Kirk as if he had thought of it first, just as he did now. Kirk listened as he dumped three lemon slices into his cup, added half-a-packet of real sugar, no pink cancer crap, and filled it with the little water spout that doubled as the lemonade spout, which always weirded Kirk out, as he knew there would always be a tiny portion of lemonade mixed in with his lemon water. There is no avoiding such things.
As they walked across the room, Lum pointed to one table, then another, waiting for Kirk to choose. If Lum were alone, he would have sat down immediately in whatever booth he always sat in, but if anyone else is ever with him, he defers to them—anyone, anyone will do—and burns with indecision until they choose for him. This occurs in almost all situations: parking spots, theater seats, television stations, ice cream flavors, socks, and nothing made Kirk roil inside more than indecision, unless it was his own. But there was no indecision now. Three young women sat across from the first table Lum pointed toward, so Kirk nodded at that one and moved to set his drink down at the seat facing them just as Lum sat in the exact same spot, the spot facing the table of chatting, smiling, thin-legged young women. Kirk paused, and slowly eased around to sit facing the other way. He heard the women laughing at something he would never understand or know anything about as he scooched in his seat toward his own table. He wanted each of them in turn without even seeing their faces.
Lum’s eyed passed over Kirk’s shoulder, then shifted to meet Kirk’s stare. Lum lowered his voice and said,
“Love the view.”
Kirk sipped his water, tasting only lemonade, and looked over Lum’s left shoulder. An overweight couple sat at a table eating nachos. Of course, the overweight woman was the one who faced him, scratching her nose with her pinkie as she chewed open-mouthed on an orange-cheese-marinated nacho chip. Their eyes met, and he sensed her eyes lingering long after he looked away, reviling him. The blonde couple sat over Lum’s right shoulder. Of course, the man stared right back at him. Kirk did sigh, openly and audibly, thinking that there is no avoiding such things.
The women behind him laughed again and he ached to turn just a bit to watch their legs cross and uncross at the ankle underneath the table, as slender legs always do. But he did not. Lum did, and Kirk snapped his fingers, bringing Lum’s eyes back up.
“I’m not going to have to make you switch sides, am I?” Kirk teased, half-heartedly hoping Lum would say yes and stand up to move.
“A man can look, can’t he?”
“You’re not married, you know. You can do more than look.”
“Nah, I’m getting too old for that.”
“You’re not that old, just a few years more than me, but shit, if you don’t think you can, then maybe you can’t. It’s all mental, you know? It’s all up here,” Kirk said, tapping his forehead.
“Thanks,” Lum said, collapsing into himself and staring into his drink as he sipped it through a long, striped straw.
Kirk tasted guilt on his tongue and tried not to swallow. He hated deflating Lum’s pride, even while it made Kirk feel superior, which happened often, especially when he tried to make Lum feel better, so he rolled into the whole point of why they met for dinner rather than linger on Lum’s sagging love life.
“Before we get into why we’re here,” Kirk started, “you never told me how that date with the bank teller went.”
“The bank teller you were talking about last week nonstop. The one you met at the one party you’ve been to all year. That bank teller.”
“Oh…I didn’t go,” Lum said. “She wanted to go with friends,” he rolled his eyes, “and they wanted to go all the way downtown and pub crawl and eat in that Indian place.”
“You live five blocks from downtown. Why didn’t you go?”
“I didn’t want to deal with a bunch of people I didn’t know or the Indian food and all those hot spices and sauces and things I can’t pronounce.”
Kirk stopped mid-sip, then frowned. “You’ve never had Indian food, have you?”
Lum rattled the tips of his fingers along the top of his glass and scrunched his neck down into his shoulder in a half-shrug/half-defensive maneuver, like a turtle trying to suck himself inside his shell. Kirk’s brain tried to stab itself in exasperation, but he hid this fact well.
“You might like it. I’ve been there a few times and it’s not so bad.”
“I don’t like the spices.”
“How many nights a week do you come here?”
“To Poncho Joe’s?”
“Yes, Lum. How many nights on any given week?”
Shrugging, “Three…four sometimes.”
Kirk almost said, ‘For fuck’s sake!’ but the server came and placed two baskets on the table, each weighed down by pounds of Super-Goop spices and sauces and things they couldn’t pronounce. Like chili relleno. Do you roll the ‘double-L’ or say it like a ‘Y?’ There was no one to ask without looking like a dolt, something Kirk avoided at all costs, and Wikipedia had no answers for such things. He checked, frequently, in case someone else had the same question and added the answer to the Chili Relleno page. Then Kirk realized he hadn’t checked that page in a while. “Ah, shit, just eat,” he told himself.
The women behind Kirk laughed again and slid out from the table to leave. He smelled perfume, smelled it all the way down to his bones, to his knees, to his toes, and he inhaled silently to take in as much as he could. He felt the sway of one woman’s hair along his shoulder and neck as she eased out of her chair and put on her jacket. He damn near lost his mind.
“Desmond is dead,” Kirk said to distract himself from those long legs click-clacking away on the hard tile floor behind him. His brother looked up from his meal and chewed slowly, like a cow with hay, like a manatee with cabbage. “Dead…he’s really dead this time.”
“I know he’s dead,” Lum said. “We were both there.”
“I know you know. You didn’t let me finish…” Kirk’s eyes drifted to the overweight woman again, and he wished she’d just leave already. “I meant…God…can you believe he’s really dead?”
Kirk bit into his food to avoid talking and watched Lum watch him eat. Kirk swallowed and took another bite before Lum spoke up.
“You’re taking this hard, aren’t you?”
“Aren’t you?” Kirk snipped.
“Of course…it’s always hard losing a brother.”
“I don’t think he liked how you always brought that up. Nobody likes it.”
“I don’t see where the confusion is,” Kirk scowled. “He’s a half-brother, but everyone seems so uptight about it, like they’re afraid to say it. There’s nothing wrong with being a half-brother.”
“He’s family, so it doesn’t matter if he’s whole or a little. Family is family and you always take each other in with open arms.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“No, you’re saying the opposite.”
“Forget it,” Kirk relented. “That’s not important.”
But it was important, it did matter, and the importance of such semantics depends greatly on whether or not you like each other. Lum liked Desmond, and vice versa. They went to the same college, both architectural engineering majors, and worked in the same circles. Kirk did not like Desmond, and vice versa, though they were both geniuses at pretending they did, even pretending so well that the other was sometimes unsure if there was any hatred left between them. According to Lum and their mother, there wasn’t, but Kirk was never so sure and preferred to play his cards close to his chest. Even now with Desmond gone…he just wasn’t sure.
It was all because of the toybox, of course.
“I have to go with mom to the funeral hall tomorrow and pick things out,” Lum said. “I don’t know why I have to go.”
“He’s family, of course you have to go,” Kirk scolded. “If I have to call him a full-brother, you have to go pick his casket.”
“I hate choosing…I’m no good at it.”
Kirk did not agree right away, not wanting to deflate his brother even more. Kirk knew that Lum, out of anyone on the planet, was without a doubt the worst chooser of things, but saying so, even though it was the truth, was bad. He knew this, so he shut up. He would say it out loud later, so at least he had that going for him. But later was later, and right now things felt very wrong. Kirk wanted those women back behind him because the dining area was emptying out and getting too quiet. Quiet public places never felt right to him, especially with talk of funerals and death and widows.
“Is Laura going to be there?”
Lum nodded, swallowing. “I think so.”
“So why do you have to go? Let her pick. Or mom.”
“Mom wants one of his brothers there. She’s been asking and asking all day long, so I finally said yes.” Kirk looked up just as Lum’s eyes went wide, then darted away in shame, just as Kirk knew they would. “I’m sure she forgot to—”
“Oh bullshit, she didn’t forget.” Lum said nothing, as Kirk knew he wouldn’t. “Let me go then, if you don’t want to.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“What the fuck gives? You think he’s better than me or something?”
Lum scrunched his face and reeled back. “What does that mean?”
“Did Laura say she didn’t want me there?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Mom must have.”
“Mom didn’t think you’d want to go so she didn’t ask…but hey, if you want to go, then go. I don’t want to do all that choosing anyway. I don’t want to pick.”
“Good, I’ll go,” Kirk said. “It’ll be pine. You know, traditional. And a lacy, frilly pillow too. He was always a little bit of a fancy pants.”
Lum gasped. “How can you say that about him? He’s dead!”
“I know he’s dead. We were both there.”
“Don’t disparage the dead, Kirk!”
“I’m not! I’m respecting the dead. I’m picking out his casket, aren’t I?”
“What you just said is awful. It’s disrespectful.”
“It’s not as if he cares. If he cared that I called him a fancy pants, then that means he’s sentient enough that he can pick his own casket, but since he can’t pick, he’s not sentient, so he can’t care, and I can say any damn thing I want.”
Lum stared at him long enough for Kirk to take two bites of his burrito. “Jesus, you’re not taking this well, are you?”
“What time do I need to be there tomorrow?”
“Callaghan’s Funeral Home, the one on Circle—”
“I know where it is. What time?”
Kirk nodded and chewed off another bite of his burrito. As the beans squished about in his mouth, slopping down his throat with guacamole and habanera sauce, he thought of dead Desmond, and how much he wanted to see him dead ever since they were kids. He used to imagine the funeral as a child, as a teenager, as an adult, and he always felt guilty thinking of those things before, all that Irish Catholic guilt pounded into him over the years, working its magic. He waited for guilt to sink in after remembering that, but it didn’t. To say he felt nothing was untrue. To say he felt joy was even more untrue. What he did feel was evil and cold, and he didn’t like it, but that’s how it was, so he accepted it.
“The burritos are good,” Kirk mumbled, his mouth full.
“I told you. That’s why I come here. You should come with me more often.”
“I wonder why the hell they call this place Poncho Joe’s? Since when is Joe a Mexican name? I can’t think of one Mexican guy named Joe.”
“My boss is Joe Gutierrez.”
Kirk wiped off his mouth with a napkin and sighed, saying almost to himself, “Gutierrez is Dominican.”
“No, he’s a Mexican, from Monterrey.”
Kirk stared at the table and suddenly wondered what it must feel like to have your bodily functions shut down one by one in the moments before death, your sight, hearing, heartbeat, lungs…everything. He wanted to feel that and then come back and write about it, and though he thought about suicide more nights than not, he knew he was both too egotistical and too cowardly to ever try. He was too important. He had things to do…he just didn’t know what those things were.
The glimmer of red and blue lights flickered throughout the restaurant, and Kirk turned in time to see a police cruiser fly down the street. Kirk hated police lights, hated the sounds of the sirens worse. At night as a child, when the sirens would call from somewhere in the black distance, Kirk always imagined a criminal on the run. That criminal would inevitably find his way into their home, or maybe he already had, and he was hiding now, waiting to come out once the police were gone. The police would never find him, and the killer, should he ever reveal himself, would slay them all. Kirk would spend hours unlatching that thought from his stiffened mind. It wasn’t true. It just wasn’t true.
But Kirk made the mistake of telling his half-brother about his fear, and each time the sirens came, Desmond made a mocking mention of how the toybox at the end of Kirk’s bed was just big enough to hide a man. And it was. And it ravaged Kirk for many a sleepless night so badly that Kirk avoided the box during the day as well, even if it was open and empty, and it became such a point of terror in his nocturnal dreams that he secretly begged his mother to remove the box from his room. She, of course, found this silly.
“Does mom still have our old toybox in the attic?”
Lum swallowed. “Huh?”
“Our toybox, the chalkboard toybox we had in our room as kids. It’s still kicking around someplace, right?”
It took Lum a moment to go back in time…“Yeah, I think so.”
“I’m going to need that. Think you can go over there and get it for me?”
“I don’t know…why?”
Kirk wanted to say, “To burn it.” He wanted to say to bury Desmond in it. He’d likely never see it again, because he hated the attic and Lum would never take something from their mother’s house without a considerable amount of asking, and her inevitable reply would be, “That’s silly. Of course not.” Lum would be delighted by this answer, and he would return to his mental stasis. Kirk knew he would never see it. He knew it was a waste to try. Memories like that don’t go away with a match or a shovel full of dirt.
Kirk wiped his face and threw his napkin into his empty basket. “Lum, thank you for dinner.”
“Sure thing. Like I said, we’ll have to try to get out and do this again if we can sometime.”
“I’ll be at Mom’s tomorrow. I think Mom is cooking.”
Lum stood up. He wasn’t even halfway done with his burrito or chili relleno. “Are you going to be okay?”
Kirk nodded. “You call me any time if you’re feeling guilty or anything.”
“Guilty about what?”
Kirk thought about that. “Anything, I guess. I’ll see you.”
They hugged, and someone shut the door in Kirk’s face on the way out.
James H. Duncan is a New York native and the editor of Hobo Camp Review. Being a lifelong student of the road, you’ll find him picking up non-credit courses in local dive bars, all-night cafes, and train station platforms minding his own damn business. Plainsongs, Red Fez, Gutter Eloquence Magazine, Reed Magazine, and The Battered Suitcase, among others, have welcomed his work. Bird War Press released his fourth collection, Maybe a Bird Will Sing, in 2009.