Box

by Kevin Keating

On the loading dock of the Burning River Brewery, Michael McSweeney paces back and forth, going round and round and round with the automated speed of a conveyor belt.  He sips coffee, tepid, tar-black, intensely bitter, from a paper cup and listens, as he does every Monday morning, to the fierce and impassioned voices of his fellow truck drivers while they wait for Cloggy Collins to emerge from the sweltering inferno of his small windowless office with a clipboard containing that day’s delivery routes.  The men, their faces pale and gaunt and somehow shriveled like old apples by the first stinging winds of autumn that come whipping off the lake, grumble about the impending winter imprisonment with their nagging wives, unappreciative stepchildren and disobedient dogs; dreaded months of sleet and snow when cabin fever sweeps through the city streets like an unchecked epidemic and drives them to do desperate things, despicable things.  They curse in English, in Spanish, in an oddly lyrical pidgin fused entirely from an amalgam of invented languages never heard outside the perimeter of these streets.  How the neighborhood has changed in recent years.

In a feeble attempt to ward off the sensation of doom, the drivers huddle around a rusty barrel and hold their hands above the dying embers.  They pull the collars of their coats close to their throats, smoke cigarettes, unleash a torrent of coughs, stomp their heavy black boots in time to the rhythmic scuff and scrape of forklifts against wooden pallets and the sharp percussion of robotic arms clanking against longneck bottles.  Then from out of this cacophonous canticle of machinery comes a booming voice that commands them all to “Shut it!”

The men crush out their cigarettes, and like soldiers in a defeated army they stand at attention.  Almost.  They fart and yawn and pick at their teeth.  They lack discipline, determination.  Mutiny is never beyond the realm of possibility.

Cloggy Collins stares them down.  He runs a tight ship.  Already chewing his first cigar of the day and perspiring profusely through his white collared shirt, Cloggy trundles across the loading dock, cradling what at first appears to be a large cardboard sarcophagus stuffed with human body parts–a jumble of arms and legs, elbows and knees.  Like the rest of the men, Cloggy coughs and hacks and drums his chest with a clenched fist, and then in a gesture meant to show his disgust and impatience with his sorry crew of drivers, he wipes the corners of his mouth with thumb and forefinger, flicking a pasty glob into the wind where it seems to freeze in midair before falling to earth and shattering like a delicate crystal of exceptional beauty.

“Here’s a little surprise, boys.”  He drops the box on the platform.  “New marketing strategy. The company is going to clean up with this ad campaign.”

With a wave of his hand and the word “Abracadabra!” he makes a life-sized cardboard cheerleader appear from out of the box.  At six feet tall she towers above these dwarfish men like some colossus of coitus, her long legs and smooth bronze thighs parted in a deliberately provocative pose, her tight tummy and delectable navel partially concealed by a pair of shimmering pompoms, her blue eyes burning with uninhibited and exuberant lust, her lascivious and dazzling smile encouraging all present to come hither and pay homage to her unique majesty.

The men whistle, ogle, adjust themselves with frostbitten fingers, they discuss obscure and vulgar sexual techniques, a Kama Sutra for the workingman–the Cleveland Steamer, the Tennessee Snow Plow, the Dirty Sanchez.  Even McSweeney, the most reserved of the bunch, can’t help but be mildly impressed by this clever decoy used to lure men by the thousands out of their recliners and into stores to purchase inordinate amounts of ale and to drink as much of it as their diseased livers will allow.  A cruel deception, yes, but one that doesn’t deter his cock–that vindictive prick!–from briefly nodding its otherwise somnolent head in the pathetic void of his trousers.

“Get these out pronto!” Cloggy shouts, handing the models to each of his drivers.  “Set ‘em up with every display.  Now move it, all of yous!  And don’t go feelin’ any of ‘em up.  We don’t want any damaged goods.”

But before distributing the lovely ladies, Cloggy slides his rough hands around a narrow waist and brushes his bristly, tobacco-speckled chin against the airbrushed cleavage.  His eyes grow bleary and distant, the lines in his face deepen and darken, and when he speaks it’s as though he’s in the midst of a trance.  “Now this is what every man dreams about at night, eh? This is what we deserve as men, as American men. Yessir, this is what it’s all finally about. What else is there? A winning team and a hot piece of ass to cheer on the players…”

McSweeney forces a smile.  Growing increasingly uncomfortable with Cloggy’s antics, he searches his pockets, finds his keys.  With a quick “Thank you, boss,” he takes his share of cardboard models, jumps from the dock, slogs through the leaves that pile up in the weedy lot, and as he starts his truck he winces at the gales of laughter that erupt from Cloggy’s lips.

-2-

The Jesuits have long been known as connoisseurs of beer, bested only by those Trappist monks who brew their own ales, and at the beginning of each week they request a delivery of stouts and lagers and fancy lambics from the local brewery.  Normally they are so delighted to see Michael McSweeney, their trusty deliveryman, and are so concerned for his safe passage through the streets of their once grand city (a is killer on the prowl, so the papers say) that they lay their hands on his head and say a quick prayer to Saint Fiacre–he’s the patron saint of cab drivers, true, but since the Vatican has yet to canonize a beer truck driver it’s the best they can do.  McSweeney is grateful for these humble petitions to heaven and knows that the priests alone have the power to shield him from the darkness all around.

After he unloads the kegs, rolls them one by one into the cellar and places them in a long row against the dripping limestone walls, he stands beside his truck, removes his cap and lowers his head.  He waits for five minutes, ten, but in all that time no one comes to greet him, not the priests, not their long-suffering housekeeper Ms. Higginson, not even one of their servile pupils destined for the seminary, but he knows the Jesuits are watching him, gazing past cloudy cataracts and through dirty classroom windows, and he can sense their displeasure.  Despite their silence they manage to send an unambiguous message–that he, a humble truck driver, will be held to account for the fate of the football team, for the fate of the entire school.  Much is expected of his son, the school’s star quarterback.  Though it’s only October, the team has already lost several crucial games, and playoff hopes are fading.  McSweeney has tried to reason with them, but the priests refuse to accept the fact that his son is perfectly capable of succeeding–or failing–on his own.

“Failure in children can always be traced back to the parents,” says the principal during Sunday’s homily.  He hurls the words the way an assassin hurls his glimmering daggers, they hit their mark, strike deep, and McSweeney, who lacks not only the courage but also the capacity to mount a reasonable defense, can only nod his head and endure the horrible barrage.  Though the Jesuits always preach kindness and tolerance, they are reluctant to welcome outsiders at the school, and clearly they despise the fact that someone so poor, so uneducated, so utterly incapable of managing a crisis can wield power of any kind over them.

As the homily continues, the congregants begin to sneak glances in his direction and then to openly stare.  The family sitting beside him ignores him entirely, and during the sign of peace they inch away as they would from an insect.  No one offers to shake his hand.  For the next twenty minutes he feels the antipathy of the congregation continue to build like the blistering heat inside a blast furnace until, after receiving communion and unable to withstand the pressure everyone has placed on him, he hurries through the double doors of the chapel and races down the street to the brewery where he sits alone at the bar and for the rest of the afternoon drinks himself into a stupor.

-3-

As he continues his route, Michael McSweeney must pass his house.  He shifts the truck into high gear, builds up speed, turns the radio up, but still he hears, or at least imagines he hears through the paper thin walls, his wife’s piercing voice, a sharp, high-pitched, nerve-rattling squawk carried aloft on the massive swells of early arctic air.  Her duty in life is to remind him of his utter ineptitude and to rattle off an endless list of repairs that need to be done–oil the hinges, tighten the faucets, sand and stain the hardwood floors, patch the cracks in the ceilings, clean the storm windows.  There is also the small matter of his tossing and turning in bed, his machinegun patter of farts, his thunderous snores.  Her complaints even reach him in the basement, his only refuge, where he spends his evenings on the sofa, watching television and smoking the reefer he manages to procure from one of his son’s friends.  In the basement he can at least pretend to be busy changing the filter on the furnace and setting mousetraps and sorting through boxes of nails and screws.  Usually this little pantomime is enough to appease his wife, though it doesn’t prevent the house from sliding ever further into a state of irreversible decrepitude.

Sooner or later something must change in his life.  He waits for this change with patience and also without any hope at all.  His problems are so profound that rather than try to solve them he finds it much easier to lock them all away where there is never any chance that he–or anyone else–will get at them.  But now there is no telling how crowded with secrets his soul has become.  Forty years is a long time to continually conceal your darkest desires.

-4-

After parking the truck behind the Select’n’Save, McSweeney unloads a dozen cases of beer and navigates his squeaky dolly through a maze of endless, perpendicular shelves.  On Aisle 69 he stacks the cases into a small ziggurat like the one he saw in his son’s history textbook, and then, recalling another image, he places a cardboard cheerleader on top of the winding terraces like one of those voluptuous temple prostitutes of ancient Babylon.  He then steps back to examine his handy work, a master builder with a flare for the ironic, but the farther away he gets the more troubled he becomes.  Something about the model keeps drawing him back.  His face goes flush, his lips form words of reverence and awe, and in a moment that seems ephemeral, almost hallucinatory, he lifts his hand and begins, cautiously, to massage the small tattoo on her right ankle and to stroke the faint outline of nipples hidden beneath her half top, and she in turn indicates her pleasure with an almost imperceptible flick of her blue and gold pompoms.

From the deli comes the sharp and sudden sound of mechanized death.  An old woman, squinting from behind the thick lenses of her horn-rimmed glasses, stops cranking a hand-powered meat grinder to observe McSweeney scuttling sideways, crab-like, toward the exit with the cardboard girl dangling under his arm.  The woman lets out a long, thin witch’s cackle that poisons the air with foul auguries.  Then she returns to her work, stuffing handfuls of raw meat deep inside the funnel and cranking the handle until the meat oozes out of the grinder gray and gristly on the stainless steel countertop.

“This one is damaged,” he tells her with a sheepish grin.

Although the rest of his route is a familiar one, to McSweeney it seems utterly alien and uncharted.  The convenient marts and liquor stores are suffused with a ghastly blue light, and the sales clerks stare at him with eyes that reflect their deep suspicion of thieving humanity.  As morning turns into afternoon and as the white lines in the road hypnotize him into mind-numbing oblivion he glances over at the last model propped up on the passenger seat, his trusty co-pilot, and like a nervous teenager reeling in virginity, he places his hand on her knee.  A sudden urge comes over him.  Briefly he considers pulling over to the berm, climbing into the back of the truck, latching the door, lowering his pants, pressing his aching manhood against her thigh, but he thinks better of this plan and waits instead for the day to be over.

-5-

That evening, as he opens the back door of his house, a sudden gust of wind sends a cyclone of leaves spinning briefly above his head like a macabre halo and into the kitchen where Maggie stands at the stove, stirring a pot of chili, the sleeves of her high school football jersey crusted over with tomato paste, her white slippers sprinkled with crumbs from an old box of stale soda crackers.

She gives him a perfunctory kiss on the cheek before saying, “Hey, McSweeney, close the damn door, would ya? I like my chili without leaves.”

He slams it shut, and this seems to get her going.

“So. Did you to stop at the hardware store like I asked?”

“Hardware store?”

She shakes her head back and forth, slowly, to make sure he registers her displeasure. “Jesus, McSweeney. I thought you said you were going to fix the furnace.  Remember, there’s some exposed wiring? Christ, if I left things up to you this place would burn to the ground.  Maybe I should ask Frank to do it.”  She turns her head toward the living room.  “Oh, Frank!”

“No, no. I’ll check it out right now,” he tells her.

“And close that basement door behind you. Smells like a wolf’s den down there.”

He does as he’s told and wonders if it’s part of the marriage contract, something in the fine print, wherein a woman has the option, if she so pleases, to put on a pair of slippers every night and treat her husband like a complete imbecile.  In the basement he pauses to listen.  Above his head the floorboards creak and groan like an old ship in heavy seas, and when he is sure that his wife has gone to some distant corner of the house, to the bathroom perhaps to sit on the toilet and read a magazine or to the living room to phone her sister, he unzips his heavy winter coat and removes the cardboard model that he has folded and cleverly concealed inside.  With great care he unfolds the model, tries to rub the creases away with the palms of his hand, then places it on the coffee table where for one frustrating hour he contemplates those heavenly breasts and ruby red lips, the long black hair and the small mole on her left cheek.  He marvels at her statuesque physique, her curvaceous wonderment, and vows to understand the inexplicable hold her beauty has on him.  In the end there seems to be only one solution to the enigma.  He lets his hand drift down to his pulsing erection.  A natural phenomenon that needs no further explanation.

-6-

That night, as they occupy their separate territories of the bed and watch the news on the new TV, a small gift from the head coach of the football team, Maggie rolls across the widening chasm that divides them and reaches for her husband beneath the sheets.  When he turns to face her he sees only her curls, bleached white and wiry, protruding from behind her ears and over the pillow.  Every now and then he catches the lingering scent of chili powder and spices.  Even the flannel nightgown he gave her last Christmas looks like a big, wrinkled sheet draped over a box–square, squat, rigidly geometric.  He worries about her weight, her health.  There is a long history of heart disease in her family, and he wonders how he’ll take to widowhood.

“Why don’t we try something kinky tonight?” she asks.

“Kinky. Is that what you said?”

“Maybe you could do something rough. Something really dirty.”

He squirms.  “Like what?”

“Spank me,” she says.  “Slap me. Hard.”

“For godsake, Maggie…”  McSweeney stammers, tries to think of a plausible excuse.  “Frank is in the next room. He’ll hear us.”

“Oh, he’s sound asleep by now.”

“No, he’s studying the playbook. He stays up all night long, strategizing, figuring out way to win Saturday’s big game.”

“Our son is no strategic mastermind, no Napoleon Bonaparte.”

“He’s just smart as any of the other boys at that school. Smarter probably. He has a real future.”

She rolls away from him and stares at the ceiling.  “I know, McSweeney. I’m a mess. I’m disgusting, fat. You hate me, don’t you? You can’t stand the sight of me anymore. The thought of making love to me turns your stomach…”

It’s not that he dislikes her, no, it’s just that she has ceased to be the woman who could make him howl with yearning and deep desire.  She’s a different person now, that’s all, and has turned finally and forever into some shapeless, fleshy hermaphrodite, a gentle, cooing, doting mother who treats him like a troubled child.  She can’t expect him to feel turned on just like that!  In twenty years of marriage she has never shown any interest in naughty games, experimentation, sin.  Like him, she’s a devout Catholic and shuns perversion.  But she goes on and on with her litany of complaints, and he tries to listen, to sympathize, to deny the terrible accusations she levels against him–“It isn’t natural, you know, for a man to neglect his wife…”–but her voice is soft and rhythmic as a lullaby, he can feel sleep overtaking him, it’s been a long day, and just as he’s about to drift off she nudges him in the ribs.

“Wake up! Look. It’s the new ad.”

He cracks open an eye.  A collage of nonsensical images flickers across the TV screen, continuous quick cuts of scantily clad girls and bare-chested boys, their bodies painted blue and gold, dancing, gyrating, limbs interlocking in the golden sunlight of an autumn day.  A football game.  The referee blows his whistle.  The players take their positions on the line of scrimmage.  Long silky legs come into focus.  The camera pans up to reveal a tall cheerleader–the cheerleader!–sauntering down the sideline, a gentle breeze sweeping through her dark hair.  She radiates sex with every improbable and exaggerated curve of her surgically altered body, and as she fondles with libidinous and curious fingers a longneck bottle of beer and pours a sparkling stream of ale into her eager mouth.  The quarterback, dumbfounded by her beauty, drops the football and is immediately crushed between two linebackers.  The crowd goes wild.

Beneath the sheets McSweeney’s legs tremble.  This cheerleader, while certainly no more attractive than a hundred other anonymous models who parade across the idiot box on a daily basis, nevertheless reminds him that he, like all men, is a prisoner of his pecker, condemned by a pitiless dictator, sentenced to a lifetime of captivity with little hope for parole.  In the spectral shadows and purple fog of TV light, he touches his wife’s plump, white breasts and, closing his eyes tight, dreams of the beautiful model, god how he dreams of her, and within minutes he is panting and thrusting his hips like he really means it.

-7-

Something comes over him.

After work one rainy night, Michael McSweeney scurries behind the brewery and crawls inside a cardboard box where he waits for over an hour for Cloggy Collins to lock up.  As the rain intensifies and pounds the sagging rooftop of his impromptu shelter, he sees the lights go out.  Cautiously, he emerges from his cocoon and, shivering in the wet and cold and fumbling with his keys, creeps toward the loading dock.  The world seems like a different place now, less predictable, more chaotic.  It occurs to him that Cloggy might still be inside, sitting at his desk in the dark, waiting for him with a cardboard woman perched on his lap.  He imagines Cloggy suddenly flicking on the office lights and saying to him with a smile that is both sanctimonious and sinister, “You sorry, sick fuck. There ain’t no work, not for crazy people, not for head cases, not for perverts!”  Cloggy chasing him around the pallets of beer; Cloggy brandishing a shovel, a tire iron, a gun.  Though the thought sickens him, he refuses to dwell on the possibility of getting caught.  His mission is clear.  He must rescue those poor cheerleaders from the clutches of that cigar-chomping ogre.

“I could do his job,” McSweeney whispers as he opens the door.  “I could do his job…”

In the far corner of the office, carelessly tossed atop a mountain of greasy rags, he finds dozens of cardboard women staring into space like girls heavily drugged and imprisoned in a remote brothel on the furthest edge of civilization, forced to pleasure the most malodorous men imaginable.  He alone has the power to deliver them from evil, from a life of degradation and despicable servitude.  “You’re safe now,” he tells them.  He grabs a slew of girls, as many as he can carry, smuggles them out into the intensifying storm, and stashes them away in the trunk of his car.

-8-

For several nights after the exhilarating heist, Michael McSweeney performs what becomes for him a sacred ritual.  Long after Maggie has fallen asleep and his son has gone to his room to study the football playbook, he creeps down the stairs, always careful to avoid the creaking step or two, and there in the exquisite solitude of the basement he lights three candles, always three, and places the models in various spots around the room.  Before joining them, he sprays cologne behind his ears and around his shaggy genitals, trims his fingernails, pours himself a tall beer and smokes a fat joint.  He drifts away, upward and outside of himself to another plane of existence where he is no longer a daydreaming working class stiff from the Midwest but a randy high school athlete at a wild party, a sophisticated playboy in a downtown nightclub, a movie mogul auditioning nubile starlets for his next summer blockbuster, a vampire summoning forth from his underground lair an army of voluptuous succubi.

Usually these harmless adventures leave him satisfied and spent, but occasionally, as he stretches out on the couch naked and sweating and listens to the rhythmic dripping of faucets and the monotonous drone of the furnace and catches the high terrible scent of mildew coming from the cracks in the cinderblock walls, he suspects that his wife might be right.  Maybe he is inept.  And maybe he is something far more terrible than that.

Once, while preparing for his midnight rendezvous, he sniffs something rancid and discovers behind a wilted houseplant a heap of gnawed chicken bones.  He can’t remember leaving them there.  At such times his mystical visions turn sour, and he imagines things, truly devilish things–the state hospital, padded rooms filled with gibbering patients, probing doctors, jabbing needles–but he tries to assure himself that all married men carry on sordid double lives.  Some pop pills, some have illegitimate children, some dress in women’s clothing.  What difference does it make?  No man can belong exclusively to one woman.  Monogamy is an aberration, and it is generally understood that married men when alone at night do any number of things that they pretend to frown upon in the light of day.

This makes McSweeney feel better, and before sliding his cardboard darlings under the couch (“Until next time, my sweet…”), he stacks them one on top of the other like slices of meat on a sex sandwich.  Then he blows out the candles and returns to bed where his wife moans and thrashes in her sleep with strange dreams.

-9-

The ritual continues without variation until Halloween.

In the afternoon he sits at the kitchen table while Maggie bakes cookies, and together they wait for their son to come home from school, the great muscled Minotaur who with his freakish physique makes lesser mortals stare in wonder and fear.  It seems strange really.  McSweeney often wonders how he could have sired a son who towers over him and carries himself with an almost regal bearing.  He’s thought it over, and since he knows Maggie is incapable of cheating on him he believes a mistake was made at the hospital, that two infants were switched at birth.  Somewhere in the world a beautiful couple is mystified by the their child’s inconceivable homeliness and lack of coordination.  They expect perfection from nature because they are themselves perfect, refined, totally unaccustomed to the horrors of mediocrity.  By now they must know that two trolls are raising their real son.  Soon they will come looking for him, and they will demand restitution, not from the hospital for making such an obvious error, but from the McSweeneys for bungling the job of properly raising the boy.  It is for this reason that Michael delays his trip to the sybaritic playground in the basement.  He feels obligated to speak to Frank and to do the Jesuit’s bidding.  The football team cannot afford another loss, another poor performance from its quarterback.

At four o’clock the changeling comes bounding up the back steps and into the kitchen.  McSweeney is prepared.  He has rehearsed every line.  He sits up straight, tries not to slouch.

“There he is, number 17 himself! The future Heisman trophy winner.”

“Let me have those things.”  Maggie takes his varsity jacket and book bag, hangs them in the closet.

McSweeney leans forward in his chair.  “How’d it go today? Teachers weren’t too tough on you, were they? They cut you a little slack, I hope. Remember, son, those people owe you, they owe you big time. This is national exposure we’re talking about.  Enrollment is up, salaries are up…”

“Oh, would you please give it a rest,” says Maggie.

McSweeney laughs, maybe a little louder than he should in such a tiny house.

Maggie pulls a tray of cookies from the oven.  “A reporter from the school newspaper called, Frank.  Says he’s putting a big story together and wants to know if he can ask you a few questions, take a few pictures.”

When McSweeney realizes the cookies are intended for Frank, he panics.  “Jesus, Maggie, he doesn’t need to eat a bunch of garbage before the big game.”

“He can have a few cookies.  They won’t kill him.”

“His body is a fine-tuned machine and you’re tampering with it. Butter, oil, sugar.  It’s poison.”

Maggie slams the tray down on the table.

“What kind of a mother do you take me for? Do you think I would poison our son? Do think I would feed him anything that might harm him? I know he’s a fine tuned machine. How do you think it got that way? Magic? No! It was his mother, his mother who for the past four years, scrimped and saved to buy the finest ingredients, only the best, only the best. Whole wheat, flax seed oil, spirulina, a green tea, organic California raisons, egg whites from free range chickens…”

“Frank!” McSweeney calls out in alarm.

His son swaggers to the closet, grabs his book bag and jacket.  “Just remembered,” says the boy, sneering.  “I gotta go back to school to submit a term paper. And then I’m going to a friend’s house. To study the playbook.”

McSweeney claps his hands together.  “Good thinking, son. You study your ass off. I’m counting on you.”

Maggie presses a plastic container of warm cookies into his hands.  “Go on, take them. They’re good for you. Prickly pear cactus, dragon fruit, wheat grass, soy lecithin granules, mountain bilberry, a handful of walnuts …”

Frank hurries out the door, a boy McSweeney hardly knows anymore.  Beyond a few simple hellos and goodbyes, father and son are incommunicative.  Both are instinctually suspicious of sentimentality, and they can’t find the appropriate words to match their feelings.  An occasional handshake is the extent of the physical contact between them.  McSweeney, however, wants to learn more about his son’s life and is curious about the rarefied social circles of the Jesuit school, the parties he’s always attending, the study groups, the meetings with teachers and coaches.  For a minute he actually considers following his son through the streets, creeping up to a window and peering through the parted sashes to spy on him.  He needs to see what life is like for a high school quarterback.  Is it as glorious as people say?  Do the cheerleaders really fawn over him?  Or are the girls today just as cold and unapproachable as they were when McSweeney was a boy of seventeen?

To discover the answers to these questions he must rely on his imagination.  Trembling with impatience, he waits for Maggie to go a neighbor’s house to pass out candy.  He watches her walk down the street, then he rushes down the hallway to his son’s room where he opens the closet door and finds hanging on a hook the ceremonial garb he needs to complete tonight’s lavish ritual.

-10-

In the basement he lights the usual candles, sets up the models in a semi-circle.  Some he drapes with costume jewelry, others he douses in cheap perfume, and as he takes his place among them, whispering the forbidden incantation–words so obscene in their precise description of sodomy that he feels nervous just saying them–he looks across the room and catches a shining vision of himself in the mirror, a man transformed by a football helmet, immense shoulder pads, and a blue and gold jersey.  It’s not the official uniform, of course, not the stuff the team wears on game day, no, those things are kept under lock and key in the new stadium; it’s only the grass-stained equipment his son wears for scrimmages, but even this scratched and beaten gear works wonders, makes him feel twenty-five years younger.

He sucks in his gut, stands erect.  With a bright smile he listens to the musical clatter of cleats against the tile floor and endures the pain of his engorged penis pressing hard against the athletic supporter.  Invigorated by this image of pure brawn, he takes one of the girls, brings her close to the facemask, inhales her divine aroma, a singular bouquet that can never be fully appreciated by the uninitiated.  For most people the smell of cardboard reminds them of parcels shipped through the mail, merchandise delivered, gifts received.  A box is a disposable thing.  Customers care only about its contents–books and movies and blow-up dolls–but such people recklessly discard the most significant details of everyday life.

Suddenly he wonders if he can actually eat a box.  All his life he’s avoided a healthy diet–fruits and vegetables he abhors–but these girls are probably quite fibrous, good for his digestive system, his heart, and he is sure they will help boost his immunity.  With his mouth watering in anticipation he unbuckles the chinstrap on the helmet, lifts the sumptuous feast to his eager lips, but before he can chow down on the subtle mound hidden under the skirt, a terrible scream rips through the basement.

“Michael!”

Confused by the eerie faces flickering in the candlelight, he believes for one terrible moment that one of the models has come to life.  She stands at the bottom of the stairs, teetering wildly in her high heels, arms flailing in an attempt to balance herself.  Something is terribly wrong with her, she must be defective, an aborted mock-up, a rare accident of mass production, and when she finally manages to take a step forward and penetrates the sacred circle of candlelight, she reveals her imperfections.  Her airbrushed tits have turned ponderous and white and faintly green with a crosshatch of veins.  Her round buttocks have flattened out and bulge from the black miniskirt, the firm musculature now buried under an inch of pitted cellulite.  Worse yet her lovely eyes, so full of lust, are now small and pink and almost porcine.  They blink with a mixture of horror and outrage.

Maggie’s voice rings in his ears.  “Michael McSweeney!”

His stomach tightens, his throat goes dry.  “What are you doing?” he croaks.  “Why are you dressed that way?”

“Why am I dressed this way?” she cries.  “Why am I dressed this way?”

“Yes. What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

For a moment his wife is silent, and when she speaks her voice is little more than a whisper.  “I thought I might surprise you by dressing up in this little number.”  She adjusts a breast with her right hand.  Then the familiar tone of admonition is back, a thing that cannot be denied for very long.  “I’m not stupid, you know. I see the way your eyes light up every time that infantile ad comes on. Caught you red-handed, didn’t I?”

He clings to one of the models, hoping it might offer protection from these ugly recriminations.  “Why don’t you leave me alone,” he says through clenched teeth.  “The fact is…I can’t stand the sight of you.”

Her eyes soften, fill with intense pity.

“Oh, my poor darling,” she says, “you need help, that’s all. Don’t worry, we’ll get you some help. I should have recognized the signs sooner. Let’s start now, okay?  Let’s start the healing process.”

She grabs one of the cardboard models, breaks it over her plump knee, and like an enthusiastic Girl Scout at a bonfire thrusts it into the blue pilot light under the furnace.

To silence the pop and hiss of this erotic conflagration, McSweeney clasps his hands over his ears and wails, “My beautiful baby, oh my beautiful baby!”

Oblivious to the danger all around, he slumps to the floor and tries to gather up the sharp cinders of her remains.  The radiant smile crackles and turns black.  Sparks cascade over bosoms and thighs and cheekbones, flames spread across the throw rug and singe the hairs on the back of his hands, but in the midst of this chaos an inner calm overtakes him, and this startling sense of tranquility does not abandon him, not altogether, not even when Maggie comes charging at him with the fire extinguisher and shoots a load of white foam that dribbles down the bridge of his nose and into his mouth.  Finally he understands that the model is in fact an indestructible goddess, capable of being everywhere and nowhere, flickering forever in the ghostly blue light of the television, standing in Aisle 69 of the Select‘n’Save and pressed flat against a convenient store window where drunks squander their last few dollars on bottles of swill and packs of cigarettes.

He will have her, again and again he will have her, and this simple knowledge bestows upon Michael McSweeney a sense of hope and purpose.  For once in his life he actually looks forward to standing with the other men on the loading dock of Burning River Brewery where in the brutal cold of another autumn morning he will wait for the door to roll open and release the heady scent of cardboard and the miraculous vision of a dozen models resurrected from the ashes, waiting for him with infinite patience and the divine promise of physical fulfillment.

Kevin Keating’s work has appeared in Brink, Identity Theory, The Stickman Review, Mad Hatter’s Review, Underground Voices, Smokebox, Fringe, Perigee, Megaera, Plum Ruby Review, Fiction Warehouse, Fifth Street Review, Juked, The Oklahoma Review, Slow Trains, Numb Magazine, Exquisite Corpse, Thunder Sandwich, and many others. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Story South’s Million Writers Award, and the Ben Hoffer/Best New Writing Award.

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