The Other Box Tango
Inside the other box
There was another box
And in that other box
There was another box
I was tired, very tired, but unable to sleep. Every time I looked at my bedside clock, I felt all the more desperate for sleep and all the less able to fall sleep. I only realized I’d slept at all when I woke up from a dream. In the dream, I was searching for my car. I thought I remembered where I’d parked it, but it wasn’t there. Then I was in my car and it couldn’t stop it from rolling down a long, winding hill. Finally, of its own accord, it stopped. I was relieved I hadn’t crashed into anything, but I had no idea where I was. How could I get back to my apartment, I wondered in the dream, and get some sleep?
It was one of those nights.
I looked at the clock again: 3:45 a.m. Some stupid argument I’d had the day before kept running through my head. What I should have said. What I’d say the next time time I saw the guy I was arguing with. As soon as I started to doze off my mind would be back replaying the argument, like a video in a loop that changed slightly each time it replayed.
I don’t remember dozing off again, but I must have because the ringing of the phone woke me. Crap, I thought, just what I need, somebody calling the wrong number at four in the morning. I dug around the floor for the phone and answered it.
“Why are you doing this to me?” a woman’s voice barked at me.
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“Wait a minute, I think you have the wrong number.”
“Sure, nice try. You’re Philip Angstrom aren’t you?”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“I am not doing anything to you. I don’t know who you are. You are calling me at four in the morning.” I realized I was nearly shouting into the phone. Yesterday’s argument and tonight’s sleepless nightmares were not helping me keep my cool dealing with this crazy woman, whoever she was.
She went on as if I hadn’t said anything. Apparently she believed that I had sent her something that she didn’t want.
“You know that I don’t want it back,” she said.
“Want what back? What are you talking about?”
“Don’t play stupid. Your name’s on the return address. Did you or did you not send the box back to me?”
“No, I didn’t. What goddamn box, for chrissake?”
Why was I shouting at a woman I didn’t even know? Why didn’t I just hang up the phone?
“Don’t hang up on me!” she said. “You’re not getting out of this. I’ll be on your doorstep in fifteen minutes and I won’t leave until you take the box back.”
“Ok, ok,” I whimpered, “but please, humor me and tell me what this is all about.”
“How do people like you live with yourselves?” she retorted. “You know perfectly well what I’m talking about. I finally get rid of the goddamn box and you’ve sent it right back to me.”
I tried again: “What box?”
“The box inside the other box.”
I was tempted to say, “oh, that box, now I understand completely,” but sarcasm unlikely to help. After a long pause, I said, “What do you want from me?”
“You know the Moonlight Diner?”
“That’s where I’m calling from. Meet me here in a half-hour.”
I looked at the clock. “At quarter of five in morning?”
“Yes,” she said, “I can tell time.”
I gave up.
“OK,” I said.
I put my jeans back on. Why did I agree to meet this woman? Why? Maybe I was taking my “investigator” persona a little too seriously, I thought to myself, as I opened a drawer and pulled out a business card I’d had made up a couple months before. I’d labeled myself a “Certified Investigator” after I completed some inane online course. Might be my first chance to actually use one of the 500 cards you get in a minimum order.
At the diner, I walked in the door and looked around. A woman beckoned to me from a booth. I sat down across from her.
“I’m Pamela,” she said. “I called you.”
“Why?” I asked. “You kept running on about a box and I had no idea what the problem was or why it was my fault that it was happening. What the hell is this about?”
Now that I was there, her fury was gone, like the a punctured balloon. She looked at me plaintively and said, “I will tell you all about it. I need your help.”
She has possessed this box for most of her life. She was so young when it became part of her life that she does not know how old she was. It is among her earliest memories. It has always been her box. She has always known that she must not open it and she has not opened it. And she knows that she cannot rid herself of the box. She has tried many times.
“Interesting,” I admitted, “definitely interesting. But what has anything of this to do with me? Did you call me because you thought I was a detective?”
“I know you call yourself a detective, a ‘Certified Investigator’, whatever that means, but that’s not why I needed you to meet me. I demanded that you meet me you put your name and address in the return address.”
“That’s impossible. I don’t even know who you are. Why would I send you anything? If my name is the return address, I sure as hell didn’t write it there. Are you sure you didn’t write it yourself?”
I was afraid Pamela might explode into anger at the accusation, but she replied calmly enough for a person in an extremely agitated state: “No, I didn’t write anything on the box. I must get rid of it. I’ve been trying to get rid of it for a long time.”
“What’s in the box?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” she said. “Didn’t I just tell you that I have never opened it? That I must not open it? You’re here now, your name is on the box, and you call yourself a detective. I need you to tell me what’s in the box. I need you to help me get rid of it.”
“How could I possibly know what’s in the box? And anyway, how do you know that I’m a detective?”
“I looked you up in the phone book: “Philip Angstrom Investigation Services.”
So that was why she called me, I thought. We just sat there for a while. It was starting to get light outside. My eyes started to glaze over. I just wanted to lie down for a while. Neither of us said a word.
“So you won’t help?” Pamela said accusatorially.
“Help? How am I supposed to help?”
“Either by finding out what’s in the box or by getting rid of it. I don’t care which. What’s in there? Why can’t I get rid of it? I’ve dropped it in the ocean and had it crushed in the trunk of a car at the junk yard and it still comes back to me. You’re the goddamn detective. You figure it out.”
“Oh,” I said. feeling sheepish. “I’m not really a detective.”
“So now you deny everything! You didn’t send the box back to me even though you put your name on it and now you’re not even a detective!”
I thought this whole thing had gone far enough. “No, I’m not a detective,” I said sharply. “I took some stupid online course, paid the fee and got a letter back saying that I was now a “certified investigator.” So I put a listing in the phone book, and made some business cards. I’ve never investigated anything in my life.”
She sank in her seat. “Great,” she said more to herself than me. “This guy sends me back the damn box but says he did; he advertises himself as a detective, but he isn’t.” To me she said, “It would have been nice if you had at least some idea of what you were doing. I hope you’re a quick learner. You’re going to have to be.”
“No, I’m going home and getting some sleep.”
“No you’re not,” she said emphatically. “Not until we find out what’s in the box or get rid of it.”
“We. Come back to my place and see what you’re up against. Here’s the address. Meet me there in half an hour.” She got up and split, leaving me to pay for the bill for the coffee.
I felt like I was sleepwalking. About a ten block walk in the half-deserted streets and up the elevator to the eleventh floor brought me to her apartment. I could have just gone home and tried to get some sleep, but I had to admit she’d made me feel guilty and more than a little curious. Whatever got me to sign up for that investigator course seemed to be drawing me ever deeper into this business of this box you couldn’t open and couldn’t get rid of.
I walked the ten blocks to her apartment, took the elevator to her floor and went to her door. She wasn’t there yet. I turned the knob. It wasn’t locked. Kidding myself that I might was well try to act like a detective, I went in.
It was a tiny studio apartment, more like a rooming house room. She had a large bed that filled most of the space. There was a half open closet with a few dresses hanging, another dress draped over a nondescript greenish chair. Various things were scattered randomly over the carelessly made bed: an appointment book, a battered purse, a few coins, a couple paperback books, a few lined papers that she seemed to have written notes to herself on. A small sink with a microwave oven and a toaster next seemed to be all that there was of a kitchen.
At the foot of the bed was the box. It looked normal enough: A cube about a foot on each side with her name, “Pamela Adelaide,” and this address, a cancelled postal stamp, and sure enough, my name and address in the upper left corner. I looked closely: not only was it my address but I could swear it was my handwriting.
I picked it up. Pretty light for something that seemed to be so goddamn important. Like a kid trying to figure out his birthday present, I shook it. No sound.
Asking myself what a real detective might do in this situation, I picked up her appointment book. Naturally none of the scribbled notes in it or names and phone numbers at the back meant anything to me. But the odd thing was that she’d put a capital “Q.” on the cover like that was her name. And among the scattered objects on the floor there was a note she’d started writing and then crumpled. It was signed “Michele.”
As I’m looking at the note, Pamela — or Michele or Q. for all I knew — showed up.
“Thought you’d have a look around, did you?”
“Who the hell are you?” I asked.
“What does that matter to you?” she answered. “You see it’s your name in the return address, yes? And it’s your handwriting, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “How did you do it?”
“I didn’t,” she said simply. She began picking up a couple things from the bed and dropping a few more things from her purse on it. “What next, Mr. Detective?”
“Throw the goddamn box away. Get rid of it.”
“I’ve tried, believe me, but you go ahead and try for yourself, if it’ll make you happy.”
“Getting some sleep would make me a whole lot happier, but I’m willing to give another shot at throwing the damn thing out with the trash.”
“Sure,” she said, “Go ahead. You’ll see.”
I asked if she had a magic marker. I blacked out her name and address and my name and address, put the box in a garbage bag, took it across town and threw in into a dumpster. It was broad daylight by then. I took a cab home and climbed back in bed. Useless. I just tossed and turned.
As happened the night before, it took awakening from a nightmare for me to know I’d been asleep. In this one I was caught inside a garbage compactor like the one in Star Wars, surrounded not by garbage but by the things in Pamela’s room. Her address book, dresses, and other assorted crap were closing in on me. When the ringing of the phone wakened me, I was relieved to realize it was just a dream. Then I realized it was the police on the phone.
“You are Mr. Philip Angstrom?” the cop’s voice said. He said he was a policeman but it was unnecessary. There was no mistaking the flat cop voice that communicated instantly that it was all just normal procedure and if it ended up with you in the gas chamber, so be it.
I agreed I was Philip Angstrom. I felt like I was confessing something just my acknowledging my own name.
“We have your package down at the station.”
I started to say, “It isn’t my package, it’s this crazy woman who called me up at four in the morning…” but realized there was no point in trying to explain. “Oh,” is all I managed to say.
The cop gave one of those long-winded explanations where you have to stop the person every now and then to make sure you’re following it. He reminded me that, as a private detective, I was required to inform the police of any on-going illegal activity I was aware of.
How did he know a was a private detective? Should I tell him I had never had a client in my life and was a licensed anything? I wanted to ask him how he knew I called myself an investigator, but decided it was safer just to let it go.
The cop said nothing for a long time, I assumed hoping I might confess to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby or knocking over the neighborhood 7-Eleven. Finally he said, “There’s no problem, Mr. Angstrom. Apparently somebody threw your box into a dumpster that we were checking out due to a bomb scare. We get a lot of these calls. Anyway, we check ‘em out. Turns out your box, the one you were sending to Ms. Adelaide, wasn’t a bomb. We X-rayed it. Nothing inside but another box and nothing inside that box either.” He paused again. Maybe it was just for dramatic effect.
“Not sure if you want it, but we like to keep things neat, so we’ve got it down here at the 9th precinct if you want to come pick it up.”
Why would I want to pick up a box I just threw in a dumpster? I may not be a real detective, but that sounded pretty fishy to me. I wasn’t about to show up and get the box and get thrown in the clink when they said it had Edward Snowden’s secret files or an Al Qaeda bomb in it. On the other hand, maybe I’d be in even bigger trouble if I didn’t show up.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew there was no way I was going to get any sleep at this point, so, lacking something a better plan, or any plan at all really, I went back to Pamela’s apartment.
As before, I knocked, got no answer, opened the door. This time Pamela was there, snoring loudly in deep slumber. I envied her.
My first shock was that the box was back right where it had been before I put it the dumpster. My name was once again clearly visible in the return address and hers in the middle as the addressee.
Impossible as this might be, it wasn’t the most bizarre thing about the room. Other than the box being where it had been and now should not be, everything else in the room had been utterly re-ordered. It wasn’t put in order, just disordered completely differently.
It was a though someone had picked up every single item in the room and moved it from one random place to another equally random spot. The dress that had been thrown over a chair was now draped across the bed. The address book was moved from the bed to the chair. The microwave was on the other side of the sink; the toaster was turned sideways. Papers spread out on the floor were now strewn on a table. Of the maybe fifty or sixty things I’d seen a few hours ago, not a single one was where it had been before.
It wasn’t at all as though the place had been ransacked or that Pamela had been, perhaps, looking for something and turned the place upside down to find it. It took me a minute to figure out what was so strange. I don’t know how to explain it, but it was as though the exact degree of disarray, of disorder, had been precisely duplicated. Overall, things were neither messier or neater, but exactly the same level of disarray with every object somewhere different. I don’t think a person could have achieved the overall effect if they tried.
There was something uncanny about this transformation of the objects in the room, something unnerving. It was so uncanny that, for the first time since Pamela had plunged me into this business, I was scared. Not just scared: irrationally, painfully terrified. What the hell had I gotten myself into? Who was this woman who called herself Pamela or Michele or Q. depending on which of her things I was looking at? Why would anyone go to the trouble of rearranging every single object in her room into an almost equivalent yet completely different mess?
Pamela awoke. She didn’t seem surprised to see the box there or to be in the least concerned about the re-disordering of her room.
“What the hell happened?” I asked.
“Like I told you it would, the box came back.”
“What happened to your stuff?”
“Nothing? Everything’s somewhere different from where it was.”
“Oh…yeh…that. This always happens when I try to get rid of the box.”
“This always happens when you try to get rid of the box?”
“Yeh, I’m used to it. Makes it a pain in the ass to find anything, but everything’s always still there, someplace. I guess I’ve come to accept it.”
I just sat there taking this in. “The police called me,” I said. “They say they have the box. How did it get here?”
“You’re the detective. You tell me. All I know is that it always comes back. Sometimes it’s packaged up differently, but it always comes back. I wouldn’t worry about the police.”
“But they say it’s tied up with Al Qaeda or something and they want me to come pick it up.”
“Why? They don’t have the box. It’s right here. You don’t have to be a detective to figure out that much.”
“Ok,” I said after a long pause, “What do we do now? The police want me to come to the station. The box is here with my name on it. And nothing makes any sense to me at all! What are we going to do?”
“Don’t get excited,” Pamela said. “At least you finally realize that it’s we who have to do something.”
“Yes,” I said pathetically, “I do realize that. You’ve gotten me good and well wrapped up in this.”
Pamela stiffened. “No, I haven’t done anything. All I did was tell you your name was on the box.”
“Ok, whatever, it doesn’t matter. What do we do now?”
She said nothing.
After a long pause, I said, “Let’s open the box.”
“Open the box?” Pamela said.
“Yes, we open the box.
“I must not open the box.”
“Could we pause here a second,” I said. “Why, in your mind, can you not open the box? What’s wrong with opening the box? Did someone tell you it was Pandora’s box and all the evils of the world would flow out if you opened it?”
“Sort of,” she said.
Nearly inaudibly, I repeated, “Sort of?”
“I believe what I’ve been told: that I must not open the box.”
“Ok,” I said, “but suppose I open the box. Nobody told me I couldn’t open it. Why couldn’t we agree to open the box, but I will actually open it?
“Ok,” Pamela said.
I hadn’t expect she’d agree and wanted to be sure she meant it. “Ok?” I asked.
“Ok,” she said,”it might be ok. I don’t know what’s in the box, so I don’t know why I’m not supposed to open it. I don’t think it has evil things inside it or chaos that shouldn’t be unleashed or that it’s an evil omen or something like that. I just know I’m not supposed to open it.
“But I can’t take it anymore,” she continued. “I’ve been carrying around this box for so long…too long. I can’t get rid of it. And now, apparently, it’s dragged you into to. Or maybe it’s I who dragged you into it, so maybe it really is my fault that you’re here. It mystifies me as much as it does you but I can’t take it any more.
“I’m willing to hope that whatever reason I’m not supposed to open the box doesn’t apply to you. Yes, I say, go ahead and open it.”
We opened the box.
As it turned out, the outer paper surrounding a cardboard box — what I’d always thought of whenever Pamela spoke of “the box” — and the cardboard box itself wasn’t the box at all, but just packaging that contained the box. Inside it was another box nearly the size of the cardboard box containing it.
This box was solid, heavier than I would have expected since the whole box, packaging included, had seemed light to me. It was made of rich, fine, old wood, perhaps cedar. It struck me as a miniature version of a cedar box to store things in an attic.
Pamela had never seen it before. “This isn’t the box either,” she said. The box, she told me, must be inside it.
“This isn’t the box you’ve been talking about?”
“I just told you: The box is inside this one.”
“But the police,” I said, “x-rayed it and said there was nothing in it.”
“So they told you,” she said. “but they also think the box is in their evidence room when it’s actually here. Shows you how much they know. The box is inside this one.”
“The box?” I asked.
“The box,” she said.
I opened the lid of the wood box and inside was, in fact, a small rectangular box. It small enough that it nearly would fit in the palm of my hand. Its top cover was abalone nacre. Its sides were an ornate swirled of silver and gold. It shimmered in the light so much that it almost seemed to possess its own light rather than just reflecting the much dimmer lights in the room. It was held in the center of the wooden box by pegs that seemed to be specifically designed for it. I picked up the little box and held it in the palm of my hand.
I moved my right index finger and began to lift its lid.
Pamela cried, “Wait!”
But it was too late. The lid had opened slightly. The room filled with bright light.
A moment later, the light in the room returned to its normal dim level. While every object in Pamela’s room was precisely in the place it had been, each and every object itself was changed. There had been a long dress casually draped over a chair. The dress had been long and bluish; the chair grey-green. Now the dress was short and dark red . The chair was now a dirty orange. I couldn’t tell you what the brand of Pamela’s microwave oven was before I opened the box, but I didn’t need Jedediah Berry’s Manual of Detection to recognize that it wasn’t the same microwave. Maybe a hundred objects of various sizes and shape in Pamela’s room were now different specific examples of the general type of thing that had been there before. Some were different colors, shapes, textures, sizes, brands, whatever, but no object in the room was unchanged. Even the smell of the room was different, though I couldn’t quite say how. The room itself seemed a little smaller than it had been before the transformation that took place the instant I open the lid of the box.
There were three exceptions to the complete transformation: Pamela and I were the same. The abalone, silver, and gold box itself was gone.
Neither Pamela nor I could speak.
We both looked around the room. Even Pamela, who had seen her room re-arranged every time she’d tried to get rid of the box, was frozen in awe. Her gaze was so transfixed by the transformation that I couldn’t tell if she was calm or terrified.
I glanced at her appointment book on the bed: Apart from its cover now being yellow, it looked nearly much the same until I noticed that Pamela’s initial in the corner of the cover was now was no longer “Q.”; it was now “R.” I said something like “what, are we going through the alphabet now,” but I didn’t find much humor in the situation we found ourselves in.
The note signed “Michele” was now signed “Patricia.”
“Are you still Pamela?” I asked.
“I suppose so.
“You’re Philip, right?” Her tone was more as if she wasn’t sure if she remembered my name correctly than wondering if it had changed.
“Yes, I’m Philip,” I replied.
“Where are we?” I wondered aloud. “Are we still in your apartment?’
“I don’t know,” she said.
As soon as I opened the door to the hall, my fears were confirmed: Not only were the objects in the room different, the room itself was no longer where it had been. I couldn’t describe what the hall to Pamela’s apartment had looked like, but I knew that this was not the hallway that was there before. It wasn’t that it was particularly darker or lighter, newer or older than the old hallway, it just wasn’t the same hallway.
I stood in the archway paralyzed.
At last I stepped forward. To my left I saw and elevator and approached it. I pushed the buttons. Nothing happened. Nothing. No lights, no sound of a moving elevator box, nothing.
There had to be stairs. I went down to the other end of the corridor and found them. I went down several flights to the bottom. At first I thought I’d just gone down too far and was now in the basement. It had that kind of musky underground-space odor. All there was down here was a couple doors, both locked.
I went up one flight, hoping to find myself in the lobby, but it was just another corridor like the one I’d started out in. I knocked on a couple doors. No response.
I felt a moment of panic that I wouldn’t be able to my find my way back to Pamela’s apartment as happened in my nightmare, but she was standing in the doorway when I reached the floor I thought I’d come from.
“Did you find the way out of here?”
“What use would it be anyway,” she said, “everything’s different. We’re not in the world we were before I opened the box. Even if we could get out of here, where would we be?”
“Well, at least we got rid of the box,” I said dumbly.
“No,” Pamela said, “I think we’re inside the box.”
Again we sat on opposite sides of the bed. Mostly we sat staring at the floor or at our hands. Occasionally we looked at each other. I never felt more disoriented in my life. After a long pause, I said, “Perhaps you could tell me now what you know about all this?”
Somewhat to my surprise, she answered plainly: “I’ve had the box as long as I can remember. In one of my earliest memories, I spied the box on a high shelf in my room and asked my mother what it was. I asked her to hand it down to me, but she said no. She said it was mine, but it was very, very precious. I could not open it. I must not open it.
“As I grew old enough to stand on a chair and reach a high shelf in my room, my mother hid the box. I didn’t notice that it was missing at first, but when I did I asked her what it was and what she’d done with it. At first she told me only that it was a very special gift my father had given me just before he died. I was still very small when he died, around three I think. I asked her what was so special about it, but she refused to tell me anything more.
“The night before I left home for good to live on my own, my mother brought the box into the living room and put it on the table. Its abalone shell cover and silver and gold sides glistened in the fading light of late afternoon. I reached toward the box, delighted to see it again. My mother grabbed my wrist: ‘You must never ever open this box.”
“ ‘Why? What is it?’ I asked her.
“ ‘Your father won it on a bet,’
“I wasn’t surprised that this was how the box came into our possession. My father was obsessed with gambling. He used to say, ‘I don’t gamble; I make wagers.’ I don’t think I understand the difference but I knew he wasn’t a card sharp or an OTB habitué, and he didn’t buy lottery tickets. The more unusual the wager, the more strange the stakes, the more he liked it. One time he bet our family home on whether a snail or a caterpillar would be first to cross a line in the sidewalk. He won that bet, though I don’t remember us getting anything like a house out of his winning the bet.
When my father died, my mother told me through her tears that he’d ‘lost a bet.’ I always thought she meant it as a metaphor, but, as she was handing the box over to me, I began to realize that this luminescent box was somehow wrapped up in that wager.
“ ‘Your father should never have done what he did. If he had lost the bet, you would have been lost. His own daughter! As it was, he won the bet, but lost his own life in winning it. And the prize was this box. As he lay dying, he said only that you must never ever open it.
“ ‘Why not?,’ I asked my mother.
“ ‘He never explained why,’ was all she said.
“My mother told me only one more thing, the thing we’ve both come to know too well: No matter how it may drive me crazy to have the box and not to open it, it can’t be thrown away or even given away. It will always find its way back.”
“So now,” I half-asked, half-stated as fact, “we’ve opened the box and we’re trapped inside it.”
“Yes. So it seems.”
It was useless to ask how we could get out. How would Pamela know any better than I? Again we sat dumfounded.
An idea occurred to me. “How did you find me phone number in the first place?”
“I told you. Your name was on the box.”
“Yes, I know, but not my phone number. How did you find it?”
“I looked you up in the phone book.”
“So there’s a phone directory somewhere in this room?”
“Yes. It was under the pile of blouses that were in that corner,” Pamela said, pointing to a pile of shirts that looked more like men’s dress shirts than the women’s blouses that were there before we opened the box.
There was, indeed, a phone book under them. Not the same phone book, obviously. The name of the region that it covered, Hairsbreadth and surroundings, meant nothing to me. This phone directory, I thought, might be connected somehow to where we were now.
When I explained this to Pamela, she said, “So what? What’re you going to do, call somebody up and tell them that say ‘we’re trapped inside a box, come rescue us?’ ”
“No, but I’m hoping there’s more to this world than this room and empty corridors and stairs. I somehow got pulled into this mess when you reached out from your private nightmare and called me. Maybe we can find our way out of it by finding someone else.” I started leafing through the “yellow pages” (they were an orangish pink) portion of the phone book.
A lot of the headings were close to headings I was used to seeing, with odd little twists of titling. “Dry cleaning” seemed to be called “Water-free Renewal” and “Auto Repair” was “Vehicular Maintaining,” but at least everything was in English and more or less recognizable. With Pamela looking over my shoulder, I leafed through the ads, not having a clue what I was looking for.
When we got to the R’s, Pamela stopped me. “Look at this,” she said, pointing to the heading, “Removal Services.” The entries looked mostly like ordinary garbage pick-up companies.
“So?” I said.
“Isn’t that what we want?” she said, “To be removed?”
“Yeh, but these are just garbage pick-up services.”
None of the entries under Removal Services looked promising and Pamela was on the verge of giving the idea up. She picked up her appointment book, now itself marked R., and turned to the letter R in the address book section. A glimmer of hope: There was an entry there. It read “Removal Services: Jacob Andrews” with a six digit number next to.
“Seems too coincidental not to mean something,” I said, in another feeble attempt to play detective. “I assume there’s a phone here somewhere. Let’s try it.”
Pamela dug through the mess and found an odd looking oblong object that resembled a phone. She punched in the number and handed the phone to me.
It didn’t hear anything like a phone ring, but a man’s voice answered. His voice was strangely accented, sort of a what you’d get if you somehow mixed a deep Russian guttural tone and a flowing sing-song of an Indonesian tongue, but, like the phone directory, it was at least in English and comprehensible. “So you have found me,” he said flatly.
“Of course. Who else could I be? Who else could I be? You want my help? You are willing to do what is necessary?”
“I don’t see as how we have much of a choice.”
“That is not so. You do have a choice. You may stay where you are.”
“Trapped inside the box?” I said.
“No, you are not trapped inside the box, although it is easy for me to see that you might think so. You are not trapped at all. You are free to leave at any time.”
“I tried. I couldn’t get out.”
“But you did not even try to go into any of the other apartments in the building?”
“I knocked on a few doors. But what good would that do us anyway? Are there really other people here? We haven’t heard a sound. How could there be people in this building if there’s no exit?”
“Of course there are exits. You just don’t know your way around. But you don’t want to stay, do you?”
“No, of course not! Why would we want to stay in a world that is not our own?”
“There are many reasons why people stay where they happen to be. That is not my concern. Come and we will talk. You are not trapped. If you press the elevator button three times it will come. Take it to the ninth floor. I am in room 722.”
It occurred to me to ask why room 722 was on the ninth floor but why should anything be as I expected in the world we’d suddenly found ourselves in.
We followed his instructions.
When we pressed the elevator button three times, it came. We got on — we seemed to be on the fourth floor if the lights inside the elevator were correct — and went up to the Jacob’s floor. There the corridor was dimly lit but we could make out the numbers on the apartment doors. Their sequence appeared to be random: 522, 1644, 9, 2101, and then 722.
There was no doorbell we could find. We knocked. Jacob’s simultaneously gruff yet mellifluous voice announced that the door was unlocked and we should come in.
We both gasped involuntarily when we opened the door. The room was lined with book shelves and on every book shelf there were boxes. Each box was particular, unique. Some glimmered even more brightly than the box that had brought us here, seeming to be covered with precious stones that emitted their own light. Others were as dark as might imagine a black hole in space, receding forever into the depths of nowhere. Some were so large and ponderous that it was hard to imagine how a shelf could be strong enough to hold it; others so light and feathery they looked as though they were made of nothing at all or a lace so thin that no human eye could see it. There were boxes barely the size of a finger and boxes that looked were as large as steamer trunks for long, long journeys.
The walls of the room itself were not fixed in space. They expanded and contracted. In one moment we thought we were looking at a room the size of a janitor’s closet. A moment later, we were in a nineteenth-century library complete with sliding ladders to reach the higher shelves, each entirely filled with boxes.
In the center of the room sat Jacob as the room shifted around him. In some contexts, his chair was was a high backed leather armchair like one in a private club; at other moments, it was no more than a simple metal folding chair. At last the room and the chair congealed into a room about the half the size of Pamela’s apartment and entirely filled, except for the wooden captain’s chair in which Jacob was now seated, with boxes of all sizes and shapes.
Did he smile? It was hard to tell. It looked a bit like a smile.
“You want to return?” he said. “Only natural, I suppose. Everyone likes what they’re used to…Of course you do. You want to ‘go back and get on with your lives,’ eh? Natural, completely natural. Of course you do.”
“Yes, of course we do,” we said simultaneously.
“I have told you that I will help you. It suits my purposes very well to help you, but I must be sure that you are quite serious or else all will fail. I have seen this happen. I do not wish it to happen again.
“Why does this concern me? Why should I care whether you are sincere in your wish to return to where you were, to the lives you once led? What does it matter to me if you are stuck in a world that has no connection to the world you once inhabited. I don’t care. Not at all, actually, not about you. What are you to me but the product of that single foolish bet with a very foolish man. If you are not sincere, you will gain nothing. But I do not care about this.
“But if you are not sincere I will also gain nothing. The box will not come back to me. Instead, you will come back to me and I do not want you back. I want my box.
“And why I am suspicious about your wish to return to where you came? Because I cannot see that you have anything to return to. You, James, what is this life that you are so desperate to get back to? You are a mail-order detective who has never detected anything in his life. You have a hundred other projects that you have begun and gone nowhere with. You plod along day-by-day doing the minimum it takes to get by, then go have a couple beers with buddies who barely know your name. You haven’t got a family that you give a damn about or that gives a damn about you. Has anyone missed you while you’ve gone off on your box journey? I would doubt it. What, exactly, are you so anxious to get back to?
“And you, Pamela,” Jacob continued,”You of the many names: ‘Michele’ and ‘Q.’ What’s the difference if you are now ‘Patricia’ and ‘R.’ You yourself don’t know who you are, so how can anyone else know or care about you? For many years, you’ve been so singularly obsessed with this box that nothing else has mattered to you. Nothing. You have no true friends or lovers, no career worth talk about, not even a parakeet or goldfish that depends on you.
“I do not say this just to hear myself talk. It is of the utmost importance. It is why you are here in the first place.”
When Jacob stopped talking, neither Pamela nor I said a word.
Eventually, Jacob began again. “You are here because your ties to your own world were so weak that, when you opened the box, you were immediately sucked into the passageway it opened. That was bad for you, I see that, but it was also very bad for me. I’ve wanted that box back for a long time and instead I got the two of you.
“Yes, I am the man who wagered with your father. I had never met a man like him before or since. He was not just an unlucky man, he was an unfortunate man. He was a man who would bet his own life against the life of his only daughter to win what was to him nearly worthless abalone box. No, I should not say worthless. To him it was very unusual and very pretty, but he had no idea of its value, of what it was worth to me, what it is still worth to me. And that is why I speak with you now. Your father had no idea what it was, no idea of the passageway it provided. He only knew that it was inestimably valuable to me and so he wanted it as intensely as any man could want anything.
“I had no interest in the ‘prize.’ What was I to do with a tiny child? But I guess I am more like your father than I would care to admit. My curiosity overcame me: Would a man risk everything for something that might have no worth to him whatsoever? Would he gamble away his own daughter over a turn of a card? If I must risk one of my precious boxes to see if such a wager were possible, then I must.
“The cards were cruel that night: We both lost. Your father lost his life and I lost my box. But, in one of the those ironic twists of fate, you, my dear, were saved. As long as that box was never opened, I would be forever stuck in this room, all my boxes useless without the one box that enables them all. I have been here ever since that moment. Now, finally, the box has been opened. I knew no one could resist the temptation forever. But, instead of the box coming back to me, you two are here, and the box remains just where it was. Instead of my precious passport to worlds known and unknown, I have you two godforsaken misfits staring at me.” Jacob’s lip curled in disdain.
“I apologize, I’m not here to judge you. I need your help.”
“You need our help?” we asked.
Jacob explained: Every box led somewhere different, a different “slice,” as he described it, of the real. Sometimes the alterations were nearly imperceptible, insignificant, having no effect on anything beyond a circumscribed area. To an observer it might seem as though a wind had stirred a pile of leaves. Lots of people had boxes like that in their homes everywhere, and never realized it. A pen is left in the kitchen drawer. A box is opened and the pen turns up on the bedroom table. Someone must have moved it, one thinks, or maybe one moved it oneself and just doesn’t remember. An object is lost that one thought to have put carefully away.
But some boxes led to entirely different places, places utterly disconnected from their prior place in space and time.
And then there were a few very special boxes. These boxes led to other boxes, opened a thousand passageways to a thousand realities. Pamela’s glittering box was one of these. Without it, Jacob could only sit and wait.
He had a box that would get them back, a “transport box” he called it. He stood. A ladder I hadn’t seen before appeared. Jacob clambered up the ladder and retrieved a large steel box.
The steel transport box, he explained, was a bit like a self-addressed envelop. Yes, he could have used that the box himself, but then he’d be stuck in Pamela’s and my world. That would get him nowhere. But the transport box could be used to put another box inside and to return it. Jacob explained that he had used several of these boxes to return Pamela’s box to her. But he could not get both the box and himself back at the same time. So he needed us to go back, to place the small abalone, silver, and gold box inside the transport box, close it, and his precious abalone box would return to him inside the transport box.
“Won’t we just get sucked through again?” Pamela asked.
“That, my dear, is precisely what has me worried,” Jacob said. “You must stay put or I’ll have wasted my time and lost my transport box in the process. That is why I am so concerned with whether you seriously want to go back. But that, you see, is up to you.”
“What do you mean that it’s up to us?”
“You are here because so little binds you to your own time and place. You are here because the moment you opened the abalone shell box, you were sucked into it. If nothing binds you more than it did then, you will simply be sucked back again. These boxes have logic of their own. There is no telling, as I’ve told you, where you might end up. Who knows where you’ll be.”
Sounds great, I thought. We’ll be swept along in another cosmic tide. I’m looking forward to it. I couldn’t resist wondering why we couldn’t forget about getting the box back and not take the chance of getting sucked to wherever the transport box might take us.
“You could, I suppose,” said Jacob, seeming to read my mind. “But then you’d be right where this started, stuck with a box you dare not open. Aren’t you afraid you’ll do exactly what you did before: open the box. Of course you will. You know it. Who knows where that will lead you.
“No. My box is the only way you can ‘go on with your life’ as you say.”
“One more question,” I said. “How did I get mixed up in this? Pamela’s father made a wager. Within limits I understand that. But what about me? I didn’t bet anything or do anything. How’d my name get on the wrapper of the box that had Pamela’s inside it?”
“It was your own fault,” Jacob answered. “I needed someone to open the box if I was ever to see it again. Pamela would never open it on her own. You claimed to be a detective. A detective could never resist trying to discover what was inside the box.”
“So you put my name as the return address?”
“Not directly, but yes, of course I did.”
“But how? And how do you send the box back to Pamela if you’re stuck here in this room?”
“Enough question! Enough talk! I must have my box back and you must return from where you came!
“Here is the box you need,” Jacob said, handing me the large metallic cube. Open the box and go to what you call home. But you must be very careful. You must find a way to root yourselves, a way to be more than a fake detective or a woman with many names, or none of this will work. When you are certain that you’re rooted enough that you won’t fly off to god-knows-where, open the transport box again. Nothing will happen instantaneously. Put your little box inside the transport box and close the lid of the transport box.”
As Jacob spoke these words, his room seemed expand continuously until his chair was very, very far away. We opened the steel transport box.
We opened the metallic cube and, as Jacob had told us, we were transported back where we started: in Pamela’s disordered apartment. Her appointment book, once again marked “Q.” was on her bed; the dress over the chair was long and blue again; the chair green. The scattered notes were again signed “Michele.” Everything was back to “normal,” if anything in Pamela’s world could be truly described as normal.
The small luminescent box, its top open, rested directly on top of the metallic transport box.
I felt both immense relief, but also fear. We were “home” but the sense that we could be god-knows-where in an instant was palpable. We knew that the only way either of us could ever be rid of the wretched box was to send it back to its “owner,” to Jacob.
But I also understood his warning: How was I to be tied to this world enough to avoid being sucked into whatever void the transport box would take me to?
I could see from Pamela’s dazed expression that she felt much the same mix of emotions. “Is there anyone you care about,” I asked her. “Is there anyone who cares about you.”
Pamela did not answer for a long time, then she simply said, “No.”
“No,” I said. “My parents are long dead and I don’t have any brothers or sisters. I’ve had many girlfriends, but none of the relationships lasted. I have some drinking buddies, like Jacob said, but no one who really matters to me and no one who would really miss me if I disappeared forever.”
Pamela looked at me. “What about me?” she asked, “Do you care about me?”
The question took me by surprise, but the truth was that I felt very differently now than when we’d first met.
“Back there in the crazy stairways that led nowhere,” I told her, I kept thinking ‘I’ve got to get back to Pamela. She needs me and I need her.’ It wasn’t just that you were my only hope of getting back to this world. We’ve gone through something unique, and we’ve gone through it together.”
“I’ve never felt this way before,” Pamela said. “I like you, Philip. That may not sound like much but I don’t think I’ve ever said it to anyone in my life.” She picked up her appointment book, scratched out the Q, and wrote “Pamela.” She crumbled the notes signed Michele and threw them in the waste basket. “I couldn’t stand it when you were out wandering around that building in wherever-we-were. I think that was the first time in my adult life when I ever felt truly alone because it was the first time in my adult life when I ever missed someone.
Sure, some of it was just being terrified I’d be left there all alone in Never Never Land, but I think I actually missed you. Sure, you’re a fake detective, but you’re my fake detective.”
“Do you think that’s enough?” I asked her. “Do you think that’s enough so we won’t be sucked back into the box when we open it and sent off to another world we don’t understand?”
“I don’t know, but I think it’s worth the gamble,” I said.
“You’re just like my father,” she said with something like a laugh, the first laugh out of either of us since this whole thing started. I laughed too.
When we stopped laughing, we opened the metal transport box.
Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning