George considered the building, its rectangular sameness. He arrived with few boxes, transported by hand from his former residence in the neighborhood next door. The grey stucco siding of his new home was not welcoming, but it commanded him inside anyway.
The white walls of his new, first floor apartment in the eight-story building were too bright when the overhead fluorescents were on, so he kept them off while he worked. Some boxes were unpacked in quick order, some marked for storage waited by the door, and the last he shoved under the bed that came with the apartment. When he sat down on the creaky bed and surveyed his space, the walls looked back at him blankly, as if to ask “What are you doing here?”
His upstairs neighbor took showers in the middle of the night and obviously had a cat. George could hear it tearing from one side of his neighbor’s floor—George’s ceiling—to the other and back again, as if possessed by a mission. The neighbor to his left that he shared a wall with liked to sing in the mornings, great bellowing church songs. George had been taken to the local Baptist church when he was a child, before his father died. His mother refused to return after his death, betrayed as she had been by God’s Will. George liked the songs, liked the muffled way that the neighbor’s wall muted the words but kept the highs and lows. The words had never made any sense to him anyway.
His multiple trips into the basement to stow his belongings were his first introduction to the underworld that would become his mission. The narrow rectangle of the basement was coated with dusty life from the foundation’s first pouring. A 1978 calendar hung, yellow-cracked and turned to November; the pin-up depicted a woman now old enough to be a grandmother. His neighbors’ boxes underwhelmed the shelves that had been built to protect from flood damage. They were labeled with titles like “Kitchen” and “Letters.” Some were unlabeled and sealed extra tight. After his last trip down with his storage boxes, he lifted a flap of one of his neighbor’s loosely closed boxes, first making sure to listen for evidence of any surprise guests. It held handwritten letters and cards, photo booth records of trips to the fair with the same three smiles repeated over and over, concert ticket stubs, a haphazard pile of trinkets. Another one contained dried flowers, mostly yellow roses, and wedding invitations. One was filled with sweatshirts from several Ivy League schools and a couple of old letterman jackets.
The day came when the box of things left by the woman who had left him, the box from under his bed, came to sit beside his neighbor’s boxes. It contained a dainty wooden comb, a purple, child-sized toothbrush, and a half empty bottle of cheap perfume in it that he’d grabbed from the bathroom sink; one item for every month that they’d been together. The perfume was blue and supposed to smell like the sea according to the label on it. The box had hidden beneath his bed for the last few months, sending up dreams and undesired memories. He sealed it tightly without a label and tucked it behind the other boxes.
A burly neighbor wearing a worn-out college sweatshirt left the building one day, saw the open door of the basement and set to close it. It just missed slamming into George’s ascending nose. “Hey!” yelled George.
His neighbor caught the door and held it open, allowing George to pass. Closing the door behind him, he gave George a long all-over look. “Whatchyadoin, buddy?”
George felt intruded upon, as if the conversation to follow might indicate he was using up too much space down there, leave some for others, buddy. “Moving boxes,” George mumbled.
“Really!” The man clapped his hands together and asked, “Say, what’s your name?”
“George,” George mumbled.
“Hey listen, George, my knee gives me a bit of pain walking up and down these stairs, old sports injury you know, but I have a few boxes that need going down there. Mind if I left them for you, say tomorrow? I’m just up on the second floor. I could leave them outside my door. Thanks, buddy, I owe you one!” He clapped George on the shoulder as if everything had been decided.
The following morning, two small boxes appeared in the second floor hallway, with sticky notes declaring “For George.” George sighed with contempt, but neatly stacked the boxes next to the others in the basement. The next day, however, a sticky note appeared on the door of the basement saying:
George, got one more for you.
So does my neighbor on level four.
You don’t mind, do you?
George did mind, but felt he had no choice. He grumbled, “Sure, no problem,” to the note and went back to his apartment. He tried to distract himself with things there but couldn’t erase the image of the note on the door.
When he finally climbed the stairs to the second and then the fourth floor, he noticed more than just his neighbor’s stuff: he thought he saw a box in the third floor hallway as well. He found a sticky note attached to it that read, “For George.” He coughed in surprise.
A little face peeped out from behind the door beside the box and a tiny young woman said, “Oh hi, George.” He’d never seen her before.
“Hello,” he answered back.
“I was wondering if you’d mind carrying some boxes down for me?”
And so began George’s career. Boxes would appear daily, at least one somewhere among the eight floors. More often than not a sticky note would boldly declare its intended destiny, sometimes with an added “Thanks!” The basement floor was flooded with these, due to their brief half-life of stickiness.
Then came a day when all of George’s neighbors seemed to run out of boxes, but not out of stuff. The contents dumped beside their doors were embarrassing—tchotchkes piled like shed snakeskins—and he pretended not to see, but a flash of familiar yellow always drew his attention. For George. George was horrified that these things had been left out unprotected by six walls of cardboard. He quickly scooped up as much as he could and ran to the basement. He pushed the heap to the very back of the shelf, grabbed an empty box to retrieve the rest, and soon had everything safely hidden away.
Eventually George didn’t even see his neighbors. That was fine with him: the less contact the better, especially as he grew in intimate awareness of what their boxes held. After some time passed, more of his belongings lived in the basement than in his apartment. He transferred his lease to the basement and took up residence. At first the subterranean atmosphere bothered him: the mold made him sneeze and his eyes watered uncontrollably. Soon it became the outside air that hurt; it felt as if the vastness cut into his lungs, as if the shallow air outside didn’t have enough substance. Neighbors were recycled, and only one person ever requested a box back, at the advent of a second child. At times George felt like the boxes were family, like someone who knew you and would use that against you.
Stepping outside one day some months later on another unwanted trip for more tape and boxes to accommodate the seventh floor Alexander family’s sudden addition of an aged in-law and his too-many possessions, he saw her. Crossing the street in front of him was the woman who had left him, oblivious to the shock she sent through him. She was walking a small dog, impatiently jerking the leash in response to his curiosity stops. It was unmistakably her, though lines of age went unhidden by caked-on make-up. He realized that his face might have aged too, a fact unverifiable, as he had long ago stored away his mirror in the very back of the basement. A tiny squeak from the canine accompanied each yank and the woman scratched her chin with her cigaretted hand. It had never occurred to him she might still be in the area. She was all the way down the street by the time he realized he had been standing still the whole time. What a dunce, he must move, he must follow her! But she was walking in the direction away from the hardware store. He was about to follow her, but the image of the little dog played in his mind. It wasn’t fear that made him turn away finally. That little dog, that stupid, little dog. Why didn’t he just bite her skinny little ankle? Why didn’t he break free, run away, escape her vile dominance?
By the time he was inside the hardware store, he was so angry at the dog that he ran into a large woman walking out the door. A bag full of holiday lights she was carrying was crushed between them. “Oof, sorry,” he said, shoving the bag’s contents back into her body and escaping to the nearest aisle as quickly as possible. He caught his breath in front of the designer paint colors display. Goddamn that woman.
“I just have to get back,” he said aloud to the stack of paint chips. He purchased the necessary tape and boxes and returned to the basement with them as quickly as possible. Without removing them from the bag, he dug into the shelf where the unlabeled box of her things was hiding. He lit a match to it, and dropped it into an empty metal garbage can. He warmed himself briefly by its flame until the few droplets of un-evaporated perfume shot flames high and threatening, a tsunami of smell. Finally, he fell asleep on his cot under the scratchy military blanket.
The next morning the phone rang, and George let the answering machine pick up as usual. “George, it’s your mother. I decided to buy a house in North Carolina and I’m moving next weekend. I told you I was and now I am. When I was packing up the basement I came across some boxes of yours. My new place doesn’t have much storage, honey, so if you want these you better come and pick them up. Otherwise I’m just gonna have to toss them, because like I said, I really don’t have that much space. I’m going to be around, so just stop by. Oh, but call first—I have a dinner party I’m planning, so if you’re coming by then maybe I’ll wait till you get here and you can help me carry up the folding chairs. Okay, talk to you later George dear.”
He hadn’t been to his mother’s house in years, despite the mere two hour drive separating them. For one, he didn’t have a car, and for another, they had never been a family to celebrate the holidays, or anything for that matter. As years went by there was less and less reason to see each other. But George wondered about the boxes. He couldn’t remember leaving anything at the house. Having his things in more than one place made him worry.
The matter of the car was a problem. On his way to the hardware store he had noticed a new rental car company. They were loud and impatient, and by the time he was inside the economy-sized Ford, he was shaking a little. They had wanted to know so many things about him, and tried to push him into an upgrade. He yelled he’d take the white one, pointing to the one on the lot with the largest trunk. Once inside, door slammed to keep the salesperson out, he grasped the wheel tightly and took the long way to his childhood home, avoiding the turnpike entirely.
When he finally arrived, damp with nervous sweat, he spotted a note stuck to the front door, in obvious yellow:
George, had to leave unexpectedly.
Let yourself in.
The boxes are at the foot of the stairs.
“Figures,” George said as he opened the door. He walked into the familiar smell of his childhood, a glue and potato-y smell. The door to the basement was open and two boxes sat on the cellar floor, labeled “George” in bold ink. It only took a glance of his skilled eye to spot the inferior tape holding the boxes together. He stacked them and carried them up the stairs and put them into the trunk of the rental car, ignoring the pile of folding chairs left for him at the foot of the stairs. He paused to look back at the note on the door. Grabbing a pen from the car, he marched up to it and wrote “Thanks!” over her note.
The sun was setting when he finally dropped off the car and carried the boxes into his basement. They weren’t very heavy and George suspected they might be full of old clothes. He set them down next to his cot and looked for reinforcing tape, which he stuck directly over the existing tape, and then shoved them to the corner and prepared for sleep. The drive had exhausted him and the leftover sense of his mother’s house nagged at him as he fell asleep.
A little mouse sound woke him later that night. He turned over assuming he would fall back to sleep quickly. But the sound persisted and it began to feel as if the creature were nibbling his mind. Out of frustration he got up to find whatever it was and, if not kill it, at least frighten it out of its maddening task. His rising and grunting was enough to make it stop, so George got back into bed, but he couldn’t sleep. The boxes from his mother’s house stood in the corner with a density like a gravitational pull. “Aw, hell,” he said and finally got up. He flipped on the light. He walked over to the two boxes, admiring his tape job for a second before peeling it off, then opened the flap of the first box and spotted a sweatshirt on top. “I was right, clothes,” he thought, and pulled it out. He recognized it as his father’s: it had lived in the back of his mother’s closet for decades after his death, gray and softly worn out in the elbows. Under the sweatshirt he found a framed family photo. He must have been about four. He was chubby and wrapped in mittens, coat and hat, as they were posed outside their home on a snowy morning. He had a huge smile on his face and so did his mother. His father was reaching his hand toward the camera and looked about ready to instruct the photographer in some fine nuance of the trade. The family dog was caught chewing on his dad’s foot as the shutter closed.
Under the family photo was his baby album, a sporadically filled notebook that his mother had kept up enthusiastically for a while, recording his visits to the doctor and his unusually curly hair. It ended at “One and Half Years Old.” Underneath the book were some of his baby clothes, and at the bottom a collection of old joyless birthday cards from his grandparents.
The next box was full of old shirts he wore in high school, which he tossed directly into the wastebasket. At the very bottom, the last shirt he pulled out unfolded and a book dropped onto his foot.
It was a small hardcover with ragged corners and had “My Journal” in simple font across the front. He had forgotten all about it. For two years, fifth and sixth grade, he had written in it daily, tracing his memories of his father in an attempt to recreate his presence. He’d been dead for five years by that time and George’s recall had empty spaces that he filled with ideas of who he wanted him to be. His mother, alarmed by the news that the neighbor kid was smoking dope, had ransacked his room while he was gone one day. She didn’t find any drugs—he was too scared to try them—but she had found his journal, read it and was so angry at him for writing about his father behind her back that she told him she had burned it in the fireplace.
“You what? That was mine. That was mine!” he had cried in a voice that had not yet deepened. He remembered a hot white light behind his eyes.
“Well, it’s gone now, George. Get over it. Stop being such a baby, writing in a diary like a little girl. Go to your room if you’re going to snivel.”
He never questioned that she burned it, never checked for evidence in the fireplace. And here it was, complete but for the last ten blank pages, scattered throughout with little sketches and complaints about life. He sat down on his cot and read it from start to unfinished end. He read sentences like, “Today mom made a cake, but it wasn’t for me. She took it to the neighbor because his nana died,” and “Dad’s sweatshirt fits better than it used to. I must be getting bigger. I hope I’m strong like him when I grow up. But maybe not so mean,” and “I hate it here. Mom mopes all day and then yells at me like it’s my fault. I wish we had a better t.v.,” and “Sally is mean. She said I had no friends. I don’t tell people her secrets, like how she picks her nose when she thinks no one is looking.”
It was the basement of his soul, all the hidden compartments of a life. Once done reading, he pulled the tape from the shelf and sealed its edges. He took a post-it note from the floor and pressed it on the cover. For George.
The cut was deep, an accident of fatigue. While ripping off a length of tape to re-seal a box that had come undone, his hand slipped, and the tape-perforating teeth tore through his thigh. The pant leg peeled back to reveal a gash of bright red blood. Five minutes later, it was still bleeding. The materials available to him didn’t accommodate wounds, and impatient to move on, he improvised. Carefully holding the free end of the tape in his teeth, he tore another length of tape. Keeping the shredded pant leg peeled aside, he taped around his leg, sealing the wound under duct tape. It was not the first time he appreciated the clean efficiency of the tape, how it did its job in the world as best it could and did not apologize for where it failed.
Months passed. A neighbor on the sixth floor—Sarah—an older woman who walked with a very straight back, came to the basement door and knocked before opening the door.
“George?” she queried. “Are you there?” He liked that the question made it seem like he could be out, as if she imagined him busy doing fascinating, death-defying things.
“Yes,” he said in a voice creaky with disuse.
“I could use your help.” He noticed her frailty, the way her dress used to fit on her and now hung as if it were weeping on her body. “John Matthew, my husband. Well, he was very ill, the cancer you know,” she started. George didn’t know, but knew something was going on with someone in the building, first by the social workers that came and clomped up the steps in stockings and orthopedic shoes, and then by the ambulance that arrived silently with lights flashing.
George hadn’t been in a hospital since he was born but he could tell that’s what Sarah’s apartment smelled like. “Ointment” was the word that came to mind when he stepped inside. John Matthew’s life was in the corner of the room, by the rented bed. “I just can’t quite bring myself to put it away, but it’s time,” she said. She looked over at the fresh boxes that lay flat, not yet built, and sighed. George had never even met John Matthew, but his widow, rather than just assuming that George would do this for her like the other residents did, was happy he could do this for her.
“Why don’t I work in here, it won’t take me long,” he said.
She looked at him, at a loss for what to do with her hands. “I’ll make us some tea,” she said finally.
While she toiled in the kitchen, George quickly built up the boxes and filled them. John Matthew’s life had been reduced to unused dress shirts, countless bed linens, a pile of medications, Chux bed pads, bedpans and spoons specially made for those with unsteady hands. Once finished he stacked the boxes by the door to take back with him to the basement.
“Would you like some tea, George?” called Sarah. “It’s ready.”
He wandered into the kitchen doorway. Sarah already had two cups filled with hot water and held a tea bag over one—his—with an expectant air.
“Yes, please,” he finally answered. The tea bags went in with a loud plop and she brought them over to the kitchen table.
“Tea is my favorite thing in the afternoon,” she said and looked out the kitchen window. George followed her gaze. The blue of the sky was shocking. They finished their tea in silence.
She thanked him after he carried away the last box. Taking in the sight of the now-empty room, she said, “I guess that’s all we are in the end: boxes carried away by other people.” She didn’t seem sad to George. In fact, if anything, she seemed much younger than when he first arrived at his door.
“I’ll take good care of them,” he said in return.
“I know you will, dear,” she answered, smiling, and closed the door.
The basement was a safe place, where he could be alone. It housed all the shuttered pain of the building’s residents and the weight of that was not something that could be ignored: the tape pulled away from the cardboard after too many years of it, the ink faded from its role as signifier into vague taxonomy. The boxes began to speak to him. They told him about the lives they contained, how heartache and joy were compartments in life you could choose to open.
Assembling yet another box, he was struck by the emptiness of potential inside. The story that would come to live there, sealed off from the changing world outside, was his responsibility. He’d look after the story, protect it, carry it inside himself even. Long after its contents were forgotten by his neighbors, replaced with some other distraction, he’d be sure it remained safe and remembered.
Particles like fairy dust crisscrossed the light that only streamed for fifteen minutes a day, and only on bright days. Subterranean light moved over the reclining form of George on his cot. The window of sunshine passing began at his feet and swept up to his face, waking him to his calling. A new day, a new box, a new story to carry. He rose and picked up the tape.