The man in the box
Charlie knew he couldn’t sit in a donut shop or walk the streets all night
and then come back to work all day. He’d have to sleep somewhere. There had
to be some way out of this mess. Then he saw the manager’s truck approaching
in the distance, so he cursed, got up and went back inside the Vegi-Bowl, a 100%
organic juice bar in a pastel-colored box on wheels. The box was stationed on
one side of a red brick plaza near the main entrance of the downtown subway
Charlie took off his sunglasses, crouched down uncomfortably and looked
out a window of the box, gazing across the plaza.
"Hey, Terry, that store over there, by the TV’s."
Terry was a willowy blond guy who always moved slowly.
"See the sign?"
"Art-Coop. Does that mean they sell art made by chickens?"
Terry smiled faintly.
Charlie and Terry worked behind two small windows in the juice bar,
taking orders, preparing food and receiving money. A cash register sat in the
middle of a counter lining the front wall. On both sides of the register the
counter held cutting boards and condiments, sandwich and salad fixings in
chilled containers, juicers and shiny black plastic blenders. They kept clean
kitchen utensils in a dish rack by the sink. The soup heater leached a faint gassy
smell. A tattered canvas awning hung from the roof over the front of the cart,
giving a thin band of shade.
For several hours each weekday two parallel lines, fifteen or twenty
people long, formed outside the twin windows of the box. Office workers looked
expectantly at Terry and Charlie. It was like dealing with a fear of heights;
Charlie felt okay until he looked back. When he saw all those eyes on him he
found himself moving faster and working harder. Beads of sweat rolled down
his nose. He tried not to drip on the sandwiches.
The night was warm, the moon full, a big red disk in the sky. Charlie
walked south down Shattuck. He was pissed off. Even last month they had all
been friends; now the cowardly punks had put his shit in boxes and shown him
the door. How could he get back at them? None of them had a car to vandalize.
He could jump Marco and kick his ass, but then Fred would come looking for
him. Maybe he could break their windows in the middle of the night. He found
himself staring at a discount shoe store window, filled by a salacious poster of a
beautiful female model sticking her tongue out at him, tantalizingly vacuous and
nine times larger than real life.
Charlie went to his favorite pub and sat near the door, staring into the big
mirror on the wall behind the bar. In it he saw a cavernous room with black
walls covered by leftist propaganda, slogans in reversed lettering: "NO TO
SECTARIANISM! FOR PEACE, WORK, AND DEMOCRACY!" a huge black and
white photo of a heroic-looking Che Guevara and a socialist-realist oil painting
of Lenin giving orders to policemen. That Guevara prick looked like the sort
who had been in command of his fate at all times and had certainly never been
kicked out of a shared housing situation. Charlie kept looking at the time; each
twenty-minute sweep of the long arm on the ‘Belfast Water’ clock hurried him
through his beer, to a night without the rest he’d need for work.
He had one choice left. He left the bar earlier than usual and walked
uphill to where Gregory parked the cart at night. The lot was crowded with
other food-carts on two-wheeled trailers, one of them a baroque space capsule
out of a hundred-year-old Flash Gordon comic. Charlie wandered around the lot
and found the Vegi-Bowl. He keyed the entry code, unlocked the door and went
in, closing the door behind him.
He didn’t want to put the light on. All he had to do was find the floor, lie
down and make himself relax enough to sleep. He set the alarm on the clock in
the box to wake him before Gregory came. Tomorrow after work he’d store his
boxes with his friend Big Leon at an SRO hotel down on University near the
railroad tracks. Maybe he could take showers there. He would buy a plastic
razor and shave at a sink in the men's room of the public library.
He used his dirty work clothes to make a pillow. The floor was a hard
smooth tile. His legs were gently pinned between the ice chest and a trash can
that pressed against his knees. He tried rolling on his side. In a similar jam two
years earlier he’d slept on friends’ couches; now everyone he knew already had
people on their couches. He knew of people renting closets and spaces beneath
stairs and one guy even subletting a cabinet for garden tools where he couldn’t
properly lie down. People with real apartments paid up to eighty percent of
their income for rent; eight out of every ten dollars to feed a landlord. Charlie
did some calculating. At his wage level, if he never spent any money at all, he
could afford to move into a shared room in eight or nine months. "Maybe," he
He smelled flecks of citrus pulp drooling down the walls of the box. A
floral plastic fragrance seeped out of blue packages of synthetic coolant in the ice
chest. Automatic weapons fire rang in the distance. Minutes later sirens passed.
He closed his eyes, breathed deeply and slowly, and drifted off.
Early the next morning he left the box and walked downhill toward the
plaza. It had rained before sunrise, and dawn was gray and foggy. Two police
vans moved slowly down Shattuck Avenue. A street-cleaning machine made
noise and sprayed dirty water on the sidewalks. As he passed the subway
pillbox, Charlie saw that a leftist group had covered the plaza with election
posters: ‘League for Defense of the Proletarian October.’ “So now it’s
Halloween,” he sneered, aching and yawning and scratching himself. And I’m
already seeing the world through new eyes, he thought sarcastically. He
resolved to not let this situation get to him. With time something had to turn up;
maybe he could latch on to a woman, a fine one like one of his ex-girlfriends, like
Cindy or Karen, or Lisa Marlow, the indie film babe. Briefly encouraged by that
thought, he rapidly became depressed again. The period of waiting could be
long and hellish. To put a bright face on harsh necessity he would try to regard
his new living arrangement as an adventure in consciousness expansion; it might
make him more aware of the sufferings of the poor. Even if he didn’t have any
money he was still middle class. It was only a temporary setback. He’d find a
Before the lunch rush, on the third day of a major air pollution alert,
Charlie sponged off the prep-area, then leaned forward and folded his arms on
the counter, watching fine young women pass him by. An old man in an
overcoat pushed a string of six shopping carts across the plaza, the carts
overflowing with aluminum cans, glass bottles and cardboard boxes. Oil
paintings from magazines were stuck on some of the boxes.
Charlie pointed, “Check it out, man, our collector has a taste for the
Surrealists. That’s ‘A Span of Black Ladders.”
Terry said, “He’s sure got a lot of shit for a guy with nowhere to put it
Charlie said, "Yeah. Maybe that's me in five years..."
“Oh, Charlie. Don’t be an asshole.”
Stock quotes and news headlines spiked across huge TV screens in the
bank lobby across the plaza: " -- Paris goes ape over simian actors performing
Hamlet -- suicide of terrorists in Supermax -- "
Charlie went out the back door and emptied a garbage can full of orange
peels. The Irish guy was coming.
"Hello, Charlie. Have we been busy?"
"Uh, yeah. Not too busy."
Carrying a plastic milk-crate filled with supplies, Gregory stepped up into
the box, squeezed in next to Terry and set the crate down on the big cooler. He
said, “I’ve got something for you guys!” Gregory pulled something out of the
crate, squeezed past Charlie and came out of the box. When he was a few yards
away he turned around with a dramatic flourish and a big grin, holding a long
sleeved black cotton T-shirt against his chest. The shirt had an imitation of a
white tuxedo front on it.
Terry asked, “What the fuck is that?”
Gregory said, “The company has a new employee uniform policy: you’re
to wear these shirts.”
Terry said “No way I’m wearing that, Gregory.”
Charlie said, “Me either. No clown costume.”
“Now wait one goddamn minute! This is company policy -- you guys
don’t make the rules! Everybody at the other carts is wearing them, every store
in California and Nevada --”
Terry said, “Well, we’re not wearing them here.” He argued with
Gregory through the screen window on the back of the box.
Gregory was getting angry, his face turned as red as his hair, and Charlie
sat down in the doorway, using the dispute as a chance for a break. Sweat rolled
down his face. Behind Gregory the TVs in the bank lobby flashed images of
happy blond people making thin letter S’s in the snow above Lake Tahoe. Where
Charlie was and who he was and the thought of being made to look like the
100% organic version of some rich man’s butler suddenly struck him as
outrageously funny. He started laughing. Terry argued with Gregory and their
voices rose and Charlie laughed madly until tears came to his eyes.
“If you don’t go along with it I’m gonna have to let the both of you go!”
“No you won’t. What are you gonna do if we leave? You gonna stay here
yourself all day for three or four days training our replacements? With all the
other stuff you gotta do? You gonna close the box down till they’re trained --
how much money will you be out then?” Terry had Gregory on the run.
Charlie said, “Come on, get real. You can’t ask an adult to do this. It’s
demeaning. It’s undignified. Don’t be absurd.” He tried to sound soothing,
playing good-worker to Terry’s bad-worker.
“I’ll do what I have to do. I’m warning you --”
“Yeah, right, sure,” Terry turned his back to Gregory, saying loudly, “I’d
like to keep arguing with you but I gotta make these people’s lunches for them.
Charlie stood up and stretched and went back to his window in the box.
The lunch rush had begun. An older woman gave her order and behind him
Gregory kept talking to their backs: “We can't have anyone with a bad attitude
working here. If you don't like it here go work somewhere else. It's a free
country. This isn't gonna be so bad. Really, you guys. You'll get used to it."
Late that afternoon Charlie stepped outside the box and sat in the
doorway. Terry had quit for the day, the customers had disappeared and
Gregory was back at the warehouse. It looked like he’d backed down, at least for
now. Dazed by heat and exhaustion, Charlie raked his fingers through his short
greasy hair. He unbuttoned his shirt and fanned the sticky cloth away from his
chest. Throwaways had broken the locks on the dumpsters near the box to suck
the orange peels. The dumpsters leaked rancid fruit syrup. Charlie watched
citrus juice fractals slowly rotate in a puddle of black water near his feet.
The air stank of diesel fuel. He saw something obscenely festive in the
colorful paper and plastic gas masks worn by pedestrians and motorists. He put
his back against the doorframe and closed his eyes, drowsy, awash in sounds of
traffic, rap music and a distant police helicopter beating the sky. A traffic signal
at the crosswalk chirped frantically, telling the blind it was time to cross the
street. The voices of passersby dissolved into a uniform gibberish, and he
imagined himself watching their masked faces in a street carnival around him
while he lay on reeking syrupy blankets inherited from the Indian wino across
the plaza. He’d live on peach Cisco and an occasional jelly donut, never bathing,
his nose inches from a brick pavement dotted with black spots of gum.
He woke up with a start. In confusion he looked for the wino at his usual
spot in front of the chain bookstore. The wino and his blankets were gone.
Charlie watched flies whirl around the garbage dumpster and get sticky
on the puddle near his new white leather basketball shoes. Typhoid and cholera
had broken out in Oakland. He moved his feet away from the water, and then he
relaxed. He wasn’t poor, he was broke, that’s all. He was still a long bus ride
away from where a bunch of fucked-up crack-smoking blacks were making
themselves sick. With a regal air he told himself that he was immune; he only
drank organic fruit smoothies and microbrewed beer. He looked forward to
downing pints of ice cold beer after work. It would be easier to sleep in the box
Brown rings emerged around the red ball in the sky, and a gray haze
fogged the streets. The clouds obscured the sun without lowering the
temperature; they seemed to trap the heat. At night streetlights turned the
clouds into a lumpy yellow mattress in the sky.
Charlie left the bar. The night air was calm and still. From down the hill
he heard a bell ring on the bay, and from nearby yards he smelled the rich sweet
fragrance of night-blooming jasmine. He cut across an empty parking lot
between two hypermarkets, then heard footsteps running toward him, spun
around and saw a black man with a policeman's nightstick cocked above his
head, not running so much as sailing silently through space. Charlie thought
"Cops!" and his head exploded with a bolt of metallic heat and light and he
tasted blood, he staggered and tried to run but he was clubbed in the head again
and again and he fell down, now seeing the concrete against his nose, slick and
damp and red.
"Where's your money, man? Give us your money!"
he man with the stick loomed over him. A second man started going
through his pockets. In raw animal fear Charlie urinated and the man moved
The man with the stick said: "Give us the money! Give us the money!
Don't look at me! Don't look at me! I'll fuck you up!"
You've already fucked me up, you piece of shit, Charlie thought, but he
said, "Here, this is all of it! I haven't got any more!" He pulled his pockets inside
out, freeing a wad of bills and coins that rolled across the sidewalk.
The second man grabbed the money and hissed, “Six-up! Six-up! The
Man! The Man!”
They vanished without making a sound. Charlie felt no pain, only dirty
blood caked on his face and in his hair and the embarrassing warm dampness of
his pants sticking to his legs. He hadn't blacked out or lost consciousness. That’s
good, he thought. Rising to his feet created a wild vertiginous sensation of being
catapulted skyward. He had to get to the emergency room. He tried to put an
optimistic spin on this; maybe if he acted more fucked up than he was they’d
give him a real bed with clean sheets for a few days. He could pretend to be
brain-damaged, speaking only in a series of grunts. Maybe he could hustle a
handicapped discount transit pass out of it, too. Charlie fingered the gash in his
forehead, fascinated by the red flesh juice and its warm and sticky feel.
The doctor put a finger beside his eye. “If they had hit you right here,
where the bone is relatively fragile, it would probably have shattered and
destroyed your eye. But nothing’s really wrong with you. You’re a very lucky
On the way out of the hospital Charlie looked in a bathroom mirror:
twenty stitches made a hash mark down the middle of his forehead, the skin
around it a mosaic of blue, purple and cadaver yellow-green. It was dawn and
he moved slowly down quiet, tree-lined residential streets, reeking of dried
blood and beer piss. He could change his clothes at Big Leon’s, maybe even take
a shower. After an epic struggle he made it to the residence hotel and slowly
climbed four wide flights of stairs.
Leon opened the door, then flinched back a half-step. He was a head
taller than Charlie and two hundred pounds heavier but his voice came out in a
whisper as “Sweet Jesus!”
Later, Charlie woke at dusk on the floor of Leon’s room to the sound of a
passing freight train. Leon was out. Leon was letting him crash with him for a
few days, using a dirty blanket from his bed. Charlie’s hair was still wet from
the shower and the clean clothes made him feel like a free man again. He’d
phoned Gregory just before his shift began, and Gregory had been pissed, but
Charlie had managed to squeeze four days off out of the stingy little harp.
Charlie’s head felt dull and numb; if he tried to get up too quickly, the world
revolved around him sickeningly. He had to lie down slowly or he’d begin to
black out, as if falling from a great height backwards into darkness. He awoke
again when Leon came in, then slept like a zombie till the middle of the
Leon had been a sous chef at a restaurant where Charlie had waited
tables. He’d injured his back at work, and the state had rooked him out of his
disability settlement, so now he lay in pain all day watching TV, wearing clean
white socks and boxer shorts with corporate logos all over them and a wife-
At first it felt like being a kid again and staying over at a friend’s house;
Charlie sprang for forty-ouncers of Eightball and Happy-Meals and they listened
to Charlie’s Captain Beefheart CD’s. On the second day it was back to the TV.
Although Leon had done four years in Lompoc, he liked watching the channel
that showed hour after hour of authentic police beatings. Charlie moved around
so his feet pointed at the door, but this left him facing Big Leon, and after several
hours he grew tense and self-conscious so he turned back to face the TV set.
After Charlie’s move Leon seemed to be constantly angry. By the third day
Charlie knew every empty styrofoam burger container and empty potato chip
bag and half-squashed plastic soda pop bottle on the floor with a revolting
familiarity. Leon’s grimy funk filled the room. Charlie left a day early, moved
his stuff to a 24-hour access storage facility and hoped he would never see Big
Back in the box he cracked open another can of Rainier Ale and brooded.
Technically he was committing felony burglary again. If the cops caught him
breaking into the box they could send him to the county jail, where the toughest
prisoners would turn him out, then pimp him to the weaker prisoners. Sleeping
in the same room as Big Leon had been disgusting; how would he like being Big
Leon’s punk, his ride, his little girl? At best the law would pack him off to a
shelter to get robbed or cut on or catch a dose of lung disease. These ugly
thoughts faded to gray until all he could hear was his heart drumming rapidly in
his chest. Fed by the smell of gas from the soup heater, his heart continued to
race and he felt the ceiling bending in towards him, the walls narrowing, the box
in a close embrace around him, his body a swelling obscenity.
Dirty white daylight seeped into the box, and Charlie realized he was
awake, eyeing a grungy corner of the floor. He tasted flat beer in his mouth and
stomach and something was foaming around the corners of his eyes. A hot
tearing pain behind his eyes had spread to his hips and legs. He rolled onto his
belly, moved into a crouching position and pawed the doorframe to stand erect.
From the time on the clock above the sink Gregory should have already arrived.
In a total panic Charlie pulled on his chinos and shirt and sneakers. He popped
the door open, kicked the beer cans out and stepped down out of the box,
fumbled to reset the door alarm and limped downhill as fast as he could go.
Charlie crossed Kittredge on the west side of Shattuck, stumbling over his
unlaced shoes, hating his dirty ugly body and all the agonies it gave him. As he
walked over a dormant advertising panel in the sidewalk several blonde women
in office dress made wide arcs around him, their shoes clicking away down the
sidewalk. He finished buttoning his shirt, awkwardly tucked it into his pants
and repeatedly looked at his crotch, making sure he’d remembered to button his
Breathing rapidly, Charlie leaned against a wall between the doorways of
two stores. In the northbound traffic lane he saw the familiar white pickup
truck, Gregory's churlish face in profile and the box in tow behind it, floating
above a low wall of bushes. He decided he’d catch his breath, then walk slowly
around the block before returning to work in the box.
After an exceptionally busy lunch rush Gregory showed up and asked to
speak with Charlie. Filled with a vague dread Charlie stepped down out of the
Gregory smiled. “You know, I just want to say that I think you’re doin’ a
real bang-up job around here. You’re by far our best team player!”
Gregory paused for a moment.
“A man such as yourself has a great future in the food service industry!”
Gregory’s chest inflated visibly and he gave Charlie a comradely pat on the
“Put ‘er there!”
He grabbed Charlie’s hand with both of his fat mick paws, pulled Charlie
to him and gave him a big hug, enveloping Charlie in a smell of sweat and fish
and chips. Gregory turned and walked away, leaving Charlie dazed and
alarmed and a little queasy. He stared at the manager’s back, realizing that since
Gregory believed in the work ethic and in life after death he could probably
In the first week of November they sent a camera crew to video the cart
for a commercial. The video director and a media marketing man selected
Charlie to play their model cart employee. For four days he had to stay late. He
had to wear the fake-tuxedo shirt.
“Come onnn! Get with it, Charles, we haven’t got all day -- you’re the star
of this show.” The faggot director of the camera crew bullied him into smiling
while Charlie pretended to serve fresh greens and luminous hot stinking food. A
handful of jeering street punks and throwaways watched him sweat under hot
lights. At one point an empty forty-ouncer bounced off the roof and rattled his
nerves. On the last two days they gave him some pharmaceutical speed and
single-malt whiskey. After that the time went by in a fast happy blur, leaving
Charlie aglow with thoughts of the extra money his performance would bring.
One day on a lunch break, Charlie walked two blocks to the main branch
of the public library, found an empty upholstered chair in the magazine section
and slept heavily until the guard rousted him a half-hour later. As he trudged
back to the box he mercilessly assessed his options. What he had to sell didn’t
command a high price. He was still young enough to enlist in the military: he
made an ugly grunt at that thought. Move to another town, to the ‘burbs, LA, or
somewhere in Nevada? It would be the same thing in more alien surroundings;
wages he couldn’t live on and rent he couldn’t afford. Anywhere else it would
be the same thing: he might as well wish he could move to another planet. He
smiled, remembering boyhood fantasies of living in a cabin in the Alaskan bush
or joining a Stone Age tribe in New Guinea or Brazil. Forget that. He laughed.
He couldn’t afford a passport or a good sleeping bag, let alone the plane fare.
He had one final option -- he could just give up. He could admit that this
was his life. The past was an illusion, and now he was a loser, a zero, a failure on
a cosmic scale. As he stepped up into the gloom of the box the thought ran as a
cold liquid through his limbs and he tried to shake it off, tried to think of
something else: music from an old movie, sex acts with a few hot women in the
increasingly distant past, the upcoming football season even though he didn’t
give a shit about football, even the weather. He craned around to look out a
window, up at the sky, and watched a single large white cloud cast a shadow
over Shattuck Avenue
The heat wave continued through November. At the beginning of a
Tuesday lunch rush, Terry quarreled with Gregory, then quit abruptly, yelling
that he was moving to Europe with his girlfriend.
Now Charlie had to work the lunch rush alone. Since the days of the
video shoot, whenever it was busy he experienced a mild recurring hallucination
that a great wooden wheel studded with tiny nails was rolling slowly up and
down his thighs and ass, back, shoulders and neck, inflicting a thousand small
stabs. The days flowed by. Charlie missed Terry and his sarcasm and
combativeness. Licks of greasy hair stuck to Charlie’s forehead and curled into
his ears. His dirty clothes were turning into rags. He hadn't bathed for five
days; he smelled like a throwaway. His skin and the interior of the box were
covered with the same rank damp film. Some office bitch even asked if the tofu
salad had gone bad.
A half dozen policemen hungry for vegetarian food hovered at the back of
the line. Charlie accidentally made eye contact with one of them, a white man
with a square fleshy head and a toothbrush mustache. The cop’s juvenile grin
faded into a scowl. The other cops joined their companion in staring at Charlie
as music from a passing car washed over the plaza, a man singing, a voice thick
with desire: "Oh can't you see, you belong to me -- every step you take -- every
move you make..." For one long ugly moment the furious paranoia and remorse
of Charlie’s malt-liquor hangover made him think the cops could read his mind:
the cops were on to him, they would claim he was on drugs -- “...I’ll be watchin’
you!” with the laundromat tune offering an absurd light commentary on what
was about to take place. And as the officers approached he grew visibly
nervous, stumbling over words to the last civilian customer. He was silent when
they gave their orders, his pulse throbbed loud in his head; if they didn’t hear
him speak they might not piss-test him or pull him out of the box to strip-search
him on the plaza. Most of all he hoped they couldn’t see his eyes. Charlie
struggled against himself to make no mistakes in their orders and to not
undercharge or overcharge them, certain that he was now botching these simple
tasks. For some reason none of the cops complained. They loitered around the
plaza a few yards in front of the cart as they ate. Finally they disposed of their
wrappers in a recycle bin and disappeared.
Under a purple sky at dusk, Charlie stood in the doorway of the box,
waiting for the shift to end. Flashing pastel light flickered against the front
window of a clothing store, advertisements projected from the panels in the
sidewalk. A news headline came to him: "Countdown starts today for
astronauts, rats and jellyfish." He looked across the plaza at the TVs, but the
message wasn't there. Charlie snorted through his nose, then laughed
convulsively, the first enthusiastic laugh he'd had in a long time.
He stopped laughing, cursed under his breath and leaned backwards, out
of sight. Lisa Marlow was walking past the front of the bank with a Teutonic-
looking big blond guy. She looked at the man, toward the box. He had a tan
arm around Lisa, he looked like an underwear model off an ad on the side of a
bus and throbbed with an appalling air of health and confidence. She smiled and
moved to kiss him and Charlie closed his eyes, not wanting to see that man’s
tongue invade her mouth and hoping Lisa would never see him here. They
walked away, her long red hair now cut short, and he eyed the curves in her
dress and her bare calves, remembering his hands on her thighs and the cool
blue sheets of her bed, her pretty face with her mouth open and the things that
happened the handful of times they’d been together. It hit him hard: now he had
more of a relationship with old-man cashiers in liquor stores than with any of the
women he'd had sex with.
Charlie moaned like a cow, took a big sad breath of dirty air and went
back inside. A final trickle of familiar customers was heading towards the box.
As a man in a luminous white shirt grew larger, framed in a window of the box,
Charlie fingered a torn envelope and the thin wad of cash in his pants pocket.
Today was payday, and even with the extra pay from the video shoot it still
didn’t amount to much.
A wild urge came to him: ‘Just leave -- fuck it, just walk away. Man, none
of this shit is me. Put the knife down -- just put it down, or, fuck it, throw it
down, or throw it at a customer. Just get rid of it and run. Out the door, and run
far the fuck away from all of this --’
That night for a change of scene, he walked down University Avenue and
across San Pablo to a bar by a freeway overpass near the railroad tracks. It was a
big green room with dozens of white tables, wooden chairs and a fake wood bar
in the middle of the room. Giant yellowed photographs decorated the walls;
black and white pictures of old men in business suits with prize-winning steers.
Charlie sat far away from other people, near the door to the women's
toilet. The room echoed with sounds of glass striking glass, a flat hand
repeatedly slapping a table and a beautiful woman with a laugh like a goat. A
group of muscular young drunks wearing baseball caps shouted at one another,
slapped their palms together and punched each other's shoulders. Charlie drank
quickly with efficient, mechanical movements. On the high-resolution TV above
the back door a black man and a white man were soundlessly punching the
blood out of each other's faces --
...Then Charlie stood in the dark at the edge of a parking lot, staring at a
freight train rolling past him ten feet away; black and yellow flatcars carrying
sealed red metal boxes and piggyback truck trailers. He lost his balance and
staggered a few feet closer to the train, recovered and stepped backwards. Next
there was a garish blur of yellow lights, a man in a red smock and thousands of
glass bottles. On the corner by the door a grubby young man whined for spare
change. Charlie heard his own voice snarl, "Fuck you, punk -- get a job!"
Everything around him was black and Charlie panicked, arms and legs
thrashing about until he realized he was in the box. He must have slept briefly,
still wearing his dirty clothes and shoes. He was still drunk, but not obliterated
All that night he'd felt a desperate need to erase himself in drink. And
slowly, he traced the impulse that had propelled him into that evening’s pool of
booze. For the first time that day he'd seen the commercial for the box. He'd
seen himself, a close-up of his face, a smiling service-sector employee, toiling in
nine bright colors at expressionist angles; three dozen shots with hot plastic jazz
in a thirty-second spot on the sidewalk, and again the same images, silent, on a
bank of six televisions in the window of a gourmet hypermarket.
All the big events of the past six months now swirled around him in lurid
arabesques: his eviction and the beating on the street, the predatory gaze of
strangers and his defeat in this horrible dead-end job; all the dead-end jobs that
came before and those that would come after. In a viscid fog he saw that
something essential had been taken from him and would continue to be taken
from him. There would be no rest; his solitude would never end, and he would
live forever in agony in the box, broadcast now in images at light-speed away
from the world, to other planets and eventually to the stars. For the first time in
years he remembered his ancestors’ religion and felt it moving in him now, a
renewed and powerful presence in his life. Now he understood. The Christian
promise of an everlasting fleshless existence in a paradise beyond the sky was a
prophecy of television broadcasting. He was afraid and he believed.
The man in the box watched the darkness around him dissolve into a deep
blue. Two hours later pale blue light came into the box, riling across the features
of the tiny room, animating simple objects and machines, bringing them to life
and slowly moving in the limbo existence in this box inside of Charlie's head.
Soon the light would strike the supine man. He would have to get up and start
He rode his old motorcycle at ninety miles an hour down a two-lane road
in the desert, his head compressed in a helmet, wind raced over him and the
earth rolled slowly away beneath his fists and knees. He didn’t work; he wasn’t
poor; he was a free man. Now he would flee to Mexico, with all the old doubts
and fears left far behind. A dozen miles to the east he saw jagged gray
mountains, their summits many thousands of feet above the valley. He took his
eyes off the road, and for one long dangerous moment he eyed the highest peaks,
a row of rock daggers in picket formation. Behind the peaks white clouds veined
with gray lines floated in an immaculate blue sky. He became enraged, then sad,
and his new confidence collapsed: that barren granite and the backcountry
beyond it was a land of ice and snow, a land without money, free and primitive,
all in life and in the world that Charlie could never be and never have --
Gregory snarled, "Man, what are you doing here?!"
Charlie coughed, half choking, thinking, "Why haven't I hidden the
body?” He sat up. Gregory’s groin was inches from Charlie's face.
"Stop!" Charlie said, "Wait!" The alarm clock hadn't gone off. Charlie was
still drunk from the night before, with a hangover that was an invisible steel pipe
thrust through his skull. Everything reeked of smokes and gin.
"Charlie, what the hell --”
"I don't know! I mean, I wasn't burglarizing the place."
"Oh, I'm quite sure you aren't, that's not it -- why are you lying on the
"Ah...sleeping, actually, sleeping, I got kicked out of my place. Look, I
couldn't help it -- I don't have anywhere else..."
Looking up at Gregory’s face, looming over him, Charlie saw Gregory’s
rage subside. Gregory would not fire him. With a horrible clarity he saw that
wherever he went and whatever he did he would still be right here, in this spot,
at this moment, until the time came for him to move into another, much smaller