Grey Boxes

Grey Boxes

Blenlick said they'd given us the grey boxes as a sort of formal apology. They would have preferred to give us cash of course, Blenlick wanted to make sure we were clear on that, but how would that look in the future, when it came time to formally apologize to another pack of pencil-pushers? Not to say that they'd ever need to formally apologize again, or that we wouldn't be here if they did, or even that we were pencil-pushers in the classical sense.

"I'm informally apologizing for calling you guys pencil-pushers right here and now," Blenlick said. "That was uncalled-for and in no way, I mean absolutely no way meant to diminish your understanding of our respect for all the gosh darn good work that gets done around here."

We weren't exactly sure what to do with the grey boxes. Why everyone got a different size was also a mystery.

Sven's box was so large it dwarfed his cubicle. The guys that wheeled it in from the elevator kept comparing it to the Hindenburg, the Titanic, and a few other large things that had collapsed and killed people. Sven, who was squat, bald, and easily disturbed, spent an hour on the phone trying to get someone to come and take the thing away. Finally, in the afternoon, they sent Blenlick down to informally apologize, and to give Sven a smaller box, about the size of a cigarette lighter.

Climley had a box that was the exact dimensions of her infant son, Little Jerry.

"It's uncanny," she said. Her normally big eyes seemed to jut a little from her skull as she spoke. "I put him in it, just to see, and I had to turn it upside down to get him out. It fit like a...coffin."

My own box was about five inches long, shiny and dented. It opened from both ends. At first I thought maybe there'd be a pen in there. Once, they'd given us pens as a formal apology. I carefully opened both ends and peered inside. No pen. There was a piece of plastic, shriveled up like a snake. I took the plastic out and looked at it. There were serial numbers on it. I wrote the serial numbers down on a memo pad and forgot about them.

By this time Lisa Thomas had opened her box and started screaming.

We all peeked over our cubes to look.

"It's a kitten! It's a kitten!"

Lisa Thomas, who was gargantuan and always wore a small necktie and high brown boots that reminded me of a pirate, was hefting the cat above her head and shouting. The cat was furiously wriggling to get away.

It came to light later through an intradepartmental memo that the cat wasn't a cat at all but a very lifelike animatronic. Blenlick assured us this was better. No muss, no fuss, was how he described it. Lisa Thomas didn't seem to see it that way. Not exactly happy-go-lucky to begin with, Lisa descended into a period of agony when she found out the kitten was a machine. She'd often sit at her desk just quivering until someone asked if she was alright, or returned the cat to her because the thing had gone behind the vending machine again and everyone was afraid it might chew through a wire and short circuit. At which point Lisa would smile hideously and take the cat up and apologize, then slowly begin to quiver again.

Other people had better boxes. Kone's box had coupons for quesadillas. He later said that he started salivating when he saw them and had an intense impulse to eat the coupons themselves.

My own box sat on my desk undisturbed for three weeks. Occasionally I might look at it and for some reason mourn the death of my mother. Her hair had been grey, maybe this was the root of the association. I could never be sure.

All I know is that for some even stranger reason I felt compelled to speak to Blenlick about my mother, to force him to understand she had been a creature of great emotional complexity, skilled at many things, not only as the conflict resolution mediator for the McTavish School for gifted children in Ann Arbor where her accidental death occurred.

She was, for example, preternaturally adept at recognizing emotional unrest even if no outward symptoms were present and responding kindly. The plan was to relate to Blenlick a few carefully rehearsed anecdotes of my mother's kindness and explain how these elevated her above the lifeless and ennui-stricken mannequin the box seemed to suggest she had been.

It became obvious however when I came into the office that Blenlick was in no state to entertain me. The simplest way to describe his affect as he sat at the stone-colored desk, hands folded neatly before him, was to say that he'd been deactivated. Right away I wondered if he, like Lisa Thomas's bungling cat gift, was a sort of realistic but hollow automaton. But he did seem to be breathing in a way the cat didn't. And what was even more curious was that his eyes were scanning the room methodically as if he were reading a huge scrawl on a whiteboard only he could see. The closest association I could draw to the pattern of the eyes' movement and how it made me feel is to say it was comparable to the ominous feeling inspired by the drone of many insects moving toward you across a field.

I was holding the box in one hand and the door knob with the other, the sound of scraping knives and forks in the adjacent executive lounge — which sounded identical to the sound of thunderstorm rain on corrugated tin — flooding in around me. For a moment, I was afraid to speak. It was only due to a flash of my mother's shocked face superimposed over the grey box in my hand that I finally looked straight at Blenlick and said,

"Excuse me, sir. Can I bother you a minute?"

Blenlick's eyes immediately ceased canvassing the room and snapped on me as he simultaneously began speaking, "And well look who it is, Mr. Hanlan, and ho, ho, you've brought up your box! Hope you aren't planning on giving that to me as a gift because we gave that baby to you! It's yours to do with as you please, as our way of formally apologizing for the events on Tuesday the eleventh which I assure you were in absolutely no way your fault."

I faltered at the door that even when closed did very little to dampen the sound of the knives and forks clattering and screeching so loudly it felt very much like the room, or the room's reality more broadly, was being eaten alive.

"It's just that sir, I can't accept this gift. It — it reminds me of my mother."

I realized how odd this sounded and must have blushed because Blenlick was moving toward me now, his arms cranking out in an arc of sympathy and his face contorting down in a way I guessed he thought made him look earnestly involved, but really made him look morose and unhinged.

"Oh, Hanlan," he said, "Oh, you poor scared marsupial. Your mother was a good woman, I'm sure. A very good woman."

"She was," I said, struck by a sudden dignity. "And I don't want anyone to think otherwise. Despite her grey hair and her cankles and her deafness. She was deaf, you know."

Blenlick nodded, his eyes glittering. His arms suspended around me like a net, as if waiting for me to finish speaking before they would close on me forever.

"She didn't deserve what happened," I insisted, "Or — or any of the guff she had to take."

The knives and forks were getting louder.

Blenlick continued grinning out of his dark downcast face, his eyes white pinpoints of light.

"No," he cooed. "None of us deserves the bad stuff. Not one of us loyal subjects. Not one bit."

His arms closed around me and I felt the grey box slip away and I remember thinking the orbit it made as it circled to the floor was identical to the way my mother had lifted me from a sink bath and spun me in a towel like a comforting tornado, except in reverse, and this was an incredible relief that obscured the fact that for a second or two now Blenlick had been sucking on my throat.

His body positioned against me like a large grey mosquito, and the sucking was ginger but, as you might imagine, a little surprising.

The strange noises he was making were also surprising. I imagined an infant at a breast, but a sort of wolf infant, half-man, half-beast, programmed to suck but also to chew and kill. And the panic of this thought, combined with the now insanely magnified sounds of the knives and forks screeching through the walls, was the reason I promptly flung Blenlick forward and at the same time tripped him with one foot.

He crumpled, apologizing to the floor, and to the chair his neck had struck, and to the box he'd crushed, and it took a second for me to see the back of his head was bleeding.

There was nothing I could do but stand there watching him as he gasped and apologized. And somewhere distant over the ridge of office complexes and down the serpentine poisoned brook, the trout swam merrily and blind bears fell from branches, and the sun inclined her sleepy head toward the grey, dynamited mountain range; to the west loomed the country of God.

Kevin Tasker's work has appeared in Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Belt Magazine, Indigo Rising UK, and Thought Catalog. He can be reached for comment at [email protected].

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