By the time I was eight, I’d come to know of a cigar box my father kept in our garage, filled to the top with various nuts and bolts, washers, grommets, and screws. He inherited it from his father, but it always seemed to be a container for emotions I wasn’t supposed to explore. It was an odd feeling since it was easy to be fascinated with the metal offerings.
Dad was rarely an obscure guy, quite the contrary, but when he came near the box, he’d mention in some offhand way his father’s stinginess of spirit. He recalled my grandfather had an easy smile for others, but not for him. Strictness prevailed when his dad was around, as if glee or lightness should not be part of childhood, a fate he made sure not to pass on to my sister and me. I’m grateful for his clarity about that.
His habit, when near the box, was to straighten his spine, get close to being choked up, hide it with a pretend cough, then dump the box out on the garage floor and delve into the mess after a mysterious pause. He didn’t elaborate, in words at least, even though he was a man of words, a born master of ceremonies, a journalist, a great public speaker who would quietly fold his handkerchief and put it in his top drawer, satisfied that he’d spoken well.
As if to express a variation of his father’s teachings—that a person should regard possessions as if they might vanish any moment—my father made a point of declaring everything he owned to be a treasure; a Bic pen that didn’t write anymore was something he couldn’t throw out, owing to its treasure status. Of course, all items in the box were treasures, along with rusted patio furniture. In time, I considered the dumping of the box to be an artistic moment and grew curious as to how the metal fittings would spin and roll, bounce and spread, never the same way, over a six-foot swath. I also saw he didn’t treat everything like treasures. It was more complicated: more like people had to be a mirror for how he needed the world to be, or how he needed to be seen; then everything was peachy. He wanted neighbors to be his friend, and they were. He was genuinely curious about hundreds of topics, so he interviewed people constantly, but his largeness of presence guaranteed that only a few would interview him back. It was as if he made them feel more real than they felt the moment before, and it made him feel impactful.
I suppose it bothered him how clearly I saw myself as part of a drama when I was only eight. My punishment for seeing was to have to pick up the contents of the cigar box, no matter how long it took. He’d find the piece he was after, put it to use, and leave me to put it all away. That was the deal. He could be incredibly gentle, too—loving and open. But not around that box. When I was thirteen I concluded there was something unfinished for him in all this. I invented a scene in which his own father dumped the box when my dad was a lad in Long Island, or a freezing morning in Chicago. I was caught in some odd repetition.
When I was twenty, I forgave him for everything except making my very private mother wear a big Mexican hat on her birthday in front of a blaring mariachi band. He knew how much she hated attention. When I was thirty, I respected him. At forty, I loved him more. When I was sixty, I took the box as mine. Now he’s gone. My province became his swath: a mix of odds and ends on the cold cement when I need a part for myself. I have a daughter and son now, and I never asked them to put away the pieces. I’m sure I carried on some other a version of the scheme. They’re off on their own adventures now.
I’m going to tell my children everything I know about the box. I swear there’s good stuff in there, useful pieces that hold things together. They can figure out if they want to split the contents or pass them to an unknown home. I’ve even got a new granddaughter who will likely be fascinated with the various parts when she’s old enough to use them, maybe make it an art project. Fixing isn’t everything.
Really, it’s only a matter of minutes to gather up microscopic cotter pins and finishing nails, washers as thick as silver dollars, and a thousand bolts that don’t have a better home. On a cold fall morning, it occurred to me the box was part of my inheritance. My God, it’s really that simple.
J.L Cooper is a writer and clinical psychologist in Sacramento, California. He is winner of the Tupelo Quarterly prose open prize, TQ9, judged by Pulitzer winner Adam Johnson. Additional awards are First Place in Short Short Fiction in New Millennium Writings, 2013, and Second Place in Essay in Literal Latte, 2014. His short stories and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in The Manhattan Review, Hippocampus, Oberon Poetry Magazine, Paper Swans Press (UK), Gold Man Review, KY Story, Folia Literary Magazine, The Sun (Reader’s Write), and in other journals and anthologies. A full length collection of poetry is forthcoming from WordTech. His website is found at: jlcooper.net