From time to time, I would like to share a story I wrote.
The Box Marked ‘Candace’
From the bedroom doorway, a sliver of light runs the length of hallway to the top of the stairs. The woman eyes this light hungrily and turns her body sideways, before holding her arms straight out and lifting her chin to avoid rubbing it on the few unsecured cardboard flaps. To propel forward, she must shuffle her feet, then waddle her hips, while allowing the veins in her arms to ache. Her bottom slides along each box face; she can feel the dip of the gap at the end of one box and the ridged start of another, forgetting what each contains although black marker scrawls on the sides form words like “Kitchen” and “Books” and “Clothes.” The boxes have been reused and repacked so often that the woman doubts any hold what the black marker says they hold.
She keeps shuffling and waddling and rubbing her way to the point where the sliver of light ends. Her heart shakes like loose rock in an earthquake. The woman thinks now, having seen the black writing that reads “Clothes,” about the baby. What about the baby? There had been so much by way of baby clothes, it had never seemed enough. Bibs and sleepers and T-shirts with funny sayings or dinosaur cartoons. Bottles and soothers. A diaper bag for each day of the week. Tiny socks and sneakers. Headbands with pink roses or yellow daisies or purple bells.
The woman bows her chin, sees the thin decline of stairs, and a new slice of light emitting from the tiny crescent-shaped window at the crown of the front door. Smaller, more compact boxes frame the stairs. She sets her sights on that new delicious-looking slice of light on the hardwood floor below. She will find the baby’s things once she is downstairs.
It is hard to navigate the stairs. She uses the wall to lean her weight into. This way, the smaller boxes will not topple over the boxes on the other side that, like wallpaper, cover the entirety of the front hall. For at least a year now, the woman has moved, snakelike, through the dining room to the kitchen because the front hall and adjoining family room became filled with boxes. Her hands trace the wall, note small flecks where paint has scratched off, and her nails, long and pink, tap tap tap as she takes each step. More black writing spells out “Cassette Tapes” and “Photos” and “Office Supplies” and “Magazines.” All the boxes are sealed with packing tape. She cannot be sure if they too hold the remains of what the writing says they do. The woman can only hope. For some time, she has wanted to make a photo scrapbook. But she does not know if the pictures of her life and what it looks like, all spread out, is what she wants to remember.
The woman reaches the bottom of the stairs. In the foyer is a pile of newspapers about three feet high from 2000 that she promised to recycle four months ago. She walks over to the front door, no longer holding her arms out or her chin down. Rising up on tiptoe, she looks out the peephole and sees the same, everyday picture: a small swath of sky, the concrete dullness of the porch, and the unruly green grass just beyond. The woman taps her head with one finger. It is time to call Stan, her neighbour. It is time to mow.
Resuming her footing, the woman turns around, forgetting the pile of newspapers to recycle. She supposes the box of the baby’s things could be in the hallway. There was a navy blue blanket with the planets and constellations sewn into it that a friend of her mother’s made. She wonders where that might be. She would love to look at it right now. Pandy, she says to herself, Where did you put all the baby’s things? She surveys the boxes in the hallway. Dan was the one who had packed all of Candace’s things after the last hospital visit. He was the one who had wanted to get rid of everything. He had had all the boxes marked “Candace” lined up in the driveway, ready to go. She had come out screaming and pulling all of Candace’s toys and stuffed animals and headbands out of the boxes. Whatever she had been able to carry she had taken in her arms and marched back into the house, but Dan had come tearing after her, knocking it all out of her hold and telling her she was an idiot. That it was useless, so why bother?
The woman had not thought of that day in a long time. I just want to look at the blanket, she says, again to herself. It must be in a ‘Candace’ box. I’ll find it, take it out of the box, and lay it on my bed. Then, I won’t have to go looking for it again. This plan makes her feel better, so she makes her way through the dining-room pathway her cousin Laurie helped her create a year ago.
In the kitchen, boxes form a permanent curtain for the sliding doors that lead to the backyard. The table is subsumed with piles of paper, organized by a coloured post-it note system. The computer on the counter is on, and, surrounding it is more paper. The only kitchen tool that operates is the coffee maker, which has, since it is 8:30 a.m., already brewed a pot of fresh coffee. This is the only thing that the woman can make in the kitchen, since the oven is stuffed with bulging fabric, and the fridge, which is unplugged, and she never opens, more than likely contains random items like small plastic containers of bobby pins, Christmas ribbon and bows, paper clips, old postcards, empty frames, broken calculators and cameras, lightbulbs, or outdated coupons.
The bottom of the woman’s mug holds the dregs of yesterday’s coffee. She pours out today’s liquid to its brim. She does not need sugar or cream. There is no room for such things anyway. Laurie will be by in a couple of hours time with lunch, so the coffee is enough. Till then, she can surf the Internet, or look for the navy blue blanket with the planets and constellations sewn into it. It had been Candace’s favourite blanket. As the woman sips the coffee, she wonders if it will smell like baby or the unwashed house or the dank interior of decade-old cardboard. She sits in the only chair in the kitchen, and holds the mug up to one cheek to feel the coffee’s heat, glad that Dan did not, in the end, throw the “Charity” boxes out. He had left her, had he not, after that incident? She pushes the mug harder against her cheek, winces at the burn. Yes. Yes, he had.
The woman stares at the computer screen and hits the Firefox icon. She could read the day’s news on CNN. Finish this coffee. Go through the paper on the table, figure out what bills need to be taken care of. But she does not want to do any of that. She places the mug on top of an empty purple folder. She is no longer sure that the blanket is navy blue or has the planets and constellations sewn on it. Maybe it is yellow and has blackbirds for a pattern. She senses it was yellow with blackbirds. She can hear birds through the kitchen’s one small window that she keeps open a crack, but what kinds of birds she does not care.
Did Candace prefer the yellow blanket covered in blackbirds or the navy blue one with planets and constellations? The woman tries to picture Candace’s room — the crib, the delicate pink walls, the rainbow Dan had carefully painted, the dresser with the polka dots, but it is like a made-up room in a catalogue that does not belong to anyone. Anyway, Candace’s room is shut tight like a locked treasure chest. No one has been in there for ten years.
The woman hates the sounds these birds make in the open air that slips through that open crack. She hates their beating wings against the ivy, hates the palpitating haste of their every movement. It is so anguished. She wishes it was nighttime when no aromatic slivers of light can sneak in, and no bird sounds threaten the silence. At night, the boxes are still, she is still, the baby is still. There is no getting out at night. But in the day, there are temptations — the black writing, the flashes of green lawn, the doorbell ringing, the circling of bicycle wheels, the yells of girls and boys at one another. In the daytime, life moves, but the woman sits with coffee, listening and waiting for Laurie.
What if the blanket, navy blue or yellow, planets or blackbirds, is a memory, or worse, a dream fragment, an imagined thing, that hangs in her mind as if drying on a clothesline amongst other things like the red bra and black dress she used to wear on evenings out — evenings she cannot remember, let alone recreate in a story to tell herself or Laurie, though Laurie would never ask about such things.
She turns her gaze from the computer’s wavy lines to scan the boxes that block the sliding doors. “Dishware,” “Vinyl,” “Utensils,” “Bowls,” “Medicine,” “Games.” The writing is faded, and she wonders if she should go over each letter with a new black marker she recently found in a kitchen drawer. She resumes her scanning, and settles on one box, in the centre of the wall of the boxes that reads, “Candace.”
The woman gets up from her chair and walks over to the box. She examines the writing and is confident it is not her own. She runs her fingers along its edges, wondering how to pull it out without toppling the boxes that lie on top of it or shifting the weight of those boxes to its right and left. She could cause an interior collapse. Everything from that other life could come tumbling out. Boxes could explode with stuff she does not know she has still. Dan’s stuff. He had left, after all, with nothing. Left her everything: pants, shoes, socks, underwear, nail clippers, razors, toolbox, briefcase, unread magazine subscription, bills, every little unremarkable thing. What if all that debris finally gave way and rolled over her like a landslide?
But what if the navy blue or yellow blanket is tucked away in this very box, in the middle of this wall of boxes? What if she never holds it again? It would be like Candace never existed. That baby with the china-like eyes; no, with the marble-like eyes. The woman was always afraid one of those glassy balls would bounce out of Candace’s head and roll into the vent, disappear into the house’s heating system, and clank against the metal pipes day in and day out. She remembers telling Dan about this concern and Dan yelling and yelling till he stopped and left with nothing. Left her with every little unremarkable thing.
She sighs, and looks over to the coffee machine for the time: 9:30 a.m. In one hour, the course of her day has changed. Laurie will not be here till noon. She has plenty of time to get at this box in the centre of things.
She tries to stick her fingers under the box’s bottom. It will not budge because of the weight of the other boxes stacked on top. She needs her step ladder, which is stored under the kitchen table. She gets on her knees, and slides the ladder out. Then, she positions it in front of the column of boxes that has the box she wants. She climbs up three steps, and is now level with the top box, which she pulls carefully out, like reverse Tetris. Breathing in and out, she lowers herself slowly down each step. Ignoring the box’s black writing and the urge to open it, she places the box onto the floor. She repeats this process three times. The left and right rows are leaning dangerously in, but miraculously, stay put. She removes “Candace” and places it on the floor away from the other boxes. Then, she returns the four boxes to their rightful place in the row, leaving a gap at the top where some sunlight now passes through.
In the room, this new light illuminates the kitchen table, the counter, the mound of empty purple folders, other surfaces. She sits in her chair and wonders if she should have her second cup of coffee before opening the box. But this is not the place to pull out the baby’s navy blue or yellow blanket. She needs a softer, shadier space.
She picks up the box and moves out of the kitchen and into the path that leads through the dining room and into the front foyer. She raises her head, looks up to the top of the stairs, which is hard to focus on, since there is so little space. She ambles up the stairs, leaning against the wall, clutching the box, straining every working arm muscle, ignoring the tingling that has erupted in her fingers. Each step is an Olympic hurdle. But the box is so tempting, so full of the beautiful things she longs to hold again, that she pushes forward. At the top of the stairs, she turns right. Here the boxes are less, and she can waddle by with greater ease, though she has to raise the box up, and this burns her shoulder muscles. Her fingers beg to give way. She drops the box in front of a closed door and it shudders before settling on the carpet.
Beyond the door, the woman is sure she hears a beating heart. She slides her back against it and sits on the floor next to the box. Tape hangs loosely off one side and she pulls at it till it slides off, leaving a sticky smudge on the cardboard. She gets on her knees. The beating heart beyond the door shakes as if it is too cold. She pulls more and the flap hangs down like a salivating tongue. She pulls the opposite flap back and out of the box flies a pale moth. She dips her hands, then her arms into the box, but there is nothing. No navy blue or yellow blanket that once belonged to a baby. No shred or rag or thread of a man named Dan. She plunges her head into the empty box and caws like one of those birds. It had been so heavy to carry.