11:26 pm Short Stories

“What’s in the box?”

The man pointed a puffy, partially-gloved finger at the box that sat on the aluminum bleacher in front of him.  The scissor-modified gloves – blue and white, team colors – were stained with what could only be innumerable hot dog and Frito pie drippings throughout the season.  The right glove had seen its share of runny noses.  From the look of the guy, Pete imagined the gloves smelled like ketchup, burned tobacco and backside-scratching, and tried not to visibly wrinkle his nose.

Pete also attempted to ignore him.

Unperturbed, and allowing for the possibility Pete hadn’t heard him over the rolling timbre of the marching band a few sections over, (not really playing, but vamping between plays on the field), the man nudged Pete carefully with his meaty arm, muffled by a thick, blue coat sleeve.

“Hey there, buddy,” the man said at a level that would have been considered a shout in any other setting, but that was amplified just enough to carry over the ascending chords of the brass section, followed by an enthusiastic and syncopated, “Go, Cats, go!” from four of the five bouncing cheerleaders on the sideline, plus two fans who responded out of habit, and three junior highers who kept running back and forth in front of the railing.

Pete lifted his eyes toward the man and allowed them to pull his cheeks into an awkward smile.  Pete’s eyes met the man’s briefly, then fell to the Dr. Pepper foam trapped in the man’s considerable mustache.

“I’m sorry?” Pete said, but in a normal voice which he realized was useless against a backdrop of semi-coordinated bleacher-stomping.  He overcompensated with a comical shrug and tilt of the head, which he immediately regretted as undignified.

The man took a healthy gulp of cola from a foggy-colored plastic cup, refreshing the layer of head on the tips of his lip curtain before quickly sucking the foam through the coarse pepper-colored hair.

Pete thought of whales filtering plankton from the water and gagged a little.  He realized the gloves might also smell a bit like stale fish.

Again, the finger pointing toward the box, wiggling for emphasis.  “In the box.”

Pete looked at the box.  It hadn’t moved.

“In this box?”  There were no other boxes in sight, but Pete couldn’t shake the idea that the man must be asking about something else.  What kind of perfect stranger would ask about one’s personal belongings?

“’’Zat your box there?  I thought’t was yours.”

Pete processed this for a moment, and figured a simple acknowledgement wouldn’t hurt anything.

“Yes, sure, that’s my box.”

“Figured.  You been starin’ at it a lot.”  The man took another long sip of his drink.  His cup was nearly empty.

“Oh,” Pete thought for a moment, adjusting to the idea of being analyzed by a man in a puffy blue jacket on an aluminum bleacher.  “I guess I was just…thinking.”

“Ah, yeah.”

Pete nodded slowly and looked toward the field, feigning interest, squinting his eyes to focus on whatever was going on.  It was a timeout.  He re-crossed his legs, making sure the crease of his slacks folded appropriately around his leg so it wouldn’t wrinkle.

The band exploded into a Sousa-infused fight song, the team running onto the field, squirting water from plastic bottles into their gaping mouths, then throwing the bottles behind them while a few kids wearing team colors rushed to gather them at the sideline.  The cheerleaders kicked and screamed, their arms pointing and flailing like someone guiding a frantic plane, their straight legs kicking absurdly high, extemporaneously and randomly cheering and woo-hooing.

The man leaned into Pete slightly before speaking, like pressing the button on a walkie-talkie.  “So, what’s in it?”

Pete smelled Bud Light and possibly bleu cheese on the man’s breath, but the violation of his personal space had made him so tense that it only partly turned his stomach.

In an odd way, the man’s tact notwithstanding, Pete had to admit that a box like this one probably looked out of place, sitting alone on the bench among people bundled in heavy coats and stadium blankets, and children bouncing up and down the stairs trying not to spill their hot chocolates.  The colorful ribbon and mysterious potential contained beneath the silvery wrapping paper drew glances from anyone within eyeshot.

Pete’s eyes drifted to the box, a painful stillness settling on him again like a hot, sweaty blanket.  He eyes looked through the box, the image of what was inside throbbing in his brain like a fresh sunburn.  He smelled her perfume, having drifted from the air of the stadium long ago.

She hadn’t wanted it.  What’s more, she hadn’t wanted him any longer, either.  She hadn’t opened it.  She didn’t even care what was inside.  She touched it only long enough to set it where it sat now, and where it would be until someone else moved it.

“It’s nothing,” Pete said, and shrugged.  Finding a deeper meaning in his own words, he put his hands on his knees, and stood upright.  He walked away from the man, toward the metal railing of the staircase.

“Hey, don’t forget your thing,” the man called after him, pointing at the box again.

“You can have it,” said Pete without turning, waving back with his hand, dismissing the box entirely.

Pete heard the unmistakable crinkle of plastic wrapping behind him as his feet clicked down the stairs, being torn from the box and stuffed in a ball between the man’s legs.  The pop of a couple pieces of tape being broken to lift the lid.  The man, beginning, “What the…?” before the crowd erupted in spontaneous exultation, their cheers of joy directed toward the field and their fists pumping the air.

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