by Jackson Arn
It was my husband’s idea to steal the boxes—he’s the daring half of our compound brain. He spends most of the day drafting letters to committees worldwide, never emails. Education has always been important to him. His parents saw to it that he learned something about everything. Now he sits in bed, surrounded by crumbs and gray paper. His hands are straight as they accept food. His eyes contract with gratitude. After meals he tells me things he remembers from his education, mostly architecture. Between these facts he gives advice for making extra money or saving it.
He used to work at the Target-on-the-hill, which is how he knew I could get away with box theft. It took him months to confess his place of work, and even after that it took me months to understand that he was a workman, not a manager. When he admits to something embarrassing, he adds a few facts to numb the sting. In this case, he said things about the structural integrity of the building. At least a dozen extra floors could be added safely, floors of shopping and storage, thousands of tons of concrete, flesh, cardboard. Middle management would have to hire at least a hundred new independent contractors, at 35 hours a week with no benefits. His pupils swelled with the thought of so much growth bought so cheap, and I assumed he was upper-middle management or middle management, or at least owned stock.
A few days after we moved in together, my husband told me about the secret plan to grow the Target-on-the-hill higher. There would be three new floors, not twelve, but that was just for now. Targets evolve slowly. There would be a grand reopening, and another grand reopening a year or two from now, and so on until some limit was struck. Three days later, the drilling commenced. The foundations had to be pressed deeper, more concrete had to be poured.
A drill ended my husband’s professional relationship with Target. When I asked the friend who’d driven him to the hospital, he told me they’d spent their lunchbreak visiting the hollow shafts under the building. There was a cry and a crunch, and just like that my husband’s leg and a few fingers of his left pinky were stranded at the bottom of a shaft. Both were preserved, until recently, in concrete.
Even slackened with painkillers, my husband’s face was clever. I had chosen a man of real ability. In the middle of my terror, I saw that he had a genuine curiosity about the way things worked, and his leg and finger were a monument to that. Circling the hospital bed, watching his bandages brown, I dared to believe that this was the beginning of a good new stage of our lives. He could design buildings in his spare time, I could switch to substitute teaching. There would be vacations. A month later, when we had both accepted that a large cash settlement was a fairy tale, we got married.
He rarely left bed at first. Winter ate up most of the spring, and the wheelchair we’d bought was no good on ice. By summer, he’d mastered the art of lying flat and doing nothing, and I wondered if he’d found peace already. But his drawings were sloppier than usual, the lines cracked and childish. That was the first sign. By the end of summer he’d scream at me almost every day. I wasn’t surprised—by then, he’d been doing it in his sleep for almost a month. His screams called up the scene I had never been able to make myself imagine, the split-second when his leg wasn’t separated from his body but wasn’t a part of it, either. I smelled blood-mists.
Eventually he got comfortable enough to wheel himself outside for a few hours a day. He wove elaborate theories about how the accident had changed his view of the city’s buildings—literally, but also metaphorically. He made new friendships with his favorite places. He found the courage to talk about Target again. Soon the plans for vertical expansion were a regular part of conversation again, like my chance of a raise or the neighbors’ toddler. His lines got smoother. He stopped screaming, first at the real me and then the version of me who appeared in his dreams.
Even when I came home with the news that my hours had been halved to twenty, he was quiet. I wanted him to squeeze the blood out of my hands or punch the wall. One of us had to do something loud or neither of us would be able to fall asleep. But when I get angry I can barely move or speak, and that evening my husband didn’t speak at all.
My husband’s second-favorite sister helped us find a cheaper apartment. I talked our landlady into refunding us two-thirds of our security deposit (child’s play—her husband’s in a wheelchair, too). We decided to recoup the missing third by spending nothing on the move, not even on tape. The elementary school where I work is full of people who’d be afraid to confront me if they knew I was breaking the law. I stole five rolls of tape and didn’t bother hiding them under my skirt. As I walked out of the building, I twirled them on my wrist, because you have to know when to celebrate, otherwise the stress of what’s left over kills you.
I thought that stealing cardboard boxes from Target would be something else worth celebrating. Out of respect for my husband, I hadn’t set foot in the Target-on-the-hill since his accident, and it seemed right to break this rule in order to break another.
It was past midnight when he suggested that I do it. Our electricity had died a few days before, and the food in the freezer was wet. We sat between birthday candles (I’d stolen them from the teacher’s lounge) and tried not to think what would happen if the building caught on fire. Our stuff was around us, unplugged and taped but still not boxed. Before my husband had finished his sentence, I’d decided to do what he’d told me. Instead of answering I gave him the squinty nod that people in movies use when things have gotten very serious. He understood what I meant right away, and what was left of his leg gave a wag.
The Target-on-the-hill is the biggest in the city, one of those places that looks the same on the inside and the outside (birds, puddles). There are many missions but only one confusion. People go groggily from aisle to aisle. The workers know more than the customers, but barely—they have their products, their beat. Everything else is somebody else’s responsibility. The morning I went back, deliverers wearing the same logo as their packages were refilling the shelves. Every three or four shelves there was a box, empty or almost.
I stalked the aisles, waiting for easy prey. When a uniform disappeared behind a shelf, I grabbed the empty box with a crouched sweep that was almost graceful. Don’t look, don’t look over your shoulder, I told myself. I had a pile of clumsily folded cardboard soon, and a brisk expression that meant, Don’t worry, I do this all the time, this is my job.
The pile was getting too heavy for my armpit. By the time I’d found a way to carry it with grace and two hands, it was starting to block my view. The thing to do was drop the boxes and get a shopping cart, but I didn’t need the extra attention. My muscles shook, my shirt was a sponge. Leaving was the obvious solution, but there is something nice about choosing to be in pain, and that morning, it was the only thing that made the pain bearable.
Still, it was a relief when someone asked, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” Before the last word was out I’d dropped my cardboard, which landed with a magnificent fart of dust and Styrofoam.
My questioner was a woman of my age and the body I’m always in danger of getting. She wore the same red-and-khaki as my husband pre-drill, but her shirt was untucked and she shifted her weight like the kind of teenager who’s never been near a job. Staring at her was like staring at the optical illusion of the duck that’s also a rabbit, jerking from worker to shopper, worker, shopper, worker, shopper …
She asked me again, sharper, and I decided on worker.
“Well, you’ll notice I’m collecting used cardboard … receptacles.” Long words are good for resumes and talking to idiots.
“For what purpose are you collecting said receptacles?” But she wasn’t an idiot.
“Forgive me, ma’am. My name is Rafelson, I’m with the Pew Research Center in D.C.” I patted the pockets of my paint-stained jeans and mimed hesitation. “I’d give you my card but plainly … I don’t have it.”
“I can see that. But you still haven’t answered my question.”
“Yes, I was getting to that. For the past three months my colleagues and I have been conducting a study into the efficacy of box reuse. Naturally, we’re interested in receptacle practices at major chains in urban centers. We’ve already been to Costco, Walmart, and so on. I’m the junior member of the team, so guess who ends up gathering the boxes?”
“You don’t have an intern?”
“Before the last round of cutbacks. All the manual labor’s trickling up to me.”
She smiled gently. It was the first gentle thing she’d done. “Hang tight. I’ll get you a cart for those. A real cart, not the little customer ones.”
A minute later she was back with a hand truck that exactly matched the color of her shirt. “I wish someone had told me you were coming. Sorry we’re a little unprepared here. Always a work in progress, you know? My name’s Higgins, by the way.” I stopped loading the hand truck and shook her hand. Smoother than I would have guessed.
She escorted me counterclockwise around the floor. “Sorry for snapping at you earlier,” she told me. “It’s just that there are a lot of people here we don’t want. Thugs and petty criminals, leaching off of things. I’m sure you know what I mean. They’re hard to spot sometimes, because we’re spread so thin. Everybody’s so busy with their own job they can’t be worried about somebody else following the rules. I’ve been here longer than anybody, so I don’t mind going above and beyond when I need to. It’s nothing compared to what I’ve been through.”
“How long have you been here?” Suddenly there were no used boxes in sight.
“Oh, long time. Years and years. When I started here there was a different president. The iPhone was a brick. Long time.”
“You must like it here.”
“It’ll do, it’ll do. Sometimes it’s hard to stand. There are so many people who think they can get away with anything here, just because it’s a big store.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, you know. They think they can get away with murder. Big crimes, little crimes. Shoplifting. Flashing dick at customers and hiding in the rubber ball section until the cops leave. Robbing a bank and stealing a shirt to cover up the splatter from the paint bomb. Selling Schedule I drugs. Stealing boxes.”
Everything she said was relentlessly gentle. Somewhere underneath, I heard swollen veins.
“You have to understand, not everybody who takes empty boxes off the floor works for the Pew Research Center in D.C.,” she said. “Most of them are just looking for a handout. A free lunch. There’s a special circle of Hell for copyright infringement, know what I mean?”
“Oh, yeah, I know what you mean. Wait, what?”
She jerked her chins at the hand truck. “See those?”
“No, the logos on the boxes. Copyright protected. You can’t be using those for anything but what the company makes them for.”
“Or else what?”
Again, the gentle smile. “What did I say? Special circle of Hell. Don’t get me started on all the people we get who’re going straight to Hell.”
She waited for me to get her started. “What do you mean?”
“Some people think they can just live here all day long and never pay rent. You’d be amazed how many of them have tried. It’s easier than you might think. It’s a big store, and we’re always a little unprepared, as I said before. There are too many micromanagers and not enough big-picture people.”
“Are you a big-picture person?” I had to keep her talking.
“Yes. But even I run into trouble. There’s just one of me. There are whole sections I don’t have time to monitor.”
“What sections do you monitor, Higgins?”
“Oh, the usual suspects. Beds. Alcohol. Rubber balls. It’s possible to spend 24 hours a day here and lead a fulfilling life. You could wake up on a mattress wrapped in plastic, have a couple beers for brunch, read a paperback, sprint up the down escalator when you get stir-crazy. But I’d catch you. I know the way these people think. Freeloaders.”
“Who was the last person you caught?”
She stopped suddenly. The light faded from her eyes, her spine buckled under the memory’s awful weight. Soon she was on the floor, hissing.
I said her name twice, which seemed to make her hiss more. I wondered if I should just go.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” someone said.
A man was approaching. He wore his uniform with a lazy competence. I could almost believe he’d woken up that morning and picked the red shirt and khaki pants from a closetful of other things instead of being forced into them. Too nice-looking for here, I thought. Too confident, too muscular, too everything for the Target-on-the-hill.
“Oh shit, it’s you again!” the man was telling Higgins. He gave me a look that said he’d deal with me in a minute and pulled Higgins to her feet as easily as I’d swiped the cardboard.
“You can’t! Keep! Doing this! You can’t! It’s not funny, it’s not cute. Just leave. I shouldn’t have to keep throwing you out. It’s unfair to me. You’re costing me time, do you get that? You’re making me risk my job.”
She stared at the white tiles. If he’d let her go she would have fallen.
“You don’t work here! You don’t work here anymore, do you understand? You’re done here. You’re done. We’re done. I’m not your coworker anymore. I’m not your friend. This is it, you understand? Now come on.”
As he marched her away, she whimpered, “We’re with the … Pew in D.C. We’ve been collecting … receptacles. We went to Costco … Walmart … now we’re … here.”
I should have run out of the Target-on-the-hill and found another store to steal from. Instead, I kept pushing the hand truck, thinking what would happen if the man found me. Most of the time I can ward off the worst scenarios by thinking about them very hard, but I was distracted that morning. He came back.
“Hey. Who are you?” he asked, like he knew the answer already.
“My name is Rafelson, I’m work for the Pew Research Center in D.C. I, my colleagues and I, are conducting a study into box reuse, and we’re interested in receptacle practices at major chains in urban centers. And who are you? Do you work here?”
I’d learned from my mistake. It didn’t matter. Before I’d gotten to “Rafelson,” I could see he knew I was lying, but he didn’t stop me.
“My name is Rodriguez. And yours isn’t Rafelson. Unless you got divorced. You still married to Steve? How’s he doing?” He wasn’t angry.
“How do you know who I am?”
“I remember you. You used to wait for Steve by the bottom of the escalator. You always dangled your legs, like a little kid.”
I always did, but I didn’t remember Rodriguez. “Steve’s fine.”
“I doubt that. My sister’s been in a wheelchair since she was thirteen. Nobody makes that change without some pain. Especially Steve. Know what I mean?”
“Yes, I do.” It was easier to agree with him than to run away or keep pretending. But wasn’t I making the same mistake again? For the second time, I asked him if he worked here.
He cocked his head before I’d finished my question, as if he’d rehearsed the gesture many times. “I could tell you I do, but what would that prove? You can’t even tell the difference between Tina and a real Target employee. Isn’t it enough that I used to know your husband? Don’t worry, I’m not gonna tell anyone about the boxes. You’re gonna steal them, right? Yeah, you are, you don’t have to tell me.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to this.
Rodriguez led me and the hand truck clockwise by the aisles I’d already raided. The same deliverers were there, and as we passed they gave us a glance—that was all we deserved. Shoppers mostly kept out of our way, and I felt safer than I’d felt all morning. The size of the hand truck and the color of Rodriguez’s shirt said we must be doing something official.
“How many boxes’re you looking to take?”
“I’m not sure, actually. A lot more. I’ll be doing all the moving, so I don’t want them to be too heavy.”
“Smart. Steve’s lucky to have you, huh? What kind of benefits does he get?”
“Not a lot.”
“Figures. My sister got lucky. Her husband owns his own dealership. Inherited it from his grandpa. She just plays boardgames all day.”
“Must be nice.”
“Oh, yeah. So listen. If you want, I can get you some boxes without logos. That way you won’t be committing a felony when you reuse them.”
“Copyright laws these days,” I said, remembering Higgins’s lesson.
“Oh, yeah. You can’t be too careful. Just stick with me and I’ll take you where you need to go.”
I followed him. There was more joy in his face than my husband had shown since the first time we fucked, more than anybody who worked here had a right to, and as we approached the freight elevator I decided I was doing him a favor.
My husband still tells me stories about the freight elevator, says it’s the throat, heart, veins, guts of the Target-on-the-hill. Every sellable thing in the store has been swallowed, lifted up, spat out. “It’s smaller than my husband made it sound,” I said, which was true and hopefully made me seem hard to impress.
“We’re going all the way down,” Rodriguez said instead of answering, and pressed the button.
“Where?” I asked, although deep down I knew. There was a groan, I lost and regained fifty pounds, and we were off.
“All the best boxes are down here. Unlabeled, so you dodge the copyright thing. And you’ll find most of them are unused, unfolded. Raw, basically.”
The elevator sank, inches by the minute, with a hum that sounded like it might become a voice but never did. Rodriguez wanted to know where Steve and I were moving, and I told him. For the second time, he cocked his head too early and too much, as if to say, That’s what you think.
Even before we’d arrived, we smelled our destination. The doors opened. I turned to Rodriguez, hoping for some of that competence he’d had upstairs. But it was gone.
When my husband had told me about the lower level of the Target-on-the-hill, he’d always made it sound like the frontier in a cowboy movie—wide open, with an old-fashioned kind of chumminess. He’d never said the lower level was brightly lit, but that hadn’t stopped me from picturing it that way, and now I could see how stupid I’d been.
I’d imagined that the lower level of the Target-on-the-hill was full of busy, hard-working people. Upright people, at least. Out of the darkness came the not-dead smell of bodies that rarely moved and never left. My nose knew the spoilers before my eyes had caught on.
“Rent-free,” Rodriguez told me as I stared. “Some of them used to work upstairs. Some of them just like the free bed.” His boots tested the cold mattress of the ground. “It’s probably better if you don’t look at anything for too long. Keep moving, know what I mean?”
Two large hands—very warm, or my arms were cold—steered me over the low tide of bodies. I kept waiting for a groan or a muttered “bitch,” but there was nothing. “Are they sleeping?” I asked the hands.
“Of course not. It’s noon on a weekday. Just relaxing”
My foot hit a warm, hard-soft thing. There was a wheeze. “Oh shit, I’m s—” I almost said “sorry” but stopped myself. It didn’t matter what anybody said, I couldn’t stop thinking they were all asleep and they’d kill me if I woke them up.
“Just watch your feet, okay? They’re not used to rolling out of the way. You just have to be patient.”
We were moving. It was impossible to tell how fast or far, but we were moving away from the elevator, into the smell.
“Sorry, sorry. I know it’s kinda weird. It gets brighter right about now. There.”
I counted twenty-four steps after the word “now.” The white bulb ahead of us was too meek to light much more than itself, but it grew into a room as we approached. The room seemed to grow, too, closet to bedroom and bedroom to hangar and hangar to second Target. This room’s smell wasn’t human. I remembered the extra-filthy classroom where I always subbed and thought, Wet cardboard.
The hands left me. “Greg! Pick up for Steve! Steve! Ask him for whatever boxes you need and he’ll wrap em up for you.” The first half was for Greg but the second was for me.
“Good morning!” the voice that answered to Greg said, and I said Good morning! back, because politeness has helped get me through the saddest days of my life. The light was a thin broth, better than nothing but barely.
“You want boxes?” I explained that I did, yes. “Why?” I explained why I wanted boxes. “Why would you move apartments?” I explained why Steve and I were moving. “No, I guess I mean, why would you live with Steve? Or spend any time with him?” So I explained that Steve and I were married and I loved him and he was a man of real ability.
Four questions was all it took to arrive at love, but Greg wasn’t done. His body was still chiseling itself out of the room’s black block. The walls gave a whine that might have meant the freight elevator leaving. “You love Steve and you want boxes? Boxes?”
“Yes, to move.”
“Isn’t there something else you might want?” he asked in the voice I use on my students when they’ve almost found the lowest common denominator. “Something Steve might want?”
“Come on, what does Steve want? What are you really here for?”
I inhaled the wet cardboard in search of inspiration and got something for my troubles. “Something for his troubles. Fair compensation. For his accident. A settlement. Equity. Medical bills. Stock.” His laugh wetly informed me this was the wrong answer.
“What? No! No. I’m talking about something you can actually get. From me. Now. Give up?” A little door opened and light raced out, which my overloaded brain made yellow, then red, then green when the door closed.
He had something in his hand. “Know what this is?” A plastic squelch was my only clue. “It belonged to your husband. Arguably still does.”
“The tip of his pinky?”
“What? No! No. His leg. It’s Steve’s leg.” His laugh was shorter this time but still wet, which annoyed me, because my guess was actually pretty close.
“Cut it out of concrete a while ago. We find all kinds of things, but this was special. Somebody wanted to sell it to a private collection in Milan, but the rest of us wouldn’t agree. It’s Steve’s property, we said, give it back to Steve. Then the collector quadrupled his offer and even the rest of us started to wonder. Did Steve really need it back? Could it be reattached? What would his missing leg do for him, other than remind him of the worst day of his life? On the other hand, the leg belonged to Steve. So we came up with a compromise. Store it in the freezer with some other things, give it a year and if nobody claims it, it becomes ours to sell. You got here just in the nick of time!”
As he passed me the bag, I tried to make out his face but couldn’t, because the light from the freezer had re-blinded me. My husband’s leg was heavier than I would have guessed. I needed both hands to hold it. “So I can have it?”
“Of course. And the boxes.”
“How much was he offering?”
“The collector? Oh, a little over five hundred bucks. A little less, if you want a piece, too.”
“Five hundred dollars? For a leg?”
“Isn’t that kind of low?”
“Oh, sorry, five hundred per person. That’s the way we calculate it down here.”
“Everything. We share everything, so whatever the number is, we divide it up between ourselves. That’s fair.”
“How much did the collector offer? Total.”
“I don’t think I should tell you that.”
“How many of you are there?”
“That’s the same question put a different way. Give me a second and I’ll get you your boxes. Do you have a hand cart or do you need one?”
“Wait! Wait. How much did the collector offer you?”
“I can tell you’re agitated, so I think it’s best if I don’t answer that question. I feel guilty for bringing it up,” though he didn’t sound guilty. But to be fair, I never sound guilty when I’m feeling guilty, either.
“Just tell me.”
“Are you thinking of selling your husband’s leg yourself? Do you understand how disgusting that is?”
“Disgusting? You were going to do it yourself until I showed up.”
“I wasn’t going to do anything. We were going to sell it together and share the money. And we’re not Steve’s wife.” He must have heard the gears turning in my head, because he added, “You won’t find the collector on your own.”
“What if we split the money? Just you, and me, and my husband. You can tell them I took the leg.”
“Absolutely not. Any money for that leg, it goes to all of us. You’ll get your share, too. Or you can take your husband’s leg and leave. Those are your options. Try to sell it yourself, if you want. You won’t find any buyers without our help, but you can try. Or you can try and reattach it. But I’m guessing your only way of paying would be selling, ha-ha.”
He put things too bluntly, but he understood them fine. I pictured a man younger than me but older-looking, teenaged cockiness but loyal, a family man after a fashion.
“There’s another option, of course. You could stay with us, live down here. Share everything. You’d have to say bye to your husband, the wheelchair would never work. But no rent to worry about, and you’d have about five hundred bucks, which is a fortune down here, believe me. And you wouldn’t have to split it with Steve.”
This time I saw the trap. Greg was waiting for me to say something like, How is five hundred bucks a fortune? or But I like sunlight! so that he could swoop in and explain how pleasant life under the Target-on-the-hill was and how rich five hundred bucks would make me. When the real issue, the only issue that really mattered, was that I loved my husband and would never abandon him.
So I said this and asked for my boxes, please, and he gave them to me without saying more, as if I’d passed his test but there was no prize, and guided me back through the bodies to the freight elevator.
He gave me enough logoless cardboard to box our entire building, so the move was easy—it’s better to move many light-packed boxes quickly than a few overflowing ones slowly. We’ve been in our new place a month, but the month has felt like six or seven. The new freezer works perfectly.
My husband’s leg is hiding all the way in the back, too high for him to see or reach, camouflaged by kidney beans, triple-hidden. It thawed a little before I could refreeze, but the landlady’s parting gift was to sneak me some ice for the interim. My husband doesn’t need to know about the collector in Milan. If there’s a good reason to tell him his leg is in the freezer, I haven’t thought of it yet, and by the time I do, we’ll have the cash to reattach.
Until then, I’d like to tell him everything I did for him and everything I didn’t do, but love is full of sacrifices, and I’ve sacrificed plenty. Last week they fired me for stealing tape. I was so surprised I forgot to steal more on my way out. I still haven’t told my husband, but I’ve thought about finding a private collector, and living rent-free, and how much five hundred dollars gets you underground, and five hundred multiplied by how many bodies equals how much total. I’ve crunched the numbers, not often but too often. I wish I could stop crunching. It feels good to admit that to someone.