The Lunchbox - Short Fiction
I got sold at a yard sale to Diane, a pale young woman with an odor of incense, who was buying a gift for her husband in honor of his new job. I was still in pristine condition, unlike most of the junk scattered for sale around the lawn, but my previous owner, Sam, no longer had use for me. I had accompanied him on his first day of kindergarten and spent the next several years by his side. But, inevitably, Sam grew up a bit and began buying his lunch like the older, cooler kids. I didn’t blame him. Even the younger kids had lunch boxes with He-Man or Rambo on them, which were much more appealing than my red and black plaid design.
Diane plucked me with gentle hands by my black leather handle and whisked me away to my new master. She presented me to Jim, who reacted with enthusiasm that gave me a greater sense of pride than I ever had with Sam. Jim took me in his strong arms and set me high atop the refrigerator. There, I could oversee the entire fifties-inspired kitchen.
The next day Jim pulled me down and filled me with a sandwich, a small bag of potato chips, a sketch pad, some razor-sharp pencils, and a book about Art and Drawing. His black hair sat slicked back, and his clothes smelled brand new.
We rode in his dingy Ford Escort GT, a car that looked like the little cousin of a much more admired sports car. Jim tugged at his collar and fidgeted restlessly. We pulled into a vast parking lot littered with sprawling buildings and enormous trucks, both of which exhaled plumes of dark smoke. After shutting off the car, he sat in silence for several seconds before beginning a conversation with himself.
“It’s gonna be fine,” he whispered. “Just like Diane said, ‘it’s only temporary, we’ll have enough saved for art school in no time.’ Then I’m outta here.” A small ray of confidence shone down through the windshield, and soon the sound of Jim’s steel-tipped boots led us into the factory. That became our daily routine, at least Monday through Friday, and sometimes Saturday.
The next few years skipped by at a brisk pace. Jim’s job consisted mainly of him sliding sheets of cardboard, marked with some sort of candy logo, into a noisy and finicky machine. He made good friends with Louis, a South American whom I overheard telling wild stories of sailing at sea with what he called real pirates. Jim got a modest raise and bought a new Toyota pick-up truck. Getting sharper at his craft, he filled countless sketch pads with increasingly marvelous images of mythical beasts and pop culture icons, amongst many other things.
He never stopped drawing, and his talent grew. During lunch breaks, he would steal away to a quiet corner under a bright yellow light and sketch, his mind in a trance. Often he forgot to eat the food packed within me. At night, after dinner with Diane, he sat in the kitchen, sprawling his art out along the countertops and table. He drew so much that cramps invaded his hands, but they put up a most futile fight in stopping him from practicing his craft.
On rides to work, he enjoyed singing along to the radio, confidently drumming on my tin lid. At the end of many rides, he would drum to a halt and proclaim, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Ringo Starr!” I didn’t know who this Ringo Starr was, but Jim enjoyed pretending to be him. It made me wonder, why did he pretend to be someone else? Was he not happy with his own life? After all, he had a beautiful wife, a dream he was pursuing, and a steady job as a cardboard box-factory worker. I pondered who I might pretend to be, had I been given the opportunity. Perhaps I could have been one of those Transformers lunch boxes that Sam’s younger friends flaunted around.
One dreary fall, I began to notice a difference in Jim. His legendary, pretend-drum solos ended. As a matter of fact, he stopped singing altogether. I wasn’t quite sure why his demeanor had changed so much since he was still doing the exact same routine he had for years. Perhaps it had something to do with his new boss, Mitch, of whom Jim spoke ill of on routine occasion.
From my spot within the factory, I only saw Mitch a handful of times, but could always smell him nearby, as he wore an astonishing amount of cologne. For some reason, when Mitch talked in his stern, Napoleon-complex type way, everyone seemed to get quiet, at least until Mitch left. Then, everyone commenced disparaging him.
Around this time, Jim gave up drawing on his lunch breaks. Instead, he talked to Louis about sports, television, and how much they hated Mitch. He still brought his sandwich and potato chips, but his sketch pads and pencils were replaced by cigarettes and bottles of prescription pills. I wondered if those pills would ever make him happy enough to start drawing again. Even at home, he rarely practiced his craft anymore. Things did seem okay with Diane, at least. They never fought. They seldom even spoke.
Years crept by until one exceptionally stormy summer when Jim began leaving me in the truck. I enjoyed those nights. I found the patterns and pitter-patters of rain gently sliding down the glass to be entrancing. Just as humans enjoy their televisions, I binge-watched those storms for what seemed like an eternity. Rainstorms were often my only entertainment, as Jim barely even played music in the truck anymore, and he hadn’t drawn in years. I realized how much I enjoyed peeking at his sketches whenever I could. I once heard an expression that said, “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” I never understood what that meant before.
Jim’s clothes became worn, and his face reeked of desperation. Singing was replaced with a new hobby, finding inventive ways to insult and complain about Mitch. Riding home one day, we pulled over, and Jim repeatedly slammed his fists about the cab of the truck, breaking the turn signal switch clean off. Tears began to run down his cheeks, something I hadn’t seen since Sam was bullied on the school bus. They slowly trickled over his whiskers and hung there like the summer raindrops had on the truck windows: only this gave me quite the opposite feeling. Strangely enough, after composing himself, Jim began smiling. The smiling melted into all-out laughter. He cranked on the radio, and we sped home—carefree—just like the old days.
That night he took me inside the house and placed me back up on the refrigerator, which had grown dusty in my absence. Diane took me down and cleaned me. Jim hadn’t done so in years, and I had the growing rust to prove it.
The sun rose, and Jim slept in, despite it being a workday. He finally came and took me, although he packed me with nothing. On the way to work, he blasted Ringo Starr and drummed away on my lid, now covered with dents and scratches that told stories of our years together. He sang to a make-believe crowd as he gave, what he called, his “farewell performance.” We pulled into the lot of the factory around noon. Jim took something out of his coat pocket. Now, I was no expert, but I had watched Sam play enough video games to know what that something was…it was a gun. It felt heavy as he placed it inside me and marched into the building.
The mixture of showing up late, no food packed, and the gun, all launched an air of uncertainty that seemed to mingle with the dust and stench of the factory. Jim set me down on a small water cooler outside Mitch’s office, removed the weapon with remarkably calm hands, and entered Mitch’s door. From my position on the cooler I could see a portion of Mitch’s office. There was a large oak desk, much larger than the table in Jim’s kitchen, a few rolling chairs, and a shelf of family pictures, including what appeared to be his young twin daughters on a fishing trip with Mitch and his wife.
As Jim intruded into the office, I heard Mitch shout, first in anger, then in confusion, then in fear. Suddenly an explosive eruption reverberated throughout the hot, dusty surfaces inside the factory; it seemed to echo endlessly. There was a pronounced thud, and Mitch’s mangled face fell into my view—smoke billowing from the hole burrowed through his forehead. Blood swam out of the wound, along with the life from his body.
Jim slowly glided out of the office into the hallway, where he was approached by Louis, who had been working nearby and heard the noise. Louis questioned his well-being, but Jim just stared blankly as he raised the gun. Louis began begging for his life, but there was no necessity in that. Jim pressed the gun to his own face and fired a round directly into his left sideburn. He fell into a bloody heap of surrendered flesh; an unrecognizable sensation seared up inside me.
What followed was a frenzied circus of police, medical personnel, and local news crews. To my surprise, no one seemed to notice me. I was on the cooler for days, and, eventually, things went back to business as usual. One morning Louis was walking by and spotted me. He knew I had belonged to his friend. I thought for a moment he might keep me, but he used cheap, disposable bags now, like everyone else. No one was interested in saving a rusted old relic like me.
Reluctantly, Louis carried me to the trash compactor and pulled the large, heavy door, which opened with a menacing croak. I stared down the dark abyss, hoping for the best, but I knew it was the end of the line. Louis tossed me down the chute, and I fell amongst the other garbage. Everything went dark, there was a deafening clamor of metal, and I was ripped to shreds.