Fracture City

The Toy Box (a short story)

After dinner, Phil grabbed a beer and walked out into the garage, shutting the door behind him. For the last two nights, he had been building a wooden toy box for his eighteen-month-old son, Tyler. Janice said the boy didn’t need it, but Phil said he was tired of stepping on, and tripping over, the toys which had slowly been migrating into the living room. What he didn’t tell her was that he really just wanted to make something for Tyler, a gift from father to son.

Phil’s father had worked long hours and wasn’t around much and the few places he held in Phil’s childhood memories were dim and unclear, but what he did remember was a tall, thin man who smelled of cigarettes, smiling whenever he gave his son something he’d made with his own hands. And this had made Phil feel special.

Yesterday, Phil had glued all the sides to the bottom of the box and had let it set-up overnight. Tonight he planned to add hinges and a lid, sand away any rough edges, and apply a coat or two of varnish.

He walked up to the workbench and ran his hand along the box’s edge. The pine wood smelled nice, comforting. But then a splinter broke the skin of his right index finger. When he pulled the splinter out, a drop of blood appeared. He brought the finger to his lips and sucked on it for a couple seconds to stop the bleeding.

As he read over the box’s construction plans again, Phil heard a scream. He ran to the door. Tyler was running around the living room, wearing only a saggy diaper, his hands full of spaghetti, smears of red sauce on his belly and chin. Janice was chasing him, laughing.

Shutting the door, Phil smiled. After he finished, he would go inside and play. But first he had work to do. He positioned the brass hinges and drilled pilot holes in the back wall and lid of the box, fastened the two pieces together with eight screws. He took his time, letting the wood and nails slide through his fingers until eventually the box opened and closed with precision.

When Phil went inside to use the bathroom, Tyler was in the tub and Janice was sitting in front of the tub, talking on the phone. Styrofoam letters floated on the surface of the water. Tyler’s hair was a ball of soap suds. He had a yellow A in one hand and was chewing on a red D.

“Hey, buddy,” Phil said.

Tyler looked up and smiled, splashed around in the water.

“Can you watch him a second?” Janice asked.

“Sure,” Phil said. He leaned over the tub and the boy quickly soaked him with another splash.
Phil felt a quick jolt of anger, told himself to relax; of course, Tyler hadn’t meant it. But still, he sat back, away from the tub.

When Janice returned, a few minutes later, Phil grabbed another beer and headed back out to the garage. At the door, he heard Tyler screaming, laughing, a joyous sound, and Janice telling him to be careful, to not stand up. He considered going back, checking on him, but Janice was there, was as good a mother as the boy could ask for. They were both lucky to have her.

Phil sanded the entire box again, then began brushing on the varnish. He wished he would have varnished the lid before screwing it into place, but it was too late for that now. After two coats, and the faint hint of a headache coming on, he figured he’d done enough for the night. He would sand it one more time tomorrow, apply a couple more coats of varnish and it would be done. By this weekend, the toy box would be at the foot of his son’s bed. Phil felt proud of what he’d done, for Tyler, and an image came to him of the boy standing at the box, dropping toys inside, and closing the lid.

Back in the house, all the lights were off except for the kitchen and the master bedroom. He was surprised to see that two hours had passed and wished Janice had told him they were going to bed so he could tuck Tyler in.

Phil set the empty beer cans on the counter and walked into his son’s room. The noise machine was on low. He tip-toed to the toddler bed Tyler had started sleeping in six months ago after climbing out of his crib and listened to his son breathe, the easy hum of childhood sleep.

When Phil bent over to kiss him on the forehead, Tyler flinched, then settled again. Phil left the door cracked and went to his bedroom. Janice was reading in bed. Phil stripped to his underwear and climbed under the sheets. “I wish you’d have told me you were putting him to bed.”

“What difference would it make?”

“I’d like to tuck him in.” Phil told himself to take it easy here, let it go. It wasn’t worth fighting over.

“Maybe tomorrow,” she said. “Oh, I almost forgot. He said the word bubbles.

For a moment, Phil wasn’t sure what she meant. Then he remembered that in the last couple weeks she had been telling him new words Tyler was saying, words he himself had never heard the boy utter and which always seemed to come when he was not around. “Bubbles?” Phil wasn’t even sure how you were supposed to respond to these milestones.

“In the tub.”

“Bubbles,” Phil said again.

“As clear as day.” She rolled away from him and turned off the lights.

Phil eased back into his pillow. He tried to imagine what his son’s version of bubbles might be. He wondered if he could get him to say it tomorrow and knew he’d try. And before he closed his eyes and eased off to sleep, he heard a strange noise, no louder than a whisper, coming from outside their door. He leaned toward the open door, trying to identify the sound. It might have been the noise machine or perhaps the wind whistling along the side of the house, or it could even have been his son, Tyler, but Phil couldn’t say for sure.