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Boxes
By Judy Kronenfeld

January 2009

Ruthie rocks back and forth, stroking the worn maple chair arms. She studies the boxes in the open closet, above the rod holding mother's clothes: a box containing a discontinued style of cushioned shoe insert, several boxes of yahrzeit lights, and the small box that she knows contains perfume samples in tiny vials--Passion, Envy, Incognito, Deep Red--that mother accumulated when she worked in Bloomingdale's, spraying little white cards with scent and passing them out. There are also two new clock radios, still in their original boxes, one of which Ruthie has coveted for a long time.  She has been sitting in mother and father's bedroom—darkening now—in the chintz-upholstered rocker, as mother always instructs her to while she is at work, ever since taking a makeshift breakfast from the kitchen fridge. She's put on a few pounds in the last years, so it's a tight squeeze into the narrow seat. But her fleshy, still unlined face remains beautiful as a plus-size Hollywood starlet's, with its wide hazel eyes and Cupid's bow mouth.

So not to think of the clock radios, Ruthie turns her mind to the closet shelves above the clothes rod in her own clean pink room--the other small bedroom in the cramped two-bedroom apartment--still pristine from mother's Saturday exertions.  She mentally tabulates their contents. There are boxes of dish towels, bought in bulk from the Super 99 cents store, several ancient boxes of "irregular" undershirts for father, bought at closeouts. There are also boxed shiny copper-bottomed pots that were given as rewards for opening up savings accounts at various banks; mother frequently moves what little money she has spirited away without father's knowledge. And bottles of liquor in their original Christmas packaging--part of the annual ritual of exchange at father's old workplace--tied with glossy red or green ribbons edged with gold. 

When Ruthie asks her mother for one of the clock radios, Dora always puts one of her small, warm hands on Ruthie's head, and with the other strokes her cheek, saying "Feigele, wait." During Ruthie's own engagement party, she stroked Ruthie's cheek and said "Feigele, you're only 29, which is really like 19 these days. You have plenty of time." Her fiancé Hal had drunk lots of schnapps at the party, and had gotten very loud with the boys from the loading dock.   

Only two weeks before the event, "that bastard boss"--Dora's words--had blown up at Ruthie and then fired her, even though she was a whiz at billing, just because she was uncomfortable with the Xerox machine. Ruthie used the machine reluctantly, standing as far away from it as possible, to minimize the damage she suspected it was causing. She didn't like its heat, the glowing light that made her blink and see spots when she forgot to put down the cover.  After she was fired, she cried for several days, almost nonstop; on the second day, her father came into her bedroom and shook her, but she kept crying. Dora, hand on her heart, threatened Ruthie with a visit to the family doctor, and then took her there anyway, to his office on the street floor of a building in a nearby block. The doctor was an old man with white hair. He took her temperature and her blood pressure and measured her pulse with his dry, wrinkled fingers. "Probably just hormones--or the wedding jitters," he said. He smiled into her wide, hazel eyes and patted her hand. "Go in gezunt. Be a beautiful bride." Ruthie felt a little better; the engagement party went on as planned.

But when Hal, laughing, red in the face, pinched Ruthie's bottom in front of the guests, Ruthie saw her mother's disapproving eagle glance, her hand again on her heart, and heard her mother mutter, "a shande, a disgrace." Two days after the party mother took back the deposit on the wedding hall. Until the party, she had bragged about Hal's good prospects to become office manager--though there was actually not much likelihood he would--during the rare phone conversations she initiated with her only family, her "estranged" kid sister Pearl, in California. When Aunt Pearl called that week, Mother said coolly, "No, they haven't set a date," smoothing Ruthie's hair, giving her a tiny pinch on the cheek.   

The almost dark bedroom is very warm. Ruthie looks out the ruffle-valenced window at row upon row of blank windows under wintry glowering clouds. The radiator, finely furred with dust, thumps and knocks; Dora hadn't had energy for cleaning more than Ruthie's room on Saturday; she had uncharacteristically fallen asleep in the rocker after lunch, one hand splayed on her chest. From the corner of her right eye, Ruthie can see the clock radios glowing through the cardboard, one a brilliant yellow, the other phosphorescent green. She squinches her eyes closed, but she can still see the yellow and green on the inside of her lids. She gets up abruptly and faces the back wall at right angles to the closet; the yellow and green rays have trouble turning corners. A food-encrusted container from the Chinese take-out on Queens Boulevard tips over on the night table she's bumped. It's the remains of the breakfast she'd taken from the fridge, her favorite, sweet and sour chicken, which mother had served out with a flourish on Saturday night. All ears, she listens to a scurrying, rustling sound, then fixes her eyes on a roach disappearing under the baseboard. She finger-curls a clump of hair behind her ear. After many minutes have elapsed, and her calves and ankles, swollen as an old woman's, have begun to ache, the yellow quiets to a paler sulfur, the green to a flatter institutional olive. She sits down again, and rubs her aching legs. She is 40 this month, or was last year, or was it the year before that? Mother says 40 is really 30 these days, which is close enough to 29, at least when a girl goes out on dates--though there hasn't been one since Hal--so one day she will still find the mentsh she deserves and even have a child.

On the clothes-rod below the clock radios, on the left side of the closet, where her father's clothes once hung, Ruthie pictures a couple of father's natty jackets with pressed handkerchiefs in the breast pockets, and one or two glossy silk shirts she used to like to slip into the bedroom to stroke. Boxes now occupy the space, piled up on the floor as high as the clothes rod: plastic wine glasses, cocktail napkins, artificial flowers suitable for table centerpieces, more perfume samples. Father discovered some grease stains on his good shirts once--Ruthie forgot to wash her hands after she snacked on leftover eggrolls. He dashed the shirts to the floor, cursing her, then slammed out of the bedroom into the cubicle of a kitchen, where he yelled even louder at mother. Ruthie ran away and hid behind her almost-closed bedroom door.  

                "Please, Morty," mother was whispering, her small hand on father's arm, "Don't get angry at her."
                "She needs to be controlled!"
                Mother stroked his arm, then put her finger to her lips, "Ssh, please Morty, a shande, the neighbors!"
                Father yanked his arm away as if he'd touched the blue flame under the percolator.

Now Ruthie rocks harder and harder, and covers her ears with her hands. But she hears the sharp smack of flesh against flesh, the apartment door banging shut. She sees mother, her eye already swelling, her lip bleeding, running into Ruthie's own pink bedroom, pulling her towards the closet, cowering there. She sees boxes tumbling down from the shelves, hitting their heads, spilling open. Mother says, "ssh, ssh, mamele, everything will be all right." Ruthie wraps her arms tightly around herself, rocking so hard the wood squeaks and protests.

Father was gone when Aunt Pearl and her grandchildren visited once, from California, when was that, five years ago? or was that last year? Mother unboxed a strawberry shortcake from the fancy bakery to serve with coffee. Ruthie took her little second cousin on her lap and hugged and hugged her, then stroked her beautiful long red hair and tried to adorn it with a sprig of artificial white flowers from the centerpiece box. The little girl's hair became twisted in the wires; she squirmed and clawed at Ruthie's cheek. Aunt Pearl swept her from Ruthie's lap with a mean look, hissing "my sweet little maydele!"

After Aunt Pearl had freed the little girl's hair, she threw the flowers on mother's doily-covered coffee table. When the relatives left, mother returned the sprig of flowers to the box it came from. Then she turned and looked at Ruthie and went back to the closet, taking down a glossy red box of perfume samples.  She gave Ruthie a tiny vial, then showed her how to spray the air in front of her and walk into the fragrant mist.  Arms held stiffly back, chin up, eyes closed, Ruthie sprayed and walked, sprayed and walked all day until the vial was empty and the air in the apartment cloyingly sweet.

The radiator hisses; the clock radios radiate their greens and yellows. Averting her eyes, Ruthie backs out of the bedroom door. But there is no relief in the kitchen where she must walk with her back to the dinette table near one leg of which her mother, dressed in her work clothes, lies sprawled on her side, her rigid hand still clutching the broken-off handle of her coffee mug--just as Ruthie found her early in the morning. Backing away, Ruthie bumps the wall phone receiver. It swings like a pendulum on its cord. When she called Aunt Pearl, the phone just rang and rang, and Ruthie could see the little redhead just letting it ring and ring, out of spite. She does not really want to speak to Aunt Pearl, anyway; she does not want to give her the satisfaction. Immobilized, she stands now in the tiny foyer between the kitchen, where the off-the-hook phone receiver buzzes in its diminishing arc, and mother and father's bedroom, where the yellow and green radios pulse, and vials of Vanilla Fields,White Diamonds and Paradisio gleam in their red box. 


Judy Kronenfeld has published stories in The Madison Review, The North American Review, Potpourri and The Crescent Review, as well as nonfiction in Under the Sun and several anthologies. She is the author of two books and two chapbooks of poetry, the most recent being Light Lowering in Diminished Sevenths, winner of the 2007 Litchfield Review Poetry Book Prize, which was published in Summer, 2008.

Her poems have appeared in numerous print and online journals. Recent and forthcoming poem credits include Natural Bridge, The American Poetry Journal, The Innisfree Poetry Journal, Calyx, The Hiram Poetry Review, The Pedestal, The Cimarron Review, as well as a number of anthologies, including Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics from California, edited by Christopher Buckley and Gary Young (Greenhouse Review Press/Alcatraz Editions, 2008) and Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer's Disease, edited by Holly Hughes (forthcoming from Kent State University Press). She is also the author of a critical study: King Lear and the Naked Truth (Duke U.P., 1998). She teaches in the Department of Creative Writing, at the University of California, Riverside. See her website here: http://judykronenfeld.com/

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