erkkila’s wave-box

this is a very short story i jotted down a while back, trying to develop some history around the fabled wave-box that gets mentioned in other works. given the way i’ve reinvented characters since that time, i don’t think this vignette is any longer part of the canon, but i’ll share it anyway . . .

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“Come, come, don’t shrink from the future. Shrink into it. See the one-of-a-kind creation—Erkkila’s Wave-Box.”

Others were hawking elastic watches, cotton candy, roasted nuts, palm readings, tests of strength. The freckled man kept shouting about the box. 

Thick, black letters flowed over the top of the curtained stall where he stood, gesturing and sweating under a wool cap. The curtains waved as if whispering, or as if some monstrous head exhaled from behind, decadent and bored.

“Who will look into the box? Will you, madam? No. Ah, you know better. You have no need of a future. No need of another. Fair enough. When your future recedes again, you will return.”

“Sir, the things you never thought to see, to be—try them on now. Submerge. You will swim away a new man.”

The freckled man was not Mr. Erkkila. A nephew maybe. Or, Mary found herself thinking, someone immune to the enticements of the box—a vagabond recruited from a shrubby land, a country without dreams. 

He leaned and stared into the eyes of children, making them retreat into their mothers’ shapeless coats before they pushed through the turnstiles. What an oddly cold July it was. Icy gales invaded from Lake Superior, pinching isolated towns between frigid maws. The highways carried the people to Escanaba, to a warm refuge from vast empty spaces, to the Upper Peninsula State Fair.

“You’ll never see yourself, your whole self, unless you see the shapes that wait in the Wave-Box.”

This was Mary’s first time wandering alone at the fair. Always there had been a sister, her parents, a half-tolerated friend from school, her husband. Never alone, not until now. This was her chance. She couldn’t resist any longer. Erkkila—what did he look like? Did he have a knobby nose and low knees? Did he claim to know the horrors of her future better than herself? She could admire someone for making the claim. And how old must he be? Perhaps she was more curious about him than the object of vague function that he claimed to possess.

Perhaps, but probably not. The object had its allure. It had fascinated and repelled her since her childhood, since her first visits to the fair. 

People said it showed you other selves, and the worlds those selves could create, a congerie of possible outcomes. One form would impress itself above the others, would lock its hold upon the viewer. No one could describe what they saw. But those who looked, became addicted. They came back each year. They changed. 

According to her neighbor Eddie, his step-mom’s former roommate had taken a turn with it. Three months later she became a vaudeville performer, after having spent half her adulthood as a paranoid shut-in. Even her eyelashes metamorphosed, sprouting long and black when before they had been stubby. 

A judge from Marquette took to drifting. Bought a motorcycle. Got tattoos. Grew his hair out long. Never returned.

Of course, there were other stories. The man who drove his 1973 Camaro straight off Brockway Mountain, leaving a note that said he’d found a bridge to heaven. The child who insisted he had webbed hands and feet, invisible to others. He tried to swim across Keweenaw Bay.  

Yes, in those days, everyone knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who had been transfigured by Erkkila’s Wave Box. Few would talk about it in much detail. Fewer still lingered more than a moment by the shack of peeling paint that popped up in the same section of the fairgrounds every year, year after year, outlasting the Gravitron, the Ring of Fire, the Zipper, the jugglers, and classic rock cover bands. Outlasting all of us, it seemed. 

We fairgoers changed, grew older, gave up dreams, exchanged dreams, every once in a while had a good dream, but mostly just grew older. The convex and concave mirrors, as we strode through the funhouse labyrinth with nervous glances, could not hide the fact of our aging. Could not distract us with the infinite existences we had seen when we were children.

But the peeling of the paint never changed on the sturdy walls of the shack that boasted Erkkila’s Wave Box. This thing, this unwavering center of gravity amid a galaxy of frenzied delights, never lost its form. The eternal black hole held the fair together in everyone’s memories. An anchor. A North Star.

The price never changed either. Two dollars and fifty cents to get in. Cash only. No tokens. 

“Ah, it’s a small price, young lady. Unfair, in fact. We should be able to charge much more. But such are the rules. Follow me.”

Mary never had gone in before. Never brave enough. Or never desperate enough. But, with what had happened last month, she saw no reason not to follow where gravity always had been leading. It was said the Wave-Box held our futures. Mary felt there was something more, something sinister, in what Erkkila was allowing people to see. She had determined to make her future her own, to rid herself of the Wave-Box and its vain desires haunting the outskirts of her mind.

The curtains, stiff and coarse, grated against her ears, leaving them red and itchy. How heavy the fabric must have been to mute the laughter, horns, megaphones, and engine whirs outside. Not a sound. 

She never discovered where the freckled man, the man from the dreamless country, disappeared. As soon as she had entered the silent fluorescent-lit shack, she was alone. Was there a false panel in the shadows? But people would have seen him exit. A trapdoor? But the shack stood on a solid asphalt slab. 

And had it not been a different man each year? Always a man, always the same shrill voice, but never the same face. She thought to ask Erkkila. Where did he find these bland men whose eyes beamed without hope? Waiting for him in that cloistered room, hovering above the circular table where the book-sized box rested, she could feel in her chest the drip, drip, drip of the last few grains in the hourglass. Sand tumbled down her ribcage, filling her with irresistible dread and desire. 

She was going to confront the man who held her dreams in orbit. She would decipher the meaning of the Wave-Box.

 A curtain opened from the opposite side of the table. Tendrils of smoke climbed out from the red-velvet closet, twirling up to the long fluorescent bulbs that hummed a dull song. 

“What is it you desire to know?” he asked, punctuated with an inquisitive cough.

Before the curtain of his closet swayed shut, she saw a floral-patterned folding tv tray, covered by a half-finished game of solitaire. An ashtray. A dimestore paperback.

“I want to know where you got the box,” she said.

He laughed. The sliding of his diaphragm shifted the folds of his cloak, revealing yellow-stained long johns.

“The box gives the answers, not me. I am only its keeper. If it wants to tell you where it came from, it will tell you. If that’s your question, look inside.”

He stepped toward the table, stretching his hairy sunburnt hands above the box, letting his fingernails linger on the bronze clasp, prodding her with a lifted eyebrow.

“Did you make it?” she asked, refusing to look at the box, though she felt its dark density pulling her in, setting hooks into her curious eyes.

Disgust, or something like it, flashed across his quivering lips. “No. I found it. No one knows who made it. I’ve been told it was brought here from the old country, made of cedars from Lapland. Listen, if you’re going to keep asking me questions, you won’t have time to look. I can’t keep the other customers waiting.”

He slid his fingernails, filled with grime, under the clasp.

“There was no one in line behind me.”

He grunted and flipped open the box, ignoring her. Slivers of light waved across the upright lid.

“I’m not going to look,” she said, “Until you tell me what it is, until you tell me what you want with my dreams. Why do you bring us here?”

“This isn’t a game,” he huffed, growing red in the cheeks. “Why won’t you look?”

He picked the box off the table, walking toward her with a flustered grin. She stepped back, feeling for the curtains with her hand, failing to find the opening. The heavy cloth resisted her attempt at escape. 

“It will show you what you could become,” he insisted. “There’s no going back. Now get what you came for and then get out.”

For a moment, the planet-sized weight sucked her in. The box was half-filled with water, yet the surface of the water did not break, did not even shift, as he held the thing before her in palsied hands. The boundaries of the water stayed constant, while chaotic nebulas collided below. Light of indiscernible source trickled and shimmered. From out of shadows at the bottom of the three-inch deep box, shapes walked and trembled with outstretched arms. A pair of wings bubbled off a narrow set of shoulders that looked like her own. The sight filled her with inexplicable fright.

“Yes, now you see . . .”

But, before the shape could fully embody itself, before it could impress eternal on her mind—she snatched the box from his hands.

“What is your problem?” he snarled. “Give it back. You’ll break it.”

“Will I?”

The lines on his brow were the ghosts of pale skinny worms. He smelled of cigarettes and pine-tar. Such a disappointing smell. 

“What will happen if I do?” she challenged him.

“You’ll have no future. None of us will have a future.”

His heel flipped the table as he lurched forward, slowing him down enough for her to push through the heavy folds of the curtain, into the neurotic multi-colored lights, the aroma of popcorn and cinnamon, the fungal scents of body odor, the hoots and hollers of the unsuspecting fairgoers and carnies, the squeals of pigs—gripping the Wave-Box tight. 

***

It was two months later when Officer Harrington showed up at her front door, shielding his notepad from the rain. She didn’t object to him coming into the living room.

“Why did you do it?” he asked, stirring creamer into the lukewarm coffee she had set beside him.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’d had a rough couple of months. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Yes,” he set his notepad down, as if to communicate that he would respect her privacy in certain matters, to the extent he could. “I’m sorry about your husband. That’s always hard.”

She hid her eyes with a sip from her mug. 

“Mr. Erkkila wanted to press charges,” he said, picking up his notepad with a sigh, “But that’s no longer relevant, so I suppose we can let this thing go. I’m going to talk with the prosecutor’s office. We should be able to sort this out. He may want you to do a class or something. Okay?”

“Yes, that’s fine,” she agreed. “But what do you mean about the charges not being relevant now?”

“Pancreatic cancer. You didn’t hear? He’d been dying for years. They said strange things about his organs . . . It was a wonder he was still alive at all. The obit was in the Journal.”

“I didn’t know he was from around here.” Her fingers trembled around the handle of the mug. “I hadn’t heard that. Honestly, I didn’t know anything about him, not even his full name.”

“Do you have the box? He doesn’t have any family, but I need to take it, all the same.”

Walking to the kitchen, she felt a weight slip off her neck, the sensation of wings sprouting from her back. The hourglass inside her chest rested at equilibrium. 

Did I choose my future? Is this how it’s done? 

She grabbed the wooden fragments from the trash can, then spread them across the coffee table. She didn’t bother to grab the glass shards that had been the window holding the water in place, nor the tiny mirrors that had been cleverly placed to cause the illusory lights. In truth, she had been quite disappointed when she had smashed the box. She had felt nothing. No release. No change. The brown water splattered across the linoleum, giving off a waft of pine-tar and tobacco. She imagined how the old man would have gasped.

Officer Harrington didn’t say much else before he left. Or maybe he did. She wasn’t really listening.

Alone, listening to the rain on the roof, she clenched the cold coffee mug, Maybe she hadn’t killed Erkkila. Perhaps it was a coincidence. He may not have been anything unusual. Maybe he was just a lonely man. In any case, it didn’t matter now. She had freed herself from the grip of his box, whatever it was.

Next July, after having sold the house, she began dating. Nevertheless, she went alone to the Upper Peninsula State Fair. No one had reclaimed the space where Erkkila’s shack once had stood. Styrofoam plates and brown napkins fluttered over the asphalt. Some still murmured of the Wave-Box, though none remembered what it was or what it was supposed to do. The freckled man swung a hammer on a disc. Mary felt dizzy, untethered, swirled by arms of neon light, suspended up somewhere just below the boring chatter of impotent gods, and just above the repetitive songs of shapeless people.

I’ve done it, she thought. I’ve rid myself of all those fake hopes. But where am I? What is this place now? What is anything to me?

A train of riderless horses ran into view—taut muscles frozen in ecstasy, pumping up and down. The white stallion had a crack in its ribs.

I should have looked. I should have looked before I broke it. 

Red and yellow flashing orbs circled the sky behind her as she stuffed her hands in her pockets, clicked through the turnstile, into the darkness, heading to a country without dreams.

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