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Last updateTue, 06 Aug 2013 2am

Wednesday, 12 October 2011 23:36

Broken Things in a Box

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Again, it is night. The table lamp flickers, and shadows dance crazily along the walls. There’s the sound again—a junk-sick headache thumping and ringing and generally raising hell inside my skull. Everything in the room is moving in and out of focus.

I bend forward in the chair and lay my head on the kitchen table, waiting for the drugs to kick in. When it happens, the fog clears and some of the bad things disappear. Now, for awhile, I can make up any kind of dream that suits me—give life to the fantasy images stored in a spot just behind my eyes—cover the shit before the shit covers me.

I sit up, tilt my head back, and stare at the peeling yellow paint on the ceiling. I can feel the sweat running down from my hairline. I am sinking and rising in slow, dark circles. My breathing is slowing down and the nausea is beginning to ease off. I let myself sink like a rock to the bottom of an abyss where no one can reach me.

Feeling a little dizzy, I focus my eyes back on the table and reach for a pack of cigarettes with my right hand—a right hand that is no longer there, except in my mind. I laugh out loud. I am startled by sound of my own voice. Forty years without a right arm and the reflex is still hanging on.

In the triple-canopy murk, birds cry like human beings alerting the Viet Cong to our every move. The birds are like ghosts that refuse to depart this world. Above ground, threats come from every direction. Any time I am moving along a jungle trail, I can feel the tunnels below tugging at the soles of my boots. The only place that I feel safe is crawling around VC tunnels with a .45 and a flashlight. Inside, I am able to lose the sense of where I am—an underground sanctuary.

I can still feel the pressure of the tripwire just above my right boot. The sudden surprise of the explosion—a mouthful of bone and dirt—a ragged, wet hole just under my left eye—trying to scream for a medic, or maybe my mother. But the thing that is forever fixed in my brain is the shock of someone dropping my severed right arm onto my chest—the exact weight of reality.

Two months after being discharged from the VA hospital, my wife, Jean, says she is leaving me. Her explanation is simple and cold: “I want a man with all of his body parts.”


I glance down at the box under the table—my box of words, damp and damaged words, words that have been picked at like old sores until the blood runs. In the box, I have captured the sights, the sounds, and the smells of fear—a place where I can push the characters without ever touching them and leave them where I will. The background and props are inserted as I move through the dream tunnel. All of the characters and actions are controlled strictly by whim and fate. They make no decisions on their own. There is no torture or killing in the name of epiphany or redemption. I am concerned only with satisfying my rage.

Over the course of many years, I have learned to write with my left hand. At first the going was painfully slow and exhausting—cramps in my left hand making it impossible to continue. Now, I have accumulated a huge cardboard box of yellow legal pads covered with dream images. I have become God within the borders of this paper world.

Just to be moving, I get to my feet, walk over to the sink, and throw up. I turn on the spigot and splash a handful of water across my face. A sudden sense of dread crawls along my spine. I let my left hand drop to the .45 strapped to my left leg. I look toward the front door. The bolt is locked. I am safe. I turn off the water, walk back to the table, and sit. I take a fresh pad of paper from the stack on the floor. Images float about in my brain. Will the protagonist be victim or tyrant, or perhaps a single character that plays both?

I select a pen from the many that are scattered across the tabletop. I gather my thoughts, and begin to write:

“The Ghost in Cell #6”

I sit in this monochrome room, nodding into the dusty half-light that filters in through air holes in the ceiling. My mind is wrapped in defective daydreams that have become one with the dreamer. My fists are down to the bone from pointless pounding against stone. My heart is wasting away, one burnt-out cell at a time. It continues to beat, only because it can.

Nothing in this gray box is real. Not the bench where I sit. Not the filthy, sweat-stained mattress on the floor. Not the meaningless words of defiance scratched into concrete walls. Rallying cries that once burned blood red—gone cold as the ghosts who breathed them.


Somewhere, close by, a steel door slams. The “laughing man” makes his way down the corridor with a new “tool of persuasion.” Now that the revolt has been crushed, I have nothing of value to give. I have become a “lab animal” for the imagineers of torture—twisted men in white collars who stand with the guards and watch as the fat man in the tan uniform puts the puppet through his paces.


When the lights come on, they expect a “song and dance.” I will not let them down. I will give a performance beyond imagination. There are no longer any limits to my capacity for pain.

I have learned to play out the implications of my sacred part. When I’m prodded, I ask each question from the usual list—an inquisition that has been burned by time into my brain. I answer each query in turn—the strange intersection of “interrogator” and “accused.”

To carry on with this insanity, I must convince myself that the cause is still real. To survive, I have to believe that I am part of a movement that lives on. To prove that I continue to exist, I must hear the sound of my voice…

“Jose de Rivera, where is your brother, Miguel, the anarchist?”

“I don’t know.”

“You have hidden him in the past?”


“We will free you if you tell us where he is.”

“I do not know where he is.”

Another searing jolt—I begin to cry the idiot tears of a madman. The audience is amused. The fat man howls with derisive laughter.


I am a ghost in revolt, abiding inside a forever-hungry leviathan—a bone-cold manhole where no rebels march—no banners fly—no drums roll—no fires blaze.

There are no dying cries from the martyr. No holy names to invoke.

Sometimes, hurt is just hurt.


My headache is back—pounding like a hatchet on bone. I leave the pen and pad on the table and get up. I grab a flashlight from the top of the refrigerator, put it in my back pocket, and walk down the hallway to the bedroom. The room is empty except for a single throw rug. I bend down and slide the rug aside. And there it is—my private portal. I lift the hatch and enter—closing the small door behind me.

The cellar is damp and smells of mold. I use the flashlight to scan the concrete chamber until the beam comes to rest on two large, wooden boxes sitting side-by-side in the middle of the room. One is painted black with the lid nailed shut. The other is white. It is hinged open with a short nylon cord attached to the lid. Not bad construction for a one-armed man.

Outside, the night birds are crying. I must retire to my sanctuary.

I climb into the open box and place the flashlight next to my pillow. I stretch out on my back and pull the lid closed with the cord. I slide the .45 out of the holster and lay it on my chest. The weight is reassuring. I switch off the flashlight. In the black, muffled closeness, I can barely hear the sound of my voice.

“Good night and sweet dreams—my lady, Jean.”

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DB Cox

DB Cox is a blues musician/writer from South Carolina. His poems and short stories have been published extensively in the small press, in the US, and abroad. He has published five books of poetry:“Passing For Blue,” “Lowdown,” “Ordinary Sorrows,” “Nightwatch,” and “Empty Frames.” He has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. Rank Stranger Press has just published his new collection of short stories called “Unaccustomed Mercy.”

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