Judgment Day

He wasn’t alarmed when she first turned up in his dreams, although, he thought it odd to see her there, this woman he barely knew and hadn’t seen since college. He searched his memory for any long forgotten crush or passion he might have had, but found none. Emily was Elisabeth’s roommate and the two women had really been his wife’s friends. He had only known them through occasional dinners and parties in their cozy brick house south of BYU’s campus. He and Emily would listen quietly to Elisabeth and his wife talk about books they were reading or Elisabeth’s poetry.  Sometimes, he and Emily would tease them for being too pretentious or Emily would tell him about the work she was doing in the lab.

He watched Emily for several nights as she ticked boxes off some kind of checklist she was carrying on a blue plastic clipboard and sifted through the contents of enormous cardboard boxes that were piled floor to ceiling in a small office with cream colored cinderblock walls.  The task was enormous, but Emily didn’t seem overwhelmed by the jumble of boxes and paper. In an order known only to her, she selected box after box, straining under its weight and dropping it to the floor with a heavy thud. He worried that he should offer to help; people had always responded to his size by asking him to lift boxes or move couches and bookshelves. But he didn’t know if Emily knew he was watching and he felt embarrassed.

Once a box was down, she would open it with a box cutter and then perch on the cold, hard edge of a metal folding chair as she sifted through the contents. For the most part, Emily turned her mild blue eyes towards the task with efficient disinterest, although sometimes she smiled as she pulled out a scrap of paper, or chuckled to herself while making a few notations on her clipboard, tucking a strand of her dirty blonde hair behind her ear. Other times, she sighed softly and rolled her eyes. Emily was making piles that appeared to be a mix of notes, cards, photos, books, posters and CDs; the piles seemed just as mutinous and untidy as the original boxes, but she looked like she had a plan.

After a few nights in his dreams, Emily showed up while he was awake. He was driving home from work when he could clearly see her in front of him, opening a new box. Startled, he almost rear-ended the Honda Civic in front of him. He struggled to make it home and sat in the car for nearly an hour, not getting out until she had gone away. Shaking, he clambered out of the car and barreled into the house with a dark look on his face.  At dinner, he yelled at the kids for being too loud.

“Stop being such a jackass,” he barked at the toddler when she spilled her juice.

His wife looked at him keenly, but said nothing. After dinner, she did the dishes – even though it was his job – and put the kids to bed without asking him for help.  She was good that way; she didn’t nag and usually gave him space when he was in a bad mood. Occasionally, when he went too far or the mood lasted too long, she lost her temper and savaged him with a sharp-tongue.

“Enough!” she would say, “Of course the kids are jackasses, but they can’t help it, it’s a genetic trait, an inheritance from their father and their father’s father and his father before.  You can’t blame them for partaking in this proud family tradition. So, celebrate it or start a better one.”

When she finally lost her patience, he would laugh sheepishly, slightly aroused by the attack, and try to hug her as she pushed him away. Then, he would coax her back, mumbling apologies until he made her laugh.

That night, he sat at the computer and put his headphones on without saying a word. He spent the rest of the evening on a quest to win the Black Onyx of Asythia. He bludgeoned other warriors and joined a group of raiders on-line. He played his fury warrior, a tall elfin blonde whom he had modelled after his wife. His toon’s power came from her fury and she fought with enormous battle axes in each hand. At midnight, his wife closed her laptop and announced that she was going to bed. She kissed his cheek, but he couldn’t look up from the screen because he was battling a boss, hitting the three-headed dragon at the end of the level over and over again with blows that looked like brightly colored flashes of light.

The next night, Emily appeared while he was doing the dishes.  He couldn’t take it anymore and told his wife that he had a headache and needed to lie down. When he was alone, he closed his eyes and hesitated a moment before speaking to her.

“Hey, Emily. How’s it going?”

Emily had been rifling through a box with her back towards him, now she stood up straight and turned, her eyes wide.

“You can see me?” she demanded.

“Um – yeah.  Yes, I can. What are you doing here?”

She stared at him for a moment and then cast her watery blue eyes to the ceiling, as though the answer would be found in the flickering fluorescent lights. Then she looked at him again.

“Well, I died recently,” she said.

“Oh. Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, feeling that the room was suddenly closing in on him.

She shrugged and looked around the room at all the boxes.

“I don’t really know why I’m here. They just told me to go through all this stuff,” she said with a wry little laugh.

“Who? What is this stuff?” he asked.

He looked down at one of her piles. On top of the stack he could see one of his spelling tests from second grade. He’d misspelled five out of six words. Underneath the test, he could see the smooth naked flesh and pink pursed lips of Playboy Bunnies from 1980; their hair floating in feathery tufts around their heads. It had been Chris Gutter’s plan to cut the pictures out of his dad’s old magazines and sell them on the school bus. Chris had handled the merchandise and he had been in charge of collecting and holding the money. When their enterprise had been discovered, they had been hauled into Ms. VanZelfte’s office, his second time that year. As he sat there waiting for his mother, he gazed at his white-haired principal who loomed over the children; her exceptionally long lanky frame now slightly bent from spending so many years ducking her head as she came through doors.  He could see a bowl of Tootsie Rolls and snack-sized Snickers on her desk. He’d heard that she gave candy out to students who won team points.

His mother came in the door looking harassed, still dressed in her ill-fitting tweed skirt, an oversized sweater and the black mannish shoes she wore to save her feet during the long days teaching  the 7th grade students of Lincoln Middle School science and, sometimes, language arts. She clutched her navy blue handbag protectively and sat down in the chair next to him, her plain broad face looking even more grim than usual. Afterwards, they got into the old brown truck in silence. His mother sat for a full minute without turning the truck on. Finally, she turned to him.

“Did you look at those pictures you were selling?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he stalled, “I guess.”

“How did those ladies in those pictures look? Did they look happy?” she asked.

He thought about the women, their eyes narrowed and their glossy lips twisted into strange grimaces.

“No, I don’t think so,” he ventured.

“No, they weren’t happy,” his mother said firmly, “those women are all someone’s daughter or sister or mother. Would you like it if your sisters or your mother had to be in those kinds of pictures?”

He shook his head and looked down at his dark grey and maroon moon boots.

“No, you wouldn’t like it at all. If no one ever looked those pictures,” she went on, “then those women wouldn’t have to be in pictures like that and they wouldn’t be sad. Now I want you to promise that you won’t look at those pictures anymore and make those women sad.”

He felt relieved. He had been sure that he was going to get spanked, even though, at six, he was getting too old for it.

“I promise.”

Now he looked at another pile and saw scraps of notebook paper with Byronic poetry and songs about robots that he wrote when he was 17. He sank slowly into the metal chair, its brave frame bowed slightly under his 300-pound frame.

“Am I,” he looked up at Emily, the words felt tangled in his throat, “am I dying?”

She paused for a moment, “I don’t know,” she said, shrugging again.

He put his enormous hands over his face and tugged at his reddish beard.

“I knew it! I knew it would end early. I’ve wasted my whole life,” he cried, “I used to think there would be more than this, that I would do more, but I’ve never done anything.  It’s all been a waste!”

He stood up suddenly and kicked the pile closest to him knocking over picture frames and sending sheets of paper flying.  He circled around looking for something to throw, but stopped short when he heard laughter coming from a picture frame he had knocked over. He picked up the plain metallic frame and was surprised to find the picture inside was moving. He watched his wife laughing as she pulled her shirt over her head, teasing him. They were on the dilapidated gold velvet couch in the family room of their first house, a brick semi-detached, and she was seven-months pregnant with one of the girls. They laughed as she tried to lean forward to kiss him, but couldn’t get close enough because both of their bellies were too big. In the frame, he looked up at her, her long neck rising smoothly above her collar bones, which were still prominent. He watched himself pulling her down onto the couch and then turned the frame over, his already pink cheeks reddening. He never discussed sex with anyone but his wife.

To cover his embarrassment, he began picking his way through the rest of the pile. He found a ticket stub from the time they went to see American Beauty, a movie that his wife had loved and he had kind of liked. Afterwards, when they were walking down the deserted mauve-carpeted hallway to leave the theater he had suddenly suggested they sneak into another movie and, to his surprise, she had agreed. They snuck into The Sixth Sense, a movie his wife hadn’t wanted to pay for. When the credits began to roll, she claimed that she had figured the movie out from the beginning, but he hadn’t believed her. They left the theater nervously, both expecting to be caught, but the teenagers that were hired to take tickets and clean popcorn off the floor didn’t even glance in their direction. In another moving picture, he saw them recording songs together and in another, he saw them sitting in their pajamas eating Doritos and laughing about the genius of Roadhouse.

“I’m just about done for the day,” Emily said.

“O.K.,” he said, unsure what he should do next.

“Listen, you weren’t supposed to be able to see me, but since you know I’m here, I won’t come during the day anymore. You might get in a car accident,” she said, ushering him towards the door.

“Thank you,” he paused, “do you mind if I come back to look at some of the boxes?”

She hovered in the doorway and rolled her eyes before giving him another of her little laughs.

“Yeah, I guess that would be O.K.”

Night after night, they worked on the boxes together. She continued on with her checklist, which he was afraid to ask her about and he developed his own projects. He made several boxes for each of his three children. One night, he spent what felt like hours watching himself burst into tears over and over when his son, his oldest, was born. Emily sighed softly, but said nothing to him as she put together boxes of his lost temper, filled with all the times he had threatened to spank his children or called them “assholes.” She also handled his work box, which was mostly full of student assessments and social work reports detailing the abuse his students had suffered before they came to him.  That box also contained police reports, one for the time he had been hit on the head with a brick when he told a student that he wasn’t going to be able to go home for Christmas and another from the time he had been attacked from behind, for no reason at all.

One night, after about three weeks, Emily stopped working and surveyed the room, announcing that she thought they were just about done. He was bent over a box sorting through all the times he had helped the old man fix cars down in the barn. He stood up, but didn’t want to look at her, his tongue felt thick and heavy in his mouth. They still hadn’t discussed the purpose of their project.

“OK, I guess we’re done,” he swallowed hard, “Does that mean I am dying?”

Emily put her hand on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know that,” she said gently, “They did say that you could take a box with you. Anything you want.”

“Who said?”

But, she only shrugged and handed him a huge box. He dumped most of the wife boxes and his kid piles into the box, as well as memories from his childhood – the forts he built in the dense green woods behind his house, starting fires at scout camp and the summers he worked in his grandfather’s orchard, enduring his bad temper and greedily drinking the homemade cider, which he liked best when it had turned a little. He glanced at his work box and thought he would leave it all behind, but decided he should take his degrees and some of his finer moments, since he didn’t know if he was actually dying. He took hugs from the boy they called “Rah Rah,” the time Liam had learned to write his name after years of trying and a report of Ryan’s success at the trade school.

The box was getting heavy, but he was afraid of being bored, so he picked up his two favourite volumes of his childhood encyclopedia — the one that contained entries about Greek and Roman mythology and the one with tanks and warplanes. For good measure, he tossed in The Age of Sutton Hoo and a pile of National Geographics, which his wife gave him a subscription for every year.  Finally, he turned to face Emily. They stood there for a few seconds, looking around the room.

“Well,” she said, “Take care of yourself.”

She extended a cool dry hand and he shook it wondering if he should give her a hug.

“Thanks for your help,” he said, uncertainly. She shrugged again and smiled.

“Good luck,” she said.


And, with that, he picked up his box and walked out the door.