The Silver Box by Paul Emerich France
CAREENING THROUGH THE DARK and dismal jungle, a silver box carried me above dead tree trunks and across a canopy. the box hustled and bustled, jostling my body back and forth, causing my brain to roll around in my skull, nausea to take over my head, and a resulting numbness to come over the rest of my body. i closed my eyes, and in my ears imagined music feebly attempting to bring a lull to my nausea. Meanwhile, my body and the bodies of those around me are still propelling forward in the silver box. i tried to shut out the feelings, to control my body’s visceral, unconscious reaction to my environment.
but this proved quite difficult.
our silver box came to a stop, the doors opening to an osmotic exchange of winter air, bodies filing out, and more bodies piling in, joining us on our excursion across this urban tundra. i noticed my fellow passengers, riding in a similar discomfort, eyes staring blankly out the windows, cheeks rosy from winter’s subtle hug, heads resting on their necks with a slightly downward gaze, in order to avoid attracting the attention of a neighbor, as to not awkwardly connect with someone nearby, almost in a subconscious effort to not let another know that he or she does, in fact, exist — that he or she is there, sharing in this.
my nausea persisted with the boggling trajectory of this silver box. my head began to rattle once again, so i closed my eyes. i gave into the jostling, letting its inertia push my shoulders back and forth between two people. on my left, a man, stocky and tall, sitting with his shoulders slumped, in an effort perhaps to make himself smaller, to escape his burly stature, and on my right, a small woman, sitting up straight, with eyes that opened like small tears in fabric, only letting in minuscule bits of light. contrarily, her gaze sat slightly upward, avoiding contact with others, as well, but in a different way than that of the downward gaze of other passengers, as though she was trying to see over everything, rather than under it.
the juxtaposition of their two bodies — the man on my left attempting to make himself smaller to fit in his seat, and the woman sitting with her upward gaze, attempting to take up more space than the universe created for her — was jarring to me. their dissimilarities were abundant, but their one similarity — their feeble attempt to be all but what they actually were — startled me. that moment of cognition gave me brief relief from my nausea, but i couldn’t attribute too much attention to it, as my nausea began to set back in.
i had to focus my attention there.
the silver box slowed to a stop once again, and i stared out into the gray sky. sheets of snow cast an opaquely translucent haze over humanity’s best shot at Modernity. orange lights twinkled in the distance, showing evanescent signs of life, just before the silver box picked up speed once again, bringing us to our next destination in the urban jungle.
a voice broke the tense silence of the silver box.
i opened my eyes, my sickness evading my consciousness. my neck turned towards the doors, where i could still feel the fleeting fingers of the winter’s tickle slowly being overtaken by the warmth of the silver box.
a man stood, fabric drooped over his torso and legs, the skin on his face red with winter’s anger. holes in his drapery revealed a swollen leg, even angrier than his visage. he repositioned himself, groaning in pain as he did so, beginning his story.
“i know you are frequently bothered by people such as myself,” he began, “and i recognize that many of you are almost certain to be disinclined to believe these words that follow.”
i realized that i was staring, struck by his robotic, yet romantic, articulation and matter-of-fact tone. i jerked my head back into its stomach-calming position, eyes closed, focusing back on the jostling of the silver box. while i tried to focus my conscious attention on the rising waves of discomfort, i could not help but let the man’s words crawl their way into my ears.
“i am sick,” he continued, “and all i need tonight is twenty dollars, so that i may secure the medicine needed to keep me alive. as you can see, my legs are swollen. edema — the doctor calls it — which has resulted from blood clots. i need a rather inexpensive prescription, one that will help to break apart the blood clots, relieve the swelling, and minimize the risk of even more severe complications.”
it wasn’t long before i found my eyes open again, staring directly at the man, my heart quietly aching for him. i placed my hands over my pockets shakily, the silver box pulling me left and right, drawing my attention back to my downward gaze. i felt the contour of my wallet, and i knew that i had the money to help him.
despite the silver box’s shakiness and the rattling of metal against the winter elements, our universe felt suspended in a delicate silence. not a soul flinched at the desperate words of this man. jaded by the urban jungle, marred by the survival-of-the-fittest mentality inbred by selfish hegemonic culture of the western world, it became easier to ignore, and easier to pretend that evil simply existed in the world, even though the symptoms of his malady were clear as could be to the naked eye. alas, there was nothing any of us could do, and believed that if we simply pretended to ignore it, it would go away, out of our periphery, through the sieve of our individual and collective consciousness, slowly drifting out of vision.
but i knew. i knew that these sorts of things never entirely drift from us. they never entirely fall away. once they pass through the sieve, even if we pretend to ignore them, they fall underneath and are caught by the fabric of our unconscious mind, where they sit, fester, and grow.
i still sat, however, numbing my nausea from the silver box, and now further numbing my guilt from the man with edema, thumbing the outer fold of my wallet, a tension building inside my chest. the hands of my conscience grabbed ahold of my esophagus, twisting and turning, sending an acidic burn in my stomach, through my heart, out to my shoulders, and up through my neck. i wanted to reach out and help, and i began to prepare myself to do so — to do something to break the silence.
i thought forward, just thirty seconds, to how i would approach the man, to how i would give him the twenty dollars he seemed to so desperately need. slowly but surely, a smile crept across my face, and a feeling of joy bubbled up through my torso, although it only exacerbated my anxiety.
it started to make me feel even more uncomfortable.
i suddenly became embarrassed for myself and my happiness, for this moment — the moment that i had imagined only thirty seconds ahead of the present me, sick to my stomach. and it made me sick to my stomach with myself. could i really have taken such joy out of being a savior to this man? could i really feel such elation when here he was, standing in front of me, feeling such misery? i had become embarrassed to be seen as the self-righteous yuppie, the man who derived joy out of others’ misfortune, the boy who only offered his charity to this man out of his own deeply seated guilt.
instead of numbing my nausea, i now began to numb my guilt, my embarrassment, and my preoccupation with myself, but only after, of course, i had numbed the potential joy that could have come from helping another. i was ashamed to even have gone through the thought process i had just encountered.
i froze, lifeless and stiff, like the treetops of my urban jungle, my gaze blank and pointing downward towards the floor. while others may have mistook me for ignoring the man, as perhaps the remainder of the silver box’s inhabitants were, i was trapped instead by indecision.
the silver box came to a gradual stop again at the next departure point, where once again, a flood of arctic air welcomed in a new crop of indifferent urbanites. i looked back over to where the man in the tattered fabric stood just moments before, only to see him replaced by a new flood of people.
i stood up from my chair, looked around, my legs shaking as the silver box continued its journey through the tundra. i walked over to the spot where the man had stood just seconds before. he had left, before i had the chance to reach out to help, before i was able to move past my selfish empathy, before i was able to welcome the joy that could have come from helping this man, and before i was able to recognize that it was not this urban jungle, nor the apathetic passengers on the silver box, that had constructed me in this way.
it was before i was able to realize
that it was me
who had constructed me
it is often said that a great wave of change starts with but one ripple. in many cases, though, it takes a hand to force that ripple, and it takes a conscious change in attitude, habit, and action to begin this momentum. despite the man sitting there reaching out to me, whether directly or indirectly, i turned him down. i not only turned down the chance to help him, but i turned down the joy that comes from human connection. i turned it down so that no one would see me, no one else on the silver box would notice me, so that i wouldn’t notice me.
i didn’t want to be noticed.
all that man was asking for on that dreary and cold evening — when the winter screamed just as loud as the silver box — was to be seen, to be heard, to be helped, to be noticed; all he was asking was that another reach out. i had the chance, but i let it go.
ironically so, the old man and i might as well have been sitting on opposite sides of me, just as the small woman trying to be big and the large man attempting to be small. in those moments, our dissimilarities were striking, both in our status and our desire to be seen, but equally so…
we were all trying to be something we were not.
Catch more mad musings from talented newcomers in SN4: The Fifth of November – available on Amazon!