by duncan barlow

The next time he’d see his father it would be in a plastic box. Quartered out by the spoonful. No longer a body but a thing. A recipe. But this wouldn’t be the last time he’d see the box. He would see it daily. On the shelf in the office. Light reflecting off the tape. A bag inside. Filled with ash. Ash for skies. Ash for water. Ash for dinner.


Some days there wasn’t a memory of his father. Only the box. A thing. Books propped against it. The memory of the man erased. Or obfuscated. The box on the beach in the 80s. The box in the Cadillac. The box sitting next to his scrawny body as he rattled with fever saying, there, there, son, you’ll be well. The box watching him swim. A boy and his box.


Outside nothing changed. The sun rose. The storms came. The insects seeped from the earth and slithered. They crawled. They sang their unholy songs. The house settled as it had before. No haunts. No specters to remind him. To resurrect the shape of his father. The thought of the ghost brought him comfort. He looked for it year after year. Knew what he’d say. To comfort the restless father. But that visual too began to change over time. First the hands pixilated. The feet. Quickly along the arms, up the legs, until block-by-block, he was square. The box hovering between the rail and the wall. Along the hall in the basement.


Girlfriends would come into his life. Cohabitate. Ask him during spring cleanings. What’s in here? What’s that? Do you need this thing? Would you like to buy better bookends? The box sat silent. Once he placed his ear to the box. Whispered, whatdaya think of her?


As a boy, he’d watched a movie with his father. Shortly after he’d struggled through the fever. There had been a black box. Slender. Tall. It descended from the sky. Presented itself before the apes. That, his father said, is something. Something he thought, leaning his head against the box on the sofa. His neck still weak from the fever. The apes were driven mad. They screamed and slammed their creepy bald hands.


He walked to the shelf and grabbed the box. What was that movie, he asked. The movie with the box. Was the world showing him a secret? Did his father know all along that his world would become a box?


It occurred to him. He too would be a box. But no one would hold his box. No books resting against him. No space to house him. A box somewhere else. A box without a home. His name, perhaps, written upon its lid.


He began seeing himself as a box. A box graduating from college. A box losing his first wife. His second. Teaching students. A box growing old in an empty house. A box standing before a box. The world around him as it was before. The shadows long and shallow. The lights lemon or beige or gold. He could never tell.


That is what the film was telling him. Or the box was telling him. Or he was telling himself. All the world a box. Each one lighter than the previous. Each one cared for until there was no one left. And they would stand. Stand in cities of vacant homes. Testaments or corpses or messages or props. Things placed on shelves. Stored in garages. Divided. Carbon in bags in boxes. Replacing everything but the world outside. The world that never changed. Where apes scream. Others rattle and slither.

duncan barlow is a fiction writer with one published novel (Super Cell Anemia) and two books forthcoming (All Possible Things on the Cupboard, 2016/17 and The City, Awake on Stalking Horse, 2017). He is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Program at the University of South Dakota, where he is the managing editor of South Dakota Review and the editor-in-chief at Astrophil Press. His work has appeared in The Denver Quarterly, The Collagist, Banango Street, The Apeiron Review, Calamari Press, and Meat for Tea.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Nonconcentric”?

“Nonconcentric” began as a box, sitting upon my bookshelf, holding in place several antique books on Phrenology. The green plastic container, filled with my father’s ashes, remains encased in shadows until the day when I finally commit him to the sea as an addition to a growing coral reef of deceased fathers, tagged like some clip-eared cats, with GPS chips for easy mapping. The ashes of the man who prepared bowls of popcorn and M&Ms while we spent lazy Saturdays watching sci-fi and horror movies on a small black and white TV. How does one fit a lifetime of achievement, love, and loss into such a small box? Fire and ash.


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Matter Press recently released titles from Meg Boscov, Abby Frucht, Robert McBrearty, Tori Bond, Kathy Fish, and Christopher Allen. Click here.

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