by Christina Dalcher

 

Sam fell apart some nights, crumbling into a thousand irregular pieces his wife would sweep up and store in an empty puzzle box she kept under the sofa. He stayed there during dinner, sometimes through dessert, and almost always through his daughters’ favorite rom-coms. One thousand pieces of Sam, waiting restlessly in a box with a picture of Neuschwanstein on the cover. Or that starry night thing by Van Gogh. Or a brown buffalo in a field of cattails and winter wheat. He never knew which box — he couldn’t see the cover from inside, and five times out of ten his eye pieces were turned the wrong way so he couldn’t even make an educated guess from the dimensions. Tonight felt like the Neuschwanstein box. It must be, because he was cold.

Sam could hear, though. His ears worked fine.

“Should we put Dad back together now?” That was Ellie, his youngest, over the din of a chick-flick.

“Soon,” Diane said. Didn’t she care? Didn’t she understand he was shattered, broken, in pieces?

Sam tried to call out, but his larynx was in one corner and his teeth in another and his lips were god-knows-where. So he waited until he heard Diane’s heavy sigh, followed by the creak of the floor, and finally the rasp of cardboard against cardboard as his wife pried the lid off of him.

Diane’s fingers worked quickly — too quickly, he sensed — as she laid them on his various parts. First the brush of nail against the skin of his thigh, the soft pad of her thumb on his big toe, a pinching sensation on the tip of his cock when she picked that piece and searched for the right place in the sea of irregular holes that was Sam.

And when they went into their bedroom, she turned on her side, putting too much space between them.

***

Donny Brooks from the office fell apart, too; all the guys did when they hit their late forties. Some sooner, some later. But each spent random evenings in bits before his wife reassembled him. If his wife reassembled him.

At first, when the disintegration was new, the women scrambled, staying up until past midnight, sorting the edges from the interior and the solid patches from the more intricate textures. Now, most let a day or two go by, leaving their men to suffer in dark places, alone. It was cruel — un-fucking-empathetic, if you asked Sam — this failure to understand how a person felt when he wasn’t a man anymore, when he couldn’t function and do all the things a man was born to do.

Some nights, he cried, soaking his cardboard prison with tears until some of the glued-on pictures peeled away from their backing. On others, he screamed inside himself, unheard and unheeded by his own family. Sam’s doctor told him he’d get through the change, become accustomed to a new pattern, have the energy of a charging buffalo on certain days, shiver with cold as if he were a solitary structure of stone on a German hill. Or he might blaze with the intensity of a sun.

“You never can tell from one day to the next,” said Dr. Myers, scribbling notes on her clipboard before asking if there might be anything else she could help Sam with.

He felt himself falling apart as Dr. Myers called her next patient.

***

And now he was here, in his box with the mad king’s castle on its lid, listening to the clicks and taps of Diane’s keyboard, which, if he were honest, sounded much better than the ringing of a doorbell and the playing of — what was that? Patsy-fucking-Cline? — and the painful thumping of his headboard against their bedroom wall after the girls went to sleep.

These younger men didn’t split into irregular jigsaw pieces each night. No. Each night they rang doorbells and put on sugary romantic records and banged Diane for hours, like every night was the end of the world.

Then the end of Sam’s world came.

“I put you back together, honey,” Diane said one rainy Sunday afternoon. “It’s the least I could do.”

With his eyes where they were supposed to be, Sam watched his wife of fifteen years as she finished packing up the china and the silver and the last of the girls’ clothes. Those same eyes watched his wife’s new boyfriend carry boxes out the door. Sam put the guy at twenty-five. Thirty, tops. It would be another fifteen years before he started falling apart, and five beyond that before Diane grew tired of putting him back together.

So he drank all that day, and when the time came, Sam fell to pieces. He stayed strewn over the carpet until the next owners arrived, a pair of young newlyweds who reminded him of better times. The wife swept him up, poured him into a puzzle box, and Sam’s left eye caught the image on the lid. It was a famous image — almost iconic — of a sky painted with ribbons of blood, and the contorted, agonized face that was nothing more or less than the total anxiety of man.

 

***

 

Christina Dalcher makes things up and writes them down, occasionally from the point of view of a cat. She also made a book called VOX.

 

 

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