The Lunchbox - Adam Restinow

           “Well, I hope you know what you’re doing,” Martha said, while packing Herb’s Monday lunch. Herb was particular about his lunch, the way some women were about their shoes. He wanted a different lunch every day of the work week; breakfast and dinner with his wife could be cereal and hamburger respectively, he was noncommittal and apparently unconcerned. And, he wanted to be surprised. He was willing to accept mundane bologna and cheese if ensconced in an onion baguette. Even tuna was bearable if accompanied by two semi-soft kiwis.  He was especially keen on dessert variations such as apple strudel and banana bread, each stored in reusable cartons. 
            Martha considered it a strange affectation, noting that it had begun a year ago when Herb had turned fifty-five, thirty years into their marriage. She humored him, not resenting the creativity the task required. Indeed, as a woman who had packed lunches for a son and a daughter, both now with babies of their own, certain maternal skills and instincts were rekindled. Of course, there were days when she, a high school guidance counsellor, running late, wondered why Herb couldn’t construct something for himself.
            When Martha spoke to him, Herb was sitting at the kitchen table. He grinned. “These young guys think they’re so tough. There we were last Friday, in the lunch room, I was eating that fantastic chicken salad you made for me, and Bart and Phil were wolfing down McDonald’s double cheese burgers. Being single and living alone, they have a hard time taking care of themselves. Usually eat crap for lunch. Every now and then I offer to share but they’re too proud to take. Makes me laugh.”
            “How old are they?”
            “Somewhere in their late twenties.”
            “So, they’re probably in pretty good shape.” Martha loved her husband but, physically speaking, he was not the man she married. Once six feet, Herb was now 5”10”. Imagine Charlie Brown on the decline – that was bespectacled Herb. His hair had gone from black to gray and then most of it went altogether. Standing erect, he could just see the tips of his toes but was unable to touch then as he could in his prime. Internally, his blood pressure could be lower, his cholesterol counts weren’t quite the best, and he sometimes forgot his children’s’ birthdays.
            Herb grinned again. “If you are what you eat, then they’d have problems walking around the block.”
            Martha sighed. “Still, are you sure you should compete with men of that age?  I’m glad you have work friends. But this climb up twenty stories worries me.”
            A little irritated, Herb said, “Don’t worry. Like I said before, our accounting company’s major client, Winston Steel, is sponsoring a fund raiser for those Puerto Ricans still devastated by the flooding that hit their country. They call it ‘Steps in the Right Direction.’ For everyone who makes it to the top floor in their headquarters, Winston will donate $26,000.”
            “Very generous.”
            “Extremely generous. If just one person makes it, that’s $26,000 into the fund. If 100 do it, you’re talking about $2,600,000.”
            Martha, fiscally conservative, asked, “Can Winston afford that?”
            “Without blinking. I work on their books and can assure you that donations like that are not a problem. Even if money were tight, they’d be doing it. CEO’s wife lost her grandparents on both sides when the disaster struck. She’ll be the first one up the stairs, and he’ll be right behind her.”
            “Look, let’s be honest. You might not make it. You could seriously hurt yourself.” Martha handed him his lunchbox.
            Herb had conversed seriously with himself before committing to the object in hand. He knew he did not want a box reminiscent of his elementary school days, one featuring some Disney character. His choice needed to be sturdy, dependable, an object which bespoke self-confidence and high self-esteem. Beyond that he wanted something he could talk to.
            Many of his colleagues talked to themselves while scrutinizing financial statements. He knew that his neighbor Ray Sampson discussed politics with his German Shepherd and that Shelia Sampson encouraged her roses to embrace the day. Hell, whenever Martha drove, she talked to the passing cars and trucks, admonishing them for bad behavior. The lunchbox was Herb’s object of observation about the fragilities of humanity. It replaced the blanket Herb possessed as a child, a blanket which comforted him during the loud, venomous quarreling which frequently seeped from his parents’ bedroom, especially on Friday nights when his father came home late from too many “last one for me.” The loosely knit brown blanket, a treasured gift from his grandmother, understood him when he said, “Don’t worry, they’ll be quiet in a while. They love each other. They love you and me. Don’t worry.”
            And yet when Herb finally chose, he selected the black, domed-lid lunchbox favored by construction workers throughout time and place. Walking to and from the rush hour train, oblivious to the incongruity of a white-collar man toting a blue-collar insignia, Herb saw himself as an ordinary man carrying an ordinary thing – ordinary was good, ordinary people were among the blessed.
            Lunchbox dangling at his hip, Herb replied. “I know my limits. Everyone who thinks he or she can do it is in on it. When we got an email from our CEO telling us about the event, saying he planned on participating, and hoping that we would join him at the top – well, it was a two-second decision to sign up. I figure I have at least ten more years at the firm with maybe one or two promotions on the horizon. So, if the CEO suggests that sweating a little would be good for you in so many ways, you can bet that my name was one of the first on the list.”
            “Well,” Martha shrugged, “the climb is in two weeks. You could do some training at my school after hours. You know, run around the track, climb the stadium steps, things like that. Wouldn’t hurt.” Then, patting him on the shoulder and pushing him out the door, she added, “Go get ‘em, tiger. At least our will is up to date, and our bank accounts are in both names.”
            “Ha, ha,” Herb said, “hear me roar and don’t buy that Mercedes just yet.”

            To his credit, Herb heeded Martha’s advice and began a short-term training regimen. As they lived in a two-story Colonial, he walked up and down their staircase once on day one, twice on day two, and then three times – by the day before the race he was able to make the journey ten times in forty minutes and not become a pool of sweat. In addition, again thanks to Martha, he drank more water than usual, spent thirty minutes a day stretching, and gradually developed the ability to breathe correctly and evenly.
            The evening before the race, Herb stepped from the shower and onto a scale; sadly, he was not surprised. “Martha, I haven’t lost a single goddam pound!”
            Climbing the stairs, Martha muttered to herself, “Lord, deliver me from foolish old men and their dreams of glory.” Entering the bathroom, she patted Herb’s bare stomach, glanced at the scale and exclaimed, “Poor baby. Good news, bad news. The good news: some of your fat has turned to muscle which weighs more than fat; so, you weigh the same but are more fit. The bad news: you weigh significantly more than you should for a man of your age and are stressing your heart. Still want to climb that mountain, tiger? Last chance.”
            Male pride bolstered Herb’s bravado. “I feel grrrreat! Bring it on!”

            At 9:00 a.m. the following morning a congregation of the fit and the unfit assembled in the lobby of the Wilson Steel building. Each wore a yellow, short-sleeve shirt emblazoned on the front with the Wilson logo, a black steel beam, and on which was etched Steps in the Right Direction. Herb’s shirt was XXL, the only one in that size; pinned to his back was a large tag numbered 136 and containing a microchip for tracking purposes. Like the rest, Herb wore shorts, his were an unnatural purple, and comfortable walking shoes.
            As the event was, in essence, an endurance contest, no one leaped to be the first through the door leading to the flight of stairs. Indeed, the men waited until all of the women were on their way before silently starting their ascent. And that was the first thing Herb noticed: no one spoke. There was the occasional grunt and gasp but even these were muted. He was tempted to call out to Bart and Phil, already two flights ahead, but concluded that there was an unacknowledged ritual in place which he should observe.
            Herb stopped at the fifth floor. Gazing down at the distance travelled and sitting to the far left so that others could pass on the right, Herb began to doubt. Not that he was claustrophobic but the narrowness of the stairway and the turbulent river of bodies was a bit unsettling. He touched his lunchbox for reassurance.
            Intent on their private goals, no one noticed that Herb was carrying his lunchbox. If questioned, he would say that it contained a clean, after-the-climb shirt. Which was true but the box also contained plastic bags of ice cubes, a Hershey bar for quick energy and his cell phone in case of an emergency. He assumed that the weight of the loaded lunchbox, which would decrease as the climb progressed, would be manageable – exactly the kind of thinking he engaged in on the job.
            “Well, old boy, time to move on.” Herb stood, gripped the handrail and slowly moved upward another two flights. Once more sitting against the wall, Herb devoured the Hershey and took a large swallow of the melted ice.
            “This is insane. Martha was right; I’m too old for this. There’s the door, let’s just call it quits.” He looked at the lunchbox for affirmation and was met with perceived disdain. “Oh, alright, just a little more.”
            As Herb climbed, he realized that all others had gone before him. There was the distant thunder of a herd many floors above but no sound from below. Rather than panic at being left behind, Herb took pleasure in being on his own. Since high school he had seen himself as a solitary force for doing the right thing while others went astray. This image hadn’t made him popular but it did make him an exemplary accountant.
            Once more addressing his lunchbox, Herb said, “OK, we made it. You know, you’re heavier than you look. Time to go home.” Again, like Poe’s raven, the lunchbox said nothing. Rebuked, Herb took another gulp and resumed his struggle.
            An aspect of the climb which Herb had not accounted for was the sameness of the environment. The walls were institutional gray, the doors were white, the steps were a deep brown embedded with black rubber treads. Harsh fluorescent lighting competed with red exit signs. Herb, alone and weary unto death, felt he was a prisoner in solitary confinement; nothing changed. Some might say he was in a hell of his own making.
            The pain in his knees, once a nuisance, was now palpable. Every step evoked a gasp. Every ten steps caused him to grip the railing with his right hand, moan and shake his head from side to side to cast off the acidic sweat cascading into his eyes. He smelled of old age, and he heard his heart say, “This far, no further.” Now was the time to use his phone. Even if the call got through, would he still be alive when help arrived?  Looking at his lunchbox for an answer, Herb sensed that it didn’t really care what happened to him. It seemed to say, “You’ll live or you’ll die. I’ll endure.”
            “Well, fuck you, mister. I said I was going to do this, and I am.” Inspired by hatred of his former confidant, Herb muddled upward. The air was scented with the odors of his fellow climbers, and breathing was now a conscious act. And yet something resembling Herb reached the fourteenth floor. A fat, flaccid mound lay prone on its back on the landing. Occasionally drool from its lips reached the floor and mouse-like squeaks indicated life was still present.
            “Almost there,” it said.
            “Not a chance,” the lunchbox asserted.
            “Will,” the mound, now reformed as Herb, said.
            “Won’t,” the lunchbox sneered.
            Herb opened the lunchbox, removed the shirt, soaked it in the remaining water, and tied it around his head. “Hah! Clever me!”
            The lunchbox replied, “Fool you. You’ve just used up the rest of your water, and you have six more floors to go. The higher you go, the warmer it gets. You’ll probably collapse from heat exhaustion if you don’t stumble, fall down a flight or two and break your neck. At least Martha will never have to humor you with those ridiculous lunches. You never did truly appreciate how she cares for you. When was the last time you did something completely selfless for her? And now you’ve struggled for the past hour and still, still haven’t made it. You vain, ignorant, delusional, little man. Enough said. You’re doomed.”
            Enraged with the lunchbox and himself, Herb rolled over and pushed himself to his hands and knees. In this position he noticed the word Angels inscribed on the riser of the first step leading to the fifteenth floor. Strange, he thought. Although covered with a thick layer of dust, the bright yellow lettering shone through and was to Herb’s eye the work of a master calligrapher, the kind of precision he admired in financial accounts. Curious, agony put aside, he stood and started up the stairs.
            There, at the beginning of the sixteenth floor, equally dim but discernible, were the words who guard you. Herb was intrigued and dutifully lugged his lunchbox. Subsequent messages on subsequent floors read when you drive, usually retire and at 65. The door to the twentieth floor was before him, a mere thirteen steps, and the mystery was revealed. An artist with a memory of better times had rendered the Burma Shave logo onto the concrete step.
            At first Herb stared in disbelief, then he chuckled, then he laughed. “Sonofabitch! I’m probably the only one who noticed this,” he told the lunchbox. He held it chest high so it could see the logo. “When he was sober and had had a good day, my father used to tell us about these road signs. Catchy advertising along rural roads, sign every mile or so during the thirties and forties, sold a lot of shaving cream. Dad thought they were some of the best advice he’d ever had. Wonder who did this? These top floors are for the executives so there was no chance they’d waste their precious time using these stairs.”
            Relaxed, reflective, “Well, here we are. Couple of rough moments there, but we pulled through. Thanks for keeping me company, appreciate it, no friend like an old friend. You know, I think I’ll leave you on the top step. See the welcoming committee on my own. Hope you understand.”
            The lunchbox was stone silent.                      

 

Adam Restinow, a peripatetic wordsmith, shunned degreed creative writing programs in favor of attending to what people actually said and did. He learned that simple things, a word or a gesture, are at the heart of a good story. He also discovered that home-cooked meals cure many ailments, that true love is possible, and that listing prior publications is false pride. Adam and his wife live in Savannah, GA; but that could change if the wind blows cold.