by Arthur Bradford, recommended by John Hodgman
EDITOR’S NOTE BY JOHN HODGMAN
I don’t know why I’m writing this introduction. Arthur’s stories are easy and fun to read and there’s no special knowledge you need to start them. The special knowledge is what you get from Arthur when you’re done with them.
I’ve known Arthur and his work for 25 years and I’ve always most admired/been enraged by the seeming effortlessness of his storytelling. They are laconic, funny, confident, but not braggy, all with something unpredictable twinkling in them, like an instant friend you make in college, which is what Arthur is like and how I met him. I didn’t need an introduction.
So when he sets Georgie hobbling through this story on his prosthetic foot, you just feel like following him. No one needs to push you along. He’s one of the many benign and gently principled weirdos who inhabit Arthur’s world, drifting through odd jobs, settling in strange living arrangements, and dwelling, happily, on the most distant margins of what is expected of grown ups.
But there is always a certain weirdness lurking beneath the surface of his stories (in this one almost literally) — a beguiling, sometimes lurid, slightly cannabinoid strain of magical realism that Arthur’s characters confront with hilarious equanimity. The descent into the underworld is a staple of the hero’s journey according to Joseph Campbell; but only in an Arthur Bradford story would the hero peer into the underworld, shrug, lock it shut, and go get stoned.
But that’s not how the story ends, naturally. Because Arthur is too smart and skilled to leave it there, and too smart and skilled to let you see his talents at work. Just read this story and enjoy it. Maybe do so a couple of times. And only then, maybe, think about how this effortless shaggy-dog tale lingers with you, in some dark deep place you don’t understand, with the obsidian gleam of a fairy tale: a man trades his foot for a house. He is guided on an unexpected journey through death and resurrection by mother-maiden and crone. Nature takes its revenge, and in its wake, unexpected treasure and secret knowledge reveals itself. Then everyone goes and gets stoned.
Now I fear I’ve already said too much. This story needs no introduction. Take the journey for yourself.
by Arthur Bradford, recommended by John Hodgman
The real estate agent who sold me the house had mentioned the box only in passing.
“There’s a structure in the backyard,” she told me. “You can’t move it. It’s an eminent domain thing, grandfathered in. But it won’t bother you.”
I examined the box more closely later on, before finalizing the purchase. It was about eight feet square, and made of gray, weathered steel, a generic box if there ever was one. I was informed that it was a “transfer box” and inside of it were a set of circuits involved in the underground conduction of electricity. The rusted bolt lock at the base seemed like it hadn’t been opened for years.
“Can I cover it up with vegetation?” I inquired.
The response took three days to arrive and it was, “No.”
But the house was inexpensive and located on the side of a pleasant hill, unobservable by my neighbors, a feature which I liked. I wasn’t up to anything covert, mind you, I just enjoy solitude, and the notion that I might do something like stroll about in my home naked without feeling self-conscious pleased me. In truth I rarely did that.
Earlier that year I’d lost my foot in a wood-chipper accident. I had negotiated a lump payment from the county, with whom I was employed when it happened, and this was how I paid for the house. It goes without saying I would have preferred to keep my foot instead of that house, but I wasn’t entirely displeased with the arrangement. A house for a foot. Worse deals have been struck.
It was during the winter that I first began to notice the heat emanating from the box. A heavy snow had fallen overnight and in the morning I went out for a walk with my dog. Everything was white and pillowy except for that box. It was bare and steam rose from its steel casing. I touched it and nearly burned my fingertips. Later on, I noticed the snow on the ground around the box had begun to melt away as well. By day’s end there was a muddy brown circle, like a moat, surrounding it. I called the power company and was bounced around several different departments before they agreed to send a crew over.
The crew arrived and stared at the box.
“It’s just a box,” they said to me. “It isn’t one of ours. We don’t even know what’s inside of it.”
“Well, can you open it up?” I asked. “I’m concerned about the heat.”
“No, sir,” said the foreman, “we’re not allowed to interfere with this kind of thing. Liability. I suggest you figure out who put this here.”
I called the fire department and by the time they got to my place the box had cooled down.
“Let us know if it starts heating up again,” said the fire chief. “Or get it fixed.”
“I don’t even know what it is,” I said.
The real estate agent who sold me the house put me in touch with the town zoning commission, who were the ones who thought it belonged to the power company. Apparently I had signed something attached to the deed and title in which I agreed to leave that box untouched, but no one was sure who had put it there. The previous owner of the house was dead and, like me, had valued solitude. The box didn’t heat up like that again though, and after a few days I was tempted to forget about it.
My closest neighbors were two women known as the Harper sisters. They lived together in the same run-down farmhouse where they had been born. They grew marijuana on the property and raised a breed of cat known as Manx cats, meaning they had no tails. Suzette, the eldest sister, was over six feet tall and quite skinny. I was afraid of her. Lila, the younger one, wasn’t so tall and smiled a lot. She had a large gap between her two front teeth, which was not unattractive.
Shortly after the box had cooled down Lila showed up at my front door looking for one of her cats.
“His name is Sinclair,” she told me. “He’s friendly and doesn’t usually wander. Has he been around here?”
“I haven’t seen him,” I told her. “Listen, do you know anything about the metal box in my backyard? It was giving off steam when it snowed a few days ago.”
“Steam?” said Lila.
“Well, heat,” I said. “I suppose it was just the snow that turned to steam.”
Lila walked around back with me and together we looked at the box.
“Seems like government work to me,” she said. “I’d be happy to help you bury it. Suzette could bring over the tractor and knock it down.”
“Well, I’m not sure I should do that,” I said. “I was told it wasn’t technically my property.”
“Who told you that?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Lila gazed down at my prosthetic foot. The prosthesis ended below my knee, but she couldn’t see that. Perhaps she wondered just how far up it went.
“You’re doing pretty well on that thing,” she told me.
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll keep an eye out for your cat.”
A few weeks later I was awakened by a shrill hissing sound, like a large distressed bird had entered my home. I thought perhaps some appliance had sprung a leak. But after a quick examination I determined the sound was coming from outside, from the box.
I grabbed a maul from the woodshed and slammed it against the box several times. This didn’t help anything. I tried going back to sleep but it wasn’t possible with that noise. I considered driving my car up there and crashing it into the box, but, before I could do that, the hissing stopped.
In the morning I paid a visit to the Harper sisters to see about taking Lila up on her offer to plow over the box with their tractor. Lila and Suzette were sitting at the kitchen table trimming dried-out marijuana plants with a group of teenagers.
“Did you find my cat?” asked Lila.
“No,” I told her. “He’s still gone?”
“We think he died,” said Suzette.
“You think he died,” corrected Lila. “I think he’s gone rogue.”
“Well, I’m wondering if you might be able to bring your tractor over to my place this afternoon,” I said. “That metal box started hissing last night and I couldn’t sleep. I was hoping you could knock it over and bury it.”
“That’s a bad idea,” said Suzette.
“I’ll bring the tractor over at two o’clock,” said Lila.
We all smoked some of their marijuana, which was very strong because it had been grown indoors using seeds shipped from engineers in Holland. One of the teenagers, a guy named Alf, turned out to be Suzette’s son. This surprised me because she didn’t seem old enough to have birthed a teenager, an older teenager at that. He had a beard.
Two o’clock rolled around and none of us had moved from the kitchen.
“Time to get that tractor,” said Lila, punching me in the arm.
Alf volunteered to help with the box-demolition project and another fellow whose name I’ve forgotten agreed to come along as well. We ventured out to the barn where the tractor was kept and Alf and his friend refused to put on coats despite the cold weather. They were tough, punk-rock-type guys who didn’t appear to bathe much, if at all.
First we had to dig out the area around the barn door because it hadn’t been opened since the big snowfall. Then Lila opened up the door and Alf set to work starting up the tractor. It had been sitting there all winter and needed some coaxing. I began poking around the barn looking for a length of chain, which might come in handy if we decided to tow the box away. I peered down into a barrel and discovered Sinclair, the missing cat. He was dead.
“Aw, fuck, he must have gotten stuck in there,” said Lila.
She was upset and the work on the tractor was forgotten. Instead we dug a grave out in the small meadow where they buried their animals. This was hard work because the ground was mostly frozen and we had to use pickaxes. Alf wondered if we might wait until spring, but Lila said that was disrespectful.
Suzette came outside for the burial and expressed the opinion that Sinclair was an old cat and had probably just been looking for a quiet place to die. At first this further agitated Lila, but then she began to take some solace in the notion that Sinclair might not have been struggling and calling out for help. From the looks of his frozen body, he had been in there for quite a while.
Alf’s friend said he had examined the barrel where I’d discovered Sinclair and had seen a mouse skeleton in there as well.
“I bet the cat was chasing after that mouse,” he said.
“So at least he had something to eat,” observed Alf. But then he trailed off on this thought as Lila once again began to cry.
“Why don’t the two of you shut the fuck up?” said Suzette.
We buried the cat and agreed to take on the box project the next day. This was just as well, because when I got home there was a van parked in front of my house and a group of men in white jumpsuits were gathered around the box. I was glad to see people in an official-looking capacity taking interest in it.
“Are you the owners of this box?” I called out to them as I approached.
A small fellow stepped forward and introduced himself as Dr. Cox. “Have you been striking this container?” he asked.
I noticed there were several large dents on the sides where I’d gone at it with the maul the night before.
“It was making a terrible noise,” I told him. “It also got very hot during the snowstorm. Steam was coming off of it and I thought it might explode.”
“So you beat upon it with a stick?” said Dr. Cox.
“I used a maul,” I said. “And I didn’t hit it until the noise came out. I couldn’t sleep. Who are you people anyway?”
There was a pause as Dr. Cox glanced back at his cohorts. One of them stepped forward and handed me a business card that was crowded with words.
“We’re with NOAA,” he said. “And we’re going to ask that you refrain from abusing this device.”
“I don’t know what NOAA is,” I said.
“Look it up,” said Dr. Cox. “We’ve made some adjustments to the device, nothing which concerns you, of course.”
“It does concern me,” I said. “I live here. It keeps making noise and heating up.”
“That shouldn’t happen anymore,” said Dr. Cox. “We appreciate you bringing it to our attention.”
With that, Dr. Cox signaled to his team and they followed him as he walked past me, down the hill, and toward the van. I noticed that the rusted lock on the box’s door had been replaced. I tried to peer down through the small vents to see what was going on inside, but it was dark.
“You’re leaving now?” I called out to the white-coated men. “I’d just like to know what this box is for.”
“Read the notice on your door,” said Dr. Cox. And with that they all piled into the van and left.
The notice on my door was written on letterhead from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So that was what “NOAA” stood for. It said, in so many words, that the box belonged to them and it had something to do with the monitoring of atmospheric conditions. It was full of “highly sensitive instruments.” I was forbidden to “interfere with or molest it further,” under penalty of law.
Baffled, but also somewhat impressed at the newfound importance of my backyard, I called up the Harper sisters. Suzette laughed at my news.
“Good thing you dumbasses didn’t go and knock it over,” she said.
Lila was mad though. “Classic government claptrap,” she said.
A few days passed during which the box and I coexisted peaceably, and then, one night, I spotted the shafts of light. They flickered through the vents in the box’s sides. At first I assumed it was sparks, signs of an impending combustion, and I prepared to leave the premises. But then I saw that it was simply light, a steady stream peeking out from within. I crept up next to the box and was very surprised to hear what sounded like voices coming from inside. People! Underground! There was a group of them down there occupying some cavern to which this box was merely an entrance. For so long I had thought it was just a box!
I listened for some time to what they were saying. What I could make out was mostly mundane stuff, arguments about the score of some board game they were playing, a dispute over what they might eat for dinner and how best to prepare it. They had a kitchen down there!
I decided I had had enough. I banged on the box and yelled down to them, “Hey! This is my property! You can’t live underneath my ground! Come out of there!”
There was a quick silence, much the way crickets immediately cease their chirping at the first sign of an intruder. The lights inside clicked off.
“Hello?” I called down to them. “Open up this box! I want to see what’s down there!”
Again, I received no reply. I banged on the box repeatedly and kicked at it with my prosthetic foot.
“Answer me!” I called out. “I heard you talking!”
They were strong-willed though, whoever they were, and they sat quietly in the darkness for a long time. I began to wonder if I’d somehow imagined their presence, if perhaps I was going insane living out here on my own. I got up and stumbled home.
When I told Lila Harper about the voices and the lights I’d seen she came over to my place with a steel cable and a lock.
“We’re going to lock those fuckers in,” she told me.
I liked this idea, though I was wary of Dr. Cox and his orders not to molest the box. Lila had no fear of NOAA, however.
“You think we need a government agency to tell us what the weather is?” she said. “It’s mind control, Georgie. I knew there was something creepy about that box. It’s typical of them to pick on a man with only one foot. You can blame it all on me if they come after you,” she said.
It was exhilarating to see Lila so worked up over this. I’d come across several antigovernment types in my travels up to that point. They all had their favorite conspiracies, but rarely did they ever have the chance to see their paranoia manifest before them. I helped Lila affix the lock and cable so that the box could not be opened. Then Lila smacked the side of the box with a hammer and yelled down through the vents, “We’ve locked you assholes in! You’re stuck!”
She laughed, and for some time there was no response from inside the box. But then, just as we were about to walk away, there came a tapping sound from inside. The tapping grew louder and more frantic and then became a series of loud bangs.
“Can’t get out, can you?” Lila said to the box.
“Hey,” said a timid voice from inside. “Did you really lock us in?”
“You know it!” said Lila.
“Well,” said the voice, “that hardly seems fair.”
“This is my property,” I told the voice. “You all trespassed across my property in order to get in there. You tell your buddy Dr. Cox I’m filing a complaint.”
“Dr. Cox is a moron,” said the voice from inside.
Both Lila and I were a little taken aback by this response. We’d thought of NOAA as a unified front.
“Well,” I said, “how about you tell Dr. Cox to come retrieve you and your friends and get the hell off my property?”
“Now, see here,” said the voice, “we are currently dwelling underground, well below the jurisdiction of your property lines. And besides, the Department of Commerce has declared a right of passage, upholdable by federal law.”
“Department of Commerce?” said Lila.
“Of which NOAA is a division,” said the voice.
“We’re going back inside my house,” I told him. “You all have a fun time down there doing whatever it is you are doing.”
“It’s an ion study!” cried the voice. “Very important research.”
“Come on,” said Lila. “Let’s go.”
She invited me back to her place, where we sat in the kitchen and smoked marijuana while the Manx cats scampered over the counters and tables.
“How come they don’t have tails?” I asked Lila.
“They come from the Isle of Man,” she told me. “Where the wild cats bred with the rabbits.”
Suzette walked in and said, “That’s not true. That’s a myth.”
“I’ve been to the Isle of Man,” said Lila, “and the people there confirm it’s true.”
“Don’t cats need their tails for balance?” I asked. “How come these cats don’t fall over?”
“That’s a silly question,” said Suzette, “especially from a guy with one leg.”
“I have two legs,” I told her. “Just not two feet.”
Then Alf came running in saying I should move my car into the barn because a big storm was coming.
“They say it’s going to drop two feet of snow.”
“I should go home, then,” I said. “What about the people in the box?”
“They weren’t going anywhere anyway,” said Lila, and I agreed with her.
I parked my car inside the big barn, next to the tractor which we had never used. I didn’t believe the storm would amount to much, but Suzette said she could feel its severity in her bones.
It started snowing and strong winds began to howl through the trees. I had been hoping Lila would invite me upstairs to spend the night with her but instead she pulled out some blankets and offered me the couch. Suzette’s bones were right about the storm. It was big and strong, and I slept well with the snow swirling about outside. One of the cats curled up and wedged itself behind my knees.
The storm didn’t let up until past noon the next day. It was a doozy, covering the ground in a heavy blanket of snow and knocking over several trees on the Harper sisters’ land. The snow had built up so thickly on top of their old barn that the roof caved in and we had to dig out my car and the old tractor too. The general digging out took a long time and I couldn’t get back to my house until the following day. Lila came with me when I did return and we were surprised to find that a large tree had crashed down upon the box. The metal structure had been ripped from the concrete foundation and now it lay flipped on its side, covered in snow. There was just a hole where it once stood, with a ladder leading down to the world below. Together Lila and I explored the cavern. It was like a submarine down there, a hallway of rooms filled with old instruments and dusty computers. The people were gone. Signs of a hasty exit were evident, half-packed bags, unfinished food in the refrigerator. Had Dr. Cox come to their rescue in the middle of the storm?
We thought the place was empty but then we heard a little meow. Lila ventured down a hallway and discovered her lost cat, Sinclair, lying happily on a bunk bed.
“Sinclair!” she exclaimed, her eyes welling up with tears. “Sinclair, it’s you. I knew it. It is you.”
I was confused, of course, because I had been under the impression we had buried Sinclair some weeks earlier.
“That must have been another cat,” said Lila. “This one here is Sinclair. I’m sure of it.”
They certainly did seem to know each other, this cat and Lila. She stroked his ears and kissed him, while he purred loudly and kneaded his paws into her lap.
“Perhaps he was reincarnated,” I suggested.
“Perhaps,” said Lila. “I’ve heard of that happening to Manx cats from time to time. They are an ancient breed.”
Surely Suzette would have another explanation, but I for one was willing to accept some of this logic. Who knows what can come of breeding cats and rabbits on some faraway island? Who really knows the power of the great winter storms?
I heard no more from Dr. Cox and his scientist buddies at NOAA. They abandoned their ion study, I suppose. Or maybe they had learned all they sought to know. They say NOAA can control the weather now, that there are satellites roaming the skies with giant mirrors, and certain airplanes seed the clouds with chemicals unfamiliar to us civilians down below. It’s all for our benefit, they say, a great equalization of the rampant forces we’ve unleashed upon nature. We have to do it, they say, otherwise we won’t survive the changes to come.