Grant had been living in the 18th Street studio for three days before he found the box that belonged to the former tenant. It was hidden on the high shelf in the deep closet, and he came upon it only because he’d gone looking for a framed photograph of Taryn that he’d intentionally misplaced at first but since gathered the resolve to throw out. The box was heavier than he expected and almost fell from his arms as he pulled it from the shelf. Its flaps were folded over themselves, an interlocking pattern like the staircase of an Escher drawing, and Grant circled his fingers over them, climbing, climbing, endlessly. Curious as he was, Grant’s sense of propriety kept him from looking inside. Atop the folds, the box was taped shut, and Grant didn’t want to leave scars since he fully intended to return the box to its rightful owner.
From his new apartment Grant could walk to Mt. Sinai Medical Center, and when he left for work that morning he spent the trip musing over the box’s contents and rightful owner. Had it belonged to a schoolteacher, perhaps, who’d left behind finger-paintings or fourth-grade treatises on the water cycle that she’d graded but never returned? Maybe the box held the bowling trophies of a part-time appliance salesman who’d risen to semi-prominence on the circuit, quit his day job, then faded into obscurity? Or something dire: a bundle of unused baby clothes.
Grant was a technician in the imaging room. This week alone he had x-rayed a woman with kidney stones, a volleyball player with a spiral-fractured ulna, and a child who’d swallowed a tiny, die-cast Porsche. But mostly Grant x-rayed lungs. Mt. Sinai had gotten itself involved in some new private-public partnership ever since Congress passed the new immigration reforms. Since then, Grant’s job increasingly involved taking film of immigrants, dozens of them, documented and un-. These were primarily straight-on PA chest views, to look for abnormalities in the tissue. Abnormalities could mean TB, and TB would mean a year on antibiotics, difficulties with insurance, possible denial of a visa. Not that it was Grant’s job to diagnose these things, nor to fix them. His job was merely to photograph: to catalogue the state of the problem. Save the radiology for radiologists.
Grant’s shift rolled on unremarkably. His final patient of the day arrived walking on a cane. Rosa Gutierrez, her chart said. Rosa had trouble standing upright in the machine without hunching or swaying, which blurred the shot, so Grant instead asked her to lie down for an AP film, the reverse view. Motionless on the exam table, her mass of gray hair flared out like some magnificent wavering sea creature.
“You’re all done, Rosa,” Grant said. He emerged from the partition and offered his hand to help her to her feet. Her skin draped over her bones like a throw on the back of a couch.
“Gracias,” she said.
“De nada.” His accent was terrible.
Rosa shuffled over beside the corkboard on the wall. On it, Grant had hung a world map—a little pet project he’d dreamed up to animate the workday. Over the years, his patients had punctured the globe all over, but recently the thumbtacks had grown especially clustered around places with names like Quetzaltenango and Nandaime. Rosa considered the map not as if she were recalling where she had come from but pondering the possibilities of where she might go.
“You should know my daughter,” Rosa said. “Sofia, with the black hair. Beautiful.”
“I’m sure she is,” Grant said, “but I’m afraid I don’t.”
“You should.” Rosa’s smile was riddled through with brown—an architectural ruin of a smile, a Tikal of teeth—but there was something in it that told Grant she had been beautiful in her youth.
“Come to my dinner,” Rosa said and scratched her address and phone number on a prescription pad. “In three days. Some of my family have come to this country. But I fear they will not stay forever.”
“I’m flattered, but I’ve already got a girlfriend.” Grant pushed the slip back toward the woman, but she refused to take it back.
“But my Sofia,” Rosa insisted but stopped short as a hoarse cough rose from her chest. Hacking, she took a thumbtack from the box and sank it into the map.
On his walk home, Grant’s mind returned to the abandoned box in his apartment. He pictured the contents, transparent and overlapping like an AP chest view—how the front ribs overshadow the rear ones through the gauze of lungs, and the flesh itself is not quite invisible but flattened to a permeable grey. When he got home, the box was just where he’d left it in the middle of the living room carpet. He returned it to the closet.
But the living room took on an emptiness he hadn’t felt before. Grant didn’t have a coffee table or a TV yet, just a raggedy velveteen couch he’d unearthed from his parents’ basement—it still smelled like the ’80s. He went into the kitchen to fix dinner, but his eyes kept returning to the empty spot where the box had been—as he minced the garlic, as he sautéed the tofu, as he sat cross-legged on the empty kitchen floor with a raku bowl and a pair of chopsticks, slurping brown noodles through his lips.
He called the landlord, got the voicemail. “I’m wondering, just, if there was some way to get in touch with the former tenant or return the box to them, not to trouble you, but maybe you could ask for their contact info or just be intermediary to pass the message along yourself so as I don’t disrupt their privacy or anything.”
He hung up but kept his thumb on the keypad. After a minute, the screen went dim. A car alarm sounded in the alley, then went silent. He dialed Taryn.
“Grant, hey! We’re at happy hour at The Crown and Sceptre, you should come.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m a little tired. But I wanted your opinion on something: I found this strange box buried in my closet, and I’m wondering: it’s wrong to open it, right?”
“What? I can’t hear you. A box?”
His eyes cut to the cracked closet door, through which the box was visible.
“Yeah, someone left it behind—”
“Why don’t you tell me about it when you get here?”
“Who’s all there?”
“Jordan, Marsh, Paco. You know, everyone.”
“Does everyone include Wayne?”
“Don’t be like that.”
“Well, does it?”
She hung up. Grant resisted the urge to throw the phone against the wall or grind it down the garbage disposal. He’d only just paid the security deposit. He closed the closet door and went to bed.
The box was heavier than he’d expected, and his arms were fatigued by the time he reached Mount Sinai. He set the box on the sidewalk and wiped the sweat from his brow. The sun glared on the iced-over puddles in the gutters of Washtenaw Avenue and lit the grass emerging from the melting snowdrifts.
Inside, Grant said hello to Dr. Koufax as they passed in the hall, then got on the elevator with a couple of orderlies.
“Dude,” said one orderly, “last night?”
“Dude!” the second agreed. The elevator chimed.
Grant stashed the box below the supply cabinet and went into the imaging room to get set up. When he logged in to the computer, yesterday’s schedule was still open and Rosa’s name caught his eye, lurking there at the bottom of the list. He clicked on her chart. He’d gotten so distracted talking to her that he had given her X-rays only a cursory look. He took a longer, proper look, but the findings did not surprise him. He had already known. There it was: a dark void, soft as the bruised skin of a peach.
Grant squinted and sank closer to the monitor, then ground his knuckles over his closed eyes, but when he looked again, the darkness was still there. He flipped rapid-fire through reference materials, scanning photos of pneumonia, neoplasms, inhalational anthrax—a whole spectrum of black blights and white nodes—textbook photos that, he now realized, were not pure abstractions but represented single instances of infection or decay in real people somewhere out there in the world, photographed and catalogued for future reference. They were probably dead by now, the models, the ones who’d become reference documents of lung cancer or emphysema.
Nurse Jamie brought the day’s first patient, a toddler in a striped sweater who clung to his mother’s leg and would not climb onto the examination table. The mother pried his fingers free while Grant coaxed the boy up with a lollipop.
“It’ll be just a minute,” he told the mother and returned to the control booth.
He went to the computer to retrieve the boy’s electronic medical record. The image of Rosa’s lungs was still on screen, the black void like a drop of spilled watercolor, like the ink that bleeds through your jeans when a pen breaks in your pocket. There was nothing he could do for her right now. He closed the file.
Over his lunch break, Grant’s examination of the box began with a front-view, which would have been similar to an AP, if the box suddenly sprouted legs and arms. Next, he lifted it to the exam table for a top-view and propped it at an angle using one of the lumbar support pillows. Then he extended the camera arm to get a shot down near the base of the box, with it elevated on a foot wedge.
He double-checked that the door was locked before returning to his sandwich, gnawing a few bites of peanut butter and jelly while he waited for the photos to process. He’d run out of fresh bread that morning and found only a few aging slices of caraway rye in the freezer, and the combination of the savoriness with the sweetness of grape jelly was peculiar and unsettling. When the photos finished, he sent high-res versions to the printer and then voided all records for the electronic copies in the computer system.
The box’s contents glowed white-hot: a rats’ nest of metal, the telltale brightness of atomically heavy material. Two tall spires with thick, wavy bases loomed in the forefront, alongside something that looked like a fork with a hundred blurry tines. There were soft things in the box, too—organic materials that filled the picture with a haze around the dense metal, like flesh around bones.
Grant returned the box to its hiding place under the supply cabinet and headed for the waiting room, whistling a Top 40 tune as he walked: ‘cause the world only sees what it believes… While the receptionists were distracted on the telephones, Grant swooped down on the magazine stand and made off with a battered copy of Field and Stream.
When he got back to imaging, his cell phone beeped from within the control booth. He folded the X-ray prints into the magazine as he listened to his voicemail.
“Hi Grant, this is Bill at Trustus Properties returning your call regarding a problem with a box in the apartment. I wasn’t sure exactly what you wanted me to do about it, so maybe just call back at your convenience.”
Grant dialed. Busy signal. Just as well, he had afternoon appointments: more immigrants, more lungs.
Grant had never before done anything at work that could even remotely be construed as misconduct, and as he lugged the box back to his apartment with the magazine tucked under one arm, he realized that his method for concealing the X-ray printouts had only complicated his transgression; he was actually committing two offenses now, even if the second was merely the theft a busted-up back issue of Field & Stream in which to hide the prints. He walked faster, as if to outpace his guilt. His voice sounded worn-out and breathless when he got ahold of his landlord, the phone tucked under one ear and the box balanced on the opposite shoulder like a boom box.
“What’s this about a box?” Bill asked.
Grant explained that he simply wanted a forwarding address to ensure the box’s contents were returned to the rightful owner.
“I have one, but I’m not sure I can give it to you, legally. Privacy and all.”
“I understand. Client confidentiality. We have the same thing with our patients.”
“You a doctor?”
“No, a technician.” Grant thought of the dark spot in Rosa’s lungs. “Look, can you just pass along a message? Tell them they can drop by the apartment anytime if they want to pick it up.”
Grant hung up. As he fidgeted the phone back into his pocket, he discovered the slip of paper with Rosa’s phone number on it. He punched in the digits, hesitated, and then deleted them. He called Taryn instead.
“Do you want to come by for dinner?” he asked.
“Only if you’re not going to be a dick.”
“Aren’t you the one who should be apologizing to me?”
“Nothing happened, Grant.”
“But the intent was there. It was a betrayal of trust.”
“I’ve been completely honest with you.”
“Honest but not transparent. Honest, with omissions.”
“I’m going to hang up.”
Grant stumbled on the cracked sidewalk, and the box slipped from his grip and crashed to the concrete. A corner had dented dramatically, but it had not ruptured. Whether something inside had broken, Grant couldn’t tell.
“What was that? What are you doing?” Taryn said.
“Nothing. Sorry. Do you want to come or not?
“Fine, I’ll be there at seven.”
He made eggplant parmesan, and she brought a bottle of cabernet, and despite everything they were happy to see each other.
“It’s a nice place,” she said, looking around for somewhere to set the wine.
“I’m still getting settled.”
She’d left him a paper shopping bag near the entry, and he knew without looking what it contained: his alarm clock, a coffee press, a Paul Klee print that she’d never liked in their bathroom, although it matched just fine.
“Do you plan to be here long?” she said.
“We can talk about it.”
They ate on mismatched plates, sitting together on the lumpy couch. She sliced small, meticulous bites of eggplant and topped each one with an exacting dollop of sauce before lifting it onto her fork. He spilled wine on his jeans, dabbed at it.
“Did you look in the bag?”
“It’s the stuff I asked for?”
She’d brought him more than that, too—tea towels and keen knives, antique salt shakers shaped like owls, two framed photographs of kale and silverbeet in colorful stacks at a farmer’s market.
“You can’t give me these photos. Your dad took them.”
“Let’s say they’re on loan, then. You always liked them. My dad would want that. Plus, I’m hoping they won’t stay away from me forever.”
Grant dug nails and a hammer from under the sink, and Taryn modeled the photos at various heights and positions.
“Looks okay,” he said, “but we need to find a solid stud before we go any further.”
He clamped the nails in his mouth and thumped his fist on the wall, listening for hollow reverb or a dull thud. He couldn’t tell what was underneath, but he drove the nail in anyway. It buried slowly into the drywall for the first inch, then popped through.
“Not as strong, but for now it’ll have to do.”
Taryn modeled locations for the second picture: above, below, in parallel.
“So what are you thinking?” she asked.
“It looks fine there.”
“I mean, what are you thinking about us?”
He sank the second nail and wobbled the picture up and down on it, trying to get it to hang straight. “Maybe we can start again casually, see where it goes from there.”
“Alright.” She squinted at the picture and corrected its angle with a gentle touch. “How about this Friday? Everyone is getting together for happy hour at The Crown again, and it would be a nice gesture if you’d come. I don’t want this thing to poison our whole friend group.”
“Is Wayne going to be there?”
“I don’t know, probably. But even so, is your pride so worth throwing everyone else away?”
Grant stepped back to appraise the photo at a distance.
“Okay,” he said, “I’ll come.”
Grant relayed the story about the box but left out the parts about the X-rays.
“What do you think is inside?” Taryn asked. He went to the closet and dragged it out.
“Some silverware, a pair of candlesticks. Something soft, like a blanket or clothes.”
“No, I bet it’s weirder than that. Like, a collection of eyeless china dolls. Or… sex toys and a pair of leather chaps.”
“Nope,” Grant said. “Just silverware.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure? Ten bucks says it’s something weird.”
“Okay, if you want to lose ten bucks. But I already know I’m right.”
“You promised not to be a dick.”
He retrieved the Field & Stream from the kitchen counter and pulled the X-ray printouts from within.
“Forks,” he said, scanning a finger along the nebulous white lines. “And those are knives.”
“You took these?”
“You owe me ten.”
“I’m not paying,” she said. “You cheated. I didn’t know you had X-rays when I made the bet. Besides, I still think you’re wrong. Clearly, that’s a hairbrush and those are tent stakes.”
“Well, I guess we can call off the bet, then, because there’s no way to know for sure.”
She flipped through the pictures and held them up one by one, measuring each view against the sides of the closed box.
“Sure there is,” Taryn said, tugging at the flaps.
“We can’t,” Grant said.
“We’ll put it back just how we found it. We won’t tell.”
“It’s an invasion of privacy. I already called the rightful owner.”
“You already x-rayed it,” Taryn said. “You’re saying that isn’t an invasion?”
“Sure. It’s a non-invasive procedure, right? That’s what doctors call it.”
She laughed, so he laughed too, as if he had meant it as a joke. She pulled the box closer.
Later, they sat surrounded by wedding artifacts, everything spread out on fine white linen like a picnic or the finds of an archaeological dig: an etched glass ornament that said Laurie and David, a pair of sterling candlesticks, the pure silver cutlery dumped out from where it had been slotted neatly in a fine walnut box, its brass hinges gone green with patina. In a framed photograph, the bride and groom kissed in a rowboat over water glossed with sun and tree-shade. Vintage leather suitcases along the gunwales were covered in stickers naming faraway places: Cancun, Cozumel.
Taryn was crying.
“You knew,” she said. “You knew what was inside, and you showed me anyway.”
“I swear,” he said. “You think I wanted this?”
The box was half-empty. They had stopped unpacking the moment it dawned on them just what shade of someone else’s intimacy they’d uncovered. Their own past had contained wedding talk not long ago, before Grant moved out. Neither of them were eager to continue that conversation, yet now it seemed impossible not to, sitting amid the silver-foiled candles and monographed miniature Champagne bottles—this whole junkyard of memories they would never have, memories they had not earned together but stolen from someone else’s past packed up in the back of Grant’s closet. In the bottom of the box, a crushed and desiccated carnation perfumed the air of everything still inside.
“Let’s clean this up,” Grant said, but he didn’t move. Neither did Taryn. Her fingers formed a bony veil over her eyes. He reached for her, but she pushed him away, softly, as if shrugging off a blanket.
Grant picked up a handful of the dumped-out silverware. He worked quickly to sort them back into their slots, for fear that in some terrible irony of timing the doorbell would ring any moment now, and the owner would arrive to pick up the box. Grant could imagine just how it would happen: Taryn would glance at the door and wipe her eyes on the hem of her shirt. Grant would peer through the peephole, and there would be the woman from the photograph, Laurie, the bride. She’d have gained a little weight and hacked her hair to a functional bob, but there would be no mistaking her, nor separating her from the remnants of her own wedding spread wide over someone else’s living room floor. Grant would hiss at Taryn, gesturing hopelessly toward the box and then the door.
“Don’t open it,” Taryn would whisper. “Stall for a minute while I pack it away. Or just pretend you’re not home. Let her come back some other time.”
“I did this,” Grant would say, reaching for the door, “and I’m going to take responsibility for it.”
The next day at work, Grant pulled up the wrong charts and called patients by the wrong names. Several sets of photos came out blurry and low-contrast and had to be repeated. When his lunch break finally rolled around, he sat for fifteen minutes staring at the computer screen. Then he jotted down a particular medical record number, locked the imaging room behind him, and wandered down to the lounge. Dr. Koufax was eating lunch with several other pediatricians, but Grant pulled him aside.
“So, I know there’s the whole doctor-patient confidentiality thing,” Grant began.
“Stop,” Dr. Koufax said. “Whatever you’re going to ask, the answer is no.”
“I don’t need to see it,” Grant said. “I don’t need details. But just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ nod if it’s as bad as I think it is?”
He handed Koufax the paper.
“Officially, no, I will not do that,” Koufax said. “But if I accidentally make a typo in the MRN and pull up the wrong chart, well, I’d be willing to admit that occasionally even a professional like myself can make a mistake.”
“I’ll page you this afternoon.”
The afternoon sun buried itself behind bloated clouds. Grant stood in the courtyard with his phone in one hand, a manila folder holding Rosa’s X-ray in the other. On top of the picture was a bright post-it scrawled with Dr. Koufax’s handwriting. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say, exactly—he wasn’t supposed to know her diagnosis, officially—but he had mentally steeled himself to commit a breach of protocol. He consulted the prescription slip, dialed.
“Hola?” Rosa’s voice was balmy, as if she were delivering a radio spot for lemon tea.
“Hola,” he said. “Hello. It’s Grant. I took your X-rays.”
“Grant! I am happy to speak to you.”
“I’m happy, too.” He swallowed. “How’ve you been feeling?”
“I am feeling excited! Tonight is my party.” She covered the phone to muffle her hacking cough. “You’re coming?”
He had forgotten all about the party. He scanned the X-ray, the gauzy photo of her chest cavity he had gazed upon enough to memorize the exact size and density of the blackness clumped there in the upper chamber of her left lung. He snapped the folder closed.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s what I called to tell you. I called to say I’m coming tonight.”
“Bueno. I am cooking; I must go. Luego?”
He tore the X-ray folder in half, then in half again, and then the stack was too thick to tear again and he gave up and let the papers flutter down to the wet sidewalk. He was alone with the birds and the distant hum of traffic.
“How have you been feeling?” he said to the wind. “How is your health?”
The Crown & Sceptre was a dive bar with wood everything: tongue and groove walls, knotty oak tables, barstools with spokes like a ship’s helm. Grant couldn’t quite say why he’d agreed to meet Taryn that evening. Maybe out of a perverse guilt for what he’d put her though with the whole ordeal of the box? Who can say why we do what we do, our motives living hidden in our guts, malignant or benign, unseen even to ourselves?
The whole gang was there: Marsh with his double-tall gin and tonic, Paco with his gold chain, Jordan with her buckteeth and braying laughter. When Grant walked in and Taryn smiled and hugged him in front of the group, he felt conspicuously on display. Wayne sauntered up to buy Grant a drink, as if to prove there were no hard feelings. Maybe there should be, Grant thought, but he took the pint anyway.
Wayne had a watch that looked large enough to be used for weight training, perhaps strapped over his ankle for a high-resistance jog. Grant imagined it like an anchor dragging him down under the sea, a chromium equivalent to the mafia’s concrete shoes. But the watch would still tick long after the body’s convulsions stopped; it was waterproof to 20,000 leagues, no doubt. Wayne peeled the label of his Bud Light. He was worried about the economy. “Jobs are all gone to China or India, and what’s left is piss poor. No benefits, barely full time.”
“It’s still a land of opportunity,” Grant said. “I see all these people in desperate situations, but they still have hope. They find it here.” He explained his role in processing immigrants, how his chest X-rays were part of a health screening needed for a visa.
“You’re a good man, Grant.” Wayne slugged his beer. “Screen ‘em good; keep us safe.”
“That’s not exactly what I meant.”
“What’s the deal with this program you work for, then? Surely it’s my taxes paying their medical bills. The nerve of these people.”
Taryn slunk over and leaned next to Grant on the bar. She slurped her drink through a cocktail straw. “How you boys doing?”
“Good times,” Wayne said and slapped Grant’s shoulder. “We were just thinking of playing darts.”
“Actually, I was just leaving,” Grant said. He abandoned his drink on the bar, still half full.
“Grant, wait.” Taryn’s hand floated open before her as she waited for him to take it. In the low light, something sparkled; she was wearing the ring again. He turned away.
“Where are you going?” she said.
“I have another party to go to.”
He shrugged into his coat and walked out. He didn’t know where he was headed now, didn’t remember Rosa’s address. But there would be time for that. He was halfway down the block before he looked back. Several forms were visible through the frosted glass window, black and obscure, dark as abscesses on cleanly x-rayed lungs. Grant tried to bring Taryn into focus, to pick her shape out from the rest of them. But he couldn’t make a clear picture of it. There was nothing to her but an obfuscated silhouette, distant and wavering behind glass.
Christopher Mohar is the author of The Denialist’s Almanac of American Plague and Pestilence, winner of the 2017 Etchings Press Novella Prize. His work appears in The Mississippi Review, North American Review, Creative Nonfiction, Arts & Letters, The Journal, X-R-A-Y, Gastronomica, and elsewhere. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and teaches creative writing at Mount Mary University.
Chris Norris lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin. He occasionally shows photographs in galleries, make prints, and publish books and zines. He is a member of strange.rs, an international photography collective. Photography appeals to him because he can communicate things with it that are otherwise difficult. He also enjoys doing it.