THE MAN ON THE BOX
Kate sipped espresso as she listened
to the voicemail her mother had left congratulating her on the sale, and then
she hanged herself from a rafter in the attic before her first client even had
a chance to cut her a check.
So what, I don't care if you believe
me or not, because that's exactly how it happened, alright?
I suppose the good cop/bad cop routine
is just a myth. Well, if you're just going to stare at me like that, waiting
for the fiance to spill his guts, I'll tell you everything you want to know.
No, that's alright, I don't want a lawyer. Frankly, I really don't care what
happens now. Not after everything that I've seen.
She graduated from art school only
about a year ago and recently finished an internship with one of Pittsburgh's
top design firms. You'd probably recognize the name if you heard it. Gilmore
and Associates? Gilman and Associates? Gilbert? Gilligan? Something like that.
The future was looking bright for both
of us, like a big, dazzling, orange ball of fire in the sky so close you could
feel the warmth on your skin. Kate always dreamed of starting a family,
however, and so she decided to work from home as a freelancer. She created a
portfolio of her work, made a few dozen phone calls, and it wasn't long before
she was approached by a potential client. Vanguard Restaurant Supply. Ever
wonder who manufactures popcorn boxes for movie theatres or paper cups for
burger joints? Well, evidently, it's a company like Vanguard Restaurant Supply.
Somebody's got to do it, right? Somebody also has to design the artwork. It's
not as prestigious as working for a Madison Avenue ad agency, of course, but
Kate had to start somewhere.
The project? It seemed simple enough.
She was asked to design a pizza box. You know the sort-- white cardboard, red
ink, with a grinning Italian in a tall chef's hat twiddling a big, bushy
handlebar mustache. Your typical Guido stereotype, even though you can walk
into a hundred different pizza shops and never find anyone in the kitchen who
looks like that. Kind of funny, isn't it? If you designed a Chinese takeout
menu with a caricature of an Asian or a baseball logo with a cartoon Indian
you'd be up to your elbows in lawsuits, but no one ever thinks twice about
stereotyping Italians. If you stop and think about it, it's pretty damn racist.
No, I'm fine. Just give me a minute to
pull myself together, alright? For Christ's sake, my fiancee just died. I was
the one who found her, you know. She was so talented and beautiful and that's
how I want to remember her, but now when I think about Kate all I can see are
those waxy, empty eyes and that swollen purple neck after I cut her down, dark
where the blood pooled under the skin and, I'm sorry, I think I'm going to be
sick. Where's the trash can? Please, just give me a minute.
Okay, I'm alright now. Yes, there was
a point I was trying to make. She needed inspiration for the project. Source
material, as she liked to call it. We scoured libraries and flipped through
books, trying to find the right model, but we just couldn't find a man who had
the look. Then, about two months ago we were walking through
Bloomfield-- it's the Little Italy neighborhood of Pittsburgh-- when we came
across a quaint little antique shop on Pearl Street. You could smell the
antiquity before you even opened the door, and when you stepped inside it
smacked you hard across the face, that unmistakable melange of mildew, must and
mothballs-- the odor of the old, the fragance of the forgotten.
Kate was thumbing through a drawer of
ancient photographs, only the owner of the shop called them daguerreotypes and
tintypes-- I guess that makes them more expensive-- and I heard Kate squeal in
delight. "Trevor, come quick!" she said, waving this cracked,
sepia-toned picture in the air like a winning lottery ticket.
"He's perfect!" she said,
and it was true. The man in the faded, timeworn photograph looked like the
spitting image of every drawing you've ever seen on a pizza box, except that he
wasn't smiling or wearing a chef's hat. As a matter of fact, the fellow in the
picture kind of gave me the willies. I can't quite describe the man's
expression, other than pure, unadulterated hatred. It was evident that this old
man was not in the mood to have his picture taken. His thick eyebrows were
highly arched and he had this dark, acidic stare that bored right through you,
and he was making this strange gesture with his hand-- like something you'd see
in the audience of a heavy metal concert. Devil's horns, I think they're
called. The man in the picture was standing in front of a mule-drawn wagon and
wearing a kerchief around his neck, and even though there was no date on the
photo or any other information, I assumed he was a gypsy of some sort. Kate
said that she could tinker around and change his expression to a smile. Otherwise
he was perfect, Kate said.
"I'm not sure I want that thing
in the house," I told her, but she just laughed and paid the old biddy
behind the counter. Kate paid sixty dollars for that piece of junk, which is
exactly fifty nine dollars and ninety-nine cents more than I thought it was
worth. But what do I know about antiques? I install carpet for a living.
The damn thing became her obsession.
She locked herself inside a spare room in the attic that we had converted into
a studio and she would stay up there for hours on end. A couple of times I had
to go up there to check on her-- I thought she might be pushing herself to the
point of exhaustion. "Can't you see I'm working?" she would snap.
"You're interfering with the creative process," she screeched. "Naturally,
someone like you wouldn't understand."
It was so out of character for her
that I gradually became worried. I didn't know what to think. She was so sweet
when we first met, and this blasted art project brought out a side of Kate that
I had never seen before. She engrossed herself so fully into the assignment
that she began sleeping in her studio. "Only an artist would
understand," she explained with an exasperated sigh. Creative inspiration
is like a case of the trots, she said-- I'm paraphrasing here, of course-- you
never know when it's going to strike and, when it does, you better hope you
have a receptacle handy. Besides, she added, there are fewer distractions late
at night. As for me, I took to sleeping with Muffin. Oh, I'm sorry, Muffin's her
cat. And I don't even like cats, but that's how lonely I was!
About a week later she completed the
project and when she came down from the attic studio I almost didn't recognize
her; she was flesh and bones, almost skeletal. She was so devoted to the job
that she refused to come downstairs to eat. Her hair was a matted, tangled,
riot of knots. She hadn't seen a shower in days. When I told her to get dressed
because I had taken the liberty of making dinner reservations she cocked her
head and gave me this odd look, the way you might look at somebody if they
tried to convince you that Abe Lincoln was a crossdresser or that the earth was
"Don't be ridiculous, dear,"
she said to me as if I were a small child. "You know perfectly well that
I'm having dinner with Giovanni tonight." Who was this Giovanni? I
demanded to know. For a moment I wondered if she was having an affair, but,
judging by her appearance-- and I really hate to say this-- a man would have to
be pretty stinking drunk to find her attractive in the wild, disheveled state
she was in. And then it hit me: She was referring to the gypsy!
"Honey," I said,
"you've been working too hard. You really must take a break." I
thought about calling a shrink. I thought about calling my mother. Hell, I thought
about calling up her mother. If I couldn't snap Kate out of her daze,
maybe her parents could.
No, I never did call Kate's mother. Or
anyone else, for that matter. Why? Well, things began to-- happen. What sort of
things? Things that made me think that maybe, just maybe, the problem wasn't
inside Kate's head after all. Let me explain.
A few days later a package arrived.
Vanguard Restaurant Supply had sent over a mock-up of the pizza box. It's one
thing to see a design on a computer screen or a piece of paper, but you never
really get the full effect until you see it on an actual product, so the people
over at Vanguard sent the mock-up for Kate's final approval. She barely even
looked at it.
"Kate, this is your first project
as a graphic designer, how can you not be excited?" I asked. She rewarded
my question with a vacant stare. This was becoming our new routine. As for me,
I was quite proud of what she had accomplished. The artwork was beautiful--
well, as beautiful as artwork on a pizza box can possibly be-- and I was
stunned by her complacent attitude. She had captured the Italian's likeness
perfectly, replacing the model's scowling frown with a jovial smile. She kept
the highly-arched brows, however, thereby gaving the toque-capped chef an expression
of passion, which is something you just don't see very much in graphic design.
It was a surefire winner, yet Kate was visibly irritated by something.
"It doesn't look like Giovanni at
all!" she declared, before storming out of the house. Chalking up her
reaction to artistic eccentricity, I put the box on the dining room table and
went back to watching the Pirates take a beating from the Cardinals.
It was around eleven o'clock when I
went to bed that evening. Kate, not surprisingly, was up in her studio, holed
up like a prison inmate in solitary confinement. It was one of those late
September nights when it's too hot inside to sleep with the window closed and
too chilly outside to sleep with it open. I couldn't get comfortable; one
minute I was under the covers, the next minute I was kicking them off. At
intervals I would doze off, but the sleep never lasted too long. I remember
being jolted awake by a disconcerting sound downstairs. Muffin was hissing at
something in the dining room. I went downstairs and flicked on the light and
saw Kate's cat perched atop the table in a state of high agitation, baring her
fangs at the man on the pizza box. But the strange part is that the Italian had
lost his smile; instead of the jovial face I had seen that morning, I was
staring into the cold, dark eyes of the gypsy from the daguerreotype.
No, I swear I didn't have anything to
drink that night. I'm not much of a drinker. Sure, I suppose it could have been
a trick of the light, but when I woke up the next morning the man on the box
was smiling again and Muffin was nowhere to be found. No, I didn't mention any
of this to Kate. And I'm still not sure what happened to the poor cat.
You say that the box is here at the
station? Sure, I can identify it. Believe me, as long as I live I'll never
forget that Roma gypsy face. Whether the face is smiling or snarling I would
recognize it anywhere. You never forget a face like that.
The following night was shaping up to
be a repeat of the previous evening. I was awakened once again a little after
three o'clock, but this time it wasn't a sound that had roused me-- it was a
tickle. That's right, Detective, a tickle.
The weather was chillier this evening
and I was under the covers when I felt Muffin hop onto the bed. Cats have this habit
of disappearing and reappearing like a Las Vegas magician's assistant so I
didn't think much of it at the time. A few moments later I was awakened again
by the feeling of fur brushing against my foot, and the bulge under the
bedspread slowly made its way up my body, tickling my thigh and then my hip.
"Damn it, Muffin, I have to be up for work in three hours!" I moaned.
"Leave me alone and go bother Kate."
I was just about ready to fall asleep
again, trapped in that foggy limbo of semi-slumber, when the fur brushed
against my back and startled me. You see, I have this one spot just below the
shoulder blades that is extremely sensitive, so even the lightest touch feels
like a hundred volts of electricity. I switched on the lamp that sits on the
nightstand, yanked off the covers and found myself staring not into the green
flashing eyes of a tabby, but into the dark, menacing glare of a gypsy. The
disembodied head stared soullessly for a minute before its bushy brows arched
in a flash of fury and the long mustache twitched alive. The ugly, livery lips
moved in silence, forming words that I couldn't understand and then the mouth
curled slowly into a smirk. I couldn't have jumped off the mattress faster if
it had been crawling with venomous snakes! The phantom head rolled off the bed
and landed on the bare hardwood floor with a dull thud, and I stood in a state
of paralytic terror and watched it roll slowly out of the room and vanish in
the hallway to the faint, ethereal strains of accordion music.
When I reached the hallway I noticed
that the faint music was coming from the attic. I tiptoed to the stairs leading
up to Kate's studio and heard the unmistakable low tones of a man's voice
murmuring, a ghostly recitation of vows.
Yes, that's the box! See? I told you I
would recognize it instantly. Look at that face, Detective. Sure, he's smiling
now-- but if you stare at him long enough he will scowl. He will cast his gypsy
curse on you! He will give you the evil eye!
Don't you feel it, Detective? When you
look into that dispicable, evil face doesn't it fill you with rage? It holds
you in its magical spell and seduces you with thoughts of murder, just as it
had seduced Kate. And that's why I had to kill her. I didn't want to do it, but
I had no choice. Can't you see that I had no alternative? When I climbed the
stairs and reached the attic I saw them, Detective. I saw that the wedding was
already under way, and I got there just in the nick of time. Can't you
understand that I had to stop it? Can't you understand that I had to squeeze
the words from her throat before she agreed to become his gypsy bride?
Marlin Bressi is the author of four nonfiction books, including Hairy
Men in Caves: True Stories of America’s Most Colorful Hermits (Sunbury
Press, 2015) and Pennsylvania Oddities, Vol. 1 (Sunbury Press, 2018).
His latest book, Pennsylvania Oddities, Vol. 2, is scheduled for a
summer 2020 release.