My Son, in a Box

Teddy Engs | Flash Fiction

Today my son will enter a glass box. The box is eight feet by eight feet, hanging from the mouth of a hydraulic crane. When the wind blows, the box sways, but we’ve been assured that it is secure. My son is not interested in danger for the sake of danger, he says, he is interested, simply, in the challenge. Once in the box he will subsist off a liter of water and a single strip of bacon per day. He will relieve himself into a bucket, which will be removed discreetly by an attendant while he sleeps. Aside from the bucket my son will bring nothing into the box. My son will be entirely nude. My son does not know how long he will remain in the box, but this morning at breakfast he supposed that it would be “a while.” My son is prone to bouts of indifference, but I suspect, deep down, that he is proud.

In anticipation of the event, numerous media personnel have traveled to my door to ask me the same question: Why is your son entering the glass box? At first I responded as truthfully as possible, claiming that people, specifically young people, will go to extreme lengths to imbue their lives with meaning, and that I understood my son’s desire to enter the box as one such meaning-making method. When asked about my own acts of extremity as a young man, I admitted that during my college years I was known to indulge in libation, but the questions continued and my responses were molded until the headlines read, “FATHER’S DRINKING FORCES SON TO EXTREME LENGTHS.” Initially I was appalled by the deceit, the manipulation, but then I began to see the essence of their questions, the question behind the questions, which was something like: What have you done to your son to cause him to want to live in a glass box? They were hungry for a deprived childhood, the specifics of paternal outlash, but what they were looking for was a generation behind me. I have parented my son with unbridled tenderness and, if anything, a too-subdued disposition. When my son informed me of his intentions with the glass box I placed my hand lightly on his shoulder and said, “I am here to support you in all of your pursuits.” My son shrugged my embrace and responded, “Now let’s not get too touchy, pops.” I sometimes wonder if paternal over-tenderness is at the root of my son’s extreme behavior, but then I imagine how my father would have responded if, at my son’s age, I had informed him that I wanted to live in a glass box, and I feel reaffirmed in my err on the side of tenderness approach to fatherhood.

A small crowd has gathered in Liberty Plaza, but it is nothing compared to the hysteria that accompanied my son’s announcement of his exhibition. The news vans that lined our quiet street, the badgering journalists—they are nowhere to be seen. Today there is a single cameraman, sans reporter, and a small group of my son’s supporters wielding homemade signs. Outside of that, only lunching day laborers and incidental passersby stop to examine the spectacle. I am standing beside my son, assisting him through his pre-box stretching routine, when my father arrives. My father is supportive of my son’s endeavors in a way he never was towards my own. I cannot decide whether this is malicious or conciliatory.



“Hi Grandpa.”

“Hey kiddo.”

The crane rumbles to life, lowering the box in jerky, mechanical plunges. My son exhales audibly, then turns to me and says, “It’s time.”

“Your mother would be proud,” I say, although I’m not sure it’s true. Actually, I’m certain it’s not—my wife was a cautious woman, cautious to the point of debilitating hypochondria, and died of complications brought on by improper and over-medication for what she believed to be the early onset symptoms of stoneman syndrome, one of the world’s rarest diseases.

My son nods, then descends into the plaza.

“Proud?” my father asks.

“Deeply,” I say. 

“How’d he put this thing on, anyways?”

“He did it all himself, obtained the permits, everything.”

My father bends over, hocks phlegm between his feet. “I lived in a box once.”

“You did?”

“Nine days, Laos.”

“You never told me that.”

“You never asked,” he says, surveying the plaza. “This used to be a theater, you know.”

“I do.”

“The Liberty Theater—my father would take me to see John Wayne.”

“You’ve told me.”

“That’s the original marquee,” he says, pointing to the signage atop the pergola at the plaza’s edge. The sign no longer lights up, and it’s covered in extraordinary amounts of bird excrement.

“An homage,” I say.

My father steps directly in front of me, but given his geriatric stoop it does not prove to be much of an obstruction.

The crane settles into an idle, the box hovering inches above the ground. My son touches each of the box’s six glass panes, familiarizing himself with his new domain. Then he strips nude, climbs on top of the box, and enters through the box’s only door. The attendant locks the door behind him. My son waves. The crowd applauds. My son bows. The crowd applauds again, quieter this time. My father says, “Small pecker,” and when I suggest that it might be cold in the box he says, “Small is small,” and I feel a swelling and disproportionate hostility that I quell with a series of diaphragmatic nose-breaths.

The crane jerks. The box lifts. Soon, finding himself amongst the crows, my son lowers himself on all fours, palms and knees just smears against the box’s earth-facing plane. The box fogs. My son wipes furiously at the blur. In the moments of clarity between his heaving breaths, I watch his determined face recede with the box’s increasing height. Suddenly, I am overcome with an intense pride for my son, for his undertaking. I am brought to mind of the ancient rites of passage—solo expeditions into the wild, unarmed battles with rabid wolves—and begin to view my son’s emprise in these terms: a modern rite of passage, a way, in a society of pleasures, to elevate one’s self via discomfort and deprivation. I then find myself wondering about my own rites of passage, my own forged paths as a young man. I recall my eighteenth birthday, my father leading me into the den, presenting me with a suit and tie and the address of the call center where I now apparently worked; I recall my first beer, how it made me sneeze, how Malcom Downey, my alleged best friend, said Looks like someone’s allergic to a good time to the amusement of three human girls; I recall the all-consuming terror of Pop Warner football, the chill of the sleeveless basketball uniform; I recall my father looming behind the little league backstop whispering If you don’t swing the damn bat, and I recall not swinging, never swinging, just standing there as the pitches streamed by.

The crowd gasps. Sunbeams graze the box’s twirling panes in a fiery display of refraction. I step back, shade my eyes, see my son’s supporters, signs raised proudly overhead. I see my bent father battling posture to look up. The glare relents and I see my son, sky-bound, angelic, and realize that his experience in the box is an act of sacrifice on behalf of us all—the diffident fathers, the hand-forcing fathers, the hypochondriacal mothers, even the curious pack of cyclists now blocking the intersection to contemplate his bizarre bravery—and as the box settles into its final height, and I am about to return home a dignified dad, my son huffs against the glass, producing an oval of condensation in which he draws an enormous downward-facing arrow. What is this? I think. A symbol? An equation? A work of art? The condensation evaporates, my son huffs again, this time writes DOWN. With that the attendant nods, pulls the crane’s lever, and commences the box’s descent into the plaza. My son crawls to a corner of the box, hands shielding his genitalia. The supporters lower their signs. The cyclists re-clip their metallic cleats. My father mutters, elbows past me, then jaywalks across four lanes of active traffic. And I find myself doing the same, stopping cars, dodging cyclists, doing everything in my limited power to escape that familiar specter of shame.