The Metal Box

Tom Sheehan

Family problems can be quite complex. But they can have simple solutions.

It was so damned petty that not one person in the entire family really knew how or where or when the rift began. It was there just as suddenly as the January thaw, being felt, being known, but still in all somewhat unbelievable. And every one of us, to the last thinking one of us, looked to Grandfather John Templemore to perform the cure, re-forge family ties, focus attention to proper matters. Hadn't that man accomplished, so many times, the near impossible? The wizened little man with the piercing blue eyes that could accost you or lay balm on your wounds. The white-bearded sage who reveled in poetry and masters of the language. The articulate stone mason, his trowel now put away, who knew Yeats better than the classicists. Saturday evenings, on his wide porch fronting on the town, or deep in the pocket of his kitchen, the fire at amble, he it was who took us spellbound into the magic of joy, crowding us with the language.

At five foot seven he was a stick-out among the whole clan, those grown among us all over six feet. "The vitamins did it," he swore time and time again. "The vitamins Grandma slipped into your drinks, put in your cereal. Every swallow she was at you, mark my words. Day in, day out, redemption was her law. Ireland was to lay no claim of blight on her children. Its music tolerated, its language invited to stay, but little of the foul disease that ran itself to ground."

And here we were, despite the love and respect we bore for him, his offspring of seven children and their twenty children, pitched into separate camps. Wives refused to talk to other wives; children, in folds of naïve stubbornness, carried the invisible emblems of parental separation; and nobody, any longer, knew why.

The rift was, and it hurt. A touch of plague seemed to bear it.

In a radial cluster of homes around Grandfather's house on the hill looking down on the town, our homes looked spoked and core-tied. No house of ours was more than a quarter mile from the great gray house whose doors were never locked, where we left for marriage or war three or four times over, or came home to, where young Joey was nursed back to health after the Storm in the Desert.

Except for Saturday evenings, that house near empty, we did not visit, leaving him and Grandmother alone with a bit of silence, the memories absorbing every bit of that silence. It was Grandfather during the week who did the visiting, trudging his way on good or bad days to this house or that house, trying to keep knotted what he had tied during his eighty-seven years. He'd come down off the hill as intent as a small breeze, letting a color or an odor or a sound provide direction, as if ears or eyes or nose set his visiting map in place rather than his heart, rather than a schedule, rather than a logbook. "I saw John Three throwing the ball at Kirch's mitt like some loosened comet. I could hear it popping leather all the way from my gate.... I saw Enda, her curls flying, running at the head of the pack, a prime engine she was, full-out bore, the boys like exhaust fumes trailing behind."

With the rift widening as insidiously as that which had shifted Ireland's children about the world, his visits became more frequent. House to house he went in calling, never mentioning a cause, his intent open for inspection.

And it was that March, the air ripe with expectancy, a shell ready to explode, that I first saw him carrying the metal box under his arm. It was plain and small, bluish with some legend faded to smithereens, and mysterious. Never had he cluttered himself except with a book or two, spines up under an armpit, titles caught in darkness, us left wondering what he was reading. Never would he carry about other such cargo. Now with spring here, John Three's fastball and curve finding pace with each other and getting ready for a new season, Enda and Fitz-grace flying as twins on the high school cinders, pilot Paul home for a month after seeing hell on his daily horizon indicator, Grandfather John Templemore came among us with the metal box under one arm.

Every step he took away from the house on the hill, the box was under his arm. Every time he was visible to any one of us, the metal box, still bluish and faded at legend, was under an arm. It could have been sewn in place. Grandmother could have tucked it there as easily as basting a hem. Grafted to his body it could have been.

And the other change came too. Before any of the grandchildren could get to his house on Saturday evenings, before they could climb the hill for Yeats or Sean O'Faolain or Padraic O'Conaire, for that hard round mouth of his to soften on certain consonants the way music comes from nothing it seems, he was out of the house and down the hill.

Saturdays, for the want of a word, became different. No longer did the cluster squeeze in on him, no longer did Innisfree drift with resonance from the deep heart's core, or The Devil and O'Flaherty draw breath all the way down into a lung's expanse. Into the separate camps he moved in random schedule, slower in step, the box a new weight. Once inside, once settled on a new dais, he'd recite, read, play the mimic again, but it was not the same. From his delivery something had been taken, from the magic an edge of voice removed. And the metal box was an alien prospect, though not one soul asked him about it. John Templemore was not asked such questions.

But we began to talk about it, that faded blue, totally curious metal box--casually at first, as an aside, almost under our breath, and then at length as a solid curiosity. The box assumed the proportions of an unwanted visitor only grudgingly accepted into our company. It became, momentarily, and then completely, topic and essay. Near-mute wives began to nod at those they had recently ignored, began to find themselves coasting or sliding into a banter and a head-to-head chat over short fences, over bush and rail, at corners. The box's contents became uppermost in all of this; not why it was, but what it was, a fleeting whispery thing of relevance we could tie no strings to.

The grandchildren, and friends and companions of course, more visibly deprived of the tones, inflections and the rolling Rs of Saturday evenings' magic, were quicker to react. Out of their encampments they came unflagged and open, honest in each and every assessment, citing first their uniform loss, and then their guesses. They offered the idea of a last will and testament to put us all in proper place; Grandfather's own one and only poem that had taken a whole lifetime to compose; the lot of money he had saved over the years or the winnings of the Irish Sweepstakes no one had ever learned of; a map of the gold mine he had found as a boy near Keene, New Hampshire while on a fishing trip along the river that passed through Gilsum.

There was such a myriad concoction of ideas and values that whole generations had brought to deposit. It was carnival and delicatessen, circus and smorgasbord.

And, as suddenly as the proper burst of another spring day, the rift was gone. Melted. Disappeared. Over and out and gone. We did not believe it had ever been. And we did not speak of it, rather enjoying with a savage appetite a long-lost favor given back so abruptly. We enjoyed each other again. We waited for Grandfather to sit on his porch on Saturday evening, waiting for us, waiting to toss that magic blanket over the most receptive audience of all.

It did not happen. Grandfather John Templemore died walking down the hill on a Saturday morning in April. Young Joey saw him from the road.

The magic was gone, and all knew it. At his graveside we stood hushed, expectant, knowing better. Something beautiful had been taken away. Yet something beautiful had been given back to us.

That night Joey opened the box. It appeared empty, but we all knew what had been in it. How it had manifested itself. Now we think we are back to where we used to be, where we were meant to be.

But Saturday, as far as everybody knows, is gone forever.

Tom Sheehan ( has published stories in numerous publications, three books of poetry, and is co-editor of A Gathering of Memories, Saugus 1900-2000, a nostalgic 482-page look at his home town of Saugus, MA.

InterText Copyright © 1991-2001 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 11, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2001 Tom Sheehan.