by T. Gene Davis
I’ve known Kimball since I was a kid. He lived in the abandoned space between my building and the red brick one on the left. Kimball slept under a mattress that he propped up against the alley’s old chain link fence that kept us kids from getting to school on time.
Kimball was harmless enough. He didn’t talk or scream at ghosts or people on fake cell phones. His arms were clean—no needle tracks. No one ever saw him even drink coffee. But, he was still a bum, and mom hated us talking to him.
He fit the stereotype for smell and clothing, even if he was well mannered. Mom once called him homeless or something like that. It riled him good.
“I am not homeless!” He shouted. “I live right there!” stabbing the air in the direction of the mattress with one hand while clutching an old shoebox in the other.
In second grade I decided I’d hop the fence next to his home, and save myself ten minutes of walking. The rattling links woke him, and I caught sight of him cracking one bloodshot eye to watch me dangling on the other side before dropping and running to class. It was a good shortcut, and I was always late, so I got to see a lot of Kimball.
Eventually, Kimball stopped waiting for me to wake him up. He’d be sitting there in the dirt surrounded by weeds propped up against his house when I’d run up to the fence in the morning. “Morning,” he’d say, and I’d say nothing because I wasn’t allowed to talk to bums, even Kimball.
By fourth grade, I was on talking terms with Kimball. Turned out he was really good with math—better than mom. He used to be an accountant, or so he claimed. Either way, he knew math. I’d sneak out when I was supposed to be doing my math homework, and he’d tutor me next to that old moldy mattress he slept under.
Kimball’s one quirk, not counting his living under a mattress, was that he always held a box. It was a old tattered shoebox with a faded swoosh on the side. That thing was always in his arms, or he had one of his hands resting on it.
I always wanted to ask him what was in that old shoebox, but I didn’t. I figured it was personal, and a man who lives under a mattress is deserving of a little respect when he wants his privacy.
He tutored me all the way up to high school. He sure knew his math, even calculus. Kimball told me, you should go to college, it will help you get a good job.
“Sure it will, Kimball. Look at you, you got a job sitting in an alley with your college degree.”
I regretted it before I finished saying it. Kimball was a good guy, and my friend. So what if he was a bum. But he surprised me. He just laughed like I was crazy. I felt my face get warm.
“What are you laughing at me for, Kimball?”
“You don’t know and you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Tell me anyway.”
He looked at me and stroked his box. I stayed quiet. I wanted him to trust me, and I figured keeping my mouth shut was the wisest approach.
He finally spoke.
“I’ve got a job.” He paused. “I’ve got the most important job of anyone in this whole city. He waved at the end of the alley where the empty sidewalk passed. “Not one of those people has a more important job than me.”
I smiled, and he noticed.
“You don’t believe me? Of course, you don’t believe me. But it’s true.
“See this box? I’m supposed to take care of this box. It’s my turn. Someday it will be someone else’s responsibility, but right now it is my job. I take care of this box.”
I didn’t laugh, because I didn’t want him to hate me, but it wasn’t easy. I laughed plenty at dinner that night telling mom about it.
Kimball convinced me to go to college. I became an accountant at a good bank. When I got my own place, I’d always stop by Kimball’s mattress, even if I was dressed in a suit, and we’d talk accounting talk. He still remembered a lot about accounting and occasionally gave me helpful suggestions.
Over all the years, he never was separated from that old shoebox. I asked him about it again now and then. I’d try to pry it out of him. What is in that box? Finally, he told me one snowy day.
“The universe is in this box. I have to protect it, or we all die.”
“Com’on Kimball, really?”
But he wasn’t kidding. This was the only time that I ever thought of him as insane. Despite looking the way he did, and smelling the way he did, he had always been the smartest most sane person I had ever known.
“Kimball, how can the universe be inside that box? I’m in the universe, and I’m not inside that box. I’m out here.”
“Young man, the universe is immense. We can’t even see the other side of the universe with our most powerful telescopes because the light hasn’t reached us yet. How could you possibly know that you are not inside this box?”
“Let’s pretend the universe is in there,” I waved at the box. “How did the universe get inside a shoebox?”
“I don’t know. It was like that when I found it. And it is a good thing I found it, too. What if someone had opened the box, or thrown it in a trash compressor. We’d have all died. We’re all lucky I found the box before something really bad happened to the universe.”
“Yes. I must be. I live under a mattress in an alley.”
That was the end of our conversation, but not our friendship. I introduced him to my future wife before my mother even met her. I named my first boy after him, and gave him a picture of our family every year.
One day I received a call at work from my mother.
“I thought you’d like to know. Kimball passed away last night.”
I thanked her and let my boss know I needed some time off.
After the funeral, I stopped by his old mattress. There next to some wind blown trash was the old shoebox. I picked it up with the intention of opening it, but I didn’t.
As soon as I touched the box, … I felt it. I kept it closed. I took it home, and put it in a safe place.
T. Gene Davis writes speculative fiction, poetry, articles, books, and computer software. Some day he wants to write and farm for a living. For now he lives in his fantasy world a few hour per day, before going to his day job. Follow his daily exploits on Twitter @TGeneDavis or visit Gene’s blog at http://freesciencefiction.com on the web.