A Triptych Tale …

One Block at a Time

A Triptych Tale

 

Ray stood in the department store toy aisle, browsing the sets of Wunderblocks as if he were picking out a thousand-dollar bottle of wine. The interlocking plastic blocks came in sets of varying size and complexity, complete with instructions for building spaceships and submarines, robots and dinosaurs. He had no interest in these ― too fantastic. Some sets were media tie-ins with the latest Terminator and Star Trek sequels. Ray twisted his face with disgust at how marketing had cheapened his favorite childhood toy. Other sets were designed to build nothing in particular: packs of assorted blocks in all colors and sizes. He had most of these. No, what he was interested in was a set designed to make something real, something in the here and now. A set for building a fire station, a hospital, a house with flower boxes in its windows and a white picket fence, pieces for creating ambulances and tractors and pickup trucks with fat rubber tires and plastic, tinted windshields.

After picking up several boxes, studying them, shaking them and listening to the pieces rattle, he chose a set designed to build a gas station, complete with a garage for making repairs and a tow truck. He paid for it at the register with one-dollar bills, tips from bagging groceries at the West Side Co-op. “Your son will love this,” the cashier said. She was an older woman, obviously forced to work into retirement, with curly white hair and an orange smock. Ray just nodded and smiled.

Ray took the 394 bus back to his one-bedroom garden apartment. Sheets hung over the windows for curtains. An air mattress that served as both couch and bed lay in the living room, along with a small TV and a tall stack of books he had packed away when Terese kicked him out. The cramped kitchen had no room for a table; he ate at the kitchen counter on a wooden stool. He had a coffee maker and a toaster and nothing but peanut butter and jelly, some leftover frozen pizza and half a quart of skim milk in the fridge.

Kneeling in his living room, Ray opened the set of blocks he had just bought and spread them over the worn carpet. He leafed through the instructions for building the gas station, tossed them aside. He didn’t need someone else telling him what to do. The set came with some specialty pieces, ones already made into something specific, including the chassis of a motorcycle and gas pumps. He discarded these as well. He preferred the traditional pieces from his childhood: boxes and cylinders and slanted pieces used for roofing. Two plastic people, two inches tall, came with the set: a mechanic with overalls painted on his body and a cap to cover his bald head, and a woman with wavy dark hair and glasses. He kept these: as hard as he tried to build people from scratch using the tiniest blocks available, he could never get their faces right. The ready-made ones were bright and open, and always smiling.

Ray built a gas station, only his was different from the one pictured on the box. The columns that held the roof above the gas pumps were not straight, but stepped and angled. The station was supposed to be yellow with a red foundation, red doors, red windows. He mixed and matched the colors, built a red flower into one wall as if it were graffiti. He left another wall open. It was summer, he decided, and the building would be too stuffy otherwise. The crank that lifted the cars for servicing was clumsy, so he oiled it so it ran smooth. He improved on the tow truck as well, increasing the cab size, lengthening the towing device so it could haul a larger vehicle more easily.

The ready-made ones were bright and open, and always smiling.

When Ray was finished, about two in the morning, he carefully lifted the gas station and carried it into the bedroom. The floor of the ten-by-ten room was covered with miniature block-buildings. There were tiny houses with yellow roofs and open windows, a police station, a fire station, a town hall with a clock tower. There were two- and three-story buildings with big picture windows along a main street lined with wide sidewalks, restaurants and shops and even a small art gallery. Plastic trees expertly trimmed and flowers always in bloom dotted the landscape. The town was laid out in a grid pattern, with wide boulevards and well-kept lanes and a minimum of traffic, cars and trucks that never blew through stop signs and always obeyed the speed limit.

Ray set the gas station down between Main Street and a parkway of single-family homes. He straightened and, like a proud new proprietor opening his doors on the first day of business, he crossed his arms and waited for cars, tanks empty, to arrive for their fill-ups and perhaps even an oil change.

#

“I’m worried about you, Dad.” Brie stood in the threshold of the bedroom, looming over Ray as he sat cross-legged on the floor, arranging the people in the park he had created for his little town, complete with benches and a pathway and a band shell for concerts on Saturday nights.

Ray did not look up at his daughter. “Your mother doesn’t care about me anymore,” he said.

Brie leaned against the door jamb. She was tall and lithe. She had wanted to be a dancer when she was younger, but was told by producers and talent agents that she was too tall, so she took a job managing for a catering company. “Just because she couldn’t live with you anymore doesn’t mean Mom doesn’t care. She puts on a good front, like always, but this has hurt her, too.”

Ray turned to his daughter. “Tell me, do I seem happier now than I was then?”

Brie twirled her long blond hair with her fingers, something she did when she was reluctant to tell the truth. Ray recalled how he used to run his hand through it when she was a child, in order to lull her to sleep. “You’re not brooding like you used to. But this ― this is a bit crazy.”

“When I was a boy, Wunderblocks were only sold in Europe, through catalogs, a few import shops. Used to get a new set every birthday and Christmas. Never the big sets though ― the galleons and starships ― too expensive. Now you can buy them in any discount store. Never thought I’d own so many.”

“Never thought I’d own so many.”

“I think you ought to see someone.”

“Tell your mother I’m fine, just fine.”

“She has nothing to do with this.”

“She told you to come. We were married twenty-two years. I know that much.” He set a girl with pigtails on one of the benches he had just created. He had trouble setting her in place, pushed a little too hard, and the bench collapsed. He picked up the pieces, started to rebuild the bench. “They aren’t like real life. When they break, you can always put them back together again.”

#

Ray moved deftly as the groceries of a young mother with an infant in tow rolled down the conveyor belt, bagging them as carefully as a mason lays bricks, stacking heavy items on the bottom, mixing frozen and chilled items to keep the chilled items cold, packing vegetables and fruit together, meats in a separate bag, packing the bread, eggs and other fragile items on top. He filled the bags for maximum efficiency, never allowing them to overflow while still ensuring they could stand on their own.

Whether the young mother, or any other customer at the West Side Co-op, noticed his attention to his craft as he loaded their carts, he couldn’t say. Few gave him a second glance. It didn’t matter. He didn’t do the job for them. He did it for himself ― and, of course, for Mariah.

“You know, you could make things easier on yourself if you used more bags, didn’t pack them so carefully,” Mariah said after the mother had gone. Her baby had started crying just as they were heading out the door. Mariah looked younger than his daughter, Brie. She had short dark hair and a waif’s body. Ray had a crush on her. Whenever he had a chance, he would strike up conversations with her: awkward, nothing conversations, about how slow it was, about whether payday was this Friday or next Friday. They’d share jokes, complain in soft whispers about their boss, Clive, who changed schedules on a whim and acted as if breaks were optional, especially on a busy Saturday afternoon.

Mariah wore several bracelets on her right wrist, had a tattoo of a rose just below her collar bone. Her skin was pale, her face round. She had a lilting laugh that Ray seldom heard, and a crooked smile she hardly ever used, even on customers ― as Clive instructed at his morning huddles, when he’d try to psych them all up with slogans he read from the myriad of business books he kept in his office.

When it was busy they couldn’t talk, but still Ray reveled in Mariah’s voice: soft, yet with an edge. He would comfort himself with the task at hand: how to fit as much into a paper sack as possible without the handles breaking or the bread getting squished or the bananas bruising ― all the while listening to Mariah’s voice and, in the back of his head, wondering how to build on the little town that was becoming a big town back in his apartment.

He would comfort himself with the task at hand…

Ray and Mariah often had their breaks at the same time. Ray’s heart lifted a little whenever this happened, but when her boyfriend, Kai, showed up, he resigned himself to sitting alone in the lunchroom while they went out back to share a cigarette.

The lunchroom was just off the storeroom, cement-brick walls and metal chairs around a couple of folding tables, a pop and candy machine, a microwave, the time clock and a bulletin board where the legally required posters about workers’ compensation and minimum wage were covered over by notes from Clive to keep the room clean, and that being late could result in “disciplinary action.” Ray was nibbling at a cheese sandwich and sipping cream soda when Mariah entered. Usually, she was back late from her breaks when Kai came by, and received an admonishment from Clive. Clive did this in front of the rest of the staff, sometimes even in front of customers. This time, she returned early. Ray smiled at her. She looked at him, her eyes swollen and wet with tears, then turned away, hurrying out onto the sales floor.

Later, while Ray stocked the shelves in the canned soup aisle, he heard a loud voice coming from the registers. At first he figured it was one of the many homeless men who lived in the neighborhood and wandered in to use the restroom without anyone noticing, maybe lift an apple from produce or, for one or two crazies, rant at the shoppers and the staff about the President being Hitler, or the FBI being a cult, or that rats could talk or whatever their paranoid-schizophrenic fantasy happened to be. It was safest to ignore these people. But when Ray heard Mariah’s name, he stuck his head from out of the aisle. Kai was behind Mariah’s register. He held her wrist tight, and was shouting about a call she had made on her cell phone. Clive was standing several feet away, pretending to inspect a candy rack for outdated chocolate bars in aisle five. He wasn’t brave unless you worked for him, and Mariah’s boyfriend didn’t work for him.

A middle-aged woman with close-cropped hair wheeled her cart up to Mariah’s register. Kai let go of Mariah and stormed out of the store.

#

Terese had been leaving messages on Ray’s phone for the past several days. He hadn’t bothered to call her back. She’d kicked him out, and now he was supposed to call her? This time when she called, though, he was lying on his bed, reading a book on the architects of the 1893 Columbian Exposition and wondering how he could incorporate some of their Neoclassical domes and pillars into his modest village in the other room.

She’d kicked him out, and now he was supposed to call her?

“Brie tells me you’re playing with toys,” she said.

“What of it?”

“It’s not like you,” she said.

“It’s not like how you wanted me to be, you mean.”

There was a long pause. “Look, Ray. I know you think I threw you out, but I didn’t. You could have gotten help. I asked you a thousand times. But you didn’t. I couldn’t handle your moods anymore.”

“I’m not in a mood now.”

“No,” she said. “You are. But this mood is different, this mood seems …”

“Content?”

There was another pause, as if she wanted to argue with him, but decided against it. “I just want to let you know I still care. Goodbye, Ray.”

#

Ray’s mother died of emphysema at the age of sixty-three. She used to sneak smokes into her hospital bed, light up while oxygen was pumped through a tube in her nose. Ray thought it a filthy habit. Still, it was an excuse to be with Mariah when Kai wasn’t around and she would go outside to have a cigarette.

“You don’t smoke, do you?” Mariah asked.

“I’m just starting up again,” Ray replied, suddenly conscious of how awkward he must look.

“Clive makes you want more than just cigarettes.”

They were at the loading dock behind the store. The sweltering summer day had given way to a warm evening that was on the threshold of bearable. The scent of garbage from the dumpsters filled the air.

Kai came down the alley. He walked ramrod straight, but as he neared, Ray could smell the liquor on his breath, seeping from his pores. “Who’s this guy?” Kai asked. He pointed at Ray, his bony arms flexing beneath his black T-shirt. He wore jeans despite the heat, torn in several places and splashed with paint.

“He works here,” Mariah said.

Kai stared at Ray, his eyes bloodshot. He had skin almost as pale as Mariah’s and hair that was unnaturally dark, short and spiked. A scruff of beard clung to his chin, as if glued there. His thin lips seemed incapable of a smile. “Get lost. This is private.”

Ray looked to Mariah. Mariah nodded. Sensing it was okay, he turned back into the store.

Ray was too busy bagging to realize that Mariah hadn’t returned from her break. Clive was asking everyone where she was. When he asked Ray, Ray told him they had been on break together but hadn’t seen her since. He didn’t say that she might have gone off with Kai. She might have a good story when Clive saw her again and he didn’t want to contradict that, get her in even more trouble. Clive walked away, shaking his head, muttering something about canning her for blowing off work.

Ray closed up with Clive and a couple of cashiers, one of whom Clive had asked to work late to help cover Mariah’s abandoned shift. Ray said his goodnights and meandered home, the streets dark except for the dim light from second-story apartments, streetlamps like halos, a few passing cars. A group of young men swaggered by him from the other direction, the whites of their eyes bright as they stared him down, sized him up. Ray had been walking these streets at night for several weeks now, knew the routine. He made eye contact. They left him alone. Still, a lump formed in his throat as he listened to their footsteps behind him. He jumped when he felt a tug on his sleeve.

A group of young men swaggered by him from the other direction, the whites of their eyes bright as they stared him down, sized him up.

Mariah stood behind him, her face shadowed by a streetlight. “I can’t go home,” she said.

Ray walked her back to his apartment, fumbled with the keys as he unlocked the door. He offered to make coffee, but she only wanted water. As she sat on a stool at the counter of his tiny kitchen, sipping water from a jelly-jar glass, Ray examined her for some sign of bruising, but saw nothing. Still, he could tell by the way she held herself to one side that she was hurting.

“I know you don’t think much of him, but Kai’s a really talented painter, murals mostly,” she said. “Artists can be moody. I’ve had to accept that.”

Ray did not reply. He understood enough to know that being a great artist didn’t give someone a pass on being a good person. He also understood that wasn’t what Mariah needed to hear right now. Right now, all she needed was someone to listen.

“I dropped out of school to be with him,” she said. “We met when I was a sophomore. He was a senior about to graduate. He said if I loved him, I’d follow him here. Said he had an agent lined up. A gallery interested in his work. That was a year ago. Hasn’t done anything but drink the last six months. My parents were so pissed. They wanted me to go on to law school.”

“What did you want?”

Mariah shrugged. “I guess I never thought about it. It’s never been about me.”

Ray knew from his own experience that she was lying. She had probably asked herself that question a thousand times. It wasn’t the question that scared her, it was the answer. “I always wanted to be an architect,” Ray said. “The program in school was too grueling, though, and it paid dirt when you were all through. For the first years, anyhow. So I ended up in sales. Made good money, too.”

“And you left it to bag groceries?”

“Turns out, I don’t like people all that much. I’m good with them, built a book of business on relationships and trust. Sold everything from medical equipment to networking software in my career. Still, I had to drag myself in to every call. I cringed every time the phone rang or an email popped up. I needed a change. I read about this guy, lost his high-paying job and started working at a coffee shop. Happier now then he’s ever been.”

“And you?”

“It hasn’t worked out that well. People buy groceries.”

Ray excused himself to use the bathroom. He came out to find Mariah in the bedroom. He had recently added a streetcar to Main Street, and she was on her hands and knees, looking inside the little car at the commuters and the ticket agent, all smiling and happy to be on their way.

He braced himself for the end of a friendship.

Ray braced himself for a response much like Brie’s. He braced himself for the end of a friendship.

“Amazing,” was all she said.

In his head, Ray knew he could have her then. She was vulnerable, and his eccentricity impressed her. She went for artists after all, and what was this, but art? He took her by the hand and helped her up, leading her out of the room. They sat on his inflatable mattress, hand-in-hand. He turned off the overhead lights so that a tiny lamp in the corner was the only illumination. He turned on the radio. The station played acoustic versions of rock hits and, while he couldn’t place the tune, it seemed appropriate.

Mariah lay back on the bed. Ray settled next to her. She folded her hands across her stomach, her eyes wide, her face blank. Ray ran his fingers through her hair.

Mariah closed her eyes, made a soft purring sound. “My dad used to do that.”

Ray stopped. He picked himself up on one elbow, looked down at Mariah, that soft, young, fleshy face, the face of a child. He remained next to her, not touching her, as she drifted off to sleep. Then he made a bed at her feet with one of the pillows and an extra blanket and hoped the snoring his wife used to complain about wouldn’t wake her.

#

The day Mariah came to work in long sleeves even though it was ninety degrees outside, Ray knew something would have to be done about Kai.

“What is it? Burns, bruises?”

Mariah didn’t reply. The din of nearby street traffic cut through the silence. They were in the alley, sharing another break. Mariah had kept her job only by promising to work extra shifts. It didn’t hurt that they were shorthanded because Clive had trouble keeping cashiers more than a month or two before they quit in disgust.

Ray had given up the pretense of smoking. Instead, he watched Mariah, the way her mouth wrapped around the cigarette, how smoke wafted from her parted lips. “You should never have gone back to him. Leave him now. Come stay with me until you get things figured out.”

Mariah shook her head. “He said he was sorry. He’s sold a painting. Not for much. He’s taking me to dinner tonight.”

“He doesn’t smile,” Ray said. “Even unhappy people smile now and then.”

Later that evening, Ray sat as a god amidst his tiny town, setting up a road crew to build a pedestrian bridge over Main Street, which was becoming increasingly busy with cars, motorcycles and delivery vans. It was then the idea struck him. Mariah’s good fortune with Kai couldn’t last. When things did come to a head with Kai, Ray intended to be ready.

When things did come to a head with Kai, Ray intended to be ready.

Ray dumped a box of blocks of various shapes and sizes and colors onto the floor, sorted through them to find the ones he needed. He worked quickly, without thought to color or form, only function. Once it was complete, he examined what he had made, hefted it in his hand, nodded, fully satisfied.

#

It was dinnertime, the lull between commuters picking up groceries on their way home and night owls doing their late shopping. Clive had the day off, so no one was working all that hard. Mariah was the only cashier open, but without customers, was reading one of the celebrity gossip magazines stocked near the counter. Ray filled the downtime by ensuring all the bag holders were fully stocked. The bulge in the pocket of his smock pushed against his stomach. He had been carrying it around for the past three days, but still hadn’t gotten used to it.

Kai strode in, approached Mariah. He spoke quietly for a change. Ray was at the far end of the line of registers, couldn’t make out what he was saying. Mariah was shaking her head to whatever it was. Kai took a bill from his pocket, handed it to her. She opened her drawer, apparently to make change. Kai pushed her out of the way, reached into her till, emptied the twenties slot. Mariah called after him, but he was already halfway out the door. Mariah turned to Ray, her eyes welling with tears. Clive would certainly fire her for this. He would blame her no matter what she or Ray said.

Ray ran after Kai. Kai appeared not to be in any hurry; it wasn’t hard to catch up to him. Ray wasn’t used to running, though, and was breathing hard when he tapped Kai on the shoulder.

“The money,” Ray panted. “Give it back.”

From his smock, Ray pulled what he had made a couple of nights before. He placed it against Kai’s back. Kai turned.

He was staring at a pistol made of Wunderblocks, the mismatch of colors making it appear like some sort of Technicolor dream-gun. Its barrel was short and obscenely thick ― a toy, nothing more. “Give it back,” Ray said.

Ray expected Kai to laugh, or at least grin, upon seeing the gun. Instead he just grunted, started walking again. Ray fired. It had a surprisingly powerful kick. Dozens of tiny blocks flew from its muzzle, scattering like a broken rainbow.

#

Ray came out of the bathroom, dressed and showered. Mariah sat at the counter, a history textbook open in front of her. She had just started taking classes again at the local community college. “You look nice,” she said. “I can see why Terese wants you back.”

“We’re taking it slow,” Ray reminded her. He and his ex-wife had been talking on the phone regularly, had finally decided that a “date” was in order. He was taking her to dinner, a local Thai place that was good but cheap that Mariah had introduced him to. His new job hadn’t started paying yet.

Mariah hopped off the stool, went to Ray, straightened his collar. “When do you start on your first project?”

“The blocks should be here tomorrow.” Mariah had read about a man in Tennessee who made all kinds of things out of Wunderblocks on commission. He ordered blocks by the tens of thousands over the internet. He created statues for children’s museums, toy-store displays, ten-foot-tall buildings, life-sized animals, full-size gazebos. He’d even made a desk for an eccentric IT executive in Silicon Valley that was ergonomically correct. Turned out, he was swamped and couldn’t keep up with his workload; Ray wasn’t the only one who recalled Wunderblocks from his childhood so fondly. At Mariah’s urging, Ray sent the man photos of his creations, and he offered to send some work Ray’s way. His first project was a replica of an office building in Cincinnati that had just been built, to be placed in its foyer.

Ray wrung his hand. “Still hurts, huh?” Mariah asked.

“Not too bad.” When he fired his homemade gun, it had shattered. Tiny pieces of plastic embedded themselves into his right hand, multicolored freckles.

Ray went into the bedroom. He had nearly finished dismantling the village. He would need the space for paying projects, after all. Still, he kept Main Street and the park that adjoined it. It would be easy to move if it got in the way.

He left the people in place as well. A child and his mother watching the ducks that swam in the pond, a couple walking down the path, a deliveryman on a bicycle taking a shortcut and, most recently, a man standing just outside the park, on the street corner, as if waiting for a bus that would never arrive. Ray had made this one himself, finally able to get the face right, even if it was a bit blocky. A tuft of hair dotted his chin, and unlike the rest of the people, he was not smiling, his face fixed in a permanent frown.

Manfred Gabriel’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Bastion SF, Tales of the Unanticipated and Abyss & Apex. He lives and writes in western Wisconsin with his wife, three daughters, and a small petting zoo that includes a dog, two cats, a guinea pig and a chinchilla. His nonfiction writing on life in today’s workplace can be found at www.highschoolwithmoney.wordpress.com.