Thursday, June 7, 2018

Jack, by Rita Collins

The gift of a simple toy stretches people’s memories and experiences.  What comes out of the box is not always what one might expect.

 Tinny music began as she turned the small crank.  Recognizing “Pop Goes the Weasel” Nikol wondered if this sort of toy always had the same song.  At just the right moment, ‘pop!’ the lid sprang open and the upper half of a clown appeared: a plastic face, stiff orange hair, the body in cheap rainbow fabric with wide-open arms and two small plastic hands.
            Nikol had to admit it definitely was a toy from another era. Not the least bit modern, lacking any technology or even batteries.  The simplicity of the toy and the colorful clown convinced her to buy it for Julia’s birthday.  After all, Julia didn’t really need anything.  Turning fifty and with a firm career, Julia had amassed more then most.  Her flat was tastefully decorated, her car newish and in perfect working order, and vacations were well-planned adventures.  The jack-in-the-box would be a fun gift for a woman who had everything.  Nikol asked the clerk to please gift-wrap the toy.
            As she walked along Masarykova on her way to the bus, Nikol enjoyed the shape and weight of the wrapped package in the bag.  She could imagine Julia’s surprise when she opened this quirky gift. Of course small, fancier things were certainly nice.  A string of pearls or delicate earrings would be something either Nikol or Julia would appreciate.  This mechanical toy was in its own category though.  The size of the package would puzzle Julia before she unwrapped it.  And maybe she had a similar toy as a child.
            Nikol put the package and her purse on the table by the door when she got home.  There wasn’t much time. She changed from work clothes to something more suitable for the birthday party.  It was going to be at Julia’s place so nothing fancy. Comfortable slacks, a pullover and a scarf would do.  The floral scarf was a presnt from Julia a few years back.  Finding the right sort of gift for each other was one aspect of their friendship. 
            Nikol picked up the package as she left, now focused on getting to the party as soon as possible.  She bought a bottle of wine on the way. Flowers would have been nice but finding the gift had taken too much time after work.  Nikol smiled in anticipation of Julia’s surprise opening it.
            Julia’s place was dense with people when Nikol arrived.  The buzz of talk nearly obliterated the background music.  People smoked outside on the balcony but with people going in and out, the flat was haze-filled.  Nikol didn’t bother knocking, as the front door was slightly ajar.  She walked in, put her coat on the pile in the bedroom and took the wine to the kitchen.  The counter was full of bottles, some opened. Nikol rummaged for a clean glass, poured herself a drink and went to find Julia.  Enough people greeted her along the way that it took a while to get to the living room.  Julia sat there on the sofa laughing at something the man next to her had just said.  Nikol set the wrapped box on a low table by the sofa, gave Julia a hug and wishes for a happy birthday.
            “Where have you been? I thought you were coming over early to help?
            Nikol shrugged, “Had to run errands after work. What a crowd!  I thought you said just a few friends were coming tonight?”
            Nikol knew Julia enjoyed a real party with people forced to speak loud to be heard and to mill about, as there weren’t nearly enough chairs. Julia moved over on the sofa so Nikol could sit down, introduced her to the man, commented on the scarf and then noticed the box.  Julia raised her eyebrows, already intrigued “For me?”
            Nikol nodded although it wasn’t needed. Julia had already picked up the package, shook it gently and began pulling off the wrapping paper.  When the metal box emerged with the side crank, Julia clapped her hands laughing.  “Wherever did you find this?”
            Knowing exactly how it worked, Julia turned the crank. The tune played. Julia hummed along until that ‘pop’ moment when the lid opened and the clown appeared.  Julia gasped with surprise as she instantly slipped back into childhood moments.  Nikol gasped with surprise as she saw a clown in a purple striped outfit with green hair.
            “How did you ever think to give me this?  I had one just like it as a child.  I even remember the clown’s hair. It seemed so funny back then that anyone would have green hair.”
            Nikol smiled weakly.  Perhaps the clerk at the shop had wrapped a different one, not the particular toy Nikol had tried from the shelf in the shop.  That would explain the difference.
            Some weeks later Nikol joined friends at Julia’s for dinner, a gathering where they had time to catch up on each other’s lives. Julia served a sumptuous meal.  Afterward people took their coffees into the living room. Before sitting down, one of the men noticed the metal box on a shelf by the books.  “Is this really what I think it is?”
            “Yes. Can you believe it?  Nikol found it for my birthday”
            The man picked it up, examining the playful images on the sides of the box.  He slowly turned the crank and smiled in anticipation. The song played and there was the sense everyone held their breath until the moment when the lid popped open. The man turned immediately to Julia.
            “This is unreal! This is the exactly like the one I had as a kid.  I used to wonder how my parents ever managed to find a black clown with white hair.  And the pink polka dot outfit!  Oh my god, Nikol! Where did you get this?”
            Julia looked puzzled, first looking at the man then the clown then back to the man.  What happened here?  Surely the toy hadn’t left her flat since she got it. But this was a different clown.  Was it some sort of trick?  Did the box have numerous clowns?
            Julia and the man examined the toy, Julia explaining how just a few days ago when she opened it, the clown looked different, the man exclaiming how the black clown always seemed magical to him as a child.  Nikol lost in the mystery sat down. 
            After that evening, Julia pushed the toy further back on the shelf.  It was nearly hidden by assorted unread books and a blue vase.  Visitors to her flat didn’t notice the colorful metal box and after sometime, Julia could mostly ignore it.  Occasionally when dusting, she was tempted to turn the crank but never did. She wiped the sides of the box and let it sit silently there. Until months later during the evening of another dinner party. While eating dessert, the man who had discovered the black clown with white hair turned to Nikol.
            “I’ve looked all over for a jack-in-the-box like Julia’s.  Nobody carries one like that.  Where did you say you got it?”
            Nikol mentioned the toyshop on Masarykova but wanted to avoid more talk on the topic.  She turned to the others at the table asked if anyone heard how skiing was so far this season.  Conversations tumbled about. Later in the evening as people got their coats ready to leave, the man wandered into the living room searching for the toy.  Pulling it off the shelf, he smiled and began turning the crank.  Nikol hesitated in the doorway, waiting to see what appeared.  Caught in the same moment, Julia paused in her good-byes to guests, waiting for the lid to open. The man turned the crank slowly, humming along with the song, reluctant to have the anticipation end.
            The tune did eventually get to the ‘pop!’ but the box remained closed.  The man stopped turning the crank. There was silence. He turned the crank slightly, the tune began again. Picking up speed toward the expected crescendo, everyone had faith this time it would work.  But it didn’t. The tune reached the explosive note but the lid remained closed.  Julia walked over to the man, leaving her guests standing in the hallway.  She tried to pry the lid open with her fingernail assuming after months of disuse it must be stuck.
            As she struggled, breaking a nail, the man intervened. He pulled out a small pocketknife. Using the tip of the blade, he slipped it under the lid gently prying at different spots.  Eventually the lid opened.  Julia and the man looked into the box. Nikol walked over to stand beside them, looking as well.  There was nothing inside. No clown, no mechanism, an empty box.


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