By Harvey Havel
In my son’s playroom, which is littered with plastic toys of every shape, size, and color ― everything from old train sets to action figures both big and small, to plastic swords, toy guns, and die-cast metal cars that have ceased to roll on the thick threads of the shag carpet that warms his feet ― I one day noticed a small, almost innocuous object that sat on his baby-blue night stand. I slipped the object into the side pocket of my work trousers and within a day or two, I brought it out secretly for my own obscure pleasure. And while I’m usually not in the habit of stealing my son’s toys from him, this colorful cube reminded me of a time when anything was possible, and when my once-capable skills and faculties could tackle any problem that came my way.
The cube itself is not that spectacular or remarkable to look at. I had the larger version of it in my possession before my father passed away some twenty years ago. I remember playing with it during his wake. I often excuse my former self for this, as I was merely a boy who didn’t know any better at the time, but I distinctly remember sneaking into the coatroom of the funeral parlor and peeling off all of the stickers on the cube if only to paste them back on again until all sides were equally uniform. I then showed the completed puzzle to all of the adults, who were by this time kneeling at my father’s casket and mouthing their quiet lamentations. They finally understood that I was indeed much smarter than they had originally thought. In fact, my reputation grew from a dumb, slightly awkward kid to a boy who would one day lift our family out of poverty by using an acumen I never possessed.
The cube’s popularity back then swept the nation, and it quickly infiltrated the homes of many a teenager. I saw television shows where young wiz-kids my age solved the puzzle in just a few seconds, each of its eight sides balanced and resolute with the same colors, and this was done without removing any of the square, solid-colored adhesives that made it so interesting to solve. After a year of its release, the cube took on another dimension, as its creators added an extra, fourth row side, if only to complicate my plans. I suppose people ultimately grew tired of the thing and abandoned it for some other activity. It still remains, however, an icon of the age. There wasn’t a kid on my block who didn’t want one and after a year or two, there wasn’t a kid on my block who didn’t already have one.
After the funeral, I gave it away to one of my starry-eyed cousins after showing him the completed puzzle. He agreed that I was the smartest kid in town and even though I was nothing but a charlatan, I soon believed the lie I had built for myself and paraded my genius in front of my widowed mother. She soon took me to the bank and funded an account for my higher learning. I was finally a good investment, she would often say, and to this day she still questions whether or not I was honest with her. When I visit her at the home, she still eyes me suspiciously, knowing somewhere behind the pale of her stark blue eyes that I had gotten the better of her. She poured all of my father’s insurance money into that college fund and then waited for something spectacular to happen. After a semester or two of heavy drinking and pot-smoking, I was tossed out of college and happened to stumble upon my future wife at the campus watering hole where I had been soaking most of my misery and misfortune.
Finding the cube in my boy’s room marked my triumphant return to the reputation I once held, and I had no choice but to take it back from him. I should also say here, in my defense, that my son has never showed the slightest interest in the cube. It is dwarfed by the other large-scale toys that command his attentions. The version I took from him fits into my palm. It was more-or-less made as a small key chain, a memento, if you will, of the larger version that had at one time captivated the smartest of people.
I now keep it on my desk. When my mind tends to wander from my work, I reach for it, twist and turn its many sides, and hope to create at least one solid side and then move on to the more perplexing task of making solid sides of the others. It finds its way into my pockets, my car, on the dashboard and in the glove compartment, in my briefcase, and sometimes in the laundry. The pied-colored shingles, almost like the flashing bulbs of a Las Vegas strip sign, force me into fiddling with it, until somehow I am jarred from its trance and return to what my real life demands of me. And since I’ve had it, I tend to think of everything around me as a function of the cube ― the brick-face of my house, for instance, or a stray appointment that needs to be twisted into an empty slot in my schedule, so that the entire day is solid and complete. Sometimes I find the cube in my pocket and stroke its glossy sides or thumb the soft edges of its corners, much like a teenager doodles in a book or a nervous woman bites her fingernails. Often it will come to me in dreams, its patchwork of motley colors blinking and winking at me, forming patterns that suggest the presence of some higher, intelligent being who is trying to shape me into something superior.
I often wonder if I am playing with it, or if it is playing with me. I have an itching need to unscramble its colors in order to decode the language of the higher being hidden at its core; only then may I exorcise it from my mind. Even my body requires me to keep a safe distance. Several weeks ago, when I found it staring at me from the bathroom sink, it held me hostage for what must have been several hours, thereby ruining an otherwise satisfying interlude of light reading and quiet contemplation. After a time, I couldn’t fathom being away from it, as though it had become an extension of my fingers, the center of my palm, or a portable appendage that I sometimes played “catch” with. I’d sit for hours on the living room couch bringing order to the chaos of its sides.
Soon it joined me in bed where my wife once read her romance novels. She often glowered at the object that slowly meant more to me than she did. I’d focus solely on its eight-sided mystery, and often my heart leapt in the middle of the night when the perfect square fit into place. Either that or my heart sank when I went fishing for a single square in order to complete an entire side, thus ushering in even more chaos to a puzzle that I had turned and twisted into order using nothing less than my unbending will. When she wanted to make love, I turned away, limp and powerless, always wondering where I’d find the cube next.
She said she’d always remember the image of my haggard, unshaven face and corpulent body sagging underneath the bathrobe she gave me last Christmas. I sat in the living room on that cold day, my head crooked to my lap, this same cube absorbing all of the awkward love that had now ended our marriage.
“It’s either the cube or me,” she said, as she towed my young son down the stairs to where her packed suitcases stood at the door. Her bags looked like a cubist monument of sorts, a tribute to the disintegration of our five years together. I knew, however, she would return, and I made sure to let her know that I was the one in charge of this family, not she, and whatever power-plays she had orchestrated were only the futile gestures of a woman who really couldn’t live without me.
She hasn’t been back since, and even though I am still frightened to find the cube where I least expect it ― either popping out at me from the desk drawer or flashing ever so briefly in the brilliant white light that accompanies crackling thunder ― I’m still struck by how I have yet to solve it.
Harvey Havel is a short-story writer and novelist. His publication credits include his first novel, Noble McCloud (1999) followed by The Imam (2000), Freedom of Association (2006), Charlie Zero’s Last-Ditch Attempt, and The Orphan of Mecca released last year. His new novel, The Thruway Killers is his latest work. He is formerly a writing instructor at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey, and taught writing and literature at the College of St. Rose in Albany as well as SUNY Albany. Copies of his books and short stories, both new and used, may be purchased at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and by special order at other fine bookstores.