The Jewelry Box by Adrian Slonaker

Shawn ran his pudgy right hand repeatedly over the diamond pattern carved into the cover of the cedar jewelry box. His mother had acquired it as a sixteen-year-old on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He closed his eyes behind thick, beige-framed glasses and inhaled the wood’s calming scent. Laverne and Shirley were squabbling on the TV screen, but Shawn was more interested in the diverse contents of the box, which included a mother-of-pearl star brooch purchased in Bethlehem, a long string of wooden beads, a gold velvet rhombus, and a small block with a violets drawn on it in magic marker. Violets were his mother’s favorite flower, and he’d presented the block to her as an atonement after mouthing off to her. 

Although Shawn was known throughout the neighborhood as a meek, excessively polite nine-year-old, his mother had once said that he’d “been born to make her life miserable” with his ugly tantrums. Holidays had been ruined by Shawn’s outbursts when he didn’t get the live chinchilla or the tuba that he’d asked for. He’d proclaim how much he hated his parents and the actual gifts that they’d chosen for him. His father would threaten to spank him with the “white belt,” which lurked in the back of his parents’ closet but was never used. His mother would simply sniffle and dab the corners of her eyes with a Kleenex.

A few weeks earlier, Shawn’s mother had announced that his stellar report card was the only thing he’d done right in a long time. Not wanting to ruin that lone achievement, he finished all his homework, including the extra credit, on that mid-December evening in 1980 before admiring the box. It wasn’t the first time he’d been mesmerized by it, and each time he put the box away in his mother’s armoire, he found it harder to part with it. Shawn was filled with a stabilizing dose of comfort whenever he was surrounded by possessions. During summer thunderstorms, he’d sit downstairs snuggling with a wool blanket and the deer figurines he’d bought with his allowance money in Door County, Wisconsin. It was on that vacation that he first wondered what it’d be like to be dead. 

His mother stood in the kitchen washing the pan she’d used to make fried chicken. Shawn crept in, clutching the box. He cleared his throat and complimented her on the dinner, asserting that it was “tasty.” 

“Thank you, Shawn. If you’d like, there’s some chocolate pudding in the fridge.”

In his near-soprano voice made even squeakier by the urgency of his task, Shawn asked, “Mom, you know your cedar jewelry box?”

“Yes.” 

“Well I really like it, and I want to keep it in my room if that’s OK.”

There was initially no answer, just the ongoing sound of scrubbing competing with the Christmas music bleeding from the radio.

“No.”

Shawn felt his soul snap like a catgut violin string when stretched too hard. “Please, Mom? It’s only my room. I promise I won’t lose it or break it…”

“No.” 

“But why not?” 

“Because you don’t need to keep it in your room. It’s my box, and it’s staying where it is.”

“Come on, Mom! I told you I won’t lose it or break it. I really want it, and I…”

“Shawn, no! That’s final.” The soapy hands stopped moving.

He stepped closer to her. He improvised a litany as the Harry Simeone Chorale’s “Little Drummer Boy” rose and fell in the background. He hated her; she was the worst mother in the world; he couldn’t stand her, parumpapumpum. Even her fried chicken was terrible, parumpapumpum. 

When he saw his mother’s chin quiver, he took another stab: “I wish you’d just go away. Nobody wants you here.”

She slammed down the rag onto the counter and fled from the kitchen.

Shawn followed her to his parents’ bedroom. She sat down on the bed, cradling her head in her palms. Then she looked up and cried, “You want that box! Fine! Have it!” Her usual sunny voice had been reduced to something between a whinny and a croak. Shawn had wanted to wound his mother, but not this severely.

“No-um, that’s OK. You can keep it. I’m sorry, Mom.” He surrendered the cedar box, placing it next to her.

“No! I don’t want it any more! You wanted that box! It’s yours!”

Shawn insisted, “No, please. It’s yours. I’m sorry, Mom. Please keep it. I don’t want it”

His mother’s eyes squinted with anger. She reached over and dumped the contents of the box into the small blue garbage can next to the armoire. “Then I’ll just throw it away. All of it.”

In horror, Shawn watched her discard not just her mementos, but also the block with the violets. He screamed, “Mom! I gave you that!” It did no good. She continued to cry until her weeping was interrupted by coughing.

Shawn retreated to the darkness of his room and soon heard his father, who’d just come home from his job at the university, on the stairs, followed by “Dear, what’s the matter?” once he spied his wife in the bedroom. But his father already knew; only Shawn was capable of making her weep like that.

Soon his father’s bulky frame occupied Shawn’s doorway. Miniature clouds of smoke from the pipe in his hand curled in the air. “Shawn, do you know what you did to your mother?”

“I said I was sorry!” This time, there were no threats or punishments. His father sighed, shook his head, and strolled into the bathroom.

Shawn grabbed his smiling plush green bunny from the windowsill. The matted synthetic fur felt like frigid iron as he hugged it, but he knew that his bunny would never give up on him, no matter how horrible he was.     

Zigzagging back and forth across the Canadian/US border, Adrian Slonaker works as a copywriter and copy editor. Adrian’s work has been nominated for Best of the Net and has appeared in Ariel Chart, Aerodrome, WINK: Writers in the Know and others. 

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