JOSH KNEW HIS PARENTS couldn’t afford to buy him a pair of Nike Air high-tops like Tommy Jackson had. When Tommy Jackson called him poor, Josh still felt ashamed. Josh caught the shame as it popped out his mouth and hid it under his sweater. It was small—metallic, cold and hard like the others. Josh knew the shames made him different so he hid them quickly before his classmates saw.
As he walked back to Mrs. Ryan’s class with his classmates he felt the cold surface of a shame earlier concealed under his sweater. This one was larger and could cut his skin if not handled properly. Then he’d have to go to the Nurse, again. It popped out of his mouth around 7:40 A.M. as his parents yelled over what should have happened to Jason Earning. It crawled over his lips just before his mother was going to drive him to school so he didn’t have time to hide it in his dirty clothesbasket. Josh knew it would grow slowly throughout the day. He thought it would get too big to hold under his sweater all day, but his only choice was to stash it there when his mother wasn’t looking.
* * * * *
When it was reading time Josh went last with the third group. Each small group read the same stories but Mrs. Ryan said it was important to have different groups because some kids read better than others. The third group had the worst readers. Josh’s sister, Susan, helped him read all her favorite Isaac Asimov novels. Susan explained that the novels were about robots and robots were like people only stronger. After they finished reading each book together, Susan would let Josh keep it for his bookshelf if he promised to try “really hard” to read it by himself. Josh wished he had tried harder so he wouldn’t still be in the third reading group. Susan was never disappointed with his lack of progress. She was very smart with important things to do so the shame for wasting her time had jagged edges and needed to be concealed carefully. He found the most comfortable way to carry it was in the right front pocket of his blue jeans sandwiched between two other plates. There was a thin square one for not being strong enough to make the words less fuzzy and a thick triangle one for seeing some letters backwards.
As Josh walked home by himself, he thought about the yellow post-it note he had stuck to the back of the inside of his desk drawer. There was one Jason T. Earning and one Jason B. Earning in the phone book. Jason T. Earning lived on West Street and Jason B. Earning lived on Fisher. He couldn’t ask his parents which Jason was the one they yelled about.
* * * * *
There weren’t that many shames to carry home that day. Some days Josh wanted to ask for help carrying them home but he knew better. Josh’s dad explained, “A real man handles his own problems.”
Josh walked straight to his room and closed the door. He dumped everything he had been holding under his sweater into the dirty clothesbasket and buried them under white socks and underwear. He put the one he made at 7:40 A.M. with the other heavier, sharper ones at the bottom of the basket.
* * * * *
Three Tuesdays ago, Josh ran to his room after his mom explained that Jason Earning was not a careful driver at night and he could have been a careful driver if he would have not drank things he shouldn’t have. His jaw ached as he gaped his mouth to vomit the huge jagged scrap into his dirty clothesbasket. The scrap came out in a crumpled ball that would eventually unfold and swell to five times its size. He shifted some T-shirts and socks to conceal it at the very bottom of the basket. This took a while since its jagged edges kept getting snagged on the clothes. Later, it occurred to Josh the heavier, sharper ones at the bottom came out of him whenever his parents yelled about Jason Earning.
Josh looked up to see the dust on the bookshelf filled with Asimov novels and remembered the lie he told his sister about trying “really hard” to read the books on his own. A small lustrous strip fell off his lower lip into the basket. Josh tried to remember how he felt when Susan’s green eyes encouraged him while they were reading together, but couldn’t. He had to look in a scrapbook and that caused him to rush over to the basket and wretch up a rusty narrow plate. Josh threw a couple clean shirts over the rusty narrow plate.
The laundry basket didn’t have many clothes in it any more. The heavier ones at the bottom had unfolded into thick, flat slabs. The slabs were too heavy for Josh to carry to Jason Earning’s house, regardless of whether it was on Fisher or West Street. He sat at his desk with the post-it note from his desk drawer and a piece of college-ruled paper and began to draw out plans. Maybe he could make his shames into something better—something stronger.
* * * * *
“Greetings from Master Josh,” the piezoelectric voice buzzed.
“What are you doing here, robot? You’re not selling magazines subscriptions are you? Are you!” his voice slurred slowly. Jason Earning tried to push the front door closed but the robot stepped into the threshold. The robot pushed his way into the foyer and began walking towards a kitchen table. The push knocked Jason Earning off balance and caused him to spill brandy on his navy, Ralph Lauren polo.
“Hey!” He howled in belligerent disgust.
The Robot dropped a stack of two-by-three-foot rectangular, thick slabs onto the kitchen table that rattled and clamored until they rested flat. The perimeter of the top slab was sharp with serrated edges of various incline and a scratched surface. He walked toward the table and turned to see the robot exit through the open front door.
The piezoelectric voice issued, “Property returned.”
He stooped over and gazed at the top slab of the stack.
The slab had a reflective luster. He looked behind his shoulder. Things were appearing in the slab’s reflection. The new reflection showed the kitchen of a shoddy apartment. The kitchen’s brown linoleum was bubbled. There were pea green cabinets with cracked, plastic knobs. A man and a woman were yelling and pointing at each other. He looked behind his shoulder again.
“Holy Shit!” He dropped his hand with the glass of brandy onto the kitchen table. He was beginning to hear sounds coming from the top slab. It was the voices of the arguing man and woman. Maybe he recognized them from somewhere. “What is this?” His face cringed. His neck tensed and he felt his heartbeat strengthen. He heard the voice of the man. The man’s image on the slab pointed to a gleaming white refrigerator in their kitchen. The tall white refrigerator was crammed between cracked grayish-blue counters. The refrigerator’s image became more vivid and bright as the rest of the kitchen dimmed.
“I’m throwing it out,” the image of the woman said.
The man’s face reddened, “You’re not throwing it out! It came from her college fund. It’s hers! Don’t you like it? Susan’s MIT refrigerator keeps our food cold—keeps it fresh.”