Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Mulligan Box

by E. A. Moore



Myron Phimal was often heard to complain that if it weren't for his bad luck, he would have no luck at all. Friends and relatives, hearing this for the umpteenth time, would shake their heads and wonder once again what his problem was, because Myron mostly had it good.

His health was excellent, he had a well-paying job as an insurance claims adjuster, he was relatively good-looking, and at the moment had a pleasant relationship going with Muriel Kerr. But she was one of the ones who often wondered why he always said that about his luck.

Perhaps Myron's problem wasn't bad luck so much as bad judgment, particularly when it came to holding his tongue. He had an incurable tendency to choose exactly the right moment to say exactly the wrong thing. Most of the time, he was able to compensate for this impetuous fault. But all too often he would forget and find himself wishing he could take back something he had just said. Before he found the Mulligan Box, all he could do was to console himself with the rationalization that it was just his lousy luck, not inept verbal timing that had gotten him into trouble.

In fact he'd been having pretty good luck with Muriel so far. Their budding romance was progressing well. He was working hard at thinking carefully about every word he uttered in her presence. She in turn was captivated by the way he would syncopate his responses to even her most mundane conversational offerings with such handsomely brooding pauses. She thought this mannerism suggested a truly profound intellectual depth, and she'd always had a thing for deeply introspective men.

They had met in an antique collective. She was browsing for an interesting unicorn to add to her collection. He had stopped in for a quick walk-through, looking for anything in wood that snagged his attention.

Myron liked anything well crafted, but especially pieces with unusual features that were the signature of a true woodworking artist. He was sidling around a rather plain oak dresser with very intriguing drawer pulls. The knobs appeared hand-carved out of burl walnut. They were more art nouveau than deco in style, which meant they didn't belong on the dresser, the kind of contradiction that always piqued his interest. But his musings about the pulls were interrupted when he happened to glance up and noticed Muriel's reflection in the dresser's mirror.

She was directly across the aisle, peering at a shelf laden with porcelain figurines. Myron forgot all about hand-carved drawer pulls when she turned in his direction and caught him gazing at her via the mirror. She smiled quizzically, more or less at him, her eyes widening from their treasure hunting squint, as if to convey the question: "Do I know you?"

Myron could only stare back and marvel at how pretty she was. He managed a sheepish smile that prompted her to turn away and take a keen but unseeing interest in a garishly enameled elephant plant stand.

Their paths crossed several more times before they finished investigating all the spaces in the warehouse-size emporium, with its many intersecting aisles. There might even have been a certain amount of premeditation on both their parts that led to them arriving almost simultaneously, at one of the larger dealer alcoves. This one happened to feature lots of wood pieces and many shelves of bric-a-brac.

"Quite a place, isn't it?" ventured Myron.

"Sure is," agreed Muriel.

Boy, that was witty! Myron silently chided himself.

He would have felt better if he could have heard Muriel's assessment of the conversation:

Oh, really snappy repartee, Kerr!

They studiously avoided all but the briefest of eye contacts thereafter, pretending only polite concern about not getting in each other's way as they continued browsing the well-stocked space. But they had clicked and both knew it.

There was another opportunity in the parking lot to smile and nod over the tops of several cars, as if exchanging casual goodbyes, while craning their necks and trying to remember where they had parked. They shared a surprised laugh upon discovering their cars happened to be right next to each other.

Muriel unlocked her Toyota, got in, and leaned across to wind down the passenger side window. It was a typically clear and hot California summer afternoon, and the car was suffocating inside. Myron stood with his car door partly open, but made no move to get behind the wheel. Muriel peered up at him and was intrigued by the expression of pensive concentration on his face as he gazed into the painfully bright sky, his pupils sphinctered down to pinpoints. She thought his eyes were the loveliest shade of tawny green, but she fretted that he might injure them by staring almost directly at the sun like that.

"That's really bad for your eyes, you know," she cautioned.

"What? What is?" blinked Myron, squinting blindly across the top of her car at where she had been standing a moment ago.

"I'm down here," she said. "Looking right toward the sun like that can damage your eyesight."

"Oh, yeah, I've heard that," Myron nodded absently. He paused, frowning. "I was just thinking --"

"I noticed. What about?"

Another brief pause. "I was thinking how really great a fruit smoothie would taste right now."

"What a great idea!"

Pause. "And since I didn't see anything in there worth spending money on, I can probably afford to buy two super-deluxes, if you'd care to join me."

His eyes seemed to be functioning again, and though overly moist from their recent torture, they were aimed disarmingly into hers. She couldn't help but return his infectious grin.

"My name's Muriel," she laughed. "I'll meet you at Jamba Juice in Sequoia Station shopping center in, say, five minutes?"

They dated regularly for several weeks, learning each other's quirks and foibles, finding most of them endearing, or at least forgivable. They took it slowly. Neither of them was inclined to rush into a tempestuous relationship.

Myron had in general always been rather inept in his dealings with women. He believed the disconnect between his tongue and his brain had much to do with that, and this knowledge made him especially careful around Muriel.

She was content with this. She was far less reserved, and sometimes wished he would be a little less incremental in his romantic advances. But all in all she liked the way it was going. They were, after all, well into their thirties and hardly fumbling, hormone driven adolescents.

They eventually catalogued to each other, at least in general outline, their previous romantic histories. They were becoming comfortable with each other and were, in fact, falling in love. They had reached that tricky watershed when it seemed increasingly crucial to not only admit this to themselves, but to each other as well.

Myron was also wondering if he might have cured himself once and for all of his verbal incontinence. It seemed quite a long time since he had last blurted out an ill-considered thought at an exquisitely inopportune moment. But the love-addled mind is an unwary one, and the length of his pauses to reflect before speaking were growing steadily shorter.

They were also becoming ever more physically intimate, and now it was time to take that next big step. Myron had lately been indulging in somewhat lurid fantasies starring Muriel, and she occasionally allowed the subject to occupy her thoughts as well. So she was comfortably ready and perhaps even a tad impatient by the time the moment, aka The Night, finally arrived.

And so they did it, and it went well.

As the days and weeks passed Myron became dangerously distracted and lulled by the satisfactions of fairly regular rolls in the hay with Muriel. His vigilance faded and it was only a matter of time before another of his disastrous slips of the lip would occur.

The moment came as they were having brunch at Myron's apartment late one Sunday morning. They had enjoyed a play the previous evening, followed by a late dinner and a disinhibiting night in bed together. The play was a very good performance of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and its central themes had left each of them thinking that now might be a most appropriate time to express their true feelings toward one another.

They're sense of repletion and ease was idyllic as Myron served second helpings of one of his more recently contrived signature dishes, French Toast made with seven-grain bread. The idea for it -- using more nutritious bread instead of plain white -- had of course come from Muriel. Their companionable near silence lasted through a third cup each of Mocha Valhalla Blend coffee, only their occasional dreamy mmmms and ahhhhs punctuating the morning. Their rhythms were perfectly in sync.

Their eyes met once again, and lingered in locked mode for just that bit longer than a man and woman less in love could abide, and then they quietly and simultaneously spoke each other's name with a small interrogative upswing on the last syllables. Then laughed, of course, and tried to reach agreement as to who should go first.

Myron took the initiative, uncharacteristically, Muriel thought, but she was deeply pleased by what he said.

"Muriel, I can't hold back any longer. I have to tell you -- and I've thought about this a lot lately -- and, well, to put it simply and in as few words as possible -- I love you."

She heaved a totally fulfilled sigh and gazed at him indulgently. "Oh Myron, and of course I love you, too!"

He looked exultant. "This is wonderful," he beamed. "You know, I really did think right from the start that we were meant for each other!"

"I had the same feeling," Muriel agreed happily.

They clutched hands. They reveled in the moment. Muriel waited patiently, expecting the logical next step, a proposal of marriage from the dear doofus.

Myron, abandoning all caution, burbled on. "I was just so sure about us all along! From that first glimpse of you in the mirror at the antique collective! You were just -- you seemed so -- I couldn't help but notice, and think -- oh, it just hit me like a bolt from the blue! And from then on I just kept thinking --"

"What, Myron?"

"That you remind me so much of my mother!" exclaimed the fool.

Muriel's fingers tensed. Then they struggled to free themselves from the tight embrace of Myron's hand.

He blinked, the joyous expression on his face collapsing into pained realization. He had done it again.

"Uh, I didn't mean that -- exactly," he breathed.

Muriel turned her averted face back to stare frostily at him. "Well, if you did mean it, I'm insulted in more ways than one, and if you didn't mean it, I'm certainly not happy about the fact that you're saying things to me at a moment like this that you don't mean."

Myron cringed. He tried to think of something to say that might help, but from long and unpleasant experience he knew that if he opened his mouth again just now, he would more than likely end up swallowing his other foot. He wisely clamped his lips together and looked properly miserable.

Muriel didn't go for pathetic reticence. Philosophical introspection, yes -- that lent an air of mystery and depth to a man -- but basset hound expressions left her cold. She rose from the table and dropped her crumpled napkin onto the half slice of syrup soaked French toast remaining on her plate.

"I'll be going now," she announced.

Myron leaped up, opened his mouth, but his larynx was paralyzed. He watched her leave the room, unable to make a sound until after he heard his apartment door close, not with a slam but with the quiet click of destiny. Only then could he release the often rehearsed groan of self condemnation for being such an idiot.

He phoned, but could only leave messages in which he abjectly apologized for what he had said. He claimed he hadn't meant it in the way she had taken it, although he couldn't quite understand why she had taken it the way she had. And so on, digging the grave of their relationship deeper and deeper. She didn't reply.

He moped but went on with his life, devoting more time than usual, or that was good for him, poking around in dark and dusty antique shops. He found little that was interesting enough to divert his mind from recurring thoughts of Muriel.

Then one day he happened upon an out-of-the-way curio shop that he was fairly sure he had never visited before. It was a tiny place, crammed with the usual eclectic mix of mostly overpriced odds and ends. Nothing appeared to be particularly old or fine. At least so it seemed as he stepped in the door and had a cursory look around.

A frowsy woman was perched on a stool behind a glass-topped display case filled with gaudy costume jewelry. She glanced up at Myron briefly, nodded without speaking, and returned to her crossword puzzle. Myron picked his way down a narrow, dim, and bad smelling aisle between shelves laden with common chinaware, a few items of depression glass, dusty but not very old books between ineffective bookends, amateurish pottery, boxes of ordinary cutlery and table settings, biscuit tins, vases, teapots, etc., etc. He came to the end of the aisle where there was barely enough room for him to sidle past an old wooden clothes drying rack festooned with gray antimacassars, and worked his way back toward the front of the store.

"I collect interesting things made of wood," he mentioned as he neared the proprietress hunched over her crossword.

"That so," she muttered, not looking up and erasing several letters with a disgusted scowl. "How do you spell 'mackinaw'?"

Myron spelled it out for her. She wrote it in while shaking her head and humphing as if disgruntled that it fit. "What kind of things?"

"Anything, really. Furniture -- but I see you don't have much of that -- and smaller hand-crafted items that have some age and are in good condition. Unusual picture frames, wood carvings, inlay work, whatever."

"You see the box in the window?"

"No, I didn't notice a box. A wooden box?"

She looked up at him, tilted her head and closed one eye to squint with the other. Myron assumed this meant she was debating whether trying to sell him something would be worth the effort.

"Very nice little wood box," she finally volunteered and slid off the stool to waddle around the display case and point at a huge and hideously tasseled Victorian lampshade in the crowded window display. "Very old."

Myron peered and finally discerned the corner of a small box mostly hidden by the lampshade's beaded fringe.

"Perhaps I could have a closer look?" he requested.

She sighed and reached with both hands to tilt the big shade aside. Gesturing with the large, hairy mole on her chin, she grunted: "Help yourself."

Myron picked it up. It was about the size of a typical cigar box but heavier and much more finely crafted. He held it gingerly and turned it this way and that. The worn and silky smoothness of the wood suggested considerable age. He felt a small flutter in his chest as he made out under the dark patina an intricate pattern of inlay work all around the sides and across the top of the box. He could see that the patterns included quite a lot of lettering that appeared to form several words but none in a language he recognized.

The box would need some careful cleaning up to rejuvenate the finish and make the lettering more readable. He was experienced with such restorations which should enable him to make more sense of the intriguing inscriptions.

He was by now thoroughly fascinated by the box and his heart was thumping with acquisitive eagerness. But he faked a bored yawn to hide any sign of interest.

"Mmm, cute," he shrugged, casually slipping the box back under the lampshade fringe and turning away.

The woman produced a dangerous sounding growl deep in her throat, a wordless noise that perfectly communicated her displeasure that he had bothered her about the box and now wouldn't buy it. She let the lampshade flop back down and clumped back to her stool.

Myron pretended to have a final browse at a few things on one of the overflowing shelves, then smiled at the woman and said, "Oh well, thank you," and headed for the door.

Then he paused before pushing the door open and glanced at his watch. Heaving an elaborate sigh of mild annoyance he muttered to himself, but loud enough for her to hear, "But then I guess she won't be there yet."

Turning back to the woman, he observed, "Killing time gets tedious sometimes, doesn't it?"

She glowered at him, "If you say so."

He wandered back along an aisle and pretended to have another desultory look at a few things. Then, as if it had just now occurred to him, he called out: "Oh, say, by the way, I didn't notice a price on that box."

"A hundred and fifty," she snapped.

"No, really," he laughed, "what are you asking for it? It just occurred to me that, uh, well, my sister might be tickled by it, and it's her birthday lunch I'm meeting her for in a little while, and I just realized I never did get around to buying her a little something -- "

"You can have it for ninety five, then, and I don't haggle, mister," announced the woman.

"Well, that's way out of my reach, of course. Sis sure never spent anything like that on a present for me!" Myron snorted.

"Oh, well then, seventy five is absolutely the best I can do."

"Aw, that's nice of you. I really appreciate your trying to help like that, but I better look for something else," said Myron, checking his watch once more as he turned toward the door.

"Sixty, take it or leave it," quickly offered the woman.

"Well, again that's kind of you, but I guess not," he said with the door half open.

"Fifty, but that's only so's I can say I sold something today," she rationalized grumpily, then added, "even though I'll be taking a loss."

Myron figured she had paid no more than fifteen bucks for the thing at a garage sale. But he now knew he could probably get the box for about what he was willing to pay for it. He was an old hand at this game, and knew the trick in haggling is to avoid naming your price for as long as possible, and preferably never. Always try to force the seller to worm it out of you.

"Aw, well then, I surely wouldn't want to cause you to take a loss, ma'am!" he fretted. He turned to walk away.

"Okay," she grumped, "you can have the box for thirty five dollars, and then you'll have a nice gift for your sister, right?"

"She would get a kick out of it, I suppose -- "

"So what are you willing to pay for it?"

"Oh, I hadn't given that any thought -- "

"How about thirty dollars?"

"No, really, she's just my kid sister. Now maybe if it was for my mother. But--" shaking his head and heaving a sad sigh, "-- she passed away last year."

"Well, twenty five then, take it or leave it, mister!"

He reached for his wallet, shaking his head. "Hmm, well, maybe I've got fifteen dollars cash here. Hadn't got to the bank yet. Or by any chance do you take credit cards?"

This got a very black scowl. Myron knew she wouldn't take plastic and that he was as close as he was ever going to get to the price she'd probably paid for the box. She wouldn't come down any further. As he pulled out two bills he made sure she couldn't see how much cash he actually had in his wallet.

"Aw hey, tell you what, here's twenty. Turns out I've only got these two tens at the moment. And I guess little sis is worth at least that," he mused.

The woman silently accepted the payment with a look of brooding martyrdom. She chucked the bills into an old tin breadbox next to a small coffee maker on a shelf behind her. Slamming the breadbox lid shut she motioned him toward the window. "Take it. I hope you don't expect me to gift wrap it at that price," she snapped.

"Well, no, uh, that won't be necessary."

Myron took possession of the box with a sigh of satisfaction and tucked it under his arm. But he paused again at the door to offer the woman his sincere thanks on behalf of his fictional sister. "I'm sure she'll be delightfully surprised and pleased to get such a novel present," he beamed, and wished her a cheery goodbye as he departed.

A half block away and well beyond her view he grasped the box with both hands and held it out at arm's length to jubilantly croon to it: "Happy birthday, Sis, whoever you are!"

He spent the evening carefully cleaning the box and was increasingly delighted as the work progressed. He was thrilled as more and more details of the elaborate inlay work became visible with the removal of obscuring grime. He could now see how truly exquisite the craftsmanship was and he reconsidered his estimates of both the age and the possible value of the box.

The thing was surely much older than he had at first thought. His restorative efforts revealed distressing and a silky patina that suggested an age measured in centuries, not just a few decades. His heart was thumping with excitement as he finished applying a final light sheen of lemon oil.

It was now obvious the box was an exceptional and probably one-of-kind museum piece. He recognized the venerable look and aura of just such an artifact, like those he had often studied during his frequent surveys of museum exhibits. He gulped at the thought that this little box might even be datable as far back as the Middle Ages.

It was also in surprisingly good condition. He was prompted to drastically revise upward his estimate of its possible value. If offered at auction with a few of the right types of collectors present, he could imagine it eliciting bids of four or possibly even six figures.

He had stumbled across the find of a lifetime.

He fondled the box, turning it every which way to study it in more detail. He could now easily read all of the lettering worked into the inlaid decoration. The words spelled out on the sides, if they were indeed even words, had a decidedly medieval look to them and were quite incomprehensible.

But the letter groups were preceded by roman numerals. He rotated the box, taking them in order and read: I. AEIOPR, then II.AEFORT, then III. CCDLOOU, and finally IV. EGOOR. A couple of the words looked to him a little like Greek but the others suggested no language he could think of.

The lid was decorated quite differently. The inlay work depicted a large and elaborate compass rose design, beautifully done in mixed woods. It was encircled with a segmented band of inlaid lettering in the same style as on the sides. But there were no spaces to indicate breaks between words, only the segmenting lines between each letter. Myron squinted and slowly rotated the box while trying to make some sense of the circular legend. There was nothing to indicate where he should begin reading the series of letters except perhaps the cardinal direction pointers of the compass rose design. But the pointers weren't labeled as in a typical compass rose with N, E, S, and W. So he simply chose a letter to the right of the tip of one of the pointers and read: F | O | O | R | S | S | A | A | C | E | F | I | O | P | T | H | I | I | M | O | P | R | A | I | L | S | U | C | I | I | S | V |.

He could make no sense of this at all. But he suspected it might be some kind of arcane code.

And then there was the mystery of how to open the dang thing. While inspecting it at the curio shop he had of course wanted to have a look at the interior. There were no visible hinges and he had noted a seam indicating the lid should lift right off. But he hadn't been able to dislodge it. He had given the box a shake next to his ear and heard an intriguing little rustle of something inside. But by then he had decided to try getting the thing at a reasonable price, which made it necessary to adopt an attitude of complete disinterest. So any further investigations had to be postponed.

Now he was more keen than ever to have a look inside. But no amount of tugging or jiggling or fiddling around with the lid did any good. He used a magnifying lens to inspect the seam closely but found no hint of a hidden latch. He refused to consider using anything to try prying the lid off for fear of damaging the finish or the wood or the hidden mechanism that was denying him access.

He frowned at the box, again marveling at the beautiful craftsmanship, but grumbled with frustration. He shook the box close to his ear and again detected that mysterious little rustle. Not being allowed to discover the cause of it was most vexing.

He fantasized about an ancient and authentic map in there, showing once and for all the true location of the Lost Dutchman gold mine, or something like that. He fiddled around for an hour or more trying everything he could think of, but no amount of prodding or nudging at various elements of the inlay motif disclosed a secret releasing device. The lid was just plain stuck.

It was late and he was tired. He gave up and went to bed. Maybe in the morning he would be able to figure out how to open the box.

He dreamed about Muriel again as he had most nights ever since their breakup. But this dream was pleasantly different. All the others had tended to be rather melodramatically tragic in mood and plot. This time he dreamed of a smiling and amenable Muriel who seemed much more disposed to forgive than to condemn his shortcomings.

In the morning he absently fondled the box while sipping his coffee and recalling the sweet visions he had just been having. The recollection prompted him to close his eyes for a moment and heave a bittersweet sigh. When next he looked he blinked to find the open box next to his coffee mug.

He was dumbfounded. He had no idea how he had managed to remove the lid, which he now held in his hand. Then he noticed the folded scrap of paper.

He picked it out of the box and carefully unfolded it. On it was scrawled:

It was really really stupid of me to bid no trump with a void in my hand, and I'll never ever do it again.

Myron had never played and didn't know much about bridge. He had occasionally heard people talk about the game, however, and often in shamelessly argumentative ways. He vaguely recalled once overhearing a vehement exchange that included the terms ‘no trump' and ‘void.' But he hardly needed to understand the intricacies of the game of bridge to figure out what had motivated someone to write the message in the box. Contrition was a mindset he was quite familiar with, given his unruly tongue.

As he thought about this he rotated the box to once again study the strange words on each side. Although he still couldn't think what they might mean there was something about the first word in the series that made him wonder. The first four letters were the most common of the vowels arranged in alphabetical order, A, E, I, O. Might this mean the words were anagrams?

He got a pencil and note pad and tried scribbling out different letter arrangements but came up with no spellings that made sense. Well, that made sense in English, that is. But the words were preceded by Roman numerals, so how about Latin? That would be logical if the box was as old as he thought it was.

He had some knowledge of the ancient language from the legalese often used in litigation involving insurance claims. He went to work on the first word and with an "Ahah!" soon arrived at APERIO, which he knew meant to open. He got nowhere unscrambling the second word, but the third quickly yielded OCCLUDO, to shut. Now he was sure he was on the right track.

He booted up his computer and went to a free language translation site. It took only a few more minutes to arrive at the four Latin words that made the best sense given their numbered sequence on the sides of the box. He wrote them down along with their English translations.

I. APERIO = 1. OPEN
II. FATEOR = 2. CONFESS
III. OCCLUDO = 3. CLOSE
IV. EROGO = 4. PAY

He looked again at the note he had found in the box. It had certainly been written by someone owning up to a blunder, which was a kind of confession. So the idea seemed to be that one opened the box, deposited a note describing some indiscretion, closed the box, and then somehow made a payment of some kind. How curious, he thought.

And then what message might be hidden in the circular legend on the lid? It was logical to assume any words encoded there would be alpha grams and in Latin as well. He got busy with notepad and pencil again. It took a while this time but with the help of the translation site and much riffling of pages in his English / Latin dictionary, he eventually arrived at:

FOSSOR PATAFACIO MIHI PRO ALIUS.

He had worked out the most apt English translation while he was unscrambling the Latin alpha grams, and he felt a little smug for having come up with a translation that included a nice rhyme:

A FOOL OPENS ME FOR ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY.

He shook his head in bemusement. Even with the Latin inscriptions decoded and translated, plus factoring in the note left inside, he was still baffled as to the purpose of this mysterious little box. It seemed much too elaborately conceived and crafted to be intended only as a receptacle for admissions of trivial human goofs. There was an implied suggestion in the mention of making some kind of payment that one might expect to get something in return. But what? Some kind of pardon or forgiveness perhaps?

He snorted wryly to himself. He could sure use something like that to salvage his romance with Muriel. He pined for a second chance with her. "Like a mulligan," he mused aloud, thinking of what his golfing buddies might call it.

He wondered what happened after the bridge player made use of the box. Did it somehow magically secure a reprieve for him, or her? Myron asked himself if he believed in such sorcery and decided he wasn't sure. He had to be hard-nosed and pragmatic in his line of work, dealing with automobile collision damage claims. But he also had a bit of a whimsical streak. It certainly seemed serendipitous that this strange little box should come into his possession just now.

He debated doing as the instructions on it advised. Then he wondered about the inscription indicating some form of payment would be due. What was that all about? How did one fulfill such an obligation without any idea of what was expected?

Well, he decided not to worry about it, since payment in advance didn't seem to be required. All he had to do now was to write a note and bung it in the box. Feeling rather silly but spurred on by his lovesickness, he reached for the notepad.

He wrote:

I was an immature idiot to say you remind me of my mother, and I take it back and I absolutely don't think of you that way now, and I love you.

He reread the note and vacillated, thinking it would probably make more sense to just mail it. But there sat the box, open and inviting on the table in front of him. It suddenly seemed to him that opting for the occult was by far the better way to go, rather than entrust his redemption to the US postal service.

He folded the note and put it in the box. But as he started to replace the lid he hesitated, remembering his difficulty getting the box open in the first place. What if he might want to revise the note or something? He again looked for some visible evidence of a locking mechanism. But there was only the smooth and time-worn stepped join all the way around between lid and body.

He decided to experiment by very slowly easing the lid back into place. It seated evenly and he carefully worked it downward until the seam was almost but not quite closed. He then gently tried raising the lid again. He couldn't. The seam had now all but vanished once more. He tugged harder. No luck. Try as he might, he couldn't open the box again.

He scowled at it. He wondered if not being able to ever open it again was the price one had to pay for its help. What if he should want to write a different note if nothing happened?

"Well, it's all probably a lot of woo woo nonsense anyway," he muttered to himself. "And you only get one mulligan per round," the golfer in him observed. He shook his head philosophically, sighed and placed the box on a bookshelf next to a stand-up framed photo of Muriel.

She phoned the next evening to scold him for ignoring her for so long.

"But, well, uh, I've been kind of busy and so I apologize. But, uh, aren't you still mad at me?" he asked guardedly.

"Why should I be mad at you, sweetheart? As a matter of fact the last few weeks have been rather hectic for me, too. I had to fly up to Seattle to see my mom who was ill. So I should probably be apologizing for not telling you I'd be away. And I really have missed you, my love!"

As she went on chattering in a most congenial and affectionate way, Myron stared with wide and wondering eyes at the mulligan box, as he now thought of it, sitting there on the shelf beside her photo.

They arranged to meet the next day, which happened to be a Saturday, and they spent the weekend very much together. Myron was in heaven as Muriel seemed keen to explore various inventive avenues of surprisingly fervent love making.

He popped the question that Sunday evening and without the least hesitation she answered: "Well, of course I will, dear."

They decided to move in together for the time being, choosing Myron's larger apartment. Muriel had a lot of furniture she wasn't ready to part with, and that, along with her clothes and other personal belongings filled up nearly all the available closet, storage and floor space Myron's place had to offer.

It was crowded living, but they were content, and in due course wedding plans were discussed at length, eventually finalized, and the day came and went.

Not long after their return from the honeymoon in Hawaii, Muriel had a good look around at their decidedly overcrowded living quarters. The nesting instinct was in total control as she thought up various elaborate redecorating schemes. She saw that a first step would have to be the clearing out of excess Stuff. Next day at the supermarket after finishing her shopping she asked for some extra cardboard cartons.

Myron was pleased to see her rearranging things and making their home tidier. They discussed which items of furniture to keep and which to part with. They enjoyed going through Myron's closet and culling from his wardrobe several large boxfuls of things he hadn't worn since high school and couldn't get into now in any case. He declined when she invited him to help do a similar sorting of her clothes and belongings.

Thoroughly distracted by the perks of domestic bliss he went off to work each day happy to leave her in charge of filling the cartons with donations for the Good Will resale outlet.

She soon got around to the task of dealing with the clutter in his study. As she started in on the dusting she encountered the odd little box that now served as a pedestal for a portrait photo of her she had given Myron early on. She was naturally curious and wondered what she might find inside the box, but couldn't get it open. As she went on dusting and rearranging the accumulation of photos of their wedding day and idyllic trip to Hawaii she decided the box was one thing too many on the top shelf of the bookcase.

Several days later Myron, who hadn't spent much time in his study lately, noticed she had tidied the room. He looked around, nodding with approval of the neatened look. It was especially nice that someone else had dealt with the cobwebs in the corners. He was squeamish about things like that.

But as he surveyed the changes in the room he sensed that something of greater consequence than the cobwebs was missing. He squinted, trying to recall exactly what the room had looked like before. His eye traveled from desk (no longer covered with stacks of books and magazines) to the plant stand in the corner (the garishly enameled pot with the withered coleus was gone, replaced by a simple vase and a tasteful arrangement of dried birch branches) to the large framed posters from museum exhibits on the walls (all nicely aligned and hanging straight now) to the bookcase (much neatened shelves of books) and the top shelf with all the framed wedding and honeymoon photos, and in the center the large portrait photo of her, the one that used to stand atop its unique pedestal of -- he drew a quick breath -- the Mulligan Box! He had by now capitalized the nickname he had given it.

He looked sharply around the room. No sign of it.

"Uhhh, Muriel --?" he called out with growing concern.

She was in the kitchen wielding a large wooden spoon in the wok, preparing a stir fry for dinner. "Yes, my sweet!"

He came to stand in the doorway blinking, thinking a moment, choosing his words, but anxious. "Umm, there was a box -- in the study --?"

"A box?"

"A wooden box,"

"Oh yeah, that little wooden box. I've been meaning to ask you about it. It looked kind of old and interesting."

"Er, looked? Where is it now, honey?"

"Well, let's see, I was rearranging things and I remember trying to get it open."

"Did you --?"

"Open it? No, the lid seemed stuck, almost like it was glued on. So I gave up and I think it ended up in a carton of things I thought I better ask you about."

"Ask about --?"

"To decide -- "

"Decide --"

"Yeah, if we should get rid of them."

"Get rid of --!"

"Like donate them to the GoodWill or something."

The small kernel of anxiety in the pit of Myron's stomach began to expand into a chilling knot of apprehension. "Donate --" he whispered.

"Yes, well, you know how I've been taking quite a few cartons of things we don't need anymore to the GoodWill."

"But not that box --" he managed to squeak out through his tightening throat. "The carton with the box -- the things you wanted to ask me about --?"

"Oh no, that's in the hall closet."

Myron let out a whew of relief when he saw the carton of odds and ends in the closet. Then he looked through it but found no Mulligan Box. There were only the unwanted things they had previously agreed should go to the GoodWill.

"Muriel!!"

She came, looked, frowned, scratched her head. "Oh gee, I must have gotten the cartons mixed up."

"So that means you took the carton containing the Mull -- uh, the little wooden box -- to the GoodWill."

"I guess so."

"When would that have been?"

"Um, let's see, was it last Thursday? Or maybe it was Tues --"

But Myron was out the door. It was Saturday afternoon and the GoodWill resale shop was busy. He asked the clerk at the cash register if she knew anything about a little wood box with some inlay work.

"That was donated by mistake," he explained.

The clerk was startled by the anxious tone of his voice and the rather frantic gesticulating of his hands. But she remembered the box.

"Oh, yes, that unusual little box. Well, that sold day before yesterday. I was a bit surprised how quickly it went. We put a rather high price of ten dollars on it, even though no one could get it open, but now I wonder if we might've gotten more for it."

Myron groaned inwardly. He knew it would be futile but he asked anyway. "Did you by any chance get the name and address, or perhaps the phone number of the person who bought it?"

The clerk blinked at him incredulously. "Well, sir, this is after all just a charitable resale shop. Not the county hall of records."

Myron's disconsolate mood made the drive home seem unduly long and tedious. But it gave him the opportunity to start rationalizing. His sense of loss at having something of such great apparent value slip away began to fade. There was certainly no way to retrieve the thing now. "And maybe that's as it should be," he murmured to himself. He mused that the Mulligan Box was out there somewhere once again, available to someone who might need it more than he did now.

Then he guffawed ruefully. "And so I guess I've paid the price, haven't I?" And it was worth it, he decided.

Muriel gave him a long apologetic hug as he came in the door. "So sorry, dear. But was that little box so important to you?"

"Oh, well, let's just say 'account closed'," he reassured her cryptically, returning the hug wholeheartedly.

THE END


© 2011 E. A. Moore

Bio: E. A. Moore is a retired architectural designer. He worked for many years as a facilities maintenance specialist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, a high energy physics laboratory at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

He has worn at various times several different hats as a writer. He has written for radio and television, is a published and regularly produced playwright, and has had poetry and a number of stories published in literary journals and science fiction magazines, including Aphelion (A Second Coming, March 2011).

E-mail: E. A. Moore

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