The morning mail brought two utility bills, an announcement of a neighbor’s daughter’s wedding, a slippery pamphlet of coupons, and a box.
“A box!” Jenny shouted, as Eleanor surveyed the stack on the welcome mat. “A box!”
“I see it,” Eleanor said.
Jenny pressed small hands to flushed cheeks. She was wearing her astronaut’s helmet, sent two years earlier—a dozen boxes ago—but still too big for the girl’s head. “Oh, my gosh…”
Eleanor squeezed Jenny’s shoulder. “Don’t swear.”
“I said ‘gosh.’”
“I know what you said.” Under Eleanor’s palm, Jenny’s bones shifted; the girl was flexing, anticipating. “All right,” Eleanor said, letting go. Jenny squealed and pounced on it.
When David left, he promised Eleanor his trip would only last three months. One season of work, he said. Take care of Jenny until then. And he said he would send money, and he said he would call to check in, and he did neither, and Eleanor doubted that he ever would. He had grown from a shy, lazy child into an irresponsible man. An absent father. A cruel one.
Trinkets from previous boxes littered their condo. Tubes of bubble mixture, army men tied to crinkled parachutes, a plastic model of the Gemini spacecraft, comic strips that arrived wrapped around chewing gum. Jenny would save even the packing tape torn from each box, if Eleanor let her. As it was, the girl insisted on cutting off the boxes’ top flaps, where David wrote Eleanor’s address, and piling them on her dresser. Just the other day, Eleanor asked her granddaughter, “What do you need these for? Don’t you know where we live?” Teasing, of course. Jenny only shrugged. The girl was wearing her helmet then, too, as she sat on her bedroom floor to play with a cheap mailed-in action figure. Eleanor tapped the ragged edges of the cardboard pieces into alignment before leaving the room.
Action figures, comic strips, soldiers, astronauts. David had been away so long that he forgot he left a daughter, not a son. This latest package might hold a pair of cap pistols. “Bring that inside,” Eleanor said, and shut the unit’s door after them.
At the table, Jenny scratched one side of the box, snagged her fingernail under the tape, and peeled off a strip. “Oh, man,” she said. “Oh, my go… oh, boy. It’s heavy this time. Where do you think Daddy sent it from?”
“Is there a return address?” Eleanor asked. She already knew what was not there, but she waited for Jenny to inspect both flaps and say, no. “Maybe Red Russia, then. Maybe the moon.”
Jenny turned her attention to the box seams. “Maybe Cape Canaveral,” she said, digging in a nail. Something in the box thudded as she rocked it, working at the tape. Jenny’s cheeks were bright pink, excitement under the skin running up to her temples.
“Slow down,” Eleanor said.
“I got it!” Jenny ripped a line down the top of the package. She tossed away brown packing paper, dipped her arms in, and lifted a white ball. When she turned the object in her hands, straps fell from its bottom.
It was a second astronaut’s helmet.
“Goddamn it,” Eleanor said.
Jenny peered into the black hole of the new helmet’s opening. The straps of her old helmet hung loose around her chin. “Why’d he send another?”
Eleanor plucked the packing paper from the table to stuff back into the box. “I’m sure he didn’t know.”
“Don’t do that,” said Jenny. She tried to tuck the new helmet under one arm and swat Eleanor with the other. “Don’t pack it up—I haven’t finished looking through it.”
Eleanor shook the box. Nothing but the rustle of paper inside. “You’ve finished.”
“I want to keep looking. Maybe there’s a note.”
“There’s not a note,” Eleanor said. “He sent you another because he didn’t care enough to remember the first.”
The girl spent the afternoon in her bedroom with her door closed. Eleanor vacuumed the condo while she waited for Jenny to emerge. At lunchtime, Eleanor knocked on Jenny’s door; her granddaughter came out bareheaded, bangs crooked. They ate in silence. The box, address flap still attached and new helmet inside, was tucked between their feet under the table. After Eleanor cleared the dishes, she said, “You’re excused.” Jenny shut her door behind her again.
Carrying a load of laundry, Eleanor stopped outside the room to listen for Jenny’s noises—the churning mouth noises of a shuttle launch, the pew-pew-pew of imagined battle. She would like to hear Jenny’s voice lift in exclamation. Instead there was quiet.
On the days that packages arrived, and on the days after each arrival, and on the days after that, the many months that passed between deliveries, Eleanor thought of where she went wrong with David. He had avoided schoolwork, stared at his feet during Mass, and Eleanor had lashed out in anger at him, and then been too apologetic afterwards, bought him candy, left him alone to mend. He got too used to that sweet and sorry loneliness. She did him the disservice of raising him as an only child, went without remarrying after David’s father passed. No wonder, then, that David now refused family.
In the evening, Eleanor knocked once more. Her head was warm with embarrassment. She heard little feet padding on the rug inside the bedroom, and then Jenny opened the door.
Eleanor was wearing the new helmet. It was a bit too big for her, too, its chin strap dangling. She felt again like a young mother: she did not know how to raise a child right. She felt like a child playing pretend.
“Hold on,” Jenny said. She went to her dresser, retrieved her own astronaut’s helmet, and slid it on. From under the helmet, she said, “Did you see if there’s anything else in the box?”
“No. You can look for yourself.”
“I will.” Jenny’s voice rose again. “Gosh, Grammy. We’re a couple real space explorers, aren’t we?” The pink was crawling back up the girl’s face. At any other time, Eleanor would reprimand her for blaspheming, but today a box had come.
Julia Phillips’s debut novel is forthcoming from Knopf. Her fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Antioch Review and The Rumpus, and has been supported by a Yaddo residency and Fulbright fellowship. Find more at juliaphillipswrites.com.