When Andrew Vilner’s father died, the younger Vilner inherited a tidy sum of money and the contents of a cardboard box. When the check providing the tidy sum arrived, Andrew sneered at it, deposited it, and wrote a check for the exact amount to a hospital specializing in the treatment of children afflicted with cancer. When the box came, he threw it in a closet where it remained, jostled but unopened, for thirty years.
The box itself was the size and shape of box meant for manuscripts that were to be sent off to publishers or agents. Andrew’s father had been a writer of moderate success, and Andrew considered the box might contain the manuscript for some final book. Perhaps, he thought, his father had sent it in the hopes that Andrew would see to its publication.
Andrew would do no such thing, if, indeed, that was what the box contained.
The day after he received the box, Andrew began conceptualizing a novel of his own. One year later, he began writing the novel. One year after that, the novel was half written, and his son was born. This latter circumstance posed a crisis for him, and Andrew thought of the box now sequestered in the dark recesses of the closet, a closet which held, among other things, sleeping bags, textbooks, old shoes, receipts, a wedding dress, and yearbooks that chronicled the lives of the emerging adults he and has wife had once been.
Whatever its contents, the box came from his father, and that made him both despise it and apply a conscious effort to value it less than any of the items now surrounding it. But the box possessed a power over him, and as he regarded his son, the new life that had sprung into his world, the thought of the box filled him with both dread and fear. The box was a prophecy that he had to avoid, and his was only the imperfect measure of himself to tell him how this would be accomplished.
It was easy, at first, to know what to do about the novel, for he had no love for the crying infant, either before or since its arrival. The book, however, he had loved deeply long before he had put word to page, and so the boy’s birth did not hinder his devotion to it. He continued to write, laboriously crafting every sentence. Not a single word entered the manuscript before it had been duly considered for its place and the context beyond that place. The process was transformational, he thought, liberating and sure. It came to him that he could write – and write better than his father ever had. He suspected even that the older man had known his son had it in him to exceed the father’s talents, and that knowledge had been unbearable.
Beat it down, Andrew thought, had been the defensive posture of the older man.
Beat it down. Beat it down.
He beat me down, Andrew knew. He beat me down hard.
A decade lost. Ten years beaten from his life. Never with blows did the beatings come, but with words: Indolent, stupid, incompetent, lazy, incapable, uninspired, lacking, no talent, boring. His father had thrown these words at him hard whenever he struggled to achieve, whenever he took pride in his work, until, finally, Andrew doubted himself too much to try.
He beat me down. He beat me down, that son of a bitch.
It took time, but Andrew found himself, found his voice, found his strength. And he began to write, learning with every word he wrote that his father had been a hack, and that he, Andrew, had the talent to be a real writer: a writer who could write at least one if not more of the Great American Novels.
He had found the first of them germinating inside his brain, and he knew he could write it. The first half was everything he meant it to be, everything he hoped it could be. But in its midst, the birth of his own son made time short. He knew that he would come to love the son his wife had given birth to, and, when that happened, he would have to decide what to do about the novel, about the box, and about his son.
On the day his son turned six months of age, Andrew finished his novel. At the same time, he recognized in himself an abiding love for the baby boy. It had come to him slowly, but once there, it was enthusiastic and joyful, that love. He held, he hugged, he laughed and giggled with the boy, and he saw, too, the relief in his wife’s eyes. He knew hers had been a worry that he had rejected the boy, that his love for the novel had been too great and too demanding to leave him with any love for his son.
That the novel was good was not a question for Andrew. With it, he had surpassed all he had once thought himself capable of. It spoke eloquently from his soul, and it breathed a life of its own, ready to touch and commune with the souls of all who read it. In it, Andrew knew, he had achieved greatness. And he had been eager, for so long, to see it in print, to see it read by thousands of people in thousands of places across the globe. He could envision tears flowing in Bangkok, from the eyes of a Thai woman, as the Thai translation brought its power into her heart. In Spain, he saw translations speaking Castilian Spanish and Catalan to the people of that country, leaving them awed by the wisdom of the distant American author. In lands south of the United States, he heard himself referred to as “The Yankee Writer Who Knows Our Souls” and “The Gringo Who Sings to Us.”
Generations beyond his own he heard calling across the chasm of time, a chorus of praise and thanks upon their lips. The book would explode everywhere it landed, in time and place, leveling ignorance, spreading a zealous fire out from its ground zero. Yes, it was what he had hoped it would be. And it put to rest any lingering doubts he harbored about his father’s harangues. His spirit was free and had done what few men in the course of history had been able to do: he had put to paper the written word that would change the world.
But when he looked into the eyes of his son, he knew despair. Thinking of the cardboard box, he knew the demons of doubt with which fathers can curse their sons. Briefly, he wondered what the box might contain and nearly resolved to open it. But no. His father cursed him in life; he would not do so in death. And he, Andrew, would be sure not to curse his son in life. He would not commit the sins of his father. He would not let the boy doubt. He would not curse his son, and the book, if it saw the light of day, would curse the boy to stand forever in the shadow of his father’s work.
Andrew’s heart broke.
The book found a box and lay in it, unread, at the bottom of a drawer in Andrew’s desk, and it was forgotten until the boy was two.
In the interim, Andrew chose a genre wherein he would not find greatness but merely competence. He wrote science fiction while he worked as a mail handler at the Post Office. All day, as he pushed carts to and fro, his mind conjured up stories of distant worlds and bizarre beings. At home, he would write the stories down, and he would send them to magazines, which more often than not bought them. Soon he was writing science fiction books and getting them published. He earned enough money, finally, to quit the Post Office and write full-time. And his body of work would never daunt his son, for it was meaningless and unreal. That his wife was proud was an annoyance. Couldn’t she see his sacrifice? He was doing nothing greater than entertainment. His true heart remained ransomed to the boy.
The week after his son’s second birthday, Andrew sat at his desk with the novel before him, out of its box. He had to read it. He had to know he had been right about it, that it was all that he imagined it was. After so long, it would seem like someone else had written it, wouldn’t it? It would seem foreign, so he could approach it like a new reader.
But how could he know, reading it at the quiet of his desk, surrounded by the dull walls of his home, that he was reading something great?
He pondered how he could read the book against the backdrop of other greatness, to see if it would pale in the comparison. He thought hard and long, then he threw the manuscript into his car and drove from the suburbs into the farmlands. There, he parked on a road and sneaked, manuscript in hand, into the midst of a great field of corn. There he sat in the dirt, straining his eyes in the shaded green light that made it through the stalks. He began to read.
Corn, he knew, was the consummate expression of the human will to thrive. A grass harnessed for thousands of years to feed, first, the aboriginal peoples of the Americas, then the world. But in bending it to their will, humans created a plant that does not grow without their firm and helping hands. Every stalk represents an unbroken chain of humanity, one generation’s passing to the next of this abundant food. Within this field of corn, Andrew was connected to all humans as that chain extended backwards in time. Here, amongst the corn, he felt the pulsating beat of the human spirit, and he was one with it. Here was greatness, and here he would read the novel.
The day passed and Andrew was half through it as darkness made it impossible to read. So he left, overwhelmed by what he had read. Yes, this novel did speak to the world! It was what he thought it was!
The next day, he returned to the field of corn and entered it and read the rest of his book. There, it did not pale against the majesty of the corn. It was a thing of greatness.
Back in its box and back in its drawer, the novel rested for another two years.
Shortly after his son turned four, Andrew took the novel with him to Paris. And there, in the Louvre, he stood, book in hand, regarding the Mona Lisa. He was awed by the painting he had only seen in reproductions, and he was amazed at how it bridged the gap between two and three dimensions. All reproductions he had seen were flat and lifeless, and he had often wondered at the fame that attended this work of Leonardo’s. But here, in the museum and protected by glass both flat and angled, he saw the woman in the painting live. He saw her smile animate and intelligently express what her mind perceived. That she saw him was as certain as his seeing her.
Here, he confirmed, was greatness. And so he found a bench and began to read. This time, tears came to his eyes, and his heart shouted Yes! Yes! Yes! to the song of humanity emanating from the pages of his novel.
When his son turned twelve, Andrew began to doubt. Had the novel been that good? Had he seen it do all he remembered it doing, or had his imagination run wild? Had his ego seen what was not there?
The Pyramids of Giza looked down upon the tiny man and his book, the eyes of the man searching for something within the pages he had brought before them. Amid the grandeur of the pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure; bounded by the glory of the Sphinx; awash in the sands that had swirled and wrestled with humanity for thousands of years; here, he read. And here the pyramids became small, the Sphinx became a statue, and the sands stood still. Here, he read and saw that the book was better than he had thought before, and it stood equal to the vanities of the kings of Egypt.
As the boy began the steady march into manhood, Andrew searched his son for signs of greatness to encourage. And when he saw none, he pressed.
“You’re a very smart boy, son,” he said. “What is it that makes you feel the world around you?”
Andrew smiled patiently, “What makes your heart warm and fond?”
“I don’t know what you’re saying, Dad.”
The boy looked as confused as he would have if his father had suddenly spoken Gaelic.
Years passed, and in the boy there was no sign of talent. Nothing of music, art, literature, history, or science resonated within the boy, and at sixteen the only passions that consumed him were cars and girls.
His grades were average.
“Son,” Andrew pressed. “Don’t you think you could apply yourself more to your studies? I know you’re a brilliant young man, if you’d only take the time to work on something and put your heart into it.”
“Dad,” the boy was incredulous. “I’m getting C’s. That’s good enough!”
“It’s average, technically speaking. You’re not average.”
“Why are you always on me?”
“I’m trying to encourage you. Could you write something for an English class? I know your school has a literary magazine.”
“I don’t write.”
“Yes, you do. I’ve seen you.”
“I hate it.”
“You’re being lazy. You can do more.”
“I’m never good enough for you, Dad.”
“You are good enough. You’re better than you’re trying to be.”
“Why can’t I live my life without you making me something I’m not?
“You’re more than you are letting yourself be.”
“I am not.”
Andrew’s frustrations grew. The boy was indolent, and before long he could not see the boy without telling him so. Frustration grew to rage, for the boy was nothing. A waste. He must have it in him somewhere to do something, Andrew thought, but he seemed deliberately stupid, the boy did. Uninspired.
Andrew’s wife couldn’t take it, and she left. They boy went with her, and Andrew never saw him again.
Andrew missed him, but he could not stand him, so what was the difference?
The boy became a man, apart from his father, and one day a killer cancer began to grow within Andrew’s body. That he would die was certain, and Andrew thought of his son and his book in new ways. He typed a letter to the man who was his son, and he placed it at the top of his unpublished manuscript.
“I always loved you,” it said, “and this book is my gift to you. It always was.”
He placed the book and letter in a new box; the old one was falling apart, but in it there was still sand from his reading in Egypt. He gathered this and placed it in the new box, which he sealed and willed to his son with all else that he owned.