a short story

By ELAINE WONG | February 15, 2018


Clarissa was a passionate collector of the small toys that were dispensed in capsules from the gumball machines in front of grocery stores. Her first full collection, comprised of mini Sailor Moon bobbleheads, had been paid for by the quarters her dad collected from his addiction to vending machine snacks. Last June, her father had passed away in a car crash. The little Luna bobblehead had flown out the window and landed on a soft patch of grass at the side of the road. All the others had been destroyed, along with her father.

Max, the boy who loved Clarissa, made it a habit to retrieve a toy from each of the five machines in front of their local Safeway every time he went grocery shopping. He would count out five quarters from his reserve for paid parking and tuck them into his breast pocket. 

When she opened one, he kept the plastic capsule and wrote down the name of the toy that was inside of it with the date. If there was a special occasion — for example, if they had their first kiss that day or went on a nice date — he would write it on a slip of paper and stick it inside the capsule. He had it in mind that he would use them for a creative proposal, like in a commercial he’d seen where a guy drew on the wrapper of every stick of gum he had given to his girlfriend. The specifics he would figure out later.

Later, the night before he wanted to propose, he realized he had left one of the capsules in her car from when they were opening the toys together. He phoned her while she was driving home and, since she hadn’t gotten too far, she agreed to drive back to give him the capsule. As she was making her U-turn, a speeding Budget truck that didn’t have its headlights on slammed into her, barrelling her car straight into a tree and crushing her. To Max’s satisfaction, the truck driver was also killed.

But now he had this pile of capsules, hundreds or even thousands of them, scattered all over the floor. All different colors and sizes with different things scribbled on them. For the first year or so he left them all over the floor, tiptoeing over each of them so as to not disturb them, as though it were a crime scene and the chalk outlines hadn’t yet been drawn. 

Then, eventually realizing it was time to move on, he picked up each capsule one by one, examined it and its contents, and pushed it under his bed. It was the first time he cried since the day of the accident. Two years later, he brought a new girlfriend home, and as they were getting to the bed he noticed a capsule that had rolled out and was now staring at him from the floor. In a split second he was crying and shrieking, and the girlfriend, not knowing what was going on, ran out of the house.

It wasn’t that he didn’t love his new girlfriend. He didn’t know what it was. He tried to phone her two to five times a day for a whole week, but it had scared her so badly that she wouldn’t pick up. And every time he called, he could only imagine Clarissa’s face on the other side of the line, more clearly than he had been able to even right after she had passed. The wine-red streaks in her hair that perfectly bordered her face, the way she scrunched her nose when she got a repeat of the same toy, the tiny mole above her lip. At some point he even forgot he wasn’t calling her. 

It was as if he had gone back in time to their last call. He could feel his mouth forming the words, “Hey Izzy, I left one of the capsules in your car, do you think you could bring it back soon?” and then he could hear himself saying them. And when the only response was the dial tone, he threw his phone across the room, swept all the capsules out from under his bed and into two giant bins, packed the bins into his car, and left them at the recycling center.

As he was driving back, he wondered if it would have been better to burn them at home. Perhaps to burn his house down with them. Watch them burn and smell the cancer that was melting off each capsule, breathe in all the fumes and chew on the carbon monoxide and let the capsules kill him. 

He imagined the stupid plastic things being melted down in the stupid recycling center and thought back to the day he pushed them under the bed, reciting them in his mind in the order that he had read them all that time ago. Each time he recited a memory he felt it being tossed into the wind and fading away. By the time he realized this it was too late. The more he tried to stop reciting the memories to prevent them from being thrown away, the faster they disappeared. It was like what they said about your life flashing before your eyes but worse. This was something bigger than that. 

The memories whizzed by like the white lines on the road home, and by the time he returned all he could remember was the delicate way her fingers moved when she took her little Luna bobblehead out of its capsule and handed it to him and said, “This was the only one left.”

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