Little Boxes

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Set Your Cap (Romance, Writing Mentorship Award 2023)
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Logline or Premise
Ari Blum has no idea he’s disappearing from the universe, or that it will take the love of a quirky medium and her haunted death masks to bring him back to life.
First 10 Pages


Ari took five minutes every morning on his drive to work to acknowledge his victories. First, scion of the Blum family empire.

He spent the remaining four minutes pondering his second achievement.

Family? Just his parents, now retired in Miami. Home? Yes, the house in Maywood where he grew up and still lived. Career? Owner of the Amalgamated Box Company and the shopping center attached to it, both started by his father. Respectable, but all part of the empire.

Then, of course, there were the relationships—or lack thereof. Never married, no girlfriend, but Ari did plan to revive his love life. One of these days.

Every morning, Ari reached the parking lot of his commercial kingdom, the Village Shoppes of Route 17, and concluded he had no second victory, and that was fine. Until today.

It had been a long night of ups and downs. Bad clams. Four a.m. He passed the mirror and didn’t see himself. It was dark and he was delirious. Delirious, that’s all. By morning, with the sun up, his reflection appeared again. Then he realized he hadn’t really looked at himself in a long time. The man in the mirror was tired, gray haired and wrinkled.

That wasn’t me. It could not be the face of Ari Blum, king of Friday night happy hour at Bennigan’s and immediate past president of the Greater Hackensack Chamber of Commerce. The other man didn’t look successful, but worse, he didn’t look happy. Maybe it’s not fine that I have no other victories?

He gave his usual honk as he drove by the pizzeria, but then slammed on the brakes as he turned into his parking spot. A bright red Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, with the top down, occupied his space. Ari parked next to, then glared at, this invader dressed in goggles and a trench coat.

“Good morning,” the woman shouted over her motor. “I’m waiting for the box store to open.”

Ari stifled a groan of what now, opting instead for, “Then you’re waiting for me.”

“Excellent! You really ought to be punctual. Your sign says ten a.m.” She waved her leather driving gloves. “Not good to keep your customers waiting.”

He looked at his watch. “I’m five minutes late. You’re lucky I made it this early considering the morning I’ve had.” The self-reflection wasn’t even the worst of his as yet brief day. The food poisoning cleared up but then his coffee maker didn’t work and the cable was out. He didn’t need more grief today.

It seemed she wouldn’t give him a choice, however. She stood inches behind him while he fumbled with his key fob; he always needed several swipes before the alarm shut down and the door unlocked. “Lady, the door is not going to open any faster with you breathing on me.”

Her scarf grazed his arm as she stepped back with a harrumph. They entered the store and he turned on the lights, illuminating the large banner below the counter, which promised custom boxes for any need.

She put her gloves to her nose. “I’m looking for a box manufacturing company. This place is rather meager. Smells like sawdust.”

“That,” he said, pausing to inhale, “is the musky scent of fresh cut boxes. I love that smell. It’s like nature, but manufactured.”

She smirked. “You need to spend more time outside.”

“True,” Ari said.

“I need something custom. I think I’ll try online.”

His one achievement belittled in five words. “Online? I’m the number one manufacturer of boxes in North Jersey – try me.”

She tucked her gloves into her purse. “Someone keeps track of that kind of thing?”

Ari shrugged. “Surprising, yet true. So, what do you need?”

“I make masks and ship them around the country. I’ve had some breakage lately—”

“Tragic,” Ari said.

“Well, yes actually, it is tragic. I work many hours and for them to arrive broken—”

“As I said, tragic.” Ari reached across the counter to shake her hand. “I’m Ari. What’s your name, mask maker?”

“Sara.” She took his hand. “I’m really not sure you can help me. I’m very particular. My masks are porcelain. Thanks for your time.” Sara turned to leave, but stopped when she passed a framed, yellowed letter bearing the logo of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Yeah,” Ari said, presuming she read the letter. “We helped them make the container used to ship King Tut here in the ’70s.”

Sara turned back, put her purse on the counter and explained what she needed. They discussed size and paper quality. She asked about foam inserts versus packing peanuts. He showed her some recent samples he made for a jeweler and a dollhouse furniture maker.

“I need to see one of these masks to help you. You got one with you?” Ari asked.

“I don’t like to carry them around, only to the post office to ship them. You’ll have to come to my studio.”

He crossed his arms. “I don’t usually make house calls.”

“And I don’t invite people into my studio, but these masks are too precious.”

“Too precious to carry, but not too precious to put in the mail?”

Sara sighed. “Most of my work was local until recently. I thought I had a good system for packaging and mailing, but apparently not. Do you want the business?”

“Okay, Sara the Mask Maker, you’ve piqued my curiosity. When do you want me and where is this mysterious studio?”

“Tomorrow too soon?”

Ari stepped around the counter. “Perfect.”

As he escorted Sara out of the store he noticed the delicate scent of rose water, a pleasant fragrance that reminded him of ease and kindness. Roberto, his operations manager, arrived while Ari waited for her to drive away. With Roberto behind the counter, Ari made his way to the pizzeria.

Every morning, except the third Monday of the month when he put on a tie and went to a Chamber breakfast, he had a cappuccino with Nunzio, his best friend and owner of the pizzeria. Ari’s own tardiness and his early customer delayed—but would not deter him from—his daily routine, especially after having no coffee at home.

He liked the stroll between his store at one end of the Village Shoppes to the pizzeria at the opposite end. It gave him an opportunity to survey his fiefdom, especially the card store where he hoped to see Liz. He liked her wavy red hair and the way she smiled when he caught her eye. Liz’s door advertised the 2010 collector Christmas ornaments available first of November. Old Mrs. Thompson manned the register today, Ari never understood why old Mrs. Thompson kept working; she sold the franchise to Liz three years ago. He waved at Mrs. Thompson as he passed.

“Your coffee is cold. What took you so long?” Nunzio asked when Ari took his usual spot at the counter in the pizzeria.

“I think I had food poisoning, trips to the bathroom all night, so I slept late. When I finally got up, I had a bizarre voicemail from my mother asking if my father had arrived.”

“Don’t blame your terrible eating habit on my clams.” Nunzio handed Ari a fresh cappuccino. “Your father is visiting?”

“If he is, no one told me. I haven’t had time for Mom this morning. Got here five minutes late as it was, and some fussy artist was waiting for me.”

“The kook with the goggles?”

Ari stirred a second packet of sugar into his coffee. “Yep. She wants custom boxes for these masks she makes. I’ve gotta go to her studio in Saddle River tomorrow to see what she needs. ‘They’re too precious to carry around,’ she said. What’s that all about? I don’t need any more aggravation right now.”

“Anyone who drives around in goggles is a kook – and she also happens to be rich. Saddle River, la-di-frickin’-da.” Nunzio cleared the counter of Ari’s coffee debris. “I’m surprised Ruthie hasn’t called you three more times.”

Ari pulled out his cell phone, the same flip phone he had for years. “There’s a message.”

“I thought you bought a smartphone?”

“I did, but it doesn’t work right. There’s something wrong with the touchscreen.” Ari shook the flip phone. “Old Reliable has never let me down.” He listened to his message.

Nunzio put a second cappuccino on the counter. “I love your mom, but she’s always been wound tight.”

“You’ve noticed.” Ari frowned as he closed the phone. “She hasn’t changed. Another message. I could barely hear her through the tears, but it sounded like ‘You have a brother.’”

Nunzio grimaced. “What the hell does that mean?”

Ari often ignored his mother’s frequent overreactions, and this time was no different. He finished his coffee and wiped his mouth. “It’s Ruthie, so who knows? I’ll call her when I get back to the store. How’s Marina?”

Nunzio cleared Ari’s cup. “Watching Peyton – again.” Nunzio was already a grandfather. “Marina can’t say no. I go home and have to do the laundry. I mean, she’s a cute kid, but come on; I gotta do laundry after working all day?” He dried the counter and put the rag underneath. “You really going to this kook’s studio?”

“Don’t have a choice. I think this can be a pretty nice job, but I can’t bid it if I don’t see exactly what she needs. It’s a twenty minute drive. Maybe I’ll figure out where Nixon used to live while I’m in the neighborhood.” Ari took a few bucks from his pocket.


“Richard Nixon. The former president. Used to live in Saddle River. Why don’t you read a book once in a while?”

“Why don’t you live in the now?” Nunzio said. Their favorite UPS driver walked in to pick up his usual order; Nunzio slid over to the register to ring up the sandwich. “Get an account on one of those online dating sites. Find a girl already.”

Ari stood, wiped his hands, and threw the napkin on the counter. He moved toward the front door of the pizzeria. “Online dating? Give it a rest. Did you ever get this door fixed?” Ari stood in front of Nunzio’s new automatic door. It didn’t open.

“No, because it’s only a problem for you.”

Ari turned over his shoulder. “I find that hard to believe.”

The driver approached, carryout in hand. The door opened. “It always works for me, Mr. Blum.”

Nunzio laughed, a crime Ari responded to with a flip of his middle finger as he headed out. On the way back to the box store, he grumbled at some trash in the parking lot, picked it up, righted an overturned garbage can, and wondered what Sara’s masks looked like.

More importantly, his mother’s voicemail nagged him. A brother? Maybe he didn’t hear her correctly. Sounded like brother. Impossible. Probably.


Roberto stood behind the store counter when Ari returned. He was lucky to have Roberto, a stable, smart guy who not only did much of the design work for ABC, but who also could run the whole shop without hesitation.

“Having a slow start today, Chief?” Roberto always called Ari Chief, but Ari never knew why.

Ari leaned against the counter. “Like you wouldn’t believe.”

“You talk to your mom? She left a couple of frantic messages on our voicemail. Something about your dad and their marriage. Everything okay?”

“I don’t know. She left some messages on my cell too, one in tears. I haven’t talked to her yet. I can only handle one high maintenance woman each morning.”

Roberto wrinkled his brow. “High maintenance? Who else?”

“The woman leaving when you arrived. I’m going to her studio tomorrow morning.” Ari stepped around the counter and grabbed the knob for the warehouse door. “I guess I better call mom back. And find some Tums.”

A quiet warehouse greeted him. He found comfort in the orderly atmosphere of the back room. To the left: a drafting table and the jetsam of a typical office—desks, chairs, phones, filing cabinets, a display of box samples. Ari’s inner sanctum. Everything had its place in the warehouse; he knew this space better than he knew himself.

He couldn’t call his mother without a little pain reliever. Ari sat at his desk and opened a drawer Roberto called the medicine cabinet. Ari chewed three Tums followed by a handful of Tylenol. While his father rarely showed emotion, his mother, Ruthie, had moments of hysteria. This call will be one of those moments.

She nagged Ari constantly about getting married and still reminded him to go to the dentist. “I spent fifteen-hundred dollars on braces; don’t ruin your teeth now.” But today’s messages were excessive, even for her.

As the dull ache in his head waned, he picked up his desk phone and finally called. He grabbed a pen and started doodling on one of Nunzio’s coupon flyers while the phone rang.

“Hi, Ma.”

The comforting shrill of his mother’s anxiety started immediately. “Why haven’t you answered the phone? I tried the house phone too. Nearly had a heart attack when the ‘out of service’ message came on.”

On the scrap paper he sketched the outline of a tiny rabbit. “Ma, I got rid of the house phone, remember? Only call my cell. Although, I barely have cell service in the house anymore.”

“You didn’t answer your cell either. I need to tell you something. Are you sitting down?”

Ari closed his eyes and sighed. “Ma, I’m sure all this is unnecessary. What’s going on?”

“You don’t sound so good,” she said.

He belched and put some ears on the rabbit. “My mother is leaving frantic, cryptic messages for me, and I think I had food poisoning last night.”

“Food poisoning? Something from Nunzio’s?”

“No,” he lied. Nearly all his meals were from Nunzio’s. “I’m fine now. What’s with the tears and all the messages?”

She sobbed.

“Ma. Calm down. Whatever happened will be okay.”

She blew her nose. “No. No, it won’t. Everything has changed.”

He added a fluffy tail to his drawing. “Nothing changes overnight. Not everything, anyway.”

“You have a brother, Ari. A brother.”

There she goes again. A brother? Impossible. Myron and Ruthie had met at a bar mitzvah in 1963 and married six months later. After two years and several miscarriages, she finally gave him the son they both wished for, and everything had, generally speaking, been wine and roses since. Except now, forty-four years after the birth of their precious Ari, he’s suddenly supposed to believe he’s not their only child?

Ari tapped his pen on the desk. “Where have you been hiding this brother all these years?”

Ruthie sighed. “This is no time for your warped humor. He’s your half-brother. Your father got a letter two days ago and found out he fathered a child while in the service in Texas. I threw him out this morning. What’s going to happen to your inheritance?”

“Inheritance? Ma, I’m confused. Why in the world would you throw Dad out? Can you tell me, in short, simple sentences, what’s going on?”

“I just told you, you have a half-brother.”

He gave the rabbit long fangs. “That’s too short and simple. I need more details.”

“That’s up to your father.”

“He’s nowhere to be found right now. Just tell…” He gave up the battle and threw the pen across his desk.

“He’s probably in a cab on the way to the house. I told him to go visit his son, his real son, for a while until he can get this whole thing straightened out.”

“So you really threw him out?”

“Yes, but first I made some travel arrangements for him”

Ari picked up another pen and continued his doodle. “How generous of you. Ma, I’ve got to go. I need to let this sink in, if it can sink in.”

He hung up his office phone and grabbed his car keys. Unable to concentrate and in no mood to help customers, his best move was to head home and see if Myron had arrived. “Gotta go,” Ari told Roberto.

“Must’ve been some conversation.”

“A doozy, even for Ruthie. My mom threw my dad out of the house this morning. He’s supposedly on his way here. You okay to cover for me?”

“Of course. I don’t know your parents well, but this doesn’t seem like them,” Roberto answered.

Ari pushed open the front door, stopped and turned back to Roberto. “It’s not. I can’t recall my parents ever fighting.” He stepped out the door, looked around at the empire Myron and Ruthie built together, and hoped it still had a solid foundation.


Ari pulled out of the parking lot thinking how he always envied his friends with siblings. As a teenager, he loved hanging out at the Kominskis – there were twelve of them – or the Kissanes, who had eight. Those houses were full of noise and perpetual companionship. The closest thing he had to a brother was Nunzio.

No one knew Ari better than Nunzio. Marina, Nunzio’s wife, always said he should have married Ari. When anything happened – good or bad – they called each other first. This news from Ruthie was definitely bad.

“But is it bad? It might be cool to have an older brother,” Nunzio said after Ari, with help from Old Reliable, relayed the few details he knew.

Ari turned on his left signal and merged onto Route 17. “Maybe. But he could be a jerk too. Or worse, a Dallas Cowboys fan.”

Closer than most brothers, Ari and Nunzio grew up in the businesses of their fathers, which they owned now. They spent summer mornings sorting boxes and summer afternoons grating cheese. Ari taught Nunzio Yiddish curse words – like schmuck and putz – and Nunzio taught Ari to toss pizza dough.

They experienced almost everything together, until they finished high school. Ari went to the University of Pennsylvania and Nunzio went to Vegas to get married. They cried the day Thurman Munson died. They saw Springsteen at Giants Stadium fourteen times, the first six during the “Born in the USA” tour. They loved to spend time at the Blum’s Jersey Shore cottage in Lavallette. They shared a mutual hatred of the Cowboys.

Nunzio chuckled. “That would definitely suck, but you don’t even know if he grew up in Texas or is still there. You basically know nothing. Except that Myron has a way with the ladies.”

“Come on, please, I’ve been nauseous all day as it is,” Ari said.

“Say that again. Didn’t hear you, Old Reliable is a being a piece of crap.” Pans rattled on Nunzio’s end of the line.

“You’re banging around in the catering kitchen, don’t blame Old Reliable. I said I don’t need to think about Myron having sex.”

“Such a prude, and maybe get a phone you can’t also find in the Smithsonian. What are you gonna do about this brother business?”

“Nothing else I can do until I get details from Myron.” Ari hung up with Nunzio and depressed the button of the garage door opener.

No response. He pushed it again, then once more. “For fuck sake, I replaced these batteries yesterday,” he said to no one in particular. He grabbed the remote and went in the front door instead. Sure enough, just inside the house stood a large piece of luggage covered in travel decals. Myron has arrived.

On the couch in white shorts and a pink polo shirt, Myron held a computer tablet in his hand and removed his reading glasses as he looked up. “You’re home early.”

“Hello to you too, Dad.”

Myron hoisted himself off the couch and gave Ari a hug. “Hello, Ari. Your mother threw me out and you’re home very early.”

Ari turned and put his keys on the coffee table. “You’re awfully cavalier about all of this. I left Roberto to run the shop because I thought I should come see if you got here. I talked to Mom, she didn’t tell me much, said I needed to hear it from you. So it’s not been a good day.”

“Roberto is a godsend.” Myron looked around as he returned to the couch. “Speaking of send, your mother and I sent you some money six months ago to replace these carpets we installed in 1989. Why haven’t you done it?”

Ari realized his father was sitting in the same spot on the couch that he’d taken since Ari was a little boy. Then he glanced at his living room – sagging mauve sofa, stained carpet long overdue for replacement, recliner that didn’t recline, fifty-inch flat screen – all left behind when his parents moved to Florida two years earlier. His father’s words finally registered. “Mom threw you out and the first thing you want to discuss is the carpet?”

“We sent a lot of money.”

“I spent it on heroin and hookers.”

“I’m in no mood for jokes, Ari.”

“I’m in no mood to negotiate a détente between my parents. I’ve gotta go find some batteries for this piece of shit.” Ari waved the garage door opener in the air. “When I’m done with that, it’d be nice if you forgot about the carpet and explained what Mom told me.”

He shuffled into the kitchen and scrounged around for batteries.

A minute later, Ari returned to the living room with a screwdriver, the garage door opener, and a fresh set of AAA batteries. Unconvinced these would do the trick, either, he sat next to his father and started the futile task. “Let’s try this again. Hi, Dad, Mom tells me there’s something we need to discuss.”

Myron sat up straight. “I got a letter on Monday. Seems I fathered a child I never knew about.”

A dull ache returned to Ari’s belly, not unlike a batch of bad clams. “You cheated on Mom? When?”

Myron jabbed his finger at Ari. “I have never, ever cheated on your mother. Don’t ever speak those words again, do you understand me?”

Ari hadn’t been scolded by his dad like that in thirty years. “How do you know this isn’t some kind of a scam? Someone trying to get at your money or property or the business? The shopping center is prime real estate.”

Myron reached into his pants pocket and pulled out an envelope. He removed a wallet-sized photo and shoved it across the couch. Ari hesitated. He looked around the living room and reflected on all the time spent here as a family of three. He turned back to his father; Myron nodded. Ari grabbed the picture.

It was a younger version of Myron, taller and in a cowboy hat. “Dammit. He probably is a Cowboy’s fan. This is my half-brother?”

Myron lowered his gaze.

“Well, we won’t need a paternity test.” Ari didn’t resemble his father half as much as this guy did. “What’s his story?”

“This was years before I met your mother, always remember that. She’s furious over something that happened before I even knew her.”

“Can’t blame her. I’m not sure I’m not angry. I’m still in shock.”

“Ari, this may change everything for you, or it may not. If you’re angry with me, I’m okay with that, but no one can be angrier with me than I am with myself. How didn’t I know she was pregnant?”

Ari considered answering, “Because like most men, including myself, you’re as clueless as a beet,” but decided instead to let his father stew in his own angst.