Issue No. 140
I don’t know why I’m writing this introduction. Arthur’s stories are easy and fun to read and there’s no special knowledge you need to start them. The special knowledge is what you get from Arthur when you’re done with them.
I’ve known Arthur and his work for 25 years and I’ve always most admired/been enraged by the seeming effortlessness of his storytelling. They are laconic, funny, confident, but not braggy, all with something unpredictable twinkling in them, like an instant friend you make in college, which is what Arthur is like and how I met him. I didn’t need an introduction.
So when he sets Georgie hobbling through this story on his prosthetic foot, you just feel like following him. No one needs to push you along. He’s one of the many benign and gently principled weirdos who inhabit Arthur’s world, drifting through odd jobs, settling in strange living arrangements, and dwelling, happily, on the most distant margins of what is expected of grown ups.
But there is always a certain weirdness lurking beneath the surface of his stories (in this one almost literally)—a beguiling, sometimes lurid, slightly cannabinoid strain of magical realism that Arthur’s characters confront with hilarious equanimity. The descent into the underworld is a staple of the hero’s journey according to Joseph Campbell; but only in an Arthur Bradford story would the hero peer into the underworld, shrug, lock it shut, and go get stoned.
But that’s not how the story ends, naturally. Because Arthur is too smart and skilled to leave it there, and too smart and skilled to let you see his talents at work. Just read this story and enjoy it. Maybe do so a couple of times. And only then, maybe, think about how this effortless shaggy-dog tale lingers with you, in some dark deep place you don’t understand, with the obsidian gleam of a fairy tale: a man trades his foot for a house. He is guided on an unexpected journey through death and resurrection by mother-maiden and crone. Nature takes its revenge, and in its wake, unexpected treasure and secret knowledge reveals itself. Then everyone goes and gets stoned.
Now I fear I’ve already said too much. This story needs no introduction. Take the journey for yourself.
Support Recommended Reading
Collect Them All
by Arthur Bradford
Recommended by John Hodgman
The real estate agent who sold me the house had mentioned the box only in passing.
“There’s a structure in the backyard,” she told me. “You can’t move it. It’s an eminent domain thing, grandfathered in. But it won’t bother you.”
I examined the box more closely later on, before finalizing the purchase. It was about eight feet square, and made of gray, weathered steel, a generic box if there ever was one. I was informed that it was a “transfer box” and inside of it were a set of circuits involved in the underground conduction of electricity. The rusted bolt lock at the base seemed like it hadn’t been opened for years.
“Can I cover it up with vegetation?” I inquired.
The response took three days to arrive and it was, “No.”
But the house was inexpensive and located on the side of a pleasant hill, unobservable by my neighbors, a feature which I liked. I wasn’t up to anything covert, mind you, I just enjoy solitude, and the notion that I might do something like stroll about in my home naked without feeling self-conscious pleased me. In truth I rarely did that.
Earlier that year I’d lost my foot in a wood-chipper accident. I had negotiated a lump payment from the county, with whom I was employed when it happened, and this was how I paid for the house. It goes without saying I would have preferred to keep my foot instead of that house, but I wasn’t entirely displeased with the arrangement. A house for a foot. Worse deals have been struck.
It was during the winter that I first began to notice the heat emanating from the box. A heavy snow had fallen overnight and in the morning I went out for a walk with my dog. Everything was white and pillowy except for that box. It was bare and steam rose from its steel casing. I touched it and nearly burned my fingertips. Later on, I noticed the snow on the ground around the box had begun to melt away as well. By day’s end there was a muddy brown circle, like a moat, surrounding it. I called the power company and was bounced around several different departments before they agreed to send a crew over.
The crew arrived and stared at the box.
“It’s just a box,” they said to me. “It isn’t one of ours. We don’t even know what’s inside of it.”
“Well, can you open it up?” I asked. “I’m concerned about the heat.”
“No, sir,” said the foreman, “we’re not allowed to interfere with this kind of thing. Liability. I suggest you figure out who put this here.”
I called the fire department and by the time they got to my place the box had cooled down.
“Let us know if it starts heating up again,” said the fire chief. “Or get it fixed.”
“I don’t even know what it is,” I said.
The real estate agent who sold me the house put me in touch with the town zoning commission, who were the ones who thought it belonged to the power company. Apparently I had signed something attached to the deed and title in which I agreed to leave that box untouched, but no one was sure who had put it there. The previous owner of the house was dead and, like me, had valued solitude. The box didn’t heat up like that again though, and after a few days I was tempted to forget about it.