After work, after he locked the front door of his coffee shop, Elledge sat down at a table with the suggestion box he kept on a small stand between the rest rooms. It was a battered old tackle box that he purchased at a garage sale soon after he opened the shop. On the recommendation of a friend he decided to have one because he figured it was a way to show that he was interested in what his customers thought of how he operated his business. “Make people think you care what they think,” his friend said, “and they’ll come back again.” He didn’t know about that but it was worth a try if it increased his business. Over the past few years he had noticed more and more such boxes in shops and stores, and though he had never been one to make any suggestions himself, he knew there were many who did.
He leaned back in his chair for a moment, listening to June Christy sing “Something Cool” on the Crosley radio on the counter, then loosened the clasp on the box and opened the lid. As usual, only a few cards were there, and he shook them out and spread them across the table. He didn’t open the box every day but every two or three days because he got so few cards and they were pretty much the same. Now, before he even looked at them, he had a good idea what they would say: the coffee was too hot, the room too cold, the tables set too close together, the music he played too old. Though he knew he shouldn’t, he lit another cigarette, his sixth one today, and drew the smoke deep into his lungs. Then, at random, he picked up one of the cards. “Please play some music someone in this century has heard of,” it stated. He seldom received anything but complaints but since there were only a few cards in the box today he assumed most of his customers were satisfied with his service.
The next card urged him to remove the tiny brass bell attached to the front door. “People come and go all the time and it seems as if it never stops ringing,” the customer observed. “Sometimes I have to plug my ears it’s so bad.”
He blew a faint smoke ring across the table and looked at another card. “I am here but I don’t want to be here,” it began in cramped little letters. “I want to be back home, back in bed, hiding from myself under a blanket.”
Stunned, he sat back in his chair, never having found such a curious remark before in the suggestion box. What, in God’s name, could have prompted anyone to drop in such a card, he wondered? It had nothing to do with the shop, with the quality of the service or the coffee, nothing whatsoever. It was as if the person who wrote the card was unable to express the thought to anyone he or she knew yet felt desperate enough to write it down for someone else to read. A total stranger.
Quickly he thought of some of the customers he had served the past two days to see if he could identify the author of the card. It was impossible, he soon realized, because he had little more than a nodding acquaintance with any of them. Some he might smile at and exchange a few words with but he had no idea what they or any of the others who came into his shop were thinking, including members of his staff.
He drew in what was left of his cigarette then squashed it out in an empty saucer. Four cards remained and he went through them carefully, curious if he might come across another personal comment, but they all concerned the operations of the shop. He was not surprised. When he was through he set aside the strange card then tore up the others and discarded the pieces in a wastebasket.
He read the card once more, wondering if he might receive another one some day from the author. He wondered, too, if other customers might like to share some confidence with him they were unable to share with those they knew. Somehow he wished he could accommodate them and considered replacing the suggestion box with another box in which people were encouraged to get things off their chests. A squawk box, he thought of calling it, with a faint smile.
“I wish you would open an hour earlier on the weekend, Dick,” a regular customer told Elledge as he approached the table she occupied with an older woman who looked as if she might be related to her.
“Well, if enough people are interested in coming in then, I’d consider it.”
She grinned, spooning some brown sugar into her cup of strong dark Ethiopian coffee. “I was going to write out a card about how you should open earlier but you took away the suggestion box.”
“Oh, you can put any suggestion you might have in the squawk box.”
“I thought that was just for people who want to complain about their lives or talk politics.”
He shook his head. “It’s for whatever is on your mind.”
“Do you read all the cards that are put in the box?” the other woman asked.
He crossed his heart. “Honestly.”
“You ever surprised by any of them?”
He chuckled. “Sometimes.”
“You ought to put some of them up on your bulletin board so we can read them,” the regular customer suggested.
The notion intrigued him but he said, “That might be an invasion of privacy.”
“They aren’t signed, are they?”
“Then how can anyone’s privacy be violated?”
He nodded. “Well, I’ll have to think about it.”
“You do that, Dick, or else I’ll put my suggestion in writing and drop it in your new box.”
That evening Elledge read through a stack of squawk box cards of the past couple of weeks. Many made him smile, even on the second reading, and he figured they were probably appropriate to put on the bulletin board that hung on the north wall beside the fire extinguisher. Others, though, were definitely not. For every “I like to pee in the shower” comment, there was one that was as harsh as a slap across the face. Such as one of the first cards he read tonight, which said, “I lie to people to make myself more important.” Another admitted, painfully, “He told me that he wished he could put my mind in her body. I have never felt more ugly. But only because I had wished for the same thing.”
Some of the comments were so candid and disturbing that he felt like a priest hearing someone’s confession. The comparison startled him and brought to mind one summer when he was around nine years old and used to haunt the confessional. He went every other day, sometimes every day, telling the priests every bad thing he had done, every bad thought that had crossed his mind since he made his last confession. He wanted to be pure, “as pure as a chalice,” as Monsignor Kilmer urged everyone in the parish. Sometimes when he didn’t have anything to confess he made up things so that he could enter the dark booth and ask the priest for forgiveness and listen to his whispers through the screen. He winced at the memory now, unable to comprehend how he could have behaved so foolishly.
Every few days Elledge added two or three more cards to the bulletin board, and by the end of the week almost a quarter of it was covered. Most of them were lighthearted, though there were a few poignant ones that he thought his customers might appreciate. He still was reluctant to post anything that others might find objectionable. Not surprisingly, he noticed fewer and fewer such comments in the box, as if his customers thought he only wanted to read the kind of sentiments posted on the bulletin board. That was not the case, however. He wanted people to express whatever was on their minds. And, as a result, he put up a small sign above the box reminding people to “Write What You Want!” Gradually, the number of more personal remarks increased, though he continued to keep them to himself.
One evening, after laughing at some limerick cards, he came across a card that drained the blood from his face. “My sister got in a car wreck the other day and I am glad,” it declared. “Nothing bad ever happens to her and now something has. Join the club, sis!”
Immediately he dropped the card on the floor as if it had caught on fire and leaned back from the table. Something that he struggled not to think about this card now reminded him of, emphatically, something that however hard he tried he could not banish from his memory. Nearly six years ago, driving home from a party where he had too much to drink, he crashed into another car and instead of stopping kept on going and didn’t report it to the police. For several days he searched the morning and afternoon papers for any mention of the accident but never saw anything. Numerous times he stepped into the confession booth to admit what he did, but he could never screw up the courage to tell the priest.
He did not budge from the table for several minutes, wishing he could forget what happened once and for all, then got up and walked over to the box and picked up a blank card and returned to the table. He took out a pen and wrote down what he had done on the card then went over to the bulletin board and posted it right square in the center for everyone to read.