Box type: cigar, lined in Spanish cedar with brass hinges, glass top lid—13”L x 10”W x 6.5”H. Sounds fancy for a diorama and it is, but I had it in my basement, a remnant from an old boyfriend, so I thought, why not.
On either side of a centered built-in desk I papered the back wall to look like built-in shelves filled with books (MahonesWallpaperShop.com, “Illusions”, LL29570). On the walls to the right and left, paneled in wood veneer, are medical school diplomas and a piece of garish framed art (a surreal scene with a caged bird). On the built-in desk there is a microscope for viewing slide samples. I recently re-carpeted my bedroom in a gold tone and used a scrap for the floor. I had to cut the pile down because otherwise it came up to the knees of the doctor figurine (in his white coat he looked like he was wearing a dress).
About three inches in front of the papered back wall, off to the right, is a large walnut, executive desk for doing paperwork. On it there is a telephone, family photos (wife, two daughters), stacks of paper and a buxom figurine (the secretary) bent over the far left edge, face down; the doctor figure stands dead center, facing the viewer. I wasn’t there. I don’t really know, but it’s what I imagine.
Box type: shoe, for pair of Clark’s Wallabees—13”L x 9”W x 6”H, but set on end so it is much taller than wide. It’s a courtroom drama unlike any you’d see on TV, rather boring—a custody hearing.
I constructed the judge’s bench and witness stand out of shirt cardboard from the dry cleaners and covered it in photo paper of finely-milled woodwork. An American and state flags are planted on either side of the seal of the Superior Court of the State of California hanging on the wall behind the judge. I made the judge a woman just because.
The figurine seated in the witness stand is meant to represent my grandfather (father’s father), barrel-chested, hair slicked back with Brylcreem, he wears a fine gray suit (the shirt puffed out with wadded Kleenex). Hand raised, he promises to tell the whole truth.
No. 3—Baseball Bat
Box type: a pair of Lucchese Classic boots—22”L x 16”W x 8”H. My first pair, real crocodile, before I knew they were endangered, that it was bad form to sport them on my feet. What to do? They were already dead.
A two-inch raised ledge at the front with stairs leads into a sunken living room, popular in the 70s. White material from the fabric store that looks like troll hair lines the bottom of the box. Shag was very big then. Two inches from the back, I drop in a false cardboard wall, cut two large rectangular holes from the center and cover it with transparency film to create sliding glass doors that look out onto my grandparents’ backyard pool (as indicated by a color-xeroxed Hockney). Holes cut on the side walls at the rear are lit with exterior pen lights to indicate never-ending, bright California sun.
Back inside, on top of the shag are all varieties of furniture—broken, smashed, in some form of disarray—an oversized lounge chair, one leg stuck inside the wall, a leather sectional, its seat back slashed end to end, a side table as if kneeling with two legs knocked off, a porcelain lamp like a busted coconut, a large box TV, all knobs removed.
The doctor-son, in madras shorts and a short-sleeved t-shirt, holds a bat down by his side. We see him mid-stride, one leg on the top stair as he rises out of the living room. He is leaving.
Box type: a pair of plush, Winnie the Pooh slippers—12”L x 8”W x 8”H.
The ceramic tile floor is a criss-cross of Crayola—sienna for the tiles and almond for the grout. I remember how cold it was that night beneath my bare feet (I was five). The interior is painted a mottled gray that goes from light to dark, more to indicate the late hour than any real color.
On the back wall and sides I draw a pool table (to the right) and large sectional with built-in TV (to the left) to fill in the detail and disappear them to a vanishing point to orient the viewer.
About a third of the way from the front, I insert a piece of cardboard, like a slide into a projector, dividing the space. It represents the wall between the living room and a pass-through kitchen and is the same size as the back (12” x 8”). There are two holes cut out of it, on the left a tall narrow one with built-in desk for the telephone area and on the right a wide rectangle about waist high (2.5”). On the kitchen side is a stove top and some cabinets overhead. On the living room side there is a low ledge and stools for eating, but from the perspective I’ve chosen you can’t see that. Très California modern.
Three figurines—my sister Helen, the sensitive one (five years older), my father and I—are posed on the living room side. I’ve made the telephone extra large, six times its normal relative size, because that’s the point of the scene.
My grandfather, the one who testified five or so years ago, is dying (any hour now) from emphysema in the hospital (sneaking smokes while inhaling oxygen). Helen, darker and mysterious, represented by a figurine painted brown, (they either came in black or white and she is neither) wears a purple and green plaid pajama top with matching shorts. She pleads with my father. Hung from the top of the box, with clear fishing line, is a talk bubble that says,
I dab a clear dot under each eye that drips down her cheek before it can dry. It’s subtle, but if you hold up the box and turn it just the right way the streak catches the light and looks real.
I glued myself to the far left wall of the box, behind the telephone table. There is only one dim overhead light and I am out of its triangle, hidden in the dark, but I can hear and I can see. I hung the figurine of myself upside down and painted the hair with the clear polish and let it dry so once back on its feet the hair appears to stick up at all sorts of crazy angles as if I had a head of pipe cleaners which is a pretty accurate representation of what it was like growing up.
The doctor-father figurine wears long, plaid shorts, a short-sleeved t-shirt and sandals with one thick strap across the top of each foot. He faces my pleading sister, hand raised to remove his glasses, head cocked like a bird’s.
Box type: wooden wine box with slide lid and tongue-and-groove joint construction which I lined in white satin—14.25”L x 4.375”W x 8.875”H.
Same area as No. 4 only now we’re in the wood-paneled ‘kids’ living room with large glass coffee table that miraculously never broke (cracked, yes; broke, no). Along the box front are three square brown leather ottomans with a child seated on each—all in pajamas, hair at odd angles—their slouched backs face the viewer except for the one in the center, Helen, she sits straight up, at attention, arm raised.
In the center, closer to the back, in front of a large chalkboard on wheels, stands the father, wearing shorts, he’s shirtless and very hairy (I covered the torso in curly, black ‘fro wig material, think: “Lancelot Link-Secret Chimp”). He faces the viewer, finger pointing, a jumbo piece of chalk in his hand. Written on the chalkboard are the phrases:
Return on Investment
Net Operating Income
Box type: running shoes (Brooks)—12”L x 7”W x 4”H.
We’re inside the kitchen now—avocado green linoleum, white walls. An oval tulip table and eight matching chairs (representing the real Saarinen ones that were there) are in full view. Only a small portion of the counter and cabinets, to the right, are visible. Lots of figurines in this one, almost like a clown car, there are so many. The father sits at the head, far left, turned slightly toward the viewer. He holds up a machine-sewn purse, a simple, large cloth pocket attached to a long shoulder strap made of the same material. I put Helen at the opposite head as kind of a wry joke, turned at a similar yet opposite angle. To his right, in the three chairs closest to the front of the box, we see the backs of the secretary (now his wife), her son (age eight), me (seven). Across from these three are three more Helens, feet barely touching the floor. All are identical except their facial features appear less in focus and progressively fade until the last face, closest to the father, is all but disappeared.
Off to the right, Lupita, the housekeeper, wears a button-up-the-front dress uniform and white shoes (think Alice in “The Brady Bunch” only with brown skin and jet black hair). Painted in gold on the back wall, in a real scripty type, are the words,
To Make Purses
For My Daughter.
Box type: running shoes (Asics)—12”L x 7.5”W x 4”H.
We are still in the kitchen. The walls are cadmium yellow now, although they were really much more subdued. I did this to add vibrancy and maybe a little agitation. Against three-quarters of the length of the back, there’s a constructed cardboard counter with matching overhead cabinets, painted cream, with a sink in the middle and, at the far right end, a fridge, avocado green. Half a kitchen table, glued to the wall, juts in from the left to indicate that the kitchen continues (it was a big kitchen).
There are two figurines. The father, in long, plaid shorts and a pullover velour t-shirt with a pocket, rests on an elbow against the counter edge, one hairy leg crossed over the other. He leans back, head tilted, a jug of lemonade raised to his mouth (lots of gluing here to keep everything in place). Helen, age fourteen, stands to the left of him, in the area where the counter ends and before the table begins. A laser pen light shines on her through a small overhead hole so you can clearly see she looks confused, almost bewildered.
A talk bubble dangles from overhead:
Any Money at Writing.
No. 8—Big Bang
Box type: closed packing box—3.5’ square, painted carbon black on the inside and out. A prescription lens from an old pair of glasses (correction for 20/400 with astigmatism) covers an espresso-cup sized hole.
There’s an ipod mini inside, in the far corner of the box, but because it’s painted completely black you can’t see it. It plays KD Lang’s version of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen (one of Helen’s all-time favorites) just above a whisper at 20dB.
Inside there’s really nothing to see. Chaos? Calm? A dark place, to be sure—disorienting, and the lens distortion and unexpected music makes it more so. On the side of the box is a small, black button (some see it, some don’t) which, when pushed, triggers a black light to illuminate a line written on the back in glow-in-the-dark paint,
He Loses it Fully.
Box type: clear, acrylic rectangle with hinged lid like Snow White’s glass coffin only much smaller, like one-seventh the size—10”L x 4”W x 6”H.
This is like the underwater polar bear viewing area at the zoo—that sort of cross-section—only it’s our backyard pool. I covered the outside of the back wall, bottom and both sides with a paper that looks like pool water dappled with sunlight (Sunshine Scrapbooking, UK) and coated it with clear papier-mâché glue for a smooth finish. Layer by layer, I filled the interior with Realistic Water (by Woodland Scenes, no mixing required). The max you can lay at a time is one-eighth inch with a required 24-hour wait between each layer so you can imagine the time this took. If you can’t, I’ll tell you, thirty-two days.
A disposable wide, white nail file serves as a diving board and juts out over the water from the right. There are two figurines swimming, one in trunks, the other a purple polka-dotted bikini. The father’s feet are anchored at layer six. His body angles up twenty or so degrees from horizontal. Arm outstretched, big grin, his hand grabs hold of Helen’s ankle whose head is turned showing great surprise—I whited out her existing eyebrows and drew them higher, made her eyes dark, giant saucers and gave her extra long hair, carefully combed out in stylized waves to create a mermaid-like effect (just so you appreciate, this was not easy).
Box type: black and white polka dotted hat box on its side—14” diameter (this is the opening) x 9”H, resting on black, cradle-like stand.
This is a weird one, I’ll admit—like looking into a funhouse mirror in a way. Helen, around sixteen now, that age when everything matters so much—hair styles, clothing, girl secrets, there’s no way to get above it. She’s gone from kind of chubby to super skinny, eating very little or eating and then un-eating, if you get my drift. At this time in her life she is rarely seen without a carrot. Did you know if you eat a whole lot of them your skin turns orange? I didn’t either until Helen began living on them.
She wears a red-and-white cheerleader’s uniform (I glued it myself): shortsleeved sweater with pleated skirt and white sneakers. The hair on the figurine is real, a stylist friend collected it for me from a cutting. I shellacked it to emphasize its straight, black shininess.
Helen is the central figure in a lineup of four other girls on the green turf of the football field at half-time (flat, level playing field built 1.5” from bottom). A white goal post painted onto the back wall has a football going over it to indicate team spirit. Underneath the goal, at grass level, I drew a neat row of equally-spaced carrots standing upright.
The girls stand, feet hips-width apart, arms raised high in a “V.” Pasted onto the front of the cellophane cover, measuring 3.5” high, are two giant hands, Helen’s, palms facing out. I colored them Crayola “Outrageous Orange.”
Box type: long-stem rose box—24”L x 7”W x 4”H.
I stood the box on the short end and connected the bottom left corner of the box to the top right corner with a ribbon of white sandpaper, eighty-grit, measuring the width of the box to represent a severely angled-sidewalk. A pair of oversized red sneakers (Helen had about fifteen), not clown shoes but big, one placed slightly ahead of the other, are glued to the middle of the sidewalk out of which Helen appears almost at vertical seeming to defy gravity or defy something. She wears her not-so-lustrous hair in a high long ponytail. I have her in white baggy clam digger pants and a large sweatshirt out of which her forearm and wrists appear. I cut about a quarter inch off both arms and legs and reconnected her hands and feet with a half inch of toothpicks. She looks a little like a Giacometti—more of the not-eating thing, get it? Painted on the back wall at the same angle as the sidewalk are houses with green lawns and shade trees against a deep blue sky with puffy clouds. She lives in a very nice neighborhood.
Box type: 12″ acrylic square cube with hinged lid (ULine.com).
All sides are painted as landscape, green hills with sky and white clouds—in watercolor to let light in. Inside, on a grassy hilltop, an earthmover with no driver, raises its steel-toothed shovel mouth above a figurine (Helen) in a white nightgown, shellacked hair trailing, her body angled seventy degrees from the ground, one leg cocked behind her, arms extended to break the imminent fall—a dream she once told me about. I pulled her billowy white nightgown out to the side and stiffened it with clear nail polish to give it that tragic Cathy-on-the-moors effect.
Through an unpainted rectangle on the front (3”W x 4”H), off to the right, is a bedroom window, paned with curtains hanging on the outside. Our mother and I, and now you, too, watch him come after her.
Box type: department store gift box—10”L x 10”W x 8”H covered in 23 karat gold leaf (TCP Global Corp., $53.96 for 1 book of 25 leaves; I needed 4.)
Again, a piece of cardboard, the horizontal width of the box, bifurcates the entire viewing area, a false back if you will. It, like the other walls, is covered in faded fleur-de-lis wallpaper, a mulberry color (from a roll of old wrapping paper). I add some impressionist paintings on the far walls Paris-Salon style (PaintingByInches.com). This is Helen’s apartment, now twenty-six, studying medicine at UCLA. She lives rent-free on the fifth floor of an apartment building the doctor-father owns. We are in the spacious living room with ornate crown molding and a parquet floor. In the center, french doors open onto a wrought-iron balcony creating a wide double sill. We see the park and it is spring so the view is really beautiful.
In the center, beyond the railing, caught mid-air as if hovering, is my sister in a dark coat, her shoulders rounded, appearing like a cannonball, frozen.
Tree tops, lush and green, decorate the far back wall of the box.
Laurie Frankel’s literary work has appeared in Shenandoah, The Literary Review, North American Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review among others. She is the winner of the 2014 Time and Place Prize in Brittany, France. Her books include I Wore a Thong for This?! and There’s a Pattern Here & It Ain’t Glen Plaid: “. . . laugh-out-loud funny . . . great practical suggestions . . . A quirky, earnest guide to regaining self-esteem for the modern woman.” — Kirkus Reviews.
“Boxes” was selected by Tim Parrish as winner of the 2014 Walker Percy Prize for Short Fiction.
Illustration by Katherine Villeneuve