Small Press Spotlight

The Box

Robert Coover

She finds a box by the curb. Someone must have dropped it. They are not poor, but they do not have all they want, so she takes it home and shows it to her husband, in the hope they might extract magical wealth from it. A new car maybe, a chest of gold doubloons, free movie tickets. Her husband, who is hardworking and frugal, carefully amassing the wherewithal for a comfortable retirement, which they both see as a single but endless moment of shared delight after the dullness of their daily working lives, is more amused than excited by her discovery, having little faith in magic as a sound investment. Besides, though the lid comes off, the contents of the box are sealed beneath glass like a collection of butterflies. In fact, there is a butterfly inside the box, one with widespread amber wings, pinned to the mouth of a bisque doll’s eyeless head; also an apothecary jar; a small bejeweled bird’s egg; an owl, looking cramped and hostile, lensless spectacle frames at its feet; a four-poster bed, or at least a picture of one, seemingly afloat in a star-chart sky, and three dice on a crimson dish, all showing threes on top. Behind everything: a mirror, mounted in such a way as to reflect them both as they look inside.


It has a lot of things in it, he says.


I think it’s bigger than when I picked it up, she replies, staring at her own stare in the box’s mirror. What do you think it all means?


Probably that life’s a gamble. You can lose your nest egg if you’re too flighty or blind to opportunities or spend too much time dreaming in bed.


That’s all . . . ?


You have a better idea?


Well, that could be a nest egg, I suppose, with what looks like jewels all over it. But it suggests to me more fundamental things. She is thinking about those dice triplets lying on their womby dish, but chooses not to say so.


Nest eggs are pretty fundamental.


And then, there’s that salamander inside the apothecary jar. And those splotches of paint around the owl as if it were being shot at. Which is probably why it looks so angry. And what about that vamping lady there at the edge behind the theater curtain, sticking her bare leg out?


I didn’t see her before. I remember her from the movies. I think I was in love with her once upon a time.


Really? She has plucked eyebrows. You hate plucked eyebrows.


That’s true. At the time, I guess I didn’t notice such things. I was mostly noticing breasts and hair. And bottoms.


You can’t see her bottom in the picture.


No, but I remember it. And it makes me happy thinking about it. I find even now I don’t really care about the plucked eyebrows.


It seems quite trivial, your memory.


I know. But it doesn’t feel trivial. He pauses, considering that feeling, not one he is accustomed to, or ever welcomes. So, what shall we do with it? Open it up and see what else is in it? That egg looks interesting. And the box may have a false bottom.


Is that like a plucked eyebrow?


Yes, except a false bottom is more deceptive. He smiles, conscious suddenly of the many years of their marriage and the quiet routines they have come to. Do you think I was deceived?


She returns his smile in such a way as to suggest she recognizes the sluggish workings of his memory, he who by her lights has none, so focused is he on what might happen next or be made to happen. It’s so beautifully made, she says, concealing her unease at the idea of disturbing something that might yet be in some manner magical (he would only laugh at her). The wood itself may be the best thing about it. It would be a shame to crack it open.


We should treat it like an art object, you mean?


Well . . . She looks around. Their own art objects are mostly golf and tennis trophies, travel souvenirs, framed photographs, and certificates of achievement. The few paintings on the walls are street scenes and impressionist landscapes from places they have visited, picked up at sidewalk art shows, and it occurs to her that what her life lacks (this thought is quite new to her) is gravity. More like a nice piece of furniture maybe, she says.


So they set it on an end table in the den where it isn’t in the way and can be admired. And so it is, becoming a focus of their own attention and a conversation piece at parties. It’s so unusual! their friends say. That gorgeous egg! Those weird star charts! Those dice on a dish! Wherever did you find it? They shrug and smile ambivalently. Just something we picked up. Some think it very mysterious and provocative, others wacky or sad or funny or ominous (that horrible doll’s head with the empty eye sockets and pin in its mouth!), while others merely think it pretty, in a class with decorative baskets or fancy tea towels. Most speculate on its value, which is deemed uncertain but probably high. A masterpiece, some declare. Or the amateur creation of an eccentric genius, say others, yes, you’ve got something there!


Eventually, though, it starts to blend in with the trophies and souvenir ashtrays and stops being a conversation piece, their friends having said all they can think of to say about it. They themselves spend less time looking at it, though he returns to it on occasion during the cocktail hour, trying to recapture the pleasant feelings he had remembering the movie star’s bottom, and she, when alone in the house, sometimes finds herself using it as a focus for meditation, gazing fixedly at her own image staring back at her, until the contents of the box seem to spread out into a kind of unboxed world of its own, her mirrored image receding as it opens up. Ever since her guest remarked on the star charts, she is, though somewhat frightened by their depictions of the unimaginable, drawn to them at the same time (terror too’s alluring), and wishes to look at them more closely, though she resists still her husband’s suggestion that they open it up and see if, as many have asked at parties, those seeming jewels on the egg are real.


But then one night, a drunken guest shakes it to try to get a different dice roll, and things get jumbled up inside. The dice don’t move, but the scowling owl falls over on its face, the bed tilts in the sky, and the coverlet on it slips halfway off, revealing not sheets beneath but more starry sky, one of the butterfly’s amber wings is crushed, and the decorated egg rolls over on its side. Behind the owl, they see for the first time, are the tatters of a poster advertising a biplane stunt-flying exhibition, the pilots wearing soft leather headgear with big goggles and fluttering neckerchiefs. Though these dashing figures might have aroused in her nostalgic feelings of youthful romance, it is actually he who feels their whimsical lost beauty; she only shudders at the sight of those thin fragile structures upside down in the sky (a sky pasted on another sky), so far from earth. The mirror, too, seems knocked askew, for now when they look into the mirror together they each see only themselves alone, and themselves ever more distant than before.


They jiggle the box gently, trying to stand the egg upright once more, and for a while it becomes an amusing game, especially at the cocktail hour. But just as he, one-handed, a drink in the other, succeeds one day, the jerky motion that rights the egg topples the apothecary jar, spilling out the salamander, which slides behind the fallen owl, and then the egg rolls over again, this time the other way, whereupon they take up seriously once more the idea of opening the box, now for reasons of repair. She is, as before, more reluctant than he, but the tipped bed in the sky, its coverlet, stiff as a body, slipping off it to let the cosmic vastness in, has caused her sleepless nights, her own bed now less anchored, and at last she agrees. If we’re careful, he says, we can put it back together again just like it was, and she nods, but is full of apprehension.


And with reason, as it turns out. The wood is so finely tongue and grooved, the glass so deeply locked into it, that the first tentative effort to insert a thin knife blade to pry it open results in the shattering of the glass, releasing a faintly morbid smell. Well, damage done, what can they do? They carefully remove the little egg (the “jewels” are only painted beads, but there is an intriguing rattle within), the owl, and other loose or fallen bits like the jar and spectacle frames, pick out each shard of glass with tweezers, scoop up the purple sand spilled from the apothecary jar (the salamander has gotten lost somehow), reset the bed and cover in the sky. The butterfly’s crushed wing, which has left a powdery amber smear on the doll head’s lips where it was pinned, is lost forever and the crimson dish in which the dice are fixed is cracked, but she dusts all the other parts with a soft watercolor brush, and they set them back in their places as best they can remember them, feeling a bit like artists themselves.


When she disappears into the kitchen to prepare an omelet for lunch (she has secretly pocketed in her apron a papier-mâché doll’s leg with dimpled knee and plump little toes found in the tipped apothecary jar after the sand tumbled out, and wants a closer look before showing it to him), he yields to the temptation to peel back the vamping movie star, a cutout stiffened with paper backing, to glimpse the famous derriere, but finds that only that top part and the extended leg exist, each glued to the back of the thin stiff strip of paper curtain at the edge, all backsides blank. Which, he realizes with a tinge of sorrow, could be a commentary on the nature of desire itself.


When she returns with lunch, he sets the pair of lensless spectacles on his nose and asks her, What do you think? Is this me? But she’s not there. Gone back, perhaps, for toast or coffee. The glasses, he discovers, add a third dimension to flat images, and the now fully rounded vamp seems almost to be wagging her outthrust leg at him. He peers behind her with renewed hope, but the back of the figure is incomplete and blank as before. There is, however, an open space he hadn’t noticed before behind the curtain, a kind of corridor or portico, its parallel walls seeming to stretch off into infinity, which, even if a trick of the glasses—Clever! he thinks—is too alluring to ignore.


She, left alone (perhaps he went for salt and pepper, she never puts enough), pokes through the box and finds below the begoggled leathercapped airmen an articulated arm without a hand, made of the same stuff as the leg, and she adds it to the collection in her apron pocket, wondering, somewhat sadly, if the doll’s disassembled anatomy might not be a sad commentary on the futile human search for integrity, for wholeness. One of the doll’s missing glass eyes, she now sees, is affixed firmly to the hidden side of the remounted egg as one of its “jewels,” but not the other one. Could that be what’s rattling around inside? The star charts are not, after all, glued to the back of the box, but hang like lowered curtains. She peers, fearfully but hopefully, into the shadowy depths behind them to seek out more doll parts, thinking of herself as a kind of conscientious nursemaid on a mission.


He, too, feels himself to be on a mission of sorts. A journey certainly. The facing walls of the portico are mounted with images from the past, in a certain sense his own past because he recognizes all their subjects from his youth, though they are mostly public figures, ballplayers and movie stars and the like, or scenes and characters from stories he has read, or had read to him, so it’s a bit like walking through a museum of his life, if not his own life exclusively. His heart is warmed by what he sees, but at the same time, aware that the past is no more than a shadowy tease, forever denied entry to the present, he feels a dangerous yearning that he knows can never be appeased. It’s a kind of disease, this insatiable yearning, he acknowledges with a wry smile, as he allows himself to be drawn haplessly into the obscure but intimate depths of the gallery. He finds, one image following upon another, luring him ever deeper, glimpses of a life that might have been his own, homes he might have lived in, beautiful women who might have been his lovers, though he can place none of these things in the real past, whatever that is. Nor are these glimpses of a possible past any past at all, for almost everything is missing in the blank wall spaces between them. He feels vaguely threatened by these false memories—or real memories, doesn’t matter, delusions in either case—and decides to turn back, but then he comes upon a locked door.


The hanging star charts cast a kind of shadowy glow on her backstage search for doll parts (the mirror has receded out of sight, or else it is behind her), but she finds nothing more until she reaches the four-poster bed in the sky. For some time, she realizes, a shiver running up her spine, she has been walking on the star maps, if they are star maps and not the awesome grandeur of the universe itself. She is afraid to look down, but there are stars all around her and overhead as well, she doesn’t know where to look. As she moves forward, the stars rotate around her, suggesting she is inside a kind of sphere. Only a clever illusion, she hopes, thrilled and terrified at the same time. The bed seems to be afloat as she is afloat, and when she reaches it, or it reaches her, there on a lacy pillow is a doll’s porcelain hand. Its dimpled fingers are exquisitely formed with tiny knuckles and fingernails and plump wrinkles in the little palm. It is heartbreakingly beautiful, and she feels her eyes filling with tears. But the thumb is backward to the arm in her apron pocket, so the hand must belong to one she hasn’t found. She remembers then a fairy tale she read, or had read to her, about a dismembered baby and how it was brought back to life when its eyes were found and put back in. She’s a bit lost out here in the night sky, but she decides to see if she can find the egg again.


He is certain that the locked door’s key is in the egg, that’s what was rattling about in there, the whole box a kind of wittily contrived scavenger hunt, and, having hurried back to it, he tips it forward carefully and with his penknife pokes a small hole in the bottom of it. Unfortunately, the egg shatters into a thousand pieces, its beady decorations scattering. But he was right: There’s the little silver key amid the ruins. He pockets it and runs back down the open portico, ignoring now the deceptive parade of images on the wall, drawn urgently by the mystery of the locked door, the need to know. The irrational need to know.


When she very carefully plucks the glass eye from the cluster of decorations on the side of the egg, the whole thing falls apart, collapsing dishearteningly into a thousand pieces. But she was right: There’s the other eye, wobbling about amid the fragments of shell. Her heart is pounding. It may be true! But it rolls away, just beyond her fingertips, whenever she reaches for it. What then? An eye for an eye? But that wouldn’t work. She offers up the leg and arm (perhaps the whole box is a witty compendium of clichés, she thinks) and the eye surrenders at last to her grasp. In fact, it rolls right into it. She finds the crippled butterfly still pinned to the doll’s mouth when she picks the head up. The poor creature seems to be trying, brokenly, to fly with its one wing. She should put it out of its agony, but she cannot. She feels the tears start again. It’s so sad! Life is. But she has come this far. . . . She brushes the tears aside and bravely fits an eyeball into one of the lashless sockets. Where it glares accusingly, maliciously back at her. What? Are the head’s amber lips moving? Whispering something? She drops the horrible thing, frozen in fright where she stands, the eye popping out of the socket and seeming to blink mockingly at her as it rolls away. Oh no! Where is her husband? He would know what to do.


Before the locked door, key in hand, he too stands motionless, reconsidering the journey he has made, this interruption of it like the breaking of a timeline—which thought stirs others, more foreboding. He does not know for certain what lies beyond the door, only that nothing will ever be the same if he opens it and enters in. He is overtaken, there before the door, by a nostalgia, not for the past but for the living present, for if their suburban life is somewhat frivolous, even sometimes surreal, it is also delightful, comforting, beautiful even—their backyard barbecue pit, he realizes, is the most sublime work of art they own—and it suits him, suits them both. He pockets the key and starts the long trek back. The need to know is not the only need.


The omelet, still warm, awaits him on his return—from where, he’s not quite sure. He removes the spectacle frames and she is there at the table with him, gazing at him affectionately. Here’s a slice of buttered toast, she says with a smile that is not quite a smile. And some honey, if you want it. He adds a shake or two of salt and pepper to the omelet. Which is delicious and he says so and thanks her for it. Their restoration of the box is complete except for the broken egg. Of which neither speaks. We’ll store the thing in the attic, he says, returning her smile, feeling the irreparable loss of something (probably not important), and she agrees, placing her hand firmly over his.



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First published in Conjunctions


Editor: Bradford Morrow


Mission: Since 1981, the biannual journal Conjunctions has blazed a trail in literary periodical publishing. Edited by Bradford Morrow and published by Bard College, each issue delivers rigorous, innovative, fully realized work by contemporary literature's most exciting emerging and established names, in a special book-length format that allows readers to plumb the depth and breadth of each volume's theme—from doppelgängers to death, desire, children, fairy tales, music, New Wave Fabulism, the Gothic, and more. Conjunctions also publishes a separate online weekly magazine of new writing.





Robert Coover is the author of more than twenty books, most recently A Child Again (McSweeney’s) and Noir (Overlook). He teaches digital writing at Brown University, where he directs the International Writers Project.