CONJUNCTIONS:32 Spring 1999
The Box Artist
Joyce Carol Oates



     Untitled (Box with Perched Yellow Bird)
     c. 1935, box construction, 13 1/4 x 9 1/2 x 5 inches


     UNTO EVERY ONE that hath shall be given, and be shall have abundance: but from him that bath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. So Jesus rebukes the Box Artist who is not bold enough to seize his subject.
     The Box Artist must constantly troll for happiness. La Puente. Cerritos. Olympic Boulevard. In this cruelly deprived Year of Our Lord 1935. This summer in which dried, cracked earth of the hue of baked blood is turning to dust, blown by a Santa Ana wind. Travel- ling the streets of Los Angeles anxious and yearning as any rejected lover. The Box Artist must seek his happiness out there. The Box Artist understands that happiness is chance, and always unmerited. The Box Artist understands we must create the improbable circumstances of chance that the yet more improbable circumstances of happiness are revealed to us.
     Cypress, Alvarado, Santa Clara. Westward, eastward. El Nido to the south, La Mirada to the east. To the west, the Pacific Ocean which revulses me for its vastness cannot be fitted into any box.

     The Nickel & Dime Diner on El Centro Avenue. Amid boarded-up storefronts GOING OUT OF BUSINESS! BANKRUPTCY! MUST SELL ALL! A clatter of trolleys, automobiles and trucks and the heat-haze stirred by the wind into a glowing phosphorescence of dust and grit. At El Centro and Cupertino, a building marked The Los Angeles Orphans Home Society. Weatherworn red brick set back in a large, mostly grassless lot surrounded by an eight-foot mesh-wire fence. What the eye first notices about this building is that there are few windows, especially on the uppermost third floor. These windows are tall and oddly narrow, like squinting eyes; on the first floor, the lower halves are crudely barred. Peeling white "colonial" trim, tarred roofs, rusted fire escapes, and at the rear amid sand and thorny weeds the rudiments of a "playground."
     A more melancholy "playground" I have never seen and I swear that it was this playground that initially drew me, and not the possibilities of the orphans. For it is rare that the children are released from their work-duties to "play" and at the time of my first visit, in the late winter of 1934, the playground was deserted.
     Only by chance, at another time, did certain possibilities suggest themselves.
     In the Box Artist's life of anxiety, yearning and sudden unexpected happiness there are such moments. One must only seek them without ceasing as Saint Theresa spoke of prayer without ceasing until prayer becomes the very soul, and the very soul, prayer. It is as if the automobile makes this turn unbidden bv me onto an unpaved service road beyond the orphanage. Scrub palm trees, broom sage and hardy purple-flowering thistles coated in dust like exotic works or art. A flock of sparrow scatters at my approach.
     How many weeks it has been since I discovered the Los Angeles Orphans Home. How many weeks observing the orphan-children from my automobile, hunched down beside the window in the passenger's seat. When moved to take photographs, carefully I ease open the door--carefully! The Box Artist is a master of precision. The Box Artist is a master of discretion. No one notices the Box Artist, for he is as near to invisible as any adult male, indeterminate age and of no distinguishing physical characteristics (even my height and weight oscillate from day to day dependent upon temperature and barometric pressure), might be. My automobile attracts no suspicious eyes for it is a battered 1928 Ford, its shiny black exterior and dashing chrome worn by sun, rain, wind and wind-driven sand to this dull pewter-glow that is the very absence of color. The Box Artist is but an eye, a pair of hands, a fierce and implacable will.
     You would identify the children of the Los Angeles Orphans Home as orphans, even from a distance, in their faded blue clothing that fits them like smudged daubs of paint, with their worn shoes, their spindly limbs and raw scrubbed faces like the faces of wooden dolls with awkwardly fitted glassy-teary eyes. They are "children" in but a technical sense. Many of them are midget adults, with heads dispro- portionate to their thin bodies. Even the youngest are not "childish." Such terms--"children," it "childish," "childlike"--apply solely to wanted children. There is a recognition of this fact, or complex of facts, in the slump of their heads and the sag of their shoulders and the limpness of their legs even when they are engaged, under no adult's supervision, in "play." (The playground is sand and concrete. A meager set of swings, only just two, the third having been broken for months; a tarnished slide; a wooden teeter-totter. ) In the late morning and again in the late afternoon the orphans emerge from a rear slot of a door, trudging outside to blink in the mica-bright sunshine, dazed with exhaustion from their work-duties (what these are, I can only guess) though a few of the younger and more hopeful run for a brief while and a few, always boys, as if recalling the bold maneuvres of children beyond the eight-foot mesh-wire fence, will push at one another and jostle for possession of a swing, a seat on the splintery teeter-totter.
     Weeks, months. My photographs were few and infrequently inspired. Yet every time the orphans appeared, my heart leapt in hope. A scrim would be drawn, as in a film theater, and I stared, stared--but the one I sought wasn't among them. Until one afternoon, a hot Santa Ana wind blowing out of tbe Mojave Desert, and my eyelashes gummed with dust, I saw, I suddenly see, the Blond Child. A girl-orphan I have never seen before, yet recognize at once.
     It is she. She is the one. The one the box awaits.

     In the late summer of 1935. In the earthen-floored cellar of the bungalow an Sacramento Street, East Los Angeles. Thirty-two wooden boxes stacked neatly against the walls and in each of these boxes was a "capture" --a snapshot, a small artifact, a stuffed, lifelike little bird. To the neutral observer the works of the Box Artist would be indistinguishable from trash but each of the boxes was, to the Box Artist, a testament to those minutes, hours, sometimes davs in which the box was executed. Even the relatively uninspired boxes, and there were some of these, were triumphs of a kind; they represented, to the Box Artist, the solutions to specific problems. The box is the affliction for which only the box is the cure.
     Yet each "capture" was solitary. Each of the boxes stood apart from the others, though they were crammed together in that dank, airless space.

     The one the box awaits, at last. The Blond Child, a little girl of eight or nine, swinging on one of the swings. She is new to the orphanage, at least I have never seen her before. Already in her faded-blue uniform she resembles the others--except for the fierce radiance in her face, and the speed in her little body. How desperate, flying on the swing with its crude creaking chains and hard, splintery wooden seat; how defiant, kicking and bucking, her white-knuckled bands gripping the swing above her head and her thin arms stretched taut like a bird's wings partly wrenched from its body. Both her knees are scraped and bruised. Her "dirty blond" hair is curly and snarled. Her eyes are intense, staring; her dazed soul shines through her waxy-pale skin. A beautiful child though wounded somehow, damaged. The sorrow in being born, without love.
     She is one of them, now. The orphans of the world. Waiting to be loved. Waiting to be taken--"adopted."
     I think--I will adopt her. I will claim her!
     I will make her hurt, mangled mouth smile.

     But of course, being the Box Artist, I can only take the Blond Child's photograph. And that only in stealth, hoping I won't be detected.
     My heavy black box-camera is gritty with dust. It is an old camera, I am forever blowing dust off the lens, polishing it with my handkerchief. After a few minutes I become reckless and leave the protection of my automobile to squat in the dirt beside the mesh-wire fence, hoping to be hidden by tall weeds; aiming my camera with the assurance of a hunter as, oblivious of me, the Blond Child swings ever higher. Her hair is ringlets sparked with fire, her skin glints like mica, her eyes are ablaze like tiny blue jets of flame. As she swings, her skirt is bunched over her bruised knees, there's a glimpse of white beneath, much-laundered and frayed orphan's underwear it is, and her heels kick upward reckless as a colt's. The Blond Child swings carelessly off-balance, veering crooked and nearly falling from her seat as if her secret wish is to fall and crack her head on the dirty concrete. No! no! I whisper to her. Don't injure yourself, he world will shortly enoug do that for you. In the creaking swing beside the Blond Child another, quite ordinary girl is swinging, not boldly at all but in a lacklustre manner; an older, slump-shouldered girl, one who has been waiting to be adopted for years, and has all but given up hope. But the Blond Child is new to the orphanage. The Blond Child will never give up hope.
     I promise. Someday. Something--maybe.
     The Box Artist is the artist of desire. The tenderness of desire that can never be consummated.
     The Box Artist plucks the child's flying image out of the air as you might pluck a feathery little bird out of the air, a canary or hummingbird, small enough to fit in your closed hand.
     The heavy black box-camera grows heated with the effort. The shutter snapping! The mysterious film within, wound past the lens, imprinted with the Blond Child who is oblivious of it. (And yet, atterward I will wonder: was she aware of me, in fact? Crouched here behind the mesh-wire fence, in a patch of dusty weeds? Was she playing a game as precocious girl-children do, watching the Box Artist through lowered eyelashes and giving no sign--except a s1y little pursing of her lips?)
     Until abruptly the children's "play" is over. In dispirited columns they shuffle back through the slot of a door. Someone must have called them, or a bell has rung. A matron in a dark coverall appears in the doorway, commanding the children to hurry. How strangely obedient they are, trooping back into the warehouse within; a house of unwanted wares; the emptying playground releases them without resistance. Yet, bravely, the Blond Child continues swinging, pretending not to have heard the summons. She's flying, kicking, bucking, jets of blue flame leaping from her eyes, more recklessly than ever. The matron shouts at her what sounds like, "You! Get down." For another few seconds the Blond Child dares disobey, then she too gives in. Like a bird wounded in flight, she returns quickly to earth.
     How forlorn, her abandoned swing.
     The pathos of the vertical, stilled swing.
     Indistinguishable now from the others, how many others, resigned, slump-headed in their faded-blue orphans' issue, the Blond Child disappears into the red-brick Los Angeles Orphans Home. My fingers continue to snap the camera's shutter as, after the death of its brain, a body may continue to thrash, to quiver, to pulse for a brief while. But at last I stop. Shaken and exhausted. My soul seems to have drained from me. Quickly, fumbling with my car keys, I prepare to leave; in a sudden terror that the matron has seen me. As in the past, not frequently but sometimes, occasionally, vigilant parties, invariably women, have called molice to report--what? Who? What crime have I committed, with only a camera? The Box Artist is bound by no local law in the execution of his exacting art.

     As I drive away in the 1928 Ford I peer anxiously into the rear view mirror. Seeing only a dust-tunnel raised in my wake.

     My defense would be the child knew me, as I knew her.

* * *      

     For hours that evening, and then for days. In the dank earthen-floored cellar of the bungalow on Sacramento Street, East Los Angeles. A shabby house surrounded by palm trees, crude sword-shaped leaves rustling in the ceaseless maddening wind. The whisperings and murmurings of strangers Look! look! look! look! look what his life is.
     Yet unhurried, I develop rny film, precious to me as my very soul. My pulse quickens as I contemplate the miniature images, I feel almost faint, the Blond Child so captured, so my own. I pre- pare the Box, the Box I have chosen for her measures approximately thirteen inches by nine by five; an ordinary wooden box you would say, and you'd be correct; stained from use, oil smears in the wood slats; a box scavenged by the sharp-eyed Box Artist out of a mound of trash in a drainage ditch out behind this bungalow. Eagerly then, and in excitement and fear, I select my artifacts. In honor of the Blond Child I must choose well; if I fail, she will be lost a second time.
     This is my body, and this is my blood. Take ye and eat. The secret wish of all who live in their art.
     After several blunders, and sleepless nights, I step back to discover that I have created a Box landscape of uncanny subterranean beauty! Coarse, earthen, primitive: of the rich sepia hue of memory. Tiny snapshot-images of the Blond Child are secreted in the Box's dark corners and beneath a heart-shaped rock covered in dried dirt which I brought back from beside the mesh-wire fence. A vividly yellow bird, canary or goldfinch, purchased from the taxidermist from whom I purchase all my creature-artifacts, is placed on top of this rock, tiny talon-claws secured by glue to the rock. With a tweezers I have managed to lift the little bird's wings from its body so that it appears about to fly away; its pert little tail feathers are at an upward angle that, too, suggests imminent flight; but never, never will the little yellow bird fly out of my Box, as the Blond Child will never fly out of my Box.

     Of your fleeting and unloved life I make you immortal.
     Of vour broken heart, I make art.
     Out of that lost day have I plucked you, and myself.
     Yet, you are alone in the Box. I, doomed to invisibility, am forbidden to take my place beside you.