In the Safety of a Three-Sided Box by Jennifer Fliss

toy cop car in diaroma display

In a large brick box, tiny figurines stand still in what looks to be a family setting. We have a kitchen: miniscule butcher knife, thumb-sized boxes of cereal, and even a fridge that opens and closes. In this diorama, there are no words said. The people are stuck to the floor with glue.

They came at night. When the onyx sky was dotted with smoking streetlamps. Police. They spoke into the fuzzy box of the apartment intercom. They didn’t shout it or threaten to kick down the door. They didn’t wield guns or clubs. But their voices, even through the electric waves, carried a threat I’d never understood before. We had no choice but to buzz them in.

In the time it took to take the elevator to the sixth floor, my father instructed me: Don’t say anything.

The scene in the box has changed. The figurines perch on a sofa’s edge. The smallest, a girl, stands with her back against the wall under a small piece of glass meant to represent a mirror. It is smudged, and it is just like the real thing. On the other side of a construction paper door stand two figures dressed in blue. One has its arm stuck into the air, about to knock on the paper door.

 

A neighbor called. Maybe more than one. Who knew? The officers are vague: We heard there was trouble. The apartment building grapevine of bathroom vents and thin walls belied the familial image we put forward.

New diorama: peg people – just wooden with no faces – sit around a table clothed in red and white gingham. On the table are impossibly small wine glasses painted delicately in a burnished red. Around them, tangles of grape vines hang from the walls and the ceiling, threatening to choke the peg people, but they are unaware.

It is true my father drank enough to fill the Los Angeles River. Every night. It is true his temper was akin to Mt. Etna, in the space of 1200 square feet. It is true he caressed his guns more softly than the hair of his children.

 

Don’t say anything.

My father had decided to make wine in our bathroom. Giant plastic and glass bottles open at the top issuing forth a plummy astringency into the room. It was the bathroom relegated for guests and me. There were never guests. I had to shower or bathe in my parents’ bathroom, wrap my prepubescent body in a towel, tiptoe past their bedroom under the leering and drunken eyes of my father.

What is this? An officer asked. He asked me, aged seven. Moonshine and politics weren’t parts of my language yet. But lies were. I dunno. My parents were in the living room with the other officer. I could hear the timbre of my father’s anger, but couldn’t make out what he was saying. What happened? The officer pressed, staring at the bottles. I don’t know. I was sleeping. Lie. I’m sure he knew. Mm hmmm.

Don’t say anything.

 

He led me back into the living room. Struck up a conversation about wine with my father. About home brewing. I just got a little loud. Excited. Nothing at all like what you’d think; ask her.

The officer who had been talking to my parents got up and began to tour the apartment. I don’t know why, but I followed. I saw through his eyes the debris of our life.

 

A moving diorama, maybe a film: Cockroaches skittering across the tile when a light switch is flicked on. Food arrayed on the kitchen counters from two nights before – though the officer could not know that. The hallways a motley mess of clothing and toys and paper bags. An empty grocery cart is parked in the corner of the living room, its metal beginning to rust.

The officer didn’t say anything, though he walked slowly and acknowledged my presence at his heels. This your room? He sat on the pink daybed. You make that? He asked of a diorama made for a school project. It was based on the book From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

 

With my small hands, I had constructed a dollhouse-sized fountain, a few pennies dropped inside – oversized wishes. I had cut out pictures of artwork from our Encyclopedia Britannica series and affixed them to the shoebox walls. In the book, two siblings run away from home and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They live there for a period of time I can’t recall but to this day still pine for it. I still imagine bathing in the bathrooms under no one’s watchful eyes. I recall, as if it happened to me, how it felt to sleuth out a mystery, and then to return to a family’s loving arms.

In the diorama I hadn’t included any people. It was just a set.

Nice work, the officer said. Great book.

You know it?

I do. I think it’s one of my kid’s favorites.

 

At the door, the officers spoke to my parents sotto voce. There was some paperwork. They left.

In the fetid air of tightness and betrayal and family unity, we sat on the couch together in silence. My heart began to settle out of my throat and back into my chest. The monster was still in the room, but I still relaxed.

You didn’t say anything, did you?

 

I went back to my room. From the window, I watched the police car pull away.

 

Diorama: A girl – you can only see her from the back – staring out a saran wrap window, cut from the cardboard. Around her, the walls are caving in.

And then I heard his fat footsteps coming down the hall. Without a word, he surveyed the room, predator eyes flitting crazily. I understood immediately when he settled on my From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler art project. He didn’t crush it with a loud thunk of a fist as expected. Instead, he picked it up and left the room. I chased him, screaming for him to stop. He seethed at me to be quiet. My begging turned to whispers turned to wishes unheard.

He plucked the coins from the fountain. Tore the art from the walls. Pulled out a small statue that I had made of polymer clay. Handed me back the desiccated box, empty but for splinters of paper still stuck to the walls and floor.

 

The next day, during recess, I snuck into Mrs. Woods’ classroom; my classmates’ projects lined up on a shelf. Mine not included. Mrs. Woods – a terrifying woman who could upend a desk with a breath and still insisted we sing You Are My Sunshine daily – had scolded me an hour before for not having done the homework.

I stopped in front of Mandy R’s diorama. It was so good, I remember. Her mother was very crafty, painting designs and names in perfect cursive on sweatshirts and tees in glittering colors; this being the eighties – a very in demand skill. In the confines of a shoe box, the pristine white cotton ball snow, an affront to my very self. Mandy had friends and knew how to navigate the world of second grade. Things I didn’t understand at all and no one was going to make me a map. I crushed the shoe box from the top. Avalanche.

You didn’t say anything, did you?

jennifer flissJennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming with The Washington Post, Narratively, Prairie Schooner, The Citron Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. When not writing, she can be found with her kid and/or cat, running, reading, and on the flying trapeze. Seriously. Follow her @JFlissCreative and learn more on her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Christopdesoto
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  • Cathy Bell

    Jen, I love this story so much. Beautiful and painful and the use of the diorama as a way to tell it is so unique. So proud of you for telling your truth.

  • Mary McKenney

    I love this. So powerful.

  • Sue Repko

    This is beautiful, intense and frightening. Thank you so much for putting it out there.