The box dates from the late sixties, from a trip I took with my family to Ireland. I would have been eight or nine at the time. Of the trip itself I have one vivid memory. We are in a rental car, my father at the wheel, his attention focused vigilantly on the challenge of driving on the wrong side of the road. My mother, though she is not driving, wishes that she were. Her hands are balled into fists, her eyes on the lookout for oncoming traffic—this though we are on a country road with hardly any oncoming traffic, only grazing sheep. Dozens, hundreds of sheep.
I am in the backseat, between my brother and sister.
“David, look at the pigs!” shouts my brother, nine years older.
“Yes, David, look at the pigs!” chimes in my sister, eight years older.
“They’re not pigs,” I say. “They’re sheep.”
“No, they’re pigs,” my brother says. “Sheep have snouts and curly tails.”
“No, they don’t. Pigs have snouts and curly tails.”
“No, pigs are fluffy with black faces.”
My mother to my father: “Watch out, Hal, remember, it’s when you make a right turn here that you go against traffic.”
My sister: “Have you ever seen so many pigs?”
“They’re sheep,” I insist—as I have gone on insisting ever since, for it has always been my nature to cling to the literal.
Perhaps it was to compensate for the extent to which my siblings had fucked up my sense of reality that at our next stop—a town called Lisdoonvarna—my mother bought me the box. Perhaps it is for the same reason that I have held on to it all these years. The box is made of a soft blond wood and measures roughly six inches wide by three inches high by four inches deep. On its front the name Lisdoonvarna is written in black Celtic script. On its top an elaborate Celtic knot has been incised and painted in green, yellow, and red. The box has a brass clasp and is lined with green felt.
The box is not beautiful. One corner has been chewed by a dog, another is gouged from when I threw it across a room in a childhood tantrum. Time has not endowed it with anything so sophisticated as a patina. Only age. And yet it retains a certain pathos—the pathos of all cheap things in which an obscure personal significance has been invested.
At some point in my childhood I dubbed it my “treasure box” and started dropping into it little things, random things, things I liked well enough to keep but not well enough to keep in sight. This was because I had no real treasures. When I went to college I left the box at my parents’ house, though later I reclaimed it and carried it with me to Europe and back and finally to the house in Florida where my partner, Mark Mitchell, and I have lived for more than a decade. And here, I am sorry to say, for almost five years, I mislaid the box. It lived, to the extent that such things ever live, in the silent leather-coat-smelling depths of a closet, with only other things of its ilk—a deflated rubber ball, my college diploma, an empty pajama bag in the shape of a turtle—for company.
Then last year, while cleaning out the closet, I happened upon the box. I took it out, dusted it off, and put it on the shelf behind the desk where I write. Periodically I looked at it, not as a source of inspiration but as an emblem of personal history. I read the name Lisdoonvarna and thought of my brother, who had grown up to be an expert on things Celtic, and of my father, who would not allow himself to be defeated by a realignment of perspective, and of my mother, who spent most of her life in the passenger seat even though she would have preferred to be behind the wheel.
Finally I opened it.
Here is what I found inside:
• One child-size identity bracelet in stainless steel incised with my name, my phone number, my date of birth, and the address (743 Cooksey Lane, Stanford, California, 94305) at which I lived from 1966 through 1979.
• One brass replica of the famous mannekin pis (peeing boy) statue in Brussels.
• One gold tassel, marking my graduation from Henry M. Gunn Senior High School (1979).
• One black tassel, marking my graduation from Yale College (1983).
• One plastic figurine of Milou, Tintin’s wire fox terrier.
• One thimble topped with a tiny wire fox terrier.
• One Ford Mustang Fastback 242, Corgi Toy version, in powder blue with psychedelic decor.
• One Mercury station wagon, Matchbox Toy version, in acid green. Although two white dogs are looking out the open rear window, there is no driver.
• One clay caganera, or shitter, made in Barcelona and intended for use in a traditional Catalan nativity scene, its purpose being to provide “the spot of filth without which the spirit cannot cohere.” (The phrase is E. M. Forster’s, from A Passage to India.) This particular exemplar is female and wears a green dress and white shoes.
• One ceramic toad.
I spread these things out on my desk. I tried to make sense of them—and, taken one at a time, they did make sense, in a dream-logic sort of way.
The bracelet: verifiable identity. Affirmation that I was who I was.
The brass statuette of the pissing boy. This is my father, who always had a fondness for the urinary-scatological.
The tassels. Marks of passage. Guarantors. Measures of my steady progress along a certain preordained path back in the days when I still took the idea of the preordained path for granted.
Milou. Tintin’s mascot and faithful companion. The dog of my dreams. (And in fact, much later, Mark and I would acquire our own Milou—a magnificent wire fox terrier named Tolo with whom we would live until his death at fifteen.)
The thimble, which now sits safely on a bookshelf. Safeguard against pricks. In both senses of the word. Overseen, of course, by the wire fox terrier, paragon of loyalty, unswerving companionship, and protection.
The cars. Adventure. Journeying. In one case with dogs. The driver a blank to be filled in.
The caganera. My mother, for whom the bathroom was a place of respite and escape. (As it is for me.)
And finally the toad. The toad is risk. Kiss it and you might be poisoned. Or you might awaken a prince.
Having laid out the objects, I returned them to their green-felt-lined casket. I put the box back on the shelf behind my desk. Though I didn’t want to have to look at it every time I raised my head from the computer, I liked the idea that it was close at hand, if not exactly a source of reassurance, then at least an amulet against perpetual doubt.
Sheep are not pigs.
These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
The life I lead may be my own.