We emptied an old bankers box and put our parents inside. First his, then mine. They shook their fists, but they were no bigger than salt and pepper shakers, so, really, what could they do?
Tension was high in the box. My father called his father a penny-pincher. His mother called my mother’s afghans clownish. They argued about who’d gotten stuck with the bar bill at our rehearsal dinner, which was seventeen years ago. We put the lid on and opened a bottle of Merlot.
I lit cheap votive candles and heated a frozen pizza, which would have made both the mothers roll over and die. “It’s so quiet,” my husband said. We didn’t even use plates.
A few days in, the mothers still weren’t talking to each other, but the fathers worked together to fashion a rope with their shirts and tiny belts. The idea was to scale the side of the box and crawl out of the handle hole, but we figured that was a stretch.
The parents made reasonable requests, like, Please, can we have full fat creamer in the bottle cap today?–– and we obliged. We’re not monsters. We love our parents very much, they just, you know.
Life outside of the box was sweet. No more tiny feet soaking in the deviled egg tray. No more dentures in the shot glasses. No more looking for his father before I peed–– he used to doze off in the sink and wake up shouting mid-stream.
We put an ice cube in the box and they took turns closing their eyes while one of them rubbed against it to get clean. His mother asked if I could make it warm and I explained ice to her, as patiently as I could.
Still, they kept plotting escapes, despite how accommodating we’d been. His father, who’d had fewer hip surgeries than my father, got down on all fours, and they made a human pyramid with my mother at the top. I was wiping down the counters with Clorox when I saw her tiny arm come out of the handle hole, followed by her tiny head. “NO!” She yelled. “YOU’LL KILL US ALL WITH THOSE CHEMICALS!” She flung herself out of the hole and landed on the counter with a soft thud, then, covering her mouth with her silk scarf, she ran like a hero towards the bottle and used all her strength to push it into the sink. I picked her up, flicked on the burner, and dangled her over it–– just until the soles of her shoes got hot. The smell of burning rubber lingered as a reminder of what happens when parents don’t behave.
After that they stopped trying to escape, and we rewarded them. We doled out individual raisins as desserts, made a hot tub with an old tuna can and microwaved seltzer, and set up a miniature honky-tonk where they rode our stapler like a mechanical bull. We even planned a tropical vacation–– all four of them hiked to the rain shower in the master bath and sunbathed on shoe horns in the yard.
We missed our parents, we really did. But the parents we missed, the ones who’d done their best to shelter us from life’s cruelties and made tea when we came home heartbroken or poor, those parents were gone long before the box.
One night I found my husband standing over the box, lid in his hand, watching them sleep. I peered in and looked down at my sleeping mother, propped up against the cardboard, smaller than the doll I’d had as a girl. I smoothed her hair back with my pinky and placed a raisin at her feet.
On my Dad’s birthday I rolled the smallest cigarette I could, lit it, and placed it in the box. They each took tiny puffs. My mother threw up in the corner, his mother got a head rush and immediately fell asleep, but our fathers sat there together, sucking on the butt and talking about the lives they’d lived.
“You should have seen that car turn heads.”
“She sounds real special, Al.”
“She was. She was a real special girl.”
Both men began to snore. The cigarette burned down, getting smaller and smaller, the way smallness comes for us all, over time.
Natalie is a senior writer at 72andSunny and a prose reader for GASHER Journal. Her most recent fiction has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, HAD, and Maudlin House. Natalie lives in Los Angeles. Twitter: @warther_natalie
Photograph by Gabriella (@gabriella.clare)