We (had black boxes)

by Jens Alfke ⟿ October 11, 2003

…each of us had a little box. We didn’t know each other, not at first; we weren’t even aware of each other. “We” was a grouping defined solely by the fact of our having these little boxes. Each box was black lacquer and about two inches on a side. A network of fine black raised lines covered it. The lid could be opened, revealing nothing much inside.

To be honest, it was hard to remember what was inside after you shut the lid. Sometimes people would look inside, shut the lid, then look inside again because they couldn’t remember what was inside. They’d repeat this process for minutes or hours at a time until someone kindly distracted them. Anyway, whatever was inside the boxes, sometimes it talked to us. Usually it would name a place to go. It didn’t make much sense for a while, but all the time the boxes were gradually bringing all of us closer to each other.

Then the instructions started to change. They still didn’t make much sense, but now we would walk around and see something like … like a couple of Coke cans stacked on top of each other, or a blue circle spray-painted on a wall, or a trash can set on fire, and we’d know that another one of us had done it. But we never saw each other. After a few weeks of this, each of us could tell there were hundreds of us all in the same neighborhood. We were each so excited because we had a pretty good idea of what was going on by then and were anxious to meet each other and talk shop about our black cubes. Like “Do you polish yours? What with?” or “Do you sleep with it?” or “What’s the weirdest thing it ever told you to do?”

It was a busy city and of course there were people walking everywhere, crossing streets and working in shops and driving along and going to and from home, and it was never really possible to tell who might have a cube discreetly tucked away on their person. We lived in a continual frisson of excitement, punctuated by new tasks given to us by our cubes and performed in secret. But none of us saw anyone else doing their tasks.

Then one day it turned out every one of us must have simultaneously gotten the same direction: to put down the cube. It felt strange, naked, frightening. Imagine losing your cellphone? Your wallet? More like losing your mama. We walked about in dazes absently wiggling fingers in suddenly-empty pants pockets, clutching suddenly-light purses, missing the accustomed friction of laquered corners against hips. It was unpleasant, and I know all across the city we were getting ready to think about commencing some serious freaking out, when each of us suddenly saw a familiar beloved glint of shiny black on the sidewalk / in a mailbox / on a restaurant table / on a bus seat / taped to a stop sign, and swooped to pick it up.

The boxes felt cold from their time alone, and had unaccustomed little scratches or dents or stains or fingerprints on them. But still the same voice! And next we were all on our ways out of the city back to our own homes, with an odd feeling as though we’d all somehow met…