I would turn thirty-five in another month and the class was at a community college and so I thought I wouldn’t be the oldest, given that it was a night class, but everyone was so young and serious already. Years ago when I was those students’ age I took a course in decoupage at this same community college and everyone was older by decades. I had hoped it would be the same.
Our instructor was almost as young as the students. He was a short and very handsome man with a goatee calculated to create an effect. The goatee made him look like a French painter in a cartoon. Our project: we were each to make a “miniature structure” that exemplified our lives. A miniaturization of our lives.
One girl in the class finished early. She made a pop-up book that looked as well constructed as a commercially published pop-up book and included a page about Cancun with a pop-up palm tree. I don’t know why she was at the community college. She could afford any college, it seemed apparent.
Someone brought in a pack of playing cards with photographs of his parents and old girlfriends on various cards, with pictures of himself as the joker. One of the youngest women had begun making a set of miniature voodoo dolls with giant pins stuck in them. When she first told us her idea everyone laughed—except me. I didn’t want revenge—I didn’t want anyone to be hurt anymore. And it seems if you stick a pin into a doll at some point you’ll stick a pin into yourself.
The rest of us didn’t have even the beginnings of our projects to show, although I was the only one without any idea at all about what I was going to make.
A miniature to represent my life? My life was already miniature. I had left Chelsea’s father less than a year earlier, and my daughter and I were living in an apartment complex with such thin walls that we could hear everything next door. We could actually listen to bacon sizzling in our neighbors’ kitchen. At least we had a bit of storage room. There was one large utility closet into which I’d crammed all sorts of stuff I didn’t have the heart to get rid of. My mother had collected dolls, and they were all there, wrapped in tissue, waiting for Chelsea to take an interest in them. But Chelsea had never particularly liked dolls. She was nine and stuffed animals were what interested her.
A doll house took up too much room in the closet. It used to belong to my mother—and Chelsea actually disliked it. She called it “creepy,” and maybe it was. The tin roof was sunken in from where my sister sat on it many years ago, and the interior walls were an ugly mustard color. Even when I was a child I didn’t play with it. Still, it had been my mother’s. I would never get rid of it for that reason alone. Otherwise, the room was filled with boxes of old books and Chelsea’s baby clothes and some of our family’s memorabilia in scrapbooks that my sister didn’t want. I thought about finding something in that room to sacrifice for my art project but nothing inspired me.
So I went on-line. I typed into the search engine the word “miniature.” A lot of dog breed possibilities came up, but then I found the Miniature Book Society and miniature horses and miniature books about miniature golf. And I thought: what if I created a tiny collage of hunters and called it “Miniature Hunting”—because the hunters just wounded the animal? And then I thought about making a model of a mini-refrigerator, a mini-refrigerator so small that it would only hold one slice of cheese. Then I couldn’t help but think of the hotel where I went after the worst week with Chelsea’s father—and how while Chelsea slept I opened the mini-refrigerator and there were all sorts of miniature bottles gleaming at me like a tiny tabernacle: miniature bottles of rum and vodka and whiskey, and I was tempted. Tempted to become just a little tiny bit drunk. But each little bottle was so costly. Opening a mini-refrigerator in a hotel—it’s like opening a crypt of jewels. And there was Chelsea sound asleep, giving off that soft light children give off.
I was glad I hadn’t spent the money. A day later I found our apartment, although the place was so small that I kept dreaming I was in an airplane and washing my hands in an airplane restroom sink. It’s true, the place was practically miniaturized. I had to hold pans vertically in the kitchen sink to wash them. And sometimes I went into the utility closet with its thick walls—the only thick walls in the apartment—because once in the night Chelsea came running into the bedroom as if she should comfort me—the walls in my room were that thin.
Some days I woke up full of anger at our situation. But I had a job, at least, designing banners and brochures with a printing service, and I was thankful for that. Still, I was angry.
It was better to be angry than to be depressed. I had lost my mother and Chelsea her grandmother three months earlier, and that was very hard. My mother had been blind at the end of her life. When she lost her sight things didn’t become smaller for her. Instead, things spread, the edges of things bled and grew diffuse as if magnified and blurred in extreme close-up.
I tried to keep life as normal as I could for Chelsea. She still liked some things she had liked when she was younger—just not dolls. She still liked Goldilocks, for instance. But one night I was fuming about my art assignment even as I read Chelsea the raggedy old copy of the book that my mother had read to me. And it seemed to me as I read to Chelsea that Goldilocks was a home invader who wrecked things—that she deliberately put herself in a position where she destroyed the prized possessions of a family. She seemed stupid, trying everything out in that house as if the world was supposed to fit her desires and it didn’t matter what she ruined.
“You don’t have to finish reading,” Chelsea said. It had to have been my tone of voice. I had ruined the book for her. So much was already ruined for her.
What would I ever be able to tell Chelsea? That I didn’t want her father back? That we weren’t safe in the house with him? That there are things that happen in a marriage that can’t be undone.
I sat with Chelsea for a while and then went to my bedroom. When I woke up it was almost four in the morning. I brought out the dollhouse from the utility closet and set it on the kitchen table. All the doll house’s furniture had been lost years ago and the entire house was coated with greasy dust.
I set to work. I found some old wrapping paper for the doll house walls, some potholders I cut up for rugs, a soap dispenser for a tub, a tomato-shaped pin cushion for a soft chair. To make a table I cut apart a green plastic basket that had held strawberries. But the real work was making people. The next morning while Chelsea was at school I went to Michael’s Craft Store to pick up some clay and wire for the bodies.
It took me longer to make clothing than to make the bodies. I sewed tiny skirts and tiny dresses and little suits and trousers.
In each room of the dollhouse I put one little person and twisted each tiny body so that it curled on the floor of the room.
For my art project I attached a placard to the house that said “Take Away At Least One Person.” I decided that every time one of the little figures was taken away I would put another figure in its place because always, I knew, there are people who are somewhere lying on the floor of a house. And it will take someone else to help set them upright, to help their legs move again, to tell them it’s all right to sit at a table, to leave a house that should be left.
Somewhere someone is curled on the floor—holding themselves so that they won’t come apart. That is a simple truth. But it can’t be seen because it is so large.
[Refer: This story refers to Anne Harding Woodworth's poem "Quantum."]
Lee Upton is the author of The Tao of Humiliation: Stories, which was released from BOA Editions in May, 2014. She is the author of twelve other books, including the essay collection Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy; the novella The Guide to the Flying Island; and a fifth collection of poetry, Undid in the Land of Undone. She is a professor of English and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College.
Image by ChattyA