How to Build a Box | Benjamin Kessler

Two 8” x 11” x ¾” planks
Two 8” x 16” x ¾” planks
Two 11¼” x 15¼” x ½” sheets

Amass your lumber. Use planks recovered from Great Cottonwood, which stood out near Haystack Rock for all those years and of which pieces can still be found around Furness, Wyoming: piled up inside sheds or braced together as loading pallets behind the Thrifty Nickel. You may have to ask around. You may have to ask folks who aren’t very friendly. You may have to ask folks who will cement in you a powerful sadness.

As you run your planks over the jointer, gather the shavings and bring them to your face. Breathe deeply the sawdust cloud and imagine yourself in the presence of Great Cottonwood. Can you picture it? The immense shadow that moved across the patterned earth? The groining limbs?

John Colter, who explored much of my home state in the early 1800s, first described Great Cottonwood in his journal:

The tree stands alone, stuck into the hard ground like a spade. The yawning crown spreads like outstretched hands, as if it were accepting the gift of sky. No scions surround it, no seeds scattered. I presume that when it dies, the land will follow in death, leaving this a land of loneliness.

What Colter failed to mention—perhaps he never ventured close enough to notice—was the hollowness of Great Cottonwood. Its trunk was an open mouth with a capacity for ten people—more if you had some willing to stand on shoulders. To be young in Furness meant escaping to this hollowness every so often. Those trunk walls bore witness to many cryings and smokings and fuckings. I took refuge in Great Cottonwood in the wake of my father’s passing. I assume my sister did the same, though we have never spoken about it.

Saw and resaw the wood to length, paying close attention to the rippling age rings. Feel free to sand them away, but know that in doing so you remove the history of Furness in the process. Great Cottonwood was a living almanac, and those who farmed the land knew to look to it for signals. When the leaves are the size of pika eyes, then is the time to put seed to soil. Lore hatchings were scrawled on the trunk’s knobby bark—scars from fire, burrowed-through wormholes, the carvings of many young lovers. Perhaps in the cove-cut wood you will find the arrowed heart of my parents, the sun-bleached gouges.

Is your lumber laced with knots? These wooden eyes see through a great many chronologies. When rooted, they even saw themselves seen. Great Cottonwood’s prominence demanded attention, and from atop the Markstone County High School bell tower, Great Cottonwood painted an alien green against the ochre tones which so saturate my home. Every fall, a fiery yellow exploded over Great Cottonwood, and on clear nights the face of the moon reflected off its leaves. Great Cottonwood was a beacon, a lighthouse on no shore.

You may, if it suits you, join the box with fine, hand-cut dovetails. Though should your measurements be incorrect, you may not easily find more pieces of Great Cottonwood. If you sat on Haystack Rock now you would see nothing but an empty, vacant space. The scene would be featureless until your eyes landed on the nodding oil derricks that flank the county road leading into town. The derricks are now the lifeblood of Furness, and those who can’t escape are ensnared by them, doomed to forever gaze upon their metronome motion.

You may even see my sister, headed towards my mother’s house or to the land my father left us with its poisoned soil. This will be motivated by obligation, by burden. She’ll be in my father’s truck, a truck she has driven since his death and will drive until she too dies. You may see a cloud of rasping dust kicked up from her back tires. You may see the sagging front bumper, slumped to one side like a mouth.

But you will not see Great Cottonwood. Great Cottonwood is gone.

Ricky Corrigan III—heir to his father’s two-pump self-service station—heartbroken and drunk, drove a stolen pickup out into the country so that he could spin donuts and throw his empties out the open window. Something must have distracted Ricky because he drove headlong into Great Cottonwood, and the truck’s engine ignited and before you know it Great Cottonwood stood six stories of fire. Ricky ran off on foot, but his letterman jacket was in the back seat of the pickup, spared by the blaze just enough to make out the three Markstone County High School 4A football patches. By the time anyone came out to check on Great Cottonwood the fire had burned itself out, leaving only the charred remains of a once tall tree, the trunk splintered like jagged teeth sprout from the ground.

Great Cottonwood was made into many things. The Kiwanis came and took one of the larger branches. They made a baseball bat out of it and sent it to a firehouse in Denver. My uncle crafted a table and chairs which now reside in the Markstone County Courthouse. Someone, I can’t remember who, turned fine cufflinks from the bark and you could get your initials engraved on them. The principal of the high school had three pairs made, and he polished them mirror bright. My mother claims that the wooden cross above her bed is birthed from Great Cottonwood, though it doesn’t look distinct from any other cross I’ve seen. I never made anything out of Great Cottonwood. I don’t even own a small piece of it. When I got out there all that was left was a burnt patch of dirt flayed like a compass rose.

You must think us an awful vulturous lot, picking clean the carrion. But what pieces of Great Cottonwood that still float around are manacles rather than totems. To the people that own them they are chains around their wrists, binding them to Furness forever.

If John Colter took any of the tree with him on his travels it is not documented. Little is known of him as a person outside of his inherited journals. We do know he was alone more often than not, and that in this solitude he didn’t find happiness. Plagued by a restless soul, he was determined to keep exploring, as if to plant oneself instilled sickness. He did not stay in the land that would become Furness, and neither did I. I left town only three weeks after Great Cottonwood burned up, never thinking to carry it with me in any way but in my mind, a weightless way.

What you are making bears no such weightlessness. It must occupy space in your home, the tangle of your life.


Sixteen 1¼” steel nails, galvanized

Do you know what radon gas smells like? Scientists will tell you it’s odorless, but that can’t be true—my memory of it is too strong. My father, rest his soul, carried the stink of radon home from the Iron Recovery Hills nearly his entire life. It was sewn in the lapels of his barn coat, sunk deep into his pants pockets. It hung on coat hooks near the grandfather clock and lived within the cracks between the baseboard and the wall. Radon’s stench coated the inside of the refrigerator and our food tasted of it. An apple rotted from it. When butter melted in the pan, the smoke was thick with it. My father would take me into his arms and I smelled radon in his lungs. He sweated radon when he push-started my first car, and he spat it out when he coughed blood into the crook of his flannel-clad arm, the cuffs rolled, outturned. The smell is both honeyed and acrid, begrimed. The only time I didn’t smell radon was when instead I smelled bleach in the hospital where he died.


*A special note on rabbets

You may, if your skill allows, inset the topmost plank within a frame of rabbets. With only hand tools, this task can be quite difficult, though the result is a smooth, level surface.

Who taught you how to work with your hands? Can you feel the intricacies of grain? When I sit down at a wooden table the tips of my fingers seek out the divots and trenches that scar its surface. This is something I acquired.

If you are good with a chisel, you may shape the rabbets using eye alone. Success in this regard will beget envy from me. My father possessed this ability. It grew through his bones as a tree wraps itself about a fence post. His hands—stony and square, made for breaking and splitting—contained within them a deftness for the nuanced behavior of woodworking. I begged to learn, to be apprentice to his gift. For his part he tried, but I was no student. I proved myself lousy with precision and unwilling to steady my hand in the ways the craft required. The ability to learn these skills lapsed with his death, and now my attempts at building are smudged, careless, void of that which gives creation life.

There is patience in learning. I hope that you can call up within yourself this patience. It will root you to the earth and formulate in you a peace that I seek even now.


One quart polyurethane varnish

If you don’t have any varnish, you may make your own. Simply combine:

1 part purified water (Furness continues to use bottled water ever since the county found drilling chemicals in the water table.)
1 part North Platte river water (To float the North Platte at dusk is to witness the world unclose itself.)
1/2 part crude oil—Halpert’s, if you can get it (For viscosity.)
1/2 part Fort Ridge sandstone, ground fine (For color.)
1/2 part cigarette ash (Fresh if possible from an ashtray at Santon’s.)
1/4 part coal (Wyoming owes itself to coal.)
1/16 part gold dust (Absolutely necessary.)
1/32 part of any discontinued soda (You can still find cans of Poppler’s at Stop and Go.)
1/46 part Shoshone war paint (For color.)
1/256 part green grass (To find even that much will be a challenge.)

Mix the ingredients in a rusted wheelbarrow and allow to sit in the howling wind overnight, where the ghosts of this land will enmesh themselves within your new varnish.

Apply as needed.


*On occupancy

Note that the contents of your creation, once sealed with nails, will be inaccessible. For this reason the choice of constituent must be taken under great consideration. You may, for example, fill your box with:

Photos, business cards, expired driver’s licenses, extra shirt buttons, toy cars, campaign buttons, baby teeth, the tassel from your high school graduation, x-rays, cut out obituaries, quilt swatches, army patches, medallions, recipes, undeveloped film, shopping lists, bad checks, birthday checks, checks you never intend to cash, dog tags, ashes, cigarette butts, vaccination records, pension statements, church programs, report cards you wanted to display, report cards you wanted to hide, car keys, house keys, lockbox keys, the air in your home, the air in your yard, the air near the river, the air at the factory, the air you breathe, the air they breathe, a parent’s ashes, speeding tickets, bones, fossils, a diamond ring run through with a gold chain, petroleum, or smoke.

What you pick will be hidden away beneath nails and wood and weight, and the vessel—unlike the clasped hands of someone in prayer—cannot be made whole again should you choose to rend it open.

Benjamin Kessler’s work has appeared in Superstition Review, Hobart, and Portland Review. He reads for The Masters Review and lives in Portland, Oregon.

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