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Big Box

Claire Donato


Costa Mesa, California’s branch of the second-largest discount retailer in the United States, is architecturally housed in a box and is therefore otherwise known as a “big-box store,” “supercenter,” or “hypermarket.” This box is one box amidst a landscape of seemingly endless boxes. The onslaught of these structures has increased continually since 1962, the year of the first box. 

Seven years prior to the year of the first big box, Guy Debord, a founding member of the French group Situationist International, elucidated a theory of psychogeography—that is, that physical and rule-based topographies of geographical environments can impact our moods, how we behave, and what we perceive. 

As he developed his theory, it is doubtful Guy Debord was thinking about Costa Mesa, a most unwalkable city that gained its name from a winning entry submitted by a former schoolteacher, Alice Plumer, in a 1920 contest. For her winning entry, Plumer received $25, which is equivalent to roughly $310.59 today—or enough money to buy a large supply of apples from Costa Mesa’s first commercial apple orchard.

Nor is it plausible that Debord would have liked Costa Mesa, a city through which our anti-heroine walks because she lacks an automotive organ; a city home to an anti-mall, a paradoxically-named shopping center that “[serves] the lifestyle demands of the trend-setting shopper within a relaxed indoor-outdoor environment”; and a city whose surfers may be 21st century flâneurs, a word that refers to urban wanderers, saunterers, or loafers who predate the origins of psychogeography.

To walk in Costa Mesa is a radical gesture on par with attending the Orange County Anarchist Bookfair, an anti-capitalist event whose mission promotes a new reality. This mission supposes that a current reality—a world or state of things—actually exists in Orange County, a place that does not exist, a place without history.

It is a 2.2 mile walk from the nature preserve to the second-largest discount retailer’s box. 

First, our protagonist heads north on Placentia Avenue for .6 miles. She walks on the side of the four-lane road, under a black bridge, past mustard-toned construction vehicles. FAIRVIEW PARK IMPROVEMENT: RENEW COSTA MESA! YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK, a sign says. One thinks about the contradiction of preserving a nature preserve.  

The side of the road is accented by a number of seemingly functionless sky blue boxes, accented by an American flag, accented by non-native plants. 

A school bus passes, blowing exhaust, followed by a vintage station wagon. Suffer the children. 

Eventually, the side of the road turns into a long and tall brick wall that shields houses from the street. 

Next, our protagonist turns right onto Adams Avenue, where she walks for .9 miles amid the sun’s gold and orange light. 

Finally, she turns left onto Harbor Boulevard, where she walks .6 miles to the box, her final destination. 

The box’s parking lot is shaped like a dartboard:


The parking lot’s rhetoric alludes to the dartboard’s rings (double and triple) and Bullseyes (outer and inner). Like the dartboard, the parking lot is demarcated into 20 radial sections. On a traditional dartboard, metal wire might separate these sections. On the box’s dartboard parking lot, the spaces where metal wire should be are covered in cooked vegetation—trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses (mostly non-native species)—and landscaped cart islands meant to stimulate interest. 

Declares the free encyclopedia: “An old name for a dartboard is ‘butt.’”

Our protagonist enters the parking lot around the 20, a number indicating the decade she is currently in. On a dartboard, 20 may be otherwise referred to as twelve o’clock, due north, or up, an orientational metaphor used to express one’s mood, as in the following sentence: I’m feeling up

Walking toward the box, she steps into a mood, a most basic feeling. This mood is neither hopeless nor bright; rather, it is an ellipsis, a suspension point or set of dots—“. . .”—indicating an omission. This existential condition, otherwise known as acedia, was described by a fourth-century Christian monk as “the noonday demon,” a condition causing one to wander aimlessly in and out of her box (her monastic cell), and to gaze up at the sun and sigh. 

Between the parking lot’s double and triple rings, a surfer and a toddler cross her path. Both are wearing plastic ear buds in their ears. Both are drinking green juice from individual plastic cups. Perhaps these plastic cups are made of so-called biodegradable plastic (polylactic acid made from GMO corn), although in Southern California the probability of this is gracelessly thin, she thinks, recalling a health food store in Pasadena whose unhappy employees serve up vegan quiche, tempeh burritos, jackfruit stew and tofu falafel atop disposable plastic which, upon being used, is heaped upon itself in black plastic bags to be sent to a landfill, where they go nowhere, or where they are converted into methane, a greenhouse gas, provided the right conditions are in place (the right proportion of a particular kind of moisture to a particular set of microbes). If they are lucky, they make it to one of the great garbage patches in the middle of one of the great oceans. This garbage patch, no doubt, is already filled with plastic cups, whether made of traditional plastic or some other biodegradable material, because the mere fact that a cup is biodegradable does not necessarily mean it will travel through a portal marked Compost Only following its use. 

The surfer is pushing a red plastic shopping cart filled to the brim with plastic bags whose opacity fails. So too does the toddler, only the toddler’s red plastic shopping cart is a miniature version of the surfer’s and contains nothing except a plastic box containing eight cream-filled cakes, each of which are individually wrapped in plastic. They walk in a straight line, staring toward the horizon, lined with boxes. Both are wearing Drunk Tank Pink-colored swim trunks that, like the sun, saps her energy. 

Between the triple ring and outer Bullseye, our anti-heroine is almost hit by a car.

Between the outer and inner Bullseye, she passes a toddler on a leash, whom she mistakes for a dog. 

She also passes a hedgehog of the type that has habituated to this landscape.   

As she walks, she thinks about paper towels and the algorithms that constitute daily life. 

She thinks about the socialist candidate who is currently running for president, and the free bumper stickers endorsing his candidacy recently offered to her in an email.

She thinks of a time in her life when she repetitively played a tile-matching puzzle game, only pausing between levels to tear and sigh. 

She thinks of what one actually thinks about when one is driving—when words cease to begin as one stares at the horizon in the same way the surfer and the toddler were staring: in a way that implies confronting the inevitable.  

She thinks about online dating in the context of role-playing games. 

She thinks about the vegan who raped her in college. “I have to come eventually or I won’t be able to stand,” he said. 

She thinks about the abolition of police and the cultural toolkit that enables evangelical Christians to perpetuate racism, even as they maintain an ideological veneer that purports a commitment to social justice.

She thinks about the term exegesis, and the possibility of engaging in a critical interpretation of parking lot landscapes. 

She thinks about the mind in the head and the “symbolical head illustrating the natural language of the faculties,” as diagrammed by early 19th century phrenologists.

She thinks about men—all men—but especially the American Santa Claus as consummate patriarch: “a successful factory owner, philanthropist, and quasi-religious figure” clad in boots, “secure [ . . . ] in the pantheon of American financiers, manufacturers, and industrial moguls,” with elves laboring on his behalf. 

She thinks about the airy canopy of media and the possibility of mass communications that do not reach people widely.

She thinks about the teacher’s role as metacognition and the way this role permeates her interactions with others to such an extent that she is unable to share meaningful information. Instead, she watches other people’s thoughts and helps them behold these thoughts as they might behold pocket-sized crystals. 

A question arises: Am I but the sum of what I read on the free encyclopedia? 

She thinks of Molloy’s sucking stones.

She thinks of Alice’s pool of tears.

She thinks of the planet Solaris and its manifestations of guilt in human form.

As she thinks, she begins counting the number of long-form television shows she has watched in the past year. She thinks about breaking each series’ episodes down into their respective run times, then adding these run times together into a master number of minutes she has spent watching. This master number will become her new security password.

Then she thinks about Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems:


. . . and NASA’s space colony paintings: 


When these two images combine, they form a space-time continuum merging the past with what’s next.

Finally, she thinks about cockroaches and bedbugs—so-called pests—and wonders if they are beneficial to a larger ecosystem.

Moving through the dartboard parking lot, her body is a small missile, or a miniature javelin. 


Inside the box, there is a cooling.

Header image by Claire Donato.

Claire Donato's writing collates forms and materials. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches in the BFA/MFA Writing Programs at Pratt Institute, where she received the 2020-21 Distinguished Teacher Award. She is a student of psychoanalysis, practices Zen meditation, and is at work on a full-length LP of songs. Her books are Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press) and The Second Body (Poor Claudia; Tarpaulin Sky Press reissue forthcoming).

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