I’d never heard of the book. But my wife remembered reading it to her sister, so it was one of the first we bought for our own children.
Immediately, I loved it. It became one of the few I genuinely looked forward to reading at night, part of that special, more artful class of bedtime stories that brush up against some wistful adult truth, hard to articulate, but easy to feel — in this case, something like: What a travesty that we all get exiled, year by year, further from our own childhoods. And I swear, as I read, I could see a less-refined awareness of that lighting up inside my daughters, too.
Roxaboxen is about a gaggle of kids and the scrubland at the edge of their neighborhood where, every day, they disappeared to play. Because it was littered with stones and old wooden crates, one of the girls, Marian, named it “Roxaboxen.”
Before long, those crates became chairs and tables, and bakery counters from which to sell imaginary bread — paid for with a particular, scarce type of pebble: the currency of Roxaboxen. Soon, the kids traced Roxaboxen’s streets with stones and plotted out houses, marking floor plans with desert glass. Eventually, there were cars (signified by anything circular held out like a steering wheel) and police who sent traffic offenders to jail in a patch of cacti. There were ice cream parlors and a cemetery and a town hall — all the markers of adult society. Marian was the mayor; “Nobody minded.”
It was all make-believe. It was also all true. Roxaboxen turned out to be a real place, at the corner of Eighth Street and Second Avenue in Yuma, Arizona, where, in the early 1900s, a group of friends piled up figments of their imagination like bricks. The town they constructed was resilient enough to stay with them, even after they grew up and moved away. As old men and women, they sometimes found themselves careening back there, if just the right trap door opened in their daily adult lives. We know because the book (which was written by the real Marian’s daughter, Alice McLerran) says so; it’s how the story ends: “Gray-haired Charles picked up a black pebble on the beach and stood holding it, remembering Roxaboxen.”
A couple of years ago, I felt that strange gravity myself. I was reporting a magazine story near the California–Arizona border about — coincidentally — an old man who had declared himself mayor of his own two-person town, after buying up some acreage in the desert with his wife, then building a house, church, and museum. He couldn’t explain what compelled him to do this, even after several slightly infuriating days of me standing there with my tape recorder, rephrasing that question. Early one morning, feeling claustrophobic and a little glum, I sneaked away. A half hour later, I was parking at the foot of Roxaboxen.
It didn’t look like much: a steeply sloping, empty lot in a weathered subdivision. But as soon as I climbed the hill, I saw the shrine-like arrangements of rocks and desert glass. Some of the newer ones still glinted; the orderliness of others had eroded over time. They’d been deposited there by readers on pilgrimages, or mailed to the site, via a local art museum, with notes or dedications, from around the world.
That little refuge where, a hundred years ago, a handful of kids had pretended to be grown-ups had become a place for so many people to store a part of their childhoods. These included my wife and her sister, and now my two little girls, as well — and somehow even me, apparently, who didn’t lay eyes on the book until I was almost 30.
The sun was rising. I took a picture. Then I picked up a pebble and stood holding it for a second, before heading back to work: remembering Roxaboxen, even though I was still there.