Monday, August 30, 2010

One man's random universe is another's signs and portents

Friday, as a downpour flooded area streets, overflowed ditches and turned lawns into lakes, a large white balloon settled into the center of a plant in our frontyard flower bed. The white ribbon trailing from the balloon led to the stem of a rose bush we planted in 2008 in memory of Marisa Joy Williams, a beloved friend who died in a car accident at the age of 18.

Rain drummed on the surface of the balloon like a rapid heartbeat.

Now, logically, I realize someone launched or lost this balloon, and it traveled randomly upon the stormy gusts until driven down into its resting place in a nest of grasses and thorns, looking like a dinosaur egg in the front yard.

But reason and faith are comfortable companions in my brain. I also believe in signs, that seemingly random events have meaning, that “synchronicity” is more than just the title of the last studio album from the Police. And this sign came like a message from above, just when it was needed.

Ten days prior, I had met with Marisa’s family and other friends to mark her 21st birthday. As has become our tradition, we gathered by her tomb, wrote birthday messages on helium balloons, clipped off the trailing ribbons and released the floating orbs to the heavens.

That same day, the single bud on the memorial rose had bloomed.

We joke sometimes about the people who may find the balloons we launch and what they must wonder about the girl to whom these birthday messages are written. I have a feeling I’m closer, now, to understanding their possible reactions.

In the past, I have written to and about Marisa on her birthday or other milestone dates. You may have read some of those notes here. This year, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t do so. I felt closed off, like that avenue of expression was unavailable. Honestly, I felt a guilty as the days passed and I hadn’t acknowledged her beyond a passage I placed on a personal blog.

It has been a difficult year in many ways, and so many things that bound us to her memory have frayed. Friends moved away, family became distracted with school or work, and we too often struggled just to get by. She was never far from our thoughts, even as we seemed to lose contact with one another.

In symbolism, the color white indicates innocence, safety, goodness. The egg is a symbol of life, not just birth but the full cycle, the hope of resurrection. The rose is an emblem of love, and pink indicates femininity and happiness. I can think of no more accurate description of Marisa Joy.

If she (or some higher power) had a message for us in the morning’s storm, it must have been this: Live and love and be happy until we meet again.


This was my Sunday "Undercurrents" column for The News Herald.
>>Read comments by News Herald readers.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Joy in the Wilderness

I can’t open my eyes. I hurt all over, joints and flesh, bone and muscle. Nothing feels right. I try to count fingers, flex toes. My skin is like fire. My brain throbs behind my eyes.

“Hey, Mister!”

There’s a voice. A female voice, shouting. A little girl? I turn my head toward the sound, and my neck pops. At least it moves.

I open my eyes. Dirt falls in, and I’m blind again. I start to rub them, but my arms protest. I lie limp instead and blink.

“Mister!” the voice yells. It sounds deeper now, in its anger. More mature. A woman?

“You almost hit this turtle!” she says.

Turtle? What is she talking about? I try to recall, but it‘s a blur. I was on my Harley. Faster and faster. Running away — from what? And then, suddenly, a girl in the way. I swerved. The bike slid, and I set it down. Hard. I skidded, bounced, rolled. I must have hit my head.

I turn again and crack one eye. Blink.

There’s a girl. A young woman. A girl, standing in the road. She’s just a shadow against the blue sky, but I can see she’s holding a large turtle over her head. She carries it to the edge of the road, where a grader has created a raised ledge, and where the brush grows right up to the clay like a living wall. My eye aches, but it turns to follow her, and my neck cranes despite itself. She sets the turtle into the woods. It’s marshy out there. I can hear the animal crawling in pine needles and leaves, and it sounds like a monster thrashing.

The girl walks toward me now. She’s pretending to balance on a tightrope, placing one oversized rubber boot in front of the other. My second eye opens on its own, and I can see her more clearly, though the image throbs in time with my brain. Larger, smaller, closer, farther, younger, older. She’s a teenager, wearing jean shorts and a red tee-shirt, black suspenders, a brown macramé scarf, rain boots painted in random colors that seem to run and reset as I notice them, athletic socks extending to her knees with mismatched stripes. Her hair — I shake my head and immediately regret it. I must have hit the ground really hard. I can’t seem to focus. Her hair keeps changing color, length, and shape.

She stands over me, hands on her knees, grinning at me. Right now, her hair is blond, short and fluffy. For a moment I think there’s a tropical fish painted or tattooed around one of her eyes, and I start to grin, too. It makes my face sore.

“Ola,” she says. “You should be more careful.”

I try to sit up, but my back disagrees. I groan and lie back. Close my eyes.

She hops over me, hops past me to the bike, and I squint to see. Her boots raise little puffs of red dust, like moondust stirred by astronauts. She’s weightless, otherworldly. She bends down to grab the handlebars, and I’m about to tell her to leave it alone when she sets it up like it was made of papier-mâché. I can see clay all over the side and in the workings of it, but it seems no worse for the wreck.

“You could get hurt,” she says.

She kicks down the stand. She turns and leans against the seat, crosses her arms to regard me with a pout. Her hair is black and cut in an uneven shag. Strange red highlights. The fish is gone. Her scarf is green. She’s wearing a jean skirt and a green tank top over a yellow one.

“You’re probably right,” I say. I drop my head against the road and wince. Lights dance behind my eyelids.

“Mister? Why are you sad?”

“I’m not sad, kid. I’m hurt. I wrecked my bike.”

“You’re sad. I’ve seen it before. And I’m not a kid. Did I tell you I like your bike? Where were we? Oh — I know what to do. You can’t be sad when you have a new friend.”

She looks around, regards the trees, the pebbles, checks between the spokes of the bike. Her hair is brown and curled in ringlets like a fairytale princess. There are tiny silvery stickers like teardrops on her face. No scarf.

“Friend, friend. Where can we find one of those?” she sings.

She hops over me again and settles beside me, grinning. She lies back on the road and looks at the sky. She elbows me in the ribs, and even though it hurts, I smile. She’s funky. She’s cute. She’s easy to like.

She points at the sky.

“Can you see those two clouds? What are they doing? No! Don’t look! They’re making little clouds!”

She covers her eyes, then sneaks a peek between her fingers.

“Jesus,” I say.

I try again to sit up, and this time I make it. She pushes my back from where she’s lying, helping me upright. Then she sits up beside me, leans forward and touches her boot toes. I’m just a little uncomfortable, now, because she’s acting so familiar, like we’re old friends, or siblings, or father and daughter. Or all of that at once.

“Where’d you come from?” I ask. “You been tromping through the woods? You live back at Eli’s place?”

“No way,” she says, adjusting a white bandana that hadn’t been on her head a moment ago. She makes a raspberry noise. “He’s a good bowler and stuff, but he’s grumpy.”

I realize she hasn’t answered my question, but it’s okay. I’m still not sure she’s real, after all. Her hair is blond again, and tied in two ponytails. She has big hoops in her ears. No bandana.

“What’s your favorite color?” she says.

“I don’t know.”

“Wrong. Favorite color?”

“Okay. Blue, I suppose. Why?”

“No reason. I could have guessed, though. You have zero imagination.”

She holds up a Polaroid camera — don’t ask me where it came from — holds it at arm’s length, turns it back toward us, and pushes the button with her thumb. It flashes and spits out a photo.

“I like pictures,” she says. “They don’t really steal your soul, you know.”

She puts the camera on the dirt between her knees and she pulls a blue Sharpie out of her right boot. She’s wearing long pants now, and her hair is brown and longer and braided in cornrows on one side. I wonder what she’ll look like in the picture when it develops. She draws a heart on the white border at the bottom of the print, then hands it to me.

“You keep this one,” she says. “Put it in your pocket. Look at it when you’re feeling sad.”

I tell her I will. I shake the print and wait for it to develop. She snatches it from me, opens my jacket, and shoves the print in my inside pocket. Red clay dust falls out.

“Not now, silly,” she says. “When you’re sad again.”

She pats my jacket against my chest, raising great gusts of dust off my body. I grin. She’s right. I feel better already. Clear headed. The throb behind my eyes has passed. Everything makes sense all of a sudden.

“What?” she says. “Did you expect a whale to swallow you up until you changed your mind?”

I shook my head. I know I can’t go back — back to what I was. I have to go forward. Behind me — that is, back where we met the cop — is nothing but chaos. Trouble. Darkness. Despair. And ahead — or rather, wherever Shekinah is going — is a wide open future. Possibilities. Light. If I go back, I’m throwing myself into the maelstrom, I’ll be swallowed by monsters, and I'll never know what message I was meant to bring.

I slap the dust off my jeans and shake it out of my jacket and shirt. I dance a jig, stomping the clay loose, and laughing. I’m feeling such a sense of relief and purpose, and the laughter comes easy. I bend over and whack the dust. I suspect I have it in my every nook and cranny. She giggles and flutters her hands in my hair to clear the dirt, then she steps back, coughing, and we laugh some more.

And then we just take a breath.

There’s quiet in the world for a moment, and I simply look at her. She’s small but solid. Real enough. I’d guess now she’s older than I first thought. Her teeth are ivory white within the smile of lips so deep red that the color seems magical, and her eyes are the purest crystal blue.

I ask if I can give her a lift, and she giggles and snorts like it’s the funniest thing she’s heard in a long time. I laugh too, just to hear her giggle.

“No. I’m good,” she says. “But do me a favor and wear a helmet if you keep riding this thing, okay? And watch out for turtles and other little creatures.”

“Sure, kid.”

“And be happy!”

I start off slow because I don’t want to raise a dust cloud over her. I look in the mirror, but of course she isn’t there. I brake and look over my shoulder. It’s a mile to the highway, and there are no open trails into the woods on either side of the road. She just simply isn’t there and probably never was to begin with. I don’t dare look for the photo in my pocket, but I smile again when I think of it.

I’m still grinning when I pull up in front of Eli’s garage. He’s grinning too, as he meets me in the dust cloud that catches up to me, draws back his massive right arm, and punches me in the face.

(c) 2010 by Tony Simmons
Originally from the "366 Days" project
Now Chapter 6 of "The Book of Gabriel"
and reprinted here tonight because of a visitation of sorts that I will tell you about on Sunday.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Where the Future Comes From

I stood at a distance from her, but we looked at each other and smiled. She looked away and back again. I smiled at the sidewalk. This was the most we’d communicated ever, despite the fact that we’d both been catching the afternoon trolley here all summer. Heat, rain, sunshine, wind. Huddled under our separate umbrellas, not making eye contact.

I glanced away and noticed a circle of white mushrooms in the grass just off the sidewalk. They’d sprouted up overnight, as mushrooms will do. I looked back at her, and she had taken a step closer to me.

“You know the legend about mushroom circles?” she said. “That’s where fairies danced. It’s magical. You can step into the circle and be frozen in time. You’d think only a second or two had passed, and when you step out you’ll find years have gone by.”

“Cool. I always wanted to see the future.”

I walked over to stand just outside the circle. There were nine white caps in the grass, forming an oval. I looked back at her.

“Maybe you shouldn’t do it,” she said.

“As long as we have to wait for this trolley? Anything to make the time go faster.”

I stepped into the circle and looked up at her. She didn’t move or speak. Traffic paused. The world went silent for a moment, and I wondered.

What if I step out of the circle and 10 years have passed? The economy’s collapsed. National Guard in tanks and Humvees patrol the street. People ride bicycles along the four-lane roads, past closed convenience stores, shuttered restaurants, boarded over boutiques, empty parking lots.

What if a hundred years have slipped away, and the polar ice caps have melted, and this part of the world is underwater now? I could step out to find myself on the bottom of the sea, crushed by brackish water as fish play among the wrecked cars still sitting where they once ruled the pavement.

I watch her standing there by the trolley sign, and she smiles at me. It comes over her face slowly, like morning dawning. It brightens her eyes. I realize time has stopped for one of us, at least.

What if I step out of the circle and she has gone away? I have missed the trolley and never found out her name?

I return her smile and step out of the circle, into a future I didn’t have a minute ago.

(c) 2010 by Tony Simmons
From the "366 Days" project
Chosen because I need to feel a little hope tonight.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Stories About Her

I like to think that she’d say it’s OK to tell stories about her. That she’d find the idea funny and exciting, and take it seriously for about half a second before launching into suggestions and stories of her own.

“Remember that time I fought the airship pirates?” she’d say. “The desperate sword battle across the back of their dirigible? I was disguised as a boy, all bound nice and tight where it mattered, and the pirate captain kept calling me ‘young sir.’ If not for my carple tunnel brace blocking his foil, I’d have a hook for a hand.”


“How about the time we decoded the heiroglyphs on my autograph shoes, and it led us through the forest to the forgotten tomb of the hobo king? We barely escaped with our lives, and wouldn’t have if not for distracting the hobo zombies by tossing down our scarves. The next time we ventured there, the tomb had been moved and all the trees cut down.”

Or even,

“Once upon a time, there was a turtle that, upon my saving it from the middle of a busy thoroughfare, promised to grant me three wishes, all of which came true but would come undone if ever I revealed them to anyone.”

Or possibly,
“Hippie Jesus fiddled with his eyebrow piercing all afternoon. It’s not like he’d never been pierced before — he had the marks to prove it, as Thomas pointed out. But I think it was a nervous gesture, as he was put off by my magical galoshes, which not only allowed me to walk on water, but also kept my toe-socks dry. Jesus, of course, had wet feet.”

I like to think there are such stories about her to be told, stories that are no less true for having never happened, and no less unbelievable than the true stories people tell of her even today.

Perhaps one day we’ll again tell some of them together and draw a picture.
(c) 2010 by Tony Simmons
From the '366 Days' project

(Reprinted today in memory of Marisa Joy Williams, who inspired this tale, and who would have been 21 years old today.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

A to Z

Angela berated Chris. Despite everyone’s formal garb, he insisted just khakis looked more natural.

“Only participating quietly relieves suspicions,” the upset vamp whispered. “Examine your zipper.”

(c) 2010 by Tony Simmons
from the '366 Days' project

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Life's the Same

I awoke last month in an alternate reality, but one so nearly like my own that it took most of the first morning here before I realized I was not where I should have been.

Just about everything was as I remembered it. You expect that when you wake up — that the same comforter is on the bed as when you turned out the lights last night, that the shade of paint on the walls hasn’t changed in the last eight hours, that the clock radio snooze button still waits for your blind reach where it always waits.

All this was unchanged, and as such it went unnoticed. I mean, you don’t wake up anticipating that things are different. You take for granted that nothing has altered in the night. It’s only when things are all wrong that you immediately notice.

You don’t wake up and think, “Oh look. No one broke in last night and changed the carpet out for tile while I was asleep.”

As it was on this particular morning, I got up, found my clothes, made coffee, shaved. I kissed my wife as she tried to stay asleep, and went out to my car.

That’s when I noticed that something was different about my shoes.

I could blame it on the fact that I generally dress in half-light, trying not to disturb my wife. Or maybe the fact that I’m slow to wake up, even shaving or brushing my teeth on autopilot, without being fully aware. I slipped on my shoes in the dark and walked around the house in them that morning without noticing a difference — they fit the same as my sense-memory recalled, after all. They were broken in and fit my feet. That’s another thing you don’t think about after a while. New shoes feel odd on your feet, but shoes you’ve had for a while don’t. You know how they’re supposed to feel. You don’t think about them.

But then you’re walking to the car in the morning sun and see the color and design of them and you know.
You know these are not your shoes, even if they fit your feet. You look around then, and recognize everything surrounding you. That is definitely your house, your car, your yard. That was your wife you kissed, the smell of her and taste of her skin was right. You look down at the ID card on the lanyard around your neck and know that it’s exactly as you recall.

But the shoes are wrong. You never in your life owned a pair of shoes this particular shade of brown or with that odd swirl of shaped leather on the outer sides of the heel and toe.

This is not your world.

And you begin to wonder what else has changed. When the other shoe will drop, so to speak. And that’s where I’ve been for a month now: observing and cataloging my surroundings, checking the details against my memory. So far, however, nothing else seems out of whack. This world is not so very different from the one I recall.

Life’s the same, except for my shoes.

(c) 2009 by Tony Simmons
from the '366 Days' project
(With apologies to The Cars, and thanks to Lou, who put this song on a mix CD.)

Monday, August 09, 2010

Time Out

The little girl stood in the middle of the park, staring at the grass. Around her, other children played on monkey bars and swing sets. They played chase and kicked balls and laughed. She stared at the ground, not moving, not speaking.

Sometimes, the other kids would bump into her then reel away in fright. It wasn’t that she was hideous to look at; in fact, she was a cute little girl, with long blonde hair and stylish clothing. But something about her made their skin crawl, made their hair stand on end. They would back away quickly and run off to their parents or to join the other children and pretend nothing was wrong. She gave no notice, made no response.

Eventually one of the mothers standing around the park walked over and kneeled beside her.

“Are you sorry that you spoke to me so disrespectfully?” the woman asked in a gentle voice.

“Yes, ma’am,” said the girl. “I won’t do it again."

The woman shook her head. “That’s what you said the last time. How do I know you’ll remember this time?”

The girl stared at the ground. She didn’t move. She whispered.

“Please, mommy. Please may I have my soul back?”


(c) 2010 by Tony Simmons
from the '366 Days' project

Friday, August 06, 2010

Patterns of Forever

The woman had a severe sunburn. I winced when she came up to the counter and said she wanted a tat. She didn’t ask how much or pause to let me ask about her burn. She pulled up her loose shirt tail and showed me the pattern on her stomach.

That’s when I noticed that the burn was only on her front half. The backs of her arms and legs were a normal shade made pale by the red on the front half of her body. Obviously, she’d fallen asleep lying on her back at the beach. But the pattern she showed me:

“It’s where he placed his hand,” she said. “I was drowsy, and when he came up out of the water and lay beside me on the blanket, I asked him to make sure I didn’t sleep, make sure to wake me so I would turn over and not burn. He said he would. He was out of breath from the boogie board and the waves, but he assured me he was wide awake.

“When I woke up, I was mad because he’d fallen asleep too. I shoved his hand aside. But he wasn’t asleep. Massive heart attack. Right there on the blanket beside me. Never made a sound. But he had reached for me there, at the end. He had reached for me and put his hand on my stomach. He tried to tell me. To wake me. He left it there while I slept and he went away.”

I looked at the pale pattern of a left hand print on the lower right side of her stomach. I told her what I’d charge to outline it in black. She waved her hand, dismissing the cost. She didn’t care what it cost.

“Make it red,” she said. “Fill in the pattern the same color as my skin is now. Make it last forever.”

(c) 2010 by Tony Simmons
From the '366 Days' project

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

There are Worse Fates

It started as an itch. The bottoms of her feet and the palms of her hands. She tried various creams and unguents to no effect. Then the bumps formed, like warts, like rings and swirls of warts. Piles of warts, strands of warts.

She could no longer bear to have shoes on her feet. She tried dissolving the growths, had them frozen off, had them cut off, had them burned off. They always grew back, faster than before, thicker than before. She became despondent. She stopped going out at all.

The bumps grew from her hands and feet in thick strands. She couldn’t close her fingers for the dangling fleshy protuberances. She walked on mounds of skin that matted together under the soles of her feet. Eventually, she had to be fed and cleaned by a hired nurse who wore an environment suit for fear of catching the strange disease.

She was finally quarantined. Studied. Placed in a harness that allowed her feet to dangle off the ground and kept her arms stretched away from her body. Waited on constantly. Her strands of flesh would flutter along the tile and undulate in the air like the tentacles of some sea creature searching for food.

One day they wheeled a man into the room across the hall. She could see him through the observation windows between their rooms. He had stiff, bark-like structures growing out of his shoulders and the back of his head. He didn’t walk around much, just stood by a window in the sun. Tests showed the dark material was very similar to fingernails. It grew in stalks that the nurses would trim back every week. He couldn’t speak to her, nor she to him, but the medical students who studied them often carried messages back and forth for them.

She learned that his ailment had started as an itch. He had seen doctor after doctor, seeking an explanation. It appeared he was transforming into a tree, much as she was becoming some kind of anemone. The government worried that it was the beginning of a new plague, a genetic mutation. People were being tested, but no one really knew what to look for.

They heard a rumor about a girl down the hall whose body was producing stiff hairs all along her arms that split into growths that looked for all the world like feathers. And one nurse whispered about the boy whose body secreted calcium deposits that, overnight, sealed him inside a rocky cocoon. An MRI of the pod showed that he was still alive in there, hibernating.

She wondered what he would be when he came out again.

She wondered what she was becoming. It couldn’t be worse than what she was before.

Before, she was alone.

(c) 2010 by Tony Simmons
from the '366 Days' project