Friday, August 19, 2016

A Perfect World:
A Work of Fiction

Let me tell you about a perfect world. Let me tell you what I can. First and foremost when they said, "get up, everyone rise," then everyone would stand.

When I was six years old my daddy said to me, "you'll love school. They'll take good care of you. They'll teach you numbers and words and how to be kind to one another." I had visions of Harry Potter lunch boxes, and the number eight decorated like snowmen. My dad, he wore a tie my first day of school. He dropped me off in wing-tipped shoes and a suit. Then he went home and changed into the plain pants and shirt of a self taught electrician before heading to work. That's a perfect world.

More than anything, Charlotte loved Hello Kitty.  She had a Hello Kitty binder, a Hello Kitty backpack, Hello Kitty shoes and pencils. She had it all. That was a perfect world.

The thing is, my dad probably had the words and the fear to tell me what I really needed to hear. He doesn't talk about it now so who can say for sure. All things being equal he'd prefer to never talk about it again. But all things aren't equal. I know that much now; school taught me something.

Can you imagine--no you can't, you shouldn't--but can you imagine, sitting down with your child and saying, "well son, this is a big step in your life. You're going to learn to read and write, and you'll be safe, but just in case, let me tell you what to do, just in case."

You know he has to pause here. You can't tell a six year old what he’s about to tell his child without second guesses. So he pauses and then breaks the news, that maybe the world isn't always quite so safe. Imagine the dryness of his lips, how his bowels might feel, the tears he fights back because this is the conversation he has to have with the human being he might love most and whose most complicated thought up to this point has been whether Superman is stronger than the Hulk.

"It's just that sometimes bad things happen when we least expect them," he'd say. "So if, God forbid, something bad happens, listen to your teachers. But also know that if you hear gunshots get down and pretend to be dead." Then he'd lay on the ground and put his arms and legs at awkward angles. "Look at me son, this is how you do it. Do you see me?"

But you can't see him down there. Your brain literally can't comprehend what he's doing, you're too young. What is he talking about guns for? The prospect of school excited you a few minutes ago but what is this? Everything is mildly sinister now. Maybe you'd better stay home.

Eventually, months later you would have thanked him, but all you can see now are nines and sixes with a bullet hole in each and an eight with two, the class turtle wandering across broken glass and a bloody floor. Why's your dad got to be so weird? Why'd he put these images in your head?

"And if all else fails, run. Run fast and in a zigzag line. Run away. Don't worry about where to. You run and run and run until you're lost and then I'll find you." He mimics a zigzag run, too. You'd watch this dumbfounded. He might as well be an alien. And you’d giggle, because you’re only six years old.

But that’s no way to start a new school year. Instead we pack lunches and take pictures in our new sneakers and Ninjago t-shirts. Everything is normal in a perfect world.

Olivia had the best smile. And her shirts always had some uplifting message on them: love, joy, and happiness. She wore her hair back and never had a harsh word for anyone. In a perfect world everyone would experience her smile.

I use to believe in a perfect world. But then one day a stranger walked into my class. In his hands he held dark and angry steel. I thought it had to be a toy but then it spoke. It’s voice never to be surpassed in vile and ugliness. TAT! TAT! TAT! All I could do was scream. I was six years old. I didn't know what was happening. My dad hadn't prepared me for this. All the sharpened pencils and virginal notebooks in the world were rendered useless. The world was nothing. Nada. The world was the concussions. TAT! TAT! TAT! You could feel it in your ears and in your teeth. The TAT! TAT! TAT! was everything. It was I who was nothing.

Something primal arrived, something ancient, something that desires life more than all. Something drug me to the ground, like some great beast separating the Earth; it put its clawed hands over my mouth and pulled me to the floor. Then he left, the great wrecker. I'd never see him again. I've never not see him again.

There were echoes of it still. Somewhere off in the distance, Tat! Tat! Tat! Then there were sirens.

In times of great stress people talk of boulders and elephants on their chests, but it was more than that that held me down, that stole my breath. It was a mountain. No, it was an entire range. I saw my mother and father come from the west, the Appalachians cradled in their arms. They placed them there on my chest and whispered, "be still." Even my shaking stopped.

Then there was silence, or something like silence. It went on and on, long like the time we drove to Kansas to visit my Aunt and I faded in and out of sleep in the back seat of the minivan, listening to thunder and the hum of the engine. Until at last, one more Tat and then the sobs of little children. Mine and there’s all bundled together, like sticks to a fire. The singular sound of the world put to tears and lives put ruin.

Eventually there were footsteps and people speaking and someone said, "get up, everyone rise." But only half of us could stand. And so now, I’ve given up on a perfect world.

Some mornings when I wake I don't think about that day first thing. Some days the memory isn't there like a kid drowning under a frozen lake, beating at the surface of everything. Those are good days, days as close to perfect as I'll ever see. But even on those days I can still stumble upon the remnants. There's always another shooting. There is always Syria, and pictures of boys barely alive in the back of ambulances or washed up dead on beaches they never called home. There is always someone on the internet telling the world, telling me, telling my dead friends' parents, that it never even happened, that it was just an elaborate hoax to get guns out of the hands of law abiding citizens. But all I can see is that man. That boy--my Mama tells me he was just a boy. And his TAT! TAT! TAT!  

If only none of it were real; if only we lived in a perfect world.

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