There has to be a way to tell, I think to myself, and I wonder about the different methods I’ve been told to use. I remember the first time I ever asked the question and someone told me to look at my hands. I stop walking and look at my hands. They’re not the same hands I have always had. I remember how I got a few of the scars but there are scars whose origins have been long forgotten. The first real wicked looking scar I got was when I was a kid was when I was bitten by a baby alligator. Someone told me that baby gators didn’t have teeth and this one gave lie to that statement. It was illegal to have a baby gator back then and I think it still is but my father had found it in the woods and brought it home to me. My mother was terrified of all things scaly so I had to invent a story of how I managed to get such a terrible gash. I told her I had tried to pick up the pieces of a broken glass jar and cut myself. From that point the ring finger on my right hand would carry the first scar I would have in my life, the first one I remember having, and there is it, faded yet visible nearly four and a half decades old.
As a child I thought the waking world was some sort of weird production, some kind of play or movie, and everyone was an actor in character. I didn’t know why everyone was doing it, but I thought if I did something truly outrageous then it would ruin the plot and reveal the true reality. Could this be a product of adults trying to train children to behave unnaturally? I think everyone has these sorts of thoughts, even in adulthood, and that’s where movies like “The Matrix” originate. I always thought if I jumped in front of a school bus or suddenly ran behind a building I could catch the set unready and expose life as something that people were just making up.
My social awkwardness in my early years was partly due to my inability to take reality seriously. I didn’t think any of it was actually happening. It was all a movie, like those at the theater on Saturday, and sooner or later the movie would end, the credits would roll, and I would find out what was happening. I remember asking one of my friends one day if he knew everything wasn’t real and he was very confused. I remember my feelings being hurt that he wouldn’t tell me the truth about it. I set out at that point to find another child with whom I could confide and who would validate my theory. No one ever did. I was beginning to believe that they were all in on it. There was evidence this was true, you know. People would have fun and do whatever they wanted to do, dress comfortably and use whatever words they wanted to, but on Sunday they would all pretend the other six days had never happened and would never happen again. I am very surprised religion doesn’t produce more atheists. Children are told such outlandish lies to modify their behavior and we never truly stop doing it to one another as adults. We have no regard for the truth if a good story is better. I was late because the car needed to be jumped off not because I drank too many beers and woke up late. Sorry I missed your call I left my phone in the car. Doesn’t that sound so much better than telling someone you just didn’t feel like having to deal with the drama? Even small children, like those bitten by baby alligators know that a good story is better than the truth. I have never truly lost this feeling, not even today, and that might be part of the problem. We have created a system of human management that is based on deception. It’s no wonder it’s a mess. You have to agree with me, however, that looking at the world we live in, it’s hard to imagine we did this on purpose and with integrity.
I can’t help but wonder how many people who have committed suicide were having these same thoughts. Did they think when they pulled the trigger someone would burst through the wall yelling, “Cut! Cut! Stop action!” Or that maybe the gun wouldn’t really fire? Or that even if it did, life wouldn’t truly end, but there would be something on the other side that resembled this yet be devoid of some of the falseness? How do we know this isn’t right? We’re told that death is a terrible thing and we go to great lengths to stay alive yet religion tells us there is a heaven awaiting us once we are dead. I think fewer people believe in heaven than pretend to believe. But I also think it is a good story and we’ve been trained to believe a good story is even better than the truth, haven’t we?
When I was sixteen I took my father’s car on a Saturday afternoon and drove to a very small town in Alabama without telling anyone were I was going. I looked at a map and found a place called “Slocomb” and that’s where I went. I had never heard of the place and didn’t know anyone there. Surely, I thought, they couldn’t build an entire little town by the time I got there. Slocomb Alabama existed, sure enough. I got off the main road and drove down a few of the side streets and everything was exactly as it should have been or at least very much the same as my little town in South Georgia. But why? It seemed like something should be different but there were the same little houses with the same cars and the same trees and the same grass and even very similar looking people washing those cars and mowing that grass. In some ways, this seemed worse. To think that everywhere I would go there was so much sameness seemed trite and boring and sad. Clearly, a made up world had to offer much more than this and for that matter, wouldn’t a real world be more…alive?
I stopped at a small café and ate lunch. I ordered a hamburger and French fries and it was a terrifying experience. I might have been sixteen but I looked a lot younger. Who was I? The waitress had to know. What was I doing there? I never thought that I would have to explain myself. I told her that I was heading to Dothan but took a wrong turn and wound up in Slocomb. How could I tell her the truth? How would she deal with a sixteen year old who thought the world was made up? She kept looking at me as I ate and I could not get out of there fast enough. But Slocomb, even with its aggressive waitress, was real. I was more than a little surprised. The waitress was an elderly woman, thirty or so, and I wondered how and why someone could live so very long and still be there? Did she not yearn to escape this place? Was performing Inquisition ( I never expected it) upon sixteen year olds all she could look forward to in her life? Did the whole town just buy into the sameness as real and ignore the idea of difference in the name of tranquility?
Why are things this way?
I stopped walking and just stood there thinking about all of this. I was odd that the scar reminded me of a time when I thought everything wasn’t real and about my first real venture out into the world to find out if it was or wasn’t, yet both cases were tainted with my own deceptions. I couldn’t tell my mother about the bite because she would have insisted the gator be killed or released back into the wild ( it was anyway) and of course, telling a waitress that I thought she lived in a made up world would have really gone over terribly. Even as I was looking for the real world I created another one for the people I thought were making things up. It was some sort of mutual deception, a form of dance where everyone pretended to hear music that wasn’t being played.
The woods are a lot nosier than they have been in the last few months; Spring has arrived and the birds are singing about it. The frogs have cranked up, too. There are bright green leaves in the trees and their rustling can be heard now, full and fresh, and of all worlds this is the one I think most real. Winter and all the coldness dulls the senses and numbs the mind to life but Spring leaps up at a soul from every corner of the earth and sky. I watch for snakes now looking to see a slithering shape in the grass and at the water’s edge. I have no fear of these creatures, but only a fascination with their lives. There are no animals I can think of other than snakes that do is much good and who get blamed for as much harm as the snakes. We have created a false world for them also and refuse to accept the reality of their lives while imposing our own upon them. Is there any wonder that children grow up refusing to accept what is told to them?
Even from a distance, even over the scents that Spring tosses around in the woods and fields, I can smell her cooking. Black beans that have been simmered with cumin is upon the air and it mingles with the flowers and trees. She will have been cooking the beans for a while now, very slow and the heat very low. This is a patient woman in the kitchen and she likes for things to come out perfectly. The rice will be boiled soon, and it too will be cooked slowly and for a while. I know her mind well enough to know that there is some time to spare before everything is ready and she would like to share that time with me. The windows of the house are open and I take a deep breath as I walk through the door. Beans cooking, the smell of a candle that has been lit, and the scent of a woman in the house, making it a home, all of this can been seen with the eyes shut and it will stay in memory forever because this is what memories are made from.
I wake up and as I begin to emerge from sleep she is still beside me but as the surface tension between the worlds break she is gone. It’s unfair, I think to myself, my first thought of the day, because I didn’t get to speak to her this time. But that world doesn’t exist, does it? Only this one does, right? No matter what we know in our hearts to be true as children there is only one real world, as the adults remind us, and this is it.
Now that I have to be an adult I cannot help but wonder if I was right about some things, not the alligator’s teeth, mind you, but what was real and what is just a made up story for us to live.