I got inspired this week with a tiny little story idea. Too small to go anywhere else, but bigger than my average post here. Yet since it blends with the tone of my other musings, here you go… It’s a bit of slow burn, but if you get half way I suspect you’ll want to finish…
It was like every other morning. Days that change your life often start that way.
Don Merritt moved through his waking routine like a human metronome. Everything in its time. Everything in its place. A world just… so. By the time he exited the house and entered the garage, he was two minutes behind his optimum schedule, but still well within the ten minute buffer zone he’d added to his timeline after the backed up toilet incident of 2007.
No problems this morning, he just felt tired.
The latte in his stainless steel mug filled his Jetta with its sweet earthy aroma as he rolled out into traffic and started the stop and go dance. His commute took him between forty-three and fifty-one minutes depending upon the morning. Of course that was not including that time two years ago when it took ninety-seven minutes because of that terrible wreck on the other side. Don would never understand why people slowed down to see mangled metal going the other direction. What a morbid fascination, and it didn’t do anything but make things more congested.
So Don settled in, finding himself bored of XM radio, and wanting to talk to someone. He couldn’t remember when he’d become displeased with silence. The stereo continued to blather on, but it wasn’t enough. He watched the cars around him, or to be specific he watched the bumpers in front of him and the occasional motorcycle whizzing by between lanes. He hated that about Los Angeles. Come to think of it, that was only the first of a good list of really irksome qualities in this town. Too many people for one thing. “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” as his mom would say.
That’s when he remembered he owed his mom a call. Seeing the SUV in front of him stopping again, he was braking to a stop as he reached for his iPhone. Witnesses would later report he was looking down at his center console and didn’t see the crash coming.
A blue V8 Mustang was charging down the HOV lane, thundering past all the stop and go rubber-band drivers to his right. The driver had started to pay more attention to the stopped cars than his own lane and that’s why he was rocketing along when he saw his lane stopped as well.
The tires spit smoke and screeched as the Mustang lived up to its name with unpredicatable bucking and darting. Still doing over sixty, the car ducked left, bounced off the concrete divider like a banked cue-ball and blindsided Don’s silver Jetta.
The Jetta was sitting still with a Chevy Tahoe inches in front. The Mustang curled back the left rear like a pull tab and spun Don’s door flush with the Mustang’s grill. Both cars embedded themselves into the Tahoe’s rear door, sheering off the third row seat and making Don’s Jetta the new second row bench. At least three other cars had obvious destruction as this growing metal snowball thudded to a stop against bumpers and sheet metal. When it was all over, the police would have twelve drivers on file claiming damage from the wreck.
Don was aware of smoke all around him. The smell was acrid and almost metallic, but he didn’t realize these were side effects of the numerous airbags exploding during the wreck. In fact, Don had no clear awareness of where he was in the world, let alone what was going on. He only knew someone had spilled a latte and it was all over him and everything. What a mess.
There was darkness for a long time. Then someone speaking to him, calling him “Sir” over and over and asking inane questions as if they thought he was a five-year old. “Can you hear me?”. “Can you tell me what day it is?” “Do you know your name?”
Absurd. Of course he could hear them. And today was… well, he couldn’t think of it right now, but it would come to him. Asking his name was the really offensive part, what person over the age of two doesn’t know their own name? For that matter, what dog or cat didn’t know their own name? His name was… what was his name?
“Don. It’s great to see you. Beautiful day.”
He was lying on a perfectly manicured lawn and a man was standing over him backlit by the sun. Don tried to get up, but the man reach down and offered a hand. Now he could see who was speaking, a mid-thirties paramedic in a dark blue jumpsuit.
“I never get tired of these breezes,” the paramedic was saying.
Don stood now and looked back at the grass. It wasn’t manicured, in fact it was quite wild. Yet somehow it felt more perfect than any carpet he’d dug his toes into. He stared at his toes, barefoot in this dense green paradise, and realized he had no idea where his socks or shoes were. Or his coat and tie for that matter. Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember what a coat and tie looked like or why they were important. Just as he tried to focus this line of thinking it vanished as if the breeze had taken it hostage and pulled it away.
“It is nice,” Don mused, feeling his hair flutter as the cool swell flirted up this grassy ridge and on toward distant mountains.
“And the view?” asked the medic.
“Wow. You’re either a tough critic or you don’t like anything.”
The valley was more beautiful now. Maybe Don was paying attention for the first time, but it seemed as if the groves of amber leaved aspen and a whitecapping river had materialized as he stared.
“I just don’t,” Don started, but then stopped himself to examine what he was really wanting to say. “I don’t think about scenery. It’s nice, but that doesn’t resolve my day.”
“Resolve your day, huh? Too many management courses for you, maybe?”
Don looked at the Medic, expecting to be annoyed and tell the man exactly what he could do with his blue collar assessment, but two odd things occurred to him. First, there seemed no way to embrace anger while looking at this man. And secondly, instead of a paramedic, the man now looked more like a construction worker. The blue jumpsuit was the same color. Maybe he hadn’t seen the man correctly when he first awoke.
This posed a new question for Don. Where was he?
“Let me show you,” the construction worker said and turned like a man leading a buyer through a build site. He had a yellow hard hat all of a sudden. Don didn’t have one, but also couldn’t see buildings or construction in any direction.
This would have been the first thing to ask if not for the impression of the mysterious construction worker opening a door from apparent nothingness. It was as if a square of the world had been sliced with utmost precision and a thick chunk hinged back to reveal a room. Don suddenly wished he understood more about multiple dimensions, but all thought fizzled like a sparkler as he stepped through the door.
To call the room a stadium would be like suggesting a bottle rocket was the same as a Saturn V. Every concept of an indoor space was revolutionized by the size of this warehouse. It was as if he’d shrunk to the world of mice. And all around him were huge stalls of perfect white, each one clearly labeled with a destination.
“It’s snow,” Don said as if speaking it aloud would help him believe.
“Do you have any idea how many types of snow there are?” his guide asked. Don decided he must be a guide because now the coveralls seemed very high-class and fitted like a NASA flight suit. “Snow is a bit of a hobby of mine,” the man said.
“But every snowflake is unique right… so you’re asking a trick question,” Don’s head was clearing now and he wanted to make sure this guy didn’t take him for some patsy.
“Ah, you’re right. But I mean types of snow, wet, dry, light, heavy.” The guide was excited, scooping up handfuls of each one as Don stood over his shoulder. They weren’t walking and yet the whole room seemed at their disposal. The guide would only reach down and find yet another stall of snow available. “I have so much fun watching those little guys debate the consistency or the crystalline structure.”
“Well, there’s Ahmil, Alfonse, Anthony, Armando…
“Okay, I get it,” Don hated the bite in his voice. For him this was the nicest way to stop the list of names, but even so, any tension felt ready to rip the fabric of this place. “Elves or something.”
“No. Of course not.” His guides said, flat. “But I realize you don’t know any of the snow scientists, so I’m not surprised you don’t know their names.”
“Snow scientists. Right.”
“How can you not like snow?”
“I’m more of a warm climate kind of guy”
“You say that,” the guide began, challenging him. “But when’s the last time you walked on the beach? Or sat outside and sipped a glass of wine?”
“Just last week,” Don responded, annoyed.
“You were inside. Drinking iced tea. And paying more attention to the game than the sunset.”
“How do you know?” Don demanded. But his guide didn’t seem to hear the question.
The man reached for nothing, but when he turned his hand around a doorknob it opened a door which hadn’t been there a second before. Another huge chunk of the world parted and his guide motioned him to step through.
It was night on this side of the door, a dense perfect blackness without any manmade light. Yet, Don shielded his eyes as they adjusted to a blazing white. The moon hung closer than he’d ever seen, it’s craters and ridges distinct . And in the blackness all around this blazing orb hung more stars than Don thought possible. Somehow they shone along-side this overgrown moon, visible when he looked for them, but vanished when he focused on the moon again. Simultaneous, and individual. Impossible, but true.
“Am I dead?” Don asked. Suddenly the thought overwhelmed him. This couldn’t be real, and it wasn’t a dream.
“No,” said his guide. “But the life you lead is but a walking shell. I would not wish to continue.”
Don didn’t respond, but his mind screamed out “Who asked you?” and stirred in defiant silence that this odd workman would dare question his existence.
“I am right to question you,” the guide said. “It’s all mine. This moon, and sky. The snow I mix and remix into a trillion combinations. And you and your unhappy existence.”
Don was really going to let him have it now, but one look at the guide’s face and he couldn’t remember why he was angry. Instead he felt the thing rising up from behind the anger. The hidden thing. The staggering thirst for beauty which brought him to tears under these million stars. He was lonely. And he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen something beautiful in his daily life.
“It’s alright, Don. There’s still much to see. Much you’ve missed.”
The first blue sliver of the impending sunrise revealed mountains on the horizon. Don realized he was standing on a beach of sand so soft and fine it felt like ground marble. And then he heard the crash of waves, unknown until this moment.
“Wait…” he pleaded, though unsure what he was asking for. But he needed more time here to figure it out.
The guide put his hands on Don’s shoulders and looked him in the face the way a friend does to build you up. A look of safety and support, with needed truth arriving soon.
“Time is a fabrication. Beauty is eternal.” his guide said. ““Check your schedule.”
The moon faded, taking the stars and the horizon as well. A blackness took him, dense enough to reminded him of his childhood hiding place so deep in his parents closet that he risked his own terror every time he used it for hide and go seek. A darkness filled with menace and texture. Immune to light.
And then his eyes opened to a sunny day. The sound of traffic, helicopters, and shouts of men crushed his ears as if a giant mute button had been turned off. He could feel hands on his neck. More on his shoulders. He was moving, but all his limbs were still.
He was laid onto something, then strapped tight to a gurney. He was now looking up at four paramedics. They looked like his guide, but they weren’t.
“We got him,” one of them said in a rush of adrenaline and stress.
Don could hear the squeak of a gurney wheel as they rushed him across the ground. He smelled gasoline, water, and sweat. Each distinct and somehow pleasing to him. They smelled like life.
Then he noticed the palm trees reaching up into the perfect blue of the day. Spaced and leafy, soaking up the morning sun like an image on a postcard.
And as the gurney tilted, Don could now see the freeway. Cars snarled around a terrible wreck. Flares on the ground. Onlookers slowing in the traffic going the other way.
But most shocking to Don was the palm trees. Here, just above this freeway which he recognized were the beautiful trees. He’d never noticed them before, and now their mere presence overwhelmed him.
Tears filled his eyes as he noted the hundreds of faces in the cars. None of them looked up. How many had even noticed the palm trees or the cloudless sky. But he knew the answer.
None of them. And he wanted to tell them.
But it was just as likely he’d forget as well.