There are hidden messages everywhere. We see them and pass by, not taking the time to think, to decipher the codes. Even when we write, what is being said is not always in the black type, but in the pale and empty space between, written in invisible ink.
I wonder how many messages, how many words I have lost in my life, because I did not see them.
I am looking for them, now. I find them on crumpled bits of blue lined paper, in empty soda bottles, on laundry piles, scribbled in the margins of phonebooks. One message was written in invisible ink on the cap of a beer bottle, discovered hidden beneath a couch cushion. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be the cap of a beer bottle.
I know better.
I have received messages from The Amazing Ghost Boy, Super Hero Extraordinaire, Abuser of Garden Gnomes, Defender of Absurdity.
He is invisible now, appearing to me only in lightning moments, a song, a breath, a movement seen out of the corner of my eye. He passed me once in the hall, walking swiftly past, his hands shoved deep into his pockets, dark hair falling over one eye, brow furrowed, and eyes far away, as if he, too, was deep in thought.
He did not look happy.
I wonder why he did not look at me as he passed. Perhaps he is growing used to being unseen.
He became invisible without warning, on a summer evening. His new form was granted to him by a drunk man who should not have been driving. Until the drunk man chose to drive, the Amazing Ghost Boy was an ordinary extraordinary boy, in the process of becoming a young man.
Now, the young man is gone.
I didn’t see, for a very long time, the messages he left behind. My eyes were disabled. I could not see around the pain. There was shattered glass in my throat. My voice was gone. My words left me. I did not like the sounds that came out of my mouth. They were ugly, wounded noises. When I wrote, I saw the sounds on paper.
The first secret messages were hidden in an ordinary black backpack. They were well disguised. For many weeks, the ordinary backpack became something called evidence. Locked away, guarded by men with guns, hidden from me.
I signed for it at the police station. I wrote these words: “Amy Muldoon, mother.”
I closed my eyes when they handed it to me. I was afraid to look. I was afraid it would be wounded. I was afraid it would be damaged. I was afraid, most of all, that I might see blood. I did not think the word, because it hurt. Thinking it not thinking it.
I didn’t breathe. Just felt the fabric under my fingers. Rough nylon, suede straps, cold metal fasteners and buckles. Not just a backpack. Part of him, going everywhere. Witness to marvelous misadventures. Witness to the last day. I can’t open my eyes. I want this part of him. I don’t want to see the story the backpack has to tell. The fluorescent lights in the police station are very loud.
I only open my eyes when my husband whispers to me. He says, “It’s all right.” He means the backpack. He means that he can hear my thoughts, that it is safe to look.
There is only one small rip on it, the fabric coming apart from the shoulder strap. There is a smear of white paint. Very innocent looking, white against black. The truck was white. The fence was white. I don’t think about white paint anymore.
We don’t speak on the way home. The sun is bright, but we don’t feel the sun. I hold the backpack against my heart, like a new mother bringing her baby home for the first time. It is an odd, ugly, reflection of a day nineteen years before. But now, we are taking home an ending.
We sit on the living room floor to open it. We sit in a circle, like pilgrims who are viewing a holy relic. We want answers. We want messages. We want mysteries revealed.
Our daughter sits apart, her holy innocent face still and white. The sun makes a halo behind her, and dust dances around her stillness. She is afraid when I open the backpack. She understands that we are letting her brother loose in the room. I want to. I don’t want to.
I want to leave the backpack there in the middle of the floor forever, and pretend that he has just flung it down, and gone into the other room. I have seen this sight a million times. I have complained about it. Now I want it back. Annoying boy, never putting anything away.
This is the first lesson I learn, the first of the Hidden Messages. Ordinary things are precious, and we do not see them.
My eyes are burning still, but they are open.
The fabric is torn. We can mend it, but the rip will still show. It can’t be restored. All the frayed ends, that were once woven together.
These are the mysterious messages of the backpack, revealed:
A case of CDs. The names of the bands mean things. Bad Religion, Green Day, Humping Rhinos, Dead Kennedys. I whisper the words like an incantation, and another secret message is revealed. The secret message is this: you must do what makes you happy, even if it is not profitable, or smiled upon. If you need to stand on a stage and make angry noises, do so. People will admire your screams. Show your bare ass to the audience. Write angry words, and sing them.
Library books. I hold them, open them, touch my fingers to the pages where his fingers have been, waiting for messages. The Hobbit. The Godfather. Slaughterhouse 5.
In Slaughterhouse 5, people don’t die, really. Time is all happening all at once. You are born you are getting married you are going to school you are dying all at the same time. Whenever there is a death in the story (and there are many) Kurt Vonnegut says: So it goes.
This is another secret message. The books say: you thought I was not listening to you, but I was. I am not as unlike you as I pretended to be. Part of you is part of me. We reflect each other, always. An occasional eclipse is nothing.
I never return the books to the library. I put them back into the backpack. They are his, they are part of a sacred time capsule.
There is a notebook, with very poor and scrawling writing decorating the blue lines. His words, his thoughts. Parts of songs that will never be written, phone numbers of friends that he will never call. This is treasure. The secret codes are wild and many. It will take me many months to understand all of them, if I ever do.
On one page, there is a to-do list. This is what it says:
1: call Casey, and see if he needs a roommate.
2: call those bastards at Seafirst Bank. give them money.
3: Pick up paycheck
4: call Mom. Ask how to make red sauce.
5: turn into Batman. Take over Gotham City and save the world.
These are the magic words. The Amazing Ghost boy is set free, he is dancing around us in the living room. He sits in his favorite chair, and smiles, pleased with us, pleased with himself. We laugh, recognizing him, and touch the dark blue ink that is him, an eternal scrawl on the page, and our laughter is howling with darkness. So it goes.
This is the secret message:
There is a young man, walking down the street on a summer night. The sun is just setting. His hands are deep in his pockets, and he is singing to himself, because he likes to sing to himself, and he is happy. People who know him laugh as they drive by, because he is handsome and funny, and they know that if they spoke to him, he would say something absurd and wonderful.
He is going home to eat manicotti, with extra red sauce on the side. When he eats, he looks at his plate with great love and admiration. Sometimes, he looks from the plate to his mother, and his expression is much the same. He understands that sometimes, food is not just food.
He will invite his friends over, because he loves his friends, and he likes to share his food that is not just food. They will eat together, and when they have finished, they will stand in the kitchen and eat what is left in the pan, and laugh, and, make plans for the night, or for the year. Sometimes, his friends flirt with his sister. He will stand where they can’t see him, and make faces of great disgust and horror. When he thinks nobody is watching, he looks at his sister, and there will be a look on his face that is equally puzzled and proud, as if he doesn’t understand how she became beautiful.
He and his father will trade loud insults. This is how they say, I love you, without ever saying so. They say, you silly bastard, you willy woofter, you mindless son of a bitch, you butt cheese connoisseur, you great tit.
He is going home, walking past his grandmother’s house, past neighbor’s houses where he has, in the past, rearranged the garden gnomes into obscene positions. He has roller skated and skateboarded down this street, he has sat on the corner, hidden beneath a cardboard box, waiting to startle a passer by. He has run down this street in a superman suit, he has performed amazing dances with garden hoses on the lawns.
His eyes are dark and happy and content, looking far away, deep in thought. He is thinking of the things he will do.
He does none of them.
Instead, he flies into the heart of the sun, through lightning brilliant white heat. He explodes through the other side, and emerges as shards of light, thrown across the darkness. He is a constellation.
When I look at the stars, I whisper his name.
He leaves behind an ordinary black backpack.
He leaves me, searching for secret messages.
©Amy Muldoon, 2003 -courtesy of WriteThis
photo©Stratos Fountoulis, 2012