There’s this elephantine symbol on the snout of my whistle, and I’m sure I’m not describing the parts to the whole adequately – it’s not an elephant; it doesn’t have a snout – but how does one describe a whistle? I suppose I should begin where all things, big and small, begin: at the beginning. At the beginning, there was a little boy, lost in the maze of loose teeth (except for his, dangit) and droopy dogs. It seemed like everywhere he turned, there was another locked closet door to run into, or set of stairs to tumble down.
If there’s a beginning, then there’s a story to tell. And maybe it does come back to the elephantine symbol on the blow-y part of the whistle, ‘cause if you turn it a certain way it looks remarkably similar to the way I used to write my lowercase ‘n;’ that is, upside-down and backwards, but that’s not where I want to start. I want to start with the labyrinth of tomato plants, the potted ceramics of a veritable descent into madness. There’s a picture of my father, my brother, and I picking the tomatoes we helped my mother plant – and they were tiny; I’ve definitely seen much larger, much better tomatoes – but in this picture, my brother’s fading into the fence, and my dad’s covered in greens, and all I can see is this little kid, not as little as he could be, searching for something inside the tomato.
I don’t remember what I found that day, but I do remember how much I loved the backyard of our townhouse. I loved getting lost in the height of the weeds and the cover of the tomato plants’ leaves. The tulips smiled at me brightly, and I remember deciding that they would always be there. They were a permanent fixture, just like my family. Mommy’s bright pink tulips would always exist. They’d be my string, leading me back out of the labyrinth. That wasn’t always the case, though. We were moving. Away from the tomato plants and Mommy’s tulips couldn’t come with us, they said. My little brother wouldn’t fade into the fence any more, and my father was breaking free of the tomato vines, but without the tulips I was stuck in the labyrinth.
I found my whistle one afternoon during first grade. It was late autumn, and I hated everything. We were leaving and I couldn’t even pretend like I was leaving a bunch of friends behind at school. I’d transferred somewhere else after kindergarten and was now the freak who skipped a grade – even though I didn’t, not really. The tulips were starting to dying, their petals dancing in the brisk Virginian wind, a sign of harsh winters to come. They decorated the roads of my city, and someone shot the playground across the street and someone else burned down my school. The monsters I fought in the labyrinth were haunting me, consuming my days and nights. The whistle was lying in the grass in my backyard, rusty and dangling next to half a dozen keys and an old key ring.
The keys didn’t turn any locks, didn’t open any doors or boxes, but the whistle lead me out of the labyrinth. I excitedly hid key ring in my treasure box, next to a couple broken pieces of chalk, the hospital bracelet my mother wore the day I was born, and a washer with no screw. I didn’t tell anyone about it. It was my little secret, my ticket to adventure and greater things. This key ring would lead me somewhere in the new house – it just had to! I blew the whistle once, but its shrill sound was too wispy, like something was trying to breath but couldn’t quite get a grip.
There was a man next door to us in this new house – new town – new life, and he is known as the Tomato Man, because I, for the life of me, will never remember his name. This capital-S-T Small Town was tough; it was hard living here, not knowing anyone, not fitting in exactly. We didn’t fit the locks, our hair too curly, maybe our noses too large (You’re Jewish? But Jesus was a Jew. So shouldn’t you be Christian?), but the Tomato Man welcomed my mom and dad with arms wide open, and it was so important, even if I didn’t realize it until much later. He and his wife lived next door and grew tomatoes. They were the biggest, juiciest tomatoes I’ve ever tasted, and in the summer, he’d walk down the hill to our house, with a smile bright on his face, and share. The Tomato Man had cancer, though, and I think he was my first experience with death. Because, that meant no more tomatoes in summertime, and that was bad, it was all really bad, and oh, god, it was so sad. The Tomato Man faded into the fence covered with vines, and the tomatoes stopped coming. I never told anyone this, but I think I was afraid that the keys were his, and I wanted to keep them. I needed to find out all on my own what happens when things don’t fit, and what happens when you find the right fit.
It was sometime after the Tomato Man passed that I put the whistle and keys away. A year or two after the tomatoes stopped growing, my mother’s grandmother died of a stroke in the night. This marked the first time I saw my mother cry, and suddenly, the world was different. Seeing a parent cry for the first time rattles you to the core, because suddenly they aren’t superhuman anymore. They become much more real. A new sense of reality began to form inside me, and that left no room for silly adventures, childhood fantasies of doors hidden in the wall that take you somewhere else. So, when I put the keys back in the treasure box this time, it was to be forever. I had been growing up, apart, and out of the keys phase for a while; it was time for something else. Instead of running around with a whistle in my mouth and a laugh in my eyes, I’d chase my cat and think about how best to get rid of the rabies-ridden bat in the living room, even if when push came to shove, I ran away and let my dad take care of it. It was living, not to say that what the whistle was before wasn’t, because it was. Living is different at different moments. The music in the barely breathing, wispy cry is better suited for beginnings, and I was in the middle.
Decades later, the night before I started college, I took out the whistle and keys, to wash them. I’d be getting a door key and a key to my mailbox, and I needed something to keep them on. I didn’t need the keys anymore, didn’t want to risk mistaking them for something they aren’t, and took them off accordingly. That left me with a rather rusted whistle, too dirty to be used. I ran hot water over and inside it, and lifted it to my lips. I looked in the mirror and couldn’t help but awkwardly laugh. What was I doing? I looked like an idiot, standing there in a hotel bathroom with a disgusting old whistle dangling from my lips. But I blew, and once again the whistle tried to breathe. It tried so hard that I finally heard it; it was a sharp knife to my mind, slicing my brain in two, and leaving me with a mesh of white light to listen to and taste. It was copper in my eyes and blood in my ears. A line of spit connected me to the whistle even as I took it away from my mouth, and I stared. My mother came in yelling about how it was past midnight and was something wrong with me, thinking I should blow a whistle at this time of night?
And I looked at her, and I told her I was just cleaning it, blowing the water out of its snout. She rolled her eyes and left, but I stopped and stared at the water flecks now covering my reflection. The whistle pulled me out of another labyrinth by breathing, and if a whistle can breathe, then a whistle can be bigger than the elephant it tries to emulate. It can be bigger than the skies and more powerful than a wind that carries tulip petals across the galaxy. But it’s also small, tiny and forgettable. It rusts because the oxygen leaves it, leaving it alone, and loneliness is cold and can freeze the heart. But it still tries to breathe, and I’m not sure of a lot in this world.
I think that the keys don’t lead anywhere special – my mother planted them in the grass for me to find – but I think that if I had worked up the courage to show them to the Tomato Man, he would’ve told me that he saw that symbol in a book somewhere, and that it was magical, and I would’ve believed him. Because, when the day comes to a close, all I ever wanted was a little magic, some makeshift escapism when the days get a little too hard to handle. That’s when we breathe, like my whistle. We breathe to remind ourselves that we’re alive, that something is, even when the petals fly and the tomatoes die. I don’t know whether or not tulips can live forever or how to grow the biggest, brightest tomatoes, but I know – I know that breathing is important. Breathing is permanent. You’ll breathe beyond your life, and that has to mean something.