Boxes Full of Smoke and Mirrors
You approach me on a rainy Sunday under the shelter of a gazebo, two coffees in hand. We aren’t friends, but we aren’t enemies, either. A friend bailed on you, you say, and now you’ve got an extra latte. We’re friends now, I think, and we’re talking about high school. I tell you about a friend in my sophomore year I had who didn’t treat me very well, and you listen, nod, and look at me in my eyes.
“There’s tons of people out there like that, I wish there weren’t,” you say, shaking your head. “Fair-weather friends.”
I pause for a little too long. “I’ve never been good with idioms. Never much of a language person.”
You don’t look surprised, and that doesn’t offend me. “A fair-weather friend,” you say, “is a friend who’s only around when you need them. Only when the weather is fair.” You smile, calculating your second response. “How’d you get through English class?”
“Usually, I could figure them out, but there were a few that always nagged on me. Usually, I could just picture them, you know? Like ‘under the weather’ and ‘missing the boat’. But a couple of them, I could never quite get.”
“Try me. I know every one in the book.” I don’t like this very much, because there’s really no book, but you aren’t condescending when you offer explanations. Somehow, you seem curious, even though I’m the one who’s learning.
“Smoke and mirrors.”
“Smoke and mirrors?”
“Smoke and mirrors. I just don’t get where it comes from. I mean, I do. I know it comes from magicians, right?”
“And when they did their tricks, they’d use smoke and mirrors, to make it look like the spaces were bigger than they were. Or sometimes, they’d use it to make it look like a ghost was coming out of the box.”
You shift your weight in your chair, and your smirk hasn’t left. “You seem like you’re getting it just fine.”
“I guess, I don’t understand why that would be so convincing. It’s only smoke and mirrors, and if you know that there’s a mirror and some smoke, I don’t know how it could be a convincing enough illusion to care about, that’s all.”
Now, you chuckle. “Maybe you need to get a better imagination.”
Your eyes are blue, like the ocean.
“You’re right,” I sigh. “It never felt natural.”
The wind outside is bending the tall trees to the left, like they’re made of rubber.
“I don’t think,” you say after a long pause, “that imaginations are supposed to feel normal. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone use that word in regards to the imagination and magic. I don’t think they had normalcy in mind when they filled those boxes with smoke and mirrors.”
“You know,” you continue. “Things don’t have to be normal to be good.”
When I was young, I used to go to magic shows at the local library, and I furrow up my eyebrows and look at the way the man’s hand always covered up one side of the top hat that he pulled things out of. I furrow up my eyebrows again and look out at the wind in the trees and the rain on the sidewalk. It’s raining cats and dogs. I sigh.
“I think I take things too seriously,” I say. “I think I need to have more release in my life.”
I look up and to the right and try to picture a box full of smoke and mirrors. I try to imagine how it could fool me, how I could forget even for a moment that the box was not full of smoke and mirrors. But no matter how I picture the layout of the mirror and the placement of the smoke, I see right through it. Smoke and mirrors.
“Smoke and mirrors,” you mutter to yourself in a lull in conversation on our walk, “smoke and mirrors.” You’re repeating yourself, like a broken record. I ask why you said that, but you just smile and you don’t tell me. You won’t tell me where we’re going, either, we just keep walking.
We were going to a junkyard, one where there’s only a dim street light that reflects off the metal on the ground like a flashlight. “This junkyard is cold and dark, like…” you trail off, giving me an opportunity to practice.
“Like hell,” I mumble, expecting you to laugh. You don’t, and clap me on the back instead.
“Like hell, my friend, like hell.” You respond, deadpan.
I’m staring off into space again, distracted by a particularly tall garbage pile to my left with something atop its hill that I can’t quite recognize in the dim light. I’m awakened from my trance by a plastic visor being slid around my head and something cold and metallic in my hands. I spin to see you with a matching one and a large bat in your hand.
“This place,” you say, gesturing at the horizon of scrap metal, “is full of release.” You remembered what I said at the cafe yesterday, and I smile.
“I need you to think about something that made you really, really, mad.” Your voice rings around my visor oddly, and it sounds like I’m listening to you through an earpiece. Like you’re giving me orders, like I’m a soldier and you’re my captain.
I close my eyes and think hard. I think about my mom, then my sister, then middle school, then high school, then fair-weather friends. I think of my fair-weather friend and the way she pretended I didn’t exist when she didn’t need me. My anger boils up, like a pan full of water on the stove.
“Just go for it, don’t think about it so much!” You’re screaming through the plastic visor around my ears and it’s ringing like a bell around my head so I scream too. I bring down the hammer as hard as I can on the nearest thing. It’s an old radio, and the batteries spark and cough upon impact.
You laugh aloud and take a turn, crashing your rusty bat into a particularly tall garbage pile. The tall thing I couldn’t recognize flies off the top as you release your swing, and I duck just too late as it smashes into my mess of wires and sparks. Angry red spurts again from the heart of the tangle of metal and dances around the cuffs of my jeans and I feel shards of glass impact with my bare hands as I stand, awestruck. Vaguely, I am aware of your voice calling for me to respond with whether or not I’m okay, but I’m not listening to you. Instead, I’m looking, head tilted in curiosity like a puppy, at the way a shard of broken glass from the full-length mirror that sat atop your garbage pile has landed in the empty body of the radio makes the interior of the box look much larger than it really is. As the smoke dances about in the flickering light, the box almost looks like it goes on forever. And where I can’t quite pinpoint the source of the smoke, it looks like a little ghost as he weaves his way out of a box full of smoke and mirrors.
This junkyard isn’t really full of release, it’s full of scrap metal and glass and a couple of old cabinets. This junkyard is full of smoke and mirrors, and their ghosts are the release.