The Elsewhere or: On Reading A Brief History of Time

By Jacob Simmons

In less than half a century, man’s view of the universe has been transformed. In less than a year, I’ll be forty. Jesus. Forty years old.

When I was in my twenties, I moved to the middle of a blackberry field, into a farmhouse that roasts me like a chicken when Fresno County broils in triple digits for months. And when the tule fog blankets the troposphere I’ve been breathing since 1984, I shiver when I step away from the space-heater in my room. A drafty place, cold as hell.

Blackberries feel the pressure of time too; they stop producing fruit after twelve to fifteen years. My landlady tells me she’s yanking them out next year to plant almonds. Water-suckers, dry, dusty, nothing sweet about what’s to come. Water is life, though it runs through lead pipes, placed in the earth before Oppenheimer became the destroyer of worlds, and it pours through faucets poisoning me when I brush tobacco-stained teeth. A woodpecker hammers at the wall above my bed. Rats shuttle eternal through sheetrock holes and termites nibble at drywall older than Nixon. My house is the Ryman, the mother church, for vermin that perform concertos in an orchestra of knocking and scratching tinnitus.

I know the yard crawls with stoners and sickos in jeans who howl laughing into the expanding universe, swelling above a canopy of walnuts and pecans. All we know is that the universe is expanding by between five and ten percent every thousand million years. What a place to be a squirrel. Protected by the drunken aim of bb-gun shooters, fed by the trees that block the moon, and burrowed deep underground, warm in their gray, at rest in their darkness. There are other primitive forms of life that can flourish under such conditions. I don’t want to be primitive, yet a sinkhole forms below my feet out here. I breathe fire and sit in a chair that should’ve been dump-runned years ago. Gravity shapes the large-scale structure of the universe. Fall, November. Bring us all down.

For the last ten years, here, nestled in Central Valley agriculture, a tractor night-crawls through the fields outside my open window. The man who drives wears a hazmat suit and respirator, or at least he should. He breathes, and I breathe the spray that soaks aggregate fruit—clouds of acaricide and glyphosate. His body works while mine sleeps, but pesticides that kill ticks coat both of our windpipes. Parkinson’s disease is coming. I’ve seen it foreshadowed and fixed in premonitions of agony and sundowning. I had been diagnosed as suffering from ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, or motor neuron disease, and given to understand that I had only one of two more years to live. Neurological disease is realer for some than it is for me. I don’t go to doctors, don’t hear diagnoses, so as far as I know my brain isn’t as sick as I imagine it to be. But my fingers dance in animated joggling. Breathe. Tremble. Be still, shaking hands.  

What does it matter? I’m destroying myself, anyway. Willful, intentional, deliberate destruction. For a little longer, I love and live as a clown who laughs at the world, so drenched in privilege I’m soggy white trash. My brain and lungs and liver erode, fade away into dark matter. Our galaxy and other galaxies must contain a large amount of “dark matter.” Well ain’t that cryin’ sad? Fiddle-playin’ trash. I wasn’t raised like this. Disorder will tend to increase with time if the system obeys an initial condition of high order. I was raised to be this.

Rent’s cheap at the blackberry house. It frees up my finances to spend on haircuts in Mississippi, coffee in New Orleans, scratchers in Oklahoma, a license to fish in Minnesota, and Malcom X’s autobiography in Texas. No kids. No bullshit. No school ‘till August. So I go. I climb aboard the crocodile and drive away—nothing but a Wal-Mart credit card and a truckload of Marlboros. And if I want to see the flat yellow nothingness of North Dakota this summer—breathing toxic mite mist while I sleep in low-rent quarters of mice and man makes sense. Time shortens regardless of toxicity.

Time to move. In the theory of relativity, each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving. It’s time to buy. Time to create a little equity. Something of value to leave behind when I die. A sellable thing for someone. My niece is going to cash out when I kick off—two-hundred thousand dollars are hers. I fenagled a consultation-free policy that insures my life through the teachers’ union. You can’t blame me; I’m sticking to the union, but it’s just that I’ve been handicapping the odds of living to seventy-five like Grandpa did. One with negative energy is condemned to be a short-lived virtual particle because real particles always have positive energy. I’m trying to be real. Odds are virtually shit.

Shit like real estate for a would-be real buyer in California’s seller’s market. It costs around a half a million dollars for place in Kingsburg, and even if I hadn’t blown a fortune on cheap thrills, I wouldn’t spend a saved cent on a stucco shangri-la, to be left house-poor in the soulless development that’s sprung up near Safarjian’s Little-League field. Even if it came with three bedrooms painted egg-shell white and city-sewage that never backs up through the shower drain. It is a form of Murphy’s law: Things always tend to go wrong! Exactly. A lightning bolt, the finger of God touches a tree nearby and puts it through a shoddy new roof, crushing some poor soul who’s just trying to watch singers in masks on network television. Not gonna be me—no way, Jack. I wouldn’t overpay for a house in Kingsburg even if the yard was laid with spurge-free sod and wood chips to cover up a drip irrigation system that could be run from a phone.

Time to leave. Again, the theory of relativity put an end to the idea of absolute time. But, it is time. I’m going to take off and buy a house like a sellout despite how much I love it here. Gone, man. Disappear completely in a tremendous final burst of emission, equivalent to the explosion of millions of H-bombs, kaboom! Even though I love California like hyenas love wildebeest guts, like Gibson guitars love dirty deeds done dirt cheap, like bell peppers love a little shade, like Uncle Trav loves the Dead.

Before I go, I’ll sit for a moment, and imagine a house with an oven that won’t billow black smoke into the space between linoleum flooring and popcorn ceilings every time pepperoni sizzles on a Tombstone in the kitchen. I dream of windows with screens, walls without holes, a blue bin that recycles empties, a hot neighbor who likes to burn, and enough tree cover to protect me from the sun, a mere eight light-minutes away, while I smoke and watch Brando do the banana dance.

Where am I dreaming? Find a spot where teachers make what I make and houses cost a little over a hundred grand. Something not too far away. Proxima Centauri, is about four light-years away, or about twenty-three million million miles. I dream of Rochester, New York, only .0015383976070624 light seconds away. The space between here and there is nothing. I have been around the world! I’m staying here. Mine is an American dream devoid of Gadsden flags, shiny people, orthodoxy, Big Brother, those rubber testicles that hang on lifted trucks’ trailer hitches, and AI. I am dreaming though. Because artificial intelligence and truck nuts are as ubiquitous as heart disease.

When I was much younger, I was told that Noah put tigers and camels and stegosauruses on a boat when a great flood washed over the earth. God was confined to the areas that nineteenth-century science did not understand. If Noah did what the Bible says he did, then I can put California in a moving truck. I can pack up the Pacific Ocean and all the squid boats that shine at night on Monterey Bay, and even a few of the white sharks that eyeball the jigs that dangle in their path. This does not sound like a very practical proposition, at least not in the immediate future. I’ll take everything that flutters in Butterfly Town and all the granite in the Sierra Nevadas. Can God make a stone so heavy that he can’t lift it?

He can’t. But I can take all the yellow grass under the red October sky that hangs above the Badger foothills. Pick it up and strain out the rattlesnakes. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Millions. Each galaxy itself contains some hundred thousand million stars. Then I’ll load up a galaxy’s worth of Esperanza’s three burrito dinners, see them, smell them snug in the truck. In order to survive human beings have to consume food. My moving truck delivers, fear not—no one goes hungry ever again. Burritos stacked as high as the giant sequoias that waltzed with my shadow at ten-thousand feet while a lantern blazed behind me.

The fence Mom and Dad built at our first house in Dinuba, still standing on the corner of 400 and 104, needs to come, too. As a matter of fact, all of Dinuba needs to come, even the Raisin Day parade and the brick silos Grandpa Ola built next to the trailer where I learned to play the piano, safe and secure, leaning on everlasting arms. Those arms help me pack up the ice plant on Highway 1 when it’s at its pinkest and the checkerboard of orange groves at the bottom of Boyd’s Grade. Most sets of values would give rise to universes that, although they might be very beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at that beauty. The beauty stowed in the moving truck is wondrous, ambling eastbound in crayon and water color. Intelligent beings ask the question “Why is the universe the way we see it?” If it had been different, we would not be here where the imaginary becomes real, a moveable memory of a patio with jumbo bulbs that burn bright every night of the year, and the busted chairs we sit in to pass the guitar around and play Johnny Cash songs, and all the players who jam and stay up later than the moon. It is rather difficult to talk about human memory because we don’t know how the brain works in detail. My brain works in details: I’m going to take Chico Avenue and the mailbox that looks like a fish, and I’ll stash away all the alfalfa’s green along the Kings River. I’m going to load up the Sherwood Forest Golf Club and Windy Gap with the shitter that Dad and I towed across the lake one night while we slept and thought we were anchored under the stars. Unmoored, dreaming. Maybe what we call imaginary is really more basic, and what we call real is just an idea that we invent. Let me get real basic then, and squeeze in the LA farmer’s market, the Warfield Theatre, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bakersfield National Cemetery, the Cow Palace, Valentino’s Pizza, Skinner Winery, Boo-Boo Records, and Kaiser Pass.  

I thought about Katie’s parents’ place, and how I might take it too. That way, when she leaves Idaho to come home for Christmas, home will be with me. This region is what we call a black hole. Its boundary is called the event horizon. Partnership, that’s real danger. I’ve lived like this to protect myself from sickness, an entirely different disease of the heart. Danger is asking if she’d like to go out sometime. Danger is caring how the crocodile smells when she hops in for a ride. Vulnerable. Scary. Danger.

I want a partner who wants me—but the best me. The just finished an essay me. The golfing thirty-six holes a day in the summer wearing pants and watching country club pussy cats marvel in shorts me. The Martin playing me. The drive home from Albuquerque before the sun goes down me. The just grabbed a shower me. It is a matter of common experience that disorder will tend to increase if things are left to themselves. One can create order out of disorder, but that requires expenditure of effort or energy. Maybe one day I’ll make the dangerous effort to buy some spackle and fix the holes in my house, put down the cigarettes that cost us time together, stop stuffing my liver with impurities and killing my brain, dance when she wants to, lose together, laugh together, share a library, read aloud, schmooze, wonder at the beauty of our dreams, our realty, erase the line that separates the two, live for a while, hands interlocked at peace in the sun.

If the sun were to cease to shine at this very moment, it would not affect things on Earth at the present time because they would be in the elsewhere of the event when the sun went out. We would know about it only after eight minutes, the time it takes light to reach us from the sun.

Is the metaphor here that the damage has already been done? I’m clicking my heels, rubbing the magic lamp, whispering—eyes closed hoping there’s time left to live what I dream. Am I broken? Busted, alone, selfish, foolish, trash? The general theory of relativity cannot answer these questions. Being broke has been me for a long time, but broke isn’t broken. Are these premonitions of lonely Parkinson’s screaming madness to nobody nowhere and forgetting who I am shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only? One must measure time using imaginary numbers. Forty years—a real number.

I’ve been a coward. What should you do when you find you have made a mistake like that? Some people never admit they are wrong. Others claim to have never really supported the incorrect view in the first place. It seems to me much better and less confusing if you admit in print that you were wrong. I was wrong. In the long history of the universe, many stars must have burned all their nuclear fuel and have had to collapse. That’s what I’m afraid of. But, I’m looking for someone to stare straight in the face, and mean it when I tell her: I will go with you and stand by your side through all the dangers. I love that. So I search.

Call me the seeker, searching low and high for the most cosmically imagined woman in the universe. She fishes, hums along to John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream,” and makes my sister laugh. It is a bit like the well-known horde of monkeys hammering away on typewriters—most of what they write will be garbage, but very occasionally by pure chance they will type out one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Trash writes garbage—I know what I’m doing.

To be
or not
to be
I will walk,
through the
into a
of fire
with her. 

The stars exploded as supernovas, and their debris went to form other stars and planets. Yeah, I like the sound of that. Boom, baby. I must be an optimist because I’m alive is what James Baldwin said. I believe there are grounds for cautious optimism. I feel the same way.

And because Noah and his ark have inspired me so, when we get out of here, we’re going to take animals, all the animals in the Chaffee Zoo, and set them free along the way to Upstate New York. Let them loose to rule the jungles of Wyoming and Ohio, all of them except the elephants. The elephants will ride with us the whole way, all the way up, and we’ll set them free in Rochester. Investigate the laws of the universe and ask about the nature of God. I have investigated these laws and this nature, and know that everything I put in the moving truck will fit as perfectly into a weekend getaway’s suitcase.

When we finish unpacking, we’ll sit and listen to the elephants tromp and trumpet along the banks of Great Lakes. Just us, the elephants, and California, at home in a galaxy called New York, looking up and waiting for the snow to fall forever. We find ourselves in a bewildering world. Yes.

There must be a place, wherever I go, for creation. Our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence. What place, then, for a creator? I haven’t written about New Orleans really yet, and all the stuff about Mom and Sarah walking up to the Mississippi River, or the estate sale on St. Charles Avenue at the mansion with the tiny kitchen. I want to start that piece about Nashville and the first, second, and third stories of stacked singers bleeding together in the evening air.

I still haven’t done justice to California, and there’s a camping trip in Yosemite between John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt that’s been calling to me. The person unknown but to God buried in Pawnee, Oklahoma still haunts me, and I still have all those notes and stuff about Waco and Koresh and the way those people smiled for the camera with their kids at the entrance to Mt. Carmel.

One time, I saw a woman singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” in Choctaw at a stickball game in Mississippi. I’ll write some stuff about how I wanted her to hate that song, to spit and shake her fists. To run into the crowd, call me an intruder, smack my face. Contrast what I wanted with her grace, and how her melodic rise of yakni yuKA KIYO moved my finger to wipe at the corner of my eye—I think about her a lot. The home of the brave. Lots of human condition stuff out there matters to me. There’s space for a creator. Quantum mechanics tell us there’s infinite space for everything. The earth is a medium-sized planet orbiting around an average star in the outer suburbs of an ordinary spiral galaxy, which is itself only one of about a million million galaxies. I don’t see it that way anymore.

Everything is remarkable, and before it ends, I want to create something special for Colorado. Rocky Mountains of high inspiration, closer to the sun than a lot of places in the universe. Create something beautiful, you hammering monkey, something specific to Georgetown, where I’m writing now at the event horizon of imaginary romance, dreaming of the purplest Rainbow I ever saw and a Brown full of golden eggs landed and let loose from an icy shore, giving thanks for eight more minutes of light.

While you have been reading this, you will have converted calories of ordered energy (food) into disordered energy (heat). This will increase the disorder of the universe by about twenty million million million million units—or about ten million million million times the increase in order to your brain—and that’s if you remember everything.

Jacob Simmons is a graduate student pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Fresno State. He writes about the duality of sociopolitical humanity, drawing much from his experience loving beautiful people and places with ugly ideas and history. He is the winner of the 2024 Fresno State Graduate Prize for Creative Nonfiction. Jacob’s work can be read in Under the Sun magazine and in New Limestone Review. He teaches high school English in California’s Central Valley, and he’s trying to be less of a scoundrel every day.