By: Vanessa Hua
June 28, 2017

This story is published as an adjunct to PROJECT:OBJECT’s 25-part series of nonfiction stories about objects of talismanic significance.



Every afternoon on my writing retreat at Hedgebrook, I’d run to the beach, shuck off my sneakers, and wade in the warm, shallow waters. The tides on Whidbey Island had already offered up many treasures: a heart-shaped piece of driftwood, spiral sea shells, and wishing stones. I was picking my way out of a pile of storm-tossed logs when I discovered a Playskool figurine with a peg of a body and a round head in an orange-red helmet and matching suit. The smooth, solid plastic felt good in my grip, like it had always belonged in my hands. But I didn’t want to deprive a child of her favorite toy.

That night, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, wondering if it had arrived in a beach bucket or had it had journeyed on a current that sped around the world. I returned to the beach. If I found him, I’d take him. If I didn’t, we weren’t meant to be. When we reunited, I fled, fled everyone who might lay claim to him.

When I returned home, I realized that I’d forgotten to buy anything for my twin 4-year-old boys. I pulled out tea-cup sized shells they held to their ears, to listen to the ocean. “What’s this?” my firstborn asked, reaching for the Playskool figurine. “Underwater Guy,” I said, resisting the urge to hide him.

Underwater Guy didn’t disappear forever, not like the many beloveds my son carries around and loses. Each time I find him amid the mess of Legos and Matchbox cars, I feel the same shiver of delight and possibility as I did on the beach. From time to time, he perches on my desk, but soon my son snatches him back. Nothing is more attractive than what my children aren’t supposed to touch, and who am I to deny them a toy?

The other day, my firstborn referred to the toy as an astronaut. Jolted, I considered the nubby buttons on his chest, and the helmet which I’d pictured underwater, and not on the airless surface of the moon. Astronaut, argonaut: either way, he fires up our imaginations.


In April and May 2017, we ran a Talisman Story Contest. The stories were judged by PROJECT:OBJECT’s Rob Walker and Josh Glenn, and by the legendary Annie Nocenti. Vanessa’s UNDERWATER GUY story was one of three runners-up.

CONTEST-WINNING FICTION: 1. TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN: Charles Pappas’s “The Law” | 2. CATASTROPHE: Timothy Raymond’s “Hem and the Flood” | 3. TELEPATHY: Rachel Ellis Adams’s “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | 4. OIL SPILL: A.E. Smith’s “Sound Thinking” | 5. LITTLE NEMO CAPTION: Joe Lyons’s “Necronomicon” | 6. SPOOKY-KOOKY: Tucker Cummings’s “Well Marbled” | 7. PULP HERO: TG Gibbon’s “The Firefly” | 8. FANFICTION: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”

TALISMANIC OBJECTS series: INTRODUCTION | Veda Hille on CROCHET SHEEP | Gary Panter on DINOSAUR BONES | Jami Attenberg on SELENITE CRYSTAL | Annie Nocenti on MINIATURE DICE | Wayne Curtis on CLOCK WINDING KEY | Judith Zissman on SPINDLE WHORL | Amy Fusselman on BOX OF PENCILS | Josh Glenn on MONKEY WHIMSEY | Mike Watt on DASHBOARD TOTEMS | Gordon Dahlquist on CLAY FOX | Mark Kingwell on ZIPPO | Jennifer Schuessler on BEER-CAN CHAIR | Anne Gisleson on WISDOM TEETH | Ben Ehrenreich on CHROME LUMP | Matthew De Abaitua on HATCHET | Ty Burr on INFLATABLE KING KONG | Jacob Covey on ARGUS COIN | Jessica Helfand on PILL BOTTLE | Shelley Jackson on IMPUNITY JANE | Jennifer Krasinski on LEO’S LIGHTER | Molly Heintz on EVIL EYE | Mark Frauenfelder on MARTIAN FINK RING | Amanda Fortini on PRAYER CARD | Ed Skoog on MAMMOTH IVORY | CONTEST-WINNING STORY: Seth on PEANUTS PAPERBACK.


SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018). 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE . ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.


Codebreaking, Spectacles

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