A Steep Hill

The old man bent slowly. He set a heavy black garbage bag down on the sidewalk. He stood on the hill and rested. The five block climb to the church seemed more steep than ever.

I can’t do this forever, he told himself.

The shrugging shadows from a crowd of downtown buildings were very cold. The old man zipped his jacket all the way up. He gazed down at the sidewalk and the garbage bag.

He lifted the bag and resumed his way up the hill. One careful step after another. He waited on a corner for a traffic light, even though there were almost no cars about on a Sunday morning. Litter blown by the November wind had collected in the gutter. On the opposite sidewalk several people were sleeping among discarded bottles.

The apples in his bag felt like stones.

He wondered why he carried them.

His parents had built their modest house a long, long time ago, decades before the city swarmed around it. When he was three years old, his mother had planted an apple tree in the backyard. Now, suffocated by high-rises, it was a miracle that tree grew at all. It was a miracle the harvest remained bountiful. No sunlight now reached the tiny house.

For a painful instant the old man barely recalled the radiant face of his mother: her shining eyes and bright fiery curls. The apple tree was just as generous as her unpent heart. Pies, cakes, muffins, cobblers, jelly, sauce, cider, enough for a large happy family. But those years were long dead. The only hands that remained were his own.

He now despised apples.

A smiling man in a sideways baseball cap hurried rapidly down the steep sidewalk. The smiling man stopped a few feet above the old man and stared down at him.

“What you got there buddy?”

“A garbage bag.”

“Find anything good?”

“No, just garbage.”

“Too bad. Look what I got. The idiots at City Church give them away for nothing.” The smiling man pulled a red apple out of a pocket. “They don’t even care who you are. You can take as many as you want.” The smiling man suddenly pitched the red apple across the street. It struck the side of a cold building and exploded. He laughed loudly.

The smiling man pulled out another apple, tossed it onto the street, watched it roll down into the gutter.

The old man shrugged, continued up the hill with his garbage bag.

. . .

The tree was unrelenting. Those beautiful apples seemed infinite.

The old man ascended the hill to church Sunday after Sunday, transporting a terribly heavy bag, one careful step following another. He often wondered why he did it.

It was fate, probably.

One Thousand Likes

Sylvia was right on schedule. She sat on the light rail, in a seat that faced an empty seat. Her head was bowed over her phone. Her finger moved rapidly.

An image of two people hugging on a bench. The words: Hugging is a silent way of saying… You matter to me.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

The light rail decelerated at Ocean Avenue. A small crowd of people got off. A small crowd of people boarded. Nobody sat down in the seat opposite Sylvia.

An image of the Dalai Lama. The words: If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

The light rail accelerated. It was still very early morning, not quite rush hour. Nobody talked. People in the car bowed their heads over their phones.

An image of the sun rising behind mountains. The words: Father, give me a heart of integrity and compassion.

Syliva touched LIKE.

Outside the sun had just begun to rise. It reflected from the windows of numberless buildings. It promised to be a warm day. At times sunlight blinked into the light rail car.

An image of someone helping a homeless person. The words: Be The Reason someone Smiles today.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

The light rail decelerated at the next station.

A funny image of a cat standing in four enormous human boots. The words: Empathy cat wants to walk in ur shoes.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

An old woman labored onto the light rail, towing a cart full of bulging plastic bags and a rolled sleeping bag. She wore a dirty green jacket, soiled pants and boots.

A happy image of people looking up at a city skyline. The words: Life is not about Quantity of Friends you have, it’s about the Quality of Friends you have.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

The old woman sat down in the seat directly opposite Sylvia.

An image of a young lady walking through the world with her hair flying. The words: I am not lucky. I am blessed.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

Sylvia’s eyes were fixed on her phone. She scrolled through hundreds of images with her restless finger. Once in a while she would pause for a second, indulge in her own reaction. Sometimes she would laugh.

An image of the boy in The Sixth Sense. The words: I see nitwits. No compassion, no empathy, no brains, just nitwits.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

An image of someone sitting on a bench. The words: Wrinkles mean you laughed, grey hair means you cared, and scars mean you lived.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

The old woman stared down at her boots. Her wrinkled hands, folded lightly on her lap, trembled. Her lips moved slightly, as though she wanted to speak.

Sylvia looked at the next image. She read more words. She touched LIKE.

The light rail decelerated. The old woman stood up slowly, labored to turn her cart full of bulging plastic bags and the rolled sleeping bag, just managed to deboard against the pushing crowd.

Sylvia’s finger summoned a thousand passing images.

She touched LIKE.

The Taste of Flies

A child raced out of the kitchen’s back door before bacon and eggs were ready and hid under a branch of the old acacia tree.

The child caught sight of a shining web. Diamonds of dew glittered before surprised eyes like a bright, luring treasure.

A curious hand reached out.

“Please don’t break my web,” said the spider. “It took me an awfully long time to make.”

“Hello,” said the child.

“Shouldn’t you be eating your breakfast right about now?” asked the spider. “Why did you come running outside like some sort of crazy person?”

“I don’t know.”

“That can be very dangerous. Just because a door is cracked open doesn’t mean a body should rush through it.”

“Sorry.”

“I can’t help but notice you admiring my spectacular feat of aerial engineering. Isn’t it amazing? Are you curious how long it took me to create this miracle?”

“Why did you make that?”

“Good one!” laughed the spider. “It’s what I do. It’s what all spiders do. We knit our silk into a perfect geometric pattern and weave a beautiful trap.

“What you see is my essence. A daily masterpiece spun from insatiable instinct.

“It is my Sistine Chapel, my Starry Night, my Water Lilies. It is my Persistence of Memory, my Guernica, my Night Watch. It is my Garden of Earthly Delights, my Last Supper, my Mona Lisa.

“It is my self-portrait. It’s the place where I stand. I really can’t help myself. We spiders have to eat, too, like you.”

“What do you eat?” asked the child

“Silly flies that I trap.”

“What does a fly taste like?” the young child asked, suddenly thinking again about breakfast.

The spider laughed ominously. “Bacon and eggs.”

“You’re horrible! You’re nothing but a nasty little spider! What will you do if I break your web so you can’t kill any more flies?” demanded the child.

“I will eat my own miracle and weave again. But you won’t destroy my web because I can see you are exceptionally wise.”

“What does wise mean?”

“It means you speak to tiny things like me.”

The Bone Artists

Every day, in gardens throughout the city, new blossoms opened to their most beautiful, most glorious potential, and in bright clinics the elderly who refused to undergo youth treatments were euthanized.

Pietro was going on one hundred and fourteen and felt it. He had ceased his treatments. To avoid detection, he’d removed his master chip with a sharp scissors and whenever he ventured into the city he was careful to melt into darkness.

Pietro walked slowly at night with bent shoulders. He moved painfully, silently, face hidden in a scarf. He found his nourishment in the moonlight and trashcans. He gathered a few precious things that the extremely old need. Then, at the dawn of each day, he slipped through a secret door that welcomed vanishing souls to a black place beneath the city.

The underground refuge was the last free place that remained. It was a retreat where age was not shunned. The tug of time had drawn many into the ancient catacombs.

Pietro moved slowly down one long passage in the maze of candlelit catacombs and entered a chapel of bones. In the very dim light he could see dozens of leg bones and arm bones fastened to rock walls, forming crooked crosses. Skulls whose eye sockets flickered with small flames had been stacked high, almost to the roots of trees. It was a chapel without windows. Only fading eyes.

He entered a large stone chamber. The workplace of the bone artists.

The bone artists moved creakingly in that hollow of Earth, assembling dry bones that were sorted into piles. They didn’t see Pietro enter. The very old people hunched over their work, reaching with their meager fingers for raw material.

Half-formed in that obscure space was their vast Creation.

In that immense vault, where time was still sacred, bones had been assembled like unearthed fossils into visions that were sculpted from secret knowledge. Thousands of bones were fitted together into brittle, ponderous truths. The bones formed a subterranean world of gaunt trees, pale towers and skeletal fields . . . a world of bone horses, bone eagles, bone houses and a bleached city . . . a world beneath the world.

The bone artists worked silently, tying bone to bone, heads bowed. Their eyes were nearly shut. None saw Pietro enter.

“Look what I’ve brought!”

Cradled in the arms of Pietro were flowers that he had stolen in broad daylight.

The artists looked up. Eyes suddenly widened.

A few more candles were lit, and a crop of new flowers was soon sprinkled throughout Creation.

Following a Tortoise

Fascinating creatures can be observed on ordinary sidewalks: a green parrot riding atop a baseball cap, a spiny iguana clinging to human shoulders, a poodle with a purple mohawk.

But the morning I caught sight of a young man in a bathrobe and sandals inching down the sidewalk behind an enormous tortoise, I had to chuckle.

Both were moving very slowly.

I sat at a table outside Starbucks and downed my espresso and had a whole twelve minutes to kill before work. There was nothing else interesting to watch, so I watched.

The young man took one tiny footstep every eternity. In eight minutes he had moved perhaps three feet.

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out where he and his tortoise were going.

I had to jump up.

“He’s really big,” I said, stopping beside the young man.

She is.”

“Does she have a name?”

“Betsy,” replied the young man. As if my question were impertinent, he stared at me squarely in the eye. “What’s it to you?”

I almost flinched. “Nothing. I’m just curious, that’s all. I saw you both coming down the sidewalk. One doesn’t expect to see a huge tortoise in the middle of a city.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. It just strikes me as something that’s funny. At least you don’t need a leash! Don’t you get tired of moving so slowly?”

“Why would I?”

Now I was becoming annoyed. This unaccountable person was trying my patience. I managed to find polite words. “It seems like you would get really bored after awhile, staying in one spot, without much change of scenery.”

“Do you get bored?” asked the young man.

“Sometimes.”

The young man stared at me for a long while, his unblinking eyes peering directly into my own. “Maybe you get bored because you’re moving too fast.”

As an excuse to flee, I glanced at my watch.

An Encounter With Santa Claus

The wait at the outdoor mall’s coffee kiosk was unusually long. Mary’s mother looked up from her phone. “Don’t unwrap your cookie until we get home. I don’t want crumbs all over my new car. You remember what happened when you spilled that sticky soda last weekend? I really don’t think I could stand another headache.”

Mary said nothing. As she stood beside her mother, she quietly watched thousands of Christmas shoppers hurry into and out of stores, into and out of elevators, up and down escalators.

An army of people hustled wrapped presents to and fro. Everybody was in a terrible rush.

Mary turned in a circle to explore the dizzying mall with her eyes. Strings of Christmas lights blinked around the windows of every inviting store. Dozens of merry Santa Clauses with jolly plump faces stared out from signs, shopping bags, bright window displays. Several stores down from the kiosk, shoppers in a long, twisting line waited in the food court to have their pictures taken with Santa Claus. ‘Tis the Season a nearby banner proclaimed in big letters.

“Didn’t you hear me? Let’s get going!” her mother said.

The two stepped into the river of shoppers. It was a torrent of urgency that felt irresistible. Mary marveled at the unending lights and the press of Humanity.

Mary continued to search about.

Two dirty pant legs were outstretched on concrete. The two legs stuck out from behind a trashcan near the front door of one very busy store.

Mary and her mother neared the trashcan. A man was collapsed behind it, his back leaning against a wall. The man was asleep.

The man was fat and wore very dirty clothing. His stomach bulged out from under his torn shirt like a bowl full of jelly. His bare feet were black with dirt, and an enormous white beard was splayed across his chest. Atop his nodding head was a Santa hat.

Shoppers hurried past him.

Mary stopped to look at him.

She bent to place her wrapped cookie by his feet, then hurried to catch up with her mother.

A Brief Note

Even if nothing really matters–
and nothing endures–
and nothing counts.

Even when nobody cares–
and nobody knows–
and none remember.

Even when a thousand mouths snicker,
disbelieve, mock,
pummel with scorn.

EvenĀ at life’s end, twisted with regret,
thinking I might have–
could have–should have–

Even though a world becomes dust,
I did a few things
I felt were good.