A Distant Place

I work part-time at a library. It’s something to do during my semi-retirement. I’m that person who silently pushes a cart around, placing returned books back on the shelves.

Weaving the book cart between library patrons, I often wonder about those who sit alone, reading, writing, staring out a window. What is their life story?

When you’re old like me and life is mostly memories, you think about such things.

I remember how last year, right when the library opened, a man wearing dark glasses and dressed in suit and tie would always be waiting outside. Feeling his way with a white cane, he’d come through the door. Silently he’d navigate past the front counter, past the biographies and travel and reference books, and settle in a chair in a corner.

And he’d sit there for hours, alone.

As I moved through the library shelving books, I’d occasionally glance toward the man and wonder about his story. From where did he come? And what was he thinking about as he sat there with an unreadable, expressionless face. I couldn’t see behind those dark glasses.

One afternoon I felt courageous.

I approached him.

“Hello,” I offered. “I was just putting one of my favorite books back on the shelf. And that made me wonder–do you have a favorite book?”

“Yes I do,” replied the man so suddenly I nearly jumped.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I’ve always loved that story by Tolkien–The Lord of the Rings.”

He spoke with an even, intelligent voice, but his face remained strangely expressionless. I wished I had seen a little emotion. I happen to love Tolkien’s fantasy, too.

“When was the last time you read–” I caught myself. Of course he couldn’t see to read. I was unnerved by my stupid slip, embarrassed. But he might read Braille . . .

The man explained: “I read it a long time ago.”

“I love The Lord of the Rings, too. Do you mind if I sit here and read you a few pages? You might enjoy it.”

After a long pause, he replied, “I would.”

I found The Fellowship of the Ring, sat down in a chair beside this mysterious person, whose face remained impassive, and I began. “Concerning Hobbits…

The man listened for half an hour that day, and again the following day, and for many days that followed.

Whenever he heard me approach his chair–he must have recognized my footsteps–he would greet me politely.

“Where were we?” I’d ask.

“Making our way through Middle Earth,” he’d affirm.

As I started to read, as he listened to more pages of the bright, bounding fantasy, his face would remain a mask, eyes hidden behind those dark glasses. Was he far away traveling through Middle Earth?

Near the end of the story I thought I could detect in his face a minute betrayal of emotion. It was that scene where Frodo, Bilbo and others who’ve borne rings of power finally depart Middle Earth . . . sailing away to that distant place beyond the sparkling curtain . . . where eyes can behold white shores . . . and beyond . . .

When ordinary, faithful Sam finally returned home to his normal life, and The Return of the King closed, I saw a tear escaping from behind dark glasses.

“I’m sorry– I didn’t mean to–” I said.

At once the man reached for his cane and shot up, almost tipping his chair. I had to quickly sidestep as he lunged past me for the library’s front door. He departed without a word.

I never saw him in the library again.

But the next day I did see him in front of library. He was sitting in the sunny courtyard by the library’s entrance. He sat near the bed of roses on a bench facing our bright sparkling fountain.

Every day that followed I saw him sitting there, behind dark glasses, like a statue. He seemed to be listening to the whispers of the splashing fountain.

Even when it rained he sat on that bench, slightly sheltered by a flowering tree, and I wondered if I should be happy I read that story with him, or sad.

Azima’s Birds

Ten large bird feeders hung in Azima’s front yard.

The next-door neighbor hated it. Everyone else on the street loved it.

Hundreds of birds descended on Azima’s yard every morning when he refilled the feeders with bags of fresh seed. Mourning doves, pigeons, house finches, goldfinches, chickadees, cowbirds, dark-eyed juncos, bright grosbeaks, warblers, cardinals, blue jays, blackbirds, speckled starlings, meteor showers of sparrows . . . Children, walking to school past Azima’s house, turned to stare.

The next-door neighbor complained.

Azima didn’t care.

. . .

When Azima was a boy he watched his father sprinkle bird seed on the kitchen window sill. A tiny sparrow had been tapping on the window for days.

“It’s a sign,” his mother warned. “Just before Grandfather passed, a bird came tapping on the window. All day long it tapped on the glass. You hear stories about how that happens to other people, too. Before a loved one dies.”

Azima’s father hated bird droppings. So one morning Azima’s father brought Azima outside and showed him how to sprinkle bird seed laced with rat poison on the window sill.

The very next morning Azima sought the tiny sparrow. It lay on brown leaves near the honeysuckle under the kitchen window. He’d held the murdered thing in the palm of his hand. He looked at the once-living eyes. The sparrow was weightless. It was like a thing made of paper.

. . .

Using a cane, Azima hobbled outside to his small front yard. He carried a large bag of the very best seed. Children walking to school stopped to stare at the whirlwind of flying feathers and the crazy old man.

The next-door neighbor shouted over the hedge: “Those birds are shitting everywhere!”

Azima didn’t care.

The Cannon

Giggling, two little girls chased each other around the old Civil War cannon.

A mother lifted a baby from a stroller. “Look at you!” Carefully holding the baby’s waist, she stood two short wobbly legs on the cannon.

A young man came up to the cannon’s end and peered into it.

A bearded gentleman strolling through the park paused to test his knuckles on the hard cannon.

An elderly man and woman sat at a nearby picnic table.

“That,” commented the old man, “might be the very one that killed my great great grandfather’s brother.”

“Could be,” replied the old woman.

“Brothers. Killing each other.”

A little boy on the grass was flying in every direction chasing a pigeon. The pigeon somehow always remained just beyond reach. The little boy shouted excitedly and veered to attack the pigeon from behind. The bird eluded him easily.

The little boy saw the cannon, ran up and stopped beside it.

He stood behind the cannon and looked along its inert length to sight a chestnut tree.

“Boom!”

He looked up at the chestnut tree that had not been blown to pieces.

“Boom!”

The chestnut tree was enormous, green and beautiful. It must have been very old. Above the grass it rose, the bark of its wide trunk furrowed with age. The green leaves fluttered slightly in the wind, and in the sunlight they made the old tree seem like a bright mirage.

“Boom!”

Another pigeon flew down from the tree to the grass. The little boy saw it and turned. The cannon was forgotten. The chase resumed.

“Thrilling,” said one of the old people.

The Snipe Hunt

Fifty eight adventurers sat at folding tables in a building made of pine logs. It was summer. They were eating hamburgers.

“You have two choices,” explained a camp counselor while everyone guzzled. “After dinner you can either go with me on a snipe hunt, or you can follow Janine down to the lake. She’ll show you how to make paper sky lanterns. Does anyone want to go on the snipe hunt?”

Many hands shot up.

“You should probably know,” the counselor explained, “snipes aren’t real. There are no snipes. All we’ll do is hike up the hill behind the cabins and poke around in the dark. We won’t actually find anything.”

Blake continued to hold his hand up. Nobody else did.

. . .

Blake followed the counselor up the steep desert hill. Both carried flashlights. After nightfall the blazing heat had rapidly vanished. The air was already chilly.

Two small wavering circles of light fell upon cacti and broken rock. The counselor stopped to beat on a thorny bush beside the trail with his hiking stick. “Keep a sharp lookout!” he urged with enthusiasm. “It’s a well known fact that snipes hide around here!”

Blake moved past the counselor and plunged ahead into the night’s darkness. The rough trail, at times difficult to follow, cut back and forth up the rocky hill and the climb was slow.

“Don’t forget to hit the bushes with your stick,” the counselor prompted.

Blake ignored him. He continued up the trail. As he climbed away from the cabins and their dwindling light, the black sky deepened. Sprinkled stars appeared.

It would be ridiculous, Blake understood, to search for things that aren’t real. But there was strange mystery in the deepening night–there was freedom, the limitless air, the unknown–

He climbed eagerly. He wanted to see what starlight falling from unreachable distances might touch.

The night became colder. His flashlight wavered right and left. All signs of the trail had disappeared.

“Don’t get too far ahead of me!” the counselor shouted. “Don’t become lost!”

Then, Blake, turning to peer into even more darkness, saw them. A handful of sky lanterns. Small lights slowly rising among the stars.

They rose like tiny distant suns. As he stood, he watched them drift away, becoming fainter.

One after another they winked out.

Nothing was left above but those unreachable stars.

“Beautiful, weren’t they?” the counselor said coming up beside him. “It was worth climbing up here just to see that. But it’s getting late. We should turn back.”

“Why?”

Blake ignored the counselor and started climbing the steep hill again, more restless than before. The night breeze was increasing, becoming colder. The wavering circle of light offered by his flashlight discovered more of the same cacti and rocks. The counselor quietly followed.

What can a person up here actually find? Blake wondered. More prickly cacti, more of the same broken rock, and perhaps, eventually, the summit of this one barren desert hill, and a night sky with far horizons filled with even more stars. Things nobody else will see.

Perhaps it was the sharpening wind, or his adjusting eyes, but as he climbed toward the stars the night became more alive. He heard rustlings, saw shapes and shadows swaying slightly, moving on the ground around him. Certainly not snipes. But there was a thrilling, unexplainable something up here. Probably only the wind.

Blake was sure he could see the hill’s top. He was almost there. The stars were all around.

In the gentle starlight, he switched off his flashlight and looked all around with wonder.

But he could go higher.

Looking up, he thought he could see a thing moving on the dark hill’s summit. Something very small and glimmering.

He climbed toward it.

“I found a snipe!” shouted Blake.

The counselor came up, his light off, too.

And there it was.

A fragile living thing.

Sent by wishful hands toward the stars, a paper sky lantern had returned to Earth. It had tangled in a low cactus, where, extinguished, it shivered in the cold wind and faintly reflected starlight.

The Deal

Sophie reached down to pluck a flower.

A bee landed on the back of her hand. It moved awkwardly over a knuckle and onto a finger.

Sophie froze. “A bee!” she screamed.

The bee walked slowly to the end of the finger.

“Go away!” Sophie screamed.

“Why?” asked the bee.

“Because you’re a bee! You’re dangerous and you might sting me!”

“I promise I won’t sting you if you accept my offer,” said the bee.

“What do you want?”

“If you do not pluck that flower, I will make this finger magic.”

“Deal!” said Sophie.

The bee turned around several times on the fingertip. “Now if you touch that flower very gently,” the bee explained, “you will give it a second life.”

The pollinating bee vibrated its delicate wings and departed.

Sophie looked closely at the end of her finger.

Backward Man

Two men rode the morning train. They sat opposite each other. One sat facing forward, the other backward.

“I don’t like riding backward,” said the first man.

“When you sit backward and look out the window you can see what’s coming,” explained the second man.

“How’s that possible? You have sit facing forward to see what’s coming.”

“It’s easy,” replied the backward facing man.

The train emerged from under a bridge and passed behind a row of ramshackle houses. The train passed one backyard that contained a small inflatable pool and a tree with a swing.

“I see a school bus ahead at a railroad crossing,” said the backward man.

“You do!” smiled the forward man.

The train passed a skateboard park with a lone skater, who must have been ditching school.

“I see a young man speeding on his motorcycle to the mall,” said the backward man.

“That wouldn’t surprise me.”

The train passed a churchyard. A wedding arbor stood empty in a plot of flowers.

“I see someone walking into a store to buy rice,” said the backward man.

“That’s funny.”

The train passed a fire engine parked beside a city park. Firefighters in rain jackets were jogging down a winding path that followed the train tracks for a short distance.

“I see an open bay door at a fire station,” said the backward man.

The train passed a liquor store, its red neon sign flashing. The morning rain was picking up.

“I see people walking down sidewalks, staring at reflections in puddles,” said the backward man.

“I don’t like trains,” explained the forward man, “but my car broke down. If I have to ride the train, I need to see what’s coming. I don’t want to miss my stop.”

The train passed behind a large car lot. The new cars were brightly polished.

“I see a car crashed in a ditch,” said the backward man.

“Obviously you can’t see any of that. Because I don’t,” asserted the forward man.

The train passed a flagpole that rose above a brick fire station that had one open bay door. The morning wind was rising, whipping the flag wildly under black clouds.

“I see a lightning strike ahead,” said the backward man.

“It’s not in the forecast,” laughed the forward man, who looked straight ahead at the backward sitting man.

The backward man turned his eyes from the train window. He looked back at the forward man, directly into his eyes.

The train passed a cemetery. Headstones covered newly green grass.

“I see a ghost.”

Paradise Manor

Picking up specimens was a piece of cake job. All I did was drive a company car and stop at hospitals and doctor offices. But my route covered a big area, so I had to keep moving. And as a professional lab courier, I had to know which bagged specimens were room temperature, refrigerated or frozen.

The one place I hated was nursing homes. There was the unbearable smell. And the long wait at nurses stations.

I remember one time I was finally handed a urine sample at Paradise Manor, and I was about to leave the front lobby when, out of the blue, someone came up to me: a tiny, very old woman.

She grabbed my arm. “Please help me,” the old woman implored.

“I’m sorry?” I said, startled.

I glanced at the little person in her pink robe.

“Help me. They won’t let me out.”

This is awkward, I realized. What am I supposed to say?

Paradise Manor’s front lobby, with its empty velvet couch and large mirrors, had always resembled a funeral home. At Paradise Manor there were several nurses stations down long hallways, but no reception desk.

“They won’t let you out?” I repeated with a feeling of dread. In the back of my mind I knew I was already running late.

The old woman tugged at my arm. “Please help me get out of here,” she persisted. “They won’t let me leave. Please help me.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’m allowed to– I mean, I wish I could help you but–I really have to get going–“

“Help me! Help me!” she repeated, her entreating eyes meeting mine.

The old woman kept tugging weakly at my arm as I started to move toward the front door.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. I’m not supposed to,” I said lamely.

I glanced around, hoping to be saved, but the lobby of Paradise Manor remained empty–with no friendly welcome or farewell. No help would be coming from the nurses station down the hallway.

“I have to be going,” I tried to explain. “If I’m late, I’ll get in trouble with my boss.”

But she had no idea who I was. Just a person within her reach.

“I really wish I could help you,” I said pathetically, breaking away from her grip and backing toward the door.

The old woman’s arms were outstretched.

She stood frozen with an expression of terror on her face as she watched me push open the heavy door. “Please help me! Please help me!” she called.

I escaped.

All that afternoon I felt guilty, wondering what I could have done.

And, of course, the only answer was nothing.

The Weed

Jules sipped a rum and tonic by the rooftop pool. He regarded a weed in a flower box. He didn’t recall seeing it before.

The crooked, gangling weed must have grown quickly. It towered above the trimmed flowers. Its wild green had unfurled like a flag.

Jules relaxed in his chaise lounge and knew that if he carefully watched the weed for hours and hours he’d observe its ascent. He took another sip.

There was a sudden vision of Jack’s beanstalk.

He saw the green weed growing higher.

The weed rose from the rooftop pool and the surrounding rooftops up into blue sky, and the city streets below became very small. The weed penetrated a white cloud. It emerged above the cloud and continued to grow.

It passed a flying dragon.

It passed a witch on her broomstick.

It neared a castle.

From the castle an astonished giant watched the green weed shooting past.

The weed left Earth’s atmosphere and passed a cow jumping over the moon.

The weed, whose seed must have been blown to the rooftop on the wind, passed Martian canals, a whirling space ship, and peculiar stone heads on a desert island. It passed a mummy walking upon the rings of Saturn. It passed ghosts and angels.

It passed Hermes returning to Mount Olympus, a flaming Firebird, and the imagination of a young boy taking flight.

It passed through galaxies of gravitational planets where insect civilizations rose and fell as dust and the stars were too numerous for any sane person to count.

Jules sipped his rum and tonic by the pool on the rooftop. Fairy tales.

The tall weed in the flower box disrupted his view of the city.

He sprang from his chaise lounge and pulled it.

A Small, Small World

An ice cream truck was near.

it’s a small world after all…

Zella waved goodbye to the school bus driver, turned around and sprinted down the sidewalk toward the cheerfully ringing chime.

…it’s a small world after all…

Vincent, straightening his shirt collar as he stepped out of the barbershop, heard the repeating notes. He searched a pocket for change. Without appearing too eager, he hurried down the sidewalk.

…it’s a small world after all…

Sam and Jane entered the hotel lobby after an exhausting day. They heard the happy tune and grinned at each other. They stepped back outside.

…it’s a small world after all…

Errol knew leftovers would be for dinner. He walked slowly, dreamily through the city. He smelled rain coming. He arrived at the music, stood in line.

…it’s a small world after all…

Naomi, sitting in her parked patrol car, writing up another report, rolled down the window to listen. She set her paperwork aside. She opened the door.

…it’s a small world after all…

Bryce lay with his back against a wall. He’d lost his job. And then he’d lost his girlfriend. His eyes were closed. He heard the distant chime. He jumped up.

…it’s a small world after all…

Zella stood on a balcony trying to see the street below. Her old eyes were failing. She remembered the sudden bright thrill of ice cream trucks turning corners, and the merry chimes. She remembered how people at any hour would mysteriously appear from every direction to grasp melting bliss.

…it’s a small, small world.

Perfection

My work friend Manny is a church organist. He’s very religious. I don’t mind his frequent observations concerning human fallibility, because he’s human, too. I listen to him with a smile.

When Manny told me he’d be playing classical music at the church that Wednesday evening, I promised to go. And I mentioned it to my wife Barbara. But she dislikes zealots.

“It won’t be religious. It’s the music of Bach and Chopin and Liszt and the stuff you like. And he’s actually very good. He’s played with the symphony. If you want to go, we can sit in back and leave whenever you’d like,” I offered. “You won’t have to talk to Manny.”

I was surprised when she tagged along.

Manny is an excellent organist because he’s a devoted, one hundred percent perfectionist. It has something to do with his religion. I know that as a coworker he can be very annoying. He becomes upset if a meeting or sales pitch doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

There was a decent crowd in the pews. Barbara and I sat near the back. We listened to a complicated piece by Bach and the music was indeed perfect and beautiful. Manny’s playing was superb.

In the middle of the program I glanced over at my wife and she appeared to be relishing the concert, too.

The notes of one timeless piece seemed like poetry–so fragile, so ascendant, so full of yearning. They felt like whispers from the depths of my own soul. I found it hard to believe they emerged from a church’s pipe organ. The divine feeling was stirred to life by the fingers of Manny. His playing appeared effortless.

When I glanced at Barbara again, tears were on her cheek. I had never seen her cry in public. She saw me and covered her eyes with a hand.

The next day, at work, I told Manny his organ concert was absolutely amazing.

“No it wasn’t,” he snapped. He stared back in a critical way. “I was off my game. I don’t know what was wrong.”

“I thought it sounded great.”

“Are you joking? That was probably one of my worst performances ever.”

“I saw someone crying when you played Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster, Opus 54, No. 6.”

“I’d cry, too, if I listened to my garbage.”