The Highest Seat

I had a friend named Nick. We used to have long conversations in the city park while sitting on a bench: I on one end, he on the other.

Nick would sit there with his eyes closed, listening through headphones to what he called the music of the spheres. I never heard his music, so I couldn’t tell you what he meant.

While he was listening to his music, I’d sit on the other end of the bench people watching. Watching random joggers and walkers. He and I were quite different.

When Nick opened his eyes and they met mine we always talked.

Nick loved to talk about astronomy. For many years he’d worked as projectionist at the city park’s planetarium, operating a unique device called a star projector. From the projector’s starball shined points of light. Thin rays of light formed constellations on the planetarium’s black dome-shaped screen. The starball slowly revolved like the Earth.

Space was his obsession. Nick knew the orbit of every planet and every moon. He could name hundreds of stars. He knew everything there was to know about comets, and Saturn’s rings, and Jupiter’s spot–I forget what it’s called–and far galaxies at the very edge of the Universe. He knew the date and time of every eclipse. All he ever talked about was space.

He’d been retired from that job as projectionist for years and now he sat in the park and listened with eyes closed to his music of the spheres. A few times I caught him on that bench after dark. He was staring up at the twinkling stars.

He used to tell me that the best seat in a planetarium is the highest one–right up near the domed ceiling. It’s the seat nearest the stars. But people seldom climb those steep stairs. People like the easy seats.

He finally retired from that projectionist job when the planetarium began to show nothing but documentary films on its giant, curved screen. You know, those movies that take you soaring above skyscrapers or for a ride on a roller coaster. The world around and under you seems so solid that you get motion sickness. He hated those films. I didn’t understand why.

He once told me he’d been born too early. He wanted to go flying through space. Among the stars.

After he passed away, I still would sit on that same park bench.

Whenever I walked past the old planetarium-turned-theater I wondered what the stars might have been like in there.

One day I saw the theater was showing a documentary film about outer space. I decided to buy a ticket. To see what the experience might be like.

I made my way into the dark theater. I found some ascending steps. It was so dark that I had to feel my way with groping hands. Nick was right. The higher seats were mostly empty.

Up, up those steep steps I climbed through the darkness until I reached the last seat. The highest one. The one nearest the screen. Still standing, I tilted my head back to examine the black, arching screen. It seemed so vast, like space. It appeared almost close enough to touch.

Suddenly the movie started. Stars appeared.

When I looked down, ready to sit in that highest seat, I discovered a faintly glimmering thing. A brass plaque.

Bending down to look closely, I could barely read: In remembrance of Nicolas, projectionist. His light made every star.

Apology for a Nightmare

Grace had a nightmare.

Her nightmare was bizarre, chaotic, irrational, unaccountable, and she did terrible things. Including something to Katherine.

That morning Grace apologized to Katherine.

Katherine was confused. “You’re sorry for what?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Is it something you did?”

“No.”

“But if it’s something you didn’t do, why are you standing there apologizing to me?” Katherine asked, beginning to feel amused.

“I have a very good reason.”

“Which is?”

“It’s something you’ll never know.”

“Now you’re just being Grace.”

“I must be Grace.”

A Half Dozen Odd Things

Agatha purchased a mystery at the swap meet. Glued to paper, pressed behind glass in a dusty frame, were a half dozen odd things.

A lottery ticket. A feather. A bus ticket. A one dollar bill. A bit of red yarn. A bookmark.

The seller at the swap meet knew nothing.

Agatha took possession of the mystery for five dollars. The frame by itself was worth almost that.

“What do you think this is?” she asked her husband after returning home.

“Another piece of junk.”

“What do you think this is supposed to be?” she asked her visiting sister.

“Looks like somebody framed their memories. You’d have to ask the person who made that what it means.”

Uncertain where to place the mystery, Agatha temporarily leaned the dusty frame behind the kitchen blender. Out of the way, but still in the range of her curious eyes.

Whatever those memories were, thought Agatha, together they were art. They were a stranger’s work of art.

But why had it been sold?

Did the lottery ticket represent a dream of the unknown stranger? Did that dream ever come true?

And what about the bus ticket? Why did the person take that particular journey? What happened then? Did they return?

Was the feather found on a special day?

Did the one dollar bill change a life?

A bit of red yarn…

A bookmark…

Bookmarks, Agatha mused, are found in stories that have more pages to turn.

Bookmarks are like brief moments in a life. They are like a lottery ticket . . . a bus ticket . . . a one dollar bill.

Bookmarks! That’s what these half dozen things were! A framed collection of used bookmarks!

From a story that had finally come to an end.

Agatha understood.

She picked up the frame, turned it over, opened it, and carefully removed the contents. She kept the frame and threw now useless things–the lottery and bus tickets–into the garbage.

Later that day she put a photo of her grandchildren inside the frame.

She placed the feather on her building’s front step for someone to find.

She dropped the one dollar bill in the hat of a man strumming his guitar on the street.

The ordinary bookmark she placed in a borrowed library book.

The bit of red yarn she also used.

Agatha loved to crochet and donate small things she made to charity. She’d work that bit of yarn in somewhere.

To Last Forever

You have fifteen minutes to make something that will last forever. That was the classroom exercise on Wednesday.

The teacher had reminded her students that even the pyramids were crumbling.

Wagner looked at the objects spilled on the classroom floor. There were hammers, brushes, a box of nails, plywood in different dimensions, cans of paint. And fourteen minutes.

Wagner wondered what he could make in those few minutes that would last forever. Forever was a long time.

Perhaps a masterpiece that ended up in a museum. But he wasn’t a famous artist, and he had a strong hunch he never would be. Now thirteen minutes.

Or he could create an artifact to be discovered by an archaeologist in the distant future. But wood rots. Twelve minutes.

Thinking about world history, Wagner realized that in thousands of years museums disappear, too. Eleven minutes.

Like the pyramids, everything in the world eventually crumbles. Ten minutes.

Forever has no end. Nine minutes.

What is forever?

He tried to visualize the immensity of forever.

One moment in forever is almost nothing. It is a drop in the ocean that is the cosmos. An infinitesimal drop, in an infinite ocean that unifies all things. With ripples that expand outward without end. Only five minutes left.

You have fifteen minutes to make something that will last forever. Wagner figured there must be a solution to the problem. His teacher had a purpose. Three minutes.

He looked across the classroom at his teacher, who stood in a corner smiling at her students. Most of the students were busy painting or hammering. Wagner wasn’t. Two minutes.

Wagner saw in his teacher’s eyes that there was a solution. Her eyes turned toward him and she nodded. One minute.

You have fifteen minutes to make something that will last forever. Suddenly Wagner knew the answer.

He walked up to his teacher and reached out his hand with gratitude. They made the connection.

“This is the answer,” he said.

Ghost Wind

Conner’s hair was flying. “Here come the ghosts.”

The wind increased as it always did in the early afternoon, driving sailboats in tangents across the choppy bay.

Conner tacked the sailboat, seeking a new direction that exploited the rising wind. “There must be several thousand ghosts coming this way,” he announced as he wrestled the rudder. “Look at the sails.”

Eddie, who’d never been sailing before, laughed.

“What’s so funny?” demanded Conner.

Eddie glanced at his crazy work buddy. He turned his eyes back to the shining water. An hour on a rented sailboat before returning home from the West Coast convention might be the best thing he’d done in a long time. The introduction of ghosts was odd. He wondered if Conner, top company sales rep and champion liar, ever meant anything he said.

Eddie concentrated on the invigorating experience. He thought of the seeming freedom of sailing. The wind carressed his face and the spray of cool water made him feel so alive. Every so often the wind would change direction, weaken, strengthen, shift again, as if it were indecisive, as if it were forever lost and wandering.

A sudden gust gave the sailboat a sickening lurch. “Now we’re in for it!” warned Conner.

“Very funny.”

“The funny thing about ghosts,” explained Conner, “is they’re completely ineffective on land. Unless they come as a hurricane. But on the water, they’ll drive you wherever they can. To deal with ghosts effectively a boat needs an engine.”

“That must be why everyone loves sailing and horror movies,” Eddie countered facetiously. “Because it’s thrilling to be chased by monsters.”

“Driven by ghosts,” corrected Conner.

Eddie wanted to see how far his buddy would take it. “So where are all these ghosts going exactly?”

“Straight toward both of us.”

Eddie thought Conner couldn’t be serious. He never was.

But he did wonder why–why the bizarre assertion. He wondered if there were ghosts that drove his companion.

He thought he knew Conner. They’d worked together for well over ten years. He understood how Conner would tell a customer absolutely anything, just to be the winning salesperson. How Conner tossed away money as if he didn’t care. How he was a master joke teller, generous good friend, dedicated gambler, lover of sailing. How he never spoke about the death of his daughter.

Conner was staring back at him with a sly smile.

The ghosts were particularly indecisive that afternoon. They blew southwest, then shifted north, then east. As thousands of ghosts gathered in the white sails the taut ropes that resisted them vibrated. Held.

At the marina Conner and Eddie took one last look at slowly moving sails scattered across the water. Tilting toward hazy horizons.

The two jumped into their rented car and steered down lined asphalt to the airport, where ghosts gathered at the runway’s end would lift them home.

Night Walking

The house had eyes.

The porch was a chin. The front door, a mouth.

Eli arrived home late, exhausted after another day’s work.

He parked on the driveway, locked his car, crossed stepping stones and climbed to the porch. The porch was a chin. He entered the mouth.

Late that night, after Eli had turned off all the lights and wrapped himself in warm blankets, the dark windows of the house blinked awake. Starlight filled eyes.

Rising from the ground, the house began to walk.

It walked past a row of gray lawns and sleeping houses and turned at Elm Street.

It walked past the dark gas station and the dark liquor store.

It turned onto Main Street and walked past the post office, bank, supermarket. It walked through the black shadows of the junkyard.

The eyes of the house twinkled right and left as they searched the night.

The house passed a cat prowling through an empty lot. It passed under a bat fluttering into the night from under a bridge. It walked past a row of black cedar trees and a lifted finger that was a church steeple. It moved beside pale nightshades that tumbled from inside the iron fence of the cemetery. It observed the hands of the town clock grasping eternity.

Under remote stars the house roamed.

A strange dream moved it. An impossible dream that was wrapped behind its eyes. A dream that was brighter than the stars, that turned gray shadows to certainties and the solemn dark to a thousand brilliant colors.

Walking through the night, the house at last found what it sought.

Eli woke as the sun rose above the horizon.

He looked out at the familiar street from his bedroom window, at the newly mown lawn and bed of cheerful yellow gardenias.

He was ready for another day.

The Specimen

A golf ball flies much farther on the moon. A rock will, too, reasoned Amelia.

She knelt to collect another specimen. She regarded the mass in her gloved hand. She was a geologist. She understood a thing of value waited in the moon rock. But that precious thing was impossible to see.

45.4% SiO2. 14.9% Al2O3. 11.8% CaO. 14.1% FeO. 9.2% MgO. 3.9% TiO2. 0.6% Na2O.

The specimen turned over in her gloved fingers. It was colorless, dull. She remembered her childhood. She pictured the grassy bank of the river by her home where she unearthed smooth stones for skipping. She’d find one, turn it over, hoping it was perfect, then skip it as far as she could across twinkling blue water.

She clutched the specimen. She was a geologist. She had lifted the small rock from the surface of a lunar mare. A place once thought to be a sea. She looked from the dust at her feet into the emptiness above.

In the blackness, far away, was a bright pool of blue.

Amelia threw the rock with all of her might.

Breaking Bread

A shoe kicked at a pigeon. The bird moved away as it pecked at the sidewalk.

“Sally would insist that’s Julius Caesar or Cleopatra,” mocked James, standing under the awning at lunchtime.

“Napoleon,” Liz suggested.

Sally, the office manager, actually believed in reincarnation. She was obsessed with the concept and spoke about it constantly as if she were an authority. Which was ridiculous. She asserted hamsters, lizards, cockroaches, even slugs might have once been human souls.

“You know, that could be a Greek philsopher,” James laughed, kicking harder at the bird. It spooked momentarily then resumed its circular walk. The pigeon’s tiny eyes looked right, left, down at the sidewalk, left, right, up at the two, back down. Its ridiculous head never stopped pumping. “Didn’t the great Plato call us featherless bipeds?”

Liz laughed. She nibbled at her bagel.

The bird did walk like an ordinary person. It strutted purposefully forward, one leg following another. It’s two eyes never stopped searching the small space in front of them.

The pigeon was simply going about its daily business, looking for crumbs, guided by animal instinct. Propelled by hunger.

The little bird was the embodiment of persistence.

A broken feather in one wing dangled as it walked.

Just a pigeon. Perhaps more ruffled than most.

“Poor thing.” Liz tore off a chunk of her bagel and tossed it onto the sidewalk.

The pigeon batted its gift about, the way all pigeons do.

Money Changer

A week cashiering at the convenience store and I was bored.

Ring up beer. Ring up chips. Ring up cigarettes.

When you’re a psychology student coping with exorbitant tuition, you’ll take any job.

At first the customers kept me entertained, and some were actually interesting, but I began to observe definite behaviors and it became so predictable.

There were customers who never stopped complaining. There were customers who wanted to stand there and talk and talk and talk, about nothing, holding up the line. There were customers who’d pick up every product in the store and read every label as if they had nothing better to do.

Some of the customers were completely shameless. Right in front of my eyes they stole coins from the little plastic penny tray on the counter.

But one regular customer puzzled me.

The elderly woman came into the store every afternoon. She must’ve had a serious case of osteoporosis because her posture was severely stooped. She wore a bad wig. Standing beside her rickety little cart, the old woman would always lean against the counter and ask for two cheap chicken wings and one lottery ticket. And as she waited, she’d reach into the little plastic penny tray and start fingering the coins, picking them up, staring at one, then another, turning them over.

But she never stole.

The old woman did exactly the same thing every day. She’d reach into that tray, very deliberately turn several pennies over with her fingers, take none.

Obviously she was compulsive.

As I looked down on this pointless behavior it began to bother me. She was certainly poor. I assumed she was tempted by the presence of a few pennies. I concluded that one day she’d steal a coin or two. Like so many other customers.

Money changes people.

“Tell me,” I said one day, feeling more irritated than usual as she turned another coin over. “Why do you do keep doing that?”

She looked up at me, eyes bright. “Heads is lucky.”

I looked down at the little plastic tray. She’d turned every coin heads up.

She’d made the pennies lucky for everyone.

The Fight

Edward hadn’t thought about dying.

He’d been too busy.

Lying in the ICU, listening to the countdown beep of machines and monitors, he thought about his life.

The years of struggle. Working two, sometimes three jobs. Moving apartment to apartment, saving money to replace a car, finish college, start a family. Looking forward to a few days of vacation every year. The sleepless nights, long commutes, paying off debts. Working to exhaustion–for what turned out to be a nonexistent retirement.

As Edward stared at the blank ceiling, he suddenly saw his wife, already buried.

He was holding her hand.

Both felt so confident about the future.

Together they were fighting the good fight. They were repapering cabinets in the little kitchen of their fixer upper house, repelling another invasion of cockroaches. Laughing as they watched another soufflé collapse. Laughing as they walked down to the convenience store to buy frozen dinners. Planning an impossible trip around the world while cuddling on the threadbare couch. Binging on terrible TV shows. Laughing about their crappy jobs.

Edward recalled cold nights wrapped in warm arms. A first, second, third child. Mowing the lawn and pulling weeds. Barbeques in the backyard. Losing at ping pong with the kids.

There was that flat tire during the epic family road trip to the Grand Canyon. The year he fell off the ladder while hanging Christmas lights and how he’d laughed too. The endless antics of nutty neighbors, club members, his many friends. His ever growing family gathered on Saturday nights at that same old spaghetti restaurant–laughing–laughing–laughing–

Living.

Living, he finally realized, is a fight against death.

And death was about to win.

“You have visitors,” a voice said.

Edward recognized his grown children standing above him. He couldn’t understand what they were saying. He lowered his eyes and saw two of his grandchildren playing down by the floor.

They didn’t know that death lay before them.

The little girl made a funny face at the little boy. Both laughed.

Suddenly Edward laughed with them.

Death wouldn’t win.