Small Pleasures

“The concept is to make your world more real. You apply a tiny stain to one place, or add a smudge of grease, or even use a fine brush to paint graffiti.”

The model railroader was showing a visitor his layout.

“Look at these boxcars. They look exactly like miniature versions of the real thing. You can’t make your objects too dirty.

“See that train coming across the bridge? I aged the locomotive with a mild acid solution, then I carefully added soot, dust and exhaust. I used acrylic paint to blacken the grills and create rust.

“Over here, I weathered the train station with sandpaper and deliberately broke one of the steps leading to the side door. I even put some mold in the waiting room. But to see that you have to peer through this little window.”

The model railroader laughed. “I’ve spent hundreds of hours trying to make this layout as realistic as possible. Look at the steel bridge and the forested mountain, the city park and city streets. Look closely at the sidewalks, the litter, the shop windows and busy people.

“But you know what makes this world really convincing?

“Trouble.

“See that railroad crossing gate? I made it drop down on top of a car.

“A driver has jumped out of another car in the traffic jam and is waving their fist.

“A delivery truck has suddenly veered to avoid an accident, and a load of barrels has tumbled out.

“One barrel is still rolling three blocks away.

“The ladder of the arriving fire engine is swinging out of control. It knocked over a pretzel stand. And here come dozens of stray dogs.

“Frightened by stampeding dogs, two lovers in the park have jumped up onto a bench.

“A police officer has climbed a tree.

“The pilot of a hot air balloon, watching the chaos below, has become tangled on a church steeple.

“Down every little street, around every corner, trouble percolates and spreads like ripples on a pond. It’s a world made farcical by trouble. And not a single little person has the ability to escape. They remain where I glued them.”

The model railroader waved an arm proudly above his meticulously constructed world.

“When you look down and find unbounded chaos, you know it’s real.”

The visitor gazed at small pleasures and laughed.

The Good of People

Midnight passed.

I found myself beneath the city, riding home on the subway with the homeless, the aimless, the guilty, the silent. Beyond the windows rushed darkness. Cold light filled the car. Eyes avoided eyes.

Secretly, without betraying my curiosity, I studied the late night passengers who rode with me.

Several feet away in a wheelchair sat an extremely old man. He wore a tattered bathrobe. His head had fallen to his chest. He was tipping forward. I thought he might spill onto the floor at any moment.

Across from the old man, two riders sat with lowered eyes.

One had long peroxide hair, blue fingernails, hollow eyes and gaunt cheeks–a prostitute. She appeared to be twenty going on fifty. Hands trembling. A meth addict.

The other was a man whose hardened face and shaved head were covered with crude tattoos. Etched in prison, I surmised.

I was careful that neither noticed me.

The prostitute wore a tiny skirt and heavy winter jacket. Both of her legs were scarred. I wondered how she received those scars and how she might have smiled when she began down her path. Through what turns had she come to be seated there? Did she ever think about her future?

The man with the tattoos wore an angry expression that seemed permanent. I tried to imagine the crimes he might have committed. His mask of tattoos contained a clown, a skull and a gun, and painful words that would never be erased.

I lifted my gaze a fraction to observe others who rode after midnight. I found more of the same: eyes aimed nowhere.

Where were these people going? To what end did their lives lead?

As I looked on critically, I realized these late night riders of the subway were no different than anyone else. Moving through time hoping to find a place where they might be whole.

These lives had been reduced to futile existence. Drifting through a black tunnel unseen. Riding forward, station after station after station after station, never arriving.

How many in this world ride with no destination? I wondered.

What is the good of people?

The old man drooping in the wheelchair suddenly toppled onto the floor.

Two passengers jumped up.

The young prostitute leaned over and reached toward the old man with her trembling hand.

“Are you okay, bro?” asked the man with the tattoos, as he helped the old man back up into the wheelchair.

I did nothing.

The Recovered Artifact

Do you remember those storms we had fifteen or twenty years ago? When dozens of houses were destroyed by mudslides? And the highway south of town was closed for a week?

I still remember how, exhausted from shoveling the mud on our driveway, I collapsed and sat on a slimy spot of curb gazing down the street. Several houses near the dead end were buried.

After a weeks of pouring rain the mud flows had become unstoppable. It seemed the hills around our neighborhood had been whipped by a gigantic blender and the earth reduced to brown rivers. I realize people overuse the word surreal, but the world I saw was surreal. The familiar street had been smothered by a relentless plain of mud. Ruthless mud that was primordial. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

As my tired eyes searched for the vanished street, or anything that might be recognizable, I wondered if our neighborhood could ever return to normal. That’s when I noticed a small object lying on the mud several feet from where I sat. I got up. I trudged over to pick the thing up.

It was a cast iron horse, about two inches in length.

Imagine my surprise.

I stared into my hand at the unexpected thing.

Buried in the hills of our neighborhood are centuries of history. From time to time bits of that history surface: an arrowhead, a shard of broken pottery, a disintegrating coin.

I wondered if this was an artifact from an age long past unburied by the rains and revealed again to living eyes. I turned the tiny cast iron horse over in my hand, removing the mud, and examined it closely. It was a very simple thing. Neither the head nor mane showed much detail. The legs were galloping. It had probably been a plaything of a child.

The more I stared at this mysterious artifact, and the more I wondered where it might have originated, the more primitive it appeared.

Archaeology has always fascinated me. To such an extent that I’ve taken several college courses.

I’ve seen galloping horses on the coins of Carthage and Ancient Corinth. I’ve seen the Bronze Running Horse from a 2nd century tomb in China. I have marveled at those friezes of Greek horses charging into battle with arching heads and curling manes, or taking flight on Pegasus wings. To my mind, this small horse appeared even more ancient. It seemed to have flown from a stone age cave painting directly into my hand.

The simple shape of the cast iron horse was timeless. The bounding figure possessed a carefree quality that spoke of unbreakable freedom. In that small thing I saw a symbol of life’s adamant tenacity. It was a thing that devouring forces could not destroy.

As I stood in the mud admiring a mysterious artifact that had emerged from the Earth, I became aware someone was standing near me.

“You found my horsey!” a child suddenly cried, hurrying forward, hands outstretched.

All Things Will Speak

When tongues are silent the stones will speak. As will the trees and the rivers and the rainbows and the stars.

When tongues cease, all things will speak gladly, freely.

The stones will speak of crumbling and the crucible.

The trees will speak of their unquenchable thirst and deep roots and seasons.

The rivers will speak of the ocean, and the rainbows will speak of the sun.

The stars will speak their infinite wisdom in a twinkling whisper.

Eyes Unmoving

I’m old.

I find myself in an ordinary city park sitting quietly.

I see the sun fragmented by branches of trees; shadows flat on grass.

I see birds rising together like a curtain opening. The falling of leaves. The sun’s light touching faces that pass right and left.

I see a young man stepping smartly down the path in front of me. His confident eyes are forward. The day has begun. There is much to win. The young man steps around a boy playing with a ball and turns to hurry over the grass in a short cut. He does not see his own shadow among the fallen leaves.

I see a man who has come to middle age. Wearing a striped suit, he plods forward down the straight path. This man has created success and created failure, and he suffers a slight limp due to trouble with one knee. His forward eyes are fixed like stones. He still has much to do, but is uncertain why.

I see an older man creeping painfully, inch by inch down the path. This man’s back is bent. It seems he has been crushed by the burden of many weights. I cannot see his eyes. His head is gray. He moves through the ordinary park with eyes down.

I see beautiful roses in a far corner.

I sit on a bench with my eyes unmoving and feel the soft caress of the sun.

I’m old.

Gears Begin To Turn

Gears begin to turn, pinwheels start, dizzy skirts whirl, do-si-do.

Circulate, clap, do-si-do.

The summer fans hum, feet step and turn, roses in the sun, do-si-do.

Slide through, clap, do-si-do.

Windmills grind, arms bridge and rise, bowing eyes, do-si-do.

Swing through, clap, do-si-do.

Beaters making dough, banners in a sky, hands pirouetting, do-si-do.

Face right, clap, do-si-do.

A gradual smile, stumbling move, furtive glance, do-si-do.

Face left, clap, do-si-do.

Aviary Observations

The captive birds in the walk-through aviary had nowhere to go, so they perched on branches and observed the humans.

“These creatures are very selfish,” commented the purple honeycreeper. “Watch them as they crowd outside our enclosure. Every human is anxious to get in here first, but they don’t want to appear like ordinary animals. They measure distances from the corners of their eyes, then shift and shuffle and angle. For an intelligent species they are very squirrelly.”

“But why are all these humans in such a big hurry to get in here?” asked the blue-necked tanager.

“Because they want to exult in the little things they have caged. Then they want to feel relief when they step out of the cage.”

“If they want to feel relief, why do they hesitate to leave?”

“Because it turns out we are beautiful.”

“But if they prefer to be free, why won’t they let us be free?”

“Because our beauty would escape them.”

Soul to Soul

Rudy and I stood talking at the end of the line as we waited for a concert. Rudy calls himself a philosopher, but don’t ask me whether he is.

“You know,” Rudy was expounding, “if existence is defined as the opposite of nonexistence, and nonexistence is something that doesn’t exist, your existence is defined by something that doesn’t exist.”

“That sounds profound,” I said.

“Don’t you realize your very existence is in question? Doesn’t that bother you?” inquired Rudy.

“Not really.”

A strange someone sauntered up to the end of the line. The guy wore rainbow sunglasses, a green bow tie, flower trunks, and a cascade of gold chains that couldn’t possibly be real. His t-shirt was emblazoned with a photograph of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue.

“Peace to you fellow Earthlings!” the strange someone proclaimed.

“Peace to you!” replied Rudy with his usual wry smile. He eyed Einstein up and down.

“Brave the unity and go soul to soul!” Einstein said. “The transcendent antenna beyond the multiverse electrifies, intensifies, rectifies! Be the incorruptible hunger that skewers the night and opens shutters to the Light! In that galaxy and time far, far away, enigmas await so fire up your starship! Let your rocket burn! Embrace the One like collisions of hot ectoplasm! We are the Alpha and the Omega and a billion furnaces roaring! We are the Omega Men!”

“Wow,” exclaimed Rudy. “That was completely rational.”

I corrected Rudy. “That was poetry.”

“That was one toke too many,” commented Rudy.

“That was something truly profound that you couldn’t possibly understand,” I replied.

Einstein stared at me through his rainbow sunglasses. He actually seemed to be surprised. “Yeah man, like he said.”

Spinning the Earth

As he balanced precariously atop a stray basketball, Jack had a revelation. Because he could walk on the basketball and spin it backward, he could also spin the Earth.

Jack tapped Jill’s shoulder and told her to watch. He ran from the playground to the edge of the basketball courts then thrust his arms skyward in triumph. He had spun the Earth backward.

“I can spin the Earth even faster!” Jill insisted.

“No you can’t.”

“Yes I can. I’m faster than you!”

To prove the truth of her assertion, Jill sprinted away, causing Jack, who stood watching, to recede like the rest of the planet’s surface behind her.

“Let’s race!” Jack challenged.

The two crouched behind a straight shadow cast by the swings, just the way real racers do, getting ready . . . set . . . GO!

The Earth spun beneath their feet faster than ever.

“But what happens if I run one way and you run the other?” wondered Jill. “The Earth would have to spin in two different directions.”

“Maybe we can rip it in half!” Jack said enthusiastically.

“Let’s try!”

Ready . . . set . . . GO!

Two pairs of unstoppable feet raced in opposite directions, but there was no earthquake, no splitting of granite, no cataclysm of any kind, except that two people had drawn far apart.

Jill shouted: “Let’s run toward each other and see what happens!”

They nearly collided.

And lo and behold, the Earth remained solid, and steady, and in orbit around the bright distant sun, and reliably beneath their feet.

They stood eye to eye grinning.

Vacuuming the Dust

When I was a young child, my parents were so horrified by the problematic behavior of my grandmother that I was seldom taken to visit her. The ancient woman lived alone in a cramped, unspeakably dirty mobile home, from which she was eventually removed. My parents saw to it that her life ended in a nice nursing facility.

I still remember words from that final visit.

As we drove several hundred miles down the interstate in my father’s Cadillac, my mother had cautioned: “Your Grandma is getting on in years and will probably act very strange. If she says something that makes no sense, just smile and be thankful that she’s still with us. We’ve tried our best to help your Grandma but she refuses to help herself. When people get very old, they sometimes get that way.”

My mother had been so appalled by the advanced disintegration of Grandma’s home that she was determined to clean everything. The objects that it contained were in complete disarray. A deep layer of dust covered nearly every surface, from the decades old carpet to the threadbare sofa to even the cracked countertops in the kitchen. It seemed Grandma ate very little.

Covering her nose as she strode through the dusty house, my mother found the corner closet where a vacuum cleaner had been abandoned.

With watery eyes Grandma silently watched my mother’s actions. The old woman sat in a folding chair that she used in the front room. The chair faced a dirty window that overlooked a narrow bed of almost dead roses.

When the old woman noticed the vacuum cleaner, she cried out feebly: “No!”

“Why not?” asked my mother. “Don’t you think it would be much nicer if your home was clean?”

“Don’t do it! Don’t!” Grandma cried, moving ineffectually in her chair, as if she were desperate to leap from it.

“Now Mom, what’s the matter with you? You used to keep a very clean house. Remember when sister and I would tramp dirt in from the Miller’s pond? You’d make us take off our shoes and mop up all the mud we tracked in.”

“It’s your father! Don’t touch him!”

“My father? What on Earth are you talking about? We were all at his funeral last year. You remember that.”

“Don’t do it!”

“But I’m just going to run the vacuum for a minute. It’s nothing but dust, Mom, you know that.”

“Dust is everything!” Grandma protested strangely.

“Okay, now you’re being unreasonable. It’s nothing but a layer of dust and it isn’t healthy for you to live in it. I’m going to clean your house and it’s going to be so much better that you’ll thank me when I’m done.”

“No I won’t!” the disconsolate voice cried. “The dust is your father. It’s your grandmother and grandfather. It’s the dead coming back. It’s everything. It’s dead leaves and dying roses.”

My mother shook her head hopelessly, laughed out loud.

“Dust is everything,” the old woman cried. “It’s your father and his dreams. It’s years gone by. How they are remembered. It’s you and your sister. It’s everything we did. It’s the mountains where we camped and the stars we looked at.”

My mother rolled her eyes and switched on the vacuum.