Gathering in the park around the central fountain. Eating at rusted tables under sun-faded umbrellas. Napping, with head tilted forward, on a bench. Roaming about disordered flowerbeds. Gossiping, laughing, reading.
As I sat in the shade of a straggly tree, it suddenly appeared to me the splashing fountain was a shining crown. Above every head a crown.
I saw it all in one enchanted moment.
Shining above the gray hair of one gentleman who walked very carefully with a cane.
Shining above the short curls of a girl as she petted a dog.
Shining above a runner, who flashed past the fountain, arms pumping.
Shining above two lovers on scooters, playfully circling around planters of summer chrysanthemums.
Shining above people sitting in disorder, like painted figures on a margin of green grass, talking, resting, thinking.
Above every soul, a waterfall rising into blue basin sky.
Water jetting skyward.
Breaking into atoms.
Becky turned another page of her scrapbook.
She peered into a faded photograph.
Flying that kite in the backyard on the green grass. A small yard bright with summer sunshine. The day she found an Indian arrowhead under a stepping stone. Ants in the picnic brownies. That silly dog–his silly name–what was it–Wiggles, and the waving armlike branches of the old crooked oak tree.
That slow rope swing, and cool, satisfying shade beneath wind-rustling leaves. That crazy squirrel. Darting around and around, between the trees. That funny, unstoppable squirrel. The shy small sparrows in the azalea bushes. Dragonflies like green jewels, ethereal pale moths.
Billowing white clouds shaped like sculpted marble, or towering castles high in the sky, shining exactly like heaven at the edges.
A clay pot full of cheerful dahlias. Dandelion fluff that rose like momentary dreams. Sudden hummingbirds. That friendly robin. Diamonds of early morning dew. Gentle waves of tall unmown grass in a soft summer afternoon breeze. The oh-so-sweet smell of green grass.
Her kite, so bright, almost touching the sun.
Becky’s thin fingers turned the pages.
Birthday parties, picnics on the lawn, hide-and-seek, cutting beautiful red roses under the kitchen window, arms twirling wide in a warm summer rain, lying flat on the lush grass, meeting that friend, drinking lemonade from a glass bright with clinking ice, watching for the gopher, painting at a tipsy easel, laughter, idle chatting, repeated bad jokes, learning the guitar, nodding, teasing, stealing kisses, daydreaming, talking with long-vanished best friends on a magic carpet blanket, feeling the so, so soft caress of those passing summers.
She turned through every page. Her scrapbook was just about full.
Becky closed the heavy book and with difficulty set it down on the end table near her wheelchair. Sitting alone, she gazed about the empty, curtained room. It was cold. The room was dead.
Her great-granddaughter flew through the door.
“Hi Great-Ma! What are you doing?”
“Resting. I’m very tired.”
“Why are you tired?”
“Because I’m so very old.”
“Won’t you please come outside with me?” the tiny girl asked. “I’m going to fly my new kite!”
Becky smiled. “Okay.”
Every morning, during my walk to work across the East River, a man would be standing on the bridge conjuring bubbles. I never saw such fantastic bubbles. He produced them by dipping a loop of string at the end of a long wand into a bucket of his own secret concoction. Then he’d lift his wand up to the breeze and watch the bubbles fill and grow exactly like living things.
Then, woosh–there each would go! Lifting into the sky, undulating like crazy. Bending the morning sunlight into spherical rainbows.
Out across the sparkling river the bubbles flew. The bubble man and I got to know each other after awhile and we’d make preposterous bets.
“I bet it makes it to the next bridge. That’s got to be at least a quarter mile,” I offered with a smile.
“Farther ‘n that. I had one go all the way to those roofs, over by that silver building.”
“You could actually see it that far away?”
“It was a big one. I saw it pop.”
Most of the time the man just silently conjured bubbles, and we two would stand on the bridge watching them birth and take flight. Some burst too soon. The duration of their flight seemed completely unpredictable.
The ever-shining river welcomed bubbles along its endless path. Our backs were to the rushing cars.
I’d slip a few dollars into the man’s hat when he wasn’t looking. I always meant to ask him if there was anything he needed.
“Check this one out!” Holding his wand above the river, he suddenly became enthusiastic. An impossibly gigantic bubble filled with the wind’s breath, taking form. Somehow, without bursting, the quivering globe launched from his upraised wand.
It must have been a world record. It was at least six feet in diameter. The conditions must have been exactly right. The living bubble rose into the sky and floated on the unseen wind out over the river. Its changing colors were fantastically vivid.
The once-in-a-lifetime bubble rose and rose and rose, became smaller and smaller as it vanished down the river. We stood very quietly and watched.
One morning I passed over the bridge and the man was gone. I never did ask his name.
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.”
“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 tangible essence. My daily masterpiece spun from insatiable instinct.
“It’s my Sistine Chapel, my Starry Night, my Water Lilies. It’s my Persistence of Memory, my Guernica, my Night Watch. It’s 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.”
Leslie’s open eyes were vulnerable. With one mittened hand she tugged the wool cap down over her eyebrows. With the other she held up the scarf, to smother her nose.
The bitter New Year’s wind drained the heat of every living thing.
Leslie could feel her eyes freezing. It was a peculiar feeling. She blinked rapidly, trying to summon warm tears.
Fragments of ice torn from the frozen world blew past her eyes. She flinched. The flakes seemed white ash from a dead fire.
Leslie hurried down the sidewalk–as fast as she could without slipping. The convenience store was only two blocks away.
The entire town had vanished in colorless snow. Nobody in their right mind would venture outside in such inhuman cold. Just a Ford pickup equipped with a scraping snow plow, and a few creeping cars behind it.
With relief she exploded through the store’s door.
“Cold enough for you?” asked Freddie. He was sitting on a stool gazing out the frosted window.
“I’m out of cough syrup. Jack can’t stop coughing, so I have to hurry back. I’m so tired. They said on the news it’s almost a record. Thirty five below, or something.”
“Yeah, everything’s dead. The cold has stopped everything.”
“Happy New Year,” he added as she departed.
Leslie rushed back into the white world, determined to be home and out of the wind’s teeth.
She almost slipped on the sidewalk, but miraculously regained her balance. She crossed the empty street, avoiding hard slush. Someone was scraping thick ice off a windshield. She didn’t turn her head to see who.
Leslie ran as best as she could against the cold.
She could feel her eyes beginning to freeze.
It was frozen shut. With an icy rock from the ground she broke ice off.
She pulled out a letter.
She stood in the piercing cold, and with clumsy mittened hands opened the envelope.
A New Year’s card.
She paused, looked for a long minute upon a scene of carefree skaters on a silver lake, lost in a forest of bright silver trees. They skated under silver stars, in a world that was shining like unearthly heaven. Around the lake hovered a few snowflakes–perfectly formed snowflakes like silver dreams.
It was so beautiful.
A flake of snow landed on the card, melted.
Leslie despaired that the beautiful card would be ruined. She quickly opened her jacket and put the silver next to her heart. Shivering deeply, she turned about, hurried for the door.
Lynn sat alone on the gray rock at the edge of the pond gazing into the distance. Different day, same rock, same pond. The same dirty water. The same life.
The breeze was slight; the humidity was stifling.
Lynn’s break time at the factory was strictly 15 minutes. That left nowhere else to go but out the back door, past a pile of broken pallets and to the edge of the pond. And that’s where Lynn sat. Her eyes sought the distance.
Something moved on the water. A snake, probably.
Far across the pond were the shade trees. They appeared like an oasis mirage in a desert, so green, so inviting, but never within reach. At the factory workers had only 15 minutes. And of course a quick lunch in the cafeteria. And after work one hurried home to beat the traffic.
The water of the pond was just as muddy as the ground surrounding Lynn’s rock. Where the water came from, Lynn didn’t know. The torpid pond seemed a shallow bowl of dust mixed with tears, broken earth, rusted things, time’s remnants.
As always her time passed.
Soon time to go.
The thing on the water appeared closer. The slight breeze seemed to be pushing it.
Lynn sat on the hard rock and watched the mystery as it moved.
Garbage, she assumed.
The thing moved slowly across the water, drawing closer, closer, into focus. It was nothing more than a piece of dead bark.
Lynn watched the bark inch across the dust-specked pond, until it finally bumped up against her rock. Lying upon the bark was something white.
The tiny flower was perfect, white, inexplicable.
Like a snowflake.
Lynn looked down. A flower? From where?
Almost time to go.
Something urged Lynn to gently pick up the small flower. Quietly she placed it beside herself on the rock.
A change of air.
The ghost ship departed, its cargo delivered.