A Bowl of Soup

George carefully arranged a few letters. He maneuvered an O next to an N and poked about with his spoon searching for an C. There had to be a C in there somewhere.

“This alphabet soup is really yummy,” said Abbie, finishing her own bowl. “Eat it before it’s cold.”

With an additional letter George completed a word. Then he started working on his next word. “You know,” he said, “with a large enough bowl I could finish writing my novel. This isn’t just any novel, mind you, but possibly the most brilliant novel ever written. You’re probably sitting across from the next Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Leo Tolstoy. Generations of readers will admire my soup.”

“Oh, seriously,” laughed Abbie. She sat watching him incredulously.

George labored with his soup for a good five minutes.

“My novel’s opening sentence is almost done. Fortunately it isn’t as long as It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. I’m keeping it simple.”

“Because alphabet pasta is slippery,” Abbie laughed.

“Because brevity is the soul of wit!” George replied cheerfully, feeling a little hurt. “Sometimes an author can say more by saying less.”

Abbie rolled her eyes.

“This construct of pasta floating before you,” he continued, “is no different than literature. What you see are the few letters writers combine to produce profound revelations. Assembled brilliantly, these are the same letters great novelists use to convey a reader to new heights, to lofty regions previously unexplored. These are the very same letters typed out by the world’s most celebrated poets and philosophers. Sequenced in the correct way, these small symbols help a mind perceive truth.” He floated another letter into place to finally form a sentence. “See!”

She dipped her spoon into the sentence and tested it. “Your soup’s cold.”

Their Dream

A retired firefighter named Gil had always wanted to be an astronaut. So one day he finally got started.

After examining old photographs of the NASA moon landings, he built a perfect lunar rover in his garage.

Then he fashioned a perfect space suit. Helmet, pressure garment, suit assembly, EVA backpack, gloves and all.

And on a Saturday he drove his lunar rover down the state highway to the sand dunes, donned his shining space suit and went for a bouncing ride.

A twenty-three year old artist named Allan lived with his girlfriend in a rusted trailer. He played guitar. He wrote poetry. He built sculptures around the trailer out of hubcaps and glass bottles. His face, neck and arms were tattooed green.

As the sun rose each morning, Allan, in a brilliant green robe, would walk alone for miles and miles, sit down upon a rock in a vast place and listen to the wind. He wanted to understand the world.

One day Allan sat in that place and watched as an astronaut in a bright space suit drove a lunar rover toward him.

That’s impossible, he thought. I must be dreaming.

Gil, driving his lunar rover, saw a shining green man sitting alone in the desert.

That’s impossible, he thought. I must be dreaming.

The astronaut passed the little green man.

From their dream neither woke.

Father’s Paintbrush

My father’s hobby was painting. You’ve probably never heard of him because he never became known. He never sold anything.

When I was a very young boy I often watched Father standing before his easel on our green lawn, painting ordinary scenes from our backyard. It’s one of the few things from my early childhood I still remember.

He’d paint the old oak tree with its rope swing. Or the hibiscus bush with its flaming red flowers tangled in the dirty white fence. Or that small birdbath at the center of our lawn.

His act of painting had seemed magic to me. I remember how I’d look up to watch him paint a cat on the fence, and then he’d smile down at me and point to the fence. There was the cat!

I’d watch him paint a cloud that looked exactly like a mountain peak in the blue sky. And he’d point to a cloud that looked exactly like a mountain peak in the blue sky!

His paintbrush, to me, was a magician’s wand that created the wonders all around me. His brush created sudden tiny flowers in the grass and shining golden leaves. It materialized an entire bright world. When you’re very young, you believe anything.

His finished paintings were hung in a corner of our garage until the dim garage resembled a dusky art gallery, crammed with oak trees and red flowers and birdbaths and mysterious cats and clouds that resembled many things. When the big garage door opened it seemed as if the sun had just risen: and there in new light were those moments of magic, framed by hanging garden tools!

I remember something else. When my father painted, I’d beg that he summon impossible things. I wanted his magic paintbrush to create an elephant in our backyard. Or a dinosaur. Or a castle. A spaceship popping onto our lawn would be so amazing! But, no, he explained, he didn’t know how to paint those things. It was a big disappointment to my credulous mind that a shiny silver spaceship would never pop into our backyard.

Of course, the day came when I learned paintbrushes aren’t magic. That was the day I ran outside and stopped beside my father and saw that he was painting a strange man. The strange man stood mysteriously on the green lawn, between the oak tree and birdbath. I was confused. I looked from the painting to the lawn and nobody was there. Just grass.

The man painted on the canvas resembled nobody I knew. To me it seemed as though Father had summoned a stranger into our backyard, but the stranger had not come yet. I stared at the painting feeling disappointed. Perhaps the strange person would leap over the dirty white fence at any moment and stand before us.

Obviously, it didn’t happen.

That painting like all the others ended up in our garage, and so did the strange man, standing between the oak tree and bird bath and the hanging garden tools. That my father’s paintbrush wasn’t magic after all saddened me for a day or two, but I soon was laughing. Paintings are nothing but paintings.

As you grow older you discover the truth. You learn to differentiate between fantasy and reality.

You understand there is no magic. And you become embarrassed about silly things you actually believed as a child.

After my father died, my wife and I returned to the old house. We inventoried the clutter in the old bedrooms, the kitchen, dining room and family room. I lifted open the big garage door and there in that new dawn of light were all the paintings exactly as I remembered them: oak tree, small birdbath, cat, clouds.

Gazing at scenes that had been rendered by Father years and years ago, I wondered if anything I faintly remembered had been real. Had that cat really been sitting on our fence or had I merely imagined it? Had there been a cloud of that particular shape in the sky?

My wife, standing beside me, suddenly pointed at one painting just above eye level.

She put her hands to her mouth. “Oh my God!”

It was the painting of the strange adult man standing on our lawn. The man appeared exactly like me.

The Wheel

The potter sat before a turning wheel making a bowl . . . or a vase.

The potter’s hands expertly manipulated the spinning clay. Several visitors stood watching. It was a late Sunday afternoon at the Artist Collective.

I looked up at the many glazed ceramics on nearby shelves. My eyes took in row upon row of shining bowls and vases and cups and plates, in every possible shape, each and every one beautiful.

I observed the artist. “How do you know when you’re done?” I asked.

The potter laughed and shook her head. “Good question!”

The wheel kept turning as the potter’s hands compelled her creation. The clay suddenly grew tall like a tower, then expanded outward like an opening flower.

The spinning thing bulged, narrowed, ripples appeared, were smoothed away. Like soft skin touched with a finger.

Something organic emerged from the potter’s clay-covered hands, developed shoulders, a neck, a lip. Perhaps it was a vase.

The potter removed her dripping hands to examine the whirling creation. It was not quite born, suspended in space. She changed the posture of her fingers and the clay resumed its undulations.

The eyes of the artist seemed never satisfied.

The creation spun through endless permutations of beauty, and I didn’t understand how one curve would be considered more beautiful than another. There was an infinity at the center of the wheel: a door to a place of transcendent possibility: the eternal dream from which all things spring.

But only one fleeting vision would be subjected to fire.

The wheel stopped.

The potter thrust her clay-covered hands into the air, as if in surrender or triumph. “Done!”

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.

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.”

The Star Maker

I saw a strange thing lying among litter on the sidewalk. It was a three-dimensional star, about five inches tall, made of white paper. I picked it up, examined it.

The origami star was composed of many sheets of lined notepaper, folded perfectly together by a patient hand. Sprinkled upon the star were jumbled words and phrases from torn pages.

I took the origami star up to my office on the twenty sixth floor. I looked down through my window at the tiny sidewalk where I found the fallen star. Far below people flowed in a thin trickle.

I hung the paper star on a bare spot above my desk.

Nearly every day I looked up at it.

Over many days, weeks, months that perfect origami star composed of jumbled words and perfect folds took on for me special significance. It seemed to represent my own bewildering life. Many pages, one after another, removed by time, but carefully retained. It was a hopeful reminder that with effort, precision and devotion a miracle could be folded together. A star might coalesce and take form.

When I gazed at that strange star, the essence of my own dreams seemed to shine forth.

One day I rode home on the train, thinking about a troubling day at work. As the train halted at a station, I gazed out the window and saw a destitute man sitting on a bench wrapped in a dirty blanket. His head was bowed.

He was concentrating very hard, folding an origami star.

A Heart That Would Not End

The faraway sound was familiar, but strange.

“What’s that?” asked the child.

Holding hands with a grown-up, the child circled around the bubbling fountain and arrived at a bench near the Natural History Museum, where a man sat playing a didgeridoo.

Others stood by listening.

A strange, pulsing sound rose from the speaking end of the didgeridoo. It was like the rhythm of the ocean. Like the beating of a heart.

The man’s cheeks swelled as he breathed life through the instrument. The slightly crooked didgeridoo, painted from one end to the other with blue moons and yellow stars, was simply the hollow trunk of a young tree. With his lungs the man produced an ancient music that was resonant, churning, pulsing, surging.

Surging, surging, echoing, echoing.

The child ran a few steps forward, halted within arm’s reach of the magic.

The music never paused or faltered. The man didn’t stop. His eyes were half-closed and turned inward as his head swayed and lungs worked. His cheeks swelled. Beads of sweat made his face gleam. Suddenly the man’s eyes opened wide and he looked directly at the child. An eye winked.

The child laughed and dropped down to the ground to look up into the open end of the didgeridoo. From fallen leaves the child peered up toward the source of the strange music, into the darkness of the singing tree, searching.

There was nothing to see. Only space. A vast, unbounded space more mysterious than the deepest ocean. A place beneath blue moons and yellow stars.

Unfathomable, untouchable, an infinity overflowing with invisible music that swelled like an exultant heart.

And somewhere above it all: a winking eye.

“You’re going to get dirty down there,” said the grown-up. “Come on. It’s lunch time. Aren’t you hungry by now?”

The child jumped up and the two made their way through the sunny park, in step with a beating heart that would not end.

One Word

As I stood at the corner of a busy intersection waiting for a green light, I noticed a man with a horrific beard sitting half-naked on the sidewalk. His fist gripped a magic marker and he was writing prolifically on a rectangle of cardboard.

From my distance I couldn’t read what the man had written. I did observe he was creating the enormous word GOD. He was broadening the lines of GOD with precise attention. Working carefully, very deliberately. Like a true artist.

Making GOD bold. Preparing for his daily appeal.

My eyes were drawn to the earthy arms, earthy legs, blackened feet in broken sandals.

As I waited to cross the intersection, a clean-shaven man wearing khaki shorts came up to the writing man and stared down with a smile.

Just as the light turned, the man looking down burst out laughing.

“GOD!” one roared.

One Magic Bubble

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.