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 conked out. 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 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.

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.

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.

The Parade

Boom forward, boom forward, trumpet forward, step.
Flags forward, baton forward, marching forward, step.
Dancing forward, smiles forward, twirling forward, step.
Cheering forward, waving forward, banners forward, step.
Legs forward, face forward, step forward, stop.

Boom forward, drums forward, trumpets forward, step.
Singing forward, pom-poms forward, dancing forward, step.
Clowns forward, floats forward, trombones forward, step.
Always forward, smiling forward, banners forward, step.
Surging, surging, ever forward, stop.

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.

A Song for Old Warriors

The old men sat under a canopy before the marble monument. They had fought in World War II. Many were in wheelchairs. All would soon die.

The warriors struggled to stand up for the advancement of the color guard, and they remained standing for the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer. They quietly retook their seats.

A retired general approached the podium and spoke about the nightmare war long ago and those who fought. He recalled how a multitude of ordinary citizens–janitors, farmers, factory workers–had come together to defend high ideals. The heads of the very old men did not move.

A singer was then introduced. She was a little girl, just seven years old. She wore a vest of silvery sequins. Her face was made up with red lipstick. Microphone in hand, the very young girl glided confidently onto the stage and raised two pale arms. With a booming voice she began God Bless America while her grinning father circled with a video camera, recording his starlet.

As she sang the tiny girl stepped down from the stage and sashayed with her microphone up to the inscrutable faces of the old men. Her own face beamed with affection, and her hands formed exaggerated gestures as she directly addressed each gray head. The performance seemed an act learned by a child from television. The bold familiarity, perhaps tolerable in an adult, was unsettling from a seven-year-old girl.

The girl’s voice climbed until it wavered. Her high voice strained to exploit every syllable of the song. It sought to imbue every word with an infinity of feeling. The child floated in front of the very old men with her twinkling eyes, and she smiled with absolute sincerity.

The heads of the warriors did not move.

As I observed this strange performance from the back row, I was struck by the eyes of the precocious little girl. Her eyes were so bright.

Then I understood.

The performance came from a little girl’s heart. She was a budding life. Her ambition was to shine. Her hope was to shine a bright light upon those who listened.

Before her sat warriors who had fought against darkness, and who would soon return to the inescapable darkness.

The song reached a resounding crescendo. The very young girl raised her hands theatrically, palms upward.

“. . . my home sweet home.”

Some of the old men struggled to their feet for a standing ovation. Some sat and wept.

The Hand of Fate

A small shrine appeared on some bare dirt near the intersection where a transient had been struck and killed. Neighbors brought candles, roses, prayerful messages written on cards. The next day the City cleaned up the guttered candles and withered roses and tossed the messages into a plastic bag to be thrown away.

Carly, during a walk through the neighborhood, looked down at the dead patch of dirt. She wondered why a nameless person had drifted along her street.

All that remained beside the sidewalk were windblown leaves.

And one faded rose.

Carly leaned over, picked it up.

She took the spent thing back to her apartment. She put it in a damp paper towel. She made a quick trip to the store to buy a clay pot and small bag of soil. She prepared the stem for propagation. Her mother, long gone to heaven, had once taught her how.

Carly put the cutting into the soil and placed the pot in her small apartment window. She was careful to keep the soil moist and warm.

Early one morning, when nobody was about, she walked down the sidewalk back to the intersection and its dead patch of dirt. She brought a hand shovel.

Every morning after, she brought a water bottle.

. . .

Many years after Carly had joined her mother, those who walked by the intersection would pause to marvel at the strange abundance of wild, beautiful roses. Hundreds of blooms crowded the sidewalk.

It seemed the Hand of Fate had birthed an improbable garden.

Nobody knew where the roses had come from.

Skeleton Forgiveness

Bradley woke up in the middle of the night. The clock showed a quarter to three. His wife was asleep beside him.

Careful not to disturb her, he lay motionless on his back and reviewed another day at work. There was something important he was supposed to remember, to do tomorrow, but he’d forgotten.

His mind wandered. For a moment he wondered about the car–if he should have the oil changed that weekend. He thought about making reservations for the vacation in Hawaii. He thought about an appointment with the doctor. In the darkness, he looked along the length of his body under the sheet. Suddenly he realized that under the sheet lay a skeleton.

His mind quickly turned.

Another pressing thought came to him that he must buy groceries after work–he must ask his wife what she needed. He would try to remember. And then he fell back to sleep.

And ten years passed in the blink of his astonished eyes.

Another late night, after brushing his teeth to ward off decay, blinking at his face in the bathroom mirror. I’m starting to get old, Bradley thought. What a strange face.

He lay in bed beside his wife, feeling the aching years, unable to sleep.

He couldn’t stop thinking. Next week he would have to see the doctor again. And then do his taxes. And then plan for that critically important conference in Seattle. And then remember his anniversary. How long? Thirty years? And then the lawn needed mowing again. And the leaking faucet. And his daughter needed more money. And he had to write a reply to his older brother, Kenneth. He didn’t want to write words to Kenneth. Kenneth was a big-mouthed jerk. Kenneth was probably the one thing Bradley hated most. There had been no words for most of a lifetime. There was too much anger, bitterness and pain. There was a feud that would never end. He could barely remember why.

He lay in bed, mind rolling, staring up at a dark ceiling, when an unbidden thought returned. He lowered his eyes and gazed at a draped figure.

Under his sheet stretched a skeleton.

His own skeleton.

Then suddenly Bradley was six years older. And his happy younger brother, Ben, who lived halfway across the country, died of a heart attack.

The entire family flew to the funeral. Older brother Kenneth sat near the opposite wall. Everyone faced the open casket.

Bradley sat near the back, behind a strange family of bent people clothed in black.

And then he understood the truth.

With time–too soon–all of the somber clothing, the tears, the bowed heads, the pain, the hidden thoughts, the beating hearts, muscle and blood would fall away.

After the short service he rose, walked bravely up to Kenneth and hugged him.

“I’m sorry.”