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 bare 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.”

White Marble

A toddler with a bright ball scampered across the Earth and fell down on green grass. He pushed himself back up, stood and wobbled. Laughing, the tiny child raced off with heedless feet.

His mother walked nearby. She closely watched her child play. She was careful not to step on graves.

The toddler didn’t seem to know where he was. He threw his ball up, missed it as it came down. He leaned over, grabbed his ball, twisted wildly and let it fly sideways. The ball ricocheted off a headstone and rolled down a green slope.

The bright ball rolled down and down, settled among some flowers.

Two small hands reached for the ball.

Suddenly the little person noticed a very old woman dressed in black standing high above him. The old woman didn’t move. She stared down at nothing.

The weathered face and deep eyes appeared to be stone. A face carved from gray stone. Etched with something unreadable. The dead eyes seemed not to know where they were.

The old woman stood beside a fresh patch of dirt.

“Want to play catch?”

The woman in black turned her head and regarded the little person who waited by her legs clutching a bright ball.

Her face softened. “No, thank you.”

“Noah!”

The toddler heard his name. He turned and with two unstoppable legs raced wildly back up the hill. Skipping and swerving, he bounded toward his mother, who sat waiting for him on her own spot of grass. A startled crow flew up.

She gazed upon the little person as he came to her side.

Her cheeks shined with tears.

“That’s Daddy!” the small boy explained, finger pointing to the nearby stone.

His mother smiled.

“I love you Daddy!” the child exclaimed, dropping his ball. He ran forward and hugged the white marble.

The Bone Artists

Every day, in gardens throughout the city, new blossoms opened to their most beautiful, most glorious potential, and in bright clinics the elderly who refused to undergo youth treatments were euthanized.

Pietro was going on one hundred and fourteen and felt it. He had ceased his treatments. To avoid detection, he’d removed his master chip with a sharp scissors and whenever he ventured into the city he was careful to melt into darkness.

Pietro walked slowly at night with bent shoulders. He moved painfully, silently, face hidden in a scarf. He found his nourishment in the moonlight and trashcans. He gathered a few precious things that the extremely old need. Then, at the dawn of each day, he slipped through a secret door that welcomed vanishing souls to a black place beneath the city.

The underground refuge was the last free place that remained. It was a retreat where age was not shunned. The tug of time had drawn many into the ancient catacombs.

Pietro moved slowly down one long passage in the maze of candlelit catacombs and entered a chapel of bones. In the very dim light he could see dozens of leg bones and arm bones fastened to rock walls, forming crooked crosses. Skulls whose eye sockets flickered with small flames had been stacked high, almost to the roots of trees. It was a chapel without windows. Only fading eyes.

He entered a large stone chamber. The workplace of the bone artists.

The bone artists moved creakingly in that hollow of Earth, assembling dry bones that were sorted into piles. They didn’t see Pietro enter. The very old people hunched over their work, reaching with their meager fingers for raw material.

Half-formed in that obscure space was their vast Creation.

In that immense vault, where time was still sacred, bones had been assembled like unearthed fossils into visions that were sculpted from secret knowledge. Thousands of bones were fitted together into brittle, ponderous truths. The bones formed a subterranean world of gaunt trees, pale towers and skeletal fields . . . a world of bone horses, bone eagles, bone houses and a faded city . . . a world beneath the world.

The bone artists worked silently, tying bone to bone, heads bowed. Their eyes were nearly shut. None saw Pietro enter.

“Look what I gathered!”

Cradled in the arms of Pietro were flowers that he had stolen in broad daylight.

The artists looked up. Eyes widened.

A few more candles were lit, and a crop of new flowers was soon sprinkled throughout Creation.

A Brief Note

Even if nothing really matters–
and nothing endures–
and nothing counts.

Even when nobody cares–
and nobody knows–
and none remember.

Even when a thousand mouths snicker,
disbelieve, mock,
pummel with scorn.

EvenĀ at life’s end, twisted with regret,
thinking I might have–
could have–should have–

Even though a world becomes dust,
I did a few things
I felt were good.