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.”

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.

Even 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.

How to Catch a Crab

While his sister flew a kite in the sunshine, skipping across the park’s green grass, Jason hunted a crab down in the dark rocks by the water.

With careful limbs Jason slowly descended the rocks. He kept his eyes on his prey. The tiny crab was motionless in the middle of one glistening slab just inside the spray of waves.

“You don’t know how to swim!” Jason’s mother called from a distant picnic table.

The young boy ignored her.

The dark, jagged rocks had been dumped at the harbor’s edge. They protected the grassy park from the eternal ocean. Traps containing rat poison had been placed among the rocks.

Above the churning water the rocks capped a labyrinth. From spaces beneath the rocks an odor of death rose. From small caves the crabs crept, moving slowly upon glistening slime near the restless water, feeding, extending strange claws.

Jason kept his eye on the tiny crab. Working his way even closer to the water, the boy placed his left foot on an edge of wet rock. A few missteps had already soaked his shoes.

Hardly daring to breathe, eyes down, Jason regarded the creature minutely.

How strange it appeared.

The crab, with its raised claws, seemed ancient. It resembled a mythical monster he’d seen in a picture book. A miniature monster, unconquerable, upon a mountain.

The crab’s body, its face-like shell, its bent spider legs and claws–formed a mask–from a lurking dream. It was a thing sensed in a nightmare. A shape. A shiver.

The jagged shape was that abomination penned as a warning at the borders of old maps. The shape was a nightmare upon which voyaging ships were wrecked.

Jason bent his knees, leaned slowly over, reached out his hand, keeping balance on the slippery rock as the crash of a small wave tickled his fingers.

The crab skittered into a space between rocks.

Jason leaned even lower.

The odor was repulsive.

He peered into the watery space. Possibly, possibly, the grinning mask lay within simple reach.

Unseen hungry claws waited inside that well of swirling blackness. A fatal Charybdis, squatting in her cave. Motionless and waiting.

The boy reached in.

“I caught it! I caught it” he shouted, lifting an arm high in triumph.

The tiny crab clung to the young boy’s finger.

Final Real Magic

The Great Sampson was a magician without peer. Five thousand shows in a hundred grimy towns and he never complained. The stiffs working the carnival regarded him with a mixture of wonder and derision.

“And now,” the Great Sampson waved, “my final act!”

A few people in the dingy tent regarded the theatrical old man. They were thinking about home. In a few minutes night would fall. Other sideshow tents were already being hastily dismantled, folded up. The Great Sampson, in his black top hat, had picked up a thin book covered with gold lettering and had shakily climbed into an open black box that resembled a coffin.

The old man ran his fingers through an ebony beard, which he had obviously curled and dyed. He opened the shining book as he faced the audience: several bored adults and one boy.

“Until this very moment,” he announced grandly, “no magician in the entire history of the world has actually performed magic. Illusion and deception have been substituted for magic, and millions of believers have been told by deceitful entertainers that they are witnessing the effects of true supernatural power. You, my good friends, will be the first to ever witness real magic. You will remember this day for the remainder of your lives. So pay very close attention. Don’t blink!”

The Great Sampson took a deep breath. He hesitated. He visibly trembled. “And now, after years of struggle, after years of false starts and dead ends, after years and years of searching: my life’s greatest and only worthwhile achievement!”

He held up the shining book with gold lettering and read: “Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum!

The Great Sampson vanished.

The carnival sideshow audience stood with jaded expectation on the crushed dirt floor.

Nothing happened.

The people waited patiently for a minute, then two.

Nothing happened.

A man in back finally slipped out of the dark tent.

Nothing happened.

A couple near the black box shrugged, laughed and left.

Nothing happened.

Everyone left.

Everyone forsook the black box except the boy. In that shadow of doubt he didn’t dare move.

Something terrible–something extraordinary had happened. The boy could sense it. A shivering thrill fixed his feet in place.

Summoning courage, he inched forward, leaned slowly over, and peered into the box.

Skittering nervously at its bottom, a gray mouse was frantically trying to escape.

The boy’s heart pounded. His mind raced.

He jumped.

“Show’s over,” boomed a voice behind him. A carnival worker’s face was poking into the dark tent with a glare of impatience. “Time to go home kid.”

“But what about the Great Sampson?” the boy protested.

“What about who?”

The boy was indignant. “The Great Sampson is gone!”

“You need to be gone, too. Now get the hell out of here or someone might call the cops.” The worker shot him a exasperated look and left.

The boy hesitated. Nothing that had just happened–the magician’s strange speech–that split second when he had vanished–none of it seemed real.

The boy remained alone in the tent, looking down at the small helpless mouse. He had to decide. Quickly. He reached into the black box and took the mouse gently into his hand and slipped out of the tent into the twilight. The carnival was over. Indistinct lumps of canvas littered the ground.

The soft mouse in his hand had calmed down. The boy saw a man heaving plastic garbage bags onto a flatbed truck and hurried over.

“I think I know what happened to the Great Sampson!”

“What happened? What the hell are you talking about?”

“The Great Sampson disappeared about ten minutes ago! He was doing his very last magic show and I think he actually turned into a mouse. He said it was his final act! He said he would finally do real magic!”

“Get the fuck out of here. You’re crazy.”  The man turned back to the garbage.

. . .

As the boy walked rapidly home, he stared frequently through his fingers at the mouse. It seemed to be an ordinary gray mouse.

He slowed at the grassy park several blocks from his home, and he sat down on the bench in the lamp’s soft light. He opened his hand just enough to closely examine the mouse. It seemed perfectly ordinary. “Can you hear me?” the boy asked.

The nervous mouse looked about, seemingly at nothing.

“If you can hear me, let me know. Do something. Nod your head.”

The mouse’s head quivered. It looked up at the boy.

“I don’t know what to do. Are you really the Great Sampson? Can you turn back? Are you going to turn back?”

No answer. None was possible.

“If that was really your final act–” The boy looked at the mouse feeling puzzled, hopeless. “Why did you do it?

“So you wanted to do real magic? Why? To become something different?”

He leaned sideways to pull an object from his back pocket. It was the strange shining book with gold lettering. It had also remained at the bottom of the box.

The book appeared to be a journal. It was the type of cheap mass-produced journal that anybody can buy for a couple dollars at a store. The boy read elegant gold letters on the cover. They formed the words: Follow Your Dreams.

. . .

Sitting on the bed in his room, still holding the mouse in one hand, the boy opened the thin journal. Its few pages were handwritten in black ink, clearly and elegantly. Page after page after page, with an occasional word or sentence neatly crossed out. Page after page. It seemed to be the life’s work of one person.

With one hand he clumsily turned the pages until he reached the last, where his eyes froze on the final words: Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum. Those had been the final words spoken by the Great Sampson. The fatal incantation. The final words.

Were they really magic?

He mouthed a few of the dangerous words inaudibly, a shiver crawling up his back, then stopped.

He jumped.

A very loud knock on his bedroom door.

“What are you doing” demanded his mother. “I called you for dinner five minutes ago!”

“Just a second.”

“I’m running out of patience–you come out of there now!” His mother burst into the room. “What on Earth have you been doing?”

“Nothing.” He turned and quickly placed the mouse in a drawer by his bed.

“Well, come on. You know how your father doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

Reluctantly, the boy stepped out of his room and headed for the stairs. Turning back, he saw his mother enter his room.

. . .

The mouse was gone.

Whether his mother had found it, or the mouse had escaped, the boy couldn’t know. It didn’t matter.

He lay on his bed, almost in tears. He didn’t know why.

Of course, it all was plain silly. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as real magic. The Great Sampson was gone, that was the only thing that mattered. The Great Sampson had performed his final act. And nobody really cares about an act. Everything in life is an act.

The boy picked up the thin book with glittery lettering.

He didn’t dare open it.

He placed it on his bookshelf, among other wise books he would probably never read.

Perhaps he’d read it one day.