Dale’s Tree

Dale had planted a tree in a park. He had been a young boy on that Arbor Day.

Dale wanted to show his great grandson the tree he had planted.

The two walked through the park but Dale recognized nothing. All that he saw was strange.

Searching for his long-ago tree, Dale hopelessly regarded the immense oaks. They rose high above him, a confusion of furrowed trunks that cast spidery shadows. These trees, thought Dale, were very old. How could they possibly be so old?

Dale moved slowly and despaired that he would never find his tree.

Sudden laughter made him spin around.

His great grandson had climbed up onto a nearby branch and was smiling down at him. “Is this your tree?”

“Well, maybe!”

A Distant Place

I work part-time at a library. It’s something to do during my semi-retirement. I’m that person who silently pushes a cart around, placing returned books back on the shelves.

Weaving the book cart between library patrons, I often wonder about those who sit alone, reading, writing, staring out a window. What is their life story?

When you’re old like me and life is mostly memories, you think about such things.

I remember how last year, in the morning when the library opened, a man wearing dark glasses and dressed in a suit and tie would always be waiting outside. Feeling his way forward with a white cane, he’d come through the door. Silently he’d navigate past the front counter, past the biographies and travel and reference books, and settle in a chair in a corner.

And he’d sit there for hours, alone.

As I moved through the library shelving books, I’d occasionally glance toward the man and wonder about his story. From where did he come? And what was he thinking about as he sat there with an unreadable, expressionless face. I couldn’t see behind those dark glasses.

One afternoon I felt courageous.

I approached him.

“Hello,” I offered. “I was just putting one of my favorite books back on the shelf. And that made me wonder–do you have a favorite book?”

“Yes I do,” replied the man so suddenly I nearly jumped.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I’ve always loved that story by Tolkien–The Lord of the Rings.”

He spoke with an even, intelligent voice, but his face remained strangely expressionless. I wished I had seen a little emotion. I happen to love Tolkien’s fantasy, too.

“When was the last time you read–” I caught myself. Of course he couldn’t see to read. I was unnerved by my stupid slip, embarrassed. But he might read Braille . . .

The man explained: “I read it a long time ago.”

“I love The Lord of the Rings, too. Do you mind if I sit here and read you a few pages? You might enjoy it.”

After a long pause, he replied, “I would.”

I found The Fellowship of the Ring, sat down in a chair beside this mysterious person, whose face remained impassive, and I began. “Concerning Hobbits…

The man listened for half an hour that day, and again the following day, and for many days that followed.

Whenever he heard me approach his chair–he must have recognized my footsteps–he would greet me politely.

“Where were we?” I’d ask.

“Making our way through Middle Earth,” he’d affirm.

As I started to read, as he listened to more pages of the bright, bounding fantasy, his face would remain a mask, eyes hidden behind those dark glasses. Was he far away traveling through Middle Earth?

Near the end of the story I thought I could detect in his face a minute betrayal of emotion. It was that scene where Frodo, Bilbo and others who’ve borne rings of power finally depart Middle Earth . . . sailing away to that distant place beyond the sparkling curtain . . . where eyes can behold white shores . . . and beyond . . .

When ordinary, faithful Sam finally returned home to his normal life, and The Return of the King closed, I saw a tear escaping from behind dark glasses.

“I’m sorry– I didn’t mean to–” I said.

At once the man reached for his cane and shot up, almost tipping his chair. I had to quickly sidestep as he lunged past me for the library’s front door. He departed without a word.

I never saw him in the library again.

But the next day I did see him in front of library. He was sitting in the sunny courtyard by the library’s entrance. He sat near the bed of roses on a bench facing our bright sparkling fountain.

Every day that followed I saw him sitting there, behind dark glasses, like a statue. He seemed to be listening to the whispers of the splashing fountain.

Even when it rained he sat on that bench, slightly sheltered by a flowering tree, and I wondered if I should be happy I read that story with him, or sad.

The Cannon

Giggling, two little girls chased each other around the old Civil War cannon.

A mother lifted a baby from a stroller. “Look at you!” Carefully holding the baby’s waist, she stood two short wobbly legs on the cannon.

A young man came up to the cannon’s end and peered into it.

A bearded gentleman strolling through the park paused to test his knuckles on the hard cannon.

An elderly man and woman sat at a nearby picnic table.

“That,” commented the old man, “might be the very one that killed my great great grandfather’s brother.”

“Could be,” replied the old woman.

“Brothers. Killing each other.”

A little boy on the grass was flying in every direction chasing a pigeon. The pigeon somehow always remained just beyond reach. The little boy shouted excitedly and veered to attack the pigeon from behind. The bird eluded him easily.

The little boy saw the cannon, ran up and stopped beside it.

He stood behind the cannon and looked along its inert length to sight a chestnut tree.

“Boom!”

He looked up at the chestnut tree that had not been blown to pieces.

“Boom!”

The chestnut tree was enormous, green and beautiful. It must have been very old. Above the grass it rose, the bark of its wide trunk furrowed with age. The green leaves fluttered slightly in the wind, and in the sunlight they made the old tree seem like a bright mirage.

“Boom!”

Another pigeon flew down from the tree to the grass. The little boy saw it and turned. The cannon was forgotten. The chase resumed.

“Thrilling,” said one of the old people.

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 Specimen

A golf ball flies much farther on the moon. A rock will, too, reasoned Amelia.

She knelt to collect another specimen. She regarded the mass in her gloved hand. She was a geologist. She understood a thing of value waited in the moon rock. But that precious thing was impossible to see.

45.4% SiO2. 14.9% Al2O3. 11.8% CaO. 14.1% FeO. 9.2% MgO. 3.9% TiO2. 0.6% Na2O.

The specimen turned over in her gloved fingers. It was colorless, dull. She remembered her childhood. She pictured the grassy bank of the river by her home where she unearthed smooth stones for skipping. She’d find one, turn it over, hoping it was perfect, then skip it as far as she could across twinkling blue water.

She clutched the specimen. She was a geologist. She had lifted the small rock from the surface of a lunar mare. A place once thought to be a sea. She looked from the dust at her feet into the emptiness above.

In the blackness, far away, was a bright pool of blue.

Amelia threw the rock with all of her might.

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 Teddy Bear

As the meeting broke up, Reggie and I stood by the conference room window, gazing down at the city.

Many stories below it was a typical weekday. Cars pushed down the avenue. People hurried to and fro along the sidewalk, scurried into and out of buildings.

“There he is again,” I remarked, pointing straight down. Moving past our front door was a homeless man.

At one time or another everybody in the office had encountered this homeless person. Every day the man shuffled along in front of our building, wearing the same shredded clothing, face lost in caveman hair. But today he carried an enormous teddy bear.

“He must’ve won it at the county fair last summer,” joked Reggie.

“Leave him alone,” Beverly chided, having gathered her laptop and folders. “You don’t know his story. He obviously has a mental condition.” She hurried out of the conference room.

“Obviously,” Reggie said to me and laughed. “Remember that woman who looked like a corpse who used to hang out at the bus stop screaming and shouting? Now that was one loony tune. I wonder what happened to her. Probably overdosed.

“Oh, check this out,” he continued enthusiastically. “A couple days ago I saw a guy steal a ladder. I was in line at the bank looking out the window when I saw some homeless guy grab a ladder leaning up against a building. Then he starts running off with it. Then here comes a security guard running after him!”

I laughed.

During lunch hour I had to go to the bank myself.

After dumping cold coffee I rode the elevator down to the lobby and stepped out onto the busy street.

With less than an hour I had to hurry. I had to walk five blocks to the bank, wait forever in line then return in time for the next meeting.

It appeared everyone else in the city had urgent business, too. People on a mission flooded down the concrete channels, careful not to collide.

They streamed smoothly along, like ball bearings that were magnetized, each repelling.

Thousands of paths intersected but seldom touched.

I crossed Fourth Avenue and turned a corner. And there he was half a block away, shuffling very slowly toward me. The homeless man. Carrying that enormous teddy bear.

The man was shambling along as if he were aimless and had no place to go. His face was hidden in hair. His two bare arms closely hugged the bear. With unseen eyes he seemed to stare straight ahead through every person that passed by.

I regarded the huge teddy bear and all of a sudden imagined the homeless man as a small child. In my mind I removed his beard, clipped his hair, erased grime and the cruelty of Time to picture him–try to imagine him as a very young child. And I wondered if, once upon a time, he’d been happy.

How could a child know he’d spend years of his life on the cold street?

As I drew near the man, a disturbing truth became evident. Contrasted with his very dirty arms and ruined clothes, the large teddy bear was clean and new. Where had he grabbed it?

The bear certainly didn’t belong to him. I wondered if there was a child somewhere in the city that was heartbroken.

The homeless man was in front of me. Pretending I didn’t see him, I veered to one side.

He blocked me.

“I found this on the street,” he said clearly, presenting me with the teddy bear. “Is it yours?”

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.”

Poem to Myself

Gerald hated his job. His boss gave him another warning.

Traffic on the freeway going home was worse than ever. His wife asked why he refused to pick up groceries. Another weekend would be wasted with that septic tank problem. The house stank.

Saturday morning the backhoe arrived at the house. The operator, Gerald quickly concluded, was stupid and incompetent.

The backhoe chewed up the back lawn and piled it on the tile patio. The hole grew deeper as Gerald watched. That’s five thousand dollars of my hard-earned money, he thought with mounting anger. Because of a tank clogged with shit.

“Watch what you’re doing! There’s an irrigation line that runs this way. If you cut into any of my pipes, you’re going to pay for it,” he threatened the backhoe operator.

The idiot, Gerald thought to himself. This jerk couldn’t care less about my home.

Gerald had lived in that same house his entire life. He had inherited it from his parents. And now it would stink until the end of time.

With a rage that grew and grew, he watched as his green lawn turned into a pit.

There was a soft metallic sound. The backhoe operator switched off the engine.

What the hell now? Gerald wondered.

The operator stepped down and descended carefully into the hole to determine what he had struck. He carried out something and handed it to Gerald. “It looks like some kind of box.”

“Give me that!” demanded Gerald, seizing the thing, wondering if the mysteriously buried box contained anything of value.

The box was very light and the size of a cookie tin. It was completely wrapped in black electrical tape. His annoyance turned to sudden greed.

He took the box to the patio table and sat down, brushed off a crust of dirt and turned the thing over and over with anticipation. He found one side that seemed to have a lid. He pulled out his pocket knife to cut the black tape around it.

It was indeed a cookie tin, and inside were several objects. He pulled out a folded sheet of paper. Written by the hand of a child were the words:

I put these in a time capsule in case I need them in the future.

Inside the cookie tin were a few wrapped candies, a plastic dinosaur, an old ticket stub to a baseball game, an airplane made of glued Popsicle sticks, and a smiling face drawn on construction paper.

At the bottom of the tin lay a second sheet of paper. Written in Gerald’s own hand were the words:

Poem to Myself

I buried these things underground,
a place where memories are found,
hoping this heart of mine
will not forget to shine and shine.
Here’s a treasure box to my
future self there in the sky.

The Good of People

Midnight passed.

I found myself beneath the city, riding home on the subway with the homeless, the aimless, the guilty, the silent. Beyond the windows rushed darkness. Cold light filled the car. Eyes avoided eyes.

Secretly, without betraying my curiosity, I studied the late night passengers who rode with me.

Several feet away in a wheelchair sat an extremely old man. He wore a tattered bathrobe. His head had fallen to his chest. He was tipping forward. I thought he might spill onto the floor at any moment.

Across from the old man, two riders sat with lowered eyes.

One had long peroxide hair, blue fingernails, hollow eyes and gaunt cheeks–a prostitute. She appeared to be twenty going on fifty. Hands trembling. A meth addict.

The other was a man whose hardened face and shaved head were covered with crude tattoos. Etched in prison, I surmised.

I was careful that neither noticed me.

The prostitute wore a tiny skirt and heavy winter jacket. Both of her legs were scarred. I wondered how she received those scars and how she might have smiled when she began down her path. Through what turns had she come to be seated there? Did she ever think about her future?

The man with the tattoos wore an angry expression that seemed permanent. I tried to imagine the crimes he might have committed. His mask of tattoos contained a clown, a skull and a gun, and painful words that would never be erased.

I lifted my gaze a fraction to observe others who rode after midnight. I found more of the same: eyes aimed nowhere.

Where were these people going? To what end did their lives lead?

As I looked on critically, I realized these late night riders of the subway were no different than anyone else. Moving through time hoping to find a place where they might be whole.

These lives had been reduced to futile existence. Drifting through a black tunnel unseen. Riding forward, station after station after station after station, never arriving.

How many in this world ride with no destination? I wondered.

What is the good of people?

The old man drooping in the wheelchair suddenly toppled onto the floor.

Two passengers jumped up.

The young prostitute leaned over and reached toward the old man with her trembling hand.

“Are you okay, bro?” asked the man with the tattoos, as he helped the old man back up into the wheelchair.

I did nothing.