One Word

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

From a distance I couldn’t read what the man had written–the words were too small. I did observe he was creating the word GOD. He was broadening the lines of GOD with great attention. Working very carefully, like a true artist.

Making the word bold. Preparing for his daily appeal.

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

As I waited for the light to cross, a clean, bearded man wearing khaki shorts came up to the writing man and stared down with a half-smile.

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

“GOD!” he roared.

One Man’s Philosophy

“The problem with being thoughtful,” explained Burt, “is you quickly understand that most people aren’t. People don’t want to be philosophers. They simply want to feel good.

“People coming down the sidewalk are almost one hundred percent predictable. All they think about is their hair, the money they owe, winning the lottery, and what’s for dinner.”

Burt took a long drink from his paper bag.

“Have you ever wondered why people love dogs? Why do you think people identify with dogs? Oh, how wonderful it would be to lead a dog’s life. People actually want to be dogs.

“Look at them smiling.

“See that group of people coming our way? Pull one of them aside and ask their life’s purpose. I dare you to ask and hear what they say. You’ll get some feel good shit, a feel good God, a few vacuous words that add up to nothing. Then they flee.

“Cattle are more interesting.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because at least you can grill cattle.”

I looked down at Burt. His eyes were red and downcast. I began to really wonder if there was any hope. “When’s the last time you had something to eat?”

“Fifteen minutes ago. Some passing idiot gave me half his jelly doughnut.”

“Why do you think he did that?”

“Because I begged for it.”

“But you know he didn’t have to.”

“Yeah he did. Look at me.”

A Steep Hill

The old man bent slowly. He set a heavy black garbage bag down on the sidewalk. He stood on the hill and rested. The five block climb to the church seemed more steep than ever.

I can’t do this forever, he told himself.

The shrugging shadows from a crowd of downtown buildings were very cold. The old man zipped his jacket all the way up. He gazed down at the sidewalk and the garbage bag.

He lifted the bag and resumed his way up the hill. One careful step after another. He waited on a corner for a traffic light, even though there were almost no cars about on a Sunday morning. Litter blown by the November wind had collected in the gutter. On the opposite sidewalk several people were sleeping among discarded bottles.

The apples in his bag felt like stones.

He wondered why he carried them.

His parents had built their modest house a long, long time ago, decades before the city swarmed around it. When he was three years old, his mother had planted an apple tree in the backyard. Now, suffocated by high-rises, it was a miracle that tree grew at all. It was a miracle the harvest remained bountiful. No sunlight now reached the tiny house.

For a painful instant the old man barely recalled the radiant face of his mother: her shining eyes and bright fiery curls. The apple tree was just as generous as her unpent heart. Pies, cakes, muffins, cobblers, jelly, sauce, cider, enough for a large happy family. But those years were long dead. The only hands that remained were his own.

He now despised apples.

A smiling man in a sideways baseball cap hurried rapidly down the steep sidewalk. The smiling man stopped a few feet above the old man and stared down at him.

“What you got there buddy?”

“A garbage bag.”

“Find anything good?”

“No, just garbage.”

“Too bad. Look what I got. The idiots at City Church give them away for nothing.” The smiling man pulled a red apple out of a pocket. “They don’t even care who you are. You can take as many as you want.” The smiling man suddenly pitched the red apple across the street. It struck the side of a cold building and exploded. He laughed loudly.

The smiling man pulled out another apple, tossed it onto the street, watched it roll down into the gutter.

The old man shrugged, continued up the hill with his garbage bag.

. . .

The tree was unrelenting. Those beautiful apples seemed infinite.

The old man ascended the hill to church Sunday after Sunday, transporting a terribly heavy bag, one careful step following another. He often wondered why he did it.

It was fate, probably.

The Silver of Ice

Leslie’s open eyes were vulnerable. With one mittened hand she tugged the wool cap down over her eyebrows. With the other she held up the scarf, to smother her nose.

The bitter New Year’s wind drained the heat of every living thing.

Leslie could feel her eyes freezing. It was a peculiar feeling. She blinked rapidly, trying to summon warm tears.

Fragments of ice torn from the frozen world blew past her eyes. She flinched. The flakes seemed white ash from a dead fire.

Leslie hurried down the sidewalk–as fast as she could without slipping. The convenience store was only two blocks away.

The entire town had vanished in colorless snow. Nobody in their right mind would venture outside in such inhuman cold. Just a Ford pickup equipped with a scraping snow plow, and a few creeping cars behind it.

With relief she exploded through the store’s door.

“Cold enough for you?” asked Freddie. He was sitting on a stool gazing out the frosted window.

“I’m out of cough syrup. Jack can’t stop coughing, so I have to hurry back. I’m so tired. They said on the news it’s almost a record. Thirty five below, or something.”

“Yeah, everything’s dead. The cold has stopped everything.”

“Happy New Year,” he added as she departed.

Leslie rushed back into the white world, determined to be home and out of the wind’s teeth.

She almost slipped on the sidewalk, but miraculously regained her balance. She crossed the empty street, avoiding hard slush. Someone was scraping thick ice off a windshield. She didn’t turn her head to see who.

Leslie ran as best as she could against the cold.

She could feel her eyes beginning to freeze.

The mailbox.

It was frozen shut. With an icy rock from the ground she broke ice off.

She pulled out a letter.

She stood in the piercing cold, and with clumsy mittened hands opened the envelope.

A New Year’s card.

She paused, looked for a long minute upon a scene of carefree skaters on a silver lake, lost in a forest of bright silver trees. They skated under silver stars, in a world that was shining like unearthly heaven. Around the lake hovered a few snowflakes–perfectly formed snowflakes like silver dreams.

It was so beautiful.

A flake of snow landed on the card, melted.

Leslie despaired that the beautiful card would be ruined. She quickly opened her jacket and put the silver next to her heart. Shivering deeply, she turned about, hurried for the door.

A Secret Junkyard

Pender glared at his marvelous invention. No matter how hard he hammered, the critical gear refused to turn.

Which meant the pendulum could never swing. And the pulley could never pull. And the mainspring could never spring.

And the crystal wings that projected from either side of his shining golden hummingbird would remain lifeless, eternally.

Pender’s invention lay motionless at the center of his desk.

He couldn’t bear to look at it.

Reaching across of his desk, Pender pressed several keys of an antique black typewriter. A fatal click sounded in his private study. A bookcase swung open.

Pender jumped up, roughly grabbed one crystal wing and whisked his failure across the small study. With one lunging step he carried it through the bookcase . . .

Behind Pender’s books stretched a junkyard. An immense junkyard–his infinite, private, painful secret. His manifold failures littered a bewildering expanse. Scattered to the right and to the left, his wrecks had been thrown carelessly into chaotic nonexistence. Pender felt bitter revulsion for that junkyard. So many marvelous inventions, each aborted.

Pender tossed the shining hummingbird over a few broken things and it landed in a lifeless heap. He turned, determined not to see.

So many aborted dreams.

Every one wonderful.

An elegant baby grand piano, attached with baling wire to the top of a diesel locomotive. But the train was too loud.

A fifty-foot mechanical clown powered by the sonic energy of human laughter. But nobody laughed.

A glass carriage containing one thousand red roses and an Egyptian mummy. But the smell was horrific.

A flying saucer built with toilet paper tubes, tinfoil, rubber bands, white multi-purpose glue and three jet engines. But the rubber bands inevitably broke.

A magnificent hot air balloon of sewn-together silk stockings. A few stockings had holes.

A gigantic pirate ship carved out of Swiss cheese. The rats fled.

An upside down triangular house. That had a tendency to tip over.

A contraption consisting of a warped lawn chair, a pair of skis, one rubber tire, a bicycle chain, a mannequin, a cuckoo clock, a stove pipe hat, goose feathers, profuse sweat and shed tears.

Pender’s brightening eyes lingered on the contraption.

It had so much potential.

Impulsively, Pender grabbed hold of his preposterous creation, lifted it with all of his strength and carried it out of the secret junkyard into his small study. He placed the thing on his desk. He tested the bicycle chain and straightened the stove pipe hat.

Pender touched several keys of his black typewriter, closing the bookcase.

He feverishly went to work.

The Perfect Snowflake

Sanji was aware that he was dreaming.

He was walking through a silent white forest. Pine trees blanketed with snow rose on every side.

When Sanji was a young child, the lucid dreams had been frequent. That was a lifetime ago, when he spent his waking hours pretending to streak past a billion billion stars as he traveled in a spaceship to the far end of the universe.

As a middle-aged man he slept without dreams.

Until this night.

Sanji moved through the white forest deliberately and searched the snow with devouring eyes. He turned his feet in every direction, crushing fresh powder with every step, and at last halted on the bank of a frozen river. He could hear running water bubbling beneath the emerald ice.

Sanji had searched the unknown his entire adult life. Somehow, after many dreamless nights, he had become a leading theoretical physicist. He lived in a small world of unending numbers, odd symbols. Penning equations, scratching them out. Now he gazed down at the frozen river and knew for certain that he was asleep and dreaming, and that what he saw before him was absolutely real.

Looking up, he saw white particles floating from the trees. One drifted down, landed on his fingertip.

He held the snowflake next to one eye.

He stared at its shape.

The tiny snowflake was an infinity of jigsaw pieces fitted together into one seamless whole. Pieces of infinitesimal essence.

He caught his breath in the airless cold.

He had found something that he had never seen before. A perfect snowflake. The most simple of all possible truths.

The crystal snowflake was an unbidden, elegant revelation, like inspired strokes of chalk on a newly-cleaned chalkboard: a brilliant equation of white: a mathematical certainty that explained all things.

All Sanji’s life he’d grappled to unravel the truth. He had fought to weld together that desperate mathematical Theory of Everything.

Now it was on his finger.

In the perfect snowflake he saw the precise truth that was written at the beginning of all things. He saw the origin, the movement, the destiny of the universe. The final equation shimmered before him. He saw each finite number distinctly. It was simple. He’d found it.

Sanji heard a patter of rain.

He listened to the rain and was aware that it was dark. And that he was warm in bed.

Outside his bedroom window streaked dark ghostly rain.

Suddenly he remembered his dream.

Despair.

He had to write it down. That equation.

He knew there was a notepad on the desk by the window–and on top of the notepad a ballpoint pen. He jumped up.

The ghostly rain outside his room drew his eyes to the window. Softly glowing raindrops were coursing separately down the pane, like pulsing atoms or universes, flowing, colliding, combining, accelerating, vanishing. The raindrops followed defined courses, courses easily formulated, with destinies known. And yet each was a mystery. Each drop was birthed out of darkness–each was a vision beyond his reach.

Sanji blinked. He’d forgotten his dream.

What the Giant Saw

According to ancient legend, a giant had piled rocks on the east bank of the river, creating a dark mountain. The mountain was a cairn, placed by the giant so that one day he could find his way back from the frozen North, to take revenge on the knights of old.

One morning the returning giant suddenly appeared over the mountain. He placed his hairy hand atop the rocky peak and sat down, cooling his feet in the trickle of river.

“What’s this?” he asked with a voice like thunder.

Across the river there had been a strange change. The castle had vanished. No knights in bright armor charged out to meet him.

Before him lay a postpostmodern city. Ant-size automated cars traversed a network of unpeopled streets, moving in straight lines from one point to another, then to another, then to another, then to another. The self-driving cars moved with perfect regularity between rows of inoffensive, windowless edifices. The cars were identical and colorless, designed to deflect dangerous sunlight and conserve precious energy. They transported their minuscule cargoes with perfected efficiency.

The giant stared for a few minutes at the silent scene. None of it seemed real.

He soon lost interest.

As he stood up to return north, the clumsy giant accidentally knocked down a stone from the top of his useless cairn.

The catastrophic flood was beyond understanding.