How to Paint Angels

Another angel, not quite perfect. Carol snatched the canvas off the easel and balled it up hard. She flung her creation into the fireplace and watched the devouring flames turn wings black.

Like a dead weight Carol sank to the carpet, then lay on her back and shut her eyes. She tried to shut out the world.

That evening, after some television news and a bite to eat, she was compelled to place a new white canvas onto the empty easel. She stared at the blank space. She dipped her delicate brush into silver.

As usual she began with the angel wings. Her strokes were precise, slow.

The most difficult part was always the eyes. They never came out right. Angel eyes were a puzzle. She would do them last.

A knock at the door.

“Come in!”

It was her new friend Monique. “I’m sorry–I didn’t know you were busy–here’s the jacket you left in Tony’s car. I’ll leave you here to your work.”

“No! Please stay for a minute! The apartment can feel so empty. It’s nice to have some company for a change.”

“What’s this? You painted all these?”

Carol laughed. “It’s my hobby, I guess.”

“Seriously? It beats making tin foil Christmas tree ornaments, or any silly thing I’ve ever attempted. I didn’t know you were an artist! They’re absolutely beautiful!”

“Sometimes I wonder.”

“Wonder what–if they’re beautiful?”

“If they’re as perfect as angels should be.”

“They’re angels. How can they not be beautiful?” laughed Monique, wandering slowly about Carol’s small apartment, turning right and then left. She gazed with increasing wonder at a dozen silvery canvases on easels. There was such a clutter of angels that it was difficult to maneuver.

Monique looked quickly at each canvas. The heavenly paintings were exquisite but something about them was odd. They felt unnatural. Something vital seemed to be missing. And there were so many. She didn’t want to say anything. That would be impolite.

“You might have noticed that none of my angels have eyes,” Carol remarked, trying not to sound embarrassed. “Not yet.”

“Oh my gosh! I was just thinking there was something kind of strange about them. Now I see why! They’re absolutely wonderful but the faces are wrong. So you’re waiting to paint the eyes on all these? Are they difficult to do?”

“I always have trouble with my eyes.”

“Me, too,” smiled Monique. “That’s why I wear glasses.”

They both laughed.

. . .

Carol rolled in a nightmare. It was another lucid dream of Hell.

Blackness swallowed her. She was spinning, drowning in an infinite void, suffocating in ungraspable nothingness. There was no light, not a trace of substance or form.

A tomb.

In the blackness she struggled to find her hand. She was desperate to lift her hand and touch something, feel anything. She could find nothing. Spinning, spinning, she was alone, less than nothing in the consuming nothingness.

It was a Hell without flames, without demons or evil, without time, only emptiness. A devouring nightmare that had erased her entire world.

No hope.

Panicking, she strained in her mind to remember some known thing. A face, a ray of sunshine. Something in a vanished life she understood. Something near. Deep in her mind she tried to grasp at anything, a momentary spark, an atom, to cling to, to push back the black, ruthless, eternal Nothing.

Nothing.

In the blackness she caught a glimmer.

She woke.

Her dark apartment was strangely aglow. She lifted her head from her pillow. All about her were living eyes. Eyes of pure light, living light. Warm light.

Carol jumped out of bed and flipped on the cold apartment light.

She began painting eyes.

An Old Man on a Bus

The old man appeared very frail.  From the few white hairs on his scabbed head . . . to his watery eyes . . . to his trembling hands.

“Good morning,” he said politely as he boarded the city bus.

The driver ignored him.

The old man nodded and struggled down the aisle to get to an empty seat. His feet shuffled. Slowly, painfully, he turned his body, grabbed the rail, bent like a skeleton to sit. The passengers on either side did not look up from their phones.

The bus started with a sudden jolt and the old man tipped into a neighbor. “I’m so sorry,” he laughed with embarrassment.

No reply.

Each stop on Fourth Avenue brought a fresh tide of riders. The old man sat without moving–except trembling hands. All eyes avoided him.

Until the arrival of a young man.

“You’re really, really old,” said the youth, who sat across the aisle and stared directly at him from behind dark sunglasses.

“I am.”

“Doesn’t life suck when you’re old and about to die?” The young man spoke mockingly.

“It does.”

“You have to be at least a hundred years old. Don’t you worry someone like me might beat you up?”

“I can tell that you won’t,” smiled the old man.

“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”

“Because I can see you’re just an ordinary person.”

The youth turned his head and laughed at the window. Outside the city blurred past.

The old man said: “I know you’re an ordinary person because a long time ago I was exactly like you. I thought I was something special, nothing could touch me. I could insult the entire world and nothing would happen.

“Nothing could stop me. I would beat up every person that stood in my way. The future was mine.

“Now what do you see?”

The young man saw in his window the old man’s smiling reflection.

At the next stop the young man jumped up and hurried off.

Irresistible Gravity

A leaf blower came by every Monday.

A tree in a concrete planter had been placed at the center of a concrete plaza. It fed on the dark water of janitors. It shed a few leaves.

Around and around the spindly trunk rode a grown man on a motorized skateboard with a nicely groomed beard. Mounted on his head was a tiny lens. Around and around he circled one afternoon. Around, around, around.

The tree dropped a leaf.

The Nicely Groomed Man rode briskly away, and later that night he watched his twinkling video on a screen in a small dark room.  He then sent if off to a virtual place to show everybody, anybody. The blurred scene, he thought, was like art. He was a satellite. The lone tree was a strange sun. Its gravity was irresistible. He returned to work the next day.

During lunch the bearded man spooned a cup of drippy noodles and thoughtfully regarded the tree. Cigarette butts and litter had been tossed into the concrete planter. The tree grew in a false light reflected from a wall of sheer, faceless offices. A wonderful forlorn miracle. How did it grow? Why did it grow?

Where did it come from? Who placed it there? It didn’t occur to the man that they were alike. Both in that plaza. Waiting. Waiting.

Another day came. A janitor dumped a bucket of dark water.

A leaf blower arrived on Monday.

Light on the Restless and Small

Late morning was pleasantly sunny. Jeremy directed his feet toward the delicatessen overlooking the boat ramp. He was hungry.

A water taxi on a trailer was being slowly backed into the bay. The boat’s hull was black with decay. A man waving his arms near the water suddenly shouted: “Stop!”

Jeremy lingered on the deli’s sunlit patio, looking down at the scene with vague curiosity. He then stepped inside, carefully analyzed the choices and ordered a turkey and avocado sandwich with extra peppers.

He returned to the patio to wait.

The sunlight felt good. Shining pleasure craft bobbed in the quicksilver marina to one side of the ramp. The boats were empty. They shrugged on the water in rows, bright white, waiting, waiting.

A small pug waddled up from nowhere to the chair where Jeremy sat and pressed its nose against his ankle. Jeremy scratched behind the dog’s ear. The small dog pressed itself against his leg.

Runners from the nearby fitness center ran along the boardwalk. They ran with pumping legs and arms glistening in the sun. They followed a line, from the fitness center, past the marina, past the deli, to the boat ramp, back to the same place where they started, back and forth, up and down the boardwalk, sweating, arms swinging, back and forth, back and forth, wishful perpetual motion machines. Younger females. Older males.

Two motivations, realized Jeremy.

Fear of rejection. Fear of death.

It was a perfect day for a walk or a run. Sunlight in the open air always feels good. The runners passed through the warm sunshine on a day like any other.

Jeremy heard his name.

He returned to the patio with his fresh sandwich and found an open table. The pug came up to him again and pressed its nose against his ankle. Standing on the casually littered concrete, it stared up between Jeremy’s legs.

It was a fat little pug with demanding eyes. The animal stared directly at Jeremy’s carefully selected sandwich. It stood perfectly still. The eyes did not move.

Is there meaning in sunlight? In its warmth?

Jeremy, the philosopher, stared at the sandwich and felt sudden pain: his desperation for an answer.

But philosophy vanished the moment he took one bite. The sandwich tasted very good in warm sunshine.

Sparkling water lapped gently up the boat ramp.

Trailing black smoke, the water taxi was laboring across the bay into the distance. Its purpose: to pick up those many people who had places to go–places where sunshine might be.

A Few Words and a Pelican

Charles rested on his favorite concrete bench, watching a crowd of sailboats race slowly across the harbor. The sails shimmered in the sunshine.

The usual stream of tourists and restless souls filed past him on the boardwalk. Their heads were down, over small devices. Charles tried to ignore them.

Out near the entrance to the harbor, perhaps three miles across the water, a small blur of cloud followed a tiny white dot. That, Charles knew, would be the seabirds, greedily following the boat of a returning fisherman.

Charles watched and reflected for a while.

He became aware that one bird had separated from the boiling cloud. It seemed to have changed its mind, given up. It seemed to be flying directly toward land. Directly toward Charles.

The pelican landed on a plastic blue trashcan several feet away.

The pelican turned its head and stared at Charles.

They silently regarded each other.

The pelican’s round eye conveyed strange intelligence. The eye, light blue with a small black pupil, seemed human. The unblinking eye was turned upon Charles, and the pelican stood like a statue. The stream of people walking past with their heads down didn’t appear to see anything at all.

For several minutes, Charles and the pelican regarded each other. The eye didn’t blink.

“Hello,” said Charles.

The bird moved its head slightly.

“Did you come here to tell me something? What do you want to say?”

The round eye seemed to stare at Charles critically.

“Are you able to think?” asked Charles. He wondered if the bird had some reason to stand on the trashcan. It probably was hoping for a handout of food. Birds are simple creatures, nothing but animal instinct and appetite.

“Did you enjoy being out on the wide ocean this morning?” Charles asked amiably. His voice contained a dash of irony. “Have you eaten already? So what do you do when you’ve finished eating? Just pass the time? Is that all you can do? You kick back, breathe in the salt air, and take in the scenery? Like me? It’s a very pleasant day, indeed!”

The round eye looked back at him, unwavering.

“You don’t understand a word that I say. You don’t even care that I’m talking. I suppose we’re just two wandering spirits, gazing at each other at this random place and at this random moment. Meeting for just one moment. Adrift in our own lives, unable to truly communicate, or even to understand. But here we are. That’s life, I guess. Look at me, the philosopher. Talking to myself.”

“Even so, I wish you a good day,” smiled Charles.

Then Charles noticed one foot of the pelican was missing. Somehow, the silent bird still managed to balance atop the trashcan.

Charles stared at the spindly leg that ended in a sudden stub.

Of course, the loss of a foot probably was a death sentence. Perhaps the bird was indeed hungry.

Charles didn’t know what to do. The concrete bench seemed more uncomfortable than ever. He was strangely afraid to look up and meet the pelican’s eye. Did the creature understand its own fate?

“I’m so sorry,” Charles finally said, looking up.

But the pelican flew away at that exact moment. And the stream of people continued past.

“I’m so sorry,” Charles murmured. “I’m so sorry.” He looked down at his hands.

A Miracle on Sixth Avenue

John walked slowly toward his parked car. Sixth Avenue was just another street in the city.

Without thinking, he searched the sidewalk with downcast eyes. Cigarette butts, rotting food, a discarded bottle, a dead cockroach, bits of toilet paper. Disgusting stains, crushed things.

A plume of smoke up ahead caught his attention.

As he neared, John noticed a crowd of people had gathered close to the rising black smoke. Excited faces were staring down at the freeway from an overpass.

A van was on fire below. Traffic on the freeway had been stopped by a police car with flashing lights, and two firemen with a hose were getting ready to put out the flames. The empty van, alone on the concrete, simply burned, nothing more.

At least forty people on the overpass leaned forward to stare down at the freeway. More were arriving, drawn by the smoke, as ants are drawn to sugar. Every person in the crowd held up a phone, carefully framing a photograph. A photograph of an empty van on fire.

The people checked their phone, appeared unsatisfied, changed the angle, held it higher. Needing to capture destruction, meaningless and distant. They watched with perfect fascination and took a second and third picture. A hundred identical photographs.

John kept walking. He’d never before felt such a wave of disgust.

That night he couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t purge from his mind that crush of people. Gawking, predictable, animal humanity, eagerly recording flames and black smoke, because flames and black smoke seemed exciting. Why? For what reason?

People were shallow and disgusting.

But what in the world is new?

And so John walked from his parked car up Sixth Avenue the next morning, a remnant of that dark shadow in his mind.

The sun was up. At the overpass there was no smoke. Cars passed in a blur on the concrete below. The incident was erased. Time swallows everything. Just different trash on the sidewalk.

“Good morning,” said an approaching person. The stranger’s eyes were wide, directly meeting John’s own eyes. A sincere, friendly smile was on the stranger’s lips.

“Morning,” John half-smiled.

And the passing person was gone.

The sun rose higher.

A small miracle had saved everything.

This short story originally appeared here!