Philosophy Road

Certain memories remain vivid.

Three little boys–my two brothers and I–growing up in a high plains town in the middle of nothing.

From a dusty window above Mama and Papa’s brick store, staring out at mountain ranges a hundred miles distant. But we couldn’t see the next town.

A mile down the straight dirt road was a pioneer cemetery. Fuller Creek Road. That’s the dirt road we headed down to reach the highway when we rumbled in our truck to the hours away city. Back up Fuller Creek road we’d come bouncing and shaking, truck bed full of shrink-wrapped cartons: toothpaste, toilet paper, candy bars, pain reliever. Things lost tourists might buy.

The dirt road was the one thread of Earth that kept a poor family alive. It was our umbilical cord. It led right past that pioneer cemetery. Fuller Creek Road. Mama, with her odd sense of humor, liked to call it Philosophy Road.

The pioneer cemetery was barely visible when we passed it by. It occupied a low hill between the road and creek. The wood crosses and headstones had long before fallen over, disintegrated, returned to the dust. The only thing you could see was unbroken green grass, and gray and green cottonwoods whose leaves shivered in the blue sky beyond the hill.

On summer afternoons my two little brothers and I would ride our bikes down Fuller Creek Road past that pioneer cemetery.

We’d stop when we reached the spot where Fuller Creek Road crossed over the creek. We’d dismount, walk our bikes down a steep rocky bank to enter the cool darkness under the concrete bridge. It was a secret place that was our own.

Beside the bubbling creek were perfect places to sit. One could listen to the water, watch a pair of paddling ducks, examine sun-faded, windblown litter, throw dirt clods at mud.

As we sat comfortably on flat dry smooth boulders, we’d talk nonsense about girls, the ranking of the next state’s college football team, and a million other things, but mostly about matters we couldn’t possibly understand.

We’d laugh as we drank beers. Mama forbade that. I don’t think she ever found us out. She knew much, but not about that. At least, I don’t think so.

We’d all three brothers spin headlong into the future as we sat and concocted the wildest, most absurd destinies. How we’d each become quarterback and win the National Championship. How we’d win the state lottery and use the money to build a castle with four stone towers and a working drawbridge next to Plover Pond. How we’d lasso a wild horse out on the rolling plains, train it in the abandoned corral north of town, then win the Kentucky Derby. How we’d figure out that Miller girl we saw once every month, and marry her. How we’d save the world and become big heroes.

Sometimes we’d cast a line tied to a stick hoping for a fish. In that trickle of water we knew fish were unrealistic, but one of my brothers did catch one.

Just before the sun touched the horizon, as we biked back home down Fuller Creek Road, we’d listen to the chit chit teer terrr-eeee of red-winged blackbirds perched in the trees beyond the vanished cemetery. We’d see the shivering leaves of cottonwoods turned golden. But we never stopped.

When we did get home, we’d all three laugh behind Mama’s back at the terrible things we’d accomplished.

Funny. I really can’t remember a specific word my brothers and I said under that bridge.

Whenever I happen to think of it, I believe I understand what my mother meant.

Why she called it Philosophy Road.

A Key to Treasure

It was inexplicable. Julia’s very old grandmother had not died wealthy.

After her grandmother passed away, Julia had received a small amount of money and a few odds and ends. The strangest item was an envelope containing a mysterious key. Written on the envelope were the words: Julia’s Treasure.

Thinking it over, Julia couldn’t figure out what the words meant. There was a treasure?

She’d heard the story many times about how her grandparents had prospered after the war, when they lived in the North Side of Chicago. Her grandfather had been a banker, and her grandmother had opened a small chain of clothing stores. But several misfortunes had struck, then the car accident, leaving her grandfather paralyzed. The enormous wealth had been quickly used up. At least, that was the story.

Had some of that old money been secretly hidden?

Julia stared at the key.

It appeared to be an ordinary key. Not old, not rusty, not unusual in any way. The sort of key to open a deadlock or safe. A hidden treasure perhaps?

Had she suddenly become wealthy?

One problem was her grandparent’s home had been demolished years ago to make way for a new shopping mall. After her grandfather passed away, Julia’s grandmother had lived in apartments, then the nursing home. So the solution to the mystery was far from obvious. Perhaps a portion of the old wealth had been placed in a safety deposit box. Or perhaps this was the key to a storage locker.

Two days after she received the key, while out shopping, Julia carried it in her purse to a locksmith. He looked it over.

“I can’t tell you anything specific about it, ” he said. “It’s definitely not for a safety deposit box or a car. But it could be a key to a deadlock or various other things.”

“Don’t you have any way to tell?”

“In this case, unfortunately, no.”

Throughout the week Julia obsessed about the mysterious key. She thought about it at work. She thought about it while at home. Occasionally she took it from her purse to look at it. She decided not to tell her husband. Sudden wealth would be an amazing surprise and would make her family’s life so much easier. There might be enough money that they could be happy for the rest of their lives.

“Is something bothering you?” her husband asked that Sunday. The family was out at the little neighborhood park, enjoying a sunny May afternoon. The kids had finished peanut butter and jelly sandwiches–all that the family could afford–and had run excitedly to the playground and the big slide. “You seem distracted. Is it your grandmother?”

“I’m fine, I just have something funny on my mind.”

For many pleasurable minutes Julia watched her children romp about the playground, taking turns on the slide, then flying in the swings. But her thoughts eventually turned back to the treasure.

Exactly how much money was waiting? Julia let her imagination run wild and wondered what amazing things the future would bring. She imagined a luxurious new home and yearly vacations and cruises around the world. What if there were tens or even hundreds of millions? They could buy mansions and live wherever and however they pleased.

“What are you thinking about?” her husband asked.

Julia shrugged. “Nothing important.”

“Are you really okay?” he smiled.

She was fine. She resented his question. She gave him a glare, then turned away.

The next day, and over the days and weeks that followed, Julia began to obsess over the inexplicable key. She became anxious. The only thing she could think about was the treasure and what it might possibly be. And how to possibly find it. But there were no clues left behind by her grandmother. No memory. No one to ask. Her grandmother’s friends and acquaintances were all unknown or gone.

There was nowhere to look and nowhere to turn. There was no solution to the mystery.

What would her life be like . . . if her treasure were never found?

It was unfair. To know an amazing, wonderful, life-changing thing is waiting, but to realize it will always be out of reach. It was damn unfair.

Julia’s unhappiness grew day by day. But she continued to carry the key just in case. Even though she knew her dreams of vacations and cruises and mansions in the sky were in reality hopeless.

One afternoon Julia arrived home from work. She reached into her purse and pulled out the key to open the front door. When she stepped through the door, she was astonished to see her house key lying on the entry table.

In a flash Julia realized the mysterious key to Julia’s Treasure, pulled from her purse, was now in her hand. She placed it next to the forgotten house key. One was silver, the other gold. The two were identical.

Spinning the Earth

As he balanced precariously atop a stray basketball, Jack had a revelation. Because he could walk on the basketball and spin it backward, he could also spin the Earth.

Jack tapped Jill’s shoulder and told her to watch. He ran from the playground to the edge of the basketball courts then thrust his arms skyward in triumph. He had spun the Earth backward.

“I can spin the Earth even faster!” Jill insisted.

“No you can’t.”

“Yes I can. I’m faster than you!”

To prove the truth of her assertion, Jill sprinted away, causing Jack, who stood watching, to recede like the rest of the planet’s surface behind her.

“Let’s race!” Jack challenged.

The two crouched behind a straight shadow cast by the swings, just the way real racers do, getting ready . . . set . . . GO!

The Earth spun beneath their feet faster than ever.

“But what happens if I run one way and you run the other?” wondered Jill. “The Earth would have to spin in two different directions.”

“Maybe we can rip it in half!” Jack said enthusiastically.

“Let’s try!”

Ready . . . set . . . GO!

Two pairs of unstoppable feet raced in opposite directions, but there was no earthquake, no splitting of granite, no cataclysm of any kind, except that two people had drawn far apart.

Jill shouted: “Let’s run toward each other and see what happens!”

They nearly collided.

And lo and behold, the Earth remained solid, and steady, and in orbit around the bright distant sun, and reliably beneath their feet.

They stood eye to eye grinning.

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.

The Star Maker

I saw a strange thing lying among litter on the sidewalk. It was a three-dimensional star, about five inches tall, made of white paper. I picked it up, examined it.

The origami star was composed of many sheets of lined notepaper, folded perfectly together by a patient hand. Sprinkled upon the star were jumbled words and phrases from torn pages.

I took the origami star up to my office on the twenty sixth floor. I looked down through my window at the tiny sidewalk where I found the fallen star. Far below people flowed in a thin trickle.

I hung the paper star on a bare spot above my desk.

Nearly every day I looked up at it.

Over many days, weeks, months that perfect origami star composed of jumbled words and perfect folds took on for me special significance. It seemed to represent my own bewildering life. Many pages, one after another, removed by time, but carefully retained. It was a hopeful reminder that with effort, precision and devotion a miracle could be folded together. A star might coalesce and take form.

When I gazed at that strange star, the essence of my own dreams seemed to shine forth.

One day I rode home on the train, thinking about a troubling day at work. As the train halted at a station, I gazed out the window and saw a destitute man sitting on a bench wrapped in a dirty blanket. His head was bowed.

He was concentrating very hard, folding an origami star.

Every Butterfly is New

As I sat at a table on the patio waiting for my morning coffee to cool, a butterfly lighted on my sleeve.

I looked down. Very slowly the butterfly’s wings opened and closed. The small creature seemed perfect, freshly made.

I remembered something I had read. Most butterflies live for about one month.

Every butterfly is new.

I looked closely at my visitor. I marveled at the filigree wings, as delicate as dreams made real. I could see the tiny eyes. I was careful not to move my arm. I didn’t want it to leave.

A butterfly, I mused, in its short life dances with the wind, always searching.

As this one approached me, what did it see?

A patchwork of many colors?

An immense, undefinable mass looming like an Everest?

An unexplored planet, in an inexplicable orbit, flitting like itself through an ever-changing universe–a universe that beckons infinitely to newly born eyes?

A strange flower?

The butterfly on my arm was small, bright and new.

At once a revelation came to me.

I too am new.

Climbing Higher

Night.

A dark mountain meadow.

The moon like a bright coin.

A thief moved across the ghostly meadow, melted into black pines.

Roy’s fingers searched the trunk of a tree and discovered a handhold. Blindly he lifted himself onto the lowest branch. Bending his legs, struggling to keep balance, he raised himself into space.

With one greedy hand he reached up again and groped. His fingers closed upon another branch. His muscles lifted.

Secretly he climbed.

A cold mountain wind whirled from the deepest corners of the night, lashing Roy’s upturned face. He fought unseen limbs as gusts swayed the tree. Black needles raked his arms like skeletons caressing.

A higher, more tenuous, more difficult branch.

An icy wind.

A few winking stars shivered through the ever thinning branches. Roy reached up greedily and grabbed hold of another branch, climbed higher, even higher. A careful thief, he climbed higher, higher, into multiplied stars, until the Earth spun a quarter million miles below.

One last branch.

He thrust his head above it.

A bright coin.

Roy collected the moon and put it in his pocket.

Here We Go

“Maybe I love trains because they’re a lot like life,” explained a father to his young son. The two sat together on the City Park Railroad, waiting for the short ride around the duck pond to begin. “You’re always moving forward, seeing something new–”

The small boy looked excitedly out the window.

He wondered what he would see.

He knew he’d see a whole lot of ducks floating out on the calm green water, and fishermen on the muddy banks casting their lines hoping to catch a prize bass.

He knew he’d see the short wooden pier jutting into the pond, and the bench near the end where he and his father had fished last summer.

He knew the train would eventually go over a bridge. His father had promised there was a bridge. It spanned a small creek that bubbled down into the pond through a patch of cattails.

And then the train might turn to follow the creek.

Looking out of the train’s window, waiting for his short journey to begin, the boy imagined the branches of willow trees fluttering over the sparkling creek. And dappled sunlight on long leaves. And a flock of blackbirds rising. And, as the creek wound upward into the nearby hills, a curtain of pine trees ahead.

Then the train might enter the pine forest.

And black towering trees would close all around, like a place in a dream, wind-whispering, wind-whispering.

The boy thought of stories he’d been told.

His father had been a young man hiking alone in the forest. Miles from home. He had heard the faraway sound of a wild turkey. He had turned to follow the call. It is rare thing to see a wild turkey. A very magical and lucky thing. His father had plunged forward through the deep forest, over slippery autumn leaves, pushing aside tangled branches, always turning, because that wild call kept shifting, from direction to direction, distance to distance. No, he never found what he sought. But he had found his way home.

And the story of how his very old grandfather, for one instant, had glimpsed a rare white deer in the forest. Nobody else in that forest had ever seen it. It was a chance encounter. Pure white. Like new snow. And then the vision had melted into shadow.

The magical deer was said to have vanished into the same dark trees where the boy’s great grandfather had faced a raging grizzly bear.

Perhaps, thought the young boy, he might also see a grizzly bear.

Then the train might emerge from the forest, climbing, winding, chugging over slopes of naked rock to high levels beyond the wildest turkeys, deer, bears. The cloudless sun, now so close, would shine brightly as the boy stared out the train’s window down upon a small patch of green forest and an endless world of hills, lakes and ponds scattered like shining pebbles below.

And then he would reach the highest mountain’s summit.

Suddenly the train rumbled and lurched.

“Here we go!”

A Crown Above All

Gathering in the park around the splashing fountain. Eating at rusted tables under sun-faded umbrellas. Napping, with head tilted forward, on a park bench. Roaming about flowerbeds. Gossiping, laughing, reading.

As I sat in the shade of a straggly tree, it suddenly appeared to me the splashing fountain was a shining crown. Above every head a crown.

I saw it all in one enchanted moment.

Shining above the gray hair of one gentleman who walked very carefully with a cane.

Shining above the short curls of a girl as she petted a dog.

Shining above a runner, who flashed past the fountain, arms pumping.

Shining above two lovers on scooters, playfully circling around planters of summer chrysanthemums.

Shining above people sitting in disorder, like painted figures on a margin of green grass, talking, resting, thinking.

Above every soul, a waterfall rising into blue basin sky.

Water jetting skyward.

Breaking into atoms.

Shimmering.

Falling.

Gathering.