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, right when the library opened, a man wearing dark glasses and dressed in suit and tie would always be waiting outside. Feeling his way 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 Highest Seat

I had a friend named Nick. We used to have long conversations in the city park while sitting on a bench: I on one end, he on the other.

Nick would sit there with his eyes closed, listening through headphones to what he called the music of the spheres. I never heard his music, so I couldn’t tell you what he meant.

While he was listening to his music, I’d sit on the other end of the bench people watching. Watching random joggers and walkers. He and I were quite different.

When Nick opened his eyes and they met mine we talked.

Nick loved to talk about astronomy. For many years he’d worked as projectionist at the city park’s planetarium, operating a unique device called a star projector. From the projector’s starball shined points of light. Thin rays of light formed constellations on the planetarium’s black dome-shaped screen. The starball slowly revolved like the Earth.

Space was his obsession. Nick knew the orbit of every planet and every moon. He could name hundreds of stars. He knew everything there was to know about comets, and Saturn’s rings, and Jupiter’s spot–I forget what it’s called–and far galaxies at the very edge of the Universe. He knew the date and time of every eclipse. All he ever talked about was space.

He’d been retired from that job as projectionist for years and now he sat in the park and listened with eyes closed to his music of the spheres. A few times I caught him on that bench after dark. He was staring up at the twinkling stars.

He used to tell me that the best seat in a planetarium is the highest one–right up near the domed ceiling. It’s the seat nearest the stars. But people seldom climb those steep stairs. People like the easy seats.

He finally retired from that projectionist job when the planetarium began to show nothing but documentary films on its giant, curved screen. You know, those movies that take you soaring above skyscrapers or for a ride on a roller coaster. The world around and under you seems so solid that you get motion sickness. He hated those films. I didn’t understand why.

He once told me he’d been born too early. He wanted to go flying through space. Among the stars.

After he passed away, I still would sit on that same park bench.

Whenever I walked past the old planetarium-turned-theater I wondered what the stars might have been like in there.

One day I saw the theater was showing a documentary film about outer space. I decided to buy a ticket. To see what the experience might be like.

I made my way into the dark theater. I found some ascending steps. It was so dark that I had to feel my way with groping hands. Nick was right. The higher seats were mostly empty.

Up, up those steep steps I climbed through the darkness until I reached the last seat. The highest one. The one nearest the screen. Still standing, I tilted my head back to examine the black, arching screen. It seemed so vast, like space. It appeared almost close enough to touch.

Suddenly the movie started. Stars appeared.

When I looked down, ready to sit in that highest seat, I discovered a faintly glimmering thing. A brass plaque.

Bending down to look closely, I could barely read: In remembrance of Nicolas, projectionist. His light made every star.

Apology for a Nightmare

Grace had a nightmare.

Her nightmare was bizarre, chaotic, irrational, unaccountable, and she did terrible things. Including something to Katherine.

That morning Grace apologized to Katherine.

Katherine was confused. “You’re sorry for what?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Is it something you did?”

“No.”

“But if it’s something you didn’t do, why are you standing there apologizing to me?” Katherine asked, beginning to feel amused.

“I have a very good reason.”

“Which is?”

“It’s something you’ll never know.”

“Now you’re just being Grace.”

“I must be Grace.”

Night Walking

The house had eyes.

The porch was a chin. The front door, a mouth.

Eli arrived home late, exhausted after another day’s work.

He parked on the driveway, locked his car, crossed stepping stones and climbed to the porch. The porch was a chin. He entered the mouth.

Late that night, after Eli had turned off all the lights and wrapped himself in warm blankets, the dark windows of the house blinked awake. Starlight filled eyes.

Rising from the ground, the house began to walk.

It walked past a row of gray lawns and sleeping houses and turned at Elm Street.

It walked past the dark gas station and the dark liquor store.

It turned onto Main Street and walked past the post office, bank, supermarket. It walked through the black shadows of the junkyard.

The eyes of the house twinkled right and left as they searched the night.

The house passed a cat prowling through an empty lot. It passed under a bat fluttering into the night from under a bridge. It walked past a row of black cedar trees and a lifted finger that was a church steeple. It moved beside pale nightshades that tumbled from inside the iron fence of the cemetery. It observed the hands of the town clock grasping eternity.

Under remote stars the house roamed.

A strange dream moved it. An impossible dream that was wrapped behind its eyes. A dream that was brighter than the stars, that turned gray shadows to certainties and the solemn dark to a thousand brilliant colors.

Walking through the night, the house at last found what it sought.

Eli woke as the sun rose above the horizon.

He looked out at the familiar street from his bedroom window, at the newly mown lawn and bed of cheerful yellow gardenias.

He was ready for another day.

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.

Their Dream

A retired firefighter named Gil had always wanted to be an astronaut. So one day he finally got started.

After examining old photographs of the NASA moon landings, he built a perfect lunar rover in his garage.

Then he fashioned a perfect space suit. Helmet, pressure garment, suit assembly, EVA backpack, gloves and all.

And on a Saturday he drove his lunar rover down the state highway to the sand dunes, donned his shining space suit and went for a bouncing ride.

A twenty-three year old artist named Allan lived with his girlfriend in a rusted trailer. He played guitar. He wrote poetry. He built sculptures around the trailer out of hubcaps and glass bottles. His face, neck and arms were tattooed green.

As the sun rose each morning, Allan, in a brilliant green robe, would walk alone for miles and miles, sit down upon a rock in a vast place and listen to the wind. He wanted to understand the world.

One day Allan sat in that place and watched as an astronaut in a bright space suit drove a lunar rover toward him.

That’s impossible, he thought. I must be dreaming.

Gil, driving his lunar rover, saw a shining green man sitting alone in the desert.

That’s impossible, he thought. I must be dreaming.

The astronaut passed the little green man.

From their dream neither woke.

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.