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.

Litter

There is no street parking near my apartment building. I have to park several blocks away.

One day I was walking out to my car when my eyes chanced upon a piece of litter.

Nothing angers me quite like litter. People who blithely toss trash into their neighborhood are so careless and selfish. I’m tired of picking it up.

The discarded thing lay on the sidewalk. It was a tiny notebook–one of those cheap notebooks people jot quick notes in.

I stooped to pick it up.

I had resumed walking, and was searching for a trashcan, when all at once it occurred to me that somebody might have accidentally dropped this tiny notebook.

I turned it over to examine the front and back cover. No name. I opened to the first page. A couple of sentences had been carefully written in pencil.

I love my uncle Ernie. I love how he makes me laugh and how he makes pancakes for me and my sister.

All of the pages that followed were blank.

Oh wow, I thought, this isn’t quite what I expected. Evidently a young person had begun to write some happy thoughts. Perhaps it was an essay for school. Or the beginning of a journal. The tiny notebook had probably fallen out of a pocket. A worried somebody would probably be looking for it.

My course of action was obvious. I turned around and retraced my steps. I sought the exact spot where I had found the dropped notebook. I carefully set what I had first thought was litter back on the sidewalk, so that it could await its destiny.

What else could I do?

As I finally approached my car, I came upon an unusual amount of trash by the sidewalk. A small heap of garbage had gathered between some dying bushes. I fought off my anger. Why can’t people control themselves?

There was spoiled food, discarded cardboard boxes, bottles and cans. The smell was unbearable.

Then I noticed a sleeping bag behind the pile. And someone inside it. A young man with leaves in his hair was bundled up, his face hidden.

The Hand of Fate

A small shrine appeared on some bare dirt near the intersection where a transient had been struck and killed. Neighbors brought candles, roses, prayerful messages written on cards. The next day the City cleaned up the guttered candles and withered roses and tossed the messages into a plastic bag to be thrown away.

Carly, during a walk through the neighborhood, looked down at the dead patch of dirt. She wondered why a nameless person had drifted along her street.

All that remained beside the sidewalk were windblown leaves.

And one faded rose.

Carly leaned over, picked it up.

She took the spent thing back to her apartment. She put it in a damp paper towel. She made a quick trip to the store to buy a clay pot and small bag of soil. She prepared the stem for propagation. Her mother, long gone to heaven, had once taught her how.

Carly put the cutting into the soil and placed the pot in her small apartment window. She was careful to keep the soil moist and warm.

Early one morning, when nobody was about, she walked down the sidewalk back to the intersection and its bare patch of dirt. She brought a hand shovel.

Every morning after, she brought a water bottle.

. . .

Many years after Carly had joined her mother, those who walked by the intersection would pause to marvel at the strange abundance of wild, beautiful roses. Hundreds of blooms crowded the sidewalk.

It seemed the Hand of Fate had birthed an improbable garden.

Nobody knew where the roses had come from.

A Wise Man

Another year, almost gone.

On a Sunday afternoon my family sat down in the hilltop park to listen to a community Christmas concert. The chilly outdoor amphitheater was packed. My wife and I sported Santa hats, and our kids dressed as elves.

Up on the leaf-strewn stage the New Life Choir sang Christmas carols. The audience sang along, clapped in time, jingled bells and keys on chains.

For some reason I couldn’t join in. My thoughts concerned problems at work and those toxic in-laws that would be visiting again. Christmas felt tired. I kept looking around at the crowd of easily excited strangers in the audience. It all seemed so predictable.

At the end of our row, near the exit, I spotted one man’s head that stood out in the small ocean of red and white Santa hats. It was his strange golden crown that drew my attention. I wondered what sort of fool would decide to wear a crown for Christmas.

The crown seemed absurd. It was one of those simple crowns that look like triangular steeples arranged in a circle, each graced with a single gem. Suddenly I realized the person had come to the Christmas concert as one of the Wise Men.

I looked at the face beneath the crown and saw a gray, very old man, who sat alone and apart.

A children’s choir was filing up onto the stage. Several dozen awkward children were all dressed like green elves. My son and daughter were very excited see more tiny elves, exactly like themselves. I looked at my wife as she gave Janie and Joshua each a quick hug.

The choir of bright-eyed elves gathered nervously in rows on the risers, smiling, squirming, turning their shy faces to the audience. Parents waved and held up phones to take pictures.

I regarded the eager audience. Above the swelling sea of Santa hats, I observed the crowned head of the very old Wise Man at the end of our row. He stared directly ahead, eyes unmoving. His weathered face was expressionless. I wondered what the very old man saw. Confusion, probably. The passing of too many years.

I turned to watch the children as they prepared to sing The Twelve Days of Christmas.

The tiny green elves stood side by side and began about that partridge in a pear tree. Their wavering voices rose and rose, becoming more certain as they sang about two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

The elves sang through the twelve days, brief days filled with abundant gifts of hens and geese and swans and gold rings, filled with gifts of dancing ladies and leaping lords and pipers piping and drummers drumming, drumming, drumming, repeating, repeating like strong, perpetual heartbeats.

Each elf had eyes that shined like jewels.

For a moment I forgot about work and in-laws and looked softly at my own excited children, my two small elves that one day would don Santa hats.

After the final carol had been sung, as everyone left the small amphitheater, the very old man in the strange golden crown remained in his seat. I glanced down at him as we brushed past. His eyes stared directly ahead. They were filled with tears.

The Station Sparrow

It was funny how birds often walked into the enormous waiting room at the city train station. They waddled right through the open door. The birds seemed fearless as they roamed about the tile floor looking for food, deftly avoiding the feet of passengers.

Two or three pigeons liked to strut among passengers near the snack kiosk, cooing and pecking at crumbs. A chirping sparrow hopped along the rows of varnished wooden benches where passengers sat quietly, thinking or looking at their phones as they waited for trains.

The tiny sparrow, which actually seemed to live in the cavernous waiting room, was very brave for its size. It easily outmaneuvered the gigantic humans. It was also surprisingly strong, able to carry away a whole cracker with ease.

Sometimes one of those big, clumsy humans would be startled by the flight of something near the train station’s high ceiling. “What the–?”

When anyone observed that the sparrow was building a nest up in a hanging light fixture, a laugh was sure to follow.

“What a perfect place for a nest,” one gentleman chuckled. “Lots to eat. All sorts of messy people.”

“Messy birds, too,” his friend frowned. She motioned toward fresh droppings on the floor.

“I’m sure there’s much worse than that around here,” asserted the gentleman, nodding with exaggerated disgust at the many bedraggled strangers who sat on the varnished benches, clutching their baggage, staring dully out the large windows at the station platform.

With a rumble a scheduled train arrived. Passengers stood up, formed a line, filed out. New people trickled into the waiting room. Every passing soul chose one particular spot on a wooden bench, sat down.

Few would look around with curiosity, until they noticed that endlessly busy sparrow.

The sparrow hopped about the tile floor, gathering bits of material to build its nest. A leaf blown through the door would be flown up to the nest. So would a discarded candy wrapper.

The small sparrow, as it moved among the feet of several sitting passengers, cocked its head right and left. It hopped up onto a bench, moving in small, effortless hops toward one lady who sat talking on her phone. Suddenly it flew up to her shoulder, grabbed a loose hair from her sweater, and flashed up to the ceiling and its nest in the light.

The lady shrieked and looked about. People jumped, turned. She was gazing up at the ceiling. Suddenly she broke out in happy laughter. “A bird was on my shoulder!” she told the person at the other end of her phone. A passenger on the bench facing her was smiling.

Up near the ceiling, the station sparrow weaved its nest.

The precocious bird emerged from under a bench and made a dash for another passenger. It attacked a loose shoelace, gave it a tug.

“Oh my god! Look at that bird!” exclaimed the owner of the shoe. “It’s crazy! What’s that bird doing?”

A child sitting nearby joined in the laughter.

The sparrow moved mysteriously from bench to bench, its chirp heard at one end of the large waiting room, then the other.

A quietly sobbing passenger sat in one corner of the waiting room. She daubed her eyes and carelessly dropped a tissue. Like a sudden bolt of lightning the small sparrow swept down from somewhere and stole the tissue and carried it up to its nest. Her sobs were relieved by a lighthearted laugh.

Later in the day the bird flew down to the ticket counter and stood cocking its head right and left as it watched a transaction.

“I want a one way ticket for the next train to Los Angeles,” demanded a passenger.

“A one way ticket?”

“Yeah, I don’t intend to return to this place.”

The passenger carefully counted out bills and placed them upon the elegant wooden counter.

In a flash the thieving sparrow swept past. It easily stole a twenty dollar bill and flew up to its light near the ceiling.

“A bird stole my money!”

“They better return that money,” the next person in line said angrily. “You have the legal right to get it back. If they don’t give you back every penny, you should call the police.”

But the paying passenger, staring up at the small nest in the dirty old station light, suddenly smiled and exploded with laughter. “Oh, does it really matter? That was actually hilarious. That little bird is going to have the most fantastic nest ever built!”

As passengers sat on the waiting room benches, or stood in line for arriving trains, the station sparrow stealthily gathered scraps for its nest. Those who noticed enjoyed a laugh. Some, peering up toward the ceiling, wondered what the nest contained.

A Monument to Remember

I’m not exactly sure why I spent Sunday mornings sitting on a cold bench near that monument. It seemed a suitable place to read a book. I suppose my attraction to the place had something to do with words engraved in marble. A feeling of permanence.

Those mornings I wasn’t the only one drawn to the park. Rested and ready, fresh out of nearby hotels, tourists hurried past beds of flowers in order to conquer the city.

The shining monument, in the shape of an erect, pointed obelisk, was so conspicuous that eager eyes couldn’t possibly miss it.

Legs inevitably turned. Feet halted by the solemn black plaque at the obelisk’s base. Selfie sticks rose. Satisfied poses were effected.

If I really wanted to hurt myself, I lowered my book and opened my mouth to play a simple game. “Do you know why that monument is there?” I asked.

Most couldn’t say.