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.

An Encounter With Santa Claus

The wait at the outdoor mall’s coffee kiosk was unusually long. Mary’s mother looked up from her phone. “Don’t unwrap your cookie until we get home. I don’t want crumbs all over my new car. You remember what happened when you spilled that sticky soda last weekend? I really don’t think I could stand another headache.”

Mary said nothing. As she stood beside her mother, she quietly watched thousands of Christmas shoppers hurry into and out of stores, into and out of elevators, up and down escalators.

An army of people hustled wrapped presents to and fro. Everybody was in a terrible rush.

Mary turned in a circle to explore the dizzying mall with her eyes. Strings of Christmas lights blinked around the windows of every inviting store. Dozens of merry Santa Clauses with jolly plump faces stared out from signs, shopping bags, bright window displays. Several stores down from the kiosk, shoppers in a long, twisting line waited in the food court to have their pictures taken with Santa Claus. ‘Tis the Season a nearby banner proclaimed in big letters.

“Didn’t you hear me? Let’s get going!” her mother said.

The two stepped into the river of shoppers. It was a torrent of urgency that felt irresistible. Mary marveled at the unending lights and the press of Humanity.

Mary continued to search about.

Two dirty pant legs were outstretched on concrete. The two legs stuck out from behind a trashcan near the front door of one very busy store.

Mary and her mother neared the trashcan. A man was collapsed behind it, his back leaning against a wall. The man was asleep.

The man was fat and wore very dirty clothing. His stomach bulged out from under his torn shirt like a bowl full of jelly. His bare feet were black with dirt, and an enormous white beard was splayed across his chest. Atop his nodding head was a Santa hat.

Shoppers hurried past him.

Mary stopped to look at him.

She bent to place her wrapped cookie by his feet, then hurried to catch up with her mother.

Returning the Ball

“Try one more time! I know you can catch it!”

Randy’s father tossed the ball a bit too high. The ball sailed through the sun and bounced off a rusting patio chair.

“I got it!” Randy shouted.

The four-year-old boy scampered after the slowly rolling ball. The ball bumped off the patio and accelerated down the sloping lawn. The boy pursued it with small legs.

The ball wouldn’t slow down.

It zipped past the startled cat.

It rolled past the spot where Randy was destined to celebrate his fifth birthday on freshly mown grass with laughing friends.

The ball rolled down the steep hill, past the grassy spot where Randy would one day rescue a hummingbird. And learn to fly a kite.

The ball rolled past the sprinkler head that would break his leg.

The ball kept going. Randy chased after it.

It rolled past the pepper tree where he and his father would build a treehouse. But that was still a few years off.

The ball rolled down the green slope, past the sun-facing garden where he would be taught by his mother to plant cherry tomatoes, green beans and sunflowers.

The boy ran at full speed.

The ball rolled past the garden bench where, sitting quietly one day, it would dawn on Randy that he would grow old.

The ball rolled past a year and another year.

The ball rolled through the grassy spot where he would lie on his back looking up at the clouds, dreaming about winning an Olympic gold medal.

The ball rolled past the tire swing where he would dangle reading a favorite book.

The ball rolled past the dirt patch where his father would ask why he ditched class.

The ball rolled past the old stump where he would sit very close to a girl.

The ball rolled and rolled and rolled all the way down to the fence next to the busy street, where his parents would stand waving as he drove off to college.

“I got it!”

With a shout, Randy was sprinting back up the long hill with all of his might, his small legs flying. He smiled up at his father. “I got it, Daddy!”

Life Made Easier

Book burning didn’t destroy every book.

Voice recognition did.

Printed words vanished.

The only beings that processed code were the polite, speaking machines.

People still spoke, of course. And viewed pictures. But the pictures were always in kaleidescope motion. Exact words were unnecessary.

Spelling was forgotten. Grammar was forgotten. Structured truth was forgotten. That made life easier.

. . .

Tracy took a wrong turn because a machine had catastrophically failed. Walking a great distance was strange enough, but now she was walking where no flesh-and-blood legs walked. The city’s Forgotten Zone.

Even the machines disregarded this place, she observed. She slowly turned her head, looking about. The deserted streets were lined with broken windows, broken doors.

Above one broken window hung a broken sign. The remaining word: LIFE.

What’s that for? Tracy wondered, staring at the old sign with blinking eyes.

. . .

Fortunately, a functioning machine soon located Tracy and retrieved her, returning her to her proper place.

“Thanks,” was spoken.

“You’re welcome,” replied the polite machine.

Elvis and the Time Machine

You’ve probably seen Elvis–with that ridiculous hair, upturned collar and sequined jumpsuit–riding his Time Machine up and down Main Street every single day. I’m not sure where in town the guy lives. But he’s out there riding the Time Machine up and down the street and, I’m positive, savoring every minute of it.

Everyone laughs. Many shake their head. That absurd Time Machine is impossible to miss.

Bright silver-painted cardboard panels envelope the rickety little bicycle. It’s like the rocket ship dream of a child–with fins, and a whirling red police light mounted behind the bicycle seat, and flying streamers on the handlebars, and a galaxy of painted stars, and spelled out on the cardboard on both sides in big glittery letters: TIME MACHINE.

Veering with abandon, good old Elvis steers his Time Machine up and down Main Street all the live-long day. Pedaling forward, moving through time.

First Street.

The traffic light turns green.

Second Street.

The church clock strikes the quarter hour.

Third Street.

The sun moves higher above the horizon.

Fourth Street.

A woman opens the window shades, breathes in and gazes across the land.

Fifth Street.

Secret lovers behind the gas station kiss and part.

Fourth Street.

A boy forgets his school books and sprints back home.

Third Street.

A man remembers how his uncle burned the casserole the night before and laughs.

Second Street.

A wrinkled hand wipes away sudden tears.

First Street.

A nearby dog barks.

Second Street.

A rocking chair rocks.

Forward through time Elvis travels, his preposterous Time Machine shining brightly like a shooting star.

Back and forth, up and down Main Street he pedals.

A Short Bloom

The old man was puzzled by so many selfies.

“Why? Because people want to see themselves in Heaven,” explained the gardener. He held a rake loosely in one hand. The park was crowded.

“That is why eyes look into cameras, into lenses. For one moment in spring the cherry blossoms bloom, so everybody smiles, frames their own face.

“They would like to appear in Heaven. But few understand the nature of what they see.

“Blossoms soon fall. Blooms are crushed under feet.

“With a button every person will make a painting of Heaven. Perfect white and pink clouds, angel faces, snowflakes fluttering in this unending wind.

“But snow melts into the thirsty Earth. Delicate blossoms are tread to dust by a thousand searching feet. All things return to the Earth. This good Earth.

“Paintings are put into vaults. And we become old.”

Final Real Magic

The Great Sampson was a magician without peer. Five thousand shows in a hundred grimy towns and he never complained. The stiffs working the carnival regarded him with a mixture of wonder and derision.

“And now,” the Great Sampson waved, “my final act!”

A few people in the dingy, striped tent regarded the theatrical old man. They were thinking about home. In a few minutes night would fall. Other sideshow tents were already being hastily dismantled, folded up. The Great Sampson, in his shiny top hat, had picked up a thin book covered with gold lettering and had shakily climbed into an open black box that resembled a coffin.

He ran his fingers through an ebony beard, which he had obviously curled and dyed. He opened the book as he faced the audience: several bored adults and one boy.

“Until this very moment,” he announced grandly, “no magician in the entire history of the world has performed magic. Illusion and deception have been substituted for magic, and millions of believers have been told by deceitful entertainers that they are witnessing the effects of true supernatural power. You, my good friends, will be the first to ever witness real magic. You will remember this day for the remainder of your lives. So pay very close attention. Don’t blink!”

The Great Sampson took a deep breath. He visibly trembled. “And now, after years of struggle, after years of false starts and dead ends, after years and years of searching, my life’s greatest and only worthwhile achievement! Good bye!”

He held up the strange shining book and read: “Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum!”

The Great Sampson vanished.

The carnival sideshow audience, like any audience, stood with jaded expectation on the crushed dirt floor.

Nothing happened.

The people waited patiently for a minute, then two.

Nothing happened.

A man in back finally slipped out of the dark tent.

Nothing happened.

A couple near the black box shrugged, laughed and left.

Nothing happened.

Everyone left.

Everyone forsook the lone, silent black box except the boy. In that shadow of doubt he didn’t dare move.

Something terrible–something extraordinary had happened. The boy could sense it. A shivering fear and thrill fixed his feet in place.

Summoning courage, he inched forward, leaned slowly over, and peered into the box.

Skittering nervously at its bottom, a gray mouse was frantically trying to escape.

The boy’s heart pounded. His mind raced.

He jumped.

“Show’s over,” boomed a voice behind him. A carnival worker’s face was poking into the dark tent with a glare of impatience. “Time to go home kid.”

“But what about the Great Sampson?” the boy protested.

“What about who?”

The boy was indignant. “The Great Sampson is gone!”

“You need to be gone, too! Now get the hell out of here or someone might call the cops.” The worker shot him a exasperated look and left.

The boy hesitated. Nothing that had just happened–the magician’s strange speech–that split second when the magician had vanished–none of it seemed real. He remained alone in the tent, looking down at the small helpless mouse. He had to decide. Quickly. He reached into the black box and took the mouse gently into his hand and slipped out of the tent into the twilight. The carnival was over. Indistinct lumps of canvas littered the ground.

The soft mouse in his hand had calmed down. The boy saw a man heaving plastic garbage bags onto a flatbed truck and hurried over.

“I think I know what happened to the Great Sampson!”

“What happened? What are you talking about?”

“The Great Sampson disappeared about ten minutes ago! He was doing his last magic show and I think he actually turned into a mouse. He said it was his final act! He said he would finally do real magic!”

“Get the fuck out of here. You’re crazy.” ┬áThe man turned back to the garbage.

As the boy walked rapidly home, he stared frequently through his fingers at the mouse. It seemed to be an ordinary gray mouse.

He slowed at the grassy park several blocks from his home, and he sat down on the bench in the lamp’s soft light. He opened his hand just enough to closely examine the mouse. It seemed so ordinary. “Can you hear me?” the boy quietly asked.

The nervous mouse looked about, seemingly at nothing.

“If you can hear me, let me know. Do something. Nod your head.”

The mouse’s head quivered. It looked up at the boy.

“I don’t know what to do. Are you really the Great Sampson? Can you turn back? Are you going to turn back?”

No answer. None was possible.

“If that was really your final act–” The boy looked at the mouse feeling puzzled, hopeless. “Why did you do it?

“So you wanted to do real magic? Why? To become something different?”

He leaned sideways to pull an object from his back pocket. It was the thin book with gold lettering. It had also remained at the bottom of the box.

The book appeared to be a journal. It was the type of cheap mass-produced journal that anybody can buy for a couple dollars at a store. The boy read the fancy gold letters. They formed the words: Follow Your Dreams.

. . .

Sitting on the bed in his room, still holding the mouse in one hand, the boy opened the thin journal. Its few pages were handwritten beautifully in black ink, clearly and elegantly. Page after page after page, with an occasional word or sentence neatly crossed out. Page after page. It seemed to be the life’s work of one person.

With one hand he clumsily turned the pages until he reached the last, where his eyes froze on the final words: Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum. Those had been the final words spoken by the Great Sampson. The fatal incantation. The final words.

Were they really magic?

He mouthed a few of the dangerous words inaudibly, a shiver crawling up his back, then stopped.

He jumped.

A very loud knock on his bedroom door.

“What are you doing” demanded his mother. “I called you for dinner five minutes ago!”

“Just a second.”

“I’m running out of patience–you come out of there now!” His mother burst into the room. “What on earth have you been doing?”

“Nothing.” He turned and quickly placed the mouse in a drawer by his bed.

“Well, come on. You know how your father doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

Reluctantly, the boy stepped out of his room and headed for the stairs. Turning back, he saw his mother enter his room.

. . .

The mouse was gone.

Whether his mother had found it, or the mouse had escaped, the boy couldn’t know. It didn’t matter.

He lay on his bed, almost in tears. He didn’t know why.

Of course, it all was plain silly. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as real magic. The Great Sampson was gone, that was the only thing that mattered. The Great Sampson had performed his final act. And nobody really cares about an act. Everything in life is an act.

The boy picked up the thin book with glittery lettering.

He didn’t dare open it.

He placed it on his bookshelf, among other wise books he would probably never read.

Perhaps he’d read it one day.