Light at the Edges

I stopped on a corner of Lake Street to watch Paul paint. His easel stood on the sidewalk facing the city’s skyline: his usual spot. We knew each other casually. I’d always say hello as I walked past him on my way home.

This time I watched quietly.

When he finally noticed me, I remarked: “I don’t know why I like your paintings so much. I could jump right into one. Your cities seem alive. I don’t know why–it’s almost like they have an inner life.”

He smiled. “I appreciate your compliment but it really isn’t that difficult. All you have to do is paint light at the edges. One bright streak of color–” With his small brush he touched the palette. He lifted the brush and applied a thin line of light to the hard edge of one building. Suddenly the building assumed depth, a spiritual feeling, vitality.

I stepped into the gray city. I turned down several streets and came to the building where I lived.

I buzzed myself into the old building, rode the elevator to the second floor and turned two corners of the drab corridor until I reached my door. I flipped the light on in my studio apartment and dropped a bag of groceries in the kitchenette. I stashed canned things away. I microwaved and ate something from a box. I stared at the news until I was sleepy.

As I did every night, perhaps to see if stars were visible somewhere above the city, I crossed to my window and raised the blinds. No stars. A window that faced me from directly across the building’s courtyard was curtained and dark. It was always dark.

I cracked open my window for some night air, closed my blinds, switched off the apartment light and crept into bed.

. . .

On my way home the following day I paused and stood silently once more behind Paul. He didn’t notice me as he painted.

I buzzed myself into the building.

As I stepped out of the elevator and into the second floor corridor I noticed a person at the door of one apartment, bending over and struggling to reach something near their feet. It was a very old person I didn’t recognize. They had dropped their keys on the floor.

“Let me help you,” I offered.

The little wrinkled person threatened me with cold eyes. “No!” They turned their back to me and stood frozen by their door waiting for me to leave.

The old person appeared frightened. They were probably alone. They certainly didn’t know me. I was another stranger in a city full of strangers.

I stood for a minute, uncertain what to say. Suddenly the old person dropped to their knees, grabbed the keys, struggled back up, fumbled to unlock their door and dashed inside.

The door slammed.

The door was shut to a place that none could reach.

Finally I shook myself and resumed down the corridor, turned two corners and unlocked my own small apartment.

I didn’t feel like watching the news. I swallowed my reheated dinner and flipped off my light. I crossed my tiny room and raised the blinds to look out into the night, hopelessly wishing that stars might be visible.

The window across the courtyard was dark.

I realized it was the curtained, always dark window of the very old person.

. . .

Heading home the next day I secretly watched Paul paint. I carried some bright color in my hand. Like a paintbrush.

I stopped at the door of the very old person and knocked. I placed a bouquet of yellow roses on the floor directly in front of the person’s door, with the note: From a Friend.

Before creeping into bed, I raised my blinds and found no stars. But there was a new light.

It shined dimly from the curtained window across the courtyard.

One Man’s Philosophy

“The problem with being thoughtful,” explained Burt, “is you quickly understand that most people aren’t. People don’t want to be philosophers. They simply want to feel good.

“People coming down the sidewalk are almost one hundred percent predictable. All they think about is their hair, the money they owe, winning the lottery, and what’s for dinner.”

Burt took a long drink from his paper bag.

“Have you ever wondered why people love dogs? Why do you think people identify with dogs? Oh, how wonderful it would be to lead a dog’s life. People actually want to be dogs.

“Look at them smiling.

“See that group of people coming our way? Pull one of them aside and ask their life’s purpose. I dare you to ask and hear what they say. You’ll get some feel good shit, a feel good God, mindless contradictions that cancel out to nothing. Then they flee.

“Cattle are more interesting.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because at least you can grill cattle.”

I looked down at Burt. His eyes were red and downcast. I began to really wonder if there was any hope. “When’s the last time you had something to eat?”

“Fifteen minutes ago. Some passing idiot gave me half his jelly doughnut.”

“Why do you think he did that?”

“Because I begged for it.”

“But you know he didn’t have to.”

“Yeah he did. Look at me.”

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 shopping 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 around in a circle to explore the dizzying mall with her eyes. Strings of Christmas lights blinked about the windows of every inviting store. Dozens of merry Santa Clauses with jolly plump faces stared out from signs, shopping bags and the dazzling window displays. Beyond one cascade of escalators, shoppers in a very 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 a 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 pant legs were outstretched on the ground. The two legs stuck out from behind a trashcan near the front door of a 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. His bare feet were black with dirt. An enormous white beard was splayed across his chest. Atop his nodding head was a Santa hat.

Shoppers hurried past him without noticing.

Mary stopped to look at Santa Claus.

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

A Dog’s Tail

Every Sunday afternoon a large dog accompanied an elderly woman to the park. The friendly dog would sprawl in some shade on the grass, sniffing the warm air or watching the birds flit from tree to tree, while the little old woman sat nearby on a bench. Sometimes I would peek over my book and secretly watch the two.

It was the dog’s tail that inevitably drew people. Swish, flop, swish, flop that ragged tail went, like a crazy outlandish spring. The unstoppable tail was a signal understood by everybody in the park to waltz on over.

Whenever a stranger came near, the tail would really start banging. Lying with its four legs stretched out, seeing the approach of a human smile, the dog would sometimes let loose with a joyful bark, but it never jumped up. When the stranger bent over to rub its belly, the tail moved so excitedly I thought it must defy the laws of physics.

The stranger, after a few more rubs, would glance up at the silent old woman. Her eyes were always down upon the dog. “A very big animal, isn’t it?” the stranger would ask. An almost imperceptible nod for reply.

The stranger would then turn and walk away.

Then the dog would rise beside the old woman. She would place a wrinkled hand atop the dog’s head and the tail would gradually slow.

When a small group of children came up to the dog one early afternoon they didn’t even look at the old woman. They were too enchanted. The dog’s tail thumped madly. Every young hand sought its soft, warm coat, accelerating the tail. Every hand transmitted love. The dog soaked it all up. Like a furry, vibrating battery. The old woman remained motionless.

The old woman never spoke. But I do know one thing about her. When strangers walked away, the dog rose. And her hand always sought the dog’s head.

And as the tail moved slower, slower, slower, the large dog would stare directly into her eyes.

It seemed to me that a strange, undefinable energy passed up her thin arm.

But I never saw her face.

An Unexpected Sunflower

Lucy was surprised to see that an unexpected sunflower had sprouted in a corner of her backyard. Where it came from, she didn’t know. Every day she carefully watered the plant. It quickly grew.

When the bud opened the bloom was just glorious. Large, yellow and beautiful, like a cheerful sun in a small green world.

Gazing at the sunflower, Lucy felt that life was indeed good.

Every person on Earth, she thought, deserved the feeling that life is good. Why not? Suddenly she had an absurd impulse: to give that one magical flower to the entire world.

Every person should see it. Smell it. Touch it.

At last Lucy settled on her best idea. She’d give the sunflower to a friend, who would then pass the flower to another friend, who’d pass it to another friend… And so on.

Seven billion people on an impossibly big planet wouldn’t see her flower, but a few would. That’s the best she could do.

Several days later she carefully harvested the sunflower and placed it in a tall vase. She brought the flower across town and gave it to her Uncle Carl, who was under blankets with a bad case of the flu. A note was tied to the sunflower’s stem: Once this small bit of sunshine has been enjoyed, please give to a friend.

“Thank you,” he said, sincerely.

The next day Uncle Carl was visited by Alfonso, one of his war buddies. “Now you have to give this to one of your friends,” he said. “And add a little water.”

The sunflower descended like a beam of golden sunshine when Alfonso handed it to his daughter, Maria. She rose from her dining room chair, stunned. “That’s for me?” she asked, with absolute disbelief. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” he smiled. “You’re my friend, right? But read the note. You now have to give it to someone that you think is special.”

Maria gave the flower to William.

William gave the flower to Jerry.

Jerry gave the flower to Daniella.

Before class, Daniella handed the sunflower to her Geometry teacher. Mr. Harrow didn’t know how to react. “Read the note,” she explained.

“But the flower is drying out,” he said. “It won’t last much longer.”

“You’re the best math teacher I ever had. So take it.”

Mr. Harrow took the vase containing the sunflower home. He read the note attached to the stem: Once this small bit of sunshine has been enjoyed, please give to a friend. He wondered who the blue vase belonged to. He placed the vase by the television and thought of his late wife.

Next morning the flower had entirely wilted. The crumpled petals had lost their brilliant color and several had fallen off.

Mr. Harrow removed the note from the stem and put it in a drawer. He carried the vase out to his compost pile, and quickly tossed the flower onto the heap. The vase he carefully cleaned and placed in a corner of his quiet house.

The following spring Mr. Harrow took a slow stroll through the backyard on a gloomy, gray day. As he came around the garage he was taken by complete surprise. Two sunflowers were rising from the dead compost.

The small miracle caused Mr. Harrow to wipe away a few tears.

Perhaps, he thought, being a teacher of math wasn’t such a useless thing. Because he appreciated the revealed meaning of the sunflowers. And it was: simple multiplication can quickly encompass the world.

If seeds were carefully harvested from a dying bloom–and just two seeds sprouted–one sunflower might become two. Then, repeated, two sunflowers might become four. Four sunflowers might become eight. Eight sunflowers might become sixteen. And in 33 generations–33 years–one seed might produce well over seven billion sunflowers. Enough sunflowers for everybody. Everybody in the world.

Mr. Harrow found the old note in the back of the drawer. It still read: Once this small bit of sunshine has been enjoyed, please give to a friend. He then added in his own writing: When the bloom finally fades, harvest the seeds and grow more sunflowers. He made two photocopies of the note, one for each of his miracle sunflowers.

In math, even the smallest fraction contains world-changing power.  One in seven billion seems like nothing, until it is turned upside down.

. . .

Lucy lay in a dark hospital.

The memory of her miracle garden had long vanished.  She had become very old.

Judy, her granddaughter, came to visit one late Thursday afternoon. She was holding a surprise behind her back. She presented a sunflower, like sunshine, in a tall, new vase.

“Can you believe it? Out of the blue my best friend gave me this! Isn’t it amazing? And it has a strange note. I’m supposed to give this flower to someone I love. I would like you to have this.”

Attached to the stem of the sunflower was a small photocopied note. The first half of the handwriting Lucy recognized. It was her own.

This short story originally appeared here!