One Word

As I stood on the corner of a busy intersection waiting for a green light, I noticed a man with a horrific beard sitting half-naked on the sidewalk. His fist gripped a magic marker and he was writing on a rectangle of cardboard.

From my distance I couldn’t read what the man had written. I did observe he was creating the large word GOD. He was broadening the lines of GOD with precise attention. Working carefully, very deliberately. Like a true artist.

Making GOD bold. Preparing for his daily appeal.

My eyes were drawn to the earthy arms, earthy legs, blackened feet in broken sandals.

As I waited for the light to cross, a clean-shaven man wearing khaki shorts came up to the writing man and stared down with a smile.

Just as the light turned, the man looking down burst out laughing.

“GOD!” he roared.

The Firefly

Cynthia and Mia loved being outdoors. Late in the evening, after dark, the two young sisters would stroll down to the end of their sleepy cul-de-sac, quietly talking, or singing, listening to the breeze in unseen oak leaves, gazing up at the ever-changing moon. Night was a place for dim lights and deeper feeling. In the darkness they’d steal aboard the slow backyard swing to float among infinite stars. Those beautiful nights were better than any dream.

“There it is again!” said Cynthia.

The firefly had returned. It seemed to show up every night an hour after sunset. The small light zigged and bobbed above the ghostly lawn. It disappeared behind the black shed. Suddenly it appeared right in front of the two sisters, who sat motionless on the swing.

“We should try catching it,” suggested Mia.

“Why?”

“We could bring it inside and use it for a night light.”

“That’s silly.”

“I’m serious!”

“You shouldn’t ever catch a firefly. You’ll be cursed.”

“Says who?”

“I don’t know.”

It remained a very great mystery–why there was always one firefly. Cynthia and Mia watched the small light flit here, there, here again, but always a shade beyond reach. Both young sisters understood that the small insect’s ballet was not arbitrary. Windblown, indecisive–but not without purpose.

The following night the two sisters walked down the cul-de-sac looking for bats. But it was getting too dark, almost a new moon.

After returning home, Mia couldn’t resist her heart’s desire. She darted into the kitchen through the screen door. A few minutes later she plunged into the darkness clutching an empty glass jar. She showed it to Cynthia on their swing. “I’m going to catch the firefly!”

“Why?”

“Because I want my own lightning in a bottle!”

“But a firefly is alive. If you catch it you’ll kill it.”

“No I won’t. I punched air holes in the lid.”

“The poor thing will starve.”

“Just this one night. I don’t want to hurt it. I’ll take it back outside and let it go free in the morning. I promise.”

“You’re silly.”

Mia unscrewed the jar’s lid and sat on the swing with her sister quietly waiting. They could barely see one another. A trillion bright stars whirled above. Somewhere in the night, a lonely cat yowled. An owl hooted. The firefly appeared like magic.

For a long while the two watched the dim light swing through the air like a falling star. With a bound Mia jumped up clutching her jar and raced beside the star.

The firefly darted away.

“Almost got it!” Mia laughed.

Cynthia laughed with her.

Mia chased and veered. A metal lid clapped on glass.

“I got it! I got it!” Mia shouted.

“Quiet! You’ll wake everyone up.”

“But look! I really caught it!

Mia crossed the gray grass and quietly came up to Cynthia with the dark jar in hand. “Look!”

Trapped at the bottom of the jar was a small, indistinct shape. The sisters put their noses to the glass to see better. The captured thing looked like nothing but a plain beetle.

“Are you sure that’s the firefly?” asked Cynthia.

“I’m pretty sure.”

“Well, there. You got your lightning in a bottle. I hope that makes you happy.”

Mia carried the jar into her bedroom. The firefly was in reality just a tiny, rather plain-looking beetle. It crawled awkwardly around the bottom of the confining glass jar, its chemical light off. Mia stared at the hobbling beetle for several minutes, then placed the jar on the corner of her nightstand. She switched off the bedroom light and lay on her back in bed. Her eyes were on the jar. The room was pitch black.

Mia waited. Her eyes focused on the exact spot where the jar should be. She anticipated, hoped, held her breath, waiting, waiting. She wished for a star. She yearned for a rising star. A star of her own. But why would anything happen? It was merely a dull beetle.

Out of the darkness a soft light appeared before her. It grew slowly brighter, slowly brighter, filling the room. The light intensified, enveloped her, blazed and shimmered, lifted her into a dazzling universe of infinite stars.

The alarm clock jolted her from the dream.

Sunlight streamed through the bedroom window. Mia sat up and looked at the jar on the nightstand. The beetle was dead.

Mia stared at the dead thing.

Somehow she stopped her flood of tears when she finally joined Cynthia for breakfast. Mother as usual was drunk and said nothing. The two young sisters headed out into the glaring daylight and trapped themselves in the school bus.

“I told you you’d kill it,” chided Cynthia.

The two sat motionless on their swing in the darkest of nights. A cold night with no moon and no firefly. They sat outside anyway. Alone in blackness was better than nothing.

“I told you,” insisted Cynthia, “but you wouldn’t listen. Why did you have to catch it? Why did you have to kill it? Now our one and only firefly is gone. There’s nothing left. You murdered it.”

“Stop it! Shut up!”

The two sat motionless on the swing, like twin dead planets in that cold, black night. They didn’t see the bright stars. They didn’t look up.

Cynthia broke the silence. “Now that the firefly is gone, what’s the point in sitting here? I’m starting to freeze. Let’s go back inside.”

“I don’t want to go inside,” protested Mia, thinking of their mother.

“But there’s no longer any reason to be here.”

“I don’t care.”

The sisters had nothing more to say. Each young girl had reached a dead end. Inside and outside, nothing was possible but the suffocating emptiness. There was no place left in the world for either to go.

Two hearts had died.

They sat like gravestones into the night.

A new moon night.

Suddenly, in that cold blackness, a ghost light appeared. A light flitted in space before the two sisters.

A firefly zigged and bobbed in front of astonished eyes.

Mia caught her breath. “Look! I don’t believe it! There’s another one!”

The tiny light had appeared from nowhere.

A new firefly bobbed and danced, twirled and weaved, like living magic suddenly risen from a well of utter blackness. Where it came from, neither girl understood. Where on Earth had it come from?

The firefly was a spark from an unseen fire, moving mysteriously, from silence to silence, from heart to heart.

Cynthia turned on the swing to face Mia. “That was wrong what I said. It was mean. I promise I will never hurt you again.”

“I’m sorry, too,” replied Mia. “I was wrong to kill it.”

Relief. Freedom.

The firefly danced. Simply, brightly, joyfully.

In two hearts, new life.

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.

A Brief Note

Even if nothing really matters–
and nothing endures–
and nothing counts.

Even when nobody cares–
and nobody knows–
and none remember.

Even when a thousand mouths snicker,
disbelieve, mock,
pummel with scorn.

Even at life’s end, twisted with regret,
thinking I might have–
could have–should have–

Even though a world becomes dust,
I did a few things
I felt were good.

The Silver of Ice

Leslie’s open eyes were vulnerable. With one mittened hand she tugged the wool cap down over her eyebrows. With the other she held up the scarf, to smother her nose.

The bitter New Year’s wind drained the heat of every living thing.

Leslie could feel her eyes freezing. It was a peculiar feeling. She blinked rapidly, trying to summon warm tears.

Fragments of ice torn from the frozen world blew past her eyes. She flinched. The flakes seemed white ash from a dead fire.

Leslie hurried down the sidewalk–as fast as she could without slipping. The convenience store was only two blocks away.

The entire town had vanished in colorless snow. Nobody in their right mind would venture outside in such inhuman cold. Just a Ford pickup equipped with a scraping snow plow, and a few creeping cars behind it.

With relief she exploded through the store’s door.

“Cold enough for you?” asked Freddie. He was sitting on a stool gazing out the frosted window.

“I’m out of cough syrup. Jack can’t stop coughing, so I have to hurry back. I’m so tired. They said on the news it’s almost a record. Thirty five below, or something.”

“Yeah, everything’s dead. The cold has stopped everything.”

“Happy New Year,” he added as she departed.

Leslie rushed back into the white world, determined to be home and out of the wind’s teeth.

She almost slipped on the sidewalk, but miraculously regained her balance. She crossed the empty street, avoiding hard slush. Someone was scraping thick ice off a windshield. She didn’t turn her head to see who.

Leslie ran as best as she could against the cold.

She could feel her eyes beginning to freeze.

The mailbox.

It was frozen shut. With an icy rock from the ground she broke ice off.

She pulled out a letter.

She stood in the piercing cold, and with clumsy mittened hands opened the envelope.

A New Year’s card.

She paused, looked for a long minute upon a scene of carefree skaters on a silver lake, lost in a forest of bright silver trees. They skated under silver stars, in a world that was shining like unearthly heaven. Around the lake hovered a few snowflakes–perfectly formed snowflakes like silver dreams.

It was so beautiful.

A flake of snow landed on the card, melted.

Leslie despaired that the beautiful card would be ruined. She quickly opened her jacket and put the silver next to her heart. Shivering deeply, she turned about, hurried for the door.

A Secret Junkyard

Pender glared at his marvelous invention. No matter how hard he hammered, the critical gear refused to turn.

Which meant the pendulum could never swing. And the pulley could never pull. And the mainspring could never spring.

And the crystal wings that projected from either side of his shining golden hummingbird would remain lifeless, eternally.

Pender’s invention lay motionless at the center of his desk.

He couldn’t bear to look at it.

Reaching across of his desk, Pender pressed several keys of an antique black typewriter. A fatal click sounded in his private study. A bookcase swung open.

Pender jumped up, roughly grabbed one crystal wing and whisked his failure across the small study. With one lunging step he carried it through the bookcase . . .

Behind Pender’s books stretched a junkyard. An immense junkyard–his infinite, private, painful secret. His manifold failures littered a bewildering expanse. Scattered to the right and to the left, his wrecks had been thrown carelessly into chaotic nonexistence. Pender felt bitter revulsion for that junkyard. So many marvelous inventions, each aborted.

Pender tossed the shining hummingbird over a few broken things and it landed in a lifeless heap. He turned, determined not to see.

So many aborted dreams.

Every one wonderful.

An elegant baby grand piano, attached with baling wire to the top of a diesel locomotive. But the train was too loud.

A fifty-foot mechanical clown powered by the sonic energy of human laughter. But nobody laughed.

A glass carriage containing one thousand red roses and an Egyptian mummy. But the smell was horrific.

A flying saucer built with toilet paper tubes, tinfoil, rubber bands, white multi-purpose glue and three jet engines. But the rubber bands inevitably broke.

A magnificent hot air balloon of sewn-together silk stockings. A few stockings had holes.

A gigantic pirate ship carved out of Swiss cheese. The rats fled.

An upside down triangular house. That had a tendency to tip over.

A contraption consisting of a warped lawn chair, a pair of skis, one rubber tire, a bicycle chain, a mannequin, a cuckoo clock, a stove pipe hat, goose feathers, profuse sweat and shed tears.

Pender’s brightening eyes lingered on the contraption.

It had so much potential.

Impulsively, Pender grabbed hold of his preposterous creation, lifted it with all of his strength and carried it out of the secret junkyard into his small study. He placed the thing on his desk. He tested the bicycle chain and straightened the stove pipe hat.

Pender touched several keys of his black typewriter, closing the bookcase.

He feverishly went to work.

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 rolling ball. The ball bumped off the patio and accelerated down the sloping lawn. The boy pursued it with eager 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!”