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.

The Recovered Artifact

Do you remember those storms we had fifteen or twenty years ago? When dozens of houses were destroyed by mudslides? And the highway south of town was closed for a week?

I still remember how, exhausted from shoveling the mud on our driveway, I collapsed and sat on a slimy spot of curb gazing down the street. Several houses near the dead end were buried.

After a weeks of pouring rain the mud flows had become unstoppable. It seemed the hills around our neighborhood had been whipped by a gigantic blender and the earth reduced to brown rivers. I realize people overuse the word surreal, but the world I saw was surreal. The familiar street had been smothered by a relentless plain of mud. Ruthless mud that was primordial. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

As my tired eyes searched for the vanished street, or anything that might be recognizable, I wondered if our neighborhood could ever return to normal. That’s when I noticed a small object lying on the mud several feet from where I sat. I got up. I trudged over to pick the thing up.

It was a cast iron horse, about two inches in length.

Imagine my surprise.

I stared into my hand at the unexpected thing.

Buried in the hills of our neighborhood are centuries of history. From time to time bits of that history surface: an arrowhead, a shard of broken pottery, a disintegrating coin.

I wondered if this was an artifact from an age long past unburied by the rains and revealed again to living eyes. I turned the tiny cast iron horse over in my hand, removing the mud, and examined it closely. It was a very simple thing. Neither the head nor mane showed much detail. The legs were galloping. It had probably been a plaything of a child.

The more I stared at this mysterious artifact, and the more I wondered where it might have originated, the more primitive it appeared.

Archaeology has always fascinated me. To such an extent that I’ve taken several college courses.

I’ve seen galloping horses on the coins of Carthage and Ancient Corinth. I’ve seen the Bronze Running Horse from a 2nd century tomb in China. I have marveled at those friezes of Greek horses charging into battle with arching heads and curling manes, or taking flight on Pegasus wings. To my mind, this small horse appeared even more ancient. It seemed to have flown from a stone age cave painting directly into my hand.

The simple shape of the cast iron horse was timeless. The bounding figure possessed a carefree quality that spoke of unbreakable freedom. In that small thing I saw a symbol of life’s adamant tenacity. It was a thing that devouring forces could not destroy.

As I stood in the mud admiring a mysterious artifact that had emerged from the Earth, I became aware someone was standing near me.

“You found my horsey!” a child suddenly cried, hurrying forward, hands outstretched.

A Song for Old Warriors

The old men sat under a canopy before the marble monument. They had fought in World War II. Many were in wheelchairs. All would soon die.

The warriors struggled to stand up for the advancement of the color guard, and they remained standing for the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer. They quietly retook their seats.

A retired general approached the podium and spoke about the nightmare war long ago and those who fought. He recalled how a multitude of ordinary citizens–janitors, farmers, factory workers–had come together to defend high ideals. The heads of the very old men did not move.

A singer was then introduced. She was a little girl, just seven years old. She wore a vest of silvery sequins. Her face was made up with red lipstick. Microphone in hand, the very young girl glided confidently onto the stage and raised two pale arms. With a booming voice she began God Bless America while her grinning father circled with a video camera, recording his starlet.

As she sang the tiny girl stepped down from the stage and sashayed with her microphone up to the inscrutable faces of the old men. Her own face beamed with affection, and her hands formed exaggerated gestures as she directly addressed each gray head. The performance seemed an act learned by a child from television. The bold familiarity, perhaps tolerable in an adult, was unsettling from a seven-year-old girl.

The girl’s voice climbed until it wavered. Her high voice strained to exploit every syllable of the song. It sought to imbue every word with an infinity of feeling. The child floated in front of the very old men with her twinkling eyes, and she smiled with absolute sincerity.

The heads of the warriors did not move.

As I observed this strange performance from the back row, I was struck by the eyes of the precocious little girl. Her eyes were so bright.

Then I understood.

The performance came from a little girl’s heart. She was a budding life. Her ambition was to shine. Her hope was to shine a bright light upon those who listened.

Before her sat warriors who had fought against darkness, and who would soon return to the inescapable darkness.

The song reached a resounding crescendo. The very young girl raised her hands theatrically, palms upward.

“. . . my home sweet home.”

Some of the old men struggled to their feet for a standing ovation. Some sat and wept.

Unheard Words

The streetcar came out of its barn every Sunday. Like a relic from an era long forgotten, it ding-ding-rattled down the center of Transverse Street near City Park. The restored streetcar lurched, jerked, impeded impatient cars as it moved through the shadows of high modern towers. It halted long and inconveniently. Few people rode it.

A traveling businessman who needed to be at the convention center in no more than twenty minutes stepped aboard.

The streetcar driver was waving his arms while he waited for the traffic light to turn. He was engaged in a conversation.

“Who’re you talking to?” asked the anxious businessman, sitting down in one of the empty seats near the driver.

“That’s Edmund,” explained the driver.

“What?”

“That’s Edmund. He used to manage a cannery north of the pier where the aquarium is these days, but that was well over a century ago,” explained the driver, smiling up at the businessman’s reflection in the rear view mirror.

“What are you talking about? I don’t see anybody.”

“That’s because Edmund has been dead for over a hundred years. He likes to ride through the city and remember those old days. He tells me stories that everyone else has forgotten.”

The businessman stared at the back of the driver’s head. “Are you crazy?”

“No, I’m not. What’s that? Edith says I’m crazy. No, Edith, everyone in the car thinks the only crazy one here is you.”

The businessman rapidly turned about and observed rows of narrow, empty seats. He wondered if the ramblings of this apparently deranged driver would make him late. He looked out an antique green-tinted window at rush hour traffic and people hurrying down the sidewalk and decided it would be smart to remain quiet.

The traffic light finally changed. The driver started the streetcar with a sudden jerk. Waving his arms, he resumed his former conversation.

“You’re right, Edmund. It’s exactly like those old days leading up to the war. Everyone getting ready for the future. People coming and going, worrying how to survive should the worst happen. Nothing ever seems to change. He’s probably going somewhere important. No, I’m sure the man thinks his trip is very important. Can’t you tell by the way he’s dressed? There’s no point saying that. He can’t see or hear you, Edmund–you know perfectly well that you’re nothing but a sad, used-up ghost. So why do you keep trying to talk to the living? What’s that Stanley? What did you say?”

The streetcar driver looked up at his rear view mirror and addressed the increasingly annoyed businessman: “Stanley sees you live in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Which is an amazing coincidence. That’s where his grandchildren live.”

The businessman jerked his head back, startled. “What the hell? Who told you that?”┬áHis intense aggravation with the driver turned to angry suspicion.

“Stanley was born in Brookfield many years ago,” explained the smiling driver. “He was raised there, in a farmhouse a few miles from Al Capone’s distillery. Then he moved here to the city and died from a series of strokes two years later. He has an important message for you. He wants you to inform his grandchildren who still live in Brookfield that he loves them.”

The streetcar bell dinged as it pulled into a station. The doors flapped open. The businessman bolted from his seat and fled. Not a living soul boarded.

The driver pulled a handle to shut the door. He started the slow streetcar again with another jerk.

“No, Stanley, that man is gone. All of this talking scared him away. I’m sorry. You know I have no control over the actions of people. No, I can’t go after him–who would drive? You say you would? A ghost? Someone with two hands has to drive!

“I realize you tried your best but you couldn’t reach him. I’m really sorry. You love your grandchildren. You love them with all your heart. You want Seth and Marge to know you still think of them. You want them to know you still love them.

“Eventually somebody else who still lives in your small town will take a ride with us. Be patient. Somebody will.”

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 dead 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.

The Star Maker

I saw a strange thing lying among litter on the sidewalk. It was a three-dimensional star, about five inches tall, made of white paper. I picked it up, examined it.

The origami star was composed of many sheets of lined notepaper, folded perfectly together by a patient hand. Sprinkled upon the star were jumbled words and phrases from torn pages.

I took the origami star up to my office on the twenty sixth floor. I looked down through my window at the tiny sidewalk where I found the fallen star. Far below people flowed in a thin trickle.

I hung the paper star on a bare spot above my desk.

Nearly every day I looked up at it.

Over many days, weeks, months that perfect origami star composed of jumbled words and perfect folds took on for me special significance. It seemed to represent my own bewildering life. Many pages, one after another, removed by time, but carefully retained. It was a hopeful reminder that with effort, precision and devotion a miracle could be folded together. A star might coalesce and take form.

When I gazed at that strange star, the essence of my own dreams seemed to shine forth.

One day I rode home on the train, thinking about a troubling day at work. As the train halted at a station, I gazed out the window and saw a destitute man sitting on a bench wrapped in a dirty blanket. His head was bowed.

He was concentrating very hard, folding an origami star.