Perfection

My work friend Manny is a church organist. He’s very religious. I don’t mind his frequent observations concerning human fallibility, because he’s human, too. I listen to him with a smile.

When Manny told me he’d be playing classical music at the church that Wednesday evening, I promised to go. And I mentioned it to my wife Barbara. But she dislikes zealots.

“It won’t be religious. It’s the music of Bach and Chopin and Liszt and the stuff you like. And he’s actually very good. He’s played with the symphony. If you want to go, we can sit in back and leave whenever you’d like,” I offered. “You won’t have to talk to Manny.”

I was surprised when she tagged along.

Manny is an excellent organist because he’s a devoted, one hundred percent perfectionist. It has something to do with his religion. I know that as a coworker he can be very annoying. He becomes upset if a meeting or sales pitch doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

There was a decent crowd in the pews. Barbara and I sat near the back. We listened to a complicated piece by Bach and the music was indeed perfect and beautiful. Manny’s playing was superb.

In the middle of the program I glanced over at my wife and she appeared to be relishing the concert, too.

The notes of one timeless piece seemed like poetry–so fragile, so ascendant, so full of yearning. They felt like whispers from the depths of my own soul. I found it hard to believe they emerged from a church’s pipe organ. The divine feeling was stirred to life by the fingers of Manny. His playing appeared effortless.

When I glanced at Barbara again, tears were on her cheek. I had never seen her cry in public. She saw me and covered her eyes with a hand.

The next day, at work, I told Manny his organ concert was absolutely amazing.

“No it wasn’t,” he snapped. He stared back in a critical way. “I was off my game. I don’t know what was wrong.”

“I thought it sounded great.”

“Are you joking? That was probably one of my worst performances ever.”

“I saw someone crying when you played Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster, Opus 54, No. 6.”

“I’d cry, too, if I listened to my garbage.”

Apology for a Nightmare

Grace had a nightmare.

Her nightmare was bizarre, chaotic, irrational, unaccountable, and she did terrible things. Including something to Katherine.

That morning Grace apologized to Katherine.

Katherine was confused. “You’re sorry for what?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Is it something you did?”

“No.”

“But if it’s something you didn’t do, why are you standing there apologizing to me?” Katherine asked, beginning to feel amused.

“I have a very good reason.”

“Which is?”

“It’s something you’ll never know.”

“Now you’re just being Grace.”

“I must be Grace.”

Breaking Bread

A shoe kicked at a pigeon. The bird moved away as it pecked at the sidewalk.

“Sally would insist that’s Julius Caesar or Cleopatra,” mocked James, standing under the awning at lunchtime.

“Napoleon,” Liz suggested.

Sally, the office manager, actually believed in reincarnation. She was obsessed with the concept and spoke about it constantly as if she were an authority. Which was ridiculous. She asserted hamsters, lizards, cockroaches, even slugs might have once been human souls.

“You know, that could be a Greek philsopher,” James laughed, kicking harder at the bird. It spooked momentarily then resumed its circular walk. The pigeon’s tiny eyes looked right, left, down at the sidewalk, left, right, up at the two, back down. Its ridiculous head never stopped pumping. “Didn’t the great Plato call us featherless bipeds?”

Liz laughed. She nibbled at her bagel.

The bird did walk like an ordinary person. It strutted purposefully forward, one leg following another. It’s two eyes never stopped searching the small space in front of them.

The pigeon was simply going about its daily business, looking for crumbs, guided by animal instinct. Propelled by hunger.

The little bird was the embodiment of persistence.

A broken feather in one wing dangled as it walked.

Just a pigeon. Perhaps more ruffled than most.

“Poor thing.” Liz tore off a chunk of her bagel and tossed it onto the sidewalk.

The pigeon batted its gift about, the way all pigeons do.

The Teddy Bear

As the meeting broke up, Reggie and I stood by the conference room window, gazing down at the city.

Many stories below it was a typical weekday. Cars pushed down the avenue. People hurried to and fro along the sidewalk, scurried into and out of buildings.

“There he is again,” I remarked, pointing straight down. Moving past our front door was a homeless man.

At one time or another everybody in the office had encountered this homeless person. Every day the man shuffled along in front of our building, wearing the same shredded clothing, face lost in caveman hair. But today he carried an enormous teddy bear.

“He must’ve won it at the county fair last summer,” joked Reggie.

“Leave him alone,” Beverly chided, having gathered her laptop and folders. “You don’t know his story. He obviously has a mental condition.” She hurried out of the conference room.

“Obviously,” Reggie said to me and laughed. “Remember that woman who looked like a corpse who used to hang out at the bus stop screaming and shouting? Now that was one loony tune. I wonder what happened to her. Probably overdosed.

“Oh, check this out,” he continued enthusiastically. “A couple days ago I saw a guy steal a ladder. I was in line at the bank looking out the window when I saw some homeless guy grab a ladder leaning up against a building. Then he starts running off with it. Then here comes a security guard running after him!”

I laughed.

During lunch hour I had to go to the bank myself.

After dumping cold coffee I rode the elevator down to the lobby and stepped out onto the busy street.

With less than an hour I had to hurry. I had to walk five blocks to the bank, wait forever in line then return in time for the next meeting.

It appeared everyone else in the city had urgent business, too. People on a mission flooded down the concrete channels, careful not to collide.

They streamed smoothly along, like ball bearings that were magnetized, each repelling.

Thousands of paths intersected but seldom touched.

I crossed Fourth Avenue and turned a corner. And there he was half a block away, shuffling very slowly toward me. The homeless man. Carrying that enormous teddy bear.

The man was shambling along as if he were aimless and had no place to go. His face was hidden in hair. His two bare arms closely hugged the bear. With unseen eyes he seemed to stare straight ahead through every person that passed by.

I regarded the huge teddy bear and all of a sudden imagined the homeless man as a small child. In my mind I removed his beard, clipped his hair, erased grime and the cruelty of Time to picture him–try to imagine him as a very young child. And I wondered if, once upon a time, he’d been happy.

How could a child know he’d spend years of his life on the cold street?

As I drew near the man, a disturbing truth became evident. Contrasted with his very dirty arms and ruined clothes, the large teddy bear was clean and new. Where had he grabbed it?

The bear certainly didn’t belong to him. I wondered if there was a child somewhere in the city that was heartbroken.

The homeless man was in front of me. Pretending I didn’t see him, I veered to one side.

He blocked me.

“I found this on the street,” he said clearly, presenting me with the teddy bear. “Is it yours?”

The Parade

Boom forward, boom forward, trumpet forward, step.
Flags forward, baton forward, marching forward, step.
Dancing forward, smiles forward, twirling forward, step.
Cheering forward, waving forward, banners forward, step.
Legs forward, face forward, step forward, stop.

Boom forward, drums forward, trumpets forward, step.
Singing forward, pom-poms forward, dancing forward, step.
Clowns forward, floats forward, trombones forward, step.
Always forward, smiling forward, banners forward, step.
Surging, surging, ever forward, stop.

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 Good of People

Midnight passed.

I found myself beneath the city, riding home on the subway with the homeless, the aimless, the guilty, the silent. Beyond the windows rushed darkness. Cold light filled the car. Eyes avoided eyes.

Secretly, without betraying my curiosity, I studied the late night passengers who rode with me.

Several feet away in a wheelchair sat an extremely old man. He wore a tattered bathrobe. His head had fallen to his chest. He was tipping forward. I thought he might spill onto the floor at any moment.

Across from the old man, two riders sat with lowered eyes.

One had long peroxide hair, blue fingernails, hollow eyes and gaunt cheeks–a prostitute. She appeared to be twenty going on fifty. Hands trembling. A meth addict.

The other was a man whose hardened face and shaved head were covered with crude tattoos. Etched in prison, I surmised.

I was careful that neither noticed me.

The prostitute wore a tiny skirt and heavy winter jacket. Both of her legs were scarred. I wondered how she received those scars and how she might have smiled when she began down her path. Through what turns had she come to be seated there? Did she ever think about her future?

The man with the tattoos wore an angry expression that seemed permanent. I tried to imagine the crimes he might have committed. His mask of tattoos contained a clown, a skull and a gun, and painful words that would never be erased.

I lifted my gaze a fraction to observe others who rode after midnight. I found more of the same: eyes aimed nowhere.

Where were these people going? To what end did their lives lead?

As I looked on critically, I realized these late night riders of the subway were no different than anyone else. Moving through time hoping to find a place where they might be whole.

These lives had been reduced to futile existence. Drifting through a black tunnel unseen. Riding forward, station after station after station after station, never arriving.

How many in this world ride with no destination? I wondered.

What is the good of people?

The old man drooping in the wheelchair suddenly toppled onto the floor.

Two passengers jumped up.

The young prostitute leaned over and reached toward the old man with her trembling hand.

“Are you okay, bro?” asked the man with the tattoos, as he helped the old man back up into the wheelchair.

I did nothing.

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.

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.

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.