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.

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.

EvenĀ 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 Pistachio Rocket

High arches shaped like human bones had been erected in the city plaza. According to a sign it was a temporary installation. At night hundreds of suspended lights illuminated the space beneath the bones. The effect was fantastic. The bones vanished and the colored lights became a galaxy of stars.

During lunchtime many in the plaza paused to read the sign. It included the word: Earthbound. Finding the proper entrance, people proceeded to pass through unelectrified bones. When they exited they walked on as though nothing had happened.

I watched people move through the bones from a bench as I gobbled my sandwich.

People walked steadily through. I’m not sure what they expected to see.

A tiny girl with an ice cream cone came flying across the plaza. She darted straight into the bones. She sprinted wildly to the opposite end, twirled around, ran back out into the open. She jumped up and down excitedly, laughed, yammered something I didn’t understand, then dashed once again into the bones. Stopping halfway through, she began leaping up and down with abandon, swinging her arms with glee, sending the pistachio ice cream on her cone up through the air like a green rocket. I don’t believe she read the sign.

Waving at a Distance

Joey liked to talk to himself about deep mysteries.

He often talked about religion, and sacred texts, and sleeping outside in moonlight, and the little-known teachings of prophets, and the cruelty of rich people, and the innumerable conspiracies of the Masons and the Illuminati.

Most days he sat on a bench halfway down the pier waving at people. He really liked to wave at people passing at a distance on the big harbor tour ships. They were the nicest.

When those people saw him they all waved back. Leaning on the ship’s rail, or sitting in rows on white plastic seats facing the water, the people upon seeing him would all wave at him with happy faces and genuine smiles. They’d wave and wave and wave, as if they couldn’t wave enough, and Joey waved happily back.

Even at a distance he could clearly see their faces. He could see how the free wind moved in their hair and he could see the strange way that passing sailboats tugged at their eyes. In their eyes he saw a deep love for the gentle, rippling water and the floating clouds in blue sky. He loved those things, too.

He easily saw their joy. As he waved, he could feel an electric love and yearning passing between them, like radio waves across the water.

Even at a distance, Joey could see the light in their eyes.

When Joey waved at people who were walking past his bench on the pier, they ignored him.

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.