A Child’s Lesson

“What’s wrong?” asked the boy.

His mom sat in a corner of the family room, eyes lowered. A tear was on her cheek.

“Guess what?” said the boy. “We learned something in school today.”

His mom didn’t seem to hear.

“We learned about the stuff that everything is made of. The whole universe is made of atoms.”

The boy stood and thought for a moment.

“A drop of water has so many atoms,” he said, “nobody could count them in a million years. And atoms are always moving around, even though you can’t see them.

“They move with the wind,” he continued. “The atoms in just one drop of water have been everywhere in the world. They come from glaciers and rivers and oceans. They come from clouds and fog and rain, and even rainbows.

“So, you know, tears have been in happy places, too.”

His mom slowly lifted her eyes. She smiled.

“That’s right,” she said.

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 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 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.

A Long, Deep Drink

A painter stepped carefully across tumbled rocks to the very end of the jetty. She placed her easel on a flat table of rock.

She opened the menu:

Sea-splashed rocks stretching back to the shore. Glistening cubes of jello.

Blue ripples of water on the sheltered side of the jetty. Spatula-dabbed blueberry frosting.

The mast-filled marina. Toothpicks in marshmallows on a bright silver tray.

The lighthouse at the end of Moondown Point. A peppermint stick.

The clouds above a shoulder of mountain. Whipped cream.

The contours of Earth. Spooned chocolate pudding.

Nearby cottages. Gumdrops.

The beach. Gently rolled, sugary white fudge, with a mouthwatering variety of tasty sprinkles.

Umbrellas along the sand. Tempting lollipops.

Her eyes turned.

A rimless bowl of water. Only water . . . and formless light.

A long, deep, quenching drink of simple water.

She drank.

The Ghost Ship

Lynn sat alone on the gray rock at the edge of the pond gazing into the distance. Different day, same rock, same pond. The same dirty water. The same life.

The breeze was slight; the humidity was stifling.

Lynn’s break time at the factory was strictly 15 minutes. That left nowhere else to go but out the back door, past a pile of broken pallets and to the edge of the pond. And that’s where Lynn sat. Her eyes sought the distance.

Something moved on the water. A snake, probably.

Far across the pond were the shade trees. They appeared like an oasis mirage in a desert, so green, so inviting, but never within reach. At the factory workers had only 15 minutes. And of course a quick lunch in the cafeteria. And after work one hurried home to beat the traffic.

The water of the pond was just as muddy as the ground surrounding Lynn’s rock. Where the water came from, Lynn didn’t know. The torpid pond seemed a shallow bowl of dust mixed with tears, broken earth, rusted things, time’s remnants.

As always her time passed.

Soon time to go.

The thing on the water appeared closer. The slight breeze seemed to be pushing it.

Lynn sat on the hard rock and watched the mystery as it moved.

Garbage, she assumed.

The thing moved slowly across the water, drawing closer, closer, into focus. It was nothing more than a piece of dead bark.

Lynn watched the bark inch across the dust-specked pond, until it finally bumped up against her rock. Lying upon the bark was something white.

The tiny flower was perfect, white, inexplicable.

Like a snowflake.

Lynn looked down. A flower? From where?

Almost time to go.

Something urged Lynn to gently pick up the small flower. Quietly she placed it beside herself on the rock.

A change of air.

The ghost ship departed, its cargo delivered.

One Strange, Shimmering Dream

Jimmy was born on a farm. As a young child he roamed the fields collecting shiny pebbles, colored leaves and other ordinary things.

When Jimmy was eight years old he had an idea. He carefully wrapped a loose bundle of dandelion fluff with old spiderwebs. He kept his small creation in a shoe box, which he hid under his bed.

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Jimmy would quietly slip out from under the sheets, reach under the bed and pull out the box. Very slowly, he’d lift the lid and shine a small flashlight inside.

The delicate, ghostly threads wrapped about fluffy whiteness gently gleamed. It seemed that he had assembled a magic thing. A strange, shimmering dream.

Over many years, working on that farm, his dreams grew.

One night, at the age of 86, Jimmy suddenly sat up in bed and whispered to his wife, “I’m going outside to look at the stars.”

“Okay, dear.” She rolled over.

Jimmy walked slowly in his pajamas out the back door. He shut the door silently.

Barefoot, Jimmy walked out onto the dark, newly tilled field. There was no moon. He reached down and crumbled some Earth in one hand. His barn was black under twinkling stars.

He disappeared into the barn.

A few minutes later, the large barn doors swung open.

And slowly up, up, up rose something weightless and strange–an enormous milky cloud, indistinct, streaked with ghostly threads, like a nebula in the dark sky, faintly shimmering amid the many bright stars–rising up, up.

Dandelion fluff and old spiderwebs float easily. Seeds are meant to fly. Carefully made webs bind living things to the air.

Jimmy watched from the center of his finished creation. Higher and higher he rose, above the barn and dark fields, above his tiny farmhouse, now vanishing far below. The farmhouse vanished.

Riding among the stars, Jimmy ascended.

Night deepened. The stars multiplied. He revolved slowly among them, his shimmering dream-thing reflecting twinkling light, propelled like a raft in a sparkling stream. Quietly, Jimmy watched.

When he looked over his shoulder, he noticed that the Earth could now easily fit into the palm of one hand. The Earth had become a round blue eye. Then it winked shut.

And the dazzling stars grew thick and close, as if they could be easily touched. Jimmy reached out one hand. Motes of light gathered together, withdrew, and the galaxy once so impossibly large became suddenly tiny, and a billion other galaxies rushed in around him like stars, whirling like stars–stars containing billions of stars.

That infinite light could not be described.

In his dream-thing, he floated on. Through galaxies of galaxies, until they, too, could fit in the palm of one hand.

The night was unusually quiet.

When his wife woke up, Jimmy was gone. He had passed far away.