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.

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.

Small Pleasures

“The concept is to make your world more real. You apply a tiny stain to one place, or add a smudge of grease, or even use a fine brush to paint graffiti.”

The model railroader was showing a visitor his layout.

“Look at these boxcars. They look exactly like miniature versions of the real thing. You can’t make your objects too dirty.

“See that train coming across the bridge? I aged the locomotive with a mild acid solution, then I carefully added soot, dust and exhaust. I used acrylic paint to blacken the grills and create rust.

“Over here, I weathered the train station with sandpaper and deliberately broke one of the steps leading to the side door. I even put some mold in the waiting room. But to see that you have to peer through this little window.”

The model railroader laughed. “I’ve spent hundreds of hours trying to make this layout as realistic as possible. Look at the steel bridge and the forested mountain, the city park and city streets. Look closely at the sidewalks, the litter, the shop windows and busy people.

“But you know what makes this world really convincing?

“Trouble.

“See that railroad crossing gate? I made it drop down on top of a car.

“A driver has jumped out of another car in the traffic jam and is waving their fist.

“A delivery truck has suddenly veered to avoid an accident, and a load of barrels has tumbled out.

“One barrel is still rolling three blocks away.

“The ladder of the arriving fire engine is swinging out of control. It knocked over a pretzel stand. And here come dozens of stray dogs.

“Frightened by stampeding dogs, two lovers in the park have jumped up onto a bench.

“A police officer has climbed a tree.

“The pilot of a hot air balloon, watching the chaos below, has become tangled on a church steeple.

“Down every little street, around every corner, trouble percolates and spreads like ripples on a pond. It’s a world made farcical by trouble. And not a single little person has the ability to escape. They remain where I glued them.”

The model railroader waved an arm proudly above his meticulously constructed world.

“When you look down and find unbounded chaos, you know it’s real.”

The visitor gazed at small pleasures and laughed.

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 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.

Eyes Unmoving

I’m old.

I find myself in an ordinary city park sitting quietly.

I see the sun fragmented by branches of trees; shadows flat on grass.

I see birds rising together like a curtain opening. The falling of leaves. The sun’s light touching faces that pass right and left.

I see a young man stepping smartly down the path in front of me. His confident eyes are forward. The day has begun. There is much to win. The young man steps around a boy playing with a ball and turns to hurry over the grass in a short cut. He does not see his own shadow among the fallen leaves.

I see a man who has come to middle age. Wearing a striped suit, he plods forward down the straight path. This man has created success and created failure, and he suffers a slight limp due to trouble with one knee. His forward eyes are fixed like stones. He still has much to do, but is uncertain why.

I see an older man creeping painfully, inch by inch down the path. This man’s back is bent. It seems he has been crushed by the burden of many weights. I cannot see his eyes. His head is gray. He moves through the ordinary park with eyes down.

I see beautiful roses in a far corner.

I sit on a bench with my eyes unmoving and feel the soft caress of the sun.

I’m old.