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 Fight

Edward hadn’t thought about dying.

He’d been too busy.

Lying in the ICU, listening to the countdown beep of machines and monitors, he thought about his life.

The years of struggle. Working two, sometimes three jobs. Moving apartment to apartment, saving money to replace a car, finish college, start a family. Looking forward to a few days of vacation every year. The sleepless nights, long commutes, paying off debts. Working to exhaustion–for what turned out to be a nonexistent retirement.

As Edward stared at the blank ceiling, he suddenly saw his wife, already buried.

He was holding her hand.

Both felt so confident about the future.

Together they were fighting the good fight. They were repapering cabinets in the little kitchen of their fixer upper house, repelling another invasion of cockroaches. Laughing as they watched their first soufflé collapse. Laughing as they walked down to the convenience store to buy frozen dinners. Planning an impossible trip around the world while cuddling on the threadbare couch. Binging on terrible TV shows. Laughing about their crappy jobs.

Edward recalled cold nights wrapped in warm arms. A first, second, third child. Mowing the lawn and pulling weeds. Barbeques in the backyard. Losing at ping pong with the kids.

There was that flat tire during the epic family road trip to the Grand Canyon. The year he fell off the ladder while hanging Christmas lights and how he’d laughed too. The endless antics of nutty neighbors, club members, his many friends. His ever growing family gathered on Saturday nights at that same old spaghetti restaurant–laughing–laughing–laughing–

Living.

Living, he finally realized, is a fight against death.

And death was about to win.

“You have visitors,” a voice said.

Edward recognized his grown children standing above him. He couldn’t understand what they were saying. He lowered his eyes and saw two of his grandchildren playing down by the floor.

They didn’t know that death lay before them.

The little girl made a funny face at the little boy. Both laughed.

Suddenly Edward laughed with them.

Death wouldn’t win.

The Shining World

Ceci was determined to jump into that other world–the shining world that opened at her feet.

Through the silver portal she saw a strange city of bright crystal buildings, rising down into depths of blue sky and white clouds.

She jumped.

“Hey, stop it!” her big brother complained. “You splashed me!”

The rain shower had let up. Her brother carried a black umbrella and held her hand. The sun was coming out.

Ceci twisted free.

Another silver portal opened in the sidewalk a few steps ahead and her brother circled around it. Ceci stopped and stared down.

Through the portal bright tall buildings rippled in sunlight. They seemed fairy towers that stretched just beyond arm’s reach, those shimmering visions in storybooks. They were shining beacons that summoned a troubled heart from a dark place.

Splash!

“Stop it! Why do you keep doing that?”

“I don’t know,” Ceci replied. But she did know. The world she saw through the portal was where she wanted to be.

It was a world as limitless as the bright sun’s light in wide open eyes.

Where cities were made of sapphire and topaz and amethyst and emerald. A place like heaven.

Another entrance to that other world loomed ahead. This portal, beside a curb, was wide and very deep.

While the two waited to cross the street Ceci stood at the edge of a high precipice staring down. Far below her beckoned the other world. But she realized she couldn’t jump into it. Not without shattering the dream and soaking her feet.

Ceci was surprised to see a nearby pigeon on the other side of the portal. The pigeon stood upside down.

Suddenly the pigeon flew up through the silver portal and out into Ceci’s world.

With her eyes Ceci followed the bird up, up, up, up–and there it was: a crystal city–a city of brightly shining buildings newly risen around her.

She looked all about with wonder.

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?”

Their Dream

A retired firefighter named Gil had always wanted to be an astronaut. So one day he finally got started.

After examining old photographs of the NASA moon landings, he built a perfect lunar rover in his garage.

Then he fashioned a perfect space suit. Helmet, pressure garment, suit assembly, EVA backpack, gloves and all.

And on a Saturday he drove his lunar rover down the state highway to the sand dunes, donned his shining space suit and went for a bouncing ride.

A twenty-three year old artist named Allan lived with his girlfriend in a rusted trailer. He played guitar. He wrote poetry. He built sculptures around the trailer out of hubcaps and glass bottles. His face, neck and arms were tattooed green.

As the sun rose each morning, Allan, in a brilliant green robe, would walk alone for miles and miles, sit down upon a rock in a vast place and listen to the wind. He wanted to understand the world.

One day Allan sat in that place and watched as an astronaut in a bright space suit drove a lunar rover toward him.

That’s impossible, he thought. I must be dreaming.

Gil, driving his lunar rover, saw a shining green man sitting alone in the desert.

That’s impossible, he thought. I must be dreaming.

The astronaut passed the little green man.

From their dream neither woke.

Father’s Paintbrush

My father’s hobby was painting. You’ve probably never heard of him because he never became known. He never sold anything.

When I was a very young boy I often watched Father standing before his easel on our green lawn, painting ordinary scenes from our backyard. It’s one of the few things from my early childhood I still remember.

He’d paint the old oak tree with its rope swing. Or the hibiscus bush with its flaming red flowers tangled in the dirty white fence. Or that small birdbath at the center of our lawn.

His act of painting had seemed magic to me. I remember how I’d look up to watch him paint a cat on the fence, and then he’d smile down at me and point to the fence. There was the cat!

I’d watch him paint a cloud that looked exactly like a mountain peak in the blue sky. And he’d point to a cloud that looked exactly like a mountain peak in the blue sky!

His paintbrush, to me, was a magician’s wand that created the wonders all around me. His brush created sudden tiny flowers in the grass and shining golden leaves. It materialized an entire bright world. When you’re very young, you believe anything.

His finished paintings were hung in a corner of our garage until the dim garage resembled a dusky art gallery, crammed with oak trees and red flowers and birdbaths and mysterious cats and clouds that resembled many things. When the big garage door opened it seemed as if the sun had just risen: and there in new light were those moments of magic, framed by hanging garden tools!

I remember something else. When my father painted, I’d beg that he summon impossible things. I wanted his magic paintbrush to create an elephant in our backyard. Or a dinosaur. Or a castle. A spaceship popping onto our lawn would be so amazing! But, no, he explained, he didn’t know how to paint those things. It was a big disappointment to my credulous mind that a shiny silver spaceship would never pop into our backyard.

Of course, the day came when I learned paintbrushes aren’t magic. That was the day I ran outside and stopped beside my father and saw that he was painting a strange man. The strange man stood mysteriously on the green lawn, between the oak tree and birdbath. I was confused. I looked from the painting to the lawn and nobody was there. Just grass.

The man painted on the canvas resembled nobody I knew. To me it seemed as though Father had summoned a stranger into our backyard, but the stranger had not come yet. I stared at the painting feeling disappointed. Perhaps the strange person would leap over the dirty white fence at any moment and stand before us.

Obviously, it didn’t happen.

That painting like all the others ended up in our garage, and so did the strange man, standing between the oak tree and bird bath and the hanging garden tools. That my father’s paintbrush wasn’t magic after all saddened me for a day or two, but I soon was laughing. Paintings are nothing but paintings.

As you grow older you discover the truth. You learn to differentiate between fantasy and reality.

You understand there is no magic. And you become embarrassed about silly things you actually believed as a child.

After my father died, my wife and I returned to the old house. We inventoried the clutter in the old bedrooms, the kitchen, dining room and family room. I lifted open the big garage door and there in that new dawn of light were all the paintings exactly as I remembered them: oak tree, small birdbath, cat, clouds.

Gazing at scenes that had been rendered by Father years and years ago, I wondered if anything I faintly remembered had been real. Had that cat really been sitting on our fence or had I merely imagined it? Had there been a cloud of that particular shape in the sky?

My wife, standing beside me, suddenly pointed at one painting just above eye level.

She put her hands to her mouth. “Oh my God!”

It was the painting of the strange adult man standing on our lawn. The man appeared exactly like me.

Twinkle

Shannon carried a bag of garbage to the row of cans by the sidewalk. She shoved the garbage into an overflowing can, waved a fly away and turned about. She paused to look at the apartment building where she lived. The poor place was all she could afford. The front yard was nothing but bare dirt and weeds.

She looked down at the dirt. A single dandelion grew by her feet.

A child’s rhyme entered Shannon’s mind.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.

Shannon, her eyes fixed on the small yellow bloom, suddenly realized that the star-like dandelion was made of sunshine. It had grown from the sun’s light and warmth.

And somehow, grown from sunshine, too, was the busy worker bee searching the small flower for pollen.

And birthed from the sun’s heart was the nearby chestnut tree whose roots had badly cracked the sidewalk. And the flighty little birds that perched for a moment in its branches.

Shannon stared across the dirt toward her apartment building.

She blinked at late afternoon sunlight reflecting from the building’s half open windows. They appeared like half open eyes. Suddenly she remembered a thing she had learned once upon a time. Stars had made everything in the world. Even her home.

The furnaces of an ancient star had forged every element of the building: the half open windows, the peeling paint, the creaky wooden steps leading to the porch, the potted geraniums and tinkling wind chime. A star had created the ordinary buildings to her right and to her left, and the building across the street.

A star had created the complete world around her. From a child’s small red rubber ball that had been dropped and lost near the single dandelion, to sprouting green weeds around it, to the talking, smiling people who were walking their Yorkshire Terrier down the cracked sidewalk.

A star had created all that was and might be.

She regarded the dandelion.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.

The Pier

A short wooden pier extends from a secluded beach on the northern coast. The pier doesn’t appear to serve any purpose. It’s too high for a boat, and it doesn’t even reach the surf. Fishermen seldom use it.

Sometimes during my long morning commute I’ll pull off the coast highway, turn down a dirt road and into the little parking lot by the pier, just to open my window. The sound of the ocean is very soothing.

When I have several minutes to spare, I’ll walk out over the water.

I’ll lean on the rail at the end of the pier, nobody around.

All along that part of the coast unbroken forest sweeps down from a line of hills to the ocean, and at the end of the little pier a fresh green scent merges with the salt smell. Seabirds fly overhead. The faint chatter of water on small round stones rises from the beach below. Standing there, I like to gaze down at the water as it steadily rolls in and out, then raise my eyes to the horizon, the ocean breeze on my face.

One morning as I stood at the end of the pier I became aware that a person was walking toward me.

A man my own age, dressed in a business suit like myself, was advancing down the pier very slowly. He moved with the aid of two crutches. It appeared to me that he had cerebral palsy.

Embarrassed, I looked away.

The man faltered and struggled along the pier and finally came to a halt several feet from me. He leaned his crutches against the wooden rail and stood quietly gazing out over the ocean.

I finally turned to him meaning to say hello.

But the man’s motionless eyes were so far away. They were riveted to the ocean’s horizon beyond the line of breaking surf. His face bore a complicated expression that I couldn’t quite untangle. I saw regret. I believe I saw resignation.

I looked again his crutches and kept my mouth shut.

The man stood for a while with fixed, unreadable eyes, then he reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out something small. A coin.

He turned the coin over and over in his fingers without looking down at it. The coin flashed in his hand like an ember from a hidden fire. Suddenly with an easy motion he tossed the coin from the pier. It dropped shining into the ocean and was gone.

The dropping of the coin seemed like a surrender. I yearned to say something sympathetic. I finally spoke. “It’s like a gigantic wishing well.”

He turned and regarded at me. “You’re wrong,” he said. “It’s a payment of my debt.”

With a sudden smile, he gathered up his crutches, placed one under each arm, and with a lurching effort began to walk away. He lifted his legs one after the other as he struggled back down the short wooden pier.

I watched him become smaller.

His debt?

I stood perplexed.

What could a man in pain possibly owe the ocean?

I turned to gaze again at the breaking surf from the short pier’s end. Beyond the line of surf the ocean pulsed to the horizon like an ethereal thing. So unfathomable. And I so small.

My thoughts turned to the ocean’s salty smell and how it permeated my life. How I longed to smell it, along with the green. How it made me feel alive.

I thought of the vast world that encircled me. Of the living forest rising up hills from the stony beach, of moving clouds and wheeling seabirds, and silver water rolling back and forth across rippled sand.

I thought of my daily drive up and down the beautiful coast highway, when I considered my life’s lofty goals, and listened to my favorite music.

Then I thought of my home halfway up a green mountain, with its porch swing and warm fireplace, its modest yard and few flowers.

I thought of my family. That very morning they had given me a thousand reasons to smile.

I thought of my friends who provided encouragement and bursts of laughter and a feeling that somehow, in this crazy mixed-up world, I belong.

I thought of sunshine and rain, good times and bad, the mixture of pleasure and pain that constituted my own life.

As I gazed out at the surf crashing beyond the pier’s end, I realized that all things obtain their life from a churning ocean–a generous ocean whose depths lie beyond any man’s reach.

I took a coin from my own pocket. Thoughtfully I turned it over in my hand.

I tossed it into the water.

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.