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.

One Thousand Likes

Sylvia was right on schedule. She sat on the light rail, in a seat that faced an empty seat. Her head was bowed over her phone. Her finger moved rapidly.

An image of two people hugging on a bench. The words: Hugging is a silent way of saying… You matter to me.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

The light rail decelerated at Ocean Avenue. A small crowd of people got off. A small crowd of people boarded. Nobody sat down in the seat opposite Sylvia.

An image of the Dalai Lama. The words: If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

The light rail accelerated. It was still very early morning, not quite rush hour. Nobody talked. People in the car bowed their heads over their phones.

An image of the sun rising behind mountains. The words: Father, give me a heart of integrity and compassion.

Syliva touched LIKE.

Outside the sun had just begun to rise. It reflected from the windows of numberless buildings. It promised to be a warm day. At times sunlight blinked into the light rail car.

An image of someone helping a homeless person. The words: Be The Reason someone Smiles today.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

The light rail decelerated at the next station.

A funny image of a cat standing in four enormous human boots. The words: Empathy cat wants to walk in ur shoes.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

An old woman labored onto the light rail, towing a cart full of bulging plastic bags and a rolled sleeping bag. She wore a dirty green jacket, soiled pants and boots.

A happy image of people looking up at a city skyline. The words: Life is not about Quantity of Friends you have, it’s about the Quality of Friends you have.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

The old woman sat down in the seat directly opposite Sylvia.

An image of a young lady walking through the world with her hair flying. The words: I am not lucky. I am blessed.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

Sylvia’s eyes were fixed on her phone. She scrolled through hundreds of images with her restless finger. Once in a while she would pause for a second, indulge in her own reaction. Sometimes she would laugh.

An image of the boy in The Sixth Sense. The words: I see nitwits. No compassion, no empathy, no brains, just nitwits.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

An image of someone sitting on a bench. The words: Wrinkles mean you laughed, grey hair means you cared, and scars mean you lived.

Sylvia touched LIKE.

The old woman stared down at her boots. Her wrinkled hands, folded lightly on her lap, trembled. Her lips moved slightly, as though she wanted to speak.

Sylvia looked at the next image. She read more words. She touched LIKE.

The light rail decelerated. The old woman stood up slowly, labored to turn her cart full of bulging plastic bags and the rolled sleeping bag, just managed to deboard against the pushing crowd.

Sylvia’s finger summoned a thousand passing images.

She touched LIKE.

The Bone Artists

Every day, in gardens throughout the city, new blossoms opened to their most beautiful, most glorious potential, and in bright clinics the elderly who refused to undergo youth treatments were euthanized.

Pietro was going on one hundred and fourteen and felt it. He had ceased his treatments. To avoid detection, he’d removed his master chip with a sharp scissors and whenever he ventured into the city he was careful to melt into darkness.

Pietro walked slowly at night with bent shoulders. He moved painfully, silently, face hidden in a scarf. He found his nourishment in the moonlight and trashcans. He gathered a few precious things that the extremely old need. Then, at the dawn of each day, he slipped through a secret door that welcomed vanishing souls to a black place beneath the city.

The underground refuge was the last free place that remained. It was a retreat where age was not shunned. The tug of time had drawn many into the ancient catacombs.

Pietro moved slowly down one long passage in the maze of candlelit catacombs and entered a chapel of bones. In the very dim light he could see dozens of leg bones and arm bones fastened to rock walls, forming crooked crosses. Skulls whose eye sockets flickered with small flames had been stacked high, almost to the roots of trees. It was a chapel without windows. Only fading eyes.

He entered a large stone chamber. The workplace of the bone artists.

The bone artists moved creakingly in that hollow of Earth, assembling dry bones that were sorted into piles. They didn’t see Pietro enter. The very old people hunched over their work, reaching with their meager fingers for raw material.

Half-formed in that obscure space was their vast Creation.

In that immense vault, where time was still sacred, bones had been assembled like unearthed fossils into visions that were sculpted from secret knowledge. Thousands of bones were fitted together into brittle, ponderous truths. The bones formed a subterranean world of gaunt trees, pale towers and skeletal fields . . . a world of bone horses, bone eagles, bone houses and a bleached city . . . a world beneath the world.

The bone artists worked silently, tying bone to bone, heads bowed. Their eyes were nearly shut. None saw Pietro enter.

“Look what I’ve brought!”

Cradled in the arms of Pietro were flowers that he had stolen in broad daylight.

The artists looked up. Eyes suddenly widened.

A few more candles were lit, and a crop of new flowers was soon sprinkled throughout Creation.

Following a Tortoise

Fascinating creatures can be observed on ordinary sidewalks: a green parrot riding atop a baseball cap, a spiny iguana clinging to human shoulders, a poodle with a purple mohawk.

But the morning I caught sight of a young man in a bathrobe and sandals inching down the sidewalk behind an enormous tortoise, I had to chuckle.

Both were moving very slowly.

I sat at a table outside Starbucks and downed my espresso and had a whole twelve minutes to kill before work. There was nothing else interesting to watch, so I watched.

The young man took one tiny footstep every eternity. In eight minutes he had moved perhaps three feet.

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out where he and his tortoise were going.

I had to jump up.

“He’s really big,” I said, stopping beside the young man.

She is.”

“Does she have a name?”

“Betsy,” replied the young man. As if my question were impertinent, he stared at me squarely in the eye. “What’s it to you?”

I almost flinched. “Nothing. I’m just curious, that’s all. I saw you both coming down the sidewalk. One doesn’t expect to see a huge tortoise in the middle of a city.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. It just strikes me as something that’s funny. At least you don’t need a leash! Don’t you get tired of moving so slowly?”

“Why would I?”

Now I was becoming annoyed. This unaccountable person was trying my patience. I managed to find polite words. “It seems like you would get really bored after awhile, staying in one spot, without much change of scenery.”

“Do you get bored?” asked the young man.

“Sometimes.”

The young man stared at me for a long while, his unblinking eyes peering directly into my own. “Maybe you get bored because you’re moving too fast.”

As an excuse to flee, I glanced at my watch.

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 Silver of Ice

Leslie’s open eyes were vulnerable. With one mittened hand she tugged the wool cap down over her eyebrows. With the other she held up the scarf, to smother her nose.

The bitter New Year’s wind drained the heat of every living thing.

Leslie could feel her eyes freezing. It was a peculiar feeling. She blinked rapidly, trying to summon warm tears.

Fragments of ice torn from the frozen world blew past her eyes. She flinched. The flakes seemed white ash from a dead fire.

Leslie hurried down the sidewalk–as fast as she could without slipping. The convenience store was only two blocks away.

The entire town had vanished in colorless snow. Nobody in their right mind would venture outside in such inhuman cold. Just a Ford pickup equipped with a scraping snow plow, and a few creeping cars behind it.

With relief she exploded through the store’s door.

“Cold enough for you?” asked Freddie. He was sitting on a stool gazing out the frosted window.

“I’m out of cough syrup. Jack can’t stop coughing, so I have to hurry back. I’m so tired. They said on the news it’s almost a record. Thirty five below, or something.”

“Yeah, everything’s dead. The cold has stopped everything.”

“Happy New Year,” he added as she departed.

Leslie rushed back into the white world, determined to be home and out of the wind’s teeth.

She almost slipped on the sidewalk, but miraculously regained her balance. She crossed the empty street, avoiding hard slush. Someone was scraping thick ice off a windshield. She didn’t turn her head to see who.

Leslie ran as best as she could against the cold.

She could feel her eyes beginning to freeze.

The mailbox.

It was frozen shut. With an icy rock from the ground she broke ice off.

She pulled out a letter.

She stood in the piercing cold, and with clumsy mittened hands opened the envelope.

A New Year’s card.

She paused, looked for a long minute upon a scene of carefree skaters on a silver lake, lost in a forest of bright silver trees. They skated under silver stars, in a world that was shining like unearthly heaven. Around the lake hovered a few snowflakes–perfectly formed snowflakes like silver dreams.

It was so beautiful.

A flake of snow landed on the card, melted.

Leslie despaired that the beautiful card would be ruined. She quickly opened her jacket and put the silver next to her heart. Shivering deeply, she turned about, hurried for the door.

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.