Litter

There is no street parking near my apartment building. I have to park several blocks away.

One day I was walking out to my car when my eyes chanced upon a piece of litter.

Nothing angers me quite like litter. People who blithely toss trash into their neighborhood are so careless and selfish. I’m tired of picking it up.

The discarded thing lay on the sidewalk. It was a tiny notebook–one of those cheap notebooks people jot quick notes in.

I stooped to pick it up.

I had resumed walking, and was searching for a trashcan, when all at once it occurred to me that somebody might have accidentally dropped this tiny notebook.

I turned it over to examine the front and back cover. No name. I opened to the first page. A couple of sentences had been carefully written in pencil.

I love my uncle Ernie. I love how he makes me laugh and how he makes pancakes for me and my sister.

All of the pages that followed were blank.

Oh wow, I thought, this isn’t quite what I expected. Evidently a young person had begun to write some happy thoughts. Perhaps it was an essay for school. Or the beginning of a journal. The tiny notebook had probably fallen out of a pocket. A worried somebody would probably be looking for it.

My course of action was obvious. I turned around and retraced my steps. I sought the exact spot where I had found the dropped notebook. I carefully set what I had first thought was litter back on the sidewalk, so that it could await its destiny.

What else could I do?

As I finally approached my car, I came upon an unusual amount of trash by the sidewalk. A small heap of garbage had gathered between some dying bushes. I fought off my anger. Why can’t people control themselves?

There was spoiled food, discarded cardboard boxes, bottles and cans. The smell was unbearable.

Then I noticed a sleeping bag behind the pile. And someone inside it. A young man with leaves in his hair was bundled up, his face hidden.

Unheard Words

The streetcar came out of its barn every Sunday. Like a relic from an era long forgotten, it ding-ding-rattled down the center of Transverse Street near City Park. The restored streetcar lurched, jerked, impeded impatient cars as it moved through the shadows of high modern towers. It halted long and inconveniently. Few people rode it.

A traveling businessman who needed to be at the convention center in no more than twenty minutes stepped aboard.

The streetcar driver was waving his arms while he waited for the traffic light to turn. He was engaged in a conversation.

“Who’re you talking to?” asked the anxious businessman, sitting down in one of the empty seats near the driver.

“That’s Edmund,” explained the driver.

“What?”

“That’s Edmund. He used to manage a cannery north of the pier where the aquarium is these days, but that was well over a century ago,” explained the driver, smiling up at the businessman’s reflection in the rear view mirror.

“What are you talking about? I don’t see anybody.”

“That’s because Edmund has been dead for over a hundred years. He likes to ride through the city and remember those old days. He tells me stories that everyone else has forgotten.”

The businessman stared at the back of the driver’s head. “Are you crazy?”

“No, I’m not. What’s that? Edith says I am crazy. No, Edith, everyone on the car thinks the only crazy one here is you.”

The businessman rapidly turned about and observed rows of narrow, empty seats. He wondered if the ramblings of this apparently deranged driver would make him late. He looked out an antique green-tinted window at rush hour traffic and people hurrying down the sidewalk and decided it would be smart to remain quiet.

The traffic light finally changed. The driver started the streetcar with a sudden jerk. Waving his arms, he resumed his former conversation.

“You’re right, Edmund. It’s exactly like those old days leading up to the war. Everyone getting ready for the future. People coming and going, worrying how to survive should the worst happen. Nothing ever seems to change. He’s probably going somewhere important. No, I’m sure the man thinks his trip is very important. Can’t you tell by the way he’s dressed? There’s no point saying that. He can’t see or hear you, Edmund–you know perfectly well that you’re nothing but a sad, used-up ghost. So why do you keep trying to talk to the living? What’s that Stanley? What did you say?”

The streetcar driver looked up at his rear view mirror and addressed the increasingly annoyed businessman: “Stanley sees you live in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Which is an amazing coincidence. That’s where his grandchildren live.”

The businessman jerked his head back, startled. “What the hell? Who told you that?”┬áHis intense aggravation with the driver turned to angry suspicion.

“Stanley was born in Brookfield many years ago,” explained the smiling driver. “He was raised there, in a farmhouse a few miles from Al Capone’s distillery. Then he moved here to the city and died from a series of strokes two years later. He has an important message for you. He wants you to inform his grandchildren who still live in Brookfield that he loves them.”

The streetcar bell dinged as it pulled into a station. The doors flapped open. The businessman bolted from his seat and fled. Not a living soul boarded.

The driver pulled a handle to shut the door. He started the slow streetcar again with another jerk.

“No, Stanley, that man is gone. All of this talking scared him away. I’m sorry. You know I have no control over the actions of people. No, I can’t go after him–who would drive? You say you would? A ghost? Someone with two hands has to drive!

“I realize you tried your best but you couldn’t reach him. I’m really sorry. You love your grandchildren. You love them with all your heart. You want Seth and Marge to know you still think of them. You want them to know you still love them.

“Eventually somebody else who still lives in your small town will take a ride with us. Be patient. Somebody will.”

The Hand of Fate

A small shrine appeared on some bare dirt near the intersection where a transient had been struck and killed. Neighbors brought candles, roses, prayerful messages written on cards. The next day the City cleaned up the guttered candles and withered roses and tossed the messages into a plastic bag to be thrown away.

Carly, during a walk through the neighborhood, looked down at the dead patch of dirt. She wondered why a nameless person had drifted along her street.

All that remained beside the sidewalk were windblown leaves.

And one faded rose.

Carly leaned over, picked it up.

She took the spent thing back to her apartment. She put it in a damp paper towel. She made a quick trip to the store to buy a clay pot and small bag of soil. She prepared the stem for propagation. Her mother, long gone to heaven, had once taught her how.

Carly put the cutting into the soil and placed the pot in her small apartment window. She was careful to keep the soil moist and warm.

Early one morning, when nobody was about, she walked down the sidewalk back to the intersection and its bare patch of dirt. She brought a hand shovel.

Every morning after, she brought a water bottle.

. . .

Many years after Carly had joined her mother, those who walked by the intersection would pause to marvel at the strange abundance of wild, beautiful roses. Hundreds of blooms crowded the sidewalk.

It seemed the Hand of Fate had birthed an improbable garden.

Nobody knew where the roses had come from.

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. 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 Wise Man

Another year, almost gone.

On a Sunday afternoon my family sat down in the hilltop park to listen to a community Christmas concert. The chilly outdoor amphitheater was packed. My wife and I sported Santa hats, and our kids dressed as elves.

Up on the leaf-strewn stage the New Life Choir sang Christmas carols. The audience sang along, clapped in time, jingled bells and keys on chains.

For some reason I couldn’t join in. My thoughts concerned problems at work and those toxic in-laws that would be visiting again. Christmas felt tired. I kept looking around at the crowd of easily excited strangers in the audience. It all seemed so predictable.

At the end of our row, near the exit, I spotted one man’s head that stood out in the small ocean of red and white Santa hats. It was his strange golden crown that drew my attention. I wondered what sort of fool would decide to wear a crown for Christmas.

The crown seemed absurd. It was one of those simple crowns that look like triangular steeples arranged in a circle, each graced with a single gem. Suddenly I realized the person had come to the Christmas concert as one of the Wise Men.

I looked at the face beneath the crown and saw a gray, very old man, who sat alone and apart.

A children’s choir was filing up onto the stage. Several dozen awkward children were all dressed like green elves. My son and daughter were very excited see more tiny elves, exactly like themselves. I looked at my wife as she gave Janie and Joshua each a quick hug.

The choir of bright-eyed elves gathered nervously in rows on the risers, smiling, squirming, turning their shy faces to the audience. Parents waved and held up phones to take pictures.

I regarded the eager audience. Above the swelling sea of Santa hats, I observed the crowned head of the very old Wise Man at the end of our row. He stared directly ahead, eyes unmoving. His weathered face was expressionless. I wondered what the very old man saw. Confusion, probably. The passing of too many years.

I turned to watch the children as they prepared to sing The Twelve Days of Christmas.

The tiny green elves stood side by side and began about that partridge in a pear tree. Their wavering voices rose and rose, becoming more certain as they sang about two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

The elves sang through the twelve days, brief days filled with abundant gifts of hens and geese and swans and gold rings, filled with gifts of dancing ladies and leaping lords and pipers piping and drummers drumming, drumming, drumming, repeating, repeating like strong, perpetual heartbeats.

Each elf had eyes that shined like jewels.

For a moment I forgot about work and in-laws and looked softly at my own excited children, my two small elves that one day would don Santa hats.

After the final carol had been sung, as everyone left the small amphitheater, the very old man in the strange golden crown remained in his seat. I glanced down at him as we brushed past. His eyes stared directly ahead. They were filled with tears.

Skeleton Forgiveness

Bradley woke up in the middle of the night. The clock showed a quarter to three. His wife was asleep beside him.

Careful not to disturb her, he lay motionless on his back and reviewed another day at work. There was something important he was supposed to remember, to do tomorrow, but he’d forgotten.

His mind wandered. For a moment he wondered about the car–if he should have the oil changed that weekend. He thought about making reservations for the vacation in Hawaii. He thought about an appointment with the doctor. In the darkness, he looked along the length of his body under the sheet. Suddenly he realized that under the sheet lay a skeleton.

His mind quickly turned.

Another pressing thought came to him that he must buy groceries after work–he must ask his wife what she needed. He would try to remember. And then he fell back to sleep.

And ten years passed in the blink of his astonished eyes.

Another late night, after brushing his teeth to ward off decay, blinking at his face in the bathroom mirror. I’m starting to get old, Bradley thought. What a strange face.

He lay in bed beside his wife, feeling the aching years, unable to sleep.

He couldn’t stop thinking. Next week he would have to see the doctor again. And then do his taxes. And then plan for that critically important conference in Seattle. And then remember his anniversary. How long? Thirty years? And then the lawn needed mowing again. And the leaking faucet. And his daughter needed more money. And he had to write a reply to his older brother, Kenneth. He didn’t want to write words to Kenneth. Kenneth was a big-mouthed jerk. Kenneth was probably the one thing Bradley hated most. There had been no words for most of a lifetime. There was too much anger, bitterness and pain. There was a feud that would never end. He could barely remember why.

He lay in bed, mind rolling, staring up at a dark ceiling, when an unbidden thought returned. He lowered his eyes and gazed at a draped figure.

Under his sheet stretched a skeleton.

His own skeleton.

Then suddenly Bradley was six years older. And his happy younger brother, Ben, who lived halfway across the country, died of a heart attack.

The entire family flew to the funeral. Older brother Kenneth sat near the opposite wall. Everyone faced the open casket.

Bradley sat near the back, behind a strange family of bent people clothed in black.

And then he understood the truth.

With time–too soon–all of the somber clothing, the tears, the bowed heads, the pain, the hidden thoughts, the beating hearts, muscle and blood would fall away.

After the short service he rose, walked bravely up to Kenneth and hugged him.

“I’m sorry.”