An Encounter With Santa Claus

The wait at the shopping mall’s coffee kiosk was unusually long. Mary’s mother looked up from her phone. “Don’t unwrap your cookie until we get home. I don’t want crumbs all over my new car. You remember what happened when you spilled that sticky soda last weekend? I really don’t think I could stand another headache.”

Mary said nothing. As she stood beside her mother, she quietly watched thousands of Christmas shoppers hurry into and out of stores, into and out of elevators, up and down escalators.

An army of people hustled wrapped presents to and fro. Everybody was in a terrible rush.

Mary turned around in a circle to explore the dizzying mall with her eyes. Strings of Christmas lights blinked about the windows of every inviting store. Dozens of merry Santa Clauses with jolly plump faces stared out from signs, shopping bags and the dazzling window displays. Beyond one cascade of escalators, shoppers in a very long, twisting line waited in the food court to have their pictures taken with Santa Claus. ‘Tis the Season a nearby banner proclaimed in big letters.

“Didn’t you hear me? Let’s get going!” her mother said.

The two stepped into a river of shoppers. It was a torrent of urgency that felt irresistible. Mary marveled at the unending lights and the press of humanity.

Mary continued to search about.

Two pant legs were outstretched on the ground. The two legs stuck out from behind a trashcan near the front door of one busy store.

Mary and her mother neared the trashcan. A man was collapsed behind it, his back leaning against a wall. The man was asleep.

The man was fat and wore very dirty clothing. His stomach bulged out from under his torn shirt. His bare feet were black with dirt. An enormous white beard was splayed across his chest. Atop his nodding head was a Santa hat.

Shoppers hurried past him without noticing.

Mary stopped to look at Santa Claus.

She bent to place her wrapped cookie by his feet, then hurried to catch up with her mother.

A Dog’s Tail

Every Sunday afternoon a large dog accompanied an elderly woman to the park. The friendly dog would sprawl in some shade on the grass, sniffing the warm air or watching the birds flit from tree to tree, while the little old woman sat nearby on a bench. Sometimes I would peek over my book and secretly watch the two.

It was the dog’s tail that inevitably drew people. Swish, flop, swish, flop that ragged tail went, like a crazy outlandish spring. The unstoppable tail was a signal understood by everybody in the park to waltz on over.

Whenever a stranger came near, the tail would really start banging. Lying with its four legs stretched out, seeing the approach of a human smile, the dog would sometimes let loose with a joyful bark, but it never jumped up. When the stranger bent over to rub its belly, the tail moved so excitedly I thought it must defy the laws of physics.

The stranger, after a few more rubs, would glance up at the silent old woman. Her eyes were always down upon the dog. “A very big animal, isn’t it?” the stranger would ask. An almost imperceptible nod for reply.

The stranger would then turn and walk away.

Then the dog would rise beside the old woman. She would place a wrinkled hand atop the dog’s head and the tail would gradually slow.

When a small group of children came up to the dog one early afternoon they didn’t even look at the old woman. They were too enchanted. The dog’s tail thumped madly. Every young hand sought its soft, warm coat, accelerating the tail. Every hand transmitted love. The dog soaked it all up. Like a furry, vibrating battery. The old woman remained motionless.

The old woman never spoke. But I do know one thing about her. When strangers walked away, the dog rose. And her hand always sought the dog’s head.

And as the tail moved slower, slower, slower, the large dog would stare directly into her eyes.

It seemed to me that a strange, undefinable energy passed up her thin arm.

But I never saw her face.

Returning the Ball

“Try one more time! I know you can catch it!”

Randy’s father tossed the ball a bit too high. The ball sailed through the sun and bounced off a rusting patio chair.

“I got it!” Randy shouted.

The four-year-old boy scampered after the rolling ball. The ball bumped off the patio and accelerated down the sloping lawn. The boy pursued it with eager legs.

The ball wouldn’t slow down.

It zipped past the startled cat.

It rolled past the spot where Randy was destined to celebrate his fifth birthday on freshly mown grass with laughing friends.

The ball rolled down the steep hill, past the grassy spot where Randy would one day rescue a hummingbird. And learn to fly a kite.

The ball rolled past the sprinkler head that would break his leg.

The ball kept going. Randy chased after it.

It rolled past the pepper tree where he and his father would build a treehouse. But that was still a few years off.

The ball rolled down the green slope, past the sun-facing garden where he would be taught by his mother to plant cherry tomatoes, green beans and sunflowers.

The boy ran at full speed.

The ball rolled past the garden bench where, sitting quietly one day, it would dawn on Randy that he would grow old.

The ball rolled past a year and another year.

The ball rolled through the grassy spot where he would lie on his back looking up at the clouds, dreaming about winning an Olympic gold medal.

The ball rolled past the tire swing where he would dangle reading a favorite book.

The ball rolled past the dirt patch where his father would ask why he ditched class.

The ball rolled past the old stump where he would sit very close to a girl.

The ball rolled and rolled and rolled all the way down to the fence next to the busy street, where his parents would stand waving as he drove off to college.

“I got it!”

With a shout, Randy was sprinting back up the long hill with all of his might, his small legs flying. He smiled up at his father. “I got it, Daddy!”

Waterfall Tears

Laurie lost her love and came to the garden to grieve. She stood on the arching bridge above the small stream.

Leaning on the rough wood rail, she gazed nowhere. The cherry blossoms around her, the cheerful bubbling at her feet, the fluttering leaves: she saw nothing.

Happy children ran past her. One sweet voice cut to her heart. She cried.

Tears spilled into the nowhere. They poured out. Her grief mingled in the water, began coursing along.

Her tears ran under a willow tree. They swirled around the small turtle rock. Around gentle bends her tears coursed slowly, glistening over green pebbles. Her tears mixed with the spring rains; like lost silver they shimmered in sunshine. Her tears ran and ran and ran as the stream narrowed, in a growing hurry, it seemed, to go somewhere. Anywhere.

Suddenly, over a steep waterfall her tears thundered. They turned to mist.

Laurie straightened her back and breathed in deeply. She vaguely saw the shapes of white blossoms around her. She moved on.

A Small Fountain in Green Park

“Don’t fall in!”

Maggie was too busy to hear her mother. She leaned over the edge of a small fountain in Green Park, peering into the basin. Her two-year-old eyes took delight in the swirling reflections.

The water bubbled, whispered, leaped. It splashed cool kisses. Maggie extended her arms and laughed. She touched the rippling surface with a tentative, curious finger.

Strangely, she saw her own small face in the fountain, crowned by sunlight, wrinkling brightly and dancing.

The water in the park’s fountain was alive like an inexplicable wonder. Its light contained a secret. Maggie gazed at her own small reflection, trying very hard to see herself clearly. Her face was there, then–poof–gone. A flying drop landed on her nose and she laughed again.

“Don’t fall in!”

Mrs. Spivey, the third grade teacher, frantically counted heads. Eight-year-old children become spinning whirlwinds on a school field trip.

The Natural History Museum and its dinosaur bones were located in Green Park, across the plaza from a small fountain. The fountain around which her students were running wildly.

Maggie dashed past the fountain, then suddenly stopped, turned around. The place seemed familiar. She approached the small fountain, stood very still and looked down into it. The water swirled and bubbled, rippled and whispered. Catching her breath, she looked curiously at her own reflection, becoming thoughtful. Her small face twinkled, the sun over her shoulder. Her face appeared to be a sudden vision in a wonderful dream.

But a classmate almost caught her. She darted away, laughing.

“Don’t fall in!”

Feeling slightly guilty, trying to keep her balance, Maggie leaned over the water. She crumpled the empty box of detergent and shoved it into a shopping bag. She glanced over her shoulder. Her high school friends stood nearby, laughing in the sunshine.

She stared down into the fountain’s shallow basin and was surprised to see an uncertain reflection. It had long curly hair and blinking eyes, and a thirteen-year-old smile that seemed rather crooked. Had she seen that face before?

The bewildering vision disappeared in a sudden brew of rainbow bubbles. Bubbles that multiplied out of control. Foam spilled all around her.

A shout echoed across the park’s plaza and Maggie and her friends ran.

“Don’t fall in!”

The two sat on the fountain’s low edge. Maggie’s new boyfriend gently pushed her shoulder.

She swept her hand through the cool water and splashed him. They laughed.

“Don’t fall in!”

Maggie walked slowly past the fountain, hand-in-hand with Robert. The park was very quiet on a Tuesday afternoon. It was their honeymoon. The never-changing sun shone brightly high above them. A cool mist from the small fountain touched her warm face.

Suddenly, Robert bent over to kiss her. He lifted her up, cradled her in his arms, whirled about and–laughing–dangled her over the fountain. Maggie shivered.

She imagined falling through space, splashing into the water, dangerously, merging with a soft something that was completely permeating and mysterious. For an instant she saw the reflection of two lovers in the water.

She saw two faces crowned by sunlight, like angels, dreamlike.

She was set again on her feet, and the two walked slowly on.

“Don’t fall in!”

Sitting on a park bench, Maggie closely watched her first child. Her working mind was distracted. It was such a busy day, with so much to do. The tiny girl peered into the small fountain and suddenly reached out to touch the rippling water with a finger.

Maggie jumped up and hurried over. She never took her eyes from her precious child.

Maggie sat down on the low edge of the fountain and wondered at the actual depth of the basin. How dangerous was it, really? Just a few inches. But it seemed so dangerously deep. Her child stared down into the dancing water, so Maggie looked down, too.

Two small faces stared up at her, two faces that were different and alike.

How could she explain that shining, wonderful, perfect–uncertain vision of life in the water? A very young child would not understand. It all had something to do with wistfulness, love and memory. And time. She felt a moment of loss. She couldn’t explain what she saw, not even to herself.

“Don’t fall in!”

Maggie’s happy children were racing around the small fountain like three frantic whirlwinds on a picnic Sunday. She rested on the blanket on the park’s grass. She watched those whom she loved whirl round and round and round. She couldn’t stop them. She did not want to stop them. She simply watched.

“Don’t fall in!”

The children were gone. Grown up.

Maggie and her friends in the Watercolor Society had dispersed themselves strategically around Green Park. Their mission was to create beauty. She had set up her easel right beside that familiar old fountain. It seemed the very best place, with so much potential. One of her old friends had shouted the silly taunt. But Maggie knew she wouldn’t fall in. Not now.

She had known that water all of her life.

Maggie studied the uncertain light on the moving water. Gentle ripples fractured unsteady reflections. It was like every piece of a world jumbled together all at once, but in constant motion. And the unreachable sun was the source. It was the point from which searing light descended to bless her eyes with a thousand living, rising fragments.

How was it possible to capture one brief, so-very-brief moment in a life? All of those passing visions in the small fountain were in her memory still.

At best, her effort–might–master one moment in endless–eternity.  At best.  But, still, she painted. She painted and painted.

“Don’t fall in!”

Her granddaughter was worried. Maggie leaned quietly in the wheelchair over the small fountain.

Maggie’s granddaughter regarded the old woman until she felt reassured, then comfortably turned to examine the small fountain herself.

It wasn’t her first visit to Green Park.

Compelled, she gazed into the water and saw her own rippling face.

It was a beautiful day.

An Unexpected Sunflower

Lucy was surprised to see that an unexpected sunflower had sprouted in a corner of her backyard. Where it came from, she didn’t know. Every day she carefully watered the plant. It quickly grew.

When the bud opened the bloom was just glorious. Large, yellow and beautiful, like a cheerful sun in a small green world.

Gazing at the sunflower, Lucy felt that life was indeed good.

Every person on Earth, she thought, deserved the feeling that life is good. Why not? Suddenly she had an absurd impulse: to give that one magical flower to the entire world.

Every person should see it. Smell it. Touch it.

At last Lucy settled on her best idea. She’d give the sunflower to a friend, who would then pass the flower to another friend, who’d pass it to another friend… And so on.

Seven billion people on an impossibly big planet wouldn’t see her flower, but a few would. That’s the best she could do.

Several days later she carefully harvested the sunflower and placed it in a tall vase. She brought the flower across town and gave it to her Uncle Carl, who was under blankets with a bad case of the flu. A note was tied to the sunflower’s stem: Once this small bit of sunshine has been enjoyed, please give to a friend.

“Thank you,” he said, sincerely.

The next day Uncle Carl was visited by Alfonso, one of his war buddies. “Now you have to give this to one of your friends,” he said. “And add a little water.”

The sunflower descended like a beam of golden sunshine when Alfonso handed it to his daughter, Maria. She rose from her dining room chair, stunned. “That’s for me?” she asked, with absolute disbelief. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” he smiled. “You’re my friend, right? But read the note. You now have to give it to someone that you think is special.”

Maria gave the flower to William.

William gave the flower to Jerry.

Jerry gave the flower to Daniella.

Before class, Daniella handed the sunflower to her Geometry teacher. Mr. Harrow didn’t know how to react. “Read the note,” she explained.

“But the flower is drying out,” he said. “It won’t last much longer.”

“You’re the best math teacher I ever had. So take it.”

Mr. Harrow took the vase containing the sunflower home. He read the note attached to the stem: Once this small bit of sunshine has been enjoyed, please give to a friend. He wondered who the blue vase belonged to. He placed the vase by the television and thought of his late wife.

Next morning the flower had entirely wilted. The crumpled petals had lost their brilliant color and several had fallen off.

Mr. Harrow removed the note from the stem and put it in a drawer. He carried the vase out to his compost pile, and quickly tossed the flower onto the heap. The vase he carefully cleaned and placed in a corner of his quiet house.

The following spring Mr. Harrow took a slow stroll through the backyard on a gloomy, gray day. As he came around the garage he was taken by complete surprise. Two sunflowers were rising from the dead compost.

The small miracle caused Mr. Harrow to wipe away a few tears.

Perhaps, he thought, being a teacher of math wasn’t such a useless thing. Because he appreciated the revealed meaning of the sunflowers. And it was: simple multiplication can quickly encompass the world.

If seeds were carefully harvested from a dying bloom–and just two seeds sprouted–one sunflower might become two. Then, repeated, two sunflowers might become four. Four sunflowers might become eight. Eight sunflowers might become sixteen. And in 33 generations–33 years–one seed might produce well over seven billion sunflowers. Enough sunflowers for everybody. Everybody in the world.

Mr. Harrow found the old note in the back of the drawer. It still read: Once this small bit of sunshine has been enjoyed, please give to a friend. He then added in his own writing: When the bloom finally fades, harvest the seeds and grow more sunflowers. He made two photocopies of the note, one for each of his miracle sunflowers.

In math, even the smallest fraction contains world-changing power.  One in seven billion seems like nothing, until it is turned upside down.

. . .

Lucy lay in a dark hospital.

The memory of her miracle garden had long vanished.  She had become very old.

Judy, her granddaughter, came to visit one late Thursday afternoon. She was holding a surprise behind her back. She presented a sunflower, like sunshine, in a tall, new vase.

“Can you believe it? Out of the blue my best friend gave me this! Isn’t it amazing? And it has a strange note. I’m supposed to give this flower to someone I love. I would like you to have this.”

Attached to the stem of the sunflower was a small photocopied note. The first half of the handwriting Lucy recognized. It was her own.

This short story originally appeared here!