Azima’s Birds

Ten large bird feeders hung in Azima’s front yard.

The next-door neighbor hated it. Everyone else on the street loved it.

Hundreds of birds descended on Azima’s yard every morning when he refilled the feeders with bags of fresh seed. Mourning doves, pigeons, house finches, goldfinches, chickadees, cowbirds, dark-eyed juncos, bright grosbeaks, warblers, cardinals, blue jays, blackbirds, speckled starlings, meteor showers of sparrows . . . Children, walking to school past Azima’s house, turned to stare.

The next-door neighbor complained.

Azima didn’t care.

. . .

When Azima was a boy he watched his father sprinkle bird seed on the kitchen window sill. A tiny sparrow had been tapping on the window for days.

“It’s a sign,” his mother warned. “Just before Grandfather passed, a bird came tapping on the window. All day long it tapped on the glass. You hear stories about how that happens to other people, too. Before a loved one dies.”

Azima’s father hated bird droppings. So one morning Azima’s father brought Azima outside and showed him how to sprinkle bird seed laced with rat poison on the window sill.

The very next morning Azima sought the tiny sparrow. It lay on brown leaves near the honeysuckle under the kitchen window. He’d held the murdered thing in the palm of his hand. He looked at the once-living eyes. The sparrow was weightless. It was like a thing made of paper.

. . .

Using a cane, Azima hobbled outside to his small front yard. He carried a large bag of the very best seed. Children walking to school stopped to stare at the whirlwind of flying feathers and the crazy old man.

The next-door neighbor shouted over the hedge: “Those birds are shitting everywhere!”

Azima didn’t care.

The Cannon

Giggling, two little girls chased each other around the old Civil War cannon.

A mother lifted a baby from a stroller. “Look at you!” Carefully holding the baby’s waist, she stood two short wobbly legs on the cannon.

A young man came up to the cannon’s end and peered into it.

A bearded gentleman strolling through the park paused to test his knuckles on the hard cannon.

An elderly man and woman sat at a nearby picnic table.

“That,” commented the old man, “might be the very one that killed my great great grandfather’s brother.”

“Could be,” replied the old woman.

“Brothers. Killing each other.”

A little boy on the grass was flying in every direction chasing a pigeon. The pigeon somehow always remained just beyond reach. The little boy shouted excitedly and veered to attack the pigeon from behind. The bird eluded him easily.

The little boy saw the cannon, ran up and stopped beside it.

He stood behind the cannon and looked along its inert length to sight a chestnut tree.

“Boom!”

He looked up at the chestnut tree that had not been blown to pieces.

“Boom!”

The chestnut tree was enormous, green and beautiful. It must have been very old. Above the grass it rose, the bark of its wide trunk furrowed with age. The green leaves fluttered slightly in the wind, and in the sunlight they made the old tree seem like a bright mirage.

“Boom!”

Another pigeon flew down from the tree to the grass. The little boy saw it and turned. The cannon was forgotten. The chase resumed.

“Thrilling,” said one of the old people.

Paradise Manor

Picking up specimens was a piece of cake job. All I did was drive a company car and stop at hospitals and doctor offices. But my route covered a big area, so I had to keep moving. And as a professional lab courier, I had to know which bagged specimens were room temperature, refrigerated or frozen.

The one place I hated was nursing homes. There was the unbearable smell. And the long wait at nurses stations.

I remember one time I was finally handed a urine sample at Paradise Manor, and I was about to leave the front lobby when, out of the blue, someone came up to me: a tiny, very old woman.

She grabbed my arm. “Please help me,” the old woman implored.

“I’m sorry?” I said, startled.

I glanced at the little person in her pink robe.

“Help me. They won’t let me out.”

This is awkward, I realized. What am I supposed to say?

Paradise Manor’s front lobby, with its empty velvet couch and large mirrors, had always resembled a funeral home. At Paradise Manor there were several nurses stations down long hallways, but no reception desk.

“They won’t let you out?” I repeated with a feeling of dread. In the back of my mind I knew I was already running late.

The old woman tugged at my arm. “Please help me get out of here,” she persisted. “They won’t let me leave. Please help me.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’m allowed to– I mean, I wish I could help you but–I really have to get going–“

“Help me! Help me!” she repeated, her entreating eyes meeting mine.

The old woman kept tugging weakly at my arm as I started to move toward the front door.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. I’m not supposed to,” I said lamely.

I glanced around, hoping to be saved, but the lobby of Paradise Manor remained empty–with no friendly welcome or farewell. No help would be coming from the nurses station down the hallway.

“I have to be going,” I tried to explain. “If I’m late, I’ll get in trouble with my boss.”

But she had no idea who I was. Just a person within her reach.

“I really wish I could help you,” I said pathetically, breaking away from her grip and backing toward the door.

The old woman’s arms were outstretched.

She stood frozen with an expression of terror on her face as she watched me push open the heavy door. “Please help me! Please help me!” she called.

I escaped.

All that afternoon I felt guilty, wondering what I could have done.

And, of course, the only answer was nothing.

A Small, Small World

An ice cream truck was near.

it’s a small world after all…

Zella waved goodbye to the school bus driver, turned around and sprinted down the sidewalk toward the cheerfully ringing chime.

…it’s a small world after all…

Vincent, straightening his shirt collar as he stepped out of the barbershop, heard the repeating notes. He searched a pocket for change. Without appearing too eager, he hurried down the sidewalk.

…it’s a small world after all…

Sam and Jane entered the hotel lobby after an exhausting day. They heard the happy tune and grinned at each other. They stepped back outside.

…it’s a small world after all…

Errol knew leftovers would be for dinner. He walked slowly, dreamily through the city. He smelled rain coming. He arrived at the music, stood in line.

…it’s a small world after all…

Naomi, sitting in her parked patrol car, writing up another report, rolled down the window to listen. She set her paperwork aside. She opened the door.

…it’s a small world after all…

Bryce lay with his back against a wall. He’d lost his job. And then he’d lost his girlfriend. His eyes were closed. He heard the distant chime. He jumped up.

…it’s a small world after all…

Zella stood on a balcony trying to see the street below. Her old eyes were failing. She remembered the sudden bright thrill of ice cream trucks turning corners, and the merry chimes. She remembered how people at any hour would mysteriously appear from every direction to grasp melting bliss.

…it’s a small, small world.

A Half Dozen Odd Things

Agatha purchased a mystery at the swap meet. Glued to paper, pressed behind glass in a dusty frame, were a half dozen odd things.

A lottery ticket. A feather. A bus ticket. A one dollar bill. A bit of red yarn. A bookmark.

The seller at the swap meet knew nothing.

Agatha took possession of the mystery for five dollars. The frame by itself was worth almost that.

“What do you think this is?” she asked her husband after returning home.

“Another piece of junk.”

“What do you think this is supposed to be?” she asked her visiting sister.

“Looks like somebody framed their memories. You’d have to ask the person who made that what it means.”

Uncertain where to place the mystery, Agatha temporarily leaned the dusty frame behind the kitchen blender. Out of the way, but still in the range of her curious eyes.

Whatever those memories were, thought Agatha, together they were art. They were a stranger’s work of art.

But why had it been sold?

Did the lottery ticket represent a dream of the unknown stranger? Did that dream ever come true?

And what about the bus ticket? Why did the person take that particular journey? What happened then? Did they return?

Was the feather found on a special day?

Did the one dollar bill change a life?

A bit of red yarn…

A bookmark…

Bookmarks, Agatha mused, are found in stories that have more pages to turn.

Bookmarks are like brief moments in a life. They are like a lottery ticket . . . a bus ticket . . . a one dollar bill.

Bookmarks! That’s what these half dozen things were! A framed collection of used bookmarks!

From a story that had finally come to an end.

Agatha understood.

She picked up the frame, turned it over, opened it, and carefully removed the contents. She kept the frame and threw now useless things–the lottery and bus tickets–into the garbage.

Later that day she put a photo of her grandchildren inside the frame.

She placed the feather on her building’s front step for someone to find.

She dropped the one dollar bill in the hat of a man strumming his guitar on the street.

The ordinary bookmark she placed in a borrowed library book.

The bit of red yarn she also used.

Agatha loved to crochet and donate small things she made to charity. She’d work that bit of yarn in somewhere.

Money Changer

A week cashiering at the convenience store and I was bored.

Ring up beer. Ring up chips. Ring up cigarettes.

When you’re a psychology student coping with exorbitant tuition, you’ll take any job.

At first the customers kept me entertained, and some were actually interesting, but I began to observe definite behaviors and it became so predictable.

There were customers who never stopped complaining. There were customers who wanted to stand there and talk and talk and talk, about nothing, holding up the line. There were customers who’d pick up every product in the store and read every label as if they had nothing better to do.

Some of the customers were completely shameless. Right in front of my eyes they stole coins from the little plastic penny tray on the counter.

But one regular customer puzzled me.

The elderly woman came into the store every afternoon. She must’ve had a serious case of osteoporosis because her posture was severely stooped. She wore a bad wig. Standing beside her rickety little cart, the old woman would always lean against the counter and ask for two cheap chicken wings and one lottery ticket. And as she waited, she’d reach into the little plastic penny tray and start fingering the coins, picking them up, staring at one, then another, turning them over.

But she never stole.

The old woman did exactly the same thing every day. She’d reach into that tray, very deliberately turn several pennies over with her fingers, take none.

Obviously she was compulsive.

As I looked down on this pointless behavior it began to bother me. She was certainly poor. I assumed she was tempted by the presence of a few pennies. I concluded that one day she’d steal a coin or two. Like so many other customers.

Money changes people.

“Tell me,” I said one day, feeling more irritated than usual as she turned another coin over. “Why do you do keep doing that?”

She looked up at me, eyes bright. “Heads is lucky.”

I looked down at the little plastic tray. She’d turned every coin heads up.

She’d made the pennies lucky for everyone.

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 another 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.

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.

Vacuuming the Dust

When I was a young child, my parents were so horrified by the problematic behavior of my grandmother that I was seldom taken to visit her. The ancient woman lived alone in a cramped, unspeakably dirty mobile home, from which she was eventually removed. My parents saw to it that her life ended in a nice nursing facility.

I still remember words from that final visit.

As we drove several hundred miles down the interstate in my father’s Cadillac, my mother had cautioned: “Your Grandma is getting on in years and will probably act very strange. If she says something that makes no sense, just smile and be thankful that she’s still with us. We’ve tried our best to help your Grandma but she refuses to help herself. When people get very old, they sometimes get that way.”

My mother had been so appalled by the advanced disintegration of Grandma’s home that she was determined to clean everything. The objects that it contained were in complete disarray. A deep layer of dust covered nearly every surface, from the decades old carpet to the threadbare sofa to even the cracked countertops in the kitchen. It seemed Grandma ate very little.

Covering her nose as she strode through the dusty house, my mother found the corner closet where a vacuum cleaner had been abandoned.

With watery eyes Grandma silently watched my mother’s actions. The old woman sat in a folding chair that she used in the front room. The chair faced a dirty window that overlooked a narrow bed of almost dead roses.

When the old woman noticed the vacuum cleaner, she cried out feebly: “No!”

“Why not?” asked my mother. “Don’t you think it would be much nicer if your home was clean?”

“Don’t do it! Don’t!” Grandma cried, moving ineffectually in her chair, as if she were desperate to leap from it.

“Now Mom, what’s the matter with you? You used to keep a very clean house. Remember when sister and I would tramp dirt in from the Miller’s pond? You’d make us take off our shoes and mop up all the mud we tracked in.”

“It’s your father! Don’t touch him!”

“My father? What on Earth are you talking about? We were all at his funeral last year. You remember that.”

“Don’t do it!”

“But I’m just going to run the vacuum for a minute. It’s nothing but dust, Mom, you know that.”

“Dust is everything!” Grandma protested strangely.

“Okay, now you’re being unreasonable. It’s nothing but a layer of dust and it isn’t healthy for you to live in it. I’m going to clean your house and it’s going to be so much better that you’ll thank me when I’m done.”

“No I won’t!” the disconsolate voice cried. “The dust is your father. It’s your grandmother and grandfather. It’s the dead coming back. It’s everything. It’s dead leaves and dying roses.”

My mother shook her head hopelessly, laughed out loud.

“Dust is everything,” the old woman cried. “It’s your father and his dreams. It’s years gone by. How they are remembered. It’s you and your sister. It’s everything we did. It’s the mountains where we camped and the stars we looked at.”

My mother rolled her eyes and switched on the vacuum.

A Song for Old Warriors

The old men sat under a canopy before the marble monument. They had fought in World War II. Many were in wheelchairs. All would soon die.

The warriors struggled to stand up for the advancement of the color guard, and they remained standing for the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer. They quietly retook their seats.

A retired general approached the podium and spoke about the nightmare war long ago and those who fought. He recalled how a multitude of ordinary citizens–janitors, farmers, factory workers–had come together to defend high ideals. The heads of the very old men did not move.

A singer was then introduced. She was a little girl, just seven years old. She wore a vest of silvery sequins. Her face was made up with red lipstick. Microphone in hand, the very young girl glided confidently onto the stage and raised two pale arms. With a booming voice she began God Bless America while her grinning father circled with a video camera, recording his starlet.

As she sang the tiny girl stepped down from the stage and sashayed with her microphone up to the inscrutable faces of the old men. Her own face beamed with affection, and her hands formed exaggerated gestures as she directly addressed each gray head. The performance seemed an act learned by a child from television. The bold familiarity, perhaps tolerable in an adult, was unsettling from a seven-year-old girl.

The girl’s voice climbed until it wavered. Her high voice strained to exploit every syllable of the song. It sought to imbue every word with an infinity of feeling. The child floated in front of the very old men with her twinkling eyes, and she smiled with absolute sincerity.

The heads of the warriors did not move.

As I observed this strange performance from the back row, I was struck by the eyes of the precocious little girl. Her eyes were so bright.

Then I understood.

The performance came from a little girl’s heart. She was a budding life. Her ambition was to shine. Her hope was to shine a bright light upon those who listened.

Before her sat warriors who had fought against darkness, and who would soon return to the inescapable darkness.

The song reached a resounding crescendo. The very young girl raised her hands theatrically, palms upward.

“. . . my home sweet home.”

Some of the old men struggled to their feet for a standing ovation. Some sat and wept.