A Distant Place

I work part-time at a library. It’s something to do during my semi-retirement. I’m that person who silently pushes a cart around, placing returned books back on the shelves.

Weaving the book cart between library patrons, I often wonder about those who sit alone, reading, writing, staring out a window. What is their life story?

When you’re old like me and life is mostly memories, you think about such things.

I remember how last year, right when the library opened, a man wearing dark glasses and dressed in suit and tie would always be waiting outside. Feeling his way with a white cane, he’d come through the door. Silently he’d navigate past the front counter, past the biographies and travel and reference books, and settle in a chair in a corner.

And he’d sit there for hours, alone.

As I moved through the library shelving books, I’d occasionally glance toward the man and wonder about his story. From where did he come? And what was he thinking about as he sat there with an unreadable, expressionless face. I couldn’t see behind those dark glasses.

One afternoon I felt courageous.

I approached him.

“Hello,” I offered. “I was just putting one of my favorite books back on the shelf. And that made me wonder–do you have a favorite book?”

“Yes I do,” replied the man so suddenly I nearly jumped.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I’ve always loved that story by Tolkien–The Lord of the Rings.”

He spoke with an even, intelligent voice, but his face remained strangely expressionless. I wished I had seen a little emotion. I happen to love Tolkien’s fantasy, too.

“When was the last time you read–” I caught myself. Of course he couldn’t see to read. I was unnerved by my stupid slip, embarrassed. But he might read Braille . . .

The man explained: “I read it a long time ago.”

“I love The Lord of the Rings, too. Do you mind if I sit here and read you a few pages? You might enjoy it.”

After a long pause, he replied, “I would.”

I found The Fellowship of the Ring, sat down in a chair beside this mysterious person, whose face remained impassive, and I began. “Concerning Hobbits…

The man listened for half an hour that day, and again the following day, and for many days that followed.

Whenever he heard me approach his chair–he must have recognized my footsteps–he would greet me politely.

“Where were we?” I’d ask.

“Making our way through Middle Earth,” he’d affirm.

As I started to read, as he listened to more pages of the bright, bounding fantasy, his face would remain a mask, eyes hidden behind those dark glasses. Was he far away traveling through Middle Earth?

Near the end of the story I thought I could detect in his face a minute betrayal of emotion. It was that scene where Frodo, Bilbo and others who’ve borne rings of power finally depart Middle Earth . . . sailing away to that distant place beyond the sparkling curtain . . . where eyes can behold white shores . . . and beyond . . .

When ordinary, faithful Sam finally returned home to his normal life, and The Return of the King closed, I saw a tear escaping from behind dark glasses.

“I’m sorry– I didn’t mean to–” I said.

At once the man reached for his cane and shot up, almost tipping his chair. I had to quickly sidestep as he lunged past me for the library’s front door. He departed without a word.

I never saw him in the library again.

But the next day I did see him in front of library. He was sitting in the sunny courtyard by the library’s entrance. He sat near the bed of roses on a bench facing our bright sparkling fountain.

Every day that followed I saw him sitting there, behind dark glasses, like a statue. He seemed to be listening to the whispers of the splashing fountain.

Even when it rained he sat on that bench, slightly sheltered by a flowering tree, and I wondered if I should be happy I read that story with him, or sad.

The Highest Seat

I had a friend named Nick. We used to have long conversations in the city park while sitting on a bench: I on one end, he on the other.

Nick would sit there with his eyes closed, listening through headphones to what he called the music of the spheres. I never heard his music, so I couldn’t tell you what he meant.

While he was listening to his music, I’d sit on the other end of the bench people watching. Watching random joggers and walkers. He and I were quite different.

When Nick opened his eyes and they met mine we talked.

Nick loved to talk about astronomy. For many years he’d worked as projectionist at the city park’s planetarium, operating a unique device called a star projector. From the projector’s starball shined points of light. Thin rays of light formed constellations on the planetarium’s black dome-shaped screen. The starball slowly revolved like the Earth.

Space was his obsession. Nick knew the orbit of every planet and every moon. He could name hundreds of stars. He knew everything there was to know about comets, and Saturn’s rings, and Jupiter’s spot–I forget what it’s called–and far galaxies at the very edge of the Universe. He knew the date and time of every eclipse. All he ever talked about was space.

He’d been retired from that job as projectionist for years and now he sat in the park and listened with eyes closed to his music of the spheres. A few times I caught him on that bench after dark. He was staring up at the twinkling stars.

He used to tell me that the best seat in a planetarium is the highest one–right up near the domed ceiling. It’s the seat nearest the stars. But people seldom climb those steep stairs. People like the easy seats.

He finally retired from that projectionist job when the planetarium began to show nothing but documentary films on its giant, curved screen. You know, those movies that take you soaring above skyscrapers or for a ride on a roller coaster. The world around and under you seems so solid that you get motion sickness. He hated those films. I didn’t understand why.

He once told me he’d been born too early. He wanted to go flying through space. Among the stars.

After he passed away, I still would sit on that same park bench.

Whenever I walked past the old planetarium-turned-theater I wondered what the stars might have been like in there.

One day I saw the theater was showing a documentary film about outer space. I decided to buy a ticket. To see what the experience might be like.

I made my way into the dark theater. I found some ascending steps. It was so dark that I had to feel my way with groping hands. Nick was right. The higher seats were mostly empty.

Up, up those steep steps I climbed through the darkness until I reached the last seat. The highest one. The one nearest the screen. Still standing, I tilted my head back to examine the black, arching screen. It seemed so vast, like space. It appeared almost close enough to touch.

Suddenly the movie started. Stars appeared.

When I looked down, ready to sit in that highest seat, I discovered a faintly glimmering thing. A brass plaque.

Bending down to look closely, I could barely read: In remembrance of Nicolas, projectionist. His light made every star.

Night Walking

The house had eyes.

The porch was a chin. The front door, a mouth.

Eli arrived home late, exhausted after another day’s work.

He parked on the driveway, locked his car, crossed stepping stones and climbed to the porch. The porch was a chin. He entered the mouth.

Late that night, after Eli had turned off all the lights and wrapped himself in warm blankets, the dark windows of the house blinked awake. Starlight filled eyes.

Rising from the ground, the house began to walk.

It walked past a row of gray lawns and sleeping houses and turned at Elm Street.

It walked past the dark gas station and the dark liquor store.

It turned onto Main Street and walked past the post office, bank, supermarket. It walked through the black shadows of the junkyard.

The eyes of the house twinkled right and left as they searched the night.

The house passed a cat prowling through an empty lot. It passed under a bat fluttering into the night from under a bridge. It walked past a row of black cedar trees and a lifted finger that was a church steeple. It moved beside pale nightshades that tumbled from inside the iron fence of the cemetery. It observed the hands of the town clock grasping eternity.

Under remote stars the house roamed.

A strange dream moved it. An impossible dream that was wrapped behind its eyes. A dream that was brighter than the stars, that turned gray shadows to certainties and the solemn dark to a thousand brilliant colors.

Walking through the night, the house at last found what it sought.

Eli woke as the sun rose above the horizon.

He looked out at the familiar street from his bedroom window, at the newly mown lawn and bed of cheerful yellow gardenias.

He was ready for another day.

A Bowl of Soup

George carefully arranged a few letters. He maneuvered an O next to an N and poked about with his spoon searching for an C. There had to be a C in there somewhere.

“This alphabet soup is really yummy,” said Abbie, finishing her own bowl. “Eat it before it’s cold.”

With an additional letter George completed a word. Then he started working on his next word. “You know,” he said, “with a large enough bowl I could finish writing my novel. This isn’t just any novel, mind you, but possibly the most brilliant novel ever written. You’re probably sitting across from the next Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Leo Tolstoy. Generations of readers will admire my soup.”

“Oh, seriously,” laughed Abbie. She sat watching him incredulously.

George labored with his soup for a good five minutes.

“My novel’s opening sentence is almost done. Fortunately it isn’t as long as It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. I’m keeping it simple.”

“Because alphabet pasta is slippery,” Abbie laughed.

“Because brevity is the soul of wit!” George replied cheerfully, feeling a little hurt. “Sometimes an author can say more by saying less.”

Abbie rolled her eyes.

“This construct of pasta floating before you,” he continued, “is no different than literature. What you see are the few letters writers combine to produce profound revelations. Assembled brilliantly, these are the same letters great novelists use to convey a reader to new heights, to lofty regions previously unexplored. These are the very same letters typed out by the world’s most celebrated poets and philosophers. Sequenced in the correct way, these small symbols help a mind perceive truth.” He floated another letter into place to finally form a sentence. “See!”

She dipped her spoon into the sentence and tested it. “Your soup’s cold.”

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.

The Wheel

The potter sat before a turning wheel making a bowl . . . or a vase.

The potter’s hands expertly manipulated the spinning clay. Several visitors stood watching. It was a late Sunday afternoon at the Artist Collective.

I looked up at the many glazed ceramics on nearby shelves. My eyes took in row upon row of shining bowls and vases and cups and plates, in every possible shape, each and every one beautiful.

I observed the artist. “How do you know when you’re done?” I asked.

The potter laughed and shook her head. “Good question!”

The wheel kept turning as the potter’s hands compelled her creation. The clay suddenly grew tall like a tower, then expanded outward like an opening flower.

The spinning thing bulged, narrowed, ripples appeared, were smoothed away. Like soft skin touched with a finger.

Something organic emerged from the potter’s clay-covered hands, developed shoulders, a neck, a lip. Perhaps it was a vase.

The potter removed her dripping hands to examine the whirling creation. It was not quite born, suspended in space. She changed the posture of her fingers and the clay resumed its undulations.

The eyes of the artist seemed never satisfied.

The creation spun through endless permutations of beauty, and I didn’t understand how one curve would be considered more beautiful than another. There was an infinity at the center of the wheel: a door to a place of transcendent possibility: the eternal dream from which all things spring.

But only one fleeting vision would be subjected to fire.

The wheel stopped.

The potter thrust her clay-covered hands into the air, as if in surrender or triumph. “Done!”

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.

Small Pleasures

“The concept is to make your world more real. You apply a tiny stain to one place, or add a smudge of grease, or even use a fine brush to paint graffiti.”

The model railroader was showing a visitor his layout.

“Look at these boxcars. They look exactly like miniature versions of the real thing. You can’t make your objects too dirty.

“See that train coming across the bridge? I aged the locomotive with a mild acid solution, then I carefully added soot, dust and exhaust. I used acrylic paint to blacken the grills and create rust.

“Over here, I weathered the train station with sandpaper and deliberately broke one of the steps leading to the side door. I even put some mold in the waiting room. But to see that you have to peer through this little window.”

The model railroader laughed. “I’ve spent hundreds of hours trying to make this layout as realistic as possible. Look at the steel bridge and the forested mountain, the city park and city streets. Look closely at the sidewalks, the litter, the shop windows and busy people.

“But you know what makes this world really convincing?

“Trouble.

“See that railroad crossing gate? I made it drop down on top of a car.

“A driver has jumped out of another car in the traffic jam and is waving his fist.

“A delivery truck has suddenly veered to avoid an accident, and a load of barrels has tumbled out.

“One barrel is still rolling two blocks away.

“The ladder of the arriving fire engine is swinging out of control. It knocked over a pretzel stand. And here come dozens of stray dogs.

“Frightened by stampeding dogs, two lovers in the park have jumped up onto a bench.

“A police officer has climbed a tree.

“The pilot of a hot air balloon, watching the chaos below, has become tangled on a church steeple.

“Down every little street, around every corner, trouble percolates and spreads like ripples on a pond. It’s a world made farcical by trouble. And not a single little person has the ability to escape. They remain where I glued them.”

The model railroader waved an arm proudly above his meticulously constructed world.

“When you look down and find unbounded chaos, you know it’s real.”

The visitor gazed at small pleasures and laughed.

What the Giant Saw

According to ancient legend, a giant had piled rocks on the bank of the river, creating a dark mountain. The mountain was a cairn, placed by the giant so that one day he could find his way back from the frozen North, to take revenge on the knights of old.

One morning the returning giant suddenly appeared over the mountain. He placed his hairy hand atop the rocky peak and sat down, cooling his feet in the trickle of river.

“What’s this?” he asked with a voice like thunder.

Across the river there had been a strange change. The castle had vanished. No knights in bright armor charged out to meet him.

Before him lay a postpostmodern city. Ant-size automated cars traversed a network of unpeopled streets, moving in straight lines from one point to another, then to another, then to another, then to another. The self-driving cars moved with perfect regularity between rows of identical, windowless edifices. The pod-like cars were also windowless, designed to deflect dangerous sunlight and conserve precious energy. They transported their minuscule cargoes with perfected efficiency.

The giant stared for a few minutes at the lifeless scene. None of it seemed real.

He soon lost interest.

As he stood up to return north, the clumsy giant accidentally knocked down a stone from the top of his useless cairn.

The catastrophic flood was beyond understanding.