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.

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.

A Ship Without Ghosts

Simon had felt curious about the century-old ferryboat. That’s why he sat for a few minutes in the center of the elegant passenger deck. Nobody else was present. Even on an early Saturday afternoon, the museum ship was dead.

As he rested on one of the many varnished wooden benches, Simon was touched with wonder. The eternal sun was beaming through the wide, open windows on the port side; it shined through panels of stained glass that crowned every window. Rays of bright colors made small rainbows in floating dust. Obviously, ordinary people had once traveled in high style. Light reflecting off the water outside twinkled on carved rosettes in the ivory-like ceiling. The spacious passenger deck seemed almost holy: perfect, light-filled, quiet.

Empty and quiet.

Simon tried to imagine passengers sitting all around him on those rows and rows of elegant benches. He tried to imagine what they might talk about, crumpled newspapers in hand. He tried to imagine what they wore, their facial expressions, their innumerable stories, their hardships and destinations.

He struggled to see it.

Simon did observe in a shadowed corner near the ceiling a place where the wood was rotted. He noted dust under the benches, mildew along window sills, missing tiles on the dirty turquoise and gold checkered floor.

“Do you have any questions?” a voice startled him.

He turned about to see a white-bearded museum docent. The gentleman in a ratty sea captain’s cap stood with a small smile, patiently awaiting a question.

To his own surprise, Simon’s mind was blank. So many vague questions–he really didn’t know what to say. None of it seemed to matter.

“Why does nobody come here?” Simon finally asked, ending an uncomfortable silence.

“People no longer care about ships,” came the smiling reply. “Ships are old news.”

“Old news?”

“Passengers don’t travel by ship anymore. Not the way they once did. People nowadays just see them in television or movies. Pirate ships, mostly.”

“But aren’t people even curious to see what it was like to ride on a vintage ferryboat? When I was a very young child I rode on an amazing old ferryboat. I still remember the shining ornamental brasswork. I remember that feeling of floating on the water, and gazing out a window at the sparkling bay. I remember my sister buying me a Hershey’s candy bar from a man in a uniform behind a polished counter. It wasn’t that long ago.”

“Look around at this big crowd. How curious do you think people are?”

“I see what you mean.”

The docent smiled. “Any more questions?”

“Yes. Wait–” Simon searched his mind. “I don’t get it. There are people who drive down the highway past this old ship almost every single day, going to and from work, or going somewhere else, but nobody even wants to stop and take a look inside? Do you think that’s because people are too busy?”

“Yes, everybody’s busy. But there’s no need to stop. See this?” The man pulled from his pocket a brand new smartphone. “Today every one of us carries a tiny universe in the palm of our hand. Everyone can see a nice picture of everything.”

“But it isn’t real!”

“Oh, yes it is.”

“But what about the sea breeze coming through the windows . . . and the ship’s roll . . . and the salty smell . . . and the wood’s shine? What about the piercing cries of gulls above . . . and the sparkling water below . . . and sunlight through stained glass? What about the faint echoes of those who lived . . . words spoken stranger to stranger over crumpled newspapers? The infinite stories that speak from the dust?”

“Only this ship’s ghosts can remember those things,” replied the white-bearded docent.

The old man waved his smartphone, jammed it back into his pocket. “And ghosts, as you know, don’t exist.”

“But you– And me–”

The man turned away.

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.

Elvis and the Time Machine

You’ve probably seen Elvis–with that ridiculous hair, upturned collar and sequined jumpsuit–riding his Time Machine up and down Main Street every single day. I’m not sure where in town the guy lives. But he’s out there riding the Time Machine up and down the street and, I’m positive, savoring every minute of it.

Everyone laughs. Many shake their head. That absurd Time Machine is impossible to miss.

Bright silver-painted cardboard panels envelope the rickety little bicycle. It’s like the rocket ship dream of a child–with fins, and a whirling red police light mounted behind the bicycle seat, and flying streamers on the handlebars, and a galaxy of painted stars, and spelled out on the cardboard on both sides in big glittery letters: TIME MACHINE.

Veering with abandon, good old Elvis steers his Time Machine up and down Main Street all the live-long day. Pedaling forward, moving through time.

First Street.

The traffic light turns green.

Second Street.

The church clock strikes the quarter hour.

Third Street.

The sun moves higher above the horizon.

Fourth Street.

A woman opens the window shades, breathes in and gazes across the land.

Fifth Street.

Secret lovers behind the gas station kiss and part.

Fourth Street.

A boy forgets his school books and sprints back home.

Third Street.

A man remembers how his uncle burned the casserole the night before and laughs.

Second Street.

A wrinkled hand wipes away sudden tears.

First Street.

A nearby dog barks.

Second Street.

A rocking chair rocks.

Forward through time Elvis travels, his preposterous Time Machine shining brightly like a shooting star.

Back and forth, up and down Main Street he pedals.

A Short Bloom

The old man was puzzled by so many selfies.

“Why? Because people want to see themselves in Heaven,” explained the gardener. He held a rake loosely in one hand. The park was crowded.

“That is why eyes look into cameras, into lenses. For one moment in spring the cherry blossoms bloom, so everybody smiles, frames their own face.

“They would like to appear in Heaven. But few understand the nature of what they see.

“Blossoms soon fall. Blooms are crushed under feet.

“With a button every person will make a painting of Heaven. Perfect white and pink clouds, angel faces, snowflakes fluttering in this unending wind.

“But snow melts into the thirsty Earth. Delicate blossoms are tread to dust by a thousand searching feet. All things return to the Earth. This good Earth.

“Paintings are put into vaults. And we become old.”