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.

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 always 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.

The Teddy Bear

As the meeting broke up, Reggie and I stood by the conference room window, gazing down at the city.

Many stories below it was a typical weekday. Cars pushed down the avenue. People hurried to and fro along the sidewalk, scurried into and out of buildings.

“There he is again,” I remarked, pointing straight down. Moving past our front door was a homeless man.

At one time or another everybody in the office had encountered this homeless person. Every day the man shuffled along in front of our building, wearing the same shredded clothing, face lost in caveman hair. But today he carried an enormous teddy bear.

“He must’ve won it at the county fair last summer,” joked Reggie.

“Leave him alone,” Beverly chided, having gathered her laptop and folders. “You don’t know his story. He obviously has a mental condition.” She hurried out of the conference room.

“Obviously,” Reggie said to me and laughed. “Remember that woman who looked like a corpse who used to hang out at the bus stop screaming and shouting? Now that was one loony tune. I wonder what happened to her. Probably overdosed.

“Oh, check this out,” he continued enthusiastically. “A couple days ago I saw a guy steal a ladder. I was in line at the bank looking out the window when I saw some homeless guy grab a ladder leaning up against a building. Then he starts running off with it. Then here comes a security guard running after him!”

I laughed.

During lunch hour I had to go to the bank myself.

After dumping cold coffee I rode the elevator down to the lobby and stepped out onto the busy street.

With less than an hour I had to hurry. I had to walk five blocks to the bank, wait forever in line then return in time for the next meeting.

It appeared everyone else in the city had urgent business, too. People on a mission flooded down the concrete channels, careful not to collide.

They streamed smoothly along, like ball bearings that were magnetized, each repelling.

Thousands of paths intersected but seldom touched.

I crossed Fourth Avenue and turned a corner. And there he was half a block away, shuffling very slowly toward me. The homeless man. Carrying that enormous teddy bear.

The man was shambling along as if he were aimless and had no place to go. His face was hidden in hair. His two bare arms closely hugged the bear. With unseen eyes he seemed to stare straight ahead through every person that passed by.

I regarded the huge teddy bear and all of a sudden imagined the homeless man as a small child. In my mind I removed his beard, clipped his hair, erased grime and the cruelty of Time to picture him–try to imagine him as a very young child. And I wondered if, once upon a time, he’d been happy.

How could a child know he’d spend years of his life on the cold street?

As I drew near the man, a disturbing truth became evident. Contrasted with his very dirty arms and ruined clothes, the large teddy bear was clean and new. Where had he grabbed it?

The bear certainly didn’t belong to him. I wondered if there was a child somewhere in the city that was heartbroken.

The homeless man was in front of me. Pretending I didn’t see him, I veered to one side.

He blocked me.

“I found this on the street,” he said clearly, presenting me with the teddy bear. “Is it yours?”

The Good of People

Midnight passed.

I found myself beneath the city, riding home on the subway with the homeless, the aimless, the guilty, the silent. Beyond the windows rushed darkness. Cold light filled the car. Eyes avoided eyes.

Secretly, without betraying my curiosity, I studied the late night passengers who rode with me.

Several feet away in a wheelchair sat an extremely old man. He wore a tattered bathrobe. His head had fallen to his chest. He was tipping forward. I thought he might spill onto the floor at any moment.

Across from the old man, two riders sat with lowered eyes.

One had long peroxide hair, blue fingernails, hollow eyes and gaunt cheeks–a prostitute. She appeared to be twenty going on fifty. Hands trembling. A meth addict.

The other was a man whose hardened face and shaved head were covered with crude tattoos. Etched in prison, I surmised.

I was careful that neither noticed me.

The prostitute wore a tiny skirt and heavy winter jacket. Both of her legs were scarred. I wondered how she received those scars and how she might have smiled when she began down her path. Through what turns had she come to be seated there? Did she ever think about her future?

The man with the tattoos wore an angry expression that seemed permanent. I tried to imagine the crimes he might have committed. His mask of tattoos contained a clown, a skull and a gun, and painful words that would never be erased.

I lifted my gaze a fraction to observe others who rode after midnight. I found more of the same: eyes aimed nowhere.

Where were these people going? To what end did their lives lead?

As I looked on critically, I realized these late night riders of the subway were no different than anyone else. Moving through time hoping to find a place where they might be whole.

These lives had been reduced to futile existence. Drifting through a black tunnel unseen. Riding forward, station after station after station after station, never arriving.

How many in this world ride with no destination? I wondered.

What is the good of people?

The old man drooping in the wheelchair suddenly toppled onto the floor.

Two passengers jumped up.

The young prostitute leaned over and reached toward the old man with her trembling hand.

“Are you okay, bro?” asked the man with the tattoos, as he helped the old man back up into the wheelchair.

I did nothing.

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.

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’m crazy. No, Edith, everyone in 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?” His 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.”

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,” he continued. “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 Monument to Remember

I’m not exactly sure why I spent Sunday mornings sitting on a cold bench near that monument. It seemed a suitable place to read a book. I suppose my attraction to the place had something to do with words engraved in marble. A feeling of permanence.

Those mornings I wasn’t the only one drawn to the park. Rested and ready, fresh out of nearby hotels, tourists hurried past beds of flowers in order to conquer the city.

The shining monument, in the shape of an erect, pointed obelisk, was so conspicuous that eager eyes couldn’t possibly miss it.

Legs inevitably turned. Feet halted by the solemn black plaque at the obelisk’s base. Selfie sticks rose. Satisfied poses were effected.

If I really wanted to hurt myself, I lowered my book and opened my mouth to play a simple game. “Do you know why that monument is there?” I asked.

Most couldn’t say.