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.

To Last Forever

You have fifteen minutes to make something that will last forever. That was the classroom exercise on Wednesday.

The teacher had reminded her students that even the pyramids were crumbling.

Wagner looked at the objects spilled on the classroom floor. There were hammers, brushes, a box of nails, plywood in different dimensions, cans of paint. And fourteen minutes.

Wagner wondered what he could make in those few minutes that would last forever. Forever was a long time.

Perhaps a masterpiece that ended up in a museum. But he wasn’t a famous artist, and he had a strong hunch he never would be. Now thirteen minutes.

Or he could create an artifact to be discovered by an archaeologist in the distant future. But wood rots. Twelve minutes.

Thinking about world history, Wagner realized that in thousands of years museums disappear, too. Eleven minutes.

Like the pyramids, everything in the world eventually crumbles. Ten minutes.

Forever has no end. Nine minutes.

What is forever?

He tried to visualize the immensity of forever.

One moment in forever is almost nothing. It is a drop in the ocean that is the cosmos. An infinitesimal drop, in an infinite ocean that unifies all things. With ripples that expand outward without end. Only five minutes left.

You have fifteen minutes to make something that will last forever. Wagner figured there must be a solution to the problem. His teacher had a purpose. Three minutes.

He looked across the classroom at his teacher, who stood in a corner smiling at her students. Most of the students were busy painting or hammering. Wagner wasn’t. Two minutes.

Wagner saw in his teacher’s eyes that there was a solution. Her eyes turned toward him and she nodded. One minute.

You have fifteen minutes to make something that will last forever. Suddenly Wagner knew the answer.

He walked up to his teacher and reached out his hand with gratitude. They made the connection.

“This is the answer,” he said.

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?”

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.”

Father’s Paintbrush

My father’s hobby was painting. You’ve probably never heard of him because he never became known. He never sold anything.

When I was a very young boy I often watched Father standing before his easel on our green lawn, painting ordinary scenes from our backyard. It’s one of the few things from my early childhood I still remember.

He’d paint the old oak tree with its rope swing. Or the hibiscus bush with its flaming red flowers tangled in the dirty white fence. Or that small birdbath at the center of our lawn.

His act of painting had seemed magic to me. I remember how I’d look up to watch him paint a cat on the fence, and then he’d smile down at me and point to the fence. There was the cat!

I’d watch him paint a cloud that looked exactly like a mountain peak in the blue sky. And he’d point to a cloud that looked exactly like a mountain peak in the blue sky!

His paintbrush, to me, was a magician’s wand that created the wonders all around me. His brush created sudden tiny flowers in the grass and shining golden leaves. It materialized an entire bright world. When you’re very young, you believe anything.

His finished paintings were hung in a corner of our garage until the dim garage resembled a dusky art gallery, crammed with oak trees and red flowers and birdbaths and mysterious cats and clouds that resembled many things. When the big garage door opened it seemed as if the sun had just risen: and there in new light were those moments of magic, framed by hanging garden tools!

I remember something else. When my father painted, I’d beg that he summon impossible things. I wanted his magic paintbrush to create an elephant in our backyard. Or a dinosaur. Or a castle. A spaceship popping onto our lawn would be so amazing! But, no, he explained, he didn’t know how to paint those things. It was a big disappointment to my credulous mind that a shiny silver spaceship would never pop into our backyard.

Of course, the day came when I learned paintbrushes aren’t magic. That was the day I ran outside and stopped beside my father and saw that he was painting a strange man. The strange man stood mysteriously on the green lawn, between the oak tree and birdbath. I was confused. I looked from the painting to the lawn and nobody was there. Just grass.

The man painted on the canvas resembled nobody I knew. To me it seemed as though Father had summoned a stranger into our backyard, but the stranger had not come yet. I stared at the painting feeling disappointed. Perhaps the strange person would leap over the dirty white fence at any moment and stand before us.

Obviously, it didn’t happen.

That painting like all the others ended up in our garage, and so did the strange man, standing between the oak tree and bird bath and the hanging garden tools. That my father’s paintbrush wasn’t magic after all saddened me for a day or two, but I soon was laughing. Paintings are nothing but paintings.

As you grow older you discover the truth. You learn to differentiate between fantasy and reality.

You understand there is no magic. And you become embarrassed about silly things you actually believed as a child.

After my father died, my wife and I returned to the old house. We inventoried the clutter in the old bedrooms, the kitchen, dining room and family room. I lifted open the big garage door and there in that new dawn of light were all the paintings exactly as I remembered them: oak tree, small birdbath, cat, clouds.

Gazing at scenes that had been rendered by Father years and years ago, I wondered if anything I faintly remembered had been real. Had that cat really been sitting on our fence or had I merely imagined it? Had there been a cloud of that particular shape in the sky?

My wife, standing beside me, suddenly pointed at one painting just above eye level.

She put her hands to her mouth. “Oh my God!”

It was the painting of the strange adult man standing on our lawn. The man appeared exactly like me.

Poem to Myself

Gerald hated his job. His boss gave him another warning.

Traffic on the freeway going home was worse than ever. His wife asked why he refused to pick up groceries. Another weekend would be wasted with that septic tank problem. The house stank.

Saturday morning the backhoe arrived at the house. The operator, Gerald quickly concluded, was stupid and incompetent.

The backhoe chewed up the back lawn and piled it on the tile patio. The hole grew deeper as Gerald watched. That’s five thousand dollars of my hard-earned money, he thought with mounting anger. Because of a tank clogged with shit.

“Watch what you’re doing! There’s an irrigation line that runs this way. If you cut into any of my pipes, you’re going to pay for it,” he threatened the backhoe operator.

The idiot, Gerald thought to himself. This jerk couldn’t care less about my home.

Gerald had lived in that same house his entire life. He had inherited it from his parents. And now it would stink until the end of time.

With a rage that grew and grew, he watched as his green lawn turned into a pit.

There was a soft metallic sound. The backhoe operator switched off the engine.

What the hell now? Gerald wondered.

The operator stepped down and descended carefully into the hole to determine what he had struck. He carried out something and handed it to Gerald. “It looks like some kind of box.”

“Give me that!” demanded Gerald, seizing the thing, wondering if the mysteriously buried box contained anything of value.

The box was very light and the size of a cookie tin. It was completely wrapped in black electrical tape. His annoyance turned to sudden greed.

He took the box to the patio table and sat down, brushed off a crust of dirt and turned the thing over and over with anticipation. He found one side that seemed to have a lid. He pulled out his pocket knife to cut the black tape around it.

It was indeed a cookie tin, and inside were several objects. He pulled out a folded sheet of paper. Written by the hand of a child were the words:

I put these in a time capsule in case I need them in the future.

Inside the cookie tin were a few wrapped candies, a plastic dinosaur, an old ticket stub to a baseball game, an airplane made of glued Popsicle sticks, and a smiling face drawn on construction paper.

At the bottom of the tin lay a second sheet of paper. Written in Gerald’s own hand were the words:

Poem to Myself

I buried these things underground,
a place where memories are found,
hoping this heart of mine
will not forget to shine and shine.
Here’s a treasure box to my
future self there in the sky.

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.

The Parade

Boom forward, boom forward, trumpet forward, step.
Flags forward, baton forward, marching forward, step.
Dancing forward, smiles forward, twirling forward, step.
Cheering forward, waving forward, banners forward, step.
Legs forward, face forward, step forward, stop.

Boom forward, drums forward, trumpets forward, step.
Singing forward, pom-poms forward, dancing forward, step.
Clowns forward, floats forward, trombones forward, step.
Always forward, smiling forward, banners forward, step.
Surging, surging, ever forward, stop.

The Recovered Artifact

Do you remember those storms we had fifteen or twenty years ago? When dozens of houses were destroyed by mudslides? And the highway south of town was closed for a week?

I still remember how, exhausted from shoveling the mud on our driveway, I collapsed and sat on a slimy spot of curb gazing down the street. Several houses near the dead end were buried.

After a weeks of pouring rain the mud flows had become unstoppable. It seemed the hills around our neighborhood had been whipped by a gigantic blender and the earth reduced to brown rivers. I realize people overuse the word surreal, but the world I saw was surreal. The familiar street had been smothered by a relentless plain of mud. Ruthless mud that was primordial. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

As my tired eyes searched for the vanished street, or anything that might be recognizable, I wondered if our neighborhood could ever return to normal. That’s when I noticed a small object lying on the mud several feet from where I sat. I got up. I trudged over to pick the thing up.

It was a cast iron horse, about two inches in length.

Imagine my surprise.

I stared into my hand at the unexpected thing.

Buried in the hills of our neighborhood are centuries of history. From time to time bits of that history surface: an arrowhead, a shard of broken pottery, a disintegrating coin.

I wondered if this was an artifact from an age long past unburied by the rains and revealed again to living eyes. I turned the tiny cast iron horse over in my hand, removing the mud, and examined it closely. It was a very simple thing. Neither the head nor mane showed much detail. The legs were galloping. It had probably been a plaything of a child.

The more I stared at this mysterious artifact, and the more I wondered where it might have originated, the more primitive it appeared.

Archaeology has always fascinated me. To such an extent that I’ve taken several college courses.

I’ve seen galloping horses on the coins of Carthage and Ancient Corinth. I’ve seen the Bronze Running Horse from a 2nd century tomb in China. I have marveled at those friezes of Greek horses charging into battle with arching heads and curling manes, or taking flight on Pegasus wings. To my mind, this small horse appeared even more ancient. It seemed to have flown from a stone age cave painting directly into my hand.

The simple shape of the cast iron horse was timeless. The bounding figure possessed a carefree quality that spoke of unbreakable freedom. In that small thing I saw a symbol of life’s adamant tenacity. It was a thing that devouring forces could not destroy.

As I stood in the mud admiring a mysterious artifact that had emerged from the Earth, I became aware someone was standing near me.

“You found my horsey!” a child suddenly cried, hurrying forward, hands outstretched.

All Things Will Speak

When tongues are silent the stones will speak. As will the trees and the rivers and the rainbows and the stars.

When tongues cease, all things will speak gladly, freely.

The stones will speak of crumbling and the crucible.

The trees will speak of their unquenchable thirst and deep roots and seasons.

The rivers will speak of the ocean, and the rainbows will speak of the sun.

The stars will speak their infinite wisdom in a twinkling whisper.