As I stood at the corner of a busy intersection waiting for a green light, I noticed a man with a horrific beard sitting half-naked on the sidewalk. His fist gripped a magic marker and he was writing prolifically on a rectangle of cardboard.
From my distance I couldn’t read what the man had written. I did observe he was creating the enormous word GOD. He was broadening the lines of GOD with precise attention. Working carefully, very deliberately. Like a true artist.
Making GOD bold. Preparing for his daily appeal.
My eyes were drawn to the earthy arms, earthy legs, blackened feet in broken sandals.
As I waited to cross the intersection, a clean-shaven man wearing khaki shorts came up to the writing man and stared down with a smile.
Just as the light turned, the man looking down burst out laughing.
“GOD!” one roared.
The student doodled, wondered why a whale would be white, made a note in the book’s margin, underlined a sentence.
His pen descended again but couldn’t harpoon words. The elusive whale submerged into unseen pages.
The young man slammed the book shut and jammed it into his heavy backpack. He slung the bundled freight over one shoulder and rose from the desk.
The white whale moved, too.
It swam inside inky darkness, from one book to another.
It moved through Physics, Biology, Sociology, Philosophy, Religion, Statistics, History. It migrated from ocean to ocean.
The student quickly navigated to his next classroom. Thinking of nothing. Thinking of everything. Suddenly he felt the whale slip into his bent back, shiver up his spine, then a whirl of awful whiteness in his head.
Anxiously he sought a harpoon.
But the whale swam away.
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, struggled 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.
A painter stepped carefully across tumbled rocks to the very end of the jetty. She placed her easel on a flat table of rock.
She opened the menu:
Sea-splashed rocks stretching back to the shore. Glistening cubes of jello.
Blue ripples of water on the sheltered side of the jetty. Spatula-dabbed blueberry frosting.
The mast-filled marina. Toothpicks in marshmallows on a bright silver tray.
The lighthouse at the end of Moondown Point. A peppermint stick.
The clouds above a shoulder of mountain. Whipped cream.
The contours of Earth. Spooned chocolate pudding.
Nearby cottages. Gumdrops.
The beach. Gently rolled, sugary white fudge, with a mouthwatering variety of tasty sprinkles.
Umbrellas along the sand. Tempting lollipops.
Her eyes turned.
A rimless bowl of water. Only water . . . and formless light.
A long, deep, quenching drink of simple water.
“Try one more time! I know you can catch it!”
Randy’s father tossed the ball a bit too high. The ball sailed through the sun and bounced off a rusting patio chair.
“I got it!” Randy shouted.
The four-year-old boy scampered after the rolling ball. The ball bumped off the patio and accelerated down the sloping lawn. The boy pursued it with eager legs.
The ball wouldn’t slow down.
It zipped past the startled cat.
It rolled past the spot where Randy was destined to celebrate his fifth birthday on freshly mown grass with laughing friends.
The ball rolled down the steep hill, past the grassy spot where Randy would one day rescue a hummingbird. And learn to fly a kite.
The ball rolled past the sprinkler head that would break his leg.
The ball kept going. Randy chased after it.
It rolled past the pepper tree where he and his father would build a treehouse. But that was still a few years off.
The ball rolled down the green slope, past the sun-facing garden where he would be taught by his mother to plant cherry tomatoes, green beans and sunflowers.
The boy ran at full speed.
The ball rolled past the garden bench where, sitting quietly one day, it would dawn on Randy that he would grow old.
The ball rolled past a year and another year.
The ball rolled through the grassy spot where he would lie on his back looking up at the clouds, dreaming about winning an Olympic gold medal.
The ball rolled past the tire swing where he would dangle reading a favorite book.
The ball rolled past the dirt patch where his father would ask why he ditched class.
The ball rolled past the old stump where he would sit very close to a girl.
The ball rolled and rolled and rolled all the way down to the fence next to the busy street, where his parents would stand waving as he drove off to college.
“I got it!”
With a shout, Randy was sprinting back up the long hill with all of his might, his small legs flying. He smiled up at his father. “I got it, Daddy!”
Book burning didn’t destroy every book.
Voice recognition did.
Printed words vanished.
People still spoke, of course. And viewed pictures. But the pictures were always in kaleidoscope motion. Exact words were unnecessary.
Spelling was forgotten. Grammar was forgotten. Structured truth was forgotten. That made life easier.
. . .
Tracy took a wrong turn because a machine had catastrophically failed. Walking a great distance was strange enough, but now she was walking where no flesh-and-blood legs walked. The city’s Forgotten Zone.
Even the machines disregarded this place, she observed. She slowly turned her head, looking about. The deserted streets were lined with broken windows, broken doors.
Above one broken window hung a broken sign. The remaining word: LIFE.
What’s that for? Tracy wondered, staring at the old sign with blinking eyes.
. . .
Fortunately, a functioning machine soon located Tracy and retrieved her, returning her to her proper place.
“Thanks,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” replied the polite machine.
A cashier at the hardware store scanned the small bottle of metal polish. “Be careful with this stuff,” she said. “I hope you realize it can be dangerous.”
A store employee watching from one aisle whispered to another: “Oh my god! What do you think that guy is going to do with a bottle of polish? I wonder if he’s going to drink it. He’s probably going to sniff it.”
Dirk took his purchase into the weeds near the freeway off-ramp. He settled into a spot that no one could see. He felt a little safe there. Just to be careful, he made a castle with his bulging plastic bags and hid himself.
He ate a several mouthfuls of hard pizza, drank some warm water. Then he began carefully searching through his bags.
Dirk suddenly realized what he sought was in one of his pockets.
Lying down, stretching out, he reached into the pocket, pulled out the small round brass medal. He held it up with a trembling hand and gazed at it.
The ribbon of the medal had disintegrated long ago. But the brass and the words stamped on the brass shined brightly in the sun. So brightly that he could almost see his own face.
Dirk slowly sat up. Carefully, he opened the small can of metal polish and put some on a rag.
“We know you’re there!”
Dirk shoved the medal back into his pocket.
Two people he knew came crashing through the weeds. One grabbed a plastic bag and picked it up and scattered its contents everywhere. “What are you doing?” asked the thin one with a sneer.
Dirk didn’t say anything. He turned his head, pretending to ignore them.
“I’m talking to you dumbass! What are you doing? You got any money?”
“No,” Dirk replied without looking up.
A hand came down and snatched the small open bottle of metal polish. “What’s this?”
A foot kicked Dirk, then the two scrambled off through the weeds.
“Metal polish!” said one to the other as they followed the dry ditch under the freeway. “What can we do with this?”
“Nothing,” said the other.
A writer with pen must write infinity.
Must dot that first i.
Must steady the hand.
Now to descend.
Confusions of essence produce absurd jots.
And ink must be elegant.
Steady that hand.
A tiny dot, uncertain, of a sudden.
The Great Sampson was a magician without peer. Five thousand shows in a hundred grimy towns and he never complained. The stiffs working the carnival regarded him with a mixture of wonder and derision.
“And now,” the Great Sampson waved, “my final act!”
A few people in the dingy tent regarded the theatrical old man. They were thinking about home. In a few minutes night would fall. Other sideshow tents were already being hastily dismantled, folded up. The Great Sampson, in his black top hat, had picked up a thin book covered with gold lettering and had shakily climbed into an open black box that resembled a coffin.
The old man ran his fingers through an ebony beard, which he had obviously curled and dyed. He opened the shining book as he faced the audience: several bored adults and one boy.
“Until this very moment,” he announced grandly, “no magician in the entire history of the world has actually performed magic. Illusion and deception have been substituted for magic, and millions of believers have been told by deceitful entertainers that they are witnessing the effects of true supernatural power. You, my good friends, will be the first to ever witness real magic. You will remember this day for the remainder of your lives. So pay very close attention. Don’t blink!”
The Great Sampson took a deep breath. He hesitated. He visibly trembled. “And now, after years of struggle, after years of false starts and dead ends, after years and years of searching: my life’s greatest and only worthwhile achievement!”
He held up the shining book with gold lettering and read: “Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum!”
The Great Sampson vanished.
The carnival sideshow audience stood with jaded expectation on the crushed dirt floor.
The people waited patiently for a minute, then two.
A man in back finally slipped out of the dark tent.
A couple near the black box shrugged, laughed and left.
Everyone forsook the black box except the boy. In that shadow of doubt he didn’t dare move.
Something terrible–something extraordinary had happened. The boy could sense it. A shivering thrill fixed his feet in place.
Summoning courage, he inched forward, leaned slowly over, and peered into the box.
Skittering nervously at its bottom, a gray mouse was frantically trying to escape.
The boy’s heart pounded. His mind raced.
“Show’s over,” boomed a voice behind him. A carnival worker’s face was poking into the dark tent with a glare of impatience. “Time to go home kid.”
“But what about the Great Sampson?” the boy protested.
“What about who?”
The boy was indignant. “The Great Sampson is gone!”
“You need to be gone, too. Now get the hell out of here or someone might call the cops.” The worker shot him a exasperated look and left.
The boy hesitated. Nothing that had just happened–the magician’s strange speech–that split second when he had vanished–none of it seemed real.
The boy remained alone in the tent, looking down at the small helpless mouse. He had to decide. Quickly. He reached into the black box and took the mouse gently into his hand and slipped out of the tent into the twilight. The carnival was over. Indistinct lumps of canvas littered the ground.
The soft mouse in his hand had calmed down. The boy saw a man heaving plastic garbage bags onto a flatbed truck and hurried over.
“I think I know what happened to the Great Sampson!”
“What happened? What the hell are you talking about?”
“The Great Sampson disappeared about ten minutes ago! He was doing his very last magic show and I think he actually turned into a mouse. He said it was his final act! He said he would finally do real magic!”
“Get the fuck out of here. You’re crazy.” The man turned back to the garbage.
. . .
As the boy walked rapidly home, he stared frequently through his fingers at the mouse. It seemed to be an ordinary gray mouse.
He slowed at the grassy park several blocks from his home, and he sat down on the bench in the lamp’s soft light. He opened his hand just enough to closely examine the mouse. It seemed perfectly ordinary. “Can you hear me?” the boy asked.
The nervous mouse looked about, seemingly at nothing.
“If you can hear me, let me know. Do something. Nod your head.”
The mouse’s head quivered. It looked up at the boy.
“I don’t know what to do. Are you really the Great Sampson? Can you turn back? Are you going to turn back?”
No answer. None was possible.
“If that was really your final act–” The boy looked at the mouse feeling puzzled, hopeless. “Why did you do it?
“So you wanted to do real magic? Why? To become something different?”
He leaned sideways to pull an object from his back pocket. It was the strange shining book with gold lettering. It had also remained at the bottom of the box.
The book appeared to be a journal. It was the type of cheap mass-produced journal that anybody can buy for a couple dollars at a store. The boy read elegant gold letters on the cover. They formed the words: Follow Your Dreams.
. . .
Sitting on the bed in his room, still holding the mouse in one hand, the boy opened the thin journal. Its few pages were handwritten in black ink, clearly and elegantly. Page after page after page, with an occasional word or sentence neatly crossed out. Page after page. It seemed to be the life’s work of one person.
With one hand he clumsily turned the pages until he reached the last, where his eyes froze on the final words: Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum. Those had been the final words spoken by the Great Sampson. The fatal incantation. The final words.
Were they really magic?
He mouthed a few of the dangerous words inaudibly, a shiver crawling up his back, then stopped.
A very loud knock on his bedroom door.
“What are you doing” demanded his mother. “I called you for dinner five minutes ago!”
“Just a second.”
“I’m running out of patience–you come out of there now!” His mother opened his door. “What on Earth have you been doing?”
“Nothing.” He turned and quickly placed the mouse in a drawer by his bed.
“Well, come on. You know how your father doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
Reluctantly, the boy stepped out of his room and headed for the stairs. Turning back, he saw his mother enter his room.
. . .
The mouse was gone.
Whether his mother had found it, or the mouse had escaped, the boy couldn’t know. It didn’t matter.
He lay on his bed, almost in tears. He didn’t know why.
Of course, it all was plain silly. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as real magic. The Great Sampson was gone, that was the only thing that mattered. The Great Sampson had performed his final act. And nobody really cares about an act. Everything in life is an act.
The boy picked up the thin book with glittery lettering.
He didn’t dare open it.
He placed it on his bookshelf, among other wise books he would probably never read.
Perhaps he’d read it one day.