Money Changer

A week cashiering at the convenience store and I was bored.

Ring up beer. Ring up chips. Ring up cigarettes.

When you’re a psychology student coping with exorbitant tuition, you’ll take any job.

At first the customers kept me entertained, and some were actually interesting, but I began to observe definite behaviors and it became so predictable.

There were customers who never stopped complaining. There were customers who wanted to stand there and talk and talk and talk, about nothing, holding up the line. There were customers who’d pick up every product in the store and read every label as if they had nothing better to do.

Some of the customers were completely shameless. Right in front of my eyes they stole coins from the little plastic penny tray on the counter.

But one regular customer puzzled me.

The elderly woman came into the store every afternoon. She must’ve had a serious case of osteoporosis because her posture was severely stooped. She wore a bad wig. Standing beside her rickety little cart, the old woman would always lean against the counter and ask for two cheap chicken wings and one lottery ticket. And as she waited, she’d reach into the little plastic penny tray and start fingering the coins, picking them up, staring at one, then another, turning them over.

But she never stole.

The old woman did exactly the same thing every day. She’d reach into that tray, very deliberately turn several pennies over with her fingers, take none.

Obviously she was compulsive.

As I looked down on this pointless behavior it began to bother me. She was certainly poor. I assumed she was tempted by the presence of a few pennies. I concluded that one day she’d steal a coin or two. Like so many other customers.

Money changes people.

“Tell me,” I said one day, feeling more irritated than usual as she turned another coin over. “Why do you do keep doing that?”

She looked up at me, eyes bright. “Heads is lucky.”

I looked down at the little plastic tray. She’d turned every coin heads up.

She’d made the pennies lucky for everyone.

The Fight

Edward hadn’t thought about dying.

He’d been too busy.

Lying in the ICU, listening to the countdown beep of machines and monitors, he thought about his life.

The years of struggle. Working two, sometimes three jobs. Moving apartment to apartment, saving money to replace a car, finish college, start a family. Looking forward to a few days of vacation every year. The sleepless nights, long commutes, paying off debts. Working to exhaustion–for what turned out to be a nonexistent retirement.

As Edward stared at the blank ceiling, he suddenly saw his wife, already buried.

He was holding her hand.

Both felt so confident about the future.

Together they were fighting the good fight. They were repapering cabinets in the little kitchen of their fixer upper house, repelling another invasion of cockroaches. Laughing as they watched their first soufflé collapse. Laughing as they walked down to the convenience store to buy frozen dinners. Planning an impossible trip around the world while cuddling on the threadbare couch. Binging on terrible TV shows. Laughing about their crappy jobs.

Edward recalled cold nights wrapped in warm arms. A first, second, third child. Mowing the lawn and pulling weeds. Barbeques in the backyard. Losing at ping pong with the kids.

There was that flat tire during the epic family road trip to the Grand Canyon. The year he fell off the ladder while hanging Christmas lights and how he’d laughed too. The endless antics of nutty neighbors, club members, his many friends. His ever growing family gathered on Saturday nights at that same old spaghetti restaurant–laughing–laughing–laughing–

Living.

Living, he finally realized, is a fight against death.

And death was about to win.

“You have visitors,” a voice said.

Edward recognized his grown children standing above him. He couldn’t understand what they were saying. He lowered his eyes and saw two of his grandchildren playing down by the floor.

They didn’t know that death lay before them.

The little girl made a funny face at the little boy. Both laughed.

Suddenly Edward laughed with them.

Death wouldn’t win.

The Shining World

Ceci was determined to jump into that other world–the shining world that opened at her feet.

Through the silver portal she saw a strange city of bright crystal buildings, rising down into depths of blue sky and white clouds.

She jumped.

“Hey, stop it!” her big brother complained. “You splashed me!”

The rain shower had let up. Her brother carried a black umbrella and held her hand. The sun was coming out.

Ceci twisted free.

Another silver portal opened in the sidewalk a few steps ahead and her brother circled around it. Ceci stopped and stared down.

Through the portal bright tall buildings rippled in sunlight. They seemed fairy towers that stretched just beyond arm’s reach, those shimmering visions in storybooks. They were shining beacons that summoned a troubled heart from a dark place.

Splash!

“Stop it! Why do you keep doing that?”

“I don’t know,” Ceci replied. But she did know. The world she saw through the portal was where she wanted to be.

It was a world as limitless as the bright sun’s light in wide open eyes.

Where cities were made of sapphire and topaz and amethyst and emerald. A place like heaven.

Another entrance to that other world loomed ahead. This portal, beside a curb, was wide and very deep.

While the two waited to cross the street Ceci stood at the edge of a high precipice staring down. Far below her beckoned the other world. But she realized she couldn’t jump into it. Not without shattering the dream and soaking her feet.

Ceci was surprised to see a nearby pigeon on the other side of the portal. The pigeon stood upside down.

Suddenly the pigeon flew up through the silver portal and out into Ceci’s world.

With her eyes Ceci followed the bird up, up, up, up–and there it was: a crystal city–a city of brightly shining buildings newly risen around her.

She looked all about with wonder.

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 in its entirety.” 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.

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.

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!”

Twinkle

Shannon carried a bag of garbage to the row of cans by the sidewalk. She shoved the garbage into an overflowing can, waved a fly away and turned about. She paused to look at the apartment building where she lived. The poor place was all she could afford. The front yard was nothing but bare dirt and weeds.

She looked down at the dirt. A single dandelion grew by her feet.

A child’s rhyme entered Shannon’s mind.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.

Shannon, her eyes fixed on the small yellow bloom, suddenly realized that the star-like dandelion was made of sunshine. It had grown from the sun’s light and warmth.

And somehow, grown from sunshine, too, was the busy worker bee searching the small flower for pollen.

And birthed from the sun’s heart was the nearby chestnut tree whose roots had badly cracked the sidewalk. And the flighty little birds that perched for a moment in its branches.

Shannon stared across the dirt toward her apartment building.

She blinked at late afternoon sunlight reflecting from the building’s half open windows. They appeared like half open eyes. Suddenly she remembered a thing she had learned once upon a time. Stars had made everything in the world. Even her home.

The furnaces of an ancient star had forged every element of the building: the half open windows, the peeling paint, the creaky wooden steps leading to the porch, the potted geraniums and tinkling wind chime. A star had created the ordinary buildings to her right and to her left, and the building across the street.

A star had created the complete world around her. From a child’s small red rubber ball that had been dropped and lost near the single dandelion, to sprouting green weeds around it, to the talking, smiling people who were walking their Yorkshire Terrier down the cracked sidewalk.

A star had created all that was and might be.

She regarded the dandelion.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.

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.