Footprints are not the point.

Think of footprints in sand.

You might picture a lone set of evenly-spaced footprints, marking out a clear trail into the distance. If you’ve got a vivid imagination (or a fondness for landscape photography), your mental image might include a fiery sunset or moody grey clouds. The types of weather and color and plant life might reflect your temperament, tastes, and personality.

What that mental image probably doesn’t reflect is reality.

How many times have you been to the beach and created the only set of human footprints? Unless you are a very early riser, or have access to some private beachfront property, probably not as often as you might have liked.

Even if you are alone, and only notice your own footprints, they are almost certainly not the only ones there.

In reality, that wave-smoothed sand is marred. The tracks of many, many other creatures — barefoot, clawed, pawed, and shod — crisscross the beach in a heedless chaotic jumble. Sometimes the prints are tiny and you really have to stoop and squint to see them: songbirds, rodents, crabs, beetles. Others are hard to miss: the sand is pitted and churned up by dogs and other heavier creatures like you and me.

There are also some spots with so many tracks that none are individually distinguishable. The tangle around the drinking fountains, the public restrooms, and along the thresholds between concrete and sand show us the waypoints where nearly everyone, regardless of species or footwear or destination, has passed or will pass.

Yeah, okay, great. So what does all this have to do with art? Sure, beaches are a pretty typical place for people to want to hang out, lots of animals there too, blah blah blah. But I’m talking about footprints — the tracks we leave behind.

Every creator faces a blank page, and in our mind, it can become that imaginary expanse of untrodden sand. In the name of self-expression, we might take a stick and boldly scrawl our name or sentiments in large letters: “I WAS HERE”, “JOHN ❤ ALICE”, a snatch of lyric, a bawdy joke. Others might create elaborate designs: fantastical mazes or sandcastles or rocketships. Some of us might prefer to leave only a humble trail of footprints, for others to see and know that this way has been traveled before. Autobiography, biography, fiction, non-fiction, diaries, visual arts; we leave our marks in different ways.

But, for many of us, that expanse of imaginary sand can feel forbidding.

Sometimes our perfectionism keeps us from taking a single step. Better to enjoy that lovely sunset from the margins than risk marring the landscape with my mess. People will see and know. People might be upset. I will ruin this. I’m not good enough.

But, like our mental image of that empty beach with one lonely set of footprints, the solitude is imaginary. Abstaining from our own brisk walk along that shore will not prevent the sand from getting churned up. Staying on the sidelines will not somehow preserve the way for other, more worthy walkers. That blank page in front of us has been visited many times, by many people. Anything that you can say will be understood by someone; there is no place to which you can journey where no one can follow you. There are places, fulcrums, in human experience where everyone’s paths intersect, needs we all share — you are not alone.

This leads me to a second fear: insignificance. The cacophony of other footprints (voices and blogs and opinions and critics) can be overwhelming.My contribution will only get lost in the muddle. Be original or shut up. No one can hear me; no one is listening; no one cares; this has all been said before, done before, made before.

To that fear, all I can say is this:

The footprints we leave are not the point of walking.

What brought you to this beach in the first place? Is that ocean less beautiful because other eyes have beheld it? Is this fresh air less vivifying because other lungs have drawn from it? Is that threshold less significant because others have had to cross it?

It’s so easy to get sidelined by the footprints.

Did you only come here to leave your mark?

But you are a writer, an artist, a creator. So footprints are, of course, a large part of the walk for you. You can’t see a sunset without wanting to pay homage in adjectives, or photographs, or shades of carmine and vermilion pigment. Because you are an artist, art is the side effect of your experiences, the natural result, the footprints you leave in the sand. But you didn’t come here to create footprints. You came here to walk, to run, to dance, to explore.

There is nothing wrong with leaving footprints. But they should be the result — and not the focus — of our journey.

We get so focused on the end goal — making sure each footstep is perfectly aligned with the last, cutting through some “original” unmarred bit of shoreline. But people don’t come to this beach to see your footprints in the sand, anymore than you came here to make them. Just like you, they come to see the sky, the sea, the waves — that fraction of a heartbeat where the slanting sunlight turns a cresting wave into stained glass.

Every moment is significant if you are looking for a sign. The very fact that so many paths cross at any certain point is what makes that point worth our attention. First loves. Heartbreak. Fear of the unknown. The pain of loss. The fears of parenthood. The struggle to survive. The need to know and to be known.

In 1911, writer O. Henry penned a short story called “Makes the Whole World Kin,” about a burglar who ends up having a friendly chat with his intended victim about the rheumatism from which they both suffer. Instead of carrying out the burglary, the young thief ends up inviting the older man out for drinks, to which he agrees — and the thief picks up the tab. Our shared experience, in this case pain, links us at a deeper level than anything else can.

This is why art, born of the need to communicate our deepest experiences with each other, knits the whole world into a family. More than the excellence of our brushstroke or our skill with a turn of phrase, our experiences are what draw us together.

Years ago, I read an excellent novel: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor. Something is “remarkable” simply because people remark about it. Things don’t go unnoticed because they are commonplace — rather they become commonplace because they go unnoticed. The best art happens when artists notice, and share with us what they notice, and in so doing, teach us to notice on our own. The commonplace becomes remarkable when we remark on it. This “knack” of noticing comes easily to some; we might call those people artists. The truth is, every one of us is capable of learning this knack.

By reaffirming the significance, the remarkability, of our common experiences, we help to ennoble ourselves and others. By recognizing our similarities, we reinforce our humanity. It’s hard to burgle someone who knows exactly how much this blasted thunderstorm is making your arthritic shoulder ache — whose shoulder is really aching too — who offers you some tips on how to ease the pain.

You’re an artist, a writer, a poet, a creator, an engineer, a maker: a human being. It is your job to see things, go places, create, explore, notice — and if you are doing your job, you will leave footprints behind as you go. Make life remarkable by taking the time to ponder and remark about life. Make the world kin, by being kindred to it. Art will follow naturally. Your heart and soul will be changed by your journey, even if there is no one else on that beach to see your footprints. The art is in the doing. The footprints are not the point.

(Originally published on medium.com)

Quartet for the End of Time

“Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered World War II. He was captured by the German army in June 1940 and imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany (now Zgorzelec, Poland). … after he managed to obtain some paper and a small pencil from a sympathetic guard (Carl-Albert Brüll, 1902-1989), Messiaen wrote … [The] quartet was premiered at the camp, outdoors and in the rain, on 15 January 1941.

The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards. Messiaen later recalled: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.” Brüll provided paper and isolation for composing, and he also helped acquire … instruments. By forging papers with a stamp made from a potato, Brüll even helped the performers to be liberated shortly after the performance….

Messiaen wrote in the Preface to the score that the work was inspired by text from the Book of Revelation (Rev 10:1–2, 5–7, KJV): “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….”

–excerpted from Wikipedia entry, “Quatuor pour la fin du temps”

[Carnivorous] Social [Media] Butterflies

Fragile

is a word we use
for gossamer or butterflies.
But not for her.

Thin-skinned
doesn’t say enough;
she’s an overripe tomato
fermenting in the August sun.
Just a careless poke or jostle
and she’ll split right open
spilling slippery seeds
bright red and warm,
her final burst as silent
as her long decay.

The butterflies, at least,
benefit from her
degeneration.
They slake their thirst
at the puddle
of things she left
too long
unsaid.

Footprints in the Snow

This story was inspired by a Russian folk tale called “Baboushka and the Three Kings,” in which the Wise Men invite an old widow to join them as they search for the Christ-child on a frosty winter night. Although the poor woman extends to them what meager hospitality she can offer, she tells them she is too busy, too tired, too old to join them, and they leave without her. To her dismay, she cannot think about anything else after they leave, and she sets out on her own to find Him. Legend holds that she wanders the world still, sad and hopeful, peeking into every child’s bedroom, looking for the Christ, so she too may offer Him her gift. Children look forward to finding a little toy from Baboushka on their pillows each Christmas morning.

Continue reading “Footprints in the Snow”

An Afternoon Riddle

“Mother!” The child’s voice rang out, high and melodic, like the chirruping of a finch. “Mother! Mo-ther!” Around the corner of the stone cottage, a tousled golden head bobbing atop a willowy frame came tumbling pell-mell into the little garden. Right behind him ran his sister, her knees and shins covered in crumbly bits of moist black earth and hay. Their faces were pale and their eyes wide; they were clearly agitated about something.

“Mother, look!” The girl pushed past her brother and held out a fist, palm-up, then slowly uncurled her fingers. It was a torn butterfly wing. A tear glistened in her eye. “It must have been Claude. Aren’t there enough mice in the barn to keep him happy?” She closed her chubby fist over the wing again and cuddled it close to her heart.

“Do you think the fairies will take revenge?” The boy’s sober face as he asked this was simply too much for their mother; her studied expression of concern split into a merry smile, and she concealed it quickly with her hands before composing herself again. She didn’t want to ruin the fun.

“Listen to me, you two, and listen carefully.” Both sets of tear-stained cheeks tipped upward to look at her. She crouched down, her long skirt draping onto the ground around her like the wilted petals of a flower. “Your father left me with strict instructions. If I were ever to find evidence of violence towards a fairy while he was away, we were to make amends in the best way we could. Now, Sarah,” she took the girl’s hand and gave it a squeeze, “Claude may be a legend among cats–mighty mouser, hunter of hunters. But no matter how fast he is, you know that Claude could never, ever catch a fairy. Most likely he just caught its wing with his claw, and it flew away to safety. You know very well they can become invisible whenever they like.”

Sarah looked abashed; this was a very big expression on such a very small face. “But,” she managed after a moment’s silence, “they’ll still be vexed! What if they curdle our milk, tip over the ash bucket, tie my hair up in knots–”

“No, no, no, Sarah–and I’ll tell you why. We are going to make an apology on Claude’s behalf. We’re going to build them,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “a fairy house.” Both children’s faces brightened. “Now, Ben, go and fetch me the mossiest rock you can find by the well. Make sure it’s flat and smooth.” Benjamin ran off purposefully, his small brow furrowed with determination. “You and I will find the perfect spot for it.” She took Sarah’s hand and set off towards the edge of the clearing around their house and into the thick woods.

As the three worked together, gathering lichen-encrusted twigs, silky acorns, fragrant pine cones, and other debris from the forest floor, she told the children a riddle:

“We dance beneath the golden bower
beside stone wall and royal tower.

Each maiden fair through sunlit hours
bows golden head to fragrant flowers.

Then, when the sun bids all goodnight,
return we each in dainty flight

To halls of gold and sweetness fair;
we each of gold and ebony hair

Do dance before our fairy queen–
elaborate steps show what we’ve seen

In microcosm, pantomime–
where in her realm we next shall dine.

Who are we?”

“I know the answer! Fairies!” blurted Ben.

Their mother laughed. “No, I’m afraid not in the sense you mean. These creatures are real–not invisible or magical.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Like the fairies, they can hurt us if they become frightened, but normally they are friendly, and ever so helpful.”

The two children worked carefully, stacking up tiny pebbles to build a chimney and arranging a few loose feathers artfully around the doorway. Charlotte repeated the riddle for them a few more times, but they were baffled. Then, buzzing low across the churned-up earth where Charlotte had been hoeing earlier that day, a fuzzy black and golden bumblebee caught Sarah’s eye as it lighted on a purple clover flower.

“They are bees!” she cried out.

“Very good! You’ve solved it.” The girl grinned, wiping the back of her hand across her dusty forehead. The amber sunlight of late afternoon, warm like candlelight, slanted through the thick branches above them. Broad green vine maple leaves caught the light like translucent panels of stained glass; tiny ruby huckleberries dangled like glass baubles on spindly huckleberry plants; lazy swarms of gnats hung thick in the air like clouds of incense. It was easy, Charlotte thought to herself, to believe in fairies during moments like this one. She smiled down at the two little golden heads bowed down over their painstaking work, laying out a palatial construction that would only be inhabited by dreams; for her, the natural world held enough magic of its own.

Photo credit: “The Artist’s Family in the Garden,” by Claude Monet, from Wikiart.org. Image is in the public domain.

The sweetest days.

I love autumn: the scents, the colors, the sensation
of Earth rolling out her red carpet,
not in welcome anticipation of her death in winter,
but rather, in a final mad fling, to spend her riches
in a jumble before her days are done
and the bitter frost comes again to chase
summer’s extravagance back under the soil.

Fall’s fruits are not the lush, wanton beauties of summer,
but deeper, sweeter, richer, firmer,
because the kiss of frost is at her heels, making her serious
after summer’s loose gaiety.

Growth slows,
but it is stronger growth for the slowness.

Roots deepen. Flowers fade.

Colors are deep, passionate, somber, velvety
like port wine and dark chocolate.
Fire dances on the hillsides, and dark blood
glistens at the ends of curling thorny vines.

The atmosphere bears conflicting senses of abandonment and restraint,
like a girl saying farewell to her lover who is leaving for the war.
There should be no holding back of her affections,
because for all she knows, this could be the last time she sees him.
And yet
to abandon herself completely to the moment and leave nothing unshared
would be to admit her fear that he will not return.
To admit this, in her mind, would be to prophesy it; so,
while she gives her heart near-wholly to him
in one last dance, one last heartfelt kiss, one last tearful embrace,
so also she quietly stores up for his return,
not yielding all her gifts at once,
in defiance of her despair of a tomorrow
when they will have their leisure
to enjoy each other at length.
A mad urgency
and a wish to make time move more slowly
trip up her tongue with their struggle.
Her song is not the lark of springtime,
nor is it the wild bacchanal of summer,
nor the keening wails and transcendent silences of winter;
it is the wind over the heathers, at once a wistful smile
and a voiceless lament.
Her tears are hot and alive, but they turn
to ice on her wind-chapped cheeks.
Part of her will lie buried until his return, and when that part of her
is unearthed, it will have changed,
despite both their wish
to preserve it just as they remember it at this moment.

Autumn’s lamp against the darkness is her hope
that sun will warm the land again, and so she labors
over her seeds, carefully padding them about
with the fleshy and substantial profits of summer,
even as she shares her abundance with the hungry.
She lays her hopes aside carefully,
nourished, protected, safe. But as they lay there
beneath the riotous leaves,
the moldering confetti of summer’s going-away party,
those seeds will change
as much as they remain the same.

The new year is born of these hopes;
it is autumn’s prudent forbearance (so often unsung)
that secures our futures, just as much
as winter’s introverted restfulness, spring’s tender bravery,
and summer’s joyous exertions.

Each autumn day, still warm with memory of joys recently past,
is followed by a night littered with mirror shards—
beautiful, delicate, and untouchable—
oracular fragments reflecting what is to come.

Over all, the winds of change blow as they will
through the hours, with no regard
for sun or moon, birth or death. These days
before the last days of the year
are the sweetest to me in all the world.

Goldbach’s Conjecture–A Love Story in Three Parts

Image credit: Zlyoga @ freeimages.com There were seventeen buttons on the front of her dress, running in a long line from neck to mid-shin. Seventeen. He grouped them visually. Eight, eight, one. Back to the hem, and up again. Seven, seven, three. Again. Three groups of five, and two. Four groups of four, and one. Five groups of three, and two. Eight groups of two, and one. His gaze lingered on that last button at her neck, an incongruous rock in the stream of flowing, symmetrical factors. Seventeen; a prime number, an oddly shaped building block that stood out from the crowd, endlessly fascinating. There was room for one more button at the hem near her knee, but no buttonhole bespoke a lost button. No, it was only ever seventeen. It was his favorite of her dresses.

He started to count them again: eight, eight, one; seven, seven, three—but when he reached the top button again he realized she was speaking.

“…you should be confident about this one, Peter. You know the piece backwards, forwards, and upside down. We’ve run through it today twenty times at least, and it was perfect; tomorrow will be no different. Even if there are a hundred people here—“ (Twelve rows arranged in three columns of six seats across, except the four exit rows of four seats each, makes two hundred and eight people with four hundred and sixteen eyes.) “—it’ll just be the two of us up there.”

Peter looked up at her face. She was smiling. Her buttons caught the light and glinted pink when she moved. Just the two of us up there. His own sweater had five buttons. The sum any of two primes is an even number. Seventeen plus five equals twenty-two, leaving eleven for each of us. A pair of elevens. Beautiful, symmetrical… and both prime.

“Do you want to run through it one more time?”

He looked over at the grand piano that dominated the stage. Steinway & Sons, Model D, concert grand. “Do you think I should?”

She nodded, still smiling.

He took a seat at the bench, pausing to polish out a stray fingerprint on the ebony with his sweater sleeve. Eighty-eight keys is eight times eleven, or four times twenty-two; four pairs of us, one pair reflected in each lens of her glasses and of mine. He closed his eyes, positioned his fingers over the keys, and started to count out the time signature: nine over eight. One-two-three-four…


“So how did things go with Cathy today? Did you ask her out?” Bruce’s tongue flicked beer foam off his lips and mustache. Right side, left side, lower lip.

Her name is Catherine.”

Bruce set his pilsner glass back down on the bar, missing the cardboard St. Pauli Girl coaster by two inches. His gaze followed the new bartender’s slender form as she navigated a stepladder to retrieve a bottle of Macallan single malt from the top shelf. In one quick motion, Peter repositioned Bruce’s glass squarely onto the coaster and swiped the condensation off the bar with his napkin. “I’d like a piece of that,” muttered Bruce with a grin as he turned back to Peter. “But seriously, bro. How did it go?”

“I don’t know what to say to her.

Bruce shook his head and chuckled. “Just tell her how you feel, Pete. Girl like that, artsy fartsy type, she’ll be a sucker for it.”

“Sucker?”

“She’ll go for it, fall for it, you know.”

“Right.” Fall for it. Peter pictured her falling, tumbling gently through an endless tunnel, like Alice in the rabbit hole. He’d felt that way himself when she was near him, like he was falling. It made his stomach lurch. “How I feel.

He pictured her sitting beside him in a metal folding chair as he played the upright Wurlitzer in her garage: eyes closed, elbows on knees, chin in hands, a smile on her face. The piano was slightly out of tune, but when she matched it with her voice the whole universe seemed to rotate into alignment around them.

“I feel happiest when I’m with her.”

“What are you– twelve?” Bruce chortled and took another pull of his beer. “You can’t just say that kind of crap to a woman, like some lame Hallmark you memorized. It’s gotta be, you know, real. Honest.” The plaid lines of Bruce’s overshirt did not align at the shoulder seam; there was a quarter-inch discrepancy where red met black instead of red. Peter stared at it, mentally adjusting the stripes. “How long have you known her again? What is it– three years?”

Two years, seven months, five days—he looked around for a clock—and three hours. “Yeah, almost.”

Bruce gestured at the bartender and she brought over another round of beer. “You new around here, girl?” She rolled her eyes and turned to help another patron.

“I think she is, Bruce. I’ve haven’t noticed her in here before tonight.”

“You wouldn’t notice her if she stripped off her clothes and started dancing on the bar, Pete,” snorted Bruce.

“I notice things.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I noticed that you missed a spot near your right ear when you shaved this morning.” Bruce’s hand shot up to feel his jaw. “I noticed when you stopped wearing your wedding ring, the first day you took it off.”

Bruce’s face reddened. “Yeah, alright.”

“I’m not stupid.”

Bruce slid the half-finished plate of prosciutto-wrapped bocconcini to Peter. “You done?”

Peter nodded. “I’ll try to talk to her, Bruce. Tomorrow. Before—no, after.” He ran through the event timeline in his mind, trying to inject room for a conversation he knew would be complicated. “Maybe before. Or after might be better.”

“Wait, before what?”

“Chamber orchestra is doing Debussy for Valentine’s Day. We’re performing Clair de Lune.” Bruce’s face was blank. “Soprano soloist and piano, written in 18—“

Bruce cut him off with a dismissive gesture. “Yeah, yeah, whatever, I get it. You got it easy, Romeo. Just ask her out to dinner afterwards. Then after dinner,” He slid into his coat. “It’ll all seem pretty natural. Just don’t, you know–” he shot Peter a sideways glance. “Screw it up.”

“Right.” Peter buttoned his pea coat—one, two, three—and wrapped his scarf around his neck before plunging out into the February night. Don’t screw it up.


Her dress didn’t have any buttons; just one long zipper up the back that ended between her shoulder blades. Her hair was twisted up in a loose knot, and she was wearing earrings: five-pointed, flower-shaped. “Are those diamonds?” Peter cracked his knuckles.

“You shouldn’t do that.” Her voice was quiet.

“Are they zirconium?”

“What?”

“Your earrings.”

“Oh, uh,” she felt her right earlobe with one gloved hand. “These are just rhinestones, cut glass. But I thought they had a nice sparkle.”

“They are very sparkly.”

She glanced at him, distracted. “Thank you,” she smiled briefly. “You look nervous. You’ll do fine, Peter. I’ve never heard you make a mistake.”

“I make mistakes.”

“I don’t want to argue about it.”

“Sorry.” He fidgeted with his tie. He had bought a clip-on after thirty-seven failed attempts to tie one himself following a tutorial he had found online. This one was solid colored, dark red; no distracting stripes or dots.

“It’s straight, it’s fine. You look great.” She turned away from him and smoothed the wrinkles from her dress. As he reached out to pick a piece of lint from her shoulder, she turned suddenly towards him. His outstretched hand brushed her neck, but as he pulled it away, she grabbed it and held onto it with both hands. She looked into his eyes.

“You don’t have any buttons on your dress,” he said.

“What?”

His collar was choking him. “Don’t you think that even numbers feel more whole, more… symmetrical?”

“Peter, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Symmetry. Goldbach’s conjecture says that the sum of any two primes—“

“Are we talking about math now?”

“Yes. No. I’m talking about prime numbers.” She stared at him. “About us.”

“You think we’re like prime numbers?” She moved a little closer to him, her hands still holding his. His palm felt slippery, and his face was getting uncomfortably hot. One of the violinists brushed past him.

“Well, the thing is, an even number is complete, stable, symmetrical. You can divide it into even parts, redistribute them—there’s no loose end. Two even numbers always make an even number, so that’s easy. One even and one odd— always odd, maybe even prime. But two primes—two primes always combine to form an even number. No surprises.”

“And all prime numbers are odd, right?” She was smiling now. He could smell her perfume. It smelled like vanilla, and something else he couldn’t place.

“Yes. Except two, of course.” There were freckles on her bare shoulders. A cluster of three, shaped like a triangle. He started to count the rest. Four, five, six…

“Are you saying I’m odd, Peter?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know. I’m just saying prime numbers are lonely. They only have two factors: one and themselves.”

“Do you think I’m lonely?” She reached down to take his other hand, and drew them both together in the narrowing distance between their torsos.

“I don’t know. I think you might be.” Peter could hear the audience murmuring as they took their seats on the other side of the heavy curtains. “I think I am.” He paused. “But you’re certainly unique.”

She laughed. “Not as unique as you are.”

“Uniqueness isn’t scalable. It’s a toggle state: unique or not. Nothing can be slightly unique.”

She was grinning. “True enough. But you’re changing the subject. People aren’t ones and zeros, Peter.”

The conductor coughed to interrupt them and pointed at his watch. “Places,” he urged softly. Catherine released his hands and dried her palms on her skirt, mumbling apologies and reddening.

“I’m just trying to say that I feel sick whenever I’m with you,” he blurted.

She grinned and leaned close to him. Her breath was hot and moist on his ear. “You make me feel sick, too.” She brushed his cheek with her lips, smiled at him, and walked away. Her heels clicked on the wooden floor: one-two, one-two, one-two.

 One and one make two: a prime singularity. And the only consecutive primes are two and three. We can name our son Goldbach. He smiled, cracked his knuckles, and headed after her.

Image credit: Zlyoga @ freeimages.com

Friendly disregard.

For Angeline: scribbled down after she confessed her new favorite word to be “inebriation.”

With some exasperation
She claimed inebriation
Was the only valid reason she had slurred;

But his intoxication
With her sophistication
Made her elegance the only thing he heard.

With great elaboration–
And some exaggeration–
He described her to his colleagues that next day.

After much deliberation,
And a short interrogation,
They decided that his heart had gone astray.

Their sage prognostication
Warned that his infatuation
Would vanish in the light of further news.

His keen anticipation
Did result in confrontation–
When he asked her for a date, she blew a fuse.

His failed expropriation
And her violent protestation
Was because she had a secret to confess.

A subtle complication
Was her cohabitation:
She was married to his boss–it was a mess.

It was a revelation–
And his prompt capitulation
Made her sorry she had let him down so hard.

To calm his perturbation
She suggested a libation–
And they raised a glass in friendly disregard.

Eddie’s Door

He’d never noticed a door there before. 

A brass placard etched with official-looking capital letters hung at eye-height: W.M. Theodophilus, Ph.D. The sign was shiny, and clearly new; it looked out of place against the peeling green paint of the door. Eddie stood in the alley and stared at it for a long moment.

There were no windows on this side of the building for Eddie to peer through and satisfy his curiosity. Well, none except a few narrow ones high up on the fourth floor that overlooked the rusty fire escape. The ladder was drawn up, so no luck there, either. Eddie shifted his bookbag onto his left shoulder as he stared upwards, and his sudden movement startled a few pigeons into flight above his head. I’m going to be late, he thought suddenly. He rushed down the alley and back out into the bright daylight of the street, pulling his blue baseball cap further down over his eyes as he ran.

All day while he was in school, Eddie’s thoughts wandered back to the door. Even during art class, which he normally loved, he couldn’t concentrate. He didn’t mention anything about it to Alejandro while they shot hoops at recess. He decided during lunch hour, as he silently chewed his turkey sandwich, that he would go back there on his way home. He left school in a hurry, rushing past Alejandro with a grin and a wave. Normally they’d walk together and talk about homework or the latest basketball scores before they got to the corner of 5th and Main where Alejandro turned left and Eddie turned right.

Maybe he could ask a few questions in the tiny bookstore on the street-facing side of the dilapidated brick building. All the other shops were boarded up, and had been for as long as he could remember. Surely the owner would know who this Dr. Theodophilus was. But when he got to the bookstore, the shopkeeper was with a customer who was complaining loudly about the price of a book. Eddie guessed from the harried look on her face that this was not the best time to pester her with childish questions. He pretended to scan the bookshelves for a moment, pulled a piece of paper out of his bag and pretended to jot something down, then shoved the paper into his pocket and raced home, his heart pounding. His father would be upset if he were even a few minutes late, and he didn’t want to have to make explanations.

The next day, Eddie packed his lunch in a hurry and left for school a bit earlier than usual. His father came out of the bathroom with shaving cream on his face when he heard the door opening fifteen minutes earlier than was normal. Eddie made up an excuse about needing to ask the teacher about an assignment before class, and ducked out without waiting for any further questions. It was only a little lie, but it made Eddie’s stomach feel fluttery as he raced down the damp streets to the alley and the green door.

Eddie stood in front of the door, not moving, staring at the letters on the sign. He raised his fist, and hesitated.

It was probably nothing; maybe a shrink had a new office upstairs, or maybe a crabby old historian presided over a basement full of dusty old papers. He imagined a wrinkled old man with a cane and thick glasses flinging the door open angrily if he dared to knock, demanding to know what he wanted, telling him to buzz off, threatening to call the cops if he didn’t leave.

He knocked. A bit softly at first, and then harder.

The door swung open almost soundlessly, revealing a narrow staircase. A few brave shafts of light penetrated the darkness from above, spotlighting a parade of dancing dust motes that sparkled like confetti as they fell. Eddie pulled off his hat, squinted, and stepped inside. He could hear his blood pounding in his ears now. He’d get in huge trouble if someone caught him in here, he knew. But he just had to see what—or who—was up there. He propped the door open with his lunch bag and started up the stairs as quietly as he could.

At the first landing, he heard noises coming from further up. Soft, rhythmic noises; the thick brick walls that blocked out all the city sounds from outside and ate up the sound of his footfalls as he climbed muffled the noise. From the second landing, he could tell that it was music. He topped the third landing. The window that had cast the light down the stairwell was filthy, caked with yellowish grime. Someone had drawn a little happy face with their finger in the gunk.

At the top of the stairs, a doorway to his right led to another staircase. It had a little red sign over it: ROOF ACCESS. He could hear the music more clearly now; it sounded like a Bob Marley song he knew, about bluebirds and happiness. What respectable psychiatrist would play music like that in his office? Directly in front of him was another door, this one freshly painted a deep blue; in the center hung another placard, just the same as the one outside. Now or never, he gulped.

He raised his fist, and knocked.

Nothing happened. The music kept playing: “Rise up this mornin’/ smilin’ at the risin’ sun/ Three little birds/ flew by my doorstep/ Singin’ sweet songs…” Maybe they hadn’t heard him over the noise. He knocked louder. “Singin’ don’ worry/ ‘bout a thing/ Cuz ev’ry little thing/ is gonna be alright…” Thumping sounds. The music stopped abruptly. Footsteps. The rattle of a door latch being slid free.

The door creaked open.

A woman, about his father’s age, stood there, surveying him carefully. A multitude of the tiniest braids, each tied at the end with a length of multicolored thread, framed her face and spilled down to her shoulders. Her skin was the smooth brown of a hazelnut shell. She looked a bit startled, then amused. She smiled.

“Yes?”

“Oh, uh—hi, ma’am—I just, I mean… Are you, uh— are you Dr. Theodophilus?” His cheeks blazed with embarrassment.

She laughed. “To my students, yes. To you– well, honey, you can call me Dr. Theo, for now. My friends call me Wilma. Do you wanna come in for a minute? You look a bit… rattled.”

She opened the door a bit further to reveal the room’s contents to him before beckoning him in. Huge canvases lined every wall, and metal-shaded lamps hung from exposed ductwork above. Paint, brushes, rags, tools and other art materials filled several tables. Wilma set down the brush she’d been carrying and went over to a sink to wash her hands. “I’ve got some coffee left—are you old enough to like coffee yet? I think one of my students left some Coke in the mini-fridge, if coffee’s not your thing.”

Eddie was starting to get nervous. So she was a teacher. But even so, did that make it okay for him to be up here alone with her, when no one knew where he was? “Um, I’ll take a Coke, thanks,” he said hesitantly.

Her head popped around the corner from the sink and grinned at him.“You need to call someone and let ‘em know where you at? We won’t be a second here. But you looked like you had some questions that needed answering; am I wrong?”

Eddie swallowed and shook his head. “No, ma’am—“

“Call me Theo,” she corrected.

“No, Dr. Theo, ma’am,” he went on. “I did have some questions. I have more now than I did before, to tell you the truth.”

“Go on,” she called. He heard a microwave beep and smelled hot coffee. More clatter of dishes and running water.

“I had never noticed there was a door in this alley before I saw your nameplate.” He walked over towards a large canvas that was propped under the windows. The view was amazing from up here.

“No? Maybe it was the nameplate that caught your eye. Stuffy thing, that; a student had it made for me when his first piece sold last month. Thought I’d put it up, make him happy.” She laughed again as she came around the corner with a steaming mug and a can of Coke, handed the soda to him, and took a sip of the coffee. She stared out the window, satisfaction beaming from her face. “Nice view, eh?”

He popped the top off his can and took a swig. Eddie noticed that nearly all the paintings were of city streets from above. “Yeah, you can see everything from up here,” he said softly. Cars, pigeons, stoplights, rooftops, and people walking… well, person walking: there was only one person in most of them—a boy. He wore a blue baseball cap.

“You sure can, Eddie. Everything that matters, anyway.”

[In honor of Mother’s Day, 2011]