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Sunday, October 7, 2018

Quarters In My Pocket

One night, many years ago, one rollicking, crazy drunken insane night shared with friends, I told a story from my boyhood.

I recalled for them the morning I left the house for school, kicking leaves and stones into the gutter. As I glanced down I saw a long line of coins strewn, haphazardly and seemingly carelessly, in the street. With the excitement of a nine-year-old boy who finds unexpected treasure I scooped up each coin. Quarters, dimes and nickles filled my hands. I couldn't recall the exact amount but it was, to my childish mind, a literal fortune.

At the end of the telling I jumped to my feet. "Change!" I said. "Give me all your change!" We all emptied our pockets and came up with about three dollars in quarters, dimes and nickles. Laughing and giddy with high spirits and drink, I led the party down to the street. I tossed the coins into the gutter, recreating the line of treasure from my boyhood. "Now another kid can share my past fortunes." I said. We all trooped back to the apartment and the party continued 'till the wee hours.

A few days after that I was visiting my friend who had hosted the party. He told me that his downstairs neighbor's twelve-year-old daughter had found the money the morning after the party. She had run back to her mother in high excitement, showing her the coins that spilled from her palm. We both smiled, absurdly pleased at the result of our shenanigans.

Ten years later, shortly prior to my move to Ohio, I was in a bar having farewell drinks with friends. I glanced at a young woman across the room who looked strangely familiar to me. She caught my eye and waved. After a short conversation I realized it was the girl, now twenty-two, who had found the coins. I told her the story of that night. She was transfixed. "I remember that so clearly." she said. "I thought I was rich!" I laughingly told her, "It's your turn now, you know. Keep it going." She gave me a very somber look. "I will. It should go on."

I never heard from this woman again. She'd be in her forties now. I hope she found time to strew some coins. I really hope she kept it going.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Bear Who Couldn't Sleep

Outside the den it was cold. The white snow covered the ground, dropping in great sheets from the tree branches above. Spring was still weeks away and the forest was calm and quiet. The only sound was the gentle whistle of the wind as dawn broke in the eastern sky.
Inside the den it was warm and cozy, the floor and walls were dry. Mama Bear had chosen well for herself and her two cubs. Mama Bear and Girl Bear lay nestled close together, a bundle of soft fur, dozing and snorting. Boy Bear was restless. He rolled to his back, paws kicking in the air. He flopped on his side, grunting and sighing heavily
“Go back to sleep, Boy Bear.” said his Mama. “It’s still sleepy time for bears.”
Boy Bear jumped and climbed on his Mama’s back, thrusting his snout against her ear. “I can’t sleep anymore!” he cried. “When are we gonna go Outside?”
Mama Bear gently shook the cub off, pulling him in close to her chest. “Soon, Boy. Just a few more weeks and you’ll see the world.”
Girl Bear yawned and eyed her brother with amusement. “You’ll just be scared when we go Outside.” she teased. “You’ll probably run like a baby rabbit at everything you see.”
Boy Bear cuffed his sister on her nose. “I will not! I’m gonna be as big as the trees! Mama said so!” He nodded vigorously. “Ain’t that right, Mama? As big as the trees?”
Mama Bear chuckled. “Yes, sweet boy. As big as all the trees.” With those words Mama Bear fell back into a deep sleep. Girl Bear yawned and closed her eyes, sleeping peacefully close to her Mama.
Boy Bear sat on his haunches, fully awake. He huffed and crawled to the mouth of the cave, looking out on the world, transfixed by all he saw. “Would it be really that bad if I went out for a quick look?” he said to himself. He looked over his shoulder at the dark forms of his Mama and sister. “I could go out, look around, and be back before they even woke up.” He jutted his jaw in determination and left the den, full of the courage and fearlessness of the very young.
Boy Bear stepped carefully over the ground, gingerly lifting his paws, shaking off the cold snow. The sun was just beginning to rise and the forest shone gold and yellow, the light on the snow almost blinding to eyes more used to darkness. The tiny cub ventured forth slowly, looking around in awe of all he saw. Soon he reached a small clearing in the trees. The snow under his feet was less here and he could trudge with more confidence. He walked to the very middle of the clearing and sat down, lifting his head to peer up at the enormous trees that surrounded him. “As big as the trees.” he whispered.
Suddenly, a small dark shape dropped to the ground in front of him. Boy Bear jumped up, startled at the sudden visitor. “What are you??” he asked, a slight tremor in his voice.
“I’m not a what.” said the little shape. “I’m a crow!”
Boy Bear’s eyes widened. “A crow? What’s a crow?” He had a sudden and terrifying thought. “Crows don’t eat bears, do they?”
The crow laughed raucously. “Of course not!” he said. He lifted his black wings and looked up into the trees. “Hear that, brothers and sisters? This guy wants to know if we eat bears!” The sound of loud and sudden laughter filled the clearing as scores of crows reacted to the joke.
Boy Bear looked up nervously, now seeing what appeared to be hundreds of crows perched in the trees. “That sure is a lot of crows.” he said.
The crow on the ground strutted proudly. “We always flock together. Safer that way, you know.” He looked at Boy Bear curiously. “Speaking of safety, ain’t you supposed to be asleep in a cave somewhere?”
Boy Bear bristled and puffed out his chest. “My Mama and sister are asleep. I’m Outside, seeing the world.”
The crow whistled. “Well, you’re a brave one, aren’t you?”
Boy Bear nodded. “Yup, and someday I’m gonna be as big and brave as the trees!”
The crow laughed. “That’s pretty big. I think you’re …” Suddenly the crow stiffened and stretched his wings, calling out, “Lion!” as he lifted into the air. The other crows jumped from their perches in the trees and took up the cry. “Lion! Lion! Lion!”
Boy Bear pouted and said, “I’m not lyin’! It’s true! Big as the trees!” But the crows were gone. The forest was suddenly very still and quiet. Even the wind had died down. Boy Bear looked around the empty clearing. His ears twitched as he heard a low growl behind him. He turned slowly in time to see a large and sleek mountain lion emerge from the shadows. The big cat licked his lips, green eyes shining, staring directly at the frightened cub. Boy Bear gulped and began backing away, the lion slowly following. The cub found himself backed into a tree. He squeezed his eyes closed tight and whimpered, “Mama?” just as the lion leapt into the air towards him.
Suddenly a great whirring noise filled the forest. A huge shadow fell from the sky, diving directly at the pouncing lion. The cat roared and swiped at the shape but was soon overwhelmed. With a cry of frustration and rage, the lion ran back into the trees. At the very same moment a second shadow fell over Boy Bear. He felt talons in his fur as he was lifted off the ground. The crows had returned to save their new friend!
The crows carried Boy Bear up, up, up, high over the trees, and carried him safely back to the den, then they flew off, squawking in victory.
One crow stayed behind. Boy Bear looked at him in wonder. “You saved me.” he said.
The crow nodded. “Can’t have you missing out on being bigger than the trees, now, can we?” With a chuckle he flew off, calling back, “You come back out with your Mama in the Spring! I’ll see you again!”
Boy Bear watched his new friend until he was just a dot in the sky, then he crawled back into the den. Mama Bear woke when her boy cub cuddled against her. “Able to sleep, now?” she murmured. Boy Bear nodded. “Yes, Mama, now I can sleep.”
And he did, dreaming of snow and the forest and crows (but, fortunately, not mountain lions) and he dreamed of growing as big as the trees.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Exploding Stars and Other Fearsome Things

Jamie: Hi, Donald, it's Jamie. Did you have a nice Thanksgiving?

Donald: I had a very nice Thanksgiving. Very quiet and restful. How about you?

Jamie: I had a very good Thanksgiving except I'm having problems with my sister.

So began an intermittent online chat that has continued for six years with Jamie, the adult autistic son of very old and dear friends of mine. Every few weeks or so Jamie will send me a message on Facebook, often just to say hello or wish me the best for a holiday season.

Jamie: Hey, Donald. Happy New Year!

Donald: All the best to you in the next year. Jamie.

Jamie: Thanks!

I've known Jamie since he was a very young boy. He is now thirty years old but will never grow emotionally or intellectually beyond the confused and fragile state of a young teenager. His life and schedule is as structured as his parents can allow. The TV game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are an absolute must-see every evening they are aired. If his schedule is changed or interrupted he will fly into uncontrollable bouts of anger and tears. His autism affects his life daily, how he processes information, how he perceives the world around him. He has extreme difficulty dealing with other people. He becomes anxious that he is doing or saying the wrong thing. Jamie can never live on his own. He must always be cared for.

Occasionally Jamie will ask to chat about current events.

Jamie: Hi, Donald.

Donald: Hi, Jamie. How are you?

Jamie: Not good today. I'm depressed.

Donald: Oh, no! Why?

Jamie: Whitney Houston went kaput.

Donald: That is very sad.

Jamie: Yeah. I was crying like crazy

Donald: Well, we still have her music, right? That means she'll never really die.

Jamie: Yeah! I never thought of that! Thanks!

And so our chats continued, tiny conversations scattered over the months and years that often brightened my day and my outlook on life.

One evening I received this message;

Jamie: Hey, Donald. Do you think North Korea is really gonna hurt our beloved country?

Donald: I don't think that will happen, Jamie. It's all a lot of bluster between military powers. I think we'll be fine.

Jamie: Okay. I'm sorry. I get scared so easily.

Donald: It's fine, really. These are scary times for all of us.

Jamie: Thanks, Donald!

I immediately messaged his mother, letting her know that Jamie seemed to be unduly worried about events he could neither control nor fully understand. She told me he had been watching the news and reading articles online and was becoming increasingly frightened by world events. I asked her how I could best handle his questions, if more were asked. She reminded me that he is really just a child in many ways and should be treated gently and calmly.

Jamie: Do you suppose Obamacare will still be around?

Donald: I hope something like it gets passed. To many people depend on it.

Jamie: Yeah. I hope so, too.

I now found myself to be an online conduit for my confused and frightened friend.

Jamie: Hey, Donald. Is it true that the stars up in the sky will actually explode in 2022?

Donald: My goodness, Jamie. Where ever did you hear that?

Jamie: YouTube.

Donald: I think the stars a gonna be around for a very long time, Jaime.

Jamie: I guess YouTube videos were making these things up.

I looked it up myself and discovered that two stars were, indeed, predicted to explode in 2022 but with no more consequence to us than a momentary flash of light in the sky. I told Jaime what I learned.

Jamie: Maybe bright enough for us to see something in the dark?

Donald: Yup, but it will not be the end of the world.

Jaime: I had a feeling you would say that. Thanks, Donald! I guess the end of the world is only a legend and a myth.

Donald: I hope so. I kinda like this old world.

Jamie: Me, too.

Except for a few more short greetings from Jamie the above is the most recent chat we've had.

I hope I'm serving this man well. I hope I'm allaying his fears a little bit. I hope, more than anything, that my words are true, that North Korea will not blast us off the face of the planet, that medical care in America will remain a constant. I hope Whitney Houston's music is forever played. I hope the exploding stars will give us a light show to remember.

I hope Jamie lives a long and happy life, full of music and game shows.

Monday, August 14, 2017

When I moved to Ohio back in 1994 I joined a bowling league at Lakewood Lanes on Detroit Avenue. Being new to the area I was placed on a team by the president of the league.

I met my new team mates the first night of the season. Lazlo was an Hungarian immigrant, a jolly sort of man who seemed to love nothing more than diet Coke and the sound of a good solid strike. When a nearby bowler left a five pin standing after the first roll he'd shout out, laughter tinging his thick accent, "Nobody meeses de five peen!" Of course, if the bowler did miss it he was subject to even more playful ribbing. The other two members of the team were a married couple, Heinz and Olga. Olga was a loud and somewhat caustic American with an almost pre-adolescent sense of humor. If a score of 69 was visible on any sheet she'd go into gales of cackling laughter, calling out in braying tones that "69 is my favorite number!" The joke was marginally funny on first hearing, considerably annoying after the twentieth. Olga's husband was a German transplant to America. He was quieter and more subdued than Lazlo and Olga, chuckling softly at the antics around him. He was also the better bowler than any of his team mates, carrying an impressive 215 average throughout the season.

I liked Heinz. His sober intelligence and dignified bearing drew me to him. We often found ourselves in conversations more suited to a quiet bar than a loud bowling alley. He told me he came to America from Germany when he was a young man with his first wife and infant son. He was a carpenter by trade and, according to Olga, was quite a skilled craftsman. When I mentioned my father's hobby as a furniture maker his eyes lit up and we talked about the beauty of a well made chair or table. "Dere is nothing better than creating a lovely object from raw wood." he said.

One night, very near the end of the season, we were talking about money, my lack of it, to be concise. I wasn't really complaining, just pointing out how hard it is to live on a meager salary. He drew himself up and looked me square in the eye. He said with a frown, "It's the Jews, you know." His accent made the word sound like "juice". I was startled by the pronouncement. "What do you mean by that?" I asked. He went on to elaborate, telling me that the Jews controlled all the money in America, that good and decent white people had no chance to thrive while the Jews were in charge. He must have noticed my discomfort at his words. He dropped his gaze and said, "Maybe this is not a good place to talk of these things." I shifted in my seat and said, "Heinz, I don't think there is any good place to talk of these things." He looked at me. "I see." he said. I drifted away from him. We spoke no more words together that night. We spoke no more words together the rest of the season.

Heinz disappointed me. He carried in his heart a hatred and fear that was foreign to me, a prejudice I found repugnant. The next season I asked to be transferred to another team. Heinz and I greeted one another politely each evening but we never spoke at length again.

Monday, August 7, 2017

I Forgotted My Wallet

There's a young man who rides the same bus I do every morning. He is mildly handicapped, a condition that exhibits itself in a series of facial ticks and a seeming inability to remain still for any length of time. I watch him as he paces up and down the length of the bus station, arms windmilling, mouth grimacing, all the while keening a shapeless tune in the piping voice of a child. He is a large, well muscled boy. He would appear threatening if he were not so obviously as harmless as a puppy. He owns a bicycle that he hoists to the holder at the front of the bus, tugging at the handle bars several times to make sure it's secure before he finally boards.
This morning I and my fellow riders had all taken our seats before he climbed aboard. I opened my book. Others fired up their cell phones or snapped open the morning paper. The young man stood before the driver, a nervous smile on his face. "I forgotted my wallet." he said. The driver peered at him. "So, you don't have any money?" The young man shuffled his feet nervously. "No, no money." he said. The driver waved a dismissive hand. "I can't let you ride if you can't pay the fare." The boy's smile faded and he backed off the bus. I was watching closely by this time and I could see his hands shaking as he began lifting his bike off the carrier. I looked around at the other passengers. Most were ignoring the situation, heads down, involved in their own reading or texting. One woman glanced my way and rolled her eyes so hard I'm surprised her neck didn't snap.
I got to my feet and strode to the front of the bus. "I'll pay for him." I said. The driver smirked and said, "He forgotted his wallet." I shoved five singles and two quarters into the machine and glared at him. "He deserves more consideration than you're giving him." I called to the young man. "Come on in. I'm buying you an all day pass." The boy fairly bounced back onto the bus. "Thank you!" he shouted.
I returned to my seat, keeping my open book in my lap. I was angry and sad; angry at the uncaring attitude of my fellow passengers, sad that this boy was merely a shadowy annoyance to a good part of the world.
At least today, I hope, the young man felt the tiniest bit of kindness.


When Jane was eight I bought her a hamster. She named it Sally. The little ball of fur had a cage with two levels, more tubes to crawl through than you'd find at Chuck-E-Cheese and, of course, the ubiquitous running wheel. Sally ate well and was well cared for and Jane loved her.
As is the case in all mortal life, be it human or rodent, Sally finally met her demise one cloudy September morning. Jane was not with me that day and I wrapped the stiffening little body in a soft cloth and placed it in a Disney gift box. I called Carrie and told her the news, which she relayed to Jane after picking her up from school. I called my ex-wife's live-in boyfriend and he agreed to dig a grave in the backyard.
I drove the short distance to the house with Sally resting on the passenger seat. Jane was in tears but smiled a little when she saw the colorful princess illustrated box. I handed the make-shift coffin to my daughter and she held it carefully as we moved to the freshly dug hole. Jane knelt and, with as much care and tenderness as the most seasoned mourner, she lay her furry friend in the ground. I suggested she may want to cover the box with earth herself. She nodded, wiped the tears from her cheeks, and picked up the shovel. She tossed one pile of dirt over the box, then another and then one more. She rose to her feet and fixed us with a glare of frustration. She jabbed the point of the shovel into the dirt and exclaimed, "Well, isn't anyone going to help me?!"
I knew then, as I finished covering the box with earth, that our daughter was going to be just fine.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Bus Fare Crime

Did you know that here in Ohio you can be sent to jail for thirty days for not paying the fare on a bus or a train? You didn't? Well, it's true.
Can you now imagine the first night in a holding cell for this infraction? You can't? Well, I can. Here's how I think it would go.

The room was dank from sweat and stale urine. The overhead lights shone harshly on the four men in the tiny cramped cell. One man, stick thin and poorly dressed, paced nervously back and forth, like an alley cat in a cage. He snapped his fingers in a series of sharp clicks and pops. Two of the men, one large and beefy, the other small and compact, engaged in animated conversation. The fourth man sat apart from the others, his hat covering his brow as he hunched his shoulders low.

"Yeah," said the large man in a loud booming voice, "I was nabbed on grand theft auto." He laughed. "I musta led them cops for one hundred miles before they caught up with me. Got up to hundred 'n' twenty miles an hour at one point." He slapped his knee in amusement. "Jesus! Took a couple of 'em down before they got the cuffs on me."

His companion chuckled in appreciation. "Grand theft auto, huh?" His voice was grating and harsh, like screeching metal. He leaned in close to the bigger man and said in a whisper, "Stabbed my landlord." He thrust his arm out and twisted his wrist. "In like butter. SOB wanted ta throw me out." He wheezed in laughter. "Wanted ta throw me out so I put him down."

The two men howled with laughter.

The thin pacing man stopped in his tracks and glared at them. "Why don't you two guys shut up." he said with a whine in his voice. "Not everybody wants to hear your damn stupid stories." He whipped around to face the silent hunched man. "You don't wanna hear this crap, do you?"

The man sat, not moving, as if he hadn't heard.

The thin man scurried to him. "Hey, I'm talkin' to you." Still no response. The thin man turned back to the others. "See? He don't wanna talk."

The large man hefted himself up from the metal folding chair and moved slowly to the quiet man. He bent as low as his round stomach would allow. "Hey? That true? You don't wanna talk?" The man sat, still hunched, still quiet. The beefy man looked to the others and shrugged his shoulders. "Don't wanna talk."

This seemed to agitate the thin man. He scurried to the seated man and grabbed his shoulder, clenching long bony fingers into his flesh. "You can at least say why you're here." He was almost pleading, as if this silent man was a affront to everything he held dear in his sad life.

The man moved, lifted his head and peered at the others. His eyes were a winter cold blue, empty and void of compassion. He stared at the man confronting him.

The thin man fell back, hand to mouth, and stumbled over his back peddling feet. "Jesus Christ," he said, "it's him."

A hush fell over the room. They had all seen the trial on the news, read of this man's crime and his sneering indifference to the courts and justices. They had seen the face of his lawyer, slashed from the cheek to his bottom lip after one motion failed.

The man lifted his chin and spoke. His voice was deep and low, almost a growling purr, measured and slow. "You want to know why I'm here?" He pulled his hat up and looked at the men. "One sunny afternoon. Got laundry to take care of. Problem is, I got the jack for the washer but not the bus. So, I figured I'd just sneak in the back door, you know? When the driver ain't lookin'. But he sees me, see? Yells out, 'Hey! You gotta pay the fare!' I got myself up to the front. 'Come on, give a guy a break.' I says. He says, 'No. You gotta pay like everybody else'. I sat down in the seat with my bag of clothes and I says, 'Make me, bus jockey'. Next thing I know some bus cops got me in cuffs. Drag me outa there. I can't even get my clothes." He  laughs, a short sharp sound that resembles a hound dog bark. "And I go to trial and the judge says, 'Guilty!' And now I'm here with you lugs."

The men are still, like statues. They stare in fear and repulsion at the man.

He leans back in his chair. "In thirty days I have an engagement." He lowers his hat over his eyes. "An engagement with a certain bus driver.

In the distance a train whistles, a low melancholy sound that sends chills up the spine of all who hear it.