Friday, January 6, 2012

First Santa

I was four years old when I met Santa for the first time in 1961. Dad was thirty-four and Mom was twenty-three. They loved each other and they wanted their three little kids to have the best they could give. We didn’t become a religious family for another six years so those first Christmases were wholly secular. Santa was as magical as it got in those days.

One December day, my folks bundled us into the car -- an orange Mercury that later would lose reverse gear yet be deemed still drivable by our low income family – and we set off over the river and through the woods. “Santa’s house” turned out to be the back room of a bar where Dad occasionally stopped on his way home from work. My expectations of red-nosed reindeer and frolicking elves melted away as I was herded through a dim place of strange smells and unfamiliar voices. By the time I met the jolly old saint, I was in no mood to sit on his lap. He probably asked me, “What do you want for Christmas, little fella?” I have no idea what I said, though my first memory of a present under a tree is a red metal fire truck.

Many Christians decry the secularization of Christmas, but for the children of their secular neighbors, Santa may serve as the first hint of an unseen world that exists beyond their own and is governed by someone good. Biblical scholars use the word “mystery” to refer to that which is indescribable in human terms. Maybe I’m getting old and sentimental enough to rejoice that, for some people, St. Nicholas serves as a pointer to a realm where faith, hope, and love really do have the last word.

It’s true that “Ho, ho, ho” doesn’t carry the same power as “Hallelujah” and being good is not the same as being holy. We fear for a society awash in selfish consumption and driven by well-crafted marketing meant to separate people from their money. While Jesus Christ demonstrated self-sacrificing love, Santa can become a resource for self-indulgence. It is understandable that Christians should want to counter what can be a significant distraction from the Gospel and otherwise prove how far short Santa falls from Jesus.

But let’s not “Bah-humbug” too much. When else besides Christmas do people reflect on the fact that they don’t live in a world where all dreams come true, but wish they did? In times when authority figures break promise after promise, wouldn’t it be great if there really was someone who knew the difference between naughty and nice? Aren’t we sad that there aren’t enough toys or food or housing for everyone? Wouldn’t we welcome a magic bag of endless resources?

History teaches us that Santa wasn’t presented as a substitute for Jesus, but rather as a friend of his. Here is how one mother shared with her three-year old daughter: “Once there was a special man who lived a long time ago. We call him St. Nicholas, because saint means someone who belongs to God, just like we do. In Nicholas' town, there were families who didn't have enough food, clothes, or toys. Nicholas used his money to buy these for the poor children. He didn't want them to be embarrassed by his gifts, so he gave secretly. He also told everyone about Jesus and how much God loved them. Many people became Christians because of what St. Nicholas said. Because of how much St. Nicholas loved Jesus, and because of the many gifts he gave, we still remember him at Christmastime and give presents to each other. It all reminds us of the very best gift: when God the Father gave His only Son, Jesus Christ, for our salvation.”

And so I’m glad that my parents -- even though at the time they were unaware of the true nature of the God who loved them -- introduced me long ago to a world of possibility and goodness that lay just beyond my own. That visit to Santa became the first step on my path to faith in the One who can make a saint out of any of us.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

New and Improved

Xavier turned the dead bolt in the glass-panel door and pushed the button that set the alarm. His eye passed over the late October sun as it settled down for the night behind the convenience store across the street. He considered for a moment that somewhere further east another like him contemplated tomorrow’s rising sun. But right now and for him, the layers of pre-winter clouds both draped and expanded his sun’s deepening orange fire. His mouth turned up in a slight smile as he felt the artesian well within him expand a little more. This assignment was turning out to be more special than most and it would be hard to hand it over when it was time to move on to his next charge.

He heard a crash towards the rear of the shop and recognized Steven’s voice.

“Stupid, stupid!” the young man berated himself.

Xavier remembered when he had first seen Steven. After he had taken over the shop, he had soon noticed the teenagers that gathered outside the neighboring convenience store to transact their business. Every culture had years built into it where its people sought their meaning and purpose. So far, these had conducted their search in relative calm and seemed to have ignored his store.

One day he ran out of denatured alcohol that he needed to clean a metal door prior to repainting it. He entered the store and its oily-haired clerk pointed him toward the far corner of the store. He felt the attention of the loiterers at the magazine racks and drink coolers shift toward him as he located the one remaining bottle of the cleaner. For an instant he felt the unpleasantness of fear. Then he reminded himself that they were why he others like him had been appointed.

He paid for his purchase and left the store. As he started across the street, a muscular gangbanger shoved a younger boy against a trash can toppling it at the boy onto the sidewalk.

“Outa my way, bitch! I’ll put a cap in yo’ ass the next time!” the gangbanger growled before blowing past Xavier into the store. The boy picked himself up in a casual way, as if to say You didn’t hurt me, ain’t no one can hurt me. Xavier could tell from his clothing that someone somewhere cared about him, but it wouldn’t matter if one of the streetlords got his hooks into him. The way the boy’s eyes followed the gangbanger, it seemed as if that was what he wanted.

A week later, Xavier crossed the street again. “Young man!” The boy looked up from where he had been watching four others playing a game in the alley next to the store. “Yes, you! Come over here!”

“Don’t listen to him. That old man’s crazy,” one of the players said, his eyes focused on his next throw.

The boy shrugged his football jersey-clad shoulders and sauntered over, his high-top basketball shoes scuffing the broken pavement. “Yeah, what?”

“Do you know the name of the game you are playing?”

“I’m not playin’ nothin’. What of it?” The boy cocked his head at an angle, looking at him with one eye.

“They used to call it Skully. It’s nice to see a variation of it coming back after all these years.” The boy looked back at the wanabe gang members as they contested each other over drink caps fitted with coins and melted wax for weight. Xavier knew that the fighting would eventually escalate to more deadly stakes, but maybe not for this one.

The boy smirked. “You’re too old for it.”

“You don’t know it, but you’re probably right. What do they call you at home?”

“Steve. So?”

“This is my shop. I’d like to offer you a job. I need some help with . . . a variety of things.”

That was three years ago. Now Steve squatted in worry and looked at the bottle that had fallen from its perch. It had not shattered, but a crack ran along its eight-inch length. A portion of its amber contents had leaked out and pooled on the dry wooden boards.

Steve looked up when Xavier’s weight creaked the century-old floor. “I’m sorry Mr. Xavier. I was dusting like I do and somehow this got knocked off. I’ll clean it up right away.”

Xavier recognized the item. “That’s fine. Things happen. No real harm has been done.”

Steve pursed his lips and shook his head firmly. “But no one will buy it now. It’s my fault. I’ll pay for it.”

Xavier smiled at the young man’s transformed sense of responsibility. “Do not fret yourself. Besides, its value is beyond your present means.”

“Well, ok.” Steve looked back at the broken bottle. It was dark green with a nubby surface. It had fallen from a shelf of beverage bottles dating from pre-WWII days. There was a label but his eyes couldn’t make out the words in the growing shadows, even with the help of the thick glasses Xavier had helped him buy. He found a cardboard box and set the bottle inside it. “I’ll put it in the dumpster.” He pulled a rag from his back pocket and wiped up what fluid hadn’t already seeped into the dry floorboards.

“Make sure you list it on the daily loss sheet after you take it out,” Xavier said.

Steve held the box against his chest and leaned back against the crash bar of the door leading to the narrow alley. Across the way rose the brick wall of a warehouse. He looked left and right even though he knew that there was nothing to fear until night fully fell. Bright street lamps peered back at him from each exit of the alley like the headlights of trains entering a tunnel. He started down the stair prepared for how the third step always shifted under his weight. Sure enough it teetered slightly and his fingers tightened on the cardboard as he reached the bottom. He opened the door of the dumpster and placed the box inside. The trash service would haul it away the next morning.

Nearing midnight and in search of a place out of the wind, Chardy and Tomas turned left and started down the alley between the Potomac Brothers’ Warehouse and Xavier’s Gifts. A dirty stocking cap covered Chardy’s balding head and the collar of a stained trench coat protected his neck from the chill wind. Since he was focused on the twin dumpsters squatting against the antique shop, he splashed through an overlooked puddle.

“Crap!” He quickly shook the water off so it couldn’t seep through the worn seams of his army boots. Keeping his feet dry was an excellent way to avoid another stint in the VA hospital -- in spite of the free food and lodging it provided.

Tomas smiled but said nothing as usual.

They had “shared the outdoors” -- as Chardy called it -- for the last ten years. He knew the possibilities of the streets -- what was worth the risk and what wasn’t. He knew all the trash routes and how to get in ahead of the trucks. He called it a good day when they scrounged enough to sell to pawn brokers or flea market vendors for food money and smokes. It amazed him what people threw out, even in down times, and it reminded him of how much he had taken for granted once upon a time.

When it rained or winter came, they opted for the shelter built by the Arlington Temple United Methodist Church out of an old gasoline distribution station. He carried a fair measure of anxiety even though the Reverend regularly reassured him that the underground fuel tanks were long gone.

It had been hard for Chardy at first because of the fire. It had been a cold night in December when he and Tomas stood huddled with other men around a barrel of burning wood and paper. Someone stumbled into the flickering light and tossed something metallic into the barrel. Before Chardy could turn away, the aerosol can exploded. He woke up three days later in the hospital. Two month’s of painful treatments left him with dark scars on his arms and the left side of his face and neck.

Some of the more petty street folk called him Chardy, but his true name was Randall. “I used to be King of the Hill of our consulting firm,” he told Tomas as the server in the shelter’s dinner line plunked a spoonful of potatoes onto his tray. “You know that game? No one could knock me off -- until an investor with lots of money bought the business and drove it into the ground. No more consults. No more money. My wife skipped out on me two days after the bank repossessed the house. Talk about kicking you on the way down.”

After dinner, they returned to the sleeping area – rows of beds for single men. He sat on his mattress and pulled his old friend from his coat pocket. Through a twelve-step program the gas station church offered he had stayed dry for six years. But then the fire came. When the pain outlasted his oxycodone prescription, he sought a cheaper remedy in regular doses of Virginia Gentleman bourbon whiskey.

“I haven’t seen any of them today,” Tomas said. Chardy knew he was talking about the Mara. They had started to appear in the Washington area about six months ago. Tomas had first run into them in Phoenix. Latino gangs had spread out of Mexico and jumped east from city to city along the I-10 corridor. Tomas moved fast to stay ahead of their “recruiters” and beat their arrival in D.C. by a year. So far, he and Chardy had avoided their sweeps and stayed out of the line of fire from their battles with indigenous gangs.

“Come on,” Chardy urged Tomas toward the dumpster on the left while he moved toward the one behind Xavier’s. “The trucks’ll be here soon.” While the warehouse container was more likely to hold tradable goods, he never passed up a possibility. He also believed in playing the odds and saving the best for last.

He slid the rusted metal door back and pointed his penlight inside. Something reflected the light back at him from within a box just below the door. He reached and his fingers circled something cold and glassy. He lifted a bottle into the beam of his light.

“Vigor-Ale,” he read the label. The bottle appeared unbroken and sealed with an old-fashioned pop-top, not the modern screw-off kind. Liquid sloshed around inside and his first thought was about how it might taste. Wonder why they’d throw out something like this. I’ll bet another antique shop would give a good price, he thought.

“Tomas! I found something!” Three gunshots echoed off the brick walls. Chardy looked down the alley where two gangbangers stood over the body of a man lying on the dirty pavement.

Tomas hurried over to him. “Let’s go!”

It might have been the alcohol or just the raw horror of knowing that a man’s brains had been blown out of his head. In any case, Chardy hesitated and Tomas would not leave him. The two gunmen pointed their weapons at them and fired. Tomas fell hard and blood welled from a wound in his upper chest.

Chardy stared at his friend and heard the shooters argue over whether or not they should finish them off. He hoisted Tomas over his shoulder and then stooped to pick up his dumpster prize. Another shot rang out. The bullet passed through the space where his head had been and ricocheted off the wall of the antique shop. A splinter of brick slammed into his left forearm and a thin flow of blood ran down to drip off his elbow. He ran back toward Third Street. Maybe he could call 911 from the convenience store around the corner.

Chardy watched the orderlies wheel his friend into the trauma room at the Virginia Hospital Center. The flashing lights of the Rosslyn Police cruiser he had flagged down had driven their pursuers back into the alley’s darkness. The paramedics arrived five minutes later and they let him with Tomas in the back. From his former life, he knew that the EMTALA laws would keep the hospital from refusing a patient that could not pay. Tomas would get care -- if he survived.

A nurse sat behind a low room divider and stared at a computer screen. “Name?” she asked him.

“Chard . . .I mean Randall Jackson.”

The woman did not look up as she typed. “We have no record of him as a patient here before. Does he have insurance?”

Chardy heard a derisive snort behind him and turned. A twentyish man in a polo shirt and a broken arm flashed a sarcastic grin and turned toward the television. Chardy turned back to the nurse. “No, neither of us do. My name is Randall. His name is Tomas Soto.”

The woman typed again. “Still no record. What happened to him?”

“He got shot in an alley over in Rosslyn.” Chardy leaned toward the nurse. “When can I see him?”

The nurse’s eye paused a moment too long upon his scarred neck and then moved on to a one-way window and a door marked security. “How about his social? Are you a family member?” she continued talking as her hand reached under the desk.

“Sí. Él es mi hermano,” Chardy retorted. The nurse looked up with a bemused expression. “What do you think?” Chardy continued. “I’m the only familia he’s got right now.”

The security door opened. A man in a crisp white shirt, pleated dark pants, and a 9mm Beretta on his right hip approached. “Is there a problem?” he asked the nurse.

Chardy pleaded silently with her until she leaned back in her chair. “I don’t think so, Wayne. I think we’re OK.” The guard shrugged and departed back into his office. “I’m sorry Mr. . . .Jackson. I need only a little more information. After that you can get some free coffee over there and wait for the doctor to come out and see you. You ought to have that cut checked.” She pointed to the gouge on his arm. “Stitches and a tetanus shot would help.”

Chardy sat down on a fake leather couch that had been worn thin by a countless number of slumped, exhausted, and fearful people and sipped his coffee. He’d had much worse even though the beverage had been reconstituted from black syrup drawn from a canister, quick-blended with unnaturally heated water, and dribbled into a thin Styrofoam cup. A dozen other patients and family members sat around him, having been triaged into the system. Tomas bullet wound had moved him ahead of the broken fingers, sniffles, and unknown queasiness that murmured around him.

His practice was to avoid such places until he had no other option. Hospitals, nursing homes, mortuaries – such places stood as evidence that in spite of all the money raised and technology discovered, every human life was on a one way road down.

He looked toward the double doors that separated him from the patient care areas, willing the doctor to come forth. He gave up after ten seconds and glanced down to the bottle he had scavenged from the dumpster. A copy of Discover Magazine lay next to it. He noticed the publication date and calculated quickly. His own subscription had run out ten years and three months prior to the issue he held. He could barely remember when he thought a relaxing afternoon consisted of his hammock in the back yard and uninterrupted reading authors like Sagan and Hawking. He flipped it open to a one page news item entitled “Physicists Learn to Turn Back Time.”

According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, any isolated system tends to grow more disorderly over time—the fundamental reason the mess in your sink only gets worse if you don't wash the dishes. But Denis Evans, a physicist at the Australian National University, has found that the second law can sometimes be forced to run backward. This is a discovery equivalent to finding that the dishes washed themselves while you waited. The experiment proved what had been predicted nine years earlier -- measurable violations of the second law are possible at extremely small scales. At larger scales, however, they vanish into the overall trend toward disorder. The second law defines the arrow of time—why those dishes do not get un-dirty, or why you cannot un-spill spilled milk. The existence of some flexibility in the law hints that events could temporarily run backward but only over minuscule distances. Humans will not be able to make themselves young again . . .

“Mr. Jackson?” the nurse’s voice intruded. Dr. Malik can speak with you now.” She pressed a button that released the magnetic hold on the door with a loud click. The door angled outward. Chardy dropped the magazine on the cushion beside him. “He will meet you in Consultation Room Two,” the nurse pointed ahead. “Go through the door to your left and down the hall.”

“Can I see Tomas?”

“The doctor wants to talk to you first.”

Chardy’s vision remained blurred as Dr. Malik returned to the ER, leaving him alone. It had blurred the moment he learned that Tomas would probably die soon. The bullet had done too much damage to his lungs and he had lost more than half his blood volume during the time it took Chardy to find help. The only thing keeping him alive was medication that elevated his blood pressure and the ventilator that breathed for him.

“You’d better go see him soon,” the doctor had said.

Chardy rocked forward with his elbows planted on his thighs with the bottle wedged between his left arm and side. If only he had run away as Tomas had urged. The room closed in around him and a surge of heat began at his left arm and radiated through his body. A flash of white light overwhelmed his vision and he woke up on the floor with someone kneeling beside him.

“I’ll get the doctor!” a woman shouted.

Chardy climbed back onto the chair. The bottle lay on the floor where it had fallen. When he reached for it with his left arm he saw that his wound had closed with just the hint of a scar. He touched the place and felt something sticky. No pain or tenderness. He looked at the bottle and saw a faint crack running from the top to the bottom and covered by the same sticky substance. The brighter lights let him read the label: “Vigor-Ale.” Below in smaller print was written “Good for what ails ya.” The date and place of bottling appeared at the bottom: 1926 -- Winchester, Kentucky.

He found Tomas in a room of beeping monitors, plastic tubing, and harsh lighting. Chardy’s heart thumped in his chest as he pulled the curtain across the door and approached the gurney. A bloody gauze bandage covered the wound in Tomas’s chest. The monitor displayed numbers in different colors for heart rate, blood oxygen level, and blood pressure. Chardy inspected his now healed wound once more. Could it be? What was this stuff? He looked again at his friend. He’s going to die anyway. He removed the old-fashioned cap from the bottle with a pocket knife, pulled off the bandage, and poured a tablespoon of amber liquid onto the wound. He replaced the bandage and slipped the bottle into his coat pocket.

Ten seconds later, Tomas’s heart stopped and the monitor’s alarm went off. Dr. Malik entered with a nurse. He silenced the noise and held his stethoscope to his Tomas’s chest. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson. There was nothing we could . . .”

The monitor beeped loudly as Tomas’s heartbeat resumed at a strong sixty-five rate. “What the hell?” Malik shouted as Tomas’s chest rose and fell steadily. “This isn’t possible.” He peeled back the bandage. A small scar had sealed the bullet hole. “This man’s not going anywhere until I find out what happened. I’m admitting him.”

Chardy and Tomas spent the next two days enjoying the warm accommodations and free food of the hospital. Dr. Malik ordered every conceivable test and learned nothing about his patient other than that he was moderately anemic and borderline diabetic. He would have kept him longer had Tomas not signed himself out AMA.

That night they found beds at the Arlington Temple and Chardy told Tomas everything. “I couldn’t tell that doctor it was the Ale that saved you. He would have taken it from me.”

“What are you going to do with it?” Tomas said from where he lay in the next bunk.

“I don’t know. Hang onto it, I guess. Sure would be handy considering how banged up we get sometimes.”

“Kind of like liquid first aid,” Tomas smiled.

“I know some people who could analyze it for me. Wouldn’t they be surprised to see old Randall Jackson climbing back up the hill?”

“Who?” Tomas asked.

“Forget it.” He pulled the bottle out. “I could make a fortune with you baby,” he chuckled.

A brown mouse scuttled between his shoes from beneath his cot. It carried a nugget of something in its jaws as it headed toward the safety of a gap in the baseboard on the far side of the room.

“Look! Speedy’s found dinner,” Tomas said.

The springs of the bunk above them creaked. A knife snapped through the air and speared the mouse a foot short of its sanctuary. Its tail whipped back and forth a couple of times before falling still. The bit of food slipped from its mouth

“I hate those little shits,” a gravelly voice said. The man dropped down. “Everything dies, some things sooner than others.” He retrieved his knife, wiped the blade on his pants, and left the body of mouse lying on the floor. “I got to take a crap,” he said and left the room.

Chardy stared at the animal. He had met people like the mouse-killer before, though they used innuendoes and lawsuits as weapons instead of knives. Their targets were those who achieved a measure of success beyond theirs. Reputations, careers, and even marriages lay eviscerated from their attacks. They had cost him his identity as Randall Jackson.

Tomas looked at the bottle and then at Chardy. Chardy handed Tomas the elixir with a nod. He squatted in front of the mouse, removed the cap, and poured a dollop of the Ale over it. A minute later there hadn’t been so much as a twitch of a whisker. He stood up. “I really thought it would help.”

“Maybe it works only if the victim is still alive.”

“I guess.”

Two dozen men sat at plain tables eating meals of Salisbury steak, potatoes and gravy, and green beans. Carafes held hot coffee. Two seats remained open – across from the mouse-killer. Chardy and Tomas got their food and sat down.

“You didn’t have to kill that mouse,” Chardy said. “What did it ever do to you?”

“Shut up if you know what’s good for ya!” the man growled, not looking up.

“Leave it alone, Chard. He’s not worth it.”

The man grunted and continued shoveling food into his mouth. Chardy’s appetite disappeared. He settled into his chair and ran a hand along the scars on his face and neck. They itched a lot and sometimes burned, especially on nights when the heat was up.

He leaned over. “I think it’s time we found out what the stuff does on the inside,” he whispered. He drew the bottle out of his pocket and looked at its knobby green surface. It was still half full. How much would he have to take? Maybe it was it like iodine – not meant for internal consumption. How could he be sure?

Hank noticed the bottle. “What’s that? Is it good? How about a little?”

“It’s nothing. Just some allergy medicine.”

The man grunted and scooted his chair back. “Damn good chow tonight. Time for seconds,” he said and tramped back to the food counter. Chardy pried the cap off the bottle and poured a shot of the liquid into the man’s coffee cup.

After supper, they returned to their bunks. It would be another hour before the matron called lights out.

“Look there,” Chardy pointed. The mouse was gone, though a dime-sized spot of drying blood marked the spot of its execution. The piece of nut it had chewed still lay at the edge of the spot.

Hank staggered into the sleeping area holding his stomach and moaning. He reached his bunk and fell into it on his back. “Oh, God! What’s happenin’ ta me?!”

Another resident came over. “Hey, Hank! You want I call an ambulance or somethin’?”

“I can’t take no more of this. Those beans must ‘ave been spoilt! Get me some help!”

The man flipped open a track phone and punched in ‘911.’ “Hello? We need help at the Temple Church shelter. My friend’s got food poisoning or somethin’.”

Hank got up and looked around, his eyes wide but focused nowhere, as if he were seeing the demons of his pitiful life coming home to roost. He spoke again, not in his normal street gruffness, but in a more polished voice, though in an unnaturally rushed cadence. “Sarah and Bobby! Traded for this? How could I let it happen? My best years!” He grabbed the sides of his head and keened. “Shut up! Shut up!” he shouted at the private accusing voices that accused him of the willful transgressions that had come to form his life. “Too late! Too late!”

Chardy sat on his bed, frozen by a wave of guilt. What if the Ale was poisonous?

Hank stopped his frantic movements and looked at Chardy, flushed by the fever of his demise. A great drop of sweat fell from his jaw. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” he said in a perfect imitation of Charlton Heston’s Moses.

Chardy watched as Hank wrenched himself around and then threw himself out one of the tall windows that looked down on the street. The panes shattered and he left blood on the sill where the sharp edges cut him. Chardy heard a heavy sound as the man hit the sidewalk. Tomas looked out and then turned around shaking his head.

The police took an hour to come and go. Everyone told the similar stories: Hank acted crazy and then threw himself out the window. Chardy overheard the female coroner tell the director of the shelter that an autopsy would be performed. She asked for information about his next of kin and made notes on an electronic pad with a toothpick sized stylus. Chardy remembered how the man had shouted the names of Sarah and Bobby. “Not much help,” the coroner told him. “A lot of kids go by those names. Is there anything else you can tell me?”

Chardy swallowed. “No. I didn’t know him very much.”

“OK, then.” She closed the pad and walked out.

The supervisor turned off the lights for the night and snores began filling the air of the sleeping room. Chardy sat with Tomas on his bunk and looked through the great window at a light snowfall that began to coat the sidewalk. He wondered if it would ever grow thick enough to cover the place where Hank had broken himself. “How was I to know that would happen?”
“Maybe he just had a bad reaction, like allergic?”

Chardy rolled his eyes. “You think? Why didn’t he just collapse? I could believe it if had taken it out on us. The guy was too mean to turn on himself.”

Tomas pointed to a sudden movement on the floor. A shaft of light from the street light outside cut across a section of the floor. A mouse identical to the one Hank had speared skittered into the light. It took the remnant of nut in its paws and began chewing.

“Is that . . .?”

“I think so.”

“Madre de Dios,” Tomas breathed.

“I don’t get it. How could it bring a mouse back to life but kill a perfectly alive person?”

They watched as the mouse devoured the remains of the nut and skittered through the hole to safety. “Maybe the ale didn’t kill him,” Tomas said. “Think about it. You, me and Speedy were not just healed. We returned to our former states. What if the same thing happened to Hank, but his wound was something deeper than physical?”

Chardy remembered how Hank had shrieked, as if he was suddenly made aware of all the misery that he had caused those he should have protected. Few persons could bear such raw reality. Most found scapegoats which they blamed for their sufferings.

It was the woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit and I ate it.

“What are you going to do with it?”

Chardy felt Tomas’ eyes on him. In the year that he had known him, Tomas had never laid any expectations on him. Some thought he was slow or autistic. Chardy knew the truth – Tomas simply enjoyed being the supporting actor in other people’s lives. “Do you think I need it? Would it make me like before?”

Tomas looked at the bottle. “There is probably just enough left for you. But I guess it depends on what you think needs changing.”

Chardy thought back past his arrival on the Roslyn streets and the accident at the barrel. Did he really want to go back to climbing up the hill again? He listened to the snores of the men around him. Eight hours from now the sun would come up and they would be hustled out to seek their fortunes as best they could. A few lucky ones would stumble onto minimum wage jobs, but most would survive another day by their wits and return to the shelter for their one hot meal. Success on the streets was measured not by social advancement, but by a trinket scavenged from here or there. Every once in a while he heard of someone who weaseled his way onto one of the urban gangs that had an opening for a gofer or buffoon.

“You tell me,” he said.

Tomas reached out one of his large rough hands and Chardy gave him the bottle. “I don’t think that the way back to your former middle-class life is in here. Anyway, that wouldn’t be anything different for you. What you are now is what you were then. You can’t get back to somewhere you’ve never been before.”

Chardy grabbed the bottle from Tomas. “This might be a church shelter, but that doesn’t give you a preaching license!”

Tomas raised his hands. “You asked. All I’m saying is this: ‘Is it workin’ for ya’ as Dr. Phil says?”

Chardy read the bottle: Good for what ails ya. The image of Hank throwing himself out the window careened through him once more. What good are you? He asked the bottle again.

Two rows over, an upper bunk creaked loudly and its large occupant crashed to the floor headfirst. Chardy heard the sickening snap of bones breaking. Others stirred awake as he and Tomas found the man on his back, his head twisted at an unnatural angle, the bones of his neck pressing against the skin.

Without thinking, Chardy opened the bottle and poured what was left of the Ale into the man’s gaping mouth. He bent over him and saw the liquid pool in the back of his throat. He watched a long five seconds before the man’s torn muscles and shattered bones started shifting back into place. The man convulsed twice. His airway cleared and the released air caused the Ale to spew out of his mouth. The liquid drenched Chardy’s face and dripped onto his shirt. He lurched backward as a sudden heat enveloped him. His hands beat against his face and shoulders as the burning sensation deepened. He felt Tomas catch and brace him and then things went dark.

When he opened his eyes again he saw that the lights were one. His friend’s face bent over him and he felt his arms around him.

The man who had fallen from his bunk said, “What happened?”

“You fell out of bed, Bob,” another resident said. “Damn noise woke everyone up. Looks like you fell on Chardy here.”

“You OK Chardy?” Bob said.

“Yeah, I think so.” He squinted his eyes at the halo effect around every light source.

“Serves you right wandering around at night. Bob’s big enough he could’ve squashed you.”

Tomas handed him a towel to wipe his face. “I’ll help you back to bed.” Bob climbed back into his bunk and someone turned off the lights.

The next morning, Chardy staggered into the washroom to shave. He lathered up his face at the sink and picked up his cheap single blade razor. The steam from three showers had fogged up the mirrors so he wiped clear enough space to see. As usual, he began with the left side of his face, working from the temple down with minimum pressure because of the ridges of his scars that tended to bleed easily.

He dipped the razor under the hot water and returned it to his face when his hand froze. Where were they? He reached with his other hand and felt the skin on the left side of his face and throat. He dropped the razor, cupped water in his hands, and rinsed the lather away. All sign of scarring was gone as was the familiar pain that every move of his neck and facial muscles had given him since the fire.

“Tomas,” he croaked through suddenly dry vocal cords. “Tomas!” His friend entered the washroom. “Look!” Chardy said pointing.

Chardy worked his way with a dozen other men through the breakfast line and tried to understand what had happened to him. It’s depends on what you think needs changing, Tomas has said. The Ale had turned the clock back for him to before the fire, but that still left him unemployed and on the streets. Had his relationship with Jack Daniel’s changed or with the men around him or the gangbangers or the people he used to love and compete against in his “middle-class life”? What really needed changing?

He sat down with his tray of food and felt the now empty bottle in his pocket strike the side of the table. He heard the sound of glass breaking. He carefully reaching into his pocket. The bottle had shattered into a hundred pieces.

“It’s broken,” he said as Tomas sat down. He exhaled a deep breath, as if finally saying goodbye to someone who had died years before. Thomas nodded but said nothing.

After eating, Chardy took his tray to the dish room. He took off his coat and shook the broken bottle pieces into the trashcan. On his way out the door, he noticed a flyer pinned to the wall. It had been there for weeks but he had walked past it. It offered to connect math and science students with tutors.

Science? I used to be pretty good at that. Maybe measurable violations of the second law are possible at extremely small scales.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

First Church

The little white church had what my mother called “low back pews.” That meant that if you felt like leaning back during the sleepier portions of the service, you had better not. If you tried, the pew would catch you across the part of your back that wasn’t made for resting. The practical result was a worship posture that was forward and hopefully attentive.

I don’t remember ever sleeping through church back then. It was so fresh and new.

It was 1967. I was in the fifth grade and was enjoying my first “man teacher.” My folks had bought the first new house of their ten-year marriage. Dad put up a pool with an attached deck. My three-speed Schwinn Stingray with the slick back tire was the coolest. I was vaguely aware of a cousin and step-brother who were shipping out to Vietnam, but all in all life was good.

My first impression of the church was that it looked and smelled like the oldest building in town. A simple sanctuary sat on ground level above a full basement. Steep stairs led down to a pair of one-person-at-a-time restrooms, an open area partitioned into four classrooms for children, and a kitchen.

That church served as a spiritual anchor for the next four years. I don’t remember anything extraordinary happening. Just regular Sunday services and annual Vacation Bible Schools. My life beyond church was filled with summer little league and winter bowling. I ran away from some bullies and punched others in the nose. Unrequited romances over girls named Kim, Paulette, and Ellen swept me away. On fall weekends I took long bike hikes that would terrorize today’s mothers. I began to wonder what I would be when I grew up: a police officer, computer programmer, or baseball player. I watched Captain Kirk and Neil Armstrong on TV. Huntley and Brinkley reported the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. My summer visit with my aunt and uncle was put off by riots in Detroit.

Every Sunday we went to church where we heard the message that God loved us and that the Bible was a practical guide for life. Each week, Mr. Copp would descend to the basement and hand out candy to the children. We sang the same song before Communion every week – Lead Me to Calvary – and another to close the service – Bless Be the Tie That Binds. I would lean forward in the front pew while Pastor Gill announced the Good News and urged us to take it personally. Caught up in a radically changeable world, I heard that there was a reliable God whose eternal plan included me.

I was exhilarated and terrified. Exhilarated because it meant that by God faith, hope, and love would win out in the end. Terrified because I knew I faced a decision that would impact eternity. I had the opportunity to trust God enough to let him have his way with me. Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus.

Childhood faith decisions were an expected part of life in that church. Who is on the Lord’s side? Who will serve the King? That is a lot to expect of a 1960s middle-school kid. Life was filled with guns and war, and everyone got trampled on the floor. I wish we’d all been ready. There’s no time to change your mind. The Son has come and you’ve been left behind. Truth is, I resisted God’s gracious challenge until three years later when I was living in another state and going to another church. Yet, it was those years in that plain but faithful little church that laid the foundation for all the adult commitments that would come later.

Forty years have passed and many of those good people are enjoying their heavenly reward. The congregation outgrew its building and relocated. I haven’t been back there since -- except in my heart when I need a fresh experience of what Jesus means when he invites me to enter his Father’s kingdom as a little child.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hit Single

I write the songs that make the young girls cry,
I write the songs, I write the songs

Bobby Devine had been in the trade long enough to know. No one hits a home run every night, but he lied to himself whenever he blew off lukewarm audiences as if they didn't matter. As the last note of his music ascended beyond the spotlights, he lifted his fingers from the piano keys. This was the moment when everything hung in the balance. Would his listeners serve as the tinder for the spark in his soul?

It seemed that he had been working with wet wood for a long time.

He scanned the late morning audience at The Mosaic, one of the casino's smaller lounges. A dozen or so people sat scattered at tables staring into their drinks – refugees from bored lives hauled by charter buses from small Illinois towns like Kankakee, Ottawa, and Pontiac. Each had spent his wad in another try at bringing something real back into his life. Tonight they would be asleep on the bus home. God bless 'em.

He exhaled, smiled, and shifted into advertising mode. "That's it for me. I'll be back here tomorrow morning at 10:00 with more soft hits and smooth jazz. Until then, enjoy your stay with us at Harrah's Joliet." He grabbed his tip bowl and exited stage right toward the dressing room. If wishes were horses he would have enjoyed more stage time, but it had been a while since the name "Bobby D" had held sway on marquees from Vegas to Atlantic City. Those were the days before the club scene was oversold and the public's taste diluted. A good piano man used to have the run of things.

“How was the crowd today?” Bobby recognized the voice of the attractive brunette in her early thirties sitting in a peach-colored dressing gown at the mid-point of the make-up counter. Her image reflected back at her from a row of mirrors illuminated with 100-watt bulbs. She held a spray bottle and the fragrances of freesia and peony drifted to him. Her name was Lacy Edwards. They had shared drinks at The Mosaic’s bar a couple of times and she carried herself like an old pro on the circuit, calculating and shrewd.

He remembered how her audition had impressed the manager a few weeks ago. He rewarded her with the early afternoon set at The Mosaic. It was the first step to better gigs at the larger Stage 151 on the other side of the hotel. Unless they screwed her over, she had a good enough voice to earn it. Bobby didn’t think that would happen.

He removed his sunglasses and propped himself against the thinly-painted wall. "About the same. Like usual."

She turned one eye towards him like the jack of hearts. "So the applause was small and the tips even smaller."

Bobby slipped a hand into his pocket where three one-dollar coins and six quarters clinked dully against each other. At least the food was cheap where the gaming was hot. God, he was even starting to think like a commercial!

She looked back into the mirror. "How many places like this have you worked?”

“Enough. Why?”

“I was listening to your last song this morning. You do Manilow really well. I saw him once as a kid. Back in '88 he played at what they called the Wolf Trap Arts Center outside of D.C. It was crazy. My mom and the other women acted like he was Elvis reincarnated or something. But even Elvis changes with the times. That’s the trick Bobby. Your style can change but the substance always shows.” He watched her run a brush through her shoulder length hair. Each smooth stroke seemed to deepen its sheen from the reflected lights. “Have you ever heard of Fanilows?” Bobby grunted. “It’s what they call his fans. I read it on a website.” She laughed a silly laugh that flittered across his skin before evaporating.

Bobby had long ago given up hope of an "Elvis experience." Especially after Annie left him that note on the bathroom sink. He had known from the beginning that they were too different. While his highs were mediated through a musical scale, she sought hers through running shoes and tennis courts. The relationship was abrasive and she had threatened to leave him more than once. Things came to a head the weekend of their third anniversary when he stayed on in Vegas for a great day of recording and even greater night of partying. When he finally got home on a Monday dawn, he weathered a hell of a storm. He consoled himself with the knowledge that she just couldn’t know the power of a perfect song.

He found her six weeks later giving her love to a dancer from Des Moines with a perfect smile. He punched out the jerk and spent the next week in drunken oblivion. It was lucky he hadn’t been thrown in jail. When he got back to the circuit, the best promoters had moved on to fresher voices. How quickly had he fallen off their radar. His so-called friends told him that he had been a fool to risk his career on a jealous rant. Since then, he had been playing a slow game of catch up.

He brought himself back into the present, spread his feet apart and looked up into the ceiling in a stage move, one hand raised as if in supplication to God.

Tryin' to get the feel-ing again, The one that made me shiver,
Made my knees start to quiver every time she walked in.

When he looked back, Lacy was staring into the mirror, her hands resting in her lap.


She turned her head slowly and looked at him with both eyes, a smile turning the corner of her lip like the Mona Lisa. “Cool.” He searched her face for some clue of meaning. Instead of her familiar calculation of advantage, he saw understanding -- even compassion.

“It’s something when it happens, isn’t it? Whatever side of the stage lights you’re on, you want it to last forever. You know what I mean, don't you?”

“Yeah.” Bobby felt something pass between them and wondered if she had anyone in her life.

“Stay with me Bobby. Sammy doesn’t usually get here for his shift until 3:00.” He nodded, his breath shortening and quickening. When Lacy stood up, the light from the bulbs revealed how sheer her dressing gown was. She stepped behind a changing curtain, slipped it off, and sat down on the single bed there. Bobby locked the doors and then moved to join her.

Afterwards, he watched her eyes roam past him. The flame was already fading. He rolled away from her and stood up, pulling on his slacks. He reached for the door that opened upon a short hallway that led to the employee exit to the lobby.

“I've got to go.”

Lacy sat up, wrapped in the sheet. “Where to?”

“Lunch. After that, who knows? Got to follow the muse.” He gathered the rest of his clothes. “I’ll see you around.”

“Sure, Bobby D.”

He paid the waiter, pushed away from the table, and left the snack shop. As he passed the hotel entrance he saw a billboard as tall as he was announcing opening night for The Legendary Smokey Robinson at the Rialto Theater.

"Bob! Hey, Bobbo!" Bobby turned and saw Jake the head desk clerk, dressed in his gold vest, black slacks, and silver name pin. The young man was one of Bobby’s less distant acquaintances and they had shared a few late night movies and pizzas. "Elle wants to see you." He looked at the clock on the wall behind him. "She said she'd be in her office until 1:00."

Bobby put on his confident face. "Oh, yeah? Well it's about time she gave me a better time slot."

"Yeah, Bobby. Whatever you say."

He entered the administrative office area and found the door with a plate on the wall beside it: Elle Stronman, Vice-President of Entertainment. Stronman's assistant let his boss know that he had arrived and Bobby disappeared into her office. He came out five minutes later, dropped a sheet of paper into the secretary’s wastebasket and left Joliet for good.

Something about the bus's motion stirred Bobby awake. He had found it useless to try to sleep until the Greyhound cleared the Chicago metro area. An interstate sign rolled past and then one reading Purdue Stadium Next Exit. He checked his watch: 9:00 P.M. The bus was quiet. He knew it wouldn't stop until Indianapolis where he would change for the bus to Dayton and points east. He found a less tender place on his temple, leaned his head over, and closed his eyes again.

Sleep resisted him. He could still hear Stronman’s voice droning on in her pointless explanation about why she needed to let him go. She needed! What a crock! What about what he needed?! It was the same old thing. He was nothing more than a small cog in the wheel of business that she spun. She herself was a little bigger cog connected to an even larger one at corporate headquarters. What did she expect of him anyway? He had done his best with the shift she gave him. It was getting tiresome being screwed over by women.

At 10:30 P.M. the bus rolled into Union Station. Four other buses already waited at the gates for fuel and passengers. Bobby tramped through the terminal doors into the waiting area where a dozen people camped on benches. A woman in a wrinkled ankle-length dress stared at a coin-operated television mounted in the arm of her chair and held two sleeping toddlers on her lap. He walked past her toward a small lunch counter on the far side of the lobby that offered hope of a meal. Thankfully, he had only a thirty-minute layover until his next bus left.

He ordered a sandwich and decaf and shifted his mind into neutral. Or at least tried to. His thoughts returned again to his dismissal from the casino. He should be thankful that he had lasted there as long as he had. It had squeezed the last juice out of Crossing Wind to get onto Harrah’s stage. It was two years ago that the song rose to number twenty-seven on the Billboard charts. An eternity ago. Annie left three weeks later and he had written nothing since.

Last night I said goodbye, now it seems years.
I’m back in the city where nothing is clear.

He remembered the moment’s escape from pointlessness he and Lacy had conspired to snatch together. A pang of regret tried to surface in his conscience and he shoved it down. It was becoming easier to do that. It seemed that any price had become worth paying even for just a taste of the real – even if it was a saccharine substitute.

Someone sat down on the stool next to him. "They got any more of those?" the man asked, eyeing Bobby's overloaded chicken salad on wheat.

Bobby grunted. "Don't know. It's alright though, as late it is." He took a bite.

"Where're you headed?" the man persisted.

“I've got people in Virginia," Bobby answered and reached for his cup.

"Oh, yeah? It's good to have people."


The waitress came over and told the man that she had one more sandwich left. He could have it for half price. "I'll take it,” the man said. “And a pop."

Pop? “Where are you from?” Bobby asked. His mind ran the possibilities. Midwest for sure.

"Ever heard of Grayling, Michigan? It’s about half way between Bay City and Mackinaw."

"I thought as much. They say coke down here." He took another bite.

The counterman placed the man’s food in front of him. "Looks good, but I'll be glad to get home to my wife's cooking."

Bobby's mouth turned down in a grimace before he could catch himself. "What's the matter? You sick or something?" The man’s eyes dropped back to his plate.

"No. It’s just . . .” A blob of chicken salad fell from Bobby’s sandwich and landed square on his fly.

“Oh crap!” He wiped off the mess with his napkin. The man handed him another napkin and Bobby felt his face get red. He extended his hand. "I’m Bobby Devine."

As they shook hands, recognition fluttered across the man's face. "The Bobby Devine? Crossing Wind and all that?"

Bobby smiled. "That was a while ago, but yeah."

"Great song, man. Spoke to me and my wife at the right time." He pulled piece of paper from his back pocket, heavily creased and gray at the edges from lint. Lines of flowing script filled one side. He turned it over. "Would you sign this?"

Bobby took out a pen and quickly scribbled his name. "A letter from your wife?"

"She wrote a poem after we worked things out. My name's Sam. Sam and Katy Ketchen." A voice announced over the loudspeaker, Bus for Dayton, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and points east loading at this time at Gate 1.

Bobby slugged down the rest of his coffee. "That's me. Have a nice life, Sam."

"You too, Bobby D."

Bobby gathered his duffel and shoulder bag. He had taken three steps when Sam called, "You got another song coming out?"

Bobby turned around. "Maybe. I'm working on it."

A green sign flashed past his window: Dayton 45 Miles. He leaned his tired head against the glass and felt the vibration of the bus’s tires through the axle and into the frame as they surrendered microscopic bits of rubber against the abrasive surface of Interstate 70. He thought he felt the start of a belt separation and imagined the tread peeling off and flying wildly through the air to join the other alligators lying in wait in the cruising lane.

“People in Virginia” amounted to a cousin he hadn't seen in five years. What really interested him was Maryland's booming horse track industry. Every new track included a full-service casino in order to guarantee profitability. Even down-home conservative states like Indiana had them these days and gamblers wanted good food and good music to go with their sport.

He pulled a folded scrap of paper from his left pocket. Before he had left Joliet, he had called his former agent and cashed in one remaining favor. The scrap held two addresses: a casino at a horse track called Fort Washington Park outside D.C. and that of his cousin Jack who lived a few miles away in Alexandria, Virginia. His agent had gotten him an audition with the casino manager. His cousin said he could stay with him until he got his own place. The seat next to him was vacant so he stretched his legs toward the aisle. Ten more hours and he’d be there.

Bobby groaned and became aware of the sound of bass drums being pounded close by. Dried tears matted his eyes shut but he could tell it was daytime. He pried his eyes open in time to see a blurry wall of green rush past his view and vanish. Something like a huge spear planted butt first in the soil appeared in the bus window, its sharp point thrust into the clouds.

“Either use your earphones or shut that damn thing off,” a man shouted two rows behind him. "I’ve listened to that crap all the way from Hagerstown!”

“Screw you, old man! It’s a free country!” a younger man hollered back with a voice distorted by too much of something inhaled or swallowed. Bobby twisted his stiffened neck until he saw a man in his early twenties, dressed in worn jeans and a stained gray athletic T-shirt with a knit cap pulled low across his forehead sitting across the aisle from him. Sound blared from a boom box he held in his lap, held together with duct tape, a relic of pre-mp3 days. Bobby recognized the music genre: grunge – a version of alternative rock that emerged during the mid-1980s, sung by angry young men inspired by hardcore punk and heavy metal. It had been a long time since he had met anyone who still sang the stuff. The older man was right. It was too early in the day for distorted guitars and angst-filled lyrics.

“I’ll show you a screw or two . . .” The older man stepped into the aisle -- 5’3” but determined looking. The punk turned toward him just in time to catch a hardback version of James Mitchner’s Alaska against his jaw. Bobby jerked backward and his phone fell out of his shirt pocket to the floor.

The injured man roared to his feet and Bobby heard the sound of his phone crunching under the weight of the young man’s shoe. The boom box fell from his lap and hit the floor. The station switched and Bobby recognized the tune:

You came along just like a song and brightened my day.
Who would have believed that you were part of a dream?
Now it all seems light years away, and now you know . . .
I can't smile without you. I can't smile without you.
I can't laugh and I can't sing. I'm finding it hard to do anything.

The bus lurched to a sudden stop as the two men squared off for round two. The driver moved quickly to quell the action. “Sit down or you can walk the rest of the way to the station!” When they saw the Louisville Slugger in his hand they returned to their seats.

Bobby collected the remains of his phone and then turned back toward the window. By now his eyes had cleared enough to see that the giant spear was actually the Washington Monument framed by a sky of blue and white clouds.

It was a beautiful morning in the nation’s capital.

Ten minutes later they arrived at the bus station. Bobby collected his bag from the cargo hold beneath the bus and waited for the green Explorer that his cousin Jack said he would be driving. Twenty minutes later and no Explorer, Bobby found a city bus heading for Alexandria.

An hour later, the bus let him off six blocks from his cousin’s address. He saw a sign in a convenience store that advertised soft drinks any size for sixty-nine cents. He went inside and served himself a large root beer at the fountain. He drew three deep slugs of the beverage and his throat thanked him. There was no line at the counter and a disinterested high-schooler put down a magazine and rang him up. Bobby couldn’t help staring at the metal stud in the boy’s lower lip and three small rings that adorned the lobe of his left ear.

“Donut your change for miclur scrosis?”

“Excuse me?” The boy gestured toward a scratched plastic box with a slot in the top next to the register. A photo of a portly Jerry Lewis smiled at him from inside. “OK, though the condition is muscular dystrophy.” The boy looked up at him through drooping eyelids. “That’s the charity Jerry Lewis sponsors. You know, ‘Jerry’s Kids’?”

“Whatever. Just doin’ my job.” The boy dropped the remaining thirty-one cents through the slot and Bobby left the store. He noticed a brick building with tall narrow windows sat across the street. Its glass-paned front door opened and an attractive woman in a cream-colored overcoat exited. She carried a bundle wrapped in brown paper. When her eyes fell upon him he thought he saw anger, as if she had lost something to him simply in his noticing her first. Four purposeful strides brought her to her car – a navy blue Audi. Moments later she was gone.

Bobby looked again at the building. It seemed old, but not dilapidated. He thought he heard something like music coming from it and felt a sudden curiosity. He crossed the pavement and read the sing that hung over the entrance: Xavier’s Gifts.

He should call Jack and have him come pick him up. Maybe in a minute. There’s probably a phone inside. He moved up the steps and grabbed the doorknob. The sound of music came to him from within. Not Manilow. Something much older. The sound quality dated it as an LP, maybe even a 78, being heard through a single speaker. The sound seemed to flow to him through the crack in the double door. He saw movement through the glass as several customers moved about.

He pulled open the door and the music grew louder. He stepped inside and felt the warmth of furnace heat rising up through the floor grates. Tall shelves held items of various kinds. He followed the sound of the music into a smaller room to the right. A piano sat in the middle of the room. Across the way near a window sat a wind-up record player with the characteristic horn, the kind that the RCA Company had a dog sit in front of on its label. The voice coming from the record belonged to Bing Crosby.

Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day, someone waits for me.
And the gold of her hair crowns the blue of her eyes, like a halo, tenderly.
If only I could see her, oh how happy I would be.
Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day, someone waits for me.

The song ended and Bobby lifted the needle.

“A special composition for a special time, don’t you think?” a voice said from behind him. Bobby turned and saw a thin man with glasses. His name badge read Xavier.

“Yes, it was.”

“Are you looking for something in music?”

“Man, you don’t know the whole of it.”

“Are you a musician?”

“I sing, play the piano, and write a little.”

“Then it was fortunate that this record was playing today.” The man looked at Bobby as if he knew a secret. “You write a little?”

Bobby shifted his weight and looked past the man to the street outside the window. A garbage truck rumbled past, blocking the view. “It’s tough out there. A lot of songs get written that never get heard. Other songs get heard that should never have been written.”

“Are you writing something, Mr. ?”

“Bobby. Just Bobby. And yeah, I’m writing something. It’s not like you can just sit and compose. The muse comes when she’s ready.”

Xavier picked up the record and slipped it into its protective sleeve. “Did you know that Bing Crosby considered this song his theme? Do you have a theme song, Mr. . . . Bobby?”

Evidently the man would go away only when he was good and ready. “That’s the million-dollar question. I’ve got a gig over at Fort Washington Park. I’m staying with a friend until I get set up.” A thought came that might finally satisfy the storekeeper. “It would be nice to get my friend something for his trouble. He likes classic country. Do you carry any old sheet music?”

Xavier smiled broadly. “Certainly. Right over here.” Bobby followed him to a chest of drawers full of papers. “Take your time. Any price you find is negotiable.”

“Thank you. I’ll tell you if I find something.” He started sorting though the scores of compositions.

The storeowner walked away toward the main room. “I hope you find enough fuel for your fire.”

Bobby’s head jerked around. “What was that?”

Xavier replied without turning around, “I said that I hope you find a few for your friend.”

The cabinet held a sizable collection of American sheet music for a small shop. They were arranged in alphabetical order and each piece had been slipped into a protective sheath of clear plastic. Bobby started with the As and leafed through to the Ds: Paul Anka, Harry Belefonte, Mama Cass, Bob Dylan.

He pulled some hopefuls. From them he would choose semi-finalists, then a top ten, and then finally narrow the choice to the one for Jack. His eye fell upon a yellowed page halfway through the Es: Everyone’s Song. He pulled it and looked for the composer’s name but found none. Nor was there a date or place of publication. He removed the pages from their plastic cover and searched each one thoroughly. At the bottom of the back page he found the word Genesis written in flowing script. Nothing more.

It was a simple tune, just four pages long. He started reading the words. By the end of the first stanza the lyrics flowed through his mind as if they had been birthed there. It took him to places in his memory and out to his surroundings. He felt connected to everything around him – the other customers whose voices carried across the hard wood floors to him, and even to the floors themselves as if filled with the spirit of the trees they once had been, planted in the vibrant soil of the earth. As he reached the last stanzas he seemed to be everywhere at once – on the far side of the world, at the bottom of the ocean, soaring at the edge of space.

He turned the manuscript over with trembling hands and checked his watch. Only a few minutes had passed. He was still alone and unobserved. He looked again at the first line of the manuscript and found that he could not recall what it had said. He started reading through it again. This time his experience was even more profound. When he finished he dropped the pages onto the cabinet. What was going on?

He could not take his eyes off the piece. What about the notes? He approached the spinet in the middle of the room. A shaft of light seemed to encircle the instrument like a spotlight. He looked up and saw a window in the ceiling directly above that let in the noontime sun. He sat on the bench and spread the music before him. He tested the feel of the keys, checked the piece’s signature, and started to play. He did not sing, preferring to focus on the notes, though he read the words silently for the third time. They seemed new to him as before, but this time in the company of the melody and harmony, they carried even more power.

Afterwards, he wondered if he had even breathed during the minutes it took to play the piece. The world beyond the music had seemed to both disappear and become more real at the same time. His hands tingled and a tear ran down his right cheek.

He heard a muffled cry behind him; a soft sound, almost childlike in its vulnerability. He turned slowly and saw a woman. She was around his age, dressed in a tan long-sleeved blouse and brown pants, with shoulder-length hair. A boy no older than eight stood beside her, holding her hand. They seemed to look at him and through him at the same moment.


The woman seemed to shudder and took a deep breath, as if she were rising from a dive into a deep pool. “What was that song you just played?” The child pulled his hand from the woman’s and approached the piano. He began stroking the warm mahogany wood of the piano’s leg with his right hand as if fascinated with it.

Bobby glanced down at the boy. “It is called Everyone’s Song. It’s the first time I played it.”

“It’s beautiful.” Though her face seemed relaxed, he saw the start of lines around her eyes.

The boy continued caressing the piano leg. “Is this your son?” Bobby asked.


Bobby noticed how, unlike some mothers who kept their children on short leashes lest they become an embarrassment to them, this woman did not get after her son for crowding this stranger. He did not mind as he was still feeling the congenial effects of the music. “What is his name?”

“Scott. I’m Lisa.” Her lips parted and a sigh escaped, followed by tears from both eyes.

“Is something the matter?” Bobby started to rise in concern for this woman who seemed on the verge of some distress.

Anxiety flooded her face. “Don’t get up! Play it again, please. It’s been so long.”

“So long?”

Her eyes shifted to her son who remained at the piano. “We’ve been alone since his father left us. During your song, I felt that we would be okay. That hasn’t happened in a long time.”

Bobby saw the need in her face and something at the edge of his consciousness urged him to be careful. Careful of what? He lived for moments like this. He turned to the manuscript and stretched his fingers over the keys. The words above the notes seemed to blur, taking on new meaning. Was the miracle in his voice or in their ears? Did it really matter?

By the time he reached the end, a small crowd had gathered. Lisa applauded as did the others. Bobby stood and gathered up the manuscript. He knew that they would keep him singing all day if he did not leave. He brushed past his audience and approached the main desk where Xavier stood waiting. Lisa and the others remained at the piano talking together and touching the instrument with a devoted tenderness.

“I’ll take this piece of music. I’ve never heard anything like it,” Bobby said.

“I would say not. You have made quite an impression with it.”

Bobby reached into his pocket for his wallet. “Do you have any information on the composer. It doesn’t say.”

“Really?” Xavier picked up the manuscript. “That is strange. I can tell you that one of our buyers found it only yesterday at a flea market outside of Gettysburg.”

“So I am the first customer to consider it?”

“That is true.”

Bobby retrieved the composition and turned it over. “Someone wrote the word Genesis on the back. Do you know what it means?”

“Apart from the Biblical reference? No, I am sorry. Unless it is written by someone famous, such additions usually reduce the value of collectibles.” Xavier paused and Bobby thought he was going to give him his price. “Mr. Devine, do you believe in the words follow your heart?” He looked at him intently.

“What? How do you know . . .?”

“I would think that a musician would be familiar with the idea. If your listeners don’t feel anything when you sing, then what is the point? People who want facts read almanacs. If they need to total a sum, they can find a calculator. Hearts are moved only by drama, comedy, or tragedy. Why else do you think country music remains so popular?”

A Hank Williams song began to trundle through Bobby’s memory like a broken-down jalopy driven by Jethro Bodine. “So . . .?”

“I have operated this establishment for quite some time. Every once in a while something special takes place. I thought it had already been a significant day. But then you arrived.”

Something slivered through Bobby’s gut like the time he was swimming as a kid and plunged down to touch the bottom of a lake but couldn’t. How much farther was it before he could push off again to the surface? “You are making a big deal of a simple sale,” he managed.

“Antiques are just my commodity. My real business is in appointments. I arrange them for people who need them.” He offered a price and Bobby decided not to quibble. Xavier ran the credit card and Bobby signed the slip. “I hope that you enjoy your new music,” the storeowner said shaking Bobby’s hand.

When Bobby’s cousin Jack saw him standing on the porch of his house, he launched into an apology for failing to pick him up at the bus station. Bobby let him off easy, being glad to have a place to be for a while. The next day, Jack drove him to Fort Washington to meet the casino’s manager. The favor Bobby’s agent had offered held good. He was cast as the new second act for the afternoon shift of two shows.

It was on Tuesday of the second week that he added Everyone’s Song to his set. Within a half a minute of his first note, conversations lowered and then stopped. By sixty seconds, every face had turned his way. Patrons that normally hurried to the tables and slots appeared in the doorway and then found seats. From that point on, the lounge was filled to capacity every time he was on.

“I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep it up,” the casino manager said one morning. After the customers listen to you, they play more games than others. We need to get you on stage more often.”

Bobby moved to the Monday to Thursday evening shift when higher rollers normally played. When winter ended the horse racing season the casino stayed open with Bobby as the Friday to Sunday evening lead act.

He saved enough by New Year’s to move out of Jack’s place and into a nice condo. An added benefit was the regular offers of female company following every performance. His life took on a rhythm of evenings on stage, nights partying with people he didn’t remember, and days sleeping. He still could not remember the words from one performance to the next, but it didn’t matter anymore as long as the audiences kept coming. The fire was raging now and he hungered to feel its strength night after night.

Two days after Valentine’s Day his alarm woke him. “This is oldies 100.3. W-Big.” Music began playing and he swung his legs around until his feet hit the carpeted floor. His phone started to ring from where it lay on the nightstand. He slid the cell’s cover back: Unknown number, the display read. He turned the music down a little. “Yeah, Bobby D. here.”

“Bobby! How are you doing man?”

Bobby yawned and recognized his former agent’s voice. The man must have heard about his rebound from oblivion and wanted in on it. He rolled out of bed and moved toward the window.

“Good enough, I guess. You know it’s kinda early yet.”

“That’s funny Bobby,” the man chuckled. “You’re making news, man. How long are you going to stay in the bush leagues singing for the old folks? I can get you a spot at Trump’s Atlantic City for a fair share of the first month. I’ve heard . . .”

Bobby pulled back the curtain and took in the panoramic view of the Potomac that had sold him on the place. “What you’ve heard is that Bobby D is back! Thanks for the call, but what do I need you for now?”

The sound of the man’s swallow passed over the line. “That’s low, Bobby. I get you in the door at Fort Washington and you’re gonna drop me?”

Bobby’s fingers tightened around the phone. “I don’t need you or anybody else! All I need is my music!”

The line stayed silent for long seconds. Then the agent’s voice continued more softly. “What will you do when they want to hear something new? A singer has to grow. One hit wonders fade fast.”

“That’s not me.”

“What are you Bobby? So you’ve got some audiences screaming your name. Is that all there is -- singing a song somebody else wrote who knows when? What have you written lately?”

Bobby swallowed against the dryness that filled his throat.

“Crossing Wind was a great song because it came from your heart. I know you’ve got more like it in there.”

Bobby sat down. “I thought so, but then Annie . . .”

“Yeah, Bobby. I know that was hard. I was afraid for you when you stopped returning my calls.”

“I tried writing, but when I found Everyone’s Song it was like . . .”


Bobby almost threw the phone through the window. “You don’t know what it is like to connect with an audience like this again!”

“But is it real?”

“What are you? A psychologist?”

“No -- your agent. It’s my job to look out for you.”

Bobby looked down from his window and saw a young family walk from the building to their car: a man, woman, and a girl about ten years old, each with a sets of ice skates with the laces tied and slung over their shoulders. They were bundled against the weather and wore broad smiles as they climbed into the car and drove away.

He heard the song from the radio:

My home lies deep within you,
And I’ve got my own place in your soul
Now, when I look out through your eyes,
I’m young again, even though I’m very old.

His throat grew tighter as once again he missed the life he could have had with Annie. Something had gotten in the way. One of them had changed and the other couldn’t or didn’t want to keep up. The pain had hollowed him out, like an empty grave. Then he had found the song. At first, it was almost felt like his music was helping them. But then the same people kept coming to his shows long after they should have gone home. Didn’t they have jobs, families and lives? He also found himself thinking constantly about his nightly shows, as if he couldn’t wait to get on stage again and sing. His life seemed to be shrinking onto the pages of the manuscript. When he stepped off the stage it was as if he stepped into nothing. What good was it to sign autographs for people whose faces he could not carry with him? He wasn’t serving them. He was serving only himself.

His voice lost its power. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be OK.”

“You can’t write what you used to because you’re not there anymore. Honor where you are now and the fans will come.”

“Now you sound like a preacher.” Bobby felt his breathing slowing and the hostility draining from him.

His agent chuckled. “I wasn’t talking about singing Gospel, but if that’s what it takes . . .”

“I’ll let you know when I’m ready.”

“Take care of yourself, man. You know what they say -- a heart is a terrible thing to waste.”

“Who says that?”

“I just did. You never know. It might catch on.”

Bobby grunted. “Bye, man. I need a shower.”

He closed the connection. On his way to the bathroom he saw Everyone’s Song on the nightstand. Funny how it was the only song in his set for which he needed the music. The well-worn paper sat lightly on his fingers, almost as if it weighed nothing at all. Once again tonight he would hold sway over two hundred or more enraptured listeners. Didn’t that mean he was on his way up again?

He looked at the song’s first stanzas and they blurred as if resisting him. He entered his living room and sat down at the baby grand piano around which he had built his condo’s décor. He spread the music on the cabinet but found that he did not know where to begin playing.
He found himself humming lines from a song Manilow wrote during his comeback after enduring the obscurity of the 1980s.

You remind me I live in a shell,
Safe from the past, and doing' okay, but not very well.
No jolts, no surprises, no crisis arises:
My life goes along as it should,
It's all very nice, but not very good.

He turned Everyone’s Song over and read what someone had written by hand: Genesis. The word seemed to stand out clearly in contrast to the distortion of the rest of the manuscript.

Annie’s leaving was an ending, but it was also a new movement in his life; something he could not find until he came to the end of his demandingness. He lay the manuscript on the bench beside him. Then he placed his hands upon the keys, and -- humming the first bars of a new original song -- began to play.

It was past closing time. The customers had left and then also his small group of employees. Xavier walked through the shop, as was his way. He entered the conservatory -- the name given to the room he had laid out to accentuate the 1899 Christman piano -- and saw a mailing envelope lying on the piano’s bench. It was addressed to him. There was no stamp or return address. He opened it and found Everyone’s Song with a handwritten note.

“Return this to your collection for your next appointment. However, this time you might add a warning label. Sincerely, B.D.”

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Listening for a Change

When I was a child, I listened as a child – intently to the inflections of tone and responding authentically to first impressions. I had not yet developed the adult ability of feigning interest for courtesy’s sake.

My mother would read to me and I would hang onto every word. I loved shows like Star Trek, Lost in Space, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea that told stories of new life and new civilizations beyond my experience. Forty years later, I miss the special uncle who would spin tales of his work life and fishing trips. Those stories told me things about him that I could not have learned any other way.

Being a child is about change and transformation. It happens through a very forthright process -- by attending to and engaging everything in their worlds, often to the distraction of parents who have learned to be selective, cautious, and somewhat detached.

Adulthood started for me when I began to lose my hearing. As a teenager I thought I had arrived at final answers. My deafness grew worse as I graduated from college, ready to set the world and the church aright – if only people would listen to (i.e. “agree with”) my Biblical insights and strategic plans.

What I lost was the opportunity to be a true change agent. I was into monologue, not dialogue. I didn’t appreciate the importance of valuing where persons were and how they got there. Frankly, I doubted that I had anything to learn from those I professed to be serving.

Every encounter between two human beings is a cross-cultural experience in which two unique worlds come together. If redemptive change is to take place at least one person must engage the other with a determination to understand. True change is possible when I a meet, understand, and value the other person and to the extent that I am willing to be changed by the encounter. By first seeking to understand, I show a high level of respect for the other person. This is a form of agape love.

What I advocate is Listening Evangelism. This is a phrase from the book Listening and Caring Skills by John Savage. Listening Evangelism happens when I enter into another’s story in a way that demonstrates grace and truth. Spiritual encounters can happen everywhere -- in living rooms, coffee shops, church sanctuaries, and hospital rooms. Every Sunday is an encounter between hearers and the preacher. Worshippers are listening in the hope of hearing that the speaker (and God) comprehends the story they are living.

The work of a Listening Evangelist is to develop eyes that see and ears that hear the clues that people are scattering about all the time. Everyone tells stories. Hidden inside those stories, like diamonds in the rough, are the deep truths of the unconscious. Storytelling is a form of self-disclosure. When you learn how to hear the deep structure of stories, you never can be quite the same again.

What makes Listening Evangelism a powerful occasion for transformation is also the thing that makes it difficult. This is because I cannot communicate on the soul-level with another person and remain detached. I can maintain a sense of being in control if I remain more focused upon effective technique rather than meaningful relationship. However, the result is that I will remain relationally ineffective.

Listening is risky because if I succeed, a counterstory will rise up in me. Counterstory can become a problem because many if not most persons are in a lot of personal pain, and we tend not to want to hear their painful stories. The reason is that they remind us of our own pain. This tendency to avoid inward examination forms a barrier to real listening. While some say that they do not want to be pushy about their faith, what is really happening is that they are anxious about the counterstories that could be triggered.

This counterstory is my half of the bridge over which our two narratives meet. It is where the truth and grace of God can pass both ways. It is dangerous, yet holy ground.

Jesus knew what the suffering saints of Pergamos needed to hear: “To him who overcomes . . .I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.” Notice that it is the one who receives the name who understands its meaning. No one else can or will. Jesus doesn’t explain anything. He just shows the name to the person and the person knows.

Jesus was a skilled listener. People heard him gladly because he was the “Wonderful Counselor” who knew what was in people (Isaiah 9:6; John 2:24). The Woman of Sychar, Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, Nathaniel, Mary, and Martha are some of those who heard the Good Shepherd call them by name.

This is a profound moment of intimacy -- one that all of us crave. I have spent every day of my fifty-three years living a story that I hope will be attended and valued. I seek and maintain relationships with parents, spouses, friends, and family for a reason -- I need someone to help me comprehend the story I am living. I am a mix of blunders and accomplishments, doubt and faith. Some parts I hide in shame. Other parts I show off with pride. Part of my grief is that my deceased parents only understood bits and pieces of it (or perhaps they knew more than I was ready to accept). Part of my frustration is that I desire a deep and mutual awareness with my wife and children that does not always happen.

Jesus’ promise is that at the end of my earthly faith journey, all I have been will be summed up in a name that Christ will speak privately into my ears. When I hear that name, all the pieces will come together. “Then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”

It will be heaven.

But heaven does not have to wait.

It is my hope and responsibility to encounter people in way that provides both of us an chance to hear even a faint whisper of our true names. It is then that we can be converted and become like little children. The moment we hear our Creator’s voice, the door to change is opened wide. It is then that we can respond like the man who found the treasure buried in the field and sell all they have to possess it.

It is in that moment that the Kingdom of God comes.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Select Poems #1

"Reflecting on a Tattooed Man"

When we color outside the lines of our accepted lives,
Who knows what might appear.
Picasso was crazy and Warhol was nuts, some say –
Unless they saw what had always been.

“There be dragons there!” mappers drew sitting in safe ports,
As Columbus sailed off the map.
When staying within lines fails to keep faith alive, why linger?
That would be the true insanity.

Draw on, Tattooed Man! Sketch your life for all to see.
Show your spirit in your flesh.
One day the Father will take your art and mine,
And tack it on His great refrigerator.

"On the Edge of the Dark"

It’s dark where he sits.
A black hole sucks the life from him.
It’s an emptiness that looks familiar.

He invites me to sit with him, but I squat near the door instead.
I must be ready to move if the gravity well shifts,
As my heart balances on the abyss’s edge.

We swirl like specks of dust on the event horizon, our fates inevitable.
Perhaps we should connect to find a way through,
Hoping that God will be there where nothing else can.

"This Little Light"

The surrounding darkness swells so large.
My eye turns away from the devouring lust
That creeps over sills and through keyholes
Like a mindless virus that will die with its host.

The Son shines in His irrepressible way,
But my eye cannot bear His full glory.
So lesser lights must shine out of the opposing shadow
Like stars whose beams bless as they fall.

The ebony gloom does not grasp that its power is annulled.
Like a quenched dragon it rages its futility
While life's sailors and lovers use steady pinpoints,
Finding their way to the inevitable day.

Wavelength Excerpt

Arecibo Observatory, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
October 12, 1992

“Gentlemen and ladies, what you are looking at is the archeology of the future. Five hundred years ago, Christopher Columbus left a stagnating Europe and discovered a new world. Because of his bold venture, the political, religious, and scientific world was changed forever. Today marks the beginning of another such adventure.

“From the moment the first human raised his eyes above the ground out of which he sprang, he has sought physical and spiritual guidance in the stars. Today instead of looking at the stars, we will listen to them. We do this to answer mankind’s greatest question: ‘Are we alone?’ The enthusiastic cooperation of dozens of nations is evidence that humanity is united as never before by this quest.

“No one can predict when or if we will hear anything, but the quest stands as its own reward. Who knows? Perhaps we will happen across a broadcast relic -- or better yet -- receive a message meant especially for us.”

Downrange, Cape Canaveral, USA
March 21, 2030

“Everything looks good, Colonel,” the co-pilot of the Achilles announced. His faceplate pointed downward as he focused on the dozens of readouts that made up the control panel.

“Agreed,” a woman’s voice responded. Her faceplate was turned upward. Even though the ship’s computer brain steered the Achilles during takeoff far more accurately than any human pilot, the age-old admonition to “keep your eyes on the road” was a compulsion that few pilots had been able to resist since Kitty Hawk. Besides that, the baby blue Florida sky was giving way to the sparkling cobalt of space as the Space Plane climbed out of the atmosphere.

Colonel Samantha Jacobs removed her helmet and the motion drew her auburn hair to the top of her head where it floated in the absence of gravity as if she were underwater. Its length was just beyond regulation, but the way her co-pilot looked at her told her that he didn’t mind at all. Sam had gotten used to attracting attention from men over the years. A rare few of them had been dangerous and the rest were merely boorish. Paul was a mostly enjoyable flirt. After all, if he had really been interested in something more intimate, he would have made a move during the two years they had practically lived together in the flight school that served the United Space Agency.

She smiled knowingly. “If you don’t keep your mind on your work, you’ll end up sticking this thing where it doesn’t belong.” She stroked her hair down into place. “This is your maiden voyage after all.”

“Yes, Commander. And as you know, it is most exciting the first time,” his mock sheepishness sounded thick in his Russian accent.

Ten minutes earlier, at 12:14 PM, a signal from Mission Control raced at nearly the speed of light through the DNA-laced circuits that formed the Achilles’s nervous system, and its engines roared to life in a pulse of chemical ecstasy. Unlike its predecessor, the Space Shuttle, the Space Plane launched toward the stars horizontally down a five-mile runway. Also unlike the shuttle, this next generation of manned orbital vehicle would make its return to the Kennedy Space Center in one piece. Named the “Black Horse,” it had quickly become the primary transport vehicle between the surface and the International Space Station, “Freedom.” It hadn’t taken Runway #3 long to become as familiar to space enthusiasts of the 21stcentury as Launch Pad 39A had been during the moon race of the 1960s.

Sam glanced into a mirror at the dark-mustachioed passenger who sat in the seat normally reserved for the mission specialist. Hachiro Monda was already turning green as he sank deeper into his seat as the Achilles reached the end of the runway, pulled three Gs, and clawed its way into orbit. It was the first trip off earth for the Japanese engineer.

Although there had been instances of cooperation between the major space-faring nations, it took until the year 2020 for the United States, the Russian Federation, and Japan to grasp that unless they consolidated their resources, none would enjoy a profitable future.

“I apologize for my temporary distraction,” Zimrovich continued. “You are right that I am new to this vehicle. But you are forgetting my experience in the Russian space program. Say what you want -- back then we truly had to fly ourselves in and out of space. Today’s ships run themselves.”

The computer shut down the engine at the precise moment required. The resulting loss of g-forces propelled all three astronauts upward against their restraints and then bounced them back into their seats.

The Japanese passenger spoke in a weak voice, “What do you do if you think you’re going to throw up?”

“Right now you have only two options,” Sam responded. “The first is to hold it down. I would advise taking the first option, because you don’t want to experience the second.”

“Okay.” The engineer made a gulping sound.

“Thirty seconds from orbital insertion,” Sam announced into the microphone that connected her to the co-pilot and to ground control. “Prepare for burn.” When the appropriate thrusters fired, the ship turned its belly toward the sun so that the heat shield could provide protection against solar radiation. “Control, we have achieved our initial orbital path,” she reported to those who were monitoring from earth.”

A voice with a west Texas accent sounded in her earpiece. “Roger that, Achilles. We show you on path for cargo deployment in T-minus three hours, 16 minutes. Mark.”

“Affirmative, control. Will check in as scheduled. Out.”

“That was one smooth ride you gave me, Colonel,” co-pilot Major Paul Zimrovich said. He pulled his own helmet off and turned toward her.

Sam hooked her helmet into its niche and unbuckled her harness. She gave a slight push off the seat and began floating toward the ceiling. “Just keep your fingers off the wrong buttons.” She grabbed a support ring and turned herself around to face aft. “Are you alright, Hachiro?”

The Japanese scientist had removed his helmet. He looked toward Sam but kept his head still, as if afraid that any sudden motion might increase his nausea. “I will be fine.” He turned toward Paul and offered a weak smile. “I agree with you. She handled the launch very well.” He unfastened his harness. The action caused an equal and opposite reaction. He floated upward from his chair. His face flushed and his eyes widened.

Zimrovich opened a cabinet and pulled out a plastic bag. “I think you are going to need this,” he said just before the scientist’s cheeks swelled. The engineer took the bag and bent to the task while Sam and Paul turned their attention to other matters.

Three hours later, Sam studied their cargo through a six-inch diameter window in the airlock door. The satellite sat small and nondescript in the middle of the payload bay, temporarily fastened to the floor by clamps that would release during its disposition. Its owner, an obscure firm located in rural south Florida, had agreed to the United Space Agency’s significant surcharge for adding it to the mission at late notice. Satellite deployments were a rare assignment for manned spacecraft. Most companies employed what had come to be called “orbital launch firms.” Deregulation and the cheapening of formerly high-priced technology had resulted in the proliferation of many such companies. Poorer nations such as Somalia and Paraguay had found the industry to be an uncomplicated way to generate much-needed revenue.

“You know this is my last trip,” Sam said to Zimrovich over her shoulder.

“Da,” Paul answered. “You haven’t changed your mind, I see.”

She turned around. “I guess I’ve seen enough of things up here.” Her focus moved past him to the huge blue planet that drifted in space beyond the front shield window. North America spun slowly past two hundred miles below. She pointed toward the sphere. “My place is right there.”

Zimrovich turned to look. “Where exactly? It is a big planet.”

“Western South Dakota. The summer my older brother left for college, our family spent a week vacationing there. We spent Independence Day on Mount Rushmore. Then we took the road through Spearfish Canyon on our way to Devil’s Tower.”

“And this Spearfish Canyon was a special place to you?”

She nodded. “It is one the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I guess I was like a lot of other kids at that time, their eyes locked onto video screens. But when I saw that mountain stream and those tall pines, I knew I would come back. Last month I bought a forty acre place – of course thirty of those acres are straight up.”

“You bought the side of a mountain?”

“Yeah.” Sam turned toward the sound of tapping keys and saw Monda hunched over a laptop computer working an equation. The barf bag was nowhere in sight. “A few hours more and Japan will appear over the horizon. But we don’t have the time to wait. Suit up,” she ordered.

“That includes you, Monda. We have a satellite to launch.” At her signal, her co-pilot pressed a switch and opened the cargo bay doors. Reflected light from the earth bathed the inside of the bay. She preceded Zimrovich into the cargo bay while Monda stayed in the cockpit and observed them through the airlock’s window.

She drifted toward the satellite while he remained at a small console. The plan was simple. Press one switch and the clamps would release. Press another and the satellite would ascend on a blast of high-pressure air. When it reached a safe distance, small rockets would ignite and send it on a trajectory that would conclude in a geo-synchronous orbit over somewhere that Sam and Paul were not privy to.

“Achilles, this is command,” a voice spoke from hundreds of miles beneath the shuttle. “We show one minute to satellite insertion.”

“Roger that,” Paul answered. “Our boards are green.”

Sam gave him a thumbs-up signal. Sixty seconds later, Paul pressed a button and the securing clamps rotated back silently in the vacuum.

“Board remains green,” he reported.

“Command, we are ready to deploy payload,” Sam announced.

“Proceed, commander. Our telemetry remains good.”

“Deploying,” Paul said and pressed another button. The satellite rose out of the bay on a stream of compressed air. Particles of dust swirled around in the light as the satellite cleared the Achilles and shrank to little more than a speck against the greenish brown of the American plains. Sam turned her attention to the work of locking down the now empty bay and closing the doors. She looked at where the satellite had been and paused.

Something didn’t look right.

“Do you see anything out of the ordinary?” she asked Zimrovich.

He gave a cursory glance around the bay and shrugged. “Looks like an empty cargo bay to me.”

“Is your board still green?”

He looked down. “Da. No problems here.”

She shrugged and started toward the exterior door of the airlock. Her fingers closed around the handle of the airlock door as her mind put the pieces together and realized what was wrong. She spun slowly around and saw a gray block of metal on the floor of the cargo bay where the satellite had left it.

Five hundred yards above the Achilles, a countdown inside the satellite reached zero and a beam of invisible light raced back toward the Space Plane.

“What is that?” Sam pointed.

Her co-pilot turned to see what his commander was concerned about. “What . . .?”

The small but powerful device hidden within the metal block detonated and blew a hole in the side of the ship, rupturing the fuel and oxygen lines that ran along the wall. The mixture erupted into a ball of fire that carried Samantha Jacobs and Paul Zimrovich into space. A second explosion blew the airlock door apart and separated the command cabin from the rest of the ship. Hachiro Monda might have survived a while longer had he followed his commander’s order and secured his helmet to his space suit. The vacuum of space sucked his final scream out of his ruptured lungs.

Mortally wounded, the Achilles began an unplanned descent that would deposit its remains in the Pacific Ocean seventy-five miles southwest of Samoa.

Fifteen minutes later, the satellite received a signal from a ground station and responded by opening a hatch in its side. Several panels of radar-absorbing material swung forth and wrapped around it, leaving only a small antenna exposed. A series of rocket burns moved it into a higher geo-synchronous orbit above the Aegean Sea where it powered down and awaited its next orders.

Arecibo, Puerto Rico, USA
October 8

Jim Talbot stood on a walkway and looked down at the Arecibo radio telescope. Thousands of highly polished aluminum panels reflected the sub-tropical sunshine back into his eyes. It was the oldest and still largest of its kind.

He leaned his almost two-hundred-pound, six-foot frame confidently against the sturdy railing and listened as an intern spoke to a group of visitors lined up along a lower catwalk.

“Gentlemen and ladies, thirty-eight years ago someone else stood in this very spot and referred to what you see as ‘the archeology of the future,’” the white-coated woman said. “It is an appropriate term. We are digging among the stars and what optical telescopes cannot see, we can hear.” The visiting members of the United World Council’s Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space had heard all of this before. Nevertheless, they appeared impressed.

“The collapse of the large dish at Green Bank in 1988 set the International Search for Intelligence in Space back for a while, but through the determined efforts of the late Senator Robert Byrd, an even larger and more useful dish was built in its place. When Ames, California, and Jodwell, England, joined Green Bank and Arecibo, ISIS transformed a third of the Northern Hemisphere into one huge interferometer.” The observer team nodded in apparent awe.

Jim lingered behind as the intern led the group ahead to another observation point. He wasn’t really needed. These observers were little more than tourists -- feed them generic descriptions of the scope’s operations, let them snap a few harmless pictures, and on they would go to the souvenir shops, restaurants, and beaches.

Reporters were another matter. They could be difficult, especially those who worked for smaller papers. They didn’t consistently follow the rules of the media game and could ask simplistic and sometimes embarrassing questions. “How far away can the dish pick up signals? How were ‘cosmic static’ and intelligent signals differentiated? Even if a signal were received, how would it be translated? How was the fifty billion dollar annual price tag justified in the national budget in light of the recent global crash?” How seldom it was that Jim heard a question that addressed the deeper and truer issues of the project, even of life.

Jim arched his back, enjoying the warmth of the sun after having spent the last two weeks in his office buried deep in the hill that surrounded the dish. He reflected upon how ambition and happenstance had come together to bring him to this island at the eastern entrance of the Caribbean. When ISIS came calling, it was the culmination of his ambition. Let the media fixate upon project budgets and technical trivia. That’s not what had secured the commitment of his career and life.

Jim looked past the railing at rolling acreage surrounding the dish. Ninety-five percent of the Arecibo installation was underground. A ten-foot electrified fence marked the perimeter, its two gates watched by small guardhouses. All incoming vehicles were routed along a ribbon of asphalt that ended at a tunnel sealed by a steel door. ISIS had to keep a low profile in the fierce techno-war being fought by several corporations, non-profit groups, and national space agencies who vied to be the first to answer mankind’s oldest question, Are we alone in the universe? Several of these groups employed surveillance satellites as well as human agents in the hopes of stealing even a micron of information. Concerns far beyond the financial mandated such protection. The wrong people could misuse, alter to suit their purposes, or announce such information in an ill-timed manner. Its gathering, understanding, and distribution had to be carefully managed.

That was Jim’s job.

Those who criticized the Project just did not understand. Jim knew why they had to spend such large amounts of time and money listening into space, even when the needs of America’s urban battle zones screamed for funding. The end of the cold war had only served to expose man’s tendency to find hot wars to fight. The Pakistani-Indian Crisis of 2014 had nearly brought about the nuclear winter that most thought had been left behind in the successes of Reagan and Gorbachav. It was ironic that the Kashmir region over which the two countries had fought so bitterly would remain uninhabitable for at least another seventy years.

ISIS was needed because the answer to man’s problems was not in man. If it was, humans did not know how to access the key that would unlock their potential. Even if the human race did manage to avoid Armageddon, it seemed doomed to the misery of having to relearn the same lessons century after century. Science, philosophy, literature – each kept coming up empty. Even religion had proven itself impotent – nothing more than a distraction. Orthodox Jews longed for the worldwide acceptance of the Torah that would usher in a messianic age. Astrologers divined planetary alignments. Buddhists sought personal Nirvanas through the obliteration of desire. Christians identified signs of the imminent return of Jesus to earth. New Age self-help gurus were pronouncing that the Christ was already here.

Mankind had proven its inability to take the next step in its evolutionary process. This was the real driving purpose of ISIS. If it was true that Man was alone, then the universe was headed for a cosmic dead end. Jim rejected that. Certainly someone in the cosmos had found “The Answer.” Such an advanced society would not be stingy with such life-giving information.