Two Chairs Down

At the coffee shop, there’s a ragged, bearded, middle-aged man sitting two chairs down from me. For awhile he’s turned around sideways watching the chess players gathered in the corner. They give him a quick glance, and return to their games. He mimes interest for awhile, then turns around and stares out the window, sometimes taking notes with a blue Bic pen on the front of a newspaper. Now he taps on the window as if trying to get someone’s attention. He climbs down out of his seat, picks an umbrella and a plastic grocery bag off the floor, and drops them onto the seat beside mine. A minute later, he’s pacing back and forth outside, smoking a cigarette. On one of his passes, he taps on the window right in front of his chair. His seat has been taken by the time he gets back inside, so he pushes his things off of the chair next to mine and moves in there, where he sits quietly for a long time. He eventually breaks his silence with a string of incoherent muttering – nothing aggressive. He wrestles with the newspaper that’s still in front of him on the counter and crosses out some of what he’s written before climbing out of the chair. He gathers his things and walks out. He heads down the hill, toward downtown. Later, I gather the newspaper to see what he’s written. On the front page he wrote a name, his own I assume – first, middle, and last -, repeated several times. On the sports page, he wrote out the alphabet and then the numbers “101 202 303 404 505 606 707 808 909”.

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The Tooth

As I was drifting off to sleep the other night, I was absently exploring a gravel-sized chunk of something that was moving freely around in my mouth. I pressed my tongue up against it and felt a smooth irregular surface – it felt like a tooth. I woke up immediately and felt around the back of my teeth with my tongue. I couldn’t feel the gap where the tooth had been and couldn’t find the metallic-tasting burst of blood that I’d expected. But my mouth felt odd – kind of numb. I jumped out of bed and ran to the bathroom, pressing the loose tooth up against the front of my mouth so as not to swallow it.

In the bathroom, I spit the tooth out carefully into my cupped hand. I held it out in front of me and looked, bracing myself for an ugly site. The tooth was a translucent brown-orange. I’d fallen asleep while sucking on a cough drop, and it had dissolved into a bumpy tooth-sized lump.

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The True Meaning of Opening Presents

Daniel and Masha, the youngest kids, both have trouble picking away at the wrapping paper on their gifts with their tiny hands. Christopher gets anxious and steps in to help, tearing the paper off with a couple of quick swipes – the sooner this one is opened, the sooner he can open one of his own.

We’re taking turns, opening one gift at a time – the youngest goes first and so on. There are sixteen of us. The night rolls on, gift after gift. Half of us are self-appointed referrees, shouting out opinions whenever the system breaks down. (Someone is out of the room – do we skip him? If we skip someone – do we give him an extra turn later? All of the kids are downstairs playing and it’s time to start a new round – Do we call them in or do we start a new round, this time starting with the oldest person?)

Masha cries when her turn comes again too soon. “This isn’t my present!” She points at her name on the label, “See, it says ‘To Not Masha’.”

Everyone is exhausted by 10:00 on Christmas Eve. We all go to sleep, only to get up on Christmas day and continue the gift opening.

Most of us have opened all our gifts by the time we break for Christmas dinner at around 3:00. I head home a couple of hours after we finish eating, my sister’s kids still have presents to open. It’s been about 24 hours since we started.

It was madness. It was like The Berenstain Bears and Too Many Presents (if there is such a book), except we never learned our lesson and didn’t have a healthy and restrained Christmas in the end.

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A movie that I only saw the end of – The Christmas Edition

Shelley Long is talking to Santa Claus. He asks if she believes in Santa. She answers, “No, I don’t”.

“Does your son believe in Santa?” he asks.

“Yes . . . He does.” She starts to get choked up.

“Well he must have gotten it from somewhere.”

Shelley Long breaks into tears and begins sobbing.

“Are you sure you don’t believe?”

“Yes. I do. I do believe.” Shelley Long hugs Santa.

Later. Shelley Long is walking down the hall of a hospital. A woman comes up to her and starts talking business. Shelley Long tries to shrug off the other woman. “We’ll deal with this later.” A nurse calls her from the end of the hall, she excuses herself and runs over.

She enters a hospital room and asks, “What’s wrong?”

There’s a doctor blocking our view of the patient. He moves and we see a small boy sitting up in bed. He has a band-aid on his forehead and a scrape painted onto his chin.

“You’re awake!” Shelley Long rushes over and hugs the boy. A moment later, Santa enters the room.

Shelley Long tells the boy, “I want to introduce you to someone.” Referring to Santa, she says, “This is your grandfather.”

The boy asks, “Does that make me an elf or a helper?”

Santa smiles, “That makes you something even more important. That makes you my daughter’s son.”

Santa tells them that it’s time for him to leave. Shelley Long and the boy thank him – for everything.

New scene. Santa is walking down a residential street. A police car drives up. The officer on the passenger side rolls his window down and says hello. Santa returns the hello.

They have a short conversation. Santa tells the police officer that he’s leaving town, going home to Nebraska. The officer points out that his car isn’t going to get him that far. And Santa tells him that he’s taking the train actually, “I’ll see more of the country that way.”

The police officer apologizes for having arrested him earlier.

“That’s alright,” Santa answers.

“The least I can do is give you a ride to the train station. I’d score some points with my kids after what happened earlier.”

Santa accepts the ride. He gets into the back seat and they drive away.

In the next scene they stop the car on a dark street.

“You’ve brought me to the wrong place,” Santa tells them, “This is the old train station.”

The police officer gets out of the car. “Oh, This is the right place alright,” he answers, opening the back door for Santa.

Santa climbs out of the car and stands on the sidewalk, confused. Suddenly, lights come on all around them. There’s a crowd of people standing in front of the old train station. Everything is decorated with Christmas lights. Shelley Long and her son are there with the guy who plays the mayor on Spin City.

Shelley Long tells Santa that this is a public building and it’s going to be set up as a home for children.

“What about your campaign?” Santa sputters.

“I’ll still be campaigning – just not as hard.” She gives a significant look at her son and then at the mayor from Spin City, who kisses her on the forehead.

The crowd breaks into a spontaneous rendition of Deck the Halls. But, as they reach the end of the first chorus, they’re interrupted. Everyone looks up at the sky and it begins to snow. There’s some low murmuring in the crowd.

Shelley Long turns to Santa and says, “Merry Christmas.”

“But it’s June,” Santa says.

Shelley Long shakes her head. “No, it’s not. It’s Christmas.”

The crowd starts singing Deck the Halls again.

Fade to black. Roll Credits.

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JMU 781

There was a pigeon stuck inside the post office – I’d seen it flying up against the lobby windows as I’d walked by. That’s what I was thinking about. I was brought back to earth when I heard a loud “Crunch”. A pickup had rear-ended an SUV stopped at a red light just as I was walking up to the corner.

It was just a fender bender. The left end of the SUV’s bumper was pointing out at an odd angle. The front of the pickup was dented badly. The drivers stayed in their cars while the light was red. I stood on the corner with the other pedestrian, a slack-jawed gawker.

When the light changed, the SUV – the car that had been hit – turned slowly and deliberately around the corner. The driver of the pickup hesitated, and after a few moments he pulled his car forward. (There was a sprinkling of debris on the street, including a mostly intact turn signal.) I watched as he pulled into the intersection, where he hesitated again and then continued up the street away from the other car.

I stared, still slack-jawed, thinking the obvious, “He’s going the wrong way. He needs to talk to the other driver.” I had a moment’s hesitation before realizing it was a hit and run. And lost another moment while I realized that that meant I should get the license plate number. I read the numbers off the back of the pickup as it quickly receded into the distance and turned back the way I’d come.

The SUV had parked outside the post office, a block away. I walked over and, without saying anything, was immediately accepted into the conversation the driver was having with two other bystanders.

I gave the driver the license plate number, but pointed out that I’d noticed it wasn’t a Washington plate, but couldn’t tell which state it was from.

She fished around for some paper, settling for the liner notes of a CD, where she wrote down the number. “Did you see what color it was?”

“Yeah. The plate was white with blue trim.”

Another woman walked up, she had the license number too. The driver asked if she’d gotten the state. She answered no, but a man came up behind her and said, “It was Wisconsin.” Then he pointed at the corner opposite ours and said blankly, “There it is.” We looked to where he was pointing, the pickup drove past and drove and continued down the hill away from us.

We all just stood there, slack-jawed again, until the driver broke the silence, “Alright. Thanks, everyone.”

I walked past the post office again and the pigeon that was stuck inside flew up against the window.

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At Night

Two long exposure photos from last month.

In the rain - November 12
Out of the rain - November 24

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Next to the Doorknobs

Various dazed customers wander through Home Depot’s aisles. One of them identifies an employee by his orange apron, walks up to him and describes what he’s looking for. He doesn’t ask where he can find it, he just describes it, “Mortar for tile around a bathtub.”

The employee answers, “Aisle 14.”

Another customer: “A wireless doorbell.”

“Go all the way down and take a left. They’re on the right beside the smoke detectors.”

“A ratchet that can get into small places.”

“Aisle 27, near the end.”

My turn: “A peephole.”

He looks at me like I’m stupid.

“For a door.”

He looks at his feet, still somehow communicating that I’m stupid.

“Like this.” I dig out the old peephole that I’d removed from my front door earlier, a cigarette-sized cylinder with a lens on one end, and hold it up to my eye trying to simulate how one would peer out into the hallway when someone has knocked on his door. Without the door though, it looks like I’m miming someone looking through a tiny telescope.

“See. The problem is that this one has a hole in it, . . . which is kind of ironic I guess.” I hold it out for him to inspect.

He doesn’t look at it. “Aisle 35, next to the doorknobs.”

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As I remember it, whenever the power went out when I was a kid, my family would play board games to pass the time. In reality, we may have only done that a couple of times during my most impressionable period. In retrospect I realize that we probably only played games because we couldn’t watch TV.

The power is out in my building. (I’m up the street at an internet cafe now.) My modern cordless phone doesn’t work – I’ve swapped it out for my old Bell System-issued rotary phone. My milk is going sour in the fridge. I took a shower earlier, my bathroom lit only by a weak flashlight. Nothing dramatic, but still kind of exciting. It’s a little meaningless road block that I’m more than happy to accomodate.

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Chalk Line

It’s dusk. The clouds have cleared away from overhead, settling on the horizon. A jet appears in the upper left corner of the window moving across the sky in the direction of the lower right area of the window – toward the northwest. It leaves a vapor trail behind it, a chalk line across a perfectly clean blackboard.

It disappears into the distance. First the plane is gone, but that end of the vapor trail is still being drawn. Then it’s far enough away that the end of the vapor trail is no longer visible.

I follow the vapor trail back to the corner of the window where it first appeared. It’s starting to fade. Beginning at my end, it’s dissipating, eventually fading to nothing right at the point in the sky where the plane disappeared a few minutes before. It takes the same amount of time for the vapor trail to fade away that it took the plane to travel from one end of the sky to the other.

All the streetlights have come on except the ones on this block.

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