Big game

alarm-clockAuthor’s Note: This is the final part of a three part short story. If you would like to read the first two chapters, please visit Extra point and Night and day.

What was I thinking? Bryce was beginning to regret his decision. Returning to his apartment around two o’clock in the morning after his night shift left him with less than seven hours of sleep before he needed to be back in the museum lobby for his impromptu day shift. As his alarm clock buzzed incessantly from across the room, he had no choice but to roll out of bed and silence it. There was no sense in hitting the snooze button now – he didn’t have the time anyway.

Cobbling together the necessities of a routine that he was not accustomed to, Bryce brushed his teeth. He planned to grab a bagel and coffee at the corner shop on his way to the museum. As he snatched the keys and wallet sitting next to his alarm clock, Bryce caught a glimpse of the magazine still resting on the edge of his bed. He instinctively seized it in haste and placed it under the socks in the top dresser drawer.

Walking through the front entrance of the museum for the second time in less than twelve hours, the ambience felt quite different. Bryce was comfortable with the quiet solitude of the night shift. He was spoiled by the opportunity to roam the halls undisturbed during the still hours after the doors had been closed to the public. He was now greeted by preparations for the hustle and bustle of a Monday morning in the main lobby. Volunteers began to shuffle to and fro with a frenetic demeanor.

The cell phone in his left pocket vibrated. Retrieving it from his pocket, Bryce noticed the number as his supervisor’s. “Hey Tom, what’s up? I just got here – it’s like a different world in here during the day.”

“Yeah, you’ve probably been taking those night shifts for granted, huh? Listen, I forgot to tell you last night in the rush of things. Management has informed me that we received a special exhibit that is scheduled to open today. It’s in the small atrium off to the right of the lobby. That’s where you will be stationed today.”

Bryce had never even been in that exhibit area. The doors were always locked. He had just assumed that it was a storage closet. That was another reason he loved working here – there always seemed to be surprises waiting in the wings. Or, in this case – the right atrium.

“There’s a silver key on your ring with the letters RA inscribed on it. That should open the door,” continued Tom.

“Okay, anything else I need to know?”

“Nope, they are using some of the regular volunteers to help keep an eye on things elsewhere today. They just want to be sure to keep close tabs on this exhibit so that’s where you’ll be until closing at five o’clock.”

“Sounds good, will do.” As Bryce hung up the phone, he didn’t think it sounded good at all. With his feet locked in one location for the duration of his shift, it was going to be difficult to keep from wanting to wander at will.

Fumbling through the dozen keys on his ring, he found the one that would grant him access to the right atrium. Swinging the door opened, Bryce was greeted by a familiar sight – sort of. The Monet limited edition reproduction on display behind the red velvet rope dividers was similar, but not exactly the same as the one in the magazine presently resting beneath his freshly laundered socks.

houses-of-parliamentBryce figured that it must be the lighting. Or perhaps it was the difference between color on a canvas and that on the glossy page of a magazine. At the sight of his inanimate companion for the afternoon, Bryce was no longer all that displeased with his assignment. He would have the opportunity to keep an eye on the painting and visitors at the same time.

Over the course of the day, there were many footsteps in and out of the exhibit area. There were disinterested glances from onlookers. There were also gasps of exhilaration from patrons who witnessed the artistic mélange of colors and brushstrokes. As closing time approached, Bryce could hear the animated voices of several children in the lobby, growing louder with each passing second.

“Okay class, let’s keep our voices down and our eyes and ears open.” As if some proclamation had been issued from on high, the assembly of twenty some fourth graders instantly became silent. The shuffling of footsteps into the exhibit area was led by the young teacher with his class following like ducklings follow their mother.

As the boys and girls approached the rope divider, there was a mix of awe and confusion on the young faces. It was obvious, even at this relatively immature age, that something behind a barrier with a security guard standing near it must be important.

A young girl raised her hand. Once acknowledged by her teacher, she asked, “Mr. Brooks, what is it?” Her teacher responded, as best he could at a fourth grade level, “This is a painting by someone named Claude Monet who lived in France over a hundred years ago. He decided to paint the same scene over and over again at different times on different days. There are several of these paintings. They all look similar, but no two are exactly the same.”

At the completion of his response, another young boy raised his hand.

“Kyle, do you have a question?”

“Yes, what does it mean exactly, Mr. Brooks – the painting?”

The teacher paused for a second to collect his thoughts so that he could somehow disseminate the meaning of impressionism to his young audience.

“The time when these paintings were created was known as the impressionistic period. The artists weren’t as worried about showing people every little detail. Instead, they left things a little fuzzy and encouraged people to use their imagination. So, to answer your question, this painting can mean anything you want it to.”

Mr. Brooks paused for a moment, giving the gears an opportunity to begin turning. He greased the inner workings of these young minds as he continued, “That’s the wonderful thing about any art. There is no one way to look at it. Everyone has their unique perspective. There is no right. There is no wrong. There is only what we see – and feel. Sort of like a lot of things in life.”

right-and-wrongIn that moment, Bryce felt less like a security guard and more like a fourth grade student. He had just been provided a lesson that he should have learned so many years ago. There is no right. There is no wrong. There is only what we see and feel. He wondered how things might be different today if he would have had Mr. Brooks as a teacher. Would he have made the same choices? Would he have become a different person than he was today?

Bryce didn’t remember the walk back home after his shift. The warm, moist air rolling in off the bay brought with it a bank of thick pea soup fog. While the visibility was deteriorating outside, there was a sense of clarity beginning to wash over Bryce’s consciousness.

After laying his keys and wallet on the kitchen counter, Bryce grabbed the new bag of tortilla chips from the cupboard and poured them into a bowl big enough for six to pull from. His buddies would be here for the big game in a little over an hour.

Placing the bowl on the makeshift coffee table in front of the couch, he picked up the remote, clicked the television on, and tuned into the pre-game show. The energy levels were already beginning to rise in anticipation of this huge divisional showdown. But, there was something missing.

Bryce pulled himself off the couch and strode into his bedroom with a newfound buoyancy. He opened the top drawer of his dresser, slid his freshly folded socks out of the way, and retrieved the magazine hiding beneath them. He carried it back out to the living room and set it in plain view next to the bowl of chips. It will hide no longer, thought Bryce. What he really meant was I will hide no longer.

do-something-that-scares-youBefore his last shift at the art museum, calling this play would have seemed too risky for Bryce. It was better to run the ball up the middle – take the safe yardage – instead of throwing long and exposing the possibility for a turnover. He no longer feared the defensive lineman rushing from all angles trying to sack him. Those nightmares were a thing of the past. He was the star quarterback in the biggest game of his life – his own life – and he wasn’t going to let anyone keep him from calling the plays that would help propel him over the goal line and into the end zone.

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Night and day

tortilla-chipsAuthor’s Note: This is the second part of a three part short story. If you would like to read the first chapter, please visit Extra point.

Beyond the raucous parties filled with alcohol, salty tortilla chips, and excessive testosterone levels, Bryce had a secret – one that he had been keeping close to the vest for years. As the final guest disappeared through the front door of his apartment, Bryce locked the door and turned the deadbolt. It wasn’t really necessary – turning the deadbolt – but, it gave him a sense of privacy that allowed complete immersion in what would come next.

He left the assortment of empty beer bottles on the counter. There had to be at least a dozen of them scattered about. The bag of chips, already beginning to stale, could wait for another fifteen minutes. Bryce marched in a straight line toward his bedroom. He opened the walk in closet and counted over three jerseys from the left. Pushing the hangar to the side, he located the two sets of sheets sitting on the shelf. Nestled between them rested Bryce’s secret in its coveted hiding place.

He retrieved the magazine and retreated to sit on the corner of his bed. He furiously flipped pages until he reached the foldout midway through the issue. He felt a surge of adrenaline course through his veins. The two page spread of the Monet reproduction was the feature piece in this month’s installment of Art Appreciation.

Bryce never really understood all the technical details. He didn’t comprehend the techniques or artistic elements that comprised the production of a painting. He just knew that when he looked at some notable works of art, something shifted inside of him. And he liked that. What he didn’t like was the sense of apprehension that accompanied his desire to feel that way in the first place.

Bryce was raised in a household devoid of genuine parental involvement. He wasn’t abused. He just wasn’t necessarily openly loved. His sense of pride and feeling of belonging came from interactions with his football teammates as well as the girls who ached to hang on his bulky biceps at high school social events. It was all he knew. It was all he was taught, not by his parents or teachers, but by his own personal experiences.

There was too much risk involved, for Bryce at least, in revealing a side of him that had remained hidden for so long. Bringing this fascination with art to light may disrupt the equilibrium that he had established. Surely, there was not a man alive today who would watch a football game in the afternoon, and then revel in the observation of art by night. What would his friends think? Would he be looked upon as weird? Abnormal?

Bryce was physically gifted. He had the six pack abs and chiseled calf muscles to prove it. But, he also had another capacity that wasn’t as obvious – a mental aptitude not related to academics. It had allowed Bryce to become one of the most accomplished high school quarterbacks in state history. It’s what some people refer to as street smarts. Bryce always had a strategy. The vibrating alarm coming from the cell phone in his pocket reminded him of his game plan that had nothing to do with Xs and Os on a football field. His nighttime shift at the local art museum was scheduled to begin in thirty minutes.

As a security guard, Bryce was able to maintain his image as a rough and tumble ball of testosterone while catching glimpses of the art work he enjoyed while on his evening rounds – all under the veil of it being his job.

Strolling through the double doors to the museum, Bryce always felt tiny. The size of the colossal front entrance leading into the massive central atrium certainly provided a dwarfing sensation. The daytime guard, John, was anxious to greet Bryce. “Hey Bryce, Tom asked you to call him before you start your shift.” Gathering up his keys and water bottle, John continued, “And by the way, what happened in the game?”

“It was crazy. The Titans pulled out the winning touchdown in the last minute of the game.” He was talking about football, but he was presently thinking about the painting hanging on the wall in corridor two on the third floor. The adrenaline rush of a football game wore off after a few hours. The one he experienced from a painting, however, seemed to be interminable.

old-dial-phoneAs John departed through the front door, Bryce insured the front doors were locked shut. Then, he sauntered over to the front reception desk and dialed *9 on the old style rotary telephone to reach his supervisor. “Hey Tom, this is Bryce. John told me you wanted me to call in? What’s up?”

The voice on the other end of the line had a pleading tone to it. “Listen, Bryce, I need some help. Frank called in sick for tomorrow’s shift and John has a flight out of town to visit family this evening. I need someone to cover for the day shift tomorrow.”

Bryce had become accustomed to the nighttime ritual. There was a quiet solitude in meandering through the dark corridors. The precisely positioned soft lights directed at each of the paintings accentuated their natural beauty. This time alone at night was a personal sanctuary of sorts for Bryce. He wasn’t necessarily thrilled with the request being pushed upon him, but he could tell that his boss was in a bind. And he figured that seeing the art in a new light might be appealing.

“I can do it. What time do you need me here?” replied Bryce.

“Eleven to five, and thanks a ton buddy. I’ll make sure you get an extra day off sometime in the next week or so.”

do-something-different“Sure, no problem.” As Bryce hung up the phone, he grabbed the keys in the desk drawer and began to make his first of three rounds for the evening. Little did he know that the difference between his two shifts, night and day, would be just that – night and day.

Author’s Note: This is the second part of a three part short story. The final installment will be published next week. If you enjoy these stories, please connect with me on Facebook to share more inspiring reminders throughout the week. Thank you for reading and providing your thoughts – best wishes for an inspired day!

Extra point

football-goal-line“Touchdown!” The cry of jubilation came in a wave of recognition from left to right across the small living room. High fives and fist pumps were exchanged as this group of grown men exhibited the uninhibited joy born from their youth. The only thing flying around more freely than the testosterone levels was the assortment of tortilla chip crumbs and salt remaining on their fingertips. And this wasn’t even the big game – that was tomorrow night’s prime time event – when Bryce’s fan favorite team would be vying for the opportunity to play the winner of this game in the division championship.

This was the routine at Bryce’s place every Sunday during football season. His apartment was the quintessential bachelor pad. It was clearly evident where the priorities resided in his living space. The sixty inch widescreen television overshadowed the second hand couch. Its plaid threads were baring to reveal the foam cushion beneath it. The dining room table in the corner was purchased to fill the space. In the span of three years, it had yet to be used – except as a resting place for beer bottles while scurrying to the bathroom during commercial breaks. The kitchen was spotless, most likely because Bryce had ordered take-out more times in the past week than he had turned the knobs on his stove in the past two years.

He had always wanted to play college ball, but he never made it any further than high school graduation. Bryce’s focus in the classroom was never as good as his prowess on the football field. The attention and notoriety he received from the ability to accurately throw a football thirty plus yards into the waiting arms of a wide receiver – well, that was much more enticing than the prospect of solving a trigonometry problem. He could never quite figure out what practical use there was in calculating the rate of change in a shadow’s length over time. If he knew, however, what those shadows were hiding, Bryce may have been persuaded to pay closer attention to them.

What he didn’t have in the area of academic acumen, Bryce more than made up for in the social realm. His cell phone was overflowing with phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and text messages. He was an outgoing guy, always surrounded by those pining to be in his position. Formerly the star quarterback on his high school football team, Bryce had frequently been provided with opportunities to attract new followers – on the football field, at the local pizza parlor, and during school dances. He was the prototypical chick magnet. His classmates were simultaneously struck with awe and jealousy at Bryce’s charismatic personality.

He would have rather been watched on the television screen instead of the one doing the watching. But, the cards had been stacked against him despite his magnetic charm. Adopted at the late age of nine, Bryce had spent most of his childhood inside the foster care system. His biological parents had always been a mystery to Bryce, never to be located. His adopted parents, although well meaning, never really forged a connection with Bryce. The lacking support system at home along with the persuasive influence of peer pressure at school found him where he was today, living vicariously through the life of a professional football player that he would never have the chance to become.

He was wearing a professional football jersey at this very moment while exchanging celebratory hand slaps with each of his football buddies. The black charcoal grease smeared beneath his eyes was unnecessary, but it was all part of the ensemble. Bryce had football apparel lining his closet that he brought out with pride each and every week. And yet, there was something else in that closet that Bryce never let anyone see. He had a secret. It wasn’t the creepy or dangerous type of secret that would make you want to steer clear of him. But, Bryce thought otherwise, for what he thought was a good reason.

With the call of “hike!” the ball was snapped between the center’s legs and spotted by the holder. The place kicker, in perfect rhythm, drilled the ball end over end through the uprights. The extra point was good, the game had been won – the football game, that is.

false-evidence-appearing-realThe game inside Bryce’s head, however, was still being played. There was that extra point of his own looming in his consciousness – a nightmare of sorts that visited him each evening after he closed his eyes to fall asleep. It was always the same. He was trapped in the pocket. Defensive lineman almost twice his size were closing in on all sides, threatening to pulverize the bones beneath his protective pads. Although this dream was presented in the guise of a football play, Bryce understood that it represented something completely different. And, he knew that there was no amount of padding that could protect him.

Author’s Note: This is the first part of a three part short story. The second installment will be published next week. If you enjoy these stories, please connect with me on Facebook to share more inspiring reminders throughout the week. Thank you for reading and providing your thoughts – best wishes for an inspired day.

Chance encounter

wall-street-federal-hallAuthor’s Note: This is the second part of a three part short story. If you would like to read the first chapter, please visit Hot Dog.

Lloyd appeared homeless with his ratty brown hoodie, rickety bike, and unkempt facial hair. His actions were characteristic of someone short on luck – keeping to himself, and not making direct eye contact with any passersby. He may have even smelled a bit foul, or perhaps that was a piece of produce in his bike basket beginning to ripen beyond its consumable age.

The infamous proverb states that if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it must be a duck. With that rationale, it was evident that Lloyd was homeless. There is another proverb, however, that beckons us to not judge a book by its cover. The push and pull of conflicting proverbs can often lead the mind into murky waters, awash with doubts of what is right and what is wrong – what is illusory, and what is real.

While casually eavesdropping on Derek’s conversation with his girlfriend, Lloyd proceeded to scribble several notes furiously on a page of his pocket sized notebook. Whatever it was he was writing, Lloyd was hyper-focused on transcribing what was in his head on to the tiny page posthaste.

After the phone call ended, Lloyd used his peripheral vision to catch a glimpse of Derek taking a bite of his hot dog. The aging gentleman quickly snatched a red delicious apple from his basket and took a big juicy bite, loud enough to invite Derek’s attention. Peering over towards Lloyd somewhat involuntarily, Derek quickly returned focus to his own personal space. That was all Lloyd needed though – a crack in the door – and now he was poised to kick it wide open.

“First New York hot dog?” asked Lloyd in a gruffly voice.

Derek pretended not to hear, but glancing to his left, he couldn’t ignore the sapphire blue eyes staring back at him. Without any recourse, other than getting up to leave, Derek responded curtly, “Yeah.”

“You know, it’s funny,” continued Lloyd, “the great American hot dog was invented by some German guy and you used to be able to get one for three cents apiece back in the day.”

Derek wasn’t sure where this line of dialogue was going. The commentary sounded like the ramblings of some old man running short on his sanity. He was getting ever closer to simply rising and retreating to the safety of the building lobby just a few short steps away. He could catch the next bus. His flight wasn’t scheduled to depart for a few more hours.

Lloyd continued on, not waiting for a response from Derek, “Money ain’t everything you know. Don’t matter whether a hot dog cost three cents or three bucks, if you ain’t enjoyin’ it, what’s the point?”

Derek was now gathering up his belongings. It was becoming evident that he had reached his threshold of patience with this babbling lunatic. He knew that he would eventually have to build up a callousness to these type of shenanigans as a New Yorker, just not now. Lloyd pressed further, “Name is Lloyd, how about you?” He took another accentuated bite from his apple, awaiting a reply.

Rising from the bench, Derek turned to leave. “Might not want to leave yet – Derek.”

Derek stopped in his tracks and turned around to face Lloyd, now with a smile on his face. “How do you know my name?” He was quite certain that his name had not arisen in his conversation with Missy.

“That’s what your driver’s license says.”

Patting his pockets, Derek looked to be performing a cheap knock-off version of the Macarena. With a confused look of disbelief spreading across his face, he turned his head, and narrowed his eyes uttering, “You have my wallet.” It was part question, part statement.

Lloyd withdrew the black leather wallet from his jacket pocket and handed it to Derek who was taken aback. This elderly man who had obviously come across difficult times could have disappeared with his cash, credit cards, and identity. He wasn’t sure how to react. Derek presumed that Lloyd was waiting for some remuneration for his honest nature. Opening up his billfold, Lloyd stopped him, “Not necessary, just promise you’ll think about what I said.”

dont-judge-a-book-by-its-coverIt was just a bunch of random gibberish as far as Derek was concerned. What was there to think about? Genuinely grateful now for the honesty of this fellow New Yorker, Derek offered a sheepish thank you as he began to climb aboard the bus now parked at the curb. Lloyd simply provided a smile in return, one that Derek could tell conveyed much more than a message of you’re welcome.

Author’s Note: This is the second part of a three part short story. The final installment will be published next week. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day!

Hot dog

wall-street-nycSitting across from the executive on the fiftieth floor of the high rise in New York City, Derek’s hands were sweaty with anticipation. This was the final stop on his whirlwind day of interviews with one of the most prestigious investment firms in the Wall Street district. Everything had gone as well as he could have hoped. But, he knew that the ultimate decision concerning his prospective employment lay in the hands of the person sitting across from him.

Peering over his half-moon spectacles while carefully considering his notes, pondering the myriad of responses provided by Derek over the course of the day, the CEO reached across the mahogany desk separating the two and extended his right hand. “Derek, I think you are exactly the type of ambitious individual that this company needs. Welcome to our team.” Involuntarily, a genuine smile of satisfaction spread across Derek’s face, “Thank you sir. I really appreciate this opportunity,” replied Derek with a firm handshake to accompany his confident words.

Derek had been working towards this very moment for the past six years – perhaps much longer. Living in a small suburban town just outside of Chicago, Derek completed his MBA just three weeks prior – the last step in preparation for a life on Wall Street and all the perks associated with it. From his earliest childhood memories, Derek was consumed with numbers, trends, data, and the detailed analysis of it all. Most kids opened the newspaper and flipped straight to the comics. Derek, however, stopped at the business section, perusing the trends on his favorite stocks, always on the lookout for the next ticker symbol equipped to surpass street expectations.

As the floor number displayed inside the elevator approached the lobby level, Derek’s thoughts were already shifting towards his next ambition. He always dreamed of owning a penthouse overlooking Central Park with the finest art hanging on its walls. Numbers and fine art, they were the two things in Derek’s life that stimulated him more than anything else. As diametrically opposed as they were – art and math – his natural ability in one allowed him to enjoy the other.

To anyone who witnessed Derek strolling through the lobby, they would have thought him to be a seasoned veteran at the firm. The fine Italian suit, the wavy yet slicked back hair, the black wing-tipped shoes, and most importantly the confident gait was proof positive that Derek belonged in this atmosphere – on the surface, at least. Looks can be so deceiving.

Walking out of the quiet lobby and on to the sidewalk, the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple burst into action. The constant motion, honking horns, and murmur of shuffling footsteps was intoxicating to Derek. He felt at home around the busyness of big city life. The knowledge that this was now his new home brought upon a wave of euphoria. The scent of fresh hot dogs from the sidewalk vendor added to his feeling of exhilaration. In a seemingly underwhelming celebration, Derek had promised himself a genuine New York hot dog to christen his official acceptance into the city that never sleeps.

hot-dogStepping up to the gentleman situated under the faded umbrella, Derek barked out his order as if already a weathered New Yorker, “One dog – onions, relish, mustard, and ketchup.” Exchanging a few dollar bills for his celebratory meal, Derek ambled towards the bench beside the bus stop. Seated at the end of the bench was an older gentleman with unkempt facial hair and a hoodie pulled over his thinning gray hair. The old bike leaning precariously next to him had a basket on the front – in it were a bushel of apples and a few ears of corn still in their husks. He held in his one hand a tattered notepad, in the other a partially sharpened pencil.

Setting the hot dog beside him on the bench, Derek pulled out the ringing cell phone from his pocket. The incoming call was from his girlfriend, Missy, back in Illinois. The first words he heard were characteristic of his longtime partner, “So, are there Broadway shows in our future?” She was both witty and confident. Their relationship was proof that sometimes it was likes, not opposites that attract each other. The next several minutes involved congratulatory remarks, shared dreams and aspirations for a new lifestyle supported by a six figure income north of a half million dollars per year. By the sound of the conversation occurring between the two, it appeared that their first years’ worth of income – and then some – had already been spent.

“Miss you lots, love you more, see you soon.” It was their signature communication that was unique to them. As he pressed the button to end the call, he slipped the phone back into his pocket. Sinking his teeth into the hot dog, he couldn’t help but let out a sigh of contentedness through his nose while he closed his eyes and absorbed everything he had been dreaming of for so long. It was now becoming reality. He was the new dog on the block, and he was poised to establish himself as the next alpha male in the financial district.

journey-secret-destinationWhat Derek failed to notice was the furious scribbling that the elderly gentlemen had been penning on his notepad throughout his conversation with Missy. What also eluded his attention was the wallet that had come out of the pocket with his cell phone, resting beneath the bench he was seated on. The hustle and bustle of New York City seems to accelerate everything. There was no exception in this situation. The wallet sitting beneath him was there no more. Derek was completely unaware of its disappearance. As it turned out, Derek was unaware of so much more.

Author’s Note: This is the first part of a three part short story. Please stay tuned for the next chapter to be published next week. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day!

Unspoken voice

its-all-make-believeI am nothing but a figment of your imagination. I am nonexistent in the physical sense. But even imaginary entities deserve a name. Mine is George. I know, it’s a rather plain name. Maybe that explains why it has been such a struggle to have my story told. You see, there are so many other imaginary creatures inside my author’s mind – he is real, by the way – I think. Anyway, these other voices have much more interesting names like Francesca, Isadora, and Anastasia – or Broderick, Ignatius, and Nicodemus. Forget for a few minutes that these voices come in male and female counterparts. That’s another story for another day, if I am able to be heard again. It was difficult enough edging my way into the conscious corner of my writer’s mind this time around.

All those other voices? They have elegant and pretentious sounding names. And the stories they beg to tell prey on the ego of its readers. They weave plot twists together to compose the most daring adventures. They hide magical talismans in the most unlikely but fortuitous locations that lead to wonderful tales of discovery. This is not one of those stories. So, if you are looking to travel around the world, discover hidden treasure, and be surprised by unexpected plot twists, you may as well stop reading now. Well, on second thought, maybe you do want to continue reading. Take a chance, why don’t you?

This is a story about a man. The entire story takes place on a park bench. Pretty interesting, huh? This man has a name, but nobody knows it. It’s Fred, by the way – his name that is. Another one of those plain names. Maybe that’s why his story has remained untold for so long. I can relate, but I digress. I must stay focused lest my creator banish me from existence. I have seen him do it before.

Seated on this park bench, Fred stares at the sidewalk in front of him. He wears a brown hooded jacket and tattered blue jeans that look as if they have been worn for the past week and a half. Truth is, they have probably been worn for much longer than that. He holds a can of peach slices in his one hand, picking out the pieces of fruit from the syrup inside with great care. He doesn’t want to waste the juice. It is sustenance that he needs to help him get through the day.

Fred tilts his head to the side as a mom walks by with her young son. He must be ashamed of his primitive existence here on the bench. He looks away to avoid eye contact. No one has seen his eyes, it seems. People waltz by talking on their cell phone, listening to their music, absorbed in their own world. They are oblivious to the existence of this other human being – one who deserves to have their story heard as much as anyone else. But no one stops to ask what that story is.

He snorts long and hard through his nostrils. The cold fall weather, his clothes that inadequately cover his extremities, and the evident malnutrition has probably led to some medical condition that will never be diagnosed, never treated, and will only cause his health to deteriorate further over time.

It seems like a sad life, doesn’t it? To our materialistic and egocentric selves, yes. But, you see, I think that is why I exist. If only for a fleeting moment, I am that unspoken voice that finally edges his way into the conversation to shed some light on reality – and the truth.

Remember when I said no one knew Fred’s name? No one cared enough to ask? I suppose that’s why I did ask. Well, I can’t ask of course. I don’t exist, remember? But, I somehow coerced my inventor to carry out this request on my behalf. It’s not something he usually does so I was quite surprised by his obliging manner. I was even more surprised – and I think he was too – by what happened next.

“Good morning, what’s your name?”

“Fred.”

Just one word was spoken, and yet the message conveyed through those steel blue eyes spoke a seemingly infinite number of words painted in the most charismatic hues. Time seemed to stand still. Yeah, I know, it’s one of the clichés you find in those other stories. This was no cliché, however – this was real. It was as if the rewind button had been pressed, the movie just witnessed was replayed frame by frame in the space between our collective eyes, momentarily locked upon each other.

Fred stared at the ground – he wasn’t mired in feelings of self-pity and depression. He was watching the line of ants navigating around the twig at his feet. Undeterred, the tiny insects always seemed to find a way to persevere and survive despite their lacking physical endowments. Inspiration from an ant – the same ants that are considered pesky and annoying to the rest of us.

house-wrenFred tilted his head – he wasn’t ashamed of his disheveled appearance or poverty stricken lifestyle. He was simply directing his good ear towards the chirping bird in the tree above him. The house wren was plain and simple in appearance. And yet, he was still able to create beautiful and exquisite music. No one could ever convince him that he should not sing his song to the world. Everyone else misses out on these simple pleasures. We have a cell phone to our ear. We have our latest mile time to beat. We have more important things to worry about. Not Fred. No, not Fred.

Fred snorts through his nostrils – he isn’t sick, not yet at least. No, he is grabbing hold of that crisp fall air as it blows by him. Pulling it back through his nostrils, he inhales it deeply into his lungs. The air, filled with the scent of fall leaves, sends a message to his subconscious mind. He is catapulted back to his childhood, recalling fond memories of jumping into the leaves that his dad had just raked into a tall pile under the giant oak tree in his backyard. He is struck with a sense of humility – and gratitude. Things can change in the blink of an eye. He appreciated what he had now, even if it was only a can of peaches and a second or third hand brown hooded jacket. It could be much worse. Of course, the rest of us look upon this situation and feel a mix of pity, remorse, maybe even anger – surely, it couldn’t get any worse than this – and geez, all you have to do is get off your butt and do something. You have control over your own life, after all.

listen-to-the-quietest-whispersHard to believe, isn’t it? All this from a glance into someone’s eyes. To be honest with you, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. Things are rarely as they appear on the surface. Maybe that’s the whole point though. We don’t really know how a story is going to unfold before our eyes. We can’t appreciate the seemingly insignificant or misconstrued details until we decide to listen to a story – deeply – whether it’s through our eyes, our ears, or those unspoken voices inside our head that we seem to neglect far too often.

Grace under fire

closed-doorAuthor’s Note: This is the final chapter of a three part short story. If you would like to read the first two chapters, please visit Choice words and Double helix.

For the second time in twenty-four hours, Quentin leaned against a closed door, seeking respite from the onslaught of personal accusations and their repercussions. The ensuing days left him feeling isolated and alone – physically and emotionally.

Taking offense to his outspoken opinion on the book ban petition, the town council had been persuaded by its constituents to expedite the removal of Quentin from his mayoral office. It seemed a rather nonsensical and knee-jerk reaction, but Quentin couldn’t be sure at this point in time. There were very few rational thoughts running through his mind.

He remained so self-conscious about the need to defend himself in public that Quentin sought refuge inside his home. He felt safe from any further public assaults, but the doubting voice of his internal conscience continued to swell in volume.

As days passed, the feeling of entrapment within his own house began to prey on Quentin’s sense of sanity. Although he still felt unprepared to confront questions from the community, the desire to escape from what felt like a confined box – its four walls seemingly closing in upon him – was overwhelming.

In what was a more courageous action than it should have been, Quentin picked up his attaché and headed out the front door. Making his way down the sidewalk and around the street corner, he mapped out the shortest and most inconspicuous route to the quiet coffee shop on the edge of town. Quentin felt this was the safest location to get some fresh air – and coffee – to collect his thoughts.

As he slipped through the front door, a bell overhead signaled his entrance. Quentin was pleased to see he was the only patron in the shop. Shuffling up to the counter, the owner seemed oblivious to the controversy brewing around town. Thank goodness for that, thought Quentin. Purchasing a double mocha latte, Quentin slunk to the back corner of the shop and stared into his cup of coffee, as if the steam rising from the surface held some elusive wisdom in its captivating tendrils. Alas, this hope evaporated from Quentin’s mind as quickly as the steam into thin air.

He felt guilt-ridden for expressing his opinion in front of town hall. Worse yet, he began to question his own ideals. If there were so many people opposed to his viewpoint, was it possible that he was off-kilter in the assessment of his moral values? These deteriorating thoughts brought along with it a domino effect of self-deprecating criticisms that left Quentin as nothing more than a fragile shell of his former self.

Setting his coffee cup to the side, Quentin reached down into his attaché and retrieved the object that initiated all the chaos over the previous two days. As he carefully creased the spine, he began to read the opening pages of American Dream. The first page was blank save for an opening quote that consumed his thoughts.

bell-above-doorQuentin thought he imagined hearing a bell inside his mind – signaling receipt of a message he was meant to hear at this exact moment. As it turns out, the ringing bell had originated from elsewhere. Whether he spent seconds or minutes staring at that page in the book, Quentin was pulled from his hypnotic gaze by two voices that had just rounded the counter. Two individuals, an older gentleman and a younger woman took up residence at the table next to Quentin, apparently unaware of his presence. There was something about the young woman that looked familiar. Not wanting to call attention to himself, Quentin quickly retreated behind the cover of his book. He wasn’t reading, however. He was listening.

As if in a collegiate debate competition, comments were fired back and forth between the two.

“Dad, why can’t you just accept who I am and what I want to do with my life.”

“Gracie, the front line of a battlefield is not the proper place for a woman.”

“So, tell me then Dad, where is the proper place for a woman?” retorted the young woman. Quentin was picking up on the general tone of this conversation as he hid behind the cover of his book – Dad thinks he knows best. Daughter disagrees and tries to prove otherwise.

“Now Gracie, don’t go and turn things around on me like that. You know that’s not what I mean. I just want what’s best for you,” pleaded Dad.

“Dad, you know I love you. But, I’m not going to let you steer my path through life like you did with Kelly. What’s best for me, Dad, is standing up for what I believe in – even if it means I stand alone.”

With the last statement, Quentin involuntarily let the book in front of his face drop below eye level. As if by fate, his gaze met that of Gracie. The long brunette hair, the distinctive jawline, and the penetrating hazel eyes – he immediately recognized the physical characteristics. Whether she knew what was held within the covers of that blue hardcover entitled American Dream or not, whether she even knew that her older sister worked as his secretary, Quentin could have sworn he perceived the slightest grin on her face. Quentin gave a slight wink and let a smile spread across his own face is if to say thank you.

Gathering up his belongings, Quentin rose from his seat. Passing the table occupied by Gracie and her Dad, he laid his copy of American Dream open to the page he had been so deeply contemplating before their arrival.

The mind is like a parachute. It works best when it is open. ~Dalai Lama

Quentin kept walking, past the counter and out the front door. He was a different man than when he entered. Slinking into this establishment less than thirty minutes ago, he now walked out with his head held high. He had not regained his position as mayor. Quentin had, however, reclaimed something much more valuable – a sense of self, a firm resolve to stick up for what he believed in.

to-be-yourself-greatest-accomplishmentThe gears began to turn as he strolled down the sidewalk. He wasn’t any more right or wrong about what he believed in as was Kelly, Gracie, their Dad, or – for that matter – any other member of this small, conservative town. What was wrong, thought Quentin, was denying someone the choice to believe in something that was meaningful to them.

With each subsequent step, the characteristic bounce returned to Quentin’s gait. His perceptive mind kicked back into high gear as he chuckled to himself and thought about the irony – grace under fire – he had so many reasons to smile, so much to believe in, and he wasn’t going to let anyone take that privilege away from him ever again.

Double helix

what-we-think-we-becomeAuthor’s Note: This is the second part of a three part short story. If you would like to read the first chapter, please visit Choice words.

Kelly was waiting at the front door to escort Quentin back to the relative safety of his office. She had spent three and a half years working beside the mayor, and it was obvious to her that something was amiss. She understood that the spilled coffee was a veil for some other underlying issue.

“What was that about?”

Running his hands through the thick black matte of hair atop his head, Quentin loosened his tie once again and exhaled deeply, “I don’t know.” Sinking into the high backed leather chair behind the desk, he stared up at Kelly, another uncomfortable connection made between the dots of this evolving puzzle. He just now recalled seeing Kelly’s signature on the petition.

Quentin learned his lesson, albeit a little too late, “I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

“Is this about that book?”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it right now,” replied Quentin, a little more agitated.

“You don’t actually support that gibberish, do you?”

This kind and compassionate woman who had stood beside him professionally for what seemed like an eternity revealed a side that he had not previously seen. Trying to regain some sense of composure, Quentin replied a bit more calmly, “Look, I just need a little time to process what just happened, okay?”

Kelly turned on her heels, like a soldier resolved to enter battle, and stormed out of Quentin’s office. He was wondering whether the woman who just walked out of his office was the same person who had entered just a few moments earlier – it was as though some metamorphosis had occurred in the previous two minutes.

The crass comments furnished by his secretary were just that, scolding and insensitive – on the surface. What these seemingly chiding remarks did not convey was the long standing and deep-seated regret in Kelly’s psyche. From her earliest memories as a child, she had dreamt of a career on Broadway. She had been guided – more like coerced – into taking a more sensible route. And that’s how she found herself working eight to four, five days a week – pushing papers, answering phones, collecting paychecks – while her dreams remained latent. If she didn’t have the freedom of choice in her life, why should anyone else? Nope, Quentin didn’t hear or understand these unspoken emotions.

Quentin reached over to the bottom drawer of his mahogany desk and pulled it open. Resting on its side was a book with the title American Dream. Running his index finger over the spine, he lifted it out and placed it on the desk in front of him. Placing his left index finger over his mouth, Quentin simultaneously ran his right palm delicately over the textured blue cover, as if to console this inanimate object for the injustice it had just been served.

As the furious scurrying of endorphins through his brain began to slow down, a semblance of reason began to reappear in Quentin’s consciousness. He had to admit that his objection with the long list of names on that petition was more than just a political stance. It was also an attack on his personal values and belief system.

reporter-pen-paperThe murmur of voices in the hallway began to escalate in volume until five individuals, four of them carrying a pen and pad of paper, entered through the doorway of his office. The fifth person, arms crossed over her chest, had a conniving grin on her face. “There are a few people here that would like to speak with you,” uttered Kelly in a most contemptuous voice.

It was one thing for Kelly to express her personal opinion, it was quite another for her to expose Quentin’s vulnerability given his present state. This was beyond cruel. It was bordering on sadistic. As if Kelly’s announcement concluded all formal introductions, the accusations disguised as inquiries began to suffocate Quentin, one fired after another like lethal bullets.

“Were your statements outside pertaining to the book American Dream?”

“What do you think about same sex marriages?”

“You aren’t married, are you?”

“Are you a homosexual?”

Attempting to remain relatively calm in the face of these probing questions, Quentin replied quickly, “Yes, no comment right now, no, and no.” Getting up from his chair, Quentin pushed with an invisible force on the reporters invading his space. As they recoiled out of the office, Quentin forced the door closed and secured the lock.

He felt trapped, physically and emotionally. He was pretty sure there was no way the people outside town hall would disperse anytime soon, especially with the fodder that those nettlesome reporters would feed the hungry crowd. Sinking back into his chair, Quentin resigned himself to holing up in his office until later that evening.

Thoughts from Quentin’s past filtered through his consciousness as the clock on his wall ticked – seconds turning to minutes and on to hours. At seven o’clock that evening, Quentin paused and listened for any sign of activity outside. It appeared as though his persistence had prevailed over the curious minds he addressed earlier in the day.

Gathering up his belongings, Quentin began to head out the office door before he paused. Returning to the desk, he picked up his copy of American Dream and slipped it into his attaché. The scene outside was thankfully serene. All that could be heard was the continuous chirping of crickets. The short commute home was uneventful. The same could not be said about the proceedings of the following day.

daily-newspaperQuentin felt grateful that it was a Saturday morning. Emotions had boiled over. Everyone just needed a bit of time to cool off. With a government holiday on Monday, the long weekend was a stroke of luck, a perfect opportunity for normalcy to return at the office on Tuesday morning. Quentin convinced himself of this probable outcome until he opened the front door. Greeted by the front page of the morning newspaper, his optimism vanished.

The headline title read “Mayoral Misrepresentation”. Aside from the poor attempt at alliteration, the story detailed a contrived stance on Quentin’s views. He had absolutely no idea where the substantiation for this article originated from – he had said all of eight words to reporters the previous afternoon. Quentin knew that this was a town populated by conservative folks. He didn’t realize they were prone to such libel, slander, and defamation of character.

Quentin stood there in his doorway, reading the contents of this article with an overwhelming sense of betrayal washing over him. It would only get worse. His good friend Ben, the local family practitioner, was strolling up the sidewalk to his front door.

“Hey Ben, not you too?”

Quentin could tell by the look on his face that this was not a cordial visit. “What’s going on,” inquired Quentin hesitantly.

“We need to talk,” responded Ben with a concerned tone in his voice.

As much as Ben desired a different outcome, his hands were tied. “The town council wants you to resign from your mayoral position.” Pausing for a response that he didn’t get, Ben continued, “They don’t think your representation is aligned with the views of the general population.”

“What? All this from one statement? You’re kidding me, right? Isn’t this a bit knee-jerk in nature?” asked Quentin.

“Unfortunately, no, this is not a joke. The motion passed by one vote yesterday evening.” Feeling the need to provide some semblance of solace, Ben continued, “For what it’s worth, I don’t support this decision.”

Quentin sighed deeply, resigned to the action now required of him. “I’m sorry Q,” offered Ben, “I know this isn’t right, but I don’t have a choice. I asked to be the one who let you know. I hoped it would be easier on you.”

Quentin wasn’t sure whether receiving this disheartening message from one of his closest friends made it easier or more difficult. Quentin always had the most peculiar and perceptive thought process during times of struggle. It’s what allowed him to be such an effective leader – until yesterday at least. The instinctive connection between Ben’s profession and his current predicament emerged through the murky cloudiness of his mind.

what-screws-us-up-the-mostThe self-replicating material in our human form – our DNA – is comprised of a double helix pattern. Two strands twist together like a vine to form a structure that is not easily severed. In his present situation, one strand represented the mainstream expectations of society, the other strand symbolized the general population of this conservative town. The last piece of this puzzle – the one that didn’t fit – was Quentin himself. He felt like an extra chromosome expelled from the equation for fear of some viral disease being caused by his mere presence.

Author’s Note: This is the second part of a three part short story. The final installment will be published next week. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day!

Choice words

botanical-gardenQuentin reached over to press the intercom button on his phone, “Kelly, can you bring me the items left to resolve this week, please and thank you.” Within thirty seconds, the mayor’s secretary appeared in the small government office. “Here you go,” replied Kelly as she handed over a stack of manila folders each about a half inch thick. “The most important ones are on the top. And don’t forget you have the press conference at three o’clock today.”

Quentin couldn’t possibly forget the press conference. That’s what he enjoyed most about serving as mayor of this small southern town. He relished the opportunity to be in the spotlight, to provide leadership for the citizens of his community. And he was mighty good at it too. The majority of folks living in town not only approved of his representation, most also considered him a friend.

The press conference was scheduled in order to share plans for construction of a new town park complete with a paved biking trail and five acre botanical garden. Quentin was excited for an opportunity to share this symbol of progress during his term.

Rustling through the items that required his stamp of approval, Quentin flipped open each folder in succession – increased fines for traffic violations, a new bingo night request for senior citizens at the community center, as well as a few financial and legal documents pertaining to improvements on the town streets. He had become numb to these common requests that always seemed to end up on his desk. He never liked the paperwork aspect of his job. He much rather preferred the face to face interaction with people.

Glancing down at his watch, Quentin realized there were ten minutes remaining before he needed to be outside – time to glance at one more item. As he opened the jacket of the folder, he expected to see some other mundane legislation request, perhaps a further restriction on the leash length for pets being walked in public.

What he found inside that folder left him numb once again, not due to a lack of interest, but rather from shock. Staring back at him was a request in the form of a signed petition to ban a book from the shelves of the public library. The book’s title was innocent enough, American Dream, but the synopsis of the book indicated otherwise. The main plot line of this fictional novel told the story of a young couple seeking the adoption of a baby girl. The caveat to this otherwise normal plot line was that the adopting couple was not what everyone considered to be traditional. The two partners comprising the adopting couple were both men.

Quentin could feel his pulse begin to involuntarily accelerate as he perused the long list of signed names scrawled on the petition. These were people he knew – or thought he knew at least. Needless to say, it was now obvious that these people did not share the same stance on some of the more controversial issues facing society. It wasn’t that Quentin either approved or disapproved of the story told within the covers of the book. He simply felt that everyone deserved a choice. Equal opportunity was more than a catch phrase to Quentin. He believed it. He lived it. And he felt as though he needed to fight for it.

As he tightened the knot on his tie and gathered the notes for his speech to the crowd gathering outside, Quentin’s attention was not where it was supposed to be. The contents of that last folder had jaded the congenial attitude he had been carrying with him all day. As he passed by Kelly’s desk, she had noticed the mix of anger, frustration, and confusion in his gait. “Everything OK?”

“Yes … well, no.” And then, recognizing that he didn’t have the time to get into a drawn out conversation, Quentin continued on, “I just spilled coffee on my notes, no big deal, I can still make out the major points.”

Slipping out the front door, Quentin approached the podium outside town hall, greeted by a few dozen members of the community. By the time the top of the hour had arrived, the numbers of attendees had risen to well over one hundred along with several reporters seeking content for their column in the next edition of the local newspaper.

town-hall-meeting“Good afternoon,” feigned Quentin into the microphone. Everyone could tell that he was not his usual exuberant self. The details of the new park that were planned to be filled with hope and excitement came off sounding flat and uninspired. The final planned sentence rolled off Quentin’s tongue in a rote manner, “This new addition to our community will give us an opportunity to share and grow together over the coming months and years, for our generation and those that follow.”

Quentin knew he should have let things sit right there. He needed time to collect his thoughts. He needed an opportunity to subdue his raging emotions before broaching the concern in the forefront of his mind. What we think we should do is not always what ends up happening. Our emotions can be extremely persuasive, and Quentin succumbed to their wishes in the heat of the moment.

“And speaking of community and growth,” continued Quentin with a bit more conviction. “I feel it is important to mention our duty as citizens to respect the choices of others. So long as they are living within the bounds of the law, every individual should have the freedom to choose, among other things, the books they would like to read.”

true-measure-of-a-manSeveral heads that had been lulled into a state of complacency by the mayor’s flat speech were suddenly at attention once again. One by one, the look on their faces were transformed to convey disbelief. Although not explicitly stated, the crowd in attendance knew exactly what Quentin’s choice of words meant to convey. And the murmur that began to grow among the crowd let Quentin know that he had now indeed reached the end of this press conference. Retreating into the safety of his office, the press members in attendance were circling like vultures, just biding their time before they had the opportunity to spring on their prey.

Author’s Note: This is the first part of a three part short story. The second installment will be published next week. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day!

Little things

chess-board“Joey, two steps to the left.” Cupping both hands around his mouth, Aaron bellowed to his right fielder, “Jack, take a few steps back.” Like pawns on a chess board, Aaron directed players to different positions on the baseball diamond. The left handed batter stepping up to the plate had not hit a ball to the left side all day. It was all about probabilities and percentages. The group of nine and ten year old boys kicking dirt and smacking fists into their gloves had overcome extreme odds to arrive in the little league championship game. Aaron wanted to do everything in his power to lead the team on the final step of their journey.

With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and up by one run, there were runners on second and third base. The batter at the plate was not the most fearsome hitter on the opposing team, but he was not to be taken lightly, and Aaron knew that.

As the batter stepped into the box, waggling his bat in the area of the strike zone he envisioned the ball arriving, the umpire behind the plate pointed towards the pitcher’s mound as if to say, “Your move.”

Aaron was never a chess player, but he couldn’t help but feel there were so many parallels between it and the game of baseball. He suspected that these conclusions could probably be drawn between many seemingly unrelated things in life when we chose to scrutinize them a bit more closely.

“Strike two!” Aaron had a way of slipping into a daydream state from time to time. It was both a blessing and curse, depending upon the situation. Coming back to the present situation on the field, he realized that the umpire’s call meant that his team was one strike away from hoisting the trophy sitting behind home plate. It was a little league championship game comprised of just eight teams, all playing within a ten mile radius of each other. To these boys, however, this game may as well have been the World Series.

A nervous habit adopted from his childhood days, Aaron adjusted the position of his cap and called out some final words of encouragement to his pitcher, “Here we go Jimmy, straight and true.” It was a mental reminder he had established with the ten year old over the course of the season – to empty his mind and let his arm release the ball straight and true, like an arrow.

Jimmy’s abbreviated windup had the ball traveling forward, four seams spinning in slow motion as the ball approached home plate. Desiring to hear a thump in the back of the catcher’s mitt, everyone in the stands instead heard the distinctive ping of aluminum bat meeting ball. The backspin imparted on the ball launched it airborne in the direction of right field.

Aaron could tell immediately that his decision to move Jack, his right fielder, back a few paces was the right decision. He didn’t need to move an inch. He was positioned in the perfect location to record the final out. He was one catch away from being the hero. He had shagged fly balls much more difficult than this countless times before. As the ball hit the leather in his glove, Jack squeezed tight feeling the security of the baseball in the back of his glove.

baseball-on-groundThe feeling of triumph was overwhelming. They had done it. They were victorious. They were champions. And as though some surreal and cruel warping of time had occurred, Jack realized that the final words of this heroic ending had not yet been written. The ball, hitting the fleshy part of his palm ricocheted into the webbing and out of the top of his glove. As he watched the ball, almost in slow motion, fall to the ground, he could simultaneously see the runner from second base cross home plate.

The celebration Jack had envisioned was taking place right before his eyes – for the opposing team. Staring at the ball laying on the ground, Jack pulled his cap over his eyes and hung his head. He wanted to climb into the gopher hole on the other side of the right field fence and disappear. With the rest of the team dejectedly trudging back to the dugout, Jack remained in right field, embarrassed and heartbroken.

Aaron had both hands gripped around the fence in the dugout. Even though every member of his team save one was now gathering around him, his eyes were focused on the right fielder who had his chin buried in his chest. Aaron could feel the anguish in this kid’s heart. Jack was not only Aaron’s right fielder. He was also his son.

Aaron realized that Jack would not make the walk back to the dugout on his own. The remainder of his team was coping with the loss in their own way – some cried with sadness, some threw their gloves against the dugout wall in frustration, and some handled it with grace uncharacteristic of a disappointed ten year old boy. Coming around the fence, Aaron began the walk out to Jack, trying to figure out with each step what he would say and how he would say it.

As the distance closed between father and son, Jack raised his head to greet his dad’s gaze some twenty feet away. Aaron could see the tears streaming down Jack’s cheek. Reflected in those tears was the memory of a time twenty-five years ago when Aaron felt exactly the same way.

The echo of sneers from the auditorium injected more pressure on the eleven year old Aaron than he felt he could handle. “Air ball, air ball,” came the pleas from fans of the opposing team. Standing on the foul line, the scoreboard behind the backboard showed their team down by one point with two seconds left in the final quarter.

He had just been fouled driving to the basket for a layup that would have put his team in the lead, surely securing a win in the semi-final game of the youth league tournament. He now stood, looking up at the hoop fifteen feet away. “One bucket to tie, two to win,” Aaron whispered to himself. Following through on the routine he had practiced so many times before, he took a breath, dribbled, looked up, and let the ball fly.

The arc of the ball looked perfect in Aaron’s eyes. Surely, the signature swish of ball meeting nylon net would be the next sound greeting his ears. Instead, the clang of ball meeting the back of the rim had the basketball flying back right at him. If his heartbeat wasn’t racing before, it was now. Aaron realized that he had just missed out on an opportunity to win the game for his team. But, he still could tie it up and force overtime. That wasn’t such a bad alternative given the circumstances.

Going through his routine again, Aaron hurried through the process so as to reach the desired outcome expeditiously. As if the pleas from the crowd had some tangible influence on the result of this free throw attempt, the basketball missed everything – no rim, no net, no nothing. As the clock resumed, one final second elapsed before the buzzer sounded. Aaron’s team had been eliminated because he couldn’t make one lousy free throw. Wanting so desperately to handle the situation with grace, Aaron couldn’t stop the tear from forming in his eye and trickling down his cheek.

The thirty-six year old Aaron realized that he was now face to face with his son in right field. As disappointing as that memory from his childhood was, he now had a smile on his face. Draping his right arm around Jack’s shoulder, dad squeezed and said, “I’m proud of you.”

sometimes-win-learn“Why? I dropped the ball,” uttered Jack between sobs. The look of confusion on his face was unmistakable.

“Did you try your best?” asked dad.

“Yeah, but we lost,” replied Jack.

“Sometimes we win, and sometimes we learn,” replied dad.

“What did I learn? I learned I can’t catch a fly ball to save my life,” whimpered Jack.

The smile on Aaron’s face was a knowing one. As much as his statement about winning and learning was directed towards his son, it was the memory of what happened after the missed free throw twenty-five years in the past that left him with a smile on his face.

As he coaxed his son back towards the dugout, Aaron kept a hand on his shoulder as if to convey that everything would be okay. “How about we stop and get some ice cream on the way home?”

“But … we lost,” questioned Jack as he looked up at his dad.

“Yeah, well ice cream always helped me after a tough loss. How about it?”

“Okay, sure, I guess so,” replied Jack not really understanding how ice cream helped to get rid of his guilt, disappointment, and embarrassment. Aaron thought to himself, dad knows best.

As they pulled into the parking lot of the old style ice cream parlor, dad and son approached the counter side by side. “Two vanilla cones with rainbow sprinkles please,” requested Aaron from the worker behind the sliding glass door. The smell of chocolate chips, strawberries, and fresh whipped cream escaped through the portal to the magical world of ice cream on the other side of the glass. As if the intoxicating scent of these ingredients was indeed medicine for an aching heart, Jack’s shoulders seemed to droop a little less. The frown on his face became a little less pronounced.

Handing one cone to his son, Aaron led the way to a picnic table around the corner. The creamy vanilla ice cream seemed to be a type of magic elixir, removing disappointment and replacing it with contentment, one lick at a time. Looking across the table, Aaron didn’t initially see his son. Instead, he saw a vision of himself from the past, sitting across from his own dad, sharing the same ice cream treat after facing his own disappointment on a basketball court.

As minutes passed, the conversation between Aaron and Jack slowly migrated from talk of the game to other topics, things ultimately more important than the result of some seemingly monumental baseball game. Looking across the table, Aaron started to chuckle as the ice cream mustache on his son had matured into a full-fledged beard.

Jack looked over at his dad and asked, “What?”

Aaron picked up the remnants of his cone and smashed it on to his face creating a matching ice cream mustache and goatee. “I think we could both use a shave,” chortled dad to son. Jack let out one of those unbridled authentic giggles turned into uncontrollable laughter – the kind that makes your stomach hurt in the best way possible.

little-things-are-the-big-thingsThe vision of his son covered in ice cream – and more importantly – a genuine smile on his face was more gratifying than any image involving him and a league championship trophy. More than any life lesson he hoped to share with his son, Aaron wanted Jack to know that little things become the big things – like the unforgettable memory of an ice cream cone and giggle with your dad. It took Aaron twenty-five years to grasp this truth. Better late than never, he thought. And if he could help one young boy discover this nugget of wisdom sooner, then it was definitely worth the wait.