Young heart

produce-stand-tomatoAuthor’s Note: This is the final chapter of a three part short story. If you would like to read the previous two chapters, please visit Hot dog and Chance encounter.

As he watched the bus pull away from the curb, Lloyd sat back down on the bench. He didn’t have another delivery until later that afternoon. He couldn’t help but intervene, or at least attempt to, in Derek’s situation. He wished someone would have done the same for him in his younger days – not that it would have been likely to make any difference.

Lloyd remembered the expensive suits, the fine dining opportunities that he relished so much, and the aspirations for a corner office on the top floor. He had lived in that world in some past life. He pushed everything that was ultimately important to him into the background – relegated to sometime later when he had accumulated the prestige and money to do what he really desired – open his own restaurant. He exchanged his time for money, unprepared for the realization that he would never get that time back.

It was the strangest day in Lloyd’s life. Dressed to the nines, walking down the street after a chaotic day in the office, he paused in front of a local produce cart on the street, looking for the perfect ingredients that comprised his infamous spaghetti sauce. He picked up a tomato and held it in his hands. He couldn’t explain it – and it never would do any good to even try – but it was as if the delicate texture of that fruit softened his own thick skin and allowed him to see what was really important to him, for the very first time in his life.

That chance encounter with a tomato – yes, a tomato – caused Lloyd to do the unthinkable. He left the security of his high paying career. What he also left behind was the chaos that accompanied it. He opened his own produce delivery service using only the decrepit bike sitting next to him and his own two feet. He always had a gift for choosing the perfect piece of produce. His discerning sense of sight, touch, and smell was appreciated by some of the finest restaurants in New York City. And they paid him quite well, relatively speaking, for his expertise. Did Lloyd have his own restaurant? No. What he did have though was a sense that he was helping to create the most magnificent meals, for tourists and locals alike, that he appreciated so much.

The knowledge that he was making a difference in the world, however small it was, in a way that he felt passionate about, caused Lloyd to smile inside and out. It took him longer to come this realization than he may have hoped. But, as they say, better late than never. Not only was Lloyd perceptive with produce. He had the same insight into human behavior. As confident and ambitious as Derek appeared to Lloyd, there was something in his body language that spoke differently.

And although Lloyd’s attempt to uncover the root cause of Derek’s situation was not welcomed, he felt that he needed to at least try. He hoped that time would not escape Derek’s grasp like it had for him. He had done all he could do at this point.

Seated in the city bus rolling out of downtown, Derek pulled the wallet back out of his pocket. Guilt washed over him for even feeling the need to check that everything was still there. Driver’s license, credit cards, social security card, not even a single dollar of the fifty-seven in his billfold appeared to be missing. As he thumbed through the bills, one by one, he finally came to the conclusion that there was nothing missing. In fact, there was actually something in the wallet now that wasn’t there before. It was a small piece of paper folded into four, about the size of one of those small pocket notebooks he used to record homework assignments as a child in grade school.

Unfolding the paper, written on one side was a message in a language he understood perfectly – In economics, opportunity cost is the next best alternative you give up when you make a choice. When we choose one thing, we refuse something else at the same time.

On the opposite side of that paper was a message that would make sense to him at some time in the future, after he had accumulated a bit more experience. Lloyd had hoped this particular message, although confounding right now, might help Derek short circuit the path to understanding.

It takes a long time to grow young. ~Pablo Picasso

luna-lovegoodDerek wasn’t sure why, but he felt an uncanny desire at that moment to purchase a blank canvas for the wall of his new apartment in the city – and to create upon it his own vision, to splash upon it colors in a random, yet redeeming way. The childhood artist inside him poked his head from behind the curtain of adult responsibility to reveal itself – momentarily. His ego would most likely intervene this time around, pushing such a frivolous and silly yearning to the back burner in preference for his lifelong ambition of wealth and prestige. One’s deepest desires, however, are very subtle – and persistent. His inner voice would continue to court Derek until he accepted the invitation. His physical body may have been growing older by the day, but Derek’s heart was growing younger – and wiser – with each passing minute.

Author’s Note: Thank you to everyone for taking the time to read and comment – may your heart continue to grow young in pursuit of your deepest desires.

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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!

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.

Spoon fed

fancy-restaurant-tableThe business dinner planned for later that evening left Aimee with a feeling of discontent. She wasn’t sure where this mysterious anxiety came from until she laid the linen napkin across her lap. As she looked down at the decorative porcelain plates sitting in front of her along with the assortment of eating utensils to the left, right, and above her plate, she felt like she was preparing for an archaeological dig instead of an enjoyable dinner with co-workers.

She was promptly reminded of her childhood days. Each evening, she was required to don her most frilly dress, have her hair perfectly set, and carry impeccable manners with her to the dinner table. This daily routine was just a microcosm of the life she was asked to lead as a young girl. Aimee was born a free-spirited individual, ready and willing to conquer the world. She had vivid dreams of running a neighborhood lemonade stand at the age of five. She wished more than anything to play shortstop for the boy’s baseball team at the age of ten. Through her high school sociology elective, she was drawn towards the opportunity to volunteer her time in a third world country to help impoverished youth.

Aimee had grand ambitions, lofty aspirations, and audacious goals. But, none of them were ever explored, becoming nothing more than figments of her imagination. In place of the lemonade stand were piano lessons. Instead of the baseball team, she was shuttled to tennis practice three times a week. That was what girls did. She was reminded of this whenever she instigated any semblance of resistance. The desire to travel abroad in the name of humanitarian efforts was shunned in the name of earning exemplary grades in the important classes so that the finest medical schools would court her in the coming years. The things most important to Aimee were buried deep inside. Try as they may to escape through an embryonic personality characterized by unfettered passion, it had instead become a natural habit to push each of these frivolous dreams back from whence it came. This had become the signature mark of Aimee’s tainted youth.

During one meal in the austere dining room of her childhood home, she was surrounded by her two sisters, three brothers, and an important client that her father had invited to their home for that evening’s dinner. Aimee was only eight years old. She never cared for the formality of a meal despite the unrelenting reminder of proper etiquette when she strayed from the accepted standards.

She always tried to remember the general rules, at least. Start from the outside and work towards the inside she mentally reminded herself. The spoon that she picked up for her soup was on the outside. It just happened to be alongside the top of her plate. Surely, she could be pardoned for picking up the dessert spoon instead of the soup spoon on the right side of her plate.

formal-place-settingConsidered by Aimee to be an innocent mistake, no one was hurt and no one was disrespected by this minor gaffe. Alas, in the eyes of her parents, this was apparently a reprehensible offense. Her mother viewed it as an intentional and rebellious sign of Aimee’s disrespect towards her elders. The insanity of these irrational reactions didn’t materialize until much later in her life. At this tender age, Aimee accepted that this was the way things were, the way things should be. And they slowly, but surely worked their way into the fabric of her being.

As retribution for her attempt at insubordination, Aimee was forced to eat without her spoon for the remainder of the meal. She spent the next ten minutes manipulating her fork, attempting to fish out the small vegetable pieces from her soup in the most dignified manner as possible. All the while, her mother held a smug grin of satisfaction on her face.

Ever since that distressing experience, she dreaded the presence of a formal place setting. The trigger of sitting down at that table with her colleagues whisked Aimee back to her upsetting childhood days. What should have been a pleasant and relaxing environment with her professional colleagues turned into the relapse of a memory that she had suppressed too many times to count. Instead of her co-workers and prospective clients around the table, she saw her family and the pompous grin on her mother’s face that she longed to wipe away in a not so dignified fashion.

That is how Aimee came to the odd habits she had cultivated over the past fifteen years. There was not a fork or knife in her apartment, only spoons. Her upbringing had denied her lemonade stands, baseball teams, and travels abroad. It would not deny her the one thing forbidden on that impactful day of her childhood. She would always have a spoon.

lobster-bisqueAs she perused the menu, exploring every delicious offering available, her dinner order consisting solely of lobster bisque brought suspicious glances from her associates around the table. Aimee continued to rationalize the supposed authority that she possessed over the events from her past. She was in control now, she repeated to herself. Left with a sad contentedness that would tide her over until the next trigger, Aimee reached for her spoon. At the same time, she pushed the other utensils and the metaphorical memories they held across the table. If not out of her mind, they were out of her sight, for now at least.

Time after time

time-shows-us-what-really-mattersIf I were the adult. The presence of these five words in our house seem to scale exponentially with the age of our eleven year old son. The words that follow these five vary. If I were the adult, I would be able to stay up as late as I want, I could tell someone else to pick up their dirty laundry, I could go out and buy ice cream whenever I wanted. On my weaker days, I throw back a sarcastic reply that falls upon deaf ears. On the more patient days, I simply bite my tongue. Not because I think he is correct, but because I can hear those words coming out of my own mouth some thirty years ago. I remember how it feels. We spend our entire childhood wanting to reach adulthood, and much of our adulthood wishing we could return to the innocence of our younger years.

As a twelve year old, I remember the pride I held in my musical collection. Although compact discs were evolving into mainstream use, I was smitten with my turntable and collection of seven inch records (affectionately known as 45s). One of these was Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time. At that point in my life, I had no vested interest in the lyrics. I was simply proud to own another number one billboard single in my prized music collection.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. ~Marcel Proust

Those round vinyl discs are long gone, perhaps serving as drink coasters in some nostalgic eighties diner. Thirty years after my initial exposure to this song, however, my eyes and ears have acquired some experience in ferreting out little nuggets of wisdom. During a recently heard acoustic performance of this song, the lyrics shone through allowing me to experience something from the past again. For the very first time.

As I watch my son experience life, I relive some of my childhood memories through his own eyes. Often, they are fleeting glimpses. Some that bring a smile to my face, others that cause a moment of despair. These flashbacks last but an instant, quickly replaced by the responsibilities of adulthood. But, when I slow down and allow myself to acknowledge those recollections from the past, I sink back into those youthful days and empathize with the emotions of an eleven year old boy, past and present.

If you’re lost, you can look, and you will find me, time after time. If you fall, I will catch you, I’ll be waiting, time after time. ~Cyndi Lauper

childhood-lasts-all-through-lifeThe unbridled laughter emanating from my son’s room causes my own heart to share in the same delight. I have never heard anything more authentic. It is pure joy, a result of human connection, even if it is through a Skype session.

And as I listen to his worries and difficulties bubble to the surface, I live through those with him. I have been there. I know how both extremes feel, the exhilarating times and the discouraging ones. I return to my childhood more often these days. Not to relive memories from the past, but to help guide a young boy towards creating new ones in the present. Time after time.