He ran weathered fingers through receding hairline, subconsciously taking note of how far back it had retreated the last few years. Once known for his gleaming waves, he was now more gleaming forehead. No matter. Immersed in wandering thoughts, he had no care for the trivialities of life, receding hairlines being among them.
There was once a running joke in his family that if he had learned something useful, like math, he could have been an Einstein. Or if he had dedicated more of his time to a craft, perhaps a Picasso. But he never seemed to do much with his thoughts other than jot them down on scraps of yellow paper which he pinned to his walls or folded and tucked into crevices or stacked in piles throughout his house.
For this, they called him the Idea Man.
The Idea Man sat on his porch, beads of sweat forming on his bare head as the late afternoon sun made itself known. He secretly liked to be called the Idea Man, even though it was derogatory. His friends and family laughed, but ideas were his greatest treasure. Each idea he jotted down became a souvenir of the long, winding rivers that brought him there. Each yellow scrap of paper like a butterfly resting on his wall, ready to take flight should a stranger’s gaze ever be cast in its direction.
The Idea Man had been engaged in excogitation for so long his eyes barely perceived the sun sinking toward the horizon until it reached the edge in a blaze of color.
The beautiful sunset, his mother once called it.
Memories flooded in, and soon reflections of his mother seated beside him on porch steps arose in a tide of nostalgia. Her sheltering arm around him, they watched.
“Look at the sky,” she would say, “Look at how beautiful it is! You see that cloud? Doesn’t it look like you could swim in it? Look at how the sunbeams are streaming down from beneath that one!”
His mother had a beautiful imagination. Beautiful like the sunset. Full of color and life and beauty. His mother was a star now, floating somewhere high above the beautiful sunset, looking down on it even as he looked up.
Moisture gathered in his eyes. The Idea Man allowed the emotion to wash through him and shifted his now blurry gaze toward darkening sky. Almost imperceptibly, the stars had already begun to appear across the lake of black above him.
Brave stars, he thought.
Stars must be brave to exist in space like that, shining brilliantly despite the darkness and emptiness. The stars seemed to shine with all their might, casting lifelines on anything within reach.
He read somewhere that when a star collapses it becomes a black hole. It seemed to him the star’s final attempt to quell the loneliness—to pull anything and everything into itself, yet resulting only in destruction.
People were both stars and black holes, shining and grasping at various intervals.
He paused. Receding hairline soon bobbed up and down as the Idea Man fished in his pocket for a crumpled scrap of yellow paper.
(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.
Jason frowned at the app on his phone and felt the frustration grow inside his chest. The red line pointed jaggedly downard, indicating a loss of close to $14,000 in one day.
“Daddy? Can you push me on the swing?”
“Not right now,” Jason replied, “Um…I’ll do it in a minute. I have to finish something here first. But go ahead, I’ll catch up with you.”
Jason was vaguely aware of his four-year-old daughter’s figure bouncing away into the distance. He was engrossed in his stocks, trying to decide what his next move would be. He glanced up for a moment when he heard his wife come through the back door and watched her silently as she went to push their daughter on the swing.
He should have gotten out sooner. If he had gotten out sooner, he wouldn’t have lost so much. In fact, if he had never gotten in at all, he would be much better off right now. He would have to try to make up for these losses tomorrow, there was probably no fixing it today.
Jason was getting ready to put his phone away when he felt it vibrate with an incoming call. Who did he know in Oracle, Arizona? Out of curiosity, he tapped the green icon and put the phone to his ear.
“Hi Jason. You don’t know me, but I have a story for you.”
“Uh…who is this? What kind of story?”
“I don’t go by any name that you would understand. But the story I have is one you need to hear.”
Jason smirked, but decided to humor this mysterious caller.
“Go ahead,” he said, “I’m listening.”
The mysterious speaker began.
Not so long ago, there was a boy who grew up poor. He wandered the streets of his neighborhood shoeless, unwashed and unattended. No one paid any attention to the boy or the others like him, just let him pass them by like another shadow cast by the setting sun.
The boy resented being poor. He resented the way he went unnoticed. The boy often found himself wandering down roads where the big houses sat like great proud beings. He eyed their large square roofs and columns reaching for the heavens. He watched from the corner of his squinted lids the figures that exited the ornate front doors, and wondered what it would be like to stand on those porch steps. He wondered what it would be like to see himself pass by like a weed carried on the summer breeze.
Like a weed his thoughts grew tangled, frustrated and confused. He wondered why some people lived in great houses and others lived in great despair. He felt the great despair carve its way through his heart, creating a vast emptiness within that he was desperate to fill. He carved the great houses in his memory and felt the warmth of the setting summer sun give life to the determination that grew there.
Someday he would be rich.
The boy lay in his bed at night itching from the fleas that infested his sheets and itching with the desire that ensnared his thoughts.
It was not enough to have enough. Someday he would have everything. He drifted into slumber and in his dreams it was so. In his dreams people noticed him, not as a weed, but as the rarest form of flower, jaws dropping in awe as he passed by.
The boy slowly grew into a man. As his heart expanded with age, so did all within it. The cavernous emptiness tripled in size but even greater was the burning desire to do better. The boy who grew to a man was determined to play professional football, encouraged by friends and family members and coaches who all said he had what it takes. Someday he would be a millionaire–he knew this with an aching intensity that matched the ache of hunger that still tormented the pit of his stomach.
One night the man drove home from football tryouts in his car that glared back at him with a maddening drabness he tried hard to ignore. Tryouts had gone well. The man was entangled in thoughts of millions of fans and millions of dollars and failed to notice the millions of raindrops accumulating in the sky above him.
The rain fell.
It fell quietly at first, then grew with a sudden ferocity that even an attentive driver would have failed to foresee. The man wondered why the car drifted left even though he was tugging the wheel to the right. He did not have time to wonder anything else before a sudden impact left him senseless.
When the man opened his eyes, all was quiet. He was standing in a hallway filled with light. Two identical doors opposite him ominously loomed–on each, an inscription. The man stepped closer to read.
The inscription on the left door read: Here lies ten million dollars. Open and it shall be yours.
The inscription on the right door read: Here lies inner peace. Open and it shall be yours.
The man read each inscription aloud and laughed. What an easy choice. With ten million dollars, inner peace was a given. He grasped the left doorknob and pulled.
When the man stepped through the door, the hallway faded and he found himself in a hospital bed. He had been in a car accident and suffered a head injury. During his hospital stay, his left leg had been amputated in a case of mistaken identity and, as a result, he was awarded a ten million dollar settlement.
The man lay awake at night and felt the emptiness on the left side of his bed where his leg once had been. With his ten million dollar settlement he had purchased the finest prosthetic that money could buy. Professional football was no longer an option, but he was finally rich. Nothing else mattered.
He went back to his hometown and shared his wealth with his family. He paid off their debt, bought them cars, sent them to school. His family was grateful, but they often came back to him for more. Some squandered his gifts by going back into debt immediately after he had paid it off. Some used the money he shared to indulge in substance abuse and partying. Some failed the classes he had so generously paid for.
The man felt the emptiness inside him grow.
He became less generous over time. His initial ten million was now down to seven million, which he carefully invested and tended to, determined to grow it over time. Maybe if he could get to one hundred million dollars he would feel the glow he had been expecting to feel from ten million. At night he watched football by himself, or played video games.
He awoke one morning to a ray of sunlight warming his cheek. He had been focused on his finances for days, barely taking a break to eat or shower. He should probably leave his house today, at least once.
The man walked down the street, unwashed and unattended. Though he had shoes on his feet, he went unnoticed by those he passed.
Unsure why, he felt resentment grow within his heart. He was a millionaire. He owned the nicest house in the richest neighborhood, and still these people paid him no more attention than as if he were a weed carried by the wind.
The man felt the empty space in his heart fill with anger.
“Look at me! Why won’t you people look at me? Do you know who I am? I could buy your souls if I wanted to!”
The people on the street around him began to murmur. Several took out their phones and made hushed calls, casting concerned glances his way. The police arrived.
The man was taken into custody for failing to cooperate when questioned. Noticing his missing leg, unshaven face and unwashed clothes, the police assumed he was homeless. Likely mentally ill.
Defeated, the man allowed the officers to lead him away. Tears burned the corners of his eyes, and he looked with loathing at the pitying glances cast upon him. Anger slowly turned to worthlessness inside his millionnaire heart.
Jason waited in silence after the caller had spoken the final words of the story.
“What do you think of that man, Jason?”
“I think the man was a fool,” he responded without hesitation.
“Why do you think that?”
“Because, why would you choose ten million dollars when you could have inner peace? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I want ten million dollars as much as the next guy, but everyone knows inner peace is more valuable.”
“Jason. You are the man in the story.”
“No I’m not,” Jason shot back, offended. “What do you even mean by that? I’m not a millionaire, and I know the value of inner peace.”
There was silence for a moment before the voice began again.
“The hallway facing the two doors in the story represents the present moment. In every moment you are presented with a choice: inner peace or striving after something external. Every moment that you spend worrying about your stocks instead of focusing on the peace found in that moment, you choose the left door. Every time you look to the past with regret, you choose the left door. Every time you believe that wealth will bring you happiness, or that happiness can only be obtained in some future moment, you choose the left door.”
Jason felt a lump grow in his throat and thought of his daughter.
“When you choose the right door that leads to inner peace, all other things will fall into place. This is a choice that does not happen once in a lifetime, but happens in every moment throughout your entire lifetime.”
The line went dead.
Jason looked at his phone. The little red graph was beginning to creep back up again. If he got back in now–
“Daddy! Look how high mommy’s pushing me on the swing!”
Jason looked up at his daughter. Her tiny frame soared through the air and became silhouetted by the sun for an instant before she swung backward again toward her mother’s outstretched arms.
He was stunned by the sight of her. All thoughts left his mind as he watched her, glowing like a tiny Angel.
In that moment, Jason realized he was already in the heaven he had been striving for.
(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.