Voices from the Black Hole

Somewhere in the abyss between three and five in the morning, the black hole of sleeplessness pulled at me. Just as the gravitational pull of real black holes in the universe swallow entire galaxies; these morning vacuums suck me down a path where the view is stuck in the rear view mirror. The little safety warning sign, ‘Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear’ dare me to believe the appearance of things lost win the argument about the defeat of life’s purpose.

The writer once spoke, “I’d rather try something great and fail, than try nothing and succeed.”

That means something to people like me that enjoyed living a life of doing what we want or love. In the movie, Ford v Ferrari, Matt Damon plays the key role of Carroll Shelby and in a speech says something along the lines that a person who does what they love never works a day in their life. Then, there are a very few that find what they love, and they have to do it or go stark raving mad.

The latter description fits me. To try something great and create a life changing radio format came at a cost. Everything I did was overshadowed by the addiction to the purpose that drove me. These are the things that lead to midnight black holes.

Other writers over time had been inspired by thoughts such as, “If I am for you, who can be against you.” Or, “So is my word that goes from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish all I desire and achieve the purpose which I sent it.”

Who can argue with that? Well, I can late at night being sucked into that damn black hole with no bottom. On just such a night sinking deeper and deeper, words formed in my mind. I say that these words formed, because if anyone ever dares to say they hear a voice, they’re just nuts. The words were clear and became sentences of assurance. The one big takeaway was this, “You did not fail.”

In a conversation, I would surely object with facts about lost fortunes and other such trivial results. But, the sentences argue back, “You did not fail. You tried.”

“Well,” I thought letting my mind trick me into a conversation. “Trying may come close, but close doesn’t cut it. Ending the game with no score means losing.”

But no argument wins against such logic. “You tried,” the sentence became louder, “The act of trying means a lot. Can you imagine how I feel knowing the fact that everyone, everyone, gets good ideas from me? Then, they ignore the gift.”

The view in the black abyss began to change. A light at the bottom of the black hole began to fill the void. Like surf in a returning tide that fill voids in a beach with new tide pools, the light began to fill the tunnel. My protestations would surely prove my point by counting failures. However, the rebuttal to each experience grew with the light below filling the black hole. Again, the dispassionate almost stoic resolve once again stated, “You tried.”

My argument about there is no try, there’s either do or don’t failed in this exchange.

As the light continues to rise further, an explanation nearly dissolves the dark, “Millions upon millions are given big ideas and they never do anything with them. They sit on the higher ground at the beach watching tide pools form. Only the brave enter the surf and face the dangers.”

Now getting frustrated at the immovable argument, I decided to get up and search for a more reliable source. The internet with its limitless bottomless pit of answers could shed some light on this debate. That movie about the race car guy was still on my mind. Surely a quick Google of Shelby would arm me with better arguments about the difference in winning and just trying to win. Pages popped up with more sentences from his quotes such as, “Every morning I wake up with new ideas. I’m not going to take this defeatist attitude and listen to all this crap any more from all these people who have nothing except doomsday to predict. Yesterday’s history. Tomorrow’s a mystery. So live for today.”

The quote actually rang true to back up my opponent’s position spoken from the black hole. The web failed to take my side and made the point to forget all the crap in the rear view mirror. Who can argue with a winner like Carroll Shelby? He certainly knew a great deal about winning. But, he had his black holes of loss to deal with. He lived all his life with a heart condition and was married seven times. Again, he did what he had to do or go crazy.

Returning to my warm soft sheets, the black hole seemed to have lost some of its gravitational power. The sentences kept coming, “To try is to win, not to try guarantees failure.”

So goes the agony of sleeplessness. Then, just as the drug of lost consciousness began to take effect, one last paragraph of sentences formed when the source told me of an earlier late night visit with an insomniac named Isaiah. In his black hole of night, he never had the reservations about the source that also instructed him to simply try. Isaiah did not argue or think of the visit as anything less than to be expected. The words that formed to Isaiah revealed the following writing that has remained true for nearly three thousand years and millions of readers have relied on as a beacon to pull them from the darkness. That is a powerful result when he chose to take action and just try when he heard, “For just as rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return without watering the earth, making it bud and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat, so My word that proceeds from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please, and it will prosper where I send it. You will indeed go out with joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”

MORE SHORT STORIES

The Time Machine

The coffee shop at Ponce De Leon and Coral Way in Coral Gables, Florida commands the corner of the intersection that honors the man famed with the discovery of the Fountain of Youth and the shopping magnet known as Miracle Mile. August of 1960 had just turned seventeen days old. A businessman sat alone in his booth admiring the cover of Life Magazine showing an orgasmic expression of Marilyn Monroe in the arms of some French guy. French was in vogue that year with the most popular movie Les Vieux De La Vielle or translated to The Old Guard about three old guys playing practical jokes on everyone in a retirement home.

Richard, past the threshold of three score and ten, toasted his bride of nearly fifty years with an unsweetened ice tea. Mary sported her blonde hair in a short bob that had become popular in their demographic. His long silver hair nearly caught the sun streaming as back light to their favorite table for two pushed into the window of the small cafe. They could sip and snack for some time watching people walk up and down Coral Way. Couples strolled by in long quiet sentences punctuated by abrupt businessmen in suits hurrying past. Important tasks of the day pulled at them to push past those with nothing to do other than to be together.

Some days they would make up stories about them,  “What do you think? Do they look happy?” Mary would say to Richard. He would let his imagination go and come up with some story that the guy has inherited a huge trust fund, and he was escorting his wife to the travel agency to book a world cruise. Some couples invited criticism the way some old fat guy with no hair would walk just a bare step behind a woman several decades younger. Petite ladies with companions over six feet tall with size fourteen something shoes would always cause curiosity for Mary, “How do they do it?”

“Carefully,” Richard would chuckle back.

Then, there were days for more serious conversations, “I hope I go first,” said Richard.

“Well thanks for that,” she’d respond.

“No, what I mean,”  Richard would explain, “I can not stand the thought of being alone. If you are not here, I’d be lost.”

“You think I would be any better off alone?”

“You’re better looking.”

“Please, we’re old.”

“Shoot, some hunky fifty year old would be all over you.”

Mary would just stare, “Right. That’s just what I want. Become the only cougar in a senior citizen home.”

She sipped her tea and gazed out the window. Late afternoon August sun made her squint; just slightly. Richard dabbed his napkin over his lips and made the familiar scratching sound of facial hair barely grown since his last shave. He looked at his watch, “It’s just about movie time.”

He kept staring at the time piece, “Why are you looking at your watch?” Mary asked.

“Remember when we had all the time in the world? Now, the damn thing reminds me of a stopwatch counting down the hours and minutes we have left.”

Their server broke the spell, “Can I get you two lovebirds something else?”

“No thanks, we need to get over to the movie theater.”

“You plan on seeing that new one? I hear it stars Rod Taylor. He is so handsome. Wouldn’t mind seeing that one myself.”

“There’s a good looking young blonde also, I hear,” said Richard. “Yvette something. Saw a picture of her. I think this will be the first movie she stars in.”

“Well,” the lady said as she laid the check on the table, “You have a pretty good looking blonde right here.”

“That I do.”

They headed out the door and down Coral Way. Oak trees stretched out long branches pointing the way down the street to the stretch of grassy median parting the pavement where stately palm trees stood attention in a row as far as one could see along the divide. They glanced in the window of Jae’s Jewelers to take in all that glitters. Richard took Mary’s hand as they moved down toward the theater, “Yep,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d ever do without you here.”

Across the way, a young couple could be seen filling the spaces between the palm trees as they moved up Coral Way in the opposite direction. The young couple was teen age getting ready to head back to school after the long hot summer break. They stopped at Snow’s Jewelers across the way, “So, glad you are back,” the boy said. “When you were away for summer break up in the mountains, I didn’t think I’d ever make it without you here with me.”

Richard and Mary could not hear the sentiment, although they knew it well. Their step slowed as they reached the line waiting to get into the movie theater.  Richard nodded a pleasantry at the couple last in line until he and Mary took their place. He pointed up to the marquee and drew attention to the star’s names; Rod Taylor, and the new star Yvette Mimieux. There in large Arial font lettering, he read the title of the movie; H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

MORE SHORT STORIES

The Retirement Speech

As a young man, really a skinny teenager, Bob got his first job at A&P.

The great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Grocery stores were much smaller in scale; maybe one fourth the size at best. There were fresh meats, vegetables, Coke, Pepsi, Hostess Cup Cakes, and only two isles of canned goods and staples. Bob wore a black apron, stocked shelves, checked people at the register, and packed paper bags. He did all that with a smile and positive attitude as he crammed all that activity into hours after school and on Saturdays. Sundays he had free time since stores then closed on Sunday.

There was a method to his madness for unpacking boxes and packing shopping bags, while his classmates played football. He had his eye on something more important. The girl from class that lived in a more expensive neighborhood appreciated movies, and movies were not cheap. Sandy, that’s the girl’s name, was worth it. Sandy Carson was the tiny quiet girl three rows over in home room at school. Each morning before the day of classroom changes, she would smile at Bob. Big blue eyes reflected sunlight once hidden deep in her according to Bob. One morning, he caught up with Sandy on the way to her first class, “Hey,” he said and swallowed hard to lock away any fear before asking, “There’s a new movie out this weekend.”

“Is that so?” She teased and found it a challenge to manage her smile, as she looked up at Bob with enough timidity to coax more from her admirer.

“It’s The Sound of Music. They’re showing it up at Willow Lawn.”

“That a fact?” She nearly whispered in his pause. “I like Julie Andrews.”

“You want to go? I mean with me?”

“Yes, I’d love to.”

Willow Lawn Shopping Center on West Broad Street was unique with a miniature shining arch made in the shape of the newly constructed Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, but far smaller than the six hundred-thirty foot symbol of the Louisiana Purchase. The Willow Lawn arch may have been more American with the bold Arial Font letters intersected within and across the span of the thing announcing loudly Willow Lawn. The shopping center was also cavalier in being an ‘outdoor mall’ where patrons dressed for the weather, as they shopped between Miller and Rhoads, J.C. Penny, G.C. Murphy and a list of specialty stores where the rich kids in the west end shopped for the latest styles Bob could not afford. The movie theater on the back side of the building was Richmond’s first to show 70mm wide screen films.

Bob and Sandy shared popcorn with extra butter through the coming attractions and slide projector ads for the barbeque place nearby. Once the opening credits rolled by, the large screen unfolded scenery of mountain vistas that took Sandy’s breath away as Bob sat mesmerized by Sandy. Julie Andrews, her flock of children and Christopher Plummer could not compete as far as Bob was concerned. This was the beginning for Bob.

Monday morning he was still buzzing when the class clown sought center stage for his own amusement made a joke about the new movie, “The Sound of Mucous.” Bob shut him down. By standing up to the joker and rebuking the insult, Bob rose significantly in the opinion of Sandy Carson. Long lasting relationships grow from encounters such as this, and it may have been prophetic since the ‘hills are alive’ rang out for a record breaking eighty-six week run; the theater’s most successful booking in its history. During that year and a half, Bob asked Sandy to be his wife, and she said yes. In the days leading up to that proposal, Bob drafted statement after statement that he thought best to influence Sandy’s decision. He felt the same choking fear he had experienced the first time he managed the tenacity to ask for the first date. Books of poems from the library fell short of the words he would choose. Long drives through Chickahominy Swamp out in Hanover County in his 1955 Chevy listening to the radio also could not deliver the message that he believed Sandy deserved. The Righteous Brothers Unchained Melodyhad some nice thoughts. My Girl with the Temptations had a nice melody, but referring to Sandy as a girl, much less using such a possessive statement, would not reflect the stature of the person he saw in Sandy. Elvis with Can’t Help Falling in Love was a true enough way to describe how Bob felt about Sandy, but somehow seemed cheesy and contrived. Maybe love songs would not be the best source to prepare him for such a speech. He thought there may be some quotes from best sellers, so he searched the three by five index cards at the library and some big titles that caught his imagination such as West Side Story. He knew Sandy liked the movie musical; maybe a dive into the novel would jumpstart his imagination. Well, that fell off the list fast with prose that mentioned, ‘Of course there were broads…For a real bright, gone chick…” Bob realized the music in the movie was better when it came to Sandy.

Poems, music, literature all failed at the daunting task in front of Bob to craft the perfect proposal. He sat at the dining room table opposite his older brother as they made attempts at homework. Bob’s older brother was a freshman at the University of Richmond, which was up in the west end nestled away in neighborhoods with large houses and rolling landscaped yards, “What are you daydreaming about?” His brother asked.

“I am hung up.”

“History, math, or what?”

“Sandy.”

“Oh,” I see said the older and wiser.

“You’re engaged,” said Bob. “How did you propose?”

“Look,” said the brother. “It’s not that big of a deal. Just ask. The worst that can happen is she says no.”

“That would kill me.”

“Well, not asking ain’t gonna’ make it any better.”

The final bell of the day rang louder than usual that Friday as Sandy approached Bob, “Movie tonight?”

“Sure. I have a stop to make on the way home, if that’s okay?”

Bob showed some unusual nervousness when he open the passenger door to his two tone 55 Chevy. It was a straight stick, so he paid a lot of attention to handling the clutch just right when they took off from the school parking lot.

“Where are we headed?” She asked.

“Something special. It may be useful in history class.”

Once explained, Bob then became very quiet. They drove out Laburnum past the empty fairgrounds, “That was fun last year she said.”

He was quiet.

“You liked the double Ferris wheel,” she added.

His focus was on the road and shifting from second to third on the column stick shift. They approached the stoplight at Mechanicsville Turnpike where Dunn’s Barbeque was a landmark, “They have good onion rings,” she said. “But, I like Bills Barbeque better. Especially their French Apple Pie.”

Bob made the left turn. Sandy looked out her passenger side window and twisted her lips to one side thinking of something to say that would get Bob talking. Small commercial buildings stacked in some Monopoly game avenue on the right offered no topic. The stoplight at Neale caught them and the site of Henrico Plaza on the left gave cause to her comment, “Another shopping center. Who has all that money?”

At that moment retail expansion was not on Bob’s mind. Someday the urban sprawl may own his thinking, but today it was all Sandy. The light changed and the scenery changed to a wooded landscape. Hardwoods and evergreens shared the ground, “I’ll bet the fall colors here are beautiful,” she said.

The big brick church on the left sat upon the edge of a drop off in the road as some landmark at the rim of some vast valley. A historic marker posted by a gravel turn off read, ‘OUTER FORTIFICATIONS. ON THE HILLTOPS HERE RAN THE OUTER LINE OF RICHMOND FORTIFICATIONS 1862-1865.’

Bob turned into the gravel path quickly making the sign hard to read, “Outer fornications?” Sandy questioned.

Finally she got to Bob, and he laughed loudly, “No, fortifications. Down the valley there was a lot of Civil War action.”

Such innocent mistaken comments endured Sandy to Bob even deeper.

“We’re stopping?” She asked.

“Great view here. Special place.”

“Here we go.”

They walked out the path to the wooded observation point, “Beautiful. The view,” She said.

“Life changing events happened here. Right down there over twenty thousand Confederate men got ready for the Seven Days Battle. Right up here, its possible Robert E. Lee looked out over the gathering.”

“Hard to imagine. All those men; boys really. All that horrible awful past.”

Bob began to rethink his choice for a scenic place to offer his proposal. Then she said, “That’s why it’s more important to think about the future.”

“True,” he agreed.

“You ever think about our future?” She asked.

“All the time.”

“Then, why don’t we just get married?”

Bob stood shocked after all that worry and preparation. Sandy made his life so much easier with just six words.

Once their plans were set, it was also decided during that year that Bob would save his A&P paychecks for college. His post war middleclass family with three brothers and a sister had no means to get him there. Bob was motivated enough with Sandy at his side to earn his degree in business and upon graduation had offers to move into finance, but he turned it down. Instead he continued to work for the grocer. He knew that a changing landscape that became dotted with more and more Willow Lawns that the food industry would embrace revolutionary change as well. Over time, the great A&P faded as new bigger stores added isle upon isle loaded with tens of thousands of products, and each of those producers fought for better shelf space and had to come to Bob. Those early lessons in the produce section at minimum wage prepared Bob for maximum success.

Years later, Bob and Sandy had more than enough money to see as many movies as they liked along with enjoying a rich and rewarding life raising and educating their children. Then the day came somewhere around the turning of centuries brought Bob to the time he would begin preparing a retirement speech. There were many subordinates busy crafting just the right message for the retiring CEO to deliver. His words would be the encouragement for nearly fifty thousand employees and remarks could drive stock prices up or down. Bob had been part of many major changes in the food industry. Computerized bar code systems, inventory management, pricing strategies, the move from bulky newspaper inserts and bulk mail circulars to online shopping; Bob was part of it all. His subordinates frustrated hours and exhausted energy on staff meeting after staff meeting to be sure the words Bob would speak would have maximum impact on stock holders.

The day came. Cameras and news crews from business channels flocked to the Greater Richmond Convention Center for the presentation at the annual stock holders meeting. Bob’s leadership in the food industry was big news and the right positioning could make or break careers of the executives in his inner circle. A big deal.

Event planners had orchestrated a massive rock star energized show. Videos filled the back drop of the stage showing the evolution from black apron to black suit and shopping carts stacked in rows, to the shopping cart emblem from the website. The stage was set for Bob’s big moment.

The lights over the audience faded. He approached center stage for thunderous applause. The noise quieted. He began, “Years ago my big brother gave me sound advice about a young girl.”

Yeah that’s a good stock tip, must have been the thoughts of sweating executives hanging on his words, “My brother posed a question about what was the worst that could happen. Then he explained the high cost of not trying.”

Bob pauses and paces the way powerful CEOs own the stage, “Then the young girl changed my life with six words when she said, ‘Why don’t we just get married.”

He smiled and nodded, “Best six words I ever heard.”

Bob walked back from the footlights, “Now, there has been a great deal of work and nerves put into this last speech of mine. I think all the worry about what to say is just that; worry. Fact is, the work you do today creates the future. Legacy of the individual means nothing. So, thank you for being here for my retirement and this is my final speech and it’s only six words. Been fun. I’m done. Gotta’ run.”