by Charles Wagner

I was sitting on the dunes just above the surf on a warm September evening when I first saw Mary. The sun had not yet set and the golden rays were glistening on the swirling waters breaking chaotically on the beach. The colors were beautiful; golden yellow, deep azure blue and sparkling green. The water was flowing chaotically around clumps of sand and rock near the shore and spray occasionally burst onto the face of the dune. On one level, it was totally unpredictable and the water could take any number of different paths as it flowed onto the beach and receded back to the great mother sea. It would be impossible to predict what path a floating object would take as it bobbed, apparently aimlessly, just beyond the breakers. But there was a kind of serene order to it as the various pathways became clear and a certain order emerged from the chaos. Life itself has this same kind of appearance. On one level, it appears chaotic as people move about and change their jobs, their homes, their loves. A single event can change a person's life forever, and it is impossible to anticipate or control these events. But as I look deeper, certain patterns seemed to emerge as the chaos slowly goes out of focus and the orderliness becomes evident. People live, they die, they marry, they love, they hate, they laugh, they cry and they get hurt. Not much ever seems to change if you step back from your own personal situation and view the great panorama of existence. Surely the world is unfolding as it should whether or not it is clear to me how or why. Mary had gotten up and taken her shoes and stockings off and was wading in the shallow pools of swirling water. As I watched her longingly, my soul was nearly exploding. I was standing at the very center of the wild heart of life. She was like a sea-bird that had just alighted as she stepped gracefully among the rocks and the swirling rivulets of water. Her skirts were pulled up above her knees, to avoid the spray of water that was dancing around her feet. Her legs were bronze and smooth and the tiny droplets of water glistened like diamonds on her skin. Her hair was blowing carelessly in the warm breezes as it fell here and there around her bare shoulders. I watched her for a few minutes but I couldn't see her face. I got up and began to walk towards her and as I did, she turned her head around slowly. As the setting sun splashed across her face, I could see that she was without a doubt the most beautiful girl that I had ever seen. I turned to my brother, who was sitting next to me on the sandy shore. "Who is she?" I asked. "She's a senior at our school, I think her name is Mary." Now I remembered. Seniors had very little use for freshmen, and the joke was that the only time a senior would notice you was if you dropped dead in the hall, and they had to walk around you. Mary was a cheerleader but her life did not revolve solely around school. She had a boyfriend, who had graduated and he also had a car. He would be waiting for her each afternoon and they would drive away together, undoubtedly to adventures that I could only imagine in my wildest dreams. But the hopelessness of my situation certainly didn't dissuade me from my longings. I became obsessed with her, and followed her each day as she passed from class to class. Sometimes I would even cut chemistry to go to the cafeteria where she would eat her lunch and I would sit there and just watch her and silently plan our lives together. Each day I would adamantly vow that this would be the day I would speak to her. But what to say? I went over and over in my mind how it would go. But I never got up the nerve. Never even once. By June, my hopes had diminished and finally she graduated and as far as I was concerned, I would never get the chance again. When we returned to school in September I was filled constantly with a great emptiness. Actually, there was no reason at all to come to school any more. But gradually the pain subsided as new adventures filled my days and I began to look forward to the following year, which would be my senior year. Sometime around Halloween of that year, news began to circulate that a girl from our school was pregnant. The school officials were quick to point out that although she had attended the school last year, she had graduated and no longer could be considered to be under their moral guidance or responsibility. We soon learned that the girl under discussion was none other than my beloved Mary. Information was very hard to come by because in 1961 there was a tremendous stigma attached to these kinds of occurrences. Most people adopted the view that the less said the better. Would she marry the boy? Would she raise the child herself? Would it be put up for adoption? No one seemed to know. The approach of the holiday season distracted our attention. Soon it was New Year's Eve, 1962, and I had just turned 18. I was allowed to accompany my mother and father to the local tavern where we would welcome the New Year. I was cautioned that I would only be allowed one glass of champagne, at the stroke of midnight, but after a short while, my parents lost track of my activities and I was on my own. I found the whole situation rather depressing and kind of silly. Here I was on New Years Eve, in a bar with my parents. I began to think about my predicament. Most of the girls I knew were still under age, and certainly would not have been allowed to accompany me to a bar. Those girls that were old enough to drink had boyfriends who were even older, and certainly would not have wasted their time with me. So I had more or less resigned myself to my fate and set about planning how I would make next year better. It was a little after 1:00 a.m. and I was falling asleep, wishing that my parents would tire of the party and decide to go home. I was suddenly jolted awake by the piercing sound of the siren from the fire department down the street. It's purpose was to alert volunteer firemen to respond to some emergency. I waited for the horn. Four blasts in a row meant a house fire. I heard one...then two....silence. Only an aided case. Probably some old guy had a heart attack. Or a car crash. Within moments, two police cars raced by, followed by an ambulance. Everyone piled out into the street. The crash was just down the road. "Can anyone see anything"? "A car hit a pole near Boundary Avenue!' "Who is it?", "what kind of car?" "It's a '59 Impala convertible, with a white top" I felt like I had been hit in the head with a baseball bat. I knew that car. After all, I had seen it almost every day last year, waiting at the school gate. We are flesh, and we are spirit. We have bones, and we have grace. We are mind, and we are soul. We have a name, and we have a face. We have eyes, and we can see, we can touch, and we can feel. We are happy and we are sad, we are good and we are bad. But why must we die? It's been 38 years since that awful night, and I still remember it like it was today. I sometimes drive by the spot and just stop and think about the indifference of life to our deepest feelings. I think to myself, how cruel it is to give us life and then snatch it away mercilessly, without regard to those who care about us. But we are the exception. The world does not care. Only we care. It is a special quality that raises us to the pinnacles of joy and then plunges us into the depths of despair. And we cannot help but wondering why. We used to get our Christmas tree at the lot across from K-Mart. Ever since I was a kid, we would go there and hassle old George about the price. After a while it became kind of a joke. But old George was gone now, and a shopping center stood on his spot. The only other place to get a good tree now was at Frank's Nursery, down by Wantagh Avenue. I set out as I had so many times before but there would be no more haggling. Each tree was bar-coded and the cashiers just zapped it with the computer and that was it. I found a nice tree, not the best ever, but not the worst and dragged it up to the wrapper. A young kid, about 15 or 16 cut off the tag and told me to take it inside to the cashier. Inside, it was crowded and I waited patiently on line, not paying much attention. It soon became my turn and I pulled out my tag and handed it to the young girl. I hadn't noticed her face, but as she slowly turned towards me, the sunlight splashed across her face. I could see that, without a doubt, she was the most beautiful girl that I had ever seen. "Mary?" I blurted out. She looked at me kind of funny, and then looked down at her smock. There were two small holes where her name tag usually was, but it was missing. "Yes." she replied, "but how do you know my name?" "I don't know. You reminded me of someone, I think." But I knew. "It's kind of unusual to have an old-fashioned name like Mary" I said. "Most everyone today is Allison, or Jessica." "Well, I was named after my grandmother. She was killed in a car accident a long time ago." I stood there mute. I wanted to pour out the whole story, to touch her, to know her. But what to say? Would she understand, would she care? I looked directly into her eyes. It was enough for me that she existed. There was nothing here for me anymore. Nor was there ever. It was just a child's infatuation. I took my receipt and walked quickly out of the store. When people are transported back in time, they must be very careful not to disturb anything. Any change, no matter how inconsequential, could alter the future. Time is like the flow of water onto a beach from the great mother, the sea. Every once in a while, some cosmic disturbance will cause a backflow, and a finger of the sea will find it's way into the backstream. But at the next wave, it is washed away, and the great mother sea rolls on, as it has since the beginning.

The Attic

by Charles Wagner

I visited my old neighborhood recently, where my mother still lives, and there by some unseen, yet strongly felt force I was drawn to the old attic. I hadn't realized how many things were stored there, things that I had imagined had been disposed of long ago. And yet, there they were. It is a delightful, yet frightening experience to revisit the old memories and to look back upon the path that has been followed to bring us to our present place. Each tattered remnant marks with crystalline clarity a point where life could easily have taken a different turn, and by doing so, have produced a different outcome. One cannot help wondering if these paths were bound to be taken, as set down by the hand of fate, or chosen as a result of carefully reasoned free will and unerring judgment. Also, one cannot help wondering if it really makes any difference at all which is the truth. What is clear however, is that I have spent the better part of my life meandering from side to side, widening the banks of my river, but never cutting deeper into the channel. I do not hope to break any new ground at this point, only to deepen what is already there. All of these things that I see connect me to the rest of the world and to the events in which my life is intertwined with the lives of others. But standing here, I sense that I am completely alone in the world. I have drifted through peoples lives, like a river flows through its channel, touching each rock and branch, exploring each swirling eddy and current, but leaving no hint or evidence that I had ever been there. My goodness, there's a lot of dust on these old memories. Once, they had meaning and value and were carefully stored here when their usefulness was over, as the great flow of life advanced to newer and uncharted regions. But now, their only value is to me, insofar as what they represent. They are the stations of my life, where my train has passed, and I, the lonely passenger, looking out the window into the mist, feel unable to draw their attention. I'm sitting by my daughter's bedside in the pediatric ward of the hospital. She has just come down from the recovery room and I am waiting for her to wake up. In the bed across the way, a young boy, around 14 years old is asleep. His father sits at his side, his eyes half closed in weariness. It seems like he has been there a long time. After a while he begins to stir and gets up and walks over to the window. We exchange a brief glance and I sense the recognition in his eyes. Then the surprise. "Mr. Wagner!" he says. "Do you remember me?" Unfortunately, I don't. "I was in your class in 9th grade". I struggled with the face but I could not produce the name. "Billy Daniels" he went on, "I was in your 4th period science class at Island Trees Junior High". Good God almighty, I thought, that was almost 25 years ago. He must be 40 by now, just ten years younger than me. We talked for a while about my daughter's accident and he told me about his son's knee, which he damaged playing soccer. Then he asked me if I was still teaching. He seemed happy to hear that I still was. I wasn't sure if he wanted to tell me what he was doing, but I asked anyway. "I'm a teacher too", he said, obviously proud to be able to tell me this. "Do you remember that story that you told us about the zoroastrian temples along the Jersey Turnpike?" He began to laugh like a kid. "Well, I still tell that story to my students! And it's just as funny now as it was when I first heard it". I still tell that story to my students too. "And do you remember telling me that you hoped that someday I would become a teacher and you hoped I would have a student just like me?" Sure I remembered. I say that all the time when students aggravate me. "Well, I did, and you were right. I've got plenty that are just like I was. And I never forget that. And that makes all the difference". They say that life is like a river that flows deep and wide. But I think that it's more like a chain, and each one of us is a link to the past and to the future. I began to realize that every kid that ever sat in my room carries a little piece of me with them when they leave. And every one of them is forever a part of me... and I am a part of them.

Christmas Dinner

by Charles Wagner

Sometimes you just have to wonder when the individual paths of mortals come together in such a way as to make one believe that it had all been laid out in some kind of elaborate scheme that was designed to make things right in an often senseless world. It was December 23, 1998, graduation day at the Marine Corps recruit depot at Parris Island, South Carolina. Like most every Thursday, the members of Platoon 1104, 1st Battalion, "D" company were to cease being sub-human life forms and were about to become Marines. The ceremonies would be over by 1800 hours and six of them from the New York area would pile into a car and begin the long trip home. With any luck, they'd be home by Christmas eve, to be with their families. But these were not just any sons any more, they were Marines. They had endured the 13 weeks of relentless pain and suffering that had molded them into the fiercest, meanest most aggressive fighting men that ever lived. They were ready, willing and able to kick some serious butt, should the need arise. Mavis Jackson lived a little ways off I-95, just south of the North Carolina border on a tiny farm that she and Walter had bought with her mother's insurance . During the summer of '93, Walter was killed when his plow overturned on a hill. Little Walter was only one year old at the time. Mavis tried to keep up the farming, but even in the best of circumstances, it only allowed a meager existence for her and the boy. In '96, Mavis opened a little lunch room on the side of her house and cooked food for the local field hands. Some days, no one at all would come, and Mavis would sadly put the food away for another day. It was Thursday, December 23, 1998, and Mavis Jackson was down by the side of the road putting up a little sign that she had painted on white cardboard- "Christmas Dinner, All You Can Eat! $5.99" Shortly before 7:00 p.m. a car drove by. It slowed down a little way down the road and then turned around and came back, parking in front of Mavis' house. Out of the car piled six hungry Marines. Now Mavis had prepared one turkey and one ham and some sweet potatoes and collard greens and had baked a pecan pie. Hopefully, it would be sufficient for these boys. After only a little while, it became obvious that she had offered more than she could deliver. The turkey and ham were completely demolished and so were the vegetables and potatoes. Yet these boys still demanded more. Mavis went back to her kitchen in search of more food. Her heart began to sink lower and lower as she emptied her pantry to satisfy the hungry Marines. By 9:00 O'clock, it appeared that the rampage was finally subsiding. They sat around talking for another half hour while Mavis sat quietly in the front room, contemplating the situation. If nothing else, Mavis Jackson was a woman of her word. She had made a terrible blunder, and now she would pay the price. Perhaps God was punishing her for some unknown transgression. But she had promised "all you can eat" and she had no intention of asking for any extra compensation. As the first Marine approached her, she quietly said to him "that'll by $5.99 sir, just like the sign says." He paid with a ten dollar bill and she gave him back his change- four dollars and a penny. It took a little doing to negotiate the exchange of money, since she didn't have much change, but the boys managed to collect it among themselves and pay her the grand total of $35.94. The boys left and she heard the car pull away down the road. Mavis pulled the shade down and turned off the porch light. The world had dealt her a cruel blow. But she had no one to blame but herself. She thought about little Walter and her beloved husband and she wept. She had planned on going to the midnight service at church, as she had every past Christmas. But tonight she just didn't think she could. But she must go on. Despair is not becoming of a Christian woman, she thought and she stepped over to the table and began to clear away the dishes. She picked up the first dish, and there under the plate was a hundred dollar bill. She didn't know what to make of it. And then she found another...and another...and another...and another...and another. And there in the middle of the table, handwritten on a piece of paper, a note. And it said....

Merry Christmas, U.S.M.C

And Mavis Jackson put on her hat and went to church and the preacher was speaking these words: "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it." Hebrews 13:2

The Bear

by Charles Wagner

There's a different quality to the silence in the wilderness. I don't know if you've ever noticed it. It's a purer, more penetrating silence than we experience in the populated areas. It gets inside your head and it clears out a lot of the cobwebs, leaving more room for introspection. It has a real calming effect on the spirit. No, it's not total silence. That can be very unnerving. It's more of an honest silence, the gentle rustling of the trees in the soft breeze, the trickling of water coming from a small spring on the side of a hill, the birds chirping pleasantly and the insects buzzing around your head. And off in the distance, the unmistakable sound of someone, or something approaching. I crouch down quietly in the brush and check the direction of the wind. Damn! It's blowing directly towards the sound. Not good. He'll have my scent in just a moment. I reach behind into my backpack and take out the field glasses. And wonder. Moose? Elk? Bison? I catch a glimpse of the brown fur and I notice the silvery tips of the brown hairs. Double damn! Ursus horribilis...the grizzly bear. He stops and looks up straight in my direction. He's got the scent. He probably doesn't want me, but these bears know that where there are humans, there's usually human food. I do what I've been taught to do by those who say they know. Nothing. Maybe he'll lose interest and continue on. But he continues towards me, and I reach down and pull the revolver from its holster and wait. All the while, I'm wondering why I loaded it with .38 specials. They're not going to help me all that much against this bear. He's probably about 10 meters away now, so I stand up straight in order to back slowly away. Now his dark eyes are focused directly on me. He stops about 3 meters away and I raise the revolver so it's pointing directly at his head. Right between the eyes. It's the only chance I have. We are now frozen in time, him and me, just standing there, waiting for something to happen. I'm fascinated by his elegant beauty and power. The hump behind his head is pure muscle and the long claws are used for digging. His rump slopes downward and is much lower than his head. I look directly into his large eyes. Damn, I really don't want to hurt this guy. But if you walk in the woods, and a bear bites your butt, is it the bear's fault? He's only doing what he's supposed to do. I'm the intruder here. Now I begin to see something happening. He's still looking directly at me, but his mouth seems different. The corners have turned upwards and I can see his teeth clearly. Is he getting ready to attack? But then I realize what is happening. His mouth has curled upward into a He turns his head slowly to the right and then again, slowly to the left. I can almost hear him thinking to himself "well buddy, I could mess you up pretty bad if I wanted to, but today is your day. Enjoy!" And he just turned and walked away.....

Christmas Tree

by Charles Wagner

When I was a young boy growing up in Levittown, my family did not have a lot of money. Usually we waited until Christmas eve to buy our tree, assuming that since they would be worthless in a few hours, it would be possible to negotiate a good price. Old George had the christmas tree lot on Hempstead Turnpike, across from Times Square Stores. He always had the best looking trees in town, although they were a bit expensive. My brother and I went there at about 6 o'clock this one Christmas eve with about twenty dollars between us, bound and determined to procure the best tree ever. There wasn't much left, but we found a fine douglas fir, just the right size and shaped as nearly perfect as one could expect. Old George was sitting in his usual spot in the office, right next to an old wood-burning stove. I prepared for combat. "How much for this scraggly old twig", I asked? "We'll take it away for no charge!" George looked up at us two insolent pups and replied "That's one nice looking tree boys, it'll cost you thirty-five dollars". "Thirty-five dollars?" I pleaded, "Why I can buy a better tree down the block for half that price." I should have seen what was coming. "Then go right down the block and buy that tree, because you're not getting this one for a penny less than thirty-five dollars." "But George", I went on, "You're only gonna burn this tree tomorrow morning, because you ain't gonna sell all these trees tonight." Old George leaned back in his chair and glared at us for a moment. "Well boys, you can just come back here tomorrow morning and watch me burn that tree, cause you ain't gonna get it for one cent less than thirty-five dollars!" By fate's decree, I now found myself back in the old neighborhood on Christmas eve. I was on my way to my mother's house and thought it might be nice to bring a fresh tree. She lived alone and didn't decorate a tree anymore but I knew the old ornaments were still in her closet. I stopped at the christmas tree lot across from K-Mart, which used to be Times Square Stores. I found a beautiful tree, not too big and nicely shaped. "How much for this tree?' I inquired. The kid who was working in the lot told me to ask the boss, in the office. I walked in, and to my surprise, there was old George. And even older still than I had remembered him. "George" I said "I can't believe that you're still here, after all these years. Do you remember me? I used to live right around here when I was a kid." He did not remember. But I remembered. And we sat for the better part of the next hour discussing old times. He told me about his wife, who had passed on some 5 years ago and about how he was laid off when he was just 52 when Grumman cut back the work force and how the only income he had now was his pension and the yearly proceeds from the christmas trees. But this would be the last year for him. The land he had leased for over 30 years was being sold to a developer and he could not find another spot. He had no idea what would happen to him. We sat silently for a few minutes, contemplating our collective angst and pondering over the mysteries of living. Finally, I spoke again to him. "Well George, I'm sure everything will work out for you. How much for the tree?" He looked up at me with a look of defeat and resignation. "Well, that's normally a thirty-five dollar tree, but I'm only gonna burn it tomorrow morning, so twenty dollars will be just fine." I guess that sometimes it's necessary to go a long way out of our way, to come back a few steps correctly.


by Charles Wagner

Some time ago, I found myself walking along the beach. As I looked out over the ocean, sunlight sparkled on the gently rolling swells. At one point in my view, the beach, the ocean and the sky seemed to merge into one. There is something compelling about the ocean, and I was a lone water-gazer upon this beach. Mountains have a certain grandeur and likewise canyons and forests. I have seen them all. But the ocean is special, and I always feel the need to venture as close as I can without getting wet. But at some certain point in time, I am always constrained to remove my shoes and socks and place my feet into the swirling waters. It is a holy baptism of life. On this particular day, as I walked further down the beach, I saw a young boy who looked to be about five or six years old. He had dug a deep hole in the sand just above the water line and was going back and forth with a paper cup, dipping water from the ocean and pouring it into the hole. I watched him for some time and finally asked him what he was doing. He replied that he was going to empty the whole ocean into the hole. Since the water disappeared down the hole each time he poured, he assumed that it would only be a matter of time until his task was accomplished. When I was a young boy, I looked out into the night sky and marveled at the beauty of the stars. I began to learn about the stars and the planets, and I soon took to the task of counting the number of stars that I could see. I would lie on my back on the beach and divide the heavens into sections, counting each one carefully and adding them up. Twenty, forty, hundred! When I was older, my father bought me a small telescope and I soon realized that there were many more stars than I thought. I learned in school that there were almost 2500 stars that could be seen with the naked eye on a clear night. I soon realized that some of the points of light were not stars at all, but huge galaxies, filled with countless numbers of additional stars. Even today, with our most powerful telescopes, the farther we look, and the better we see, the numbers of stars and galaxies keeps ever increasing. Needless to say, I have given up trying to count the stars in the sky and just as surely, that little boy will someday realize that he has a better chance of getting the whole ocean into that little hole than he does of ever understanding the mysteries of the universe.