Top of Piedmont: To Watch, Listen and Ponder — Then Write!

January 2013Monthly Archives


The snow started falling at 6:30 that morning.  I know, because I was out for a short run.  We’d been touched briefly in October, but now it was tumbling down.

The cats usually like to go out in the morning.  This day there was reluctance.  Somewhere in those feline brains was the remembrance of wet and cold paws.

Snow when it comes early in the season usually falls wet and sticky. This was no exception.  As the temperatures dropped however, the wind picked up and what had been a slushy inconvenience became slick and difficult to navigate – on foot or in a vehicle.

The native peoples of the far north have many names for snow.  They live with it for months on end and unlike modern men understand its nuances.  To the unpracticed eye it’s all the same – it just needs to be removed.  The observant and patient viewer sees more.

Oftentimes it is silent, starting slowly; each flake swinging back and forth in the air on an invisible swing.  Crystals seen against the backdrop of an old blue jacket are uniquely shaped; cupped in an outstretched hand; they rest for one brief moment before relaxing into a little puddle.  Large flakes brush the surface of an outstretched tongue, tingle lightly and then disappear.

As more snow pelts down, it stacks up on previous falls and the compression of treading feet on a cold night, creak and squeak.  Then each cold detail is seen and heard, highlighted by the trees; black and white, white on black, contrasts rarely seen when leaves are at their fullest.

Snow comes, also driven by the Canadian Clippers of the Northwest Territories. Wind and snow form the raw materials of a blustery day into fantastic forms.  A dynamic develops between wind, snow, fences and shapes of buildings, creating mountains where there were plains – valleys where white crystals race unimpeded between wood piles and garages. As the storm moves to another venue, cold calm returns, and what flowed before, becomes fixed for a time into a new topography.

All this ends as the sun moves to a different place in late March.  What seemed so permanent, shifts and slides from rooftops.  The promise of variety, color and warmth floods from overhead and puts a halt to the crystal clarity of cold winter nights.


She clomped down the stairs, stopped midway, fingers feathering the battered, aged banister.  Cold light trickled through the stained glass on the landing.    

It was different this time; her relationships usually complicated. A glance, recognition from times past, coffee, and a walk along the river.  They moved in together.  The sex was good, not spectacular, but good.

Purple Martins greeted their mornings. Sunrises and lattes insulated them, sitting there on the deck, outside the bedroom overlooking the river. Conversation at times difficult, became stilted, cauterizing new found intimacy. . . .  

On the coffee table, sage lay in a cut-glass bowl. She lit it and left…. 

In came a young couple; child in arms. 

“What’s that smell?”         

“Sage.” he said.   


“Someone cleansed the house.”       


He walked to the banister and stroked the clear, unmarred wood. 

“This looks new.”

“It does.”

Nasty Man

He was a foul smelling and ill-tempered man.  He looked like he’d been around the block a few times and up and down the alley a lot more. 

The first time I met him was on the Hamline-Cherokee city bus.  I was going to West St. Paul to the Mother’s of Mercy Nursing Home as part of my Legion of Mary public service.  I made a weekly trip there to visit Jimmy Drummond, a disabled carillon player.  His last gig before his stroke had been at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.

When I got on the bus, there were no seats left.  It was after school and it was crowded.  A few people were standing, but the seat next to his was empty, so I worked my way down the aisle. “Can I sit here?” 

He raised his rheumy eyes.  “Does it look like the damn thing‘s taken?”  His rank exhalations carried the fragrance of stale cigarettes, aggravated by an obvious toothbrush deficit, and a hint of gin.  I was tired.  I sat down.

The bus lurched down the potholed streets.  Each pitch to and fro sent me into the old man.  He grumbled and pulled into himself, wrapping his faded trench coat tighter around his frail frame.   My stop came. I got off.

Next week when I got on the bus, the seat was empty next to the old man.  I was tired.  I worked my way back and sat next to him.  “Hi.”  I said.  He replied with a curt nod and stared out the window, again pulling his coat tightly around his body.

Each week I got on the same bus and sat next to him.  After several weeks I offered him a stick of Juicy Fruit gum in olfactory defense.  He accepted it.  Every time after that he took the proffered gum.

One week he wasn’t on the bus.  The next week he was there.  I handed him a stick of gum.  “Thanks.”  He said.  

“Nice day.”  I said. 

He nodded his head.

“Missed you last week.  Did you miss the bus?”

“No, I just had business.” He said with a frown.  We rode in silence.

The next week when I got on the bus, he looked up as I worked my way down the aisle.  After the holy communion of the gum, he turned and said. 

“Where in the hell do you go every week?”

I explained to him about my visits with Jimmy.  For the first time I saw him smile.   “I used to listen to bells a lot.” 

“Really.”  I said.  “Where?”

“In Delft, in the Netherlands, at the Nieuwe Kirke.”

“When were you there?”

He smiled slightly.  “A long time ago.”  He then pulled his old coat around him and stared out the window.  It was obvious he would talk no more.

The following week I got on the bus, all the seats were filled, no sight of the old man.  I had to stand.  Week after week I looked for him, but he was never there.   I stood all the time.

A month later I was paging through the newspaper on my weekly journey, and there on the inside page was an obituary.  The headline read:  “Roland Murphy, Lover of Bells.”  I looked at the picture taken twenty years ago and could see the outlines of a man I’d sat next to on the bus all those times.   He’d been a banker in Brussels, with family in New York. 

I sat down and stared out the window and pulled my coat tightly around me.

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