18. Hypothetical connection

For hypothetical connection. Two strangers talking over a counter, the one ringing up groceries, the other sipping his coffee. Words slip through the buzz. “He could be so much better than he is,” says the one. “If he sticks around he could be so much better next year.” The other nods. “I think the kid just needs a cheerleader.” This boy, his presence only imagined, hanging too easily in the air over a loaf of bread and a bag of chips. A troubled youth. A basketball player? Two strangers over a grocery counter: the only boy held by both in common would be public knowledge, public property, everyone’s business and no one’s responsibility. We can comfortably analyze his sins, safe from seeing the inevitable reflection of our own. We can chastise without resentment, prescribe without consequence, sympathize without hope—hope being the most dangerous consequence of all. And having done our duty, pass over in ignorance the real presence around us. The woman buying a thank-you card needs a cheerleader. The man in line behind her could be so much better than he is. Who knows?

17. One man with a sign

For one man alone with a hand-lettered sign, standing on the busy street corner. Cars fly past, too hurried to read his words, their desert wake ruffling his hair but not his determination. Grimly he stares them down; grimly they ignore him. His eyes challenge the people on the sidewalk as they approach, but most are too lost in their phones to notice the urgency of avoiding his gaze. The rest find sudden fascination in a cloud, a license plate, a speck of broken glass. What does he need so urgently to tell them? Some fool’s errand, no doubt — but every errand needs its fool. If you have not the courage to stand alone, who will stand with you? How dare you ask?