By Michael Travler and Gary Gustafson

Arranged asymmetrically across the minimalist stage are curved blocks of foam rubber, resembling abstract sculptures. They are matte black in color, appearing both stark and sleek against the bare backdrop. The foam is of medium density, firm yet with some give as you sit. Each piece is roughly two feet high and three feet wide, narrowing as they taper downwards at one end.

The organic shapes tempt interaction, their puffy surfaces and rounded edges calling to mind clouds or stones smoothed by the steady passage of time. They invite creative interpretation – could these abstract shapes be boulders…comets…ink blots formed by some quirky divinity? Hands will long to touch their poreless foam surfaces, testing if they yield to pressure.

As patrons would enter and settle into these cushioned structures, conversing softly as if in a gallery space, they too would feel themselves becoming art – black blobs peppering a vast white expanse. Ensconced in the plush foam seats, they are both observers of the art and participants in creating it. The seats would absorb sound as well, muffling the rustlings of cloth and stifled coughs. One could imagine these rubbery blocks as pixels on a blank canvas…or perhaps astronauts floating through space untethered and soundless…what would their advent bring to life?

Standing amidst the abstract foam sculptures is a man with a commanding yet subdued presence about him. Crisply dressed in dark jeans and a slate button-down shirt, he has the upright posture and square shoulders of a soldier. His sandy brown hair is neatly trimmed, face clean-shaven to reveal a strong jawline that could have been chiseled from stone.

Hands calloused from physical labor are gently clasped behind his back as he surveys the incoming audience, his hazel eyes quietly assessing all. He seems coiled with quiet strength and self-discipline like a spring at rest. As he walks the perimeter, patrons notice old scars marking his weathered knuckles when he reaches out to adjust a seat ever so slightly.

There is more to this man than meets the eye. The assuredness in his gait hints at training that goes beyond sculpting foam rubber.

The artist answered to Ed, a bespectacled man in his early 70s with kind, steely eyes that reflect a lifetime of hard-won wisdom. Though age has smoothed his reddened scalp to a shiny baldness, Ed carries himself with a robust, upright strength that rivals men half his years. His eyeglasses rest easy on a strong beaky nose that gives his slender face an almost noble bearing.

He dresses simply – jeans, plaid button-downs with the sleeves rolled up, and sturdy boots. Hands calloused by decades of physical work pick up tools almost delicately, long nimble fingers making up for what his vision may lack. When Ed speaks, all listen. Not because he raises his gravelly voice, but because what he says is worth hearing.

The sculptor had once scoffed openly at the man’s suggestions, his arrogance blinding him to all that Ed has built and weathered. Yet the old man simply smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. He knows true strength does not boast. It acts according to wisdom – quietly, surely, not cowed by disrespect or the passage of time.

When the insolent young sculptor later sought more work and material, Ed looks upon him gently. He sees wasted potential wrapped in misplaced pride. With calloused hand resting on the artist’s rigid shoulder, he replies “We can always give you more hours so you can buy food.”

Bustling eagerly around the foam sculptures entered Levi, a bright-eyed young man barely into his twenties. He bounded with enthusiastic energy, spouting creative visions for the open spaces along the auditorium’s back row. Grand sweeping arches…saucer seats suspended from the ceiling…his expressive hands dance animatedly as he describes scene after scene. His cheery optimism seems impervious to budget or physics.

In his excitement, Levi tells the sculptor he’ll make a proposal to leadership straight away to actualize these innovative designs. But then he adds almost apologetically that in truth he has no real standing or leverage here. The real decision-making power lies solely with Ed.

The sculptor’s stomach drops as this reality sets in. How foolish he had been to disregard the very man whose good graces determine his career. He finds Ed examining a seat brace, and the artistmimmediately and sincerely humbled himself before Ed.

“Sir, I sincerely apologize for my disrespectful behavior earlier. As a United States Officier I should have conducted myself better.” His voice cracks slightly. “I hope you can forgive me and allow me to continue contributing around here.”

Ed’s steely eyes soften. He reaches down and clasps the young man’s shoulder with a sturdy hand. “DeNoodles, son,” he says, dusting off the artist’s earlier quip joking about how much money they would make. “Of course you can stay.” A gracious smile spreads across his lined face, lit with the joy of reconciliation.

Just then the sculptor’s wife steps forward, having witnessed the exchange from afar. “He said “it” she said smiling,” as their their three young children trail blazed near her, making their way around her through the seats.