Now I Remember Why

Recently I chatted with Lisa, a dear friend for nearly thirty years. Prompted by news of early snow across the country and our own cold weather, she made one simple comment that unleashed many fond memories.

“This reminds me of the Bamboo day”.

With a smile I recalled enjoying that day too – but, I don’t remember why

Even the date of that winter day years ago escapes me. Snow fell as I drove to work and in spite of accumulation, not a single business closed. I walked into work slowly, waiting, stalling, watching thousands of flaky excuses to stay home fall for nothing. I was sure the security guard would meet me at the door to say we were closed. He didn’t and we weren’t.

Until later.

Memory also fails me as to the exact time later that morning that my boss announced our closing. As I left, swirling snow began to cover my car. While I scraped ice from my windshield I pondered the falling flakes, and then did what anyone else would do when dismissed early from work due to heavy, dangerous snowfall.

I met two friends at a local café.

Where Lisa worked at the time I don’t recall, but she left work early too. I don’t remember where Billy worked either but his office closed also. Filled with the thrill of snow and early closure, the three of us met at Bamboo Café, a cozy little place in our hometown of Richmond, Virginia. The snow kept falling.

We chose a booth towards the back, I think, but I draw a blank. Maybe we talked about mutual friends – which ones, I can’t remember. We probably talked about relatives – though I’m clueless as to what was said. What we ate slips my mind but I think there was coffee. I know there was laughter.

For hours, who knows how many, we watched snow fall and enjoyed our impromptu time together. We drifted from casual comments about work to heavy political discussions, reminisced about past vacations, then around again to whatever our personal dramas were at the time. We most likely shared reflections, bounced ideas, told dirty jokes, and laughed at sporadic flashbacks.

I don’t know why we always remember the Bamboo day. Why is it still so memorable? It was an unremarkable day really. Just three people huddled in a booth watching snow fall as they talked, laughed, and spent a surprise few hours basking in the gladness of old friendship. Oh…

Now I remember why.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Frozen in Time

There’s a lot of life in that old freezer.

It’s a chest freezer actually, from the 1960s I think. Dirty white with spots of ancient rust and it makes a horrifying screech when the lid is opened. For decades it sat on the huge back porch of Nannie’s farmhouse, ran perfectly, and never skipped a beat.

When Nannie died, Daddy debated what to do with that old freezer. He feared moving it would cause it to stop running but he hauled it across the field to his own screened porch where it still runs perfectly and never skips a beat. Daddy is gone now too, but the freezer runs on.

That freezer has a lot of life in it, in more ways than one.

Every summer Nannie filled its frosty racks with butter beans and other garden goodies. I’d take the path to her house and hear the familiar screech of the lid as I got to the porch. Nannie would be comically bent over head first in the freezer, digging through frozen packages, surrounded by the cloud of cold “smoke” that puffed out as she stirred the air inside.

Over decades the freezer took on a life of its own and became more than a useful place to store food. It became the focal point of Nannie’s porch with its broad surface that made a handy place to leave things, do things, and grow things.

It was a fine spot for African violets and a Christmas cactus. In early spring Nannie started vegetable seeds in trays and lined them up along the top of the freezer. She’d laugh for causing herself extra work when she had to move them all just to get a package of frozen corn for supper.

A lot of life went on around that freezer.

Nannie kept small weigh scales on the freezer in case someone from church came by to get a pound of snaps. Quart baskets of blackberries we all picked sat on the freezer until someone came to buy them. A random green apple, a forgotten eggplant, or a pie Nannie made and meant to give to a friend might all be on the freezer.

If one aunt had coupons for another aunt, they were left on the freezer. If a visiting friend found a cousin’s toy army man under the swing, it was left on the freezer. If an uncle returned a borrowed tool, it was left on the freezer. If you carried something when you stopped by to see Nannie you could leave it on the freezer. On the way out you just picked it up from the freezer.

I stood at the freezer with my aunt Noody on several Thanksgivings as she cut up the turkey before families arrived. She’d spread the giant bird out on the freezer, plates to the left for light meat, plates to the right for dark. The broad surface made a perfect work area.

Nannie left bags of homemade rolls on the freezer for me to deliver to aunts across the field. On countless summer evenings the freezer held glasses of iced tea, ash trays, and random conversation pieces brought over for a night of family stories on the porch. Sometimes the top of the freezer was cleared, newspaper spread, and a watermelon cut up for whoever happened to be visiting.

A lot of life revolved around that freezer.

Today the old freezer still runs on Daddy’s screened porch. I looked at it a few weeks ago. Nothing sits on top anymore, nothing being done there, nothing growing there as in the old days. I lifted the lid and the familiar screech was as strong as ever, the icy “smoke” still swirled, but the frosty racks were mostly empty.

Mama’s health issues have prevented her from gardening and freezing the summer’s goodies. I saw a few iced over packages labeled in her handwriting, “Corn 2012”, but they’re old and should be thrown away.

For decades that freezer was the accidental center of a lot of what Nannie and her huge extended family did. The conversations it heard, the family meals it held, the cousins, babies, and babies of cousins who wanted a turn sitting on its broad top are too numerous to ponder.

It’s still running, but just like the last few freezer burned packages of corn inside maybe the old chest freezer itself should finally be thrown away. But who could do that? Not me.

There’s a lot of life in that old freezer.

Stuart M. Perkins

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The Mule and the One Red Hen

My coworker often discusses drama caused over the years by one of her friends. At lunch she described the latest events to me and several others as she pondered whether she should even continue their friendship.

Knowing she’ll always deal with flare-ups of unpleasantness had my coworker in a quandary. Their friendship is great for the most part, but occasional negatives are difficult to deal with. She asked us for advice. I gave no advice but made a comment to the group.

“Jiggs would have said this is like the mule and the one red hen.”

Puzzled faces awaited my explanation.

As a kid I spent many summer weekends at the farm owned by Dessie and Jiggs, my aunt and uncle. I like to think I helped around the place but the reality is I played in the creek and ate Dessie’s good cooking. Often we’d ride over to see Bud and Cherry, friends who owned a nearby farm. We would pass woods, creeks, and in a bend in the road was a small pasture where there always stood a mule.

Next to the pasture was a weathered chicken coop. Not enclosed, but wandering where they chose, was a flock of maybe twenty chickens. The chickens were always in the vicinity of the coop and always together, except for one red hen.

Without fail, the mule and the hen would be together in the small pasture when we drove by. The first time I noticed, I paid little attention. Over time I realized they were always together. Soon I actually began to look for them. Each time, I saw the mule with the one red hen.

As a teenager, I was fascinated by their odd friendship. I never thought to mention it to Dessie and Jiggs until later in the summer when we once again made the drive. We were about to approach the pasture so I brought it up ahead of time to make sure they saw it for themselves.

“Have y’all noticed,” I asked excitedly, “that every time we ride by this pasture up here that instead of with the flock, one chicken hangs out with the mule? It’s cool that they’re friends.”

We rounded the bend in the road and Dessie and Jiggs turned to look at what I had described. Sure enough, the flock of chickens pecked around the coop, but the mule and the one red hen were together in the pasture. Having seen the two together, Dessie and Jiggs turned back around as we passed by.

“Well.” Dessie acknowledged in her genuinely pleasant way.

Jiggs looked at me in the rear view mirror as he drove. I could see him grinning.

“You know why they’re friends, don’t you?” Jiggs asked. I saw Dessie turn to look at him. Seeing the grin on his face, one quickly formed on hers. She was ready for whatever he would say next.

I wasn’t.

“No why?” I asked. Always thinking Jiggs one of the most intelligent people I’d ever met, I was eager to have the highly technical explanation of this complex interspecies relationship explained to me in full, and forthwith.

“Because,” Jiggs began as he formed his erudite response, “when the mule craps the chicken picks stuff out of it.”

I retched.

Dessie laughed hysterically.

Jiggs kept driving.

My stomach settled long enough for me to speak. “That doesn’t seem like a friendship at all then.”

“Sure it does.” Jiggs said, still grinning. “The chicken enjoys being with the mule, she just knows she has to deal with a little crap now and then.”

Well, Jiggs certainly explained that one.

And I explained to my coworkers that we all have friendships with dynamics of good and the occasional bad. If you’re really friends with someone then dealing with crap now and then is just part of the arrangement.

Several coworkers laughed, one actually applauded, but two were suddenly no longer interested in lunch.

My coworker and her mule are still friends, the last I heard.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Dumb Little Dish

That dumb little dish meant nothing to me, so I threw it in the trash.

With temperatures dropping, I took plants in from the porch. The dumb little dish covered in dirt and crusty old plant fertilizer had been under a Christmas cactus to catch water.

It was an ugly saucer actually. The last remaining piece of an ugly partial set of hand-me-down dishes given to me twelve years ago when I moved into a new place and had nothing for the kitchen. Each plate, saucer, and cup had a nonsense design of white geese, blue ribbons, and an occasional flower, or maybe the thing was a butterfly. It wasn’t good china…

Over the years, pieces broke and were thrown away. I began to use the last few saucers as trays under my paltry collection of houseplants. Time had whittled the set down to this one lone dish. With new plastic trays to catch water from the plants, the dumb little dish meant nothing to me, so I threw it in the trash.

It had two big chips in it anyway. One chip happened when my son Evan, only four at the time, turned it upside down to use as a ramp for his MatchBox cars. The second chip happened when Greer, only six then, decided it would make a nice boat for her Barbie. In a stormy capsizing incident, the boat was chipped. A few chips but so what, we still used the dishes. They were all I had at the time.

In the summer we’d sit on the screened porch and I’d cut slices of hot dog on those dishes for Evan. I’d watch his little tan hands pick up one piece at a time and smile as he popped each into his mouth. Greer would ask for two helpings of macaroni and cheese on those dishes and being the fickle little girl she was, decide she wanted none after all.

Evan continued to use a dish or two as car ramps, flying saucers, or to hold his crayons as he colored. Greer’s Barbie often used the dishes as wading pools, boats, or stages from which to sing to imaginary audiences. One Christmas Greer and Evan got watercolor paint sets from Santa Claus. Every remaining dish in the decrepit set was called on to be used for mixing paint. We had a grand time!

Those dishes held soups and sandwiches, marbles and doll shoes, eggs and bacon, army men and princess stickers. That ragged old set of dishes was there every evening at the dinner table, every lunch on the porch, and every time one of the kids needed a spaceship or a place to save rocks they’d found.

The dumb little dish that meant nothing and that I’d thrown in the trash was the last remaining piece from those days. It had somehow survived Matchbox cars, Barbies, watercolor paints, and a myriad of dinners and childhood activities. Twelve years, two chips, and a thousand memories later, it was still here.

That dumb little dish meant everything to me, so I took it out of the trash.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Apple of My Pie

I don’t think I’ve ever been thought of as ugly, but I’m no model. There were even days when I was called nice looking – a few weeks or so back in 1981. Small window for sure, but young and thin and I thought ohhh yeah, I’m hot… Those few good weeks are long gone.

Still, I’m like some of my friends. Some mornings I look in the mirror and think hey, not so bad for a guy in his early fifties! Ohhh yeah, I’m hot…

Other mornings I look in the mirror and think hey, look what the cat coughed up.

That particular Saturday morning was a cat cougher. I was up early to run errands, hadn’t slept well, and I’d eaten Chinese food the night before. My favorite, #17 with extra broccoli, tends to make my face resemble a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon.

My puffy eyes and I set off to do errands and I resigned myself to the fact that I was a bloated sack of hideousness. But, I’d just turned 50 after all, so I guessed it was to be expected. I knew I shouldn’t have eaten Chinese food the night before and I felt guilty and disgusted for having done that to myself.

I sought solace in an apple pie from the fast food store on the corner.

Heading onto the highway to start my errands, I quickly stuck the apple pie in my mouth and held it there. I drove with one hand and used the other hand to search for change for the toll.

When I approached the toll booth I gnawed off a hunk of pie off as I yanked it from my mouth. I stopped at the toll booth feeling particularly swollen and handed the attendant the change. I noticed she was a young woman, very attractive, but with a stern look on her face.

Until she reached to take my change.

She smiled when I stopped, smiled more as she looked me in face, and then smiled even wider. I smiled back, handed her the change, and drove off.

Smugly, I started to think hey, not so bad for a guy in his early fifties. Ohhh yeah, I’m hot.

Maybe my eyes weren’t so puffy and maybe I had gotten enough sleep. To mentally high-five myself for having made the young lady smile, I pulled down the rear view mirror to check myself out. I had to see what had made her smile.

I saw it.

A slab of pie crust stuck to my lip and chin, held in place with apple filling that had already dripped several times onto my neck.

Ohhh yeah, I’m hot.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Going Up?

This morning I saw a young guy have difficulty getting on the elevator. His overloaded cart stubbornly refused to make it through the door. I grabbed one end and helped him push it through the doors and onto the elevator. He thanked me, a random stranger to him, and we went our separate ways. He needed help. I helped. The end.

The flashback made me reel.

Almost thirty years ago I pushed a similar cart onto an elevator at my first job – or attempted to. I had difficulty with my cart until a random stranger helped me out.

When I got my first job at A.H. Robins in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, family and friends alike applauded. How lucky I was, they said, to have been hired by the pharmaceutical company owned by such a well-known and respected Richmond family. They were correct.

I had friends and family employed there and had always heard stories of the close relationship employees had, not just with each other, but with members of the Robins family themselves. At the time, E. Claiborne Robins Sr., already in his seventies, still came to his office each day. I’d never met any of the Robins family and wouldn’t have known them had we passed on the street, but stories of their kindness and goodwill were heard in the halls daily.

It was during my first week that I took that overloaded cart and headed to the sixth floor of “the Tower”. I knew there were people of importance up there… but as the new guy in my early twenties, everyone I saw in the halls seemed important. Still, each one smiled and said hello. It was that sort of place there at A.H.Robins.

Stella, my supervisor at the time and now almost thirty years later still my friend, had helped me load the cart.

“You take it on up and I’ll meet you at the front desk. I gotta talk to Helen a minute.” Stella said. She was sure I’d have no trouble.

I wasn’t so sure.

Trouble started for me about the time Stella waved to a friend in Employee Health as she passed by on her way to the front desk. The wheels of my cart became lodged in the track of the elevator door and there I stood, embarrassed, stuck, and jolted each time the elevator door closed on me, re-opened and closed on me again.

I was mortified.

As I pondered simply leaving the cart wedged in the door and doing the army crawl through the cafeteria and straight home, a hand pushed against the door. An old man tossed his briefcase into the elevator and grabbed one end of the cart. He said very little. In fact I don’t know if he even spoke at all – but he smiled – and I knew he was there to help.

In a matter of seconds the old man helped me dislodge the cart and get it onto the elevator. With little room then left inside, he told me to go ahead, he’d take the next one up. I made my trip to the sixth floor and back down to where Stella stood leaning against the front desk. She had a grin on her face.

Assuming she was going to laugh at my getting stuck in the elevator, I confessed.

“The cart got stuck but an old man helped me.” I said quickly, awaiting her response.

“Uhhh, Stuart”, she began with an excited smile, “that was no old man. That was Mr. Robins!”

That was the first time, but I’m happy to say not the last, that I met E. Claiborne Robins, Sr. Each time, he had a smile on his face.

Employees smiled there too. I’m still impressed with the way past employees remain in touch, gather several times a year, and keep each other informed on topics of all sorts. All these years later, I still have several friends from that era. We shared a unique experience being employed there together.

I was spoiled by the Robins experience. In the time that has followed my nearly eleven years there, I have yet to encounter a work environment that comes close to encouraging, rewarding, and supporting its employees the way A.H. Robins did. I’m sure the credit goes to the smiling old man who helped me get my cart onto the elevator.

A man who took over a family business, spent decades building it to national and international prominence, and who undoubtedly had more to do that particular day than “unstick” a cart for an embarrassed kid, still took the time to do just that. Smiling all the while.

I needed help. He helped. The end.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Great Pants

I recently took several pairs of pants into a store’s fitting room. One really great pair required a lot of effort to get on. In fact, I broke a sweat. They were tight but I got them on – success! But I rolled my eyes at my reflection in the full length mirror as I remembered the last time I’d had such “success”. That was a great pair of pants then too, just not for me.

On that particular shopping trip I’d chosen a pair of pants that although I managed to get on, and zipped, I still wasn’t positive they really fit. The fact that I couldn’t draw a breath should have told me they did not.

I bought them anyway and wore them to work the next day.

I still couldn’t breathe, I felt a slight numbness in my left leg, and I was certain I’d heard a stitch pop. However, I was fairly convinced that the pants looked fine.

An hour or so later I began to have second thoughts.

Were they fine? Too tight? Looked ok? Looked hideous? I decided I should ask someone, but I winced at the number of possibly embarrassing responses. I didn’t want those. I just wanted to be told the pants were fine!

And I knew just the person to ask.

I’ve known Cathleen for decades as a friend. As luck would have it, we had also been coworkers for a few years. Cathleen is as nice as they come, fun, funny, fashionable, and saturated with the inability to tell anyone anything that would upset them…

Just the person I needed.

Cathleen has a way of erasing the personal panic of others. Many times I’d seen her in action with mutual friends if they expressed a concern:

“Does my hair look bad?” – “No, not at all!”

“Did I overcook the chicken?” – “It was delicious!”

“Is my driving ok?” – “You’re a great driver!”

“Sorry the house is a mess?” – “It looks spotless!”

Cathleen knew the words they wanted to hear. Now it was my turn. I’d go find Cathleen.

A second stitch popped as I stood to leave my desk. On my way to find Cathleen I hugged the walls like a rat, aware that passersby might mistake my new pants for nothing more than a coat of paint. Thanks to the blood flow that remained in my right leg, I staggered into Cathleen’s cubicle.

I was hopeful as I recalled the words of reassurance I’d heard her give to others. Each time they had doubted, Cathleen was there to give them a verbal pat on the back. I was ready for mine.

“Do these pants look ok?” I squeaked with the last of my lung capacity.

Cathleen turned from her computer with a smile.

Her smile suddenly disappeared. So did the blood flow to my left foot.

Eager to hear her encouraging words, I asked again.

“Do these pants look ok?”

“Well.” she began. “Um. Turn around?” she asked hesitantly as she made a spiral motion with her finger.

I managed to turn, dragging my numb foot, and waited for the words I wanted to hear.

“Do these pants look ok?” I asked yet again.

Cathleen looked me up and down one last time and began to speak. Finally, I thought, I would get some reassurance.

“Sooo…” she leaned towards me and whispered, “…maybe you better go home and change.”

She quickly turned back to her computer.

Those were not the words I wanted to hear.

I remembered all of this there in the fitting room as I peeled off the pants I had just tried on. Great pants, just not for me.

Stuart M. Perkins

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