Giving is for the Birds

I read the simple message while driving to work that morning. It was quite a few years ago but I remember the church’s sign: “Give To Others – Sacrifice” was its straightforward directive. As I pondered those words, I noticed another sign at a fast-food place across the street.

“Try Our Blueberry Biscuits”

Those words required no pondering.

I would indeed try them. Having ample time before work, I would even go inside to sit as I enjoyed their flaky goodness. I could smell the biscuits when I walked in to place my order. On a large rack behind the cashier, someone from the kitchen drizzled icing generously over a dozen or so freshly baked blueberry delights. I ordered two.

After all, the sign had clearly indicated plural.

My mouth watered as I sat at a table between a window and a row of potted palms. I spread my blueberry biscuits out before me, smelled their warm icing, and heard their plump blueberries calling to me. I noticed movement on the other side of the potted palms but my excitement over the biscuits kept me from looking up. Just as I was about to pick up the first biscuit, the movement stopped and I heard a woman’s voice.

“Are you Jesus?” she asked.

Not sure I had correctly heard such a question, I wiped the anticipatory biscuit drool from my mouth and waited for a second.

“Are you Jesus?” she asked again.

I turned to see a frowning elderly woman staring through the potted palms. I assumed she might be homeless when I saw her. Her clothes were frayed and wrinkled, and although her hair was pulled neatly back and held in place by a clean red ribbon, she was otherwise very disheveled and dirty. She carried a soiled tote bag on her arm.

“Are you Jesus?” she asked me for the third time. She frowned a bit harder.

I admit that I slid my blueberry biscuits towards the window on the far side of the table before I responded.

“No Ma’am”. I said. “Definitely not.” I spread an extra concealing napkin over my biscuits.

I thought she might leave once I had cleared up that little misidentification, but she lingered. She stood quietly by the potted palms a little longer. I kept the biscuits covered and willed my salivary glands to cease working. She edged closer to my table. I pushed the biscuits closer to the window.

She sat down across from me.

My biscuits cooled, my mouth watered, and guilt crept over me as I remembered the first message I had read that morning. “Give to Others – Sacrifice”.

Well, great. Why did I have to see the church sign just before being shown the door to blueberry deliciousness! Oh well. I removed one biscuit from its hiding place and slid it towards the elderly woman.

“You can have this.” I said.

She said absolutely nothing but took the biscuit, wrapped it tightly in the napkin, and slipped it into her tote bag. She still frowned. Not even the slightest smile.

There. I had “given to others”. I felt better, she had eagerly taken the biscuit, and as soon as she got up I could still enjoy the one I had left. I could smell it there under the napkin.

She didn’t get up.

“You have a good day, Ma’am.” I said, thinking she might move along.

She still didn’t get up. She frowned at the lump under my napkin.

I had already checked my watch several times and knew I had to get to work soon. I just wanted to eat my blueberry biscuit! I had done what the church sign said. I had “given to others”!

Well, the sign had said a little more than that, I thought as the elderly woman frowned persistently.

I uncovered my second biscuit and handed it to her, saying nothing. She took the second as eagerly as the first. She wrapped it quickly, slipped it into her tote bag, and walked to the door to go outside. She frowned all the while.

No matter, I thought. I could simply pick up another biscuit, or two, on my way out.

“We stopped making blueberry biscuits twenty minutes ago.” the cashier said. “No more back there.”

My stomach growled. So did I. One of my biscuits handed to the elderly woman was “giving”. Both of my biscuits handed to her, now that was “sacrifice”! But, she would enjoy them I kept telling myself, as I imagined her biting into the icing covered blueberry treats.

As I headed to my car, I heard their wings flapping before I saw them. Pigeons. So many pigeons flying in that they blocked my view of what attracted them. Then, through an opening in the flock, I saw what they were after.

An elderly woman with a tote bag. She crumbled and tossed piece after piece of blueberry biscuit into the air as pigeons scrambled to eat them.

She was smiling.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Load of Fun

Today I noticed that in spite of an unyielding winter determined to wear out its welcome, the local hardware store has taken a leap of faith by filling its storefront and walkway with a grand display of all things summer. I saw birdbaths, a gleaming row of new lawnmowers, and a stack of wading pools depicting smiling cartoon elephants spraying water on laughing cartoon hippos. Closest to the sidewalk was a row of huge, bright red wheelbarrows with glossy black wheels, price tags swinging in the still chilly breeze.

As I hurried past the hopeful display and on to the grocery store one building over, I passed a small boy waiting for his father who was busy admiring an array of shiny new grills. The father turned to catch up to his son who had stopped at the row of red wheelbarrows. With both of his little hands gripping the side of one wheelbarrow, the boy stood on his tiptoes to peer over the edge.

“It’s a toy?” he asked into the empty wheelbarrow.

“No.” the father said as he took the boy’s hand to lead him into the hardware store. “You only use that for work.”

“It’s a toy.” the boy said with conviction.

“No, it’s not.” the father repeated. “It’s only for work.”

“No, it’s not.” I thought to myself. “It’s not only for work.”

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my grandmother, Nannie, helping me and my cousin Jeff into her wheelbarrow for a ride. She pushed us to the pear trees in the pasture where we helped her pick up fallen fruit. Riding back to her farmhouse in a pile of pears, we held on to the sides of the wheelbarrow during the bumpy ride and pretended we were on a boat. That was no wheelbarrow only for work. It was a toy.

As older kids, cousins and I took turns pushing each other in the random wheelbarrow that always leaned against Nannie’s barn, maybe the chicken house, or was sometimes absentmindedly left under a tree. If lucky, we came across two wheelbarrows and races began. Those wheelbarrows were not only for work. They were cars or planes or motorcycles. They were toys.

My aunt Noody once gave me and my cousins a package of little plastic sailboats. Having nowhere to float them, we soon lost interest until Noody suddenly appeared with her old wheelbarrow. As we watched, puzzled, Noody unrolled her garden hose and filled the wheelbarrow with water. Instant lake! Her old wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

Years passed and when my own two kids were small I spent as much time behind the wheelbarrow as I ever did inside the wheelbarrow. I pushed first one, then the other, but usually both at the same time. The wheelbarrow became a train, a rocket, and once it was a dinosaur they rode. The wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

I was still thinking about these examples as I left the grocery store and headed back towards the summer display next door. As timing would have it, the little boy and his father were leaving the hardware store as I approached. As the father walked on ahead, the little boy lagged behind just a bit when he got to the wheelbarrow display. Once again, he gripped the side of a huge red wheelbarrow and craned his neck to peer over the edge.

The little boy looked up and grinned at me as I neared him. His little hands never let loose their grip on the edge, but one tiny finger rose up and pointed down into the wheelbarrow.

“It’s a toy?” he asked as I walked closer.

I leaned down just a bit as I reached where he stood.

“Yes, it’s a toy.” I said grinning as I walked past.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Dog Wouldn’t Eat It

My family and I talked a lot over Christmas about Daddy’s fruit cakes. His yearly project meant we would hear many times just how he was going to make it, we would have to admire the ingredients as he laid them out on the counter, and when his edible work of art was complete we would have to sample it. And we did.

Reluctantly.

But Daddy was not the only cake baker in that house. Mama’s pound cakes are well-known to family and friends. Because of recent health issues she hasn’t made one in a while but she will and we’re waiting. Mama never needed a holiday to prompt her to make a pound cake, although production ramped up during special occasions. There always seemed to be a half eaten cake on the counter and another in the freezer, usually heavily wrapped and labeled “okra” to keep us from getting into it.

A few years ago I asked Mama for her pound cake recipe. I love those cakes and thought it might be a good idea to learn to make them. Mama gave me the recipe and admirably hid her shock that I would attempt to make a cake of all things. Just scrambling an egg presents me with a challenge.

“Follow the recipe and you can’t go wrong.” Mama said.

Daddy asked, “You never made a cake before?”

“No.” I said, “But I’ve eaten enough to consider myself a professional.”

“I bet a dog won’t eat that thing when you’re done!” Daddy laughed.

I listened to Mama’s baking advice, bought all necessary ingredients, went home, and began to follow the recipe.

No I didn’t.

I can’t remember exactly how I altered the recipe and I didn’t plan to, but those tiny details became so tedious. My first mistake was to say I even wanted to bake a cake. Many more mistakes followed.

I thought if a little sugar was good then a little more was better. Butter is nice so extra butter should be nicer. The notion of needing to add the eggs “one at a time” (which the recipe said and which Mama stressed the importance of) just seemed silly. In they all went together. I don’t recall how long the cake was to bake but I thought if I increased the temperature by just a little bit then it should cut down on the cooking time. I learned that there is a difference between baking powder and baking soda after all.

When the cake was done, or so I assumed, I took it out of the oven and realized immediately that it didn’t look just like Mama’s. I was sure it would still be delicious.

It wasn’t.

The few parts that didn’t stick to the pan slid onto the plate rather nicely. I eagerly tasted a piece of my first pound cake.

Once I stopped choking, I called Mama. Daddy answered the phone and I describe my results.

“I told you that thing wouldn’t be fit for a dog to eat!” He laughed again.

“Did you follow the recipe?” Mama asked when she got on the phone. I could hear Daddy still laughing in the background.

“Mostly.” I lied.

“Well bring it over here and let me look at it.” Mama said.

I pieced the cake back together in the pan to make it “pretty”. When I got to Mama’s, she and Daddy were sitting in the yard. I walked up to Mama and held the pan full of butchered cake out in front of her.

“Here it is.” I said in a tone that I hoped would make her believe I had faithfully followed the recipe but was still baffled by the finished product. “What could I have done wrong?”

Mama looked at the cake, made a horrible face, and asked, “Do you want a list?”

Daddy, in very colorful language, gave his opinion of my cake and laughed as he added, “I told you a dog wouldn’t eat that thing when you were done with it!”

Mama decided she didn’t want to taste it because it “didn’t look right”. Daddy, once again in very colorful language, told me just why he didn’t care to taste it either.

In spite of the mess in the now ruined cake pan, we all had a good laugh. I walked to the end of their yard and threw the cake out into the garden where I assumed birds, if desperate, might eat it. As I walked back to where they sat, Mama and Daddy were joking about whether or not birds might soon die by the flock.

“I told him even a dog wouldn’t eat that mess.” Daddy said to Mama as I sat down with them.

As we talked about anything other than cakes, my aunt Noody walked from her house next door to join us. On the way, she stopped to let her dog Maggie out for an evening run. As the four of us talked, I noticed Maggie making her way to the edge of the garden where I had dumped the cake.

“Well Daddy.” I said smugly. “Maggie is about to prove you wrong.” I pointed to the dog as she approached the cake pile and gave it a sniff. I bet a dog would eat my cake. I awaited my small victory.

They all turned to watch the dog. Maggie approached the cake pile and sniffed. She raised her head and paused, adding to the mounting tension. She lowered her head to sniff the cake again. That’s when it happened.

Maggie lowered her front end, leaned slightly to the side, and dropped to roll in the cake. Not just a light roll, but a full grinding-the-cake-into-the-shoulder roll. She stood, sniffed the cake again, and rolled on her other side. Adding insult to injury, she walked away from the cake pile, stopping just long enough to kick grass over it with her hind legs. She then trotted away never having taken a bite.

The wheezing sound I heard next was Daddy laughing. “You do know what dogs generally roll in, don’t you?” he asked through the laughter.

Mama made the horrible face again and looked at Noody. “You’ll never be able to get that smell off that dog.”

I laughed too and stood up to walk towards Maggie and the cake pile. I wasn’t going to let Daddy win this one!

“Come here Maggie!” I called as I picked through the cake pile to find a piece I thought she might find edible. It wasn’t easy.

Seeing something in my hand, Maggie came running. I leaned down and handed her the piece of cake as Daddy, Mama, and Noody watched from the other end of the yard. Maggie took it from my hand! I was about to declare a victory when Maggie backed up, raised her head slightly as if to sneeze, then threw her head forward spitting the cake onto the ground. She stared at it.

So did I. She still hadn’t eaten any of it.

Maggie looked at me, wagged her tail, and barked at the piece of cake.

I gave up and walked back to where the others were sitting. They were laughing and appeared to be looking past me. I turned around just in time to see Maggie getting back to her feet after a second roll in the cake.

Daddy was right. Even a dog wouldn’t eat that cake. But she certainly enjoyed it just the same.

Stuart M. Perkins

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I Had a Slice of Fruit Cake

Mama grinned when I brought up Daddy’s past fruit cake project to her a few days ago. She instantly recalled the many details he had described to us before, during, and after production of his masterpiece.

“My lands.” Mama said. “That fruit cake was all he talked about for a while.”

She also remembered my promise to Daddy that I would eat a piece of his fruit cake on Christmas day. The sight and smell of fruit cake are enough to make me retch, but Daddy had been so proud of his cake and so eager for me to taste it that I finally gave in and promised a Christmas day tasting. At the rate Daddy was already eating his culinary work of art, I was sure the thing would be gone by the holidays and I could then shake my head and tell him I was sorry to have missed it – while silently cheering.

When Daddy suddenly passed away a few months before Christmas, the fruit cake and all of our inside jokes associated with it were soon forgotten and replaced by the sad details of the loss. It was only a week or so ago that I remembered my insane promise to taste the awful thing and reminded Mama.

“Mama,” I began, “I know Daddy had some fruit cake left. Do you know where it is?”

“You don’t want it do you?” she asked. Her eyes widened as she looked at me and grinned just imagining my reaction to tasting the cake.

I reminded her that each time I visited them Daddy asked if I wanted a slice. He and I would joke about what I considered to be a downright awful cake. My answer to his question was always an emphatic “no” until I finally broke down and agreed to taste a piece on Christmas day. Daddy has been gone for four months now, but for what it was worth I intended to keep my promise.

Mama said what remained of the fruit cake had been put in the freezer. My sister Vicki soon presented me with a large chunk of Daddy’s masterpiece, still wrapped in wax paper and aluminum foil, and tucked inside a fruit cake tin.

My feelings were mixed. The sight of the fruit cake reminded me of the crazy conversations and silly jokes that Daddy and I shared about his making the thing. The sight of the fruit cake also struck me with shivers of disgust. But, I had promised to taste it, so taste it I would.

But maybe later…

We all knew Christmas would be odd, sad, and definitely not the same without Daddy. Unfortunately it turned out to be all of those things. Although Mama knew I was going to taste the fruit cake, I didn’t want it to become a big production so I didn’t mention it to anyone else. I would just discreetly fulfill my promise before the day was through. Admittedly, I planned to put it off as long as possible. Fruit cake is not fun.

Mama’s house filled with more and more family members as the day wore on. Periodically, she grinned and asked me, “Have a slice of fruit cake?”

“Later.” was my standard response, usually accompanied by a dry heave.

The first holiday after someone passes away is hard on any family. Each of us had to again process losing Daddy when faced with his absence. We missed the jokes he would have told, the snappy one-liners he would have had ready, and the simple sight of his empty chair was enough to upset some. In spite of the void, everyone tried to make it as normal a Christmas as possible, especially for Mama who is still struggling with major complications from her knee replacement surgery earlier this year.

I was afraid that memories stirred up by my fruit cake tasting might upset Mama, but she seemed fine. In fact, she found humor in knowing that the last thing in the world I wanted to taste, regardless of the day of the year, was fruit cake.

As the day wound down I summoned the necessary courage to remove the lid from the fruit cake tin. I began unwrapping the cake and wondered how I might be able to cut a tiny slice without actually having to look at it. The sight of those unnatural neon colored fruits was not appealing. A particularly ugly red one fell out just as I finished unwrapping.

I took a deep breath and tried to cut a paper-thin slice, not easy to do with a heavy cake chock full of bizarre fruits and too many nuts. For fear the smell alone would cause me to lose my courage, I quickly popped a piece of the cake into my mouth and chewed as rapidly as possible. Just as I finished swallowing the hateful concoction, I heard Mama call my name.

“Have a slice of fruit cake?” she asked, laughing when she saw the look on my face. She continued grinning as I washed the cake down with several gulps of water.

“I had a slice of fruit cake.” I confirmed as I exhaled and wiped the vile crumbs from my face.

I have never mixed turpentine, cake batter, and a splash of Drano together, but I believe it would taste exactly the same as fruit cake.

Daddy would have enjoyed the look of misery on my face and would have compared my rapid chewing to “a possum eating briars”. Mama got a good laugh out of the tasting in spite of the emotional reminders. I felt good that I had fulfilled my promise to Daddy and was glad that Mama had not gotten upset.

That came next.

The family made it through the day with only a few spoken comments about Daddy’s absence. Even Mama had been able to talk about him some without completely losing control – until my sister Donna gave her a gift.

A few months ago Donna asked Mama if she could take some of the flannel shirts Daddy had always worn. Donna planned to make a quilt from the material. Even though Mama knew the plan, she hadn’t expected it would be her Christmas gift.

Mama opened the box Donna handed her and saw the quilt. Naturally, she was instantly upset. It was a beautiful quilt in its own right, but as Mama examined patch after patch that came from shirts she had seen Daddy wear on a daily basis, it was more than she could handle. She cried heavily as she held the quilt, occasionally touching one patch or another and softly saying words most of us couldn’t understand.

“I love it.” Mama said through her tears, “But I can’t look at it anymore right now.”

Everyone understood and after a few silent minutes the conversations slowly began to flow again. A grandchild or two gave Mama a hug and we all continued opening presents.

I can usually manage to make Mama laugh, or at least smile, regardless of the situation. In this case I knew there was nothing I could say that would give her any relief or distraction from her upset, so I thought I’d try being practical rather than comical for a change.

“Mama, do you want some water?” I asked. “Is there anything that’ll help?”

Her eyes were still teary and her face was still red but a partial grin showed itself when she responded.

“Have a slice of fruit cake?” she said.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Why Would I Eat Fruit Cake?

It wasn’t even Christmas when Daddy finally made the fruit cake. Every time I’d go back home to visit, Mama and I would listen to Daddy discuss his plan to make it, the vast amounts of ingredients required, and how delicious he knew it would be.

“You like fruit cake don’t you? he asked when he finished telling me the amounts of nuts and dried fruit he would have to add to what I considered a hideous waste of good sugar.

“No.” I answered, making the same face I would make if asked whether I liked road kill.

“If I make it you ought to try it.” Daddy insisted.

“Why would I eat fruit cake?” I asked. “It’s full of unnatural blobs of neon green and red rubber things.”

“You ought to try it though.” he repeated. I pretended to vomit and he laughed as he got up to go outside.

When he left, Mama grinned and said, “You would not believe the production this fruit cake has turned into. If he’s told me once, he’s told me a thousand times how he’s going to make it!”

Weeks passed and each time I visited or talked to my parents on the phone, the fruit cake became the topic of conversation. I’d actually forgotten about it though when I called one night. Mama answered the phone and I asked my usual “What are y’all doing?” She normally responded by telling me Wheel of Fortune was on or my aunt and uncle were visiting. That night though, she whispered into the phone.

“He finally made that dog-gone fruit cake today.” she said.

“Is he going to send out announcements?” I asked.

“I declare I wouldn’t be surprised.” Mama said laughing.

On my next visit home Daddy met me at the back door with a fruit cake tin in his hand.

“Want a slice?” he asked as he wrestled the lid from the tin. “It’s pretty ain’t it?”

“Beautiful. If you like to eat rubber fruit.” I said laughing.

“Want a slice?” he asked again as he shoved the tin under my nose, insisting I smell the cake.

“Why would I eat fruit cake?” I asked with a sigh.

“You ought to try it though.” he said seriously. “I made it.”

I listened as he describe precisely how he had made his beautiful creation, the work he put into it, how delicious it was, and how he didn’t understand why anybody would not eat fruit cake. He bet he could eat the whole thing in a week.

He didn’t.

Unfortunately, fruit cakes last for several eternities so it was there every time I went back home to visit. Daddy would go to the spare bedroom where he kept the tin and unwrap the cake for me to see how much he’d eaten and to tell me over again the entire process involved in making one.

All while I fought back nausea.

“You want a slice?” he asked.

Why would I eat fruit cake?” I responded, hoping I’d finally conveyed my complete disgust.

Daddy grinned knowing he’d turned my stomach. “I made it though, so you really ought to try it.” he said again.

This pattern repeated with each trip back home. Daddy would disappear down the hall to the spare bedroom only to return with his fruit cake to show me the progress made on eating it and to ask again if I wanted a slice. On one occasion he was lying in his recliner and simply looked over at me to ask, “Want a slice of fruit cake?”

“Sure.” I said.

He didn’t hear me at first but as it registered with him what I had said, his head whirled back towards me. “You say you do?” he asked.

I laughed. “No. Why would I eat fruit cake?” I actually detected a tiny sign of disappointment on his face.

“Anyway,” I continued, “I thought people only ate fruit cake at Christmas.” I wondered if I should give in and taste the awful thing, if I could force myself not to recoil at the sight.

“You can eat a cake any time you want, you know.” he said grinning. “But yeah, most people eat them around Christmas.”

“Ok then.” I said. “I’ll eat a piece on Christmas day just to say I tasted it, but don’t worry about saving me any if it seems to start going fast.” I added sarcastically.

“I reckon there will be some left.” Daddy said grinning. “I made it, so you ought to try it.”

We never discussed that fruit cake again. In March of this year Mama had to have knee surgery and she suffered complication after unbelievable complication. Daddy threw himself into taking care of her, the house, and yard. All of these months later, Mama is still unable to walk. Later in the summer of this year, Daddy’s own health issues began to worsen.

He passed away in August.

It has affected the family in ways I’m not sure we know how to articulate and process. In spite of horrible complications from her knee surgery, Mama continues to slowly improve. Losing the man she was married to for sixty years hit her hard but she is tough and will persevere, even with the holidays and all of the memories they will certainly stir up.

I remembered the fruit cake today. I think the rest of it is still in the tin back in the spare bedroom wrapped up just as Daddy would have left it. I told myself I would find it and try a slice on Christmas day.

“Why would I eat fruit cake?” I asked myself out loud as I thought about that silly cake that Daddy was so proud of.

Because I told Daddy I would. He made it and I really ought to try it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Just A Spritz

I had forgotten about the bottle of cologne I noticed on my dresser. It was pushed towards the back behind small piles of random clutter. I don’t usually wear cologne but when given this bottle as a gift I thought why not, I’ll use it. I promptly forgot about it until a few weeks ago when the bottle caught my eye. The box it came in said it was a fragrance full of alluring notes of bergamot, juniper, with a hint of cedar.

I never wanted to smell like a tree.

Still, I took off the top and sprayed a little in the air to sample the alluring notes. Once my coughing fit subsided, I recapped the bottle and decided it smelled nice after all. I would wear a little to work the next day.

Before leaving to catch the bus, I gave myself just a spritz of tree essence. It wasn’t bad. I boarded the bus and took my usual seat. With the bus nearly full by the time it gets to my stop, I’m normally left with the one empty seat beside a very old man. I assume he parks cars for work because he only wears uniforms with the logo of a well-known nearby parking garage. Every morning he reads the paper and although he usually looks up to give me a “good morning” nod, he never actually speaks.

He spoke the day I wore cologne.

I sat down and reveled in the hint of cedar wafting about. That’s when the old man looked up from his paper and began sniffing the air much the way a dog would if bacon were frying in the kitchen. Actually, much the way I would if bacon were frying in the kitchen. The old man turned to look at me.

“Nice.” he said as he looked back down at his paper. I noticed he had an accent of some sort which I detected through his deep gravelly voice.

He said it was nice. Well there you go. Trees do smell good then. I continued to revel in the hint of cedar all the way to work.

I spritzed each morning for about a week. Every day the old man would sniff the air and in his accented voice give me a “Nice.” or “Good.” By the end of the week he even said, “I like it.” The cologne was nice but after a few more days I tired of the daily blast of bergamot and decided to see if the old man might like to have the remainder of the bottle. I didn’t want to offend him by offering but since the extent of our communication after three years had only been head nods and cologne compliments, I was pretty sure he would take my offer at face value.

The next morning I boarded the bus with the bottle of cologne in a clear plastic bag. I sat down beside the old man and debated whether I should ask him if he’d like to have it. I saw him glance towards me and sniff the air, searching. I hadn’t spritzed. I had simply packed the cologne in the bag. As he continued his occasional searching sniffs, I pulled the cologne out of my coat pocket.

“Would you like this?” I asked, waiting for either no response or an immediate cursing from an insulted old man.

He looked down at the cologne and in that deep gravelly voice said “Yes” with an accent I still could not figure out. He took the cologne, put it in his coat pocket, and continued reading his paper.

Well at least he didn’t curse me, I thought as I looked through the windows to see how close we might be to the next bus stop. That’s when I heard his voice again.

“How much?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t want money. You can have it if you want it.” I said, embarrassed that old man must have thought I was trying to sell him a used bottle of tree sap.

“No. How much I use?” he clarified.

“Oh. Just a spritz.” I said as I automatically raised my hand to demonstrate in the air. I pumped one finger up and down and absent-mindedly “air spritzed” pretty much all over myself. That may have been the mistake. Or perhaps the word “spritz” is not easily translated into the language he normally spoke.

As I waited for the bus the very next morning I was anxious to see if the old man had used the cologne. It would be my turn to sniff the air. As the bus pulled up and stopped to let me board, I wondered if the heat inside was on too high because I saw two open windows and several people fanning the air. In fact, one woman near the seat I normally take was actually covering her face with a handkerchief.

The bus door opened and something hit me. A wall of bergamot, juniper, and much more than a mere hint of cedar punched me in the face. My eyes watered instantly as I walked down the aisle to my usual seat beside the old man. I noticed several empty seats around him. There would be no need to sniff the air to search for the fragrance. It had met me at the door and walked me to my seat.

I sat down beside the old man and stared straight ahead. I didn’t know what to say.

He looked up from his paper. “I used it.” he said as he looked directly at me.

“Oh, you did?” I asked politely. I could now actually taste juniper.

He rustled around in his coat pocket and handed me something. “You need this back?” he asked in the accented gravelly voice.

Through watering eyes I looked down to see the now empty cologne bottle in his hand.

“You used all of that?” I asked just before the bergamot began to make my throat close.

“Yes.” he responded as he raised his hand to demonstrate. He did the finger pumping motion all around his body.

How much?” I asked as a hint of cedar slapped me twice across the face.

“Many, many spritz.” he said, as he turned back to read his paper.

Stuart M. Perkins

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My Old Stuff

My coworker, Clarice, frantically motioned me into her office as I walked towards the copier. She barely looked up from her computer as her hand rapidly waved me towards her desk.

“Isn’t this Italian antique walnut burl carved armoire beautiful?” she asked.

What?” I asked in response. I wasn’t even sure she was speaking English.

She turned the computer towards me, pointed to the photo, and waited for me to be awed.

“Oh.” I said. “Where I’m from that’s just a wardrobe.”

You have one of these?” she asked with a slight smirk.

“No, but I have a cedar wardrobe that was my maternal great-grandmother’s.” I answered.

“Oh, of course. My uncle owns an antique shop in Baltimore.” she said as she turned the computer back towards herself.

“I like old stuff.” I said as I left her office to continue to the copier.

I do like old stuff and I have plenty. The stuff isn’t just old, each piece once belonged to someone in my family. Various things from both sides, passed down, and down again, until fortunately they landed with me. The old stuff I have isn’t that valuable in terms of dollars, but whether furniture, rug, picture, or simple trinket, each has a story that was told to me when I received the item. When I look at each of these things I imagine the person who first owned them, touched them, where in their own house they might have kept them, and if they could have ever thought that so many years later a relative would look at them daily and be grateful to have them.

The armoire that Clarice showed me in the photo was a pretty piece of furniture but it meant nothing to me. I would rather have my great-grandmother’s cedar wardrobe than all the armoires in Italy, but I don’t know antiques. I only know my old stuff.

When I invited coworkers to come over one evening after work Clarice was the first to say yes. She was quick to tell me she couldn’t wait to see my antique armoire.

“It’s a cedar wardrobe.” I reminded her.

“Of course.” she said.

Everyone arrived that day after work and we chatted about families, the weekend, and office gossip. Clarice walked instantly to the cedar wardrobe to inspect it. As she stood beside the huge piece of furniture she looked down beneath her feet.

“This is an American antique hooked rug from the 1930′s I would guess.” she said as she stepped aside to give it a closer look. “Is it from a specialty shop?”

“No, it’s from Mama’s hallway.” I said as I laughed. “One day I commented that I liked it so she picked it up and gave it to me.”

“Of course.” Clarice said as she noticed a small piece of furniture in the corner. “What an absolutely beautiful vintage telephone table!” she said. “Did you find that at an auction?”

“No, my paternal grandmother gave it to me. It was in the upstairs hall of her farmhouse for decades.” I said. “She really did keep her phone and phone book on it.”

“Of course.” Clarice said as she stepped across the room to ask about a bowl and pitcher she noticed on a washstand. “This bowl and pitcher might be ironstone, I think. Did it come from a dealer?”

“No, it came from my maternal grandmother.” I answered. “It was on her dining room table every time I ever visited her. She gave it to Mama, who gave it to me.”

This process repeated for the next few minutes, then several times throughout the evening as one thing or another caught Clarice’s eye. She flitted from room to room asking about everything from the cedar wardrobe to my grandmother’s old handheld pruners that I keep on a shelf simply because I like to look at them and remember. Her every comment ended by asking if a particular item came from a shop, auction, estate sale, or dealer. My every response ended by answering that it came from a grandparent, great-grandparent, uncle, or aunt. I followed with the story I knew for each item that she pointed out.

As this process wore on, it became clear that Clarice realized the difference I meant between antiques and my old stuff. She began to be more interested in the story behind each piece than she was in the piece itself.

Clarice’s husband came with her that evening. He told her he liked the cedar wardrobe and had also noticed a large enamel pitcher I had in the kitchen. He asked, “I don’t suppose you bought this either?” as he pointed towards the pitcher.

“No, that hung under the steps of the two-story porch on my grandmother’s farmhouse. She gave it to me one day for helping her pull corn.” I said.

“Does everything have a story?” he asked with a grin.

“Of course.” I answered.

The evening came to an end and coworkers and I had a great time laughing and talking about many other things besides the old stuff I had sitting around everywhere. As they left, Clarice’s husband stopped her at the door. “Maybe we should check out a few antique stores tomorrow. I’d like to look for a cedar wardrobe and maybe a ceramic pitcher or two like the one in Stuart’s kitchen.” he said. “One can never have too many antiques.” Clarice looked at her husband, then glanced around my living room one more time.

“We have enough antiques.” Clarice said. “I wish we had old stuff.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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