Stay and Change It

A passenger on the bus this morning finished a phone call as he sat down beside me.

“Nope. All I got in my fraternity was hung over.” he said.

I remembered a hangover from my fraternity days, but that wasn’t all I got. I also got an excellent piece of advice.

I didn’t want to join a fraternity. The last thing I needed was to squeeze frat parties into a busy class schedule. However, a friend whose reverse idea was to squeeze classes into a busy party schedule somehow convinced me.

The next thing I knew, I was wearing a toga.

Prior to that were weeks of pledging. I’ve never enjoyed being told what to do, when, how often, and where – all while being criticized – and requests from the brothers were constant. Check in at the frat house, go on scavenger hunts, paint a room, make posters for a party, and so on. Daily requests were impromptu and numerous but my friend and I, along with five others, took them seriously. We had to, of course, in order to be accepted into the fraternity.

Oh, I made friends and had some great times as a pledge. It wasn’t all bad. The community projects and neighborhood clean-ups were no problem. Being blind-folded and told to eat the unidentified, cold, slimy contents of a bowl while wearing only my underwear, well, that wasn’t the finest evening. It was being constantly “on call”, though, that was the real nerve racker. We pledges never knew when to expect a note demanding we immediately report to the frat house. I began to have second thoughts about pledging.

Weeks wore on and I wore out. Keeping up with classes was never an issue, but I tired of dishwashing, running errands, wearing silly hats around campus, and being at the beck and call of a house full of guys who delighted in the drama they commanded. The other pledges were at times frantic to complete their latest assignments. The stress wasn’t worth it and I walked to the fraternity house one afternoon to tell them so. No more pledging for me.

Based on what I knew of him, I assumed the fraternity president would listen, probably laugh, and then tell me to go clean the basement. I was wrong.

He did listen. In fact, with several brothers in the house that afternoon, he took me onto the porch to talk privately. This guy, who for weeks I’d seen only in the role of Commander-in-Nonsense, partier and beer lover, was suddenly very serious as he asked me what was wrong.

I told him I had nothing against him or the brothers and it had been quite the experience, but weeks of daily nonsense requests didn’t seem worth it. I didn’t enjoy being bossed around, putting out “emergency” fires, and I had my classes to think about. I told him I quit pledging.

What he said next has stuck with me for over thirty years.

He listened to my whining then looked at me and said, “If you’re involved in something and you don’t like how it’s going, don’t leave it. Stay and change it.”

Wow, I thought. Suddenly my irritation over being “bossed around” seemed shallow and silly. What excellent words to give someone on the verge of quitting anything. I said ok then, I would maintain for a while and see how it went. As luck would have it, the next day we pledges learned that on the upcoming Saturday night there would be a secret ceremony and we would learn who had been accepted.

I was proud to hear my name called first that night.

Excellent advice had kept me on track: “If you’re involved in something and you don’t like how it’s going, don’t leave it. Stay and change it.”

No longer a pledge now, requests from the other brothers halted. I enjoyed my time in the fraternity, kept up with my school work, and even learned what it was I’d eaten from the bowl that night while wearing only underwear and a blindfold. I also kept in mind our fraternity president’s advice. I had stayed, now what could I change?

When the next batch of pledges signed on, the brothers’ shenanigans began again. I remembered all of the nonsense I’d gone through, how insane some of it seemed, and how I would have quit except for the wise words of advice I got on the porch that afternoon.

When the pledges were told to report to the house after class I proposed that they be given time for homework first. When the pledges were told to paint rooms in the fraternity house I proposed that we help to make it go faster. When the pledges were asked to participate in community clean-ups I proposed that those of us with cars give them a ride.

And when the pledges were told to wear only their underwear, be blindfolded, and eat the cold, slimy contents of a bowl placed before them, well, I was happy to hand them the bowl.

If they didn’t like it, they could stay and change it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Have A Seat

This was the second Thanksgiving since Daddy died. Mama’s house is full of sad reminders that Daddy is no longer with us but the most glaring is his empty leather recliner. “Daddy’s chair” still sits in the same room, in the same corner, in the same position that it has for years.

Thanksgivings past, Daddy would have supervised Mama’s cooking. He would have asked repeatedly what time we were to eat, then grumbled with a smile that whatever time she’d said was too early, or too late, depending on which he hoped might aggravate her the most. It would have been fun to hear him playfully pester her again.

But that empty leather chair reminded us that no, he was not there.

As we helped ourselves to turkey Daddy would have commented “Is that all you’re going to eat?” or “Did you leave any for me?” depending on how full he deemed each plate. He would have eaten dessert in his chair, hidden the TV remote in his pocket, and dozed off only to suddenly pop up and respond to questions asked from across the room. How comical it would have been to again hear him alternately snore, then comment on the various conversations going on in the room.

But that empty leather chair reminded us that no, he was not there.

Daddy also had a second recliner out on his screened porch. It had been on the same part of the porch and in the same position for years. He’d sit there on nice days to discuss life with neighbors, friends, or his grandchildren. Not long ago we threw that old recliner away. Years of “Daddy” had worn it out. The empty space left after hauling away the old chair smacked us in the face.

After Thanksgiving dinner the other day all of the grandsons headed out to sit on the porch where they’d grown up listening to Daddy’s stories. My son Evan hadn’t been on the porch since before the old recliner was removed. I wondered if he’d notice and how he might be affected by the giant void left after taking away Daddy’s “throne”.

The grandsons were out there a long while. I suppose they talked about whatever five cousins who grew up spending hours with their grandfather in that space might talk about. Finally they came back into the house. I asked Evan if he had noticed that the old recliner was gone. He very quietly said yes, it felt weird to them all, and that they had “moved some things around”.

Not knowing exactly what he meant, I went to see for myself. In addition to Daddy’s recliner there have always been several plastic lawn chairs out there for use when friends and family visit. The chairs stay lined up along one side of the porch. I opened the porch door and saw the line of white plastic chairs positioned as usual, but one was missing.

While they talked together out there, the grandsons had moved one plastic chair from the row and placed it where Daddy’s recliner always sat. They put it on the same part of the porch and in the same position as his old chair. Those five young guys spent time that afternoon in a place where each alone, and together, had spent time with their grandfather over the years.

It would have been like old times for them if Daddy had again been holding court from his recliner, lecturing, advising, or laughing over his own dirty jokes. It was obvious that his absence bothered them all.

But that empty plastic chair reminded them that yes, he was still there.

Stuart M. Perkins

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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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