Monthly Archives: July 2013

Hi Ben

During my walk through the cemetery this afternoon I noticed rabbits tucked here and there, watched countless squirrels skitter across gravestones, and heard two blue jays bicker with a crow as it picked something from an old paper bag. Acres in size, this cemetery is full of wildlife from backyard birds to a family of foxes living in a back corner where brush is piled. Once I walk into the cemetery all traffic noises are gone, no sirens blare, and I forget I’m only four miles from downtown D.C. Watching a pair of cardinals in the shrubs by the gate, I sat down at a bench beside one of the gravestones.

I knew from other walks in the cemetery that if I sat on this bench long enough, the family of chipmunks living under the granite base of the tombstone next to it would soon get the nerve to come out. I’m not sure how many live below since there is a constant flow out of the hole, in the hole, back out, two of them now, no wait three, all gone, no here they come again. Once I had four in sight as they scrambled over each other like kittens, paused, then dashed back under the granite, tails in the air. All of these animals today reminded me of the many, many times as a kid that we took in abandoned animals brought to us by well-meaning people.

Our house was always full of animals. Not just the cats and dogs we had, but baby birds, baby rabbits, and even a lizard with three legs someone brought in case we could help it. I currently live in a third floor condo so a pet of any kind is almost out of the question, but something as simple as an afternoon watching rabbits, foxes, and chipmunks can sometimes fill the void.

As a chipmunk bounded from the hole and headed towards a crepe myrtle, a plump robin landed beside me on the back of the bench. I instantly thought of Ben, the name Mama gave to a baby robin someone brought to our house years ago. Mama was usually pretty exasperated by the number of animals I kept, but for some reason she took over caring for Ben the instant he showed up in the bottom of a shoe box. He was just a chunky, fuzzy blob the day he arrived, but in no time Mama had him fat and feathered.

We had a huge screened porch where Mama kept Ben, so he was able to fly as he grew. Ben was satisfied to stay on the screened porch and land on the arms of neighbors who came to visit. People would always ask Mama, “Doesn’t he go to the bathroom on you?”

“Ben would never do that.” Mama always said.

As weeks passed and summer went by, Ben became an adult and began acting interested in other robins in the yard. Mama worried about it, but not wanting to hold him back, she decided she would let him go out to see what he would do.

He flew away.

In an hour he was back. Mama tapped on a can, something she’d done each time she’d fed him, and he flew back to the screened porch. He spent the night there but the next day the pattern repeated: Free to fly in the yard all day, sit on the gutter over the back door which was now favorite spot, then back to the screened porch at night. After a few days of this, Ben no longer returned to the screened porch at night but still spent a lot of time on the gutter over the back door.

“He’s going to sit up there and go to the bathroom on you.” Daddy would say to Mama as he laughed.

“Ben would never do that.” she maintained.

Mama would tap on the can, Ben would fly from the gutter to the porch railing to be fed, then off to the yard somewhere to socialize with his own kind. This new pattern continued for a few more days then we stopped seeing Ben waiting on the gutter. As weeks went by we saw the occasional robin on the gutter, or one in the yard that didn’t seem particularly afraid, but robins never really do. As fall and then winter came the robins disappeared and we wondered if Ben had adjusted well enough to leave with them. We hoped he could survive.

We thought about Ben often during the winter.  As spring came, the more robins that showed up the more we talked about him. One late spring morning I went outside to see a robin on the gutter above the back door. It didn’t fly away. I called Mama who hurried and started talking to the bird. It cocked its head at her but made no effort to move. She stepped inside, grabbed a can from the recycling bin, and came back. As she tapped the can the robin cocked its head again. When Mama tapped a second time, the robin flew down from the gutter to sit on the railing.

“Hi Ben.” Mama said. The robin sat still as she talked. “Hi Ben.” she said again. The robin cocked its head once more and actually hopped along the railing towards Mama. It sat still, staring at her. Then, in a flutter of wings it flew away over the pine trees and was gone. If it was Ben, we never saw him again that we know of. Mama still talks about Ben to this day.

As I sat on that bench in the cemetery remembering Ben and the many, many animals we took care of for short periods of time, I felt a little wistful. There’s a feeling we animal lovers get from having them around, the interaction, the bonding, and the comedy they can provide. There was a feeling of melancholy that came over me remembering Mama’s success with Ben and how I really do think that was him who came back for a visit the next spring.

Feeling full of nostalgia, I turned to the plump robin still sitting on the bench beside me.

“Hi Ben.” I said.

The robin cocked its head at me and just before flying off, it unceremoniously went to the bathroom down the back of the bench.

Ben would never have done that.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Stew Day

My Sunday morning walk took me by the local farmers market. It was a lively scene as vendors slid from their truck seats, stretched, and waved to other vendors arriving to set up for the day. I watched as a hardworking woman spread out dozens of ears of corn alongside boxes of huge red tomatoes and I was reminded of summers back home when it seemed everything in the garden ripened at once. Our piles of tomatoes, squash, butter beans and other vegetables rivaled any farmers market display. The mounds of our homegrown produce also meant it was time for a Brunswick stew…

I was an adult before I realized just how fortunate I was to grow up the way I did. My grandparents had a small farm and had given each of their children a bordering piece of land on which to build their homes. My grandparents’ farmhouse and the huge garden worked by our families were the focal points for us all. I grew up surrounded by best friends – who happened to be my cousins. From my backyard I could look across garden, field, or pasture to see a cousin on the swing set, an uncle on the tractor, or my grandmother Nannie under the apple tree by the well as she emptied a bucket of just picked tomatoes onto an old metal table. With so much ripe and ready at once, it was time for the stew.

It was exciting to wake up to the faint smell of wood smoke wafting through my bedroom window from across the field. Daddy and the uncles would have gathered early to start a fire beneath the huge cast iron stew pot. It was no stove-top pot. That thing could easily hold two small kids. A cousin and I proved that once during a game of hide-and-seek! By the time we kids showed up on the morning of the stew, the fire was at perfect peak, gallons of water were boiling, and Nannie, Mama and the aunts had readied the meat and cut up vegetables from the garden.

For the next several hours we kids would play – usually as close to the fire as we could without getting fussed at – while Mama and the aunts scurried back and forth between kitchen and the boiling stew. Daddy and the uncles would talk and take turns stirring the stew with what appeared to be the oar from a sizeable dingy. As a kid I remember thinking how interesting it was that Mama and the aunts were in charge of family cooking all year long, but on stew day Daddy and the uncles took over. I think they just wanted to play with the fire.

Even today I have no idea what stew recipe was used, the proportion of ingredients, or how long and how often the boat oar needed to be swirled around the giant pot. I do remember that timing seemed to be everything and there was generally great debate over several major points. Time for the corn, no add the butter beans first, is the meat already in, should we add more water, have the tomatoes cooked down, add salt, don’t add salt, get that oak leaf out that just fell in, and on and on.

Hours later, after being properly talked over and paddled, the stew was ready. It was always good, but with Nannie’s homemade rolls alongside, it was even better. Since making homemade ice cream was a separate family event unto itself, Nannie had usually made blackberry roll for dessert instead, having picked the blackberries in the pasture herself. Naturally we washed it all down with sweet tea.

As I walked back home after passing the farmers market I thought about all of the family stews we had in the past and how long it had been since I’d had any “real” stew. When I got home I checked my kitchen cabinets. I did have one can of store bought Brunswick stew. It might be ok, but I’m certain it won’t be as good as the “real” stuff. I don’t know if it was the fresh vegetables, the boat oar, or the occasionally fallen oak leaf in the pot that made those stews so memorable.

I imagine it was more likely the fact that each time I ate “real” stew I was surrounded by laughing aunts and uncles, Nannie in her apron, and the rest of my extended family. We were gathered there under a tree, bowls of stew in our laps, a roll in one hand, and a glass of sweet tea in the other.

Stuart M. Perkins

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New Old Friends

This morning as I waited for the bus to take me to work, I thought again about the never ending source of entertainment provided by my daily commute. I’ve relayed anecdotes before about my bus rides and I wondered when the next interesting scenario would present itself. I had only minutes to wait…

As I stepped onto the bus I noticed there were a few choice empty seats up front. These are a good find since sitting up front makes it easier to quickly exit the bus when we reach the end of our route. I sat in the first row of seats which happens to run along the side of the bus so that the person seated isn’t facing the front, but is facing an identical row of seats on the opposite side of the bus. That row of seats opposite me was empty except for one elderly man with a newspaper.

At the very next stop an elderly woman climbed onto the bus. As she saw the man opposite me she screamed in sheer delight, “Hello there!” and grabbed his hand and smiled as she sat down beside him. She was clearly excited to find him riding the bus this morning and she leaned over to give him a kiss on the cheek. Since my seat faced theirs, separated by only about three feet, I could clearly hear their animated conversation.

“How in the world have you been?” she asked as she twisted her body to try to face him. She now grasped both of his hands.

“Doing well!” he responded as he smiled back at her. He leaned over and gave her a hug. “It’s been so long since I last saw you!”

They seemed genuinely excited to see each other and to have a couple minutes to catch up.

“It’s been years since I’ve seen you!” she said as she patted him on the knee.

“You still live in the Chatham?” she asked.

“No, I never lived in the Chatham.” he said. “I live off of Four Mile Run.”

“Oh, yes.” she said still smiling.

He was smiling too as he asked, “Are you still working part time at the flower shop in Alexandria?”

“I never worked in a flower shop.” she said, staring at him a little more intently.

“Ok, I was thinking flower shop.” he said apologetically.

Trying to get the conversation back on solid ground she asked him, “How are the grandchildren?”

“Whose?” he asked in return.

“Yours.” she answered, looking puzzled.

“I don’t even have children.” he responded. They both smiled a little less now and had let go of each others hands.

“I thought your daughter’s children visited you when you lived in North Arlington?” she asked as she sat a bit more upright, inching back into place in her own seat.

He attempted to bring some understanding to the conversation. “I never lived in North Arlington, but your grandson stayed with you for a week one summer when we both lived in the neighborhood near Petworth, right? he asked. His eyes searched for some sort of acknowledgment.

“I never lived in that area.” she said, staring at him blankly.

“Are you Ruth?” he asked bluntly, appearing to realize he had just hugged a total stranger and then held her hands.

“My name is Edith.” she said.

“Are you Martin”? she asked, appearing to realize she had just kissed a stranger on the cheek and then patted his knee.

“My name is Larry.” he answered.

They stared at each other for a second, then both grinned sheepishly as they talked over themselves apologizing for the mistake.

As the bus approached the end of our route, Larry and Edith said no more but stared straight ahead as though their conversation had never happened. When the bus stopped for us to exit, they stood, gave each other a slight grin and a nod, then left in different directions.

What a shame, I thought. In five minutes time they had gone from what they thought were old friends, back to total strangers again, embarrassed by their own friendliness towards each other.

This evening after work as I approached the bus waiting to take me back home, I saw Larry sitting up front in the same seat he had occupied this morning. I passed by his seat on the way to an empty one a few rows down. Just as the bus doors were about to shut, Edith climbed up the steps. She fumbled with her purse as she walked down the aisle and didn’t look up until she heard her name.

“Hello Edith.” Larry said with a smile.

“Well Larry!” Edith grinned as she greeted him.

Larry patted the empty seat beside him and nodded for Edith to sit down. She sat down. Amid the din of conversations on the evening bus, always louder and more crowded than the morning bus, I heard him ask about her day, she asked about his, and I swear I heard some mention of dinner plans in there…

The bus approached my stop and as I stood up they were still smiling.

As I walked by them, Edith giggled and patted Larry on the knee.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Filled Need

One summer evening back in 2006 I happened to see a P.B.S. documentary on people living in the Appalachian region of Virginia. My kids, 8 and 10 at the time, had been with me for the weekend and we’d had a great time as usual. After they left, I cleaned and washed a few dishes. The television was on for background noise really. I hated how quiet it was once the kids left.

I started to pay attention to the documentary when someone began to interview an Appalachian couple as they sat on the front porch steps of their tiny frame house. The couple had two kids but little else of any value besides their home. The father worked as a coal miner and handyman while the mother took care of the kids and worked a part-time job at a corner grocery store.

During the interview the couple held hands as they spoke about the hardships of living in such an impoverished area where most people had little education and jobs were scarce. I was struck by the fact that they never complained. Not once. The simply did the best they could and were grateful their good health allowed them to work.

They were serious when they spoke but smiled when asked about their kids. The mother described how much they loved them. The father smiled at first, then his expression changed. This big, burly, tough, coal miner and handyman who lived a rough mountain life began to cry as he spoke about his children. He expressed disappointment in himself because he was unable to give his kids things he knew other children had. At Christmas, he said, it was especially rough. It was hard to tell what he said, he cried so hard as he said it.

I cried with him. To some extent I understood that disappointment. This couple worked as much as possible to keep the kids taken care of and happy. In spite of their efforts, they felt shame and disappointment because in their minds they were letting their kids down. Every empty Christmas was a reminder of that feeling.

At that time, I had very little myself. I have never had much, but that was an especially rough period. Still, as I watched that grown man cry, and not just tear up a little but completely sob because he felt he was letting his kids down, it dawned on me. This was suddenly all pretty simple. I had very little, but he and others in his situation had even less. Surely there was something I could do.

The first call I made was to my friend Mary Dell. I told her what I’d seen, how it made me feel, and asked what she thought of collecting clothes and shoes and once we had enough we could take them all…somewhere. I had no idea where. She immediately agreed. After my call she drummed up donations on her end while I did the same on mine. Friends and family eagerly pitched in. Over the next few months a spare bedroom in my basement began to overflow with bags of clothes and shoes.

As collections grew I began to email various community action programs operating in Virginia counties within the Appalachian region. I also spoke with various social service departments, charitable organizations, and even fire departments, anyone I could find who might know which agency would get the most use out of the things we were quickly stockpiling in my basement. The idea was not to start our own charity, but to feed into established programs that provided help to the people they served.

Amazingly, my calls reached many dead ends. No one was rude or unappreciative, they just didn’t know what to make of my proposition. I simply wanted an address of the office or warehouse used by the program. My friends and I would pack up the hundreds of items we were still collecting and deliver them. I got responses from those I contacted like “We can’t pay you anything.” or “We don’t have it in our budget to reimburse your gas.” I never asked for any of those things. I just wanted to deliver the clothes. Many times I was asked for the name of my organization. People I contacted seemed to have trouble understanding why one individual, hours away across the state, would call with such an offer.

If these program directors felt more comfortable feeling they were dealing with an organization, then I would give my group of friends a name. I decided on “R.E.A.C.T. Virginia” (Reach Every Appalachian Child Today) and registered our group online so that my contact information could be accessed.

After weeks of back and forth with about thirty agencies, I managed to get the attention of the director of a community action program in a county in southwest Virginia. I told her we had hundreds of items, clothing and shoes for men, women, boys, and girls. All sizes. If she would tell me where her office or warehouse was, I would make sure the items were delivered.

She initially responded with comments I’d heard before. “We thank you for your desire to help, we can’t come to Richmond to pick items up, we can’t pay for shipping.” I told her I understood, that friends and I had collected the items and at this point we only needed to be told who needed these things the most and where we could take them. If her agency could use them we had no problem packing it all up and driving the four or five hours to deliver them.

The director’s next email to me was one word. “Why?”

She was baffled as to why anyone from across the state would contact her little program and volunteer to hand deliver such an amount of clothing as I had described. I once again quoted my grandmother, Nannie, to a complete stranger. I repeated the line of hers that I have repeated many times. “When you see a need, fill it.” My friends and I were just trying to fill a need.

Still baffled, she sent me directions to her office warehouse. We agreed upon a date to make the delivery, which happened to fall on my 44th birthday. I couldn’t wait to tell Mary Dell, her son Greg, and her sister Brenda, who had all been instrumental in making this effort work. I was thrilled. Finally I had found people who knew how to make the best use of all we had collected. I walked downstairs and looked at the room full of clothes in bags and boxes.  The room was literally full to the ceiling in the corners. Then it hit me that all of these things would have to be packed onto the truck.

What truck?

Without hesitation, Brenda’s husband Fred offered us the use of his pickup truck. What followed next was a blur of the core group of friends, my sisters, and my mother who arrived with a cooler packed full of sandwiches working like ants over that room full of clothes and shoes. We sorted, sized, folded, bagged, and laughed for hours. Everything was ready to go on the truck in the morning.

When Mary Dell, Brenda, and Greg arrived in the truck early the next morning I remember thinking we probably wouldn’t need so big a truck. I was wrong. Before the packing was done the truck was piled high, rounded over with bags of clothes, a tarp stretched across and lashed with ropes. All we lacked was Granny Clampett in a rocking chair as the cherry on top.

The four of us left for our five hour trip to southwest Virginia unsure of our directions, where we were actually going, or what we would find when we got there.

What we found was a small but effective organization run by kind, caring, and determined people. We drove to the back of the office warehouse and were greeted by a man at the door. When he asked if he could help us with something, I told him my name and who we were. He suddenly disappeared from sight but we could hear him yell to someone inside, “Come quick! R.E.A.C.T. Virginia is here!”

I was embarrassed and suddenly feared that maybe I had overplayed the amount of things we were bringing. What if they were disappointed?

They were not disappointed. There was disbelief in their eyes as they saw the mountain of bags of clothes, contents all clearly labeled. That alone had saved them a lot of work, we learned. It took a while to unload the truck and I stopped counting the number of times we were thanked. With the truck unloaded I looked at my friends, knowing we were all feeling pretty good that we had accomplished what we set out to do. That’s when we were invited inside for a tour of the office.

We went inside and were told in detail how they work, what they do, where the items go, who can receive the donations, and every other detail. We were also told that our delivery couldn’t have come at a better time. There had recently been two house fires in the nearby town and both families had been left with nothing. The timing was perfect.

They thanked us, we thanked them, and we told them we would be on our way since we had to make the return five hour trip. We were told we couldn’t leave until they took our picture. We were escorted outside where we lined up in front of the agency’s sign and had our group photo taken. R.E.A.C.T.Virginia was going to be in the local paper.

After the photos we headed home. It had been a long, satisfying day. My intention was to continue that effort. Maybe a yearly trip to other programs, if not that particular one. Unfortunately, life got in the way a bit. I changed jobs, moved, and the planned effort was basically left behind.

This has been seven years ago now, but just recently I got a phone call from the director of a community action program in North Carolina. She had learned about us from the director of the agency where we had delivered our truckload of clothes – seven years ago. She wondered if R.E.A.C.T. Virginia would consider helping agencies located outside Virginia and if we would, could she talk to me about their particular needs.

I apologized to her and let her know that we had not been active for a few years, but I hoped she would be able to find the help she was looking for. She very pleasantly thanked me. I hung up and since then have pondered how to make it work again.

It all started because I saw a hard working grown man brought to tears when he felt he disappointed his children. Even though I had little, I still had more than that man, and it caused me to remember what Nannie always said. Seeing that sad man sparked the effort, but my friends and family are what made it succeed.

I felt such satisfaction knowing that many, many people benefited from the huge amount of clothes and shoes we were able to provide. There is so much red tape, sometimes, in getting charitable acts accomplished.  The people who needed the things we delivered had no time for red tape. Somewhere a kid needed shoes, and he got them.

That truckload of clothes and shoes we were able to deliver was not the result of years of planning, debating, budget reviews, and demographic mapping. It happened because we saw a need and with the help of our families and others, we helped to fill it. It didn’t take master plans and countless meetings to accomplish.

It was accomplished by four friends and a pickup truck.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Bus Whisperer

Working in D.C. means that public transportation is a routine part of my day. When I moved here a few years ago I balked at the notion of waiting every morning for a bus to take me to work, and another to take me home. I wasn’t going to stand in rain or snow or heat and wait! I decided to drive myself to work for a week to see how it might be. Could the commute be that bad? I only live four miles away.

It was four miles of unholy misery.

Realizing I would rather take a bullet to the groin than drive into D.C. again, I waited for a bus the very next Monday. There would still be traffic, but I wouldn’t be driving in it. That first morning I felt a little foolish waiting at the bus stop. I felt out of place, silly, and conspicuous. All I lacked was a yellow rain slicker and a Sesame Street lunchbox with matching thermos.

Over time, however, my daily bus rides have become a great source of entertainment. At least weekly I see or hear something fascinating, interesting, or completely puzzling. I began to notice over time that while most people don’t speak to each other during the commute, I seemed to be the one person on the bus that others felt compelled to sit beside when they had the urge to talk.

Once, a woman once sat down, turned to me, and asked a question in what sounded like perfect Spanish. I replied, “Oh I’m sorry. I can’t speak Spanish.”

She then said, in perfect English, “Yeah, me either.” and turned away never saying another word.

The very next day a man wearing a kilt, a hunting vest, and a Hello Kitty wristwatch asked me how much it would cost him to fly to D.C.

I said, “Sir, you are in D.C.” He thanked me profusely for saving him the money.

Incidents like that occur so frequently that it was no surprise when an elderly woman sat beside me not long ago, looked at me and said, “You’re going to love this.”

That’s when it dawned on me. Did I have a special talent? Something bus riders saw in me that they didn’t see in other passengers? Was it a special gift I had that made people speak to me during the commute when they spoke to no one else?

Suddenly, I understood. I am the bus whisperer.

The elderly woman roused me from the daze of my realization by poking me in the arm with her bony finger. “Yes, you’re going to love this.” she repeated.

I wasn’t willing to bet as much, but it was Friday, so we’d see.

“Why is that?” I took the bait.

“Well, I had to have an operation. It took a while to recover so I stayed with my daughter. I love her but was happy to go home.” she said.

After she explained, at great length, every gory detail involved in giving a seventy year old woman a hysterectomy, she launched into even greater detail about her daughter’s increasingly unhappy marriage, her unruly grandchildren, and she reached back in time to tell me about the death of her husband.

I listened. She occasionally asked a question but before I could answer she started on the next sad extension of her conversation. I remembered what my grandmother, Nannie, used to say when we grandchildren wanted to help her with her chores. Not wanting to discourage us from being helpful, but also knowing that our attempts would likely slow her down, she would tell us “Watching is helping.” We then sat back at a distance feeling good about how much we were helping by watching, and Nannie was able to get on with her chores.

So maybe “Listening is helping”, I thought. I continued to listen as the elderly woman finished the part about her husband dying, which morphed into a story about his sister who died of the same thing. Each time she stopped to catch her breath before expounding on the next gloomy topic she would again say, “You’re going to love this.” By the time we reached the end of our commute I began to think, I do love this. I was simply listening, but this woman seemed as happy as if she’d been given a wonderful gift. But, I am the bus whisperer, after all.

The bus stopped. As we all moved slowly to the door to step out onto the street, the elderly woman poked me again with that bony finger. “You’re going to love this.” she said once more, “I’m having dental work done next week on top of it all!”

I smiled, nodded, and waved as she walked off down the block. I felt good about my newfound superpowers and wondered who I would help the next day.

It was endearing the way she had insisted “You’re going to love this.” before nearly every sentence. I had a few minutes before the shuttle came to take me the final mile to work so I walked over to a bench to wait and sat down beside another elderly woman. I thought this complete stranger might enjoy hearing what had just transpired so I decided I would tell her. I leaned over grinning and said, “You’re going to love this.”

“Creep!” she said with disgust, and moved to the next bench.

I guess she hadn’t yet heard. I am the bus whisperer.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Asp Not

It was hot the morning Mary Dell and I began working in her cottage garden and in spite of the heat we eagerly launched into our efforts. While I pruned, watered, or weeded the winding walkway, Mary Dell began the work she did best. She talked to each plant, wished it well, and commented on its beauty. She even got around to deadheading a day lily, looking quite stylish wearing the latest in sun hats and shades.

“Oh bless.” Mary Dell said as she attempted to lift a shovel. Various yard tools were sometimes left scattered throughout the garden and we gathered them to return them to the shed. “Why, I can’t even lift this thing! Would you mind carrying it?”Mary Dell asked.

“All of these tools.” she sighed. “And why on earth would I have a splitting maul? Are you aware, it must weigh ten pounds! I couldn’t lift that thing either and I think it’s still over there by the bluebirds.” she said as she waved in a general direction with freshly manicured nails.

Mary Dell’s respect for nature and her love of gardens, combined with her impeccable sense of style and fashion, often prompted her to ask, “What outfit does one wear as one gardens?” She intensely appreciated every bloom in her garden and it was always entertaining to help her with the upkeep. Besides, there was also the anticipation of a lunch of her famous macaroni salad, cold and delicious.

In addition to her fondness for gardens, Mary Dell was an animal lover. She was pleased by the number of birds and other animals seen regularly on her land and was most proud of the nesting bluebirds which had taken up residence in the birdhouse she put up just for them, attached to the sturdiest of poles and set in concrete. Yes, she loved all kinds of wildlife. “Well, just the kind that have legs.” she’d say. She loathed snakes.

We worked all morning but by afternoon the heat was too much. As I wiped gritty sweat from my face, Mary Dell pondered which style of footwear would be most appropriate for her upcoming garden party. We sat in the shade of a thickly hanging wisteria drinking iced tea and looking over the garden, commenting on everything from aster to zinnia.

Mary Dell sipped her tea, “What a productive day and thank heavens we didn’t come across any of those vile beasts!”

“Beasts?” I wondered if she’d spent too much time in the sun. “What beasts?” I asked again.

Lest any appear if the word were mentioned too loudly, Mary Dell leaned forward and whispered, “Snakes“.

“Aw, there’s nothing wrong with snakes.” I said, defending them to get a rise out of her since I knew she hated them. “They’re here for a reason. They have a purpose.” I continued.

“Shoes.” Mary Dell said as a noise from the bluebirds caused us to turn and see them flitting around the birdhouse. “Maybe snakes are good for shoes, but I could never wear them!” she insisted. I began to give Mary Dell a lecture on snakes’ importance to the environment, reminding her that as a lover of wildlife she should learn to respect them. She only halfway listened because the bluebirds continued their noisy fuss.

I looked towards the bluebird house where there was more than the usual amount of activity. Loud calls and chirps came from the bluebird pair that had been nesting there. Leaning back in my chair I took a gulp of tea. “Remember the time I was raking leaves and that little snake tried to crawl into my shoe?” I asked. “I had to actually reach down and pull it out by the tail, remember?”

Mary Dell clutched her breast. “Oh save us all, yes I remember that.” She said as she dabbed her forehead with a napkin, looking faint. I laughed and asked what she would have done had that happened to her. “Well,” she responded seriously, “I would have immediately phoned my realtor and sold the place by day’s end!”

Looking around at the work we’d just finished I told Mary Dell I’d secretly prayed we’d see a snake as we weeded. I chuckled when she said the mere notion was about to give her a migraine. We poured ourselves more tea and noticed the bluebirds still making quite a racket. Not only the nesting pair, but several birds of all kinds were now diving madly at the birdhouse.

“Something’s going on.” I said as we stood to inspect the commotion. We meandered down the garden path towards the birdhouse and the mixed flock of angry birds flew only a short distance away as we approached. They continued their constant fuss as they hopped from branch to branch in a nearby tree.

I walked up to the birdhouse to get a better look when the head of a very large black snake popped out of the opening, then quickly withdrew. My prayer had been answered.

“It’s just a snake.” I said to Mary Dell as casually as I could without laughing, anticipating her reaction.

“A what?” she screamed as both hands flew to her throat. “Oh come on! It’s not, is it?” she asked as she looked back and forth between me and the birdhouse, hoping for a sign that I was joking. In slow motion, Mary Dell crouched and tiptoed towards the birdhouse. As she did, the large snake lifted its head and held a stare through the opening in the birdhouse, looking right at her.

“Lord have mercy!” Mary Dell exclaimed, hopping off the ground a bit as she waved her hands wildly in the air. “I can see the face of the heinous creature!” She turned on her heels, which were clad in the latest summer sandal fashion, and headed towards the house.

“Where are you going?” I asked between laughs.

“To get my gun!” she responded, as if there were any need to ask.

“Wait, wait, wait.” I said. “Let’s not kill it.”

“Why on earth not?” she asked as she crept back to the birdhouse.

“It’s probably already eaten the eggs.” I said. “So let me get it out and take it away somewhere.” I knew if it came out on its own Mary Dell would show it the business end of her revolver. And a very stylish revolver it was sure to be.

Amazingly, Mary Dell agreed to help. The plan was to hold a bag under the birdhouse, simply flip the latch that held the front of the birdhouse shut, the front would then open, and the snake would fall into the bag.

Yeah, right.

The plan began well enough,  but the longer we took, the more the frightened snake poked its head from the birdhouse. Each time it did, Mary Dell screamed and the snake retreated. I couldn’t stop laughing at their dance, but with each appearance of the snake’s head it became harder and harder to keep Mary Dell from going for her gun.

Stepping backwards to pick up the bag for the snake I tripped over the splitting maul we had yet to put away. I fell against the post supporting the birdhouse. The startled snake poked through the hole again, but this time about a foot of its body came out and hung suspended in air for a few seconds as it looked at us. I was certain I heard several cats being slaughtered simultaneously when I realized it was only Mary Dell screaming again. She had seen the length of snake pour from the hole, tongue flicking, shining eyes staring at us. The snake retreated again but it was too much for Mary Dell.

In as fluid a motion as you could imagine Mary Dell bent down and picked up that ten pound splitting maul. This tiny woman, clad stylishly in fashionable summer wear, charged past me. She raised the splitting maul completely over her head, screamed the cry of the insane, and smashed it into the birdhouse. In an instant, the birdhouse and post came out of the ground, complete with concrete still caked around the base. It fell with a thud. The birdhouse was cracked in several places and I could see the snake moving on the inside, still alive, but unable to get out. This was even better, I thought.

“Mary Dell, since the birdhouse is on the ground now, you hold the bag open with one shovel while I use the other shovel to slide the birdhouse into it.” I said quickly.

“You don’t mean it.” she said with a crazed look, eyes darting.

“It’s ok. It can’t get out of the birdhouse.” I said trying to convince Mary Dell, although I wasn’t entirely convinced myself.

“Oh yes it can get out!”, Mary Dell said as she headed to the house with an itchy trigger finger.

“Let’s just try one more time.” I said. Mary Dell reluctantly returned and gingerly picked  up a shovel. “Go ahead.” I said. “Just hold the bag open while I push the birdhouse inside.” Mary Dell leaned down, inches away from the birdhouse,  and slowly started to open the bag. “That’s good.” I said. “Don’t worry. The snake won’t come out.”

It came out.

The snake didn’t just exit the birdhouse, it shot half its body length from the birdhouse directly towards Mary Dell. Just as quickly though, it retreated back into the broken birdhouse.

What I heard next was metal hitting the ground as the shovel Mary Dell had held fell back to earth. Mary Dell didn’t scream and run to the house, she screamed the entire way to the house. I never actually saw her. I only saw bushes move in the wake of her running past, a sun hat on the walkway and a summer sandal lodged in the yarrow. I returned to the snake and took only seconds to slide the birdhouse into the bag. Closing the bag tightly, I headed to the house. Luckily, Mary Dell had regained some composure and agreed to talk to me through the glass of the closed (and locked) storm door.

“Where is a good place to take the snake?” I asked, stifling a laugh. “I want to take it someplace where it won’t find its way back to scare you again.” I hoped that would be incentive enough for her to help me but I knew there were probably hundreds more in the woods just like the one I had in the bag.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Mary Dell suddenly looked totally at ease, a smile came over her face, and she stepped outside with me and the snake.

“Actually, I just thought of a grand place.” she said pleasantly. “Turn right on the main road, go two miles, turn right at the church, take the very next left, and go to the end of the road. It’s a fabulous place for a snake. Just turn it loose there.”

How great, I thought. My lecture on the importance of snakes had hit home! She decided to help! Feeling proud of myself I got in the car, snake in the bag, and followed Mary Dell’s directions. The location did seem good and “snaky” and with only one house in that area the snake should stay out of trouble. I pulled over, emptied the bag onto the edge of a field, and watched the somewhat dazed snake slither off on its own.

When I got back to Mary Dell’s she had collected her wits, as well as her hat and sandal, and looked suspiciously pleased with herself as she set out plates and glasses for the lunch we were late having. “See?” I said, eager to hear Mary Dell admit that I’d convinced her of the value of snakes. “All of that fear yet you ultimately came around to my side and helped out the snake.”

“Oh no, that’s not it. That’s not it at all.” she said, taking a casual sip of tea. “You see, Mr. Wilson lives in the house at the end of the road where you took that hideous serpent. He has chickens and he hates snakes. He’ll kill it on sight. I called ahead to let him know he was about to have company.”

“Macaroni salad?” she asked, as she adjusted her sun hat and sat down smiling.

Stuart M. Perkins

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