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The “Fencident”

If you take a left out of my parents’ driveway you come to an intersection. Look across the intersection and you’ll see a house with a chain link fence along its driveway. Look again and you’ll notice that the end fence post is slightly askew and the chain link is buckled. It’s been that way for thirty-five years.

And I know, because I did it.

There is rarely a time when I leave my parents’ house that I don’t glance at the bent fence and think back to my first year of driving. I’d never told anyone about the fence until recently when my teenage kids were with me as we stopped at the intersection. Somehow, the off-kilter fence post caught my son’s eye.

“What happened to the fence?” he asked, unaware that was a question I feared for a very long time after I caused the damage.

Unfortunately, there have been many times in life when I haven’t been as honest or as forthcoming as I should have been. In the case of the bent fence, however, I’d had an occasion of truthful glory. Remembering what I’d read about “teachable moments” I decided to confess the story to my kids, hoping to teach them something about the value of honesty.

“What happened to the fence?” my son repeated.

“I did it.” I said.

Both kids gave me their full attention as I crossed the intersection and passed the scene of the long ago incident. Almost in slow motion, they looked from the fence then back to me as I began to explain.

I was sixteen at the time and hadn’t been driving long. A friend was visiting and I decided to drive us down to the service station for a Slim Jim and a Yoohoo, I guess because they’re such a delicious combination. The car my sisters and I shared at the time was a 1963 Mercury Comet, affectionately known around home as “The Vomit”. It was an ugly beast with tail fins akin to those of the Batmobile.

As I stopped at the intersection with my friend I realized I’d forgotten my money. I crossed the intersection to turn around at the house with the the chain link fence and return home for cash. Eager to show off my driving skills, I backed into the driveway. It went well until one of the jutting tail fins snagged the chain link. I heard a slight screeching sound as the fence bent and the post shifted. I began to sweat.

“Go! Just go!” my friend insisted as he looked around for anyone who might have seen us.

I considered just going, but couldn’t.

My hands shook as I put the car in park and told my friend I’d be right back. My nervous knees nearly buckled as I walked from the car up the sidewalk and to the front door of the house. It took several tries to convince my finger to push the doorbell. I pushed it and waited for the worst. I felt my lips quiver and assumed I wouldn’t be able to speak when the man opened the door. Surely I’d have to start over several times before being able to tell him what I had done. “What happened to the fence?” he’d ask, unable to understand the stuttering I was sure to do.

As I waited for an eternity for the door to open, I also imagined how it would be when I had to tell my parents. “What happened to the fence?” they would ask, forcing me to repeat to them the awful incident. Luckily, when I imagined telling them, I hadn’t yet had my Slurpee so the urge to wet my pants went unfulfilled.

I heard the front door being unlocked and the doorknob turning. An old man stared at me through the storm door as he then unlocked that too, and opened it partially. He stared at me.

“I messed up your fence, sir.” I croaked to him. I waited for him to curse, demand to talk to my father, or tell me to wait while he called the police. He just stared at me.

“I backed in and accidentally hit the end of it.” I said, turning to point to the fence with my shaking hand.

His expression never changed as he said very calmly, “I know. I saw you do it.”

He went on to say he was watching television in his den when he saw me back in and hit his fence. I hadn’t realized that living so close to my parents he’d seen that unmistakable car a thousand times, he’d known my father and extended family for years, and he’d seen me driving the car a few times before.

“I saw you do it but you came and told me.” he continued. “If you’d driven off I would have known who to call, but you came and told me you did it. So don’t worry about it.”

“What?” I asked, not understanding. He never raised his voice, no cursing, no calling the police, and no calling my father.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s between me and you.” he said as he shut the door. I heard the lock turn and his footsteps fade away as I stood there with sweat on my upper lip. I told the truth and the old man had respected that.

My kids listened as I wrapped up my teachable moment. I told them that although I had been scared to death of whatever punishment might come my way, I had done the right thing by being honest with the old man. In return for my honesty, he forgave the whole thing. Had I not been honest, things would have turned out very differently for me.

“So you never told Mamaw and Big Daddy?” the kids asked.

Many times I thought about telling my parents. I always wondered if the old man would eventually tell them. For a while I was certain one of my parents would approach me, having learned what I’d done and ask, “What happened to the fence?” I’d started many times to tell them but each time I could only get a few words out before I began to sweat. “Nevermind.” I’d say. “I’ll tell you later.” The old man passed away long ago and two families have lived there since. The chain link fence, rusty now, still remains.

Feeling empowered by the teachable moment, I told the kids that as soon as we got back to my parents I would tell them all about the little accident that happened over thirty years ago now. Being ancient history at this point it would make a funny story. What could be the big deal?

Hours later as we sat around my parents’ living room the kids looked at me and grinned. “Hey, don’t you have something to tell about a fence?” they asked, very loudly.

I took a deep breath and asked my mother if she remembered way back when an old man lived in the house across the intersection, the one with the chain link fence. She nodded yes. I tried to keep talking but I got tongue-tied and suddenly felt a little warm. I stopped talking.

“Well, what happened to the fence?” she asked.

I felt even warmer.

Daddy entered the room and caught part of the conversation. “What happened to what fence?” he asked.

I broke a sweat.

“Nevermind.” I said. “I’ll tell you later.”

After all, the old man did say to forget about it. It was between me and him – and now my kids, for the sake of a teachable moment.

I did finally tell my parents about the “fencident”, the code word my friend and I used for that day now thirty-five years ago. They grinned as I told them, they had never learned of it from the old man, and the passage of so much time made the whole event seem pretty irrelevant to them. To me though, it has remained relevant. Being human, I’ve sometimes failed to apply what I learned. Then again, there have been many times when that lesson has served me well.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Come in Anyway

This evening I searched for my old photo albums in cardboard boxes under the bed. I found them along with other things I’d saved like pictures my children had drawn for me, random tiny toys I played with as a kid, and in one box I found an old spiral notebook I used to write things in, years and years ago.

It’s not a diary, not even a journal, just notes. For example, on one page I’d recorded how long it took quail eggs to hatch the time I’d gotten them and a tiny incubator from an ad in Southern Living. On another page was a training schedule from when I thought I’d try running a marathon. I laughed when I saw that on my ninth (and final) day of training I had simply written “too hot to run”. On yet another page I had jotted down “Come in anyway – Nannie said” and sketched a little church.

Nannie really was a praying grandmother who wanted us to go to church and who wanted us to know why she wanted us to go to church. She was happy with her relationship with God and she hoped the same for everyone else, especially family. She never preached. Instead she showed by pure example what it meant to be a great Christian. I never pretended to be a great Christian, or even a very good one for that matter, and I thought back to the many impromptu conversations Nannie and I had about God while sitting on her back porch. No one could imagine such deep conversations would pop up after picking a row of tomatoes or pulling a few ears of corn, but they did, and often.

One such conversation began as we shelled butter beans and I started questioning God. Nannie always said we should open our hearts to Him. I said to her that God allows diseases, but I should ask Him to come into my heart anyway? God allows people to drown, burn, and starve, but I should tell Him come in anyway? God allows one person to kill another, but still I should tell Him come in anyway? My examples went on for quite a while but she said nothing, just listened as she continued to shell butter beans. Surely now she realized how I couldn’t ignore all the bad God allows and still say my heart is open, “Come in anyway.” I said nothing else, but I had made my point.

When I was done, Nannie shifted in her chair a little but never looked up as she continued shelling the butter beans in her lap. She said we all do wrong things in life and do them even though we know they’re wrong. We sometimes doubt God or lack faith and we lie and sin in many ways. She said all of us have fallen short and none of us are perfect. Then she said when the time comes for those who believe to enter Heaven, God will stop us and look us in the face, aware of every single one of our past mistakes, errors, and sins, but you know what He will say?

“Come in anyway.”

Nannie threw the last of her butter bean hulls in the old bucket at her feet and stood to go to the kitchen. She said nothing else, but she had made her point.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Cousin with a Casserole

I washed the last casserole dish and stacked it with others on the kitchen counter. What a genuine kindness each represented and the many meals provided to my family this week sincerely helped ease some distress. Daddy died one week ago today. His heart issues had recently worsened and at almost 81 years old he could handle no more. This past week is a dismal blur and a void that can’t be filled has become brutally obvious. I could write volumes on Daddy and maybe at some point I will. With emotions still so close to the surface I wouldn’t do him justice right now with an attempt.

It was a wee hour of the morning when Daddy died, so friends and extended family didn’t learn of his death until some hours later. As early afternoon arrived, so did the first wave of cousins bringing food. They weren’t asked to, they did so because that’s what you kindly do. They quietly appeared with bags of drinks, casseroles, containers of this or that, and even an entire baked ham. There was no fanfare, just a solemn presentation of the tangible evidence of their caring.  Mama, distraught over Daddy’s death and drained by her own health issues said more than once that she was overwhelmed by the instant show of support.

The number of tasks to attend to following a death saps everyone of everything and attention to meals gets lost in priorities. The gifts of food that flowed into Mama’s kitchen were appreciated more than anyone can know. Each day this past week saw yet another meal supplied by cousins, aunts and uncles, or one of many family friends. It seemed that every person who dropped by to express sympathy did so as they handed us a gift of food. With so many of us staying at Mama’s house, what a blessing that really was!

Often over the years I saw Mama leave the house with food she’d made for other grieving families, but I’m astounded by what I’ve seen come into her house this week. The meals thankfully filled a basic need for our family, but every dish was also a sincere expression of love. We had many things to worry about and still do, of course, but whether we had enough food in the house was never one of them. To come home to waiting meals after talking to the funeral director for hours or spending a long evening at the funeral home was a true comfort.

I would imagine that taking food to a grieving family preoccupied by sorrow and the business of death is probably ages old, all over the world. On a personal level there was something so encouraging about seeing people, many were friends of Daddy’s the rest of us didn’t even personally know, come through the back door with food and condolences. The act of providing meals to a grieving family is such a basic and purely kind way to help.

All who stopped by have their own lives to manage, their own issues to deal with, but they stopped by just the same. Among the many people who so kindly looked out for us I saw elderly women who had difficulty walking but who walked anyway just to bring us a meal. An elderly man Daddy knew for decades brought a cake to Mama. He tried to speak but his crying prevented it so he simply handed her the cake and walked away. Yesterday I saw Daddy’s older brother, arms full, struggling to open the door to the porch. Before I could get there to help he had quietly slipped a watermelon into the extra refrigerator and gone on his way. At the funeral home, a high school friend I hadn’t seen in years handed me a wrapped platter full of brownies as she hugged me. Maybe something extra is communicated when condolences are accompanied by food?

I wish I could properly articulate how much it helped my family to see the parade of familiar faces come through the back door during such a strange, sad week. It was wonderful, beautiful, awesome, and all of those other words we tend to overuse but which in this case are completely appropriate.

During such a stressful, gloomy time, I was reminded that the kindness, caring, and love I have seen my family and friends give to others over the years is still very much there. They rose to this occasion and their generosity and presence this week helped us deal with the sorrow, no question about it.

We never expected more than the “I’m sorry.” which we heard many times, but there was something innately sweet and comfortingly familiar about a tentative tap on the back door followed by a cousin with a casserole.

Whether family or friend, what each person held between two pot holders was more than just supper. It was an extension of their caring, an expression of their love, and a show of support that no one in my family will soon forget.

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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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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Weeding Baby Wendell

I walk nearly every evening, rain or shine. Although the area where I live has sidewalks, ball fields, and open spaces where most people do their walking, I prefer to walk in the cemetery across the street. It’s nearly forty acres of rolling land full of mature trees and all manner of wildlife. It’s filled too, with many, many graves. Towards a back corner, just a few feet from a rusted section of chain link fence choked by honeysuckle, is baby Wendell’s grave.

On my daily walks I began to stop now and then to upright a vase, pull a weed, or pick up trash. I don’t always take the same route so I never focused on any grave in particular, just did what little thing needed to be done if I noticed, and kept walking. It was obvious when family or friends would tidy up around a grave and it became clear that some graves never got attention other than the general maintenance by the owners. No one ever visited baby Wendell. The little granite urn on his tombstone would fill with old leaves, grass clippings, and spider webs. The day I noticed wiregrass smothering his tiny tombstone, I decided to make baby Wendell a routine stop.

My daily walks also meant that the many visitors who came regularly on Sunday afternoons or holidays would see me at one place or another on the grounds. I’d often be mistaken for an employee as they stopped to ask, for instance, where section L was, which gate exits where, or the location of the main office.

One Sunday evening two elderly women, who I later realized had seen me there many times, drove up as I was bent over picking a dead wasp out of baby Wendell’s urn. Not wanting them to think I was up to no good, I stood and walked towards them to say hello. They were all smiles and I was surprised as they began to thank me.

“We see you out here real often. How long have you worked here?” the first woman asked as she adjusted the bouquet of artificial flowers she held in her hand.

The second woman added “Yes, and after that last storm you were the first one we saw out here picking up sticks. It’s just so good that you work here.”

I watched the first woman struggle with her bouquet and said “Oh no Ma’am. I don’t work here, I just walk here.”

As it turned out, they were sisters who had come to put flowers on their brother’s grave. His is located just a few sites over from baby Wendell, between a dogwood tree and a very old azalea.

“But you’re here just about every time we come by.” the first woman said, still fighting to get a grip on the bouquet in her hand, and looking puzzled that I didn’t work there.

“And looks to me like every time we’ve seen you, you’ve been working.” the sister added again.

I explained to them how I might randomly pick up a stick now and then, or put some wind blown trash back in the can, but that they only saw me so often because I had one day noticed the wiregrass that nearly covered the tiny tombstone near their brother’s.

“I’m just weeding baby Wendell.” I said.

“Why? All that and you don’t work here?” the first woman asked as she lost her grip on part of the bouquet.

I’d never given it that much thought. I walk there nearly every day and it was just part of my walk to upright a geranium now and then. I had occasionally remembered what Nannie, my grandmother, used to tell us kids back home. “If you see a need, fill it, and don’t worry about who gets the credit.” she would say.

“Well we can’t thank you enough for all we’ve seen you do.” the first woman said as a tiny piece of her bouquet fell to the ground.

“Oh it’s just wonderful that you would help for no reason.” the sister added.

They both seemed about to tear up as they walked away. I never thought about needing or getting credit for any of the random things I only sporadically did as I walked, but these two women had noticed and they had thanked me. Those tiny efforts took so little on my part, but to them they meant a lot. They noticed and they appreciated.

I suppose we all do the random nice things that we do because we know it’s right, and it’s kind. Baby Wendell could never thank me, and none of us imagine we’ll ever be thanked for the tiny things we do, and we may not believe anyone even notices. But out there for each of us is the equivalent of those two old ladies, noticing and appreciating.

I reached down and picked up the tiny piece of bouquet the woman had dropped as she thanked me. I finished weeding baby Wendell and put those flowers in his little urn.

“No need to thank me baby Wendell. You’re welcome.” I said.

Stuart M. Perkins

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