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Watch For It

He stopped at the curb to press the crosswalk button, casually swinging his briefcase as he checked both ways for traffic. Any second now he’d set the briefcase down to tie a shoe or adjust his jacket. Wait… wait… and there it was. Today he tied a shoe. The light turned green and I drove through the intersection glancing at him one last time as he stood to pick up his briefcase. He nodded slightly as I passed. I raised one hand from the steering wheel.

I leave for work very early in the morning. Almost every weekday for a of couple years now I’ve seen this same lone man at the same empty intersection at the same early time of day. We each wake up to carry out our daily routines unconcerned, and mostly unaware, that the other exists except for that thirty seconds or so each morning at the intersection. He generally approaches the corner about the time I come to a stop at the light.

That early in the morning he’s the only pedestrian and I’m the only car. I forgot who began to wave first, but after months of early morning crossings it just seemed silly not to. He’d become as much a part of the landscape for me as the row of trees by the school, the yellow house with the picket fence, or the bridge over the creek. Their constant presence is an odd reassurance that all is right and routine. On rare days when he wasn’t at the intersection, I wondered where the man might be. He’d reappear the next day and all would be normal again. I laugh at myself for noticing such things but I suppose others do too. It’s not just me?

And it isn’t only the man with the briefcase. A rusty white van pulls out in front of me at the next corner. Further along, two black labs do their early morning romping behind a fence. A man in a red hat hoses off the sidewalk in front of an office building. Over time I began to notice these things and soon actually watched for them.

Each evening going home I walk past a woman smoking a cigarette under a tree out back. The security guard at the parking garage sings loudly to himself. Back in the car and I pass the same food truck along the same stretch of road every day. Closer to home and those two black labs are either lying in the shade or barking at squirrels. Those routine sights in my personal landscape satisfy something, I’m just not sure what. It’s not just me?

A while back, returning to work after a few days of vacation followed by a long weekend, I eagerly checked off my daily landscape markers. The briefcase, the dogs, the sidewalk washer, all there as usual even though I’d been gone a while. That evening on the way home I saw the woman light her cigarette and head towards the tree out back. I laughed again at myself for even noticing, but she was, after all, a part of my daily landscape.

As I neared the tree on my way to the parking garage I wondered if the security guard would still be singing after all of my days away from work. That’s when I heard the woman’s voice.

“Hey.” she said as took a puff of her cigarette. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

It’s not just me.

Stuart M. Perkins

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No One Spoke

Friends and I enjoyed sun, sand, and surf with other beachgoers on a recent Saturday. Sitting slathered in sticky sunscreen beneath our umbrellas, we pointlessly brushed sand from our legs as we discussed evening plans. The seagulls overhead laughed louder than the swimmers splashing in nearby waves while those of us on the beach napped, read, or simply watched people. My friends discussed how relaxing it was and how nice it would be to sleep late the next morning.

Sleep late? I mentioned to them that we only get so many sunrises in a lifetime. Shouldn’t we get up to look at a few?

They stared blankly for a second then shook their heads in unison. No.

In the wee hours of the next morning, alone in the dark, I started the short walk from house to beach guided only by dim lights above the boardwalk. It was eerily quiet at that hour with just the rustling sound of trees in the breeze and the muffled crash of waves in the distance. As I approached the boardwalk to make my way onto the beach through an opening in the weathered sand-fencing I assumed I would be alone. I was not.

An older couple wearing t-shirts and shorts made their way in the dark. Holding hands, they passed through the opening in the fence and shuffled slowly through the cool sand. Behind them, a woman draped in cameras with lenses of various lengths stopped to remove her shoes before stepping off the boardwalk and onto the beach. Just after her came an elderly man carrying a tiny dog on his arms. Together, silently in the darkness, we walked towards the water.

Already on the beach were three young girls huddled together on a large towel. Sitting cross-legged in over-sized sweatshirts, they faced the water saying nothing. Near them, two men in baseball caps sipped coffee and stared towards the horizon. Even with such an expanse of empty beach available we gravitated towards one another. No one spoke.

Out on the horizon, the palest of pinks began to push away some of the blackness.

We turned to face the faint light. As if a few feet would make a difference in the millions of miles that separated us, we all drifted a bit closer to the water in the direction of the already brighter pink sky. In that first light I noticed we had not been alone. Standing along the higher edges of the beach, together in the soft sand by the dunes, were seagulls by the hundreds. They made no sound as the bright pink horizon turned a pale orange.

The pale orange became bright orange as the sky overhead traded blackness for gray-blue. The bright orange quickly morphed to an even brighter orange. Almost immediately it was red and then instantly a fiery pinpoint of brightness gave way to the blinding glow of the rising sun.

Cameras clicked to the left, someone caught their breath to the right, but no one spoke.

The fiery ball moved rapidly above the horizon while we watched. As if on cue, hundreds of still silent seagulls lifted from the sand as one and floated towards and then over the waves. They passed between us and the perfect fiery circle that now hovered completely above the horizon.

Again, cameras clicked to the left, someone caught their breath to the right, but no one spoke.

The sky overhead was now a pale blue. We watched the still bright circle lose some of its fire and changed to a yellowish-orange. Reluctant to leave, we stared over the water a little more, smiled at each other, then made our way across the sand and back up to the boardwalk. No one spoke.

None of us had met before nor are we likely to meet again. In all of the days leading up to that morning we had carried on with our own lives unaware that the others existed. It’s even possible that not one of us had a single thing in common with another, but for a few minutes we were completely bound together in silent darkness as we waited by the ocean for a beautiful ball of light.

I was behind the elderly man with the little dog as our group, still silent, plodded up the beach and back onto the boardwalk. On a bench by the opening in the snow-fence two women ate donuts and loudly discussed their plans for the day. Obviously shocked when our group appeared from behind a clump of seagrass to file through the opening in the fence, they stopped talking, held their donuts at their mouths, and stared.

“Where did you come from?” one woman finally said laughing. She bit her donut.

“Church.” the elderly man said.

“Church?” the woman asked, puzzled.

Several in our group paused to listen to this interaction.

“Yep.” the elderly man explained. “Sunrise service.”

I wondered about possible reactions from others in our impromptu group, whether they might disagree, take offense even, but with smiles on their faces they nodded and moved along to start the day.

No one spoke.

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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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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A Three Dog Night

I agreed to dogsit for two friends while they vacationed in Greece. I stayed in the home of The Mama, a beautiful, independent, occasionally indignant, red Siberian husky. Staying with us for the duration were two miniature long-haired dachshunds. Effie Mae and Pearl Jean are two cream-colored half-sisters, short, pretty, and comical as only weenies can be.

Directions on the care of these three took some learning. Pearl Jean, deaf since birth, understands several hand signals which I had to master. The Mama is blind in one eye and requires a daily series of eye drops. Effie Mae has an uncontrollable urge to lick people. Anywhere. Anytime.

My traveling friends have known each other for years. Their dogs are well acquainted and see each other often so it was no major production when the weenies were brought over for their stay with The Mama and me. Pearl Jean, a bit shorter in length than her half-sister, waddled over to greet The Mama. Effie Mae, who outright adores The Mama, raced ahead to reach her before Pearl Jean.

The weenies sat and looked up admiringly at The Mama.

The Mama stood and looked down on the weenies with disgust.

She huffed, blowing just enough air from her mouth to make her cheeks puff. With obvious loathing she left the kitchen to go to the living room sofa – her throne. The Mama knows weenies are unable to jump onto sofas.

They can’t jump onto beds either – which I was reminded of that first night. The Mama slept on her regal pad beside the bed. I assumed the weenies would be happy with the beds I made for them on the floor near The Mama.

They were not.

Instant yapping indicated that they expected to sleep with me. I lifted them onto the bed and their yapping mercifully ceased as they dug here and there, balling up the sheets into acceptable bedding. They curled up in silence. I couldn’t believe those two diminutive divas demanded to sleep on the bed. Neither could The Mama.

She huffed from her regal pad.

In the silence of the night and in a state of half-sleep I was awakened by the piercing yap-howl of Pearl Jean. I looked at her, unsure of what a deaf dog would bark at in the night. She looked back at me, puzzled that I wasn’t as alarmed by what she wasn’t hearing as she was. Effie Mae, used to such nonsense, did no more than lift her head momentarily before going back to sleep.

The Mama huffed.

In the wee hours of the morning, after having slept for less than half the night, I was roused by very strange sensations. Through the fog of sleep deprivation I became aware of something licking my feet. Even more disturbing, something was licking the inside of my mouth. With flashbacks of a party I attended in my college days that I probably should have skipped, I instantly awoke. Both weenies halted their licking to waddle closer to be petted, tails wagging.

I hadn’t slept enough, my feet were wet, and my mouth tasted like, well, I shudder to imagine. It was a miserable night and I knew no one on earth could be as disgusted as I was at that moment.

The Mama huffed.

The next day, like every other for two weeks, The Mama had to be given her series of eye drops. For “allowing” this, she was given a treat of a few chunks of rotisserie chicken. I was left several chickens’ worth of meat in the freezer for this purpose. Each day I shook the eye drops to mix them well. The Mama endured them graciously and awaited her chicken treat.

The weenies soon learned that the shaking of eye drops meant the presence of chicken.

I could hardly give The Mama a treat and not give one to the weenies…

With that policy in place I went through all of the chickens in the freezer, bought several more, and realized Pearl Jean’s collar was fitting a bit tighter than when she first arrived. She also waddled more slowly. Effie Mae loved the chicken too, but obsessed with licking my ankles she missed many treats.

In addition to her licking obsession, Effie Mae liked to stare. I never knew at what precisely. She sat in the yard and stared into the sky, at the grass, or at a tree. In the house she stared at walls, the refrigerator, and herself in a full length mirror in the bedroom. She was staring at the leg of a table one night when the phone rang. It was a call from Greece.

As I described how smoothly things had been going, I yawned. It could have been the sleep deprivation that made me drop the latest rotisserie chicken purchase that I had been holding when the phone rang. Effie Mae stopped staring at the table leg to stare at the fallen chicken. Pearl Jean barked at something she didn’t hear. Things were going just fine, I reassured my friends.

The Mama huffed.

By the time my two week dog sitting stint wrapped up, the dogs and I had worked ourselves into very comfortable patterns. The weenies learned to get on and off the bed by themselves using a “ladder” I fashioned from a chair and some cushions, occasionally I placed something new in the floor for Effie Mae to stare at, and Pearl Jean’s collar fit a little better because I had learned to shake the eye drops quietly. The Mama? Well, she’s The Mama.

My friends returned bearing unbelievable gifts from Greece for my watching their dogs. They were glad things had gone well, commented that The Mama seemed fine, that the weenies looked particularly well fed, and they hoped it hadn’t been too much trouble.

I told them of course it was no trouble at all and that I’d do it again without hesitation. During a pause in our conversation, Pearl Jean barked at absolutely nothing and Effie Mae stared at my leg and then licked it. They really were comical. Who wouldn’t enjoy spending two weeks with those two dwarf divas?

The Mama huffed.

Stuart M. Perkins

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My Old Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.” I answered.

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

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

Stuart M. Perkins

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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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