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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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Five Black Cows

“Are you poor or something?”

I still remember when a kid asked me that at lunch in the fifth grade as I unwrapped my bologna sandwich, which he looked at with disgust. In front of him was a yellow school lunch tray with a little square pizza and a carton of milk he’d bought with lunch money. I only had a brown paper bag holding the sandwich Mama had made, and a thermos of milk from home. As he ate his school lunch brownie, I pulled out a little plastic bag holding my six vanilla wafers.

He repeated, “I don’t eat bologna because I’m not poor. Are you poor?”

No. I have five black cows!” I said. I wasn’t sure what that meant, and I was the one who’d said it.

I don’t remember ever having another conversation with that kid, but I do remember that’s when I began to wonder if I might be poor. I’d never thought about it. We did have five black cows in the pasture at home and maybe I thought since no one else I knew had five black cows, everyone else must be poor. We practically had a herd. We must be rich.

But as I thought about it, other kids at school did talk a lot about new clothes from the mall. My sisters and I had a lot of shirts and pajamas that Nannie had made for us. She’d walk from her farmhouse down the path and under the walnut tree to our house  with fabric hanging over her arm and a measuring tape in her hand. She’d talk to Mama a while about whether the butter beans were ready to be picked, then they’d call us into the kitchen so Nannie could measure our arms or legs. Later on, for Christmas or a birthday, we’d open a present from Nannie to find something made from the cloth she’d had over her arm in Mama’s kitchen that day. I guessed I was poor then, after all.

And I couldn’t forget the trips my classmates talked about making to ice cream shops on the weekends. Their parents would buy them ice cream cones with sprinkles, or banana splits in little blue plastic dishes. My family made ice cream over at Nannie’s. We all sat on the edge of the well by the ice cream freezer while Nannie made a creamy magic potion in the kitchen, then came outside and dumped it into the freezer. Daddy and uncles would crank it until it got going good, then we kids would all get a turn cranking until our arms were tired. If we weren’t actually cranking the ice cream then we were standing by watching, barefoot in the melting ice and rock salt that ran from the bottom of the ice cream freezer. Barefoot. I was poor.

Then there were the kids at school who talked about catching fireflies. One girl, I remembered, said that her father bought her a little clear plastic box with a handle and she filled it with fireflies at night to make a lantern. I didn’t know about fireflies so much, but I knew that at home when we kids noticed a lightning bug, we’d get old mayonnaise jars out of Nannie’s rooting bed by the chicken house to hold the bugs as we caught them. No lids, so we used our hands to cover the top. I wasn’t sure if my lightning bugs were as good as that girl’s fireflies, but I knew we used old jars and not new plastic boxes with handles. Clearly, I was poor.

With that issue settled in my head, I resigned myself to – well, whatever it was that poor people resigned themselves to. I would just have to wait and see what that was.

But as time passed, months and years, I had many conversations with friends about the way I grew up. They usually commented on how lucky I was to have grown up with my extended family nearby, and to have lived just across the field from a grandmother who spent her time making and doing things for us. Some were envious that my family had gathered often “just because” to sit and laugh while home-made ice cream was cranked by the well. I’d long since learned that fireflies and lightning bugs were the same, but I’d also learned that keeping them in a little plastic box from the store was nowhere near as memorable as the way we kids raced to Nannie’s rooting bed to hunt for old mayonnaise jars together.

Many memories flooded back with each conversation about growing up with my huge family all around. I even once told friends about the kid in school who asked if I was poor simply because I was eating a bologna sandwich and six vanilla wafers. Looking back, I really was the rich one, not him. But somewhere inside I had known that all along.

After all, I had five black cows.

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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