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Perfect Fit

“Hopefully I’ll have that again someday.” my son Evan said wistfully over the phone.

“You will!” I encouraged him. “Just give it a while.”

“Best that it’s over but there were still some fun times.” he went on.

“You’ll have that with someone new.” I said. “You’re only nineteen. Plenty of time.”

“Yeah.” he said solemnly. “Just not sure it will happen again or be as good.”

“It will only be better!” I said confidently.

“But how do you know it will be better?” he asked.

Oh no. He wanted an answer.

I’m absolutely no relationship expert. I’ve been in several and calculate I’d have done things differently in every case. I’m just no fountain of good advice. Still, my son’s lamenting after his unpleasant breakup triggered memories and I searched for words of wisdom to help him through this momentary setback.

That strong parental desire to offer profound guidance washed over me. I prepared to launch into weighty philosophical input that would surely embolden him to dismiss his temporary breakup regrets. I took a deep breath and began my lofty speech.

“Well, it’s like this…” I began.

With the spotlight squarely on me and my son listening intently, paying more attention to a parent than any nineteen year old ever has, I went into a panic. Ideas had flashed before me while Evan spoke. Where had they gone? What had I intended to say? What was that clever tidbit again? Gone. All gone. But Evan waited eagerly.

“Well, it’s like this…” I began again. “Relationships are like underwear.”

I had no clue where that came from even as I heard myself say it.

“Ok…?” Evan chuckled in anticipation.

That wasn’t enough? I had to say more?

“You put on a new pair of underwear and it’s great. Feels good, nice change, you like them, and soon find you prefer them over all others. How wonderful life is with this new pair of underwear.”

“Ok…?” Evan chuckled again.

He expected even more? He’s a nineteen year old boy. Time to break it down.

“Well, then one day you realize the new underwear is up your ass.”

Evan chuckled loudly this time. “Ok…?”

“So you say wow, didn’t expect that. You make a few adjustments and you try to move on. It happens again. A few more tries to make things right but it’s just not working. No matter how much you’d loved the new underwear and no matter how many adjustments were made there has now come the point when you realize you need to take them off for good.”

Silence.

“So, unfortunately you say goodbye to that pair but at some point you come across another new pair. You put them on and maybe something about them reminds you too much of the pair that hadn’t worked out so well in the past. You pretty quickly take this pair off having learned from the last just what works for you about underwear and what doesn’t.”

Silence.

“None of us know when or where we might ultimately find underwear with the right fit, but we keep trying with yet another new pair if an old pair fails. So, I know your next pair of underwear will be better than the last because you learn something each time you try one on. Never settle for the wrong fit. Remember, none of this means that you or any of the pairs of underwear were necessarily bad. It simply means the fit wasn’t right.”

Silence.

“One day you’ll put on that next new pair of underwear and they’ll feel pretty nice but  you may hesitate. Ignore the fact that any one pair of underwear, or maybe all underwear, has disappointed you in the past. If this newest pair feels good then enjoy it and see what happens. One day you’ll put on a new pair and the fit will be so nice, so perfect, that you’ll skip along every day for the rest of your life not even realizing you have on underwear at all.”

There, that was all I had. I knew I’d fallen short but I’m just not good with relationship advice. I waited for the dial tone I knew was coming…

That” Evan said through a hearty laugh, “was the dumbest, grossest, and best thing I’ve ever heard! That was awesome.”

Phew! I wiped the sweat from my upper lip.

Evan hadn’t necessarily asked for relationship advice nor had I been eager to give any. What do I know? His angst was serious and my response may not have been, but I recognized his feelings and let him know in the wacky way he probably expected of me that I understood.

Keep trying. The perfect fit is out there.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Small Town Ways

With a warm spring finally here and hotter weather to follow, a store near me has filled its seasonal section with all things summer. Though still April, I saw stacks of Fourth of July themed party supplies, plastic cups for poolside use, and a display of various sunscreens. It was the sunscreen display that reminded me of a day trip I took years ago with my kids.

The three of us set off to spend a day on the beach of a small town I’ve visited all my life and I knew the kids would enjoy sun, sand, and saltwater. As for me, I immediately felt calmer simply leaving work, traffic, and fast-paced living. While the kids argued in the back over who would be first to get in the water once we arrived, I drove and looked forward to experiencing again the small town ways I love but see disappearing. It’s hard to describe those ways, but you know them when you see them and every time an example pops up I hear myself say “There it is.”

People used to wave when they passed one another. Strangers smiled and nodded to each other. If you got lost while traveling you pulled over and the service station mechanic happily got you back on track. If he didn’t know how to then the man reading his newspaper while waiting for an oil change certainly might. And you didn’t have to ask, he’d eagerly put down his paper to help.

There it is.

People reminded one another to carry an umbrella as the weatherman had mentioned thunderstorms for later. If you needed a pen then the woman in line behind you was glad to offer hers. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in each other. There was no agenda, helping out wasn’t done for personal gain, and kindness was expressed simply because it was good and right.

There it is.

As I parked the car at the marina the kids scrambled over each other to race to the beach. I looked around, sad to see some of the quaint out-buildings now gone. Rustic boathouses and a tiny bait shop were replaced by an over-priced restaurant and a store with neon signs screaming at me to buy souvenirs. No wonder small town ways are disappearing; they have no place to live.

Carrying towels, toys, and floats, I made my way over hot sand to where the kids waited by the water. It was then I realized I’d forgotten their sunscreen. Reluctantly, they left the beach to walk with me to the shiny new store at the marina. I hesitated, unhappy about supporting something that helped replace the very ways I’d been reminiscing about, but the kids needed sunscreen. Gone were the days of the smiling bait shop owner asking how he could help. We’d just have to go in and hope a cashier would even notice us.

Walking in I was surprised. There beneath garish fluorescent lights was an old man stocking greeting cards. Wearing faded jeans and a worn flannel shirt, he used a cane for balance as he stooped to fill the lower shelves. Although surrounded by displays of magazines, coolers full of sodas, and racks of colorful t-shirts, I saw no sunscreen. Interrupting his work, I nodded towards my kids.

“Do you have any sunscreen?” I asked. “I forgot theirs.”

“Well, I believe I might.” he responded with a smile. “Let me look.”

He seemed out of place there surrounded by beach jewelry, scented candles, and baskets of packaged seashells. Dance music over store speakers nearly drowned out his voice. As we followed him through aisles crammed with flip-flops and plastic buckets, I thought sadly how his working in such a place was final evidence that the small town ways had been all but swallowed up by sterile progress. This man, and others like him from the old days, had to adapt to the new or be left behind. Surely in that transition small town courtesies would be lost, gone for good, all part of the change.

The old man led us to the checkout counter but I still saw no sunscreen. Using his cane again, he stooped to reach down behind the cash register and lifted up an old knapsack, obviously his own, and opened it on the counter. He dug inside removing a frayed wallet, rusty keys, and a tiny old notebook before saying “Yep, got it.” With a smile he produced a large tube, told me there was plenty to cover both kids, and handed me the last of his very own sunscreen.

There it is.

Stuart M. Perkins

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One Man’s Trash

“Naw, let’s just leave it there for now.” Mama said over her shoulder as she washed a plate and arranged it with others in the rack.

I didn’t ask why I couldn’t have it, I just dropped the rusty key back into the drawer and watched it disappear between a crushed matchbook and a small ball of frayed string.

When I was little the drawer by the refrigerator was a mystery. The clanking sounds made as Mama or Daddy dug through it and the strange faces they made when they picked up one item or another, stared and tossed it back, were intriguing. Finally tall enough to open it myself, I’d spent a few minutes running my hand through the odd assortment of things in the drawer. If Mama wouldn’t let me have the rusty key I didn’t dare ask about the torn Queen of Hearts playing card, the bent thumb tack, or the random assortment of colored bread ties. They must really be valuable.

A few years passed before I opened the drawer again. Although it was directly beside the refrigerator, which I opened often, the drawer usually faded into the cabinet. It caught my eye that day so I pulled it open. Taller now, I could see and reach even further into its mysterious depths. I fished out a cracked cigarette lighter with half an old crayon stuck to its side, the words “Burnt Umber” still visible on the crayon’s fragile paper. To the left, tucked behind the microwave’s yellowing owner’s manual, was an old pair of broken sunglasses. With a questioning look I held them in the air to show Mama as she came back from the store with a bag of groceries.

“Naw, let’s just leave it in there for now.” She maneuvered around me to put milk in the refrigerator.

I looked in the drawer several times over the years, at first to ease my curiosity but later to laugh and wonder how the useless random items spent decades in that sliding time capsule without being thrown away. In my spot checks of the drawer I never saw anything missing and rarely saw anything added other than a few questionable AAA batteries, an occasional dry rotted rubber band, and the cracked cap of a long-gone ballpoint pen.

I vowed never to have a drawer like that in my house.

Years later in my own home I hung pictures one afternoon. When done, rather than take the hammer back to the basement, I lazily dropped it into the drawer by my refrigerator. I giggled to myself when I saw familiar bread ties and an old shoelace already taking up space there. Some time later I lost the key to a small luggage lock. Thinking I’d eventually find it I put the little lock into the drawer for safe keeping. When my daughter’s doll lost a hand I put it in the drawer along with the tiny tire from one of my son’s toy cars. I knew they’d be safe there with the broken pencil sharpener and a feather.

As my kids grew older and taller they discovered my drawer. They caught me off guard the day they asked to play with a broken wristwatch they dug from its contents.

“Naw, let’s just leave it in there for now.” I heard myself say.

I was always puzzled by my parents’ junk drawer. I was even more puzzled by my own. Why do we keep odd bits of trash? I had locks with no keys, keys to no locks, and I actually struggled one day before throwing away a peppermint I found stuck in the drawer’s back corner behind a broken shoehorn.

My kids are older teenagers now. Will they also collect little drawers of debris when they start homes of their own?  That very thought crossed my mind last year during my daughter’s high school graduation weekend. While she went out with friends, my son and I sat in his room happily chatting about nothing. As he reached into his closet for a guitar, a non-descript little tin can rolled out into the room. Thinking it trash, I picked it up and walked towards the door. He stared at me for a second then nodded back towards the closet as he spoke.

“Naw, let’s just leave it in there for now.”

Stuart M.Perkins

 

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Tend the Garden

A longtime friend commented during dinner that her next door neighbor’s son was on the path to nowhere and constantly in trouble. She thought herself clever referring to him as “a weed in the garden of life”. Although an avid fan of barbed words and wit, I found her comment harsh directed at a kid who was barely a teenager. He was dismissed and labeled as worthless. A weed.

“But maybe he’s a pokeweed!” I said in a positive tone.

She rolled her eyes. I recognized the look of resignation on her face. The look many of my friends have when I spit out a puzzling one-liner and they know a story is coming. She sipped her drink and grinned, arms crossed in silent permission for me to proceed.

Years ago I had a yard packed with plants. It was full of boxwoods, azaleas, and geraniums surrounding a dogwood centerpiece. A problem area at one end of the garden saw pokeweeds sprout thickly every spring. I chopped them back, broke them off, stomped them down, but still they sprouted. I finally spent a day digging up the massive roots and unceremoniously dumped them in the woods.

The very next weekend I was in the woods again to dump my centerpiece dogwood which had spent two years dying a slow death until I finally cut it down. I noticed that some of the pokeweed roots dumped a week earlier had sprouted while simply lying in the open air.

A week later, back in the woods to dump grass clippings, I saw that all of the sprouting pokeweeds had died except for one scrawny stem with two leaves. It leaned feebly towards the light. I pondered the struggle of that weed and impressed by its determination, I picked up the withering root and took it with me. In the hole where my dogwood had once grown I replanted the weed. Right in the center of my garden.

In only two days the frail sprout became sturdy and turned a darker green. I watered the pokeweed daily and even fertilized the baby beast. It took off.

When friends dropped by they told me, as though I didn’t know, that I had a weed growing in the center of my garden.

“Why are you leaving that there?”

“What’s that doing in your garden?”

“What is that awful thing?”

“It’s my pokeweed.” I responded each time.

My grandmother loved to garden and I learned all I know from her. Nannie said about various plants in her own garden, “It’s only weed if you don’t want it.”

I wanted this pokeweed.

Summer passed and the pokeweed grew. And grew. It was soon taller than me. Huge dark green leaves and red stems were supported by a thick reddish stalk. I trimmed and trained the pokeweed as it grew and by the end of summer it was a massive umbrella of a plant and a beautiful centerpiece in the garden. As fall approached, hundreds of tiny white flower clusters transformed into huge bunches of purplish-black berries. Cardinals, robins, and mockingbirds feasted for many days. Friends continued to drop by.

“What a beautiful plant!”

“That’s amazing!”

“What is it?”

“It’s my pokeweed.” I responded each time.

In the end, this unwanted “weed in the garden of life” had given me weeks of enjoyment, triggered hours of conversation, fed countless birds, and for one summer became the centerpiece of my garden and was admired by people from all over. It took very little effort.

Amazingly still awake after that story, my friend at dinner leaned forward and took another sip of her drink. She grinned with understanding as she spoke.

“So, I get it. Instead of tossing this kid next door into the woods, train him a little, make him the centerpiece for a while?”

“He’s only a weed if he’s not wanted.” I shrugged my shoulders as I spoke. “It’s certainly worth the effort.”

As a reward for her staying awake during yet another of my stories I thought I would suggest we have dessert. My treat.

“So,” I began, “how about cheesecake, or maybe carrot cake?”

“I can’t this time.” She said. “I need to get going.”

Worried I’d irritated her with my pokeweed memories; I apologized and promised no more storytelling that evening.

“Oh that’s not it at all!” She declared.

“Was it something I said?” I asked.

“It certainly was.” She grinned as she stood to leave. “There’s a little pokeweed next door at home who might want to go see a movie or something.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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Dumb Little Dish

That dumb little dish meant nothing to me, so I threw it in the trash.

With temperatures dropping, I took plants in from the porch. The dumb little dish covered in dirt and crusty old plant fertilizer had been under a Christmas cactus to catch water.

It was an ugly saucer actually. The last remaining piece of an ugly partial set of hand-me-down dishes given to me twelve years ago when I moved into a new place and had nothing for the kitchen. Each plate, saucer, and cup had a nonsense design of white geese, blue ribbons, and an occasional flower, or maybe the thing was a butterfly. It wasn’t good china…

Over the years, pieces broke and were thrown away. I began to use the last few saucers as trays under my paltry collection of houseplants. Time had whittled the set down to this one lone dish. With new plastic trays to catch water from the plants, the dumb little dish meant nothing to me, so I threw it in the trash.

It had two big chips in it anyway. One chip happened when my son Evan, only four at the time, turned it upside down to use as a ramp for his MatchBox cars. The second chip happened when Greer, only six then, decided it would make a nice boat for her Barbie. In a stormy capsizing incident, the boat was chipped. A few chips but so what, we still used the dishes. They were all I had at the time.

In the summer we’d sit on the screened porch and I’d cut slices of hot dog on those dishes for Evan. I’d watch his little tan hands pick up one piece at a time and smile as he popped each into his mouth. Greer would ask for two helpings of macaroni and cheese on those dishes and being the fickle little girl she was, decide she wanted none after all.

Evan continued to use a dish or two as car ramps, flying saucers, or to hold his crayons as he colored. Greer’s Barbie often used the dishes as wading pools, boats, or stages from which to sing to imaginary audiences. One Christmas Greer and Evan got watercolor paint sets from Santa Claus. Every remaining dish in the decrepit set was called on to be used for mixing paint. We had a grand time!

Those dishes held soups and sandwiches, marbles and doll shoes, eggs and bacon, army men and princess stickers. That ragged old set of dishes was there every evening at the dinner table, every lunch on the porch, and every time one of the kids needed a spaceship or a place to save rocks they’d found.

The dumb little dish that meant nothing and that I’d thrown in the trash was the last remaining piece from those days. It had somehow survived Matchbox cars, Barbies, watercolor paints, and a myriad of dinners and childhood activities. Twelve years, two chips, and a thousand memories later, it was still here.

That dumb little dish meant everything to me, so I took it out of the trash.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Load of Fun

It was still cold the day I noticed that in spite of an unyielding winter determined to wear out its welcome, the local hardware store had taken a leap of faith by filling its storefront and walkway with a grand display of all things summer. I saw birdbaths, a gleaming row of new lawnmowers, and a stack of wading pools depicting smiling cartoon elephants spraying water on laughing cartoon hippos. Closest to the sidewalk was a row of huge, bright red wheelbarrows with glossy black wheels, price tags swinging in the still chilly breeze.

As I hurried past the hopeful display and on to the grocery store one building over, I passed a small boy waiting for his father who was busy admiring an array of shiny new grills. The father turned to catch up to his son who had stopped at the row of red wheelbarrows. With both of his little hands gripping the side of one wheelbarrow, the boy stood on his tiptoes to peer over the edge.

“It’s a toy?” he asked into the empty wheelbarrow.

“No.” the father said as he took the boy’s hand to lead him into the hardware store. “You only use that for work.”

“It’s a toy.” the boy said with conviction.

“No, it’s not.” the father repeated. “It’s only for work.”

“No, it’s not.” I thought to myself. “It’s not only for work.”

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my grandmother, Nannie, helping me and a cousin into her wheelbarrow for a ride. She pushed us to the pear trees in the pasture where we helped her pick up fallen fruit. Riding back to her farmhouse in a pile of pears, we held on to the sides of the wheelbarrow during the bumpy ride and pretended we were on a boat. That was no wheelbarrow only for work. It was a toy.

As older kids, cousins and I took turns pushing each other in the random wheelbarrow that always leaned against Nannie’s barn, maybe the chicken house, or sometimes left under a tree. If lucky, we came across two wheelbarrows and races began. Those wheelbarrows were not only for work. They were cars or planes or motorcycles. They were toys.

My aunt Noody once gave me and my cousins a package of little plastic sailboats. Having nowhere to float them, we soon lost interest until Noody suddenly appeared with her old wheelbarrow. As we watched, puzzled, Noody unrolled her garden hose and filled the wheelbarrow with water. Instant lake! Her old wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

Years passed and when my own two kids were small I spent as much time behind the wheelbarrow as I ever had inside the wheelbarrow. I pushed first one, then the other, but usually both at the same time. The wheelbarrow became a train, a rocket, and once it was a dinosaur they rode. The wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

I was still thinking about these examples as I left the grocery store and headed back towards the summer display next door. As timing would have it, the little boy and his father were leaving the hardware store when I approached. As the father walked on ahead, the little boy lagged behind just a bit when he got to the wheelbarrow display. Once again, he gripped the side of a huge red wheelbarrow and craned his neck to peer over the edge.

The little boy looked up and grinned at me as I neared him. His little hands never let loose their grip on the edge, but one tiny finger rose up and pointed down into the wheelbarrow.

“It’s a toy?” he asked as I walked closer.

I leaned down just a bit as I reached where he stood.

“Yes, it’s a toy.” I said grinning as I walked past.

Stuart M. Perkins

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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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