Hidden in the Shadows

I hadn’t entered a Roses…since…since…I worked in one during my college years.   I took a summer off from working textiles to take some summer school classes and needed a part-time job to keep my head above water.  I scored the position of stock room supervisor…a lofty title ruling over a staff of exactly one, me.

Today my wife had sent me to Roses on a quest, not for a holy grail but for a special type mop that Walmart didn’t seem to carry.  It became more than a quest.

The man called to me from the shadows created by the storefront at Roses.  I heard him but I couldn’t see him right off.  I could hear him but wasn’t close enough to understand him.  Cupping my ear with my hand I walked toward him.

He was an old man of color, skin a deep coffee with just a hint of cream.  He was clean-shaven, with skin smooth and clear.  His eyes were bright and twinkling although a bit sunken I thought.  He was dressed in old clothes consistent with an old man…something I might wear.  A faded army field coat over a blue and white plaid shirt worn over, threadbare, shiny khaki cords.  I saw slender ankles disappearing into scuffed but polished tie-up shoes.  The clothes were worn but clean.  The jacket and shirt swallowed him and later I noticed his belt caused his pants to bunch around his waist.  He held a cane across his lap.

His smile showed oversized false teeth, “Captain, can you spare some change?  I need a little food to keep the wolves away.”  His voice was deep and gravelly and somewhat melodic.

I am leery of panhandlers and have seen the video of one getting into her Mercedes after a long day of standing on the street.  As she placed her hand-lettered, cardboard sign in the trunk of her E class the interviewer asked a why question.  She ignored the microphone thrust into her face and roared off into the sunset without answering.

I looked at him with a sideways fisheye and reading my mind, he volunteered without me asking, “Naw sir, I ain’t drunk no al-ke-hall in over five years.  I’m just a little short between gubmint checks.  If you can’t hep me I understand.”

As I pulled out my wallet, I asked the old man, “If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?”

“I just turned sixty-nine last week.  I’s born November 13, 1950.”

I was stunned.  The old man was six months younger than me.  It was almost a kick to the danglies.

“I’m six months older than you.  April 9, 1950.”

He grinned, “Yeah?  Looks like I might have a bit mo mileage on my speedo.”  I nodded and thought, “I sure hope so.”

Looking in my wallet I found three twenties and two ones.  “Listen, I’ll be right back,” and went in to complete the search for my holy grail but failed to find it.  No mop with my wife’s specifications.  I called her admitting to my failure and explaining what I was about to do.

The old man was still there…funny how I thought of him as an old man still.  “Come on, let’s go across to Wendy’s and I’ll spring for a burger.  What do you say?”

He paused and pondered…finally, I tried to assure him, “Look, I’m harmless, come on.”

He stood and I slowly walked with him finally helping him into my old Ram 1500.

Once in the truck, he volunteered, “Ya know, I ain’t homeless.  I live over yonder in them gubmint houses.  I just come up short this month.”  He signed,  “Pay my bills or eat.  Tough choice sometimes.”

I glanced at him, “No need to explain.  I’ve had hard times too.”   Compared to him I knew I was lying.

“My name’s Don, incidentally.”

He extended his hand, gnarled and callused, “I’m Herbert…Herbert Perry.  Pleased to meet chu.”

Once inside he held back until I prodded, “Go on get what you want, Herbert.”

He stepped forward and in his gravelly voice slowly asked the woman behind the counter, “Kin I get me one of them double burgers with bacon?  How’s your coffee?  Fresh?”

I stepped forward and added, “Throw in an order of fries for him and a second double burger with bacon.  Also, large vanilla Frosty.”   One of the voices in my head laughed saying, “Eatin’ high on the hog ain’tcha?”

We sat in a corner, him eating his burger, me drinking my Frosty,

“My son comes by an looks in on me but he’s out of town.  He goes to where the work is with his company.  In Colorado now…been gone a month.  ‘Posed to be back this week.  He’ll slide me a bit of money until my check comes in.  Doctor’s bill cut into my social and the little bit of retirement money I get from Southern Weavin’.”

“What’s wrong if you don’t mind me asking.”

“I got the sugar and neuropathy.  Medicare don’t quite cover it.”

Food or medicine, what a choice.

“Did you grow up in Greenville?”

“Naw, down near Orangeburg…little place called St. Matthews.  My parents and grandparents were sharecroppers.  We moved to Greenville when the mills started hirin’ coloreds in the late Sixties.  I finished my senior year at Sterlin’ High.  You know of it?”

“Yeah, I drove a bus during summers takin’ kids to the pool at the old Sterlin’ gym.”

He laughed…”I reckon you looked like a pimple on a black face didn’t you?”

I laughed, “Yeah, I did.  But the people were nice and the kids…they were kids.”  I went on to explain my choice of vocations, a teacher and a coach for forty-five years.  I began teaching just after schools were totally desegregated.

“I worked at Southern Weavin’ until the jobs went south.  Nearly thirty years.  I did odd jobs after that.  I’ve always been good with my hands.  Dorothy, my wife, was a nurse until the cancer got her.  I kind of fell into a bottle for a while.  I crawled out about five years ago.”

“It happens.  You say you got a son, any others?”

The conversation shifted to families, children, and grandchildren.  I was happy an old black man and an old white man had so much in common.

“Captain, you not going to eat that burger?”

“No, that Frosty filled me up…I thought I’d let you take it home for supper.”  I didn’t fool him at all but we both ignored the lie.

“Why you doin’ this?”

I shook my head, “I don’t know.  Someone in my head told me it was the right thing to do and I hope I’ve made a friend.”

He nodded, “Could be.”

“Why don’t you let me take you home.  That way I’ll know where my new friend lives.”

I again watched his slow trek to the truck and offered him a hand.  He was quiet for the short trip to his home…a government-supported group of duplexes.  It was well maintained but had a gridded and boring sameness.

Kids, home from school, played along the streets.  Chasing each other, along with Frisbees and colorful balls.  Carefully I wove through them and at his direction pulled up to a corner unit and got out to help him down.  A little girl of my granddaughter’s age ran up to him.  Wearing a pink Minnie Mouse tee-shirt, she hugged him around his knees.

“Where you been Mr. Herb?”

“My friend and I just went for lunch Lizzie.  You go on and play now I’ll be out in a bit to watch chu.”

To me, he added, “Somethin’ about the noise kids create makes you forget your troubles.  I likes to sit out and watch ‘em.”

Leaning on his cane, “I ‘preciate the meal.  Maybe you come by sometimes and I’ll stand you one.”

I nodded and smiled, shook his hand and walked back to the truck.  I watched him slowly hobble to his door.  Turning, he waved as I cranked my old truck before disappearing into his home.

As I drove home, I had time to think.  I was reminded of an old phrase from some educational advertisement and adjusted it to “A mind is a terrible thing….”

I wondered how many people were having to make decisions on whether to eat or pay for a prescription.  How many people became homeless.  Bankrupt because they got sick.  I also gave a silent thanks for more blessings than I deserve.

In this country we continue to tout ourselves as the greatest in the world, we have people dying because they can’t afford health care…people who don’t have to die.  People who are dying because of corporate greed.  Being told to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps…or get another job.” How many are hiding in the shadows?

We have a family member who has “the sugar” and neuropathy.  He also lives in government-subsidized housing and his “social” doesn’t quite cover some months.  He is not an alky or drug addict.  He made some bad business choices and picked the month’s just before the Great Recession to try and start a company, sinking all of his resources into it.

The company went under and everything went with it.  His home, his car, his equipment, his country club membership, his life.  He went to work cleaning offices or selling everything from shoes to his soul, his wages garnished to pay off the loans made in good faith that had been sunk into a business that sank like a stone because of greedy mortgage lenders and Wall Street tycoons.

He has survived but could just as easily been hidden in the shadows.  Survived because of the family…but what of those who have none.  One “social” check short of the street.   Eat or buy meds, buy meds or pay the rent.

I tire of pontificators spreading the lies of the “welfare queens” living on the taxpayer’s teat.  Are there abuses, of course.  There are always people who play the system…some might say that billion-dollar corporations paying no taxes might be playing the system.  An excessive number of “welfare queens” are retired or disabled folk.  In many cases, they are people working multiple jobs to keep the wolves away.

Enough of the rant…  I hope I’ll follow through with my thoughts…Herb is a bit old to be adopted but maybe I can shine a bit of light into his shadows.

Don Miller writes on various subjects, some that bother him so.  His author’s page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Don’t Let The Old Man In….

 

I didn’t recognize the face in the mirror.  It sorta looks like me.  Five in the morning is not the best time to look into the mirror but at my age, it’s better than seeing myself in the harsh sunlight.  The face wasn’t “the brown-eyed handsome man” that Chuck Berry sang about sixty-one years ago.  This face is cut by crevasses covered by a wild beard.  The brown eyes sit above “steamer trunks,” not bags.  What hair there is, is now more silver than brown…as is a beard that was once redder than white.  My eyes are still brown and, in my mind, behind those eyes, somewhere, is a young, “brown-eyed handsome man.”

I’m looking down the barrel at another birthday.  Can you tell?  One month from today.  Another year older.  The grim reaper another year closer.  Can it be another year already?  As I look back…into the mirror and the old gentleman looking back at me, I realize a time versus age graph would show a steeper line after the age of fifty than before.  Time flies when you are having fun…and growing old.  Yes, I know there is another alternative.

Looking back into the mirror I realize, “that old geezer wants to get at me.”  He wants to be me…or rather, he wants me to be him.  I refuse to invite him to do so.

I have always been a people watcher…particularly attractive female people, a kink in my sterling armor.  Recently I’ve begun to look at older people I know, OLD people my age.  I always think, “I don’t look that old do I?”  I even asked my best friend Hawk, “Do we look that old?”  He said no…but then he’s just a year younger than me.  Would he lie?

I hear a tap, tap, tap.  Is it the hot water line that needs to be tightened or the old man in the mirror?  He wants me to invite him in.  No, no, no!  I’m going to keep dancing badly until I die…even if it is dancing from the seat of a chair.  Maybe I won’t be able to run, but then I’ll walk, or I’ll crawl or do invisible snow angels in the middle of the floor….  Too many people die because they are afraid to live.  I will not invite that old coot in.

I awoke to the groans my father made, so many years ago…except they are coming from me.  Snap, crackle, pop go my joints as I try to get out of bed.  Once I get moving I do okay.  Is that the lesson from my ruminations this morning?

The “brown eyed handsome man” in my head thinks he can still do anything.  I’m listening to him.  I’m going to keep doing my thing…just a bit more slowly.  Like a wind-up toy, the spring will wind down or break sometimes, but sometime could be a long way off.

I just learned that a friend’s cancer has returned and invaded his esophagus. He has battled cancer for years, battled it with a joyous heart and a cheerful and exuberant attitude.   I hope and pray he is able to beat it but the cards are stacked against him. He has never let the old man in…for eighty-five years.

A piano player, he always reminded me of Hoagy Carmichael’s Cricket in “To Have and Have Not.”  I’ll bet Charlie will be playing the piano, cracking jokes, dancing or doing snow angels on the floor until they carry him out. I’ll miss him when he goes but I won’t mourn for him because he kept the old man out of his life.  Maybe I can get him to play “Am I Blue” one more time.

Yessir!  I’m going to be like Charlie.  I will never let that old man I see in the mirror in.

Video credit: YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9C1vJ2Z8aI0

Photo credit:  Hoagy Carmichael and  Lauren Bacall                    https://indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow/rainbow-hits-ground-hoagy-carmichael-hollywood/

Don Miller’s writer’s page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Don Miller, writing as Kena Christenson, may be found at https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B07B6BDD19

The Old Man

The old man sat on the top step of the porch and watched the movement of children as they played tag. His vision was bad and he squinted attempting to see. Cataracts had thickened, reducing the children to ghostly apparitions. Too much time spent in the blazing sun. He could still see their blurry forms and could discern the gaily clad little girls in their summer dresses from the little boys in their shorts and long pants. Thank God! My hearing is still good.

Someone wanted to take a picture with their new-fangled camera. Something called a Brownie. He sat a bit slumped, his hands resting on his thighs. An eighty-year-old…today. His once red hair was now white as the cotton bolls bursting in the fall. His beard, years ago red and sparse had thickened like his cataracts. White and long, it spread to the middle of his vest. Tobacco juice from years of chewing stained the sides of his mouth.

His gaze shifted to the distant horizon. His once blazing, blue-green eyes had faded but his vision was still sharp…with the visions of the past. He smiled at his thoughts. He couldn’t remember what day it was, but his memories of times now past was as sharp as the old boning knife he once carried. He spent most of his time gazing back at the past. Mostly he spent his time with the memory of Lucretia, now dead nearly fifty years.

He had been lucky. He had loved three times. Three fine women had warmed his bed and brought him comfort and joy. Lucretia, Genevieve, and Josephine. He had loved them with all his heart. The old man had been unlucky too, he had outlived all three. He cherished the memories of them all, but Lucretia was special. She had been his first…. He liked to remember her in the emerald green ball dress. High waisted, it bared her shoulders and dipped low showing her décolletage. An emerald ribbon held her mother’s cameo and brought attention to her long slender neck. He remembered slowly taking her out of the dress…Damn, I almost felt something stir.

Timmy, Tyler James’s youngest, sat down beside him. A chap of six, he recognized the boy’s voice when he asked, “Whatcha’ thinking about Grampy?” He was John William’s youngest grandchild. John William was not the old man’s grandson but his grandnephew, Arlo and Stella’s boy. He had sired no children but had been adopted by John William and his brood.

“Timmy, I was thinking about Grammy Lucretia. I wish you had the chance to meet her. She was a special woman.”

“As special as Grammy Josey?” He asked as if he might be worried about my answer.

“Oh yes, oh yes she was…and Josephine loved you very much.”

“I miss her…’specially her molasses cookies.”

“I miss her too…and her molasses cookies.”
He missed his friends too. All were gone. Sean, Arlo, and Stella, Alexandre’ and Shailene, James. All had been gone for ages. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” from the book Momma Edwards had taught him to read from. He had been here too long. It was time to move on.

“Tell me a story Grampy.”

Well, maybe it’s not quite time to move on quite yet.

Finis

I’ve always wondered about the picture I used to illustrate this fictional piece that may or may not become a novel. It is a picture of my great, great-grandfather, Marion DeKalb Rodgers, who was born in 1842. I have no idea when the picture was made…and it really doesn’t matter. It’s his tanned and weathered face, along with the squint, that captivated my thoughts. I wondered what he was thinking and what his life was like, the sights he saw. I understand he was a farmer and a carpenter. I know as a seventeen-year-old he went off with his father to fight in the Civil War and was one of the lucky ones who returned. Again, I just wonder.

Don Miller is a multi-genre, Indie author. He has just released his second work of fiction, South From Sutherland’s Station. It along with his other works may be purchased or downloaded at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY…TO ME

I used to get excited…not so much anymore. The road “past” is much longer than the road “future” and when dealing with my own life, I try to stay “in the now.” At my unstated age, I find it more comfortable remembering the past rather than pondering the future. People much brighter than me have suggested that “you can’t live in the past.” I agree but would suggest, “I can remember the past and wonder”…just don’t live there…too much. Which brings me to today, the day before the anniversary of my birth.

It was an Easter Sunday with all the jokes about the Easter Bunny delivering me to my parents rather than the traditional stork. Bright blue skies and crisp I was told. My father had revolted at the idea of rising early for the traditional Sunrise Service. I understand he was forced to get up even earlier than he would have wished.

A colorized picture of a one year old. A tow-headed child gazing sweetly into a camera makes me wonder why the blond hair turned brown before turning gray. Unfortunately, it has also turned loose. At some point I wonder if my sink will have more hair in it than my head has on it…or already does. I also wonder what kind of cake was smeared all over my smooth baby face, a face I no longer recognize in the mirror…with or without cake.

Somewhere in the past, a fourteen-year-old with darker blond hair, got excited about his birthday until he was presented with a brand new red Toro lawnmower instead of the red Mustang convertible he was wishing for. My dad, always the practical one…but then I was only fourteen. The mower wasn’t even a rider or self-propelled. I didn’t get the Mustang at age sixteen or eighteen either. I did get a green Mustang for my beloved when I was forty-six…I don’t even like green and it wasn’t for me…or my birthday.

I remember a “sweet sixteen” birthday party, painstakingly planned by my mother and held at the fire house just down the road from our house. All my friends and classmates were there dancing to forty-fives, eating cake and drinking punch. I never told her how embarrassed I was for all the commotion…and for the fact I was “sweet sixteen and had never been kissed” before the party…or for a while after it.

For some reason, there are no outstanding birthday memories from sixteen to fifty…or I need something to trigger the memory I’m not having. A gathering at a local restaurant on my fiftieth netted me a four-disc boxed set of Jimmy Buffet’s greatest hits, from a friend I daily worry about. Because my six-disc changer is loaded with all four of my Buffet disc’s, there is a great chance I’m going to be reminded of my friend anytime I get into my car. I am also reminded of the battle I fear he is losing to his addiction. I think I’m going to call him on my birthday and remind him of the joy he brought me.

On my fifty-sixth we gathered with family at the same restaurant as my fiftieth, this time after church on a bright and warm Sunday afternoon. I had a great time but felt physically ill as I drove the winding road home. Queasy, I contributed it to the garlicy pasta I had consumed along with the copious amounts of birthday cheer in the form of birthday cake. It wasn’t until I got home that I considered a heart attack. The elephant suddenly sitting on my chest fueled my suspicion.

The attack may have been the greatest gift I could have ever received…even better than a red Mustang convertible. I survived and became a better steward of the health my creator granted me. Eleven more years with my beloved, seeing my daughter graduate from college, marry and start a family of her own…beginning her THIRD vocation while seven month’s pregnant. Miller Kate and Nolan the grandbabies. An epic Sixtieth in Atlanta with “too good” a friends attending a James Taylor concert. Front row seats within touching distance and a limo ride to and from. Madeline Roo and Matilda Sue, two Australian blue heelers who have made us their own, worming their way into my heart for the past twelve years.

Just to be clear, Linda Gail has already stated, “We are not going to celebrate your birthday on this Sunday.” Superstitious or just not willing to tempt fate? I had not thought about it…guess she does love me just a little. Well…Happy Birthday to me.

Visit Don’s author’s page at https://goo.gl/pL9bp or pick up a copy or download his new book, Musings of a Mad Southerner, at https://goo.gl/zxZHWO.

OLD MEN IN FEDORAS

I am by nature a baseball cap “kind” of guy. Forty-three years of coaching baseball and football will make you a baseball cap kind of guy out of habit. Forty-three years of coaching baseball and football added to sixty years of “bronzing my body” in the sun while working in fields or cutting the grass will give you a carcinoma on your ear because baseball ball caps don’t cover them. Especially mine! I was born with big ears to go with a big nose and was a bit disturbed to find out, besides finger and toenails, ears and noses are the only body parts to continue growing throughout life. Maybe I can try out for a part in the next Dumbo movie.

I now wear big floppy hats. I still wear baseball caps…I even have one that my darling daughter gave me many years ago that has a flap that covers my neck and ears…although I need to check and make sure my ears are not outgrowing it. I use it when I run or walk in the sun or go fishing. I have a long-billed one she gave me that I use when I am not running in the sun. For long periods in the sun, I have “boonie” hats, straw hats and the hats that prompted this post, the fedora. What I think of as the “Old Man’s” hat.

I didn’t always think of them as “Old Men’s” hats…until I got to be one of the “Old Men.” Until I became one of the old men, I thought them to be “cool.” My first fedora was a genuine Indiana Jones’ Stetson from over thirty years ago. I still have it…as I have all of my wide brim fedoras, no snap brims for me. Indie’s old hat is moth-eaten and worn…kind of like me. I don’t get up in the morning thinking I’m moth-eaten and worn. I don’t even move through the day thinking I’m an old man…unless I get near a mirror. There ARE some mornings that I get up and suspect I might be an old man or rather a young man’s brain trapped in an old man’s body. This is usually confirmed when I look in my mirror. I really should invest in a youthful Panama with a colorful band to get that thought out of my head.

My grandfather always wore a fedora, in the field or at work. My guess is that he took it off when he was indoors at Springs. Unlike today it was poor etiquette to wear a hat indoors. Blue jean overalls topped with an old sweat-stained fedora. I have a mental picture of him astride his plow horse riding in from the field. An old man riding an old horse with a fedora perched “fore and aft” on his head. No “jaunty tilt” for him although he might tilt it back to rid himself of the summer heat. No tilt even when he had his “Sunday go to meeting” clothes on with his “Sunday hat” firmly in place…until he got inside the church with the rest of the “Old Men” carrying their fedoras by their side or sitting with them in their laps. Afterward and outside they were all careful to touch their brims to the ladies, removing them if they stopped to talk. There is one problem with this mental picture. I am nearly a decade older than my grandfather at the age he died.

Thirty years ago this coming winter I drove into Travelers Rest in need of something only a hardware store could provide. Pre Lowes and Wally World, I stopped at Williams Hardware, before it was a restaurant, for no other reason than it was the first one I saw. It was bitter cold and gray day with a wind that carried ice cycles forecasting the snow or ice that was soon to follow. I wrapped my coat tighter as I fought the wind until I opened the door. It was like a sauna with a huge potbellied stove glowing pink from the heat. As far from the heat as possible, three men sat around a checkerboard they had placed on an old nail keg. They could have been stamped from similar molds. Broad-bodied going to seed, they were wide of the shoulder with little or no necks showing above the collars on their flannel shirts. Their round heads were covered by the requisite fedora and underneath they sported broad faces cut by crevasses rather than creased with wrinkles. Faces were the color of tanned leather except where the fedora was pushed back on their heads. Foreheads were as white as freshly bleached sheets having rarely seen the sun. I am sure the bodies under the flannel and overalls would have matched. They spoke in hushed tones as if they had been admonished not to disturb the paying customers…although I was the only paying customer.

I see old men from my youth, sitting around checkerboards on wooden barrels crowning kings. Fedoras cocked back on their heads as they studied the board and contemplated their strategies. Another group of old men sat waiting their turn, kibitzing, cracking wise or telling stories that they had all heard before. Old friends comfortable with their age I guess…something I hope I have plenty of time left to acquire…but not quite yet. Yeah, I think a Panama with a colorful band might be just the trick, or one of those snappy European driving hats…but then I would have to buy a sports car to go with it. Hum, not a fate worse than death unless I grow too old to enjoy one.

For more of life’s non-fiction by Don Miller try http://goo.gl/lomuQf