“So if that’s what they want to do why don’t they just come out and say it?’
“Because no one cares about it, they need to find a cause that people will get behind, something that sounds good and unselfish.”
“But they are being totally selfish, all they are looking out for is their own comfort.”
“Okay, short story, a guy, a guy I know, knows, needed a special cord for a fan.”
“What kind of fan?”
“Doesn’t matter but this guy does maintenance for a school district that has a lot of fans just like the one the guy needs a cord for.”
“So they stock a lot of the cords and he snags one for home use. No big surprise there.”
“Not so mon amie, the cords almost never wear out and if one does the schools usually just buy a new fan.”
“Well that’s a waste.”
“School districts have more money than people think, but that’s not the point.”
“What’s the point Jack?”
“Don’t call me Jack. The point is the guy goes out and buys a hundred cords, a whole stocking dealer’s box of special use cords.”
“And he needs one?”
“He needs one but he needs to make it look like something the district uses and stocks, no one is going to count a hundred cords to prove one is missing and if one is missing the dealer may have shorted the box. The prefect crime.”
‘“What if his boss had called him in and asked, “why all the cords?”’
“He did get called in. He told his boss perfectly good fans were being replaced with new ones and his boss gave him a pat on the back.”
“So the guy gets the cord he needed at home and the district is stuck with ninety-nine cords.”
“Well, to be honest, that’s not what happened.”
“Someone turned him in?”
“No…turned out with that stack of cords sitting there the other maintenance guys started using them instead of just replacing fans, over the next ten years the district saved over nine thousand dollars.”
“But, back to the selfish people, just looking out for themselves, they cost us a bunch of money.”
“What they have to do is find a real cause that meets their need and some other need. The other need has to be real or it doesn’t catch on and nothing is done. Sometimes these very selfish motives help a lot of people.”
“Six O Six.”
“Is that your dog?”
“I have no dog.”
“So that’s not your dog?”
“No. They do not allow dogs in here.”
“I thought maybe it was one of those comfort dogs.”
“There is no dog.”
“But they do allow those comfort dogs.”
“I hope not, people eat in here.”
“I’ve seen them in here. They have a cover that says comfort dog right on it.”
“But you see a dog now and there is no dog.”
“I quit seeing it when you told me.”
“Sorry, what kind of dog was it?”
“Could you buy me a cup of coffee?”
“Sally!” Sally stopped topping off cups and came to my table.
“You being bothered?” she asks as she fills my half full cup.
“Could you bring this gentleman a cup of your finest, and an order of toast?” Sally doesn’t look like she wants to but she gives me a paid for smile and walks toward the kitchen. I motion toward the bench seat of the booth across the table from me.
“I didn’t know her name was Sally,” the tall, aggressively thin man said as he curled his legs under the table. “Know what she calls me?” he waits for my reply.
I swallow my sip of coffee, “What?”
“Get the hell out,” he said with a laugh covered with a dirty hand. He waited for me to get the joke. “That’s what she calls me,” he adds, just in case I didn’t get it. Sally shows up with the coffee, toast, a bowl of creamers and a basket of sugars, “here you go sweetie,” she says in full waitress mode.
“You come in here often?” I ask as the wisp of a stick man starts opening sugar bags three at a time.
“Just cold mornings, nothin’ like a hot cup of coffee,” he starts dumping premeasured plastic containers of creamer into the cup. He has to drink a little to make more room.
“Have you ever tasted coffee?” I ask as the dilution continues. He starts to point to the cup in front of him before he gets my joke. Showing he’s the most courteous person at this table he covers his mouth with his hand and gives my attempt at humor a quick laugh and snort.
He dunks a half slice of toasted bread and pushes it into his mouth. While he starts to chew he says, “My thanks,” a bit of bread tries to escape his mouth along with a dribble of sugar milk and coffee. He stuffs the bread back into his mouth, the dribble cleans a path down his chin and neck.
“You’re hungry,” I wave down Sally and she comes to our table because that’s what she’s paid to do. She waits with her pad and pencil. “One of those breakfast specials.”
“How would you like your eggs?” she asks making sure to only look at me.
“How would you like your eggs?” I pause, “I don’t know your name?”
“Over easy,” he answers.
“And how do you want your eggs?”
He does the hand over face laugh and looses most of a mouthful of toast; he’s really catching onto my sense of humor. Sally is long gone by the time he recovers and gets the mass of dough stuffed back into his mouth. “They call me Toby,” he says while still grinning, amid the chewed slime I can see several of his teeth still cling to his gums. He wipes his right hand on his dirt-encrusted pants and reaches across the table.
I shake his hand and say, “they call me Jack.” I pick up a napkin, wipe my hand and make a note to not get that hand anywhere near my face. Sally puts a breakfast special in front of Toby. As Toby dives into his meal, almost literally, I realize our conversation has ended. I stand and attempt a good-bye but Toby is lost in eggs stirred into hash browns. As I pay Sally for her dedication I look back and see Toby empty a Ketchup bottle onto his plate and stir it into his breakfast mixture. He sees me looking and waves good-bye with the upturned bottle leaving a line of ketchup across the table and onto the floor. I hand Sally her tip. Sally looks at me like I’m some kind of joke. I dig out another five.
With one bag of cookies finished we get back on the trail. Ricky takes the point. Sally and I hang back just in case Ricky starts singing again. Ricky stays quiet but the brush grows thicker and the path narrows. The trees start to cover the creek completely and it’s like we are walking through a green-lit tunnel. Sally lags behind me as she checks out every little opening into the brush and grass; once in a while she finds something to bark at, just one bark and then she moves on.
After almost an hour of walking in silence Ricky stops still in the middle of the path. He makes a couple clicks with his tongue and whispers, “Sally,” he pats the side of his legs with his hand. Sally knows what he means, comes to his side and sits beside him.
I keep silent and walk up to him looking to see why he has stopped.
Ricky points to a spot on the upper side of the path. At first all I see is a pile of old clothes covered with a short piece of old stained carpet and then I see the feet. Sticking out past the edge of the carpet are two, bare, dirty, gray feet and two skinny gray calves.
“Is he dead?” I whisper to Ricky but in the absolute quiet it sounds like a shout. In response to my whisper the toes wiggle and one of the feet moves.
“Try to be quiet, he’s trying to sleep,” Ricky whispers and starts to walk past the feet.
“Trying is the key word,” the man under the carpet says in a gravelly voice still not ready to start a new day. There is movement under the carpet, “wait, and let me find my pants.” We follow orders and stand in the path while the carpet, the roof of the man’s home moves up and down as he prepares to meet the day. The feet are replaced by a dirty head covered with curly light brown hair. His blue eyes, the only washed part of the man, look us over and seem to approve.
“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting company,” he explains as he crawls out of his dwelling and buttons his shirt and pants. “What brings you boys to this part of the river?” he asks like we have come for tea. We just stand there. “That’s a fine looking dog you have there,” he slaps the side of his leg a couple of times and Sally goes over to him in order to get her head rubbed. “Fine dog,” Sally gives him a nudge with her head.
Ricky asks the expected question, “you live here?”
“I’m here,” he pretends to pinch his arm, “I’m alive. Sure, I live here. So far I’ve lived every place I have ever been. Make yourselves at home,” he motions with his arm for us to find a place to sit just like my father does when people come to visit. Ricky and I find rocks to sit on. Sally curls up next to the man on the ground. “I’d invite you to breakfast but I haven’t been to the grocery lately and…”
Ricky takes the hint, “we have a few things we could share.”
I add, “it’s time for our lunch,” and pull the backpack off my back.
“You boys are going ta make fine neighbors,” the man says, all of a sudden looking very hungry. “Names,” he pauses for a few seconds like he’s selecting one, “name’s Jack” he doesn’t offer his hand to shake, like he understands he lives beneath a layer of dirt so we just exchange names.
My mother has packed four sandwiches and food for Sally along with several apples and juice boxes, “Peanut Butter and Jelly or Turkey?”
“P and J please,” Jack makes it sound like food from a fancy restaurant in town. “Hard to get a good P and J out here,” he unzips the sandwich bag and takes a huge first bite. “Did the angels send you?”
It sounds a little crazy but I answer like it’s a regular question, “we’re just on a hike to where the creek begins.”
“That’s what they tell people. They, the angels, tell people to walk up the creek and bring lots of P and J’s!” He gives me a grin that does nothing to let me know if he’s serious of not. He takes another huge bite that almost finishes the sandwich so I offer him a turkey sandwich to have at the ready. “Great neighbors,” he says as thanks so I dig out a juice box and apple too and hand them over. He takes care to make a nice neat pile next to him with the juice box on the bottom and the apple on top of the sandwich. “Real pretty up there.”
It takes me a moment to realize he talking about where the creek begins, “we saw it from an airplane.”
“You been up there?” he says in awe. “Are you angels?” he asks without a hint of a joke but Ricky assumes it is and laughs.
“We’re just regular boys!” Ricky explains. “But thanks.”
Jack just nods and looks at the ground like he’s okay with us not being angels but a little disappointed. He looks back up at us and says, “well, you regular boys have made my day.”
Ricky notices the turkey sandwich and apple have disappeared so he digs in this sack for another small bag of cookies and hands them over.
The man looks like he might cry but instead pops a whole cookie into his mouth at once, with his mouth still full of cookie he says something that sounds a little like, “good cookie” and then pops in another one. I figure it’s time for a water bottle and hand one over but he turns it down and after swallowing his cookie says, “only drink pure creek water,” and then he rethinks his action, “not that your water’s not good enough.” We start packing up. “Shame you need to leave so soon,” he says sounding just like my father again. “See you on the way back down?”
We say our good-byes and get back on the trail as Jack crawls back under his carpet to finish his nap.
The trees start to grow taller, the brushes and grass are replaced by pine needles. The creek spills over rocks now and sometimes the path is hard granite instead of dirt.
Ralph had always been a friend. Fifty years before Jack had been born one of the new families built a house on the Next Street, the second street from Main Street, after living and growing old the couple who had built the house died leaving the house to their off-spring. Their off-spring chose not to live in The Village, which put a house on Next Street up for sale, something that rarely happened. One of the very new families purchased the home, moved in, and among other things produced a baby boy and named him Ralph after his grandfather.
When Jack was three years old he stood in his back yard facing the back fence. A six-foot high wall of red wood planks stood between Jack and the rest of the world. A foot and a half above the ground a two inch by four inch by six foot piece of wood ran parallel to the ground, another two by four ran parallel at four foot off the ground and a final length of wood ran parallel to the ground five and one half feet off the ground. Cemented into the ground every six feet stood a four by four post. Each of the two by fours butted into the posts and were nailed securely. This lumber provided a strong surface for the planks of the fence to be attached to but they also provided a chance for a small boy to see more of his world. Three-year-old Jack tried to pull himself onto the lowest of the two by fours by pulling with his hands on a four by four post and swinging his leg to the two by four but even when the toe of his tennis shoe reached the wooden step he could not pull himself up. Jack pulled his red wagon to the fence and climbed from the wagon to the first two by four he stood holding the second two by four and looking at fence plank an inch from his face. He stood like this for a minute getting his breath and adjusting to the height. His head was above the third two by four but still below the top of the fence. Jack reached upward toward the top edge of the fence plank and was able to curl his little fingers around the top edge of the three quarter inch thick fence plank. He pulled his self up and felt the rough edge of the plank dig into his hands as his feet left the two by four ledge. He dangled in the air as he pulled harder and climbed at the flat fence planks with his tennis shoed feet. Just before his fingers could hold no longer his feet found the second two by four and he was able to stand. His eyes and then his head and shoulders moved above the top edge of the fence and he could look, for the first time, into his neighbor’s yard. Jack stared at a three-year-old boy who had been watching the fence from the other side wondering what all the noise was about. Ralph stared back at a boy’s head standing seven feet tall.
Jack said, “hi, my name is Jack.”
“Hi, Jack,” Ralph said with his eyes wide, “are you a giant?”
“I’m standing on a board,” answered Jack.
“Oh,” said Ralph, a little disappointed.
And from that day on they were best friends. Before they were four years old there was a gate leading from one back yard to the other and their parents went back and forth between yards as often as the boys did.