Old Hat

When he talked his words came out in spurts separated by a stutter. He walked with a limp at a rapid gate as though nothing was wrong. Some thought he was simple-minded but he wasn’t. He was the handy man for Mrs. Jenny Farrar, the lady who owned the house where my family rented three rooms. Mrs. Jenny in her old age and Elmer a black man with a handicap supported each other in a kind of perfect accord, filling the needs of each other.

Few had refrigerators. Mrs. Jenny had an ice box. The ice man came each day and routinely placed a block of ice in the ice box. One day he didn’t come and Mrs. Jenny asked Elmer to go to the ice house on the other side of Fayetteville to get a block of ice. Not having a vehicle of any kind it would have been difficult for Elmer to carry a block of ice that distance. He asked me to let him use my coaster wagon. I was about five at the time and I agreed that he could use my wagon if he would let me ride in it to the ice house. As we got about half way, a gust of wind blew a grain of sand in my eye and scratched it. I remember crying from the pain. Elmer in his kind way tried to comfort me. He told me just to hold on. He would make it feel better when we got to the ice house. In complete trust, I stopped crying and waited anxiously to get there. When we arrived Elmer put me in one of the ice lockers. It was freezing in there but my eye didn’t hurt at all. I knocked on the door for Elmer to let me out. The eye felt fine. But as soon as I entered the warm air the pain returned and I hurried back into the ice locker. Elmer laughed as he purchased the ice he had come after and told me we needed to return home; but I wouldn’t leave the locker. After begging me for some time to come out, he asked the owner to help him, but I wouldn’t listen to anyone. Finally Elmer said Mrs. Jenny would be mad at him if he let the ice melt and he was going back. He started toward the road with the block of ice in my wagon. I realize now he would not have left me, but then I was not sure. I ran and jumped into the wagon holding my eye shut with my hand. Before we arrived home the pain had gone and Elmer seemed relieved.

Five is a good age in many ways. You are old enough to realize what’s going on but everyone thinks you are too young to be aware of anything. Your presence is generally overlooked. You can stand in the middle of situations without being noticed. When the lady next door paid Elmer with an old summer hat of her husband for chopping a pile of stove wood, I watched him graciously accept his worthless pay, walk to the back of Mrs. Jenny’s and throw it into the cellar under the house as he mumbled something in an angry tone, not noticing that I was watching and listening. I remember thinking it was funny but even at that early age I knew he had been mistreated. Elmer and I had a way of communicating without saying much. Maybe that was because we were not hampered by the complexities of the day and concentrated on the simpler things that mattered to us. We were good friends.

Years later I’d sometimes see Elmer in town. We’d always shout hello to each other and I’d always ask him where his hat was.
© Dean Brown 2005