Unlikely Friends, by Wayne Scheer
A few days after I moved to Atlanta, about twenty years ago, I came home from my new teaching job at Georgia State to find my grass mowed and a lanky white man in his sixties wearing overalls and a straw hat, trimming my hedges.
“What are you doing?” I asked, jumping out of my car almost before I turned it off. My Chicago cynicism was showing. Why would a white man be mowing the lawn of a single black woman? He wants something.
He took off his hat, displaying the remnants of white hair combed straight across his pink scalp and offered a theatrical bow from the waist. Holding his hat to his chest while smiling a big, yellow-toothed grin, he said, in an accent as thick as the Atlanta humidity, “Ah’m Mr. Beasley, your neigh-bah.” He pointed to the neat little brick cottage next door with a beautiful bed of red and yellow roses still in bloom, although it was early September. “I hope you don’t mind me fixing up your place a bit. Just my way of welcoming you to the neighborhood.”
I wasn’t sure how to react. Should I be thankful, or was this a subtle Southern way of telling me I need to get my black behind in gear if I was going to live next to white people? I decided to keep my thoughts in check and held out my hand. “I’m Valerie Harris. I was planning on getting to the yard this weekend.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mz. Harris.” He showed me his hands were dirty and didn’t shake mine.
I told him if he gave me a few minutes to change my clothes I’d help with the hedges, but he said he was about finished. Then he added, “I’d certainly be appreciative of some iced tea, if it’s not too much of a bother.”
“Of course,” I said, not quite sure what to expect next.
I set up a pitcher of tea and cookies on my front porch and noticed that he washed his hands at the outside spigot. When I suggested he come inside and use my bathroom, he declined. “This’ll do right fine, Mz. Harris.”
I told him to call me Valerie. He made no mention of his first name.
We sat on the porch for about half an hour, and he talked non-stop, like a man unaccustomed to conversation. He told me he was a bachelor and that he bought his house in 1956 when he was working at the Ford plant in nearby Hapeville. He had retired a few years back. Soon I had a history of the neighborhood, including how “the colored folk” had started moving in, but he didn’t mind as long as they were neighborly. I smiled to keep from saying something I might regret.
He was a good neighbor and, in time, he became a friend as well. Routinely, we’d sit on my front porch with a pitcher of tea, and talk. We’d always start our conversations with the weather. Often, he’d make the standard, “Hot enough for you?” comment, but he’d go on to tell fascinating stories of Atlanta in the old days and I’d talk about my own past. In an unguarded moment, I told him about the man I was engaged to in Chicago and how I had found out through friends that he once had a live-in relationship with a man. I had never thought of myself as homophobic, but I couldn’t get over the thought of him with a man. Mr. Beasley seemed shocked, and I could see he was uncomfortable, but he offered no judgment.
Not that Mr. Beasley was a man to hold back his opinions. One sunny Sunday, a group of black teenagers walked past our houses playing their music loud and cursing even louder. Mr. Beasley was in his rose garden while I read the newspaper on my front porch. He approached them, swinging his shovel, and shouting, “Git away from my property, you niggers!” The young men stopped dead in their tracks and I ran out between them, telling Mr. Beasley to put down his shovel and saying to the teenagers, “You need to walk away now. Please.”
They did so, much to my relief, but Mr. Beasley, instead of thanking me, had turned red with anger. “This was a good neighborhood before those niggers moved in with their music and their cussing.”
I could see the teenagers stop once again. Their curses were now directed at Mr. Beasley. I knew I would have to talk with them about how I, too, found their language offensive, but for now I had to confront my neighbor.
“I’m offended by that word, Mr. Beasley, even more than by their cursing. Please don’t use it in my presence.”
He looked at me like I was a simple-minded child. “But you’re not a nigger, Mz. Valerie.” I just stared at him, shaking my head. The teens laughed and moved on.
I lived in the neighborhood for a long while before I heard anyone call him anything other than Mr. Beasley. I knew his name because I received his mail by mistake one day and saw it was addressed to Woodrow Carson Beasley. But I was shocked when I heard a man his age, who lived down the street, call him Carson.
Although the man visited Mr. Beasley regularly, he had never offered me more than a friendly wave. In an attempt to be neighborly, I brought them iced tea one hot, sticky August afternoon.
Mr. Beasley made a simple introduction. “Mz. Valerie, this is Mr. Waverley.” We engaged in small talk, but when I asked Mr. Waverly how long he and Mr. Beasley had been friends, conversation ended abruptly. We finished our tea in awkward silence.
Years passed as naturally as the seasons. Mr. Beasley became my confidant through another bad relationship and cared for my house when I took a leave of absence for a semester to attend to my mother in Chicago. When she passed and I moved back, he and Mr. Waverly met me on my front porch with a coconut custard pie. I told them how I had tried to get my mother to move in with me before she took ill, but she had refused.
“You did everything you could, Mz. Valerie,” Mr. Waverley said. It may have been the first time I ever heard him utter a full sentence. “Your mama knows you love her.”
I found the way he spoke of her in the present tense reassuring.
Winters turned to spring and the little crepe myrtle I had planted in front of my house now stood near twenty feet tall with lavender blooms that lasted most of the summer. Mr. Beasley was stooped over now from osteoporosis, but he still managed to his roses and add a beautiful autumn flowerbed of orange and yellow chrysanthemums running along the path to his house. Mr. Waverley used to help him; the two old men would be out there most days raking and weeding in the kind of rhythm that can only come from years of friendship. But the last time I saw Mr. Waverley he looked weak and had lost a good deal of weight.
Yesterday, Mr. Beasley rang my doorbell and asked if he could talk with me. It was a chilly November morning, so I asked him in. He had never been inside my house, and now he stood at the door, his hat in his hands.
“I’m moving,” he said, before I could coax him inside or offer him a drink. “Mr. Waverley’s health isn’t good, and we’re moving to a nursing home.” Then he looked at me, his eyes red and puffy. “We’ve been together for near fifty years, although we could never live in the same house because of the talk. I want to be with him at the end.”
My face registered shock. I wanted to ask if I understood him correctly. My conflicted feelings about homosexuality returned, and I wasn’t sure what to say.
He looked away momentarily, but then turned back and spoke almost in a whisper. “I hope you don’t think bad of me.”
“Oh no, of course not. It’s just that…” I stuttered like a fool, realizing how much I cared for this man. I saw his eyes glisten and I thanked him for trusting me with his secret. “You and Mr. Waverley found love. I’m happy for you.”
He nodded and tried to speak. We had had many conversations about my own failed attempts at love. “Please take care of yourself,” I finally said. “And Mr. Waverley.”
He thanked me for being his neighbor and his friend. And for the first time since we met, shook my hand.
I felt tears roll down my cheeks, and I reached out to hug him. He felt so frail, I was afraid he’d break in two. His body shook. I knew he was crying.
But he pulled away quickly. Standing as straight as his twisted back would allow, he said, “Thank you for your kindness, Mz. Valerie.”
He turned and walked slowly back to his house.
Wayne Scheer has locked himself in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne’s, not the turtle’s.) To keep from going back to work, he’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of twenty-four flash stories. (http://issuu.com/pearnoir/docs/revealing_moments). He’s been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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