by Charles H. Nipper
“This ol’ building used to be a hotel Carson said they’re goin’ to tear it down and build somethin’ else I don’t know what The bus station closes at night so the Trailways buses stop here at the Crystal Café I’d like to be a bus driver and go everywhere Griner’s Bakery is my favorite store If Millie’s working she always finds a broken cookie for me that really ain’t broke.”
Mr. Richards didn’t fail to notice the longing in Sweet’s eyes and his decreased pace while they passed the bakery.
“This hotel is called the Franklin Arms but I don’t know why ‘cause hotels don’t have arms They ain’t as friendly as them at your hotel That’s what Carson says and he delivers telegrams to ‘em both Mr. Gilbert owns this Shell fillin’ station He don’t like Prince much ‘cause he threatened to whip that little ol’ fice dog of his a couple of times That’s the Royal Poinciana Hotel across the street It’s got a good sea wall on the other side on the river Looks like they’d call it a river wall Well, we ran out of stores and stuff, Mr. Richards. Ain’t nothin’ but people’s houses till you get way out to East Palmera.”
While Sweet’s opinions and explanations amused Mr. Richards, he was relieved that the commercial area was behind them. When they reached the corner of First Avenue and Bridge Street, Sweet stopped and pointed to the north. “If you go that way there’s a long bridge that goes to North Palmera where my oldest brother Benny’s girlfriend lives, but if you go this way,” Sweet explained, now pointing south, “you go to my house. We’re goin’ this way.”
“Yes, I believe you mentioned you live on this street,” Mr. Richard said.
Strangely, Sweet was silent until they reached his house. Then he said, “This is where we live but Ruth says it ain’t really our house.”
Mr. Richards, noting that Prince ambled up on the front porch and plopped down by the front door, was almost convinced of Sweet’s veracity, but the location and apparent worth of the house raised a small doubt in the old man’s mind that Sweet actually lived here. For his total satisfaction, he said, “I see. Aren’t you going to tell your mother that you and Prince are home?”
Sweet studied his question several seconds.
“Well, if I do she might make me stay home.”
By this time Florence already knew Sweet was home. She had noticed Prince when he moved across the porch and automatically peered out the front screen door. When she saw Sweet talking to the elderly man on the sidewalk, she said under her breath, “Lord, what has Sweet been up to now?”
Standing in the doorway, holding the door open with one hand and the other hand shading her eyes, she tentatively called out to him.
Mr. Richards walked to the porch steps, removed his cap, and politely stated, “Madam, my name is Charles Richards. I assume you are this young man’s mother, Mrs. Donner. Am I correct?”
“Well, yes. Yes, sir. He hasn’t been bothering you, has he, Mr. er, Richards?”
“Oh, goodness, no, madam. He has been most hospitable and kind, I assure you. He has taken the trouble to acquaint me with some very interesting things about the various establishments in Palmera. No, no, he is a perfect gentleman.”
Attempting, though not quite successfully, to keep the surprise out of her voice, she responded, “Is that so, sir? Why, thank you, sir. He can be a rapscallion at times.”
Remembering her manners, she quickly added, “These wooden chairs here are mighty hard, but if you would, come sit awhile. I can offer you some iced tea, if you drink it.”
Drawing a thin gold Elgin pocket watch from his vest and noting the time, Mr. Richards replied, “That’s very kind of you to offer, madam, but it has been hardly more than an hour since I had breakfast. However, a few moments rest would be welcome.”
He slowly climbed the five steps and sat in the closest chair he found. “I find myself drawn to chairs more and more, Mrs. Donner. It is age, more than laziness, I am unhappy to say.” He chuckled.
“Yes, sir. I expect it surely is. Are you sure you wouldn’t take a little iced tea? Prince, get away from the gennulman!” Prince had rolled over on his other side and placed his head atop one of Mr. Richards’ black calfskin shoes.
“Oh, the dog is no bother, no bother at all. I am sure your tea is delicious, but I must demur, thank you. Sweet tells me you have quite a large family, Mrs. Donner.”
As he intended, Florence regarded his last statement as a friendly invitation to discuss her family with him in detail. Within twenty minutes Mr. Richards learned, by skillfully interjecting “ahs,” “surely nots,” and other verbal prods, substantially more about the family than Sweet had related. Though much of what she told was saddening, he was more impressed by her matter-of-fact recital of the family’s travails without any hint of sorrow or bitterness in her voice.
He arose to leave and said, “Thank you for your hospitality. May Sweet accompany me to my hotel? I was considering making a small purchase on the way there.”
“Why, there wasn’t much hospitality that you got, but you are welcome. Sweet, walk back to the hotel with the gennulman, but don’t you dare ask him for anything or you’ll get skinned alive! You hear me?”
Florence watched them saunter down the street. She knew she had been too shy to question Mr. Richards, but still she thought, “All I did was talk about this bunch and never asked him nary a question about his own family. Poor old man!”
When they reached Griner’s Bakery, Mr. Richards stopped and drew his coin purse out and removed a quarter. “Sweet, is this sufficient to buy a half-dozen oatmeal cookies?”
Sweet dove into the store, checked the price of oatmeal cookies, and dashed back to Mr. Richards. “Yes, sir, more ’n enough. Fifteen cents’ll do it, ‘cause they’re thirty cents a dozen.”
They returned to the same bench in front of the hotel that they had left an hour and a half before. After Mr. Richards was seated, Sweet handed him the dime change and the bag of cookies.
“You and Prince may have one and a half cookies each now; I think you should share the remaining three with your two young brothers. What do you think?”
“I think it’s a best idea!”
Sweet broke one cookie in half, and placed a half and a whole one on the sidewalk next to Prince. The old man watched Sweet and Prince have an apparent race to finish the cookies. Prince had finished his share when Sweet still had one whole cookie and a few bites of his half cookie remaining.
When Sweet had finished the last bite, Mr. Richards asked him if he would like to help read the paper until it was time to return home. Sweet happily acquiesced.
The daily walk and the purchase of half a dozen cookies became a ritual for Mr. Richards and Sweet.
On Tuesday morning, Sweet greeted Mr. Richards in front of his hotel, helped himself to his newspaper, read Smilin’ Jack, then asked him if he had ever visited the Palmera City Park. The old man replied that he wasn’t quite sure if he had or not, since a good deal of the city appeared to be parks.
“Well, sir, let’s go to that park. I’ll show you how I make money sometimes.”
“Hmm. Yes, I do enjoy most parks, and I’m also curious to find out how you can possibly make money there. You don’t beg, do you? Of course, you don’t.” He permitted himself a short chuckle. “Lead the way, please.”
The park was three blocks away, on the river. It contained an abundance of coconut palm trees, but very few other tree species of any significant size.
Sweet led Mr. Richards to a convenient bench and asked him to be seated. “Sir, if you close your eyes a little while, you’ll hear a ‘ka-thump’, but don’t open your eyes till you hear it. Then you’ll know how I make a nickel, and sometimes even a whole dime!”
Mr. Richards shook his head in puzzlement, smiled, and then closed his eyes. Within a few minutes he heard a "ka-thump" and opened his eyes to see a coconut rolling to rest not twenty feet away. His eyes searched for Sweet to no avail, until a movement near the top of one of the coconut trees attracted his attention. It was Sweet hugging the trunk of the thirty-foot tall tree with one arm and waving at him with the other.
The sight frightened Mr. Richards so much that he momentarily lost his breath. When he managed to regain it, he began motioning to the ground and shouted, “Come down from there very slowly. I wish to talk to you. Slowly, now!”
Sweet nimbly shinnied down the tree, then trotted over to Mr. Richards. He noticed that the old man was agitated, so he remained silent and looked expectantly into the old man’s eyes. Mr. Richards shook his head several times, then pointed to the empty space on the bench beside him. Sweet promptly sat down.
Mr. Richards’ reaction to Sweet’s performance perplexed him. “Most times the tourists clap their hands when I twist off a coconut. He sure don’t seem happy about it,” Sweet thought.
“Sweet, please tell me how you make money doing what you just did.”
“Well, sir, I was down here one day and I heard this woman say she’d sure like one of them coconuts, so I told her I could get her one and asked her which one she wanted. She pointed out one and I clumb the tree and twisted it off for her. She gave me a nickel and didn’t even take the coconut with her. I thought I might of got the wrong one. Anyways, if I’m down here and I see some tourists lookin’ up at the coconuts, I tell ‘em I’ll get ‘em one for a nickel. Lots of times they pay me to get ‘em one.”
Mr. Richards nodded his head, then said, “Sweet, did you enjoy the cookies I bought you? Of course, you did. Now, if I ever see you or hear of you ‘twisting’ coconuts again, you will receive no more cookies from me. What you have been doing is dangerous and foolhardy. What’s more, it is demeaning. Do you understand me?”
Sweet bowed his head and replied, “Yes sir, I guess I do,” then asked, “What is de-meaning?”
“It means you are making yourself look foolish by acting like a monkey. Now, let’s return to the hotel by way of the bakery. I believe it is time we purchased some cookies and read the newspaper.”
Write Charles H. Nipper at CHNipper@aol.com.
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