I heard it today, heard the gentle, silent sounds of winter. I even saw a fox swift and beautiful, sailing alone in my back yard, last Sunday night. Migrating birds are picking up their pace, calling in shrill and urgent tones. “Hurry, hurry.”
The wind, shifting with the seasons carries the memory of the melancholy whistles of distant freights as they rumbled by to the north.
Even the old town looks freshly washed, rising with the night fogs through the hazes in the background. The earth is ever shifting, changing. Everything changes, except, maybe my old friend Spencer.
Spencer is about the “last green leaf on an old dead tree,” or so he says. He still sits for hours on his front porch, strumming an ancient guitar with his good hand. He has been left “high and dry” in his little house at the edge, almost of the sixth green of a newly developed golf course-part of a real estate boom, which still makes folks scratch their heads; when all they remember were tobacco fields, mules and tractors; as far as the eye could see.
His dear stone-deaf wife, afflicted with what he describes as an “energy leak” talks incessantly in a loud voice to prove to herself that she can still hear. Ms. Essie shimmers in the rose-gold light of a new morning. She is his love. She is plump and kind faced, with little gray curls in a pom-pom over her forehead, and another pom-pom at the back of her neck. She is the most proper person he’s ever met. And he calls her “M’love.”
Actually most folks simply call Spencer the “Apple Man.”
He could have been a character straight out of Dickens.
Spencer is a slight built man with cobalt blue eyes, and a monkey face; he speaks with a Shakespearean flavor and dresses like a Cockney peddler.
He still proudly carries his father’s big silver Hamilton railroad watch with its thick hands and big black numbers. A wonderful watch for time telling, if not for beauty.
There are days when the old man is full of tall tales and exaggerated gestures. On those days, he loads up his pipe, rolls his cobalt eyes and tells how it was when he was a boy. He may have a little hayseed in his hair, but, he’s sharp as a briar. When he returns to the hills of his youth, his memory walks quickly over familiar paths and gives voice to times past. Give him an audience and he’s on center stage.
His little house is starkly white against the dusky Carolina background. The limbs of the oak tree wear a sooty veil like a bonnet, probably from chimney smoke. In the spring, yellow jonquils dance a ballet at the edge of the porch and along the garden fence tulips edge up along the short drive, and the weeping cherry trees and flowering quince smile in glorious profusion. Today it shivers in the weak sunlight of a winter day. A picture held in time.
Actually Spencer can still manage a day’s work when he so wishes. He is a peddler of sorts, a hawker of apples, and vegetables in season, and Christmas wreaths that his wife gently weaves out of grapevines.
It has been said that for over seventy years he never missed a session of superior court in the county. He is a great believer in justice, and wears a little American flag on his shirt pocket. He seems to have a special way with children and animals. The children just call him “Uncle Spencer” and he calls them his “little darlin’s.’ Sometimes they call him; “Old monkey face,” and he just laughs, the children keep him young.
He is known to say, “Children are blessed by the tears of angels. They were put here on the earth by the good Lord to bring us a little bit of heaven. Show me a fellow who don’t see the beauty in a child’s eyes, and I’ll show you a man with a mean streak.”
Although it has been said Spencer once had a slight fondness for the jug and wouldn’t say no to a feisty tussle every now and again. He is, by all accounts, a gentle man. Slow to anger, and a man who abides by his word. He simply gets on with his business of peddling or guitar playing, story telling, or mooning over Ms. Essie.
Somebody once asked Spencer how old he really was, and he just cocked his monkey-face-eye, and drawled. “Well, now, if Ms. Essie don’t decide to get rid of me anytime soon. I’ll be ninety seven come Feb., he chuckles. Which is a mighty lot of dog-years. My secret, shaw; well sometimes I visit the well, read the Good Book, eat me a lot of apples and snuggle Ms. Essie.”
I can hear him laughing, walking away with his jerky little steps. Old dog, Jerico, limping along by his side. He’s heading for his corner and he’s looking for an audience, it’s never too cold for ‘center-stage.’
Micki Cottle was a long-time columnist for The Sampson Independent who occassionally regales readers with her wit and charm. She is also a member of the Sampson County Historical Society.