Charlotte and the Back Steps

circa 1936

The child was in the yard with her dog, Spotty, when she saw the man approach the front gate. She knew that was her cue to hurry into the house. "C'mon Spotty - hurry up." As the back door closed behind her, she called out to Charlotte – “Mommie, Mommie - there's a Hungry Man coming."

"Thank you sugar - now you be sure to stay inside ' "

The little girl assumed her usual position at the side window to witness the familiar routine. The stranger would walk around the house to the back door and knock, hat or cap in hand (in this instance a well-worn' weather-stained dark brown fedora). Charlotte would open the door a crack "Yes?”

“Do you have any work I can do in exchange for a meal?" (The child wondered again why the men always looked at their feet when asking this question – what connection was there between shoes and food, do you suppose?)

In response, Charlotte would fully open the door and, pointing to the ever- present broom leaning beside it, “As a matter of fact, I was just about to sweep the steps. If you’ll be good enough to do that for me, I’ll fix a tray for you.” The dialogue was always pretty much the same – a courteous and graceful pas de deux of words.

There was always a tray for the food , spread with a white linen tea towel and napkin. Sometimes Charlotte would prepare a sandwich' sometimes scrambled eggs and bacon - whatever simple but adequate food there was enough of to share. And always, always she would wrap up something in a paper napkin "for later" - an apple, some cheese and crackers, always a jam sandwich.

For as 'long as the child could remember (which at age five. is not a very long time) these men had come, singly, knocking on the door. They were a fact of life to her. When she first asked “Why do they ask you for food?”

Charlotte said simply, “Because they’re hungry"

“Why?”

"Because they have no food."

"Why don’t they buy some at the grocery? "

“Because they have no money."

“Why?”

"Because they can't find work'"

”Why?”

With a sigh, Charlotte replied, “It's complicated"' Charlotte had discovered by chance a while back that the phrase “It’s complicated" was enough to, for a while at least, stem the child's constant stream of "whys" which, once started, were as hard to stop as a persistent case of hiccups.

After a short silence the child asked “Well, why do you always give them a For Later?"

“Because they might have someone at home who is hungry too.''

“Oh.” She thought of asking who might be at home, and where home might be, but decided against it. Her experience had been that a second "It's complicated" was usually promptly followed by "It's time for you to go upstairs and take a nap.” Best not to risk it!

As the man left the emptied tray on the porch bench and exited the yard, the little girl pondered why she always felt so sad when the Hungry Men came and why her mother wanted the back steps so clean all the time, and what exactly “It's complicated" meant anyway.

But as usual, when faced with deep imponderables, she decided to forget about all of that and go back outside and play with Spotty instead.

Jeannie Peck
Southbury, CT 2011

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