The Veterans Administration says that more than 20 war veterans commit suicide every day. That's more than 7,300 of America's finest giving into their demons every year. It's a tragedy.
When I was a child, living with my grandmother, Miz Lena, Saturday mornings started out like a page out of heaven. Breakfast on a TV tray, just off the kitchen in the den. Watching Roy Rogers, Mighty Mouse cartoons and the Little Rascals on my grandmother's stand-up Zenith. All the while, feasting on Elizabeth's award-winning biscuits and blackberry jam. Washing it down with fresh-squeezed orange juice. A few more cartoons.
Ah, the good life. Sitting there on my grandmother's big, sink-into, salmon-colored, circular couch in my favorite blue-and-white striped Fruit of the Loom pajamas. Wrapped up in the little embroidered quilt Grand Mom kept on the arm of the couch. A big stretch and a long yawn of sheer ecstasy. Thank you, God, for this most perfect of mornings. Yep, I could do this all day.
All of a sudden, internal combustion! It was like lightning hit the room! Here came Miz Lena, bundled up, purse in her hand and in a hurry. She went over to the den door and pushed it open to let some of the autumn morning air whoosh in. It was crisp to cold. She opened the blinds. White glaring sunlight shot across the room. I was squinting. "Warm and cozy" made way for Miz Lena's insistence of "alive and awake."
Standing directly in front of the TV, facing me with her hands on her hips, Miz Lena said, "Looka here, go put on yore play clothes and take it outside. Git some fresh air and some sun on yore face. You sit in here long enough and yore gonna end up gittin' sick."
Brunch was over.
She said, "Listen, I gotta run into town, and Elizabeth needs to git in here and vacuum." Elizabeth, Grand Mom's housekeeper, was one of my favorite people in the world. Off and on, she helped raise me since I was born.
Grand Mom continued, "You be on the lookout for Carter. He'll show up in a little bit. Elizabeth may be runnin' the vacuum machine and might not hear him. Make sure to stay outta his way and let him be."
Grand Mom kissed my face goodbye, licked her finger and rubbed her lipstick off my cheek, then headed full steam out the door. Her last words to me were, "And don't take all day gittin' outside." I knew I needed to hustle it up. Sometimes, she'd sit in the car out by the mailbox until she saw me come out. She had me coming and going.
Grand Mom called him Carter. Elizabeth called him Mr. Carter. I never knew whether that was his first or last name. I called him what he called himself to me: Magic Man. He told me that he was a magician. He did card tricks. He'd shuffle up the deck and invite me to pick one.
He'd say to me, "You is holdin' da 10 a' hearts." He was right! He'd chuckle, and we'd do it again. He never missed. And he had me convinced he could talk to the squirrels and birds. Anytime he was in our backyard, robins, wrens and red cardinals left the other yards in the neighborhood to be with Magic Man. They were everywhere. Especially the cardinals. I was fascinated by him.
Growing up, I was led to believe that when a red cardinal appears, it's a messenger from heaven. A loved one who has passed on is letting you know they are still with you. When Magic Man showed up, it was like one great big family reunion — the most cardinals I've ever seen in one place at the same time.
Magic Man came around on Saturdays just before lunchtime. He was a tall, stocky black man. Strong. Receding hairline and big hands. A heavy moustache and a three-day growth. Faded gray work clothes and a soft-brimmed hat. A pair of cloth gloves hanging out his back pocket. Slow walking. Gentle talking. A deep-soft voice.
For awhile, he had a pet squirrel that lived in his coat breast pocket and hung out on his wide shoulders and raced up and down his trousers.
Miz Lena always had a list of things for Magic Man to do. He could make a little money and fill his belly with a meal that Elizabeth would prepare for him — generally, leftovers and fresh biscuits. He'd eat it out of an old Army mess kit he'd brought back from the war. He'd sit outside under the backyard trees — maples, oaks and a couple of dark, thick-trunked walnuts, ablaze with the colors of fall.
Before he took a bite, he'd give thanks to the Lord for a good 10 minutes. By the time he dug into his chow, it had gotten a little cold. Elizabeth said she had known him from church way back when. They had Sunday School together. She said Magic Man knew his Bible, and from time to time, their pastor would call upon him to preach to the congregation. She said the way Magic Man preached, he could make grown men and women cry.
Elizabeth knew from experience not to serve Magic Man his meal until he'd completed most of his chores. Otherwise, he'd find a good spot out back and take him a little nap. Once, when Elizabeth sent me to go wake him up, he sat up, coughed and told me, with a sigh, blinking eyes and a rolling smile, "I kain't helps it, Boy. Sister 'Lizbeth sho' do make some good cookin'."
Magic Man always showed up, rain or shine. He needed the money. After all, he had to live, and he had a drinking habit to support. He wasn't as confused about things and felt less threatened by everyday life after he threw back a swig or two. To my recollection, he never drank on the job. It's possible that he had himself a few nips before he got there.
He lived on the other side of town in a shed out back of someone's home. No family. Returning to his wife was the driving force that saw him through his time on the battlefields so far away. Elizabeth told me that not too long after he got back, his wife died young and unexpectedly. He was by himself. That's when he started drinking.
Memories of the war and the death of his wife had tipped his scales. Even as a child, I could see the hurt in his eyes. You could tell that he was just going through the slow motions of a sad and lonely existence.
One day, I guess, he decided that he'd had enough and ended it all. The story that I was told, to spare my feelings, was that he had gotten too old to work. I missed him.
Years later, Grand Mom told me that she and my grandfather went to Magic Man's funeral. They were the only white people there. She came home, sat on the edge of her bed and wept. She said the trees out in the front of the church were filled with red cardinals.
God's a magician.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tennessee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.