There he was, feeding squirrels on a park bench. That’s where they said he would be. He’s half the man I remember him to be, Mr. Cotton; old and a little crumpled. The mustache was still neatly trimmed. I remember the day it was first noticed. I teased him. He stood me in the corner.
“Mr. Cotton,” I said.
From a small paper bag he tossed a peanut to a squirrel and looked up slowly. He grinned. “You must have been one of my students. And from the looks of things one of my early students from long ago.”
“Your first class,” I said.
“Really,” he said. “I thought none of you were around anymore. Do you remember Mike Burks.” He handed me and handful of peanuts and motioned to toss them to the squirrels who had now gathered. “Have a seat too.”
I sat next to him. “Yeah,” I said. “I remember Mike.”
“He writes me now and then,” Mr. Cotton said.
“I feel ashamed for not keeping in touch,” I said.
“Oh that’s okay,” Mr. Cotton said. “Mike has a lot of time on his hands; he’s doing a life stretch. Always had a temper. Knew he’d end up devoting his life to something. Never knew exactly what. Not one of my more accomplished students, but writes a good letter. So what brings you by?”
“I’m back in town for just a few days,” I said.
“And you just happened to be in the park empty-handed?” Mr. Cotton said.
“Huh,” I said.
“The squirrels,” Mr. Cotton said. “You should have brought something for them.”
“Well,” I said. “I heard you were here nearly everyday. I just wanted to tell you how much you meant to me.”
“It’s nice of you to stop by,” Mr. Cotton said. “I miss my students. I wonder how they are doing.”
“I was in your first class,” I said again as a reminder to an old and feeble man.
Mr. Cotton chuckled. “Yes, that’s the second time you’ve said that. Those were the days. I had little idea what a teacher was.”
“You were more than a teacher,” I said. “At least to me.”
“That’s what I mean,” Mr. Cotton said. “I had no idea it would take so much. I was raised in a normal family; father, mother, sisters, brothers. Dad worked, was home every night, and mom always was there. I had no idea some kids had none of that. As time went on kids needed more than a teacher.”
“I was one of those kids, Mr. Cotton,” I said.
He smiled kindly. “I remember you well, James.”
“I didn’t think you would,” I said.
“Some kids get in trouble because they do nothing,” Mr. Cotton said. “You got in trouble because you were doing something. That was good. I knew I had something to work with; somebody who likes to do something.”
“Is that why you made me shovel your car out of the snow?” I said.
“No,” Mr. Cotton said. “If you remember, you were the one who packed the snow around it. You thought it was funny. Look at the smile on your face now; you still think it’s funny.” Mr. Cotton chuckled. “I can smile about that one now.”
“I seemed to have forgotten that one,” I said.
“Well what have you done for yourself?” Mr. Cotton said. “Where has life’s journey taken you?”
“I sort of feel like I’m coming back here empty-handed,” I said. “No great accomplishments. I had sort of a quiet life. When I planned on seeing you there was some thought of telling you I’ve had a very successful life in some sort of endeavor. I’ve got nothing to tell you except I’ve had a good life with no real accomplishments.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Cotton said. “Me too.”
We sat for a while and mused over feeding the squirrels.
I stood and Mr. Cotton kindly shook my hand.
“I’ll be back soon,” I said.
“Don’t come back empty-handed the next time,” Mr. Cotton said.
“Like I said, Mr. Cotton, I live a quiet uneventful life,” I said. “No accomplishments.”
“No,” Mr. Cotton said. “I mean bring some peanuts.”
“Sure,” I smiled. “I’ll bring peanuts.”
I turned and began to walk away.
“James,” Mr. Cotton said.
I turned. “Yes, Mr. Cotton.”
“You were one of my successes,” Mr. Cotton said. “… but bring peanuts next time.”
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