June 18, 1967 started out like any other Saturday morning. My alarm had buzzed twice, and I was still in bed. Herman’s Hermit’s were singing my favorite song on the clock radio, “Something tells me I’m into something good.”
My mother’s shrill voice interrupted my dream of Herman. “Get out of bed. Now! Candy stripers are important volunteers. You can’t be late on your first day.” Then she started the usual warnings, “Don’t talk to strangers. Be careful. Make sure you get bus number 142. Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you and Mariah?”
“Mom, no!” I protested. “We want to take the bus.”
Mariah was waiting for me at the corner of our old grade school. We’d be fourteen and freshmen in the fall, so we felt very grown up. There we stood in our freshly starched red-and-white-striped uniforms. Sporting thick-soled shoes, we had more support on our feet than in our bras.
Right on time, old number 142 rattled to our stop. The bus was full, so we made our way to the very back, away from all the old people who were coughing and making disgusting noises.
At the next bus stop, an elderly man, looking worn and ragged, struggled up the steps. He banged his suitcase and an old crate against each row of seats. We snickered at the sight of him.
Suddenly, it dawned on me that this could be the stranger my mother had warned me about. My heart began to pound. I was in a state of panic when he sat down right next to me. I froze. Before I could plan my escape, he let out a loud sigh, turned to me, and said, “Good morning,” rather pleasantly.
I could barely look at him. He smelled old and his teeth were crooked. His hair hadn’t seen shampoo in quite some time. His tan plaid trousers were so worn that small holes dotted his pant leg.
As we reached the next stop, I heard a sharp yelping noise come from the rusty crate. A pair of brown, beady eyes stared at me.
The old man crooned softly to the creature. “Oh, so you want to meet the girls? Come on then.” He gingerly lifted out an adorable and equally ragged small mutt. He lifted her gently and introduced us to Gracie. The old stranger had come to life. His blue eyes sparkled and his smile broadened. He handed Gracie to me and her warm body fit in the curve of my arm. She was a rumpled mess of grizzled blonde fur. Her eyes hid behind tufts of slightly matted hair, and her little paws were spreading specks of dirt onto my newly starched uniform. He grinned and asked me, “Would you like to dress her?”
Before I could answer, he lifted the suitcase onto his lap. It was brown, blotchy, and covered with faded stickers from Alabama, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Inside, he had it neatly partitioned into two sections.
His part of the suitcase held a few plaid shirts and pants. Gracie, on the other hand, had a complete wardrobe of colorful dresses, bonnets, and bows. I looked from the suitcase and back into his eyes. I heard myself ask, “Can I dress her?”
I chose a frilly pink-and-white dress with layers of worn crinoline underneath. It had a dainty pearl necklace sewn into the collar. Mariah handed me the matching white hat. Gracie sat ever so still, offering her paws, one at a time as her thin legs slipped through the armholes. I buttoned the dress very carefully. She didn’t even flinch when I tied her bonnet. Her fuzzy ears poked through the slits, and she looked gorgeous!
As if on cue, she jumped off my lap and sat at the old man’s feet. He was lost in time now, leaning back, legs sprawled and smiling to himself. This little mutt charmed my friend and me, and the man knew it. He looked into our eyes, and with a twinkling smile, he reached into his ripped pocket and pulled out a weathered harmonica. He put the old harpoon to his lips, and with a wink of his eye, he started the show. A lively rendition of Old Susannah filled the back of the bus. Gracie was transformed into a showgirl. Ever so gracefully, her fur-balled little body twirled like a ballerina. Her front paws moved in the air as she spun to the music.
By now, everyone in the entire back of the bus was enjoying the show. We all clapped and laughed as they finished their performance. All too soon, our destination, the Bryn Mawr Hospital came into view. I wanted to stay on the bus and let the show go on, but duty was calling.
The old man reached into his pocket and said, “Here’s something for your trouble. Buy yourselves a soda.”
“Oh, we couldn’t take your money, sir. Buy Gracie some bones with it,” I said, as I waved goodbye and stepped to the curb.
Every day for the rest of that summer, I would look for the two of them to get back on the bus but they never did. I’m sure by now that he and Gracie are in heaven. I wonder how many lives they touched on their journey.
For a long time, I felt so guilty; my initial thoughts about him were so unkind. After forty years, the memory of that silly little dog in a dress, and that smiling old man still warms my heart. I keep them safely tucked away on a shelf in my heart. Maybe one day, I’ll make a similar lasting impression in someone else’s life.