When I was a little girl, going shopping with my parents was a little scary.
Because of Leon.
Leon sat in his rusty wheelchair, clothed in rags, his body hunched and dirty, his smile toothless, holding a cup full of pencils for sale in his twisted hand. Most people walked right by, as if he wasn’t there, though a few slipped a nickel in the cup and took a pencil.
Leon scared me.
But he didn’t scare my father. Dad wheeled right up to him, and the two of them grinned at each other. They compared wheelchairs, laughed and joked, though I couldn’t understand a word Leon said. Once I asked Dad why he never bought a pencil. “Because Leon’s brothers spend every penny he earns at the bar. He doesn’t get to keep a cent.”
After that, I walked a wide circle around Leon.
When I got a little older, my school teacher mother forbade me from joining my classmates on the playground as they yelled “You’re a Leon!” to the kids who were slow at games and struggled in school.
We were all afraid of Leon.
The summer I got married, I worked as a nursing assistant in the nursing home where Leon had become a resident. He quickly became one of my favorite residents. He had a great sense of humor, and he dictated cowboy poetry to anyone who could spare a few minutes to write it down. He filled notebooks with his western ballads, all of them with perfect meter and rhyme.
Leon was a very intelligent man.
This fall, someone who grew up in that small, Iowa town left a question at our hometown Facebook page. “Does anyone remember the name of the man who sat in his wheelchair downtown and sold pencils?”
“Leon,” I responded. “His name was Leon.”
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