CELEBRATION — Was he a little early? Sherry Sacino hoped not, because she still had to decide where to hide.
“Any minute,” she said, scanning the restaurant’s rain-fogged windows. At each blurred silhouette, she fidgeted.
She wondered if she’d recognize him after so long. Then her husband said, “I guarantee you that’s them.”
“Oh God,” Sherry said. “Wait!”
A server in a white apron rushed over. “There’s a gentleman with 14 people at the door,” she said. Sherry threw up her hands and hurried into the Columbia Restaurant’s kitchen.
Willie James Bryant — because she had always called him by his full name — ambled through the dining room, to a cozy, wood-paneled nook where tables were draped in white cloth. His wife, daughter, sisters and brothers and godchildren took their seats, amused. They’d driven a slow eight hours from South Carolina, where Sherry and WJ, as he’s known now, first met.
His family lifted cameras as Sherry emerged and WJ opened his arms wide. They wrapped each other in a hug, swaying, chest to chest. Last she’d seen him, she’d hardly come up to his waist.
“Listen to your voice!” Sherry said, touching his bearded face. “Listen to your voice, oh my gosh — 57 years!”
“My little Shirley Temple,” he said.
They sat for lunch, with whole lives to share. Sherry and her husband, Ron, lived in Pass-A-Grille. Willie and his wife Beatrice still lived in Aiken County. They’d chosen to meet on this Friday in June, because after the turmoil of 2020, Sherry needed her old friend to know how he’d once made her feel.
She propped up an iPad slideshow. In black and white, her dad hunched by a cash register, looking a little overwhelmed. He’d taken over a gas station and roadside shop in rural South Carolina, where a young WJ worked. “You started in 1961, right?” Sherry asked. “Mmhmm,” he said.
Sherry was 5 or so when her family moved down to run the place, and Willie James Bryant may as well have been 100. His 15-year-old frame towered over her as he changed oil and gassed up cars, but he had a gentle way about him.
Sherry scrolled through faces he might remember — including hers, with a toothy, trusting smile. WJ slapped a hand on her forearm and turned to his wife. “She was a sweet little girl,” he said.
“She’d be following me around,” he remembered. “I would go pump the gas, and she’d stand around and watch me, like she was waiting for me to give her instructions.”
He’d tuck an oily rag in her back pocket, so that she would feel like the real deal. He’d been taught to look out for the least, and sometimes, when Sherry looked up at him, he knew she could feel it. That she wasn’t a nobody.
“She would ask a thousand questions,” he went on. “But I never got tired of her.”
“Excuse me,” his daughter Linda said. “Do you mind if we say grace?”
Sherry had moved back north in third grade, when running the shop proved an uneasy fit for her mathematician dad. She went on to study journalism, business and law, move to Florida, and marry Ron, who runs a family formalwear business. Sherry, an entrepreneur, built a globe-trotting life rooted in philanthropy. Her Youth Empowerment Alliance compiles dual-language books for young readers around the world.
All these years, she had kept a photo of her buddy on her desk. “Good morning, Willie James Bryant,” she’d say, remembering his kindness, how quiet yet potent it was. Still, she had never gone back.
This winter, she sat at her desk, writing holiday cards. Now 61, she was recovering from a bout of sepsis after a surgery, a scare so intense that a priest had performed last rites. She caught herself looking at his face again.
She looked up his name and found an obituary. She looked up relatives, too, and wrote a letter.
“I don’t remember much about his life, but I remember how safe I felt when I was with him,” she said. “I should have told him myself how he helped shape my life.”
Soon after, she got a voicemail. “This call is for Miss Sherry. I hope I have the right number...”
It hadn’t been his obituary after all. And as it turned out, WJ’s family came to Florida once a year. Sherry and WJ, now 73, traded incredulous texts and waited through the worst of the pandemic. Now, Beatrice stirred sugar into her bitter tea, and Willie’s brother teased Sherry about cooking her some fatback, and conversation came easy.
They remembered the neon clock that hung in the crowded store, on which WJ counted his hours as it got dark. He’d heard all kinds of things in that store, things he never told Sherry. “Can I help you, sir?” he’d ask. “No, go help your own kind.” Even so, it was an upgrade from the work he’d started as a little kid, when trucks scooped him and his siblings up and ferried them deep into the swamps to pick cotton.
Yes, the store had a water fountain he couldn’t drink from, and around town, he had to pick up sandwiches from restaurants’ back windows. Whatever this little girl made of her segregated world, she didn’t seem to show it.
Over the clinking of forks, Sherry’s excitable voice mixed with WJ’s low drawl. They compared family trees and puzzled out a criss-cross in their genealogy, making them half-cousins.
They remembered Sherry’s grandmother’s particular ways, like wrapping her furniture in plastic and propping her taxidermied chihuahua on the coffee table.
“I wasn’t gonna say a word about that stuffed dog,” WJ said.
He laughed, too, with bittersweetness. He sure couldn’t afford a dog. “We needed every little piece of bread.”
Linda wondered how he’d put up with a little kid’s persistence.
“Well, he was on the job,” Ron said, and the table laughed.
“Well, that’s true,” WJ said. “But she was interesting.”
He leaned forward, forearms on the tablecloth.
“Even if she asked them every day, even if she asked the same questions,” he said.
He had been asked recently about those years and what that relationship had felt like. A Black teenage boy, a white little girl, and hatred that hung in the air around them, thick as Southern humidity.
“It’s funny how somebody can bring something out of you that you never thought about before,” he said.
“I almost got a little emotional ‘cause I remember thinking, this is such a precious little girl. She’s so innocent. I wonder how long before she’d be corrupted with the way people think.”
The table was quiet.
“I never said that to you,” WJ said, turning to Sherry, who looked at his family.
“He taught me how people should be,” she said. “You gotta understand, my grandmother didn’t want me around. My parents didn’t want me around. He wanted me around. He was my best friend. He was my best friend. ...
“He was the one who was so kind to me, and I’ll never forget that. It transcends. All I know is that if you’re kind to somebody, it matters.”
Servers cleared their salad plates, and WJ told Sherry he couldn’t believe she had still sent that letter when in her mind he was as good as dead. “You were thinking about my family,” he marveled. He wasn’t used to that.
He was used to being the provider, the man who worked his way up to solving human relations issues at the nuclear facility, the same one that had displaced his community years before. He was used to telling his kids what he’d lived through, how far they’d come, and teaching them, “Treat people right, trust in the Lord and I promise you will overcome.” He was used to taking on the heavy things, like grieving quietly for his two grown daughters who died of brain cancer months apart. He could give kindness all day long but receiving it was not always easy. He’d had to be convinced to come down for this visit.
“That’s your heart, baby,” he told Sherry.
Half of the family was crying by then, and WJ stood to comfort a sister, whose tear-streaked face she buried in her lap. Sherry tucked a white napkin in WJ’s back pocket.
“Look, y’all, she gave it back to me,” he said, laughing, and strutted around. “You gave me a nicer rag than I gave you.”
He kept showing it off until he made sure everybody was grinning, then took it out of his pocket and dabbed his shining eyes.
About this series
Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Maria Carrillo at email@example.com or call (727) 892-2301.