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Gift from a stranger

He came walking in the driveway on a sunny Florida midmorning. It was one of those quiet times. No trucks loaded with oranges were whirring past along Jenkins Road. Horses in the pasture over the way were browsing on the shady side. Birds made soft sounds back in the lemon grove.

I walked out from the carport to meet the white-haired gentleman. First I noticed the brightness in his clear eyes, then I saw how smooth his brown skin was between crinkles. Then I thought, ''Those are the cleanest overalls I've ever seen.''

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He made the beginning of a little bow and lifted a rumpled newspaper-wrapped bundle toward me.

''Your brother mentioned that you were here from Missouri. So I've brought something for you to see.''

The sparkle in his eyes that had seen so many years got brighter as he handed me the package. I peered at it.

''It's a night-blooming cereus. Found it out beyond the grove. Saw it was about ready to bloom. You put it in a dark place for another day or so and see what happens. Just be sure you keep it where it's dark.''

With a wave of his brown hand, he turned and walked back out the driveway while I was murmuring a surprised ''thank you.'' Before I could add a ''very much,'' he had disappeared around the front of the house.

There seemed to be nothing very promising about the bundle I was holding. With the newspaper pushed back, a dim gray-green piece of plant was revealed. It hardly suggested anything beautiful. But I looked around for a dark place. The utility shed? When I opened the door, the room appeared shadowy even though there was one high window.

''This ought to be all right,'' I supposed, and I tucked the package under a shelf lined with paint cans.

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The time with our Florida family always turns swiftly to yesterday. Two days were gone before I went back to the shed and the rumpled bundle. Nothing had changed - no new splendor had transformed the nondescript plant.

When I carried it out to the carport, Julia suggested, ''Why don't you put it in the front bedroom closet? It won't be in the way and that's a dark place.''

''I don't think it's going to do anything,'' I sighed.

When the package was stowed on the floor beneath winter clothes, I closed the door and went back to join the family.

Another two days moved past in a spin of wide blue skies, smiling faces, shimmering water, sunlit palm fronds so new to Missouri eyes. Hours at the beach smoothed out jumbled thoughts. Then it was time for the last evening. We tried to slow everything down, push everything back. We lingered around the supper table until someone said, ''Let's look at the photo albums.''

''Where are they? I'll get them,'' I volunteered.

''In the front bedroom closet,'' Julia said, ''on the top shelf.''

I hurried to the bedroom and opened the closet door quickly. I stopped abruptly, one hand still on the knob, entranced by some marvelous scent.

''What ...? '' As I bent forward into the dark the fragrance seemed to absorb me. Mystified, I reached for the light cord. As soon as light flooded the closet , I could see the newspaper bundle, and then I saw what was bringing wonderment to the little room. Out of the crumpled paper a waxy white star glistened. The night-blooming cereus!

For a few moments I kept the secret for my own, breathing that unbelievable perfume, trying to describe it to myself but finding that to be impossible. I ran back to the kitchen without the photo albums, holding the marvelous flower high above me and calling out, ''It bloomed. It bloomed!''

And then everyone was exclaiming: ''How perfect!'' ''How beautiful!''

Jean found the camera and took pictures, but there was no way to keep the perfume except to remember that it was.

A gift from someone seen only once.

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