Repairs

I used to do a lot of repair work for the next-door neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Hunter. They were an older couple, though Mr. Hunter still worked full-time. Mrs. Hunter was a homemaker, cleaning a different room each day, a perfect seven-day rotation that brought her back to the living room on Monday again. They had one child, a son, who was full grown and out of the house. I rarely saw him around, and when I did, I stayed away. He was a hippie, or looked like what I thought a hippie looked like—long, puffed-out hair reaching nearly his shoulders, tangle of a mustache caging his mouth, un-tucked flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled and unbuttoned almost to his navel. I’d hear him pull into the driveway in his rusty El Camino with the back bed full of what looked to me like junk, scratchy speakers blaring “Feel Like Making Love” by Bad Company, with those aggressive guitars and lyrics boldly declaring sexual lust, or sometimes “Jet” by Paul McCartney, who I’d always thought looked a little bit like the Hunters’ son, a hippie too. So I stayed away. It was 1975 and I was six.

            I stayed away from Mr. Hunter as well. He was a tall, lanky man, always slouched as though his square shoulders were too heavy for his body. I’d see him in his yard pulling weeds or shoving a lawn mower around with one mismatched wheel that he’d taken off an old baby carriage. Sometimes I’d notice him in his opened garage, sitting on an overturned milk crate among a collection of bicycle tires and stacks of magazines tied with twine, a slick of tacky oil beneath his feet. He’d sit there with his long spider legs crossed, hunched with a water-stained paperback in one hand and a forgotten cigarette smoldering in the other. In my yard I might have been throwing a paper airplane around, picking it up and straightening its collapsed nose while peeking over at Mr. Hunter, wishing he’d get in his car and go somewhere, go to work or run an errand. This plane did not fly well, too weighted down and damp because I’d colored it with red and blue magic marker. It nosedived again, and again I picked it up, fixing its nose, glancing to make sure Mr. Hunter wasn’t paying attention. Which he wasn’t.

            514 South Main Street was the best and worst of a kid’s world in one. Main Street was, of course, a double yellow-lined busy straightaway, cars bulleting by in a blur at all hours of the day and night. I’d listen to them as I tried to fall asleep, every ten or fifteen seconds, that same monotonous crescendo of an approaching vehicle, the same fade-out, like the end of a song. I counted them like sheep. But on the opposite side, the back of the house, looked out onto a vast yard and, beyond it, a dense span of woods, as deep and overwhelming as space itself. I always took great pride in the fact that no adult I was aware of had ever stepped foot into its threshold, and yet I knew its landscape front to back and had mentally mapped every square foot of it.

            Still, 514 had its limitations. With the busy road, I couldn’t take my bike farther than the end of the driveway. Playing with neighborhood kids wasn’t possible, since there was no neighborhood. If I wanted to play with school friends, I needed to set it up in advance and have a note written by my mother giving me permission to get off at a different bus stop. But this only happened a handful of times over the course of the school year, since it never occurred to me until it was too late.

             So that left Mrs. Hunter. I’d wander over to her house probably daily, knocking on her screen door when Mr. Hunter’s truck wasn’t there and when the hippie son’s El Camino wasn’t there. I’d press my face into the screen, shading a hand around my eyes. “Mrs. Hunter? Are you home?”

            And of course she was home. She was always home, and always, it seemed, happy for my company. She gave me cookies and I’d sit at the kitchen table and tell her what I was learning at school. She’d ask me about my little sister, who was only two years old and snatched all my mother’s attention. My father was a teacher and tended bar at night. Often, he would come home and take a short nap between jobs, and I’d have to be quiet in the house, or else go outside, or maybe visit Mrs. Hunter. My sister, too, would often be napping. “She’s pretty good,” I’d tell her. “Typical terrible twos.” Parroting what I’d heard back home.

            One day Mrs. Hunter, thinking out loud, said that she was thinking about having some renovations done to the house, which she said was old and outdated and in need of repair. We walked around the house together while I chugged Hawaiian Punch from an old glass jelly jar and she pointed out the work—taking a wall down between the living room and dining room, putting up a new banister along the staircase, refinishing the hardwood floors. For some reason—I’m not sure if I actually believed it—I told her I could probably take care of a lot of this work myself. No, in fact I did not believe it, I don’t think. I couldn’t have. I was a bored kid, that’s all, an inventive six-year-old. “Really?” she asked, folding her arms. “Could you?”

            I shrugged, fisting my hands on my narrow hips, and looked around the dining room. Sizing it up. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” I said.

            “Good. That’s great news.” She asked me where I thought we should start.

            Some panic set in at this point. I’d say she was calling my bluff, but again, I’m not entirely sure I knew I was bluffing. I stepped up to the light switch and tapped my finger on it. “This thing right here. I could probably change this for you. I could give you a new one that’s a lot fancier-looking.” 

            At this point it was time to talk money. So far she seemed interested. “Really? How much do you get paid?”

            I eyed the jar of money on her kitchen counter, next to the cookies, flour, and sugar. I pursed my lips in thought. “I dunno, a dollar.”

            She saw me staring at the jar and stepped back to get it. When she picked it up it rattled like a snake, her arms trembling with its weight. “All I have are dimes,” she told me.

            This is the part I regret. I wasn’t savvy enough to agree to being paid in dimes. Instead I said, “A dime’s good.”

 

Back in my father’s garage, I scavenged for anything and everything I might need. I picked up a red steel toolbox, flaked with rust and filled with various pliers and screwdrivers and wrenches. Not in any organized way, but in more of a junk drawer kind of way. There were crumpled scraps of sandpaper in there, a baby binky, a couple pens, a wooden ruler, an empty matchbook, a queen of clubs with an old fashioned topless girl on it with her nipples burned away with what looked like a match, leaving two holes in the playing card. Then, on the bottom, an endless rattle of nails, screws, washers, nickels, pennies, and bottle caps. I closed the lid, fastened the clamps, and took the whole thing.

            I secured a tool belt around my waist best I could, but it slung too low, sliding over my thighs. I found if I hooked my thumb in the front of it, casual and cool, I could hold it up without it looking like I was holding it up. In another box I found more odds and ends, and here I found two light switch face plates, one beige and rather plain, the other darker and more ornate in design. I slipped them both into the belt, and, with a red bandana pushed halfway into my back pocket in case I broke a particularly hard sweat, I lugged this heavy tool box back across the yard—my ropy arms stretched taut—and, breaking a sweat already, headed to work.

 

“Oh that’s lovely,” Mrs. Hunter said when she saw the face plates. I’d laid both side by side for her to choose, and she picked the one I knew she’d pick. I fisted a flathead screwdriver and, working it into the grooves of the two screws, twirled the handle until the screws expanded from the wall and eventually tumbled free to the floor. The old faceplate fell with them, clanking. Mrs. Hunter had to help me find the screws. Then she held the new faceplate in place for me as I lined up the holes, my tongue pushing through my lips as I missed my mark, trying again. Then, in the end, I held the faceplate for her and she got the two screws started, then handed the screwdriver to me and I finished the job. I tugged the bandana free and wiped my brow, and she stepped back to eye her new light switch faceplate.

            “Wonderful,” she said. “Look, it changes the whole dynamic of the room.”

            Another day we looked out her sliding door into the backyard. She said she’d always wanted a deck out there, as opposed to the rotted wooden steps leading straight down to the mushy turf. I told her, “Not a problem,” then paced-off the length and width of the proposed deck, explaining my vision. With y father’s measuring tape palmed in my hand, Mrs. Hunter watched in her slippers from the steps, nodding and smiling in agreement. As a kid, I’d always thought the Hunters were probably in their eighties, at least, but looking back that wasn’t likely, since Mr. Hunter still worked a full-time job. They were probably only in their mid-sixties, the same age as my own grandparents.

            It was going to be quite the deck. Extending about fifteen feet from the sliding door, and fifteen feet wide. Room for a grill and some chairs. Later, if I had time, I told her maybe we could work on railings. I’d draw up some plans, I told her. Along a back shed Mr. Hunter had stacked some cinder blocks, damp and patched with moss. The next afternoon I muscled them across the yard one-by-one and laid them out five feet apart, three in my fifteen-foot span. They were heavy and hard to move and after a short while Mrs. Hunter put on her sneakers and came out to help me. I explained to her what I was doing: stacking cinder blocks five feet apart and two blocks tall to get the right height. Then I was going to take some of the sheets of old plywood my dad had filed against the back wall of our garage and lay them flat over the cinderblocks. Instant deck.

            “Ooh, sounds terrific,” she said. “I can’t wait.”

            There weren’t enough cinderblocks. I needed eighteen to build my foundation, but Mr. Hunter only had eleven against the shed. I told Mrs. Hunter I might be able to scrounge the rest somewhere. I knew of a rubble pile out in the woods that might have had some blocks still in one piece. My arms felt like jelly at this point anyway, my skin tacky with sweat. I was happy for the excuse to break. Mrs. Hunter invited me back in and gave me a glass of grape Zarex and a short stack of Nutter Butters. She sat with me and drank an iced tea and we looked out the slider at the back yard and the cinderblocks. From here I could see that some of them didn’t look to be lined up properly. I pointed this out to her and told her I’d fix it tomorrow.

            Eventually she got up and put her glass in the sink and left for the basement to switch over the laundry. I still had some juice left and a cookie. The newspaper was on the table, so I opened it and turned to the comics page and read The Peanuts and Hagar the Horrible, mostly looking at the pictures but reading some of them, the ones that looked short. Yellow crumbs salted the paper with each small nibble, trying to make the last cookie last. Without Mrs. Hunter, the clucking of the clock hands sounded loud and distracting.

            “Hey-hey, look who it is.”

            I snapped my head at the gravelly voice. Mr. Hunter stepped into the kitchen and put a black metal lunchbox on the counter. He smelled faintly of cigarettes and his hands were gray with plaster dust. He wore dark green overalls that were also dusty. Dust everywhere. He cleared his sinuses with a loud snort and sat down next to me. The cigarette smell grew stronger. I glanced beyond him at the doorway for Mrs. Hunter, but she wasn’t there.

            “What’re you doing there, reading the paper?”

            Now I looked in the other direction at the slider, worried he was going to see the cinder blocks in his yard and get mad, then yell at Mrs. Hunter for being so foolish as to let me junk up his grass and house and swindle dimes from them. I’d always been a little surprised that she’d gone along with my ideas in the first place. For years afterward—you’d be surprised at how many—I continued to wonder why she’d been so naïve. Only much later, maybe even in my later twenties or even thirty, did it occur to me that she’d just been playing along. For some reason, because I saw it one way as a child, I was blocked from seeing it another.

            But Mr. Hunter didn’t seem to notice, or, if he had, he said nothing. Instead, he wanted to know what I was reading. “Just the comics and stuff,” I said.

            He leaned over. “How about that right there. Can you read that?” He pointed at an article opposite the comics page with his dusty, bloody-knuckled finger. I boosted myself by folding my legs under my butt and sat forward. The headline read, “Lennon Wins Deportation Battle” (“Depp…depp…depport…oh, de-port….De-por-tay-shin… Lennon…Wins…Depor…deportation Battle.”). I licked my lips and leaned forward further, holding myself up with my elbows. The newspaper crinkled beneath me. “By Bax-ter Down,” I said. “By Baxter Downs.”

            Mr. Hunter crossed his spidery legs and sat back, folding his hands behind his head. “Keep going.”

            With only a few hitches and false starts, I read, “Former Beatle John Lennon’s fight against deportation has come to an end after a nearly three-year legal battle, a spokesman for the songwriter reported in an official statement yesterday. Lennon and wife Yoko Ono publicly thanked the supporters, both famous and non-famous, who petitioned on his behalf…”

            Mrs. Hunter passed the entryway to the kitchen with a cracked plastic laundry basket in her hands. Mr. Hunter craned his head at her. “Edie, come here, listen to this.”

            “…Lennon often showed up at antiwar rallies to sing ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ and argued that the only hope for peace was to vote against Nixon…”

            “You hear this kid read? You believe that?” He slapped the linoleum table with the flat of his hand, startling me. “And how old are you? Tell her.”

            My nose felt like it was running. I swiped my arm sleeve under it. “Six but almost seven,” I said.

            Mr. Hunter shook his head like he didn’t believe me. “You believe that? Six years old for Chrissakes. Reading the damn paper!”

            They had the Boston Globe delivered each day. On Sundays, it stayed on their front steps until late in the morning, even growing a little yellow under the summer sun. Our house got a copy too, and my favorite part of the Sunday paper was, of course, the comics, and, more specifically, the insert to the comics section called ‘The Fun Pages.’ ‘The Fun Pages’ were mostly puzzles and word games, with an occasional article about zebras or how to make a periscope or how to make a shrunken head from an apple. One morning I decided to design my own version of ‘The Fun Pages.’ I stapled a couple sheets of blank paper together into a booklet and created a word search and a tic-tac-toe board, some trivia questions on page two, and a list of fun facts about animals that I’d completely made up, too lazy or dim to take the Encyclopedia off the shelf: “The giraffe has the longest tongue in the animal world” (might have been true, might not—all I knew was once at the Stone Zoo a giraffe completely enveloped my little sister’s fist when she tried to feed it. My mother thought her hand had been taken completely off). I took this over to the Hunter’s front steps and inserted it into the pages of the Sunday paper, then sneezed and raced back home. I did this, I think, most Sunday mornings that summer.

 

I always had trouble falling asleep. The school year was almost over, down to the last few days, and that kept me up. I spent my nights thinking, staring at the ceiling or wall, at a square patch of light coming through my window. Sometimes I’d think about what needed to be done at Mrs. Hunter’s. The back deck, for one. It had been sitting there incomplete for weeks now. And the last time I had visited I offered to renovate her upstairs bathroom. She wanted to replace her blue tub and sink with new white ones, and move a wall back to make the space bigger. I’d told her I could do it, and so I’d lay awake growing more and more anxious, knowing full well that the project was much too big for me.

            I heard my father come home from work, his second job tending bar at Kitty’s. Sometimes when he came home and I was still awake I’d slip downstairs to say hi. School wasn’t quite out, so he was still teaching during the day and taking his afternoon naps before heading to work. Often, I’d go the entire day and night without seeing him.

            “Hi Dad.”

            I stood on the stairs, five or six from the top, waiting for the okay to come down. It was dark except for one small light above the stove. “You’re still awake?” I could smell him better than I could see him—the Kitty’s smell, a sharp odor of garlic and draught beer. He stepped from the shadow, unbuttoning his white shirt. “Come on down for a minute. I brought home a pizza.”

            I wondered how many other kids had dads who got to bring home free pizza as a perk of the job. It seemed like the coolest benefit in the world. I felt lucky. Climbing up to the breakfast bar and lifting the box lid with the Siamese cat on it, I picked up a droopy slice and took a small bite of the triangle tip, testing its heat. My father walked back and forth from the living room to the bedroom and then the kitchen, getting undressed, coming back in pajama pants and no shirt, then taking a slice for himself and fixing a drink—whisky and water, plenty of ice. He took it into the living room and turned on the TV. The glow of the clock on the stove said it was after 11:30.

            When I finished, I brought my plate to the counter, then walked into the living room. Johnny Carson stood in front of a rainbow curtain and told jokes in his light blue jacket. My father, in a chair with his feet up on the hassock, was fast asleep. I stood there for a moment and considered my options, then, taking his drink from his fingers and placing the glass on the coffee table, I half-sat on the edge of his chair, settled back against his shoulder, and watched the show.

 

When school broke for the summer my father brought home a film strip projector for me to use. We borrowed a case of fairy tale film strips from the library. In my bedroom I’d pull the shades down to block out the harsh burn of the sun and show film strips against the wall, where I’d taped together twelve sheets of white paper into a giant rectangle for a movie screen. At the bottom of the stairs I’d hung a paper sign with the same black block letters I saw on the marquee outside the North Reading Cinema. My sign advertised two films: Heidi at 1:00 and Hansel & Gretel at 2:30. When no one showed up I shut out the lights and watched them both myself, the projector hot and humming, my fingers on the metal knob waiting for the beep. Later I tried placing a second sign on the refrigerator, moving the times to 4:00 and 5:15. The next week, I began advertising my movies in ‘The Mini Pages.’ Mrs. Hunter told me she wished she could make it but had too many chores to do. Instead, she asked me if I could tell her the stories, so I followed her around her house one afternoon while she dusted furniture with a rag and harsh-smelling aerosol spray, explaining stories to her like Rumplestiltskin the best I remembered, and making up the parts that I didn’t.

 

One summer afternoon I knocked on the Hunters’ door but their son answered, looking tired and scruffy. He talked with a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth and said Mrs. Hunter was out grocery shopping. I said okay and got the hell out of there. Later I busied myself in the front yard collecting pine cones into a neat pile, then tossing them in the air to try to hit with a crooked stick, the way one would with a baseball and bat. My dog, Reefer, a mid-sized and good-natured mutt, chased the struck pine cones, sniffed them, then waited for another to be hit. My mother called me in to eat, told me I needed to drink something and be careful swinging that stick so I didn’t hit the dog. She made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, mostly with one hand, my sister fitted between an arm and her hip and reaching for something to grab—the jelly jar or the knife or my mother’s bracelet, until my mother finally gave her a strip of bread crust to keep her occupied.

            From outside we heard a commotion—yelps and then cries, guttural and unforgettable. I stood up. My mother moved to the window, and I tried to look around her. The Hunter’s son was running into our yard, ponytail swinging, what looked like a rake or a broom in his hand. He was yelling: “Hey hey hey hey!” And then he swung whatever it was he was holding and finally I moved toward the window, crouching under my mother’s arm to see.

            He was swinging the pole at a blurry mass of rolling fur. The German Shepherd across the street—a grizzled, serious dog that was always lying on a patch of bare dirt at the end of a thick chain—had broken free. I didn’t even know the dog’s name, even though I saw him every day, the yellow line of Main Street acting as a divider, a border I’d never crossed. Whenever we pulled away in the car I’d look his way, and he’d look back, ears perked in suspicion.

            The German Shepherd, with its freedom, had bolted for our yard and clamped its jaws onto Reefer, shaking her in the air, sounds of anger and pain and fear, the Hunter’s son swinging and yelling, my sister crying now, my mother’s breath sucked away in a vacuum, and I watched through the window screen the swinging pole and the spittle and the blood until my mother put the baby on the floor and hurried to the screen door and I followed.

            The Shepherd relented and ran off, and Reefer did too. The Hunters’ son stood on our lawn and panted, chest heaving. The rake was speckled with blood. He looked like a madman. Later, my mother would find Reefer hiding in the shadowed space between the Hunters’ garage and a stack of cut wood. It took forty-some-odd stitches to put her back together again. We returned home well after dark, my sister asleep on my mother’s shoulder. She took her up the stairs to put her to bed. Reefer, her side shaved and bandaged, a cone around her neck, retreated to a spot under the dining table. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich, half-eaten, sat on a rubber placemat above her.

 

One day I found all the cinderblocks back against the shed in a tall stack. The grass was dead where they had been. I avoided Mr. Hunter because I knew he’d be mad about having to muscle all those blocks around. I guessed he also probably told Mrs. Hunter to stop letting me do my repairs, because she hadn’t mentioned it in a while. I was secretly grateful, of course, that I wouldn’t be forced to confess that I was in over my head and couldn’t install her new bathroom.

            Their garage door was open and folding tables were lined in the driveway in front of it. It seemed like everything Mr. Hunter owned was on those tables. A small black sign hung on the side of their house, and another one down by the mailbox. Both said, in bright orange letters, ‘For Sale.’ Mrs. Hunter said they were having a yard sale, and I’d thought that that was what the sign meant as well. I don’t think it occurred to me that you could actually sell a whole house.

            Mr. and Mrs. Hunter’s hippie son was there, helping carry things out of the house, a vacuum cleaner and then a rocking chair. He put them in the driveway and stuck index cards on them with prices. Strangers stopped their cars and walked up the driveway.

            I liked the idea of a yard sale, that you could buy stuff from people without having to get a ride to Zayre or Bradlee’s. I went back inside and came out with the eight dimes I’d earned from renovating the Hunters’ house. I looked at a bucket of golf balls, a damp box full of ice skates, another box of 8-track tapes, a semicircle of six or seven folding beach chairs with broken or sagging weaves, a stack of board games that seemed a little too grown up for me. Parcheesi and Chinese Checkers and one called Stratego. In the end, I bought a set of corn-on-the-cob holders, although I didn’t know that’s what they were at the time. All I knew were they looked like tiny metal forks with cool plastic corn-on-the-cob handles, and they came in their own little plastic case. I gave Mrs. Hunter one of my dimes for the set and couldn’t wait for dinner so I could use them.  

           Later that day, toward evening after the last of the crowd had left and a late-day summer chill replaced the sun, Mr. Hunter called me over in his driveway. I was in my yard, jumping into a sandy patch and using my father’s measuring tape to measure how far I’d jumped, killing time before dinner. My new utensils were in my shirt pocket.

            I thought I must’ve been in trouble. “What?” I said, pretending I couldn’t hear him.

            He waved me toward him. “Come here a minute.” He was wearing work gloves, moving boxes back into the garage. His son’s El Camino was in the driveway but I didn’t know where he was. I stuck the measuring tape in my back pocket, hesitating a moment, giving my mother one last chance to call me in for dinner. The garage was lit in a fluorescent glow. I could hear the frogs in the distance growing restless.

            “I got something for you,” Mr. Hunter told me. I could feel my nose running and stretched my lower lip over my top lip to clean it. Then, out of options, I followed Mr. Hunter into his garage, the overhead bulbs bright and orbited by dozens of speedy bugs, zipping around and around like electrons. He opened the flap of a cardboard box full of books and pulled one out. A short cigarette poked from his lips, the spiral of smoke making him squint. He tapped the cover. “I want you to have this.”

            He put the book in my hand. A small hardback, its cover shiny—a dog lying in the snow with a tent in the background and a man silhouetted in the far distance. The Call of the Wild. I sucked some more snot in and looked up at him. “Okay,” I said. “How much?”

            Mr. Hunter smiled. “No charge. That’s from me to you. I want you to have that.”

            I liked dogs. “Okay.”

            “You’re a little too young for it right now, I think. But hold onto it, it’s a classic. I think you’ll really enjoy it someday.”

            I pulled it open and flipped through it. The words on the pages looked small, smaller than in the newspaper, and I knew that even though I could probably read it, it was too long. In the coming weeks and months I would carry it around with me, looking at the cover, occasionally opening it to a random page and reading. Once I even recited some of the opening chapter into a tape recorder for no good reason.  

            “That’s a good story right there. One of my favorites,” he said.

            By summer’s end the Hunters were gone. A new family had bought their house with twins my sister’s age but too young for me. The house got a new roof and new paint, and one day it did get a back deck, much better than the one I had started. Back then I’d thought I’d wanted to be some kind of repairman. Truthfully, my talent for repair work has never improved from those days, not one bit. I have trouble putting new rubber inserts onto the windshield wiper blades. A half-day project, minimum.

            It had been Mr. Hunter who had seen something else in me. Something that I wouldn’t see myself until years later: a passion for stories. For writing. My own wild calling. I never saw the Hunters after that, and certainly long gone from this earth by now, but I think about them often. About Mrs. Hunter’s simple attention, her willingness to let me run amok with my ideas. And about Mr. Hunter—even from afar—seeing who I really was: not a carpenter or repair man, but a writer. He’d known it before anyone else.  

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