Marriage Is a Promise Not Broken
“Make sure you get it back within the hour,” Ted of Ted’s Hardware warns me with a sneer as I grab the Black & Decker electric drill and a case of drill bits. You can’t blame him – he’s been taken advantage of numerous times since The Tool Works closed. I get it that he needs cash to pay his suppliers so he can refill his shelves and provide for his family but it’s not like we want to be late in our payments or screw him in any way. Stress of recession brings the ugly in a lot of us.
The heavy sun-faded oak front door in Mrs. Maple’s boarding house has been missing two screws from the top door hinge for two weeks and to open it I have to lift and lean it to the right so it clears the door jamb. The other tenants, who don’t have my strength, have been forced to use the back door and traipse through the kitchen. Mrs. Maple doesn’t much like that since too many of them help themselves to any food lying on the counters on their way to their rooms. Like me, most of them are unemployed and struggle to pay the rent. I’m not complaining because I get a discount for being her handyman. I can fix most things and have done so to get by since the plant shut down. Mrs. Maple will have to wait for the end of the month so she can collect from her motley array of tenants and pay the hardware bill. That’s if they all pay. She confided once which ones are the deadbeats and a quick calculation means she is receiving monthly payment about 50 percent of the time.
Mrs. Maple already has the extension cord, so I don’t have to buy one. It’s the one we use when we pull the black and white television out on her front porch on steamy nights when it is just too overbearing inside the cramped front room where we spend many a night sitting so close we recognize each other by our scent.
I don’t complain to Ted, cause a deal is a deal, and he came down on price because Mrs. Maple is his cousin – so I just nod and take off at the fastest jog I can get up these days. The screen door slaps shut like a gunshot and I have visions of him jumping out of his skin at the sound. Teach him! The boarding house is 6 blocks away, so wasting time commuting is not an option.
“Fixed?” Mrs. Maple comments more than asks as she waddles across the frayed area rug that reaches across her foyer.
I demonstrate – opening then closing it. I can’t help but smile. My expectations have dropped these days – so I have to get boosts wherever I can. It went as expected and she smiles back at me before giving my muscular forearm a hard squeeze. Her meaty cheeks glow and I can tell she is counting her savings now that all tenants will be entering the house through this door instead of raiding the kitchen. They won’t be as happy.
“You have another job for someone out at the lake,” she says as she hands me a note. “Supposed to meet her at the tavern this morning.”
I nod and stick the note into my pocket.
Ted checks his big wall clock as he takes the drill from me. Five minutes to spare. I detect a bit of disappointment because, let’s face it, there are probably no more takers for the drill today and a late fee would drop right to his bottom line. We exchange no words. He, like so many of us who still remain in town, has forgotten how to exchange pleasantries. Seems each resident has slipped onto the bottom rung on Maslow’s pyramid which means all efforts, bar none, are concentrated on putting food in our mouths and roofs over our heads.
I pause on the sidewalk to listen to his curses after I let the screen door slam again. My smile stretches, which is a rare feeling as of late, as I walk up Main Street toward The Tool Works plant. These visits are a force of habit I suppose, kind of like returning to the scene of the crime.
In the hulking shadow of the building I regain a sense of equilibrium and for a moment fool myself into thinking everything is normal, as if I am heading into work. The close proximity brings me solace.
I’m startled by this familiar voice. I turn to Polly Wood emerging through the office door of the plant. She is shapely in a subtle way wearing one of her flower print dresses and it sadly reminds me of days past. Smiling easily she gives me a shake of her blonde hair. Her features are pleasant, though a bit plain, and even after all these years, without wrinkles.
Her climb to Administrative Assistant to the owner of the company came as no surprise. We’d started together right out of high school, she in the secretarial pool and me in the shop. Our relationship was never more than recognition of each other’s existence and shared roots, but we always said hello to each other and exchanged smiles. Because of her I always felt I had a connection to the front office.
“I heard you’re moving south, or something? Leaving town.” It is pretty much the route most of the other office workers have taken.
Shrugging with a quick nod, she explains, “Been away for a little while, but had to clean up a few things. I’ll be leaving for good in the next couple of days.” She’s holding a stack of manila folders and shifts them from her right to her left arm.
“Want some help with those?”
“No. They aren’t heavy. Thanks though.”
With a deep breath I gaze up at the old building. The sagging bricks are beginning to fade visibly, which saddens me; just another reminder of its end. “A shame, isn’t it?”
She glares at the structure over her shoulder. “It couldn’t be helped.”
“I guess you know better than anyone.”
She frowns and pats her hair with light slaps but doesn’t reply.
“Well…good luck and if you ever come back for a visit, look me up.” I mean it, but I know she won’t.
Glancing past me, she asks, “Are you making out all right?” Is it heartfelt concern because of our history rather than an afterthought to convince me she cares, maybe an attempt to make me feel better?
“Day by day. Odd jobs here and there. Things like that.”
“Wasn’t your fault. Besides I’m meeting someone today at Schultz’s who needs some work done.”
Her attention already on something in the future, she says, “Take care.”
Like the phantom pain an amputee experiences I feel the pounding of the forge hammers on the sidewalk. They’ve been shut off for six months. A breeze carries the lingering scent of cutting oil while the ghostly echo of clattering drill presses rings in my memory.
Polly walks down Main Street, her silhouette erect in the golden haze of the sun. I gaze after her a few moments before ducking across the street to Schultz’s Tavern. There was a time I might have had to wait for traffic. Now the only thing on Main Street is sunshine, which is in itself ironic.
Parked in front of the tavern is a shiny red Corvette which draws my attention like a beautiful woman. This is an aberration. Not since the plant was thriving and the salesmen visited, were there cars of this cost and quality seen.
I pause in the doorway to let my eyes grow accustomed to the dark before I am able to focus on Bert placing a beer on the bar in front of an empty stool. On my way across the room I am accosted by a musk aroma. My nose hairs perk up and I blurt out, “Perfume!” Certainly not a regular occurrence in the bar; where the clientele is normally comprised of male ex-Tool Work employees. I quickly connect the scent to the owner of the Corvette who is sitting at the end of the bar and assume this is my new client.
“Very perceptive.” Her hoarseness is a clue to years of heavy smoking.
I don’t recognize her. Shoulder length black hair, straight as curtains. Her beige skirt rides high on well-tanned thighs. One leg crossed over the other, she bounces a white sandal on her toe. Lighting a cigarette midst an already thick cloud of smoke brings a wet hack.
“Not too difficult when you’re accustomed to Bert’s rank stench,” I chuckle before my first sip. “Course, after working this morning, I’m even less of a peach.”
“You smell fine to me.”
“Just don’t get too close.”
“Would that frighten you?” She giggles as she wobbles on her stool, grabbing the bar edge to steady herself.
Definitely one of the rich types from the lake. They rarely appear in town. They are more likely to send their help to shop for them. Let’s face it; there is little entertainment for them in this broken-down town. They’ve got their country club out there on the cliffs of Lake Michigan.
“I assume you are the person who left me the note?”
She nods as she inhales deeply.
It has been a week since my last visit to the bar. Funds have to be watched carefully. Doing a quick look around the place I realize something is different and it takes me awhile to figure out what.
“Bert, why did you put the pool table into the alcove? How we gonna play?”
“It broke and I can’t afford to get it fixed. The balls are locked in the chamber. Can’t get ‘em out. Tommy tried to force his damn quarters in and they got stuck. Thought I’d better keep it out of the way so no one damages it further. Maybe someday I will be able to afford to get it working again.”
Before The Tool Works closed I spent each night drinking beer and playing pool. The whole second shift did. Schultz’s was a three shift bar. Bert and his brother Bob shared the three shifts. Now it’s open for one. They used to split three, now they split one.
“Let me take a look at it later. Maybe I can fix it.” It’s not like I’m gonna charge him more than a couple of free games.
“Sounds good. Thanks.”
She slips off her stool and climbs onto the stool next to me as if she is mounting a horse, allowing me peeks of places I haven’t seen in a very long time.
The stench of gin floats around her like a mist. The sharp scent of juniper berries cuts a path through the sour stench of beer like a knife.
“Bert, please bring Garth another beer and put it on my tab.”
Bert puts the beer down in front of me. “No, I shouldn’t…”
She raises her hand, displaying a large many-carat diamond ring that glows in the muted light of the bar lamps. “I insist.”
Since shut down I’ve had to limit my visits to every other week, at most, and nurse one or two beers a night. My budget aches at that.
“Get that door hung for Mrs. Maple?” asks Bert as he brings her another gin. I’m surprised he even stocks gin.
“Have you always been a handy man?”
“Was a drill press operator til six months ago.”
“Across the street?”
I nod and gaze out the window at the building. With a grimace, I add, “For twenty-two years.”
She grabs the bar with both hands, lifts off the stool and swings one foot under her bottom and sits back down on it. The motion allows me another glimpse of her white panties.
“A long time,” she sighs.
“Only job I ever had.”
She pulls another cigarette from her pack on the bar and holds it up to Bert who is quick to light it. “A long time for nothing, huh?” Her tone is sharp. Sipping her gin, she tosses her head, allowing her hair to brush her shoulders.
Late forties is my guess – well-preserved late forties, but the crow’s feet stretching from her eyes and the laugh lines corralling her mouth give it away. Unaccustomed to the second beer so quickly, I swoon at its effect. “I can’t ever recall a lady buying me a beer.” I swipe my hand over my crew cut.
“What makes Garth think Wendy is a lady?” Dragging deeply on her cigarette, she flaunts an amused grin. Her teeth shine brilliantly which is another clue to her wealth.
“Wendy, if you’re not a lady, I’ve never met one.”
She winks. Long silver earrings dangle as she levels her head and gazes directly into my eyes. “So you made auto parts?”
Taken aback by her knowledge, I boast, “American auto parts.”
“Then you like my car.”
I cock my head. “A beauty.”
She drags hard on the cigarette and watches the stream of smoke as she exhales. Then she turns her gaze back to me and tilts her head. “Did you make Cadillac parts?”
“My husband has one.” Her tone is innocuous, though I am way out of practice dealing with the opposite sex.
She snorts. “I should clarify – my soon to be ex-husband…”
“That’s too bad. Doesn’t sound good.”
“Not many marriages I know are.”
“I wouldn’t know. Never been married.”
“Marriage is a promise not broken.”
“That can be said about a lot of things. I used to view my job that way.”
She motions to Bert for the check. “You loved your job?”
“I never thought of it in those exact terms, but I guess I did. I loved the product. Loved the company. Made me proud to work for the company. I am loyal, if nothing else.” In all those years I never slept until the alarm, always up before it rang, ready to strut the four blocks to work from my own apartment. The pride I felt was so deep, part of me was convinced I should have done something more to keep the doors open, as though it was somehow my fault they closed.
Sitting in my cramped room at Mrs. Maple’s I patiently wait for the plant to reopen. Never a day goes by when I don’t walk around the empty building just checking to see if someone is in there – maybe preparing things to call us back.
“He’s one of a few who remain around here,” Bert says as he takes her cash.
“Keep the change,” she says as she climbs off the stool.
With a tantalizing smirk, she asks, “Ready to drive that Corvette?”
“Never driven one.”
I open the door for her and catch another glimpse of her panties as she lowers herself into the beige leather passenger seat. Sidewalks on both sides of the street are barren. Sunrays cascade off the high windows of The Tool Works as I grip the leather wrapped steering wheel. In the rear view mirror the buildings line both sides of the street like gravestones.
I step hard on the accelerator and the power of this magnificent machine surges through my body and the roar of the engine shatters the silence along Main Street as we whip past the city limits sign.
She leans her head against the head rest. Eyes are shut.
“Take it we’re heading to the lake?”
“Wake me when we reach town.”
It’s only a five mile drive along a two lane highway through cornfields. Can’t help myself to control my urge to step hard again on that gas pedal. And while the speedometer needle inches toward 90 mph I wonder why her ex ditched her. Obviously couples have issues but I can’t see any reason on the surface.
I slow to roll over railroad tracks and cross an intersecting highway before pulling up to the Honor Roll of Laketown which sits at the head of a small park. It lists all 27 residents who’ve lost their lives for the country. The town has a butcher shop, a small grocery and a post office.
Now that the engine is just purring instead of roaring I hear her low snores escaping an open mouth that has a bit of drool at the corner. Never a good look on anyone and quickly say “We are here.” I am a little loud.
Startled she sits up and swipes her drool with the back of her hand while looking at me sheepishly. “Sorry. Take that road till Shore Drive then left.”
We lurch forward.
“Did you enjoy the drive?
I can’t suppress my grin. “One fine machine, I can’t lie.”
I take the left onto Shore Drive. “You said in the note you have a job for me.”
“Turn right between those brick pillars.”
We roll over a long asphalt drive piercing a thick forest. After a bend I see Lake Michigan past a high cliff then follow a circular drive in front of a monstrous white clapboard house.
Not sure what I expected, but the size of this place is a shocker. The waves breaking on the beach below are steady and soothing as I follow her to the front door which holds hulking dual glass panes with sparkling gold handles. No leveling problems here.
“I want a drink. How about you, Garth?”
She shakes her head. “How about scotch?”
Can’t say as I’ve had scotch, but what the hell. “Sure.” A wide staircase winds from above into the slate foyer.
I follow her through an expansive kitchen into a wood paneled bar. From the looks of the place there isn’t much for a handyman to do.
She hands me my drink on the rocks and climbs up on the bar stool. Reaching down she slaps the stool next to her. The bar is empty except for a piece of paper to her right.
Her scowl is hard. “Feel as though you’ve been duped?”
After taking a bitter sip which evokes a wince, I shrug because I’m not sure what or who is doing the duping. I took another tiny sip. Getting better, but still have to wince, but also a soothing heat. “Not sure what you mean.”
“By the company. Duped by the company.”
“It’s not the company’s fault that all these folks started buying foreign made cars.”
She gazes at her drink. Without looking up, she asks, “Is that what they told you?”
She still hasn’t mentioned the job she has for me. I shrug.
“How did they let you know?” Her eyes burn with the anticipation of a poker player about to reveal a winning hand.
I gulp, recalling my panic when I took the sealed envelope. It was one of over two hundred passed out that day – each addressed “Fellow Employee.” The letter was signed with the familiar LL/PW. I felt sorry for Polly. Still do. And I also feel a combination of pride and pain for the owner, who obviously was too overwrought about losing his business to be able to sign all those letters. “A letter.”
“Are you a vengeful person?”
“Never have been.”
“I didn’t think I was either.”
I can’t control the raging curiosity any longer. “Should I know you?”
She shakes her head, her hair swinging. “But you do know Polly don’t you?”
I raise an eyebrow. “Of course, the owner’s secretary. Just spoke to her this morning.”
She sips her gin while staring out the window at the lake. Strangely, each drink seems to be making her more sober. “She happens to be the third party.”
It doesn’t connect immediately and I glance at the lake as though it will enlighten me. The churning waves seem to clear my mind. “No! With your husband? No way!”
Wendy places her hand high as though swearing an oath.
“You’ve hit me with a couple of left hooks here! I’m totally confused to tell you the truth.”
“I was too.”
Loyalty flows in my blood. It always has. I can’t give it up easily.
“Was selling out over two hundred people the proper thing to do?”
“Huh?” I lift my eyebrow again - still confused.
“Farming your jobs overseas and blaming people on buying foreign cars. Hell, the truth is, some Asian person has your job right now. Lovely L.L. was making plenty of bucks right here but decided he deserves even more.”
I swallow hard. My stomach flips and turns queasy. “How the hell do you know all this?”
She sits up and reaches for the piece of paper next to her and hands it to me. “You are in the presence of Mrs. LL. Mrs. Scorned. I arrived home to a dark house one night. Had to pause in the foyer to try and recall my husband’s whereabouts, a meeting, out of town, I couldn’t remember, which wasn’t abnormal because his schedule was so busy I always had a hard time keeping track.
“Still pondering, I flipped the kitchen light on and walked directly through the room to the bar in the family room. Recently gin had been my main companion, at least the only one I could count on. It was chilly in the house and I was rubbing my arms.
“It was when I passed the kitchen table on my way back to retrieve olives from the refrigerator that I noticed that document cleanly typed on company letterhead.”
I survey the letter on the bar in front of me. The familiar LL/PW screams from the bottom of the page like a cruel joke.
“Pink slip, Dear John letter – they both are communications of destruction.”
I wipe my brow.
She finishes her drink.
“South Korea for one. Land of the profits, he calls it.”
“Polly?” I grimace. I don’t believe it for a minute until I recall her coming from the building this morning with all those files – my holier than thou vision suddenly tumbles off the pedestal and comes crashing to the ground.
“Probably a loyal servant who will do anything for the prick. That ego of his is a monster to keep fed. I don’t envy her challenge.” She slips off the stool. “The deal is anything I want to do to this house I can. And since he has to pay for all of them I think some heavy charges are in order. Are you ready to make that list?”
“I am.” The scotch is getting warmer, but instead of drunker, I am thinking more clearly. “But I have a favor to ask.”
“Even though it isn’t part of the house, I’m thinking he should pay for a new pool table at Schultz’s.”
She smiled widely. “I like that idea.”
I hear the laughter of the second shift, a melody I’ll never hear again. Everything suddenly makes sense and frustration wrapped in anger begins replacing the guilt. I wonder how I can be so stupid, but it suddenly occurs to me that trust evolves into naiveté which becomes stupidity in the greed-driven corporate world.