It was in the old shop, acrid and oily, warm. I smiled as I inhaled. Pops was in the corner, cussing some contraption back to life. Grizzled and limping, always at some level of intoxication, he still managed to make things work.
What things? Well, that depended on what you could come up with. He handled everything from broken shoes to small engines. One time, this particularly well off family came in with a doll house. Don’t ask me why but his sign read “We Fix Things” and as he was unspecific, his customers took him at his word. This dollhouse was an antique, cherished and furnished with the scraps of the families own house. Where they had a lovely painting, there was one in the living room of the dollhouse. The chairs were covered with fabric scraps that matched the chairs in their house. I only know because I got to deliver it when it was finished.
Where Pops fixed, I Gophered. Anyway, apparently the railing had come off the stairway leading to the 2nd floor of this miniature mansion, and though it seemed a simple enough fix, Pops looked gravely at it. “Can you fix it?” the little one asked with a fat tear rolling down her cheek. Blonde curls and a sad face. Pops was doomed. She stammered “I broke it, Mama told me to be careful but, but.. ” another tear “I wanted to put the garland Nana made me on the railing, it’s the last thing I have she made, I put it on every holiday, just like she said” She couldn’t have been more than 12. I who had never had half the family she had, could see her grief.
He knelt down, and glowered at her. She backed up a step until she was pressed against her parents. “You weren’t careful were you?” It was a statement not an accusation, but she trembled as if he’d beaten her. “no.. “she said in a smallish voice. He looked her over and said “Will you be careful now?” She looked so hopeful as she nodded yes. Unable to speak she jumped at him and gave him the biggest hug. My jaw dropped, in my 20 yrs I had never seen him accept physical affections…. maybe a gruff handshake sure, mutual respect of course. He disentangled himself from her hug and looked at her parents, “Pick it up this time next week” he said and took off back to his contraptions and machines, making a show of being a surly cuss as if to shake off the overly saccharine moment.
I took to follow him as the family left and he just shut the door to his back office. I veered back to my corner. Pops may have been the only family I had, but I know he had once had a family before me. That old life, before me, that was something we just didn’t talk about. So, back to cleaning, sorting. So many random tools, but we often needed to fix things that we had no idea of what we might need so the collection included just about anything we could get our hands on. I picked up the hammer to hang it back on the wall, the weight of it felt real, the smell of the shop, the dust I hadn’t yet swept up.. hazy. It was so familiar, I turned it over in my hand, it was the first tool I was with him to buy.
Warm and sunny, maybe 5 or 6, I was so excited to help. He gave me a safe place to sleep, my very own bed and he made food so I didn’t have to scrounge or look for myself. Basically he was a god, but one of the old ones in the stories. He smelled like whiskey and he cussed, a lot. Never at me though. Oh he’d yell up a storm and be terrifying, especially if I slacked in any chores, but, he let me help. Treated me like a person instead of a baby. He was old and prone to odd moods. I grew to predict when the weather would shift and it would be time to batten down the hatches. Cleaning became a pastime of peace and serenity compared to his moods, but even this felt good and right because that’s what we were. Old and young, cynical and hopeful, stormy and still. I slowly grew up with him, and as I did the gap would occasionally switch and eventually close. We were each the others compliment. Another thing he passed on to me, never get stuck with people who agree with you all the time.
A shop was closing and selling off old tools and we were there to “pick over the carcass” as he used to say. He was dickering with the owner over a specific lot while I wandered the front shop. I grew bored and like every other kid my age began running my fingers over every item, as if I could know what it was or what it could do if I just touched it enough. My fingers brushed the handle of a hammer. It was prettier than the other tools, some kind of leafy pattern in the wood, the handle half again my height, but the swirls and patterns of vines lured my fingers to touch, lift, … well try to lift.. man it was heavy. Instead I ran my fingers of the head of the hammer, it was molded like a bear, lion, wolf? Some kind of animal with gaping mouth and teeth. The head faded into the traditional rounded flat side you’d see in a hammer, right about where the nose of the amorphous creature would be. The exaggerated flattened nose made the toothy grin somewhat more comical than fierce. Old with wear, but a kind of weathered tarnished silvery look. I loved it. Oh I don’t mean it was anything special, it’s just, with something so big, so pretty, I thought I could help Pops fix things. That’s what he did, so that’s what I wanted to do. Fix.
I put my hands under the head of that hammer on each side and lifted it with all I had. I pulled it close to my body. I was very careful. Tools are special because if you take care of them, they help you fix things. I kept the handle from dragging the floor and managed to keep my clumsy feet from tripping over it, but only just. I got to the front of the shop slightly out of breath but beaming up at Pops with my find. He glanced over at me and barely hid a smile. I smiled even bigger knowing then I had found a good tool, a fixing tool. We were not wealthy like some of his clients, he couldn’t always get what he wanted, but we made do. I carried that hammer as we walked home. It was the only thing he ended up getting at the shop. I never questioned it, it was among a dozen quiet sacrifices he made. I learned later that hammer was pretty much the reason we had Ramen for a year and not much else. It was so heavy, but I was determined to help and he let me. I felt like I was 5ft tall and practically grown up.
When we got home and I had reached the point of almost being desperate enough to ask for help he reached down to me to lift the hammer. I didn’t want to let go. The handle pulled and tugged at my fingers and I panicked. I felt tears well in my eyes and Pops got blurry in my vision. “I don’t want to let go” “It’s alright” He said “I’m always going to be here with you” I tilted my head when did Pops get so short? Why was he eye level? He pulled the hammer again.
“It’s stuck Chief, gods but she’s a heavy broad” I blinked, clutching the hammer, closing my eyes.
“No! Mine” I snarled, being viciously awakened is one thing, being torn from a happy dream, Oh somebody was going to pay. My grip tightened as I rolled over, flailing and sweeping a leg from under what I could only assume was Chiefs braver accomplice. A satisfying thud spoke of my success, as he face planted the concrete. I got up and stared down the standing opponent. I must have perfected my “Broad be too crazy to be worth it” look while spending the greater part of what must have been a rainy night in the alley.
Chief smiled at me “No hard feelings” shrugged his shoulders helped his less than amused comrade up and sauntered off. I managed to stay upright and waited until they we off around the corner to sit back down and groan. It’d been what, 7hrs… time enough to get well out of town. Damn, I used most my resources tracking her to this spot, not sure how I’d catch up if she already skipped town again.
Damn Damn Damn. Well, coffee first. Then thinking. One just wasn’t going to happen without the other.