Robert Boucheron

Posted on January 1, 2018



     A family business for over a century, located on Main Street in a brick commercial block built in 1891, as the cornice proclaimed, Shakewell Hardware had wooden shelves that climbed up the walls, a library ladder that rolled on little wheels, an overhead trolley that ran in a loop around the perimeter, and a pressed tin ceiling that glimmered aloft like tarnished silver.

     It was Saturday, when the store closed at noon. A lone customer dawdled and stared at the merchandise as if in a museum. From out of town, he wore a baseball cap. He drifted to the front. John Shakewell rang up a purchase of less than one dollar, dropped the item in a tiny paper bag, and rolled the top of the bag tight.

     “Why don’t you stay open later?” the customer asked.

     “The schedule gives employees daylight hours to do their own chores.”

     The customer clutched his bag and left. The bell over the street door jangled.

     “Discipline!” Shakewell said to his clerk Ernie Watkins, who stood at the ready. “A man should think through his project in advance. He should write a list of materials on a scrap of wood, estimate the quantities, check the tools in his shed, and sharpen or oil them as need be. Then a quick trip to the hardware store bright and early for a can of paint or a bag of nails will set him up for the weekend. As it stands now, some customers wait till the last minute. We can’t be held hostage, at the mercy of those who dither and waste the better part of a day.”

     Ernie was familiar with the Shakewell philosophy, pronounced in a voice like a fistful of gravel in a tin cup. In his fifties, Shakewell was a lean, balding man, with a nervous habit of clearing his throat. He never smoked or chewed tobacco, but he always seemed about to spit. Fifty years before, he had started work in the store as a teen under his father. At this point in time, though loath to admit it, Shakewell was tired of the business. But he still wore the bow tie and apron of his youth, and he moved about the store with a kind of grace, as if dancing on the polished hardwood floor.

     Ernie stood still. When his big feet moved, in thick leather shoes with steel toes, they marched deliberately. His work uniform consisted of a pale blue button-down shirt open at the collar, khaki pants, a big brass buckle on his belt like a shield, and a stubby yellow pencil tucked behind one ear. No matter how bulky the load he carried, or what task of restocking or sweeping he undertook, he stayed neat and clean. The apron, they agreed, was unnecessary.

     As if to play off his boss’s style, Ernie spoke in a smooth baritone that suggested however clumsy or unversed in the practical arts, anyone might achieve success. To fall into the capable hands of Mr. Watkins, as the manners of the place and his own demeanor labeled him, was to feel a palpable sense of relief. Help was on the way, and the problem was as good as solved.

     Male customers gravitated to Ernie. They felt bold to confide the intimate secrets of their rainwater leaks, hidden patches of dry rot, rodent problems, and insect infestations. The few women who strayed into the store found him standoffish. Gender roles in Hapsburg, if behind the times, were still a force to reckon with. Ernie was in his thirties but old enough. Simply by the tone of that resonant voice, he conveyed the message that whatever errand had brought a woman there would be better entrusted to a handyman or a husband.

     The older ladies of Hapsburg agreed. They stared like alien trespassers and feigned ignorance. Younger women discovered they could satisfy their hardware needs at a big-box retailer some miles distant, without the stuffy atmosphere and at lower prices.

     Cecilia Gross entered. An admirable wife and mother, an accomplished cook with a string of bake sale victories, a life member of Lane Presbyterian, and twice elected to the Hapsburg Town Council, she read aloud from a little note:

     “A fifty-pound bag of shredded pine bark mulch.”

     Ernie fetched it from the back. Mrs. Gross handed him the keys to her vehicle. He threw the bag over his shoulder like a body in need of resuscitation, carried it out the door, and laid it in the back bed as though in an ambulance. Shakewell worked the levers on the old cash register as Mrs. Gross talked.

     “I come here under strict orders to buy this or that thing, and if it isn’t in stock, to go home empty-handed, not to spend money on some gimcrack doodad we can right well live without, like a bird feeder made to look like a gothic church, or a garden gnome with a long white beard and a red pointed hat. Mr. Gross hates waste.”

     Ernie returned, his attire unrumpled, the yellow pencil still tucked behind his ear, and the big brass buckle as bright as ever.

     “Mr. Watkins, it’s uncanny how you do. Strong as a horse, and not a hair out of place. I bet you can find every single thing in this store with your eyes closed. I bet you can just reach up and grab it, covered with dust, and never get a smudge on you. And that gasket or gadget will be just what the customer wanted. Mr. Shakewell, do you have any idea what this man is worth?”

     “I do, Mrs. Gross. That’s why he’s been here ten long years.”

     Since the layout never changed, Ernie’s ability to locate any item in the store on a moment’s notice was perfectly natural. And by fielding questions over the years, he discovered a creative streak. He suggested what product might best remove a stain, unstick a door, or silence a creaky floorboard. He explained why two identical garden spades, one painted apple green and the other painted tomato red, bore different prices. He urged people to stock up on things like sandpaper, things in no danger of short supply. At the cash register, he would produce a silvery C wrench like a dazzling toy, or a pocket screwdriver that doubled as a penlight.

     “Can I slip this in your bag?” he would say. “You never know when you might need it.”

     With Mrs. Gross gone and out of earshot, Shakewell looked at Ernie, who met his gaze. This fellow of average height and thickness, with rounded shoulders and unhurried gait, had indeed become the beau idéal of a hardware store assistant.

     “Ernie, it’s time I promoted you to head clerk.”

     There was one other, Tom, a dim-witted boy with a mop of blond hair. Tom worked part-time and was absent that day. Shakewell had two sons, Walter and John Junior, but neither wanted to work in the store. Nor could he blame them.

     “Thank you, sir.”

     “Effective Monday.”

     “Do I get a raise?”

     “A small one. And some personal days. Have you ever called in sick?”

     “No, sir.”

     “It could happen. We’re all mortal, slogging through this vale of tears.”

     With no customers to wait on, no chores to do, and the minutes steadily adding up to noon, the two men stood and gazed at the street.

     “You’re a single man.”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “In perfect health with a steady job.”

     “No complaints.”

     “Do you have a private life?”

     “I guess everybody does.”

     “Where do you live?”

     “In town, the downstairs half of a small frame house. My landlady lives upstairs, Hazel Lampwick, the town librarian. We both live so quiet you’d never know the other was overhead or underfoot. That’s what she says. On the first of the month, I slip a sealed envelope with a check for the rent into the mailbox marked H. Lampwick. When see one another on Main Street or at the grocery store, she murmurs thank-you in the same low voice she uses when someone returns a book.”

     “Are you much of a reader?”

     “No sir, except for the Vindicator. I like to keep up with the local news. Once in a while, I tear though a crime novel, when I snag a tattered paperback copy for fifty cents at a yard sale. If I have to, I go to the library to look things up in the encyclopedia.”

     “What do you do in your spare time?”

     “I cut the grass, trim the bushes, fix what’s broken, scrape and paint what needs it. Miss Lampwick knocks a little off the rent in return. Then there’s my toaster collection.”

     “Your what?”

     “I collect old toasters. Ever since my teens, when every boy takes up a sport or hobby of some kind. I buy them, clean them, and put them in working order. Obsolete appliances get my attention—blenders, corers, grinders, extractors, and double boilers—but toasters are my specialty. I find them in junk shops, rummage sales, thrift shops, and left on the street for trash. I go to swap meets and flea markets. I own about fifty, stashed in a closet. Did you know the first electric toaster for sliced bread was invented in 1893 in Edinburgh, Scotland?”

     “You could write a book,” Shakewell said.

     “I barely finished high school.”

     “That wouldn’t stop some people.”

     Like the petals of a flower closing for the night, the dagger-like clock hands slowly aligned straight up, when Joe Flibbert burst through the door. The handyman avoided eye contact with Shakewell, who casually turned away, struck by the sight of a little drawer left open in a bank of little drawers for screws, washers, nuts, bolts, knobs, and wire pulls.

     “I need a number ten fitting,” Flibbert said to Ernie.

     Everyone knew the story. John Shakewell, Jr. had married Becky Flibbert in May, after going steady in high school and being engaged through four years of college. The Shakewells helped the couple buy a cottage, and Flibbert fixed it up. The house was their joint wedding present. John started a job as an engineer, and Becky was due to start teaching in the fall. In August she vanished—flew the coop—and left a brief note that explained nothing. Two months later, relations were still strained. But the handyman had an account at the store, and he often needed supplies in a hurry. Where else was he going to go?

     Ernie fetched the plumbing part and rang up the sale. Flibbert was out the door in a flash. Ernie took the pencil from behind his ear and set it on the counter. Shakewell untied his apron, slipped it off, and hung it on a peg.

     “I’ll lock up now,” he said.

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Coldnoon, Fiction International, Litro, New Haven Review, Porridge, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, and other magazines.
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