At my parent’s house, stacked high on a shelf above a rusty lawnmower and an open bag of fertilizer is a brown cardboard box. Its tattered exterior held together by a haphazard patchwork of duct tape, twine and spilt paint. At one time it held some sort of small appliance, likely a slow cooker or an electric skillet, but whatever kitchen convenience used to call the box home has long been sold in a yard sale and in all likelihood resold in a few subsequent ones over the years. The letters that once described the original contents are small, red and faded beyond recognition. In contrast are the bold black strokes from a marker scrawled on all six sides: TOOLS.
A two car detached garage with a built in workbench, a wall of shovels and enough craftsman miscellany to construct just about anything. The space was a big selling point when our family first moved in. “It’s got room for all my tools.” My father said.
Walls covered in peg board and drawers with locks to keep the sharp stuff out of small hands. The place is spotless. “You gotta take pride in what’s yours.” He used to tell me growing up.
Pride is something my father was chock full of. He liked to boast about having served his country and how he’d been with the same company for thirty years, having worked his way up from the mail room to Vice President. He beamed when looking at a picture of my sister and her baby or one of me in a cap and gown. My father took pride in just about everything he considered his own, everything except for that musty, water stained box of TOOLS.
Need a ratchet, he had a half dozen different varieties and enough sockets to fill a five gallon bucket. In that garage, there are fourteen different types of hammer, seven levels and thirty-three screwdrivers. A band saw, a chainsaw, saw horses, lumber to build a see-saw – they’re all tucked in one corner or another.
Need a release, an escape from the daily grind, a pick me up when the wife is on your back? He’s had the fix for that too, just go take a peek in that big brown box.
Years of lingerie catalogues supplemented with Playboys and some borderline stuff he picked up at truck-stops and places I’d prefer not to think about, back in his days as a sales rep, before he landed a desk job and a window to stare out of.
Forty-five minutes to fix a wobbly chair, two hours to build a bird house, three days to stain a planter box, a day and a half to assemble a bookshelf in a box. My father the handyman was always up for a new project, any excuse to visit his workshop would do just fine. And now, he’s gone, my mother all alone in this house in the suburbs with the too large, too green, too manicured lawn.
Memories of him are everywhere, his face smiling back, often with a half finished Pall Mall dangling from his lips in dozens of photos on coffee tables and gallery walls. His half of the closet filled with suits in varying shades of navy, most moldering away tucked inside dry cleaner’s plastic. In the den, there’s his record collection – hundreds of pieces of vinyl he’d curated over the years. The half empty bottles of whiskey littering the floor of the pantry, the ones that when I was younger I’d sneak sips of and think I was getting one over on him by replacing brown liquid with clear from the tap. There’s so much of him here, to remind anyone that steps foot inside that this was his home, his castle.
It’s those memories, the good, the bad, the foggy, the sloshed, the smoke stained, that I want to preserve as I load the box of TOOLS into the back of my car and tell my mother I need to borrow them for a few hours or days or weeks or longer, to build a bookshelf for my son or fix a closet door that squeaks in the wrong way or to assemble or disassemble something that requires such things.
Erik Smetana lives and writes just outside of Nashville. His words have previously appeared in some shape or form at The Missouri Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Monkeybicycle, Pank, Eckleburg, ESPN the magazine, and others.