Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In Good Hands.

In the garage, under a black vinyl hood, slept a red Camaro. The smell of the tarp reminded Joann of a raincoat. She had never bothered learning to drive a stick, and now, with Ken gone, she would have to ask a neighbor to back the juicy sports car out of the garage to make room for the folding tables. She lifted the heavy door and stepped barefoot into the violent sunlight. The driveway burned her feet and she danced around the grey Corolla into the cool grass of the front lawn. Shielding her eyes with her right hand, Joann crossed into the Vinton's yard and onto the porch and knocked on the screen door. As she stood on the green and black indoor-outdoor carpeting, she could see into the Vinton's hallway. Here was a basket of folded bath towels waiting to be carried upstairs; there a fish tank bustling with blue and yellow tropicals, and beside it a pile of junk mail. As Joann admired the old-timey plastic diver around which the fish swam, John Vinton came down the stairs and opened the door. He didn’t invite her in but joined her there on his porch.
“How ya doin’, Joann?” He shielded his eyes.
“Oh, alright,” she said and took a step to her right, casting a shadow over John’s face. He nodded his appreciation and clasped his hands behind his neck.
“What are you up to on such a beautiful day?”
“Well, she said,” I’m getting’ ready to have a garage sale, and I was hopin’ that you might be able to pull the Camaro around back. It’s a manual, and Ken never taught me to drive a stick.”
John half-laughed and said “I wouldn’t suppose he did. Hell, in all the time we’ve been neighbors, I probably only saw him drive it half a dozen times himself. ‘Course I’d be happy to help you out. Like we said at the funeral, Ali and I are glad to help out any way we can.”
“I truly appreciate that,” she said, handing him the keys. As they crossed into Joann’s yard, John admitted that he had been eager to get behind the wheel of the car since he and Ali had moved onto the cul-de-sac seven years ago; how he would watch from his screen door as Ken waxed the hood or tinkered underneath it. After parking the car on the patio behind the house, John asked if Joann wouldn’t like him to move the Corolla as well. “Oh, thanks, but that I can handle.”
“Well, okay. If there’s nothing else, I think I’ll go do my exercises. Let us know if you need anything else.” He jogged back through the yards and into his house, the screen door slamming behind him.
Joann stood, her thighs pressed against the driver’s side of the grey car, flicking the bent antenna with her pointer finger. She and Ken had shared the compact car while he was alive, her doing volunteer work at the hospital or hunting for antiques, him, every morning, taking it first to the corner deli where he sat with the owner and drank his only cup of coffee before heading to the high school where he taught art. He had bought the car during his summer vacation several years prior, when he discovered that someone had badly dented the passenger side door of the Camaro while he was in the hardware store. On his way home, he pulled up behind a grey sedan at a red light. On the back window hung a homemade “FOR SALE” sign with a phone number. He followed that car to the other end of town and cut the woman a check for $600 right there in her driveway. He and Joann returned the next day to pick it up.
The driveway burned her feet again, and Joann rushed back into the garage and was suddenly surprised by all the empty space, so she hurried to set up two long folding tables, the kind with the white plastic top and brown metal legs. Ken had gotten several of them when a nearby rental hall was throwing them out.
“Some kids rented out the place,” the owner had said when he found Ken taking them from the alley behind the hall. “Must’a sat on ‘em or something’. The legs is all bent up.” It took Ken two trips to get them home and about three hours for him and Joann to hammer them all back into shape. It was projects like this that Joann was going to miss the most following Ken’s death. How they had spent entire Saturdays and Sundays creating or fixing or sometimes destroying things. They had once built a doghouse together for Joann’s sister’s Doberman, devoting two consecutive weekends one October to the red edifice with its swinging door. On the first Saturday after their wedding, they spent the entire afternoon trying in vain to salvage the old washing machine Ken’s uncle had handed down to them. The next day, they took turns whacking drunkenly at it with a sledgehammer as they laughed and drank and fell into each other.
Joann spent the rest of the day clearing out the garage, simultaneously organizing those things worth keeping and setting aside items to sell. She finished after dark, closing the door and carrying a snow shovel with her to the cellar where she washed off her feet in the utility shower before lying down on the couch in the sun-room.
As she tried to fall asleep, her mind continued to pour over the items she had spent the day sorting. She saw inner-tubes and hydraulic pumps, jars full of nuts and bolts, caulking guns and stacks of National Geographic magazines, every one reminding her of Ken. When the snow shovel appeared, she pictured him in his puffy overalls as he shoveled out first their driveway and then the six others on the cul-de-sac street, even the Vinton’s, though he was older than both John and Ali by at least a decade. He would spend an entire snow day shoveling and salting the small neighborhood, even going around and knocking down any foreboding icicles from his neighbors’ houses. Most remarkably, in all the years that Joann had known Ken, never once had she seen him wearing gloves. Whether he was digging out an icy driveway or soldering jewelry in one of his classes, he preferred to do it bare-handed, “To really feel it,” he had said. “Like I’m a part of it.”
As Joanna finally drifted off to sleep, she felt pangs for her husband, still thinking of his strong hands; how she wished for them to be there, pushing and pulling at her like wet clay.
In the morning, she set water to boil in the tea kettle Ken had made her for their anniversary the previous year. She sat in the dining room, making signs for the garage sale, listing the date, time, and place, each sign different from the others. She admired her signs, but when the whistle of the tea pot blew, she burst into tears.
The kettle had been the original inspiration for the garage sale, its wail every morning sounding less like whistling and more like crying. There were other things, too, like the chime that hung by the front door. She had been coming and going through the garage just to avoid the metallic sound of tears Ken had crafted. The mantle in the living room was the worst, though. Since Ken’s aneurism, Joann had not even been able to finish a book or a crossword puzzle, distracted by the relics sitting on the mantle opposite her favorite chair. On it sat a dozen or so pieces of artwork made by Ken’s students. After thirty years at the high school, Ken had accumulated quite a collection of one of a kind sculptures, installations, paintings and the like. He had entire boxes full of them, and certain pieces were on display in nearly every room of their modest Cape Cod home. The mantle in the living room, however, was reserved for extremely special pieces. Some were notable for their quality, like a papier-mâché mask made by an eleventh-grader, which bore an identical likeness to First Lady at the time, Nancy Reagan, only with her ears sewn shut. Other items were kept for sentimental reasons, like a clay ballerina, which wasn’t much to look at, but which was made as a gift for a student’s mother who died and was instead given to Ken. It was these items that Kept Joann from focusing. She had even carried an old black and white television down from the attic, hoping that she might be able to lose herself in an old movie, but still the relics on the mantle demanded her attention.
Before coming up with the garage sale plan, she had considered looking up the students who had made the pieces and returning them, but she didn’t want to have to tell them about Ken’s death. Many of them surely had families and careers of their own by now.
On the morning of the garage sale, Joann set all of the artwork, Ken’s and his students’, on its own table. The household items, the inner-tubes and caulking guns, along with the black and white TV, she had priced the night before and stuffed what she could into milk crates on one of the folding tables. The artwork, though, she didn’t price. A teenage boy picked up the make of Nancy Reagan. “This is awesome,” he said. “Who is this?”
Joann didn’t answer the boy. She was imagining Ken in his classroom, hunched over the student, explaining the proportions of the human face, his classroom decorated not with laminated quotes from I.M. Pei, but instead with his own hand-painted motivational posters. “CAN’T,” it said, “is a 4 letter word!”, the paper curled from the watercolors.
“That’s Nancy Reagan,” the boy’s mother told him.
Joann pictured the student now, imagining her making masks for huge theater productions, owning her own company, and nodding gracefully as she is thanked again during an acceptance speech at the Tony awards.
“Excuse me, Joann,” the mother interrupted. “How much for the first lady?”
Joann, barefoot behind a card table loaded with refreshments, smiled and said, “Make an offer. It’s all yours.”

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