It was nearly 5:00 when I pulled up in front of the house on Euclid Avenue, my last job of the day. I was more than an hour late, which probably meant I wouldn’t be getting a tip. Which wasn’t good. My gas gauge was on empty, and besides that, I’d hoped to stop off for a beer at Marty’s after work. Tess and I had gotten into a screaming match that morning, and I was in no hurry to go home.
As I gathered up my tools, my glance moved over the trim, white house with its green shutters and its rose bushes. Not the ritziest place on earth, I thought, but neat and homey looking. The kind of house Tess dreamed of owning, some day.
Tess worked as a teacher aide. Between that and my job at Paperhangers, we managed to keep the rent paid and food on the table. But we could never seem to keep a dime in our savings account, and that was the main reason for the fighting. But I didn’t want to think about that, so I collected my ladder and my paper tray and headed toward the house.
My knock was answered by an old lady wearing a lavender pantsuit and pink lipstick.
“Good afternoon.” She was soft-spoken, slightly southern. “You must be from the remodeling center.”
“Wonderful. I’ve been expectin’ you.”
Walking into her house, I noticed that the scent of roses had carried over to the inside. The lady had filled several vases with the red and white roses from her garden. They looked flamboyant in the plain, white room.
“The guest room’s this way,” she said.
The room was small and square, with a single bed and a night stand on one wall and a chest of drawers opposite. I calculated that the job would take me a half hour, at the most.
“It’s really a walk-in closet,” she said, almost apologetically. “But I’m trying to make it as comfortable as I can. My granddaughter is coming to stay for a few weeks. Do you think this will work for the space?”
She unrolled a wallpaper border, an old-fashioned pattern with butterflies and wildflowers. The bright purples, blues and golds were a striking contrast to the cream colored walls, and I told her as much.
She smiled. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Let me know if need anything.”
I set up my ladder and my water tray. I measured the wall, cut my strips, and mitered the corners. I’d just climbed up the ladder when a voice boomed out behind me, nearly making me lose my footing.
“Hello there, young fella!”
An old man stood in the doorway, his brown pants pulled up to his chest, tufts of white hair springing wildly from the sides of his head.
“Afternoon,” I mumbled, hoping he’d go away.
“I used to be a handyman myself,” he said.
“Really? What sort of work did you do?” He stared at me with a blank expression, not answering.
“We’re getting the room all fixed up,” he finally told me. “Someone’s coming to stay… Can’t think who.”
He continued to gaze at me with his watery eyes.
The woman appeared in the doorway. “Let’s let the young man work, Harry. Come on, your soup’s ready.” She took his hand and he reluctantly followed her from the room.
I hung my first strip, smoothed it out, and realized I’d left my rags in the car. As I was heading out to get them, the woman intercepted me. “You’ll have to excuse my husband,” she said softly. “Harry’s a wonderful man. He just gets confused sometimes.”
“Oh, no problem.” I immediately thought what an idiotic thing it was to say. No problem. Of course it wasn’t a problem. Not for me. I’d be out of here twenty minutes.
Back in the bedroom, I worked quickly. I was finishing up my last strip of border when out of the corner of my eye, I saw the old man return. He hovered in the doorway, like a small, sad shadow, clearly wanting some guy talk. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be him, lost inside my own mind.
“I used to be a handyman myself,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” I smoothed out the strip, wiped away the glue. “What sort of work did you do?”
He was quiet for long time and I didn’t think he’d answer.
“I did outdoor work,” he finally said in triumph. “I built decks and fences. Yessiree. If there’s anything I don’t miss, it’s trying to please people.” He lowered his voice. “People can be a real pain in the tushee.”
I grinned. “Ya think?”
He grinned back. “Darn tootin’.”
I was packing up my tools when the woman returned. “Oh, what a difference. Isn’t it lovely, Harry?”
“Lovely,” he echoed. “Someone’s coming to visit. I can’t think who…”
While the woman went to the kitchen to get her checkbook, I waited in the living room with the old man. I noticed a table filled with pictures. A photo gallery representing some fifty odd years of living. Weddings. Holidays. Old black and whites of family vacations. One of the photos showed the couple when they were much younger. The old man sat behind the wheel of an Olds convertible. The woman sat in the passenger seat, a red scarf tying back her hair. They were just beginning their journey, then. If she’d known where the road would take them, I wondered, would she still have gone along for the ride? Somehow, I felt like she would.
Looking at that picture, I felt overwhelmed with sadness. I wondered if Tess and I would be together long enough to fill a table with photographs. Not likely, I thought. Married only two years and already we were in the toilet.
I was a mess when Tess came into my life. She was lovely and sweet and I could not believe she actually wanted to go out with me. The seed of two alcoholics, I was already a drug addict by then. Tess was a Christian, and her mission in life was to straighten mine out. Scared and lost, I was happy to turn over the reins. And things got better. I found God. I found my footing. I got a job and we got married. Three years into our relationship, though, she can’t stop trying to fix me. Like an overprotective mother, she can’t let me make my own decisions. And like a spoiled child, I can’t ever seem to say I’m sorry. But there’s one thing I know for certain, my life would be utterly empty without her in it.
“Here you are.” The woman appeared with a check made out to the store for the amount of the job. She handed me a twenty-dollar bill. “You did a lovely job for us. Thank you.”
Back at the store, I took the paperwork into the office. I stowed her check in the safe and recorded my hours on my time sheet. Then I got in my car and headed across town.
Three blocks from Marty’s, I pulled into a mini mart. I put ten dollars in my gas tank. With ten left, I could easily afford to stay out until Tess gave up on me and went to bed.
I took my place in line and waited. Next to the counter there was a rack of fresh flowers. A sign read: Ten dollars. Your choice.
I got to the front of the line and put my twenty on the counter.
“Ten in gas?” the clerk said.
As she rang up my gas, I thought of the old couple, the woman doing her best to honor her vows. For better or for worse. I thought of the cold beer that would be on tap at Marty’s, and weighed it against the lifetime of regret I would have to carry if I let my marriage slip through my fingers. And I knew that if, at the end of the day, I wanted that table full of memories, it was up to me to meet Tess halfway.
Ten dollars. My choice…
“Hang on,” I told the girl. “I grabbed a bouquet of red and white carnations from the rack. “I guess I’ll take these, too.”
I knew that one act of thoughtfulness wasn’t going to fix our problems. I also knew it would be a long, rough road ahead. But more than anything else, I wanted to take that journey. So I prayed.
God, help me to be a better husband. From now on, help me to make each day, each moment count.
Because in the end, it’s the small, shared moments that make up a marriage.
Holding onto that thought, I laid the bouquet on seat beside me and headed home.
© M. Jean Pike, 2012