By Linda Stewart-Oaten
Followed by Q&A
That beat up Chevy stepside wasn’t no classic. Wasn’t no babe magnet, neither, but it’d tell people he was Hank the Handyman. Somebody reliable, who’d show up on time and get ’er done. (Not like the old days). And, damn, if that towbar didn’t say, “Dude? You ever gonna buy that bass boat?” Besides, the repo guy gave him a helluva deal.
His old man always drove Chevys, so Hank knew those engines like they were his own brothers. New set of plugs and she was ready to roll. Or would’ve been, if he hadn’t poked at some flakey paint, exposing rust. Why, in the name of God, couldn’t people spend the money and take the time to use a good quality wax?
After he pounded, scraped and Bondo’d the shit outta some righteous dings, he applied two coats of primer, buffing between each one. Then he gave her three coats of high-gloss white. Man, was there ever anything so beautiful? A clean canvas, pristine as High Sierra snow.
Next, he began the lettering on the doors, surprised by the recovered steadiness in his hands. Maybe he’d paint flames on the front fenders. Nothing too wild. Even as a little kid, he could draw pretty much anything, just like his mom. Flames, the way he’d do ‘em? Hell yeah. But they’d have to wait. It felt almost holy having something to look forward to again.
Miranda didn’t care if her faculty colleagues found her inflexible and humorless. They, who tithed ten percent of their post-modern, deconstructed souls and fell to their knees in frenzied rapture before those upstart pre-fab temples of experimental fiction. She’d wait until the ragtag parade of passing literary fancy marched up the road and over the goddamn cliff. And when those golden calves were revealed to be cast from pot metal, she'd be there, steadfast Keeper of Standards, ready to lead them out of the miasma. Back to structure and clarity. To Iambic pentameter, sonnets, sestinas, villanelles. To stories with beginnings, middles, and, yes, even ends. She’d save them, like it or not.
Couldn’t say she lacked rigor. Could say she was bitchy. (Who wouldn’t be, given recent events?) Could say she was a cliché. Ouch!
She’d met her husband in grad school. He, an assistant professor, slow-waltzing along the slippery bottom of the tenure track. She, plain, serious, never-been-anything’d Miranda, mistook for brilliance the sad Slavic tilt of his eyes. An error compounded by interpreting his hangovers as Byronesque mood swings. Post wedding, she began editing his papers, contributing large, uncredited portions from her own research, slowing her academic progress, but dramatically accelerating his.
Now, what chafes most is "On Vision and Transcendence," her thesis, which he’d wheedled her into letting him publish as his own. This eloquent, revelatory tome won him tenure and cemented his international reputation as the Go-To Guy on the angsty marginalia of transcendentalist poetry.
Post divorce, Miranda moved to a lesser institution, to teach (and await word of his downfall). She daydreamed of the moment when a revered silverback academic would ask the career-killing question, the one which would instantly render Faithless Ex naked, bloody, and quite unable to bullshit his way out. She’d take as proof of Divine Providence should this occur during his guest lecture at Harvard or Oxbridge.
Hank and Miranda
Miranda's cottage was quaint, meaning old and cramped, with geriatric appliances, windows that wouldn’t open and cupboards that wouldn’t close.
One afternoon, while she was grading especially abysmal term papers, the dishwasher gave a metallic cough and began to regurgitate murky water onto the floor. Hitting the off button didn’t staunch the flow. Luckily, Miranda remembered the Budweiser fridge magnet (left by the realtor). Something she’d meant to toss, but hadn’t because it anchored a handyman’s business card.
Twenty minutes later, Hank splashed across her kitchen.
"This," he said, "is why you never want to run your dishwasher when you're not home.”
"I was home,” Miranda said.
Hank crouched to fiddle under the sink until the water stopped. "This here’s your shut off valve. Next time—”
"'Next time?'" Miranda frowned. “Can’t you fix it?” Why, she wondered, were there dachshunds painted on the toes of his boots?
Hank stood and stepped back, staring at the dishwasher, as if he had x-ray vision. "Guess you know she's an old lady?”
“Knew she was old,” Miranda said. “Didn’t know she was a lady.”
Hank laughed. “I’d love to have a whack at ‘er. Say fifty bucks if I can get ‘er done? Zippity doo dah if I can’t.”
An hour later, Hank tucked a check into his wallet and Miranda asked if he knew anything about ceiling fans.
“Show me what you got.”
"I don’t have . . . anything. Yet,” she said. “But I wondered where—”
"Start with Home Depot. Wanna quick look, I’m headed there now. Bring you back, after.”
Miranda, rarely given to spontaneous impulses, surprised herself by following Hank out to his truck. When she saw flames faintly outlined on the fenders, she choked back a laugh and muttered “Retro.”
"She’ll be beautiful, when I’m done,” Hank said. “You’ll see.”
“Can’t wait!” she said, mocking him, and simultaneously hating herself for doing it.
Over the next eight months, he installed ceiling fans and laid new flooring in the kitchen. He replaced a water heater, toilet and bathtub, built bookshelves, grouted countertops, and carpeted her bedroom, living room and hall. He replaced windows, cupboards, closet doors, helped her choose colors, and painted every room.
She wondered if Hank ever worked for anyone else, since he was almost always available whenever she called. Sometimes she wondered if it would be inappropriate to give him a key to her cottage, so he could let himself in to work on projects even if she weren't home. That way, he'd probably finish things twice as fast. A thought not altogether pleasing. What was the rush? She had to admit, she enjoyed having him around. Hank brought a fresh perspective to things. True, he was under-educated. His grammar was atrocious, but he wasn’t stupid. Another plus was that since she'd become so involved with home improvements, she'd given little thought to Faithless Ex. Miranda began to dread the day there’d be nothing more for Hank to fix.
Miranda. Jesus, he loved her name. She was his best customer. He had to make himself turn his phone off during AA meetings, but sometimes when she called, he'd be in the middle of some big job—hot mopping a roof, say—and he'd just stop whatever he was doing and go straight to her place. Then he'd try his damnedest to finish the other job later. Bad for business, pissing people off like that but . . . There was no "but". He liked her and he was sure gonna miss her when the work ran out.
Hank needed to keep busy, so if he had time to kill, he worked on painting his truck. He was using dozens of colors and that fire looked real enough to burn down a house. Might’ve been something in the paint fumes or solvents, but sometimes when he was doing close airbrush work, he got into a hypnotic trance or something, and if he started thinking about her, he'd swear he could actually hear her squeaky little laugh or he'd see details of her face, like that freckle by her bottom lip, or the way her hair curled around her ears or the funny little crease that formed between her eyebrows when he explained how electricity worked. She wasn't exactly pretty. Probably nobody would ever say that. Nobody except him.
He wasn't sure how it happened or when, but he was stricken when he saw the flames reached a lot farther than he'd planned. They stretched past the fenders and spilled onto the doors, where the glowing tips licked through his phone number and the letters that spelled out "Hank the Handyman, Prompt! Safe! Reliable!” He could still read it but he knew what it was supposed to say. What about somebody whipping past on the freeway? What would be the point if they couldn't read it? Out of nowhere—even though he’d been dead for years—came his old man’s wheezy whisper. “What’s the point, Hank? Didn’t plan ahead? Right? Never listen to me, right? Just like your mother.” Hank pulled off his tee-shirt, and blotted his face with it. For the first time in over a year, he thought about going for a drink. “A drink? Can't you ever do anything right?”
His cell phone rang.
At last. Faithless Ex had met his comeuppance. Miranda had expected to be overjoyed, but it was so much worse than she'd dared hope. Poor weak bastard had done a Virginia Woolf in the Thames. (She’d have given extra credit if it’d been the River Ouse).
The funeral would be Saturday. His body was already on a plane, somewhere over the Atlantic. Would she attend the funeral? Definitely. Would she say a few words? No. She'd given him far too many of her words already. She would go to put her anger to rest. Miranda reached for the phone and hit speed dial.
"Hank? Are you busy Saturday afternoon?"
Hank and Miranda
Overcast. Perfect. Miranda opened the door but didn’t recognize him at first.
"Hank?" she said. "You’re wearing a suit. . .”
"Got it for my mom. Her funeral, I mean." He felt a jab of anxiety. Maybe he should’ve brought her some flowers? No! This wasn't like a date. “You look nice, Miranda,” he said.
“You mind driving?” she asked.
“Me? Truck’s a mess. Stuff all over the cab,” he said, ashamed to have her see the botched paint job.
“I don’t care. I’ll pay for gas.”
“Buy my own gas,” he mumbled and walked ahead of her to the truck, yanked open the passenger door and looked away. Miranda pushed the door closed and gaped at the flames.
"How on earth—”
He couldn’t look at her. “Didn’t come out like—”
“Stunning,” Miranda said. He turned and watched her touch part of the flame that ran into his name. "Spectacular.”
"You . . . like it?"
“No. I love it! You’re an artist, Hank.”
By the time they entered the church, a ruddy-faced man was already delivering the eulogy in a lugubrious baritone. The eulogy, devoid of anything personal, was larded with literary quotes about untimely death. Excellent choice, Miranda thought, given the circumstances.
She leaned toward Hank and whispered, "Chair of the English Department. Real asshole. Same spiel he gave at the head janitor's funeral two years ago."
"Expensive casket," Hank said. "Imperial Bronze. Twelve grand, minimum.”
The woman in front of them swiveled around to glare.
Miranda studied the backs of the other mourners' heads. Not a full house. A preponderance of females including, no doubt, at least a token representative (or two) from the legion of seduced and abandoned undergraduates.
Someone sang, and it was over. Everyone stood while the casket was wheeled toward the door. As people filed out, she saw her ex-mother-in-law in a wheelchair, pushed by an usher. As they neared, Miranda stepped into the aisle.
"Hello, Edith," she said, but the old woman gave no sign of recognition. "Remember me?” Nothing. Miranda gave her a peck on the cheek. "Sorry for your loss," she said and stepped aside, surprised by a rush of unexpected tears.
Hank put his arm around her and they waited in the pew until the church was nearly empty before going out to the truck.
“Cemetery?" he asked.
"No. I’d like a drink.”
"Miranda? I’m . . . in recovery, but—”
He nodded and started the engine.
"I'm thinking about knocking out some walls, Hank. Putting in French doors. Maybe a patio?”
"Right. Probably take years."
They waited for a break in the funeral cortege and as the sun broke through the clouds, Hank edged the fiery truck onto the road, and headed in the opposite direction.
Linda Stewart-Oaten is a member of the Wiyot Tribe, Table Bluff Reservation in Northern California. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Kalliope, Eureka Literary Magazine, Barbaric Yawp, The Sun, The Chattahoochee Review, CollectedStories.com, the Santa Barbara Independent and elsewhere. Two of her short plays have been produced in Santa Barbara, where she lives. She’s currently at work on a sprawling novel.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Once or twice a year, I go to a tiny coastal town in central California, for a weeklong writers’ retreat with a group of friends. A couple of years back, I forgot to pack the flash drive containing the project I was working on. In desperation, I took a walk, hoping to think of something—anything!—to write about. And there, parked in front of the Avila Beach deli, was a pick-up truck with astonishing flames painted on the fenders.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why? That would be Wilson's Promontory, a World Heritage site, south of Melbourne, on the southernmost tip of mainland Australia. I first went to The Prom with my Aussie husband, many years ago. In summer, you can surf in the ocean, or hike through a mysterious and spooky banksia forest to a mangrove flat to watch black swans floating in the bay, like giant rubber duckies. If you trek through LillyPilly Gully, you might be lucky enough to spot a koala, high up in a gumtree. (Which makes it almost worth having to pluck leeches from your ankles afterwards). Early in the morning or at dusk you'll hear the raucous call of the kookaburras along the Tidal River. One of my favorite things is to sit on the deck of the rental cabin and wait for the parade of kangaroos, wombats and emus. There's no other place on earth like the Prom.
Q: PC, or Mac?
A: I've never used anything but a PC. (Strong conviction, weakly held.)
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: The seed of my stories is usually an image of a character at an emotional crossroad. Some are inspired by people I've noticed in real life; say, a teary drunk in the 9AM checkout line at the grocery store. Others--an old lady, skinny dipping in a muddy pond at midnight, or a shoe salesman who looks like Santa Claus--just seem to materialize out of the ether. I never know at the outset where a story will go or how it will end but if I entice the characters to stay awhile and give them room to breathe, they'll answer my questions and tell me their secrets. Discovering those secrets is what I love best about writing.