Henry was a ruggedly handsome, silver-haired, and stunning older gentleman. He was probably pushing the long side of seventy. Something just over six-feet tall, maybe six-feet and two or so inches. Not at all stooped by his years, he was blessed with a physique suggesting he enjoyed good hard work and still dabbled in it seriously now and again. Despite his age and his admirable fifty-odd year love affair with his wife, Henry was a lady-killer. Not just the older, widowed ladies. No, his female admirers included boldly brazen, and a few not-so-brazen happily married women over fifty. To be quite honest, I must admit I’ll never understand exactly why, but Henry had an uncountable following of women from their late twenties through their forties too. I never gave it much thought, but he had this effect on all women. Drop-dead-beautiful, eye-popping-good-looking women were just as much held by his charms as women, um, less stunning. It might have had something to do with the way he treated women. To fully appreciate Henry’s mystique, you must know he had an eye for really beautiful women but accorded them no more time or genuine interest and respect than he did, pardon the stereotype, a beyond full-figured, salt-and-pepper-haired spinster librarian. I’ve seen more than several women all but swoon dead-away after a short conversation with Henry. I’m not sure Henry was aware of the power he had over any female. I suspect not.
I’d known Henry some twenty-five years or so. He regularly dropped by my hardware store to pick up the odd bolt, plumbing repair part, gallon or two of custom-tinted paint or what-have-you. He came in almost weekly. Often, as males do, just to browse the latest tools on the market. If I’d have been Jean Cassante at her gathering-place diner downtown, I’d probably have fantasized Henry popped-in to see me instead of stopping in to grab a relaxed cup of coffee. Coffee he took black, with just a smidge of cream and a small square of Jean’s homemade carrot cake. Swapping local news bits and arguing politics over a few cups of coffee shared with whoever else from town happened-in at the same time was also a regular part of Henry’s social pattern. Henry and his wife Marianne were a comfortable part of local life.
I have no idea what Henry did before he retired – if in fact he was retired – but he was either handy around his house or was preparing to open his own hardware store on his side of town with all he bought at my place. No, that’s unfair, Henry and Marianne’s place was always picture-perfect – the gardens abundant and stunning, attesting to Marianne’s skill as a gardener, and the house itself, credit to Henry, always looking just-painted and ready for a photo-shoot for the next issue of “My Home Is Beautiful!”
Marianne herself was the kind of woman who made it easy to understand Henry’s fidelity. As much as Henry wowed the ladies, Marianne had a similar, though more subtle effect on the local men. She was slim, athletic, and took care of herself as well as she did her gardens. Unless it was Sunday or there was a formal celebration in town, she dressed modestly but with unpretentious elegance some women just do naturally. Dressed to work in her gardens or for a grocery trip into town, she exuded undertones of sensuality some women never master. When it was time to dress ‘to the nines’ for a town affair, or for their now-and-again trips into the big city one hundred miles south of town, she was more than just second-look stunning and unless you knew her, you’d never, never have been able to guess her age. Come to think of it, until a little while ago, I never knew her age myself.
Henry and Marianne were timeless. Together, they were unpretentious, polite society hereabouts. Not the most well-to-do or the most politically connected in town, they were just an expected and comfortable part of our local character. Chancing to meet either alone, you could not help but be charmed. Meeting them together, no matter how well you knew them or how often you saw them, you were comfortable, yet all the while held captive by their charisma. This was true here in town and I suspect probably wherever they went and whatever they did.
A little over a year ago, Henry came into the store seeming a bit distracted. Sad or worried, it appeared, maybe, but at the time, I thought simply distracted. Neither Henry nor I the bashful type, it came out in our conversation that Henry was concerned for Marianne’s health. She’d been tired more than normal. Henry had gone with her to Doc Wilbur and on the Doc’s advice, had asked for an appointment with a cardiologist in the city. Henry did let me know they kept the appointment. I never pushed for details, and Henry never offered. There are easy, unwritten rules for living in a small town like ours, and for the moment, this wasn’t supposed to be part of any casual conversation. Henry left with a quart of oil-based Walnut stain for the bookcase he was “building into the wall opposite the fireplace in the den.”
For the next several months, Henry’s visits to the store dropped off. Each time he came in, it seemed the store was just busy enough that I was off helping another customer pick the right shade of lime green for the kitchen, or a new float valve for the powder room toilet. One of my high school co-op kids would take care of Henry. From a distance, I noticed Henry still seemed taller than his six feet, that he still bantered with the clerks and his silver hair was still rakishly unkempt. Yet there was an air of impatience or sadness about him. I guessed it was Marianne.
Sadly, I was right. Marianne died of a brain cancer one Wednesday afternoon. Nothing at all to do, as it turned out, with her heart. I remember because I drove by Henry and Marianne’s place headed to the vet with my mongrel Shantsy and the yard seemed sad. I’m not one of those ESP-types, but the feeling I got as I drove by that afternoon was “sad.” I can’t explain it. The gardens were colorful, perfectly and stylishly irregular and well-coordinated. The house was bright and neat as a pin, but it was sad, nonetheless. My wife, Veronica, gave me the news just before dinner that evening. Marianne lost the battle she and Henry knew she couldn’t win. They’d known since their trip to the city cardiologist and on his recommendation, several trips to a respected oncologist. No one else knew. It was their private battle.
I believe everyone in town came to Marianne’s funeral. They came for Marianne. A great number of them surely felt a loss as large, though different from Henry’s. Everyone – everyone – also came to support Henry – though truth be known, not a damned one of us knew just how on God’s earth we were going to help Henry. Henry must have cried himself out before the funeral. Probably softly after seeing Marianne comfortably asleep at night while together they battled. Later violently and horribly alone after she died but before the ordeal and finality of giving her remains to custom and leaving her soul to her God alone. At the graveside service Henry was lost but stoic. It was there I learned, from the little pamphlet they print that puts someone’s life down in two miniscule pages – and I still cannot believe it – that Marianne was sixty-six years old.
I didn’t see Henry on his weekly or semi-weekly hardware runs after the funeral for a long time. I’d pass by Henry’s place – I still considered it Henry and Marianne’s place, though he now managed by himself – and it looked the same as before. It was kept-up and colorful, perfectly laid-out and ready for the photo shoot that still hadn’t yet happened. But, you know, there was still that sad feeling about the place. I’ve tried to work it out for myself if it felt sad because I knew it was sad, or because it really was sad.
One sunny October Saturday the store was quiet as it gets now and again when college football is on television in the afternoon. This was maybe three months after Marianne’s funeral. I had my nose stuck in a nuts-and-bolts restocking catalog. We hardware guys are funny that way. I don’t know why but I suddenly just looked up from my browsing. It would make a better story if I could say “I suddenly felt a presence” or “a shadow fell over the pages of my catalog,” but there was no real reason – I just looked up. Henry was standing in front of me at the counter.
“Afternoon, Henry,” I said. “Something special today?” I wanted to ask how he was getting along but thought it still too early to ask something that would, or could, make him rethink painful events one more time.
He cleared his throat. That was something I don’t recall him ever doing before – clearing his throat, I mean. Henry was always perfect. There is no rule I’m aware of that says you can’t be old and still be perfect. Clearing his throat suggested a flaw, a weakness, or an embarrassment. For Henry, anyway.
“I need a hinge. One of the old-fashioned ones. For the back-garden gate. The gate on the path leading from the roses into the herb garden. If you don’t have it, I guess I’ll have to make one.”
“Have you tried the chain hardware stores out near the mall?” I said.
“Nah. They have the new stuff. I’m looking for one of the good old-fashioned hinges.”
“Henry, we can take a look, but I don’t think we’re gonna find what you want over in the bins.”
“I think I know this place almost as well as you do Daniel. Unless you’ve got something in the back.”
“No. Don’t think so. Why not replace both hinges?”
“Won’t do. Marianne’s been on me, was on me for years, to replace the one hinge. Something I gotta do and I gotta do it like she wanted it.”
“You want the old hammered pin, square-triangle type, right?”
“Right. Three inches on the square and three inches long on the triangle. In galvanized finish. See that’s the difference between here and the new places. At the new places they’ve got good hardware, but it’s all ‘new.’”
“Sorry, Henry. It’s been years since I’ve carried something like that.”
“Guess I’ll go make one.”
“Can’t repair the old one?” I asked helpfully.
“No. When I took it off, the rust underneath was too far along.”
“Making one is gonna be kinda tough, especially with the galvanized finish.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
We both, and I do mean both of us, had wandered over to the aisle of cabinets with hinges, hasps, and odd cabinetry hardware. I pulled open one of the narrow bottom drawers. The drawer everyone closed right after they opened it because the items in it, while top-of-the-line and functional, were embarrassingly pricey. I picked up a beautiful pair of matt-finished brass hinges – rectangle and triangle style. (Only a hardware guy would think a hinge “beautiful.”)
“Here,” I offered, “Marianne would really like these. Top-of-the-line. Quality and understated but undeniable class.”
“Yes. Marianne will like these. How much?”
I let his slip pass without comment. “For these, no charge. These are for Marianne.”
Henry blinked. I saw a tear begin to well-up. I said nothing. Still not the right time.
“Thank you,” Henry said, looking me squarely in the eyes. Looking through my eyes actually, reading my thoughts. There was just a second or two of hesitation. He nodded just short of imperceptibly to me as if I’d discovered and given him a truth. He looked at the heavy solid brass as he turned the hinges over in his calloused hands, assessing their worthiness. He continued, “Thanks,” and with those hinges in hand, turned and with the strength of a man with a purpose, quietly left my store.
Two days later, rummaging around in some old crates in the basement of the store, believe it or not, I came across some old ‘retired’ hardware. Turnbuckles, accordion hinges, brass box corners, and lo and behold, two still-pristine, three-inch, square-and-triangle, hammered-pin, galvanized-finished hinges. Perfect!
Half an hour later, my co-op, a young acne-plagued Vocational-Ed kid, quick as a rabbit and good, and I do mean good, with his hands and head in DIY-things, and better with customers, arrived to begin his until-closing shift.
“You’re on your own for a bit,” I said to him, “I have an errand to run.”
“Time. Learn to be the boss. Same as always – you help the customer figure out what he can’t by himself. Give him confidence to do the things he’s already figured-out. Sometimes, just let him talk his way through it.”
“Well, golly! Sure, I can do that!” He smiled a face-splitting smile and stood taller.
I turned to walk off to start my errand. Recognizing another thought that had suddenly matured after a week or two of being kicked around in my skull, I stopped and turned back to face the lad. “When I get back you and I need to talk about your working here more than part-time too. No more co-op stuff. Regular pay.”
“Sure! I mean, yes! I can do that! Wow! You bet!” Not suggesting the lad was excited or anything. But I was. And yeah, I should have done that months ago.
I left the store in the care of my capable and excited soon-to-be associate. Couldn’t help but notice it was a marvelous early fall day as I walked out the back door of the store, climbed into my old Ford pickup, tossed the retro hinges onto the seat on the passenger side, and headed across town to Henry and Marianne’s place. I mean to Henry’s place. Streets of town on the way were lined with sundry maples, aspens and gums, all vying for top prize in the autumn show. Here and there, a family ignored the football games and took in the air and color while raking leaves. My truck window down, I breathed-in the crisp air and lost myself in the sights of the drive, nearly missing Henry’s place.
I pulled into the cobblestone driveway. The yard was bright, lively, and perfect. The house stood tall and proud, equally perfect. Together, the gardens and the house worked in concert and seemed to smile at me. The photo shoot would be today. It had to be. It was all too perfect. Someone would miss a great opportunity if it didn’t. I got out of the truck, almost forgetting the hinges on the passenger side until I saw them as I started to slam the door. Spellbound by the house, I suppose. It didn’t seem at all ‘sad.’ I leaned across the seat and grabbed the hinges.
“Henry!” I yelled toward the back of the house.
“Henry! Hey Henry! It’s Daniel from the hardware store. I got your hinges!”
Still no answer. I walked around the side of the house. Marianne’s flowers put fine perfumes to shame. Over all the others – the late Jasmine, the vary late gardenia – all of them, was the smooth, easy, natural sweet perfume of roses. Red roses. Yellow roses. Pink roses. White. Orange. One such a deep, dark, bloody red it seemed, I swear, blue! Every last one of them in defiance of the calendar; Marianne was indeed some kind of gardener! White gravel crunched underfoot as I walked the path around to the center of the back yard. I could see the chest-high picket fence, neat and perfect – as if one could expect anything else – dividing the land of insanely blooming flowers from the land of herbs and spices. An absolutely magnificent cedar gazebo stood smack in the center of that herbal menagerie.
There, right in front of me, was the gate. Two heavy, new but old-style, matte-finished, brass hinges looking for all the world like they’d been there forever. I opened the gate – it functioned flawlessly, swung smoothly and silently open. As I turned to close it, to keep the roses out, I suppose, I was ambushed by the aromas of herbs. A profusion of new smells tickled my nose. So many, yet every single one holding its own separate identity – identities I could only guess. Sage, basil, dill, tarragon, oregano, chive, rosemary, and mints of several varieties – some I’d tasted and then smelled but couldn’t and still can’t name.
Turning back toward the gazebo from the gate and looking up, I noticed Henry on the far side, seated on the bench that served as both seating and railing around the deck perimeter. Directly ahead of me was a gap in the railing where five steps led up from the path to the deck. Opposite the stairs was another opening in the railing, which I assumed accommodated steps leading back down to more path headed to who-knows-where. Henry was to the left of the rear opening, in the shadow of the gazebo, his arms stretched out to either side along the top rail of the bench. His head sagged slightly to his chest. At the time I supposed I’d interrupted a moment of prayer. Or maybe a moment of meditation. If it’d been me, I’d have been working through anger with God over being left alone. Knowing Henry, he was more likely lost in thankfulness for the years he’d been given.
I walked up the steps and announced myself again as I hit the top step and stepped into the shaded shelter of the deck.
“Henry?” I asked softly.
Henry did not respond. I lightly crossed the several feet of deck to where he sat, touched his right shoulder, and repeated myself.
In the cool, fragrant air, Henry did not answer.
(c) S P Wilcenski 2009