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The Hardware Store
As soon as I walked into the hardware store, the smell of sawdust blasting my senses, I remembered all the times he would bring me here as a little girl whenever the "dag-flamming refrigerator light" went out or when the "blasting pickle-biting furnace" started smelling fishy. I have many fond memories of this place. My dad would take me here almost every time I got to see him after the divorce. I was glad his post-marriage home was a fifty year old house that always had something breaking or falling off it. It meant more visits to the hardware store.
The hardware store is probably the last ma-and-pa shop left in the country. Everyone that works here is related, at least I've always imagined them being. I'm fairly sure they've been working here their whole life, the same overall-clad man sweeps the floors since I was a child, and the same nice blue-haired lady manned the cash register for twenty years, until her retirement three years ago.
As soon as I inhaled enough of the powerful, yet inviting scent that it went away with familiarity, I passed the place where they sold 1950's- mismatched appliances to the shelves where they kept the air conditioning things for all of your air conditioning needs.
A forty- or fifty-something year old man with overalls, a baseball cap, and yellow teeth accompanied by a welcoming smile stood near the aisle. As soon as I approached, he offered a “May I help ya, miss?” His southern accent made this greeting all one word.
“Well, when ya decide what cha need, I’ll get it down far ya,” he said, even though he was no more than an inch taller than me. I smiled and told him my air conditioning vent needs, and after three tries and a lot of words of advice about air conditioning and life, he soon selected the perfect vent.
“Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.”
“You sure do talk funny,” he said, regarding my accent. “Y’all ain’t from here, are ya?”
“I am from here, but I moved to Chicago ten years ago.”
He chuckled an old man chuckle. “Why would you move away from North Carolina?”
“Work.” I said, laughing. I then wished him a good day and walked over to the small refrigerator in the far corner of the store. It was filled with Coke-a-cola in twelve ounce bottles, all for sixty-nine cents. As a kid, these were my salvation. My father would always but me one. I convinced myself I would only get one if I was ‘good’, but I was never misbehaved to test my hypothesis. Now, when I come home occasionally and visit the hardware store, I buy them partly for the nostalgia, but mostly because from the angle and placement of the petite refrigerator, I can watch Richie.
Richie is the cashier at the hardware store. He’s new, and about my age. The first time I saw him was about three years ago – the lady who was the cashier was training him on account of her retirement. He might be related to her, or is just some stranger welcomed into the tightly knitted family that is the hardware store. The funny thing is, for the number of years I’ve come to this store – almost monthly as a child, and at least three times a year since I moved to Chicago – I’ve never known any of the owner’s or employees’ names, or even the store’s name, if it has one. Its exterior has a white faded sign that maybe once held a name. I’ve just always called it the hardware store, because that’s what my dad called it. But Richie, the new soul – I know everything about him. Every time I come here, I always talk to him for at least an hour. He went to Duke University on a scholarship. He went for four years, but then had to ‘take time off’ for a while to make more money when the scholarship ran out. He’s using the money from this job to go back sometime, and become a pediatrician. His little sister has cancer, and his mother makes the best can of peaches outside of Georgia. He always dresses neatly, and has brown floppy hair, brown eyes with starbursts of green, and a smile that makes the corners of his mouth crease into wrinkles. Even though I love the hardware store without him, he’s the reason I keep coming back.
“Hey, Danni!” He had spotted me staring, and I could see the corners of his mouth crease up even from far away. “Why don’t you stop staring and get over here!” He said, while taking the hand not leaning on the counter and beckoning with a large animated gesture.
“Sorry for staring. I was trying to remember who you are.” I started.
“Funny, Dr. Miller. You are a funny one.”
“Well, I tried being a funny two, but it didn’t turn out well.” Our banter had began, the banter that got me through judgments and ridicule seeing my family brought (A paleontologist isn’t a real doctor! Why couldn’t you have done something useful!) and got me through excruciating plane rides that have always resulted in panic attacks. But, surprisingly, he had no witty comeback.
“So, why has it been three months since I’ve seen you?”
This took me slightly by surprise. “Well, I’ve been busy at the museum. New bones and stuff.”
“Oh.” That’s all he said. Oh. Being the OCD mind I am, I immediately overanalyzed this oh. It wasn’t just an oh you say when you don’t know what to say. It wasn’t cheery in anyway; not sad, regretful, or even melancholy. Just…oh. He looked at my vent and bottled Coke and rang up my purchase.
“So, what have you been up too?” I offered.
“Well, I started a second job.”
“I thought you were full time.”
“I am. But nine hours a day wasn’t enough.”
“Where else are you working?”
“Ray’s Diner, up on Union. It’s 24 hours, and I got a part time mopping floors for five hours at night.”
“That’s fourteen hours a day.”
“I took math in high school. What have you been up too?”
“Working six hours a day.”
“Funny. You know, I saw something on the news about dinosaurs,” he continued talking, and I realized how much I’ve missed this guy. I’m also just noticing that usually, I can’t stand southern ‘twang’ prominent in these regions, but his slight accent I don’t mind. I love hearing him talk.
We began our talk, our famous joust of words, talking about dinosaurs, mutual television interests, and shared humorous anecdotes of our lives in two very different cities. After one of his stories ended in uncontrollable laughter on both ends, he suddenly shifted emotions and looked at me seriously.
“This is killing me.”
This startled me. “What?”
“This job. This town. I’m never going to be a doctor.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not. I haven’t been to school in years. I can’t afford it. No matter how long I work these long hours at these meaningless jobs, I’ll never get enough money to go back to college. Look, I’m thirty, and I’m still working at a cash register! I’m going to work here my whole life and not help anybody. All my life, I’ve watched my little sister go in and out of doctors, and no one can help her. And no matter how hard I try, I can’t cure her.”
“It’s not your job to cure her.”
“Her kidneys are failing. They gave her six months last week.”
“Oh my gosh.” There was a long silence. He had never told me anything like this before. I had no clue what to say. I’ve never been able to help people when they’re sad, depressed, upset, or even slightly inconvenienced. I didn’t know what to say. After a century of silence, he started talking again.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to dump this on you.”
“No, it’s fine. You can talk to me. Anytime.”
“You’re not here every time.” He gave one of his famous half-smiles.
I smiled too. “Sorry about that.”
“No, it’s fine. I’m glad you’re not here. I’m glad you’re in Chicago, living your dream.”
“Yes, but dusting and labeling dinosaur bones doesn’t cure diseases.”
“But dinosaur bones make people smile.”
“So do you.” I gave a giant cheesy animated smile that, when he laughed, melted into a sincere one.
“Do you maybe want to get dinner tonight?” he asked.
“Of course.” I smiled the biggest smile I’ve even mustered in my life.
He then frowned. “Oh, wait, I can’t tonight. I’m going out to dinner with my girlfriend. It’s our six month anniversary.”
“Oh.” I didn’t understand this oh either, even though it was my own.
“But,” he said, possibly noticing my disappointment, “we could always get together some other time.”
“Yeah, yeah we could.” I said, with my less-famous version of the half-smile.
“How about tomorrow night?”
“I’m flying out tomorrow morning.”
“Oh.” He said. The third oh left unresolved.
“You’d like her.” He said, I guess to ward off the awkward silence.
“My girlfriend. Linda. You’d like her. She’s a chiropractor.”
“That’s nice.” That’s not even a real doctor. I’m more of a medical doctor than she is. “Well, I’d better go.”
“Aww, why?” he said in a faux little-kid voice. I couldn’t help but smile.
“I have to get home so my family can criticize the fact that I’m thirty-two, single, and make more money than them by being a nerd instead of, quote, ‘working’.”
Richie laughed. “Have fun with that. Your total is twenty-six fifty.”
I had forgotten about my Coke and vent purchase. I paid, then had an idea. “Hey, how much do you have saved up to go back to school?”
“Not enough.” He said with a sigh.
“How much do you need?” I said, still lingering on my checkbook.
“I don’t know, I guess about…no. No. No no, no, no.”
“Just let me give you some money.”
“Thou shalt not giveth thy money away!”
“Look, I make more money at the museum than I can ever use. Let me help you out!”
“Why would you do that!”
“Because I want to see your dream come true!” Our voices had risen to screaming, but after that, all was quiet. “Look,” I said, almost in a whisper, “here’s two thousand dollars. It’s not a lot in college terms, but at least it’ll pay for some books or something.” I wrote a check, folded it, leaned over, and put it in his shirt pocket. He smelled good. He reached out and put his hand on top of mine.
“Thank you.” He said, the most sincere and heart-filled thank you I’ve ever received in my life.
“Good luck.” I said.
“You too.” He said. He removed his hand from mine. We said our goodbyes. I grabbed the Coke and the vent and turned to leave, but he stepped out from the counter and hugged me. “Thank you. For everything. I…” He sighed. “Everything.”
“Thank you.” I said, and I’m not sure what I meant by it, but I meant it.
He released me, and I walked toward the door. I thought about the hardware store, Richie, bottled Cokes, all of these things that seem to be the only reason I come home. Richie and I, we’re somehow strangers, yet best friends. He’s like a television show, I come home and see him just to forget my troubles. He always laughs at my jokes, supplies reasons for laughter, smiles when I smile and frowns when I frown. And the hardware store, even though it’s never had a name, it’s always had an identity. And I have at least ten air conditioning vents I don’t need.