An idyllic summer afternoon, a loving father and an axe.
Saturday, June 1st, 1pm. I can tell because I could hear the siren. One of the rites of summer. The first Saturday of every month the old civil defense siren goes off, kind of like “this is a test, this is only a test”. I don’t know if it happens in other parts of the country, but here in Silverton, Michigan, that old siren blows precisely at 1pm. I remember hearing it when I was a kid and thinking ‘I have the whole summer ahead of me’. I hear it now and think ‘I have four hours before we have to get to St. Mark’s for evening mass’. I kind of feel that Saturday mass is like cheating, but it gives us the full day off on Sunday and lets us sleep in a little later.
Been up since eight. Grass is cut, screen doors are in, weeds are pulled and life is fine. Something almost Norman Rockwellesque about this day. Every other backyard has a dad on a hammock, taking a break from the weekly chores of grass cutting, weed pulling and screen door installation. Children here and there are in their inflatable pools, big brothers splashing little sisters. That scenario is no different at my homestead. Work is done, I have a couple of hours before getting ready for mass and I was going to make the most of it. The hammock was my present from Susan, the inflatable pool the kid’s present from us and this wonderful Saturday afternoon our present from God.
I see my hammock time disappear as Josh and Jenny (big brother and little sister, but only by ten minutes) comes running up to me. Hammock time becomes tire swing time. Being only six, the twins can both fit on the swing at the same time. Starting slowly, letting them get used to the motion, I push them back and forth, increasing the effort with each pass until I can run under the swing while yelling “UNDERDOG”. This causes uncontrollable giggles from the kids. Next I spin them. Faster and faster until Josh yells “Daddy stop. It makes my penis tickle”. This causes uncontrollable giggles from me. God I love my family.
Later that afternoon I hear another sound, another rite of summer. When I heard this as a kid, I would run to my dad and ask for a quarter then run to the curb and wait. I would hear it when it was at the corner of the street and, depending on how many other children stood at the curb holding their quarters, it might take a good twenty minutes before that calliope music making wonder full of frozen confectionery concoctions would stop at the curb in front of my house, take my quarter and give me back a double bomb pop in return. Josh and Jenny run to me and ask for a dollar. Apiece. Inflation. They run off to the curb and I yell to them, “Wait until it stops before you leave the curb”.
A voice behind me seductively purrs “Will you be my Daddy?” I turn and see Susan, short shorts, tank top and gardening hat, looking sexier than any woman in every man’s dream. Just as I think to myself that life couldn’t get any better, she holds out an ice cold beer. “Come in the house”, she says. “I’ve made you a sandwich”. Absolute nirvana.
At the kitchen table, I am dividing my attention between Susan’s questions, my BLT and the two munchkins I can see through the picture window. Silverton is a great little town with nary an incident regarding child endangerment in the three and a half decades I’ve lived here, but you have to be careful regardless of where you live.
“So, Cindy Davis called this morning and wanted to know if we wanted to come over for cards after church. I told her I would check with you. So, what do you think?”
“That would be great”, I say. “We haven’t been over there in a while.” Although I am talking to Susan, my eyes are on the kids. I can hear the music getting louder as the ice cream truck approaches. The kids are anxiously looking down the street, holding hands. “What do you want to do about dinner tonight?” I get up and go to the fridge. I bring us both another beer, sit down and glance out of the picture window. There is no one at the curb. The kids are gone. I jump up and run to the front door, pushing open the screen just as the back door bangs open. I turn around and see a crestfallen Josh and Jenny, still holding hands.
“What’s the matter, kiddos?” I expected them to be fudgesicle smeared and happy. Josh gives me back the money, disappointed.
“It wasn’t the ice cream man, Daddy. It was just some old man in a funny car. He stopped down the street and Mr. Davis was talking to him.”
“Come on and sit down”, I say to them. “There are some popsicles left in the freezer. “Red, green or purple?” Before they have a chance to answer me, an amplified voice began to challenge the music.
“Bring out your dull knives, clippers, lawn mower blades. Anything dull, I can sharpen. Give it a brand new cutting edge. Gimme your shears and scissors. Make ‘em like new.”
I glance towards the picture window just as the old man in the funny car is passing our house. The first words that come to mind are ‘transient’ and ‘gypsy’, but also ‘impoverished’ and ‘indigent’. Now, we aren’t wealthy by anyone’s standards, but we try to give back. A little to Purple Heart here, a little to Salvation Army there. So it’s my nature to help and here is this old guy trying to add to what was probably a very meager existence while offering a service, not just asking for a handout. I am struck by empathy and know I have to do something.
I run to the garage, searching for something that needed sharpening. We don’t use clippers anymore and I don’t think that a weed whip needed honing. The lawnmower is brand new and the pruning shears are busted. There has to be something. Just as I am leaving the garage, feeling that I have forced the old man to continue some nauseating, dumpster diet, I glance up and spy the dullest axe in the history of wood chopping. I grab it off the hook it is suspended from and sprint out of the garage. I must look like a fool, a madman, running down the street with an axe, screaming “Stop! Stop!”.
The old man isn’t aware of my presence until we are half way down the block. When I finally get his attention, he twists his body in the seat to get a look at me. His determined, grim expression breaks into a wide grin. He is old, and his smile doesn’t improve his appearance. Yellowed stumps, crooked and blackening, poke out from his gums. Obviously, a dentist visit had not been in this guy’s recent past. He struggles out of the driver’s seat, turns around and faces me. He is extremely thin, almost emaciated. His thinness emphasizes his badly curved spine. His skin has a gray, ashen tone that accentuates the coarse white stubble on his cheeks, chin and neck. Even though it is eighty degrees outside, he is wearing a short sleeved flannel shirt and old tan chinos. With gnarled, nicotine stained fingers, he removes the baseball cap that sits atop his head, revealing short cropped hair the color of rain soaked cement. His eyes are rheumy and his nose is a bright red mountain covered by fine, scarlet rivers of veins. He stinks of body odor and cigarette smoke.
If the old man’s appearance isn’t a strange enough site, his ‘funny car’ is something that would have made Salvador Dali proud. It isn’t a car at all, but an old golf cart that had certainly seen better days. At one time during its post golf career, it had been painted green. . .and yellow. . .and blue. . .and orange. It is now a shade of, well I guess you could call it red, with all of the previous colors showing through at various places of the cart's external anatomy, along with rust. On the back of the cart is an old lawn mower engine with a series of interconnected, twisted and convoluted belts and pulleys that both power the cart and end at twin grinding wheels on the side of the cart. Hand painted under the grinding wheels is “TYRUS KING – MASTER SHARPENER” in a surprisingly neat, printed manner.
“Afternoon, Sonny”, he says. “What’s thatcha got there?” I am holding the axe behind my back, like I was hiding a gift. I bring it out, laying it horizontal in both hands as though I am presenting a ceremonial sword to a samurai warrior. “Ah, yer granpappy’s woodchopper”, he says. He awkwardly takes the axe from me, the arthritis in his hands obvious.
How does he know that? The axe had been my grandfather’s. It was one of the items that Grandma let me pick out of the shed after Grandpa passed on, but how could this old coot know that? On second thought, the blade is badly chipped and rusted, the oak handle is cracked and weather-beaten and, in essence, the thing just reeks of antiquity. Saying it was Grandpa’s is just a good guess.
“Got yerself a dull axe there, sonny. Give me a minute and I’ll make it good as new. Give it a brand new cuttin’ edge.”
“What do you charge for sharpening something like this”, I ask, hoping it will be a lot less than what I can pick up a new one for at the nearest hardware store.
“Well, I’ll tell ya. Thing’s in pretty bad shape. Chips in the blade are kinda deep”, he says, as he slides his left thumb down the length of the axe blade. I could sense the line coming on now, appealing to my sympathies. He thinks he already has me hook, line and sinker. I prepare to bicker on the amount, a habit I picked up while doing the garage sale rounds with Susan, master of negotiation. “How’s two bucks sound to ya?”
I put my hand in my pocket, feeling the two dollars that has so recently been in the possession of the kids. Doesn’t feel right. This was their ice cream money. Josh and Jenny money. I slowly nod and say “Deal”. He grins again, and my mouth goes dry.
I follow him as he limps towards the back of the cart, where the engine is. He takes a length of red and white braided nylon cord and winds it around the starter. The recoil starter has long since stopped working and he must wind it for each of his feeble attempts to start the engine. He interjects his attempts with trite but friendly conversation:
PULL THE CORD
“How’ya like this weather?”
PULL THE CORD
“Hot ‘nough for ya?”
PULL THE CORD
“Oh yea”, I answer. “Hot as hell”, I say, out of character.
“Sonny, it ain’t even close.”
PULL THE CORD
“You been sharpening for long?”
“How’s eternity sound to ya, sonny. Look, my ‘thritis is really bad today. I can’t seem to get this old thing started. Give this damn engine a yank, will ya? I can sharpen it, but you have to start the engine.”
He hands me the cord and I wrap it around the starter and pull. It bursts into life on the first try.
The entire cart begins to shake and billowing clouds of blue/gray smoke envelope the old man. “Happens all the time”, he says between coughs and gagging noises. “Been meanin’ to get me a new engine for ages, but I never seem to get around to it. Too busy, I guess”. He picks up the axe from where he had it leaning against the cart. “When I’m done with this here axe I promise, no I guarantee that it’ll chop through anything, absolutely anything”. He flicks a switch on the back of the cart and the pulleys begin spinning, the belts between flapping, almost ready to fly off. He pulls a lever, turns a dial. I think of Rube Goldberg and the Mouse Trap game I’ve been playing with the kids. Seems like a lot of work just to get a grinding wheel going. Finally, he says to me, “Flip that switch on the grinder over there, will ya? I can grind it, but you have to start it up”. I flip the switch, step back and watch him.
He touches the axe head to the wheel, sending up showers of sparks. Fourth of July at the beginning of June. Diamonds defying gravity, only to vanish at their journey's apogee. He starts out slow, merely an old man sharpening an axe. Then things begin to alter. That is the only way I can put it. Not change shape or anything like that, just alter. The more I watch the stranger things become. He is going faster now, the blue/gray smoke surrounding him, hands flying under the grinding wheels. Peripheral vision disappears. A vignette in black and white (blue/gray). Hands moving so fast. Old movie skipping every third frame. I am entranced. Subconsciously held captive. Mesmerized. Frightened.
Still an old man sharpening an axe, but more than that, much more. Darker outside. Darker sky, darker mood. Depraved, malevolent. I want to tell him to stop, that I don’t care if the axe is sharp or not, but I don’t. Too late.
“Be done in a minute”, he says in an overly cheerful tone. “Good as new”. He speaks in the tones of an actor performing a role. . .not a good actor. One who had played the part too many times and for too long. Bored with it. Tired of it.
Things slowly begin to fall into place. Although I am trying to fight it and deny my participation, everything is becoming clear. Fear is gone, replaced by a sense of great expectancy, of having a duty to fulfill. Fate.
Suddenly, the sparks stop flying and the comforting grinding noise ceases. My vision comes back in a flash of color. The engine stops and he is standing in front of me with that damned grin, axe in hand, whistling some long forgotten melody. He wipes the axe blade on his chinos, wiping off the grinding dust. He runs his left thumb along the length of the blade, pressing down. Hard. The skin on his thumb splits down to the bone, a red rivulet of blood encircling the base of his thumb and running down the length of his arm, streaming off when it reaches his elbow. “This took an edge better than most I’ve done over the years”, he says. “Like I said, there ain’t nothing this won’t chop through”. He picks up a rust colored towel from the back of the cart. Small patches of white show through on the towel. The towel is covered with dried blood, the accumulation of his unique method of testing his handiwork. He wipes the blood off his arm and sticks his thumb in his mouth, sucking greedily.
He extends his arm towards me, as if to put it around me in a fatherly embrace. “Come take your axe, boy. And forget the two bucks. It was my pleasure.” He hands me the axe, blade gleaming in the sunlight. He held to his promise. Good as new. Even the handle is highly polished and warm, almost hot to the touch. I spin my weapon in my hand, feeling its heft and balance. I swing it overhead in an arc, bringing me a feeling of excitement, anticipation, determination. Power.
The old man nimbly trots back to the back of the cart, wraps the starter cord around the engine and pulls. It starts immediately. Like an imp, he jumps back into the seat and drives on, taking him to the next leg of his endless journey.
I turn toward home, feeling vibrant and alive. Excited. As I reach my house, I see Bill Davis a few houses down. He is standing on his porch holding a gleaming pair of gardening shears. As I reach my driveway, he looks at me then enters his house.
Walking up my driveway, the old man’s promise comes back to me, echoing in my mind:
The axe feels so good in my hands
THAT IT WILL
I am praying for my family
CHOP THROUGH ANYTHING
We will never make it to the late mass