The Handy Man

Tim Wendel

Mike Cleary eased his Chevy van off the busy main road and back into her old neighborhood. A low rumble came from the vehicle’s underbelly. That muffler would have to be replaced soon and the way the dark-blue van shimmied coming out of that last turn, allowing the tools to shift position on the wooden shelves in back, Cleary knew the shocks were about shot, too.

The first of the leaves had started to turn. It had been a cool summer, making way for an early fall. He hadn’t been back here in fifteen years. Not since he and Martha returned to northern Michigan to be closer to Daniel, their oldest. Danny had become a minister in Grayling. Only a few hours from Traverse City, where the two of them had grown up. It seemed too perfect not to move from Ann Arbor, back closer to home. After all, Cleary was a handy man. He could find work anywhere.

Cleary still knew the way, following Rainer Place almost all the way to the end of the subdivision, turning left onto her street, Chamberlain Court. He drove past her house, a split-level colonial, with no cars in the driveway. At the end of the cul-de-sac he came around and parked alongside her property line, sheltered from the house by the good-sized oaks and cedars. They had done it right when they had built this subdivision. Even though the houses were nearly thirty years old, the towering trees made them appear more elegant and stately then they actually were inside.

He stepped down from the van and angled across the side yard that bordered the property. They had fair-sized lot, nearly three-quarters of an acre, that extended along Rainer and then Chamberlain Court. He used to kid her that this particular subdivision was a labyrinth. A guy could lose himself if he let his mind wander too much around here.

The old tree house, the one he had built for her, for her kids who had to be grown and gone by now, still lay in the thicket in back of the house. At first glance, brushing aside another branch, he thought it had withstood the years well enough. But as he walked closer, Cleary saw that the two base planks, the ones that bridged the six-foot gap between the two oaks, were no longer aligned. Over the years the swaying of the trees had worked the eight-inch screws loose from the trunks. With the base slipping, the rest of the tree house had started to collapse upon itself. Certainly the Redlins could have helped him by applying a coat of water seal every once in a while. In several places the wooden sides were dark, clearly rotten. But the base planks had been his job. He had set them. Done the calculations himself. And as Cleary studied the structure he had built he felt increasingly embarrassed. The tree house looked as if it had been taken in a giant’s hands and twisted savagely back and forth until not much was left.

One of the neighbors was waiting for him when he came out of the woods, returning to his van.

“You doing some work for them?” he asked.

He was a young guy with the beginnings of a gut. He was getting ready to mow his lawn, which undoubtedly qualified as a strenuous workout for him. That was one of the good things about being a handy man. You were usually in better shape than any of your clients.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Cleary replied.

“Well, it seems like a perfect time. With them being out of town and all.”

“Yeah, a perfect time,” Cleary said and turned back to look at the tree house. God, it looked like crap. All bent out of shape. And just like that he had an idea of what to do. Over the years he’d been more careful about following any fool notion that floated into his head. But this made sense. This was good. Something worth following up on.

Cleary nodded in the direction of the tree house.
“I’m going to be fixing that up.”

The words felt good to say.

“That old thing? I know Barry was talking about redoing the windows, maybe some new siding. That’s what I heard.”

“That may happen to,” Cleary said. “But I’ll be working on the tree house.”

“Don’t seem hardly worth it,” the neighbor said. “Their kids are all grown up.”

“No figuring what people will want sometimes,” Cleary said, opening the driver’s side door. “When are they due back?”

“Not until the end of the week.”

“That’s right,” Cleary said as he closed the door. It was settled then.

Driving back out the main road, Cleary decided he would tell Martha that the church work had run long by a day or so. Not that he was going to be around their old church that much anyway now. He’d go to the morning and evening meetings, gather up the paperwork that his son had wanted. The rest of the day he’d be here. Repairing the past.

That neighbor back there wouldn’t change plans around like that. He wouldn’t have the guts, Cleary thought to himself. Maybe that made all the difference in the world. Most people get so beholden to their routines and daydreams they can’t see what’s going on around them. Maybe that’s how they stay true and righteous. Or at least believe they do. But since way back Cleary had learned that the world was very much in control of you rather than the other way around. The important thing was to do the right thing when you had the chance. To preserve the truth in those rare movements when the fog burns away and you can see for miles and miles and miles. That he was here, after all these years, back in Lynne Redlin’s neighborhood, seemed to be preordained in some way. Just as it was when it began between them, and there was no avoiding it once a person made his mind up.

***

“Mr. Cleary, would you like some lemonade?” she had asked back then – on that first day.

He remembered he had been concentrating so hard about the best way to stabilize the two base planks, the foundation for the entire structure, that he hadn’t heard her coming. Four sets of eight-inch bolts, two on each end. That would do the job, he had decided, albeit incorrectly, back then.

Cleary turned and saw that she had combed her hair back, the shoulder-length brown-gold strands now held in place by a blue kerchief. Lynne’s eyes were on him, holding out the rattan tray with the single glass.

“Why thank you,” he said, genuinely surprised.

“It’s I who should be thanking you,” she insisted. “The kids are going to love this tree house. That’s all they’ve been talking about.”

He took the glass and, seeing how dirty he had become, switched it from one hand to the other as he wiped his fingertips off on his shirttail. Lynne’s eyes never left him.

“Now that was a godsend,” Cleary said, finishing off the glass. The lemonade has bits of pulp in it.

“Plenty more up here,” Lynn said, turning toward the hill that led to the house. She was wearing a pair of khaki shorts and a blouse with thin straps that snaked over her square shoulders.

“That right?” Cleary said.

“I’d leave a pitcher out on the deck table,” she said. “But I don’t want the bees to get into it.”

So, he had followed her up to the house, sitting in her kitchen, wondering where the kids had gone to. There had been three boys. They had made him chuckle the way they tumbled over each other earlier in the morning like a pack of puppies on the Redlins’ wide, green lawn.

“It’s going to be a great tree house,” he said, surprised at the excitement in his voice.

Through the kitchen window, he could the beginnings of the structure poking through the spring foliage.

“You’ll have to watch it come about,” Cleary added.

“Oh, I plan to, Mr. Cleary,” she said. “Going to watch you like a hawk.”

Lynne Redlin’s shoulders were already slightly tanned, even though Memorial Day was only a week past. He liked how the dark skin highlighted her light-blue eyes.

She began rinsing dishes in the sink and he watched as she lifted them dripping from the sink and placed them into the dishwasher. Her legs were tanned, too. Tanned as far as he could see up toward the edges of her khaki shorts.

“I know you’ll do a great job,” she said. “You come so highly recommended.”

“It’s a tough spot, where you want it.”

“But that won’t be a problem, will it, Mr. Cleary?”

“Please, call me Mike.”

“All right,” she said, repeating Mike soft and slow, almost to herself. “Mike, you’ll be able to do it, won’t you?”

“You can count on it,” Cleary remembered telling her.

***

It took almost until noon to unload the braces and scaffolding he had rented from the Home Depot near Ypsilanti. Cleary knew that he had been lucky. With so much construction going on down here, the fear was he would be searching to the far side of Detroit before he found what he needed. Still, that didn’t excuse how he’d been treated back at the hardware store. It wasn’t a store really. It was more like a mall, with tons of salesman walking around like they were god’s gift to civilization. All decked out in their orange aprons and about as helpful as gum-smacking teenagers. There was a reason Cleary worked alone. Who needed the chitchat and the aggravation when there was work to be done? When he could see what he needed to do in his head and nobody seemed to be in any hurry to help him down that road. That’s what really galled him.

“You don’t need to get pushy, mister,” the last salesman had warned him.

Cleary knew he should have backed off. He was right on the guy’s heels as they walked down that long corridor toward the back of the store. But, goddamn, he had already talked to three other people. One after another sent him farther and farther into the bowels of the place. How he missed the old days when you went to the local hardware store. Everything was there and if for some reason it wasn’t somebody who might remember your name would tell you to come back tomorrow. They’d find it, anything you wanted or needed, between then and now. Big stores made him edgy and Cleary knew sometimes he didn’t react as well as he should.

“I just need those braces,” Cleary had told the salesman.

“I told, they’re right back here. We got two of them back this morning. Must be your day.”

“If you say so.”

The salesman had peered back at him. What did name tag read? Larry or Barry? Something like that. A young kid. Probably hadn’t built anything of consequence in his life.

“Here they are,” the guy said once they reached the back of the store. The place where the rentals – power washers, ladders and chain saws – were stacked.

“About time,” Cleary muttered.

“Buddy, do you want these adjustable braces or not?”

“You know I do.”

“Then why are you giving me such a hard time? Here they are. You can pay up front.”

How could Cleary tell him it was the job that was making him especially uneasy? That during the long walk back to the store he had decided what really needed to be done with the tree house. How it was the only way.

The braces had gas cylinders inside them and that afternoon Cleary dug away the loose leaves and gravel underneath the old tree house, finally getting it all with the beams. As he eased the upper supports into position, he heard the tree house creak and begin to move back into line. He got his level out, trying to move the structure toward right angles once again. If everything in the world was at right angles, we’d all be a lot better off. He’d told his son that a long time ago, when Danny was a boy, and both of them had laughed. But deep down Michael Edward Cleary believed in such things. That there was a right way and a wrong way to go about a life. And when a person strayed, there wasn’t any choice but to set things straight.

***

Her lips were as full and as rich as the lemonade she served him. By his third day of that week almost twenty years ago, it seemed only natural for Cleary to walk up to her back door when he got thirsty. It was going to be a hot summer. By mid-day her children were gone. She had worked out an arrangement with the neighbors who drove them to the community pool. Then her back door, the one that led out to the deck would open. The screen door was the remaining portal to her. When he saw this, he would soon drudge up the hill to her kitchen. He never wanted to appear too thirsty, too anxious, but he came nonetheless.
That first time between them had been so off-handed that it almost seemed to be an accident. But Cleary he knew better. As he was leaving, his thermos filled with her lemonade, she had reached out for him.

Lynne had been standing near the kitchen window, looking out the window at his work. The base for the new tree house was in place and he was beginning to erect the tree house’s walls, imagining how it would look with the tarp roof and wide wooden ladder leading up to it.

He had started to go when he sensed her turn toward him. She hadn’t said anything, had she? But as soon as he paused, her fingertips ran up the inside of his arm. A limb sticky with sweat. He had stopped and Lynne’s other hand had reached for the back of his neck. It was a hungry movement, like a person coming to the surface after being under for a long time. They kissed and Cleary felt his arms encircle her. The act as natural as everything else about her.

They made love on the living room couch, with her children gone to the pool and the bright sun shining through and the neighborhood sweetly oblivious. During the construction of that tree house, they made love everywhere except upstairs, in her bed. That was off-limits. Cleary never met the husband, Barry Redlin. The man worked late, in an office park somewhere north of Detroit. That’s what Lynne had said.

***

It took Cleary as many days, five, to repair the tree house as it had taken him to build it. The neighbors had gone out of their way to make him feel welcome. From them he gleaned that Barry Redlin was up north, in the UP, fishing. Nobody mentioned Lynne.

“I can’t believe he’s having that old tree house fixed,” said Mrs. Gleason, who lived at the end of the cul-de-sac. “Makes you wonder if they’re moving.”

What really struck Cleary was that nobody questioned his right to be there. He drove a van; he had tools and did a job. Everyone assumed that he had been asked to come. Nobody remembered him from what had happened before.

After stabilizing the lower planks, he set about sanding the walls and repainting them with varnish. He cut away the sections where the rot had set in – stapling in new pieces. Up close it would never look the same, but from a distance, say from the back deck, the tree house seemed to right itself like a sailing ship after a strong gale. On Cleary’s watch, the structure became one of right angles again, burrowing its lines through the leaves that were beginning to fade to scarlet red and bright orange.

***

“Great job.”

That’s what Barry Redlin had told him, calling him up at home the night after he had finished the tree house the first time around.

“Thanks,” Cleary had stammered, unable to think of anything else to say. Unable to make conversation with the man whose wife he was screwing.

After Barry Redlin hung up, his wife asked, “Bad news?”

She watched him from across their small kitchen -- nothing like the grand rooms that the Redlins’ residence had.

“Honey?” she said and only then did Cleary realize that he was still standing there, the receiver in his hand, lost in thought.

“It’s OK,” he said, hanging up the phone. “That was the guy I did the tree house for. He called to thank me.”

“That’s nice. You don’t hear that every day, do you?”

“No, you don’t.”

“Well, you deserve it,” Martha said, walking over to give him a peck on the cheek. “All the hard work you do for people. Never missing a detail. They should all be lining up outside your door thanking you.”

A few days after that conversation they decided to move up to Traverse City. He remembered Martha being surprised that he agreed to go. In earlier discussions he had been opposed, or as contrary as he allowed himself to be with her. But now, he told her, it kind of made sense. Going back home, being closer to family, especially Danny. Him becoming a minister, a man closer to God. Now that was something worth turning one’s life over for.

It had been Danny that had led him back to Ann Arbor for this visit.

“Dad, I need somebody to represent me at this conference.” That’s how his oldest had framed it for him. “With Ellen expecting again, I can’t go. Not this time. All I’m asking is that you attend a few meetings. Pick up as much material as you can find about growing churches. We’ve got enough in petty cash to fly you down.”

But in the end Cleary had driven down himself. Even though it was a good five hours, he felt better in his Chevy van, with his tools.

In the late afternoons he scrubbed up and headed down to their old church, the one out on Packard, gathering up as many pamphlets about God and man as his arms could hold. He even made a few contacts. Nice enough fellas that worked at other Methodist churches in the Midwest, getting their phone numbers and e-mails for Danny. The stacks of brightly colored pamphlets, bound up by rubber bands, and the names and numbers, redone his last night in the Comfort Inn in his small script, sat on the seat in his cab. Ready to go on this, his last day.

It was a hot afternoon. The hottest of his trip back down here. He had forgotten how lousy the humidity could get and how it seemed to bond with the rising temperature to become a force, a real living hell. He worked through the afternoon, running out of water and having to drive to the 7-11 near campus for more. He wanted to leave tonight, so he pushed himself a bit harder than maybe he should of. The trouble was the tree house’s roof. He hadn’t gotten that right the first time around. The way the trees swayed, a wooden rod running from one trunk to the other wouldn’t do. In a storm, the rod would work loose and fall. He needed something with a little give that still had strength to it.

Finally, he decided on a clothesline with springs attached to the hooks that he twisted into the tree trunks. That allowed the tarp roof to adjust in the wind, but was still strong enough to withstand any short of a hurricane. Cleary had purchased a new tarp, a dark-green one back at the Home Depot, and by early evening he had positioned it over the clothesline running over the top of the tree house.

When he was finished, Cleary lay down inside the tree house. A slight breeze came from the west and funneled through the small window on the structure’s backside. He felt the sweat on his arms and forehead began to dry away. He rolled over onto his belly, looking up at her house and the door that once used to open to him.

Closing his eyes, he tried to remember everywhere in that house that they had made love, on her kitchen table, on the couch in her tidy living floor, upstairs in her children’s room, the last time stealing out to the tree house, throwing down pool towels to do it there. On the floor that he had built when it smelled of freshly cut wood. He tried to remember every time. How she would talk, lazy and slow, when they were done. How her skin would blush so easily before fading back to normal, back to everyday.

***

“Hey, buddy. Wake up, will ya. Wake up or I’ll have to call an ambulance. Can’t have a dead man on the premises. God damn, that would have the tongues wagging around here. C’mon, bud. Get up.”

Cleary opened his eyes and smelled the man’s aftershave. Tangy and pungent. A fleshy face, wide as a pumpkin, peered at him. Dark eyes. The kind could drive nails into a person.

Cleary rolled over onto his side. He felt stiff and awful, and he knew he looked worse. He had slept the night in the tree house. He couldn’t believe it. What a idiot he was.

“That’s the spirit, fella,” the guy told him. His voice was hyped by morning coffee. Coming out like a-rat-a-tat-tat. “Drag yourself on down here and you can help me polish off some breakfast. There’s plenty to go around.”

The pumpkin face disappeared and Cleary slowly followed him down the wooden ladder. Below him was the emerald lawn. As beautiful in the morning dew as anything he could remember. And pacing back and forth, starting to bark again, was a black Labrador.

“Baby here raised such a ruckus I had to see what the hell she was barking about,” Pumpkin Face said.

Cleary climbed down from the tree house and put his hand down so the dog could sniff it. After that the Lab lost interest. Cleary followed the man up the small hill to the deck and the tree house faded back into the foliage.

“I’ve got melon, O.J., coffee,” his host told him as they went inside. “I can whip up some eggs, too. A bachelor man’s breakfast. Good for keeping a guy fighting trim.”

Cleary nodded. God how his head hurt and his face felt puffy and rife with stubble.

“I’m fine,” Cleary said as he sat down at the kitchen table. It was a fine piece. Good grain and he couldn’t help but run his hand across its polished surface.

“The hell you are. Eat, will ya? You look like hell warmed over.”

For a time the two of them ate in silence. Then Cleary watched his host push his plate to one side.

“Well, my friend, I’m fishing for an explanation,” he said.

“The name’s Cleary. I built your tree house.”

“That right? The boys had plenty of good times on it. A couple of monkeys. That’s what those kids were. Somehow I got the three of them all off to college. About broke my bank. The one’s finishing up at Virginia. The oldest is finishing law school out in California. The middle boy went to Lansing. The only one who did me any favors by staying in state.”

“I was back in town,” Cleary began. “I had moved away. I drove by and saw what lousy shape the tree house was in. I decided to fix it.”

“This is on the level?” Redlin asked. “I mean that tree house has to be twelve, thirteen years old.”

“Almost sixteen actually.”

“Well, hell, nothing lasts that long. At least not in the world I live in.”

“I expect my things to last.”

“So, you just took it upon yourself to fix it. Just like that?”

“Nobody was around,” Cleary explained.

“Nobody’s ever around,” Redlin said. “What with the boys gone, the wife, too. I’m the last of the Mohicans. That’s how I feel. That’s why I’m putting the place up for sale later this year. Time to buy a condo. Get on with my life.”

Cleary asked, “Your wife no longer lives here?”

Redlin’s fat face settled into a half-hearted smile.
“That’s right. She would have been the one you dealt with about this.”

Cleary waited for him to go on.

“She left me several years ago, buddy. Just up and gone. Moved back with her kin down near Texas. We were never the best of couples I suppose. It just finally unraveled. Everything does sooner or later. Even your tree house, I guess.”

Redlin glanced at his shimmering silver Rolex. “I’ve gone from early to late in a heartbeat,” he said. “It ain’t easy getting the worm when everybody else is up at the crack of dawn, too.”

Redlin began to put the dishes in the sink, where they joined many others, and Cleary struggled to help him.

“I appreciate your work,” Redlin said. “I really do. So what do you say? Will a thousand do it?”

“A thousand?” Cleary repeated.

He had been gazing out into the living room. His eyes coming back to the kitchen counter and table. All of them winked to him like old friends.

“A thousand dollars, a grand for the new tree house,” Redlin said. “I’m pulling the figure out of the air. If it’s too low, I don’t mean to insult you. I don’t know much about such things. My buddies kid me that I don’t know which end of the hammer to hold. But I will remind you I didn’t ask for this work to be done. I hadn’t thought about that old tree house for years.”

“I’m not asking for any money,” Cleary said.

“Listen, fella, everybody is asking for money these days. That’s what makes the world go around, ain’t it?”

“I built it and it fell apart,” Cleary said. “I’m responsible for that. You don’t owe me anything.”

The Pumpkin Face stared at him. The dark eyes blinked for once.

“So, you don’t want anything for your work, the materials?”

“No, sir. It was my fault. I had to set it straight.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Redlin said. “I guess it’s my lucky day.”

***

Cleary returned that evening. He had made it an hour up the road, past Flint, before he turned around. It was late afternoon when he reached the Home Depot and bought the lighter fluid and blue-tip matches. He also threw in few tubes of chalk and kept a lookout for any familiar faces, like that kid who wasn’t much help. But he wasn’t known in these parts anymore. He hadn’t been for some time.

By ten that night Lynne’s old subdivision was quiet. Plenty quiet for what he planned. But he still waited another hour. Waited until the only brightness came from the streetlights. Cleary kept himself awake by drinking from the thermos of black coffee he had refilled at the 7-11. Barry Redlin hadn’t returned, and he imagined him at a party somewhere. The kind where the men wear tuxes and the women long, glittering evening dresses and they eat lobster and drink liquor, good liquor, and talk about matters he never considered.

In the darkness Cleary crept back to the tree house. The air smelled of fresh-cut pine and distant places, but he soon obliterated such sweet odors by emptying the light fluid upon the ladder and the tree house’s underpinnings. The wood caught fast. Faster than he expected. And as he rolled out the quiet streets, the van’s headlights off, a warm glow had already grown in the parkland behind the Redlin’s home. The pamphlets – How to Grow a Large Church, Keeping God in Your Program Through Small Groups – they were still there. Neatly bundled. Ready to go. He would be home by dawn.

The fire company would arrive soon. But not before much of the tree house burned. Somehow Cleary was sure of that. As sure as he was in knowing that some men cannot treasure what they have. How they never learn to have and to hold what is precious. Other men aren’t even that lucky. They lose what they deserve and don’t realize it until years later. Maybe they get a whiff of the good life. How righteous such a love can be. Then it’s gone, and all that’s left for them to do is set the rest of the world straight one last time.

 

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