He felt in his pocket for the key. The place belonged to the bank or the auctioneer now, but they would hardly mind his coming for a last look around. By the end of the day there might be nothing left but the four-walled empty box with which he’d started four decades ago.
Rudy’s Hardware, in old-fashioned huge neon script, stood out in the infant dawn. Good: They’d had the decency to leave the power on. In the plate-glass window, his tall, lanky reflection had a ruby cast that gave way, as he neared the door, to the pale overnight interior light.
He smiled at himself under his wide-brimmed canvas bush hat, the trademark image he’d adopted on his first day of business, and let himself in. Striding to the counter, he reached over to disarm the alarm system and turn up the lights. He didn’t want the beat cop seeing a dim mysterious figure in here; better to be easily recognized as good old Rudy.
The shelves and wall displays looked odd, pock-marked with empty spaces, evidence of his reasonably successful going-out-of-business sale. Today someone – maybe from a nearby town, an entrepreneur still trying to stay in business against big-box competition – would buy for a song whatever was left. He didn’t expect Lowe’s or Home Depot to bother coming: They bought by the boxcar, and would have no interest in archaic stuff like the half-full kegs of nails in the back room.
Forty years ago, he’d hoped for an heir who might carry on the business. Just as well that Myrtle had proved unproductive: No point in bequeathing an albatross. In their courtship, she talked about wanting a family, but once wed was not inclined to spend much time or effort trying to start one. He finally went alone to be sure his sperm count was adequate; she declined to be tested. She came to the store for the grand opening, but never again; she became a tolerable cook and a prize-winning bridge player. Her death twelve years ago was a bearable loss.
His meandering had taken him now into the back room, where a sagging upholstered armchair was squeezed among the shipping boxes. There had once been a second-hand sofa in that spot. Just as well Myrtle never came back, he thought: She would have disapproved. He took the view that his floor clerks might occasionally stay alert by taking quick naps.
A real hardware man needed an encyclopedic memory, an intuitive grasp that the thingamajig a customer described was a number ten left-handed screw — and the unhesitating ability to find it on the store’s shelves. With one exception, Rudy hired only such men; customers came from miles away to benefit from his floor clerks’ expertise. (In the latter years, of course, that was his undoing: People came to buy left-handed screws for a few dimes, but went to a superstore to buy their hundred-dollar power tools.)
The exception to his male staff was the girl behind the counter. From the beginning, Rudy knew that men – until a few years ago, customers were overwhelmingly men – would appreciate a shapely girl with a pretty face and a warm smile as they opened their wallets.
Peggy McGuire was the first, an Irish colleen who met all of his criteria, including shoulder-length black locks with just a bit of curl – and smart, besides. In hiring her, he did not intend anything more than casual male appreciation of female pulchritude.
But a young man whose wife is more interested in bridge than bed is vulnerable to impulse. Peggy stayed after closing one night to help him take inventory. She responded enthusiastically to his tentative kiss. As their lip-locked fondling and fumbling grew more passionate, he thought briefly of finding some place more comfortable, but their ardor would brook no delay; she was eagerly compliant when they ended on the sofa.
He needed to invent no story when he got home late: Myrtle was still at a bridge tournament. He fell into a sleep adorned with unaccustomed dreams, and was only dimly aware of his wife’s return. Next morning he slipped away early, resolved to call his lawyer, manage as painless a divorce as possible, and make an honest woman of Peggy McGuire.
She did not come to work. He telephoned, but got no answer. He manned the checkout counter himself until lunchtime, when he deputized a floor clerk so that he could go to the rooming-house address she’d given in her job application.
His repeated knocks on her door yielded no response. He found the landlady, who said she had paid off her rent and left this very morning. No, she had left no forwarding address.
He remembered the night before as a mutually innocent, spontaneous coupling, but she must have recalled an inappropriate initiative of a predatory employer. Chastened, he stopped at the newspaper to place a want ad for a new counter girl, and went back to the store despondent.
There were many handsome young women over the ensuing years, but he never again let one stay after hours. Over protests from his floor clerks, he replaced the guilty sofa with the armchair, smaller but still serviceable for short naps.
He walked now back into the main store. The day had brightened while he’d been lost in memory; there was busy sidewalk traffic. He should turn out the lights and go down the street to the donut shop to kill time until the auctioneer would arrive.
But there was a man outside, rapping at the door. Tall, rangy, dressed in denim jeans and jacket, with a floppy bush hat in his hands. For a moment, he thought it a reflection, but the renewed rapping assured him it was a man outside, and obviously not someone from the bank or auction house.
Not wanting to open the door to a stranger, he pantomimed, holding up his arm to point at his watch, shaking his head no.
The stranger knocked again, pointing that he wanted to come in.
“Not until ten!” Rudy shouted through the glass.
“Not a buyer!” the man shouted back. He held a hand to his brow, miming. “Just want see to the place before it’s gone!”
Intrigued, Rudy let him in. “Tell me again,” he said in a normal voice, “what is it that brings you? You’re not here for the auction?”
“No, sorry. I promised my mother I’d come have a look before your famous hardware store became an empty shell.” He took a smartphone from his pocket. “Do you mind if I take a few pictures for her?”
“Thank you. He began snapping away.
“Who did you say these were for?”
“My mother. Would you mind standing over here for a moment? The light will be better, and I can get you in a few photos.”
“In the early days, my customers were all men.”
“Yes. A lot of housewives nowadays can make repairs as well as their husbands, but Mom was a pioneer.”
“Her husband didn’t mind? There are men who feel challenged. Manhood impugned, you know?”
“Mom didn’t have that problem. She was a single mother.”
“I’m sorry to be nosy, but how old were you when they divorced?”
“I guess I’ve intruded, so you have a right to be nosy. I never knew my father. Could you maybe take off that hat for a minute?”
“It shades your face, you know? She’ll want to see how you look nowadays.”
“Pity you didn’t bring her. I’m in kind of a nostalgic mood, and it would be fun to see someone from the earlier days. How far away is she?”
“Not all that far. Unionville. Maybe a half-hour. But she’s not very mobile nowadays. In an assisted-living place, you know?”
“I’m sorry to hear that. How long ago was it you said she shopped here?”
“No, not shopped. Worked. She said you hired her not long after you opened the store.”
“I’m sorry, did you tell me your name?”
“Apologies, I should have.” He put the smartphone in his pocket and held out a hand. “I’m Rood.”
“Rude? Like impolite?” He took the offered hand for a tentative shake.
“No. R-O-O-D. One of a kind, I think. She’s never told me where she came up with my name.”
“Rood . . . .”
“Sorry. Rood McGuire. I work for the majority leader over at the Capitol. Farthest thing n the world from a hardware man. She told me about hardware men.”
“Yes, a special breed. She would remember. Unionville, you said?”
“I wonder if she’d be up to a visit? Maybe you could give me the address.”