George Davis, appliance repair technician—meet Max, a four-year-old, also broken.
I spotted the split-level ranch perched back off the street, cheap red vinyl siding long ago bleached by the sun. A fading grey minivan parked in the gravel driveway, remnants of the last snow storm still piled up around the driveway’s edge and sidewalk. The neighbor’s dog began a frantic racing around its yard, brought up short by a long length of chain, in his mad mission to inform the whole town I had arrived. As if he had to, given the shape the truck’s exhaust system was in. I headed for the front door, dragging along an ever heavier tool bag. The windowless storm door was flapping against the front of the house like one hand clapping.
The kid was lying in wait behind the sofa at the top of the stairs.
It was late afternoon. The kind of New England winter day where the sun slants sideways through the iced tree limbs, making them shimmer glass-like. Between the biting wind and an unusual roster of crabby customers, I was worn down to a nub. The Storm Team was predicting a Nor’easter with their usual stridency, as if the End of the World was imminent, so stock up on toilet paper. I was hoping to get home before the roads became impassable. My work van was as close to an elephant on ice as you get without the gray flab, and more than once over the years I found myself careening toward a ditch, my life flashing before my eyes in neon, all because some old guy’s refrigerator ice maker quit, and I had to revive it so he and the wife could had their nightly martini per usual. My plan was to run in, fix the defective dishwasher, and then get out, fast and easy, before the snow began in earnest. Apparently the Universe had other plans.
The kid jumped out as I wearily climbed the stairs. “MY NAME IS MAX!” he yelled. “AND I’M FOUR! WHAT’S YOUR NAME?”
“George.” I replied tersely. I like kids, but already I sensed trouble.
“GEORGE? GEORGE WHAT?”
“Washington,” I said heading for the kitchen. The boy’s mother, a blond like her son, probably mid-thirties, smiled apologetically. “Max loves to have visitors. Especially workmen carrying tool bags…” she crooned.
I started sinking right then and there. You know the feeling you get in your gut when you suddenly realize you left your wallet back on the dresser in your bedroom and the server is just now delivering the check for the meal you just blissfully, ignorantly enjoyed. The early warning system I had developed over the years in this business; that Klaxon alarm I was about to be targeted by an in-bound guided missile of a kid for a full-fledged assault whose mother didn’t have a clue how to handle a workman in her home, was blaring through my head on high alert. Max headed for his bedroom and returned with an arm load of plastic tools to help me fix the dishwasher.
“Max, you can’t help the man with the dishwasher,” his mother said tentatively. “You’ll just be in his way…”
Max hadn’t heard her. He was attempting to use the Yellow Screwdriver to attack the machine’s door in an attempt to affect a repair.
No indication the message was received.
“Max…” this more a bleat of resignation, than anything.
“Leave George alone, Max,” she drawled from the doorway before disappearing into the back of the house. As I suspected Max was using the Yellow Screwdriver ploy to show me he knew how to handle tools and headed right for my tool bag.
“Max, you can’t mess with my tools,” I said, taking a screw driver and pliers from his fists. “They’re dangerous. You might hurt yourself.” Not just that, I didn’t want the liability if you do something random, like, say poke your eye out.
Max scowled. “My Daddy has tools,” he announced, sullenly.
“That’s great,” I replied, examining the sick dishwasher, a Maytag with a broken door latch. It was filled with anticipation with dirty dishes, food long crusted and bonded hard enough to require sandblasting; a feature this particular model lacked. “Is he a carpenter?”
“NO!” Max returned, disgusted at my silly question. Everyone knew his Daddy wasn’t a carpenter. He looked at me as if I was one of those slugs he had just discovered under a rock. As if to prove the fact his father had tools, the kid dived into my tool bag once again. I retrieved the volt meter and hoisted the whole bag on to the counter top out of temptation’s way. Max sat down on the floor, his back against the sink, pouting.
I used the battery-powered screw gun to take apart the dishwasher door in order to replace the broken door latch. This was no small feat. The latch and handle came in two pieces, and you had to field assemble them together before installing the part. Some genius engineer at Maytag had figured out a way to make this project as difficult as humanly possible. My theory was they wanted folks to just give up and buy a new machine. I was close to ripping out my hair assembling the latch on this one.
“How old are you, George?” Max asked. He had been sitting quiet, brooding, playing with the old latch I had handed him.
“My Daddy was thirty five,” he replied in a whisper. Was.
For the first time I saw the little boy sitting there. I saw myself at four; just a skinny, tall boy soon to be leveled with near-death pneumonia coupled with rheumatic fever. I saw an already busted up heart from trying to squeeze some drop of tenderness from a bully of a father intent on training his first born at the end of a razor strap. Instead of some demon intent on making an already tough day even worse, I suddenly saw a needy little kid. Someone aching for a man’s attention. Someone missing his Daddy. “Hey Max,” I answered. “Wanna’ help me put this thing back together?”
The boy brightened, a huge smile replaced the sober frown. I handed him the screw gun and showed him how to drive in the twelve screws that held the door together. He was a natural when it came to battery operated power screw drivers and didn’t need much coaching.
“Great job, Max!” I enthused, shaking his little hand. I began packing up my stuff to go. “If you ever need a job, we’re hiring.” His mother reappeared in the kitchen from her brief respite. Her eyes were filled with gratitude. “Thank you,” she mouthed silently, seeing me to the door.
I nodded, smiling. “You have an awesome helper there,” I replied. “Hang in there…”
“Is your last name really Washington?” she asked as I pushed through the front door into the gathering dusk. Scattered snow flurries swirled around the front yard in the bitter wind. I shrugged, laughing. The last of the setting sun’s golden rays lit up the big picture window at the front of the house.
Max was there smiling, golden, waving.
Photo: Phil Roeder / flickr