Sunday, August 29, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.38: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 38

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The Strategy

On our former carport, I pulled out a drawer and looked into it. Its bottom sat packed full of cigar boxes, hacksaws, about a hundred pipe cleaners, a wad of rags, and a coping saw without a blade. Around me was a room that lurked in dust and darkness with its shelves stacked to the ceiling along the walls. Above, one of the overhead fluorescent lights flickered.

"Oh, it won't be in there," my father said. He put a hand on the doorway next to him and stepped down to join me in the room.

"Okay." I pushed. The drawer closed with a rattle.

The shelving around me had once been a set of drawers and a filing cabinet. My father had stitched them together with a structure of particle board painted in primary colors. Between his creation and a teak desk stood a stack of particle board shelves, all painted white, piled together to the same height as the filing cabinet. Along the surface sat plastic containers full of rubber bands, staples, and caramel cream candies.

"What are you looking for again?" he asked. He leaned against the other set of filing cabinets near his sliding back glass door.

"I've got to take down some tree branches. You had a blue saw for it."

"You mean a pruning saw?"

"I guess so."

"And it's not in the shed?"

This was a set of questions that threw me because I wasn't sure if the curved saw I wanted was a pruning saw, really, or I should call it something else. Anyway, I had walked through the front shed. I hadn't recognized anything I wanted.

"Probably not? Because I didn't see it."

There was a second shed but it was sort of a mystery to me, a two story monstrosity that held mostly spare lumber, plus a third shed, newly built, that provided space for the riding mower.

"Well, I can't have used it for years." He shook his head.

That seemed right. I turned and crouched next to a tall, cardboard box. It held about eighty plastic bag clips. They were the kind with magnets on one end so you can stick them to the fridge when you're done. Why he had eighty of them in translucent green, orange, blue, and red plastic, I had no idea. He'd found them on sale somewhere, maybe. He had put two screwdrivers in the box with the clips. I fished out the screwdrivers in case I could find a better place for them.

"I can't really keep my arm over my head like that," he continued. "Not to cut a branch. It's my shoulder."

"Oh, yeah." My eyes scanned the desktop and low shelves for more screwdrivers. After a few seconds, I gave up. "How is that healing?"

"It isn't. But I can't complain." He put a cigar in the corner of his mouth and chuckled. "No one listens if I do. Anyway, age is a case of mind over matter, right?"

"If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter," I chimed in as we finished the saying together.

My father had repeated the punchline hundreds of times. Mostly, I hadn't known that he was quoting Jack Benny. The saying had become part of him, like his fingers or his beard or cigar. He always had it handy. Given his shoulder problems, though, he was certainly right about not cutting any tree branches during the last eight years.

His guesses about where he had put his not-yet-rusted saws seemed suspect. They could be anywhere.

Idly, I strolled across the aisle to one of the other desks. It held rows of shelves, this time full of books and cassette tape boxes. Most of the boxes were empty. I tugged on the desk's top drawer. It squeaked open to reveal a pair of books about radio dramas, a few unlabeled cassettes, and a book about carpentry with a bent cover, probably from someone like me looking through and then closing the drawer on it.

"You mother probably used the saw last," he said. "Did you ask her?"

I hadn't because she wasn't the one who kept the collections of tools. But he was right. She had probably been the one to take it. She would have put it in a logical place or slipped right back into the spot where she'd found it. She might even remember where that was.

"I'll get her." The drawer jammed when I tried to close it. I tried again. Now I could see why someone had slammed it on the carpentry book. "Hey, I forgot. Mom told me to ask you about making a will again."

"Now why would she say that?" His voice sounded sarcastic and annoyed.

"Because you don't have one?" I slammed the drawer shut.

"It doesn't matter." He tucked his unlit cigar into the corner of his mouth. "She'll outlive me."

Although a radiation technician had nearly killed her, my mother had gotten emergency surgery to help her recover. She made it through the next surgery and the next, too. She'd emerged stronger than ever from the chemotherapy and she seemed to be in remission.

At this point, my mother had been healthy for three years. In contrast, my father kept losing eyesight to burst blood vessels in his eyes. His right foot had lost sensation. Diabetes had claimed part of his left foot. It seemed reasonable to think that my mother would inherit everything. That's why he didn't feel any need to write a will. There wasn't much to inherit, anyway, besides his share of the house. Paying down the mortgage would become my mother's worry, not his. She could have a will written up when he was gone, if she wanted.

“Maybe she won't outlive you by much,” I ventured.

“Your mother and I talked. I don’t know why she keeps bringing this up.”

We looked for more tools. At least, I did. My father seemed to be browsing through his candy and his cigar collections. Behind a waist-high shelf, I found a hammer that belonged in the shed. A few minutes later, I found a rubber mallet.

With nowhere else to place the tools I was finding, I put them back in the box with the plastic clips. That made me wonder if this had all happened before. Someone else had found tools and decided the box was convenient.

"Oh, there you are, Bob." My mother opened the kitchen door next to the carport door. She stepped down onto the landing to grab a copper-bottom saucepan.

"We were just talking about you, Ann."

She paused, hand on the rack of pans.

"Mom," I called, "where is the blue hand saw?"

"The one I use for branches?" She gestured to the back yard. A moment later, she moved her saucepan from one hand to another. "I cut the overhang off a tree last month. I put it right back in the shed."

"But ..." That meant I'd walked past it somehow.

"Told you," my father said.

My mother nodded and stepped back into the kitchen. She closed the door behind her. I picked up a handful of tools that I thought I could return to the shed.

"Leave the hammer," my father told me.


"And the mallet. I use that mallet."

"What for?" I thought of it as a tool for putting tent pegs into the ground and not much more.

"I can't remember. But I use it."

After I put them back roughly where they had been before, I noticed tins on the shelves next to them. They had once been full of potato chips, some of them. Others had originated with butter cookies. He had repurposed them for collections of things. And they had lids. The lids were probably hard for him to close.

"Okay." Putting things back where I had found them always seemed okay. Sometimes the places even made sense. That's why I knew I could count on the blue saw to be in the shed, even though I hadn't found it the first time. My mother put things back. She was reliable that way. "Wait, dad, didn’t mom tell me a couple of years ago that you were making a will?”

“Yes. I had a lawyer.”

"Right, the guy in Poolesville." I had never seen the man but my father had shown me a draft of the document. There had only been two pages to it. "What happened?"

"He died. Cancer."

"Oh." After I put all of the tools back where I'd found them, I rose and started the walk through the carport to the back door. "Do you want a reference to another lawyer? They make computer programs, too. Do you want me to get you a program to fill out the will for you? I mean, you can have any strategy you want. Mom just wants you to have one."

He gave half a laugh.

"My strategy is not to die," he said.

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