Record Magazine June 2010
May 8, 2012
There was a line forming outside THE FIX ALL SHOP when Elwin, the proprietor, arrived at seven thirty Tuesday morning. Although most of the people knew who he was, no one exchanged pleasantries with him or he with them.
Elwin was a presence; around forty years old, six-four and stocky with bushy eyebrows and thick brown hair parted on the side. The comb marks were always visible which is what happens when you comb your hair wet. He was clean-shaven and could’ve used a mustache or beard to minimize the size of his nose, but most likely the concept never entered his mind.
It was only a year and a half ago that Elwin Miller drove into Northampton, Massachusetts, parked his car and walked both sides of the wide Main Street. There were only three empty stores and he honed in on the one at the very edge of town, the least desireable for a retail business. He rented it and then, looking for a place to live, settled on a garage apartment six blocks from the store. The furnished apartment was over a four-car garage that was used for the four-plex in front. Elwin paid three months rent in advance and continued on that way.
He kept his own car behind the store and started it once or twice a week and drove it once a month. Otherwise, he walked everywhere and occasionally took a bus.
Elwin unlocked the door, turned on the lights and walked into the back room where he put on a pot of coffee and his canvas apron. He put the loop over his head and tied the strings in back. It had three slots for pens in the bib part and large pockets on the sides. He sharpened a pencil and stuck it behind his right ear. The door to his shop remained unlocked but the “closed” sign was still hanging so no one entered. He sat at his desk, wrote out a few bills and when the coffee was ready he took the newspaper and sat back down. He read the first page of each section, except sports, and never continued any article beyond that initial page. He never read the comics, advice columns or his horoscope.
At seven-fifty-six he got up, rinsed and cup and walked to the front door where he turned the sign to “open” and then walked behind the counter which was three feet wide and almost the width of his store.
Almost instantly the opening door jingled the attached bell and Elwin’s first customer walked in. He was an almost bald man with a friar’s fringe. He held a large paper shopping bag on its side and with some effort hefted it onto the counter. Elwin waited while the man handed him the manila card he had filed out in line, from the stack of manila cards in the plexiglass box by the door. The card had a perforated receipt on one end and two six inch strings coming from a hole at the other end.
Beads of sweat dripped down the man where his sideburns were meant to be. As the man slid a large roasting pan with a turkey out of the bag, Elwin read the problem section of the card. I over cooked the turkey and my wife is coming in from a business trip and bring company home for dinner at seven. Elwin ripped off the receipt, handed it back to the man, tied the strings around a drumstick and slid the turkey back into the bag. “Be back at six,” he said and then placed the bag in one of the many bins behind him.
His next customer placed a shoebox on the counter and handed Elwin her card. Problem: Son dropped vase, It’s been in the family for years. Why do so many people feel they have to put the reason that things happened, he wondered. Elwin opened the shoebox, surveyed the dozens of pieces and said, “It’s not all here. Pieces are missing.”
The woman looked sheepish. “I think a couple of pieces may have skidded under the breakfront but it’s too heavy for me to move.”
Elwin pushed the box back at the woman and told her that he was a fix-all man and not a magician. “Bring this to Penn and Teller’s shop in Amherst,” he said and ripped the card in half. After Elwin had rented the storefront he spent a month building his bins. The landlord had partitioned off an office and a bathroom and left the rest for him to finish. His bins ranged from two feet by two feet to large floor to ceiling ones, eight and a half feet tall and six feet wide. Behind the counter were the smaller bins that stretched from one end to the other leaving only passage room to get to the larger bins which were not visible from the front of the store. The bins were all painted white and touched up as needed from scuffs and dings.
At first no one knew what he fixed. People were turned away with broken televisions, bicycles and the like. On his third day in business a woman came in with a broken iron and a limping dog. He told her to take the iron and leave the dog. He tied a card to the dog’s collar and placed the pooch in a side bin. Elwin check the dog’s paws and used a tweezers to take a burr out from between the pads on his left front leg. Later that day the woman came back for her dog, now non-limping, and went around telling everyone about The Fix All Shop.
Elwin refused an interview with the local paper but they ran a story on him anyway. They used a picture of people lined up in front of his store since he wouldn’t pose for a picture with his bins. He kept to himself, took most of his meals at the local diner, was often seen at the library and occasionally at the movie theater. He was always alone and although satisfied clients and other business people invited him to picnics and parties he never went.
The line was orderly and one customer after another came in and put their items on the counter. Most were accepted and went into bins in an order only known and understood by Elwin, but like the vase, some were rejected, Just after noon a man handed Elwin two sticks and before Elwin was able to read the ticket the man told him that he was a dowser and this was his best dowsing stick. “My last customer broke it on me because he only got two gallons a minute after drilling down over four hundred feet.”
Elwin picked up both pieces of the branch. The bark had been removed and it was worn smooth with visible finger indentations.
“Willow,” said Elwin.
“Willow,” said the dowser.
“After five,” Elwin said and handed the man his receipt. He turned and put the sticks in the upper bins behind him.
Two women appearing to be mother and daughter were next at the counter. Wordlessly, Elwin turned and walked to his back room, poured himself a cup of coffee and carried it back out front, taking small sips as he went. The daughter was now sitting atop the counter, her knees up, arms crossed on top and her head resting on her arms. She had her face turned away from her mother and towards Elwin, her eyes closed and her face pained. He didn’t have to read the ticket—he knew what was wrong. Her mother held the ticket and fidgeted. He took the ticket, ripped off the receipt for the mother and tied the strings to the girl’s large hoop earrings, and then gently picked her up and carried her around the side and placed her in a large bin. Her position never changed. Elwin patted her hair, whispered in her ear and walked back out front. “Call me Friday,” he said, “Broken hearts take a little longer.”
Mrs. Sheehy was next with her toaster oven. Elwin had turned her down twice before but she was old and obviously forgetful. Even so, he couldn’t help his disdainful look as he tossed the toaster oven in a bottom bin telling her that he’d call her when it was ready. He told her that if she’d taken it to Bob Villas’ Fix-Er-Up Shoppe he would have fixed it while she waited. “It won’t be this month,” he told her. “That fine,” she said. “I have a new one anyway.”
A couple stood flanking an eleven year old boy. The man wore a plaid shirt and had a pleasant face. The woman wore what she thought of as a weight-hiding dress and had a puss. The boy was vintage Norman Rockwell—freckles, cowlick, red hair and jug ears. Elwin waited to hear what they wanted done with the boy when the boy handed him the card. My parents are splitting up. Please bring them back together. Elwin told the boy to come back after five, closer to six and handed him the receipt for his parents. He tied the strings to a button hole in the father’s plaid shirt and then walked to the rear of the store and returned with a double wide hand truck. Elwin had the parents stand next to each other and on their toes. He slid the hand truck beneath their feet and then went around front and adjusted them both. He then wheeled them, tilted back, and deposited them in a rear bin.
He took another half-dozen customers and then, ignoring the line, locked the door and turned the sign to closed. He took the bag with the turkey into the bathroom, put it on the closed toilet seat and turned on the hot water. Steam was beginning to fill the room as he closed the door. Elwin left by the back door and walked away from town.
“Enough already,” Dr. Schlermer said. “If you recite your whole day it’ll take my whole day.” “I thought you wanted to know what brought me here,” Elwin said. “I was just telling you what brought me here.” Elwin, being a man of few words was actually not surprised at how freely his thoughts spilled out. Remembering the other towns and shrinks he recalled that they always did. “Okay, so tell me what brought you here?”
“Pressure. I’m feeling too much pressure from my customers.”
“You’re here because of pressure?” Dr. Schlermer asked.
“Yes,” Elwin said.
You don’t know from pressure,” The psychologist said. “Sit in my seat and listen to people kvetch all day. That’s pressure. Most of you people who come here have no idea how good you have it. Pills,” he said. “It’s a good thing for pills.”
“You’re going to give me pills? What kind of pills?” Elwin asked.
“The pills are for me, not you. Otherwise I’d never get out of bed, much less make it through the day. Maybe I should check myself into your shop,” Dr. Schlermer laughed. “Do you take Blue Cross? How much is your co-pay? Any professional courtesy?”
Elwin didn’t bother to answer. He got up and left. His shop was closed from noon until four and it was now one-thirty. He stopped at a coffee shop for lunch—a departure from his routine. He usually took a nap until one-fifteen in one of his bins and then went to the diner for his tuna on rye toast. He knew that when he returned there’d be a line waiting to pick up whatever was fixed and ready. Elwin was a bit edgy from his lack of a nap and his visit with the shrink. He almost told him too much and might have if the shrink hadn’t started in about his own problems. He was a fraud. No matter how many people Elwin helped, he saw himself as a con. He knew it was time to start planning his move to the next town before he was found out. He thought back to the limping dog’s paw. He knew that others wanted things to be right and for someone to say so and between the powers of suggestion, the praise of others and their desire to please him, most people made adjustments. He also knew that these changes were temporary even if he never stayed around long enough to find out just how short lived they were. Believing this was the reason he didn’t stay in any one town too long. “Always leave them wanting more, but always leave them,” read the needlepoint pillow in his head.
“How’s my father?” the waitress asked as she put a BLT and lemonade on the counter in front of Elwin. He’d ordered a tuna on rye toast and a coke. He knew she looked familiar when she’d taken his order.
“Please,” Elwin said, not knowing for the life of him who her father was, “I don’t talk business during my lunch time. It’s my only break of the day. I’m sure you can appreciate that.” The waitress apologized and said that she’d see him later anyway. “I’m scheduled to pick him up at five and I hope his Alzheimer’s has gotten better and he recognizes me.”
“Stop!” Elwin ordered her. “No more business talk. Bring me a slice of Coconut cream pie.” “Out,” she said. “How about banana cream?”
“Make it tapioca, then.”
“Rice pudding?” she countered.
“You must have blueberry pie. Bring me a slice of blueberry pie.”
“Ice cream with it?”
“No. Just a slice.”
“Warmed?” she asked and when Elwin didn’t answer she walked away and returned with a slice and a half of warm apple pie. When she switched the pie plate with the BLT plate she winked at him and winked again when she brought his bill and there was no mention of pie.
Elwin paid and walked back to the shop. He walked in through the back door to avoid the three people standing in line. He walked over to the girl with the broken heart, leaned inside the bin and whispered, “You will feel great when you wake up and wonder what you ever saw in him.” He repeated this scene every fifteen minutes whether she was sleeping or awake.
He pulled up his chair in front of the couple that was splitting, spun it around and sat down resting his arms on the chair back. “You might as well take your son out and drown him or shoot him,” Elwin told the startled couple. “The odds are not in his favor. Ted Bundy, Mark Chapman and Hannibal Lecter were all eleven years old when their parents split. So were Hitler, Arafat, Newt Gingrich and Richard Nixon and also Louis Lepke, Don King and Aaron Burr. Eleven is the most pivotal age of all. Hang in there a couple of more years and he’ll stand a better chance of outgrowing that mass killer phase of anti-socialism. Besides, you could be held financially liable.”
Without looking at each other the couple had been edging closer together during Elwin’s lecture. By the time he finished they were holding hands. Not long after he left them he heard love moans from their bin but chose not to sneak a peek.
Next he went to the bin and took out the two pieces of the dowser’s stick. This was his first dowser. Finally, he thought, after all these years of going town to town setting up shop, there’s something different. He held the broken piece of willow along side the other and marked it with a pencil. He then scored the long side with his pocket knife and broke it, evening up both sides—shorter but symmetrical. Elwin tossed the willow remnants away.
At a quarter to four he went into the bathroom and turned the water off. The turkey was moist. He carved it for the client and drained the water from the pan.
Lastly, he walked over to the bin with the Alzheimer’s patient. “Your daughter’s coming to pick you up soon,” he told the man, “She hopes you’ll recognize her. Do your best.”
“Can’t I stay a little longer” the man asked. “She drives me crazy.”
The waitress daughter was the first in line when Elwin reopened. She winked at him. He brought the old man out to his daughter and he looked at her and said, “Molly,” calling out his late wife’s name. He then grabbed his daughter and kissed her, sticking his tongue deeply into her mouth. Speechless, she pulled away wiping her mouth on her sleeve. Her father turned and walked back to his bin. She winked at Elwin, “I’ll call you,” she said and left the shop.
At six Elwin closed and locked the door and went home. He felt good but a little sad that it had become time to move on. The next morning as he walked towards he store he saw Dr. Schlermer standing in line filling out a card. Elwin turned down a side street and sat on the curb. He watched the line getting longer, but it wasn’t until he remember the girl with the broken heart that he finally got up and began walking, taking out the store keys as he went.