by William Cass
Walter put his last tool in the big satchel on the counter and slowly scanned the shop’s interior. He looked at the bare shelves behind him, the narrow hallway to the back room, and the empty floorboards leading to the front door. He’d wiped the big display window clean except for the stenciled letters that read: Appliance Repair; the landlord would have those removed before putting the shop up for lease. Walter inhaled the dusty smell of the small space, pursed his lips, and rubbed a palm over his stubble of white hair.
“Forty-eight years,” he whispered.
There was no one there to hear him, no one either in his little apartment above the bar-and-grill down the street where he’d been whispering those same words for weeks. Walter blew out a breath, lifted the heavy satchel off the counter, and walked to the front door. He flipped off the lights and took a last look at the dim emptiness behind him. The bells on the door jingled as he opened it partway into the cold, late afternoon and reached for the flip sign on the inside of the glass; he’d already used a marker to write: “For Good” under “Closed” on the that side. Before he could exchange it with the “Open” side, a small boy appeared next to him. He was perhaps eight or nine, waifish, and was holding a toaster whose cord dangled between his legs onto the concrete.
“Am I too late?” he asked. “Can you fix this? My mother sent me.”
Walter looked down at the big, worried eyes staring up at him. The boy juggled the toaster clumsily in his arms. Walter pushed his spectacles up on his nose. He asked, “What’s wrong with it?”
“The bread won’t stay down,” the boy told him. “When you push the lever.”
“I see,” Walter said. The boy’s shock of unruly brown hair reminded him of photographs he’d seen of himself when he was young. They regarded each other for a long moment until he pushed the door back open and gestured with his head for the boy to enter. The boy ducked under Walter’s arm inside. Walter turned the shop lights back on, carried his satchel of tools over to the counter, and hoisted it on top. The boy followed him. Walter took the toaster from him and made several attempts to depress the lever on it; each time, it sprang back up. He studied the bottom of the toaster, then unzipped his satchel, rooted around in it, and took out several screwdrivers and other small tools.
The boy stood next to him and craned his neck as he watched Walter remove the bottom of the toaster and adjust a mechanism inside. While the old man worked, a siren wound off in the distance across town. After a few minutes, Walter set the toaster on the counter and depressed the lever again. It made a little clicking sound and stayed down. He repeated the action several times to be sure it remained in place. Then he looked down at the boy and smiled.
The boy’s eyes had grown wide. “How about that?” he said. “Look, you did it.”
Walter nodded and screwed the bottom of the toaster back in place. He coiled the cord around it several times tucking the plug in the wraps. He handed the toaster back to the boy and said, “It’ll be easier for you to carry that way.”
“Thanks,” the boy said. “Thanks a lot.” He used one hand to reach for a pocket in his jeans. “How much?”
Walter shook his head. “Nothing. Go make your mom some toast.” He paused, then said, “I used to have toast with my mother for breakfast almost every morning when I was your age. Toast with marmalade. Orange marmalade.”
The boy nodded. “We do that. Strawberry jam for us.”
“That’s good, too.” Walter smiled again. “Well, go make her some.”
He lifted his satchel back off the counter and the boy followed him to the front door. He held it open for the boy and turned the sign inside it so the words “Closed For Good” faced the outside. The boy had stopped in the doorway; he looked from the sign to Walter and frowned. “That’s a shame,” he said. “That’s a damn shame.”
Walter chuckled and gave the boy a pat on the shoulder. “I’m getting old, son. Time for me to move along.”
The boy reached over suddenly and hugged Walter’s leg with one arm. Walter saw him squeeze his eyes shut as he did. Just as suddenly, the boy released his arm, and started down the sidewalk. Walter watched the back of him go past the bar-and-grill on the next corner and disappear into a crowd of people climbing off and on a bus in the gloaming. He looked at the familiar blinking neon sign of the bar-and-grill and his dark apartment over it. Like always, he’d stop at the bar-and-grill for a beer before going upstairs for his regular dinner of soup and crackers. But gazing at where he’d last seen the boy, he thought he might substitute toast for crackers that evening. After dinner, Walter didn’t know what he’d do. He had nothing but time in front of him. He turned off the shop lights, stepped outside, locked the door, and dropped the keys through its mail slot. He heard them make a tiny clatter on the floor. He turned his jacket collar up against the chill, lifted the satchel, and started down the sidewalk towards home and the rest of his life.