“My parents were in the military,” Hilda said. “You know, middle east and all that. My dad got shorter.”
“Shorter?” said Zach.
They were sitting on the back porch of Bernard’s house, looking out over a tidy lawn which appeared to be the playground for a number of cats, and a lounge and back-scratching area for the dog named Maxine, who rolled around on her back and kicked her legs in the air, all with her tongue lolling out.
Lilies were in bloom along the back fence, and there were some unruly ninebark growing near the house, and pots of petunias, and a tub with a few straggly herbs. A table, possibly a picnic table, had graced the lawn at some stage, as there were symmetrical squares of dead grass. There was a sawed off stub of what had been a tree. One of the cats lolled near the stump, perhaps nursing resentments about the shade that was lost.
“Shorter, yes,” said Hilda. She sipped on one of Bernard’s home made beers, a bitter ale that was smooth and soothing. “He was a paratrooper for fifteen years. You try hard-landing a thousand times and see what it does for your posture.”
“Seriously?” said Zach. He now wanted to meet Hilda’s father. He thought he had reached old person gold with Bernard. Perhaps old people had interesting lives and interesting things to talk about. This was beyond Zach’s experience. His own grandparents had raised him, and they were cantankerous and strict, and looked upon Zach as a criminal-in training, possibly because both his parents were heroin addicts. His grandmother was still alive. She liked when he visited, but she had very little of interest to say. On the other hand, he knew virtually nothing of what their lives were or had been. Only that they dragged him to church until he was a teenager and undraggable, were strict about his schooling and his friends, were tight wads when it came time to open the wallet for school clothes or trendy games and toys, and refused him guitar lessons when he asked. Never mind. He taught himself.
Bernard’s screen door hinges needed oiling— maybe, thought Zach, all screen doors did. Were there any that did not creak and complain? Bernard handed Zach a mandolin case. “There you go,” he said.
The mandolin was not only repaired, but cleaned and polished. It gleamed and smelled of almond oil. Zach felt something welling up behind his eyes. Hilda noticed. It was impossible to explain, but had to do with his father, whose mandolin was the only thing he hadn’t sold (he might have, but he gave it to his parents to hold for Zach), Zach’s relief to have it back in his possession, the kindness of Bernard, and the loving skill of the craftsman who put it back together.
“Thanks, Bernard,” said Zach. He had the forty dollars loose in his pocket, and took out the bills and handed them to Bernard.
“Great,” said Bernard, “this will feed his parakeets for the next while.”
“Yeah, good,” said Zach, still overwhelmed.
Hilda put her hand on his wrist. It felt cool. She was feeling his pulse too, Zach knew. It was something Hilda did.