It had been a long, cold winter, with snow since early November. There were seven days when more than six inches had fallen. Once, it was ten, another fourteen. There was snow on the ground, to some noticeable depth, for nearly three months. And it was cold too, unusually cold, at least a dozen days at zero or below. In one stretch, the thermometer didn’t break twenty for thirteen straight days.
So, on a Saturday morning in late February, forty-six degrees felt like summer to Alex Krajik as he sat at the kitchen table watching the wet pavement outside, finishing his second bowl of Cheerios.
Eleven year-old Alex liked winter very much, probably more than most of his friends, certainly more than his sisters and his mom and dad, especially his dad who took two busses to work and back every day.
But even Alex had reached his limit of snow and cold. With Spring Training already started for the Indians and the high school basketball year heading into the tournaments, he had begun to feel the first stirrings of the change of seasons, a growing restlessness for different things to do, playing driveway basketball significant among them.
The drying pavement outside conjured the strangely primitive yet complex cold-wet-gritty feel of his bright orange Spalding leaping up from the concrete and spinning a moment in his palm before he pushed it back down and cut to the right or left. The recollection of fresh air
pumping through his lungs, the circular dirt ball prints on the backboard at his friend Davey Carr’s house began to beckon. Alex closed his eyes and imagined.
A loud clang from the basement drew him back. His father had been down there since eight-o-clock laboring with a leaking pipe running across the ceiling.
Perched on the second rung of a rickety old wooden ladder, Peter Krajik squinted up at the offending, silver-painted tube that stretched the length of the small basement, galvanized pipe, not copper. The house was built in 1942 after all.
As was his habit on Saturday mornings, Peter Krajik wore his familiar old brown flannel shirt, half-buttoned, sleeves rolled up his skinny arms, with his small black crucifix pinned onto his white undershirt. In his left hand was a rusted old wrench that he had brought from the dusty table off in a corner behind the furnace.
It was new once, like the ladder, like the handful of tools and other ‘handyman’ things that he had acquired years ago, in the days before the paint began to fade, the concrete cracked, the pipes began to rust along the basement ceiling, things that slowly brushed away the veil from his children’s eyes so they might see him as he was and is, maybe better than he saw himself. The image of what he might have been was spotted with the days that came and went, like the thousand tiny paint drops on the ladder.
Peter once thought he’d teach history, but life had other plans and made of him a timekeeper, logging hours worked by others, tallying the diminution of their days and his.
He wasn’t good at fixing pipes or at other tasks around the house. There were no ideas tied to them, no stories for him to consider, probe. But he soldiered on, a subtext in the story of
his brothers, accomplished carpenters who made their own furniture, built their homes. Two of them had ladders on the trucks they drove to work each day.
“Shit!” he yelped as the beaten-up old wrench slid from its hold and fell to the basement floor.
“Damn blast it!” He stepped down from the ladder to retrieve the obstinate tool.
The pipe’s drip increased in both frequency and volume; cold spatter tapped the back of his neck, just below his thin white hair.
Alex smiled, scooping up a sliver of banana with his last spoonful of breakfast.
The phone rang.
“Alex!” Peter’s voice shot up the stairs.
The phone rang again.
“Hey, Alex, Davey.”
“Hey, Davey, what’s up?”
Alex could hear thumping on the basement stairs.
“I just got a new net. Come on over; let’s shoot some hoops.”
The damp-haired Peter Krajik appeared specter-like at the top of the stairs.
“Just a second Davey.”
“Alex, what the hell?”
“Davey’s on the phone, dad, he wants me to…”
“Davey? Didn’t you hear me call you?”
“Yeah, but, Davey, Alex pointed to the phone and cocked his head.
“I don’t care if it’s the damn Pope. Tell him to call back.”
“He’s got a new net…”
“He’s got a what?”
“A new basketball net.”
Peter Krajik’s face screwed up like an old rag.
“Davey, I’ll call you back.”
“Sure, sure. Talk to you later.”
“Alex, for cripesakes. I called you three times.”
The boy nodded sheepishly.
“I need you to help me downstairs.”
“Now, Alex. That pipe is going to burst down there.”
“But dad, it’s like fifty degrees.”
“And I just want to play basketball….”
“And I want to…”
“I’ve been waiting all winter.”
“You’ve been waiting?” Alex’s father took two hard steps toward the kitchen table.
“YOU’ve been waiting!?”
Alex pushed his chair back.
Peter now stood right before his suddenly shaky son. The 5’10” man seemed much taller. He extended his bony hand toward the basement stairs, pointing with the cold certitude of Scrooge’s ghost of days to come.
“Get down there now, Alex” erupted in a tone the boy heard only rarely. “Grab a couple towels and get the hell down there!”
The basement of the Krajik home was a Spartan place, dirty white cinderblock walls rising above two-foot squares of chipped brown linoleum. A faded black Krakuer player piano stood against the long south wall. Alex’s oldest sister, Martha, played it every now and then, adequately if not especially well. She had taken a few lessons many years ago.
Alex would sometimes go down there to tinker with it, creating sequences of notes and note combinations. He loved to do it, though he felt like he was sneaking something when he did. He never had a lesson.
Three clotheslines stretched just below the ceiling joists. Between the center two, the aluminum box of the clothes chute was suspended.
The leaking pipe ran along one of the central beams. Beneath it stood the paint-spattered black ladder. Beside it a plastic bucket was filling with a steady doink, doink of cold water dripping from a spot where two sections of pipe joined. On the floor beside the ladder, the old rusted wrench rested on the floor.
When Alex arrived with a handful of towels from the closet upstairs, his father was standing with hands on hips, looking up at his nemesis, as if intent on staring it into compliance.
He reclaimed his perch on the second ladder step.
“Hand me those towels, Alex. Then grab the wrench.”
Two bare light bulbs, one on each side of the basement’s main space, cast a yellow-white tone on the drab enclosure. Two windows were tucked at both ends above the cinderblock walls, staring, unblinking, at each other in their rusted frames, assigned the forlorn task of witnessing the light and dark of days trapped in the dour place.
Alex watched the growing sunlight tarnished in the cloudy panes as it drifted into the basement. The pavement outside would be dry soon.
Peter Krajik wiped a foot-long section of the pipe just beside the laundry chute, squinting as he leaned in for a closer look.
The spot along the juncture point, dry for just a moment, began to bleed again.
“Okay,” he nodded knowingly, “there it is.”
“Hand me up the wrench,” Peter extended his right arm downward.
Buoyed by a sudden optimism, Alex placed the old tool in his father’s grimy hand.
“If I can just tighten this,” the timekeeper grunted as he once again calibrated the old wrench to the size of the pipe.
Alex could hear the bounce of his orange Spalding ringing in his ears.
The wrench slipped around the pipe.
“Damn!” Peter spat out.
He took the wrench off the pipe and fiddled with it once again.
“Do you want me to get you something else, dad? Another wrench maybe?”
The rusted old tool made rusted old tool noises as Peter Krajik spun the reluctant adjustment gear. He stopped a moment and looked down at his son who looked up at him with eyes just like his dad’s.
“This is my only wrench, Alex” he said tersely. “Whattya think, I got a whole drawer of these things?”
That didn’t surprise the boy.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t know.”
“It’s an adjustable wrench, Alex. It changes to fit different sizes.
Peter Krajik squinted his bifocular eyes more intensely.
He set the wrench onto the pipe once again; this time with a tighter fit. He pulled down on the old tool.
It held for a second, but it didn’t move the joint. It began to glisten in the cold water that now embraced it.
“Urghh,” Peter puffed out as he pulled down on the wrench again.
Alex saw the effort, the strain. The veins in his father’s bony hands stood out like small ropes. His narrow, angular face reddened.
“Dammit!” he stopped that assault, drew a deep breath, closed his eyes, and pulled down on the wrench once again.
Alex had seen that face before, the effort, so had the basement walls, the windows, the two bare light bulbs.
All at once, the old wrench slid once again from the pipe and from Peter’s glistening hands. It spun twice in the air then arrived with a laughing-metal sound on the dirty brown linoleum beside Alex, just missing his left foot.
“Shit!” Peter called out just as the escaping tool landed.
“Pick that damn thing up, Alex.”
The boy reached down, grabbed the wrench, and extended it up to his father who was wiping away sweat with the back of his left hand.
“Dad?” Alex said softly.
“Yeah?” Peter mumbled as he began again to play with the sliding gear mechanism.
“Why don’t you just call a plumber?”
Peter Krajik stopped his adjusting and looked down at his son. He drew a long breath.
“Because I can do this, Alex; I’ll figure it out.”
The boy looked at his father’s scuffed work shoes on the second rung of the ladder.
“I know you can. It’s just that, well…..Davey’s Uncle Phil is a plumber, and he does this kind of stuff all the time.”
“I’m sure he does,” Peter reached out for the pipe again.
“I just thought….” Alex’s voice lowered.
Peter stopped again. “Look, Alex, there are things that you just have to do yourself. Things like this happen, and you have to find a way to take care of them yourself.”
“But dad, a plumber…”
“A plumber would charge a lot of money to come over here and fix this little problem, and we don’t have a lot of money. You have to learn to take care of things yourself. Why spend $50 when you can solve it for $5, or, better yet, for nothing?”
Alex looked up at the figure of his father on the paint-spattered ladder, his thin white hair alight from the bare bulb above and behind him, his Saturday shirt sleeves rolled up past his elbows, his one wet, rusty wrench in his hand.
Peter set the tool on the pipe again and pulled down.
“Arghh!” huffed from his clenched jaw. The pipe joint didn’t budge.
“Arghh!” once again, then a long, exhaled sigh.
“You know what, Alex? We’re just going to go down to Turney Hardware to get some pipe patch; that’ll do the trick here.” And Peter Krajik stepped down from the ladder and set the old wrench on the piano stool.
“Come on, let’s go spend that $5.00.”
* * *
As the car rolled down Portage Street to Turney, Alex noticed that the pavement had indeed dried, and the warming sun made it almost feel like a spring day.
Carl Henderson, six doors down from the Krajiks, was washing his car in the driveway as they went by. He waved to Peter, smiling, pointing up to the almost cloudless sky.
“Maybe we can do that after we fix the pipe today, eh Alex?”
His son didn’t answer. The feel for his orange Spalding in the palm of his hand returned.
On the radio, a man was talking about the growing influence of the Soviet Union in Cuba, how it was beginning to impact the economy and the military of that island just ninety miles off Florida.
Alex listened absently as the Krajiks’ ’57 Chevy passed a group of boys pedaling their bikes down the sidewalk. As Alex watched them, his father pointed to the radio,
“Now this is an interesting development,” he said decisively, in a voice that would have caused the rusty pipe in the basement to listen.
“The United States always feared the prospect of that happening. The intelligence community knew that Castro was ripe for a swing to communism.”
Alex had heard his father speak like this before, sometimes to his mother, often at the dinner table.
“We had our chance with Batista, but we blew it. Castro stepped in when that dictator steamrolled the place. If the Soviets get a firm grip there, we could be in big trouble.”
Alex looked out at the still-warming day.
“And I’m not sure Nixon is the statesman to address a complex issue like this, and Senator Kennedy? Hell, what does he know about foreign policy? He’s just a kid.”
The 1960 election season had begun to heat up.
Peter Krajik thought a lot about history and current events, and he was always ready to talk about them to audiences both willing and otherwise, often to the t.v. and the radio, sometimes to the open spaces as he looked out beyond the windows and doors of his house. It was as if he was searching for his classroom.
And when he did, his voice and his energy seemed different, not the kind of things confined to a time clock and a punch card.
“Isn’t Kennedy Catholic?” Alex asked softly.
His father smirked. “Yes, he is.”
There was a brief silence; then Peter Krajik turned to his son.
“Well, I mean, we’re Catholic, and there’s never been a Catholic president….Alex’s voice faded.”
“And just how would that help him deal with the Russians?” A thin smile crossed Peter’s face.
“Have you thought about that, Alex?”
The mint-green BelAir stopped at the light in front of the old high school building, two blocks up from the hardware store. On the basketball court behind it, six boys about Alex’s age, dressed like it was mid-April, were playing a game of three-on-three. The rusty hoops did not have any nets.
Peter turned to watch, tapping at the steering wheel.
Alex looked straight ahead.
The light changed, and the Chevy pulled away.
“You know,” Peter Krajik offered. “Once we get that pipe fixed and washed this dirty car, it wouldn’t be so late that you couldn’t call your friend…..”
“…your friend Davey, and you could maybe get some time to play. Would that be okay?
Alex didn’t answer.
“C’mon, you could get an hour or so in, no? That’s the way things go. It’s the best we can do today, no?
Alex scratched his head and drew a long, slow breath. He looked at the sun and the dry of this faux-spring day.
“Yeah, I guess so. Maybe it’s the best we can do.”
“Yeah,” his father said as the mint-green Chevy pulled into the Turney Hardware parking lot where about a dozen cars were already in place.
“Yeah,” he said again, this time as much to himself as to his son. “Maybe it’s the best that we can do today.”
John P. Kristofco has published three poetry collections and a collection of short stories, "The Alex Chronicles", The Orchard Street Press, in 2020. His stories and poems have appeared in multiple publications, and frequently in these pages.