Hanging Up the Apron
It was meant to be a part-time summer job, the kind that a college student takes between semesters. And that’s how it started.
She had gotten home from college that summer in 1965 and walked into Page Hardware, the local hardware store in the town next to the one she grew up in. It was so long ago that for the first two years she wore a skirt and make up to work at the cash register.
Back in those days the register was a real old monster. It had since been brought back to life as kind of a nostalgia, conversation piece, but she remembered when it was old and gnarly and even after the second of two restorations it had been through, it retained some of the operational quirks that had given her such trouble in the beginning.
Big and brass, with manual keys, it is the kind of cash register you don’t see anymore, except in places like an old hardware store. When you rung up an item, the little number tiles appeared in the top window of the register until you actually turned the handle of the machine, which actually, physically, rung up the price into the machines internal workings.
Long ago she had memorized each key on that machine, and it had been years since she had to look at it when she helped a customer, but today she took the time to notice it again, and she watched the clock as it ticked down on this, her last day of work.
She waited at the register for the next customer, her hands resting on the counter. She could remember the old counter that was here, and the one before that. She remembered the electronic register they had for a while in the 1980’s, and she remembered the first time a customer showed up with a credit card instead of keeping an account with the hardware store. That old credit card machine was kind of a monster, the credit card was stiff, thick paper with a little metal clip bent over the portion of the card that was cut out to receive it. On that little piece of metal as the card number, and you used to need to have a full stock of those slips that came in triplicate with their own carbon paper.
She shuddered to think of the environmental cost of all that carbon paper, these many years later,. All the paper tossed in transaction after transaction. Her contemplation of all the rolls of receipt paper that had passed through her hands was interrupted by John Bauer.
She smiled at him. He’d become an old codger over the years, but she still remembered him when he was a young man, full of dreams, ideas and himself. He caused her a bit of trouble early on. Not because he was mean, but because he had taken a fancy to her, a lady who worked in hardware, who understood tools and all the work that happens in a woodworking shop, he thought that might be the kind of gal he would like to date.
Trouble was, she wasn’t really interested in dating a man like that. A man who was a regular customer. Really, a man at all. The trouble that John had caused her was that she liked him, but not in any way that he liked her. He said he’d wait for her to soften to him, and so after a couple of years she felt she owed it to him, as a friend, to tell him the truth about herself.
It was scary to tell him, to reveal that she was a lesbian, back in the early 1970’s. He had seemed, over the prior couple of years, to have a very warm heart, a kind soul, but that was no guarantee that the information would fall on understanding ears, that trouble wouldn’t be made, that fuss wouldn’t be made, that she wouldn’t lose her job.
One afternoon, after her shift on a Saturday, she told him the truth. She was as gentle as kind as she could muster, being as frightened of telling him as she was. He took the news silently, and looked her in the face. She could scarcely tolerate the intimacy of that look as he considered her in this new truth. He said to her, “Well, I guess all the waiting in the world isn’t going to change that, now is it?” He gently put a hand on her arm and continued. “It must have taken a lot to tell me that, and I appreciate that. I value our friendship and now that I know the score, I won’t trouble you anymore about it.”
She waited for weeks for any trouble to come out of that conversation. She worried he would tell people around town, around the hardware store, but nothing came of it. He continued to be friendly when she saw him at work, a little of the sparkle in his eye was gone when he looked at her now, but that was really it. Over the years, he became a real good friend, and she kind of an extra aunt to his children.
And now he wheeled up to her counter and smiled. “Last day, isn’t it?” He chuckled a little bit. “What are you going to do tomorrow?”
Her emotions caught her off-guard, there was a slight hitch in her voice. “I don’t know, I hadn’t really thought of it. I mean, maybe a movie?”
He took her hand “I’d love to go to a movie with you tomorrow.” She rung up his small bag of screws, screws she knew he had hundreds of at home, and he paid with a $100 bill, and before she could give him change, he’d wheeled out of the store, saying “Keep the change, Eleanor, for the future!”
After that, she walked the aisles of the store. In her mind’s eye she could still see where some of the aisles used to be before they were moved in the 1980’s. She had been walking these aisles, helping in the beginning mostly women with housewares since the day that Bobby Kennedy was shot. As long as she lived, she’d never forget that day.
And she walked those aisles pretty much five days a week, every week since then. There had been the odd vacation, and the rare sick day, for Eleanor was a trooper. All in all she must have walked the equivalent of around the world in those aisles.
At first the men were reluctant to ask her questions. They called her Honey or Sweetheart. It took a couple of years before any of them took her seriously. They did, though, eventually. The old men came to realize that she knew what she was talking about, and the newer generations of men just expected that she knew a lot because many of them had been going to that store since they were boys, and she had been a constant presence there.
Eleanor pretended to be surprised by the lunch and cake that had been ordered for her last day. Of course, she knew what they were planning, and it was very sweet. Clumsily, they had asked her about a month ago what her favorite kind of cake was. And so she knew, but still it was sweet.
It made her remember the day she got married to Mary Beth. By the time she and Mary Beth decided to get married, the times had really changed and by then dozens of generations of teenagers had taken their summer and winter break jobs at the hardware store. By then, “women’s lib,” was 30 years in the past and Eleanor had long since been both openly gay and wearing pants to work. The transition had not been completely easy or smooth. Some of the customers complained to the store owner when an article was written about Eleanor, mumbling things about how a traditional hardware store ought to be a safe place to bring children, but their voices were drowned out by those who were both supportive, and those who didn’t care either way. “Can she help me figure out how to unplug my drain?” One man asked in a follow up article. “She can, and does. She knows more about hardware and home repair than most, and she’s always quick and reliable with a helpful answer. I don’t care who she loves. It’s none of my business. Her business is hardware and she’s darned good at it.” He was particularly pleased that he’d said “darned” instead of “damned.” After all, he wanted to be quoted, too!
On the day she and Mary Beth got married, the owners of the store closed up shop for the day. In the middle of the night, they’d hung bunting and bells on the front of the store and put up a big sign “Closed for a family wedding today, open again tomorrow.” It was the one time that the store had made Eleanor really cry.
Her parents had been a mixture of concern and relief when Eleanor had decided to stay at the hardware store that first summer. College was expensive and the family really struggled that first year. Her parents wanted her to have a formal education, but they were people of modest means and they had three other children behind Eleanor. So Eleanor took classes at a local college and worked her way through her bachelor’s degree. By then she’d already gotten her own apartment, furnishing it with thrift store finds and kitchenware purchased with a healthy employee discount at the store.
She still had three of the six pots that she bought that summer of 1970. She figured, all these years later, a 50% retention rate was pretty good. She lost one to burning rice, she lost one to an ex girlfriend and for the life of her, she could not remember where the last pot had gone.
Throughout her last day long term regulars customers came through to wish her well, to buy one or two last things from her and unbeknownst to her, leave an envelope for her.
She did get to help a new couple in town that day, and that was especially pleasing to her. This young gay couple clearly had never owned a house before and had no idea how to take down decades old wallpaper. She cheerfully helped them out, told her about Mary Beth, so they’d know they’d be welcome in the store, and rang up their purchase on the old cash register, much to their delight. As they left the store that waved goodbye, and she thought to herself that today isn’t just about the past, it’s about the future. These two would come back, time and time again if she knew anything, and she would be part of their story long after she retired.
Of course, she might well see them around town now and again also, and that would be nice.
As they day came to an end, she found herself touching a lot of things, like displays, and the paint mixer. She looked down aisles and saw customers she remembered fondly, some long since dead. She thought about styles had changed, how men used to come into the store, even on weekends, wearing a tie because they had come downtown, and the women wore pearls. How that had given way to jeans. How hairstyles had changed over the years, and how much people’s needs remained the same.
A part for a toilet, help with painting, questions about snow shovels. Always changing and yet always the same.
At the end of the day Mr. Page asked her to make one last key for him. They key he asked to have duplicated, something he could have handily done for himself, turned out to be a key to the store. She recognized the key, since she had one herself.
When it came time for the store to close fo the day, Mr. Page asked for her key back, and with some sadness, she took it off her keyring, which now looked a little light.
He gave her a little package and asked her to open it, which she did. It was a small jewelry box, and in it was the key she’d made him a few hours ago: the last key she’d ever make here. He asked for her keyring and put the new key on it place of the old, worn key. He said to her “You are a member of our family. You have worked here since I was a boy, longer than I have myself. Please remember that even though you don’t work here anymore, you always have a place here.”
It was the second time that she cried at Page Hardware.