Fictional story: Waxing screws

Published 9:19 am Sunday, December 20, 2015

Illustration by Mark LaFrancis

Illustration by Mark LaFrancis

Editor’s note: Each year for the past 15 years, local author G. Mark LaFrancis has written an original, fictional, Christmas story for readers. Here is this year’s story, “Waxing Screws.”

“Another box, Grandpa? That’s a lot of screws.” “Yup, Buddy. Can’t have enough screws. Never know when you’ll need ‘em.”

My hands smelled from the scented candle wax Grandpa gave me. My job that summer was simple: drag wood screws over a candle until they were fully waxed. That way, Grandpa said, they’d go into the wood a lot easier than un-waxed screws.

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I was 7 years old then and promised that I’d help Grandpa build a lawn swing for Grandma. She saw one like it in a magazine once and told Grandpa she’d like one for Christmas that year.

Grandpa laughed and said, “Ain’t nothing fancy about that swing. We’ll build you one finer and better. Fit the whole family on it, we will.”

Grandma rolled her eyes, crossed her arms and said, “Maxie, you’d better keep this promise. You’ve been sayin’ you’d build me this and that for years.” Indeed, parts of creations littered the basement wood shop: the footstool, the Mason jar shelf, the side table, and on and on. Not that Grandpa didn’t have the skill; he sure did. He was a fine “rough” carpenter, the kind who made frames for big things like houses, garages and sheds. He knew all about joists, stringers, studs and more. But when it came to the finer aspects of woodworking, he had little patience. It’s called “finish” carpentry, turning the “rough” work into nice, “finished” work.

“This time’s different, Clara,” he said to Grandma. “You’ll get that lawn swing. It’ll be the best, you’ll see. And Buddy here will help, right? I’ll even pay you.”

I sat up straight in my chair. What could I say? Pay? Sure, Grandpa.” Actually, I could have cared less about the swing. I was interested solely in the “pay” part of the deal, although I hadn’t a clue how much I was going to earn, or how long the swing would take to build. After supper we headed downstairs to the wood shop. The 18 wooden stairs creaked under Grandpa’s heavy steps. I followed close behind, trying to work up the courage to ask him about the “pay.”

As we stood in the wood shop, Grandpa sighed heavily. “Buddy, don’t know what I got myself into. This time, I’ve got to keep this promise.”

“Us, Grandpa. Us.” I said.

“Ha! That’s right, us.”

It was June. School had just let out, and I dreamed of a summer of fishing in the creek that snaked its way through the woods behind our property, shooting marbles with the guys, eating rhubarb from our friend’s garden and building a tree fort. I soon learned those were just pipe dreams. After all, I had promised to help Grandpa keep his promise. We spent hours cleaning and organizing the wood shop, a rectangular space framed by cinder block walls with no windows. On one side was a wooden workbench, about 18-feet long and 3-feet wide with a metal vice attached. All sorts of tools — drills, planes, awls, bits, saws and much more — were scattered on the bench. Another wall held a floor-to-ceiling stack of wooden drawers, maybe 60 or more. On the third wall hung circular saw blades. I was convinced the teeth could chew a hole in the concrete floor. In the middle or the shop stood the table saw, the workhorse of the room. With the correct circular blade attached, the saw could tear through boards in seconds, screeching like a car with bad brakes.

Grandpa and I sat at the workbench. He carefully sketched out the swing, erasing and correcting.

“Well, Buddy, I think that’s it,” he said showing me his drawing.

I nodded approval.

“We start bright and early tomorrow. We’ll need to be up with the chickens … even before the chickens.”

He wasn’t kidding. “Rise and shine, Buddy,” Grandpa called into my bedroom. It was a Saturday. “Gotta get to the lumber yard. They open at 7 o’clock,” he said. “Gotta get there early to get the good wood before it’s all picked over.”

I shuffled out of the bedroom, pajamas still on, yawning wide and scratching my head.

“Here you go,” Grandma said, handing me a cup of chocolate milk and a warm biscuit.

Grandpa and I rumbled away in his old, gray Chevvy truck.

“Now, Buddy, we can’t get just the first pieces we see … we need to inspect each board … nothing bowed or cupped … nothing split or warped.”

“Yes, Grandpa.”

“No knotholes, either, except for a few tight ones … they give the wood character.”

“Yes, Grandpa.”

“Screws. We need a lot of screws. Your Grandma’s checking for old candles. We’ll need those when we get home.”

“Candles, Grandpa?”

“You’ll see.”

“That’s a mighty fine lawn swing design,” the wood yard manager told Grandpa.

“Nothing but the best for my Clara,” Grandpa said.

For the next hour Grandpa scrutinized what seemed to be a forest of wood boards.

“Nope,” he’d say. “Not this.”

“Not payin’ for that.”

Finally Grandpa finished his inspection, and we headed home, the truck laden with just the right wood, and boxes, and boxes, and boxes of screws.

Back at home, we unloaded carefully. “No scratches,” Grandpa said. With all the wood and hardware neatly arranged in the cellar, I thought we’d be done in time for supper and the rest of the summer would be mine.

“Here you go, Buddy, start waxin’ screws,” Grandpa said, patting a stool in the wood shop and handing me one of the boxes of screws and some old candles Grandma had collected.

“Sir? Wax?”

“Like this,” he explained, dragging a screw over the candle until the screw was covered with wax. “Makes ‘em slide into the wood like a hot knife in butter.”

“How many screws do I hafta do, Grandpa?”

“All of ‘em,” he said. “And when you’re done, these are waitin’ ” he said, pointing to the other boxes we had purchased. “Can’t ever have enough screws. Who knows when they’ll come in handy?”

I sighed loud enough for Grandpa to hear, hoping he would say, “Oh, Buddy, that’s too much work for you. Just do a few and enjoy your summer.” He didn’t. Instead, he intently inspected each board … again. “Each board has its own personality, Buddy. It’ll tell you where it should go on the swing.”

“They talk, Grandpa?”

“Ha, Buddy. Not exactly. See how this board’s grain curves this way, and that board’s grain curves the other way? Well, they might not get along side by side on the swing, so we put them near boards with similar curves. Understand?”

“Think so, Grandpa.”

Every so often Grandpa would check my work. “More wax, more wax.”

The day pushed into night, and we hadn’t even done much at all except for Grandpa sorting boards and me waxing screws.

“Got that swing done, boys?” Grandma hollered from above, laughing.

We dusted ourselves off and headed upstairs for supper. “We’ll have the last laugh, Buddy.”

The next day after church, Grandpa said, “Change up, Buddy. Back to work. The swing won’t make itself.”

In the wood shop, Grandpa showed me how to measure and measure again. “Measure twice, cut once,” he said often. He also taught me to “read” wood. “Here, give me your hand,” he said. “Let your fingers feel the wood grain; it’s just like the tree grew it, gently curving, stretching to the sky. That tree was older than you when it was cut … ha … older than me, too. We have to treat it with respect.”

“Yes, Grandpa,” I said. “What about the screws. Do they need respect?”

He chuckled. “Just wax, Buddy. Just wax.”

While I hated waxing screws, I loved everything about woodworking: the screaming saw, the zizzing drill, the smell of sawdust and the feel of wood shavings. I loved watching Grandpa measure and maneuver wood into the saw blade, his thumbs so close to the whirring circle of steel with its shark-like teeth ripping boards with ease. “There,” he’d say, holding up a board for inspection. “Perfect cut.”

“Perfect cut,” I affirmed from my stool perch, wax and screws in hand.

Occasionally, though, things went, well, crazy.

A loud noise from above or outside sent Grandpa diving to the floor, slipping behind the bench, shaking and shaking. I would put down the screws and sit next to him, wrapping my short arm around his broad shoulders as far as I could. We sat in silence until his shaking stopped. Then we returned to work. “What’s wrong, Grandpa?” I asked. “Sorry, Buddy,” he said. “The war … not for your ears to hear.”

I did not know it then, but World War I and his service in the foxholes of Europe remained with him even in our wood shop. That summer, there were quite a few shakes and many hugs. I learned not to ask questions, just hug.

It was early October, three months after we had started. Morning frost blanketed the browning grass; autumn’s brilliant hues burst from the trees. Grandpa and I pressed on, cutting, fitting, gluing, waxing. One morning before school, Grandpa woke me early. “Shhhh,” he whispered, taking my arm. In pajamas, I followed him into the cellar.

“There!” he said, a grin almost swallowing his face.

“C’mon,” Grandpa said. “Let’s take ‘er for a ride.”

He had worked all night to finish the swing, and it was beautiful, gleaming from a fresh coat of varnish. He and I sat across from one another gliding back and forth, smiling like schoolgirls. “Nice and smooth,” I said, feeling the wood to my back and spine, letting my fingers work the grain. The swing had a slight “tick, tick” as it moved.

“That’s the wood talking,” Grandpa said. “It likes being a swing.”

He stopped swinging. “Now get on upstairs, Buddy, and get to school. When you get back, we’ll start taking ‘er apart.”

“What?” I said turning sharply. “Apart?”

“Gotta get ‘er out of the cellar and into the yard,” he said, laughing. “Can’t swing in the cellar.” By week’s end, Grandpa, my dad and brothers had toted the swing parts to the backyard and reassembled it exactly where Grandma wanted. We saw Grandma peeking out the kitchen window at our work. “Don’t let her see you looking,” Grandpa said. “She doesn’t think we see her.”

That Saturday morning, we stood arms folded, admiring our work. My brothers climbed onto the seats and began swinging. “It works,” my older brother George proclaimed.

Grandma came out of the house. Her eyes popped; a mile-wide smile spread across her face. She shuffled quickly to the swing; we helped her aboard. And there for the longest while we swung.

“I waxed each screw in every piece of wood,” I said proudly. Grandpa looked at me and winked. None of us noticed the chill as we swung in the best swing ever.

I turned 8 that year, but felt like 80 in wisdom. I had learned so much: how to make a lawn swing, how to wax screws, how “read” wood and how a war haunts a brave man. Indeed Grandpa had changed me.

The family spent many hours in the chilly air swinging, listening to wood calling “click, click,” drinking hot chocolate, and looking at the stars. We even strung Christmas lights around the top. Grandpa often kidded Grandma. “Done even before Christmas, Clara.”

The day school let out for Christmas break, my brothers and I arrived at home and saw a sea of cars at our house. A neighbor rushed out. “You boys come with me,” she said, escorting us to her house. On the way, I overheard someone say, “Poor Clara. What’s she going to do without Maxie.” I heard, “heart attack … at work … so sad.”

I froze, fell to my knees in the snow, and became a ball of blubbering boy. Someone put an arm around me. All was a blur, the funeral, the words, the people, everything. All I wanted to do was be on the swing. Even in the biting cold, I felt Grandpa’s warmth. I frequently took refuge there, and Grandma would bring me hot chocolate and blankets and sit with me for a while. “I want to die,” I told her. “I want to be with Grandpa.”

She squeezed me tight. “I thought that, too,” she said. “But your Grandpa lived through that war, and we can live through this. He’s still with us right here,” she said, taking my hand and pressing it to the wood.

Still, I didn’t have the heart to return to the wood shop, so I put it out of my mind — and life.

The seasons passed. My years at school did, too. Another war — the Vietnam War — called, so I enlisted as my Grandpa did. On one hand, I wanted so bad to know about battle, about being a hero like Grandpa. On the other, I was afraid … of death … of being a coward … of not living up to Grandpa’s standards.

In the Air Force, I grew up and became a darned good airman. Although I never was sent to Vietnam, many of my friends were, some returned broken, shaken, and, like Grandpa, profoundly changed. After my discharge, I returned home a senior airman, ready to start a new life.

“It’s in bad shape,” Grandma said as we stared at the broken lawn swing. “We had a bad winter, and that limb came crashing down …”

I sighed deeply, wrapped my arm around Grandma. “As Grandpa would say, ‘Let’s get to work.’ ”

I cleaned the wood shop, reorganized all the tools, and checked the drawers. As I opened drawer after drawer, I swallowed hard and wiped a tear. “Well, Grandpa, you really outsmarted me,” I thought. In the drawers were boxes and boxes of screws I had waxed that summer so many years ago. I realized then I actually had two jobs. One was to wax the screws; the other to listen, learn and love.

With a box in my hands, I sat on that same stool as I did when I was a boy. I remembered what Grandpa had said, “Can’t ever have enough waxed screws, Buddy. Who knows when they’ll come in handy?”