Just lay your hardware on the table, cowboy, and keep them hands up high.

Last Sunday, I bumped into Ron at the hardware store. In the central Midwest, where I live, it’s not unusual to meet an old friend pushing his cart full of home repairs, especially on a Sunday.  True Value and Ace are to us what Starbucks is to those in the big city.  There, it’s espresso and croissants; here, WD-40 with a fresh roll of duct tape.  The hardware store is also where everyone seems to go after church; or, more and more, instead of church, plaster replacing prayer on the Lord’s Day.

Ron was coming down the aisle that I was headed up, neither of us looking where he was going, preoccupied.  A pipe was leaking in my basement, and I was scanning the shelves for cement to help hold the plastic fittings tight.  Something always needs fixing in a house, but, after my divorce, the place I’d moved into seemed particularly fragile: holes in the roof, ripped screens, the plumbing gone sour.  If a man’s home is his castle, mine was under siege, but the enemy was within.  I had come to see the cliché about putting your life back together in terms of my house.  Too bad there’s no homeowner’s insurance for sorrow, no “good hands” to be in but your own.  Thus, patching this or that in the old place became a symbol of self-repair, and I’d started going to the local hardware religiously.

Ron is a former neighbor, the kind of guy who’s good with tools and can fix most anything.  Our wives had gotten along well, and our kids were roughly the same age, so Ron and I had grilled a lot of chicken together during backyard evenings over the years.  He had also saved me both headaches and cash with his do-it-yourself handiwork.  For reasons that probably Freud could best explain, I never adopted my father’s similar fix-it abilities.  I’d turned to words instead of wood, to semicolons, not nails.  I envied the men who could do such things and, if they were women, got scared.

We collided where plumbing meets electrical, both of us shocked back into the present from wherever we were, whoever it was.  “Hey.”  “Howyabeen?”  “I don’t believe it.”  “What’s goin’ on?”—the usual guy talk from two guys who hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years.  Seeing how you yourself have changed is next to impossible; that’s what class reunions are for.  “He’s older; good thing I’m not,” we say to ourselves as I did, looking at Ron as he stared at me.  His burly, Polish shape was gone.  “Ski” was skinny but not around the eyes, where lines he never had before tugged them down.  “Looks like you’ve lost some weight,” he said, and I wondered which of us was talking.

We both were, just as we had tried to stay in touch after I had moved from town to county three years back.  A beer here, a beer there, then we gradually went our separate ways.  When I’d heard that his wife was sick, I called and was pleased to hear she was doing better.  “We’ll beat this,” he said.  “Not much of a lump.  We found it early.”  Same old Ron, still saying “we.”  No man loved his wife more.  And there, too, was that old confidence I’d come to count on, no matter how horrible the house disaster was that he came over to fix—and did.  His attitude and strength were the same back then, a pipe wrench in his thick hand, as they were that time on the phone.  If only we were all like houses, made of concrete or wood.

Doris died the following Christmas.  I was out of the country when it happened but did send a card.  Our meeting at American Hardware was the first chance I’d had to say “I’m sorry” in person, something I should have done months ago. Why hadn’t I, I wondered, as we stood there talking about the Bears.  Partly my own troubles, I’m sure, but a kind of shyness, too—an awkwardness with feelings. But another voice, a new one, more self-assured, had begun to emerge within me in the last few months—a voice that seemed to understand courage in a new way, to define strength differently.  To the cowardly me, it said: You’re getting better at home repairs, now it’s time to get better at the more demanding ones—the emotional kind.  Give this guy a hug, dammit!

I would have had to climb over our burdened carts to do so, and men embracing among electrical sockets and ball joints would have been a little more than this small town can handle, especially on a Sunday.  Instead, we talked for almost an hour—and not just about football or varieties of waterproof cement.  Right there on the hardwood hardware floor, we got positively Emersonian, by God, talking self-reliance and what it was like to be alone.  “I love my house, Guerns.  It keeps me going,” and I told Ron I felt the same way.  I’d come to like being my own carpenter and plumber.  My father would have been proud—even amazed.

Not that either Ron or I had started subscribing to House Beautiful or anything.  Our goals were hardly decorative, nor were they simply practical.  My old man had learned how to fix things because we were poor, though he certainly took pride in what he did.  I could now afford to hire a plumber but chose not to, because home repair had become self-repair—as it had, I realized, for Ron.  You could see it in the sadness of his eyes.  I think he saw it, too, in mine.

The spiritual side of Emerson’s notion of self-reliance has long since been replaced by Pat Sommerall’s sermon from Mount Hardware or Bob Vila’s salvation-by-Sears.  But Ron and I were clearly in that store of edges and angles for more than just the old macho reasons—or the cheapo ones, either.  A couple of softies in a hard place, we were there precisely to make repairs—but from the outside in. I want to believe that inside every John Wayne, with his two-fisted syllables, is the more vulnerable Marion Morrison—his real, more lyrical name—but know that every day I have to duel it out with that part of me called “The Duke” just like every other American male has or will.

Give this man a hug, dammit.  OK, here goes, and I tried, but Ron seemed to have the same idea, and we banged together like tackles and guards in a clatter of plastic elbows and dripless faucets we scattered from the shelves.  From all over the store, people came running.  What, they must have wondered aisles away, could have started all that laughing?