It was an old-fashioned kind of store, dimly lighted, with narrow aisles and an antique atmosphere of practicality, elbow grease, and country charm. I'd go there on Saturday afternoons with my father, often on the way home from the dump, but more often while my mother was doing the food shopping.
My father would take me by the hand, and together we'd walk down the street, the two of us in the heat of the afternoon. I remember turning at the corner of Bank Hill, passing beneath the green awning of the penny-candy store, and entering through the two oak doors with "Hardware" stenciled on their frosted glass.
I was 5 years old, and it was before I knew what it meant to hold a hammer. Even so, I understood I was in a place of great importance, like the library, the barbershop, or any of the smaller, more personal places of that time.
I knew, too, that it was a place out of time, where the past was anchored. With the jingle of the bells on the door, I'd pass from the real streets of my childhood into the real – yet mythological – sphere of the hardware store, its dust and bins and curios all combining to form my first unknowing initiation into manhood.
In my memory, I have just entered and am standing at my father's side. I wear white gym socks pulled up to my knees and black canvas sneakers. Both my father and I have crew cuts, and because it's a day off for my father, he wears faded jeans (which he calls dungarees), the cuffs turned up at the bottoms. He also has on a red flannel shirt that is frayed at the edges, its sleeves rolled back to revel his forearms.
"Hello, Ed," comes a voice from the back of the store. "What can I do you for today?"
My father takes a folded piece of yellow paper from his shirt pocket and spreads it open against his chest.
Even without looking, I know his list is written in large, neat, block lettering that is impossible to misread.
As my father consults the paper, I follow him down the aisle, leaving behind the noiseless rotation of the ceiling fan and the half-dozen flies endlessly tapping against the front window.
It is 1969. I have a red Savoy one-speed bicycle at home and a penny I flattened on the train tracks just up the road.
Standing next to my father, I look up at him in front of the tall shelves, my neck craned back as if we're visiting a city and admiring skyscrapers.
When it comes time to leave the hardware store, my father hands me a paper bag of 12-penny nails. He asks me if I feel strong enough to carry them all the way home.
Even at such a tender age, I understand that he's testing me, inviting me into the brotherhood, and I accept the bag with the proper gravity, one that far exceeds its small weight.
Twice on the way home, my father stops to ask me if I'd like to rest or if I want him to carry the nails.
I shake my head "no." I know it's a ruse. We have half a mile to go.
Then my father places his hand on the back of my head. I am no longer a little boy, this I know. I have a job to do, and pride swings my legs faster.