WHEN I WAS 16, I got a summer job stocking Hallmark cards with a man named Ronnie Ward. Ronnie was around 40, and he was going through a nasty divorce from his wife, Janine. Every morning he picked me up in a Ford Econoline van and we drove around to small-town pharmacies and grocery stores.
Ronnie wore short-sleeved, button-down shirts and jeans every day. We were outside a lot, but somehow his skin retained a grayish tint. The top half of his right pinky was missing, but he never explained why.
We quickly fell into a pattern. I lifted everything that needed to be lifted. Ronnie pointed and grunted, and I moved where he pointed and grunted.
Once, when we were driving to Delano to restock a grocery store, he told me about his last job as a garage-door installer. Janine’s dad had owned the company, and Ronnie explained that when he had gotten divorced he had gotten fired, too.
“Janine,” he said, scratching his head with his nubby pinky. “Jesus, did that woman do a number on me.”
One morning when Ronnie picked me up, there was a shoebox sitting on the dashboard of the van. Ronnie seemed a little more excited than usual. Instead of WCCO, there was actual music playing on the radio.
“What’s in there?” I asked him, pointing to the shoebox.
“That’s for after work,” he said. “It’s a little surprise for us.”
Our last stop for the day was a Ben Franklin in Mound. After we finished filling the racks there, Ronnie let me open the shoebox. I had thought it might be some sort of gift for me, but inside the box was a bunch of garage-door openers.
“What are these for?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he said.
Instead of heading straight home, we drove back and forth through the alleys of Mound. Whenever we passed a house, Ronnie grabbed a couple of garage-door openers and pushed their buttons and waited to see if the garage door opened up.
“You try,” he said, handing me the box.
Most of the doors did not open, but a couple of them did. They slid up and revealed their lawn mowers and ten-speeds and their cars wrapped under tarps. Some of the garages were clean and organized, but others had piles of junk that spread from one wall to the other. Every time a door opened for one of us, Ronnie laughed and hit his hand on the steering wheel.
“Some people build model trains, some people bowl or play golf,” Ronnie said. “This here is what I like to do.”
About a week before the summer ended, Ronnie and I drove up to St. Cloud. He was in a sour mood. He’d snapped at me earlier in the day after I’d accidentally mixed some birthday cards into the condolence-card racks.
“I might as well be doing this myself,” he said. “You’re just making more work for me.”
When we finished work that day, Ronnie drove through town. I figured that we were going to ride around with the garage-door openers again, but instead he turned off into a cul-de-sac and pulled into a driveway. He pulled a garage-door opener from his pants pocket and pressed the button. The door opened.
“Wow,” I said. “First try.”
“That wasn’t luck,” he sneered. “This is where I used to live. This is where Janine still does.”
I watched Ronnie get out of the car and walk inside the garage. He grabbed a weed whip and carried it back to the van. He picked up a shovel and a rake. On his last trip, he came back with a set of golf clubs and a box that had the words “Ronnie’s stuff” written on it in black pen.
As he got back in the van, I could see the tears well up in his eyes. He peeled out of the driveway and a box of cards dumped all over the back of the van.
I had looked at a million greeting cards that summer and I knew that I probably had the words inside me to say something to make this better. I could have told him some corny joke to cheer him up. I could have quoted a great philosopher to give him strength and perspective. I could have provided him with some words of solace in his time of grief. I stared out the window. I remembered I was making $5.25 an hour, and I kept my mouth shut.
John Jodzio is the author of the new short-story collection If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home (Replacement Press). He lives in Minneapolis.