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Nashville Scene Second Hand

Living with Mr. Fixit

By Margaret Renkl

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  I am married to a man who believes "old," "worn," and "busted" are synonyms for "bargain." If you're young and poor, this is not a bad attitude to have, especially if you possess a primal instinct for fixing motors. Twelve years ago I was thrilled when my boyfriend/future husband found a washing machine on the side of the road, hauled it home, and made it run. I found this feat amazing, one more reason to marvel over the Renaissance man I had fallen in love with, a person who not only recited great poetry but also, even in abject poverty, summoned luxuries out of thin air.

Over the years he has resurrected from the dead, more or less successfully, a variety of broken mechanical devices including space heaters, ceiling fans, toaster ovens, lawn mowers, and, most spectacularly, a canister vacuum cleaner abandoned in pieces in the crawl space of an empty house. For 11 years he has kept a 1972 Volkswagen microbus on the road despite rusted-out floorboards and a cracked windshield--cracked, admittedly, because of an invention of his that failed. Tired of driving with the windows down in icy weather, he attempted to fashion a defrost device from several lighted votive candles glued to the dashboard. Driving down the road he looked like a cult leader.

I still find the man I married an absolute wonder, but these days I prefer appliances that come with a warranty. I now realize that patched-together machines actually spend a lot of time broken down, often snapping in a spectacular display of sparks. My husband tends to acknowledge the demise of an appliance only after it electrifies him and he's forced to heave it, in a flaming arc, into the back yard where it lies for a week in charred ruins before I can bribe the garbage collectors to carry it away.

So last week when our 25-year-old dishwasher started coughing out gallon after gallon of water onto the new linoleum floor, I lined up a few arguments. As my husband lay under the kitchen sink surrounded by a variety of tools our toddler was busily applying to every knob and handle in the kitchen, I started in: "Sweetheart," I said, "I believe it's time to get a new dishwasher."

"No--" CLUNK-- "way," he grunted, his crescent wrench echoing in the bowels of the machine as water streamed out of the cabinet in rivulets. "I've about got this--" CLINK, CLINK-- "licked."

I took a pair of pliers away from the toddler and added another towel to the dike I was building across the doorway to the dining room. "Even if you fix it now," I countered over the objections of our child, "eventually it's just going to break again, and next time you might not be home when it happens."

"Come here," he beckoned from the depths of the cabinet. "I want to show you something."

I peered past our toddler, ready himself to respond to any invitation issued from a place where flammable chemicals are stored. Considering the granules of Comet and the camel-cricket bodies surrounding my husband's head, I asked, "Show me what, exactly?"

"See this knob?--" DING, DING, he indicated something silver with his wrench which I could not entirely see. "Turn it to the right, and you cut off the water supply to the dishwasher." His body twisted in what I assumed was a demonstration of this point. The water pouring past his hips did in fact cease.

Okay, assuming he actually got the dishwasher fixed this time, I'd know what to do when it broke the next time. Somewhere under that sink was a knob I could turn to prevent an epic flood from spilling out of the kitchen and buckling the floors throughout our house. At that moment, however, the mechanical genius was having no luck with the repair job at hand. Every time he turned the water under the sink back on, the water in the dishwasher poured out the door.

I pulled our toddler off his father's knees where he was bouncing energetically. "Look," I said, "I really think we should just go out and buy a new dishwasher before you electrocute yourself."

Worn out and sopping wet, my husband crawled out from under the sink and leaned back against the cabinets. Water swirled in eddies around him as our delighted toddler waded back and forth across the flooded kitchen.

"All right," he admitted finally. "I'll get the paper. We might luck out and find a good used machine this afternoon."

"No," I said. "We're going to buy a new dishwasher. A brand new dishwasher. From a store."

For a moment he considered the ancient appliance now almost floating in a sea of its own making. "Well, maybe," he conceded, "but let's look in the paper first. If something hasn't turned up in a couple of weeks...."

"Honey," I said, "every single time we buy something used, it turns out to be broken. Remember the dryer that threw wet clothes out onto the greasy garage floor?"

"Now, that wasn't my fault. The guy selling it had a seizure the minute I got there. He was flopping around on the ground right at my feet for five minutes. I had to buy that dryer."

"And the television set with the red light exploding across the screen? That guy didn't have a seizure."

"No, but he took the television back."

"Not true. He let you trade the television in on another television that cost 40 bucks more and still had to be turned on twice before it came on once."

"Electronics are different from motors," my husband argued, taking another tack. "A dishwasher doesn't have much to go wrong with it. I can fix a dishwasher if it breaks."

I looked at him. His clothes were wringing wet, his hair was plastered to the back of his head, and his wrinkled fingers were blue. "Sweetheart," I said as gently as I could, "I'm starting to have my doubts about that."

He looked at our joyfully splashing son, at the towel dike about to burst.

"Okay, you win," he announced undaunted, heading into the laundry room for a mop. "We'll start at the scratch-and-dent sale at Sears...."


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