The Importance of Hubcaps

By Linda McHenry

FRANK RARELY LET HIS WIFE get too far away. “Jo, where are you?”

“In the bathroom.”

“Whatcha’ doing?”

“Cleaning the mirror.”

“Why don’t you let the cleaning lady do that?”

“Because I want to do it, that’s why.”

It didn’t matter that Jo was a full five inches shorter than she use to be, or that she could not reach the top bevel since her daughter took away the step ladder the day she found her mother dangling from the buffet. What mattered to Jo was that she did the cleaning of the mirror that reflected back at her every morning. Years ago, before the heart surgery and the lung disease, before Frank’s Parkinson’s, broken hip, high cholesterol, and blindness, Jo cleaned her own house religiously twice a week. There were many things they could no longer do alone, but simple things, like changing a light bulb and washing dishes could still be managed together. As Frank liked to put it, “Your half and my half still make a whole.” With one partially functioning eye and two partially functioning bodies, Frank and Jo Wallace was an unstoppable force of ingenuity.

“What’s the matter?”

“It’s streaked.”

“That’s why we have a cleaning lady.”

“Oh, Frank.”

“Oh Frank” was Jo’s new body language. “Oh Frank,” (don’t be silly). “Oh…Frank.” (how could you?) It was all in the delivery, and Frank, who had been blind for more than twenty years, had not only tuned into her body language but developed one of his own. Putting his cane aside, he squeezed behind her, groping, fudging, and fidgeting around her mid section.

“Oh! Frank! (get off my bunion!) What are you doing?”

“I need the throne.”

“Well, why didn’t you just say so?”

Frank grinned – body language.

It was a cracker-box of a house, built post WWII during the baby-boom years, with three bedrooms, a tiny bath, an attic to store out of season clothes, and a one-car garage that Frank added on to the kitchen many years later. They lived modestly, desiring only the basics, but now required a few necessities like railings and gates and skid-proof carpets, pre-programmed telephones, Life Lines, walkers, canes, and oxygen tanks. The children – God bless them – looked in on them daily, not as surefooted as to their proper place in mom and dad’s lives anymore. It was fall and the annual drawing of straws elected the eldest daughter, Becky, to make the next plea to her mother to hand over the keys to the car.

“I’m not ready.”

“Mom, I think it is time.”

“No.”

“Mom, you’re not safe on the road anymore. You can’t see. You can barely see over the steering wheel.”

“Everybody gets a ding in their car once in a while.”

“You ripped off half your bumper. That’s more than a ding.”

“He shouldn’t have parked his truck so close to me.”

Frank joined his fingertips together lightly and pressed them to his lips, as was his habit when he was deep in thought.

“Mom…”

Jo pursed her lips together and snorted through her oxygen tubing.

“What about last winter?”

“It was only a snow drift, and besides, how was I supposed to know there was a winter storm warning?”

“Please, mom, you’re not safe on the road anymore, and you know it.”

It was a pretty blue Skylark Buick that Frank and Jo loved almost as much as they loved their own children. Every inch of its hundred thousand miles was precious. The glove compartment contained a trove of treasured maps and irreplaceable memories.

Jo refused to hand over the keys while her daughter maintained her right to make another appeal at some other time, pending further evidence.

The next morning Jo slept in longer than usual, snug and warm in her covers. Frank was getting impatient for her to get up and cook his oatmeal. “It keeps me regular,” he insisted.

Frank knew better than to startle a hibernating bear. When he went in to check in on Jo, he remained cheerful, but cautious. “Jo, honey. Are you awake?”

“No.”

“It’s eight o’clock.”

“I’m sleeping”

“Can you make me some oatmeal?”

“In a minute.”

An hour later he returned to the den. “Jo, are you up yet?”

“Go away before I strangle you.”

She rolled out of bed, puffed on her inhaler, brushed her hair, and dragged herself, her oxygen, her walker, and her box of Kleenex into the kitchen where Frank was waiting.

“Regular or apple cinnamon?”

“It’s too late now,” he told her. “But I’ll take a sandwich.”

“What do you mean it’s too late?”

Frank jiggled his belt loosely up and down his mid section. “It’s too late, that’s all.”

Jo took her medicine while Frank ate his sandwich. She made toast and coffee for herself, powdered her face, added mascara, lipstick and jewelry. She gave herself a breathing treatment and folded a few dish towels. Frank listened to his books on tape. She paid a few bills. Frank took his walk up and down the length of the hallway a fixed number of laps. He washed the breakfast dishes. She dried and put them away. While Jo talked to a friend on the phone, Frank refreshed his dentures.

That evening during a commercial break, Jo looked over at her husband slouched in his favorite chair with drool on his chin.

“Frank? Frank, are you asleep? Frank!”

“Wha…did you say something?”

“Why don’t you answer me when I’m talking?”

“I must have dozed off.”

“Do you think they’re right?”

“Who?”

“The kids, about the car.”

Frank folded his hands together and pressed his index fingers to his chin.

“What are we suppose to do with ourselves all day, sit around and twiddle our thumbs?”

“What if we get another flat tire?”

“We fixed it didn’t we?”

“You ended up in the emergency room.”

“It was only a scratch.”

“You know, I can’t see to drive at night anymore.”

“We’re doing okay.”

Jo sighed, “Frank?”

“I’m awake.”

“Frank…I’m tired.”

There was a time – a long time ago – when Jo’s washing machine broke down and Frank bought her a new one. When her kitchen knives dulled, he sharpened them. When the sink sprung a leak, he replaced the gasket. He fixed cars and lawn mowers and bicycles and broken skates and fishing poles and light fixtures. He changed the oil and an occasional diaper. He drove nails into fences and welded broken pipes. He built her a vanity for the bedroom. He had been her Knight in Shining Armor, her fishing buddy, dance partner, and connoisseur of many burnt suppers. He always smacked his lips together, gave the cook a kiss and said, “Mmmm, just the way I like it.”

Jo prepared his dinner by five o’clock sharp every night, starched his white shirts, ironed his hankies, kept a clean house, spent only just enough, was his playmate, his soul mate, and partner in Euchre. She anticipated his dreams and made them all come true. Jo was his Helen of Troy, his better half, his spare energy on tiresome days. She was his travel buddy, his navigator, his spiritual advisor, provider of sexual bliss, and the first responder of smashed thumbs and splintered fingers. She wrote him letters in wartime and made phone calls when he worked late. “I’ll wait up for you,” she said, and she always did.

Frank slid out of his easy chair onto the floor, crawled on his hands and knees across the room to the corner of the couch where she sat with her oxygen and her magnifying glass.

“What are you doing?”

“That you?” he asked using that boyish charm she fell in love with half a century earlier.

“Well, who were you expecting?”

Frank laughed as he put his head in her lap. “Whew, that was a long walk. I don’t know if I can get back up.”

He let her run her gnarled fingers and highly polished nails through his thick head of white hair. Getting stiff in the joints he tried pushing himself up from the floor. He tried pushing from the couch.

“Come on, Frank, get up.”

“I’m trying.”

“Here, take my hand.”

“What good is that going to do?”

“Use your cane.”

“It’s over there.”

“Well, do something!”

“I don’t want to hear so much as a giggle out of you.”

Jo did more than giggle, she laughed. She laughed so hard she nearly peed her pants. In truth, there was a little leakage.

When the EMT’s arrived Frank was still sitting on the floor next to Jo’s feet.

“What’s going on, Frank; are you okay?”

It was that perky little trainee again, the one who helped Frank get out of the bathtub week before last. She was not only young, but also very shapely with a bright smile and perfect teeth. She wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail accentuating her youth. Jo watched her every move. The young lady turned and bent over, revealing a patch of cellulite clinging to her hips beneath a too snug uniform. “Humph!” Jo mumbled.

“Frank, did you fall? Are you hurt?”

Frank blushed. “Only my pride.”

“What are you doing on the floor?”

Frank was polite, but cagey. “Well, if you have to know, I was playing with my wife.”

“Oh Frank!!” (keep your mouth shut)

It was the month of November, and in Indiana, November isn’t really a part of any season. In November, fall is still finishing up and the long months of winter are only a short tease away. When Jo looked into her bathroom mirror, the streaks were getting more difficult to see through. Silently, reluctantly, without word or discussion, as only an old married couple can do, Frank and Jo agreed that maybe their kids were right.

They made an appointment with Mr. Johnson, their favorite mechanic, had their tires rotated, the oil changed, fluids checked, and antifreeze added. And then they took their car through the wash and wax cycle. Frank suggested they go to their favorite restaurant one last time.

Jo got up early the next morning, fixed a light breakfast of toast and coffee. They took turns in the bathroom. Frank put a new blade in his electric razor. While his dentures soaked, he gave his black shoes a good ol’ Navy shine. He located his new cane and hung it over the door knob. Then he slicked down his hair with a brush and put on the shirt and tie Jo laid out for him.

Jo, who was searching every drawer, purse, and container for a misplaced tube of lipstick interrupted his bathroom routine briefly. Never finding it, she put away her bright red dress and chose the loose fitting floral print that accentuated her crooked shoulders, but went well with the London Mauve # 191 that she was able to find. She changed her oxygen tubing and put on her cultured pearl earrings with matching necklace. With a dab of Taboo on her wrists and an added measure of hairspray on her thinning gray hair, she announced that she was ready. It was three in the afternoon.

“Take your winter coat.”

“Got your money?”

“Yes, but where are my keys?”

“Where’d you put them?”

“I put them on the table. Did you pick them up?”

Frank patted his shirt pocket, searched his pants pockets, and jiggled his coat pockets. “No.”
Jo searched the bedroom, the bathroom, and the utility room. Frank felt between the cushions and on top of the TV. Jo was wearing out; Frank was wearing thin.

“I know I put them on the table.”

“Are you sure they aren’t still there?”

Jo gave him the look, not that he could see it, but he felt it just the same.

“What time is it?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“Did you check your purse?”

“I didn’t put them in my purse.”

Frank leaned heavily on his cane with both hands. “Did you say what time it is?”

“Forget the time. If I don’t find my keys we aren’t going anywhere.”

“Should I take off my coat?”

“No wait, here they are.”

“Where were they?”

“Never mind. I have them.”

“Are you ready yet?”

“Don’t rush me.”

Sam’s House of Seafood was not very busy. They ordered grilled salmon with dill sauce and mixed steamed vegetables, and a shared plate of fresh fruit. Frank could hardly wait for Jo to finish cutting his food into bite-size pieces and butter his roll.

“Are you buttering my roll or eating it?”
“Give me a minute.”

“A minute is about all I have.”

She pushed the plate of food in front of him. “Here,” she said handing over the fork. “Eat.”

They ate their meal in silence. Jo thought about being trapped in the house for next three solid months. She thought about how they would get on each other’s nerves. They would argue over the thermostat. Jo would turn it down. Frank would turn it up. The heating bills were getting higher every year. Jo would fuss over the checkbook and Frank would ask way too often, ‘How much money do we have?’ He would complain of “irregularity.” Jo would tell him to “man it up” and let her sleep. Her biggest fear was the same one she had been harboring for years. What if she failed the eye exam in the spring, and she couldn’t get her license renewed?

Frank thought about his precious Buick, sitting in the garage for the next three or four months, the amount of gunk solidifying in its perfectly purring engine. He thought about getting on Jo’s nerves, being bored, and how he wished some of his fishing buddies were still alive to talk to. He remembered the day he bought his first white cane. “Now you can go with confidence,” the man told him. It wasn’t confidence that was lacking; it was activity and stimulation.

Jo could not finish her meal. Frank not only ate his but ordered dessert. Altogether the meal came to $57.63 plus tip and an extra notch in Frank’s belt. “If you loosen it anymore you’ll need suspenders,” she told him. There was a strawberry stain on Jo’s dress, a smear on Frank’s tie, and lots of crumbs on the table and floor when they left. A waiter saw them safely to the door and wished them a good evening.

Jo chose an out-of-the-way country road that was narrow and winding but scenic. She spotted two deer feeding along the roadside and told Frank all about it. The Henderson’s had added a new wing to their house. Someone’s barn siding showed signs of wind damage and needed a new coat of paint.

“Uh, oh.”

Frank hated uh, ohs. He could attach a memory to a deer feeding on the roadside. He could draw on experience to picture barn siding in need of repair, but “uh, oh” didn’t fit any qualifying category of sight, and in Frank’s mind, he wasn’t going to get a full description of Jo’s “uh, oh” on any account.

“We just lost a hubcap.”

Putting her car in reverse she inched her way backward. “There it is.”

“Where?”

“It’s in the field.”

“How far?”

“Not too far.”

Frank sat quietly with his fingers pressed together. Jo knew what had to be done, but she would wait for Frank to think of it first. It was their way.

Frank calculated in his head. He usually makes thirty laps up and down the hallway on most days. Yesterday he did thirty-five. This morning he only did fifteen. That meant he had the equivalent of ten more laps left in him.

“How far is it did you say?”

“Not far. It’s just over there.”

“Think you can guide me to it?”

It wasn’t a very big ditch, just one of those muddy depressions that holds water when it rains, and as fate would have it, it had rained that morning. Frank inched his way across the grassy roadside with the help of Jo’s “go left, now right” directions. She stopped him just short of the ditch. He examined its width and breadth with the tip of his cane. It was his new cane. I was going to get dirty. He would give it spit and polish when he got home. According to his cane, the ditch wasn’t very deep, might have to take five laps off of his calculations – still do-able. He slid sideways into the center, using his big feet like skis on a downward slope, and then dug his way back up the other side.

Jo cringed at the sight of Frank’s Navy-spit-and-shined shoes now covered in mud. She wouldn’t say anything. I didn’t seem like the right time to bring it up.

“How much farther?”

“Just a little.”

“Speak up. What’d you say?”

“I said it’s just over there. What are you waiting for?”

Frank sighed. “For directions.”

“Go to your left.”

“What?”

“To your left! And watch out for the corn stalks.”

“What’d you say?”

“Corn stalks; I said corn stalks!”

Corn stalks? She never mentioned anything about corn stalks. Frank leaned heavily on his cane with his good hand, leaving the palsied one free to puzzle over the situation. “Did you say corn stalks?”

“For heavens sakes Frank you’re six foot tall.” (Well, at least he used to be.) “Surely you can step over a few corn stalks.”

A blind man in an unplowed field of corn stalks was not unlike a soldier in a mine field. It was touch and go. Frank tested the forward terrain with his polished shoe tips. Though the hubcap was in fact only a few feet away, it might as well have been in the next county. It was a dangerous mission that wrecked havoc with Frank’s calculations. Those ten laps got used up quicker than he had anticipated.

“I’m waiting.” he said impatiently.

“Waiting for what?”

“For directions.”

“Go left.”

Frank turned to face the sound of her voice and forced breath through his pursed lips. “How far?”

“Not far, to your right.”

“You just said left.”

“But you turned, so now you have to go right and then go left. I’ll tell you when to stop.” She made a mental note to make an appointment when they got home and have Frank’s hearing checked.

When Frank finally laid hands on their lost hubcap it felt as if he had just landed a five-pound bass. “I got it!”

“Okay, come on back.”

His knees were shaking, and he was out of breath. “Don’t give me any more directions. Just keep talking and I’ll follow your voice.”

He made a blind-man’s bee-line of misdirection, found the ditch, felt the crunch of newly formed ice beneath his feet and grappled his way back to the car.

“Frank, are you okay?”

“Just give me a minute.”

“You don’t have a minute, it’s getting dark.”

Frank was used to being in the dark. What he wasn’t used to was being in the car at night with a half blind woman behind the wheel.

“Oh, Frank, you look terrible.” (She wasn’t kidding.) “Are you okay?”

“I’m pooped.” (He wasn’t kidding.) “Let’s go home.”

A semi was also on the road that night, following Jo closely, flashing its bright lights and honking. She used his headlights to locate the road from her special vantage point of hanging out the window with her oxygen tubing stretched to the max.

Frank rubbed his aching legs and hips. “Where are we?”

Jo wasn’t entirely sure.

Headlights from a second vehicle coming from ahead, temporarily disoriented Jo. She played it cautious and stopped dead in the middle of the road. The oncoming car hit gravel as it went by, and the semi took his opportunity to get around, leaving choking fumes in its wake. It was the final straw that shattered the nerves that opened a whole new can of worms.

Jo’s voice was almost unrecognizable, higher pitched, and hard on the ears. She carried on in colorful articulation about the rudeness of some drivers, the sorry state of the county roads, how they should paint lines that people can actually see, how she was a tax payer, and a law abiding citizen, how she was going to write a letter to her congressman, and something about F…ing a duck.

Frank’s knuckles did not pink up again until they had parked in the garage with the engine turned off and their hubcap safely in the backseat.

Becky arrived around four o’clock the next day, bringing a nice hot bowl of chili for supper. She found her parents asleep in the living room.

“Hey,” she said. “What’s up?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“You guys look terrible. What’s going on?”

Nothing was mentioned about the hubcap or the torn pants, the muddy shoes, or Frank’s lost hat – the raccoons could have it for all anyone cared. Becky ate supper with them and cleaned up the kitchen.

“You sure everything is okay?”

“Everything’s fine.”

A few days later, they took their hubcap to their favorite mechanic. He returned to the lobby a short time later carrying two hubcaps in his hands.

“They don’t match,” he told them.

“What do you mean they don’t match?”

“This isn’t your hubcap.”

That other voice, the hysterical one that accompanied Frank and Jo home that night, took over again. “What do you mean it isn’t our hubcap? Of course it is. What are you talking about? It’s the same; it has to be the same. Can’t you see that it’s the same?”

Frank remained calm, and unflinching. “Give them to me.”

Jo watched Frank examine both hubcaps with his shaky fingers, her heart sinking down into her shoes. She told the man their story, tried to make him understand. She saw it come off in her rearview mirror. “It’s the same; it has to be the same. Can’t you see that it’s the same?”

The mechanic asked why they didn’t just leave it in the ditch.

Frank was polite, but firm. “Do you know how much hubcaps cost?”

Jo felt like she needed to validate herself a bit, too. She told him that she was not born yesterday, that she knew how this world worked, that some young kid would come along, take it, and sell it for drug money. She went on and on in that other voice until she ran out of breath and excuses all at the same time and then there was silence.

Frank rocked his cane back and forth between his hands, pressing his eyebrows together tightly.

“Mr. Johnson?” he asked.

“Yes, Frank?”

“Do you see my wife in this room?”

“I sure do.” The nice man smiled and nodded in Jo’s direction as if he thought she might need to know, too.

“Take me to her.”

The mechanic guided Frank to the chair next to Jo. Frank put his hand on her thigh and patted her tenderly.

“Mr. Johnson,” he began, “I’ve been married to this woman for sixty two years. Can you believe that?”

“Yeah, that’s a long time all right.”

“Do you think maybe it’s time I traded her in for a newer model?”

There it was again, that boyish charm, so disarming, so playful. Jo was relieved to see Mr. Johnson smile.

“No, Frank. She still has quite a few good miles left in her. I think she’s a keeper.” Then he winked at Jo with a grin and said, “But you, pretty lady, missed your chance. You could have driven off and left Frank in that cornfield and gone off to find yourself a much younger man.”

“Yeah,” she stated naively,” but I wanted my hubcap.”

Frank growled about riding in a car with only three hubcaps, how it was like walking a three-legged dog, that it was degrading and cruel fate for his beloved Skylark. Jo drove home in silence.

On the following Wednesday they were back at the clinic.

“There’s nothing wrong with Frank’s hearing,” the doctor told her, “except maybe it’s gotten a little more selective with age.”

Frank told his wife that he did not want to hear any more about his being hard of hearing. “But maybe we should have your sense of directions tested.”

Jo fumed. Men think they are so funny.

November passed into obscurity with the arrival of December. Jo was getting up later and later in the morning and Frank was spending more time with his tapes. They washed the oatmeal dishes at suppertime and the laundry piled up. Jo turned the bathroom mirror over to the cleaning lady. Three Sundays in a row Frank put on his hat and coat and went out to the garage to start his car.
“Can’t let a car set like that,” he mumbled. “It’s not good for the engine.”

When the snowplow passed their house for the second time that day, it woke both of them from their nap.

Frank asked, “Think the car needs washed?

She told him, “It is a little dusty.”

Jo put on her makeup, ran a comb through her hair. No need to dress up; after all they were only going to the car wash. And besides what else is there to do on a Tuesday afternoon?

“Got your money?”

“Yes, Frank.”

“Got your keys?”

“I can’t find them.”

Frank reached into his pants and jingled them for her.”

“Are we ready?”

“Don’t rush me.”

Frank stumbled around with his cane, found Jo next to the kitchen table putting her gloves on. He lifted the hem of her coat with his cane, and gave her a pat on the butt.
He grinned. “That you under there?” – Body language.
__________________
Linda McHenry is a wife, mother, grandmother, and avid outdoor enthusiast. Her short stories and personal essays have appeared in Read This, Whims Place, and Raphael Village publications. She is an active member of the IPFW Writer’s Workshop in Fort Wayne, Indiana.


19 Responses to “The Importance of Hubcaps”

  1. CW says:

    A well told tale of the lost hubcap. This reader became very familiar with Frank and Jo with their stuggles and final fling in the old Skylark.
    You could picture the two working together through their “golden years”. The story kept you wanting more. I could feel the limitations of their lives as well as the love they shared. Well done Linda McHenry.

  2. krazyplace says:

    I loved the story; it made me smile through the whole thing. Humor and love told through the best teachers…. grandparents!

  3. squirtnurse says:

    This is totally awesome. I am so impressed with how the writer tells this story. It’s not just about a lost and retrieved hubcap, but about a couple’s life and love together, how they grow and evolve, and yet, still stay somewhat the same (sweet, loving, playful, boyish charm). Thanks for a great story – it truly was worth reading.

  4. blueroan1 says:

    Wow! I wasn’t ready for it to end, I wanted to go to the car wash with them! Great story, I felt like I really knew Jo and Frank. Thank you for letting me take a trip and have an adventure without even leaving the house. Really enjoyed the story, great job!

  5. lapia says:

    Thank you CW. Glad you liked it.

  6. lapia says:

    krazyplace, so glad my story made you smile in your “krazyplace.”

    Linda McHenry

  7. lapia says:

    Squirtnurst, you hit the nail on the head exactly. This was exactly what I was portraying in my story.

    Linda McHenry

  8. lapia says:

    blueroan1, I guess we could have gone to the carwash. But you know, a story has to end somewhere! Thanks for reading and responding.

    Linda McHenry

  9. rosie says:

    WHAT A GREAT STORY..I LOVED IT..
    CAN RELATE TO SOME OF IT..HOPE TO HEAR MORE..
    WONDERFUL AND THANKS..

  10. Caro says:

    Wonderful! The story left me wanting to hear more… Such a touching love story and how it evolved over the years. It made me smile, but also brought a few tears. Well Done!a

  11. clarkave says:

    What a wonderful story…about never ending love and devotion. It made me smile, laugh, and even a few tears…i guess because I knew this Frank and Jo… and they have given me many precious memories. Well done, Linda. Can’t wait for more!!

  12. Lyn says:

    A beautiful love story! Great ‘visuals’ – I felt like I was right with them. Well done Linda.

    I look forward to more of your stories.

  13. lapia says:

    Thank you Rosie and Caro. I’m glad you enjoyed my story.

    Linda

  14. Cat Lover 17 says:

    Will there be a sequel and/or wil a movie be coming out??
    The title is catchy right off the bat as it is an out-of-the ordinary everyday topic. I loved how you captured the “innocence” of their relationship and you did so with the vividness of all the details- enough to bring the story life- but not overboard where it loses the reader’s attention. It shows how we take life,… things,….- even hubcaps- for granted!… I too, wanted more!BRAVO Linda!

  15. darlene says:

    I read your story and really enjoyed.

  16. Free says:

    What a sweet couple. Story telling at it’s best. Brought back memories. Shed a tear as well as laughter. Good story.

  17. Santiago says:

    I find these …both, the story as well as the writing style to be a refreshng approach to story telling. The author Linda McHenry has achieved an aura in writing in which the reader is slowly …gradually drawn into the story and is then drawn and engrossed with the characters in the same way. Before we know it we have become part of these grand souls and their lifes style. To this creative achievement I give “TWO THUMBS UP”
    Santiago

  18. Judy Lee says:

    That was a well written and heartwarming story about the love of two people growing older. I loved every minute.. Thanks for writing a wonderful story.. I would like to see a sequal. Judy Lee

  19. Sonscere says:

    Great little story, reminds me so much of a wonderful couple in Colorado. Years ago I was producing a show on the handicapped for ch12 in Denver area. One of segments was a field piece with a handicxapped couple. He was wheelchair bound, could see but had a hard time hearing even with an aid, his wife was mobile, could hear but was almost blind. So their handicaps kind of balanced each other. Wonderful folks.