By Meredith Betz
The “vintage” salvage truck parked outside the salvage yard just off the Lake City exit on Route 10 served as a sign post junkyard for totaled cars.” The sign placed on the roof of the truck read, “You have arrived at the Baldwin Salvage Yard.
The truck itself was a faded blue cab, flanked by red side boards. On the passenger side, the windshield was splintered. A rusty grill grinned at people passing by. An equally corroded towing chain was wrapped around the truck’s front bumper.
Denny Harris sat down on a folding stool next to the truck like he’d done every day. It was as though he took comfort in sitting next to something as old and beaten up as he was. He was about seventy. His wrinkles were dried up streams on his leathered face. Grey peach fuzz topped his otherwise bald head. At his right foot was a small white pompom with a slender cottontail next to a toppled plastic St. Christopher. While no one was looking, he snatched them from the dirt and pocketed them.
Then he took out of his metal lunch box a Coke and bologna sandwich made with Wonder Bread and slathered with mayonnaise. He had the same lunch every day since he started working in the salvage business almost twelve years ago. After eating, he picked up a composition book. It resembled the ones school students had with the black speckled cover and the white box for their names. With his Bic in hand, he seemed to be taking some kind of notes. He wrote for the rest of his break.
On a summer day years ago he just showed up at the yard looking for work. He wore a Led Zeppelin “Stairway to Heaven” t-shirt, faded jeans that had been cut off at the knees and Birkenstocks, looking like a walking flashback to the 70’s. The foreman felt sorry for him and told him he could be traffic cop to the handful of wrecking trucks who dumped crashed cars in the lot.
Denny jumped at the chance for the minimum wage under the table job. Perhaps he considered seven bucks an hour a reward to root through smashed up cars–especially the classics. He was particularly excited when an A 1955 bathtub TL 56 Porsche, or a classic Mercedes 190 SL, or, best of all, a 1964 convertible Mustang came in. The foreman let him do the final picking over cars whose metal would be sold for pennies on the dollar.
Everyday you’d see him picking out a button, or feather or a dried up white carnation boutonniere–anything that might have a story in it. He seemed to be curious about the weirdest objects. Since he didn’t know their stories, he made them up. He never told people anything about himself. All anyone ever knew about him was that he lived on Montague Street in the same house he lived in as a kid. His parents left it to him. They thought he might need it someday.
At the end of this long day, at exactly 4:45 and the same as usual, Denny went home to his house–a dingy white rancher, straight out of the sixties. He opened the kitchen door which had red flakes of paint still stuck to its otherwise bare wood. A red Formica and chrome table rested on a split gold linoleum floor. Kids had broken into his house and tried to rip off his “mid-century” stuff. They made off with his parents’ coffee table and dining room set. He managed to salvage his grandmother’s kitchen table and chairs before they were “relocated.”
He grabbed a Bud from the avocado frig, and with his notebook and the Bic in hand, went into the living room. He spent most of his time in the room with its dark knotty pine walls and dingy gold wall-to-wall shag carpeting. There was a fake brick fireplace on one wall with two bookshelves on either side. The shelves were filled with shoe boxes with labels stuck on them. Denny took down a box labeled “You’ve Gotta Have Luck.” and took from it a rabbit’s foot, a St. Patty’s Day green glitter top hat, a grungy white pair of mirror dice, and pieces of a mirror glued to a measuring tape. There were at least a dozen of found objects still in the box. “I’ll start with these,” Denny thought.
He pulled out the pom-pom and a 4-inch-high plastic St Christopher from his pocket and put them in the box. Then he flopped down on his worn-out, orange tweed recliner, plunked down his Bud on the side table, and put his feet up on the banged-up coffee table in front of him. He began to write.
“Hmmm. Got it,” Denny said and started to write.
“Esther was an eighty-five-year-old grandmother well past her prime but she still got a few whistles from the men left standing in the local nursing home whose weekly outing was to the Methodist Church.
She was driving down Rte. 173 in her 1957 Bel Air convertible. She and her husband kept the car in mint condition. Years later after Frank had passed on, Esther took great care of it too, driving it to church on Sunday, grocery shopping on Tuesday, the gas station every other Friday for a top up. On the weekends she took boyfriend Ed on his errands. Ed had cataracts and couldn’t drive. The purple dice hanging on the rearview mirror were for good luck along as was a pompom from her daughter’s white baby sweater. She had stuck St. Christopher to the dashboard to protect her from bad luck.
Denny stopped writing, chuckling to himself remembering the real Esther story. Occasionally when his father tied one on, he’d have a father-son talk, often about Esther. “She was ‘a wow’. Best make-out in town. She gave a little more now and then in the back of my parents’ Studebaker, if you get my meaning. Too bad Frank knocked her up and the fun stopped.” He’d beat the story to death. “Have to have an Esther story!” Denny smirked and continued his narrative.
Esther was on her way to the truck stop on Rte. 10 to meet her boyfriend Ed to celebrate St. Patty’s day with a hamburger, fries and a pint of green beer. She liked Ed a lot but she would never dream of marrying the old coot. Her violet hair was blowing in the wind under her St. Patty’s green sparkly hat. She was singing, “Mr. Sandman, Bring Me a Dream.” She got her wish permanently when a school of Hell’s Angels forced her to steer right into a pine tree.
“Hell’s Angels. Nice touch,” Denny congratulated himself.
After he finished the Esther story, he folded the notebook paper and stuffed it into an envelope that read in bold letters, “Please read me.” He addressed the envelope to the New Yorker magazine, stamped it and walked to the front door, opened it and stuffed the envelope inside the mailbox. Denny was convinced that someday sooner or later, but before it was too late, a publisher would recognize his genius. It was only a matter of time.
With that he went into the kitchen for another Bud, stumbled back to the living room, plunked the new Bud down next to the empty one and started to work. He arranged his hammer and nails, crazy glue, a heavy-duty staple gun, cardboard and string on the coffee table. In the corner was a 10-inch diameter, 5-foot high pressure-treated pole standing on a cross of two railroad ties. Standing over the pole he began his work, sticking the “You’ve Gotta Have Luck” artifacts, to the soon to be totem pole. Denny grinned and said, “This is a whole lot better than making picnic tables in the slammer.”
“Here goes nuthin’,” as he glued St. Christopher to the top of the pole.
When finished with his artwork, Denny brushed sealing varnish over the pole and carried it out to the backyard and went back inside. He yawned and stumbled to his bedroom for one more night of fitful sleep.
He was both writer and sculptor who had spent many years honing his writing and woodworking ability in Hernando prison. His GED instructor thought he had writing talent. His short stories, though at times weird, were very good. “Your work shows a real insight into life,”
the teacher insisted. In the prison workshop, Denny built park benches that were works of art.
He was well aware that letting his co-workers know about his felonious past would make him an outcast. He also was sure that sharing his creative talent with them would meet with judgment and ridicule. So, he decided he’d have to settle for self-satisfaction for his work.
After completing a project, Denny would hit a lull and wait for inspiration that might help him create another totem from one of the boxes. Sometimes the lost and found object would start a whole new idea for a story and pole. That was the case when a scorched orange Volkswagen bus arrived in the lot. Its rear end had been-painted with flowers, a peace sign and musical notes.
“Well, this is a blast from the past.” Denny’s remarked. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was the obvious choice for a theme.
Some of the bus’s contents survived the carnage. When he rifled through the contents of the van, he found at least 30 smashed tape cassettes, a lock of long grey hair, five roaches sans the weed, the chrome letters “Fender” lying near the back door, 3 guitar frets, and a purple bandana.
“What’s the point of ripping off a Fender guitar that is now unrecognizable and not worth much at all?” Denny remarked, referring to the stupid thieves who must have pilfered the stuff from the van in the middle of the night.
Denny was inspired. He had quite a few “blasts from the past” stuffed in a box that fit the theme. Finishing the “Get What You Want” totem, Denny was pleased by the irony of the work.
“This’ll be the one that gets me found,” Denny assured himself.
Not all boxes were that fun to work with, but held stories that needed to be told.
The box labelled “Sweet Dreams,” was one of them. In it rested a rattle, a smashed iPad, a ribbon, a baby tooth and a well-worn teddy bear. The day he found a little blue croc tucked in the crease of the car cushions, he knew it was time. That night, as he worked on “Sweet Dreams,” grief overwhelmed him.
The next day after Denny had left work, a young man arrived at the junkyard and asked for the foreman. His clothes were rumpled and stained. His eyes were swollen slits in a face that seemed bloated with pain. “Gracie was missing a little blue Croc she left behind when they pulled her from the wreck. She was wearing the other when she died at the hospital. She loved those shoes. Blue was her favorite color,” the man said, breaking down as he spoke.
Hesitating for a moment, the foreman replied. “You might want to ask Denny Harris. He finds a lot of things that would go unnoticed. He might just have it. He’s a really quirky guy.”
The man asked, “Where does this guy live?”
“Let me see,” he said taking out the employee ledger. “421 Montague. Take a right at the corner to Cherry Street then an immediate left onto Montague.”
“Thanks,” the father said and took off in his blue Ford Escort rental car. When he got to Denny’s house, he knocked once and when no one answered he burst inside. He found his way through the kitchen into the living room. There he saw Denny putting a little blue Croc to the top of the new totem pole.
“You creepy loon!” The man lunged forward to grab Denny by the neck and both fell to the ground, the Croc toppling off its pedestal and landing between them. Collapsed on the shag carpet, the man released his anguish in heaving sobs that Denny had only witnessed once before. That time those sobs were his own. Denny moved closer to the man who by this time had lost all the fight left in him. He put his hand slightly on the man’s shoulder.
The man’s sobbing became a blubbering confession, “I took my eye off the road for one second—one second to switch stations—when that Ford Escalade careened into the right side of the car. Gracie was in the back seat. Drunk driver. The guy should be put away for the rest of his goddamn life! Why couldn’t it have been me? Why wasn’t it me? Some God!” He exploded into tears again.
Hours later the two spent men were still on the carpet as the sun rose on another empty day. “Should I tell him? Denny pondered. “Should I tell him that I lost my baby girl too?” Denny wanted to let the man know that he understood. “Then I’d have to tell him that I was the drunk and that I had not only killed Susie and my wife, but a mother and two kids in the car—that I went to prison for 30 years.” It was an absurd idea.
He decided not to say anything, but just sat there with his arm on the man’s shoulder. Denny had done enough confessing after his accident, but no matter how many times he pled for forgiveness, he knew there would never be absolution for his unforgivable sin.
“I’m Seth,” the man finally said. “Thanks dude, for letting me fall apart without trying to put me back together again. I haven’t been able to let all the grief and rage out until now.”
“Sure,” said Denny. “No problem. I’m Denny. I’m really sorry for your loss.” He almost choked on the cliché.
He hesitated for a minute before haltingly explaining the pole thing. “Yeah it does seem like, like I’m kind of nuts –but, well, maybe I am or maybe I just want to make some sense the wrecking ball called life. I’m– so, here’s the straight story. About the wood–I make these things that remind me of totem poles. I save certain things that I find in smashed cars and use them to make my art. Kind of like my tribute to their owners—a remembrance of their cut-short lives. The one that I was making with Gracie’s shoe has objects from other cars and from other kids. This one I call ‘Sweet Dreams.’ Listen, I meant no disrespect.”
“Come to think of it, I’d probably have gone ballistic too. Many of the poles inspire stories in memory of those people. I’m trying to get published. Maybe it’s a way of making sure they’re not forgotten.”
Seth was confused. “I’m sorry, but that’s the craziest thing I’ve heard in forever.”
“Come here. Let me show you something outside.” Denny put his hand on Seth’s back urging him forward. He led him through the backdoor to a fenced-in backyard that shrouded its view from his neighbors. It was sanctuary to over a hundred of poles studded with thousands of found objects of all different colors, textures and sizes. Each pole had a title–a specific song title or lyric Denny had sung as he worked on it.
Denny’s artwork was arranged in a perfect Flanders field grid, its symmetry interrupted in the center by a pole twice as high as the others. Seth was drawn to it. Denny had decoupaged at least a hundred photos of a little girl. She must have been around five years old. Sometimes she was at a birthday party or playing with her puppy, or eating cotton candy, or kissing a man that looked very much like a younger version of Denny. The pictures captured sweet and tender scenes of a happy little girl. The column’s crown was a steering wheel from which fluttered a faded rainbow of dozens of tattered ribbons. At its base the sign read, “Stairway to Heaven.”
Seth was speechless, stunned. He began to walk through the paths of totems, sometimes just touching a finial, sometimes reverently on his knees examining the objects they wore.
As they passed each memorial, Denny told his stories. Some were bizarre like Esther’s story, because much of life is bizarre. Denny insisted, “Since all of us live fractured lives in some way or another, I’d written stories that were so sad they could break your heart into a thousand pieces just to listen to them.”
Against the sunrise of that morning, the yard was a spiritual and sacred space. In silence, two grief stricken wanderers processed solemnly down rows of totems, mourning the lost, hoping for salvation and longing for a stairway to heaven.
Meredith Betz, MSOD, MSEd, is a teacher, facilitator, writer and consultant with a penchant for storytelling. With years of experience in writing for the nonprofit sector, she coaches nonprofits and their leaders as they tell their compelling stories. A published author, Meredith is a contributor to the Nonprofit Quarterly. She is a certified Guided Autobiography facilitator who helps individuals write their life histories because she believes that everyone has a story that must not go untold. Currently, Meredith is co-writing memoir for a 101-year-old Estonian man and is writing a book chronicling her experience as a memoirist. For fun, she writes short stories about eccentric characters doing extraordinary things.