Strokes by T.R. Healy.
His legs stretched in front of him, his ankles crossed, Colavito sat beside his panel truck in a canvas deck chair, a stub of a cigar in a corner of his mouth. Around his neck hung a gaudy shark took necklace. On both sides of the truck were hand painted signs that said "Blades Sharpened By A Sharp Guy." Today he was parked in front of the parking lot of Trader Rick's Food Emporium. It was a store he stationed himself at a couple of Saturdays a month in the summertime. He started out sharpening shears at barber shops and hair salons, and still did a lot of business at such places, but he also enjoyed taking orders from individual customers because he never knew what to expect. Often he was surprised by the unusual blades he was asked to sharpen such as the Prussian cavalry sword an elderly man presented to him one afternoon last month or the Bowie knife wrapped in a black velvet cloth.
"I have a pocket knife here that's dull as the weather," a short man with a round, freckled face said as he approached Colavito, "and I'm wondering if you can get it so it can cut something without me having to rub it back and forth like a hacksaw?"
"Let's have a look."
Nodding, he handed him the Camillus Cub Scout knife with the logo etched on the faded blue delrin handle.
"You have this when you were in the scouts?"
"I did, and my old man had it before me, and if I had a son, I'd pass it on to him but I don't."
Promptly he unfolded the blade of the pocket knife and pressed it gently against his left thumbnail. As if coated with butter it slipped down his nail to the joint.
"It definitely needs to be sharpened, all right."
"You can do it then?"
"How long will it take you?"
"I'll be done by the time you finish your shopping."
"So how much will it cost me?"
Colavito set the knife down on the small table beside his chair. "For an itty bitty blade like this, I'd say five dollars should do it."
"Fair enough," the man replied with a hint of a grin. "I probably don't have to tell you this but this knife is a real keepsake for me. It may not be worth much to anyone else but it has a lot of sentimental value to me. It's one of the few things that belonged to my old man that I still have."
"Don't worry, sir. I won't damage it. I guarantee you."
Ever so slightly Colavito coated the surface of a Japanese waterstone with machine oil. With the dead cigar still in his mouth, he set aside the stone and picked up the pocket knife. Quickly he determined its cutting bevel then, holding the blade at the bevel angle, he pushed it, at a diagonal, across the coarse side of the waterstone. Then he turned the knife over and stroked the other side of the blade across the stone. Alternating sides, he proceeded smoothly, efficiently, always stroking the blade away from his body. He had nicked himself too many times drawing it toward him. When he noticed some burrs on the blade, he removed them by lightly stroking the knife across the fine side of the waterstone. He finished in about eight minutes then wiped the knife clean with a chamois cloth, set it on the table, and waited for the customer to return. Two minutes later he did, pushing a packed grocery cart with both hands.
"You done, are you?"
"I suppose I better check how sharp it is," he said as he reached for the pocket knife.
At once, he handed him a sheet of notebook paper, having seen too many customers slice their fingers when they pressed them against a freshly sharpened blade. The man took it then, scarcely applying any pressure, slit the sheet of paper in half.
"I don't ever remember this blade being this sharp," he said, handing him a crisp five dollar bill. "Now I'll have to be careful I don't hurt myself."
Colavito smiled as the man turned and pushed his cart toward the rear of the parking lot. He figured they were about the same age, based on the years the man said he was in the Cub Scouts, but he appeared quite a bit older. He reminded him of Arnold Dilfer, a kid he went to high school with, who almost looked as old as some of their teachers, especially when he carried his briefcase from class to class. Lately, lots of customers made him think of some of his old classmates.
* * *
Not quite a month ago, he received a post card inviting him to attend the 20th reunion of the class he graduated in from Mathers High School. There would be a family picnic in the park across the street from the school and a dance later that evening in the gym that was restricted to class members and their spouses or dates. He didn't attend the 10th reunion and really had no interest in attending this one where, he suspected, all the people who ignored him in school would continue to ignore him. Even so, the upcoming reunion remained on his mind and over the past few weeks one customer after another reminded him of someone from Mathers.
Early one morning at a farmers market across town, he saw a huge man who immediately reminded him of Gordie Nance, by far the biggest kid in the class, who wrestled and threw the discus and sang arias in school assemblies. He saw another customer who could have been the identical twin of Paul Stendal, a surfer with frosted hair, whose dream was to live in Hawaii so he could surf all year round but never left the state and became a highway patrolman. He saw a beady little guy who resembled Tim Guilland, his locker partner his sophmore year, but he knew it wasn't Tim because he died in a motorcycle accident shortly after graduation. And more than once he spotted Becky Salant, a very clever girl who was nice to everyone and won prize after prize and, to no one's surprise, was selected class valedictorian.
* * *
"How come you don't use a power sharpener?" a stocky man with long sideburns demanded as he watched Colavito sharpen a carving knife on a fine-grit silicon carbide slipstone.
"Oh, I have one in the truck but I prefer to use my hands."
"Why's that?" he persisted.
"It's the way I was taught by my uncle and, as he used to say, a stone is more personal than a machine. It forces you to invest some of yourself in each blade you sharpen."
"You only sharpen knives?"
He shook his head. "I'll sharpen just about anything with a blade."
"Including garden tools?"
"I've got a wheelbarrow full of clippers and shears and spades and I don't know what else that need sharpening but, obviously, I don't have them with me. But if you're interested in doing the work, you can stop by my house some time."
"Whenever you wish."
"What about tomorrow night, after dinner?"
"That's fine with me," he said, handing him a business card that had his address on it.
"See you then."
Without replying, the man whose name was Howard Engel nodded and walked away, a bulging bag of groceries cradled in his left arm. The high school classmate he made him think of, almost at once, was Corey Kanitz, who was easily the most conceited person he had ever met. Seldom did he ask anyone a question, since he believed he knew everything, but when he did he practically demanded an answer, much like this man. He just hoped he wasn't as difficult to deal with as Kanitz.
* * *
Around seven-thirty the next evening, Colavito drove to Engel's home in the south hills and immediately was directed to the wheelbarrow in the backyard of the pale green Victorian house. There were six pairs of clippers, each one as dull as the other, some shears, a couple of spades, and three hoes and three shovels. The number of tools was a little more than he expected but Engel insisted that he sharpen all of them that night so he got started at once. Because tools were harder to hone than knives he didn't use a natural stone but, instead, used one made with manufactured abrasives. Somewhat to his surprise, Engel left him alone so he was able to proceed at a pretty comfortable pace.
After close to an hour, he had sharpened nearly a third of the tools in the wheelbarrow. Confident now that he would complete the job before it got too late, he decided to stretch his legs and got up from the picnic table where he was working and walked around the house for a couple of minutes. At one point, stepping around a stack of bricks, he heard Engel's voice and thought he was speaking to him and looked up and saw him in the kitchen window talking on his cell phone. Intently he stared at him for a moment, more convinced than ever he could be related to Corey Kanitz. Then, as he started to move on, he thought he heard him mention something about starting a fire and stopped at once as if grabbed around the waist. Almost at the same instant a spasm fluttered through his heart that made him think he might lose his balance and quickly he braced himself against the stack of bricks.
"We should be good to go then tomorrow as soon as it gets dark," he heard Engel say on the phone. "We'll meet at the casting pond."
My God, he thought, not really believing what he heard. Engel was going to set something on fire, he was sure of it, and the only casting pond he could think of in the area was at Atwater Park which was adjacent to an elementary school. He shuddered, suddenly worried that Engel was going to torch the school as Kanitz did twenty years ago.
* * *
"So are you going?" Kell, another tenant in the Alpine Terrace apartment house, asked when Colavito entered the humid laundry room with a bundle of dirty clothes slung over his shoulder.
He squinted in confusion. "Where?"
"To your class reunion?"
"Oh," he said, having forgotten that he had mentioned the event to his fourth floor neighbor. "I doubt it."
"You ought to, Nick. You might be surprised how much you'll enjoy it. I didn't want to go to my 10th a few years back but I did because my wife wanted to go and I was surprised I had such a good time."
"I didn't much care for high school. All I really wanted out of it was to leave."
"There must be some people you're interested to see, aren't there?"
"Not especially," he answered, not revealing that he was more than a little curious to see the classmate who set the school library on fire the night before their graduation. But he doubted very much if Kanitz would be there, if he was even still alive.
"Well, for what it's worth, I'd advise you to attend because it might not be as unpleasant as you think."
He smiled as he shook out the remaining articles of laundry into one of the three washing machines. "Maybe you're right. Maybe I'll reconsider."
* * *
A good two hours before it got dark, Colavito packed up his gear,and pulled out of the parking lot of the grocery store where he was stationed that afternoon and headed over to Atwater Park. Today was the day Engel indicated in his phone conversation he was going to start a fire somewhere around there. Initially, he had considered notifying the police but doubted if they could do anything because, so far, nothing had happened. So he decided to go to the park to see if there was anything he could do to prevent it. Twenty years ago, a few days before graduation, he had heard talk about Kanitz wanting to leave Mathers with a bang---"a stroke of lightning," it was said---but he never thought to see if there was any credence to the rumor. Maybe if he had, the fire could have been prevented.
He parked his truck in the north end lot, behind the tennis courts, got out, and proceeded to the casting pond which was located almost in the middle of the immense park. A few minutes later, as he made his way around one of the water reservoirs, he saw the pond and right behind it a huge tower of broken tables and chairs and desks and stools. Immediately a smile creased his face.
So that was what was going to be set ablaze tonight, he thought, a bonfire.
Relieved, he continued around the reservoir, searching for Engel among all the people gathered in front of the tower that seemed as tall as a lighthouse. It took him a while but eventually he spotted him in a shiny black firefighter's helmet talking with two other men in similar helmets. He wasn't sure what he would have done if Engel was up to some kind of mischief but he was certain he would have done something---if nothing more than scream until his throat was raw. He had to, he believed, still regretting after all this time that he had done nothing to stop Kanitz from burning down the school library.
* * * *
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