By T.R. Healy
As he waited for the traffic light to turn green, Harris Stears glanced at the sheet of paper on the passenger seat to check the address of the next garage sale he intended to visit this morning. Already he had visited three sales and not found anything worth buying. He just hoped he had better luck with the next three sales on his list.
A horn beeped, and he looked up and saw that the light had changed and pressed his foot on the accelerator pedal and shot across the intersection.
Not every Saturday morning but pretty often, he drove to garage sales on his side of town. He was only looking for one item to purchase, used baseball gloves, which he would refurbish as much as he could then donate to some club or elementary school in the area. Nowadays baseball gloves were very expensive and he was sure many kids couldn’t afford to buy one which likely meant they wouldn’t become interested in playing baseball. He loved the game, thought for a long time he might earn a living playing it, so he hoped to encourage others to cherish it as much as he did.
Suddenly, a block from his next stop, the glowing clock tower of Union Station appeared in his side mirror and, cringing, he looked away. It was on the other side of the river but, at well over two hundred feet, it was hard to go anywhere and not see it sooner or later. It loomed over the city like a gigantic wand. He always avoided looking at it, even when he drove past the train station, because it reminded him of the worst day in his life.
Four card tables were set up on the front lawn of the two-story sandstone house with close to a dozen people sifting through the assorted items for sale. There were books, cameras, bicycles, glassware, ironing boards, an Olivetti typewriter, record albums, a Magnavox phonograph, even a couple of sofas, but he didn’t see any baseball gloves. He did spot some wooden bats in an umbrella stand, however.
“Looking for anything in particular?” another customer asked just as Stears was about to leave for the next garage sale on his agenda.
“As a matter of fact, I am.”
“A baseball glove.”
“Well, you should check with that tall gentleman standing beside that lava lamp,” she suggested. “He’s the one putting on the sale.”
“Thanks. I’ll do that.”
“I’m sure he must have some gloves for sale. He raised three sons, I believe.”
He walked over to the man who had a small leather pouch fastened around his waist where he put the money he made from each sale. “Hello.”
“Hello there. How may I help you?”
“Do you have any baseball gloves for sale?”
“I don’t,” he said, sounding disappointed. “My sons took their gloves with them when they moved out of the house many years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“You looking for a glove for a son of yours?”
“No, for myself, actually. I like to fix up old gloves then give them to kids who don’t have one.”
“You don’t say.”
“It’s kind of a hobby of mine.”
The homeowner thought for a moment. “You know, somewhere in my attic, I have an old glove that belonged to my father. I didn’t put it out for sale because it’s so ancient. You want to take a look at it?”
“I’ll go get it.”
While he waited for him to return with the vintage glove, he sorted through a carton of campaign buttons. There were several “I Like Ike” ones and a couple of “Nixon’s the One” buttons. Also, there were some lapel pins and tie clips, including a tarnished PT-109 clip.
“Well, here it is,” the owner said, handing Stears the glove. “The leather is in decent condition but otherwise it needs a lot of attention.”
Stears slipped it on his left hand and pounded his right fist into the sweat-stained pocket. “Well, well, a J.C. Higgins. This has been around a while. That’s for sure.”
“For years, Higgins was the brand name of gloves sold at Sears Roebuck.”
Nodding, he slipped off the glove and set it on a nearby table. “There was probably a name of some big league player on it but it looks like it’s faded away.”
“It was Nellie Fox,” the owner informed him. “He was a second baseman for the Go-Go White Sox back in the fifties and was my father’s favorite player which is why he wanted this glove.”
“That was well before my time.”
“Mine as well.”
“So what do you want for it?”
“You really think you can fix it up?”
“It’s yours then.”
“For how much?”
“No, you can have it for free,” the owner said. “I don’t have any use for it and, believe me, my father if he were alive would be thrilled to know that someone else would be using it again.”
“Thank you, friend. What you’re doing is quite commendable.”
As he walked back to his car, he wished what he did to earn a living was also commendable.
Stears was one of nine housing inspectors employed by the city to make sure that owners complied with all the necessary codes. He started the job not quite five months ago after working the past four years as a real estate agent. Recently there had been a considerable slump in sales so when he was offered the opportunity to work for the city he took it because he was then assured of a steady income. It wouldn’t be anything near the commissions he made selling houses when the market was strong but that hadn’t been the case for quite a while. HIs girlfriend at the time thought he was foolish and broke up with him because she was certain he would never be able to provide her with all the things she wanted on the salary of a city employee.
The first and, so far, the only inspector he had worked with was Lucius Ashford who had been with the office close to nine years. A short, stocky man, with thick lips and drooping ears, he walked with a limp because his left leg was slightly shorter than his right. He tried to conceal it by taking long strides but it was still noticeable. And he knew it as evidenced by his perpetual frown. He was all business even when he wasn’t working, and Stears could not imagine anything that would cause him to crack a smile. He could not help but be impressed with his attention to detail, however. He was clearly the most meticulous person he had ever come across, able somehow to detect the most minute flaws in a house. He spotted the tiniest holes in walls, frayed electrical cords, loose wires, rusted gutter nails, obstructed windows. Often, as a real estate agent, Stears conducted inspections of houses his agency was hired to sell but he was never anywhere near as thorough as Ashford and neither was anyone else at the agency.
Whenever he complimented him for discovering some obscure code violation, Ashford always replied, “The devil is in the details, Harry.”
Once he questioned if he really needed to write up in his report every little violation he found and he looked at him in utter disbelief.
“Of course I have to,” he insisted. “That’s my job … our job I should say.”
“But some things are just so insignificant.”
“They’re in violation of the way things should be in a house, aren’t they?”
“Then they aren’t insignificant and anyone who thinks they are isn’t really doing his job.”
Taking another sip of coffee, Stears stared at the crumpled Nellie Fox glove he had set in the middle of the kitchen table. Though it was pretty beaten-up, it didn’t appear it would require a lot of work to bring it back to life. Some laces needed to be tightened and perhaps replaced, the strap button required some polish, and the leather needed to be rubbed with some conditioning oil. The first lace he examined was the one that strung the fingers of the glove together. It wasn’t broken but was loose and very fragile and likely would come apart after a few balls were snared with it.
After adjusting the gooseneck study lamp so it shone directly on the glove fingers, he leaned forward in his chair and took out a pair of needle nose pliers from his tool box. Carefully then he pulled out the loose lace with the pliers and chucked it into the waste basket under the table. He took another sip of coffee, relieved he was able to remove the lace without breaking it. Next, he picked up a new rawhide lace that he had rubbed with glove oil a few minutes earlier, knotted it at one end, and threaded it through the holes in the fingers.
The glove was now ready for use he believed but, trying to be as meticulous as possible, he decided to do more and proceeded to repair the laces of the web of the glove. He was sure Ashford would approve and, before he started, took another sip of the French roasted coffee.
Two days later, he got up early so he could deliver the Nellie Fox glove and two other fielder’s gloves to a Boys Club in the southeast part of town.
Always, whenever he pulled out of his parking stall at his apartment building, the first thing he saw in his rearview mirror was the clock tower of Union Station. It felt as if some grit had got into his eyes that he had to struggle to remove. Even when he couldn’t see the tower he felt its presence and sometimes splashed handfuls of water into his eyes to wash it out but seldom was successful.
Around the corner from City Hall was a popular watering hole, The Happy Landing, where a lot of city employees went to have a drink after work. Stears was often among them along with a few other house inspectors. One colleague he often drank with at the bar was Ross Ambler who this particular afternoon happened to mention that next week would mark the start of his fourth year as a house inspector.
“I can’t really believe it,” he admitted, after ordering a second Martini.
“It’s not something I ever thought I’d be doing with my life.”
“What did you think you’d be doing?” Stears asked, still nursing his first Martini.
“I don’t know but not this. That’s for sure.”
Stears noticed Ashford enter the tavern along with another veteran investigator, Darren Booker.
“How about you, Harry? Is this something you thought you’d be doing to make a living?”
“Not at all,” he said, watching Ashford and Booker sit down at a corner table next to the out-of-order jukebox.
“So what did you think you’d be doing?”
“Playing the outfield for some ball club.”
“Were you a pretty good player?”
“I was good enough to get a tryout with the Giants.”
He nodded, shoving aside his empty glass.
“So how did it go?”
“I never made it to the tryout.”
“The train I was taking to the Giants’ camp derailed, of all things, not more than a mile out of the station. My left knee got busted up something fierce and I wasn’t able to walk without crutches for almost four months.”
“That’s a damn shame.”
He nodded. “It was the one thing I wanted more than anything else.”
“I never had any specific thing I ever wanted to do in life so I guess that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing and will continue to do until it’s time to retire.”
Stears, scarcely listening to his colleague, looked over at Ashford and was stunned to see him smiling.
“Well, that’s a first.”
“What’s that, Harry?”
“Lucius is actually smiling. I can’t believe it.”
“Well, he should be smiling because I heard he and Booker closed a deal on a house they had for sale for a pretty significant profit.”
“I didn’t know he was also a realtor.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Whenever he or Booker come across a really distressed house with a weak owner they target it, so to speak, and cite it for a lot of violations that they are pretty sure the owner can’t afford to correct. Then the owner will be forced to put the house up for sale and they swoop in and buy it and make the necessary corrections and sell it for a nice little gain.”
“Is that even legal?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer, Harry. But they’ve been doing it for as long as I’ve been an inspector.”
Later that evening, after dinner, Stears worked on another one of the gloves he came across at the garage sales he visited last Saturday. It was in such dismal shape that he almost didn’t purchase it because he knew it would require a lot of work. And it did indeed. Already he had replaced the heel lace and now with a lacing needle was threading a new lace through the holes of the palm of the glove. Again, he tried to be as meticulous in his repairs as Ashford was in his inspections but unlike him he was not doing it to enrich himself. Initially, he was very grateful to be partnered with someone as thorough and dedicated as Ashford but now he realized the guy was nothing more than a vulture preying on vulnerable homeowners. That was someone he hoped he would never become whatever he did to make a living.
When he finished threading the palm lace, he got up from the table and went outside to where he parked his car and forced himself to look at the clock tower of the train station. It was bright as ever, urging people to travel by rail. He stared at it so intently that after a few minutes it seemed to disappear and he felt the corners of his mouth curve into a discreet smile and returned to his apartment to complete the repairs on the glove.