#25 The Confessor of Littlefield: Passing Hands

Passing Hands

Hiram Hapflik was a stocky 5’8” and 180 lbs,, with his dark ginger hair cropped short in a crew cut. Summer or Winter, he wore the same blue long sleeve work shirts and blue jeans; shirt sleeves folded to the elbows, and the pants, which he would buy extra long, given a two inch fold above his shoes. Besides being a veteran of WWI, Hiram was a union worker for nearly thirty years. He was a foreman on a Ford assembly line and knew how to take any American vehicle apart. He subscribed to trade journals and attended seminars keeping up with the newest technology and tools.

As he approached retirement, he and Rita happened to come across Rupert’s business, after Rita had struck up a conversation with Mrs. Van Innern while visiting the Lutheran church in Littlefield. Mrs. Van Innern told her banker husband about the woman visiting with her six year old, and that her husband was looking for an auto repair shop to purchase. Van Innern “ran into” Rupert at the cafe the next morning and told Rupert he knew of someone who would be interested in purchasing his business. Rupert’s habitual glower instantly abated, and his mouth turned up in a smile. Van Innern happily offered to affect the business transition for a small fee. The Hapflik’s enterprise would be set up by attorney Hankerfeldt, taxes filed by the local CPA Hertzky.

Rupert had done all of his own paperwork, filed all of his own taxes, did his own bookkeeping. Attorney Hankerfeldt advised him on legal matters, but Rupert kept track of the debits and credits in his own bank accounts and bookkeeping ledgers.

Rupert relied on an invincible determination to figure out the cause of a dead motor, and knew the exact sum worth of salvageable parts on a vehicle with a broken frame. At night he pondered and calculated, and after marrying Virgie and taking the role of provider, nothing changed. It was a noble thing to put time into taking care of the finances and producing an income for the family.

In the 1920’s, Rupert affected the character of Coolidge from photos in newspapers, and by Norman Rockwell paintings. Coolidge didn’t give a care for a baseball game, held an impeccable pose for every occasion, and was dressed smartly.

But Rupert never replaced the missing tooth. He wore suits and top hats, and dressed in cleaned and pressed clothing. After breakfast at the cafe, Rupert tucked his morning paper under his arm and carried his cup of coffee with him to the garage, where he changed clothes at a locker. He kept a closet of cleaned, gray, one piece mechanic’s uniforms; woolen for winter, cotton for summer. He didn’t wipe his hands on his uniform, only on white towels which were soaked and hand washed. He was a meticulous house keeper on the weekends, ordered Virgie and Bill about the mansion, pulling spoiled food out of the refrigerator, cleaning under the couch and sofa .

For seven years he told himself every morning as he arrived at the garage, “sure wish I could sell this damn place and get the hell outta this thing,” meaning life with Virgie and Bill. When Hiram’s offer came he couldn’t leap at it fast enough. Yet, Van Innern would need a few weeks to set the whole thing up. Rupert already had the whole thing figured out. He found Rita by going to church the next Sunday. Virgie and Clara were painting still life while Bill told them their paintings looked like cartoons. None of them gave Rupert any more than a disinterested glance as Rupert straightened his tie and went out the door.

Rupert found Rita Hapflik quite easily as the woman who must not be from Littlefield; who was with a little boy the same age as Bill. Rupert struck up a conversation and agreed to talk with Hiram next morning in Plugsville. Rupert agreed to a far lesser price than Van Innern would’ve extracted, saving the fee to Van Innern, and dumping the business on Hapflik six months before a balloon payment on a business loan was due. By afternoon Rupert was gone; gone before an annoyed Van Innern could talk to him. The banker had to settle for learning that, unlike Rupert, the Hapflik’s had no desire to do any bookkeeping, and the monthly bookkeeping fee would somewhat requite the lost sales commission.

*

After Rupert sold the business to the Hapfliks, some of the neighbors didn’t like the idea of a house being built on the lot, but a compromise was reached when Hiram agreed to install a fence around the ten acres in the field behind the service garage. At first, the men of Littlefield were reluctant to bring their car problems to someone they didn’t know. Rupert may have been a little hard to finagle with for a better price but he always did good work. But eventually customers started coming into the garage to see if Hiram could fix this or that.

He soon found that the vehicles around the farmlands of Littlefield all had suspension wear, and Hiram became known as an expert on alignment; other mechanics began referring business to him.

John took after his father, working in the yard, driving forklifts and tractors, and his dad was delighted, usually, to have his teenage son at his side on Sundays while his mother went to church. He wasn’t sure why it would’ve bothered him if the boy had wanted to spend the time in church with his mother, but it meant to him he was his son’s elder in spirit and not just body. He knew the image of himself as a hero to his son was not going to last and he wanted to get the most of it while he could.

A few months after Hiram bought the salvage yard from Rupert and began getting work from the community, Trenton stopped in to talk to him. Trenton was smarting because he considered himself Rupert’s friend, his only friend. Rupert had never talked to him about moving. It was a surprise to everybody. Trenton went to see Hapflik more to size him up than to ask for a set of tires. Hiram was working on a Jeep, keeping himself busy while Trenton stood over him browbeating the commies in Congress who were trying to destroy the government.

Hiram was disinterested when Trenton talked about Virgie Dinklpfuss, who he characterized as “that woman who married Dinklpfuss; who took his house and chased him away.” She disagreed with everything in the newspaper. She said MacArthur was a murderer just like Stalin and Hitler. She never went to church, and Mrs. Van Innern heard her talking with her “friend” at the library about how Republicans were the agents for a community Daddy complex, while Democrats were agents for a military industrial complex. .

Hiram did his service in the Pacific while in the Navy. He revered MacArthur for his bravery and his fighting strategy but not his pompous speeches. Hiram had also put his life into the hands of the military on behalf of his country. He’d had a good job with Ford, an early pension, and had not known poverty during the Depression. He thought himself lucky and thanked God for having a decent life when so many others in America hadn’t had the same advantages. He was a conciliator at heart and discouraged argument that everyone got what they deserved. He was familiar with the staggering poverty in Detroit and the surrounding areas, and had seen the same poverty in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Across the country, people had lost their properties during the Depression; families displaced by mortgage holders. He disagreed with his wife’s opinion that everything was in the hands of God. Not that he didn’t have a strong belief in God and guardian angels; it’s just that going to church scared the angels away. Trenton didn’t go to church either. Still, Hiram felt church looming over him when Trenton leaned over his shoulder to see what he was doing.

“Whatcha need, friend,” asked Hiram as he stood up straight and looked Trenton square in the eye.

“Nothing,” thought Trenton, but he recovered. “Well, uh, ya gotta pair of tires for my Ford?”

Hiram looked through the open garage door at Trenton’s truck. ’46 Ford. “Yeah, I think I got a decent pair.” He walked to the back of the garage and selected a pair of tires off a rack and came back with them. “Five bucks,” said Hiram.

“Five?” Why, Rupert only charged me three,” Trenton lied.

“Sorry, gotta have five. Wouldn’t be makin’ any money if I let you have ’em for three.”

Trenton thought about leaving but said, “all right. Five. You puttin’ em on over there?” he barked as he pointed to the space next to the Jeep.

“Gotta have two bucks each to put ’em on.”

Trenton started shaking, “well you can go to hell. I ain’t payin’ you five bucks for the tires and then another two to put ’em on!”

Hiram exhaled slowly, then said, “have it your way,” and turned to put the tires away.

“Good luck with business, buddy. Ya ain’t gotta chance,” shouted Trenton as he got into his truck.

Hiram Hapflik wasn’t particularly religious. He not so politely dismissed the idea of attending church with his wife, and he didn’t discuss his personal relationship with God with people he didn’t know. Each person had his or her own spiritual connection with divinity or they didn’t. In fact, he wasn’t so sure that the idea of miracles or talking to omniscient deities didn’t sound insane. Religion was for women and children. His wife, however, was deeply impressed by the bible even though she wasn’t sure how to explain all of its contradictions. Knowing wasn’t so important as believing; and she had enough faith for both her and John until he was in his teens.

John read Atlas Shrugged the Summer before his junior year in high school, and enthusiastically supported Barry Goldwater in the run up to the 1960 election. John had friends in school because of his strawberry blond hair with long bangs that he continually shook out of his eyes. He was athletic and was a pitcher/center fielder on the high school baseball team. He shared his dad’s intense self reliance, while fending off his mother’s idea of a weary and righteous savior battling it out with Satan to steer the destination of each of our lives. For Rita, Christ demanded participation with prayer; that within the heart was a counsel of righteousness, while Satan tried to steal a boy before he could become a man. John didn’t need to go digging in his own heart for dirt when everyone was dirty. It’s just that what people thought was dirt was a matter of opinion.

Since he was six years old, before he went to church with his mother on Sunday mornings, John listened to the political shows on the radio in the living room with his father. Church services were something John was made willing to endure knowing that his father would be in a jovial mood later while consuming a six pack of beer. Hiram would let John help him take cars apart in the yard, while his mother spent the afternoon preparing food in the church kitchen for the free meal that was served after the evening service.

During evenings in the 1940s, the Hapfliks listened to radio programs, and Hiram and John had a radio in the garage where they listened to baseball games together. John spent more time with his father than his mother because his father’s temperament was agreeable most of the time and his mother’s wasn’t.

One Sunday, in the Fall of the their freshman year in high school, John invited Bill over to see the cars in the salvage yard. Bill impressed Hiram with his knowledge of tractors and trucks and he began showing up at the Hapfliks every Sunday. Hiram had a few old Alles Chalmers tractors in the yard that needed repairs and he let Bill fix them. He taught Bill to drive a hilo, and how to use a torch to break bolts and dissect cars. Hiram couldn’t afford to pay Bill though, and Bill dropped out of school the next year to work for Trenton.

Rita Hapflik’s philosophy was more conservative than her husband’s. For twenty years she had been working on him to go to church with her, and when John was born she had a son to bring up in the church. John would rather play baseball, throw stones, break things, but he didn’t mind going to church because the mothers would let the boys and girls play on the swing sets in the church yard. Sometimes, Mr. Blainfield would skip services to play kickball outside with the kids .

That was before coming to Littlefield. There he knew no one and had to be contented to wander around the church, or outside, while his mother convened with the ladies in the lunch room. He heard a Mrs. Tilpert tell his mother about a kid named Bill who’s mother was a sneaky whore. He didn’t know what a whore was, but next day when he was introduced to Bill he blurted, “your mother’s the whore!”

Bill wasn’t sure what one was either, but he felt insulted and at recess he attacked John. No, not John, but Rupert, Virgie, and the people in town who always gave him mean looks. He got on top of John and was going to punch every mean face he ever saw, but when he looked down he saw the scared look of someone he didn’t know. He pulled his punch, slapping John on the cheek before Ms. Penny yanked him up by the ear and shrieked, “You go home and tell your mother what you did; and you tell her I want to see her!”

Bill went home and told Virgie who promptly put on her bonnet and short coat. Ms. Penny glared at her as she came through the doorway to her office. “Have a seat, Mrs. Dinklpfuss.”Did your son tell you what he did this morning? He attacked another boy for no reason at all.”

“I don’t think he would do any such thing unless he was provoked,” said Virgie dismissively.

“You evidently don’t know your own son” challenged the teacher. “None of the other kids do such things,” she said.

“Oh come on, you aren’t telling me none of the other kids act like kids.”

“I don’t think I like your attitude,” asserted the teacher.

“Neither do I yours,” Virgie shot back. “If you can’t be truthful to me about what happened; can tell me I don’t know my own son, I am here to tell you lady, yer barking up the wrong tree!”

“What do you think this is?” demanded the teacher, “some kind of game, like the world’s against you? Well it’s not; I am a professional. I have seen hundreds of kids and I know when one is on the wrong track.”

“You don’t know what sort of track my son is on. And if you are telling me you know my son better than I do I don’t see much point in talking to you. I don’t care what you think of me. But don’t for one minute think I am going to let you treat my son bad just because you don’t like me. Now, is there anything else you want to say?” The teacher did, but didn’t dare push it any more. Virgie’s body was coiled tight, ready to spring as she she stood with her hand on the desk in front of the teacher and glaring at her.

“Well, I do hope there are no more incidents such as this,” stammered Ms. Penny. “I can understand your son has probably had a lot to deal with.” Virgie backed away and released the tension in her body which calmed the teacher.

“I would like you to take Bill over to the Hapflik’s and apologize to them and their boy. I think that’s the least we can do under the circumstances. Don’t you agree?”

“We will go talk to the Hapfliks, but as far as that apology goes, we’ll have to wait and see.”

At first, Rita Hapflik was stirred up but Hiram was hesitant. Bill apologized and told John he didn’t mean to hit him. Virgie told Bill to ask John to be his friend. They shook hands. John had his father’s heart. “I am sorry I called you a name,” he said to Virgie.

“Oh, what name was that?”

“I called you a whore.”

Rita let out a little cry. “Oh, my! I assure you, Mrs. Dinklpfuss…”

“Haskins.”

“…Um…sorry, Haskins. He didn’t learn that word around here.”

“No, I imagine he heard it somewhere else.”

Hiram was grim faced. “Sorry about this, Ms. Haskins.”

“Please, call me Virgie.” She couldn’t stand hearing her name coupled with her aunt and uncle any more than she did hearing it coupled with Rupert’s.

“Oh, uh, Virgie.” Hiram averted his eyes from Rita then looked back at Virgie.”Your boy is welcome to come over here anytime.” He then turned to John and said, “son, why don’t you come with me.”

“No!” cried John.

“Go with your father,” snarled Mrs. Hapflik.

“Is he getting’ a lickin’?” Bill asked Virgie as they walked back home.

“He ain’t getting’ a lollipop,” said Virgie.

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