Flash fiction, inspired by a house that was torn down on my block today.
The sewing machine man and his wife lived here for a hundred years, give or take. When they were young, the trolley tracks ran right up the middle of the street. The horse carriages went down at break-neck speed not because the hill was all that steep (though a kid on a bicycle could peddle himself breathless) but because some horses just have an evil glint in their eyes.
After the road was paved, the sewing machine man and his wife parked their 1953 Buick in the corner of the yard. Eventually the tire ruts made a driveway. They set up shop because what with all the modern conveniences, the neighborhood housewives could all trade their foot treadle machines for modern electric sewing machines that plugged in and rattled off at a startling speed. You could button-hole your thumb before you realized what you were doing.
The sewing machine man claimed he could repair any brand, and he put a sign in the front yard that said as much. It wasn’t strictly true in the beginning, but he was handy with mechanical things — pocket watches, wringer washers, the rabbit ears on the black and white TV — and he learned fast.
The man’s wife handled the accounts and the housework and he fussed over bobbin winders, feed dogs, tension springs and thread take-up levers. His world grew in vocabulary and shrunk in proximity — everything was miniaturized. He could pass a good silk thread through the eye of a needle every time, without fail. And, if the work hunched his spine and pinched his neck, he learned to admire the elegance and specificity of the sewing machine’s finely wrought inner workings.
In the evening, the sewing machine man and his wife pulled TV dinner trays up in front of the “Lawrence Welk Show.” They slept under a friendship quilt taken in barter from a local woman who couldn’t pay cash to have her Singer 99 refurbished. But surely the handiwork of those pieced rectangles, cut from worn-out calico dresses, was worth far more than the handful of hours the man put into her machine.
It was a quiet life, with humble rewards, but the man and his wife were happy that way. And even after his eyes dimmed and he could no longer see the bobbin winders, feed dogs, tension springs and thread take-up levers, he still took in work. It subsidized their meager social security checks, for one thing, but it also gave structure to the days. The man would sit at his work bench, his fingers reading the braille of the machine while his wife stood behind him and narrated what needed to be done. Thread snag, rusty hinge, adjust the tension, dust the bed plate.
They worked as one like that, her eyes and his hands. They moved on autopilot while replaying back episodes of the “Lawrence Welk Show” across the screens of their memories, humming an absent-minded duet. And then, at the end of the day, they slowed the tools and turned off the lights. They locked the front door, climbed into bed, and pulled the friendship quilt up to their chins one last time.