by J. David Thayer
I loved my grandpa more than I can put into words. He raised me, in fact. One day, when he was getting on in years, he offered up anything in the house I wanted. I asked for his tools, but I should’ve been more specific. See, Grandpa kept a canvas duffel bag full of common hand tools in his station wagon. Exactly the sort of tools you’re imagining right now. I meant those tools. Instead, he gave me a different set altogether.
Down in the basement, Grandpa had a rolling chest of machinist’s tools salvaged from his days in aerospace way back when. A Kennedy toolbox, to be exact, which I’m told is top of the line in that world. Never heard of it myself. Open any drawer, and you’d find the most foreign collection of instruments imaginable. In some cases, only the handle was recognizable. Shafts that bent completely back on themselves and then jutted out at 90 degrees with bizarre attachments on the end. Tiny mallets with nylon heads. Dozens of calipers. Sets of nearly microscopic bits fitted for purposes completely unknown to me. In short: nothing I could actually use.
See, I asked for his old bag of tools because I actually needed them. Somehow I made it into my twenties without even two sockets to rub together. What was I going to do with these antiques? But you should’ve seen the old man beam, chest all pushed out and everything when he showed off his Kennedy set to me. What was I gonna say? “Gee, thanks, Gramps! Cool story, bro. But I was kinda hoping for some pliers and maybe a crescent wrench or two. Got some of those maybe?”
Nope. Game over. I was now the curator of his employment history. And that was fine! Like I said, I loved him an awful lot. So we loaded up that very heavy toolbox and drove it down to my house eight hours away. There it sat in my garage, completely undisturbed for nearly twenty years. One day, two visitors showed up on my porch.
They wanted to know if I were the eldest grandson of Chester M. Stevens, and if I happened to have his old Kennedy tool chest.
See, I come from a long line of storytellers. That makes me highly skeptical about any oral family history passed down through the years. I’d heard plenty of facts that I knew were fiction because the orator forgot I was actually standing there when the events didn’t happen. But why disrupt a good narrative? Anyway, when I used to hear stories about how “Grandpa had to invent his own tools!” and “Your grandpa worked on top secret projects for the government,” and on like that, I sort of enjoyed them for their entertainment value, but I assumed they were at best inaccurate. No story has ever been so good that a little exaggeration sauce wouldn’t make it taste better.
But now these guys were here. They were real enough, and I knew exactly what they were talking about. “I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about, mister.”
“Hmm? Oh, well.. See, I work for an aerospace concern in Los Angeles, the same one your grandfather worked for until he retired in 1973. And as a matter of fact, well... We believe he might have, ahem, helped himself to certain properties that were under his development at the time. And we need them back.”
“Certain properties? My grandpa has been dead for fifteen years, and he was retired for seventeen years before that! What in the world could he have had way back then that’s worth a lick today? Certain properties! He never even owned a cellphone!”
The other man let the first do the talking, but he seemed to be running out of patience. I couldn’t get a good look at him behind his dark glasses, but he really began to tighten his jaw. Something about him just didn’t look right. Didn’t feel right. Figured he was a Yankee. The two of them together made me uneasy, and I wanted them off my porch! But another thing that runs in my family is stubbornness. Also orneriness. I didn’t care if all they wanted was one of Grandpa’s chewed-up toothpicks! Plenty of them around. Didn’t matter; they weren’t getting nothing now.
“I’m sure if you were to allow us to look through his tool chest, we could find our property very quickly, and we’d reward you most handsomely for your troubles! You’d also be permitted to keep all the remainder.”
“Have you got a set on you! Um, no. I don’t know who you think you are, but we’re done here. Whatever my grandpa gave me belongs to me. Go get the cops if you think the law’s on your side. I’ll be right here watching the game. Now git!”
As I turned to go back inside, the man on the left grabbed my shoulder. Fire came all over me! It’s a wonder I didn’t slug him.
Mouthy tried again. “You see, Mr. Stevens, this gentlemen to my left has been working with us for a very long time. In fact, he knew your grandfather.”
“Him?! I’m older than he is! He can’t even be 35 years old!”
“But it is time for him to go home now, and his vehicle is in need of repair. That requires a special tool that your grandfather fabricated in 1968 for exactly this purpose. It’s the only one of its kind, and it has no other use.”
“1968?! And you suddenly need it now? What are you even talking about? And hell, what was his plan before he met my grandpa? If ya get in a pinch, just do without? What happened, friend? Leave your tire iron on Neptune? Bitch, ain’t it?!”
“Forgive me, but this is getting us nowhere. Frankly, I fear the particulars are too sophisticated for you to understand. And they’re irrelevant besides! The point is, your grandfather signed an agreement! Did you know this?”
“No. And I care, too!”
“All of his inventions, while in company service, remain company property into perpetuity. That includes several tools in that chest, and we’re interested in only one. Now, we’re prepared to compensate, mind you. I could, as you say, get the police involved, but you’d be passing up a year’s salary for the sake of one obscure tool you’ll never miss. What’s it going to be, Mr. Stevens?”
“Ha! Everything Grandpa said about you was true. Off the job 45 years and you still can’t replace him! Beat it, fellas. Halftime’s almost over.”
I guess Dark Glasses had heard enough. He grabbed me by my right wrist, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up on the couch. My clock read a flashing 12:00, but it must’ve been just before dawn. Still groggy, I began to piece together what must have happened.
Grandpa never spoke of it, but Grandma always believed in aliens. Claimed she’d met one before, but I thought she was just storytelling and never paid much attention.
“Wait a minute... Grandpa’s tools! Oh no, they didn’t!”
I flew out to my garage. Oh yes, they did.
The Kennedy machinist’s toolbox was gone. Those bastards knocked me out and took the whole damn thing! One tool, my ass. Who knows what the old man had buried down in there, or when they’d need something else down the road. I guess they took no chances. But at least they didn’t leave me empty-handed.
In its place was an oily, familiar canvas bag. I’ll never know how they came up with that, and I’m guessing that’s the point. They knew a lot more about me than they let on, I can tell you that much. More than you can learn just by watching and wiretapping. Not sure I ever even mentioned wanting those tools out loud. Would’ve been rude.
I unzipped the bag, and sure enough: Grandpa’s tools from the station wagon. Name etched into the handles and everything. They’d also tucked 50 new $100 bills inside the bag, I guess as a way to make nice and persuade me to keep my mouth shut.
Yeah, right! Not about to spend even one cent of that hush money! I’ll keep the cash handy, should they ever want it back. See, we’re stubborn and ornery, my family.
And we’re storytellers.
Copyright © 2019 by J. David Thayer