Oooooffff!” thought Clarke to himself, as he wrestled the old air conditioner from the window.
Or had he actually said it out loud? No matter, for he was the only person around for miles, having delayed closing the lakeside cottage for the season until the last possible weekend.
This had clearly not been “the best season ever,” a catchphrase that Clarke began using who knows how many seasons ago on every ride home. It had been a bit strange to be here without a visit from the kids for the first time, each having made the transition from child to adult long ago and well on the way to making lives of their own.
Not that he didn’t appreciate having Anne all to himself for the first time in years. It was just, different. And refreshingly honest, especially when it came to admitting where they were in life. With no need to keep up with children and grandchildren, it was a time to enjoy adult conversation again and to appreciate the silent stretches when they had no need to say anything at all.
It was no fun closing the old place up on his own. This was the first season that Anne had elected not to make the last drive up and back with him. True, the arthritis was becoming an issue, and there had been a few discussions with orthopedic surgeons about the plusses and minuses, and the price, of a new knee or two.
The need for a getaway place was starting to seem a bit unnecessary as well. With the two of them retired and the arts and cultural life of Princeton making it a getaway destination for lots of folks, what was it that they needed to get away from? Still.
“It’s a miracle that this old wheeze box still works at all,” he said, this time aloud for sure, as he returned to his task. True enough, even accounting for the fact that it had hardly ever been needed, thanks to the cooling shade of the tall pines that surrounded the cottage and the evening breezes that wafted in from the lake.
Except for that first sweltering summer, when a cool dip offered the only respite from unceasing waves of heat and humidity. Anne had insisted that they stop at Mrs. G’s on the way home and purchase the unit, and that he make a solo weekday trip just to lug it up here and install it before she set foot in the place again.
Finding an electrician who would install the line to run the darn thing wound up costing more than the unit, a Fedders 5,500 BTU job. “State of the art” the salesman had called it.
Clarke knew that, back in the day, that’s exactly what it was, although contemplating the corroding behemoth sitting on the floor before him made it hard to believe.
Tappan, Carrier, Weathermaker, Luxaire, Friedrich. so many brands to choose from in those days. But Clarke didn’t have to be sold on the Fedders, believing it was the Cadillac of air conditioners, though years of gripping the case in exactly the same spot twice a year had worn away two of the stenciled letters, gradually morphing the brand name to “edder.”
The irrefutable proof of its antiquity was that it been made in the USA, at the Fedders plant in Edison.
Of course the Fedders plant was long gone, as was the New York Times printing plant that had replaced it. What remained was American industry’s version of a ghost ship, a vast complex of cavernous Galvalume-clad buildings. Crab grass pushed through the spider web of cracks in the parking lots and the little network of macadam that connected it all to a six-lane access road leading directly to the New Jersey Turnpike.
Too much information, thought Clarke, way too much information. He knew the fate of the Fedders site chapter in verse because his father had worked there.
His father swore by the quality of the Fedders, but, there being no company store, and therefore no employee discounts, he never actually owned one. It was Clarke who bought the family’s first air conditioner, for the lakeside cottage. The cottage was the smartest purchase his father had ever made. Sadly, it had been passed on to Clarke far too soon.
By then Clarke had learned a thing or two about air conditioners on his own, enough to share his father’s enthusiasm for the Fedders brand. He received his A/C education when he reported for a temp job at S. Klein in Woodbridge. When the personnel manager spotted Clarke in his school blazer and tie, she smiled and informed him he’d be spending the next couple of months in Hard Goods Receiving. Clarke hadn’t the vaguest idea what that was.
He found out quickly enough, ending up in the sprawling windowless, fluorescent-lit basement of the store, directly under the selling floor where he had expected to while away the day chatting up shoppers in search of a new set of luggage, fine china or some such.
Clarke was introduced to Jules, the manager of the Hard Goods Receiving crew. Jules greeted him by jutting his chin toward Clarke’s tie and pointing out that “you won’t be needing that thing down here. Go see Eddie in the next aisle and get to work.”
Eddie –– full name Edward Tadeusz Waldarcek –– barely acknowledged Clarke’s presence, as he was deep into the chore of stacking boxed air conditioners onto wooden pallets as they descended via a conveyor belt that stretched from the loading dock down to a “roller top” –– a long, narrow, industrial strength table top made up of a parallel array of metal rollers that spin on ball bearings.
Once a special type of price tag called a “pin ticket” had been affixed to each unit, Eddie –– and now the team of Eddie and Clarke –– used a small fork lift to move and stack the heavy boxes on welded steel shelving, awaiting sale. When a unit was sold, Eddie or Clarke matched the green copy of a five-part sales slip to the appropriate unit, wrestled it back down from its shelf onto a hand truck, and sent it back up to street level via another conveyor belt to Customer Pickup.
Though he did his best to keep up with Eddie, Clarke couldn’t remember how he had made it through that first eight-hour shift. “Portable” air conditioners in those days were the room-cooling equivalent of a portable TV, monstrously heavy steel and copper contraptions that had clearly been named by someone possessing a well-developed sense of irony.
He remembered vowing to himself never to return. But he did, and he was glad that he had made the effort; before long his biceps were a match for Eddie’s, and he soon had no trouble keeping up with the work flow.
The music helped keep him moving too. The department had laid claim to a National Panasonic AM / FM table model radio with a genuine walnut veneer case. Thanks to an unwritten rule that had taken effect before Clarke’s arrival (“unwritten” by Eddie, he suspected) the radio was permanently tuned to 1010 WINS AM. Incredibly, Clarke learned to actually look forward to hearing Donovan’s mystical sing Hurdy Gurdy Man and the Parliaments’ soulful I Wanna Testify at least six times a day.
Eddie turned out to be a pretty decent guy. He and Clarke quickly progressed from awkward conversation to friendship, the milestone signified by the ritual of stopping for a burger after punching out on Friday’s that continued throughout Clarke’s tenure there.
Though more Polish than English was spoken in Eddie’s parents’ home, Eddie had wisely favored English. He was studying for an Associate’s degree in Business four nights a week, and hoped to go on to attain a degree in criminal justice and eventually join the New Jersey State Police.
In the nearly two months that followed, Clarke and Eddie sweated together in Hard Goods Receiving five days a week, lugging hundreds of air conditioners totaling thousands of pounds around in close quarters.
Almost before he knew it, the selling season for air conditioners was coming to an end. Clearance sales ensured that the remaining units flew from the shelves. Goodbyes were brief but Clarke knew that, at least where Eddie was concerned, that they were heartfelt.
Eddie moved on to lugging snow blowers and other merchandise for the coming winter season. Clarke moved on to continue an education that would eventually lead to establishing his practice, marriage to an amazing woman, kids that he wouldn’t trade for the world.
And all too quickly to retirement, and to this day at the old cottage by the lake. It was hard to believe that the same arms that could barely wrestle this old “edder” to the floor were the same arms that had once so effortlessly tossed around hundreds of edders and their brethren like so many down pillows.
Clarke shuddered as an unexpected wave of sadness wash through him. He missed the kids. He missed Anne. He wondered whether there would be another season by the lake. He wondered whether Edward Tadeusz Waldarcek was living in a cabin on a lake shore somewhere, enjoying life with his family and the pension of a retired State Trooper.
As he pulled a tattered tarp over the old air conditioner, Clarke heard Eddie’s voice as clearly as if he were standing next to him on his final day in Hard Goods Receiving.
He chuckled at Eddie’s words then, but his eyes misted over as he remembered them now.
“Hey Clarke! Here it is! I knew we’d get to this one eventually,” Eddie had said, as he pulled the lone remaining Fedders from the shelf and ceremoniously set it on the hand truck.
“What are you talking about Eddie? Which one?”
“This one Clarke. The one we’ve been looking for all summer. The last one.”
George Point is a freelance writer based in Lawrenceville.