In the commune, whenever I pick up a hammer to get through my chores on the board for the week, I feel like a killer, though not in a bad way, just capable, calm, like a killer should be.
But I’d never kill anyone in the commune. The people here are way too nice.
So I’m okay with seeing my name on the board with more chores beneath it than anyone else’s. That is, after all, what I do in the commune: certain day-to-day maintenance, repairs and so forth that a hammer, though not always only a hammer, is usually needed to do to my liking. I don’t resent the fact, for instance, that in dry-erase pen alongside Jax’s name it only says, dishes—clean, replace. Or that next to Richie’s name, right below Jax’s, it says, laundry—bedclothes, and next to that, light bulbs. Or that in the space next to Anabelle’s name, which Anabelle herself wrote out in big, looping, vermillion cursive, it says, dessert + serenade. After all, that’s what Anabelle does in the commune; every night, she brings dessert. Then we eat it while Anabelle sings and plays to us on her old and rich-sounding acoustic guitar.
I don’t resent Jax, who’s the house president, who made the chore-board in the first place.
Especially given that next to my name, spelled abe instead of ‘Abraham’, the way I like to hear it said, there are so many chores written after the colon they drop down to the line below.
abe: toilets—scrub mirrors—windex drains—unclog fireplace—sweep compost—collect and distribute for mulch fridge—replace filter(s) front door—insulate gutters—clear bookshelves—anchor (protect little ruby!) lazy susan—rehinge back gate—level, recalibrate lock fence—weatherproof solar panels—hose off garden—fence roaches—bait attic stairs—replace, rehang . . .
My days are busy, busy, busy. I never put the hammer down. I carry it with me, attached to my belt. Its weight is constant, reassuring. And strange as it seems on the surface of things, that comfort is what makes me feel like a killer. Like everyone, probably, feels like a killer the moment they pick up a hammer, weight-test it: the satisfying calibration of the hammer in the hand; the stick of the grip; the cold heft of the metal.
Like they could kill at any moment, whether or not they felt the urge.
Today in the commune, I start with the quick stuff: cleaning the toilet, replacing the filters.
Zeke wanders in while I’m doing the toilets, takes a little half step and backs out toward the hall. I tell him I’ll be just a second. So he shrugs and stands there with his arms crossed before him, leaning on the doorframe, facing into the bathroom, and when we’ve covered how he his, and how he slept the night before, and what he has in store today, which apart from the chores he has up on the board — rabbits—feed and bike fleet—pump — apparently is not that much, I see him shift his posture sharply. I see he’s got to go real bad. When I see that, I get anxious for him and tell him just another second, yet not before asking him what’s he been eating, not that it’s any of my business. Because I just happened to notice, I say, that his bowel movements seem to come to him like thunder, which could mean he’s getting a surplus of fiber or maybe too much fat, depending, and does he still smoke, in the morning, I mean, because that, too, could serve as a catalyst, maybe. Not that it’s any of my business, not that I’m an expert. But.
All the while I’m scrubbing, scrubbing. Scrubbing slowly? Zeke stares at me. He doesn’t seem, quite, to know what to say. I splash off the scrubber and let it drip dry; again, Zeke is venturing into the bathroom, faintly thrusting his hips with his hands in his pockets. I sense that he means to communicate with me. But it just looks like this little dance and sort of a rude one, if I’m being honest, like Zeke has a ferret loose inside his pants but like Zeke doesn’t want me to know there’s a ferret loose inside his pants.
‘All right.’ I nod slowly at Zeke.
‘Yep,’ he says.
‘Well,’ I say, ‘I’ll leave you to it.’
‘That’d be great.’ Zeke laughs a little.
‘At the non-profit – ’ I start to tell Zeke, but it’s useless.
The bathroom door clicks softly shut.
I pause outside the bathroom door, the hammer hanging from my waist.
I shift my weight right, where the hammer hangs down. Then left, then right, then left again. I like this careful measuring between the hammer and non-hammer sides of my person because it confirms that the hammer’s still there. When I left the non-profit, called Hands on Tomorrow, the place I worked before the commune, I took nothing with me except for this hammer. It has a word along the handle, the name of the tool’s manufacturer: plumb. I’ve never heard of plumb before but whoever they are, they make excellent hammers. This one, I’ve found, has served me well, first at the non-profit and now in the commune. The name could hardly be more apt. On the one hand I find that it puts me in mind of precisely the image it means to evoke: a plumb angle between two beams, the gentle dropdown on a good flight of steps. On the other, however, it gives rise to something that was probably not intended by the company’s owners: the fact that the hammer could be used for murder. In fact, could serve no other purpose. So that when someone picks it up to put it to some broader use, it actually sways the mind over to murder – inexorably, like a clock tower’s hand.
The hammer can’t help that it does this to people. That’s just how the hammer is made.
plumb, as in strike, on the top of the skull; plumb, as in distance, between thought and action; plumb, as in escape well made, are three unwanted connotations.
The commune that I live in is a renovated farmhouse surrounded by miles of open country. That’s not to say it’s isolated. Miles to the south is a sort of large town or a kind of small city, some people will tell you, which we commune-members can access by car or bike or sometimes hitchhiking; I guess it would make just as much sense to walk, though often as not people try to avoid it. You never know what you’ll run into out there. Plus, the winters here are freezing. I arrived at the farmhouse in just such a manner, which is to say I came on foot, the miles of blank asphalt unfolding before me until, around this little bend, the farmhouse appeared, half-shrouded in fog. It was morning and early spring then in the country, with the birds waking up in the tops of the trees and a few early lights turning on in the house, which thinking back now could’ve been anyone getting ready to show their best face to the world: Jax, Richie or Anabelle; Coral, Zeke, Pierre, Big John; Sarah G or Sarah M. Strange to reflect on how well I now know them when back on that morning they weren’t even people, just lighted squares showing themselves through the fog.
The first one I saw was Anabelle.
She was kneeling in one of the wood flowerbeds that line the front walk coming up from the road, wearing tan overalls with her hair in a scarf. Even hunched over like that in the dirt, she still had horn-rimmed glasses on and when she looked up at me, smiling of course, they were fogged with dew. She looked like she wanted to say something to me, she looked like she was going to greet me. Then Jax hurried out of the doorway above her and down the front steps with his head tilted up. ‘Hey, brother,’ he called to me. ‘How can we help you?’
In the kitchen downstairs I run into Pierre. Sarah G’s with him. They’re eating their breakfast: Pierre last night’s leftovers mixed up with eggs; Sarah G steel-cut oatmeal with brown sugar on it and hunks of bananas. I greet them both, ask how they are, and how they’d slept the night before, and what they have in store that day, just as I’d asked Zeke in the bathroom upstairs, who I now hear above me, flushing.
Then he washes his hands and tromps off down the hall.
Sarah G and Pierre give me cursory answers and go back to eating their breakfast in silence. I open the fridge and then close it again. They’re hunched at the table, their backs to the fridge, so they have to turn toward me to hear what I’m saying, though only Sarah G does that; Pierre just sort of tilts his head.
I tell them I am pretty good.
I tell them I slept well enough.
Then I tell them, in terms of my plans for the day, that they are looking at them now and when they look at me unsure to what exactly I’m referring, not understanding, I suppose, that I have made a sort of joke, I clarify that what I mean is the ongoing replacement of the fridge’s water filter and after that the composting and after that, maybe, securing the bookshelf, or maybe the bookshelf and then the composting, depending on what kind of mood I am in. Though probably, now that I really think of it, securing the bookshelf will have to come first. Jax underlined it, after all – and here I refer to the chore-board behind me – because it needs doing ahead of the rest and as house president, we can only assume, Jax must hold the commune’s best interests at heart. And besides (reason A), it will take a bit longer, involving the usage of anchoring pins, a drill and several sets of brackets; and (reason B) it cannot wait, given the object, protect little ruby! Anabelle’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, the only child the commune has, who likes to climb on everything and sooner or later will get to that shelf.
That’s all by way of saying, I add, already it’s a busy day.
‘There you go,’ says Pierre and turns back to his breakfast.
Sarah G smiles politely. ‘Sounds like it,’ she says.
‘Busy, busy,’ I say in a little sing-song. ‘Busy, busy,’ I say, and reopen the fridge.
Inside is a chaos of Tupperware cartons and carry-out boxes and old plastic bags that likely contain vegetables from the garden, and amid everything are these tiny half-nubbins without any protective wrapping: half an apple, insides browning; a congealed bowl of jelly or gravy or something that jiggles a bit when I poke at the rim; Anabelle’s yogurt parfait of that morning with its sparkling raspberries and mangoes on top.
As I pop out the housing that safeguards the filter, unwrap the new filter and extract the old one, I’m talking back over my shoulder at them about different ways of arranging the fridge. ‘I’ve learned a thing or two,’ I say, ‘Not just from my years as a practiced fridge-owner but at the non-profit where I worked before in a similar role to my role here in the commune. That included odd jobs, like the scrubbing of toilets and the hinging of doorframes just like I do here, yet also more day-to-day matters of service, you might even say the public good, like noticing something amiss in the fridge and taking mere seconds to straighten it out. At Hands on Tomorrow, the place where I worked, when I went to the fridge and I found it like this, I didn’t do what one might think, throwing out food that I judged past its prime or food that sat unclaimed by someone but rather would arrange the food on the three tiers of fridge in the following order: the top tier – food that could go bad and so must be eaten within a day’s time; the middle tier – food that was still in its packing and had a grace window of two days or more; the bottom tier – personal bundles of food that would more or less certainly vanish post-lunch. This way, I say, without much effort, the fridge became something much more than a fridge. It became, well, a sort of conveyor belt, really, moving food in and out, moving food in and out, moving food in –’
I stop for three reasons at this point.
One: I have conveyed my point.
Two: I must concentrate, however briefly, on the minuscule work of exchanging the filter.
Three: Pierre has gotten up in the middle of our conversation, clattered his breakfast things into the sink, presumably for Jax to wash, and left the room for somewhere else.
Sarah G, I sense, remains, though the sound of her eating oatmeal has ceased. The last couple clicks of exchanging the filter are deafening there in the mid-morning kitchen. Finally, I turn around.
The hammer turns with me, attached to my belt. The claw tangles up in my baggy pants fabric, creating a crotch-aligned pulling sensation which isn’t unpleasant, if I’m being honest, while the handle of the hammer, anchored rigid by the claw, presses insistently into my leg. It’s an awkward phenomenon wholly at odds with the sinuous grace of the object itself, which could fit in the hand. Which could tip through the air.
She’s facing me now, her bowl empty behind her. Her eyes are wide and glazed with something – not interest, not boredom, but something alarmed I vaguely recognize as terror. The fridge shuts of its own accord, the sound of the gasket seal making us jump, and it’s like at the non-profit Hands on Tomorrow, in the break-room/lounge with the cracked water cooler, and the dull yellow couch, and the fridge in the corner where all the workers stored their lunches, and I would come into the break-room/lounge, striking up small talk like everyone did, like everyone does in a break-room/lounge, as though that’s somehow not the purpose, and not just tips or need-to-knows, but harmless, nice stuff like the news or the weather, and as I spoke I had the sense of bodies dispersing in space/time behind me, downing and throwing out used water cups, miming the ends of conversations, zipping up lunch-pails and slinging them on, and when I turned around again it would only be me and one fellow still there, an office assistant who only spoke Spanish, and his face would look at me like Sarah G’s face, like Sarah G’s face appears now in the kitchen, a little confused and a little afraid but overall receptive to the prospect of connecting and I would start in on, you know, just something, while the fellow sat there at the table and listened.
‘At the non-profit –’ I tell Sarah G but before I can tell her the truth, she says, ‘Sorry.’ She gets up, deposits her bowl in the sink, presumably also for Jax to take care of. At the door, she turns back and explains to me, ‘Work. The mid-shift.’
Then she’s gone.
I put my money where my mouth is, start doing my best to reorder the fridge.
When I’m done, I close the door and stand staring into the shiny fridge metal – the magnets for takeout, Eracism, Greenpeace, Gryffindor from Harry Potter, which I happen to know is Anabelle’s and I center it slightly, a smile on my lips. Because it can’t hurt, I reopen the door and clear out some space on the top, urgent shelf. There between some chicory and Richie’s leftover goat-cheese enchiladas, I cradle the hammer down onto the shelf, close the fridge again, stand back.
I track five minutes on my watch.
Then I open the door to the fridge a third time and lift the hammer from the chill. I cradle it, feeling the different parts of it – the grip, faintly viscous at thirty degrees; the claw and the head, which are cold to the touch. The head especially intrigues me, the cold embedded in it now almost enough to sting the skin, the makeup of its molecules reordered in minutes, a different thing from what it was. It’s almost like, how do I say this exactly, replacing the hammer again on my belt, the hammer was one way, but now it’s another. Just like how a person can be one kind of person before feeling the weight of the hammer in hand yet then, when they’ve felt it, become someone else.
The room-temperature object turns into a cold one. The person ceases to exist.
The bookshelf is in the common room. Anabelle’s reading in there when I get there. She’s often there reading to herself or to Ruby on mornings or afternoons when she’s not working. She’s part-time at a chocolatier/espresso bar place that whenever she works there she brings us home treats, though Anabelle never enjoys them herself; she only eats ‘clean foods’, like nuts and raw carrots and once in a while those parfaits that she makes. Today, she crunches celery behind the bent spine of the book that she’s reading, some sort of gargantuan fantasy novel with dragons and wizards and trolls on the front. She lies along the sectional in a cardigan and paint-splattered jeans. She looks up when I enter, says, ‘Hey, Abraham.’ Smiles warmly and goes back to reading her book. She’s got this pink streak in her hair.
I like the climate of her smiles. I like that she calls me Abraham.
I like the songs she writes and sings in the post-dinner hour on her old Gibson standard, songs about dragons and wizards and trolls that seem to emerge fully formed from the books about dragons and wizards and trolls that she reads; I’m always just outside the door to the bright common room where the commune sits listening, taking breaks between bites of their malt balls and truffles to murmur their thanks for this creature among them, and I murmur mine, too, although nobody hears me.
Völlkingkraft the Wizard came
to lay the dragon looooow
And Völlkingkraft went on his way
beneath the full moon’s gloooow
Though it would be fair to call Anabelle ‘pretty,’ maybe even ‘desirable’ under her clothes, most of the time I can’t think of her that way. It almost feels wrong, for some reason, I mean. Or maybe like I’m being stupid, failing to see the part of her that matters, this ‘lovingkindness’ (Jax’s term) that Anabelle carries wherever she goes. It seems to beam out of her Gibson’s sound hole like one of those fiery red Jesus heart portraits, blinding the looker with heavenly grace. In these moments, listening to her, she makes me feel not like I might float away, but rather like I’m immovable, permanent – stone.
I want to tell Anabelle so many things. I want to tell Anabelle: At the non-profit.
I want to tell Anabelle: At the non-profit, and have her stay to hear the rest.
I want to tell Anabelle: At the non-profit, called Hands on Tomorrow, where I worked before, an organization begun by do-gooders to get ex-cons back on their feet, of which I was one and still technically am, when I would walk into the break-room and everyone else in the room would start leaving, it was only Eduardo, the man who spoke Spanish, who stayed to listen to me talk. Eduardo was dark and short and beefy, with his short hair gelled forward and into this peak. Beneath the nice clothes that he wore in the office I could always see traces of many tattoos, though on the few times that I saw him outside, on the way to the carpool that brought him to work or picking up his daughter at school or coming home again at night from this little dive bar where he went with his friends, I never didn’t see him in a heavy metal T-shirt because, I suppose, that was the music he liked. And I want to tell Anabelle: at the non-profit, between the hours of 12 and 1, Eduardo would sit there, attentive and decent, smiling at me though he half-understood, and I would give him every gift that experience placed in my power to offer. And I want to tell Anabelle: At the non-profit, when me and Eduardo would talk during lunch, how I would take my tool belt off and drape it across the back part of my seat, just like I do sometimes when Anabelle’s singing, and how sitting there in the break-room together would flood my being with relief. It was me who was sitting there, me who was present, and nothing could change that, not even the hammer.
I want to tell her all of this but I just walk past her and circle the shelf.
It’s a secondhand bookshelf hauled in off the street by presumably Jax, who’s the house treasurer and likes to procure all our furniture that way, from a slough of old wreckage infested with bedbugs. And I’m not exaggerating when I say the word bedbugs. On my last list of chores on the dry-erase board, immolate old mattresses had been first.
I’m inspecting the bookshelf when Jax stumbles in followed by Little Ruby, who’s tugging his shirt. Anabelle looks up and smiles when they enter; she tents her book and spreads her arms and Ruby runs into them, howling and laughing.
‘Mother of dragons!’ says Jax and sits down on the end of the sectional couch near her feet, and Little Ruby knows the word. She flaps her arms. She breathes fake fire.
‘What tidings?’ says Anabelle.
‘Torching some kingdoms.’ Anabelle frowns. ‘And, you know, helping people.’
They’re sweaty and dirty from playing outside where Jax will take Ruby on Anabelle’s off-days ‘to give her a second to breath,’ he announces, even though I have secretly come to believe it’s less for her sake than it is to impress her. But Anabelle lets them; I guess I can’t blame her. Anabelle’s a single mom. Everything depends on her – Ruby’s meals, Ruby’s school, Ruby’s sheets being clean – and never more on days like this when they’ve got nowhere else to be.
Only now does Jax look up and notice I’m there.
Though I’m still facing toward the shelf that leans on the adjacent wall, I can feel Jax’s eyes on me, blue and assessing, before he announces, ‘Hey, Abe! Toddler-proofing?’
I nod at the shelf, but I still don’t respond.
‘Abe’s a beast with the chore board,’ says Jax to my back. ‘Hell, Abe is Johnny-on-the-spot.’
‘Johnny spot!’ cries Little Ruby.
Jax wears a pair of drop-crotch harem pants. Jax hardly ever shaves his face. Jax’s T-shirt is holey and stretched at the collar. Is Jax wearing shoes? Jax is close to the earth. Jax’s hair is shoulder-length and progressively griming itself into dreads. Jax is talking to me – not about me, but to me. Still, I don’t dare turn around.
Or it’s not even that; I’ve got other things going.
I’m poking around the backside of the bookshelf, looking at how it leans up on the wall so I can gauge where best to mark for the holes that will square with the ends of the brackets.
‘Anyway, Abe,’ Jax says to me, ‘glad you’re finally getting to this. I underlined it on the board? To like, you know, prioritize it? For the tiny among us,’ I hear Jax stage-whisper with something playful in his voice, and I turn to the side just enough to make out that he’s grinning at Ruby, hand cupped to his mouth. ‘So, like, did you see it?’
I tell him I did.
‘Did you see it was underlined, though?’
I nod at him.
Jax says, ‘Okay, well if you did –’
Anabelle clears her throat before Jax can go on. ‘I’m pretty sure he saw it, Jax.’
I want to turn around so bad. I want to see her face so bad.
To see her roll her eyes at Jax who doubts my commitment to Ruby’s safekeeping or see her kind of shrug at me, like whatever it is that bothers Jax I shouldn’t give a second thought. I want to hear her say my name, like she said it before, the nice way that I like or like I’ve heard her, late at night, say Jax’s name in Jax’s room behind the wood of Jax’s door when Little Ruby’s fast asleep, a whisper, fierce yet also whiny, like Jax is performing some small, needful surgery on Anabelle while she’s awake, and I stand there outside the door with my hammer and tool-belt, listening closely, until I can’t stand hearing them anymore and I move in my sock-feet along the dim hall.
Holding the bracket against the drywall, I take a pencil from my tool-belt and mark through the holes at the end of the bracket where the anchoring pins will go into the wall. I move to the opposite side of the shelf to repeat the procedure when Jax is behind me – so light, just his palm, at the base of my shoulder.
‘Abe, my dude, is that the stud?’
I tilt my head slightly so Jax sees my profile.
‘I mean,’ says Jax, ‘like, I’m no expert, but don’t you have to find the stud? Otherwise, it won’t work, right?’
I turn to face Jax then. I summon a breath. I proceed to explain myself slowly and calmly. How while Jax isn’t incorrect, that the stud inside your average wall is good to find in certain cases, like maybe, say, for hanging pictures between fifteen and twenty pounds or installing the hardware to hang curtain rods if the molding for some reason isn’t an option, in the case of this bookshelf with dozens of books just waiting to crash on and hurt Little Ruby, to anchor it into the drywall directly with the anchoring pins and the two metal brackets will best the stud for several reasons – a term, ‘best the stud,’ that I actually use, my eyes turning meaningfully up into Jax’s. First the brackets and the pins, which open like hollow points into the wall and are more load-bearing, actually, than the decades-old woodwork in most older houses; and second for aesthetic reasons, like keeping the shelf where it currently sits between the far end of the sectional couch and the ottoman chair beneath the window, it would be better overall to just let us determine the shape of the room as opposed to the stud, an inanimate object or not even an object, really – a piece of hidden infrastructure, keeping the wall-frame from tumbling down.
But Jax only looks at me blankly, says: ‘Right.’
A hammer is more than a handyman’s tool. A hammer also has a face.
Not a figurative face, but an actual one, as anyone well versed in hammers can tell you or as any good hammer-anatomy chart can show you clearly, part by part. The top of the hammer, that’s the head. The seam at the top of the head is the eye. The flat parts that border the head are the cheeks. The front of the hammer continues this theme: the upper curve is called the throat, the lower curve is called the neck. The perfect, flat circle that widens again from the curve of the neck and the throat is the face. Or anyway that is the technical term. Although I like to think that the hammer entire, from handle to head, is a visage of sorts – a portrait of a living face that is sometimes my own and sometimes someone else’s.
No single feature can be fixed.
On the common room couch, Little Ruby looks bored; she’s clicking her jaw while picking some dirt from her toe cuticle. Her mother, however, is staring right at me, not with alarm but a plaintiveness, maybe, shining heart-pain in her eyes.
I see the look come up in her but don’t have time to ask her what.
I don’t have time to say to her, ‘At the non-profit . . .’ because Anabelle’s already gathering her things: her glasses, her sandals and finally her daughter. She says to us only, ‘I’ll leave you guys to it,’ before she leaves the room completely, and it’s like the non-profit all over again, the last day I ever walked into the break-room and everyone started to pack up their stuff, but how this time Eduardo, my sole confidante, my patient absorber and, maybe, my friend, began to pack his things up too with a secretive urgency, rustling and zipping, like he didn’t want me to know he was leaving as I stood at the fridge rearranging its contents, talking back over my shoulder to him about how my system of storage had worked, the fridge was that much roomier, that much less crammed with rotten things, yet how, as I spoke, I was tracking his movement from the door to the break-room and out toward the hall. When he opened the door, I held his hand. I could smell his hair-gel and could see his pores shining. He’d had something with onions and garlic for lunch. And it’s like I’m still there with him, blocking his way, the hammer hanging from my hand.
Jax is knocking on the drywall, trying to find the dense sound of the stud. I make the marks to set the pins. One side of the bracket will sit on the pins, with the screw going in through the hole in the bracket and into the teeth of the anchoring pin, where it will lodge inside the drywall, impossible to shake or jar. As I’m making the second mark Jax holds my hand. ‘Don’t you need a drill for that?’
‘No,’ I tell him. ‘Too much plaster.’ Shaking Jax’s hand from mine, I gesture at the dark grey carpet. I cringe at the thought of it flecked with white specks, like a splatter of blood on a newly white wall.
Several taps with the hammer, I say, are sufficient to ease the pins along their way and then I ask him will he hold them, right here, on the mark, while I finish the job.
Image © Luca Florio