The Hammer

By: Mike Szymanski

How does it happen that as we get older we seem to catch up to our parents?

At some point we seem to pass them up and seem older than them. And, the older we get it’s amazing how many things we ignore, or conveniently forget, about how difficult it was growing up with each other. Maybe we get closer because one of us realizes the other isn’t going to be around too much longer.

All that stuff is past and doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe it’s because all that stuff never really mattered ever.

I have a great relationship with my Mother. I’ve always had. She calls me two or three times a week. When I get a chance, I write to her. But the last thing a writer wants to do in his spare time is sit down and write, you know. And often I don’t have that much to write about anyway because we talk about everything on the phone.

She always encouraged me to be a writer. I remember on my seventh birthday I got the biggest present I ever had. My heart was pounding so hard I felt as if the weight of all seven of my birthdays had instantly been compressed into one. The box was heavy, almost too much for me to carry. It was as long as my arm, and as tall as my head, and as big around as my mother when she had my sister inside her.

I knew it had to be an Astro-lite, that toy I marveled over on TV where whole miniature futuristic cities could be made out of colored light and clear plastic sticks and domes. Or, maybe it was finally that electronic Hot Wheels race track, not that rubber track she bought me last year that you clamp to the edge of the table and the cars do a loop-the-loop and and that’s it. No, this was something special.

When I unwrapped the paper wrapping and saw the electric typewriter box I knew she was probably trying to trick me and had put something else inside the box, but then I tore open the box and there it was — an electric typewriter. I didn’t know what to say at first. It was all shiny and black with a silver stripe going around the outside and a silver raised Sears Correct-O-Sphere label on it, which I later wore down during long periods of writer’s block. It had different typefaces, changeable with a flip of a little ball, and I used them according to my mood: Bold for serious writing or science reports; Helvetica for letter writing or social studies reports; and Script for poetry or comp classes. It corrected mistakes in three quick keystrokes, one to back space, one to hit the correction tape, and the third stroke to obliterate the mistake. It was that simple. I loved to hear the squeaking of the rubber belt whirring around the wheels as I sat there thinking over what I would create. I loved to watch the ball turn as I held down a key and it magically stamped the proper letter onto my pure white sheet of paper.

A typewriter. It was something I never dreamed of getting. But what an insightful present for a mother to give her child in the Sixties before the computer boom made typing a necessity for all school children. She said, “You better use this, it was very expensive.” From then on, I was the only second grader — or perhaps the only student in all of Adele Turner Elementary School — who turned in all his homework assignments typed.

That typewriter was my friend for so long. It saw me through scholarship applications, job resumes, story queries and novel attempts. It’s too bad that latch on the plastic carrying case had softened from years of sitting next to the heater. I almost cried when I moved out and lugged that typewriter from my room for the first time in 10 years because as I carried it out — oh so carefully — it slipped out of the case and crashed down the stairs in three crushing bounces, resting in a pile of twisted springs, shattered plastic and pin-sized screws at the bottom of the stairs. I saved the E, the I, the K and the M keys to spell out my name and I wrapped up the rest in a towel and ceremoniously laid it on top of the trash much like I did with my Mother’s prized yellow-green parakeet that she had owned longer than I was alive.

Mother saw how devastated I was when my typewriter died and she rushed up the stairs, hugged me and put my head on her shoulder even though I was already old enough to be on my own and had grown a whole head taller than her. It must be her very open Dutch nature that encouraged her to hug and kiss so much with family and friends. She even made my father’s stiff Polish relatives a bit uncomfortable always insisting that my sister and I kiss them hello and goodbye as if it would be the last time. But she was right, sometimes it was the last time. At least it was for my Dzia Dzia, that gray old man with the kielbasa breath and the sandpaper skin that scratched my cheeks raw when I kissed him.

But, I didn’t mind kissing his harsh face as much as I just hated kissing our Aunt Val because Aunt Val not only always smelled of Schaefer beer but on the side of her nose she had a huge reddish-brown mole that poked out like a dirt clod she hadn’t washed off. It just hung there off her nose with two black hairs jutting out longer than her eyelashes. Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to take a pair of scissors and just snip that ugly growth right off her face, but it never seemed to bother her. So, when we had to kiss Aunt Val, I always turned my head to get on the right side of her face to avoid the nose mole, but then I’d be face-to-face with an even larger globby mole that looked like a cat turd Superglued to her neck. Inevitably, I had to brush against one or the other of the gross moles and I always felt like I had to rush to the bathroom to wash my face and hands or else those fleshy brown growths would pop up all over my body. I even remember my aunt noticing my bathroom runs and remarking, “Honey, does your son have a bladder problem?” and my Mother answered, “No, Valentina, he’s just a clean little boy.”

Mother was always so proud of me. She had me study under the best piano teacher around, who cost $15 an hour and lived in the next town. Madame Emelia DeBernardo-Cushing was her name, and she always wore a tight-fitting long black dress and pearls or sparkly diamond earrings when I would go to her house and sit at her baby grand piano. Madame, as we were all told to call her, often spent part of the hour talking of her grand performances and pointing to the framed newspaper reviews hung on the walls all around her piano. Her story was that she stopped playing for audiences when during a performance at Carnegie Hall she froze up in the middle of a Chopin Nocturne — I think it was the one in E-flat minor — and her left hand became paralyzed. So, she moved to warmer climates so her hand would heal and sometimes it worked well enough for her to show me how a piece should be played. I hated the Madame. I hated her soapy smelling face and her coffee-stained teeth and her warbling shrill voice.

I hated how she never seemed to look much older than her picture that was propped next to the piano with her puffed up hair and long lashes and sucked-in cheeks, looking like an ostrich as she sat next to some gray-haired wrinkled maestro whose name I was supposed to know if I had any intelligence at all, but I didn’t know his name and my Mother had never heard of him either. I hated the way she would keep time with her wooden Westcott ruler and if I missed a note, or went too fast she would smack me on the knuckles with it — not so they would ever bleed — but sometimes the metal edge on one side sliced just enough skin to make it hurt like a paper cut and I couldn’t keep my knuckles arched above the keys like she ordered.

Even as I kid, I always wondered why she would smack her students on the knuckles and then expect us to play. I often was reduced to sobs by her strict demands, but I wiped the tears away before I went out to hop into the blue Chevy Malibu where my Mother sat for the full hour waiting for me. She worked hard to pay for those lessons, and she spent many hours waiting outside in the car in all kinds of weather as I learned to play.

Mother was so proud of my piano playing that she invited all the neighbors, all the family from up North, and all her co-workers to come to Madame’s first big recital at a huge church auditorium in the center of town. I was one of the last performers, therefore one of her star students, and I had been rehearsing a flawless “Fur Elise” for six months in preparation. When Madame read my name off from the program — why she had to read it I don’t know she knew who I was — I felt her steely brown eyes on my back, but I also knew the warm hazel eyes of my Mother was watching, off-setting my teacher’s harsh stares. I knew my Mother was pointing and motioning to those around her who might not have heard my name called out by the Madame.

I bowed and pushed up the sleeves of my blue leisure suit and sat down at the piano with the comfort of knowing that Mother’s heart was perhaps pounding as violently as mine. I started with my right hand, perfectly arched above the keys, and quite deliberately pounded out da-da da-da da, da-de-da dum. But as the left hand joined in the melody, I hit clunker after clunker, starting at the chords at wrong notes and throwing off the precise timing of the whole piece. Before I even got to the tough fast part, I got up and bowed and left the podium with my face feeling as hot as if I got an instant sunburn.

No one said anything to me as we drove home that afternoon, but I heard my Mother talk to Madame on the way out of the church saying she knew I could play it, she had heard me do it over and over and over without any errors.

Madame comforted my Mother and said, “It’s not your fault, the boy has a mental block. Until he is over that, I suggest that he not return to my lessons.”

Well, that was it, I embarrassed Madame Emelia DeBernardo-Cushing and my Mother could gracefully bow out of seven years of waiting outside in the Chevy Malibu and avoid feeling like it was all for naught. For years after, I humored my Mother by tinkling on the piano playing ragtime, Chopin and Hanon drills without a single clinker. But sometimes, my Mother’s friends would be over and she would sneak them into the kitchen next to the enclosed patio where our piano was sitting and she would have them listen to my playing. She never caught on that I could easily see Mother and her tennis partners or the Canasta ladies tiptoeing into the kitchen through the reflection in the liquor cabinet. As soon as I was aware I had an audience, I flubbed up. Sometimes I did it in on purpose, otherwise Mother may think my mental block was cured.

And now we laugh about the Madame. Mother told me she saw her at the doctor’s office last week where Mother was getting consultation for a facelift. Madame apparently had something gone wrong with her own surgery because she wore a shawl around her neck in the middle of summer. Mother knew Madame saw her in the office, but neither of them said anything to each other. Mother said Madame just stuck her nose up in the air like she always did and walked out without a peep. I laughed and laughed and laughed. It was almost as if Mother somehow acknowledged that she knew about all those times I went into Madame’s house trembling with such sheer terror. Finally, Mother and I could hate her together openly.

Mother and I can talk so freely now. I tell her how much I miss Jody, our old little black mutt who we found abandoned in a box when she was just a puppy. My father didn’t want her and said if she stays then he goes, but she stayed and we named her Jody as a variation of my Uncle Joe, who visited us a lot while my father was away in Vietnam. Floppy-eared Jody traveled with us everywhere, even enduring days of travel in the car when we drove through the desert to New Mexico and Colorado for family trips. But that wriggly long little dog was getting old and flea bitten and losing all the hair off her back-end, so one afternoon Mother uncharacteristically gave my sister and I some money and told us to go bowling with our friend Jack. Mother didn’t like Jack, but he had a car. When we came back from bowling she told us Jody had died, but we knew she took our little dog to the vet to be put to sleep. I always thought that was a stupid term to be “put to sleep” when in reality it’s simply being killed.

It’s such a tragedy how we inadvertently kill so many things each day. We kill plants and animals every time we eat. We kill ants and spiders while walking down the street under our feet without often being aware of it as we walk down the street. We even kill germs when we rinse our mouth with Listerine in the morning and this genocide is advertised quite prominently on the side of the bottle. My Mother used to keep me from watching “The Three Stooges” and “Road Runner” and one time she spanked me for what seemed like forever when she caught me sizzling ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass. She told me I wouldn’t be able to stop there if I started doing such shenanigans. She told me I’d soon be frying caterpillars on the sidewalk and then go on to sticking firecrackers in the mouths of frogs and then feeding Alka Seltzer to seagulls and watch their stomachs blow up in flight. Mother gave me some great ideas.

Sometimes I’m amazed over how deadly some very simple household items can be. Mother always warned me not to sniff the bleach because it would make you faint and burn your lungs out. She also kept all the tools in a shed out back so that they’d be safely tucked away and out of reach of harming anybody. I’d go back there many days and just stare at that wall of tools: the long hand saw with the worn down blades, those really sharp pliers that came to a point, and that hammer.

The hammer with the wooden handle speckled with resin and green paint splotches from some long-forgotten house project. The flat knobby head of it was shiny and worn down from all the banging it has taken. The claws in the back were rusty and dull from the many nails pried out by them. That hammer feels so powerful in your hand, with its shellacked yellow wood perfectly contoured to make the grip steady as it reverberates when it hits home.

When I hold it upright by the end of the handle, the top of it just feels like it has to fall, it has to come down, and it has to come down hard and solid. It has to bang, and it has to bang right down on that shiny flat head, and bang squarely and deliberately. It’s a strong tool, yet so simple in its design. Just a piece of wood and a piece of metal hooked up to make one powerful piece of tool. I’d like to write about that hammer someday — a whole story about the beauty and simplicity and power of that hammer. Maybe I’ll figure out a way to write about it in that writing class I’m taking.

I tell my Mother about my writing class, and she’s happy for me. I tell her that sometimes I wonder who’s sitting next to me and what kind of thoughts they might be thinking. It scares me sometimes to look around the class and wonder what’s really going on in their minds.

Does any of them ever think of walking in with an Uzi and lining a few of the students up against the chalkboard and gunning them down as the others to watch? Does anyone ever think about jumping up and squeezing the life out of one of the students who forces us to listen to their inane rambling stories? Would the rest of the class and our teacher cheer on the bludgeoning of that classmate as his egotistical readings turn into their last choking gasps for life and perhaps the most honest uttering he’s ever made? Does that super-religious quiet guy with the whispering voice who always writes about her relationship with Jesus really think that we don’t know he hasn’t ever fantasized — even for an instant — about leaping up in the middle of church and screaming “bullshit?” And doesn’t that guy who offends everyone with his brusque sexist commentaries and his better-than-thou critiques of other people’s work wonder if one of us isn’t going to follow him out of class and run him over in the parking lot and then blame it on a stuck accelerator? That’s why I never like to read in class. That’s why I only read my work to my Mother.

My Mother and I have such a super relationship now. Oh sure, we’ve had our ups and downs. I hear such nasty childhood stories around here. And Mother is doing fine now. Her hair is growing back, the holes in her skull are healing, and she can walk now without getting too dizzy. She doesn’t hang up the phone when I call her any more. She doesn’t cry as much, or scream, when she talks to me.

I love my Mother. I hope she calls again soon. They won’t let me call out from here.

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