Under the walls, the bluedark lights, and the clouded half-moon of Main Street, a boy stood with an uplifted hammer in his hand. He was face to face with a parking meter, with his face very stern. A moment before, as the boy stood at the corner, he had swung the hammer at his side like a lantern. A moment before that, he had pulled it from his belt. Now, the hammer hovered near the head of the meter like a wasp.
It was a cold, windless, mid October night. In spite of the cold, others, still caught in their summer habits, sat out talking on the hoods of cars or on benches in front of stores shut down for the night or on lawn chairs brought down from apartments above.
A pair of men, gone limp from long hours and cheap wine, hunkered on a stone stoop worn smooth and low by the shoes of many decades. Their elbows rested on their knees and their hands dangled stony and useless between them. They were the only ones who watched the boy.
It was a tiring, mid-week hour. In minutes, most of those now sitting would leave the streets for the rooms above, some of whose windows were already dark, some of whose windows flickered with television.
The boy and the meter stood the same height and, but for the hand that held the wavering hammer, the boy was as still and erect as the meter. He barely even blinked. But the muscles of his brow tightened as he stared into the passive steel face and glass eye of the meter.
The men on the stoop silently noted the creased brow of the boy and the threat of the hammer. Their own brows tightened as they pondered this thing.
In Cincinnati, the parking meters of Main Street run to the south in two lines, dozens to the block, hundreds all told, past the shops and the tenements, past the courthouse with its great stone face, past the blind and massive downtown buildings, down toward the Ohio River. To the north, there are only a few dozen more meters before Main Street runs up into the hill and stops. To the west and east, more meters run along the parallel streets and the cross streets, each with the same dial face and the same coin slots, each with the same glass eye.
The two men on the stoop had been sharing a bottle of wine for some three hours, starting from the time they had gotten off work. New in town, they were working temporary labor. As the people poured through the streets from the downtown offices on their way out to the suburbs, the men had settled onto the stoop with a loaf of bread, a package of baloney, and the pint of wine. The swinging sign above them read, MOUNT MORIAH MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH, and on certain nights, the storefront rocked with song, testimony, and preaching. But this was not the night, and the men were left to themselves on the stoop.
The wine and the baloney were gone, but half the loaf of bread was still tied in its plastic bag.
One man counted out the last of their change. “Clarence,” he said, “We got us a problem.”
Clarence said nothing. He had rolled up a slice of the bread and was eating it slowly and grimly.
“If we don’t get paid tomorrow, we’re done in.”
“We don’t have nothing left now for breakfast. Nothin but this loaf of bread you’re eatin out of.”
Clarence nodded again, but the man with the change could sense that he was nodding out of no real interest.
“Look at that boy, Paul, “ Clarence said. He nodded again, this time to point out the boy at the meter. Paul followed Clarence’s eye to the spot across the street where the boy slowly swung the upright hammer.
“That boy’s about to do some damage, I reckon,” Paul said.
Clarence said nothing. He was not entirely fuddled with wine and he wanted to watch this thing closely. Paul, further gone, stopped counting and stared also. The loose change was spread out on the sidewalk in front of him, a small galaxy of silver and copper coins.
The boy had by then begun to tap, almost gently, on the glass of the meter.
The hammer was his father’s, taken from his father’s tool box, taken in spite of his little sister’s warning. “He’ll tear you up if he knows you got that hammer.” The toolbox was in the kitchen, in its place near the door to the fire escape stairs.
She had seen him go to the toolbox with a swagger. He kicked the box, then hunkered down to pop it open.
The hammer rested among the ratchets and wrenches and sockets -- the gray treasures of the box. It was a ball peen hammer, its shaft and head gone dark with much handling, the corners of it nicked and blunted by beating against the stubborn underparts and innerparts of cars.
The girl cupped her hand against her mouth as she watched her brother pull the hammer out and hold it aloft as if it were something from a legend. He tested its smack against the palm of his hand. Three times.
“Awww,” she said. “He’ll find out. He’ll kill you.”
The boy held it upright by the end of the handle and swung it back and forth for the feel of it, to test it against the tendons of his wrist and the grip in his fingers. It made him feel stronger to swing it.
He had already considered tossing it back into the box and closing the lid, but she said, “Awww, he’s gonna find out.” That stiffened him. He stood just a little taller.
“Fuck him,” he said. He inserted the hammer sword-like into his belt and went to the door.
“Awww, you cussed,” she said.
She followed him out onto the fire escape. “He’s gonna find out,” she shouted down the stairs. “He’s gonna find out.”
The night air on the back stairs was cool, crisp as new paper. Halfway down, it stopped him for a moment. The stairs led down to an alley. Similar black iron fire escapes led from a whole row of buildings on either side down to the same dark alley with its boundary fences and its surface of rounded rainworn bricks and the blank wall bounding the opposite side. The half moon, half-hidden in cloud, gave little light. The lamp at the head of the alley was dark. He could just make out the dark plum of the lamp shade where boys had stoned out the bulb four nights ago. But he knew, even in the dark, the path he was to take, down among the garbage cans and engine parts of the back yard, through the gate, and down the alley to the corner.
He was stopped, for just a moment, by the snap of cold air across his face, by the bands of cold air on his arms, by the cold air, crisp as a bite of apple, that he felt in his lungs.
There was a forest-feel to that air. For just a moment, it threw him so that he did not know for sure where he was. It stopped him just long enough that he sensed his sister stepping to the door. Her shadow dimmed the light from the window. He heard her shout, “He’s gonna find out.” Then he started down the stairs again.
His father was a quick and angular man dressed daily all in gray and with hands gone gray at the knuckles and in the creases of his fingers. He had a blind left eye, crushed in the factory where he used to work. That meant he drew a check now and made a little money on the side doing valve jobs and replacing transmissions on the cars of the neighborhood. The cars were mostly older cars and had no need of computers and electronic monitors to set them right.
He said he liked it better this way, working the odd jobs, setting his own hours, now that their mother was gone. “I can keep a little better watch on these kids,” he would say. In the months since she had passed, he had set them a strict schedule. And he generally met them at school to walk them home and made sure they were fed and had their homework done before he went back out to work on whatever he had started.
Because of the eye, the boy felt his father had two faces. The good-eye face was the face of someone stirring beans or working on a motor or crossing the street. The brow and the creases around it moved and gestured. They backed up his words. He pointed with the eye; he directed people where he wanted them to go. The eye was one of his tools. When he was angry, the good-eye side was the one to watch out for.
His face on the shut-eye side was a little crumpled from the accident. The muscles had slackened a little so that the face seemed to sleep. The eyelid drooped halfway down across the blind eye so that all that was left was a dark slit and a dim glassy surface within it. The eye itself seemed to be not so much blind as sleeping. His mouth seemed to droop as well and, when his father smiled or cursed or told a story, the shut-eye side came with it to smile or curse or speak. But it came a little slowly. It seemed to drowse behind. It seemed to want to go backwards.
The shut-eye face was that of a man gone half asleep. Or drunk. Or listening closely to a song. Or dreaming some solemn, distant dream.
At the corner on Main Street, the boy looked toward downtown, then up toward the hill. For a moment, he thought of walking over toward Vine street or toward downtown, but decided better. It could be dangerous to go too far from Main Street alone, at night. Besides, if he went too far, he would never get back in time. He had no idea how long he really had, how long before his father got back home. In spite of his brave words to his sister, he did not want to get home late. He did not want to test his father.
There were lights at Topper’s Lounge, the only place on Main Street open at this hour. Every few minutes the door would open to let the music of the juke box spill out onto the sidewalk: country music, with a familiar, rock-steady beat and a familiar, neighborly voice. There were nights, he knew, when his father would go to the bar to sit in front of a cold beer gone warm and stare at the mirror while that music played. Both sides of his face would then seem to sleep. He would come in then and talk his father out of quarters for video games and for juke box songs of his own.
He liked to go with his father to work on cars. He liked the smell of grease and the problematic nodding and talking of the men around an open hood. He liked being asked by his father to hand him a tool and was proud of his knowledge of tools. But his father never let him come along on a school night.
“Hey, Daddy,” he had said. “Let me come with you.”
“You got to stay here and . . . “
“I aint got no homework. I done it all in school.”
“You got to stay here and watch your sister.”
“But she can go to Marcie’s.” Marcie was his aunt. “Let me . . . “
“This aint no little tune-up job. And I aint got time to run her out to Marcie’s this hour of a night. I got a chance here to make a little money . . . ”
“I can help. You know I can.”
His father made a sudden cut with his good eye and silenced the boy.
The boy was working his nerves tonight. All through supper, it had been pick, pick, pick. “These beans ain’t no good.” And: “Why don’t we get us cable?” It had been like that for days. Pick at this. Pick at that. Pick at this again. And now, he’d had it.
“You stay here, I said. And watch your sister.” He waited a moment to let that sink in. “And you’ll do whatever damn else I tell you to do.” He emphasized this last by pointing his finger and bearing down on the boy with his open eye.
“You hear me?” He looked at the boy so relentlessly that the boy fell back half a step.
The boy said nothing. He looked up at his father with all the hate he could crowd behind a mask of stone.
He’s gonna hit him, she thought. For sure this time, he’s gonna do it. She even thought she could see her father lunge forward. She even saw him fist up and unfist his hand.
That boy, he thought. He’s got to learn to mind. He looked down at the stony, hardset face of the boy and knew he would get nothing out of him. Not a yes sir nor even a sour I hear you. But at least he got no more lip. At least he had gained the boy’s silence.
He decided to let his point stand. “Now I’m gonna be workin over at Scanlon’s over off Sycamore. If you got trouble, come and get me. Otherwise, you stay right here.”
“But daddy . . . ” This time it was the girl.
He cut her off with a wave of his hand. “Now you mind,” he said. “You do what he tells you to do and if I aint back in time for bed, you go on to bed just like he tells you.”
“But daddy I wanted to get ... ”
“You want a lot of things, honey, but Daddy’s got to go out and earn us some money. So you mind your brother.”
He looked over to the boy as if to underscore his original command and met the boy’s stolidly defiant, silent face. Then he pulled his coat off the back of a chair and said, “You can watch TV til nine thirty. After that, you be in bed.”
Then, for no good reason, except to know he still had some power over the boy, he set two words as he would set a nail, then tapped them down with a nod and a sharp look from his good eye.
The boy stared silent at the wall.
“You hear me, boy?”
The boy felt as if his father had shaken him by the shoulder, the words were so muscular and definite. He nodded quickly, to avoid being shaken again, and hoped that by nodding he had not broken down his stonewall stance. His father was taking his measure. His good-eye side was all scrutiny and puzzle.
Her father hitched his coat up onto his shoulders and reached for the door.
“Daddy, your tools.” She pointed to the tool box by the door.
“It’s okay, honey. Scanlon’s got all the tools we’re gonna need.”
“You ought to let me come along to help.”
When is he gonna let up? he thought. Fury rose up, then subsided. He struggled to remember that the boy was having a hard time, that he needed patience. The boy looked suddenly very small and fragile and yet hard as diamond. Fiercely pouting, arms folded, the boy seemed even smaller than his age, as if a younger child had suddenly broken out of the shell of the boy.
A memory, quick and painful as the blade of a knife: the boy and his mother, together in a park, or maybe down home. Years ago, a snapshot kind of memory, full of grass and smiles: She held the boy close. Cheek by cheek, they smiled toward him. Even in the black of white of his memory, light danced around their faces.
In a moment, that memory would have flooded and sunk him. He turned, to keep the boy from seeing the welling in his good eye. He coughed, to clear his voice.
She had been hit by a car as she came home from work. It was awful, awful to remember it, so he rarely did. For two nights, she had lain in a hospital bed wrapped up in feeding tubes and electrical scanners. At first, they had given him some hope. The nurses smiled when they came into the room. The scanners zigged-zagged back and forth in strong green lines across the screen. For two sleepless nights he had traded on that hope. He stayed up, hour on nervous hour, watching those green lines and listening for a word and watching for a flutter in her hands. She spoke not a word nor made a sound, but the strong green lines skittered up and down. He slept in a chair where he could watch her and the screen. If he woke in the middle of the night, the lines still skittered sharply, up and down, up and down. He listened. No sound. Then he drifted back into a stiff sleep.
Two days. Two nights. Then she quit on him. The darkening of the room called him up out of his sleep. The green line had flattened across the screen. He struggled up out of the stiff chair and felt a flutter near his face like the wing of a bird or a moth. Quickly, he found and pressed the call button and, while he waited for the nurse, felt the moth-like thing hover near. He took her hand; it was light as a leaf. The nurse rushed in and he backed away. The room felt heavy as stone.
When he told the children, the girl balled up her fists in her eyes. She leaned against him and sobbed as he stroked her hair. The boy drew himself up ramrod straight. He stood stock still like a soldier and stayed like that all through the days of visits and funeral. Some days, he could still catch the boy standing at attention, soldier-straight, rigid as a pole.
It had been two months. But only two months. He leaned down and put his hands on his knees to talk to the boy.
“Son,” he said. “Just do what you’re told. One way or another we’ll make it through this.” He always figured you had to talk to him like this, man to man. It had always worked before. To lean down and talk straight to him had always softened him.
But the boy turned to stare at the wall. He touched him on the shoulder but the boy would not turn. He kept the hand on the shoulder, just to hold for a moment that brittle memory, but the boy tried to shrug him off. With that shrug, the anger rose up in him again. That boy’s still tryin to show his ass, he thought. He was tired of fooling with him now.
“You just do what you’re told, “ he said. “I can’t worry about that transmission and you too.”
The boy rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.
The father stood up. “You make sure you're here when I get back.”
The boy said nothing. He crossed his arms on his chest. He made a small toss with his head.
He scoffed. But he said nothing.
She was glad her father was gone. It meant no more standoff and no more shouting. She thought that, with her father gone, her brother might watch TV or play checkers with her. The thought of it made her feel warm and safe. When Daddy and her brother argued, she wanted to hide; she wanted to crawl into a closet or a back room. Sometimes, when they argued, she clenched shut her eyes and clapped her hands to her ears and found a dark and a silence that were just like those of a closet.
Tonight, with her brother here, she would be treated special. I’ll make him play cars with me, she thought. He always argued and complained, but he always played with her. Then later, if her father still was not yet home, they could snuggle under a blanket and watch TV.
Her hope died when she saw her brother’s hard face. He had swelled his chest and stuck out his jaw. He watched the door long enough that he could hear his father’s footsteps clatter to the bottom of the back stairs. Then he walked up and threw a karate kick to the door. It banged in the frame and rattled the glass. She was sure her father heard it (and was sure he meant his father to hear it) and knew her father had stopped mid-stride in the middle of the yard to listen, curse, and go on. When her brother came round for a second kick, his fury changed. He seemed to smile, a sneaky sort of smile that made her worry.
“What’re you lookin at?” he snapped at her.
The taunt raised her hackles. “You,” she snapped back. “Who you think?”
But he had already turned past her to the spot by the door where his father kept his tools.
“Paul,” Clarence nodded toward the boy across the street. “What do you reckon that boy’s tryin to do with that hammer?”
Paul watched more closely for a moment. He had to squint sharply to see through the vapors of the wine.
“That boy’s fixin to break open that parkin meter,” Paul said. “That’s what he’s doin.”
“Nah.” Clarence shook his head. “Look at how he’s tappin on it. Just peckin on it like somebody peckin at the door.”
Paul peered again. “It don’t look like he’s doin anything,” he said, “that’s any concern of mine.”
The boy tapped slowly and silently, so slow and regular and clock-like that Clarence thought for a moment to check the rhythm against his watch, which he pawned two towns ago but still missed for its loud regular tick and for the feel of it like a pet on his wrist.
“Just look at him,” he said. “Now when have you ever seen a kid just tap like that? Look at the look on that boy’s face.”
“What he looks like to me is a boy that needs his tail whipped.”
Clarence paused for a moment before he spoke. He took another bite of the bread and chewed it slowly. “Well he might,” he said finally. “But he aint doin that meter no harm.”
“Yeah, well we’ll be pretty well harmed ourselfs if we don’t get us a bed for the night and somethin to eat in the mornin.”
“So what’s wrong with the mission?”
“Aint nothin wrong with it if you like sleepin on a concrete floor or an old metal chair, which at this time of a night is all you’re gonna get.”
“It beats this damn doorstep.”
They were silent for a moment as they considered their limited options. In that silence, Clarence’s thoughts went back across the street to the boy, still tapping so slowly, like clockstroke or heartbeat.
Each meter is full of levers, wheels, cogs, and springs. Each meter has a wind-down timer that clocks down the minutes with a near-silent grind. Each meter, to catch the coins, holds a locked-down cylinder the size of a can of vegetables. Each meter holds up a red flag that says EXPIRED. Each meter hides a yellow flag printed with the word VIOLATION.
The girl called his name down the stairs but her brother did not hear. He’ll be back, she thought. He knows he better be back. She saw his shadow when he opened the gate to the alley and thought to call him again, but her voice had suddenly become too heavy to move. She could not budge a sound from it.
She felt cold standing out on the steps, but hesitated to shut the door until she could guess by his footstep that he was out to the alley and had turned up Fourteenth to Main. As long as she was out on the fire escape, she could still feel tied to her brother. She knew what she might feel once she shut the door.
When finally she did shut the door, it seemed that the room had suddenly darkened, as if, somehow, the lights of the kitchen were darker than the darkness that was out on the porch, as if she had been swallowed. She was scared; she felt lonely.
I’ll tell, she thought. He’s supposed to stay here with me. She imagined her father returning and her brother sitting with his head down. She would point to him with a sneer and tell: He left and took your hammer with him. And then she could watch him get a whipping.
The brave thought kept her from tears for a moment, but the tears did come, and she cried all through the dishes and the wiping of the kitchen table and she cried as she set out her school books on the table for in the morning. And he don’t even have his homework done, she thought.
Her tears were finished by the time she decided she could watch TV. So she left the light on over the sink, went into the living room, turned on the set, and settled onto the hide-a-bed.
The living room was dark. She liked it when the only light was the light from the TV screen.
The hide-a-bed was where she slept at night, so she had her pillows and stuffed animals. In minutes, she had taken her pillow to the floor. She flopped forward into her pillow and leaned on her elbows. After the first commercial, she sat up on her knees, moved another foot closer, and hugged her pillow like a bear.
As the minutes ran down, she kept that position and inched herself closer and closer until she was nearly face to face with the bright screen.
Light from the television flowed across her face and shoulders.
Paul looked at the span of money and shook his head. “We wouldn’t be in this spot if you’d knowed how to keep your mouth shut, you know.”
Clarence took another bite of bread and chewed it like a duty.
“Will you tell me, why in the world, with us out here about to starve to death . . .”
“We aint about to starve.”
“Right. We got a half a loaf of bread and a belly full of baloney and wine. Anyway, can you tell me why, knowin we aint got but a shadow between us and the gutter, and knowin you got us run out of the last four jobs we had in the last four weeks, you had to tell that foreman to go fuck himself?”
“He deserved it.”
“Maybe he did. But I don’t deserve not knowin how I’m gonna find work tomorrow.”
“I mean, it’s like you get to workin real steady and things get going good and it gets to lookin like we might be able to get a little ahead, you got to go mouth off to a boss.”
Clarence was watching the boy across the street.
“Ever damn time.”
Paul noted that Clarence had his mind and eye on something else than his lecture, but went on. “It’s like some damn kid that’s . . . ”
“I been doin it since I was a kid. Teachers. Probation officers. Cops. Bosses. I can’t stand to have em dog me out.”
“You don’t have to let em dog you out. I’ll take the doggin out and you go on. Just so we can eat regular.”
“Ever since I wasn’t no older than that boy over there, if I thought I was gonna get pushed into a corner, I’d come out fightin.”
“Your daddy needed to kick your butt a few times.”
Clarence was silent a moment. “He did kick it. A lot.”
“So did it do you any good?”
Clarence spat again, expertly, through a gap in his teeth. He leaned back against the church door and folded his arms so that Paul could know that he intended to talk no more about it.
Paul started to count out the money again. Clarence watched him for a moment, and almost said, You think you’re gonna come up with any more this time? but he scanned the street instead. The boy still silently tapped at the meter. Upstreet, at the corner, a man in gray work clothes and a ball cap stood with his fists on his hips, staring at the boy.
Somethin’s gonna happen now, he thought. Somethin’s gonna come to a head.
The man in gray shook his head. He watched the boy as if he wanted to take it in, as if he wanted to understand what he was seeing, as if he wanted to be sure what he was seeing.
When the man in gray seemed to fill up with an energy that was threatening and familiar, Clarence got up on his feet.
A meter is rigid as a sentinel. Motionless and metallic, its glass eye never shifts. But when the handle is turned and the money drops, its inward parts begin to click and hum. (You have to get close to hear it. You have to get your ear down to it.)
Clarence dusted the seat of his pants and walked (unsteadily, from the wine and from three hours of sitting in the cold) to the curb. He leaned against the nearest parking meter for a moment -- that moment that the boy stood hammering and the man stood watching.
Then he leaned back and looked at his own meter. He wanted to know what the boy wanted to see. He wanted to see what the boy was hammering at. He saw nothing in the face of that meter but lines and numbers, nothing in that face but an arrow, buried now inside its slot. He looked through the glass, past the numbered dial, straight through to the other side. The boy and his hammer were a blur, viewed through the scratches of years, the scale of minutes, and the distortion in the glass. He flipped the lever back and forth, so that it brought up the red flag and the yellow flag, and again, red flag and yellow flag, red flag, yellow flag, in the same heartbeat, clockstroke rhythm as the boy.
And maybe it was the wine or maybe it was the sitting in the cold or maybe it was some strangely other thing, but he suddenly began to understand (though he could not have put it into words) why the boy stood tapping at the glass. He even began to beat at the brow of the meter with the heel of his hand.
“You know the tool you need for that don’t you?” Scanlon nodded up toward the starter.
He and Scanlon had the car up on ramps. They lay under it with a trouble light. Already, they were cold. There was no way they could not be, lying on their backs on the cold alley floor where any scrap of wind would catch them.
Scanlon coughed and bent his hand into a C-shape. “That starter wrench of yours,” he said.
He stuck his nine-sixteenths up into the space between the starter and the bell housing again. He could get the box end of the wrench on the bolt, but lacked room to turn it. Silently, he cursed.
“I reckon you’re right, “ he said. “And that starter’s got to come off. Aint nothin else’ll do it.” He pulled himself out from under the car and tossed the straight wrench into Scanlon’s tool box. He had only half a heart for the job anyway, after his scrap with the boy.
“Well we can’t get nothin done under here but to catch a cold,” Scanlon said, sliding out from under the car.
“I’ll go get it,” he said.
He wanted to go anyway. He wanted to check on the kids.
“Who’s been in this tool box?” she heard her father call. She felt a pang of guilt; if she had closed the box he might never have known. She pulled the blanket closer around her. Her father muttered as he rattled through the wrenches, sockets, and screwdrivers in the box. From where she sat in the light of the television, she could see only one stretch of kitchen wall, but the small light from the lamp over the sink threw his shadow large against it. It grew even larger when he found his tool, closed and snapped shut the box, then stood.
The wall exploded with shadow as he came toward the door to her room. For just a moment, the shadow hardened into his black form in the doorframe. He switched on the light. He looked at her with his good eye, then scanned the room.
“Where is he?” He turned his good eye to the wall when he said it, so that she could only see the crushed up side of his face.
When she did not answer, he brought his good eye around. She did not want to say the words, so she nodded briefly toward the back door. He followed her nod, as if he expected to see the boy, then looked back at her.
“That little son of a bitch,” he whispered. He slapped the c-shaped wrench against his thigh. “I’m gonna wring . . . ” he whispered again. He looked to the girl. “You mean he left you here by yourself after . . . ” He did not wait for her to answer. She was glad of that; she had no idea what to say.
“By God,” he said. “I’m gonna . . . ” He put one hand to the door frame and let his head tap against it lightly for a moment. Then he lifted himself off and stepped back toward the door. “You stay right here til I get back,” he said back over his shoulder. “I’m gonna pull that boy in here by the ears.”
He had turned his good eye side around to say it. Then he was out the door and onto the clanging fire escape. She heard him stalk down the stairs. She heard him slam the wooden backyard gate.
She shivered a little and pulled her head down into the blanket so that only her face was showing. On the television it was a commercial. A line of cars crossed a western desert while someone sang a song.
The boy stood out on the corner of Main Street with the hammer in his belt. He looked to the left and to the right, down Main Street to the south and up Main Street to the north.
None of his friends were out. He had hoped he would see someone so he could show off the hammer and say, I took it out of my old man’s tool box and he could say He tried to make me baby-sit but I told him where to stick it. But none of his friends were out.
He made himself glad of it. If his friends were out, he would have to stay out, for pride, until after his father came home. There would be hell to pay if he made it back too late.
He looked again, left and right, just to be sure. There were only a few old men and some of the women who stay out to talk on the street at night. He felt lonely for a moment, with no one out to listen to his story, with no one out to hear him say, My dad’s a dick, man. No one to hear him complain, Man, he just expects too much.
He could see only the people on lawn chairs and on the fenders of cars and the two winos on the front steps of the church.
He looked around again. He knew he had to get back; he knew he would be in trouble if he did not. But he wanted to do something before he went back. He wanted to feel the weight of iron and wood in his hand.
So he drew the hammer from his belt. He admired the nicked, pitted and blunted head of the hammer, its flat head side and its round head side, and the wooden shaft, its grain darkened with handling. Its weight surprised him when he tested its smack against his other hand, so he gripped it higher.
Then he held it up in front of him, a lantern, a sword.
The belly of a meter is money.
Twist the knob and the meter swallows coins. It drops them over the triggers that set the timer and into the steel cylindrical gut at its core.
The heart of meter is time.
The swallowed coins trigger the wind-down clock in the breast of the meter. The springs, pulled tense by the twist of the knob, slowly give up their force. The seconds tick off reluctantly. They hold on like fingers on a cliff.
The soul of a meter is memory. The meter remembers the coins and remembers the twist of the knob.
The meter is the crossing of time and money and memory.
He carried the hammer upright, in striking position. He wanted to break something. Anything, it did not matter. Just so long as he could get back before his father came home.
He looked at the plate glass window in the front of Grubb’s Furniture. The window was tall. Each panel was slender. Each was painted with the name of the store. He pondered cracking out the center panel at the bottom so he could watch it cascade like a brittle waterfall. The hammer waved itself in anticipation.
But Mister Grubb was a nice man. He had sold them a bunk bed on credit back when his cousin came to stay.
The hammer, still waving, moved him away from Grubb’s window and over to the curb. A car window? Here was a wide Buick, with a half acre of windshield, ready like a crop of corn. He had seen a windshield shatter before into little square beads. There were rows of cars here, parked for the night just like the Buick. But there were too many watchers for something so large.
He was ready to give up on Main Street, ready to find something on the alley or side street. But the hammer pulled him from the fender of the Buick over to the meter beside it. The meter! It was as if he had never seen a meter before. The meters were there every day, silent and stolid as a row of trees, never changing but for the arrows and flags under the glass lid. Now, suddenly, the meters took new form, as if each were a human face with a metallic jaw and a single eye and a wide glass brow. He stepped up to the meter in front of him and let the hammer wave in front of it like a dowser’s wand.
He felt power and satisfaction to wave the hammer just inches from the glass. Just to feel that power, he let the hammer wave several long moments before he tested the meter with just a tap. The meter shook inside. The money, the arrow, the flags, the inner springs and gears, all shook in a metallic jiggle and complaint. He hit again. Same sounds. And again. And over. The impulse to smash was gone. Suddenly, the shaking was what he wanted to hear. He hit until he found a pace at which the jiggling sounds from one blow would continue into the next. The meter began to hum and rattle. The hum and rattle vibrated down the shaft of the hammer and into his arm and into his whole body so that he felt his own gears and springs vibrate. He and the meter hummed and rattled and vibrated together. He could have gone on for an hour:
But then he felt a hand on his shoulder. He knew it was the hand of his father and knew that the curses that rained down on him (little sonofabitch . . . give you a job to do and you . . . deserve to . . . little smartass son of) were his father’s curses and knew that the fist that cuffed him about the ears (so that he could barely make out the words of the curses) was the fist of his father.
He felt the hammer go snatch from his hand so he ducked his head between his arms and felt the wood shaft drumming on his shoulders.
“Daddy. Daddy. No, Daddy. I’m sorry. Daddydaddydaddy.” He tried to pull away, but his father’s grip was true as a leg-hold trap so all he could do was run around in a circle pulling his father’s thumps and curses behind him like a cart. He tried to see out, but could not. It was like looking through a rainstorm from the flap of a tent.
Then suddenly that rain lifted. The blows and curses stopped. He waited before he looked up, not yet trusting this reprieve. When he did look up, he saw his father face to face with the stranger from the stoop of the church.
“Go easy, buddy,” the man said. The man may have said other things as well, but that was the thing the boy could hear: Go easy. Still bent under his father’s fist, the boy craned up to look from man to man. It was as if there were two faces in a mirror --the same creased gray ball cap, the same silver at the jaw. But the man had just one set face, and his father two: the good-eye side with its hard lines and its drawn-down anger, the shut-eye side with its heaviness and sag. The angry side grew even tighter. For a moment, he thought his father would draw back and crack the man with the hammer. He felt the impulse in the muscles of the hand on his neck.
Instead, his father stepped back, and even seemed to nod. He seemed to darken across his shut-eye side. The grip on his neck was still tight, but his father let him unbend himself and stand at his full height.
His father looked at the meter, then at the man in the ball cap, then pulled his son away.
Clarence watched the man drag the boy down the street and to the corner where they turned and disappeared.
He felt tired all of a sudden, more tired than he had been all night, and more sore in the muscles. And more drunk. He wanted to sleep it off. He wanted to be out of the cold.
Paul watched him cross the street. “You done your good deed for the night,” he said.
Clarence spat. “Let’s find us a place,” he said.
The father kicked the door shut behind him and loudly pitched the hammer into the open tool box.
“You get your smart ass into bed and don’t let me hear another word out of you.” He released the boy’s collar, gave him a shove, and watched the boy, still hunkered over, toddle toward his room.
The TV was shut off; the girl had pulled out the hide-a-bed and pulled the covers up over her. Was she asleep? She made no sound. He could imagine her tensed like a rabbit under the covers and felt shamed at the thought of the curses she had heard and the angry clatter of his tools.
He slumped into a kitchen chair and leaned against the table. He heard the boy pull open his dresser, then heard him pull off his clothes and plunge into his pajamas. He was tired now; he had avoided feeling tired because he knew he had Scanlon’s job to do. But now he was tired; he had decided to forget Scanlon and his job. He had no more heart tonight for late-night work in the cold. His life, which until now he had handled like work coming down the factory line -- jobs to be worked off one by one -- now seemed hopelessly hard. And he was tired now, all of a sudden, of split knuckles, heating bills, baloney sandwiches, rounded bolts, cars with ragged floorboards and grumbling mufflers. He was tired of notes from teachers and tired of moving his car at seven in the morning to beat the meter man.
The half moon shed its half-light across the floor. He felt himself begin to doze. He began to to sway with exhaustion.
He put his forehead against the palm of his hand and let it prop him up against the table. In doing so, he drew his hand down over his eyes so that he covered both good eye and shut eye and he was in darkness. It was a gesture he made night after night. On many of those nights, he fell stone asleep in his chair, his eyes both blinded and covered and his head propped up by his hands.
Some nights, he woke in the deep hours, looked around him (lights on, mice rattling under the sink, windows black with the darkness of three in the morning), then limped, stiff and lonely, to his bed.
But this night, before he could drop into that sleep, he was worried out of it. Something fluttered at the margins of his attention. Something brushed against his hands. He opened his eyes and the fluttering was gone. A moth? Perhaps. He looked around the dim-lit kitchen with its neat stacks of plates and orderly boxes of breakfast cereal and remembered that he needed to check on the children. For all he knew, the boy had opened a window and snuck down the fire escape. So he stood and moved unsteadily toward their rooms.
The girl was asleep now for sure. Her face, in the dim illumination of the nightlight, was silvery and innocent. Her mouth hung open and slack; her hair curled over her eyes. He adjusted the blankets across her shoulders and she brought her hand up as if to protect herself. It was a quick, reflex, cricket-claw movement. He watched, and she relaxed again.
The boy’s room was in shadow. He heard nothing, so he checked. The boy lay tightly doubled in his bed. His clothes were piled at the foot of the bed and his jacket thrown across the seat of a chair.
He thought at first that the boy too was asleep; he was about to turn back to the kitchen. But, suspicious, he listened a moment. The boy’s breathing was not the deep and loose sound of someone sleeping. It was a sneaking, bare-breath sound, the breathing of someone who does not want to be heard. He could see by the tautness in the arch of the boy’s back and the grip of his fist on his blankets that the boy was awake; he was only pretending to sleep.
Good, he thought. At least he aint out runnin the streets no more tonight. He looked up and down across the child’s tense form as if he could nail him down to the bed with his eye, then stepped to the window. Main Street was empty now. The sitters and watchers had all gone in or gone on. Main Street seemed silent and settled. The stranger who had confronted him had disappeared.
He was glad of that. It made him tired just to think of it. I reckon I was out of hand.
The thought brought a flash of heat to his ears and a lumpish feeling to his bowels. It was such a heavy, foot-in-the-gut feeling that he was dragged down with it onto the edge of the boy’s bed.
He felt his good eye grow heavy again. In a reflex, he rubbed his face and eye to clear his sight and look again at the unsleeping boy.
Maybe I’m too hard on him, he thought. The boy was still tensed and sprung, his eyes clamped shut.
Maybe we can talk, he thought. But no words came. No words could come. They were choked up in him like a pile of old coins.
He knew that without the words, there was no point in sitting here. He should move; he should make himself ready to sleep. Instead, he sat, heavy in the gut, foolish and mute, listening to the steady, slow, rabbit-tense breathing of his son.
The night was by now so silent that he could hear the distant sounds of trucks on a highway, dogs barking, a wavering siren.
He wavered in his seat on the boy’s bed, his good eye drooping, his thoughts gone flat. He was dropping into sleep like a big-wing bird.
Again, he felt the pestering presence, hovering and persistent. It fluttered near his brow. He raised his hands against it, as if to protect his damaged face, to shelter his orphaned eye. He rose, half-blind, with his hands before his face, staggered from the children’s room to his own, and fell into his bed fully clothed. He lay long enough with his hands before his face that, finally, he slept. When he woke, at five in the morning, he woke from a sleep haunted by grief and apprehension. And for the first few moments, in the half-light from the window, memory and fear so beset him that he was nearly pressed down. But he pushed back, roused himself, and began to think: what to make for breakfast? which school clothes for the children?