The man on his knees in the small dead-grass yard leaning over the slat of fence he was repairing looked like he was praying. That’s what the woman who was watching him from the window thought. The man, Stanislaus was his full name but he went by Stanley, had asked the woman to help. She didn’t say no but she wasn’t helping. She didn’t feel right being around Stanley with that hammer in his hand, or even with it at his side. Not anymore and not yet. Not since she had clawed him that early morning a few months back, clawed him repeatedly with her own sharp fingernails and kept trying to claw even after he restrained her—he was so much bigger than her—even after she had calmed, had fallen into a rhythmic heaving breath and then when he loosened his grip slightly she slipped her wrists out and scratched at him again, going for his face this time, drawing blood, noises coming out of her mouth she had never heard before and drool hanging from her chin until he got hold of her wrists again, put his weight into her, pushed her hips onto the floor, careful not to hit her head but plainly, heavily, overtaking her—he had six years and sixty pounds on her—and then when he breathed over and over again, breathing, okay, saying, okay, okay, relax honey, honey honey baby baby she went limp underneath him until—the limpness a strategy—he let go and again she flew at him, grabbing at the skin of his neck and tearing until he pushed her, pushed her hard with both fists back to the floor, not quite a punch but a hard push in the stomach and she felt like her organs were crushed and yet this time instead of sitting back down on her, he stood and backed away and then she flew, this time for the sink, under the sink where he kept the tools, and then she had the hammer in her hand and Stanley, after one lock-eyed moment, their eyes wide and raw at each other, sprinted for the door and then was out of it, the hammer thudding against its thin fiberboard and leaving a hole in its face the size of a palm that would already be fixed by the next time she walked through it.
It was the same hammer.
Sure she would help. It was a Saturday afternoon and that’s what people did with each other—get grassy-kneed with your boyfriend over a house chore. But the woman didn’t move. She watched him, bent over like he was, as if in prayer, the hammer lying on that thin patch of dead grass next to him like it was just a tool, just something to drive nails, like she hadn’t felt the weight of it, the claw of it and what that claw implied—the head it could open—in her throwing, able, clawing hand.
He hadn’t insisted. He’d asked her to give him a hand and she said yes, she shrugged, she asked, You’re going to fix that fence now?
That’s what I just asked about.
But she didn’t move.
And they looked at each other and she saw him thinking, asking, so we’re going to have a problem here?
What was the hammer to him?
He knew the hole in the door, knew that it didn’t come from her fist though her fist could have broken through it just the same. The hole in the door like the hole she didn’t claw into his head. The hole now repaired, repaired by him, by his own peeling hands. It was the hammer that said, that spoke, that hammered that she wasn’t going to give up that day—that a scratch wasn’t enough—that she wasn’t going to give in to the sixty pounds or the six years he had on her.
They didn’t even know what had happened to the fence. It was two nights ago. Probably some gang thugs—those were his words. He heard a crash in the night. She’d been sleeping next to him, naked in a tangled pool of sheets, her body open to the night, to him, to whatever gang thugs might crash through the window after they crashed through the fence. She hadn’t heard a thing. What had it sounded like? Like a bang or a tree falling. Like a hammer against a head. I don’t know how you slept through it, he told her the next morning, laughing, trying to be playful, trying to embarrass her, laughing that she was naked and asleep next to him when the gang thugs were breaking down the fence.
It was the first night she had slept at his place since she’d thrown the hammer at his head, which was where she was aiming. They had been together since then, but only briefly, in public, where there would be other people to restrain her, where the hands would be strangers’ hands clasping her wrists, strangers’ weight pinning her body, dodging her hammer. And then they went out again, he took her to a softball game in the park in Pilsen where they found themselves smiling together, drunk already, watching the wives smacking after their children and bitching along with other wives and all the men on the field, out there playing and grunting like boys, some of them wearing cups under their pants: the men on the diamond and the women in the bleachers—that’s how it was. And so she told herself that she was going back to her apartment, and then she told him the same, I gotta go to my place tonight, she said, and then the flask was empty and they went for another mickey and she said I gotta get home now and then instead of walking to the bus stop they turned slowly, slowly as if their steps were thought out, as if each foot forward had a reason to it, and they walked back to his place and they didn’t even say a word she only said fuck and he closed the door behind her and she said fuck and their hands were like gas over each other, like gas with a match set to it, and it was the most violent they had ever been with each other, except for that day with the hammer, and she pushed him against the counter and then he clapped her around backwards and they didn’t even take their shoes off. And then hours later she was naked in the broken blackwater pond of his bedsheets and some gang thugs crashed through the fence of the apartment building he was the manager of and he was awake and looking at the gray unembarrassed softness of her neck, her open lips, her breasts bare to the night, oblivious: there she was, almost a child, sixty pounds and six years, the hammer under the sink, the men on the diamond and someone dying in the yard or trying not to die and a body through a fence and a hammer through a door and her naked breast open to the owning of his eyes.
I can’t believe you slept through that.
There were no tire tracks on the sidewalk. Eight of the fence slats had been scratched, damaged, or completely crashed through. Was a body thrown through the fence? Did a body throw itself through the fence? He couldn’t make sense of what had happened. But she knew. Stanley didn’t know but she did. She could throw herself through the fucking fence.
She came over again. During the day. Day when the brightness and the sweating makes it steady. There’s nothing you can hide in the bright humidity of a Chicago summer. Day means normal, back to normal, lunch, soda in a mug, a familial unsexy two in the afternoon. He asked her for a hand and then afterwards they would have the afternoon free. She knew what that meant. A twelve pack or a bottle, easy at first, light, no implications, and then they would fuck and go out for another twelve pack or maybe to a bar or lie in the park with Styrofoam cups full of spiked Sprite and wait for a fight or a softball game with Stanley making promises she told him again and again she didn’t want to come true. You’re my girl, I’ll get you a big apartment on the north side and we can get married and have a little family together, and she would tell him that’s not what she wanted, that’s not what she’s ever wanted, that she’s not going to give it up to him for promising her what she doesn’t even want, but she could already see today that he was going to push his promises all over her again, he was in that mood, trying to put his grip even around what she wanted, his fist around what she didn’t, what she couldn’t, his knuckles over her future, sixty pounds in her stomach, he was down in the dead grass like he was praying, trying to pry out a bent nail to fix the fence, when the neighbor came up.
The suspiciously skinny neighbor. He wore thick glasses and had a few days old beard always crawling up to his eye sockets and he was too skinny to trust. Even if he worked, even if he rode his bike everywhere and never stumbled over a word and through those thick glasses his eyes were eight-hours-of-sleep clear and he had an oil-rimmed wallet bulge in his back pocket, she still had her doubts. His name was Adan or Evan, and Stanley always acted like they were friends, always calling to him as he went by, even stopping him on his bike to talk, inviting him for beers. And Stanley would start touching her when Evan, or Adan, or whatever his name was, was around, putting his palm higher on her thigh, leaning over to kiss her like he wouldn’t do unless he was wasted, and holding the kiss, slipping his stubby little tongue in and she would watch Adan’s eyes avert, unavert, avert: not knowing where to land.
She wouldn’t go help now. Stanley was on his knees still, looking up through the body-broken fence at Adan, if that was his name, and she knew he was telling him the story, knew he was using the words gang-thugs and knew he was telling him that she hadn’t woken up, that she was next to him in bed when it happened and she didn’t even move. And then he pointed a thumb over his shoulder and she saw Adan’s eyes flash up to the window where she was standing and she saw Stanley’s back begin to twist and then she ducked, sharply, falling fast out of the window view and she knew that at least Adan saw her and maybe even Stanley caught the flash of her body or could see— the way bodies leave trace for a moment—the space that she had left—the way they leave something back, a hand that grips you even after it’s gone—and she was breathing hard, squatted down against the wall, her bare toes bent forward, painfully, breath coming in shocks. How stupid, how stupid of her how fucking stupid of me and she knew that if Stanley, if he had seen her ducking out of the window, she would have to leave, she couldn’t handle being caught in that naked want: not to be thumbed at, not to be seen watching them instead of helping. But had he even seen? When she heard her teeth chattering she clamped her jaw down and rose, standing and walking past the same window she had just hid from, so fuck it. She walked straight to the kitchen and her steps landed flat and smacking and she was at the sink and opened the cabinet and took the paint-spattered screwdriver and threw it across the room, the tool hitting off the wall and sliding back off the table like it had its own animus, its own hate energy itching inside of it that could tear at a face on its own, put a hole through a door, a fence, a chest. She walked outside.
Adan had his bike propped against the good part of the fence and was holding up a slat for Stanley to drive in the nails. First Adan turned to her. And then Stanley rose up, the hammer held loosely in his hand. So loosely. If he loosened his grip even one mite the hammer would fall into the dead grass.
I got a helper already, Stanley said to her, trying to be funny.
That afternoon it was the three of them. Evan (that was his name) and Stanley had been smoking pot. They were all drunk. She was on the short couch next to Stanley whose husky chatter was already starting to slur. Evan was on the floor leaning backwards on his two elbows. Every time he laughed at Stanley he threw his head so far back it looked like it was snapping off. The CD had played through and instead of music there were fat motes of dust floating in the window-filtered light. She had to piss but didn’t want to get up, didn’t want to leave the men alone because she knew Stanley would start talking about her, about her body. She could feel it coming on, that he was going to turn and look at her and say in a too-loud, spittling voice, You’re fucking sexy. He was drunk enough to start. He never talked like that when they were alone. Look at you. You’re damn beautiful girl, and he would say it in the same tone you give somebody the finger.
He talked about her when she wasn’t there. She knew he did. Her girlfriends told her about it. He calls your tits perfect, her girlfriend told her once. He shapes you out with his hands like this, she said, like he’s squeezing your tits right in front of us.
And since there were only two of them, Stanley and Evan, it would be worse. He was starting with that look he would give her, that look like he was licking at her.
She took a sip of her beer, said nothing. There were cigarette butts in the little pot with the dead baby cactus. The room had a sweet smell to it, like maybe the couch was fermenting. She put her bare feet up on the coffee table. It was too hot.
Stanley was shaking his head. You can’t even leave your car in the street no more, he said. Last week one of the tenant’s boyfriends got his windows smashed in. They didn’t even steal anything. The dude had a CD deck in there and they didn’t even touch it. The neighborhood has gone nuts. Didn’t used to be like this. But in the last years it just gone nuts.
Evan told a long story she didn’t follow, something about bike theft prevention, a friend whose mother had died recently. He was so skinny she didn’t trust him.
She tipped her beer back. When she started listening again they were both looking at her.
Tell him, Stanley said.
Tell him what?
You in your own little world, girl, he said, and both men started laughing, Stanley wheezing into a cough. The men were very high.
She pulled her feet off the table, put the empty on the floor and listened to Stanley tell Evan the story of the fence being crashed into. She was sure he had already told it, maybe even more than once. And then I heard this big crash outside, Stanley said. I jumped right up. I thought it was a car accident at first, or that a car crashed through the fence. And this one, he thumbed at her, didn’t even wake up. Didn’t even move. You were lying there completely out. He looked at her and laughed. She could see food in his gums.
Had he said it earlier? Had he told Evan that she was naked? Naked and sore? Her tits exposed? She looked at Evan. His eyes jumped away.
Nah, she said. But tell him, she said, tell him about that time I threw the hammer at your head.
Stanley stopped laughing. He stopped whatever it was he had been doing with his mouth, smiling uncontrollably, wheezing, high. He looked at her. She looked back.
Remember when I tried to break your head open with the fucking hammer? She looked from Stanley to Evan. You fucking remember that? She was almost yelling. When I threw it at your face? she said and she looked back to Stanley and then she started laughing, laughing right away and hard, and then Stanley caught the laughter and then so did Evan and he threw his head back so far it looked like he threw it off his neck. Stanley was laughing and the woman was laughing all the way down into her chest and Stanley leaned over, out of breath, and he reached out and put his hand on her hip and squeezed her, hard. You’re so, he said… fucking, he said, but he couldn’t finish the sentence he was laughing so hard.