Hands To Work
Steve Himmer


In the hours between Girls Gone Wild ads over and over and the modestly hot weather women of early news, skip across stations and alight on aged actresses you once dreamt about, now selling blenders and treadmills. Listen too long as has-been Playboy bunnies explain herbal home cures and real estate schemes, how to get rich and get bigger and satisfy woman and wallet. Sit near the screen with the volume way down because six years of wife and three months of daughter are sleeping a ceiling away.

“Not tonight,” she snapped at your hand creeping up on her thigh. “Not yet,” and so back downstairs, back to the nighttime TV that stands in for insomniacs’ dreams. She’s worn out from hourly feedings and still recovering under the surface. Her body a mystery for the first time since college when you noticed the girl down the hall, but this time you can’t read the clues. This time you can’t crack the case.

You decided together to distend the circle of being a couple and become a triangle instead, to add those sharp edges to your life together, and she pulled you atop her four and five times a day on the couch, on the floor, even in the back of the car. It was dorm room passion all over again and you secretly hoped it would take her awhile, you looked forward to a few months of trying, of testing positions and styles, but she was pregnant as soon as you tried. As soon as you agreed to start trying. And now there’s the baby, perfect and powerful and terrifying, the rest of your life all wrapped up in a diaper too big for her body but too small to contain everything that flows from it. They sleep with their noses together and breathing in sync, knees pulled up into a perfect heart shape, and outside it you are the unpiercing arrow who watches TV in the dark.

Your bleary eyes catch on a long, shapely leg but flesh turns to ash as you watch Shakers turn tables and chairs on pre-dawn PBS. Startled by the deceit, you linger and learn how unwelcome desires become other urges, how the crackling electricity of lust powers bandsaws and routers, spins spindles out by the cartload and keeps Brothers from thinking about other legs of softer substance and only a long hall away — women at one end of the building and men at the other, with enough of a walk in between for a body to forget why it started out walking before it arrives, before getting itself into trouble. Every rug woven and each sweater spread taut between needles is a thick curtain drawn across curious eyes, drawn between bodies and souls. Every tabletop sanded smooth is a shield, to keep crafty hands from idling.

Your hands worked some wood back in high school when everyone had to — all the boys, anyway, in those days when girls were still different and delicate and expended their energies on home economics — but not after marriage offered other ways to spend time. You moved here with only a hammer and saw, both of them rusty and one of them dull, hardly enough to fix what might break in a home. But there are the tools of the man who sold you this house, better tools, bigger: a drill press and lathe, a router and planer and machines you can’t name but could smooth wood or mangle a limb as easily as they turn on. He threw in the tools not to sweeten the deal or because you asked for them, but he saw no time for woodwork with so many widows in his new retirement village. He winked when he tossed you that detail.

Now in the smallest of hours, two stories away from your daughter and wife, pull a blank of pale wood from the stack by the lathe and set the motor to turning. Unroll chisels kept safe in their soft sheepskin sleeves and press a round blade to the rotating grain. Try to remember what little your hands once knew about wood. Ease the tip, move it slowly, anticipate the bite and first feathered blonde curl. No more TV, no more awkward advances and mumbled regrets. Instead cradles and tables to fill up the house, a new bed to sleep in each night forever if that’s what it takes. Forests will fall to the honed teeth and blades of your recast desire, soft white wood giving way to a chisel’s steel gleam.

But the blade is too dull or the touch is too rushed. Instead of smooth shaving you gouge out a chunk and the blank — not so secure in its mount as it seemed — unmoors from the lathe and kicks into the air, rams your chin so your teeth clamp your tongue and you see nothing but stars though it’s almost sunrise outside. The chisel blade bites a half-moon from your palm, leaving a thick flap of flesh and a fast flow of blood.

The first red streak of morning finds you in the cellar, red-handed on a rickety stool. Squeeze one hand with the other but that’s not enough to stop yourself spilling all over the floor. Wrap the wound up in one of your socks from a pile of laundry that’s waited a long time for washing. Creep upstairs in hope of getting into the bathroom and cleaning yourself without leaving a trail through the kitchen. Shove your stained pajama bottoms down deep in the hamper and try to slide into bed without waking your wife or the baby between your two bodies. Slide under the blankets as if you’ve been there beside them all night, and wrap your throbbing arm around as much as you can and think about where all the Shakers have gone.


Steve Himmer’s stories have recently appeared in Hobart, Los Angeles Review, and Emprise Review. He edits the webjournal Necessary Fiction.