The sledgehammer has a distinct familiarity in your grip even though the amount of time since you’ve used one has allowed the calluses on your hands to soften. The weight of it is solid, honest, and just the right kind of form that a baseball once had when you tightly wrapped your fingers around it. Much of the muscle on your big frame has been acquired through decades of repeated use of this and similar tools. Your hands have slipped and gripped around the handles of innumerable shovels, rakes, and picks as you guided them in their specific tasks. “If I had a nickel for every hole I’ve dug . . .” you’ve remarked many times as your living has been earned creating room in the earth for plants.
Many have appreciated the creativity you’ve exerted in making those countless holes. Writing your legacy on the landscape, spacing, width, and depth became the musical notes of your career. Those lyrics would support the poetry of plants and their songs would make many happy. For you, the physical effort has proven not only satisfying, but has also yielded an escape valve for the pent-up angst that periodically torments you.
Examining the 10 and 12 pounders you consider their purchase, but experience reminds you that those are for show-offs or jobs requiring only a few blows; repeated use is best managed with the familiar eight pounder. That particular weight yields consistent results when employed with the combination of proper technique and stamina. You know this because you have pounded countless spikes as you built timber walls, flailed discarded concrete into crumbled limestone, and, once, impressed a tough carnie at the fair with your prowess ringing the bell five times in a row with a clumsy wooden mallet.
As with any new implement your eyes admire the bright finish on the hickory, while your fingers slide gently up and down the slick, smooth wood. Your touch is a slow, thoughtful caress as if you feel the grain itself. You recall your grandmother’s story of her father selling tool handles he had made in Clinton, Tennessee for ten cents each. His were of unfinished wood, a condition this handle will eventually share as the rigors of everyday use will inevitably grind its sheen into a dull bareness. But for now it is just tacky enough to allow a firm, satisfying hold as you envision the hammer arcing through the air gaining momentum toward the intended object. No modern machine can displace the satisfaction that you derive from the simplest of implements.
The steel head is painted bright red and briefly reminds you of a favored childhood fire truck flattened by your father’s foot as it delivered his message of anger. Along with the scattered pieces your heart began a years long fragmentation of hope. Long before you reached the age of reason, the impotency of your child’s body had forced you to adopt uncertainty and fear and hide them under the guise of normalcy. There the physical, emotional, and verbal abuse would lurk in the dark and grow into a moldy anxiety that would linger for decades. As often as you could, you and your siblings would charade as happy children with only the insightful eye of your grandmother penetrating the ruse.
Growing up was pocked with a constant uncertainty. The monster could come from any direction at any hour. And you can never remember the reasons, but you can recall with clarity the stark results. Except that you were always responsible, being too stupid, too incapable, and of course, too weak. On the last count you now intend to prove him wrong. But once again you have forgotten that he always failed to acknowledge your strengths as his power came from focusing on weakness..
With your choice made, you proceed to the check out at the hardware store. You are only a few minutes’ drive from the cemetery. If she knew, the clerk would be stunned with the use you intend for your purchase this evening. But you don’t say anything about your plans and she pleasantly hands you the change before turning to the next customer in line.
You position the hammer carefully; right hand on the handle connected to eight pounds of steel balanced just over your shoulder. As you walk out the door and towards your truck, it is important for you to demonstrate care with its transport. You want those who might notice that you have confidence in your ability to handle such a simple tool. It could be a weapon in careless hands, an instrument of construction or destruction in proper hands. John Henry you surely ain’t, but you feel a proud kinship with that steel drivin’ man. He raced an indifferent, callous machine and so have you for decades. In a short while your reputation for gentleness will be in jeopardy. What kind of private legacy will you create tonight?
Rain is beginning to fall as you knew it would and that perception gives you additional confidence. But it is not needed as the feeling that what you intend to do will be incredibly satisfying, no exhilarating. A madman-like exuberance begins to take over your mind like a drug. Getting into the truck you place the sledgehammer, heavy end down, on the floorboard next to you, and drive out onto the highway. Some of the tequila stored under the driver’s seat finds its way into your mouth and reinforces the budding euphoria that develops in less than five miles of busy traffic. But you see beyond the lights and vehicles, navigating with a purpose supported by a foundation of vengeance. By the time you have parked on the construction road that passes next to the cemetery, a pounding heart flushes your face.
Now you’re on the bombing run of this mission. The rain is harder, and dark clouds to the west promise more intense precipitation, but you hardly notice. You’ve got the target fixation they told you to avoid in flight school. “Aim carefully, fire, and pull the hell up!” was constantly drummed in gunner training. But here, the target, the firing, and the aiming are blurred by rising rage into sameness and you don’t care as the alcohol ignites anger. As your ears begin to burn you feel the increased blood pressure in your head. Elation and depression collide creating a vacuous emotion that leaves only your eyes focused. Their intensity would frighten most. But the toughest of men, just like your father, will yield no ground, and tonight neither will you.
In the gathering darkness it’s only a short walk to the new granite monument. That typical sized headstone is inscribed with an outsized surname, one that you share. Your last ounce of caution is expended as you make damn sure you’re not about to deface another’s monument. Of course you’re right; the inscribed date is only a week old. The disturbed red clay is marked with the stone cold king that crowns the presence of the impoverished soul that lies buried beneath. Expletives boil in irritation in your mind as part of you says the moment’s delay for identification wasn’t necessary, but you steamroll that impatience and position yourself for your task. Intensified by a distant street light, the granite glares at you with its sheen of moisture. “No problem, mother fucker,” you say out loud to no one except the ghost that yet taunts you. The words seethe like hissing water through your teeth and lips as the rain streams off your uncovered head. Thunder rumbles in the distance. But you’re not bothered by the storm even as it pelts in bigger and bigger drops.
Taking a handkerchief out of your jeans pocket, you wipe the handle on the sledgehammer that so recently resided under the store’s calm lights in a dry display. Positioning your booted feet at a space slightly wider than your shoulders, you orient your body at a right angle to the mocking stone, and grip the handle tightly while raising it above your head, arms and torso ready to provide the thrust of that short, well-known arc. Your stance is familiar, but this time your focus is atypical, full of hatred. As the red painted head gains momentum in its downward swing and passes swiftly just in front of your knees, you think of the time he was there to watch while you blew out your arm pitching along with the chance for a top tier college scholarship. It was another futile effort to please a man who couldn’t be satisfied. The destruction of your arm and this blow of the sledgehammer take the same amount of time. The head of the bright red metal rings hard against the ‘D’ in that surname. You’re not certain, but it looked like some of the red paint flaked off against the unyielding granite. The hammer is quickly raised and comes down again with the only apparent result being a high ringing of the meeting between steel and stone. With the sound of the repeated blows chasing each other in up and down octaves, the noise becomes oddly satisfying as if the dead themselves are keening. Rising and ringing the blows pierce the silence, making a strange wailing in the cemetery. After producing several more memory-anguished strokes, you pause to gather your breath that is now coming faster.
Shifting the position of your feet slightly, your brain sends another painful scene before your eyes: the time your sister was beaten while pleading with your father and urinating copiously. The rain splatters against the granite just as her pee did against the wooden stairs upon which she stood while she begged for a forgiveness that had no merit. You’ve never heard a more piteous, heart-breaking plea before or since. Picking up the sledgehammer, you re-double your efforts.
As your breathing intensifies, your muscles begin to warm up despite the cold rain. The thick stone, however, does not yield to the repeated blows. You remember his infuriating mantra repeated to you at critical moments: “I’m not going to change!”
He remained true to his word just like this unyielding stone.
How long do those aged muscles and pressurized rage fuel your attack? Could be minutes or it could be an hour as you’re not sure. You second guess yourself and think that perhaps the twelve-pounder should have been the weapon of choice. You briefly consider placing the truck in four-wheel drive and crashing into this obstinate monolith. But enough common sense remains to know that damage to your vehicle would far exceed any potential satisfaction.
But you persist; you want to prove that you are as tough as he was; you want to hear him apologize, say he loves you. Those thoughts cascade in a deeply worn groove of expectation. Is that a crack in the thick, grainy rock? Are those flecks of mineral that might indicate some change in that stubborn face? Yet you can still see the certainty that his guarantee to remain pigheaded made upon his enraged countenance. And he didn’t change just as he vowed, and even with a combination of sweat and rain clouding your eyes, you can tell that the stone is unaltered by your mighty and repeated blows. The effects of the alcohol have diminished too quickly, chased away by a quivering, cold sobriety. If blood from a son can’t have an effect on a father’s heart, how much can be expected from a hammer?
Another much more recent memory quickly surfaces. It is last week, a few days after the funeral, and you are riding in the backseat of your Mustang with your buddy Steve with whom you attended the Air Force Academy. An old roommate, acting as the designated driver, motors your trio randomly about town. You and Steve have become drunk in the unbounded expanse of hard liquor while confined in the small backseat. To your companions, you appear to be sharing a riotous time until you suddenly bend over, abruptly put your head in your hands and begin to sob. Your grandmother would understand, but the distance imposed by her grave keeps her unaware.
Your hands attempt to hide your sorrow and shame, but the words find their way out through wet fingers. “Steve, did you know my dad died?” Of course he didn’t as few knew simply because you had said nothing about it. What do you make of someone who forever deprived you of any opportunity of satisfaction in this world by putting a .44 caliber bullet in his brain? Cheated is the best word. As the car moves slowly over the one lane bridge at the Chattahoochee River, Steve places a stunned hand on your bent back while you heave the contents of your stomach onto the floor mat beneath your feet. The alcohol-sweet smell of bourbon permeates the car. After this brief visit, you will never hear from him again.
And just as suddenly as that days ago event, emotions foment in an uncontrollable manner in that stormy cemetery. Recollections, anger, and rain all mix in an uncertain combination of salt and wetness as you collapse exhausted onto the tombstone. Drops of water merge with tears of frustration and cascade in disordered succession down your face. You can’t separate rain from sweat from weeping, but the tears are as plentiful as the blend of raw, salty emotions that course through your gut and lodge in your heart. A long sobbing wail escapes your mouth.
You release your grip on the sledgehammer and allow the handle to fall alongside the monument. And it will lay there while you return to your truck, return to the world and the solace of your family, and dry yourself off. You emerge into a sobriety you’ve not felt before. It will take some time, but the load will gradually lighten as raindrops and crying erode the hardness. You will not miss the burden of that inflexible stone.
The hammer has done its job.