When he was bored, Milton would go into the garage, hide from Susan, and hammer nails into the end of his workbench. Picking up his hammer and feeling its cool, silken handle, Milton felt utterly calm and without worry. Like this, Susan was just unregistered background noise; freeway hum or the sound of a television in another room. Holding the hammer in his hand, she was almost dead.
If it had been a while since he’d done some hammering, he’d first stand for a moment, just to feel the weight of the home handyman redeemer in his palm. He’d breathe, feel sweet and heady, shift his fingers, readjust his grip and then, stop thinking altogether.
To watch, Milton’s hammering was a pretty simple system, even a little beautiful, if somewhat obscure and strange. For each new nail, Milton would begin his upswing with a soft intake of breath – just warming his weapon, barely raising the steel head above the nail. After three preliminary passes, he let the hammer fall onto the unsuspecting pin of metal that was lightly gripped between his left thumb and forefinger. Without any effort or uncertainty the nail would penetrate, in short quick bursts, the great wooden expanse of the bench which, only seconds ago, had seemed impenetrable.
Over an area of about a metre square, Milton had, through this system of upswings and in-breaths and down-nails, created a silvery scaled covering that represented, all up, about six hundred and twenty four hours of his life. For almost four years, he’d escaped Susan’s wheezing and pipe smoking and new book fascinations by going into the garage and hammering tiny nails into the bench. Each week on average (he counted once) he spent about three hours in the garage, in small, unregulated bursts of escapist bliss. These little pockets of time were his refuge from her.
Sometimes, of course, it was cold in the garage or he was tired from work, in which case he’d stick it out inside with her and her fat, incapacious ways. Other times she wasn’t all that bad and he could stomach her, or there was something worth watching on tv or, more often, he’d run out of nails. Mostly however, it was entirely necessary for him to retreat to the garage every once in a while and add yet more nails the left most end of the bench. He used the smallest nails he could find, packed them close in on each other and never once hurried. If he was really concentrating, it could take him a good fifteen minutes just to get a single nail in.
It never really occurred to Milton to build anything on that fine expanse of pine or to use any of the multitudinous other tools that were mounted in front of him on the wall. The bloody workbench was her idea, Susan initially thought of it as just another place she could shove Milton to when she was bored of him. But in the end, her plan backfired: she couldn’t just send him there as if he were a child she was punishing, and he never once made anything useful that could have been shown to anyone else, like a spice rack or a toilet roll holder with a nicely carved edge. And he most certainly did not go there when she wanted him to get out of her hair for a minute, even if she asked him. In fact, he seemed to enjoy spending time with her the most when he was aware of the fact that she really needed to be alone, to replenish from the day, to marshal her psychological troops, so to speak. At those times, he was like a mosquito, humming in her ear, inescapable. It was quite simply, his sweetest revenge.
I have met my own Milton. It was somewhere he needed to go. To smell the pine …