Hammer Nails
   by Jen Michalski Jen Michalski

Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press) and The Summer She Was Under Water (Queens Ferry Press), two collections of short stories, and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books).

She was just a girl, Sam first thought, if she thought of her at all. The girl who worked the late shift at the coffee shop on 31st and Charles Street, where Sam got her muffin and tea, had made no other impression on Sam at first other than the fact that she belonged to the legions of urban service-industry workers that filled the coffee shops of the city, seemingly cast from the same disaffected die: slightly unkempt shoulder-length blonde hair, tattoos, a blank expression, rings and jewelry of all vintages on all digits and appendages, an affinity for black and brown and gray fabrics.

Although it wasn’t rocket science, the girl quickly remembered Sam’s order, a large Chai tea with milk and a cranberry oat bran muffin, and would have it ready the nights she usually stopped by.

“What would you do if I don’t show up?” Sam laughed one evening as she counted out $4.20. “With my order, I mean?”

“You’ll show up,” the girl answered and smiled. “We’ve built this subconscious system of trust and dependence on each other. And, if not, I guess I’d give it to the homeless guy outside my building.”

“Well, that’s nice of you.” She put the money in the girl’s outstretched hand. “I hope you don’t have to pay for my waste. I feel like I should pay in advance or something.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

The girl held Sam’s eyes for a second or two, causing Sam to wonder briefly what the girl thought beyond all this, this being quite vague, of course. What the girl thought about anything, Sam supposed.

“I’m Eve Christmas,” the girl said finally. “If you want to thank me, you can call me that and not ma’am. You make me feel old.”

“I’m sorry,” Sam laughed. “I’m Sam Pinski—I don’t like being called ma’am, either. That’s quite a name you have—there’s a story behind it?”

“Maybe.” Eve wiped some poppy seeds off the counter with her rag. “See you Thursday.”

Their acquaintance began, although Sam did not think much about it. Mostly she thought about starting over again after Michael. As an adult, she wanted her life to be the exact opposite of the one she had as a child, and Michael, of course, was just that. His parents lived in New Hampshire. He graduated from Syracuse, then Hopkins, stayed on as a financial analyst for the university. He cycled on the weekends. He ate hamburgers and tofu with equal vigor and did not mind attending a play or poetry reading with her. Like a smooth, well-rounded stone, one, Sam sometimes thought, that didn’t leave much of an impression in the palm. But they had built so much together in two years, a striking, shiny house, albeit on rotten foundations. Her own. She wondered whether that pair of her shoes still waited optimistically for reunion in the closet of his apartment, a Lady Bic between the toilet and the bathroom sink. Somehow, she wanted these things, the safety a relationship offered without actually partaking in its strange-yet-formal rituals.

She began to find gifts from Eve in her Tuesday and Thursday muffin bags—a Gumby pin, a Holly Hobby handkerchief, collages of strange-looking characters culled from magazine clippings. Sam delighted in these presents, a contamination of kindness inserted in her somewhat sterile life. She reveled in her and Eve’s secret alliance, the secret workings of which, to Sam, were dim at best. Sam fancied that she and Eve both knew the deep, jaded mysteries of life, of relationships, of people—that they were just passive observers who winked at each other because they knew what the world was in for. It became a game, a harmless one, their banter at the counter. To counter her gifts, sometimes Sam would slip something thin among the dollar bills she presented—a bookmark, a quote from a book she was reading, a photograph she found on the street.

One Thursday bag contained a note, not unusual in itself except for its content: Club Charles. Midnight. I don’t expect you to disappoint me.

It had been so long since she had been out with anyone—what did one do at bars? Perhaps some man would engage her in conversation. What would she tell him? That she was just shy of the altar and hopelessly lost?

Sam found Eve sitting in the back. She hated to have to walk through all the people, peering at their faces in the dimness to find Eve while Eve was able to observe her remotely, safely, from a hidden space. But Eve had not been looking at her, Sam discovered; she was leaning over the bar from her stool, reading, nursing a glass of whiskey, smoking a cigarette. She wore a dark cardigan and vintage skirt a little tight for her large bone structure. Sam watched Eve push a chunk of hair behind her ear and swallow the contents of her glass without grimace, her sad features soft and yearning underneath the soft red light bulbs of the bar.

“Waiting long?” Sam slid down quickly beside her. Eve turned her head and smiled.

“Nope.” Eve touched Sam’s arm and then withdrew to her box of cigarettes. “I hope I’m not keeping you from anything.”

“No—just work.”

“Work for your classes?”

“Yep—student class assignments.”

Eve signaled the bartender. “What are you drinking?”

“Um, a seltzer with lime would be fine.”

“Come on—you didn’t come all the way out here for a seltzer, did you?”

“I’m not a big drinker. My father was an alcoholic.”

“Both of my parents were—all it did was make me an expensive date.”

“All right, just one. But not straight like that.”

“What would you like?”

“A glass of red wine.”

“All right—another bourbon, no chaser, and a glass of house red.” She opened her wallet and pulled out some bills. “So what do I get in exchange for a drink, Sam Pinski?”

“I don’t know—what do you want?” Sam folded her hands in her lap and looked around the bar, where the young and old hipsters of Baltimore sat in fifties-era leather furniture in the smoky dim and drank strong liquors and cheap beer.

“Hmm, you’re a generous person, letting me choose.” Eve held up her shot. “To . . . wherever the night takes us.”

“To friendship,” Sam added.

“Hear, hear.” Eve drank quickly and lit a cigarette. “So, the real reason I lured you here—how does it feel to be a wunderkind literary sensation? Don’t think I haven’t been doing my research on you, Samantha Pinski. How does it feel to be 33, have a novel published, and teach writing classes at Hopkins?”

“I don’t feel any different, to be honest. I guess you read the article in the paper, huh? But don’t worry; I’m nobody. But what about you? You’re attending Hopkins?”

“No, but I attend to most of Hopkins,” Eve laughed. “What you see is what you get. I work at a coffee shop. And that’s it. If I’m lucky, I get to have a drink with those on the up and up.”

“You’re not from around here.” Sam noted her accent. “How’d you get here?”

“Now that’s an interesting story. Or not. As the book review might read, promising but not fully realized.”

“A southern state—South Carolina?”

“Close—Georgia. As I mentioned, my folks were alcoholics. I lived with my grandmother in a trailer with the occasional visit from them, not noted for their creativity but sometimes for their scariness. When I was thirteen, my grandmother died and I lived with my mother outside of Atlanta and her new boyfriend, who thought part of raising a child meant fucking me while my mother was at the department of social services getting our welfare checks. So when I was sixteen I ran away and moved in with a woman who encouraged me to get my GED. Then she got jealous and became a possessive piece of shit who liked to humiliate me in public. Finally I met this guy going to Hopkins who was home for summer vacation. We got kind of close, so I thought, so when he went back to school I saved my money and drove up to be with him. Well, his girlfriend didn’t like that so much, so I lived in my car for six months and talked him into letting me use his PO box at school so I could get a job. For the past ten years I’ve worked at a glue factory, as a secretary for a construction firm, as a temp, and I’ve been at the coffee shop for three years. Yet they made some Hopkins student who’s been there six months the assistant manager. I guess they figure all that education from Hopkins makes her more qualified to clean the espresso machine than me, I don’t know.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” Eve patted Sam’s arm again. “It’s not your fault. I didn’t come here to wallow in the past. I came here to look forward to the future. Besides, I just want you to know now, so you don’t think I’m something I’m not. And I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not.”

“I like who you are just fine.” Sam stared in her wine glass. “So what’s the story behind your name?”

“Hmm, you writers are all the same.” Eve stirred the ice cubes in her empty glass. “Always looking for material. It’s not much of a story, really. My mom didn’t want me to take my father’s name because at the time he skipped out on her. But she didn’t like her last name, so she told the hospital my father’s last name was Christmas. She said at the time that my birth was like the feeling she used to get on Christmas Eve. It never felt like Christmas Eve living with her, that’s for sure.”

“Well, at least you’re always Eve Christmas, right? The best is yet to come, so to speak.”

Sam didn’t know why she split a cab home with Eve. Perhaps she wanted to see a bit of herself in her. Or perhaps she felt that Eve, whiskey-drinking, thick-skinned, half-cocked, and world-weary, was the rightful Pinski family heir, not herself.

“So do I get a signed copy of your book?” Eve asked as Sam led her to an unassuming alley house in Bolton Hill. “You know, something I can sell online for megabucks when you’re rich and famous?”

“Yeah, sure.” Sam unlocked the door and flicked on the light. She’d gotten the house gutted, cheap, literally a walls and roof with outdated plumbing and kitchen, but hadn’t gotten around to looking for contractors. Her tabula rasa, she’d joked to her father, who’d threatened to come over and hammer nails into something. She bent and looked through a stack of boxes in what would be the living room and found a copy of her book. She pulled a pen from her purse.

“So how . . . did you like it?” Sam held the book open with one hand while feeling in her purse for a pen.

“You’re a great writer. I think that you still need to find your voice, though.”

“What do you . . .” Sam said but stopped, handing the book over with the perfunctory signature.

“What do I know?” Eve laughed. “I’m just a high-school dropout with pickled genes—is that what you’re thinking?”

“No—I’m sorry.” Sam wrapped her arms around herself. She wondered, for a moment, whether Eve could have written the story of her life better than Sam herself. “I think your criticism is very valid. Thank you for thinking you can share it with me.”

“I’ve been reading all my life.” Eve took the book without examining it. “It’s the only way I’ve been able to convince myself that things are better out there than what I’ve seen so far.”

“Eve, please.” Sam took Eve’s forearm. She could smell the heaviness of alcohol on Eve’s breath, the space between them sour and sweet and wet. Eve smelled like the boys Sam knew, her father, her brother. And also of a musky, oil scent, like sandalwood or patchouli. Something dark, rich, and aged, to be savored.

“No harm.” Eve passed the book back and forth in her hands. “I was rude. It got good reviews, and they know a lot more than I do. I’ve just forgotten my manners.”

“No, Eve. It’s okay. I want to hear the truth, from somebody.”

“Well, no charge this time.” Eve winked and walked out the door. Sam watched Eve walk up the street to continue her night of drinking a few blocks over at the Mount Royal Tavern. Eve had told Sam earlier a man she was sort of seeing, sorta, would be hanging out there, maybe. When Eve reached the end of the street she turned and gave Sam a paramilitary salute, and Sam smiled, waved back.

Maybe it wasn’t such a great book, Sam thought as she let herself back inside, but she had needed to write it, even if its truths were cloaked in metaphors, in surrealism. But maybe if she heard the truth enough she could learn to speak it herself, loud and clear.

She began to ask Eve to places: museums, free concerts, readings. She watched how Eve sat, what she wore, how she spoke to ushers and other patrons, the way her eyes moved over paintings and sketches, her fingers over book spines at secondhand stores. It was not a new tactic on Sam’s part. She had spent the better part of college and her twenties observing, like a field anthropologist, her friends and lovers. How her friend Jackie tied her scarf that lay so carelessly across her clavicles, the way her roommate Rebecca slung her straw purse with the leather straps on her shoulder, stuffed with dog-eared copies of Tess Gallagher and Carolyn Forche. The way Tom, her boyfriend sophomore and junior year at Goucher, smoked a cigarette, the way it hung out of his mouth while he packed a bowl.

She asked Eve places and she began to think of what Eve would say to things, how she would answer questions. It was not that she wanted to be Eve necessarily but perhaps someone more like Eve and less like herself. She wanted to be single correctly, and she wanted to fall in love correctly. She wanted to be an adult. She was tired of guessing what might work. Eve was the antithesis of Sam, and since nothing Sam had done worked, it only seemed logical to try something different.

“I think I’m going to die.” Sam sat on the curb outside Fraziers bar in Hampden as Eve smoked a cigarette. Like the Club Charles, it was a dark basement of a place, albeit much dingier, although it had the advantage of having two rooms, a large space for live music and a second room/bar in which to escape the band. The outside, however, was even worse—the sidewalk stained with beer, puke, bubble gum, and old butts that collected on the pavement around the ashtray instead of in it.

“You only had four beers, you’ll survive,” Eve answered, smashing the butt into in a flower pot, missing its plant. “Besides, you wanted to taste the single life again, see how the hipsters lived.”

“I guess I can die happy now.” Sam stood up, the alcohol making her light, wobbly. “But I need coffee first.”

They walked down 36th Street, past the boutique stores and antique shops and tacky five and dimes that sold things like Baltimore Ravens beer cozies and beach towels, the cherry of Eve’s cigarette igniting and receding as if it were breathing on its own. Sam wondered if she had chosen the wrong person to study. Eve did not do anything in moderation, at least what Sam believed was moderation. They saw the loudest bands at the Ottobar and went to the most obtuse performance art pieces and the most crowded student parties at the Institute, where strobe lights swam over everyone’s heads while they bobbed, fish in the dark sea.

They made it to the 7-11, where Sam bought the biggest coffee and Eve bought another pack of cigarettes. Outside a man in a jean jacket sat on a motorcycle and looked at a map. He rubbed the tanned, five-o’clock shadow of his face with the heel of his hand while he chewed down a toothpick.

“Evening, ladies.” He nodded to them. “Can one of you tell me how to get back onto 83?”

“It’s easy,” Sam answered, taking a sip of her coffee. “Make a right here, a left on Northern Parkway about a half mile up, then it’s a right exit.”

“Thanks.” He tucked his map back into his jacket, and grabbed his helmet. “I appreciate it.”

“Where are you going?” Eve asked, running her hand through her hair.

“Pennsylvania, biker bar outside York.” He patted the gas tank of the Triumph. “Would one of you ladies like to come? Or is it rude to choose?”

“No choosing necessary; I’m going home.” Sam answered, trying to remember where she had parked her car.

“You’re not driving anywhere.” Eve grabbed Sam’s arm as she began to drift through the parking lot. “Thanks for offer, mysterious biker man; it would have been a blast.”

“I don’t know how you can get involved with strangers like that,” Sam said once they were back on the avenue. “You don’t know if he was really going to York.”

“I have a good sense of people,” Eve answered. “But, you’re right. Maybe a few drinks ago I would’ve had 100% better sense of people. You got to admit, though, that guy was gorgeous.”

“He was okay.” Sam shrugged, taking the lid off her coffee. She felt angry at Eve but didn’t know why. She wanted Eve only to look at her, care about her, listen to her, even though it was entirely unfair. The steam danced off the top of the coffee cup and disappeared into the warm April night. “He looked like my brother Steve.”

“Wow, I guess I need to meet your brother, then.” Eve lit a cigarette. They passed the bar they had left, a beer banner dangling precariously down on one side, the ropes used to anchor it to the awning dragging along the sidewalk.

“No, you don’t.”

“Why not?”

“He lives in New Jersey. We don’t see each other anymore. He’s kind of a jerk.”

“Define jerk.”

“I don’t know.” Sam put the lid back on her coffee. It was cool enough, but she felt too sick to drink it. “He dropped out of high school. Has drug problems, flits from job to job, anger-management issues. That stuff.”

“I thought you said you adored him growing up.”

“We grew up.” Sam dug her free hand into her purse for her keys, which she could not find. Deeper and deeper she probed, and she wondered whether she left them on the bar, whether they fell on the floor under the table, out of her jeans and onto the bathroom floor. It was so hard to keep track of things when she was drinking, which is why she didn’t do it very much. She was wondering how much a replacement key would cost, how much time it would take to go to the dealer, how she would get in her house tonight when she felt the sliver of metal at the bottom of her purse and the adjoining key-rings.

“I do drugs, didn’t finish high school, have worked a bunch of jobs.” Eve stomped out her cigarette by the passenger door of Sam’s car. “Does that make me a jerk, too?”

“Of course not. You’re trying to make a better life for yourself. Steve ran away and he’ll never own up to anything. That’s why he’s a jerk.”

“I like your brand of crazy.” Eve arched her eyebrow and smiled. “I can’t imagine why Steve would want to miss out.”

“We’ve seen him three times in eight years.” Sam leaned against the driver side of her Jetta. “But I guess it’s been better that way, for all of us. I’m sorry—I can’t drive yet. I need to sober up.”

Sam put her coffee cup on top of her car and wedged her keys tightly in her front pants pocket. They walked around the streets that circled the avenue, past the quiet residential homes of varying upkeep and colors, past stray cats that slinked across the streets toward women with frowning faces and over-colored hair and soft doughy breasts in tight shirts. She imagined Steve charming the women at the skunky roadhouses in New Jersey where he ambled through “Nebraska” and “Born to Run,” his voice rumbling and mucous, his forearms shiny and sinewy and licked with sweat. Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.

“Well, look who’s come back,” Eve said. They had heard the roar of the motorcycle a block over, were surprised when it turned out to be the man on the Triumph. He crept along beside them, his eyes smiling from behind his helmet visor.

“There you are—been looking all over this place for you.” He leaned back in his seat.

“Well, you found us, Romeo,” Eve answered, a smile forming on her lips.

“I’m sorry, ladies. I can’t get you off my mind,” he grinned. “Why go to York when there are so many beautiful women here in Baltimore?”

“Charmed, really,” Eve laughed. “But you can tell us more over a drink at Fraziers.”

“Can tell you more,” Sam whispered. She grabbed Eve’s arm and turned her away from him. “Look, I don’t condone this, but I’m sober now if you want to go back to the bar. I’ll go home.”

“Are you sure?” Eve looked at her, and Sam saw the traces of disappointment hovering over her face. She felt like she had failed some test on how to be fun, spontaneous, interesting.

“Yes—this is what you want, right?”

“Sure.” Eve nodded. She looked at Sam for a second, as if waiting for something, then hurried toward the bike. It whined away up the street, boring Sam’s ears in its wake, belching smoke. She held her keys through her pocket, retracing her steps back to the car. When she passed the bar again the motorcycle wasn’t parked in front, and she felt her heart throb in her throat. But Eve was her own keeper, she realized.

She saw the figure huddled over on her steps when she got home and figured it was a bum. She wished Eve had come home with her; she was better at handling the various beggars and addicts than Sam was. Sam parked the car a block over and held her keys fisted in her hand on the walk to the house, the strongest stem sticking out between her fingers, ready for her to stab anybody who came up on her. But as she neared the step she recognized the combat boots, the pale, thick thighs, dirty blond hair.

“I had him take me here,” Eve explained, standing up as Sam fiddled with the door locks. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“No.” Sam shook her head as they entered the dark halfway. “I’m just glad you’re safe.”

“I just would rather . . .” Eve’s eyes searched for the elusive word. “You want to play Scrabble? Best of ten?”

“Best of one—I’m tired.” Sam flicked on the lights. She dragged some boxes and crates together in the high-ceilinged living room for chairs and furniture and found the Scrabble game in a box marked “misc.” It was almost new, not like the ones her friends in college had owned with broken box lids and oily, smooth tiles rubbed down by many fingers. She had received her game for her twelfth birthday, her only request. And only her mother had played with her, and not well.

“Best of three.” Eve smiled and cracked her knuckles. “Believe me, you’ll be begging for three after I kick your ass.”

“I like when you’re cocky.” Sam smiled, bringing out a few cans of tepid soda and chips from the kitchen. “You’ll be easier to beat.”

They settled under the single hanging chandelier in the living room, the one missing various prisms and light bulbs. Gradually the room brightened; the air was warmer with April daybreak. Sam opened one of the window sashes and they listened to random cars on Mount Royal Avenue. It was nearly six-thirty when, deadlocked at six games, Sam fell asleep. When she woke up, huddled with Eve under a quilt that Eve had brought down from Sam’s bedroom, she felt like she had made the right decision, moving here, alone in the old house, hardwood floors, lots of light. She felt her strongest here, with Eve beside her.

“Eve?” But she was alone. She sat up in a sweat, tears in her eyes that Eve had slipped away from her, just as she feared she always would, onto a louder bike, a stronger drink, a more interesting person. But Eve stood at the window, watching the parishioners head to mass at Corpus Christi Church.

“Sorry it got so late.” Eve turned to Sam’s voice, met her face where it peered out from the quilt. “I hoped you don’t mind that I stayed.”

“No.” Sam shook her head, wrapped her arms around herself. “It was nice having someone here. I haven’t lived alone in a long time.”

“You’ll get used to it easier than you think.” Eve sat up, her hand moving along the floor for her cigarettes.

“Should I be afraid of that?” She watched Eve open the window. The smell of cherry blossoms wafted into the room, the quick chatter of birds, the random song of church bells.

“What, that you’ll be a lonely, bitter old gal like me, unable to commit to a fella?” Eve smirked, shrugging her fatigue jacket over her shoulders and placing a cigarette on her bottom lip. “Don’t worry; you need people. You’re a people person.”

“What about you? You’re a people person, too,” Sam said. “What about the guy on the motorcycle? What about me?”

“I guess you got me there.” Eve stood up, stretched her arms.

“ I’m glad you didn’t go with him.”

“Well, I’ve been doing things my way, all crazy and stupid, so I thought I’d try yours,” Eve answered. “You always seem so centered.”

Sam laughed aloud. It was not her own laugh. It couldn’t be; its force, authority, startled her. She felt the muscles in her stomach move, her lip crack in the middle from the smile that grew so big, quickly, on her face.

“What’s so funny?” Eve arched an eyebrow.

“Nothing,” she answered, stretching too. “You want to get breakfast?”

“Gotta work.” Eve waved a little with her hand. “Thanks, though.”

“Will you come back? I’ll wait.”

Eve studied her for a moment, her eyes moving back and forth across Sam’s face, looking for something. Sam smiled; she did not look away. She concentrated on burning the feeling of home into Eve, the delicious hurt of safety after a perilous journey. What she felt just now.

“We do have some unfinished business.” Eve smiled back, nodding at the Scrabble board. She crouched by the box and searched through the tiles, picking out four. She pressed them into Sam’s palm and curled Sam’s fingers over them.

“No peeking.” Eve nodded at Sam’s fist.

From the window Sam watched Eve go up the street, watched her hand moving along the seam of her jacket pocket in search of her sunglasses. In her own hand the cool wooden tiles grew warm. When they felt so warm she thought they would burn into her palm, scarring her forever, she opened her fingers to look.

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