Nail


It’s the memory of falling off the wall that makes it so I can see things the way they really happened. It’s remembering the little bit of time I spent hanging upside down in the air with my legs pointing up towards the heavy clouds that makes it so I can tell what’s real and what ain’t. Even though that wall wasn’t much higher than the ceiling in our house, it seemed like it took me forever to fall, and it’s from closing my eyes and remembering the little bit of time I spent watching the wall’s chalky-looking rock slip slowly behind my Sunday shoes that I know the truth behind everything that’s ever happened. It’s God who made me fall, so when I hear the air whistling past my ears and see how the green branches of the pine trees were spread out against the sky, I can see things just the way God sees them. But I won’t tell anybody about what I know because they’d mess it all up. Nobody ever listens. They just keep believing what they’ve always believed, so I keep secret how whenever I close my eyes and feel my head about to hit the ground, I can see anything I want.

What I mostly want to see is Daddy who’s all the way down in Miami, taking care of the Shrimp Man and waiting for him to die. As soon as the Shrimp Man does die, Daddy’ll get that big piece of land that sits right on the water and that Daddy’s wanted since the first time he saw it. Daddy could’ve never afforded what that land is worth, but the Shrimp Man wouldn’t’ve sold it to him anyway because the Shrimp Man doesn’t care anything about money. All he wants is to die on that land where he’s sold bait for longer than even he can remember. And since he doesn’t have any family left to take care of him, the Shrimp Man signed papers saying that Daddy could have that land if he made sure that the Shrimp Man gets to die in his own bed. So Daddy left Mama and me and moved out to that land so he could feed the Shrimp Man and clean up after him for as long as he’s alive. And because Mama couldn’t stand to live in that city where she couldn’t help but remember Daddy on every street she drove on, she moved us up here. But as soon as that land is his, Daddy’ll come up and take me back down to Miami to live with him.

Right now I’m sitting on a piece of log outside of me and Mama’s trailer, and if I concentrate, I can see Daddy standing over the Shrimp Man’s bed, looking to see if that blind old white man is still breathing underneath his dirty sheet. But I can’t concentrate enough to see whether that sheet’s moving or not, and I can’t hear whether there’s any air whistling through the Shrimp Man’s nose because Jerry won’t stop talking to me through the bathroom window.

Because Jerry doesn’t care at all about what’s true, he’s always making up stories about me. And because he likes to talk about me like I’m not even here, he says to me, “I know what Miami’s doing out there right now,” says, “I know the little nigger’s got his pants down and his eyes closed so he can picture Miss Freeman naked. I know he’s out there playing with that little dick nub he’s got, rubbing that thing with the tips of his fingers because that nub’s too small to rub with his whole hand.”

He says, “As soon as I came in here to take a dump, Miami took his pants off and started going to town. I know he’s got a thing for Miss Freeman. He likes them saggy, old-lady tits and those big old moles she got all over her neck. He likes them big fat ankles that hang over the tops of those granny shoes she wears, and he likes how she can’t walk fast enough to get away. Even Miami can catch a lady with a cane, so he can get his hands on some old lady booty whenever he wants it. That’s what he’s thinking about right now. He wants Miss Freeman to shuffle into that bedroom and take off that house dress and that girdle so Miami can get down to business.”

Jerry says, “I know you in love, but you better put that little nub away cause I’m about to come out and I don’t want to see it.”

When Jerry stops talking and there’s no other sound besides the bugs buzzing in the yard, I can see that sheet moving up and down so I know, just like Daddy does, that the Shrimp Man’s not dead yet.

I can see Daddy picking up the metal pan that the Shrimp Man has to use because he can’t walk to the bathroom anymore, and can see Daddy standing next to the bed for a second, getting himself ready to slip that pan up under those sheets. Because he doesn’t want to look at the Shrimp Man’s legs, he doesn’t pull the sheet back and does the whole thing by feel. He puts one end of that pan up against the Shrimp Man’s ass and pushes down on the other end, lifting up the Shrimp Man’s skinny little body some before shoving that pan up under him. And when the pan’s where it’s supposed to be, Daddy steps back from the bed and looks down at the Shrimp Man’s face, at the place where his eyelids are sunken down into the two snotty-looking holes where his eyes used to be, and waits for the Shrimp Man to do whatever he’s going to do.

But the Shrimp Man doesn’t do anything for a while. The only sounds in that room are the Shrimp Man’s breathing and one fly that’s buzzing up against the screen, trying to get out of the window. The Shrimp Man’s breathing is so quiet that Daddy can’t hear it, but he can hear that fly, and while he’s walking over to the window to slap it dead, the toilet flushes and Jerry comes to the door of the trailer saying, “That shit I took must’ve come out sideways cause it tore my ass up.”

The screen door slams shut behind him, but I keep my eyes closed, watching Daddy walk to the window with his hand out in from of him, ready to kill that fly, but before I can see him do it, Jerry knocks me in the back of my head, saying “C’mon, let’s go,” and when I open my eyes, he’s already headed towards the road.

I like to stay here at the trailer because I want to be where Daddy can find me when the Shrimp Man dies, but Jerry always wants to go to town so that he can smoke behind the Dairy Queen with those boys who’re always up there but don’t ever get out of their car. I’ll peek around the back sometimes and see Jerry leaning into the car window, and before he takes the reefer, he’ll turn around and give me a look that tells me I’d better go back around front and keep my mouth shut. And because I do keep my mouth shut, Mama doesn’t know any of that. Even though I’m about to start junior high in the fall and’ve been staying at home by myself since I was nine, Mama’s so afraid that I’ll try and run away to Miami again that she pays Jerry to watch me while she’s at work and told him that he can hit me as hard as he wants if I don’t do what he says. But if she knew that Jerry smokes reefer like he does, then she wouldn’t pay him to watch me anymore. And if she couldn’t get anybody else around here to watch me, then she might make us move again and Daddy wouldn’t ever be able to find me when he needs to.

We walk past Mr. and Mrs. Freeman’s and then turn onto another road that looks like all the roads up here, with nothing but fields and trees, and because Jerry’s quiet for a while, because even he can’t come up with something to say for the whole time we’re walking, I can see Daddy standing in that room that’s silent now that he’s squished that fly against the screen.

After a while, Daddy gets tired of standing there and waiting for whatever the Shrimp Man’s going to do with that pan, but just when Daddy’s turning to leave the room, the Shrimp Man makes a tiny grunting sound. Daddy looks back at the Shrimp Man’s face, but it hasn’t changed at all, and for a while that room’s just as quiet as it’d been before. But then Shrimp Man grunts again, louder and longer this time, and at the end of it there’s the sound of watery slop dripping out of the Shrimp Man’s insides and ringing against the metal of the pan.

The Shrimp Man stops grunting, but that stuff keeps on falling out, and it’s while what’s coming out of him starts to turn into a slow drip, that a car comes up behind us. Jerry walks out into the middle of the road, waving his arms, and the car stops right before it hits him. It’s a bunch of girls in there who I’ve seen before but can’t remember their names, and when one of the girls asks if we need a ride, Jerry doesn’t answer, just crawls in through the back window and into the laps of the two girls who’re back there. While the girls in the back are laughing and slapping Jerry on the legs and the behind and telling him to get off them, the girl in the front seat tells me, “It’s all right, Miami—we ain’t gonna bite you,” the girl thinking that I’m scared of them even though waiting for Jerry to stop messing around don’t have nothing to do with being scared.

When Jerry does stop playing around, I get in too, and I’m squished between the door and one of those girls in back. Jerry tells her, “You ain’t got to worry about Miami getting fresh cause he only likes them real old ladies. His girlfriend used to be a slave. She knew Kunta Kinte and she got scars all over her back from getting whipped for not picking that cotton as fast as she was supposed to.”

Me and that girl are both wearing shorts so her bare leg is pressed up against mine, and she puts her arm around me and tells Jerry to be quiet because I’m her boyfriend now and can’t nobody say anything bad about me. We drive off towards town, and even with all the windows open and all the air that’s rushing through, it still smells like Mama’s dresser in here, like perfume and Noxzema and all kinds of sprays and creams that I don’t know what they’re for. And while that girl is pulling at the curls in my hair with her fingers, I close my eyes and feel the wind on my face and see that while Daddy’s waiting on that last drop to fall out of the Shrimp Man’s ass, he’s wishing that the Shrimp Man would die so that he could get back to doing some real work instead of having to pull that pan out and clean it. But the Shrimp Man won’t let Daddy do anything. Daddy can’t even spray the house for roaches. If he tries to move a stack of newspapers or magazines in the living room so that he can spray underneath, the Shrimp Man, who won’t say anything for days, will call out from the bedroom, You let my things be until after I die. So Daddy has to leave those newspapers and magazines right where they are while the roaches scratch around between those stacks of paper and the rotting wood underneath.

When it seems like the Shrimp Man’s done, Daddy reaches under the sheet and pulls the pan out, and I can see how Daddy jumps a little when his arm rubs up against the dry skin on one of the Shrimp Man’s legs. He goes to the kitchen where he gets himself a beer before taking that pan out into the yard to fill it with water from the spigot. Then he walks out to the dock so he can dump it. Holding that beer and that pan at the same time makes it hard for him to hide his limp, and while he’s walking along the wood of the dock, I can hear how his foot drags across those boards some. It’s already hot in the late morning, and across the bay the big buildings downtown look like they’re floating on the water instead of resting on dry land. He thinks about how, when he can do what he wants with that land, his buildings will be even taller, but he has had that thought so many times that it wears him out to have it running through his mind again. It’s quiet back there because the Shrimp Man’s place is too far from the main road for Daddy to hear the cars driving past, and the water’s so still that it isn’t splashing against the pilings of the dock. He listens for a boat snaking its way through the channel that leads into the cove, hoping that somebody who bought bait earlier that morning is coming back to bring the Shrimp Man a fish. Nobody but Daddy sees the Shrimp Man anymore, but the men who buy bait are always asking about him and telling Daddy to give him their regards. They say that he’ll be up fixing motors again in no time and ask if he can still eat fish. And even though the Shrimp Man won’t eat anything but the baloney sandwiches that Daddy has to cut up into tiny pieces, Daddy’ll tell them that the woman who comes by to cook and tend to him can’t hardly get him to eat anything but fish. So those men who’ve been buying their bait out there for so long they wouldn’t know where else to go, sometimes bring a fish or two back and tell Daddy to make sure and tell the Shrimp Man who it’s from. Staying out at the Shrimp Man’s is costing Daddy. He can’t work like he used to, and he spent up his savings to pay the taxes that the Shrimp Man stopped paying after his son had died. Those fish are the only thing the Shrimp Man’s place has earned Daddy so far, and he’s ashamed of how it’s got to the point that he looks forward to a fish he has to lie for as much as he used to look forward to cash in his hand that came from working harder and smarter than anyone else.

He looks at the shacks left over from when the Shrimp Man let some people make a movie out there, five little one-room buildings that I’d play in back when Daddy used to take me out there. The shacks are made from rough boards so they look like places where slaves might have lived. In the truck on the way home, Daddy’d tell me that those shacks were bigger than the place he and Mama stayed in right after they were married. He’d tell me that if the Shrimp Man’d let him, he’d fix those shacks up and rent them out as cabins because there ain’t no difference between the two except for what people will pay to stay in them. People who don’t think about their money can get tricked by the names of things, he’d say, and nothing’d be funnier than a bunch of white people with more money than sense paying him to stay in someplace that looks like it’s only fit for slaves. Sitting across the seat in the truck from me, he’d say that if somebody’s fool enough to pay for what something sounds like, then they don’t deserve the money they got. He’d say that if a fool and his money are soon parted, then he’ll make it his business to be there when they are.

But the Shrimp Man didn’t want to have nothing to do with those cabins. He’s small-minded, Daddy used to tell me, Daddy saying that the Shrimp Man was one lucky son of a gun to get as far as he had because he sure enough never thought big. Daddy’d tell me that things used to be easier, that used to be there was so much land that they gave it away to anybody who was willing to work it. Back then, everything wasn’t owned yet, so anybody who wasn’t scared of a little work could get a little something for themselves. Daddy’d say that that’s where his grandfather’d got what all he’d had, but Daddy’s father figured that only his white children deserved any of that money. People talk about how all those Rockefellers and Vanderbilts started out with nothing and ended up rich, but Daddy’d say that he’d like to see how far they’d’ve gotten without the right color skin. He’d look over at me and say that he was going leave me with a little something to get me started, that once the Shrimp Man’s place was his, then those buildings’d be full of rich people paying him to live there, and if he owned the place where the rich people lived, then what would that make him? He’d tell me to get him another beer from what was left of the six-pack on the floor while he said that after he set me up, it wouldn’t make any difference what color I was. I could be pink and still own the whole damn state because I’d started off with something behind me.

But living out at the Shrimp Man’s and waiting on him to die makes it seem to Daddy like he’s moving backwards, like there won’t be enough time to do everything he wants to do for me and him both. He stands on the dock next to the bait tanks, holding the pan that’s still full of the Shrimp Man’s watered-down mess. He can’t smell it, and it’s as if all the time he’s wasting out there has made it so he doesn’t even know what’s right in front of him anymore. He feels lost in all the quiet, and so he empties the pan, the splashing sound filling up the space around him. But then it’s quiet again, and he feels nervous and empty, and he’s glad that me and Mama are far enough away that there’s no way for us to see him like that.

The air blowing through the car windows is so loud I can barely hear the radio, but I can hear Jerry talking about some teacher he says lives in the bathroom of their school. While he’s saying that somebody saw her washing her hair in the sink and that somebody else saw her coming out of a stall with a sandwich, that girl’s pressing herself up against me even more. And while she’s sliding her hand down between her leg and mine, I can see Daddy walking down the dock towards the Shrimp Man’s house, wondering what he’s going to do next. Because he’s starting to feel that beer and because there’s nobody around for him to show how that leg won’t keep him from outworking anybody else, he lets his foot drag some, and when he gets about halfway down the dock, his toe catches against something that makes him stumble. When he looks down to see what it was, he notices that one of the boards has lifted up in the middle so it’s no longer flat on the dock. The board is still good and is raised up only about a half an inch, but Daddy decides to replace it anyway. He leaves his beer on the dock and goes to the shed without letting that foot drag at all.

It doesn’t take Daddy any time to cut a piece of two by six, find a crowbar and a hammer and put four nails into his mouth, and when he gets back to the dock, he wedges the crowbar into the space next to the board he’s going to change. Once he gets the old board out, he lays down the new one, and it’s inside of the echoes that come from hammering that first nail into place that he can see his buildings going up, can see the cranes with the hooks and cables, and the rows of concrete mixers churning. He can hear the men talking and joking with each other, and can hear too how they’ll get quieter when he walks by in his hard hat and his white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, limping just enough to show them that it wasn’t easy for him to get where he is but he did it anyway. When he walks by, everybody’ll work a little harder than they had been because they know he won’t take any mess. He’s spent enough time on job sites to know how much time and money are wasted and knows too that you can’t take your eye off your business, and that’s why he’ll put our house up first, right in the middle of all that construction. It won’t be one of those giant houses with more rooms than anybody could ever use, but it’ll have an office where he can have the meetings that he knows he’ll have to have. He’ll spend most of his time walking through the site, but if he sees somebody who ain’t working like they should be, he won’t say nothing to them then. He’ll have his foreman tell the man to come to the office where Daddy’ll be sitting behind a big desk with papers all over it and a beat-up looking hammer holding some of them down. He’ll look up at the man that’s been slacking and tell him that he must have the wrong tools. Daddy’ll point to the hammer and say, That right there is a magic hammer, guaranteed to make any man who uses it work harder. He’ll tell the man, You use that for a while. The man’ll laugh a little before saying that a hammer won’t help him with concrete work, and Daddy’ll say, There’s nothing funny about it because this hammer’ll help any man do his job better than he’s been doing it. He’ll say, If this hammer don’t help then we need to get you some lipstick and a dress because then we’ll know what the real problem is. He won’t smile when he says it, just stare, and when the man asks if he can go, Daddy’ll say, Sure you can go, but take that hammer cause we need to figure out what’s what.

After the first nail is down into the board as far as it can go and after Daddy’s given it a few extra licks just so he can feel the sting of the hammer hitting the wood, he stops and waits for the ringing in his ears to die down before listening for the sound a boat would make if it were idling through the channel.

But he doesn’t hear any boats, so he takes another nail from his mouth and presses it against the board and swings the hammer again, thinking about how once he owns that land, he’ll finally be in that place he’s been trying to get to ever since he first started following the smell of money to wherever it might take him, whether it was laying block or working on roofs or selling whatever scrap he could find. It was old boat motors that got him out to the Shrimp Man’s the first time. He’d been fixing up a garage at a house somebody’d just bought, and there were four old outboards in there that the new owner didn’t want. Daddy didn’t know anything about boat motors himself, but because he won’t ever let what he doesn’t know stop him, he asked around until a forklift driver at the dry dock told him about an old blind man out on Virginia Key who fixed up motors nobody else wanted to mess with. While I was at home with Mama, he drove out there with those motors in the back of his truck, went across the drawbridge and turned down the lime rock road and then looked for the sand road he was supposed to turn onto after that. And what I know is that he missed where he was supposed to turn. He drove down the wrong sand road, one that kept getting narrower and narrower until it wasn’t even a road anymore. Daddy thought then that maybe the forklift driver had made that whole story up because how could a blind man work on motors anyway. Daddy hadn’t seen yet the way the Shrimp Man could start one up in a barrel of water, and while it was sputtering and kicking up smoke, run his hands across it like he was reading the names Johnson and Evinrude with his fingers. He hadn’t seen yet how, when the cover was off, the Shrimp Man could dig down into that mess of stuff under there and make that engine act just like it was supposed to. So he thought that the man from the dry dock was trying to make him look like a fool, and while Daddy was backing up on that dirt road, he was remembering his first day on a job site when he was thirteen and one of the men gave him three dollars to go and buy a left-handed brick- stretcher quick. Daddy hesitated for a second, but the man told him to hurry, that they couldn’t get the building done on time without it. This was before that I-beam fell and broke Daddy’s ankle, so after he took the money, he ran to the supply house as fast as he could, thinking how when he got back, nobody would believe he could’ve run that fast but he’d have the brick stretcher in his hand to prove that he did.

When he got to the supply house, he was so out of breath that at first he couldn’t say what he wanted. He stood there, doubled over, thinking about the time he was wasting, while the white man behind the counter sat on his stool, cracking peanut shells under his thumb and popping the nuts into his mouth. When Daddy finally caught his breath enough to say what he’d come for, the man told him to get on back to the job site and tell those boys to stop clowning around and find them an apprentice who knows his ass from a hole in the ground. Daddy thought that he’d been breathing too hard for the man to hear him, so he said it again, and the man told him that he was even dumber than he looked and he looked like he was too dumb to even stand up straight. But Daddy still didn’t know he’d been tricked. He looked at the man behind the counter, at his mouth that was steadily chewing and at the little bits of peanut stuck to his bottom lip, trying to figure out if maybe the man was deaf. Daddy started to say again what he’d come for, but the man cut him off, saying, You can’t stretch a brick you dumb nigger, and even though Daddy never told me about the man behind the counter, even though the only part he ever told me about is what happened when he went back to the job site, I can see the face of the man behind the counter, can see that he looked like he’d lost all patience so that he couldn’t do anything but shake his head, and it wasn’t from what the man said but from the look on his face that Daddy realized what had happened.

And while Daddy was looking at the directions to the Shrimp Man’s again, trying to figure out if he’d made a wrong turn or been played for a fool, he was remembering how he ran out of that supply house and didn’t stop until he got to the little house where he lived with his aunt. He didn’t go inside but walked in circles around that house, crying and punching at the air, the words, You got fucked, rolling around in his head, and it took him twenty minutes to calm down enough to think.

And what I know because Daddy told me himself is that after he’d figured out what to do, he took his time walking back to the job site because he wasn’t in any kind of a rush now. When he was a block away, he stopped and got himself an ice cream cone. He was licking on that ice cream when he walked over to the man who’d given him the money, holding out the three dollars, and before the man could say anything, Daddy told him, Three dollars wasn’t enough, said, I went to three different places and I couldn’t find one for less than five. Daddy said, They all looked like they’d break after you used them once anyway, so it’d be best if you saved your money and stretched those bricks by hand. Daddy took another lick off his ice cream, and while the other men laughed, the man who’d sent him made like he was going to knock Daddy upside the head. But Daddy didn’t flinch. He just kept on licking at his ice cream, and the man told him that he’d better throw that damn ice cream away and get his ass to hauling some bricks because he’d used up his breaks for the rest of the week.

And while he was trying again to find the right road out to the Shrimp Man’s, Daddy was thinking that if the forklift driver had tricked him, then he’d have to go back there and take a tire iron to his head because he was one nigger who wouldn’t stand to be messed with. But it didn’t take him long to find the right road. It was right where the man from the dry dock’d said it would be, and Daddy couldn’t figure how he’d driven past it. It was wider and straighter than the other road, and once Daddy’d turned on to it, he could see that it ended in a clearing, and at the other side of the clearing was the Shrimp Man’s shed. Once he saw the shed, the anger started to fall away, and by the time he got to the end of the road and could see the long stretch of sea wall and the dock that went from the wall out into the water, he’d forgotten that he’d ever been angry because he knew right then that all that land was supposed to be his. Everything he’d done in his life had been leading him towards that big piece of land on the water that nobody’d built anything on yet, and nothing would stop him from getting it.

He puts the third nail down against the board, but he’s still so lost in remembering how he ended up at the Shrimp Man’s that on the second lick, he hits that nail wrong and bends it. Sonofabitch, he says through his teeth, and he’s angry at himself for not keeping his mind on the job in front of him, for not keeping his eye on the ball. He listens for a boat again, and even though there is one gurgling through the channel now, he doesn’t hear it. He pulls the bent nail out and lets it drop into the water while he thinks about how replacing boards and dipping up shrimps are jobs a boy could do. I’m not too good with a hammer and nails, but I used to put the shrimp into bait buckets and take people’s money, the Shrimp Man telling me to make sure and count that money good because folks’ll cheat you blind and that’s what happened to him. If I was there to help now, then Daddy could stop wasting his time and could get some real work done. If the Shrimp Man’d let him, Daddy’d tie a rope around a stud and pull that shed down with his truck. He could tear that whole building down by himself today and have most of the scrap either sold or at the dump by dark tomorrow. That’s what he should be doing instead of messing with that one little piece of board.

He takes the last nail from his mouth and thinks about how he should call somebody to come and figure out how far back the Shrimp Man’s land goes. Then he could start to plan where to put everything. The Shrimp Man wouldn’t notice one car coming up the road and even if he did, Daddy could tell him that it was just somebody who’d gotten lost.

But Daddy’s afraid of lying. What he won’t tell anybody is that sometimes he’s not sure about what all’s in those papers that the Shrimp Man signed. There’s so many of them, that he doesn’t know exactly what they mean, and he’s afraid of messing it all up. He’s afraid of doing anything that would keep him from getting what he’s owed for all the time he’s spent emptying that pan and slapping together bread and baloney and mustard. Even though he’s kept up his end of the bargain, he worries that he won’t get what he deserves, and because it’d keep him from coming up here to get me, I worry about that too.

Daddy concentrates on that last nail because if he can’t drive a nail then he doesn’t deserve that land because no man should own anything he can’t take care of himself. And even though he knows better, he believes that if he can do this one thing right, then he’ll know for sure that the words on those papers mean just what he wants them to mean.

When the nail is in and he stops swinging the hammer, he doesn’t listen for the sound of the boat that he could hear now. He’ll have to go to the shed for another nail, but that doesn’t matter because he’s got more time than he knows what to do with. When there’s no rush, there’s no reason to worry about doing something right the first time. All this waiting is making him lazy and soft, making it so he might not even know what to do with that land when it finally becomes his. He looks at the board and wants to get the job finished quickly, wants that board nailed down right now. But just as he’s about to step off the dock and onto the sea wall, he hears the boat coming around the bend in the channel. He knows without turning around that he doesn’t have time to get to the shed and back before that boat gets to the dock. And what I can see while that girl’s brushing her lips across my neck and Jerry’s saying that Miss Freeman’s going to be jealous, is that me and Daddy and that last nail are all going to have to wait some more.

Manuel Martinez studied at the University of Florida and received the 1994 Hurston/Wright Award for college writers. He was an Emerging Writers Fellow at The Center for Fiction, and his stories have appeared in Blackbird, The Quarterly, The Sun and elsewhere. “Nail” is excerpted from his unpublished novel, Miami Don’t Know, the opening chapter of which appeared in African- American Review and received special mention in Pushcart 2018. He teaches English at Queensborough Community College. www.ManuelMartinez.com

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