This was the fall, when the entire county was in the grip of the Claw-End-of-the-Hammer Killer. It was getting colder and already eleven people had their heads caved in and emptied. Sometimes the claw end of the hammer was left inside of what remained, buried in so far it wasn’t worth retrieving. It was all the papers talked about, the headlines in a smaller font than usual to accommodate the name. The hardware store moved the hammers behind the counter, made copies of driver’s licenses for anyone purchasing one. “Just get a screwdriver and some screws,” the manager would say to potential buyers, “save us all a lot of trouble.”
The murders made my wife and I irritable and short with each other. The six months previous hadn’t been great, but this made it even more difficult, the threat constantly surrounding us. My wife would be out late for parent-teacher conferences or grading papers at school or dinner with colleagues, and I would be at home on the sofa, rereading the articles in the newspaper, the terse bios of each new victim. I would wish that my wife was home, safe, and yet I was happy for the time alone to stave off the arguing for an extra hour or two. Sometimes, once she did arrive, I would go out for a walk through the neighborhood, the air cool and menacing, my footsteps on the sidewalk the only sound for miles.
“I was worried,” I said when she finally came home one night, two hours later than I had expected. “I thought something had happened to you.” She sighed as she undressed and stepped into the shower. “You think that a lot,” she answered. “You always think the worst, and it makes me uncomfortable. I stood in the bathroom, the steam fogging the mirrors, and drew a hammer on the mirror with my finger. The image made me shiver and I wanted to be closer to my wife, to hold her. I started to undress and join her in the shower. “Don’t do that,” she said. “Just let me get clean and then we can go to sleep.”
On nights when I couldn’t sleep, aware that something was wrong with the world and with my marriage but unsure what exactly, I wondered what could make someone do what the Claw-End-of-the-Hammer Killer was doing. Maybe it wasn’t anger at all, but something stranger, quieter, infinitely more disturbing moving inside this person. I lay beside my wife and pulled her close, unresisting in her sleep, and hoped that things would be better with each new day.
The Claw-End-of-the-Hammer Killer claimed another victim, a mechanic whose son had been in my wife’s class two years earlier. I wanted to tell her about it, though I knew it would upset her. She never read the articles, tried to turn off the TV when the stories played on the local news. “I don’t want to see that,” she’d say. “No one wants to see that.” Still, I wanted to be the one to tell her, for us to be together and barricade ourselves from the things that could harm us. But she still wasn’t home. I turned off the radio and realized my legs were twitching uncontrollably. I left a note for my wife, Needed some air. Be back soon. Why aren’t you home? and headed outside.
I walked for over an hour without caring where I was going when I finally realized the mist had turned to rain, that I was far from home, and that my wife might be waiting for me, worried. I started to run and then realized what that must look like, a man running in street clothes, the killer still on the loose. I slowed to a trot and stared at the houses on either side of the road, lit up and locked. I stared at the bushes dotting each lawn and watched for rustling, something hidden. I stared at my wife’s car, parked in someone else’s driveway, the lights inside the house dim.
It was my wife’s car, though it was still hard to believe it. The car beside it wasn’t one I recognized and I felt something run up my spine, something too confused to be purely fear. I walked up the driveway and saw the sticker on the bumper of the car, a parking pass for the same school where my wife taught. I remembered a party at this house, all the teachers and their spouses. It was the biology teacher, a man, who moved here the year before from up north. I remembered something about how he’d separated from his wife and moved back here, where he’d grown up. I tried to remember more about this man, if my wife had ever mentioned him, and then the outside lights came on and I heard a man’s voice shouting, “Hey! Get away from there.” He had a baseball bat in his hands and was naked from the waist up. Behind him, just slightly to the side, was my wife, her hands on his shoulders. “It’s me,” I said and felt like there was nothing else I could say. “Oh no. Oh shit,” my wife said and she ducked back inside the house, then out, and ran awkwardly down the porch steps, trying to slip her shoes back on, hopping towards me and saying, “Just get in the car. We’ll talk in the car.”
I sat in the passenger side of her car and she drove us home. It had been going on for a few months, her and the biology teacher. She wasn’t happy with our relationship, what we had made together, though it wasn’t my fault. Something was just fading away and she didn’t know if either one of us had the desire to pull it back. She understood that I had every right to be upset and she was sorry for lying to me, but she didn’t want me to do anything that I’d regret. “Do you still love me?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said. “I think I do sometimes.” We drove in silence for a few minutes and I said, “The Claw-End-of-the-Hammer Killer did it again tonight. Right here in Winchester this time.” She hit the horn so fast it was like a spasm. “Don’t tell me that,” she said. “That’s not what I want to talk about right now.”
The police had absolutely no leads, no idea what they were looking for or how to find it. My wife was sleeping in the study on an air mattress. It had been two days since I’d found out about the affair and we still weren’t sure what to do. When we were both in the house at the same time, we tried not to say much of anything, tried to allow our bodies the time to get used to the idea of the other, the space we occupied and the air that circulated amongst us. When I thought about what had happened, I was confused more than angry, but the anger was there, swirling inside me, becoming something different, something harder to understand. A Wal-Mart in Chattanooga reported a dozen hammers stolen from the stock room, but I did not say a word to my wife. Neither one of us needed reminding that nothing had been solved and the worst was still to come.
After a week, without warning, I awoke to my wife standing over me in the middle of the night, her arms hugging herself as if warding off the cold. “It’s over,” she said. “I just got off the phone with him and I told him it was over.” I was still half-asleep and I wanted her in the bed, for the morning to find us changed. I pulled the sheets aside but she shook her head. “It’s over, but I’m still not sure about us. We need more time to figure this out.” She walked out of the room and though I tried to stay awake, I drifted off. The next morning, the two of us at the table, eating breakfast without a word between us, I tried to decide if I had dreamed it or not.
For the next few weeks, the biology teacher called the house at all hours of the day, hanging up whenever either of us answered the phone, refusing to leave messages on the machine. One time I picked up the receiver without saying anything and there was nothing but silence on either end of the line. “It’s over,” I said, and he finally hung up. “It was him again,” I told my wife as I slammed the receiver back in its cradle. “I have told him several times that it’s over,” she answered. “Well,” I said, “he doesn’t believe you. He is not convinced.”
Later that afternoon, my wife went to the study to take a nap on her air mattress, though I offered our bed. Another call sounded over the phone and I picked up the receiver again. “Okay,” I said, expecting him to hang up, but there was the silence again, his breathing just faintly making it across the wires. “Okay,” I said again. “She doesn’t love you,” he said. “That’s not entirely true,” I answered, “and it’s none of your fucking business.” He only repeated it again, “She doesn’t love you.” And I said, “Well, she never loved you, so I’ve got better odds,” and I hung up the phone, understanding for the first time that anger, undiluted by anything else, could actually drive you to do all kinds of things.
With all the news about the Claw-End-of-the-Hammer Killer, I knew that I shouldn’t have grabbed the hammer. The murders were on my mind, however, and a hammer just made sense. I had picked it up, felt the weight of it, and had understood that, yes, you could do some damage with this, could harm people who had harmed you, indirectly or not.
I walked into the study and watched my wife, still asleep. Her form was stretched out beneath the sheets, open to whatever could happen. I wished that we could stay in the house, could hide away until we fixed things. But there was always something that dragged us outside and kept us open to danger. For now, however, she was here with me. Not in the same bed, but under the same roof, trying to stay together, and I wanted to do whatever it took to keep it that way.
I slipped out the back door and walked to the biology teacher’s house with the hammer tucked down the back of my pants, only the metal poking above my waist. I didn’t know what I was going to say or do, but that didn’t stop me from moving forward. Then I was on his front steps, looking through the window into his house. The hammer was pressing up against the base of my spine and I knew I would eventually have to retrieve it, brandish it, and make use of it. I was about to knock on the door when I knew that I didn’t want him to answer. I was not the kind of man who wrestled angrily on front lawns with men who had slept with his wife, no matter how hard I tried. I was not the kind of man, thank god, that could cave in someone’s head with the claw end of a hammer. I looked at his car parked in the driveway and decided that I could at least be the kind of man who takes his frustrations out on other people’s property.
The first blow rang like a struck bell and sent a reverberation up my arm, a shock of action. Looking toward the house, I saw the biology teacher’s fingers furtively separating the blinds of the living room window. I reached back and brought the hammer down on the front windshield, the glass turning opaque and splintered, though not shattering. Moving clockwise around the car, taking careful swings at each engineered curve in the metal frame, I could feel the hammer bounce back from each report, ready for what came next.
On the back fender, I finally ruined the hammer. With an underhanded swing, I used the side of the hammer to make contact, something, apparently, one should never do. It had been a dry summer, which had probably damaged the wooden shaft as well. Whatever necessary circumstances aligned and the hammer broke, sending the metal head skittering across the driveway. I looked up at the house, and by now the biology teacher had fully opened the blinds and was staring at me, his facial expression angry but not surprised. I was still holding the handle, unsure of how to proceed. The car was riddled with dents, each the size and shape of a half-dollar, save for the driver’s side of the car, which had been spared by the hammer breaking. I scooped up the head of the hammer, the claw end curved over my fingers like brass knuckles, and ran back home.
Only a few minutes after I had returned, the pieces of the hammer hidden under the bed, the biology teacher called, aggrieved. Now he was talking. My wife walked into the study with the phone and I could hear only her side of the conversation, the sound of her voice saying, “No. No. No. You’re crazy. No. Okay, don’t do that. Don’t do that. No. It is over. No. Wait.”
I sat at the table in the kitchen, looking over the newspaper for the second time that day. My wife walked over and took a seat beside me. I showed her the article about the Claw-End-of-the-Hammer Killer. “They might have found a partial print on the hammer,” I told her. “Maybe this will all be over soon.”
“Did you ever have any idea that I was unhappy?” she asked me.
I looked up at her. “I knew that I was unhappy,” I said. “But I didn’t know what to do about it. I was afraid of what could happen.”
She nodded, as if satisfied with the answer. I went to touch her but she pulled away, a matter of inches keeping us separated.
“Did you smash his car with a hammer?” she asked.
“I did not,” I said. I knew it didn’t sound convincing and so I kept talking. It was frustrating that this was what we had to talk about. “Maybe it was the Claw-End-of-the-Hammer Killer.”
“Maybe you should get your hammer from the shed and hang something for me.”
“Maybe I will,” I said.
She folded her arms across her chest, waiting. She had called my bluff, though she didn’t look happy about it. She looked tired, her head slightly turned from me and her hair hanging down in her face. I imagined that she was waiting for me to say it was over, that we had tried and failed at something that had seemed simple at the beginning. And though I felt that I needed to say something to her, even if it wasn’t that, I walked out of the house without a word, into my car, and burned rubber out of the driveway to the hardware store.
In the store, I picked up some sandpaper, a box of nails, a plunger, some PVC pipe, a pair of coveralls, and a roll of twine. I filled up my arms until there was no excuse left, no way to avoid the inevitable. I walked up to the counter and asked the owner, “You don’t have hammer shafts do you?”
He perked up, shifted the toothpick in his mouth. “You want a hammer?” he asked. “You aim to buy a hammer?”
“Just the shaft,” I said. “I have the hammer head back home.”
“Takes a lot to break a hammer,” he said.
“I would guess so,” I answered. I had not played this well.
“Well,” he said, “We don’t have hammer shafts.”
“Well,” I said, getting out my driver’s license, “then I guess I’ll have one of them hammers behind you.”
A police officer pulled me over just before I made it to the driveway of our house, my turn signal blinking. I had seen him in my rear view mirror almost immediately after I drove away from the hardware store. I still had my driver’s license out, and when he came to the window, I handed it to him.
“You just buy a hammer?” he asked.
“I did. And some nails.”
“Let’s worry about the hammer right now,” he said. “We’ll discuss the nails later.”
My wife was standing on the front porch, watching. She had a picture frame in her hand.
“Can you show me the hammer?” he asked me.
I reached into the bag, slowly, and produced the hammer.
“I see it’s got a claw end.”
“That was the only kind the store carried,” I said.
“What do you aim to do with it?” he said. “And don’t be smart and say that you’re going to use it to hammer.”
“I’m going to hang a picture for my wife.”
He gestured towards the porch, where my wife was still standing. I nodded.
“I think I’ll help,” he said. “Just to be safe.”
My wife handed the police officer the picture frame. “Good picture,” he said. “Worth hanging anyway.” I looked over his shoulder. It was a picture of my wife and I from a few years ago. We’d won a trip to London in a cereal box contest and it rained all seven days. We had someone take a picture of us, soaking wet, standing in front of one of those palace guards, who was not allowed to be interested in us. In the picture, he is looking away, staring at something far more compelling, and we are less two people and more a single blur. What I’m saying is that it was not a good picture, but both of us were in it.
“Well, let’s hang it,” the officer said.
I took the picture from him and he took the hammer from the table, testing the grip and tapping the head of it against his palm, which produced a quiet, rhythmic slap. I started to walk to an empty section of the wall near the television. “No,” the officer said, shaking his head. “Let’s hang it over the mantle.” I looked at my wife and she stared at me for a few seconds and then nodded in agreement. The policeman took a nail and expertly hammered it into the wall with a few swift strikes. I handed him the photo and he hung it, slightly crooked. I walked over to where my wife was standing and we stared at the picture. “Raise the left end up just a little,” my wife said, and the policeman straightened things out for us. He handed me the hammer, head first, and said, “Keep it somewhere safe. You two be safe with that hammer.”
The Claw-End-of-the-Hammer Killer stopped, abruptly, at the end of the fall, the trees bare and the weather cold. It did not start up again in the spring or the summer or the following fall, and my wife and I finally remembered that we could be comfortable around each other, felt the weight in our shoulders dissipate. We had spent so much time thinking about how easy it was to empty out the secrets in our heads, that one blow could end us. My wife and I forgot to take down the photo, remembering it only on the occasions when it had to be straightened, kept aligned. Then we would walk on past, living with the possibility of a violent ending, of sorrow and unhappiness, and we made the best of it, unafraid.