Then What?

You need a nail or screw that will hold the weight of print AND frame, so you check the basement. You try the toolbox, and then the plastic box past it, and then the little paper sacks in the cupboard, and nada. But you can always check the garage, where there’s another toolbox and more bags of screws. More shelves. More cupboards.

And in one place or the other you’ll find a hammer and level, and a drill to sink an anchor, if you need one. Or the hammer might be in the dining room drawer stuffed with batteries and pliers and a screwdriver or two or six on top of disposable cameras and several small lengths of wire and string. Some rubber bands. A mouth harp. A pedometer. Tea candles. Long, decorative matches. A Swiss Army knife. A label-maker. The drawer doesn’t want to open, at least all the way, not without some tugging. You worry about getting it closed.

The disposable cameras–you notice they’ve all been used, wound round to the end, and someone should have taken them to be developed long ago. Who knows what’s on their film or from when? Who knows if they’re still salvageable? Is there an expiration date on film? They’re probably filled with shots of feet and foreheads and the bricks of a building that will forever go unnamed, because only the kids ever use throwaway cameras, and these are the things they see.

Just get them developed. DO IT NOW, even if everyone asks why you didn’t do this before?

Or at least leave them out of the drawer, for after the task at hand, which will itself have to wait till you’ve found the plunger to pump clear the basement drain, which your beautiful wife says is sitting in a pool of water, again. It’s just water, you hope, and ask after the aforementioned plunger, which nobody’s seen, it seems. It seems they’ve never ever seen it. Even the idea of such a tool appears to strike them as an abstraction. Plunger, your son asks, pausing, wondering at what some people will invent and others then buy. Plunger, your wife asks, as if there are implements she should never have to consider. Plunger, your daughter asks. What’s a plunger?

And you’d give up, if you could, instead of narrowing down the number of places you might have left a long-handled rubber ended staff for unsticking toilets. How long could such a list be?

Because a plunger can’t be in the bedroom, or the living room. Not the dining room or the den. Who would leave it in a closet? And it’s not in the bathrooms, because that would make too much sense. At least it wasn’t there when you last needed it. So, maybe it’s under the kitchen sink? In the garage? In the laundry room?! The utility closet. No. It’ll be in the basement, by the drain in question, from the last time you needed to plunge, right? Right, and it is, and so it goes.

And you still have no screw for hanging that print.

But you’re downstairs, and the metal shelf with the toolbox and tools and screws and nails is right damn there, so you set aside the wet plunger fixing its location in your mind, for next time, and you start digging, wondering why you would ever have piled tools on a box with a lid that opens up. But that’s neither here nor there, you think, setting the tools in a pile on top of other tools on top of a cardboard box you’ll someday also need to open. You can’t just dump them on the floor. That would be beyond the pale. After all, you have a drain that backs up a milky soup.

In the toolbox’s top shelf: screws, and nails, and anchors, and a hammer, of all things. You run your fingers through the metal, ignoring pinches from sharp tips, because you have hit the motherlode, and all will be well.

Only, now you’re nagged by the $19.99 you spent on a picture-hanging tool complete with double levels and a punch for setting holes (which came with a deluxe carrying case and a package of hanging hooks and star-headed sinking nails (which, you’d be glad to tell a television audience, really do the trick (no need for an anchor!))). When you bought it, it turned out everyone in the house was as taken with the tool as you, and many pictures were hung for a while. Only where did that son-of-a-gun go?

You find the carrying case in a minute, or two, and it’s empty, of course, except for a star-headed sinking nail–or two. So, really, your tool can’t be anywhere but the garage, right?

You shouldn’t dig yourself a deeper hole, but you do–and make your way out there through a skinny trail between bags of cans behind bicycles, which you move millimeters, so one doesn’t fall onto the next, which would fall onto the next, and so on, into a head of spoked tangled around pedals. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Then, with your foot, you push the big, big ball with the with the handle over the plastic grocery cart and onto the basket filled with frisbees, which you shove toward the corner taken over by baseball bats and fishing poles, all tiled together in a lean-to.

You should say, Fuck This, but you wouldn’t take your own advice.

Instead, it’s on to the tool bench, with piles of tools with surprisingly sharp blades, and the little bits of lumber left over from sessions with the chop saw, the yardsticks and saws, wrenches. The box of sockets that won’t close because not one socket was ever put away right. The safety glasses whose bridge got snapped before anyone ever put them on. The six bottles of glue with their lids forever glued tight. WD-40. A coffee mug from the last time you were out here, or the time before that, its insides coated with a layer of mold. A boom box. A really, really old manual typewriter that you think was once a home for mice. You never looked too closely, though, because who wants to witness that, and you don’t look now.

You don’t want to see any of it. Not the screwdrivers plunged nose first into a beer mug. Not the spilled bottle of chalk line dust. Not the heaped cans of lacquer and primer and paint in the corner.

You just want the picture-hanging doohickey–just because. And, of course, it’s on the spare tire tilted against the wall, because where else would it be? And conveniently underneath, in s small spilled pile, some star-headed sinking nails (wonderfully situated next to cars with wheels filled with air) and, holy crap, some hanging hooks! Which feels so stupendously lucky that you’re convinced, for a flash, of the existence of a god–or, at least, the likelihood that you’ll someday win some small sum at the local Native American gaming parlor. But only if you play slots, not tables.

But that’s neither here nor there, now, because you’ve got a pic to hang!

And, really, you’re that close.

But there’s no wire on the back of the frame, only a slot in a tab where the hanging hook could fit, and the arrangement seems precarious to you who will sit in the chair under where this picture will teeter, if not hung right, and probably fall what with children and dogs thundering in and out of the room, which, frankly, could use a bit more support by way of load-bearing beams (which, you know, you know, is a job for another day, or life); really, the whole house shakes.

So, something must be done, and you’re off again, and half the battle’s already won, because the wire cutters can only be one place, with tools of a certain size, which live jumbled in a milk crate in the garage, and–viola, there those motherfuckers are! And wire? Wire will always be fund, because so many things can pass as such, and you’re so close, you really are. One sweep of the workbench, one of the tool cupboard, and you decide to give the basement one go, so back in the house and down you descend, and flip through the toolbox, where there’s wire!

But it’s too short, you decide, and you turn, instead, to the cardboard box stuffed with computer cables, because know, you just know there’s speaker wire there, and there it lays, in beautiful spells you unravel until you’ve got twice the length you need, so you can double it for strength, and you snip and ascend, to see that on the back of the frame there are no eye screws through which the wire can pass.

You take a deep breath. In with the good air, out with the bad. In with the good, out with the bad.

Pretty soon, your loving wife will ask what you’re doing, because she’s been watching the kids all morning, and how long does it take to hang a picture?

And you know that when that happens, the picture will go back in the attic, to gather more dust, for maybe a year, or maybe more, until you again make your way up those rickety pull-down steps looking for a sleeping bag or a suitcase or some box holding an ornament someone needs for some occasion, and you’ve just come too far to let things fall out so.

Well, you’ve got eye screws downstairs. You’ve probably got eighty-seven eye screws in a screw box split into little squares for sorting screws by screw size and screw type. Only you didn’t see that box this morning, of course, earlier, and retracing your steps seems a prospect so awful, so Sisyphean, so much the domestic doppelgänger of an obstacle course throwing unclimbable ropes your way that you say screw it, ha, ha, and, without informing the family where you’re headed, you get in the car and aim at the closest overpriced hardware store, because you want to save time, not money, and get to the heart of a solution. As you back out of the drive, some part of you knows this trip is a very bad choice.

Because you’re not going to Lowe’s or the other big box store. You’re going six streets up and two over to the shop squeezed back between a deli and the used bookstore slash coffee shop slash knitting emporium. The deli wasn’t there a year ago and will be gone in one year more. The used bookstore slash coffee shop slash knitting emporium will someday soon be a new age heaven of crystals and candles and incense, with a back room full of bongs. Or something like that. The hardware store, however, has been around for four generations of gristly, overall-wearing men in need of a shave. It has narrow aisles packed floor to high ceilings with hooks hanging with everything you’d imagine: tape measures, extension cords, lightbulbs, and that’s just the start:

In aisle three, Dremel tools, and vises and clamps. In aisle six, brushes and rollers and caulks and sealants, and compressors and drop cloths and rags and stain. A little further, adhesives–glue and tape, and fasteners and hand trucks and ladders and letters (for mailboxes and homes and the like). There are vacuums and sawhorses, and sprayers and carts, and grills and heaters and padlocks and fans. Faucets and washers and timers and dimmers and door chimes and plugs and connectors.

And the bins, oh the bins all full to top with nuts and bolts and screws and stuff. Each is fronted with a cardboard picture of its contents and a scribbled-on size. The heads come as pans or buttons or domes, round or mushroom or truss. They’re countersunk, conical, oval, and/or raised. Bugled and fillistered and flanged. And to these bins Charles (as his coveralls proclaim) takes you to straight when you declare your need.

“We’ve got ’em all sixes up to what you need to hang a horse from a tree,” he says, and you nod politely, because what Charles does in Charles’s spare time is Charles’s business.

“Oh. Ha. Yeah,” you say, and Charles narrows his eyes and lifts a cheek, because it appears to him that you’re the one with the problem, and he says, “holler, you need me,” turning back to the front. You assure him you will make it so.

But you won’t need him again.

You see a dozen different sizes of bolts that will fit the bill, and they’re only eight cents apiece, so you grab a dozen doubles and force your feet to a halting half step along the concrete worn smooth and glazed in a pattern of dark feathered to light where others ahead of you shuffled along, lost in looking. And you could spend a day or two here, and a thousand thousand dollars, or more, but you’ve got a picture to hang, dammit, and it’s time to scatter your screws in front of the lightly-mismatched woman watching a soap or some Saturday evening equivalent on a small TV collecting its information through, of all things, antennas that you know, suddenly, without a doubt, came from a back aisle of this store, an aisle solely focused on cable and cable splitters and faceplates for cable installations and cable for Internet and phone cables and jacks. And you almost turn, because the call of these doodads is very strong, and you wonder if just maybe the aisle in question is also home to a shelf of small TVs, and who doesn’t need a screen that small for kitchen or bath or both?

“It’ll be two oh three,” the checker says, smiling so that you can see a neat hole bored through the center of her tooth, and you’re back, on track, and out the jangling door and headed for home.

Of course, when you arrive, there’s no hope of finishing the task, because the other adult in the house has chores of her own, you’re reminded in no uncertain terms, and those chores might actually bear on the immediate wellbeing of the humans and animals alike existing under the roof in this house, which is sorely lacking 2% milk and bananas and a dozen times three other staples, if you haven’t noticed. And your loving wife will be damned if she’s going to wrestle two unwilling kids to the store to fight over who’ll push the cart to ride inside and who gets to pick the flavor of Cheez-Its this week, and so on, simply so you can have more free time of relative peace and quiet to hang a goddamn picture any other person would have balanced on the fat end of a nail hammered in the wall at an angle of, she doesn’t know exactly, maybe thirty degrees?

The subtext of all this being that she’d like to hammer the fat end of your head into the wall.

So you beg her forgiveness, tell her you’ve got things covered, no worries, and many apologies for seeming so self-indulgent about a silly little project, and you almost push out past the thin ice to say she should take her time, enjoy a little break out of the house–but you’ve been married more than a few years, and you know without hearing that shopping isn’t a treat, and if she wanted a break, she’d spend the day having her feet massaged by a muscled woman named Olga, and she’s thinking she’ll have to put gas in the car, right? And she’s going to have to take back the bags of bottle returns, and did anyone think to collect the dry cleaning? And here’s the kicker, which you understand, lo, after many years of mistakes: she is already full well planning to take her time, to enjoy a little break–maybe swing past a store with curios and jewelry and sweaters and shoes, and if you open your yap about it, she’ll feel conflicted, found out, and even patronized about her just desserts, and the pleasure will be ruined, along with the rest of the day, and possibly the weekend, and all you wanted was to put a picture on the living room wall.

Which, by the way, you still plan to do, the minute she leaves the house, because you’re so, so close to screwing in those eye bolts, stretching some wire between them, measuring and leveling with your doohickey (which will mark a notch for the star-headed sinking nail, from which you’ll hang your hanging hook), and then you’ll be done.

And it’s nothing that can’t happen while the kids watch a few minutes of TV in the very living room in which you’ll be working, so it’s not like you’re not keeping a good eye out, and it might even be fun for them to help you mark a hole, drive a nail, et cetera, et cetera.

You’re no rube, either, so no child of yours will swing thumb-bashing tools without help, or hold a nail that could end up in an eye or stomach or, who knows how, a sibling’s arm. Because a trip to the hospital is not on the agenda for today. Today you will hang a picture that will be admired not for its content, alone, but for the masterful way in which it is hung so straight. You, at the very least, will admire it for such, and that might be enough.

Only you’re not done yet, because the kids can’t seem to settle on a show, and you can’t simply suggest Sponge Bob, because this has escalated beyond the balms of Bikini Bottom because the older child has declared to younger that those shows she prefers are for babies, and the younger child must, therefore, be a baby of one sort, and the younger child, who is, in fact, so far from being a baby as to know that the term Turd might be applied to an offensive older sibling, applies aforementioned term, resulting in the riposte that, as a matter of fact, younger sibling is the Real Turd, who claims that, No, older sibling is the turd, which forces the older sibling to respond with the blunt, one-word accusation–Turd–which receives a response in kind. And now you must, apparently, intervene.

Because not only are neither of your beautiful children turdlike in any sense (though, maybe, you admit to yourself, their behavior is, at present, certainly crappy)–not only that, but this is not the sort of language that is allowed in the house, and if the two of them would rather sit in their rooms until their mother returns, they’d better zip it, and right quick. And YOU will pick their show, which, you announce, will be pleasant and calming and, therefore, something produced by PBS. It will contain, you announce, floppy bunnies OR a talking dog. They choose the talking dog.

You are not surprised. In your house, dogs are much loved, and this reminds you to let yours into the back yard, because the smallest one has recently had, to put it simply, the shits, and you’d rather not clean up any more pules in front of a door that, in his moments of crisis, the little guy can’t, of course, open. And all almost seems well for a minute, when you call your beasties back in, and they come, lickety split, to get a cookie treat for minding–their back yard business an apparently stunning success, if their tail-wagging joy is to be believed.

And the kids are still focused, because PBS has a great good absence of interrupting commercials, and you might just get a minute to finish your first and most important task, to which you turn, maybe even a little mad-eyed.

But the smallest dog is scooching his butt on the carpet, which can’t be good, and on inspection you see a cracked mud flat of dried and apparently itchy poop surrounding his hiney hole, which is inflamed red and popped out like the tied end of a balloon. And you feel bad for the little fella, but bad, very bad for yourself, too, because your job now involves soaking off that crust of doo and scrubbing the entire area with soap, and then attacking the scooched-on carpet with all the same intentions (plus all the vigor you can’t exercise on the hind end of an innocent dog). Only nothing’s so simple, and confronting the poopy little man involves catching him, first, and he’s wise to the fact that something’s up, and he heads upfield, breaking every tackle you bring to bear, and even the kids can’t get him cornered, now that they’re involved, and all the associated screaming and trampling feet sends said pup upstairs and under your bed, way under the bed in which you sleep, and he’s not coming out, for hell or high water, bared teeth in testimony.

You’re really, truly ready for a dog bite, though, because maybe it could distract you from your anger, and you push off the mattress, pull out the headboard, and grab the little fiend before he knows what’s what. And then you see your problem goes beyond a butt wiping, because this particular pooch is of a long-haired breed, and his whole back end is a fecal carpet, of sorts, demanding a bath, but, before that–a good trimming, for which, you realize, you’re gonna need scissors. And scissors in this house are as plentiful as any other tool–and as hard to find.

So, with some regret, you eliminate witnesses by sending the kids downstairs, and head to the bathroom, where you know a drawer will produce what you need. And it does, and you shake off the truth that these scissors are used in all sorts of family grooming functions, because scissors can be washed, and you set to it.

And it turns out that the only thing harder that trimming a dog’s nails is, well, this, and your otherwise sweet and cuddly little guy squirms like an eel, and, it’s all you can do to avoid lopping off big chunks of fur, not to mention flesh, and you wonder once again how the kids convinced you to adopt an animal whose hair grows and grows till it needs to be cut, like you’re doing, in the worst conceivable circumstances. A real dog sheds.

You pin the little man, as gently as you can, scissors shedding a halo of crusty fur on otherwise clean bathroom tiles. The tiles will need cleaning. After the scissors.

You think you’ll maybe make those toolbox scissors and get a new pair for upstairs. Maybe, actually, you’ll just chuck these in the trash.

Right now, you chuck a Shih Tzu in a tub, grateful he’s too small to climb out, and set the water to warm, realizing you could have trimmed the dog fur in there, and rinsed all the horribleness straight away. Or maybe, you console yourself, searching out a broom and mop, it would have clogged the pipes, which, all things considered, would have been the absolute worst. And likely, given your day.

The simple absence of this possibility, which would have only really happened if you’d maybe done things in a way that never first occurred to you, cheers you right up.

And now, like a most efficient machine, you sweep and mop, and then you scrub a well-soaked dog, remembered to sprayer away the crud ringing the tub.

Then, it’s to toweling, first the dog, and then the floor he’s left soaked. You decide not to worry about the carpet on which he rolls. Or, for now, the one on which he scooched. Or the other dogs, at whose curiosity he growls.

Because this is the moment. This is when it all snaps together, and you’re delivering the kids a snack without thinking twice. You’re picking two eye hooks from your magnificent new collection and screwing them, neatly, in the frame’s back. You’re confirming to the kids that you’re almost done as you double loop wire through the eye hooks and snip it off, and twist the ends into a braid. The picture hanging gizmo works as perfectly as advertised, and with it you locate a right height, and just the right distance from the nearest wall, and punch two guide holes, which then take your three-pronged hanging hook and star-headed sinking nails like fate. And then what’s left but to hang?

Which you do, catching wire on hook on first try. And then you level.

And it looks okey dokey.

“What do you think,” you ask the kids, and they think it looks okay, too. Mostly, though, they want to know when you’ll deliver more crackers in the shape of small fish.

“Yes,” you say, you will do this. Then you’ll clean up your tools (though you don’t know even now, when you should know better, there’ll be no rhyme or reason to where they get returned). Then you’ll clean up the carpet. Then you’ll empty the dishwasher. You’ll start thinking about supper, after which you’ll clean up its mess. Then you’ll play video games with the kids, before getting them another snack and reading them a book or two or three. Maybe your beautiful wife will do the reading. The both of you will harass the kids for a full five minutes before they’ll be bothered to brush their teeth. Then they won’t go to bed, and they won’t go to bed, and they won’t go to bed. Then they will, and it’ll be time to collect everything everyone will need for another week. The backpacks and folders and lunch boxes and the like. Then, you’ll sit for a minute before your own evening’s ablutions. And then your warm, soft bed (after you take the dog back downstairs, because they’ve all decided they’ve got to go out again).

Maybe, while you’re downstairs, you’ll admire that picture on the wall. Maybe, just maybe, you will.


Matthew Roberson is the author of three novels, 1998.6, Impotent, and List. He also edited the collection, Musing the Mosaic: Approaches to Ronald Sukenick, from SUNY Press. His short fiction has appeared in Web Conjunctions, Notre Dame Review, Fourteen Hills, Fiction International, Clackamas Literary Review, Western Humanities Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and others. He has served on the FC2 Board of Directors since 2010.