The Cafe Irreal: International Imagination 

Issue Eighteen

Home Again, Home Again by Kris Saknussemm
I Shefam Im, an annotated story by Nancy Graham
The Sad Fate of the Graduate Rocamadour Muskaria by Ignacio Padilla
The Bridge by Brian Biswas
A Tram Ride by Brian E. Turner
Bitches Brew by André Sant'Ánna
Man at Wall, Attempting a Certain Chore by Bob Comenole


irreal (re)views


Man at Wall, Attempting
A Certain Chore
by Bob Comenole

I have been trying for some time to hang this painting in my living room, some say it has been years, but I myself cannot say. I have been busy trying to drive the nail. It will not go.

I hold the little nail between my fingers and tap; the wall is made of plyboard, with a coat of stucco, strong but not as impenetrable as snakewood. It's not like the plaster in old Breton's flat, hard as concrete, where the crowbar produces not even a chip. He only strings tapestries from the ceiling. Whereas I have hung many paintings across the apartment, without any trouble at all.

I pull a little nail out of the jar of many, a jar that once held baby food.

I try to drive it, but it will not go. I tap, and then strike harder, and the little nail bends over. It makes the tiniest of pricks in the wall, hardly penetrating. Up comes a little puff of pulverized gypsum and the nail simply bends in on itself, as if stooping at the waist. I am a patient man, not prone to excess or temper: as my wife says, quite unflappable. I am in no hurry, and so withdraw another nail and try again. I tap and it does not go.

I use up all the nails in the jar. Perhaps seventy-five or a hundred. I need not go out to hardwares because my barber brings me a five-pound bag of nails, slightly larger than the others. I give him my pocketwatch and promise to take him to The Seagull. Because he is a friend, he sits up with me through the evening as I tap. By morning, we have used up all five pounds.

I'm making a mess on the floor with the little mound of bent nails; I do not want to pause to clean them because I am in a rhythm I do not want to break. My friend brings in two great barrels. From then on I toss the twisted nails into the barrels, and my carpet is neat.

I did not go to work the morning after that first night. I am not a man easily preoccupied, rarely obsessed by duty or errand. To prove this I paused for the cup of cocoa my wife brought later in the morning. It felt good in my hands, warm. I did not speed my drink, but when it was done I was again up with the hammer. My wife said that I should not fret over hanging the piece. "After all," she said, "it's only a middling from a run-of-the-mill gallery. Besides, I may want to place it elsewhere next week."

In fact, the painting had come from an outdoor market. It was not spectacular. A nondescript scene, an abrupt flash of brilliance here and there. It suggested a certain precipitous feel, fringed with abandon. Nevertheless, I liked it. And so did my wife. The merchant—a long-trusted seller—told me that while the artist was entirely forgotten, and obviously not greatly skilled, the paints had been purchased for him by El Greco. The brushes a gift from Magritte. This gave it a certain value.

Likewise, he said that Remedios Varo herself attended the painting and afterward shared with the artist several techniques for making tapas. The frame was splendid, hand carved, though with an unflattering varnish; it was cracked in two places. Probably it would need repair.

After three days my supervisor sent along Carlisle to check in on me. When he saw what I was working at, he offered to hold the nail while I tapped. "We'll have it in, then I'll bring you back to work." He held, I tapped, but still it did not go.

We labored until finally I insisted that he return to the office.

The next day Carlisle showed up with the supervisor. He did not hold my absence against me. Rather, he inquired on my progress. I showed him the barrels. When they were filled, the two men rolled them onto the freight elevator. I live on the 3rd floor of an old warehouse. Up they came with empty barrels. The following day my supervisor arrived with a small detail that installed desks and cabinets in the far end of my apartment where the morning sun slants in. By noon the whole staff was busy. I pounded the nail, and it would not go. At intervals the new secretary looked up to follow my progress, which she reported on the hour to the others. In a week the whole company had been relocated, the accountants huddling by themselves—as they always did, snubnosed—in my den.

One day my wife took up with the district manager. But they did not affront me; they conducted the affair at the edge of the room, behind a curtain, silently, and I remained without temper. It did not trouble me. I had my work.

My youngest son was distressed, however, and started wearing leather. When he ran afoul of the law, he was ordered before the Court. As I was about to dress to accompany him, the magistrate entered my flat—along with a clerk and bailiff—and cleared off the breakfast table. My son was acquitted. Several more cases appeared before the judge, and by the following day everything in his jurisdiction had been transferred to my breakfast room. Joseph K. came to keep me company.

Then my father-in-law went suddenly ill. After two days in hospital, he requested that his sick-bed be brought to the apartment. And so they set up a ward. In time the apartment was filled with iron beds and nurses scurrying everywhere. By the time the whole enterprise had been transferred from the old hospital, the smell of ammonia was so common it did not bother anyone anymore.

Although I did not grant interviews, some newspapers made reports about my efforts, and a panic came that I would run out of nails. Soon after, great crates of nails began arriving, the fruits of schoolchildren around the country who had taken up collection campaigns.

So they would not miss an important development, the two competing newspapers set up their offices here. I did not mind the language or the late nights, but the smell of cigar smoke made me faint-headed. Nevertheless, I persevered. I tapped, and still the nail would not go.

We heard the pecking of pigeons on the roof. In time, they opened a small hole, through which a pencil-thin shaft of light made a mark on the carpet, the dot slowly crawling as the day edged along. The doves widened the hole and became part of the audience, cooing as many of them did. It seemed rather like the Parthenon. The hole allowed the smoke to escape. Not a bad thing. And so I went on tapping.

I developed a habit of holding three or four nails between my lips, so I wouldn't have to bend over quite so frequently. My back did not ache, but one never knows. Because the nails began to take on a bitter taste, I began to dip them in sugar. Garcia Marquez brought a bowl of spring water and another of sugar so that I could coat them.

Someone rigged a block and tackle out the window, so the barrels could be more speedily removed. They say that the bent nails have filled up an entire canyon, but I haven't yet been able to see for myself. So I suspend judgment.

My second son came home from the university, which then followed—department by department—into the flat. Many retired professors were reinstated and promised rooms. But there was no more space. To them, I offered my empty bedroom.

A rumor went up that I had worn out an entire hammer. But it was not true. What is true is that the wooden handle beneath my grip has become worn, taking on the shape of my fingers. Truly, it is more comfortable than when I first began.

The Municipality has set up its offices here. Someone told them to squabble into their vests, quietly, and this expressed my sentiments. So I do not say anymore.

I did not swear, I did not hurry my task.

There has been a woman in the next room ironing. I do not know who she is. I find it odd that a strange woman would enter my flat and begin ironing, but I do not mind; she is quiet, and works steadily, as I do, slowly, not overwhelmed by mission. I find her a comfort.

It should not have been surprising, but I confess I was surprised when I tapped and the nail went full into the wall. There it was: driven.

The nail is in the wall.

I soon had a problem, however. The nail head had gone all the way in, flush with the wall. I tried pulling it out but it would not come. I tried a fingernail file. Surgeons came with precision instruments but it would not come. Others tried with special tools but it was not to be. It rested there flat against the wall, and so the only thing to do was to punch it all the way through with a countersink. It popped out into the other room. And through the hole streamed an enormous light. I peered in and saw great streams of philosophy. From my mouth I took gum and stuck it in the hole. We conferenced on where to place the next nail. I resumed tapping.

I tapped and it would not go.

André Breton continues to phone, regularly, but he leaves neither name nor number, and so I am never able to return his call. But then again, I am busy.

Sadly, the landlord went into arrears and lost the building. The bank foreclosed, and the property was quickly purchased by the Church, which sought to build a cathedral. Rather than raze the building, though, preferring not to disrupt my task, the Church ordered the building down in sections, dismantling it as I worked. Thus began the great Diaspora of all who had come to labor and, of course, to watch my hammer. It took two days for the masses to vacate the apartment. When it was free, the builders formed a support wall and erected buttresses so that they could safely take down the warehouse while I tapped. All that remained was my long hallway, the floor on which I stood, and, naturally, the wall. I did not mind the open air. Slowly, the cathedral rose up around me. It is a magnificent structure with smooth grey stones, and in it I continue to hammer in the upper stories in the rear, above the nave, on what appears to many as a catwalk. But it is only the floor of my old creaky hall, cozy and steadfast. My wall faces me, bright yellow still. I tap, and the nail does not go.

I do not interfere with the services. I am so high that the sound of my hammer only swirls in the dome. Many people come early to service and remain late, to watch; the clergy recognize the benefit. Pilgrims have come; they ascend to the high ceiling and then shinny down the cables of the chandeliers suspended there, great boxed luminaires of gilt brass.

My wife has died. I mourn her. They held her funeral below and so I was able to look on.

I tap and still it will not go.

It happened on a common day, when the cathedral was dark and empty, after all the pilgrims had gone, that the nail punctured the wall and drove halfway up its shank.

I have succeeded!

There the nail rested, proud of the wall. I tested it. It was sturdy. And now my painting may hang.

I bent to lift the work, forgetting how heavy it was. El Greco and Magritte and Ms. Varo arrived to help lift. We realized the suspension wire was too light to hold such weight. The nail was solid, but the wire was weak.

I must attach a new one.

And so I found strands of thicker wire. I twirled them together to make a single cable that will hold the canvas.

I attach the ends. But the wire breaks.

For some time I have been trying to hang this painting, some say it has been years.

I cannot say.

I am busy braiding strands.

Bob Comenole taught writing and literature for twenty years at various universities. He is the author of "Bushel & Lamp," and "The Long Night of Clement C. Craggogre." His two latest projects, a novel, "God's Cot," and a collection of short stories, "Lenny, Perplexed by the Egg," are forthcoming. He lives in Seneca Falls, NY.

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