Sawdust

by Richard P. Goodwin


Art Koningsburg came up out of the cellar and showed his wife his ballooning thumb. He told her
he'd hit it with a hammer. He didn't tell her he'd done it on purpose. Missy made him hold the thumb under cold
water while she rifled through the medicine chest.

"Weren't you paying attention?" she said.

"I slipped," Art lied. He stood at the sink feeling queasy. Through the bathroom window he could see the neighbor kids playing on the swingset he'd built for them. Art and Missy didn't have any kids of their own. They were both 42 years old.

"There now," Missy said, inspecting her bandaging job.

"Thank you," Art said.

"Why don't you go out and get some fresh air. You've been cooped up in that cellar all weekend."

Art got himself a beer and went out onto the patio and sat at the picnic table, which, like almost everything else in the house and yard, he'd made himself. With his good hand he cranked up the umbrella to keep the sun off his bald spot. The kids next door said, "Hi, Mr. Koningsburg!"

Art waved to them. His whole hand ached. Drinking his beer, he saw himself raising the hammer and bringing it down on his thumb. What had made him do it? It scared and confused him, this sudden urge to hurt himself. He'd been building a hamper, his latest project.

"I'm going now," Missy called from the kitchen window. "Are you sure you don't want to come?"

"I'm sure."

"It's not just women. There are men, too."

"Give them my regards," Art said, looking at her round face through the screen.

"You could do with the exercise."

"Next time," Art said.

"That's what you always say."

That spring Missy had joined a walking group. Each weekend they walked someplace different. They walked along the ocean and through the woods and around quiet neighborhoods and around shopping malls.
The group called itself Walk to Live! Art didn't much care for walking and even if he did he wouldn't do it
with a bunch of people. Exercise for him was a solitary thing. He didn't feel the need to go trekking about with strangers. Working on his projects in the quiet cellar was all the physical activity he needed.  He listened to the automatic garage door opening, the car starting up and backing down the driveway. After a minute the door rolled down and hit the asphalt with a bang. A few months back he had built the door but the damn thing still didn't come
down right. He needed to adjust the springs again. He'd do it now but his thumb was hurting too much. Again he saw himself swinging the hammer down, and he heard the dull rubbery thud the hammerhead made on his
thumbnail. He wished he could say it was an accident, because then he wouldn't have to feel so strange about
it. Intentionally hitting yourself with a hammer wasn't normal behavior.  Over the fence he could see the neighbor
kids on the swingset, floating up and back, up and back. He drank his beer.


* * *


When Missy got home, Art was down in the basement again, sitting at his work bench. In his right hand was the hammer, and he was thinking about smashing his knee with it. Missy came down the stairs. She was dressed
in her red warm-up suit and running shoes. Her face had a healthy layer of sweat on it. "Back in here
again? God, Arthur, it's a beautiful day." 

"I'm working," Art said. But he hadn't been working. He'd just been sitting there thinking about
hitting himself in the knee.

"It's like a tomb down here. How can you breathe?" Standing on her toes she pushed the window open, which looked out into the garage.

"I think something's happening to me," Art said, still holding the hammer.

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know."

"It's a lack of air," she said with a laugh. "You're getting silly in the brain."

Art didn't say anything.

"I'm thinking about having some of the walkers over next weekend. Would that be all right?"

"Having them over for what?"

"What do you mean for what? For a get-together. They're nice people."

"If you really feel you have to."

"I don't have to. I want to." She squinted at him through the yellow light.

"Okay, then, sure, bring them over. Bring them all over. Bring over a hundred people."

She blew out a breath and shook her head.

"I'm going to take a shower. I don't feel like cooking tonight. Would you get a pizza?"

"Okay," he said.

Driving into town Art couldn't stop thinking about his thumb and the hammer and the urge he'd had to hit his knee. It was almost as if he'd needed to know what the pain would be like. He was reminded of the time he'd stuck a knife into an electrical outlet when he was a kid. A terrifying buzz shot up his arm and he cried. He'd known it would hurt, his parents had warned him against touching electrical outlets, but he'd done it anyway. Kids were curious. But he wasn't a kid anymore. He ordered a large pepperoni pizza and drank a beer while he waited, sitting on a bench against the mirrored wall. He watched the young men working the pizza dough, hurling it into the air. A few other people were also waiting to take out.

"Art Koningsburg, you old rock and roller. How are you doing?"

It was Paul Kleeson, a guy Art had gone to college with. For a short time they'd played in a band together called Houses Without Windows. Art had not seen him in about two years, though they lived in the same town and worked for insurance companies whose offices were only a few miles apart.

"Hi, Paul."

Next to Paul stood an attractive woman and two young girls. "Honey, this is Art Koningsberg. Art, this is my wife Samantha and my daughters Kimmy and Leena."

Art tried to appear happy to meet them.

"What happened to your finger?" Paul said.

"Oh, a little accident."

"You still making those doll houses?"

For each of their gigs, which were mostly at parties, Art would build a small balsa-wood house without windows, which the band would smash at the end of the show.

"I'm onto more advanced things," Art said, wishing these people would find a table and sit at it. "I'm building a hamper."

"A hamper. Yow! The big time."

Art glanced over toward the ovens, wondering when his pizza would be ready. His thumb pulsated.

"Art was a helluva singer," Paul said.

"Oh?" his wife said. The girls frowned and fidgeted.

"Remember our song, "GPA"?

"Yeah, I remember." Art said.

"That was a great song. Sing a little bit of it, would you, Art?"

"No, thanks."

"Come on, Art!"

"No, I can't." Art hadn't sung a note since Houses Without Windows had broken up, shortly after graduation. Singing for the band had been nothing more than a joke to him, something to do on the weekends, while the other members had envisioned fame and money and record contracts. Now Paul and Art sold insurance
and he didn't know what the other two guys were doing.

"All right, buddy, well, listen, it's good to see you," Paul said. "Gimme a call some time and we'll get together."

"Sure will, Paul."

Paul guided his family into a red leather booth at the back of the restaurant. Art wondered what they would think if he'd told them he'd purposely hit his thumb with the hammer. They'd probably be speechless. Who wouldn't? Maybe it was something he needed to tell a doctor--a psychiatrist. Art had once seen a counselor in college, when he was having trouble sleeping. Wanting to hit yourself with a hammer was a lot more serious than a little insomnia,
he thought. Was he losing his mind? He polished off his beer and was about to order another when one of the men behind the counter said, "Order up, Koningsberg!"


* * *


After dinner Art went straight to the basement at sat at his work table. Despite his throbbing thumb he continued working on the hamper. He took up his handsaw and began sawing a piece of wood. And it was all he could do to keep from laying the metal teeth on his wrist and sawing into his flesh. Shocked and horrified by this notion, he put the saw down and picked up the hammer. But rather than pound nails into place, he sat there wondering what it would be like to hit his kneecap -- crack it right open. What the hell was wrong with him? He got up and paced
around the room. Upstairs Missy could be heard doing her aerobics, which she did every night after dinner.
If she wasn't out walking with a herd of idiots, she was dancing around the living room.

He sat at the work table again. And this time he did hit himself with the hammer, a good solid shot on the knee that made him yelp and squirm. Had he broken it? He was shaking. The pain started as a little spot that flowered across his kneecap and through to the back of his leg. He was about to get up and try to walk when the cellar door opened and Missy came down the stairs.

"What happened?" she said.

"I hurt myself."

"Again? What now?"

"My knee."

"Jesus, Arthur, you have to be more careful." She seemed more angry than sympathetic. "You lock yourself down in his dungeon every single day, no wonder you're getting hurt." She helped him up the steps to the bathroom, where he dropped his pants and showed her the knee. It was dark pink and swelling.

"We better ice it," she said.

He sat on the couch while Missy put some ice cubes in a damp wash cloth.

"Hold this on it."

"Thank you."

"How did you manage to hit yourself on the knee?"

"I did it on purpose," Art said.

"What?"

"I did it on purpose." He could feel the blood pushing up against the back of his kneecap.

"Why would you want to do that?"

"I have no idea. The thumb--I did that on purpose, too."

She didn't say anything for a few moments. She was in her pale blue aerobics suit, her hair tied back in a ponytail. Art thought she looked very pretty, and he imagined how unappealing he must look to her now. Finally she said, "This is not something I care to hear, Arthur. Wanting to hurt yourself. Don't scare me. Are you being totally serious?"

"Yeah."

"Okay then, well, what am I supposed to do? What do you want me to say? This is the most asinine
thing I've ever heard."

"Could you bring me a beer?" Art said.


* * *


Art called in sick to the office the next morning. His knee had swollen up to the size of a baseball. Before going to work, Missy drove him to the doctor, who splinted the leg and put Art on crutches and sent him off with a prescription for pain killers and anti-inflammatory tablets.  At the pharmacy, Art waited in the car while
Missy ran in to fill the prescription. His seat pushed back, the window open, Art breathed in the warm air
and tried to figure out what was happening to him. First the thumb, then wanting to saw off his own hand,
then bashing his knee. What was next? He thought that if he went down into the cellar again he'd probably
end up killing himself: taking the circular saw to his throat or drilling a hole in his head. The belt sander, what could he do with that? The chisel? The nail gun? Shutting his eyes tight, Art tried to push these thoughts out of his head, the way the counselor had told him back in college when he couldn't sleep. Try to shove all the thoughts out of your mind until there is nothing but a blank, he'd told him, like the big white screen of a drive-in movie. But as he sat there in the car, waiting for Missy, the screen kept filling up with horrible images.

Art was trying with all his mental strength to push them away, his teeth clenched, his face quivering, when Missy opened the door and said, "Are you all right?"  She set a white bag of prescription drugs between the seats.

"I'm fine," Art said. His forehead was sweating.

Missy said something to herself and slapped the steering wheel with her palms.

Art said, "What's wrong?" 

"You. You are what's wrong. You're scaring the heck out of me, Arthur."

"I'm sorry."

She checked her watch and shook her head. "I'm going to be late for work."  She drove Art back to the house and helped him out of the car. She got him situated on the couch with an ice pack and gave him his first dose of medication with a glass of water. "No beer today," she said. "In fact..." He watched as she pulled cans of beer out of the refrigerator and dropped them into a paper sack.

"Where are you going with those?" Art said.

"I'm taking them away from you. That's all you need is to get sloshed on painkillers. I'll see
you tonight." She didn't kiss him goodbye.


* * *


It was Friday, and Art had stayed home from work the whole week, though by Wednesday the swelling in his knee had gone down considerably and he could walk without the crutches. He had a week's sick leave
coming to him and figured he might as well use it. Lying on the couch in his boxer shorts and t-shirt, he thought about what a relief it was not being in the office, under those fluorescent lights, at his cluttered desk with the phone ringing on three lines at once. Paperwork, paperwork. He wished he could make a living building things instead of selling insurance policies. He was damn good with his hands and it was a crime that he couldn't make money as a
craftsman. Like singing in Houses Without Windows, building things out of wood had started as a hobby for him, something to do in his free time. He made those balsa wood houses to be smashed by the group, thinking
nothing of them, even though they were complex and highly detailed, right down to gutters along the eaves and the balustrades on the verandas. It wasn't until after he'd earned his Bachelor's degree in Business Administration and gotten the job at the insurance company that he'd realized he had genuine talent in woodworking. He would spend every spare moment in the cellar, measuring, hammering, sawing, creating. He made shelves and tables and chairs and cabinets. He made a stand for their gas barbecue and swings for the neighbors. He made a bureau for the bedroom and an entertainment center for the living room. Occasionally he would spend all night in the basement and then go to work without having slept. He'd considered putting a cot down there. Now, he realized, as he lay on the couch, he was scared to go into the cellar, as if a monster were crouched in the sawdust under his work table. Only in the cellar, surrounded by all his tools, did Art have the desire to hurt himself. Up here on the couch,
everything was fine. He was normal. Normal Art Koningsburg.


* * *


Missy had invited her walking group over for Sunday evening. She'd bought a pound cake and ice cream and made pots of regular and decaf coffee. Art was up and about freely, with little pain in his knee. Days ago he'd removed the bandage from his thumb, though it didn't look too pretty; the purplish-black nail was starting to pull away from the cuticle where it had been split by the hammer. He wasn't looking forward to having strangers in the house, having to talk to them and pretend to be interested in what they had to say, so he told Missy he'd be in the cellar working. "Count me out," he'd said. "You guys have fun."

She didn't argue with him.  It was his first time in the cellar since he'd hit his kneecap. The sharp, sweet smell of
sawdust had always been a pleasant welcome for him, but not now. Taking a seat at his work table he
realized he was uncomfortable and afraid being down there -- afraid of what he'd do to himself. The members
of Walk for Life! were due to arrive any minute. Art looked at his hammer and then at the saw. Then he
looked at the drill and he tried to make his mind a white screen. On the wall above the table hung Art's
nail gun. Staring up at it he tried to see it for what it was, a tool for building and securing things. He tried hard to see it this way--a beneficial device--but it wasn't long before he pictured himself firing a nail into his ear.  The doorbell rang. Art heard a crowd of footsteps in the hall. He imagined overweight people in brightly colored sweatsuits and tennis shoes. The group moved down the hall into the living room, where things settled down and Missy's voice could be heard saying, "Regular or decaf?" Art realized that if he had to use the bathroom he wouldn't be able to get there without passing the living room, in which case would have to say hello to the guests -- something he definitely did not want to do. He would just have to hold it until everyone left.

The frame of the hamper had been completed. Now he had to nail the sides and top in place and put on the door. He'd bought a large plastic trash pail to hold the dirty laundry, which he would somehow attach to the door. Just pull it open and dump the clothes inside. He would put a drawer above the door and sand the whole thing down, then paint and varnish it. It would go at the end of the hall. Art got busy on his hamper, while the walkers talked and laughed noisily upstairs. He heard somebody say, "Eighty kilometers! No!" He worked for almost two hours without thinking about hurting himself, keeping his mind a white screen, and for this he was proud of himself. Whistling, he tapped his foot as he sawed and hammered. Maybe it was all the happy chattering upstairs that was keeping the violent thoughts from him. They were really having a ball up there. Music came on, and Art recognized it as Billy Holiday. Then Art could hear the floorboards squeezing down, and he realized they were dancing. It wasn't until he picked up the electric sander that Art thought about doing himself some damage.  He flicked the switch and watched the belt whirl, wondering what it would feel like against his face.

He was about to press the screaming belt sander to his nose when there came a knock at the cellar door and Missy staggered breathlessly down into the warm room. Her face was red, her eyes blurry and excited.  "We need you, Arthur. Sally needs a partner."

Art shut off the belt sander. "Are you guys drinking up there?"

"Terrance brought some Baileys for Irish coffees. Come on, we need you."

"I'm busy." He pictured himself sanding the tip of his nose.

"Arthur, please, just come up for one dance."

"I don't want to."

Suddenly all the cheer ran out of her eyes and she said, "You're a real lemon, you know that? You sit down here making your little--your little THINGS--and it's like there's nothing more to you. You are not even a part of my life anymore. You don't exist. It's like living with a ghost. I'm sick and tired of it."

"I'd like to put this belt sander to my face," Art said.

She threw her arms in the air and chuckled in a defeated way. "And then this nonsense. Wanting to torture yourself. You've already done your thumb and your knee, so why not your face? Go ahead and mangle yourself, Arthur, I don't care anymore." And up she went to join the members of Walk for Life!

After a minute Art hung the belt sander back on the peg board. Then he hung up the hammer and put all the other tools away. He boxed all the nails and the wood screws and swept up the saw dust that stood like anthills on the floor. Missy was right. He had been spending too much time down here. Maybe all this isolation had driven him a little nuts, like cabin fever. Wanting to belt-sand his own face! He needed to spend more time with his wife, come up out of the basement and start being a real husband. He wouldn't abandon his woodworking, but simply take a break and put his marriage back on an even plane again. 

Upstairs the music was still going but Art could hear people leaving the house. He continued tidying up his work area, telling himself he wouldn't come down there for at least another week. What he needed to build now -- or rebuild -- was his relationship with his wife. He was stacking some planks against the wall when he discovered, under a plastic tarp, the model house he'd saved from the last Houses Without Windows show. Halfway into the set the police had broken up the party and the house was spared from destruction.  Peeling back the tarp, Art lifted the house and studied it closely, admiring his detailed work. Of course there were no windows, but the house was far from plain. He'd put little tables and chairs around the veranda and glued over a hundred tiny shingles
onto the roof. The front door could open, and inside you could see the living room with a fire place and a long hall that led to a kitchen and some other rooms. It would have been absurd to wreck the house after he'd put so much work into it, he thought. Back in college he would have enjoyed setting his foot down into the roof and watching the splinters fly into the crowd, while the guitar, drums and bass went crazy. But now the idea of wrecking something he'd built seemed shameful and sad and wrong.

And yet lately he'd been having thoughts of damaging HIMSELF. Well, that was going to stop, he told himself, setting the house back down on the floor and laying the tarp over it. From here on in he was going to act normally, think normally. He was not going to entertain ideas of masochism. No more hammering his fingers or knees. No more belt sanders to the face. His tools were here to help him, not harm him. His tools were his friends.  A sudden crazy optimism filling him, Art hurried up the cellar stairs and headed for the living room. He was going to apologize to Missy and tell her everything was okay--HE was okay--and things were going to be better from now on. He would tell her he loved her, he needed her, he cared about her.

All the guests had gone except for one, a tall man in a blazer and white slacks, who was dancing closely with Missy to a slow jazz song. Their eyes were closed. Missy had her arms around his neck, her face pressed to his chest. His hands were on her back. Behind them stood the large maple entertainment center Art had built a couple years before. A knot could be seen on the edge of the shelf that held the stereo, something that had always bugged him.

Art stood there a few moments watching his wife dancing with the man. Then he cleared his throat and said, "Excuse me."

But they just kept on dancing.
TAR
RICHARD P. GOODWIN, 34, lives in Japan.
The Adirondack Review