The Carver’s Chisel

by Dana Kapulet

My hands hurt all the time now; they never used to. I have difficulties writing and keeping up with my daily tasks. Perhaps it is just a natural process of aging, or sometimes, I wonder if it’s a punishment that’s been served to me, and me alone. I still read the paper every day. Just yesterday I cut my index finger trying to turn to the Arts section. I took it as a sign from the gods – there was something they didn’t want me to know.

I still make my rounds every day. My daily routines are slow, but I leave the house often. I don’t do well being locked away all day, and I say a prayer every morning and give thanks that my legs are still alright. For a man in the winter phase of his life, my legs are dragging behind me, still in their summer days.

Today I am meeting my old friend – Fredrick – at the market. It’s down near the ghettos, but I don’t mind. Those streets were once my home, a lifetime ago. The rumble of those less than pristine city streets brings back an excitement to my heart that used to live with me, now it only visits from time to time. Fredrick called me on the telephone last night to say that he thinks we should stop going to the market and instead we should start going to the coffee shop up the block. But I told him I didn’t want to sit in the diner with those old hags who moan about every pain their body manifests – they remind me too much of my own suffering.

I convinced Fredrick to take a trip with me down to the market one last time, at least that is, one last time for him – not me. I decided to dress myself for the occasion. As I was going to open the drawer of my dresser, my fingers were gripping the handles and I could feel a sensation of pins at the tips and beneath the fingernails. The sensation was not as bad as the electric shocks I sometimes feel, but in fear of experiencing another such episode, I began to improvise.

I stepped away from the dresser shaking my hands and pacing the room while humming a tune. The sensation subsided, and I sat down at the corner of my bed and began to remove my sock. Returning to the dresser, I placed the center of the sock beneath the round wooden handle and wrapped it around once. I pulled the ends of the sock to tighten the grip of the fabric and began to pull until the drawer came open. Shuffling through its contents, I pulled out my favourite pair of brown wool trousers. They lay at the bottom of the drawer; they had been there since Maggie died.

I finished dressing myself. I chose a pullover sweater to match my trousers. The pullover sweaters were much easier to put on than the button up shirts. I threw all of my buttoned shirts in an alley a few weeks ago after ramming one of the buttons underneath my fingernail. It sunk so deep that my flesh left a bright red stain on the light gray cotton fabric. All I can say now is that I hope my shirts go to a good man, or the dogs, but I sure as hell don’t need them anymore.

I rode the bus downtown and into the ghettos. The street smelled like sewer and at every stop I heard the sound of the garbage collectors – clanking metal and men shouting. I sat frozen on the moving bus, looking out of the window, I saw some young men who didn’t look very clean and a couple holding hands – the woman especially was unkempt. My stop was approaching (Main street and Earl), and I asked the girl across the aisle to pull the bell for me.

The market was in sight from the bus stop. My father used to tell me that my mother lived close to this market, just a few blocks away, but I’d never seen it with my own eyes – I didn’t know her. I used to come here back in the spring days of my life, and every time I’d search from the corner of my eyes in hopes that I might meet her, but I realized it was a useless endeavor. I didn’t even know who I was looking for. I don’t look for her anymore. As I was approaching, I saw Fredrick sitting on a bench near the entrance. The market itself consisted of several buildings and shacks arranged in two rows that faced each other. From the outside, the signs that were bleached by the sun and the peeling paint along the outer walls of the structures appeared to be the only colour in sight. The street was desolate, there was not much greenery in this part of town – the odd tree here or there but mostly just concrete and dirt.

I approached Fredrick and said hello, he seemed to be in a low mood, and I wondered if it was a result of having dragged him out here after his protesting. I didn’t interrogate, we simply exchanged some pleasantries – how’s Laura? what about the grandkids? – then we entered the market. My nostrils were filled with the smell of betel nuts and frying oil. The colours of the market – deep reds and oranges – were energizing after the endless taupe on the exterior; it was the colours that kept bringing me back here.

Fredrick and I found a place to sit near the coffee and newspaper vendor, it was a tight booth with plenty of sunshine. I sat facing the vendors on the east side and Fredrick facing those on the west. He continued to tell me about his wife’s condition. Laura has been suffering from a very progressive case of arthritis. She used to come out on the rounds with us, but she stopped last year when moving became too much of a burden for her. Fredrick continued – “She insists that I still go out every day. She wants me to stay young and agile for as long as I can, and it helps her too because I can bring her things or help her move around the house. Laura tells me that for the few hours I am away she watches the soap operas; she says it’s her time to watch all of the television shows she likes without me interrupting. Oh, but you know, she’s still in good spirits, and that’s what matters.” Fredrick laughs. I pulled my paper coffee cup towards me. I wanted to add my sugar and stir, but the vendor put the lid on and I was struggling to remove it.
“Damn it. I tell this man every time we come here – no lid! no lid! – and he only gets it right half the time. What is an old man to do? I just wanted some sugar in my coffee!”
I was becoming agitated and shaking my head ever so slightly. Fredrick protested –
“Again, with the hands?”
“Yes, they trouble me. They never heal.”
Fredrick reached over and took the lid off for me. I nodded to him in thanks.
“Have you seen the doctor?”
“No, I refuse! Those crooks, they don’t understand. They’ll put me in a crazy house—”
“You know, when Laura’s pains started, we were seeing the doctors all the time, and different doctors too. We wanted to get a few opinions so we could know for sure.”
“And what good was that? She never even leaves the house anymore.”
“Well, she could be much worse. That could be you. You should see a doctor.”
“I refuse. Not after what they’d done to Maggie.”
“They couldn’t have done anything else. She had stage four cancer when you found out. It wasn’t the doctor’s fault!”
“Then why did they bother to put her through all that radiation? It only killed her faster.”
“I know, it was a hard choice for everyone, but you didn’t have many other options… I was going to tell you something, but now you’ve made me forget!”
Fredrick shook his head and quivered his lip. I could feel the tension building between Fredrick and I, and I didn’t like it. We had had this conversation many times before, and going back over the same details, the same situation, the same accident over and over again made me feel like a broken record. I already felt like a broken record, I suppose that was part of getting old. When you get old, you say things more times than necessary because you forget that you’d said them in the first place at all, and people get annoyed. They never say anything to you, but you’ll see it, you’ll feel it one day.

My wife, Maggie, brought light into my life. After her departure, my world had turned gray. Nothing seemed the same anymore – colours became dull, food became tasteless, pleasure was no longer an emotion that was familiar to me. Even pain began to dissipate after a while – everything just got stuck somewhere in the middle, there were no more highs and lows to be lived. Maggie and I were married for forty-three years. We met in one of those jazz clubs the kids used to go to for a good time. They don’t have those anymore, at least not as many. Her smile and her blonde hair bounced across the room and caught my attention immediately. I was just a dog back then, didn’t know what I was looking for, and then I found Maggie.

When I had met her, she’d been taking a typing course at the local college. She was only twenty-one, and after spending three years working as a phone line operator, they had given her an opportunity for a promotion as an office assistant, for which she first had to complete a typing course. She would type so quickly and fluidly, and she carried that heavy typewriter case with her everywhere. Eventually, she started letting me carry it around for her, and it was my pleasure. Maggie was always so good with her hands. She was a proficient typist, but her real passion was sculpting. Her grandfather was an artist who taught her how to sculpt at the age of seven. She had been sculpting for her entire life. Even towards her last days, she still tried to pick up the chisel and work with the clay, but she was so frail that she could hardly peal back the mud. When she left me, all of her carving tools were still sitting out in the open awaiting her return.

The hardest part about Maggie’s departure was not that I had to figure out how to live again on my own, but it was that nobody was around anymore to watch over me. Our kids had moved away from the city years ago, and I only see them every other year or so for the holidays. It’s a lonely life, and I’ve got holes in my heart that friends like Fredrick just can’t fill.

The shadows at night haunt me the most. I wake up every single night in a sweat, thinking I see something walking across my bedroom. The shadows must be Maggie coming around, but I don’t know because they never talk to me. It terrifies me and I shake until I manage to make my way across the room to turn on the lights. Even with the lights, I’m still afraid, and I usually fall asleep with them still on. Sometimes I get up and start my day at whatever hour the shadows jolt me into terror. The hours seem to be getting pushed back deeper and deeper into the night.

Right now, it’s 3:47 a.m. I awoke to the shadows and couldn’t fall asleep again. I sit on our old brown velvet couch and watch the television. I don’t like anything on the television, I know it’s all fake. I never wanted this box of flashing colours in the house, but it was Maggie’s idea to get one. She loved those television dramas and watching the news. I don’t like to watch the news, I prefer the paper, but my eyesight is starting to go. I get a headache when I try to read for more than a few minutes. Now a days, I only read an article or two before I have to put it down. So, I’ve been catching up on the news that I miss on the television, even though I don’t like it.

The reporter talks about the economy – there are no jobs! The markers are crashing! Same old panic they’re trying to instill in the young people of this nation. I’m too old to care about that. They send me my pension every month and it lasts me just the same. Do you know how much it costs to feed a frail old man for a week? Just about the cost of three apples, a bag of oatmeal, a half-pound of ham, and a loaf of bread. Sometimes potatoes and onions, but my hands are too twisted to chop on most days.

The reporter talks about a change in government – taxes will go up, jobs will be even more scarce! What do I care, I get my pension. I’m sick of this television. They switch to the Arts & Films segment. Different reporter – a woman now. I turn off the box careful not to hurt my finger again by pushing the buttons on the remote too firmly.

The room is dim – just barely lit by a single floor lamp standing in the corner. It stands on the opposite side of the room from the television. I kick the slippers off my feet and lean forward towards the small wooden coffee table in front of me. I reach for one of Maggie’s old carving chisels and drop it on the floor. Damnit! My back is sore and it hurts to lean forward. I stand and squat down instead to pick up the chisel off the carpet. My carpet is an olive green colour and it looks dirty. I hadn’t noticed until now.

I sit back down and begin looking at my aching hands. They are covered in callouses and scabs. The callouses are the thickest on the inner side on my middle fingers close to the tips, and the scabs are most noticeable around my cuticles – every single cuticle. I have a big scab on my left thumb. It’s wedged right into the nail bed. The scab is dark brown and bloody and the skin that surrounds it is swollen and red. I can feel a heartbeat there. Just touching it causes a jolt of electric shock to run up my arm.

I hold the chisel in my right hand. It’s got a smooth wooden handle and a long metal tip shaped like a saddle. I begin to push the dull tip into the scab on my left thumb. I scrap and scrap until the dead skin is gone. It hurts, the pain is almost unbearable, and tears begin to well up in my eyes. My thumb is bleeding now. Red, bright, alive, like Maggie once used to be. I scrap some more at the open wound, and somehow that fills something inside of me. By the time I finish with the thumb, the collar of my nightshirt is soaked in tears.

I move to the index finger, and then to the middle finger, the ring finger, and finally the pinky. I scrap off every scab. Then I switch hands, and begin scraping the fingers on the right. The handle of the chisel pushes against the thick callous on my middle finger and the tip of the chisel makes every single fingertip bleed. I am so nervous tonight that I even start scrapping whole skin without any scabs to be picked off. I make new wounds and draw more blood. My hands hurt, and even the chisel is covered in dried blood now, yet somehow at the end of the whole ordeal, I feel less numb.

By sunrise, I begin to get ready. I’m going to the market today, like always. I guess I’ll be alone, since Fredrick is getting too good for the ghettos now. I dress myself, check my pockets to make sure my bus pass is there, and I head out the door. I catch the same bus, stare at the same view, and ask the same young girl to pull the bell for me. My life has been lived over and over again; like the same old repertoire the pianist has performed for years, I sing the same song every day.

When I get to the markets, I tell the man at the coffee vendor no lid. He better not put a lid on my coffee this time. He hands me the coffee – no lid, and I am relieved. I sit down in the usual spot and begin wondering over the same old thoughts. The same old lines repeat in my head like always. I look down at my hands, every single fingertip throbs and screams, and I wished they’d just cut them off already. My hands hurt more and more each day, and I don’t know what I’d done wrong in this life to deserve such unrelenting pain around the clock. I try to distract myself with the bright colours.

I see Fredrick approaching me. He is wearing the same clothes as the day before. I look down at my fingers, each one covered in dried blood. “My friend!”, he shouts in my direction. I lift my aching hand and wave at him. My fingers are crooked and bent like copper wires. Fredrick stands in front of me – a good distraction from the pain.
“Fredrick, what are you doing here today? I thought you didn’t want to come down to the marker anymore?”
“Well, you know how it goes. Laura wanted me to go out and get some split peas – they’ve got the best dried beans and lentils here.”
“I hate split peas.”
Fredrick laughs, “you grouchy old man. I also wanted to tell you something, I completely forgot yesterday and it bothered me all the way home, but when I got there Laura reminded me! Did you read Tuesday’s paper?”
“No, not the entire paper. My hands hurt and my eyesight is going.”
Fredrick smirked almost like he was trying to say I know without really saying it. He continued, “Laura was reading the paper and found an article in the Arts Section. She told me to show it to you—“, he said as he waved a frayed newspaper in his hand. He handed me the paper, already turned to the appropriate page, but he continued talking and I struggled to read. “You see, it’s about an old man just like you!” – he laughed – “He became a sculptor at the age of 68 after accidentally coming across an ad for a sculpting class offered at the community center. It made Laura think of Maggie, you know. After he took this sculpting class, he continue to sculpt, and now his sculptures are on display.”
“Well, why’d you hand me the paper if you were just going to tell me everything anyways?”
“Quit being so bitter. Laura thought you might like it, she thought it might make you think of Maggie.”
“Well, sure. Everything makes me think of Maggie.”
Fredrick sighed and I handed him the newspaper. We sat and continued talking about the peas and lentils, then Laura, and eventually about Maggie again. Fredrick seemed more worn out after our conversation than he was when he first approached me. I wondered if that was my fault, as I sat on the bus on my way back home.

I stepped into my apartment. As I locked the door, I was careful not to pinch the skin of my finger in the door chain. I walked past the coffee table and noticed the carver’s chisel. It screamed at me and called my name. My fingers screamed at me too and said not to.

I’d forgotten to close the window before I left this morning and noticed that one of the newspapers was spread across the floor. My eyes caught the Arts section; it looked familiar. I noticed the blood stain at the corner of the paper – the one I had left behind when the edge of the paper reopened one of my wounds. I recognized the article – it was the same one Fredrick tried to show me at the market. It was a sign from the gods, there was something they wanted me to know.

I put on my reading glasses and picked up the pages all out of order. I took a closer look at the small print.

…Alexander Dulik, 71, began sculpting after enrolling in a local community class… Dulik says he found comfort in the art form after his wife passed… “There was something so calming about doing that repetitive task over and over again, moving the carvel’s chisel back and forth trying to pick your clay clean until the beauty you’ve envisioned comes through!”… Dulik… retired… with lots of time on his hands now, says he never had the chance to be enrolled in such extracurricular programs in his youth … “you know, I grew up in the ghetto, we didn’t have a lot of money. Mom couldn’t put us in an art program or send us to band camp and art was something I’d always wanted to try. I’m glad to have the opportunity even if it’s in the winter phase of my life”… Dulik has sculpted an entire collection that’s now on display at the very community center where he first learned the craft… “It makes me feel good knowing that people can go out and look at my art. It’s like I was able to take the tremendous suffering that I was going through, due to the loss of a loved one, and put it into something positive. And I’ve heard people say my sculptures make them happy! I feel like I was able to take something devasting and turn it into happiness for someone else, and that makes me feel like there’s something left to live for. I still miss my wife every day, but this chisel and the clay has helped me see that I can go on and still be happy.

I put down the paper and looked at Maggie’s old chisel. Waves of joy and desperation touched my heart as memories of her dancing around the clay floated through my brain.