Nails, Nonfiction & Various Adhesives
By Shane Borrowman
My father stands behind me, watching and sweating in the Nevada sun.
August is the worst possible time for roofing, but it’s the only time
we have. With the temperature hovering around one hundred, I’m on
my knees, hammer in hand, about to be taught a lesson in writing creative
I take a couple whacks at the nails, hitting every time but not accomplishing
much. Each nail takes three or four blows, and my shoulder is already
“Choke back on the handle,” my father says, his tone giving this piece
of instruction just enough levity to lighten the sting. I’m sensitive
about criticism, especially when it’s criticism over something as
simple as driving a nail, which I am clearly doing wrong.
I slide my hand back on the handle, and the next smack drives a fresh
nail all the way through the shingles and into the plywood beneath.
I scoot to the side a bit, line up again, begin driving the next nail.
“Choke back,” my father says again, and I realize that I’ve reverted
to driving nails in my traditional, inefficient, painful-to-the-shoulder
way. “Who taught you to hammer?”
“No one,” I say, beginning to pound correctly. He doesn’t answer,
and I realize that I’ve hurt him. My answer slipped out, wasn’t meant
as a dig, can’t be taken back. So I don’t say anything else. Neither
does he. The silence stretches out between us, punctuated only by
the sound of hammering and the beat of the sun on our necks.
When I finish nailing the final row of shingles, my father holds the
ladder as I climb down, hammer in one hand and bag of nails in the
other. The knees of my jeans are black from shingle tar.
I haul everything into the stiflingly hot,
dusty-stuffy garage, glad to be out of the sun. The temperature is
well over a hundred in this enclosed, uninsulated space, but it feels
The hammer hangs above my workbench, suspended with its head across
two metal pegs.
The ladder is suspended from two hooks twisted deep into rafters,
both sheathed in red rubber to give them a better grip.
The bag of nails, soft from sweat and handling and tar-sticky on the
bottom, goes on a shelf filled with similar bags of dissimilar-sized
Every tool and tool accessory in the garage has its place, and the
floor glows in the dim light because of repeated sweepings. The cleanliness
of this workspace is absurd and out of place, and it speaks ill of
my mental health.
Behind the bags of nails is a long line of adhesives, arranged from
weakest to strongest. A tiny bottle of Elmers hunkers meekly at the
left, next to a varnish stained tube of wood glue. A double-barreled
syringe filled with the components of epoxy lays before my Gorilla
Glue, its cap sealed in place so solidly that I use pliers to open
the squeeze bottle.
This is the adhesive collection of a man prepared for any contingency.
This is the adhesive collection of a man who rarely knows what he’s
doing or what he’s going to need, a man willing to sometimes force
* * *
nonfiction requires a knack for linking lived experience with echoes
of interpretation. It’s all about carpentry, about nailing the pieces
of narrative together with transitions, about spiking the past to
the present to clarify both, about gluing surface events together
to add strength and depth and meaning.
Some incidents go together easily, especially those that repeat across
the years: Something happens; it reminds the writer of something that
happened before. One event opens the story while the other gives it
some closure. The events themselves are unrelated but not unlike one
another. A little glue does the job.
Some incidents fit together badly, or not at all, until a few metaphorical
hammer-whacks force the moments to their crises: Something happens,
and both its causes and effects are unclear. Something else happens
that seems unrelated. Whack. The “somethings” come together and stick
after a pounding from the forces of passing time and research.
* * *
I never learned
to drive a nail because of Latin American socialism and Asian mining
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Japanese copper flooded the world
market, driving the price to sixty cents per pound. It was suddenly
cheaper to buy internationally than to mine domestically. This radical
market fluctuation was especially devastating to the Anaconda Company,
which had lost roughly 70% of its production capability in 1971, when
newly inaugurated President Salvador Allende ordered all foreign-owned
copper mines seized in the name of the Chilean people. These distant
economic quakes in Chile and Japan sent shockwaves through western
The mines in Butte—dubbed The Richest Hill on Earth—closed after more
than a century of operation, leaving an open pit that would become
one of the most toxically polluted points outside the former Soviet
The smelter in Anaconda, twenty-one miles away and entirely dependent
on Butte-mined copper, closed.
Suddenly my father, like virtually every man in town, was cast as
the central character in a song by John Cougar Mellencamp.
Or possibly Bruce Springsteen.
Some of my friends’ fathers took work as guards at either the state
prison in Deer Lodge or the mental hospital at Warm Springs. Several
found work at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington. Others, my father
among them, found work at construction sites in eastern Montana and
the Dakotas—union work that paid well but kept them from home for
months at a stretch when the roads were bad due to weather.
Long hours of work in cold places left them too tired to write letters
home, and long distance phone calls were at their pre-cellular highs.
On weekends—or less frequently—these men, my father among them, came
home and filled their time with the chores they once did in the evenings,
after a day of work at the smelter—chopping and hauling wood, mending
roofs, and tinkering with hot water heaters and furnaces and other
appliances too expensive to replace. Such homework, combined with
their migration to job sites, left them with little time for instruction.
* * *
years after the smelter in Anaconda closed, my son toddles toward
me, a blue Lego block in each hand. They were connected when he took
them out of his toybox. Now, he’s pulled them apart and can’t get
them to go back together.
At fourteen months old, he just doesn’t have that kind of manual dexterity.
So he brings the blocks to me, sure that his father can help.
He holds the blocks out to me, but I don’t take them, partially because
my hands are blistered and sore from pounding nails all afternoon,
mostly because it’s the wrong thing to do. I take his tiny, delicately
boned hands in mine, and I guide the blocks back together. They conjoin
with an audible pop, and he grins widely—exposing a mouth already
almost filled with teeth, straight and strong and white.
John ambles away from me at his fastest stagger, lurching and swaying
but not falling down. He holds the Legos proudly above his head, entirely
unaware of the price of copper.
Borrowman is an assistant professor of English at the University
of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches undergraduate courses in alternative
memoir and graduate seminars in the history and theory of rhetoric.
His most recent book, a first-year composition textbook titled The
Promise of America, was released in December of 2006. After
much practice and occasional injury, he has learned to swing a hammer
photo by Dinty W. Moore