Rubber Hammer

I don’t know why I remember sitting on the front porch of the old Chelf house. In fact I barely remember it at all and wonder if the memory is real. I’m playing with two toys, all that’s available. One is a red rubber hammer. The other is Batman. I hear voices through the summer humidity, that fog of gnats swarming the crab grass. I’m lonely, I’m so lonely, and I have no idea why—I don’t understand the depths of aloneness that lives in me, this shaft in my chest, my sternum, that just keeps going down. I don’t understand that this is what life is like and that this is how it’s going to be. I just feel it. I withstand it and writhe and bear it in silence, smashing Batman with a red rubber hammer.

The next thing I see is my uncle Dave with a sledgehammer. He’s knocking out the floorboards. He’s knocked himself into a corner. The walls, all broken, are jagged lines to his left and right like a ghost town in Nevada. The floor is a black hole collapsed into the basement. Uncle Dave is squatted, the sledgehammer resting on its head. All of us—me, my mom, my dad, my brother, my granddad—are standing on the outside, watching Uncle Dave while he silently decides what to do, how he’s going to get out of this corner he’s made for himself.

I don’t know why I remember, but he seemed to me this thinking giant, indestructible. Pure reason with a hammer. Intelligence, silence incarnate, guided destruction. I don’t know how he got out of that corner that morning. It may not have even happened. He may still be stuck there for all I know.


Today, on that spot, chickens peck the grass. And I watch. The old Chelf house flickers in and out like an invisible fire. The chickens peck the grass.

I’m here, in Kentucky, because I’m trying to build my own home. Across the country, in Oregon. As I watch the chickens my life drifts like a cloud shadow across the grass, dark and heavy, and then interminably bright, all depending on the play between the wispy fat clouds and the sun.

My family, of course, doesn’t understand. How could you leave? Why? I have no good answer for their questions; just questions of my own I never—would never—ask them to answer.

How can a person not belong to the place they were born? What would it take to truly belong? Is it possible—or is home something lost forever, a feeling, at best, one spends life trying to recreate (if one had it in childhood) or to create for the first time?

I go and speak with Uncle Dave. I find him tall and lean, the vestiges of that strong young man with the sledgehammer faintly glimmer from behind grayed skin; he’s no longer that giant in my mind. He’s a man with splints in his heart. Children, a wife, a big house in a stuffy neighborhood where the streets are named after jewels. The questions I have for him widely circle my real questions, like icy rings around a dark, tempestuous, unexplored planet. I want to ask him how he knocked down the old Chelf house that morning, how he got out of the corner or if he’s still there; I frame the question around the fact I am getting married and I am buying a home and how I can best manage my financial future. I’ve spent my life running from corners, and haven’t I learned they are inescapable? I listen to his wisdom, but didn’t it all feel very abstract and impossible, like trying to build a house with a rubber hammer?

Yes, it did, but I open the gate anyway and start toward the chickens with no distinct purpose other than to walk over the grave of the old Chelf house, the pit filled with rats that a bulldozer stuffed full of dirt. I think about bell hooks when she writes, “Kentucky as the homeplace of my mind and heart is both real and mythic, distinct from the concrete experience of living in the bluegrass state,” and I felt connected—most connected—to that split place in between reality and myth. It’s where my heart dwells.


Matt was born and raised rural Kentucky, lived in West Virginia for his early adulthood, and currently resides in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches reading and writing at Portland Community College. His writing has been featured in Revolution John, The Hunger, ARMSTRONG Literary, Random Sample Review, and more.