David Salner

The Fear of the Nail


Oil stains darkened the concrete floor

of the garage—I could smell them as I poised

on my father's workbench, ready to hoist

myself onto the top shelf of the tool closet.


Up there, in the last unexplored corner

of our too-traveled house, hidden treasure was waiting.

Of course, the chief pleasure in finding

what's so long lost is the dusting-off,


whether it's lead soldiers or spacemen

with bug-like moving parts. Even now,

I'd die to handle such specimen toys

with my little boy's hands—small,


always chapped. I chinned myself up,

crawled in the dark, coughed cobwebs up.

My fingers roamed over boards, finding roughness

of pine, roughness of maple, in terms of splinters,


roughly identical. No treasure.

Someone had stolen it! Not only that, I was stuck

on the shelf and couldn't go back—with only

this one grim thought to sustain me:


weeks from now, when they searched the garage,

there'd be nothing but skin and bones left

of my chubby self. To no avail, I'd learn to eat spiders,

suck water from dust. But before the last days


would play themselves out, I glimpsed a grayness of light

from outside, tried to crawl over whisper-thin slats,

and crashed through. I fell on a stack

of old boards. "Look!" My Dad yelled,


late for the rescue, in time for the bawling out.

"Look!" he yelled again, pointing down at a nail

sticking out. "It could have poked your damn eye out!"

Those words, and seeing how sharp the nail was


and savagely coated with rust—I felt different.

Fear of the nail had been administered.



Crossing into Ohio


Crossing into Ohio, we took Route 10

to my grandmother's house. We made the turn

by the paper-white birch on her front lawn. At night,

I'd sneak out to listen, adults sharing secrets

on the screened-in porch, voices fading out

in the traffic. "He's a good boy,

doesn't know much except baseball,"

my father announces, and opens a beer.

A truck on Route 10 drowns out the next talk.

Then my grandmother walks to the screen,

peers into the night, that mystery she entered

when she left Hungary so long ago.

I feel her breath, and there's a sweetness

coming back, soft through the screen. I look into her eyes,

worn and gray, buried in wrinkles and pouches,

as she stares at the birch, paper white in the darkness

beyond my shoulder, and all we can hear

is the traffic. She's going to whisper my name,

tell me the secret of nights in Hungary

and why she had to leave. A story like that

I could build a lifetime upon. Then my father breaks in—

"Jeez, Mom, take a load off your feet"—

and walks her away from the screen.





I never guessed how tough you were,

until I had to sit beside you, all night long,

waiting for you to die. At least four times

I got up and leaned over the bed, listening

for the sound of breathing, the sifting,

the faintest rattle of breath that told me

you were still on this earth, though you'd become

a man between worlds. Then I fell back,

wishing I'd picked up a good mystery

instead of this book of poems. What I needed

was a page-turner, a story like the kind

you used to tell, about the night

you and my Uncle Vic defended the store

your family worked in, in one of those

mill towns shrouded in smog. A gang

came up the street and the two of you

cracked soda bottles and stood there,

weapons of glass in teenage hands,

and watched from the steps as they

drew closer, and you were eyeball

to eyeball. Then the lead guy nodded

and led his gang away, one by one,

all those tough guys, into the smoke

of that Ohio town.  About four a.m.,

I leaned over and saw something better

to read on the table, one of your last

favorites—I couldn't put it down.



David Salner received an MFA at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop and for twenty-five years worked as an iron ore miner, steelworker, machinist, and general laborer. His second book, Working Here, was awarded first prize in the first annual poetry competition by Minnesota State University’s Rooster Hill Press and was published in September 2010. His work has appeared in Threepenny Review, Prairie Schooner, and recent issues of The Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, The Fourth River, and Upstreet. His poem Frank Little in the Big Sky State was awarded first place in Boxcar Poetry Review’s $500 Oboh Prize (2010), judged by Cecilia Wolloch.



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