Hammers

By Shane Devine

George A. Hearn Fund, 1957

“Autumn Rhythm” (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock, 1950. Credit: George A. Hearn Fund, 1957.



Joshua Susskind was standing in the bathroom of his Brooklyn apartment, wondering where the time had gone. He was balding; his arms were skinny, but he had developed a gut. His glasses were five years overdue for a prescription change, but he kept wearing them out of apathy. He was twenty-seven minutes late for his subway ride to Manhattan, where he was to teach a college psychology class starting at 10:00 AM. He sighed, opened the mirror, and began to shave the sparse amount of hair near his Adam’s apple he had acquired over the last couple days.

Dr. Susskind could not care much for politics anymore. He simply did not have the time to follow current events in the news, but on a more fundamental level he had lost track of the plot. The last time he regularly paid attention to social issues was Occupy Wall Street, but it was in his observations of that event – specifically the students from his classroom, children of the bourgeoisie, screaming in the faces of proletariat fathers serving as security guards in Zuccotti Park – which made him permanently confused as to who the victims were anymore. He wasn’t sure what to think. Susskind was a baby boomer. He too had protested against The Man in his day and got into all sorts of scuffles with the authorities over social justice issues. But somehow, he felt that something got lost along the way: that he and his peers – now his colleagues, often serving at the same rotation of universities as he did – were accomplishing something, were fighting against something bad. Now, Susskind wasn’t sure what he even stood for, or what the point of all their social upheaval had been. A more confounding society, in which the figures of authority are not as boldly assertive as they had been in the past but are still there manipulating, had taken the place of the society of the 50s. He did not even understand the papers published in the journals of his own academic field, let alone what was happening in Washington or in international politics: it was no longer the Soviets versus the capitalist imperialists, but a morass of violence spurting out over a planet of plastic and grievance.

As he put away his razor and began to button up his gray dress shirt, he thought back to the autumn of the previous school year, and what an uproar the election had caused. He could remember glancing to his left, coming out of the Union Square subway station, and seeing several students burning an American flag. He wasn’t sure what to think. Sure, his political sensibilities helped him rationalize their actions: he knew America had continued its evil, even under Obama; that its government oppressed minorities in various ways, that its prisons were overflowing and the disparities between the rich and the poor were growing. He felt these critiques in his head like water from a spring passing over the exact same grooves and indentations in eroded rock, or like a worn-out vinyl record from his youth playing the same Jefferson Airplane song for the seven-thousandth time. But he was also unsettled by their actions. America is the country that took his parents in as Jewish émigrés during the war, after all. He felt like an American and he liked America, despite all the possible critiques one could level against it.

In the crowd of kids, he spotted Apollo, tall, gangly, with long oily black hair. Hermes was one of his students from the Psychoanalysis course he taught last semester. He thought about his name: “Apollo.” The boy was from Indonesia, if he remembered correctly, and his parents had accrued a fortune from their international law firm which oversaw the trade of goods, mostly electronics, between the countries of Asia and the U.S. The banners swinging in the background were clad with red hammers and sickles, proudly announcing in black letters that they were the Algonquin University Student Communist Organization, or AUSCO, and Hermes was standing in front of the banners with his arms crossed, nodding his head in smug confidence. Various anti-Trump signs bobbed up and down in the crowd. The park was empty. A cloud of titanium gray loomed overhead, obscuring the transparency in all the architectural glass encasing the surrounding buildings. Susskind tightened his grip on his leather messenger bag and hastened his pace.



He boarded the train and sat down on the greasy blue bench. Halfway into his ride, a young woman juggling an absurd number of tote bags stepped through the sliding doors and grabbed a silver bar. Susskind offered his seat, stuttering out a sentence.
–do y-you, w-would you like my seat, miss?
–No, she remarked with a slight sneer, turning her head slowly away from him, just before staring at his skinny knees.
Susskind looked down at the floor of the dirty subway car. He thought about his wife, Marla. She was a college professor as well, but she taught at Brooklyn College, only a few blocks away from their apartment. She worked part-time, and after her classes she would pick up their daughter from daycare. Sophia was the pride and joy of Susskind’s life. He loved watching her grow into the powerful young woman she was gradually becoming. Whenever his wife was giving him emotional trouble, thoughts of Sophia gave him strength to endure and continue working as hard as he did.
He didn’t know if Marla still loved him or not. Late at night, he would catch her awake, sitting in a different room and typing away on her computer, earphones in, unresponsive to his whistles. Occasionally she might have taken her earphones out and mouthed that she was teaching a class over the internet, but Susskind was never sure if this was truly the case. He wasn’t sure what to think.

Coasting down Broadway was John, a senior at Algonquin University. He had completed his last assignment of his entire undergrad degree program the night before, but the damn professor wanted a physical copy of the final in his mailbox. He woke up early that morning, went to the gym, threw a load of wash in, and read the news with a coffee. Checking his phone, he saw he was almost late for the bus. He threw his backpack on, ran down the street, and hailed the bus driver just before he passed. He purchased the last round-trip ticket he would have to buy, found a seat, and spun himself onto it while pulling his phone out of his jean pocket. Once in Manhattan, he took out a bike from the nearby bikedock and changed the gear to three.

When Susskind finally reached Algonquin, he remembered all too late that he had been alerted by the Dean of the school about imminent student protests at every single one of the campus buildings. “Oh my…” He shifted his weight in his loafers and adjusted his glasses. “Should have cancelled.”
John rode up right behind him and threw his bike into the bikedock, holding the seat up so as to lock it in place.
–Hey Dr. Susskind, what’s going on?
–It seems that there is a student protest. A picket line.
–What are they protesting about? John asked, looking around.
–I’ve heard that it has something to do with the administration not listening to their requests about higher wages. That is at least why the Student Workers’ Union is protesting. Then there is an entirely separate issue regarding the school’s decision to slash its cafeteria workers’ salaries to cut back on costs.
–Oh, said John. Well, I’m going to see if I can get in.
John went down the alleyway heading towards the back of the building. Susskind continued to stare at the protestors. Some were from AUSCO, the group he had seen out in Union Square when Trump was elected. Some were from the DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America, waving their flags of red roses in the air. The rest were from the Student Workers’ Union, belting out rhythmic chants in a chorus vaguely unison, a cracked polyphony of wild yells and raging intonations. Susskind looked down at his phone. He scrolled down to his “Sexual Psychology II” course listed in his Canvas professors’ portal, hit the “Email All” button, and typed a short message about the picket, officially cancelling the class session he was already late to anyway.

Later that day, John was on the bus back to New Jersey. He thought of how much he hated his school, and how happy he was that he was done with his degree. He thought of the burning sun of the May afternoon shining down upon the cursed city he could see across the river as his bus sputtered around corners of early 20th century brick buildings now filled with stoners to whom he used to deliver pizza. He thought of how all of it was over, how he would never have to enter into the rigmarole of insanity that was his daily descent into the radical pit of politicized fervor, Algonquin University, and his daily ascent out of its mouth, smelling the traces of pollution and its soul-incinerating breath. He called his grandmother to let her know that he would be home soon and smiled when he heard her explode into great cadences of congratulations, knowing she was biased in her praises, that he hadn’t accomplished all that much, but appreciating them all the same.

Meanwhile, Susskind was on the subway back to Brooklyn, reading cryptic texts from his wife Marla. She started the conversation by telling him not to come home, then changed her mind and demanded that he come right home to watch over Sophia while she went out to an urgent faculty meeting at Brooklyn College. She blamed her rashness on stress, and when he asked why he hadn’t heard about the meeting earlier in the week she claimed it was announced on a moment’s notice. Josh had always suspected Marla was having an affair but could never bring himself to confront her about it in case he turned out to be wrong.

The subway stopped. The MTA speaker system alerted the “customers,” as it called them, that they were experiencing a delay but would try to fix the matter shortly.

Nine P.M. was the hour when he finally shuffled into his house, splotching the floor with muddy water. He was tired, and glum about his wife ignoring him. He threw his messenger bag onto the sofa covered in plastic-wrap in defiance, not caring if it stretched the material.

He walked down into the basement and started his treadmill. He put his earphones in, turned up the volume on a new two-hour audio file he downloaded off YouTube the night before – Buddhist Meditation Music for Positive Energy: Buddhist Thai Monks Chanting Healing Mantra – and increased the speed on the control panel.

The backdoor swung open with the sound of broken glass and torn hinges, but Susskind couldn’t hear it. A man nervously looked around the kitchen, his large hands shaking as they clutched a large hammer. He took a deep breath and collected himself, resuming the determined demeanor he had just before kicking the door in. The treadmill’s rotating belt and Susskind’s thumping shoes sounded up from the basement. After a second of thinking, the trespasser headed straight for the staircase.

Susskind saw the figure out of his periphery and jumped off the machine, tore his Apple earbuds out and ran to the back of the basement. His body rattled with nerves and he jittered back and forth before deciding to pick up a large lamp as a weapon. He shook it in his frail hands, waving it around, shouting “Who are you!? Who are you!?” The figure stepped out of the dark of the stairway and answered back in a grunt, a sullen grimace on his face, walking towards him in his paint-covered work boots, hammer above his head, eyes glaring wide with a look of animalistic hatred.

Alexio Kyrzigkanov, an illegal immigrant from Tajikistan, was brought to court two weeks later where he pleaded innocent with the claim of self-defense. It turned out that he was a student at Brooklyn College and was even a former student of Marla Susskind’s Political Economy class, but he denied knowing much about her. He told the jury that he was working on the professor’s house, and only responded violently when Susskind was intimidating him with racial slurs and violence. When asked why he didn’t alert the authorities instead of hiding behind the couch after striking the professor with his hammer, he replied meekly that he was afraid of being deported. The case was dismissed, Alexio was given a small fine, and he was let off the hook.

John eventually moved away from the Tri-State area, as did Marla and Sophia. John moved west, hoping to renew his spirits with fresh mountain air. Marla and Sophia moved up state to Syracuse, buying a house next door to Marla’s mother and father. For each one of them, the memory of Joshua was always wrapped up with the memory of New York and a sense of forlorn dread about its tunnels and corners, hearing a solemn lamentation for its plight.


* * *

NY Times:“Intruder Charged in Killing of New School Professor in Brooklyn Home”

NY Post:“New School students stage protest to save cafeteria cooks”