Daniel Cohen

Tap, tap, tap, comes from the ceiling. A thick cloud of dust falls into the room. Dust as ancient as angels. Tap, tap. Footsteps are the heartbeat of my existence down here. There’s footsteps with broken lamps. Footsteps that need Old Village “Tea Caddy Green” paint that we just ran out of. Footsteps that have nothing better to do on a Sunday than come in and tell us about how Orange Jesus is gonna come back and save us.

“Ow, shit,” I whisper under my breath as I pick my hand up from the table. Little bit of red, not worth a reaction. I notice all the minuscule shards of glass sprinkled around. Joe forgot to clean up after he tried to fix that clock yesterday. There’s all types of cuts and splinters and impalements one could be subjected to down here. It’s great though. The more pain the better. I grab a dustpan and sweep up all the remains. I then flip the pan over the trash can, prompting the sound of a broken window. Back to work.

First up is a 78” x 24” Andersen sliding door. Charcoal fiberglass. I prefer screening with fiberglass because aluminum screen has a memory. There is no room for error, no forgiveness. Yet, there is beauty in the aluminum’s stubbornness. The way it refuses to bounce back to its original shape. The way its frayed ends slyly sneak by the epidermis, and sit there discreetly until you realize what that intense poking feeling is. I’ve never done a good aluminum screen in one try before. Maybe today’s the day.

Screens are like portals. They’re the walls that we can look through. Customers bring their screens in here when they get damaged by the processes of time or other extenuating circumstances. They don’t want to blur the line between home and unknown. If that line is blurred for reasons aside from damaged aluminum or fiberglass, we kindly ask that the customer take their business elsewhere. Somehow they end up here anyway. Screens are put together with a window or door frame, which have a little concave track on the side facing the unknown. To install new screening, you place the new screen over the frame, and then insert a rubber spline over the screen and into the track to hold everything in place. First, you get rid of the old stuff.

I push the screwdriver into the corner to raise the end of the old spline, and pull the rest out. It’s an easy one to work with, only about eight years old. Most of the screen is in fairly good condition, but Frankie the labrador thought he heard the mailman come by last Sunday. Nothing was going to stop him from getting to the mailman, especially not that fiberglass. Frankie was disappointed when he learned that the mail doesn’t come on Sundays.

As I move around the table to repeat this step on the other sides, I watch for any extra glass that may have found its way to the floor earlier. There is a 150 years’ worth of miniscule shards of sprinkled glass across this floor. This is why my sneakers have exactly 17 holes in each shoe. Now every time a single drop of rain falls from the heavens, my feet get their own personal puddles to keep them company. The bottom of my socks are always completely black by the end of the day, just from walking around the store. But I’ve committed to holding off on getting new shoes until my end of year bonus. I gotta earn it.

I get the new spline and screening out and begin installation. I’ve been working on repairing screens for several months now. I remember when I first came down to the basement with Joe. “Welcome to The Dungeon,” he had said. There’s not much to it. A work bench in the center of the room, a drill press and sanding belt to the side, a couple desks stacked two feet high with papers that no one’s ever looked at. My little cot and blanket in the corner.

Joe’s forty-seven, looks about twice his age. Says it’s because he was doing construction near a nuclear plant in Uganda twenty years ago when some reaction was going down.

“Uganda doesn’t have any nuclear power plants, Joe,” I had said.

“Oh yeah, there’s tons down there. Tons.” Joe’s got some weird theories. The second Wednesday of every month on Joe’s calendar is marked just like December 21, 2012 was for the Mayans. He’s always off on Thursdays and we all forget by Fridays, so the cycle continues.

Joe didn’t really teach me how to fix screens. I just watched him do it once. I asked him how different parts of the process worked. His answer was, “I’m just that good.” I began without a proper set of instructions, and I failed badly. I would take hours to do what could be done in twenty minutes. It’s taken me a while, but I’m slowly starting to see the light. I’ve built up my own system:

Step 1: Remove the old spline and screen.

Step 2: Roll the new screen over the frame.

Step 3: Put the heavy tape dispenser on the left far side and the three tape measures on the right far side of the screen beyond the frame so that you can create tension.

Step 4: Roll the spline in with the roller on the side closer to the frame. That way if your hand slips you won’t damage the screen.

Step 5: Get a mini slotted screwdriver to push in the spline at the corners of the frame.

Step 6: Take a knife and drag it down the frame side of the spline at a steady 38-degree angle to remove the extra screen without cutting any of the interior.

That’s how you get it tight. Knowing the fifteen-year-old humor of everyone at the store, I’m surprised we’ve never made a joke about this. No one ever said it, but I’m sure we all thought it.

I roll the spline in with a dispositional mix of the cautious newbie who doesn’t want to mess anything up and the cocky new kid who thinks he knows it all. Every time I do one of these, I convince myself that my life depends on perfection. The customer probably won’t even notice a bubble or a lone detached strand. But I feel the weight of the world resting on my hand as it guides the roller. The weight made me slip the first couple times, but eventually I got used to it. I had to learn to resist while also maintaining a fluid motion, working towards the final goal of a repaired screen. It’s not the loftiest of goals in life, but it’s mine. The one thing left that no one can take away from me. I transition from rolling to cutting, mind in a trance.

“BOBBY, TWO BAGS OF CHOCOLATE CHIP!” Joe calls out from upstairs. A hardware store selling cookies. Who woulda thunk it. Joe’s wife started giving out free samples of her family’s secret recipe seven years ago. One customer tried it and immediately asked, “How much for a bag?” The employees at the time looked around, unsure what to say. Mark (who now lives in Florida, feeding alligators for a living) shot up his hand and said, “ten dollars!” Just like that we were in business. Seven years and 15,093 cookie sales later, here we are. I put the knife down, grab the cookies from the chest freezer (our freezer upstairs broke back in January. It’s November now and we still can’t get the parts in. Something about Russia.). I run upstairs and find Joe happily lazing away behind the register on his Sunday off from repair duty, talking a customer’s ear off about how you’re supposed to kill a deer by aiming at its butt.

I feel more secure downstairs, with a job in front of me that I know the parameters of. Upstairs, there is a whole universe of hardware supplies. I don’t remember where everything is, I don’t know how everything works. Then there’s the whole customer service thing. I really don’t enjoy small talk. Most of these people come from a different world than me, although I’m definitely on my way over to theirs. Had to stop at Mars first though. The parameters of the job up here are “be useful.” I try my best.

While handing Joe the bag of cookies I look around to see if any customer needs help. My eyes scan across the store from right to left, analyzing it like scripture. They land upon the black sunglasses of a girl crouching down in the corner. Her head is fixed in front of our Gorilla Glue, but her shades mask the line between subject and object. It’s rare to see anyone here that’s my age. I approach as a here-to-help employee, but am nevertheless curious, and hope to make a good impression. “Hey, can I help you find anything?” She stands up and removes the shades with her left hand. Blue eyes.

“Yeah,” she says, “You got any duct tape?”

Ooh, something I know. “Of course, right this way.”

She delicately folds the shades, placing them around the dip of her v-neck. We start walking.

I lead her over to the tape section with a feeling of authority. I hold my head high, keep my back straight, walk with a very balanced and deliberate gait. I try to walk in such a way that if I was downstairs to hear my own footsteps I’d think, that guy means business. She walks beside me with footsteps that are much less deliberate; steady, yet lacking intention. As she walks she holds the stare of the bear taxidermy to her left, presumably trying to bring him back to life.

“Haven’t seen you around here before,” I say.

“I just moved into the area with my mom,” she replies. “I was living in Colorado the last three years.” She looks about twenty. I try to do the math in my head, paint a picture. No dice.

“How’d you like it out there?” I ask. At the other side of the store I hear the snap of Joe showing off his custom-made pocket knife. Glad he’s occupied.

“I couldn’t understand the people. Everyone seemed lost in their own world. There was no one to talk to.” I start to see some traces of paint on the canvas, but the picture seems distorted in a way. The ears are too small, feet a little too long.

We reach our destination. “Here’s the duct tape. This is the all-purpose one right here. Most people go with that. We also got some colored ones. Blue, pink, red, zebra.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen zebra duct tape before.” She jokes.

I respond, “I haven’t sold any yet. It’s a shame. Who knows, maybe there’d be world peace if we all just used zebra duct tape.”

“Maybe,” she says. She looks up at me and we lock eyes. Lost in the blue, I suddenly see a world without limits. Everything gets unbearably bright for a moment. I close my eyes and shake my head a little bit. That world doesn’t exist. Snap out of it.

When I open my eyes I see a faint curve of a smile at the right end of her mouth. Her head tilts in the same direction, as if she’s trying to figure something out, see a side of me which isn’t there. Then, as if nothing happened, she turns and grabs two rolls of zebra colored duct tape. “I think that’s all,” she says. We begin walking back to the register. “I’m Claire by the way.”

“I’m Bobby.”

“You like working here, Bobby?”

“I guess. Bunch of old heads sit around here all day trying to tell me what makes the world spin.” I step behind the register and ring her out for the two zebra tapes. She pays with cash.

“Well, Bobby, if you ever want a break from the old heads, I’m up the street. See you around.”

I begin to reach for my phone in my pocket but quickly correct myself again. “See ya.” I’m not ready for worlds to collide. No time for anyone to slow me down. That’s not what I’m looking for anyway. She puts the shades back on and the blue disappears. She turns to her right and walks out the door.

Just like that she’s gone. I notice the eerie silence marking zero customers in the store. I turn around to find Joe staring at me with a smirk on his face. I turn back around. “Fuck off, Joe.”

“Back to work, Bobby!” Back to work.

I head back to the dungeon. Next up is a 32” x 28” charcoal aluminum window, the bane of my existence. Nothing to panic about, just gotta remember to roll the spline in lightly.

The old spline is a bitch to get out this time. Somehow cut up into a bunch of little pieces. I have to dig each out individually. For a second I glance up the stairs, tempted by desperation. Joe could do this, no sweat. Nope. Not today. I’m here because I want to be. No shortcuts.

I work diligently as I listen to the footsteps above me. Tap, tap. Tap, tap. The footsteps all have different rhythms. Some light, some heavy. Some racing down the aisle, like a little girl excited to show her dad the new toy he should buy her. Some heavy and urgent like we cut his glass 25” x 14 ⅜” instead of 25” x 14 ¼”. Grumpy fuck.

The flow of the footsteps brings me to life. They remind me that time is moving, that everything will work out one way or another, has to. I finish getting the old spline out after twenty minutes. I remove the old screen, and move my hand through the cloud of disintegrated aluminum. I brush off the track and get out the new supplies. As I unroll the screen, I hear the heavy and authoritative footsteps of Ronaldo the plumber on his day off. He’s accompanied by the light and speedy steps of his eight-year-old daughter Katie, rolling in the red wheelbarrow from outside. $49.99 in the bank. I picture her with her new favorite toy as she rolls it in. The wheelbarrow is a bright, rosy, red. A “happy to be alive” red. Not the faded, darker, much more mellow red that I’m used to. As I pick up the roller and put it in motion I fall back into a trance, lost in the moments that will last for eternity.


The red civic didn’t know what it was getting into. It was six a.m. on a Friday morning in West Philadelphia. One night after the fight. The echoes of their screams were still vibrating off the walls. My parents said that if I wasn’t going to get an education, then I gotta get. So I got. No argument. I don’t need them. I left the house that morning with my backpack and a small suitcase. No need to pack too much. I just needed to be somewhere that wasn’t here. I could figure the rest out later.

I was in such a hurry to leave that I backed up into the front of Dad’s car as I went into reverse. With no time to stop and check the damage, I put the car in drive and zoomed off. I got thirteen voicemails just that morning. They were all, “You better have the money to pay for this!” not, “Hey when are you coming home?” I never returned the calls. By sunset I noticed that my phone had stopped vibrating every three minutes.

I hate driving in the city. It’s like a test on the human psyche to see how claustrophobic we can get. Parallel parking on both sides of the street, every other car sticking out far enough that drivers have to swerve to avoid it. Two opposing lanes are squeezed together into the middle, engaged in a constant battle for which direction to lead humanity. In a perfect world, we would all agree to just stay right where we are and make do. But humans don’t like perfection. 

Every criminal defense lawyer and insurance policy maker around was late for work that day. They yelled out in frustration by holding down the center of the steering wheel, trying to blame the vehicle in front of them for all of their misery. Before I merged onto the interstate, I took in the scene one last time, trying to remember when we grew so detached from our reality. A couple events over the last five thousand years passed through my mind. I remember exactly where I was for all of them. 

 I-95 was crowded that morning, but there was no slowing down. Cars were on all sides of me, moving at the speed of light, going nowhere fast. Ready to bring an end to my existence the second my right foot happens to slip. As I looked out into the mirage of people doing whatever it took to feel important, I laughed. I didn’t really know why I was there. I could’ve been peacefully sleeping in my dorm room. I even liked the classes I was taking at La Salle. But no one understood me. No one was bothered by the fact that we couldn’t see the stars at night; that we’re all gonna die before realizing how alive we really are. Everyone was too busy trying to impose their own insecurities onto the world. So I left.   

After passing exit eight, the Earth exhaled. I remember seeing the heavens part before me. The traffic cleared, all the buildings got shorter and more spread out, the music stopped. Life was good. I soared down the open road for another hour, feeling light as a feather. Once I felt that I had created enough separation between myself and the house that was never a home, I searched for a place to stop.  

I parked in front of the first help wanted sign I could find. I found myself in front of an old school hardware store. A place where people get things done. I rushed in. I saw a man at the register looking out at the store with a very stern face. I walked up to him, my mind cleared of all the fear and resentment I normally carried. In the moment, I felt like a lone wolf sitting in the bushes, preparing to relieve my starvation while staring down a helpless little rabbit in the open prairie. Confident that nothing could stop me, I pounced.  

“Hello, sir, I’m Bobby. I saw the help wanted sign on the window. Listen, I don’t know a whole lot about hardware, but I can learn. I’ll do any job around here that you need. I’ll clean toilets, sweep floors, shine your shoes, walk your dog. I can work from dawn to dusk, seven days a week.”  

The man, who three weeks later would inform me that his name is Ralph, took a quick glance at me. His eyes were blank, void of any real acknowledgement of the wandering soul standing right in front of him.  

“I got a pallet of concrete out back that someone needs to put in the garage. Get to work.” 

For the first two weeks I slept in my car in the back parking lot at night. Eventually Linda, one of our regulars, saw me through the window on her morning walk. She threw a tantrum at Ralph, demanding he give me a place to sleep. He put out the cot in The Dungeon. I’d honestly prefer my car over the basement, but I want to keep Linda happy. She’s the only one who buys our gluten free flavor.    

That was six months ago. The sense of consistency and routine here has made me feel like I’m in paradise. It’s pretty rare that I leave the store now. I think The Dungeon is my favorite place in the world. I look down at the knife in my hand, and realize that I already rolled in the aluminum perfectly without realizing it. I move my knife around the four sides to cut off the excess and smile at my finished product. First try. With the faintest of smiles, I decide to call my parents when I get off. I hear the heavy and light tapping of a couple and their two toddlers entering the store. I reach for another screen. 

Daniel Cohen is a sophomore at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is planning to major in English on the creative writing track. He is originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In his free time he enjoys reading, playing guitar and woodworking. 

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