I was born with a hammer in my hand, and I’ve been driving steel ever since.
It’s not hard work. I just plant my feet, hold the steel bit steady, and drive my hammer down on it. When it’s deep enough, I step back, and a man comes to blast out tunnels and clear the road.
Professor Spector said I was the best and fastest steel driver he’d ever seen. “Ain’t no man alive can drive steel like you!” he’d say.
The Professor took me all over to different road crews, showing me off and putting the working men to shame. Sometimes I did the work of a whole crew, and Professor Spector would collect their pay and laugh. I didn’t mind that he kept the money, since he took care of me, and what did I need money for anyhow? I just liked driving steel.
But everything changed when the Professor took me down to Big Bend.
The crew and road captain there eyed me suspiciously, which was normal. I ignored them and stepped up to the mountainside like always, tapped the stone and gauged the environs. It was hard rock, but nothing I couldn’t handle.
I was getting ready to strike when a man stepped right in front of me. He was a big fellow with a hammer almost as big as my own. He held it like it was a part of him, so I figured he liked driving steel as much as I did, in which case we were alike.
“Hey Captain,” the big man called to the company chief. “What’s this contraption here?”
“That’s one of them newfangled steam drillers, John,” said the road captain.
“Oh yeah?” said the big man, scratching his head. “What’s it do?”
I said nothing, because he didn’t ask me. But Professor Spector marched right up to that big man and stuck a finger in his wide chest.
“Now you listen here, boy. That there’s a mechanical man what can drive steel a hundred times faster’n you can. So step aside before you disturb the delicate machinery.”
I waited while the men argued, not understanding why. My logic gears are simple. I can follow orders. I can size up land and rock. I can choose the right steel bit and correct angle to hammer. When I drive steel, my purpose is fulfilled. I let Professor Spector take care of everything else.
Professor Spector clapped his hands and waved me over.
“Think you can tunnel through that chunk’a mountain?”
I analyzed the rock. “Yes.”
“Think you can do it faster than that hotshot over there?”
I analyzed the big man. “Probably.”
We set to it side by side. I took the right tunnel and the big man took the left. It took the big man four, sometimes five swings of his hammer to drive that steel deep enough. I could do it in one or two.
But here’s the thing. While I stopped from time to time so that Professor Spector could feed me coal or oil my joints, the big man never stopped. He took no food and no water. The big man just kept driving steel, grunting from exertion and coughing from the coal dust, pouring sweat like a mountain stream. Sometimes he’d sing.
After 15 hours of driving steel, I was bound to overheat. So I had to stop for a little bit. But the big man kept going. He cleared the tunnel before me, which sent the whole company whooping and hollering with delight. Professor Spector smacked me with his hat and cussed something awful.
The crew was still celebrating when the big man started coughing and grabbing his chest. Then he just sat down, closed his eyes, and never opened them again. Before the men put his body in the ground, the road captain told them to take away his hammer, saying it was company property. It took two of them to lift it. I guess it wasn’t attached to the big man after all.
The captain, whose name was Mr. Fosset, argued with Professor Spector and threatened to wire a lawyer. The Professor made a deal to sell me on the spot, and the men spat and shook on it. He took his money and left without saying goodbye.
It was years before I saw him again. In that time, I traveled with Mr. Fosset’s company up and down Appalachia and on into the West, where I drove steel into mountains as big as the sky.
The men kept me running in the sense that they filled my belly with coal when it got low. They never polished my skin, like Professor Spector did. They never scrapped off the rust or oiled my joints, except when the creaking got so loud you couldn’t even hear the dynamite. I wondered if they were sore at me, on account of the big man who beat me and died. They never said anything about it, but sometimes they threw rocks at me and laughed. But none of that mattered to me – I just liked driving steel.
The day Professor Spector came back, he brought with him another machine. Like me, but not like me either. It was bigger, had wheels instead of legs, and a great metal chimney rose from its drum of a body. I approached it and saw in its smooth shiny side my reflection – a rusted, dented, clumsy thing, with shaky legs and chipped hammer.
The men all gathered ’round to hear Professor Spector describe the “mechanical wonder,” which didn’t look so great to me.
“She faster than your old hunk’a junk?” asked Mr. Fosset.
Professor Spector smiled and pushed a few buttons on the machine’s side.
The machine sprang to life and rolled over to the side of the mountain I’d been driving through for the past several days. I understood then what it was, and what it was doing here. I analyzed its 80-pound hammer and its massive coal burner, and figured that it could probably drive steel better and faster than I. Probably.
But what was Probably? The big man taught me that Probably didn’t mean a thing. Probably could as easily be Probably Not. I was going to show them that, the Professor and Fosset and all the men in the crew. And that dumb beast of a contraption. I was going to show them that I could drive steel better than anyone or anything on this earth.
So I set myself beside the machine – it on the right of the tunnel, and I on the left. It did not look at me, since it had no eyes to see, but I would show it anyway.
I gauged the rock and planted my feet, knowing in my gears that I would either beat it or break trying. Or both, like the big man. I raised my hammer.
“Jee-zus!” yelled the captain. “What in the hell’s that thing doin’?”
The men ran over to me and pushed me away from the mountain before I could even take my first swing. I wanted more than anything to beat that new machine. But they didn’t even let me try. And I stood there as it hammered through the mountain like it was made of dust.
Mr. Fosset laughed, and Professor Spector said something about spare parts.
Then they came after me.
So I ran.
It was dark when I fell into the coal mine. And darker still in the deep ground where the only light came from my dying burner. I knocked a few chunks of coal from the wall with my hammer and fed my fire to keep from dying. It was just like driving steel. So I did it again. And again. And again.
And here I’ve been ever since, driving steel to feed myself and feeding myself to drive steel. I don’t know anymore how deep I am. Maybe one day I’ll hit the heart of the Earth. Or maybe the coal will run out. But whatever happens, I’ll die with this hammer in my hand.
Bio: My short fiction has been published by McSweeney’s, Fantasy Scroll Magazine, Cirsova Magazine, Metaphorosis, and in the Adventures of Pirates Anthology.