by Oscar Casares
I saw Bannert at the mall the other day. He was
standing near the entrance eating a cone of pistachio ice cream. He pretended he didn't
see me, and I returned the favor. This is the same man who used to live across the street
from us years ago. Our boys grew up together, played, got into fights. Bannert would wave
hello if we happened to pull out of our driveways at the same time. He knows a little bit
of Spanish, and sometimes when he came over to the house he tried to say a few words here
and there. I appreciated the effort he made. If we saw each other at one of the high
school football games, we might shake hands. We were never close friends, but there was a
time when we talked in the way neighbors do. That was years ago, though. I couldn't find
anything to say to him that day at the mall. And I guess the same goes for him.
Bannert probably thinks I'm crazy. But I'm not. I can
tell you exactly when the trouble started October 3,
1976. I know the date because I keep a record of things. It's nothing fancy, not a diary
or anything like that. I just write down what I do every day. It started when I was
delivering bread and I had a problem with my supervisor. One day I noticed he was
following me on my route, checking to see that I wasn't slacking off. The man had a
problem trusting people. He wasn't from around heremaybe
that had something to do with it. Either way, I thought writing everything down on paper
was a good way to defend myself if he ever said anything against me. I did this at the end
of the day, right before I went to bed. Just a few short notes about what I did on my
route, the people I spoke to, the mileage on the vehicle, and how long a lunch break I
took. Then one night I was writing down all the things I'd done and I realized I hadn't
worked that day. This was a Sunday. It had become a habit after so many years, is what I'm
trying to say. From then on I wrote in my notebook every night, even after I quit that job
and found a better one.
Don't think that I spend a lot of time writing in it,
because I don't. Here's what I wrote last Saturday:
Breakfast at Reyna's Cafe, rotated and balanced
tires, bought a new ceiling fan, haircut at Trevino's.
If it's a good haircut I might mention it, but
usually it's just a haircut. Sometimes I look back at the end of the year and see what I
was doing. Or I'll pull out a notebook and see what I was doing five years ago on that
day. I have one for every year back to 1973. They're small spiral notebooks, fifty
pages, the same ones the kids use in school. I write the year on the cover.
October 3, 1976 - Mowed grass, front and back,
trimmed weeds growing next to fence, loaned hammer to Bannert.
So, you see, I have it in writing. I'm not
My wife said Bannert probably just forgot. I don't
know how an honest man forgets for almost four years. I don't know how he wakes up every
morning, walks out his front door, looks across the streetstraight
at my houseand forgets he hasn't returned my hammer.
But she's quick to defend other people, make excuses
for them, especially if they happen to have blue eyes. Then they can't go wrong. She
thought I was exaggerating the time I told her about my supervisor following me. She
claimed that the reason I was so upset was because this supervisor happened to be a
gringo. That is her opinion. I've come to expect this from her. You should have seen her
when we first moved here. There were only a few Anglo families, but she thought we were
living at the country club. Over the years, most of them have moved across town or passed
away, until it's come to be almost all raza that live here. I've lived and worked with
gringos my whole life. Gringos, mexicanos, negros, chinos. It makes no difference to me.
I've always been more interested in living next to honest people than anything else. After
that, they can be any color they want.
My wife actually wanted me to walk over and ask
Bannert for the hammer.
"Excuse me, Mr. Bannert, but you know that hammer
you borrowed a really long time ago, the one you know and I know is mine, pues, I need it
Something like that. But I said I wasn't the one who
did the borrowing, so why should I be the one doing the asking?
I was sitting on the porch steps sharpening the blades
on the clippers when Bannert came over that afternoon. He stared like he'd never seen
anybody sharpen blades. He stared long enough that he made me uncomfortable, and I finally
stood up. I don't like people standing over me when I'm working. He was wearing a white
T-shirt and a pair of overalls that had creases. His freckled skin was burning with the
sun. Bannert isn't the kind of man who works outside every day. He earns his living
selling sofas and beds and whatever else they have in a furniture store. If he had yard
work, he usually hired somebody to do it.
"The yard looks good, hombre," he said.
"It could use some rain," I said.
"I guess that's why God made sprinklers." He
laughed at this.
"Looks like you're getting ready to do some work,
"Yeah, I need to fix a few things around la casa.
The dryer needs a new exhaust hose. Plus my wife has me hanging up some curtain rods but,
chingado, I can't find my hammer. You think I can borrow yours?"
That's how it happened. That's how I remember it,
He's not the first person I ever loaned something to.
George Fuentes used my weed whacker once or twice. I let Domingo, the man who cleans
yards, borrow my machete when the handle on his broke loose. Torres needed a small wrench
to fix a toilet. Nobody can say I'm pinche with my tools. But then all those things were
returned to me within a day, two days at the most.
Bannert was different. Four days went by y nada. No
hammer, no apologies, no "Do you mind if I borrow it for a few more days,
hombre?" Nothing. Like they say on the radio: Ni-fu, ni-fa.
So I asked myself, "How long do I wait before I
It's not like he was a stranger who was going to run
off the next day. He lived on the other side of the street, maybe a hundred feet from his
front door to mine. If I went over too soon, it was going to look like I was desperate and
I didn't believe he'd bring the hammer back on his own, which wasn't so far from the
I can only remember one thing that I ever borrowed
from Bannert. It wasn't even for me, really. My wife invited some of her family to go with
us to the beach and we needed an extra folding table for all the food. We thought Bannert
might have one and he did. I put a plastic covering over the table just in case one of our
boys spilled something on it. I didn't want Bannert saying later that those people across
the street didn't know how to take care of things. And as soon as we got home, I wiped off
the sand and returned the table to him. Bannert looked surprised to see me and asked if
one of the legs had busted. The man couldn't understand why I wanted to return the table
"Thanks," he said, "but you didn't have
to bring it back so fast. I knew you'd stop by when you had a chance."
Right there's the difference between us. Bannert takes
everything for granted. Why should I have kept his table one minute longer than I needed
it? I was glad that he had a table and was willing to lend it to me in the first place. He
thought it was okay to bring back my hammer when it was convenient, when it suited him. I
don't work that way.
Time passed: two weeks, three months, seven months, a
year, two years.
I understand that most people would've already done
something about the hammer, but I'm not most people. I never felt it was my
responsibility. Bannert's a grown man. He knew what he was doing. I shouldn't have to go
around picking up after him. Just forget about it, my wife saidwhich
was easy to say, since he didn't take something that belonged to her.
During that time, I saw him use my hammer on three
May 18, 1977 - Mowed front yard, trimmed grass
along the sidewalk, cleaned lawn mower watched Bannert hammer a new mailbox onto the side
of his carport.
November 30, 1979 - Raked leaves in
front and backyard, changed oil and filter in car, saw Bannert and his wife nailing Merry
Christmas decorations to the front of his house.
July 4, 1980 - Sprayed tree for worms, washed car
drove the boys to fireworks stands, Bannert posted a red, white, and blue sign in his
yard: Vote Reagan.
I'm not a political man, not any more than the next
Democrat on this block, but I came pretty close to walking over there and grabbing the
hammer out of his hand. The problem now was so much time had gone by that saying anything
would make it look like I had been hiding my true feelings the past four years. That every
morning when he waved and I waved back, I wasn't thinking, "Good morning,
Bannert." That instead I was really thinking, "Why the hell hasn't this gringo
brought back my hammer?" But the truth is that I didn't think about it all the time.
Sometimes months would pass before I remembered again. And when it did come to mind, it
was more like a leaky faucet that you forget about until some night when you can't fall
asleep and then you hear the plop... plop... plop... plop ...
but then you forget about it again the next morning.
I will say that after the first yearwhen it was clear to me that he wasn't bringing back the
hammerthere were fewer and fewer reasons to be
friendly. He'd wave and I would nod back, just enough to let him know that I'd seen him.
After mowing the yard, I used to sweep the curb and then walk over and sweep his sideI figured the street belonged to the both of us and if his
side looked good, my side looked goodbut I put an end
to that. Christmas Eve we have a tradition of inviting our family and a few neighbors over
to the house for tamales. My wife and I were going to sleep after one of these parties and
she asked me if I knew why the Bannerts hadn't come. "I guess I forgot to invite
them," I said.
I think he got the idea, because he stopped coming
around. He stopped being so quick to wave. He stopped bringing fruitcakes around the
holidays, which was fine with me because I never touched them anyway. When he threw a big
New Year's party and cars were parked up and down the street, we were somehow not on the
invitation list. But as far as I was concerned, he could keep his fruitcakes and his
invitations, the same way he'd kept my hammer.
It's not like I stopped hammering altogether. If I
needed to replace some shingles on the house or fix the leg on a table, I used my other
hammer. It was an older one that had belonged to my father. The handle was wooden and the
head was rusty. I had to wrap duct tape on the handle because the wood was splitting. The
head rattled when I used it, and I knew it wouldn't be long before it broke off. My other
hammer, the one across the street, was all steel with a black rubber grip. It fit in my
palm like a firm handshake. I bought it at Sears.
Maybe I should've written my name on it, my initials:
RG. But you wouldn't think you'd have to do that with your own hammer. I wasn't working on
some construction job where your tools can get lost. It wasn't a suitcase that somebody
might pick up by mistake and walk off with. Your hammer should be your hammer, your
property. You never know when you're going to need it.
August 5, 1980 - Finished painting the outside
trim on the house, cleaned brushes and tray, watched news - weatherman says hurricane
headed to the Valley.
We don't get hurricanes every year, but if you
lived through Beulah in '67, you know what they can do. It did most of its damage right
here and in Matamoros. Trees were ripped out of the ground, phone lines got knocked over,
just about every part of the city flooded, the electricity was out for almost a week. All
the food and milk in the refrigerator went bad. Forget about clean water. I lost two trees
in the backyard. The wind had that poor grapefruit tree twisting around like a pair of
underwear hanging on the clothesline. The mesquite split right down the middle. We heard
the wood cracking all the way inside the house and I felt a part of me was also being
ripped up. The biggest branch fell on the fence and made it into an accordion. And what
happened here is nothing compared to what those poor people went through on the other side
of the river. Nobody wanted to have that experience again.
There wasn't anything to do but wait. Wait and pray
that it died down or turned some other direction. I watched the news every chance I had.
Some people were in the habit of leaving the area, driving north, whenever they heard news
like this. I can't say I blame them, but it wasn't something we ever did.
August 9, 1980 - Hurricane Allen expected
to hit Brownsville-Matamoros tonight, weatherman says winds over 170 mph (his words:
"could be stronger than Beulah"), took day off from work, bought boards at De
Luna Lumber, boarded up windows, Bannert finally gave me back my hammer.
There's more that I didn't write down in the
notebookthere always is.
First of all, let me say that we lived through the
hurricane and we're still here today. Me writing in my notebooks, Bannert eating ice cream
cones at the mall. The hurricane ended up hitting the coast about forty miles north of
here, where there weren't as many people. It still did its damage. It just wasn't as bad
as it could have been. A few trees were knocked down on our street and we were without
electricity and water for a day, but we survived. Bannert stayed around for a year and
then moved to a new subdivision on the north side of town. Four months later another
family moved in across from us.
But what sticks out in my mind about the hurricane
happened the afternoon before it actually hit. I was waiting in line for almost an hour at
De Luna. It looked like half of Brownsville was there buying lumber. Bannert was towards
the back of the line, but neither of us made an effort to say hello. The other men were
talking about what they'd been through with the last big hurricane. An older man with a
cane told everybody how he'd lost a sister in Matamoros when she drowned in her front
yard. He said the two boys with him were her children but that he had raised them as if
they were his own.
As I stood in line, I could see a policeman directing
traffic on International because the lights had gone out. People tried to get in and out
of the Lopez Supermarket on that side of the street. My wife was inside there buying all
the food and candles she could fit into a shopping cart. The parking lot was full of women
loading their cars with enough groceries to wait out the worst of the storm.
I was sliding the last board onto the bed of my truck
when I noticed Bannert and one of the De Luna workers unloading a cart stacked with
boards. Anybody could tell they weren't going to be able to fit all that lumber in the
trunk of Bannert's car, and if they did, he was going to cause an accident. Some other day
they might have delivered the boards to his house, but there was a line of men still
waiting to buy lumber.
"Looks like you could use some help getting that
back to the house, Bannert," I said.
"You have room in your truck?" he asked.
"I think I can fit a few more boards."
We each grabbed an end of the first board and started
loading, one by one, neither one of us saying a word. We hadn't talked in almost four
yearswhy start now? He drove out of the parking lot
first, and I followed him back to the neighborhood. On the way there, I saw him keeping an
eye on me in the rearview mirror like I might forget where he lived. When we were at his
house, I backed my truck into the driveway. Again, we grabbed the boards one by one until
we had them all leaning against the carport.
"Now I just have to get them up there," he
said and laughed.
"Maybe one of your boys can help you."
"Nah, they're still too young. They'd only get in
I thought about his situation and what I should do. He
was right about his boys getting in the way. Mine wouldn't be any help, either, but at
least I knew I could board up my house without any help. I remember looking at Bannert's
overalls, a little faded now, but still with the creases.
"Two can work faster than one," I finally
said. "Why don't I help you get started with some of these windows?"
I had my old hammer in the toolbox in my truck.
Bannert brought out a stepladder so I could reach the top of the windows. He held the
boards against the house and I hammered the nails in. I could hear the sound of banging
hammers and the grinding of electric saws coming from every direction. I stopped a couple
of times just to listen. I wanted to believe the hammers were somehow sending messages all
over the neighborhood. Messages saying what we didn't have words to say ourselves.
Regardless of what had happened between us, I didn't mind helping Bannert this one
afternoon. His family lived in this neighb0rhiood, just like mine. If I could
lend a hand, why not give it? And I had the sense that if he had been in a position to
help me with something that he wouldn't have hesitated. That's what I believed. But I also
knew we would've never talked if the situation hadn't turned out the way it did.
And after this work was done, we would stop talking again. We'd go back to ignoring each
other, and that's just the way life would be around here. I knew it even back then.
I ended up doing most of the work that afternoon, but
when we were at the last window I thought he might want to do one.
"You want to knock a few in?"
"You bet," he said.
We switched places. I held the board against the
window, and Bannert climbed the stepladder. He took a couple of practice swings with the
hammer and then hit his first nail. He had two good swings before he hit to the left and
the nail bent sideways. It took a couple of taps to straighten it out and start again. The
next few nails went the same way.
"Be sure you hit the center of the head and put
some more weight behind your swing.
He nodded okay and banged the nail a couple of times.
On the next swing he missed the nail altogether and the hammer pounded the side of the
house. That was what finally made the head crack off the wooden handle. The head flopped
over like a chicken with a broken neck.
"Sorry." He stayed looking at the broken
What could I say? He'd borrowed my good hammer and
never returned it, and now he'd broken my old one.
"It's my fault," he said.
I didn't argue with him. He climbed down from the
stepladder and turned towards me.
"I'm going to give you my hammer," he said.
Then he reached into a brown shoe box he had in the
carport and pulled out my hammer. There it was, after four years. It didn't look any
different from the day he had borrowed it. I held the hammer again and it felt like a
missing finger that had been reattached to my hand. So, yes, maybe he really had forgotten
that it was my hammer. That didn't excuse the past four years, but at least it explained
to me how a mistake could've happened.
"Go ahead, it's yours now, he said. "I owe
you one, hombre."
I guess he thought I might refuse his offer to take
the hammer. He looked me in the eye, and I wanted to believe that the man was telling me
the truth about having forgotten. I mean, there were things I forgot now and then.
Sometimes I had to look in my notebook just to remember what I was doing two days earlier.
It was possible that his memory could've failed him. Anything's possible.
It felt strange to be thanking him for giving me
something that was really mine, but those were the only words that came to me. I wanted to
say more and set things straight with him, explain the misunderstanding, and see if maybe
there was some way to put this behind us. It was just a hammer that had caused this. Maybe
we could even laugh about the whole thing. I would've said something right then, but I
could feel the temperature had already dropped a couple of degrees and the wind was
beginning to shift. I only had a few hours left to board up my own house.