Black Fingernails and Calluses

Black Fingernails and Calluses

By Mark Cote

Every old man wants to tell the story of when he was somebody. When he knew what to do, where to be and when. When he had a routine to his day, even had a title at the job he spent more than half his life at. These are the days he recalls. When he and his bride were young, there were kids to raise, bills to pay. Work to do. Things to fix.

When I was a young boy, men smelled like men. They had nose hair, ear hair, bushy eyebrows. Had names like Gus, Roger, Al. Smoked cigars, played cards and drank beer in brown glass quart bottles. Whatever was the cheapest. Schlitz and Old    Milwaukee. Bowled on a Friday night league. Had their own balls and shoes. Worked blue collar jobs. Drove Ford trucks and Chevy cars. Had wives named     Betty, Marie, Lorraine.

They didn’t talk much. Didn’t have much to say. If something broke, they fixed it.  Electrical, plumbing, carpentry, they did it all. No one could afford to hire a repairman. It was unheard of. What self-respecting man invited another man into his house to fix his problems? Spent Saturdays working on the house. Sundays were for church. When the car needed brakes or an oil change, they worked in the driveway or on the street in front of the house with parts they got at the junkyard, stripping them off old wrecks with their own tools. My grandfather, Herman (everyone called him Hank) worked as a mechanic at the local Army base. I remember his hands always dirty. Black fingernails and calluses.

They built garages in backyards with cinder blocks bought a few at a time when they could afford them, mixing cement by hand in a wheelbarrow using the garden hose, an old trowel and hoe. They never stopped.

My father was no different. From the time I was eight I was his flashlight holder when he was working on something.

“Hold this. Point it over here. Jesus Christ hold still. Give me that! Go get me a pair of plyers”.

Lots of swearing, four or five trips to Sears Roebuck. Every project. Every time.

When my mother decided she wanted a family room with a fireplace as an addition off the kitchen, my father got the shovel out of the shed and dug the foundation by hand. He mixed the cement one bag at a time in a wheelbarrow, poured it, built a 24 x 20 family room using 10-inch pine boards from the lumber mill a few towns away. Every board, every nail, every window, every detail, after work and on the weekends. By himself. With me holding the flashlight. The only thing he didn’t do     was build the fireplace. For that my mother insisted on professionals.


Mark A. Cote was born, raised and still lives in the Highlands neighborhood of Lowell Ma with his wife Donna and a Guinea Pig named Houdini. A motorcycle enthusiast and Professor of Sociology, Mark’s writing includes short stories, social and political satire and commentary.

One Response to Black Fingernails and Calluses

  1. Jack McDonough says:

    This story is wonderfully evocative. My father was one of those men. He built our garage himself with the help of friends. I don’t remember where the lumber came from but most of it wasn’t new. That building served for years without clapboards. I don’t remember that project — but there was always an endless list of “projects.” (A vanity table for my mother; a shower in the cellar; a bookcase for my room.) Those were the days, my friend.