Explained nonchalantly by the need to “break the monotony” of one day in August and get a tool “to make something,” young Al Condraj’s casual pocketing of a small hammer at Woolworth becomes a traumatic and obsessive experience. He has no plan to break the law when he lifts the ten-cent object; his single-minded concern is to “make something” out of freely available wood and nails. Although he is released by the store manager, Al knows that “he had been humiliated and [is] deeply ashamed.” The trauma of feeling humiliated and shamed gives way to hatred for adult authority. Al begins the process of maturing as he reflects on his position in society.
At first, Al decides to summon enough courage to take revenge on the young man who caught him, but he loses his nerve outside the store. He believes that because he was “made to feel like a thief anyway,” he should at least get the hammer. He returns home “crushed,” confused, and “bitterly ashamed.” When he recounts what happened to his mother, his mother scolds him, offering him money to buy the hammer. Al refuses, saying that he really does not need the hammer.
Restless, Al finds no one with whom to discuss his plight: Johnny Gale, the worker who resembles a machine at Foley’s Packing House, has no time to pay attention to him. An entire night is consumed by the problem of “adjusting the matter,” filled with thoughts of murder and a life of crime.
When the mother and her neighbor return home at nine o’clock and prepare their supper, using vegetables from their garden, Al is in the process of constructing a bench. In the exchange between Al and his mother, the reader learns that Al has partly resolved his dilemma: He has worked all day at Woolworth, earning the hammer, but has also asserted his right to refuse the offer of a job from the two men he hates. Although puzzled that he would not accept a job that pays handsomely, his mother accepts his judgment. His satisfaction in his work and the smell of the garden purge him of humiliation, but not of the hatred for the two men, although he acknowledges that they did what they had to do.