tenterhooks

“I’ll buy you a coffee if you guess what these are,” Jess said. She held out a little box.

Daryl looked in. “Bent nails,” he said tentatively.

“To a certain extent,” Jess said. “But what’s their intent?”

“To frustrate carpenters,” I said.

“A bit of a stretch,” Jess said.

“They’re supposed to be like that?” Daryl said.

“It’s intentional.”

“It would help to see them in context,” I said.

“Obviously. Once you have them in the frame, you’ll catch on.”

“Or they’ll catch on,” I said. “But catch on what?”

“Feel free to ask around,” Jess said. “Canvas.”

“Ask strangers here in the coffee shop?” Daryl said.

“Get the answer by hook or by crook.”

“They do look like crooked fingers,” I said, crooking my index finger.

“There’s some tension between form and function.”

“Are you going to keep on at this?” Daryl asked. He gazed at the box intently.

“Maybe I’ll keep you on this. On these.”

“On tenterhooks,” I said.

Jess smiled and pocketed the box. “What do you take in your coffee?”

“Wait, what?” Daryl said. “He didn’t make a guess.”

“He got it for all in tents,” Jess said.

I smiled and extended a finger. “And on tenters.”

“Will you explain!” Daryl said.

“Don’t have a tenter tantrum,” Jess said. She headed over to the counter.

“A tenter,” I said, “is a frame on which canvas or other fabric is stretched to dry. From Latin tendere ‘stretch’, source of assorted other English words, including tent and extend.”

“What will it be?” Jess shouted at me from the counter.

“Decaf, cream,” I shouted back.

“But what are those, then?” Daryl said. “Don’t hang me out to dry here.”

“Before you rack your brain, put your brain to the rack,” I said. “A tenter needs hooks. To hold the fabric in place.”

The lightbulb went on over Daryl’s head. “Tenterhooks.”

“It’s not a Dutch family name!” I said.

“Not tenderhooks, either,” he said.

“Whatever those would be. No, if you feel like you’re in a state of tension, stretched and drying, you’re on tenterhooks.”

“Which would put me in Jess’s pocket now,” Daryl said.

Jess came back with the coffee. “Better luck next time,” she said. “James nailed it.”

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