Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bricks (completed)

Piling higher and higher, the bricklayer laid his bricks. One after the other, after the other, after the other. The wall reached for the sky, an artificial barrier declaring within and without. His was a weary profession, one of small goals and slow progress. The years dripped from his brow and his veins were a map of his labor. His face changed over time, like a flower that was once new and fresh and light. With the rising and setting of the sun, the petals slowly breathe. Unhurried as first. His eyes not so steady, the hope still dancing. And then they changed, not so slow. His eyes became level, his gaze became hard. As the petals glow less, and less still. Like the brow of the bricklayer, the petals wither. Lines form where there once were none, and the sun sets again, though only until tomorrow. And like the sun, the bricks still rise.

The wall soon meets another wall, and yet another still. They unite at angles and form a house. But the bricklayer doesn’t see a house, he doesn’t see the walls even. The bricklayer sees the bricks. Each brick its own beginning and its own end. Not unlike memories. Each one having a place of its own. When taken together forming a life, or a house. When taken apart, being much more manageable. And child becomes man, seed becomes flower, brick becomes home.

Life is stale and stagnant when you’re along. However, you begin to like the taste of bland, or not unlike it as much. And you become heavy, from your eyelids to your feet. Bill was heavy, and had been for some time. He was lucky though, because he didn’t know any better. Heavy was normal, and bland was everything. Days were bricks, each one so similar to the next. And they formed a wall. The wall was straight and sturdy and high, and half a life was over.

A hurricane disrupted the sleepy flow of the coastal Virginia town. It happened in mid-October, near the end of high season. Passing nearly seventy-five miles off the Atlantic coast, the winds and seas roared its arrival. The clouds rolled in first, blocking the slanted rays of the autumn sun, then came the rains, drowning the debris of the seasoned changed. Trees were uprooted and houses torn apart, leaving the streets littered with the broken remains of a life interrupted.

At the Wesley estate, a wall collapsed. A lone tree crushed the structure, leaving a gaping hole in the east side of the home. Built in colonial times, the estate was a monument to a time since passed. Mr. Wesley, his wife and their only son, Benjamin, lived on the estate, carrying on the struggles of the generations that preceded them. That’s why Bill was brought in. He was to repair the wall.

Bill arrived in his truck just after daybreak on the Tuesday following the storm’s departure. Color had begun to seep back into nature, as the browns and golds and reds of autumn were slowly fighting their way through the wreckage. Even the sky was a crisp clear blue again, suggesting nothing had changed. Mr. Wesley met Bill at the front gate and brought him around to survey the damage.

“Well, there it is,” said Mr. Wesley pointing at the tree lying unmoved within the broken wall. “I didn’t know how to move it, and didn’t want to cause anymore damage,” he explained further.

“You did the right thing,” Bill answered plainly, glancing back at the remaining stump where the tree once stood. “This could have been a lot worse,” he continued. “You should consider yourself lucky.”

From his second story window Benjamin watched the exchange between his father and this man. The contrast of the two was quite stark. Benjamin’s father stood soft and round, with his glasses and graying hair suggesting something of his years. The bricklayer was a different picture entirely. He stood almost a full head taller than Benjamin’s father and was as thick as the tree the two were discussing. His shoulders were hunched, though, betraying his size and the power of his build. And his worn boots and weathered jeans were evenly coated in a grayish dust that seemed to envelope his whole body. But most noticeable were his eyes, which when he lifted them, were hard and heavy and sad.

Mr. Wesley left Bill to his work. In most cases it was necessary to tear down the damaged wall and build it back up again. In this case the damage caused by the tree was superficial and tearing down the entire wall wouldn’t be necessary. Bill went to his truck to retrieve a rope.

Benjamin rested his head against the window’s cold pane as he watched the bricklayer work. His movements were slow and strong as he lifted the heavy rope and hoisted it over his shoulder, the pace of a man accustomed to long days and heavy loads. With his calloused hands he tied the rope to the thick trunk of the fallen tree, taking time to ensure the strength of his knot. Satisfied, the bricklayer returned to his truck and drove it across the lawn, backing carefully towards the east wall. With the engine running, he got out and tied the other end of the rope to the hitch below the truck’s bed, again checking his knot thoroughly.

Benjamin watched as the truck wrenched the fallen tree from the broken wall. The tires of the truck occasionally slipped and threw grass and dirt and leaves from their tracks. The panes of the window began to shake as tires of the truck took hold and the tree gradually became dislodged. Once free the bricklayer continued to drive, dragging the tree across the lawn, out of the front gate, leaving a track where before there was none. The bricklayer soon returned to survey the extent of the damage and plan where his bricks would go. It was then that he noticed the boy in the overlooking window.

The door crept open slowly, so slowly that Benjamin didn’t notice. When he did, he jumped back from the window, but not before his father saw him.

“You’re going to be late for school,” Mr. Wesley warned, recognizing little of himself in his son.

“I’m coming,” the boy whined. Benjamin turned and grabbed his books, stealing a quick glance out the window at the man below, banging the loose bricks out with a sledgehammer. The man’s body absorbed each swing. Benjamin rushed out of the room, past the scowl of this father.

In the kitchen Mrs. Wesley stood preparing the morning meal. Her features were fair but faded, pale blue eyes and straw blonde hair pulled back severely above her head. Her hands moved mechanically as her husband and son sat at the table. She served each accordingly and lastly herself. The thump of the sledgehammer could faintly be heard over the clinking of the dishes.

“That wall’s going to cost us a fortune,” Mr. Wesley complained to no one in particular. Mrs. Wesley looked up at her husband cautiously.

“Thank God no one was hurt,” she responded softly.

“Yeah,” Mr. Wesley grumbled, “we should consider ourselves real lucky.”

Benjamin sat quietly staring at his plate, his eggs running into his burnt bacon. The thumping of the bricklayer could still be heard.

“Aren’t you going to eat, dear?” Mrs. Wesley addressed her son, as he sat unmoving. Mr. Wesley turned to Benjamin, and Benjamin quickly picked up his fork. The darkened bacon crumbled in his mouth.

Bill lifted the sledgehammer with great effort, and brought it down with great precision. Each swing dislodged another portion of the jagged wall. The muscles in his shoulder throbbed from the morning’s exertions.

The door to the front of the house opened, and Bill turned to see Mr. Wesley and a young boy walk to their car. The boy followed closely behind his father, and Bill recognized him from the window. Benjamin turned his head towards Bill and their eyes met momentarily. Benjamin quickly looked away. Though at a distance, Bill was struck by how small and timid the boy seemed. The two were quickly in the car and drove away. Bill lifted the hammer once again.

The rest of the morning passed uneventful as Bill finished with his hammer. The remained of his day was spent leveling the remaining fixture. Sweat formed on the brow of the bricklayer as he carefully marked the straight lines. Leveling was a tedious task, as each row of brick had to be in line with itself and the other bricks. Thin twine was run from the two standing portions of the wall to outline where the bricks would be placed, with each line carefully adjusted with the last. What remained was a skeleton of the wall to be built.

Just before dark, the same car arrived back at the house. As the engine ceased to hum, Bill heard an angry yell. The back door then swung open and the boy emerged, and hurried to the house. Bill saw his reddened face.

Next the front door opened, and Mr. Wesley stepped from the driver’s seat. Removing a cigarette from the pocket of his jacket, he proceeded to light it. He inhaled deeply, smoke drifting from his mouth and nose as he joined Bill in front of the wall.

“I see you’ve made some progress,” Mr. Wesley spoke, motioning at the debris cluttering the lawn.

“It’s a start,” Bill replied, looking up to survey the extent of the work yet to be finished. Mr. Wesley extended his arm to offer Bill a cigarette. With a quick movement of his hand, Bill declined the offer.

From his bedroom window, Benjamin watched through teary eyes. The setting sun cast long shadows of the two men. As the bricklayer left for the evening, his father stood below and lit his second cigarette. The smoke rose slowly as the setting sun swallowed the colors of the day. As the sun disappeared completely, Mr. Wesley put out the cigarette with the sole of his shoe.

The night was like so many other nights for Bill. By the time he got home the sun had long since set, and a cool moisture had christened the grass outside. Inside a burger was cooking on the stove as Bill sat on his screened in porch in a white undershirt, breathing in the cool night air. A baseball game could be heard just above the cricket’s chirps. Bill slouched even further in his reclining chair while the beer he held sweated in his palm. Some kids could be seen passing through the bushes, on their way home from practice. Bill sat alone, unmoved in his chair. The smell of burnt meat soon filled the air.

Meanwhile, Benjamin sat up in his bed staring out the window as the stars. His thoughts were on the giant he had seen that morning. Sitting in the dark, in his room, Benjamin wondered what it would be like to be so big and so strong. ‘I bet he’s not afraid of anyone,’ Benjamin thought, ‘no one at all.’

Downstairs his father sat distracted under a reading lamp, his rocks glass more than half empty, the ticking of the grandfather clock the only sound. Upstairs his mother was brushing her hair, staring blankly at the reflection in the mirror.

Bill arrived in his truck just after daybreak, but this time no one met him at the gate. He let himself in, and began where he left off the night before. He would continue to work for the next two weeks.

Life in the Wesley household proceeded as well. Within the brick confines of the estate, the family went about their days. As Bill laid each individual brick, one after the other after the other, the Wesley’s held their collective breathes. Each day was like each other day, lying precariously on top of the previous ones, and the once level foundation slowly shifted. Mrs. Wesley withdrew, Mr. Wesley grew angrier, and Benjamin continued to hide.

As October welcomed November, the wall was near complete. Bill arrived on a Saturday to finish up the job. He now used a ladder to reach each rising row. The mortar of the bottom layers had time to dry, and the structure stood straight and strong.

Sitting in his bedroom window perch, Benjamin realized the wall was almost done. From his position on top of the wall, he could no longer see the bricklayer as he had made his way to the far top corner of the structure. Benjamin decided to sneak around outside and check on his progress. The two had yet to speak directly, and Benjamin was careful to remain quiet.

Walking slowly from the front door, Benjamin tiptoed to towards the east wall. Peeking quickly around the corner the bricklayer was nowhere to be seen. Benjamin looked around again, nothing. He walked to the front of the east wall. Craning his neck to look at the repairs the bricklayer had made, Benjamin could barely make out where the old wall ended and the repairs began. He stood with his back to the bricklayer’s truck. An empty ladder leaned against the top right corner of the wall, and a small slit of dark remained where the bricks were yet to be placed.

Bill came up behind Benjamin. The noise of his heavy boots on the fallen leaves crackled a warning, and Benjamin quickly turned to see the bricklayer towering above. A faint gasp escaped his thin lips, like air from a balloon.

“I’m sorry,” Bill quickly muttered, a deep concern filling his face, “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“I wasn’t scared,” Benjamin countered, his quavering voice betraying his words. The two stood on top on each other. Bill then walked over to the wall, his eyes following the lines of bricks.

“You’re almost done, huh?” Benjamin asked quietly, catching his breath as he kicked loosed dirt with his left foot. Bill looked at Benjamin and then back at the bricks.

“It shouldn’t be more than a few hours now,” Bill replied, as he climbed to his place atop the leaning ladder. The rungs creaked their disapproval.

“What are you going to do next?” Benjamin inquired, stepping closer to the ladder on which Bill stood.

“I’m not sure,” Bill answered plainly. “Something will come up, it always does.” The November frost held the grass captive, and the Saturday sun reflected off the moisture. Bill had to squint to see Benjamin through the glare.

Bill leaned for the mortar, but couldn’t reach. Benjamin picked up the bucket, surprised at its weight. Bill reached down and took the bucket from Benjamin’s outstretched arms and placed it firmly on top of the ladder. He then used a large broad spatula to dip into the mortar and spread it smoothly across the brick tops. The white paste formed a divide between the ruddy red bricks.

“Where did you learn do that?” Benjamin asked, not wanting to remain quiet.

“It’s just something I picked up over time,” Bill answered, not looking at the boy as he smoothed the paste. As he placed each brick on the smooth white paste, the excess escaped from the sides. Bill scraped away the overflow. He could tell the boy didn’t want to leave.

“I remember the first time I got a job helping to build houses,” Bill continued, “I mustn’t have been more than sixteen. I was a little guy back then too, probably no bigger than you are now. And I didn’t know anything.” Bill slowly carried his body down the rungs of the ladder.

“What happened?” Benjamin asked, his pale eyes wider.

“I don’t know,” Bill answered honestly, “I guess it just took time. I learned from the people around me. Slowly I found myself able to do it on my own. I guess I just grew up.”

Bill tried to find something for this boy, some ray of hope. He thought back over his life, his experiences, but what he found was a calendar of bricks, a wall of days. Bill sat on the second lowest rung of the ladder. Benjamin stood not two feet away.

“I wish I were older,” Benjamin admitted, “Then I could just leave, then I could just get out of here.” Benjamin grew less and less timid with each word. “Yeah, I’d just leave and never come back.”

“If you left, where would you go?” Bill questioned his small confidant. Bill watched as he searched for an answer. His eyes giving away that he had none.

“Just away,” he finally muttered, defeated. “Somewhere else,” his voice trailed off. They looked at each other, Bill crouched on his ladder and Benjamin now sitting crossed legged on the ground. The day remained unchanged.

Bill got up and walked to the ladder. He looked back towards Benjamin, as Benjamin wiped his nose across his sleeve. Leaning over Bill picked up a brick and handed it to the boy. Benjamin was reluctant at first, than accepted it. He held it firmly, feeling its weight and grainy texture in his small hands.

“It goes up there,” Bill said, pointing to the dark slit at the top of the ladder. Benjamin lifted his head to the sky and looked at the wall. He hesitated.

“It’s alright, you’ll be fine,” Bill encouraged him. Benjamin walked over to the ladder. He paused once more as he touched the cold steel frame. “I’ll be right here,” Bill promised.

Benjamin took a breath and looked up at the ladder. He reached out with his left hand, holding the brick firmly in his right. He pulled himself up onto the first rung. The ladder stood strong. He pulled himself up onto the second rung. Bill walked over to the ladder and held it lightly in his big hands. He watched from below as Benjamin awkwardly struggled to make his way up the ladder.

“Now settle yourself and watch your balance,” Bill called out from below. “Careful now, take the mortar from the ladder and put it on the bottom of the brick.” Benjamin looked timidly over his shoulder.

“You mean this?” he asked pointing at the large plastic tub at the ladder’s top.

“Yeah, just keep your feet still,” Bill answered. Benjamin slowly reached out his left hand to the spatula lying next to the tub. Holding the brick carefully away from his body, he lowered the spatula into the tub and pulled out a pile of white paste. Carefully keeping his balance he smoothed the paste over the brick he held, holding both away from his body.

“That’s it,” Bill cried. “Now just take the brick and place it on top of the rest. Make sure its straight.” Benjamin took another set up the ladder and reached for the wall. Stretching his lean arm he reached, and gently he placed the brick next to the others. The white paste oozed out the sides.

“Good, good. Now just use the spatula to scrape off the mortar,” Bill instructed. Benjamin took the spatula from the tub and did as he was told. When he finished he looked down at Bill and flashed a toothy smile.

“I did it,” he exclaimed, half in excitement, half in relief. Slowly he made his way down the ladder. Reaching the bottom, he hopped off and smiled again. “I did it,” he repeated, looking up at the wall to see the brick he had laid.

“Yeah you did,” Bill slowly smiled too.

Mr. Wesley came outside just before dusk. Bill was gone. The yard was no longer scattered with evidence of the work being done, and Bill’s truck was no longer there. Mr. Wesley looked up at the wall. It stood complete, just as before. He returned to the house. In the kitchen Mrs. Wesley stood preparing dinner.

Benjamin stood in the window of his room, craning his neck to see the brick he had laid. There was still the trace of a small smile on his thin lips.

The bricklayer was on his porch, rocking slowly back and forth in his reclining chair. He too was smiling. A cool breeze rustled the now leafless branches of the surrounding trees, and the sun set soon after. The moon could just be seen through the dancing branches. The bricklayer’s eyes were closed though, as he thought about tomorrow.


LINZC said...

inventive comparision between the bricklayer's (maybe anyone's?) work and life. the simple, timeless theme is supported well by a lyrical style. the abtractness of the story works well with the theme/style; a longer version would need concreteness.

McGuff said...

thanks. It's difficult to tell if there is enough movement to capture the ultimate climax of the two characters. And it's tough to feel whether the resolution is substantial enough. Also is voice, narrative consistent enough throughout?

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