I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
My first day on the job, Uncle Pat teamed me with a wiry little bricklayer named Shotty Montileone, who had learned the brick trade at Thorn Hill Reform School. Shotty talked like a gangster, syllable by syllable, in that halting, mannered clip, so you never really knew when he was finished. Every day, like a uniform, he wore tight jeans and a gleaming white V-neck T-shirt. He lacquered back his silver hair and sported a sharp, manicured goatee. On his bony chest hung a tiny gold crucifix and the horn to ward off the evil eye.
Shotty wouldn’t climb scaffold. Not even to the first level. He wouldn’t get near it. Thirty years before, while he was laying the last few courses on a gable three stories up, the scaffold he was on had collapsed. He’d fractured his skull and broken both legs, one of them shattered. Six months in the hospital. Screws and pins in his leg, and a serious, dragging limp.
He blamed it on Pat, who was notorious for ignoring safety to spare his wallet. All his equipment was secondhand and wired together. His laborers crossed from scaffold to scaffold in midair with nothing but a rickety gray plank between them and the ground.
“Skinflint mother-huncher,” Shotty said. “Hasn’t bought new scaffold since World War II. And he bought that used. He still has his baptismal money. No way I’m getting up on that wobbly shit.”
Sometimes he’d apologize for what he said, because Pat was my uncle, but I didn’t care. It wasn’t like Pat and I were close. He never said two words to me, or anybody for that matter. I didn’t really know him. I only went to work for him because I needed a job. I had just graduated from high school and had no plans. Pat’s sons all went to Notre Dame. I figured maybe I’d try night school in the fall, see what happened. What I really wanted was to stay home, read Marvel comic books, and wait for the aliens that Jeanne Dixon kept predicting would swoop down on the kids one day and take us all back to outer space with them. I aimed to be first in line. But I wasn’t allowed to stay home. My mother informed me that I was a grown man (my father didn’t seem so sure of this) and that I had to work.
My older cousins had each spent a summer laboring for Pat, carrying a hod. They talked about it like it was climbing Mount Everest, and you didn’t know nothing about anything until you had served your apprenticeship. It was the manhood ritual of the family: work a summer carrying a hod for Pat, and then we’ll see what you’re made of. I didn’t even know what a hod was.
The dictionary gives two definitions. The first is: “An open box attached to a long pole in which bricks or mortar are carried on the shoulder.” Which told me next to nothing until I saw one racked in the hod stand that first morning on the job. You shovel the V-shaped box full of mortar, then step up to the stand, half squat under the hod, assume its weight on your shoulder, straighten your legs, grip the pole to your chest, and step away. You then walk quickly to the bricklayers and very gently pour — do not dump — the mud onto the mortarboard between them. To splash them is the ultimate faux pas, the cardinal sin. It’s an insult to the bricklayers, who are the artists. The laborers are expendable. This hierarchy was immediately established.
© Jason Langer/Getty Images
I had no trouble mixing up my first batch of mortar: a sack of aggregate, six shovelfuls of sand, and a five-gallon bucket of water, all tossed into a gasoline-powered mixer, like a giant eggbeater with a throttle cord. No problem spading the hod full, either. But when I stepped away from the stand, the metal V of that hod digging into my trapezius, I teetered like a drunk wearing a two-hundred-pound hat. Before the whole thing went over — and me with it — I lunged back to the hod stand and slammed it home, sending a wash of mud over my head and shoulders.
Same with the bricks. The hod took eighteen of them. I could get it on my shoulder, but I simply could not balance it.
I ended up hauling the mud on that first day in five-gallon buckets, one in each hand. I had to stop every few yards, they were so heavy. I toted the bricks in brick tongs. Ten bricks apiece, but they turned my forearms to jelly.
“Jesus Christ,” Shotty said. “It’s a good thing you’re getting paid by the hour.” Shotty was patient. I’d catch him smiling, shaking his head. He was Pat’s fastest and best bricklayer, so he needed bricks and mud in a steady stream.
I worked through lunch to get ahead, stocking the foundation with brick. Shotty sat in the shade and watched me. He ate two baloney sandwiches and a whole pack of Archway cookies, and drank Rolling Rock beer — the little seven-ounce cans.
“Don’t you ever tell your Uncle Pat about this,” he said, holding out one of the beers to me. “Sit down and eat your lunch before you pass out.”
“Fungool Pat,” I said.
Shotty laughed and blew the beer out of his mouth. I drank two double-Rs with him. The rest of the afternoon was excruciating. I was exhausted, in terrible pain, sunburned, and dizzy from the beer. I hadn’t worn a hat. My hands (no gloves) and feet (tennis shoes instead of work boots) were blistered.
Late in the day, Pat cruised by in his truck to inspect the site. He didn’t say a word to anybody. His arm out the window, his sneering, handsome face lit by the sun, he watched me staggering around with my buckets of mud. Then he drove off.
Shotty gave me a lift home in his beat-up gold Bonneville. The back seat was piled with clothes and bricklaying tools. Crushed beer cans littered the floor. Each time we hit a pothole, mortar dust rose like smoke around us. Shotty lived by himself in East Liberty, not far from my house. When he dropped me off, he asked me what size shoes I wore.
“I don’t know. Nine and a half, ten.”
“Look under that shit back there. I’m gonna lend you a pair of boots.”
I rooted around and found a pair of size tens coated in cracked, dried mortar.
“Take them. Good work boots are the secret to a long life. And grab a pair of gloves too.”
“Thanks a lot, Shotty.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I’ll give them back as soon as I quit.”
“At the rate you’re going, I’ll have them back by this time tomorrow. I’ll pick you up in the morning.”
He rumbled away in a halo of dust.
My dad didn’t just read the paper; he digested it. Every inch, including the crossword puzzle. It was he, not my mother, who cut out coupons and taped articles, cartoons, and recipes to the refrigerator. He also did all the grocery shopping and cooking. My mother never cooked. Never. It was their arrangement, and, mysterious as it was, it seemed to work. My dad was a terrific cook. He worked as a waiter at the Park Schenley, a high-dollar restaurant near Pitt in the university district.
When I got home that first day, he was already in his tux shirt and black pants. His red waistcoat dangled from the back of the chair. He carefully folded the paper and laid it on the kitchen table. Then he started tying his tie. He was the only guy I knew who could tie a bow tie — and without even looking in a mirror. The other waiters all wore clip-ons.
My mother, dressed in a girdle and bra, stood in front of the screen door in the living room smoking a cigarette and ironing her work dress. Her long straw-colored hair was teased high on top. A furrow of black roots plowed through it. The hair in her Roman nose was long and black, like a man’s. She had beautiful, thick black eyebrows and an unusually long septum that drooped almost to her upper lip. She looked like a hawk, even when she smiled. She hostessed at a club called the Suicide King that had strippers who danced in go-go cages dangling from the ceiling. My parents both left the house around 5:30 in the afternoon and didn’t get home sometimes until 3 A.M. After her shift, my mother picked up my dad — he didn’t drive — and they’d meet their restaurant cronies for drinks at Delaney’s or the Luna, then later head over to Ritter’s for breakfast before coming home and emptying pocketfuls of rolled bills onto the kitchen table. Their schedule suited me perfectly. When they were gone, I was home; when they were home, I was gone.
I believed that I loved my parents — I had no other word for how I felt — but I did not like being around them when they were together. By themselves, they were fine, especially my dad, but together they were brusque and unaffectionate, always hammering away at each other. They slept in the same bed, and I knew they still made love. Often when they got home early in the morning, I’d hear them. But there was something else about them. They had a history of which I was unaware, and I was afraid that at any moment they would reveal their true identities, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
My mother said she knew Shotty. She claimed he was a slicker, that his real name was Basil, and that he knew blindfolded the back entrance to every beer garden in Pittsburgh. I doubted she even knew who I was talking about. My dad had labored for Pat a long time ago, before he scored the Park Schenley job. He didn’t commit one way or another about Shotty, just nodded and went back to his newspaper.
“You know Shotty,” my mother barked at my dad from the living room.
“I know,” he said without looking up. “I said I knew him.”
“You and that goddamn paper,” my mother said.
“Why don’t you put some clothes on?”
“Don’t look if it bothers you.”
“What about your impressionable young son here?”
“He doesn’t have to look either.”
My dad didn’t care for Pat. Something about when he had worked for him. Sometimes my mom would give him a hard time about quitting Pat. She said they’d have more than a pot to piss in if he had stuck it out. Pat was a millionaire, she reminded my father.
“I wasn’t man enough, Rita,” my dad would crack.
Something ran deep between my mother and Pat. When their paths crossed, usually at some unavoidable family function, they merely acknowledged one another — nothing more. My dad would shake hands with Pat and go find a chair until it was time to leave. When I’d called Pat, at my mother’s insistence, to ask for the job, he and my mother hadn’t spoken to or seen each other for at least two years. All I knew, in that murky way in which kids find things out, was that she and Pat had been very tight, but then they’d fallen out over something that had to do with the Church. Probably the fact that she had eloped with my father, who was not only non-Italian (he was black Irish) but Protestant as well. I’d call my dad an atheist, but he was too indifferent to put that much thought into it.
My dad pulled a plate out of the oven: breaded pork chops and leftover mashed potatoes he’d mixed with eggs and fried into fritters. Next to it he set a salad and rolls he’d brought home from the restaurant.
“Eat,” he said.
I didn’t realize how tired and achy I was until I sat down. It was tough to hold the fork in my blistered hands. I felt a little panicked. How long could I last at this job?
“You’re all blistered up, Fritz,” my dad said as he sat down and watched me eat.
“My feet too.”
“You’ll feel better after you eat.”
“I know you are. You’re fine. That’s a mean job, Fritzy. I’m proud of you.”
“Quit coddling him, Travis,” my mother said. “He’s eighteen years old. You treat him like a baby.”
“I’m not coddling him, Rita. His hands and feet are all chewed up. I don’t need permission from you to be concerned.”
“ ‘Concerned’?” my mother repeated.
I made a face at my dad like, Let it drop.
He smiled at me. “How’s the food?” he asked.
I was opening my mouth to say, “Good,” when suddenly both of my legs cramped up. Behind my thighs and in my calves. Unbearable spasms of pain. I fell off my chair and rolled on the kitchen floor.
“What?” my dad shouted. “Rita!”
My father tried to grab me. My mother dashed in wearing a tight black dress and knee-high white patent-leather boots with platform heels.
“My God, Fritzy, what’s wrong?” she screeched.
“My legs,” I managed. “They’re cramped.”
My dad caught hold of me and massaged my legs. My thigh and calf muscles twitched.
“He’s all knotted up,” he said. “He probably didn’t drink enough water. Get him some water, Rita.”
My mother knelt to hand me a glass of water.
“Jesus Christ,” she said. “You nearly gave me a heart attack. I thought something was really wrong. All this drama over a charley horse.”
“You’re a doll, Rita. A living doll,” my dad said.
“Kiss my ass, Travis. He’ll be all right. We’re going to be late.”
Each time I tried to get up, my legs cramped again. All I could do was lie there on the linoleum.
“What do you want me to do? Leave the kid on the floor?”
“It’s all right, Dad,” I said.
“You’re OK down there, aren’t you, Fritzy?” my mother asked.
“That goddamn job,” said my father.
“It’s not going to hurt him. Just because you couldn’t handle it.”
“Don’t start with that again.”
“No, no, God forbid we bring up that tender subject.” She turned to me and said, “Why don’t you quit? Just quit the job if you can’t take it. You’d better step on it, Travis, or we’ll be late. I’ll be in the car.”
My father lifted me, carried me upstairs, and laid me in bed. He sat on the edge of the mattress in his bow tie and red waistcoat and rubbed lanolin on my blistered hands and feet. His hair, which had receded well off his forehead, was jet black and curly. His eyes were black too, but his skin was fair and his face freckled. There was so much I didn’t know about him. I didn’t even know how old he was.
“I’m sorry I let you get out of here this morning without gloves and proper shoes. I should have known better.”
“That’s OK. Shotty lent me some boots.”
“He’s not a bad guy. Full of shit, but not a bad guy. You know, Fritzy, that job’s a bitch. Your mother’s right. I couldn’t handle it.”
“Yes, you could.” I didn’t want to hear him talk like that.
“No, I couldn’t. I try not to lie to you. I couldn’t handle it. It kicked my ass.” He patted me on the shoulder. “I’ve got to get going. So long.”
“I’ll see you, Dad.”
A tiny bit later, I heard my mother trotting up the stairs. She burst into my room, sat down on my bed, lit a cigarette, and stared at me.
“What’s the matter, Mom?”
“Nothing. How do you feel?”
“Listen. I don’t want you to quit that job with Pat. No matter what. You hear? Do not quit.”
She bent and kissed me, then hustled out of the room. My dad was blowing the horn.
I never made it out of bed. The next morning I woke up feeling as if I had been pounded by fists, in my thighs and shoulders especially. I limped past my parents’ room, where they slept on their backs like goners, a royal blue sheet pulled up to their waists. My dad’s chest was hairless and white as sheetrock. His mouth was wide open, and he whistled at the end of each snore like a cartoon character — so loud I could hear him above the window fan. (It never cooled off upstairs.) My mother wore a black velvet sleep mask and was topless. They didn’t even bother closing the door.
Downstairs on the kitchen table were the lunch my dad had packed, a thermos, my gloves, a khaki porkpie hat with a navy-and-maroon band, and a note: Drink lots of water and wear a hat. Love, Dad. On the floor were Shotty’s boots, all polished up, with new laces. I had a bowl of cereal, then went out and sat on the curb to wait for Shotty.
By the end of that first week I had abandoned the buckets and brick tongs and was humping a hod — not as fast or as well as the others, but I was getting the hang of it. Often I dumped the mud too quick and splattered Shotty, who would call me strunzo (a turd) and other dirty names in Italian, his face and immaculate white T-shirt flecked with mortar.
“Temper this shit!” he’d yell, sloshing water onto his board and slicing through the mud with his trowel. “It’s stiff as a wedding-night peter.” Or, “Too soupy,” when it was wet. “Like ice cream,” when it was right.
Shotty called me manovale, which means “laborer,” only lower, unskilled. A peasant. He laughed when he said it. Because I labored for Shotty, all my jobs were on the ground. Pat’s other laborers, some my age, built scaffold and stocked it with bricks, mortarboards, and tempering cans. As the bricks went up, story by story, I watched my fellow workers, saddled with hundred-pound hods of brick and mortar, mount the series of jittery planks that led up to the top.
In the middle of my second week Shotty and I rumbled out to a new site, where Pat’s outfit was doing the brick-and-block work on a huge stretch of three-story town houses. Because he was the master bricklayer, Shotty moved inside to do all the fireplaces, and I was assigned to two other guys, Ernie and Ted. They’d both worked for Pat a long time and knew my dad from the job. Ernie was an easygoing old guy, about to retire. His hands were crinkled up with arthritis and looked like trowels. Ted was a hotshot, in Shotty’s league as far as craft, and he rode me pretty hard. When I dumped a load that splashed them, Ernie would laugh and say, “Thanks for the bath, kid,” but Ted didn’t like a speck on him. He’d glare at me and say, “What the fuck?” He worked like a machine, and I had trouble keeping up.
“Mud!” he’d scream. “Mud, damn it. Jesus Christ, I need mud!”
Toward the end of the third day, the first story was completely bricked, and Ernie, Ted, and I started building scaffold: First rusting, cast-iron bucks, shaped like football goal posts, were anchored with struts and bolted together. Then planks were laid side to side across the bucks to make a platform, which is where the bricklayers stood as they worked. At the base of the scaffold, to level it and keep it from falling over, we scotched in pieces of brick and wood scraps. A cleated plank stretched from the ground to the scaffold at about a thirty-degree angle. Up this ramp the manovale would trudge with a hod on his back.
Once we had finished the scaffold, Ted told me to stock it with bricks. It was no big deal to walk up the plank, which was nailed down, with the hod of bricks and place a few on each side of the mortarboards. We were only about ten feet off the ground, and heights didn’t bother me at all. After the scaffold was stocked, Ernie and Ted started laying brick, and I hustled up and down with mud. Ted let me have it the whole time. It was like he had this hard-on for me. Everything I did was wrong. Though I wanted to bash his head in with my hod, I just hustled all the more. Everybody knew I was Pat’s nephew, and I didn’t want any special treatment because of it.
Shotty, his T-shirt dotted with the black mortar used to brick fireplaces, came out every now and then to check on me. He cupped his eyes, gazed up at me maneuvering on that scaffold, and shook his head. He and Ted, the maestro bricklayers, didn’t like each other.
Pat made a couple of appearances a day to replenish the water barrels for the mixers. He’d speak to the bricklayers, but not even a grunt for me. I knew that he was watching me, though. Not with approval. Just a grudging acknowledgment.
I learned to lay off the Rolling Rocks at lunch. I found a place in the shade, ate my sandwich, smoked a couple of cigarettes, drank coffee from my thermos, and watched beautiful women get out of expensive cars to case the new town houses. I got brown and strong. Sometimes I’d catch my own eye in a storm window and not recognize myself.
At home the scene remained the same: my parents sharing the same pack of Pall Malls, same Zippo, same ashtray; my mother in her underwear with her head upside down in the sink, touching up her roots; my dad Scotch-taping newspaper clippings to the fridge, wrangling that black hank of material into a perfect bow beneath his Adam’s apple. They’d both be sweating, a revolving fan on a pole ruffling the dusty sheers at the open window.
If they had a few minutes they’d sit and watch me wolf down whatever my father had made for dinner. My mother always wanted to know if it bothered me that she didn’t do the cooking. No, I’d tell her, which was the truth. Sometimes she’d tell me how handsome I was, what a fine man I was turning into now that I was working for Pat. Pat had been stationed in Burma during World War II. My dad hadn’t gone to war. My dad was a “gutless wonder,” she’d say. She used this like a pet name, and most of the time he just smiled at her and said nothing. Sometimes he’d say, “You’re a witch, Rita. A magnificent witch.”
“Kiss me, you gutless wonder.”
And they’d kiss.
“Someday, Rita. Someday.”
“Someday what? Someday you’re going to grow a set of balls? Someday you’re going to hit me?”
“I don’t hit women.”
“Oh, why don’t you go ahead and hit me, Travis?”
Hit her, Dad, I’d think, walking out to the alley to get away from them, my appetite gone.
After they’d left, I’d sit and stare at the kitchen wallpaper, listen to the neighbors on their stoops, the little kids playing Indian ball out in the street. I’d read comic books and sometimes wander down to the schoolyard and sit on the steps and smoke cigarettes. Often I’d think of things I shouldn’t: the tanned women, not much younger than my own mother, really, that I’d seen strolling around the job site in their madras skirts and white sleeveless blouses; natural blondes with gorgeous teeth and blue eyes who saw the rest of their lives stretching endlessly toward the horizon like an untroubled sea. You could still smell on them the baby oil and chlorine from the country-club pool. At home they had housekeepers. On their kitchen counters were bottles of vermouth, and blenders with which they made their children milkshakes every night. The sun was their friend. And money, and ancestry.
And the beds they slept in? Like lying down in a field of cotton, I imagined, a gentle snow atop it. Spotless. Immaculate. Whiter than heaven. Their lips at your ear describing love. Their hands, their beautiful, lovely hands, purifying your body like the Lord God of hosts.
That’s the kind of woman Pat had married. One of those blondes who smiled all the time and meant it. A woman who came from a family of doctors and judges, on the aristocratic side of the Allegheny River. She gave him children who looked like an ad for Kodak. Pat had crossed over. At six o’clock he stepped out of his muddy pickup and into the sanctum of cordials and dinner jackets. He was a deacon at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and played golf with the bishop. Handsome, distant Pat. He knew the secret. The secret was money. My parents knew that too, I guessed. Maybe they were just unlucky. Or maybe it was something more than just luck.
I had never had a real girlfriend, only dates that ended in wrestling matches in Highland Park. It took me two showers, after the dirt and sweat and mosquitoes, to feel clean again. I couldn’t think too long about the whole thing or I’d start to cry. I was alone in the house. It would have been OK to yell and scream and beat on things. No one would be able to distinguish my agony from anybody else’s in the neighborhood.
The streetlights hummed outside my bedroom window. I turned my face to the wall. I was usually in bed by nine, worn out by the hod. I never prayed to God. I felt like a mongrel, and looked like one too. I’d try to think about my future, but all that appeared on the screen was static, a scrambled signal. Jesus Christ. I knew my mother was a stripper, not a hostess. And I had no idea what was up between her and my father. Then, for some reason, I started worrying about the scaffold I’d be climbing the next morning with a hundred ungainly pounds on my back, Ted yapping at me to “step it up, God damn it,” as I tightroped across a moldy two-by-six over the abyss.
I wished I could be a mutant like the ones I read about in Marvel comics: someone with phenomenal secret powers, like flying or clairvoyance. Or even just plain goodness. I’d have settled for optimism. That seemed a superpower in itself. I craved a future as much as anyone. I craved love. Desperately. But I knew — I knew, I knew, I knew — that all there would be for me was running away. If I split — when I split — no one would even know I had left.
In the morning, when I padded out of my room just before six, my parents would be sprawled in bed, mostly naked in their bargain, whatever the hell it was.
One day Ted called my dad a faggot. We were nearly finished with the second story of one of the town houses. Shotty was downstairs laying firebrick with black mortar. Every once in a while we’d hear an elegant string of made-up Italian profanity, and Ted and Ernie and I would laugh. I was humping double-time to keep Ted and Ernie supplied. It was hot and getting ready to rain. We wanted to finish and raise the scaffold for the next day before the sky opened up. Ted had been busting me all day about how slow I was. I had tripped over the plumb line twice. I was costing him money, he said. Good thing Pat was my uncle. On and on.
I don’t know if I was meant to hear it, but as I navigated along the scaffold with a hod of mud on my neck, Ted said, plenty loud, to Ernie, “Travis Sweeney is a faggot.” His back was to me, but Ernie looked up like, Uh-oh, when he saw me. Just from the expression on Ernie’s face, Ted knew I had heard. He swiveled around and smiled. Smiled at me after he had called my dad a faggot. He was on his knees. The empty mortarboard was between him and Ernie. One of his hands held a brick, the other his big trowel with a wet slab of mortar on it. I stood there like a jerk, staring into his cleanshaven, unapologetic, smiling face. Then I dumped my hod on him.
Mud oozed over Ted’s head and face. He aged forty years. All that gray. A hundred pounds of age. Like he had just surfaced from a bog.
Ted jumped up and came at me with the trowel, wielding it like a switchblade, jabbing at my face. I clutched the hod out in front of me like a huge battle-ax, and he grabbed hold of the pole with his free hand to wrest it from me. He cursed me, and every time he opened his mouth more mud seeped into it. He dropped the trowel, grabbed the hod pole with both hands, and pushed me toward the edge of the scaffold. I couldn’t hold him back. I was going over. If I didn’t land on something — a spike, an angle iron, one of the carpenter’s power saws; there was lethal refuse all over the site — maybe I wouldn’t get messed up too bad. We were only one buck up.
I don’t know how Shotty dragged his gimp self up the plank, scaffold phobia and all, but just as I was getting ready to tank, he lurched up behind Ted, put the chokehold on him, and, brandishing the business end of a brick hammer, told him he was going to make giambotta of his face if he didn’t let me go.
When I got home that night, I studied my dad: as he throttled his newspaper, spooned up the Welsh rarebit I loved, and asked me how the job was going; as he confessed in that offhand way of his that he couldn’t cut the mustard, that Pat’s job had put a first-class hurting on him, that he was proud of me; as he zipped up my mother’s skimpy sharkskin dress and ran his hand across her rump.
She told him he had the hands of a safecracker — and the gumption of a baton twirler. She’d make a man of him someday. He said women like her made men feel like real heroes, like Medal of Honor winners. She was some classy broad, he said.
“And you’re some poet,” she snarled, but she couldn’t help smiling. Then she wheeled around and bashed him with a kiss like a sucker punch. “My gutless wonder,” she whispered, her mouth sucking the soul right out of him. He smiled and winked at me, but I could tell he was hurting.
The next morning they swooned naked across each other in bed like felled trees, her hair gauzing his face, their sweaty, smoky clothes commingling on the linoleum at the bedside. Ted had gotten to me with that faggot remark. It didn’t mean anything; I knew that. But still, my dad had punked out on the job. He had said himself he couldn’t cut it. Every time I squatted under the hod, I thought of him dying under that unforgiving sun and the eyes of those bricklayers. Silent Pat rooting for him to fall on his face so he could punish my mother for who knows what. Marrying my father. There was probably more. But, again, the less I knew, the better.
For the rest of the week, Ted hardly spoke to me. The only words out of his mouth in my direction were “bricks” and “mud.” Pat showed up on Friday to lay block in a foundation because we were short-handed. He was sure to have heard what had happened with Ted and me, but of course he never let on. Ted and I were on the third story, my first gable. From my perch on a two-by-twelve, I glanced down at Pat. In one hand he held a termite, an immense, heavy block used in foundations. He wore a sky blue cap and a white football jersey. He moved with speed and parsimony, knifing his trowel in and out of the mud, icing those leaden termites, and manhandling them into somebody’s future as if they were nothing. I didn’t really like him. I couldn’t. But he was beautiful, if you could say such a thing. He looked up at me, thirty-five feet above him, suspended in midair with a full hod of bricks, and he paused. Then he raised his trowel and smiled, ruefully, derisively, just for a second before he went back to work. I didn’t take it for any kind of benediction. Nevertheless, it equaled something, and for that second I felt pretty good, like maybe I belonged there.
I was between the third tier of scaffold and what they called a “foot hop,” where Ted was working by himself. The scaffold shook a little, which wasn’t uncommon once we were that far off the ground. I took another couple of steps. The plank shimmied. And I don’t know. I froze. I panicked. Ted screamed, “Bricks!” He wanted bricks, God damn it. I took a step toward him, and the hod began pulling me one way and then the other.
When I looked down, I could tell it was late in the day. The masons, carpenters, and electricians were loitering below, cleaning and stowing their tools, lighting cigarettes. Empty mortar bags blew about their work boots. Ramparts, smoke, and dust; gleaming, lethal steel. Already a few pickups, red dust hanging over them, wound their way out of the site along the hacked-out dirt road. It was the time of day I had come to love, when everyone lays down his tools and begins to ponder how many minutes he has until bedtime. The blessed in-between part of the day, when you’re about done sweating it out, but you’re not back in that other world yet, of family and people who work inside at desks all day.
All of those guys peering up at me as I teetered back and forth — they were waiting for me to fall, so they could make a story of it: Some mongrel kid. No one even knew his name. Froze up and fell climbing his first gable, then raced the bricks to the clay. Pat’s nephew. It’s a shame, but it happens.
I had to have been scared, but what concerned me most, idiotically enough, was getting those bricks up to Ted. That dead weight on my back, however, had a mind of its own, and each move I made sent me swaying. Ted stared at me with astonishment and pity, as if I had already begun to plummet.
And then I knew I was going over. Because I had to. I couldn’t cheat these glorious pigheads gathered beneath me. They loved me, I could tell, but only if I died at their feet. Like a man. A scoop of clouds crossed the sun. I thought of my dad, how he was the brave one. Brave for quitting, for not caring what people said. Balls as big as cement mixers, because he didn’t give a shit. I was the coward. Sheer cowardice kept me humping for Pat, because I cared, after all, what people thought of me. I had something to prove. I didn’t want all those cousins of mine — the ones I’d probably never see again, the ones who had looked down on me ever since I could remember — calling me a sissy because I didn’t have what it took to carry a hod. I was too scared not to die, for all of them: Pat, my mother, my cousins, the guys waiting down there. Not my dad, though. He’d say, Forget about it. Come on home. He’d make me bacon and eggs. I saw the golden Allegheny, far off, lumbering into the west, sucking the sun down into it.
I looked down again, and there was Shotty.
“Throw the hod down,” he said, loud but calm.
For some reason, it didn’t register. I tried to take a step toward Ted and froze again, the hod driving me over.
“Let go of the hod, Fritzy!” Shotty screamed. “Now, damn it. Throw it down.”
It fell from my shoulder top-first, the bricks missiling into the earth ahead of it, scattering everyone. Then it hit with a metal thud, and bounced. I collapsed to my hands and knees and edged backward down the plank toward the scaffold.
Once I was on the ground, Pat hurried toward me. He looked worried. I guessed I’d have gotten killed if it hadn’t been for Shotty. All the guys just gaped at me. I smiled at Pat. I was relieved as hell. He grabbed me by the shirt front, spun me around, and put me into a headlock. Then he muscled me over to his truck and threw me against it.
“Get in,” he said.
“What are you doing, Uncle Pat?”
“Get in the truck.” He lifted his fist. I shied back. “Or I’ll bust your empty head open.”
I climbed in — I heard the guys laugh as we pulled away — and sat there staring at Pat’s profile the entire way home. He had a day’s growth of beard, black as soot, squared-off sideburns, and a long white scar along his jaw that looked like an eight-penny finishing nail. Pat didn’t smoke. He didn’t drink. He was president of the Holy Name Society, a revered father and husband. It occurred to me that it was Shotty who had called out to me. Not Pat. Pat would have caught the bricks instead of me. He would dock me for every busted brick, nephew or not. I think I loved Pat as much as I hated him, and I was even tempted to tell him this. Though it shamed me, what I wanted most was for him to love me back.
My parents were at the kitchen table playing Scrabble, their hands curled around urine-colored drinks like hand grenades. They seemed pissed at each other. My mother wore a robe, and my dad was in a pair of boxers and an open pajama top. The radio was on.
Pat didn’t knock; he just marched me into the house by my arm and kind of pushed me. My mother, her robe half undone, walked into the living room, the only other room downstairs, and stared in shock. As far as I could remember, Pat had never been in our house before. Then she smiled the most beautiful smile and said, “Patrick.”
Down the short hall in the kitchen, my dad studied the Scrabble board. He took a sip of his drink, turned up the volume on the radio, and opened the paper in front of his face.
“He’s finished,” Pat said.
“He nearly fell off a scaffold.”
“Oh, my God.” She looked at me with horror on her face. The paper rustled in the kitchen. The tink of a bottle refilling a glass. The robe was open to her navel.
“I don’t want him on the job anymore. He doesn’t have the spine for it.”
My mother took a step closer to Pat and said, “Whatever you think.”
Then she launched herself at him, threw her arms around his neck, and held tightly to him like a little girl, her eyes closed, her cheek nailed to his chest. Pat’s hands levitated up, as if to comfort her. Instead he tried to free himself, but he couldn’t get her off.
Finally he grabbed her hair and yanked. She peeled off with a little cry, her robe dangling from her shoulders, exposing her. Pat raised his fist, with my mother’s bleached hair still clutched in it, like he was going to pound her. Then he threw the bright yellow shock in her face. She had to spit it out of her mouth. It fell onto her breasts.
My mother glared up at Pat like some savage Joan of Arc. She picked up a big turquoise ashtray.
I swear Pat let her hit him. He never moved. Didn’t raise an arm to deflect it. The thing weighed a couple of pounds, I’ll bet, and it shattered on his head like it had hit a rock. Pat didn’t flinch. No blood. Nothing. He took it like some indestructible mutant villain. Then he held his ground for a moment, to let the fact of his invulnerability sink in, before he walked out the door.
The other definition for hod is “praise; confession.” The etymology is Yiddish, I believe, and of course has nothing to do with bricks and mortar.
I should have told Pat that he was full of shit, that I did have the spine, even though I knew I didn’t. What I wanted most was for my dad to put down the newspaper, march in, and call Pat out. Beat the hell out of him. But Pat would have torn him apart, and my dad knew it. I was glad Pat left. He could have done a lot of damage, and I sure didn’t want to tangle with him. My parents, in their own weird way, knew what they were doing. At least, they knew more than I did.
After a minute, my father called to my mother from the kitchen that it was her turn, and she went back in, and they finished their Scrabble game. My dad won, as always. He knew a lot of words. Then they got up and got ready for work, with the usual bickering and one-liners, and I ate the supper my dad served. For dessert he made me a Boston cooler: half a cantaloupe with vanilla ice cream tamped into the crater.