The Bricklayer


Danny O’Toole suddenly found himself hovering somewhere between time and space; hearing conversations from people who were not there. He could feel his body, but he couldn’t see it. He still felt old, but he didn’t know how he could feel so light…so flowing and agile. He was everywhere and anywhere, hovering high above the ground. Out across the lonely rooftops, seemingly all around him in four directions, voices chattered up into the hazy sky. But he could only see a single spot below his house. The sky above him was frozen and the sun had no heat. He could look straight into the sun and it didn’t bother him. He was conscious of nothing beyond the voices and the moment. It was a moment that went on and on.

He didn’t panic. Actually, it was with a strange calm that he looked down at the piles of bricks, each stacked neatly in rows anchored against the hard, dry dirt. The bricks were stacked five high and ten across in two solid red rectangles. To Danny, these had been monuments of possibility; solid blocks of reality perched against the emotional chaos that had been his life. To him, they were the muscles and bones of strong new buildings, or the firm breasts of a lean woman. Bricks or tits—it didn’t matter to him; he had cupped them both with the same masculine confidence. He always said he could build anything. He could conquer any woman. He thought he was the maker of the world.

Still…looking down into his little backyard, he continued to see his day as it had been when he was not so light and distant—it was the only image of a day he could remember. He saw himself standing next to the wooden stair posts that led down to his new brick patio. He remembered feeling the coolness of his sweaty chest under his denim jacket. He had been putting the final bricks in place and had formed a small stack in the corner of his patio. These bricks that he had moved from one end of the yard to the other made his thin muscles bulge, like golf balls tucked under his skin. Just recently, he had started to obsess over his thinning muscles—amazed that his body could ever change. As he had grown older, nothing looked big enough or felt hard enough.

These thoughts made him feel empty. He swayed with the wind around trees that surrounded his yard. The voices—now sweltering to a chattering boil, took over his entire consciousness.

“Why didn’t Danny just play golf like my Lorenzo?” Patty said, conscious of not holding up the line in front of the casket.

“That’s what he did…build things,” Marge said, as blandly as if Danny were a cat.  “All day long he’d just plod around on his knees.”

“Do you think he was ever really happy?”

“He built walls, he drank beer…he fucked around. What’s not to like?” Marge answered sarcastically. “But I will say, Danny always liked numbers…and there was lots of numbers in bricklaying. He told me that all the time. He’d say ‘Margie…dear Marge…it’s all in da numbas!’ He did well for me with numbers…money that is.”

“Except for Mira…he didn’t do right then.” Patty said, leaning over, studying Danny’s pale, tight face.

“How could he? Mira made Danny sweat. Seriously…I remember him sweating!”

“Let me tell you, Marge. I blame her, always did. You remember how she wore her dresses? Her tits stuck out over the diner counter. You could plant a hydrangea between them!”

“She was perfect.  She ruined him for me,” Marge sadly replied.

For a moment the voices went silent and Danny’s spirit drifted over to the corner of the patio where the pile of bricks lay ready. His gloves and jacket had been placed on the pile, along with his half-finished Budweiser. He looked at his unfinished work and remembered where he was in his head when the change came. He had been doing what he liked the most, figuring how to set the bricks into a cross pattern, two bricks horizontal and two bricks vertical. Marge once asked why he chose that pattern. He replied that he never really thought about it, just seemed natural. It made sense if you stood far enough away.

Danny focused on the last square he’d dug out with his trowel. He remembered squatting down on his knees, the lower part of his back arched inward as he rhythmically stroked small strands of dry dirt away from the hole, only about two inches down. He was amazed at how the earth retained its shape. He was good at smoothing and caressing and pushing against the flat surface at the base of the hole. He knew exactly where each brick should be each time he pulled a thick, red block from the pile. As emptiness filled inside of him, he had an image of laying each brick in the dirt one by one, then squeezing them together with his large, rough-skinned hands. He saw them there now as they lay in their homemade grave, stately and quiet, forever unchanging. Danny lowered his head, hearing the voices again as if they were right in front of him.

“You know, Father…Danny once offered to do some masonry work here…maybe fix the foot of our Mother of Sorrows?

Father Mullin looked blankly at Father Stan as he was setting up the communion table.

“That’s what we Catholics need around here, more monuments,” Father Mullin replied. “We need some more sculptures. That’s what Baltimore needs.  Frank Zappa…did you know we have a Frank Zappa statue, for Christ’s sake?”

“Danny didn’t come to many services, did he?” Stan said, looking over at Danny’s casket and trying to change the subject, but Father Mullin wasn’t listening.

“I guess we could use a new statue around here, Stan…maybe he could have done one of an angel—only make her look like Marisa Tomei. Oh yeah…Marisa Tomei. I’d put her right over where I walk in on Sunday, coming up the steps to greet me. Maybe have her slightly bent over…you know, with the dress hangin’ down and all…”

“Why do you think he just built things with bricks his whole life?” Stan broke in.

“I don’t know,” Father Mullin said, adjusting the cloth on the alter. “Some guys just like to build shit because everything else around them keeps falling down.”

As Danny drifted upwards again he sensed his body for the first time and stared at his hands in front of his face. He remembered how they shook when he visited the hospital. The doctor had been bland and precise, a bead of sweat formed on his forehead in the courtyard sun. He remembered that it was so hot, so bright that the sun pushed into his eyes and the brightness filled his throat and choked him. He didn’t want to hear his words…heart deficiency… ventricular septal defect… pulmonary hypertension. The foreignness of the words made him angry and sick. He was talking about his body—his muscular chest and strong legs, not some sickly office-working pencil-neck like his brother over at the engineering firm. The two could not be the same. It couldn’t be. As he walked away he remembered standing coldly away from Marge. He didn’t know exactly why. The thought made him unsteady again and the voices came back and surrounded him like a fog.

“Maybe Mira gave him something that took the fear away,” he heard Marge say.

“She was always laughing. You couldn’t make that girl stop smiling,” Patty replied.

“And Danny worked so hard,” Marge said as they walked over to a few empty pews.

Patty waited for Marge to talk. She knew there was something waiting.

“Danny wanted his women to have anything they wanted. If I needed a nice dress…nice car…. He was even going build us a house. He said he could do it! I told him he was crazy. You can’t build anything, ‘I looked at him straight in the eye and said… ‘Danny, when have you ever built anything like a house? You build sidewalks!’ This is what I told him!”

“Then he started working nights, didn’t he?” Patty said.

“I guess he didn’t want to think about it.”

“He could have built it, you know, Marge.”

“I know. He could have built it. I just never wanted to tell him.”

Drifting higher up in the sky, he could no longer see his house or hear the voices. He suddenly remembered his last moments. He remembered an exchange of words like he was talking to someone who wasn’t there. “Straight rows….” Danny remembered thinking as he buried his hands in the sand. He had arched his sweaty back upwards, his knees shot with pain—the sun caught his eyes. In the spreading light a voice answered in his head. “Of stone into sand….”  He remembered feeling his arms weakening as he fell back against the steps, reaching for the pile of bricks, trying to pull himself up. He felt so heavy, so very heavy. He remembered the cold and the sun fading behind the far neighbor’s house. He pictured his head anchored on the hard brick, like cement.

Then Danny remembered seeing pictures in his mind falling into linear grace, moving by one by one, faster and faster. He saw his daughter playing in the backyard. He saw his wife looking up at him from her wedding veil. He saw Christmas trees and summer beaches and his hand chasing a Frisbee in the park. When the pictures ended, Danny remembered feeling the warm sand in his hand and releasing the tiny grains. “Stone into sand…,” the voice said one last time, in an even softer whisper. The images in his mind were stacked and frozen like photographs. There were a million joyous images stacked neatly and perfect. It was Danny’s house. It was glorious. And then it was gone.

“Good funeral, Father.”

“Did you see that woman in the yellow dress with the black hat?”

“That was Herb’s wife, Mira. Herb passed a long time ago—left her all alone…no money.”

“I enjoyed giving communion looking at those temptations—cups of salvation!”

“I thought Mira moved back to Richmond after her breakdown. You know, Father, she had an affair with Danny.”

Father Mullin didn’t say anything and kept moving towards the coat rack.

“I guess bricklayers are always looking for perfect…huh, Father?” Father Stan continued.

Father Mullin grabbed his jacket and threw it over his back. He handed Father Stan’s over to him. “Perfect is everywhere….” Father Mullin went on “We can always get enough perfect…. Most of these poor suckers never get that.”

They walked towards the bright, warm sunlight streaming through the half-open doors. Father Mullin and Father Stan were the last to walk out. Father Mullin kicked the stopper and the doors slammed shut with an empty, echoing thud.

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