A Stonemason’s Lot

L.P. Griffith


            I have not lived in Brooklyn since I was a child, and my job as a stage actor supplies few occasions to visit.  But I often stroll through Manhattan on days such as this and make my way to the bridge. The stone towers and wire expanse wring from the dishwater skies something silver, something noble.  Something hopeful.

            I do not think my understudy sees what I see.  He follows me, at a distance, perplexed and wary, hiding in the shadows, as uncomprehending of the bridge as he is of my life.  He knows that I am fifty-nine years old.  But does he remember that I share my birthday with the Brooklyn Bridge?  I was born in 1870, the year construction began.

            Father was a stonemason. He spent the first thirteen years of my life building and climbing the bridge’s spires.  It was called the Great Bridge then, and it was the tallest manmade object in the world.  From its great height, father told me, he could spy all of Creation.

            Father adored boats.  He adored them so much that he once nearly lost his life admiring the SS Germanic as it steamed beneath the Brooklyn Tower where he perched.  At supper that night, Uncle Joe described the scene to us.

            “Your father, trying to catch a better glimpse, leaned back to watch the behemoth pass.”

            Uncle Joe pushed his chair onto its back legs to mimic the action, balancing in the air a good foot away from the table.

            “And just as he began to fall—” Uncle Joe teetered for a moment, breathless, then swung his hand across the table and latched onto an invisible arm—“I snatched him from certain death!”  And with that, Uncle Joe slammed the chair back down on all four legs.

            Even now, when I look out across the East River, I cannot help but imagine my uncle reaching out to grab father’s arm, but missing him.  I see a small speck, Icarus-like, plummeting off the stone face and into the water.

            “That was nothing,” my father said, waving off Uncle Joe.  “The boat, Poldy.  I wish you could have seen this boat.  Four square-rigged masts she had, and two stacks.”  He called out a litany of statistics—tonnage, maximum speed—as if his near-death experience held no interest for his wife and child, but that it was the boat that held our attention.  He was nearly right.  At five years of age, I wanted to hear about boats and nothing but boats.

            Every night my father recounted the number he had seen at work that day—their types, the number of masts, their lengths from stem to stern, their height and keel.  Every vessel impressed him as much as it intrigued me, whether it was a steamer’s immensity or the simple efficiency of a tug.  Father very badly wanted a small skiff, something he could skate across the harbor on weekends, something he could one day sail under the great stone pylons he helped to erect.  He spoke often of purchasing this craft.  While we were not rich, his masonry demanded decent wages—thirty cents an hour, twice what a day-laborer earned—and we lived simply in Fort Greene, in a yellow, Italianate house of narrow proportions with the parlor, a kitchen, and a dining room downstairs and my bedroom upstairs, just across the hall from theirs.  I remember the sound of my parents’ murmuring voices lulling me to sleep as peacefully as might water lapping against the gunwale.

            I’ve told the understudy about my father, but I doubt he thinks of him now as he darts from one side of the street to the other, unable to shed the histrionics of his profession. I’ve told him how, one spring morning close to the bridge’s completion, as my father and I strolled down the promenade, I interrupted one of his reveries.  He was admiring a flotilla of small leisure boats casting down the river.  He described each craft’s merits with a connoisseur’s delight.  In his more pensive moments Father halted his long stride, removed his topper—he was a landlubber who wore a straw boating hat without fail—and stroked the salted edges of his mustache.

            I asked him, “When are you finally going to get a boat for yourself, Father?”

            He smiled broadly and said what he always said: “One day.”  So I pressed him to be more precise.

            “Then how’s about tomorrow?” he asked.  “Tomorrow sounds perfect, doesn’t it?”

            The next morning I found Father as I always did, squared away at the breakfast table.  Although his vest was buttoned neatly, his white sleeves were rolled to the elbow as if reading the newspaper were his first labor of the day.  Like the rest of his work, he seized onto it.

            I asked if I could join him when he purchased the new boat.

            “I’m not buying a boat today,” he said.

            “But Father,” I protested.  “You told me you would.”

            “I said I would buy the boat tomorrow,” he replied, still not looking past the edge of his paper, but lifting a teacup in his right hand.

            “Yes, you did, but you said that yesterday.  It is tomorrow.”

            Finally bringing his deep gray eyes to mine, which are as blue as my mother’s and her one indulgence, a petite sapphire set in a silver ring, my father smiled and said, “No, my son, it is today.  I shall buy my dreamboat tomorrow.”  And with that, he raised the paper again, shook it out, and read it from top to bottom.

            My father never bought a boat, but always held it like a carrot just beyond his reach and mine, where—eventually I learned—we gained so much more pleasure from never having tasted it, but by anticipating a flavor that can exist only in dreams.  A dream’s fulfillment, an adult knows, will likely fall short of its promise.

            Self-denial was a theme in my parents’ lives.  It might do the understudy to listen.

            My father pined for a single-mast, sprit-rigged Whitehall, and he’d point to one tacking across the harbor and say, “That one!  Right there, Poldy.  But we’ll paint ours white—with a blue stripe across the hull.  Perhaps we’ll build it ourselves, heh?”

            I fantasized about becoming a lobsterman and sailing a Crotch Island Pinky from pot to pot in a hazy bay of thimble-sized islands.

            “I’ll varnish the hull of my boat,” I told him.  “But mine shall not be painted.  White nor any color.”

            We patrolled the docks, critiquing boats—their state of upkeep, their color schemes, their seaworthiness.  One morning, while my father discussed a potential purchase with a retired captain —Yes, yes, I might just come back tomorrow with some money—I piled into the seller’s rotting old bateau to mimic the motions of sailors cruising past on the water.

            When father finished his boat talk, he turned and said to me with a wink, “Poldy, you’re very good at pretending.”

            And I should say, pretending has sustained me for many years—has sustained me all my life.  But it wasn’t without occasional misgivings that I carried on with my father’s imaginative game.

            By the time I was twelve, I had had enough, and I put an end to it.

            “Let’s take a walk on the promenade,” my father proposed.

            “No,” I replied.

            “Come along, Poldy.  The wind is up.  The harbor will be littered with sails.”

            “I’ll walk the park with you.”

            “No, no.  To the water.”

            “Enough of the water!” I exclaimed.

            “Poldy, what is wrong with you?” my father asked.

            “What is wrong with me?” I said.  “What is wrong with youYou spend all week suspended above the river, and now you want to waste your Sunday at the water, dreaming of a boat you’ll never get.  There’s nothing wrong with me.  I talk of boats only because I intend to have one.  And when I get mine, I’ll not let you in it!"

            At this, Father burst into laughter.  When he caught his breath he said, “Oh Poldy, perhaps you’re too good at pretending.”

            He knew there was a fine line between pretending and believing.  I walked it too closely, he thought.

            Each year, he told me I devoted to the Christmas panto a disproportionate amount of my time and energy.  It was true.  I even seized every opportunity to stretch the dramatic season beyond the holidays and across the whole of the academic calendar.  Although I avoided the eyes of my peers outside the classroom, I coveted their attention when I stood to read from my primer, turning every page of Ragged Dick as carefully as if it had been part of Shakespeare’s folio. I even convinced our teacher, Miss Porter, to stage a production of Gulliver’s Travels.  The same children who mocked me in the streets applauded me when I broke through the Lilliputian strings and announced my strength to the world.

            Father’s strength was real.  Perhaps all too real.

            His greatest achievement—building this bridge—was accomplished by the time he was thirty-four years old.  He had built and stood aloft the tallest tower in the city.  No man had looked down on this valley from such heights, much less propped himself there stone by stone.  Father, the man who made an art of looking forward, of foregoing consummation, of satisfying by not satisfying, had finished a monument to science and the human spirit.  It was done.  It was completed.  If anything were ever done and completed, then it is this hulking monument to man’s will and imagination hanging above the river, suspending me now, above time immemorial.  For a man such as my father, I would think to be finished would be to die.

            Can the understudy not comprehend this, the anguish of being done, of having accomplished one’s greatest work?

            I remember the bridge’s opening day in ’83, my thirteenth year, the year I was supposed to become a man.  I huffed and puffed to keep up with Father and Uncle Joe as they marched over the river with their stonemasons’ local.  I was so round and short that I felt—and must have looked—like a child half my age.  My father and uncle looked proud that day, and they said they were, but they never spoke of the bridge again, other than to say they were heading across it—just like any other pedestrian—with no hint of ownership, no pride beyond that of any citizen who called it his bridge.

            Onstage I learned to leave the audience wanting more.  The lesson dovetailed nicely—perfectly, I daresay—with the examples set by my parents, who never left the table but to the faint accompaniment of their own hunger pangs.  Like the hungry diner, an audience who craves more is happiest, most soul-satisfied.  That is, thinking themselves not satiated, but in actuality being perfectly fed, sated and happy.  Applauding for more, but knowing intrinsically that an added ounce should destroy the feeling and render them bloated and uneasy.

            I’ve seen the look of disappointment in patrons’ eyes many times, and it was not unlike my father’s in his final year.  When some star-struck couple finds their way backstage to meet the man who brought Hamlet to life, the light in their eyes fades.  When the Bard’s words no longer animate the actor, he seems lifeless in comparison to the giant onstage.  The yearning, the anger, the fear—the life-force—is vanished.  Only I stand there, a silly little man runny with makeup, uncertain how I might staunch the disappointment falling out of their eyes.  I tried discussing the role, the character.  But patrons want élan vital.  I tried turning the discussion to their own lives, enquiring as to their occupations, their families.  But patrons want drama.  I told one man about my personal life, and how my struggles with one understudy had threatened to bring an entire production to a halt.  I don’t think he heard a word.  His eyes hung somewhere between Murray Hill and Elsinore.  Now I greet admirers without stepping from behind my dressing room door.  I stick my head out and, as the man or woman compliments my performance, I lower my face solemnly and interrupt.  “You must excuse me now,” I say.  “The Bard has drained all my resources, and there is nothing left to do but recoup.”  It is really the evening’s last bit of performance, one that denies the audience an ounce more of what it craves, and speeds them home enraptured.

            Take note, understudy: I treat my own audience—myself—properly, respectfully, with direction and discipline.  Which means, of course, that I sometimes must treat it roughly—like a lover.  Or another spoiled actor—if there is a difference.  To achieve the proper effect, I leave the ladies and gentlemen wanting more; I leave myself wanting more.  Which is why I am here on the bridge now, understudy.  I shall admire this aerie but for a moment.  Then I shall depart before I am done, before I can no longer see this bridge and the view it proffers, before I no longer feel the air, no longer love.

            Theatre has proven a most proper venue for my life—a life that revolves around its own enjoyment.  A play, like life, is ephemeral.  I am talking about real theater here, not motion pictures.  I enjoy watching some well enough, but I would never, ever act in one.  To be able to look back at one’s own work, and for others to be able to hold it up and say, “Here, here was his best work.  Come see for yourself.”  No, that is the life of a sculptor, not an actor.  That is a stonemason’s lot.

            A stonemason entertains no folly of ever completing more than one Brooklyn Bridge.  It towers above him day after waking day, casting him in its long shadow.  No other project will match its scope or majesty.  His trowel never again shall be so challenged.  Can you imagine, understudy, what my father had to do every working day after its completion?  It were as if he had completed this magnificent work of art only so that he might walk across it to patch the ever-crumbling walls of the bowery.  Imagine the indignity.  Imagine the hopelessness.

            Then there is the stage actor.  His last performance behind him, unrecorded, living only in the mind—this man is free and happy, his greatest accomplishment in the work ahead, the work behind, a sweet memory of something of which he only wants more.  There are only so many bridges in the world, but a never-ending river of plays.

            The trick is knowing when to stop.  Are the years ahead to be filled with dread, or will they continue to lift one to greater accomplishment and greater pleasure?

            My understudy will remember one evening two years ago when, as a reward, the producers of our long-running Broadway show reserved for the cast and crew a swath of Coney Island.  The youthful understudy begged me time and again to ride the Cyclone with him.  The roller coaster was new, and dangerous I told him, but he responded that danger was the aim.  I couldn’t refute such logic, and his enthusiasm was catching—which, I reminded myself, was the point, besides his beauty, of keeping such company.  Life was capital.  Our play had ended on a high note.  The last performance had been as fresh as the first.  It was early autumn, the warmest of nights.  I felt as vigorous as the understudy looked.  By what better note, in what better company, and in what more dramatic manner might one lose one’s life?

            So I climbed into the steel carriage, happily resigned to losing my head on a loosened beam, to careening off the tracks.  It was a thrilling ride.  Halfway through, someone switched off the lights. I found myself trackless, hanging on the precipice of total darkness.  I could barely tell whether I was climbing or falling.  It is very popular for people now to say that life is like a roller coaster.  But that is not accurate.  Life is like a roller coaster with the lights out.  You never know if you are falling or climbing until you are well into the motion.  And if you want to stop the ride before the next descent, well, it’s quite difficult in the dark to know the last moment you even have that choice.

            Had my father been able to see what lay ahead in his own life, perhaps he would have leapt from the bridge tower a moment before he positioned its last stone.  Had my uncle known, perhaps he would not have grabbed my father the day he leaned too far to spy the SS Germanic.  Perhaps Uncle Joe would have let Father go.  Perhaps, if I had known what lay ahead when I was a child, I would have pretended better to be what a stonemason’s apprentice is supposed to be.

            Three years after completing the bridge and crossing it every day to work menial projects, Father’s hand was crushed when a workman above dropped seven hundred pounds of rough-cut limestone.  The doctors took his fingers first.  Then his hand.  Then his arm.  And it was another five weeks before the infection finally took his life.

            It was my fault.

            That summer I had begun to assist Father on the old Madison Square Garden—the Moorish building they have since torn down to erect a charmless skyscraper that, I might add, is still dwarfed by this bridge.  I carried out my tasks clumsily and endured the abuses some of the men felt compelled to heap upon me when my father was out of earshot.  Most of them took aim at my weight since such a large target required little effort or accuracy.  One young man homed in on my demeanor.  There is a young man like this in every group, one who mistakes delicacy, mindfulness, vocabulary and precision for feminine traits.  When I dropped a stone on his foot, he shouted, calling me something frightfully indelicate.  This time my father heard him, and he marched up to us and asked what had happened.

            The day laborer said, “Your mincing daughter dropped a rock on my foot!”

            Without turning to me, Father said, “Leopold, apologize to Adomas.”

            “I’m sorry,” I said.  “I didn’t mean to.”

            “There you go, Adomas.  It was an accident.  Now apologize to my son.”

            Adomas looked up at my father from under the brim of his dusty hat.  “I meant no offense to you, sir.”

            “Not to me.  Apologize to my boy!”

            Father slapped Adomas across the face, then pushed him backwards over a stack of bricks.  Then he pulled the man up by the lapels and punched him in the face.  Adomas kept his legs this time, and brought his hands up to a gushing nose.  Father pushed down on his shoulders until the laborer stepped backwards and fell into a seated position.  Adomas had resisted, his eyes burning, but he had not fought back.

            Father pulled me by the wrist.

            “Come on.”

            Once we were inside he said, his tongue still thick with rage, “While you’re on-site, at least pretend you’re a stonemason’s apprentice.  Look about you.  Do what the men are doing.  Act like a man while you’re here.  When you’re off at school, I’ve still got to work with the Lithuanians.”  Father paused, his eyes puzzling out what might be the future.

            Six months later, his hand was crushed.  Mykolas, a quiet man who had never said a cross word to me or to my father, but who was Lithuanian, and no doubt beholden to his uncle, Adomas, slid a block into place when my father had commanded, “Hold!”

            At home, I threw myself across his chest and cried.  “Why did you hit him, Father?  I don’t care if he calls me names,” I said.  “The boys at school call me names too.  I don’t care.”

            “Don’t let them,” Father said, as if my world were as simple as his.  Didn’t he see?  Even his world wasn’t as simple as that.

            I’m sure my father would have gladly sacrificed the humdrum year before the accident in order to forgo the pain and humiliation of those final weeks.  Not just for himself, but for his family too.  I was sick with guilt, and angry at my father’s chivalry.  Look where it got him.  Every week he would emerge from an etherized haze and raise a bandaged hand to his eyes to see how it had been further diminished, until one day there was no hand on the end of his arm to examine and, one day, there was no arm.  As soon as his bedroom was cleared of the smell of seared flesh, it filled again with the stench of gangrene.  His body began to liquefy, to deliquesce into the linen, and Father watched it happen from his perch on the pillow until lucidity, too, melted away in the heat.  When he came-to, near the end, I described to him the boats I had seen on the harbor.

            “Father, you should have seen this one.  It was made of iron.  It will last forever.”

            I manufactured these images, for I had not left the house in days.

            “The stacks were so tall that I wondered if it would clear the bridge.  Of course, it did—no boat will ever match the Great Bridge for height—but its aspect was so great that for a moment I doubted if the world could contain it.”

            Then he said, “Enough.  I am done with boats.”

            The understudy might do well to imagine how my mother suffered.  And if I am going to be frank, I have to say that Father’s final days, in a fashion, made us grow tired of him, or at least what was left of him.  The hale man we knew was already killed, and we were left to reckon with the mess left behind.  This mess persisted well beyond the will of my father.  It lingered, demanding we attend to its eruptions, its fissures, its leaks and groans.  That doesn’t mean I did not love my father or would not bring him back right now if I could.  I would.  I would bring him back in full health and then, whilst we admired that passing boat there, with its sleek lines and tilted stacks pushing against the tide, I should have him take himself from me then, just before he finished describing the engines that propel such a leviathan.  He should place his shellacked sailing hat on his head, and step into the air.

            The understudy accuses me of being a morbid old man.  To wish one’s father a suicide, he said, is ghoulish.

            To be young like you, I said, is to be foolish.

            Yet I envy his youth—and his position.  The understudy is always expectant.  The greatest moment is always only a night away.  He is a genius to choose such a life, and I told him so.  There is only one thing in life better than being an actor.  It is being The Understudy!

            He slips into my skin and plays any role I can play.  It is a transformation that takes layers of makeup and powder—a sight to which I have never grown accustomed.  He mimics me; he mimics me mimicking someone else.  He acts like me.  He acts like me acting like someone else.  He is a pretender.  But does he understand?  Does he believe?

            The understudy asked me this morning if I were walking to the bridge.  I told him I was, and he asked if I required an audience this time.  This time?  The gall. I never requested his audience. The nosey fiend trailed me here before.  When, that morning, I began to scale the trellis, he burst through the pedestrian traffic and hauled me down, demanding to know what I was doing.

            “A great oration,” I proclaimed.

            It is not a performance, he replied.  It is your life.

            “Is there a difference?” I asked, and I might have regretted it for all the tears that broke through the seams of his face.

            This morning, when the saucy boy asked me if I required an audience, I told him what a piece of work he is.  It is his moment to bask in the limelight.  Tonight, he shall walk the boards.  Is this not the moment an understudy lives for?  What kind of understudy hauls his master back onto the stage?  “Understudy,” I said.  “It is your moment to shine.  You should push me off the bridge!”

            I shall neither push nor haul, he said.  This time, I shall not even follow.

            Good.  Maybe I did not spy him on the street today.  Maybe he is preparing, bracing himself for the inevitable.  One cannot remain an understudy forever.  One must have the fortitude, the discipline to step onto the stage, to traipse the precipice lit with fire.

            I have marched myself onto this bridge six times and deliberated as to whether I should jump.  Only once did I come here in despair, mourning my mother’s death.  A coronary, her end was natural, quick, and a surprise.  The other occasions, like today, when I climbed down from the pedestrian walkway and stood at the edge of the automobile traffic—peering over the railing—were times of celebration, contentment, and anticipation.  It was youth and inexperience that kept me from heaving myself into the air when I first fell in love, when I landed my first Broadway role.  Each time there was something so much more to look forward to.  So much more of life to enjoy.  I was not merely pretending that life would continue to thrill.  I believed.  What has changed is the diminishing quantity of possibilities, the narrowness of their range, and the growing certainty of sickness and death—both approaching from the wings, ineluctably.  Each with blunt, ugly features directed towards center-stage.  Surely the understudy sees them stalk me.

            I will not pretend otherwise.

            I have no delusions that my health will persist.  At my age, a cold easily turns to pneumonia.  A twisted ankle betides a warped spine.  A misstep concludes with a shattered clavicle.  Soon, my white hair shall melt away like spring snow, and I will be a bald baby again, crying for a satisfaction that is, at this age, not possible.

            Yet it is difficult to say goodbye to such a life.  I hope my understudy knows this.  It would be so much easier if everyone jumped.  Every day we could watch from the shoreline with wonderment and happiness as healthy, nearly contented bodies took wing, arcing one after the other in slow succession like gunpowder streamers from both sides of the deck, one glinting through the air, another extinguishing itself in the cool river pushing out to sea.  Then another and another.  Maybe that is what it will be like tomorrow.  Understudy!  Do you hear me?  Maybe I will not be the only glad man to do it.

        return to fiction

L.P. Griffith earned his MFA at the University of Memphis, where he was managing editor of The Pinch literary journal. He currently writes for Publishers Weekly and teaches creative writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). His most recent essays and stories appeared in The South Carolina ReviewOxford American online, Opium Magazine online, Cream City Review and Fast Forward: Volume Three.