Hod

Joseph Bathanti

     
   

            My first day on the job, my Uncle Pat teamed me with a little, wiry bricklayer named Shotty Montesanto 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 with his sentences. Every day, like a uniform, he wore tight jeans and a V-necked gleaming white 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 the first level. He wouldn't get near it. Twenty years before, laying the last few courses in a gable three stories up, the scaffold he was on had collapsed. He fractured his skull and broke 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 second-hand and wired together. His laborers crossed 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 went to work for him because I needed a job. I had just graduated 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, but I was just waiting to see what would happen, and I couldn't stand the thought of a job that kept me cooped up during the day. What I really wanted was to stay home, read Marvel comic books, and wait for the aliens that Jeanne Dixon kept predicting would swoop in 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 - eighteen years old, 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. One: an open box attached to a long pole in which bricks or mortar are carried on the shoulder. Which told me nothing until I saw one racked in the hod stand that first morning on the job. You shovel the box full of mortar, then step up to the stand, half-squat under the hod, assume its weight on your shoulder, then straighten your legs and stand, grip the pole to your chest, and step away. You then walk quickly to the bricklayers, and very gently pour - you do not dump - the mud onto the mortarboard between them. To splash is the ultimate laboring faux pas. The cardinal error. It's an insult to the bricklayers, who are the artists. The laborers are expendable. This hierarchy was immediately established.

            I had no trouble mixing up my first batch of mortar: a sack of aggregate, six shovels of sand, a five gallon bucket of water, all tossed into a gasoline-powered mixer. A giant egg-beater with a throttle cord. No problem spading the hod full. But when I stepped away from the stand, the metal V of that hod digging into my trapezoid, and tried to walk, I teetered like a drunk wearing a two hundred pound hat. Before I and the whole thing went over, I lunged back to the hod stand and slammed it back home, sending a wash of mud all over my head and shoulders. Same with the bricks. The hod took eighteen of them. I could get it on my shoulder, but I couldn't balance it. I tried a few different approaches, but simply could not manage the physics of it.

            "Jesus Christ," Shotty yakked. "It's a good thing you're getting paid by the hour.”

            I ended on that first day hauling the mud in five-gallon buckets, one in each hand. I had to stop every few yards; they were so heavy. I toted bricks in brick tongs. Ten bricks apiece, but they turned my forearms to jelly. Shotty was patient. I'd catch him smiling, shaking his head. He was Pat's fastest and best bricklayer, so he worked by himself. He needed bricks and mud in a steady stream.

            I worked through lunch stocking the foundation with brick. Shotty sat in the shade and watched me. He ate two baloney sandwiches, a whole pack of Archway cookies, and drank Rolling Rock beer.

            "Don't you ever tell your Uncle Pat about this," he said, holding up one of the beers. "Sit down and eat your lunch before you pass out."

            "Fungol Pat," I said.

            He laughed and blew out the beer in his mouth. I drank two double-Rs with him. The little seven-ounce cans. 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 for a while, staggering around with my buckets of mud. Then he drove off.

            Shotty gave me a lift home in his beat-up gold Bonneville. The backseat was piled with clothes and brick tools. Crushed empty 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 a cracked layer of dried mortar.

            "Take them. Good work boots are the secret to long life. And grab a pair of gloves too."

            "You sure?"

            "I insist."

            "Thanks a lot, Shotty."

            "Don't mention it."

            "I'll give them right 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."

            "You serious?"

            "Six-thirty."

            Then he rumbled away in a halo of dust.

            My mother knew Shotty. She said he was a slicker, that his real name was Basil, and he knew blindfolded the back entrance to every beer garden in Pittsburgh. I didn't think she even knew who I was talking about. My dad knew him because he had labored for Pat a long time ago. But he didn't commit one way or another about Shotty, just nodded and went back to the newspaper.

            He didn't just read the paper; he digested it. Every inch, including the crossword puzzles. It was he, not my mother, who cut out coupons and taped articles, cartoons and recipes to the refrigerator. He was also the one who did all the marketing and cooking. My mother never cooked. Never. But 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 bowtie - and without even looking in a mirror. The other waiters all wore fake, clip-on bowties.

            "You know Shotty," my mother barked at my dad from the living room. In a girdle and bra, she stood in front of the screen door smoking a cigarette at the ironing board and pressed her 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. Beautiful, thick black eyebrows and an unusually long septum that drooped onto her upper lip. She looked like a hawk, even when she smiled. She hostessed at a club called the Suicide King that had bands, and strippers who danced in go-go cages dangling from the ceiling. The King was on the same street as the Park Schenley. They both left the house around 4:30 in the afternoon and didn't get home sometimes until 3:00. 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 to Finnegan’s for a meal before coming home and emptying their pockets full of rolled bills on the kitchen table.

            Theirs was a schedule that suited mine perfectly. When they were gone I was home; when they were home I was gone; and our sleep cycles took care of the rest. I believed that I loved them. I had no other word for how I felt, except confusion. 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 - I knew that - and I was afraid that any moment they would begin to tell me about it, out of sheer spite, and I didn't want to know. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers: they'd reveal their true identities, and I'd find out things about myself too that I'd rather not know.

            "I know," my dad said without looking up. "I said I knew him."

            "You and that goddam paper."

            "Why don't you put some clothes on?"

            "Don't look if it bothers you."

            "What about your impressionable son here?"

            "He doesn't have to look either."

            My dad didn't care for Pat. Something about when he had labored for him. It had been a long time ago, early in my parents' marriage, before he scored the Park Schenley job. Sometimes my mother gave him a hard time about quitting Pat. She said they'd have more than a pot to piss in if he had had what it takes to stick it out. Pat was a millionaire, she reminded my father.

            "I wasn't man enough, Rita," my dad would crack.

            But something deeper ran between my mother and Pat. When their paths crossed, usually at some unavoidable family function, they merely acknowledged one another with hello and goodbye. Period. Nothing more. My dad would shake hands with Pat, and go find a chair until it was time to go. Up to the point when I called Pat for the job, at my mother's suggestion, she and Pat hadn't spoken or seen each other for at least two years. All I knew, and only in that murky way in which kids find things out, was that she and Pat had been very tight, but then they fell out over something that had to do with the church and he had slapped her around. Probably the fact that she had eloped with my father who was not only non-Italian, but black Irish, and Protestant as well. I'd call him 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, leftover mashed potatoes he had mixed with eggs and fried into fritters. Next to it he set a salad, and rolls he brought home from the restaurant.

            "Eat," he commanded.

            I didn't realize how tired I was until I sat down. How achy. It was tough holding the fork because my hands were so blistered. I felt a little panicky. How long could I last at this job?

            "You're all blistered up, Fritz," my dad said as he sat across the table and watched me eat.

            "My feet too."

            "You'll feel better after you eat."

            "I'm okay."

            "I know you are. You're fine. That's a mean job, Fritzy. I'm proud of you."

            "Quit coddling him, Travis," my mother yelled in. "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 opened my mouth to say "Good" when suddenly both of my legs cramped up. Behind my thighs and in my calves. Spasms of unbearable pain.

            "What?" my dad shouted. "Rita!"

            I fell off my chair and rolled around the kitchen floor. My father tried to grab me. My mother dashed in, wearing a tight black dress and high white patent-leather boots with platform heels.

            "My God, Fritzy. What's wrong? Fritzy!" she screeched.

            "My legs," I managed. "They're cramped."

            My dad had hold of me, and was massaging my legs. My thigh and calve 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 me with 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 alright. We're going to be late."

            Each time I tried to get up, my legs cramped up 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 alright, Dad.”

            "You're okay down there, aren't you, Fritzy?" my mother asked.

            "That goddam job," said my father.

            "It's not going to hurt him. Just because you couldn't handle it."

            "Don't start with that all over again."

            "No, no, God forbid we bring up that tender subject. Why don't you quit?" she said to me. "Just quit the job if you can't take it. You better step on it, Travis, or we'll be late. I'll be in the car."

            My father lifted me - he was strong as ten men - and carried me upstairs, and laid me in bed. He sat on the side of it, in his bowtie 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. His face was freckled. I didn't even know how old he was. Or my mother.

            "I'm sorry I let you get out of here this morning without gloves and proper shoes. I should have known better."

            "That's okay. Shotty leant 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. But your mother's right. I couldn't handle it."

            "Yes, you could." I didn't want to hear him talk like this.

            "No, I couldn't. I try not to lie to you. I couldn't handle it. It kicked my ass. I got to get going. So long." He patted me on the shoulder.

            "I'll see you, Dad."

            A tiny bit later, I heard my mother trotting up the stairs, then 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?"

            "Better."

            "Listen. I don't want you to quit that job with Pat. No matter what. You hear? Do not quit."

            "Okay."

            "Okay." She bent and kissed me, then ran out of the room. My dad was blowing the horn.

            I never made it out of bed. The next morning I woke up feeling like hell. In my thighs and shoulders especially, like I had been pounded with fists. I limped past my parents' room where they both slept on their backs like goners, a royal blue sheet up to their waists. My dad didn't have a shirt on, his chest hairless and white as sheetrock. His mouth was wide open and he whistled at the end of each snore like a cartoon character. Loud enough to hear 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 was a lunch my dad had packed, a thermos, my gloves and a khaki porkpie hat with a navy and maroon band around it. Sitting on the floor were Shotty's boots, all polished up, with new laces. And a note: Drink a lot of water and wear a hat. Lots love, Dad. I had a bowl of cereal, then went out, sat on the curb and waited for Shotty.

            This ended up being my routine. I went to bed early, I got up early, and 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 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 pellets of 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 too wet. "Like ice cream" when it was right.

            He called me manovale. Which means laborer. Only lower, unskilled, Shotty said. A peasant. He laughed when he said it. Because I labored for Shotty, all our jobs were on the ground. But Pat's other laborers, some my age, built scaffold, then stocked them with bricks, mortarboards and tempering cans. As the houses went up storey by storey, I watched them, 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 rumbled us out to a new site where Pat's outfit was doing the brick and block work on a huge plan of three-storey townhouses. Shotty, because he was the master, moved inside to do all the fireplace work, and I was assigned to two other bricklayers, Ernie and Ted. They had known my dad from the job. Ernie was an easy-going old guy, about to retire. He was crinkled up with arthritis and had a pair of hands that 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 ended up splashing them, Ernie would laugh and say, "Thanks for the bath, kid." But Ted would get pissed. He didn't like a speck on him. He'd glare at me and say, "What the fuck?" He moved like a machine, and I had trouble keeping up.

            "Mud," he'd scream. "Mud, dammit. 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: rusting, cast-iron bucks, shaped like football goalposts, anchored with struts and bolted together. Across the bucks, planks were laid side to side to make a platform. Which is what the bricklayers stood on 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, like a ramp, up which the manovale trudged with a hod on his back, was stretched from the ground to the scaffold.

            Once we had it finished, Ted told me to stock it. It wasn't a big deal to walk up the plank, nailed down at about a thirty degree angle, with the hod of bricks, and place a few on each side of the mortarboards situated around the perimeter of the building. We were only about ten feet off the ground and the height didn't bother me at all. After it was stocked Ernie and Ted started laying brick and I hustled up and down with mud. Ted gave it to me the whole time. It was like he had this hard-on for me. Everything I did was wrong. I didn't open my mouth, though I wanted to bash his head in with my hod. Instead, I just hustled all the more. I was Pat's nephew - everybody knew this - and I didn't want anyone taking it easy on me because of it.

            Shotty, his T-shirt dotted with the black mortar always used to brick fireplaces, came out every now and then to check me out. He cupped his eyes and gazed up at me maneuvering that scaffold and shook his head. He and Ted, the maestro bricklayers, didn't like each other.

            Pat made a couple appearances every day to replenish the water barrels for the mixers. He'd speak to the bricklayers, but not even a grunt for me. I knew, however, that he was watching me. Not really with approval, but a grudging, almost disgust, it seemed. But I don't know. I figured it was me.

            I learned to lay off the Rolling Rocks at lunch. I found a place in the shade, ate my lunch, smoked a couple cigarettes, drank coffee from my thermos, and watched beautiful women get out of beautiful cars as they cased the new townhouses. I got brown and strong. Sometimes I'd catch my own eye in a storm window on the site, 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 recipes he'd scissored from the newspaper to the fridge, wrangling that black hank of material into a perfect bow at his Adam's Apple. They'd both be sweating, a revolving fan on a pole ruffing the dusty shears at the open window.

            They'd sit with me if they had a few minutes and watch me wolf down whatever my father put in front of me. 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. That isn't what bothered me. 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 was stationed in Italy during World War II. My dad hadn't gone to the war. My dad was a gutless wonder, she'd say. "Gutless wonder." She used this on my dad like a pet name, and most of the time he just smiled at her and said nothing.

            "You're a witch, Rita," he'd sometimes say. "A magnificent witch."

            "Kiss me, gutless wonder."

            And they'd kiss.

            "Some day, Rita. Some day."

            "Some day, what? Some day you're going to grow a set of balls? Some day 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, losing my appetite and walking out to the alley to get away from them.

            After they left, I'd sit and stare at the kitchen wallpaper, listen to the neighbors gathering on their stoops, the little kids out in the street playing Indian ball. I'd read comic books and watch TV, sometimes wander down to the schoolyard and sit on the steps and smoke cigarettes. Often I'd think of things I shouldn't: tanned women, no older than my own mother, really, like the ones I'd see strolling around the site in madras wraparound skirts and white sleeveless blouses. Natural blonds 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.

            Under that soft cotton, what were their bodies like? The sheets they slept in? Like lying down in a field of what I imagined a cotton crop might be like, then 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 blonds who smiled all the time and meant it. A woman who came from a family of doctors and judges, bred on the aristocratic side of the Allegheny River. Who gave him children, filled with the vigor and optimism of the New Frontier, who looked like add copy for Kodak. Pat had crossed over. He knew the secret. How to step out of his red muddy pickup at six o'clock into the sanctum of cordials and dinner jackets. A deacon at St. Paul's Cathedral, he had even stayed with the church. He played golf with the Bishop. Handsome, distant Pat. Yes, he knew the secret. The secret was money. My parents knew that too, I guess. Though they were just unlucky. But there was something more than just luck.

            I had never had a real girlfriend. Only those wrestling matches in Highland Park with dark girls that passed for love or whatever. That required two showers after the dirt and sweat and mosquitoes to feel clean again. I couldn't think too long about the whole thing because I'd start to cry. I was alone in the house. It would have been okay to yell and scream and beat on things. No one could distinguish my agony from anybody else's in the neighborhood. We lived that close. Rowhouses, party walls, alleys.

            The streetlights hummed outside my bedroom window, and I'd simply turn 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 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'd start worrying about the scaffold, the gable I'd be climbing the next morning with a hundred ungainly pounds on my back, Ted yapping at me to step it up, goddammit, as I tightroped on a moldy two-by-six across the abyss.

            I wished I could be a mutant - shit, I was a mutant - like the ones I read about in Marvel, someone with phenomenal secret powers. Like flying or clairvoyance. Or even just plain goodness. I'd settle for optimism. That seemed a secret power 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 ever 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 townhouses. Shotty was downstairs laying firebrick with black mortar. Every once in a while you'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. They were laying used brick (antique brick) so I had to chip all the old mortar off with a brick hammer before loading them in the hod. I broke as many as I cleaned. My hands were torn up. It was hot and getting ready to rain. We wanted to get done before it opened up, then raise the scaffold for the next day before we went home. Ted had been busting me all day about how slow I was. I was costing him money. I had tripped over the plumb line twice. 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, "Oh oh," when he saw me. Then Ted, who, just from the expression on Ernie's face, knew I had heard, 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. In one of his hands was a brick and in the other his big trowel with a wet slab of mortar on it.

            I stood there like a jerk for what seemed like a long time, taking in Ted's clean-shaven unapologetic smiling face. Then I dumped my hod. On him. Most of it oozed out over his head and face. He aged forty years. All that gray. A hundred pounds of age. Like he had just surfaced from a bog.

            I clutched the hod. Out in front of me like a huge battleaxe. Ted jumped up and came at me with the trowel, wielding it like a switchblade, jabbing it toward my face, grabbing hold of the hod pole with his free hand and trying to wrest it from me. He cursed me, but every time he opened his mouth mud seeped into it. He dropped the trowel and with both hands grabbed onto the hod pole and pushed me toward the edge of the scaffold. I couldn't hold him back. I was going over. No doubt. If I don't land on something, I thought - a spike, an angle iron, one of the carpenter's power saws, whatever, 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 suddenly as I was getting ready to tank, he lurched up behind Ted, put the choke hold on him, brandished the business end of my brick hammer in his face, and 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 he knew I loved so much, and asked me how the job was going; confessed in that offhand way of his that he could never cut the mustard, that that 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 hands across her rump.

            She told him he had the hands a safecracker and the gumption of a baton twirler. She'd make a man of him some day. He said women like her made men feel like real heroes, like Medal of Honor winners. That if we could package her particular brand of warmth, then there wouldn't be those posters of hungry stick-thin Biafran kids, there wouldn't be any need for bomb shelters and civil defense drills. She was some classy broad, he said.

            "And you're some poet," she snarled, but couldn't help smiling. Then she wheeled around and bashed him a kiss that was like a sucker punch. "My gutless wonder," she whispered, her mouth sucking the soul right out of him. He was hurting when she laid off, but he smiled and winked at me.

            The next morning they swooned naked across each other in bed like felled trees, her hair gauzing his face, their sweating, smoky clothes commingled 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. I had heard him say himself he couldn't cut it. Every time I squatted under the hod I thought of him, dying under that condescending sun and the eyes of those unforgiving bricklayers. Silent Pat rooting for him to fall on his face, so he could punish his sister, my mother, for who knows what. Marrying my father, Travis Sweeney. There was more. There was always more. But, again, the last thing I ever wanted was for their little lockbox of secrets to be pried open.

            For the rest of the week, Ted didn't clearly speak 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 an adjacent foundation, something he did only if he were short-handed. He was sure to have heard what happened with Ted and me, but of course he'd never let on. We were working the third storey, moving up to brick my first gable. From my perch on a two-by-twelve, I glanced down at him. 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, his trowel knifing in and out of the mud and icing those leaden termites that he manhandled into somebody's future like 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, in midair with a full hod of bricks, and paused. Then raised his trowel, and smiled, ruefully, derisively. Just for a second, then went back to work. I don't know. 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 we 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, goddammit. He wanted bricks. I took a step toward him and then I lost my balance, the hod pulling me one way and then another.

            When I looked down, I could tell it was late in the day. The masons, and carpenters and electricians were loitering below, cleaning and stowing their tools, lighting cigarettes, empty mortar bags and shingles blowing 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 on earth until bedtime. The in-between blessed part when you're about done weltering it out, but you're not back in that other world yet. The one of wives and kids and people who work inside sitting down all day.

            All of those guys. They were peering up at me. Waiting for me to fall. So they could make a story of it: Some mongrel kid. No one even knew his name. Who froze up and fell climbing his first gable, then raced the bricks to the clay. And some well-to-do family pitched their kids' swing set where he hit, never imagining that the first green thing planted there wasn't their sod, but that green kid who never had a chance anyhow. Pat's nephew. It's a shame, but it happens. Thank God, it wasn't me.

            I had to have been scared, but what concerned me most, idiotically enough, was reclaiming my ballast and getting those bricks up to Ted. That deadweight on my back, however, had a mind of its own, and each move I made sent me swaying. I took my eyes off the ground and gazed up at Ted. He stared at me with astonishment, 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, the way they looked at me, 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 would say. Balls as big as cement mixers because he didn't give a shit. I was the coward. Sheer cowardice, greed and ignorance 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, thinking poorly of me, 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 loudly, but very calm.

            For some reason, it didn't register. I tried to take a step toward Ted, froze again, the hod driving me over.

            "Let go of the hod, Fritzy," Shotty screamed. "Now, dammit. Throw it down."

            It fell from my shoulder face-first, the bricks missiling out into the earth ahead of it, scattering everyone, then crashed with a metal thud, and bounced. I collapsed to my hands and knees and edged backwards down the plank toward the scaffold.

            Once I was back on the ground, Pat hurried toward me. He looked worried. I guess I had almost 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 with both hands by the shirt front, spun me and got me into a headlock, then 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. "I'll bust your empty head open. Get in the truck."

            I climbed in - I heard the guys laugh as we pulled away - and sat there staring at his profile the entire time he silently sped me home. He had a day's growth, black as soot, with a long white scar along his jaw that looked like an eight-penny finishing nail. Squared-off sideburns. He didn't smoke. He didn't drink. He was a deacon in his church, President of the Holy Name Society, a revered father and husband. It occurred to me that it was Shotty who called out to me. Not Pat. Pat would have caught the bricks instead of me. He would've docked me for every busted brick, dead nephew or not. I think I loved Pat, as much as I hated him, and was even tempted to tell him this. Much as it shamed me, what I wanted most was for him to love me.

            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. 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 just stared in shock. As far as I knew 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, then picked up the paper and opened it in front of his face.

            "He's finished," Pat announced.

            "What happened?"

            "He nearly fell off a scaffold."

            "Oh, my God." She looked at me, horror on her face. The paper rustled in the kitchen. Music. The tink of a bottle refilling a glass. The robe was open to her navel.

            "I don't want him on the job any more. He doesn't have the spine for it."

            She 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 against his chest. She sounded like she was crying. Pat’s arms levitated up, as if of their own volition, to comfort her. Instead he went for her hands clasped at the back of his head. But he couldn’t get her off.

            Finally, he grabbed her hair and yanked, until she peeled off, with a little cry, her robe dangling off her shoulders, exposing her. Pat raised his fist with my mother’s bleached hair clutched in it and lorded it above her like he was going to pound her. Then he threw the bright yellow shock in her face. She had to spit some of it out of her mouth. It fell down onto her breasts, then to the floor.

            My mother glared up at him like some savage Joan of Arc, and went for a big turquoise ashtray. I swear Pat let her hit him. Never moved. Didn't raise an arm to deflect it. The thing weighed a couple pounds, I bet, and it shattered on his head like hitting a rock. Pat didn't flinch. No blood. Nothing. He took it like some indestructible mutant villain, held his ground for a moment to let the fact of his invulnerability sink in, then walked out the door.

            The other, the second, definition for hod is praise; confession. The etymology is, I believe, Yiddish 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 my dad to set down the newspaper, come in and call him out. Beat the hell out of him. But that isn't what would have happened. Pat would have torn him apart and my dad knew it. I was glad Pat had 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. They at least knew more than I did. The things I never wanted to know.

            In a minute, my father called in to my mother from the kitchen that it was her turn, and she went back 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 me. For dessert he made me a Boston Cooler: half a cantaloupe, with vanilla ice cream tamped into the crater.

     
        return to fiction
 

Joseph Bathanti is the author of six books of poetry: Communion Partners, Anson County, The Feast of All Saints, This Metal (nominated for the National Book Award), Land of Amnesia, and Restoring Sacred Art (winner of the 2010 Roanoke Chowan Prize). His novel, East Liberty, won the 2001 Carolina Novel Award. His latest novel, Coventry, won the 2006 Novello Literary Award. His book of stories, The High Heart, won the 2006 Spokane Prize. Other awards include Literature Fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Samuel Talmadge Ragan Award, the Linda Flowers Prize, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Prize, the Donald Murray Prize, and he was recently named the 2011-12 Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for the Western Region by the North Carolina Poetry Society. Bathanti is Professor of Creative Writing and Writer-in-Residence of Watauga Global Community at Appalachian State University. “Hod” was previously published in The Sun and also in the collection The High Heart.