When I asked, Cody told me he liked to take the back roads to the quarry because they took longer. “More time getting paid to sit down,” he said.
I’d let him drive so I could pencil out a new bid. We were just north of Greenfield, past the tree nurseries and orchards, about to that old barn with the orange, white, and turquoise siding. I slid off my reading glasses and set the calculator on the dash. The morning sky was overcast, and it was hard to tell if the gray was going to turn to rain, or if it was going burn off and get sunny. “That’s not something you should actually say out loud to your boss,” I said.
Cody drove with one hand at the bottom of the wheel. He had his ball cap pushed back, exposing his baby-white forehead. His bangs were already stiff with dried sweat from loading up the truck. “But you asked,” he said. “Why do you like to go this way? Those were your exact words.”
“I know,” I said. But I’d also asked him why he just didn’t take the interstate. It shot you right out of town so you didn’t have to deal with all the stop-and-go stuff, or any of the steep hills, which ate up the transmission when you had a load. It was the way I always went, which I thought communicated—communicated quite clearly, in fact—that it was the way I wanted everyone else on the crew to go too. “It’s just that it’s never a smart idea to tell your boss that you like to milk the driving time. Sort of as a general practice thing, you’re better off not saying that.”
His baby-white forehead wrinkled a bit, and he sat up a bit straighter in his seat. “I didn’t say I was trying to milk things,” he said. “You know that’s not what I meant.”
He was right. He wasn’t like the guys the temp agency sometimes gave me, the ones who mostly excelled at standing around, or taking smoke breaks and talking shit about the pussy they were getting. The kid could move rock unlike any of us. He’d already snapped two handles of the wheelbarrows because of how much he overloaded them. If we were setting a footing and we hit some concrete-hard clay, or if there was a big root that needed to be hacked out, the mattock always went to him because he’d swing it for hours without stopping—machine-like, possessed.
“No, I know,” I said. “You’re a workhorse.” I hadn’t been trying to call him lazy. “It’s just that—”
“I’m trying hard,” he interrupted. “I really am.” Something about that last part made me wonder if we were having the same conversation.
“Could you maybe try going the other way from now on?”
“You want me to take the interstate?”
“I’d prefer that, yes.”
He looked over at me. He hadn’t shaved in a bit, and he’d grown a little fuzz on his face. “Like all the time?”
“That’d be a good start.”
We drove for a bit without talking then. On Cody’s side of the road, fields of mint passed by in an emerald blur. There was a shuttered lumber mill and some other industrial-looking place called Rainbow Specialty. Out my window were a few modest horse places, but mostly it was just empty pasture that rose and gradually gave way to the foothills. There were some massive oaks out there on some of the knolls, and in the summer, when the grass had browned out, and if the light was just right, I often found myself dreaming of hiking to one of those trees with some beautiful woman and having a picnic on a blanket and making love—even though I didn’t really know any women anymore, and it was all just poison oak under those trees anyway.
We passed the first sign for the quarry. It featured a painted dump truck in each corner and a big, black arrow pointing east. A weathered American flag hung motionless from it. Coleman Road was still a quarter-mile off, but Cody lifted his foot from the gas and signaled. The action for the lever had broken like a thousand miles ago, and he had to hold the lever in place so the lights would keep flashing. There wasn’t another vehicle in sight, and I got the sense he was signaling for me, just to demonstrate how much he obeyed traffic laws.
I’d hired Cody as a favor to Trish, who was one of the women I used to know. She also felt like maybe the only woman I might ever want to get to know again, if I could ever let myself do that. Cody was engaged to her niece, and he hadn’t been able to make it at the community college, something Trish knew I wouldn’t hold against him. She also knew what happened to guys when they didn’t have anything to do and just sat around the house and started losing their ways, something she wanted to spare her niece from. “And you’re so good at mentoring,” she’d said. I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic.
At the time, I already had a full crew and was reluctant. She’d called me out of the blue, the first time in over a year. We talked for a long time that night. I was living in the same place I have now, a little studio in the back corner of this retired music professor’s yard. It had its own entrance through the alley, and the professor let me do some maintenance work for partial exchange in rent, and my life was simple enough again that I could sit under the stars long after I should’ve gone to bed, talking to the woman I left my wife for, and then almost married, and then froze out completely.
“This was nice,” she said, just before we hung up.
“Yeah,” I said, “it was.” I was being honest. There was a pause then, a silence that felt balanced by something unsteady, though what that something was I couldn’t say. Earlier, she’d told me she’d started seeing someone—said that she was taking it slow, but that she felt really positive about it. Afterwards, I lied and told her the same thing was happening with me.
“Well,” she yawned.
“It’s late,” I said. In six hours the automatic brew function on my coffee maker would start. I’d get up and take a hot shower to unstiffen my joints. I’d eat my oatmeal and flax seeds and whole-wheat toast, pack a lunch, put out a little food for the cat that had started coming around. I wanted to tell Trish that I was happy for her, that I hoped she’d be safe and not get hurt by this new guy, but I also thought it wasn’t my place to say any of those things anymore, and all I told her was that at first it’d be a trial run for Cody, and that I’d see how it went from there. That I wasn’t making any promises.
“Just give him a shot, Dan. For me.”
“For you,” I said, and then almost fell asleep outside.
Coleman Road eventually turned to gravel. We rattled slowly over the cattle guard. On one of the fence posts, a spray-painted sign that read 10 MPH hung crookedly. Two other gravel roads branched off from there, the first of which went to a busted-out trailer home, its door hanging open, the whole place swarmed in blackberry brambles. The other went over to a chocolate-brown ranch house, all its windows covered in plastic weatherizing film. A small, man-made pond had been dug into the backyard. The water was murky, and an aluminum rowboat floated near the middle. A long yellow rope stretched from the boat to the steering wheel of a riding lawnmower that was parked on shore.
Although the configuration of cars in the driveway was always changing, I’d never seen anyone outside. Cody usually called the place “random,” but he seemed a little sulky from before and didn’t even glance at the place. He hadn’t needed to take it so hard, but I knew how that could be. I watched the boat floating in a reflection of sky, trying my best to picture someone sitting inside it, feet propped up, fishing pole in hand, looking happy despite the sorry state of everything else.
Up ahead, a dump truck hauling tons of rock rumbled down the road, trailing a towering cloud of dust. You could get fooled into thinking you had a lot of time before those trucks reached you, but Cody knew better. He pulled over where there was a turnout and rolled up his window. I set my glasses and calculator back in my briefcase, put the bid away, stuffed it all behind the seat.
The dump truck thundered past, doing at least thirty. Dust swallowed us, the world wiped away by brown cloud. Even with the windows closed, the dirt still pushed into the cab, and you could taste it on your tongue. A minute or two later, just as the air was clearing, another truck barreled through, socking us in again. Scared the crap out of the driver when he saw us.
We waited there quietly, watching things settle. Cody was squeezing the steering wheel with both hands, but I couldn’t tell if he was impatient, or annoyed, or what. Both of us coughed and cleared our throats. Sunlight pushed through in streaks. All the particles in the air made the light incredibly orange, and there was something otherworldly about the moment, something hidden and private, and whatever it was, I could feel it dissipating.
“You remember that patio at the Gibson’s?” I asked.
“Over on Kennedy,” I said. “That place where I got all over you for leaning on the broom in front of the client.”
Cody looked at me and nodded. He gave the wheel another squeeze.
“Remember what I told you?”
Cody confessed that he didn’t, not really.
“I told you that it wasn’t about taking a break or slacking. We were done for the day, after all. I think you’d just finished sweeping the patio, too. I said it was one of those things that you just never did. Never lean on your broom or your shovel in front of the client. I said some things just looked certain ways to people, and that you had to be aware of those perceptions, because if you weren’t, that’s how you ended up with all sorts of headaches. And leaning on a broom—that was one of those things that never ever looked good to a client, no matter how much you deserved the little bit of rest.”
“I remember that,” he said.
“That’s what I was meaning earlier, about saying what you said to me.” It was my fault for not just telling him which way to go right from the start.
Cody told me he got it. “I guess I just took it wrong,” he said. He apologized, but I told him not to go that far. The dust had mostly cleared, and he reached for the gearshift. He had to wrestle it a little to get it to move. “I don’t know what it is,” he said. “Whatever I say lately keeps not coming out right, or I keep hearing things incorrectly. That’s what Maddie says, at least.” The tires spun slightly on the gravel. “Things are super bad right now.”
A few more curves and we’d be to the pit. “Relationships can be hard,” I said.
“Dude, you don’t even know.”
I snorted out loud. He knew I was single, but I also figured he’d learned a little bit more than that.
“See,” he said. “I didn’t mean for that to sound however it sounded.”
“You don’t even know,” I said. I’d wanted to ask it as a question, but I mimicked his tone instead.
We rounded the last corner, and the road leveled out. A long time ago, someone had hauled massive columns of granite down there and lined the ditches with them. It made me feel puny to think about how heavy they were. Next to the big drive-on scale sat a simple, plywood-walled office. Cody pulled alongside it. There was a white marker board propped up on a rusted tire rim. The handwritten message was so sun-faded it was almost invisible. Pit open Grab a hardhat If you’re here for wall rock go up hill to right For gravel come find me Larry.
Cody unlatched his seatbelt and cracked his door. “What color?” he asked.
An assortment of hardhats hung on a row of nails that had been pounded into the wall. A few yards off, a diesel generator purred. There were two stacks of floodlights, several barrels of hydraulic oil, and a welding transformer.
“I’ll take that yellow one,” I said.
Cody got out, flicked the yellow one off its nail, and then grabbed an orange one for himself. No matter what color, all of them were old and crappy and never fit very well. Cody used to be self-conscious about wearing them, used to check himself in the side mirror to see how he looked, or would sometimes leave them in the truck, until one of the walls dropped a baseball-sized rock near him without any warning one day.
We took off our baseball caps and then spent some time trying to adjust the band inside the hardhats. It took Cody three or four tries with his. Once we both had them on, we did what had become a kind of ritual between the two of us: we tested them out.
He made a fist and rapped my head hard with his knuckles, and then I did the same to him.
“Nothing,” we said, noting what got through.
The quarry was divided into an upper and lower pit. Larry didn’t unearth much stone from the bottom one anymore, so we drove to the upper, which was just a mess of dynamited rock. The lower was where the crushers and screens and conveyors were staged, where massive heaps of gravel towered over you and let off tiny avalanches that sounded like the surf. A couple of old excavators and a wheel loader got parked down there, too. One of the excavators had a hammer attachment on the arm, and Larry would spend hours on that thing, swinging the boom from rock to rock, pulverizing each one. The chunkchunkchunk, chunkchunkchunk was deafening, constant, chunkchunkchunk, chunkchunkchunk, and even with earplugs in, if I spent too much time down there, my head would start to go crazy with the noise. The whole work of a quarry was to use hard things to break down other hard things into smaller and smaller pieces.
Cody and I picked through a new area of rock. Larry had been blasting a lot up there lately, eating away the hillside, building fresh road as he went. Some guys didn’t handpick their rock, but instead just had Larry scoop up a bucketful and dump it into their trailers, taking whatever shapes and sizes they got. Sometimes that was okay, especially if you were doing riprap stuff, or if you were building a wall with cinder block and mortar backing, where the stone was just a façade. But Cody and I were dry stacking, meaning we used no mortar to hold the walls together. The stones had to rest on themselves, each locking the others into place. We looked for rocks that had at least three good faces, turning them over and over to see how they wanted to sit. Some rocks, no matter which way you set them, wanted to wobble, but others had a side where they would just sit, suddenly full of inertia, which is what we wanted.
A lot of the rock that had come out of this last blast was stained brown and was almost soft, chipping apart in our hands. Cody and I pulled stones and made small talk, mostly sports and movies. I still paid enough attention to them that I could catch most of the references. I was hoping this would be the last run of stones we’d need. The stones had to fit the scale of the project, which meant we needed a lot of big pieces. Mr. Brucemore also wanted us to match the color to the other work I’d done on his property, most of which was a deep, dark gray that looked monotone from a distance, but shimmered with all kinds of coloring, almost like gasoline on water, when you got up close.
Cody pulled another rock free and waddled it toward the bed of the truck, where it landed with a hard thud when he hefted it in. He pulled his gloves on tighter and then balled his fists into his lower back and stretched. He made a groaning noise that I’d never heard from him before. He went to the cab and grabbed his water bottle and took a couple long draws. After he threw the bottle back inside, he shut the door and then just stood there, leaning on it like he was one of those temp-agency mistakes.
When I asked him if he was okay, he gave me another apology and quickly got back to it. As he searched through the pile, he started telling me about some of the stuff that had been going on between him and Maddie. What he couldn’t understand was why she kept getting mad at him for having her back, and for watching out for her, and for trying to help. She’d tell him about a problem at school, or work, or with one of her friends, and then he’d tell her what she should do about it, and then she’d get all mad and frustrated and silent.
“I was telling her how part of the reason she was having this trouble in one of her classes was because of how she always wants to please others, which she has totally admitted to, and all I said was that she just needed to tell her teacher directly that she’d come up with the idea for the project, instead of whatever his name was, who was just some fucking guy that got assigned to her group.”
“And how’d that go?” I asked, though I could already guess.
“She got pissed and told me I didn’t understand, and that she’d already figured it out anyway, which I didn’t believe.”
A nice capstone—a rock five or six inches thick and about twice the size of a TV tray, a piece of furniture I was becoming very familiar with—stuck partway out of the jumble. “You told her you didn’t believe her?”
“I think so. I’m pretty sure.”
“Pretty sure seems a little light.”
“What I told her was that I didn’t believe her because she was horrible at figuring things out. That’s what I said. She asked if I was calling her stupid. She said that’s what it sounded like to her, and I tried to tell her I wasn’t saying that, I wasn’t saying she was stupid, just that she didn’t figure things out very well.”
I’d known Maddie since she was fourteen, long before Cody was around. While I’d mostly only spent a few family occasions with her, they were enough to make it clear that Cody was way off—that she could actually figure quite a lot, with or without him.
“I hope she called you stupid for saying all that to her.”
“I’ve said sorry about it like a million times already,” he said. “And I keep saying it, even though every time I do, it’s actually starting to make things worse.”
The capstone was sitting at a sharp angle, and buried in the pile a bit. I told Cody to bring the digging bar over, hoping that if I put something in his hands his mouth would stop moving. I cleared away some more of the surrounding rocks and tossed away the remnant of bright yellow blasting cap. I told Cody to give it a try. He sank the bar under a corner of the rock and leaned his weight onto it. The stone moved slightly, scraping against the other rocks that were pinched against it. As soon as he took his weight off the bar, the capstone slipped back down.
“Both of us,” I said. I got on the bar with Cody. The rock lifted again, higher, but sunk right back into its hole as soon as we let off.
Cody tried to nudge me out of the way so he could give it another shot by himself, but I wouldn’t let him. For some reason, I actually wanted to this one, even at the risk of him starting to talk again. I took away the bar and jammed it under a different corner, setting a sharper angle. I leaned down on it as hard as I could. It was such a simple, beautiful tool. Five feet of dropped-forged steel, pointed on one end, a tamping head on the other. The rock lifted again, but higher than before.
As I held it there, Cody tossed a chock-stone underneath so it couldn’t fall back. I moved the bar over and worked the other corner up, which Cody also chocked. We kept working it like that, ratcheting the stone a couple inches at a time.
Ten minutes later, when the rock was only about halfway free, Cody asked if we should just forget it. My palms were numb and pink, and my pulse thrummed in my ears. He reminded me about my rule of not spending more than a few minutes digging for a buried rock, how I’d always told him to just select pieces right at the surface. He sounded a little winded himself.
“Come on,” I said. “Look at this thing.”
“No, I know,” he said. “It’s pretty nice.”
“Pretty nice?” I asked. One side had a bunch of quartz in it, a blaze of white dots that reminded me of the Milky Way. I wasn’t just thinking capstone anymore, but maybe a bench, or some kind of mantelshelf. Maybe I wouldn’t even use it at the Brucemore’s at all. Maybe I’d just add it to the pile the music professor was letting me keep in her yard, which I’d use to build different archways or egg sculptures from when I felt restless and wanted to practice, leaving them up for a week or two before taking them down, getting a finger-wagging from the professor if I didn’t tell her first so she could take a picture. “They have such balance,” she’d always say.
Cody and I finally wiggled the rock to a point where we could pull it out by hand. He squatted next to me, and we overlapped our arms, looking for places to grab hold.
“Got it?” I asked. We’d have to lift in unison. It’d go up slow, but come down fast. “Watch your fingers.”
He readjusted his grip. “Alright,” he said, “yep.” The only time I’d really almost fired him, he’d let a rock slip early, smashing my pinkie, actually trapping it. My nail went purple, then black, then fell off. Six months later, it still hadn’t grown back normal.
“Alright,” I said. We went on three like we always did.
Cody reached up to high-five. “Sweet,” he said, slapping my hand.
We’d had to set the stone down twice to get it there, but now it was in the back of the truck. “Bagged it,” Cody had said, like an elk. Millions of years ago, the rock was lava running down from the volcanoes, a piece of fire burning everything in its path. Today, it was Cody and I and a bunch of grunting, and the volcanoes had all become ski resorts.
I parked my ass on the tailgate and took off my gloves. “Take a break,” I said.
Cody sat down for a minute, but then got back up, not able to sit still. He picked a few small rocks from the dirt and side-armed them into the woods below us. We both laughed for some reason when we heard one knock against a tree.
The sharp stench of hydraulic oil wafted in from the lower pit, which seemed quiet. The clouds had burned off, and the sky was a blue that hurt to look at. A red-tailed hawk circled above us and screeched. It thought it was nearby, but I couldn’t ever spot it, couldn’t get my eyes to stop watering from the brightness.
Cody continued pitching stones. The leaves sounded like cheap wrapping paper when the rocks tore through them. He suddenly turned philosophical and wondered why everything else couldn’t be like this, why they couldn’t be as easy and fun as chucking stones into the woods. “It reminds me of being a kid,” he said.
I said, “This is like this. Keep throwing.”
Larry’s excavator climbed the road to the upper pit. The engine rumbled deeply, the treads squeaking and groaning, metal against metal, the sound of a tank in a war movie. A black cloud of smoke belched over the horizon.
“What if I don’t love her?” Cody asked, abruptly.
I got up from my seat. “I don’t know,” I said, feeling a little annoyed that he was asking me what it meant for him, which was his to decide. “If you don’t love her, then you don’t love her, or you can start loving her, one of those. But I doubt that’s really the case.”
“What do you mean?”
The first time I’d maybe thought about firing Cody was at the end of his first month. I called Trish to let her know, and when she asked what he’d done, I had to admit that he hadn’t really done anything, not specifically. It was more just these little things, like how he would always have to take off his shirt if the woman of the house was around, or if we were over by the university, where there was a steady stream of co-eds.
Trish eventually said she understood and thanked me for giving him a shot. That’s what I’d promised, after all, just a trial run. I’d know her much too long to not hear the disappointment in her voice. And also I’d known her much too long to not hear how some of that disappointment was aimed at me. “But he did good otherwise?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He did great. He’s a good kid.”
“I hope so.”
The conversation was brief. I wanted to ask how she was doing, but it seemed out of place. I listened for things in the background, but couldn’t hear any clues. Just before saying goodbye, she thanked me for heads-up. “Not the greatest call to get, but I appreciate it.”
I told her it was the least I could do. Then I told her not to say anything to him. “I want to find a good time to tell him. Tomorrow is Friday, so maybe after the weekend.”
“Sure,” she said, “I’ll get the news from Maddie.”
I spent that whole weekend messing with a wall at the professor’s, trying to convince myself I was right about Cody, and that I’d somehow be able to manage the rest of the summer without him, and that it wouldn’t be a total pain to try and find someone new. I told myself to give him another week, which I did. I mentioned the shirt thing and it stopped. I gave him another week, and then another, and then he started being the first guy to show up every morning, and the last one to leave in the afternoons. Months later, just as we were getting caught up and the projects were tapering off, and I knew for sure I’d have to let him go, my other guys both gave notice within the span of a few days—one guy off to graduate school, another Alaska. I haven’t needed anyone but Cody since.
I whacked him hard on the shoulder with my gloves. The excavator was cresting the hill, and I had to raise my voice for him to hear. “I mean it’s about being scared,” I said. “In every case, that’s what it is.”
“That’s how I feel,” he said. “I’m scared I don’t love her anymore.”
“No, I mean it’s about you being scared that she’s actually going to love you back. That’s the thing that’s terrifying to us.”
Larry used the hood of my truck to write out the invoice. I stood next to him, my hip against the side panel. He had shaky penmanship, and his hand hovered above each letter for a second before he committed it to paper. He charged others differently, but for me it was just thirty bucks, however much I wanted to fill my truck with.
“Seems like the fishing went good today,” he said. That’s what he called my method—fishing for rocks.
Larry had a dozen or so years on me, harder wrinkles around his eyes. He was missing the top half of the pinkie and ring fingers on his left hand. He didn’t wear a wedding band, but I wasn’t sure if that was because of how that finger was, or if he just wasn’t married, and I never asked. Something about him seemed religious, but I could’ve just been misinterpreting that. His regular outfit consisted of logger pants and denim shirts, an old tin hardhat and steel-toed boots. He never took out his foam earplugs. They were creased and grease-stained, and as much as it was probably about the convenience of not having to fiddle with them, I also thought the earplugs were an indicator of what he thought about long-winded conversations.
When he’d first come up, he’d used the excavator’s bucket to claw through the rock pile, spreading out the stones so they’d be easier for us to pick through. Now the excavator sat quiet, the bucket resting on the ground. Sometimes if he was busy, he just had me fill out the receipt and leave it in his plywood office. Larry drew a squiggly line down the amount column, putting the three-zero in the bottom corner. He tore the top copy free and handed it to me. He clicked his pen and retuned it to his shirt pocket. He had one of those vinyl deposit bags, and he zipped his receipt booklet back inside it.
“And what about this guy?” he said, watching Cody as he fished more. Larry had his elbows on the hood of the truck, taking some of the weight off his back, which seemed twisted and oak-like. “He doesn’t want to quit.”
“Hasn’t caught his limit, I guess.”
Cody was supposed to hear us, was supposed to catch our smirks, but he just kept working. His head was bowed like someone searching for seashells on the beach. He already had the truck full.
“This the same job,” Larry asked, “or something new?”
“How much longer you on it?”
“Should be the last load.” I’d already calculated what Cody and I had moved since the start of the job: ten tons, loaded and unloaded by hand. That didn’t include the gravel we’d shoveled.
I hollered to Cody and told him we should start packing up. He had a last rock cradled in his arms, but decided against carrying it to the truck. He shot-putted it to the side, letting out a doofus grunt that echoed off the quarry’s walls. Then he picked up the digging bar and lifted it above his head, pressing it like a barbell.
Larry and I were shaking our heads. “Youth,” I said.
The hawk had returned. Its cry made me think of every Western I’d ever seen as a kid, made me think the word parched.
“Know why they do that?” Larry asked. He’d pushed himself up off his elbows and pointed the money pouch toward the sky.
Sometimes when I thought about how much stone I’d handled over the years, when I added up all those tons and tons of rock, it made me feel strong and solid, like I’d actually accomplished something monumental. Other times, like when I thought about the pitifully low balance of my IRA and the incredibly high premium of my health insurance plan, or when I thought about the truck needing a new transmission, and how I’d probably still be having to do this when that rebuild had finally burned out too—the fatigue was crushing.
“I’m guessing it has something to do with mating,” I said.
“Never a bad guess. Mating and territory. About explains everything.”
“Keeps things simple, right?”
“Best way to keep it,” he said.
I was working behind the studio when Mr. Brucemore came and found me. The space back there was tight and crowded with loose stones. He’d just gotten home from work and was still dressed in his suit coat and tie, was trying hard to keep from getting any mud on his shoes. “Was wondering if we could check in quick,” he said. “Not a big deal or anything. Just wanted to go over some stuff out front.”
“Of course,” I said. “Give me two seconds.” By how casual he was trying to sound, I could tell his not-a-big-deal was probably going to be a big deal.
I stood with Graham by the newest section of wall, looking at the work that Cody had done that afternoon. The studio had been for Mrs. Brucemore and her recent interest in quilting. It was over fifteen hundred square feet and was cut into the hillside above the main house, which Cody had confused for a resort the first time he saw it. Our job was to put up retaining walls to cover the cut. The walls averaged over four-feet high, ran from the back of the studio and around to the driveway, where we were also recessing in a staircase and adding a couple of terraced planting beds.
“See how it dips and bulges there?” Graham was drawing a big circle with his index finger around the uneven part. “You have this nice face along here,” he said, “and then this. Stands out as soon as you drive up.” I could see exactly what he was talking about. Most people wouldn’t have, but Graham was the kind of guy who studied a little bit of everything and wasn’t afraid to let you know what he’d found out.
It was already after five. Cody was cleaning up the work area, stacking all the tools in the wheelbarrow. He kept glancing our way, his expression worried. I wondered if Graham had already said something to him. Cody got out the push broom and was about to come over, but I held up my hand for him to wait.
“And then there are these seams,” Graham continued. “This one runs almost half the height.” He’d gotten right up to the wall now, was running his hand up and down the seams he was talking about—spots were Cody hadn’t staggered his rocks and interlocked them together, but had instead left long vertical joints that’d collapse over time. “That’s not what I’m supposed to be paying for.”
“Absolutely not,” I said. I still didn’t exactly know how Graham had made all his money, except that it had something to do with gypsum board and China. I’d done several sizable projects for him and his wife over the years, and had gotten fairly good at navigating their temperaments. He’d once mentioned having just been to his high school reunion, so I knew that’d we’d both gone to school around the same time. In another version, this could’ve been my life. The BMW and sunroof. The trophy wife. The grandkids.
“I’m not sure what happened here,” I said. “This isn’t Cody’s usual work.” That was the truth.
“You know, Dan, you’re a real master at this stuff. That’s why I hire you. You do beautiful work. I would think you should be doing the more prominent area out front, and giving your helper the wall in the back, which no one will see.”
He was right that it was the least visible aspect, but I didn’t know how many times I’d explained to him that the wall behind the studio was the most complicated and structurally challenging piece of the job, the part that would take the most mastery. When people looked at rock walls, all they usually thought about were the face stones, or what they could see. What they never considered was how much work had to go into preparing the foundation, or how important the hearting was, which are the smaller stones used to fill in the gaps inside the wall. It was all the little stuff you couldn’t see that made a wall so lasting.
“Hiring me means hiring my crew,” I said.
“I realize that. I just—”
Cody looked unsettled. He started walking over to us, the push broom angled over his shoulder. I should’ve just let him come over and hear it. He’d been inattentive, and the wall was full of rookie mistakes, mistakes he hadn’t been making anymore. If he ever went out on his own, this is the shit he’d have to deal with. Sometimes it was important to make people aware of their mistakes, so they knew, but other times it was more important to just let people be, so they’d be unafraid about screwing up next time.
I took Graham over to the other side of the driveway. “Look,” I said. “Cody does good work. Obviously, today was errant. But I will point this out to him, and we’ll get it fixed.”
“I want to make sure you’re the one building it.”
From the Brucemore’s driveway, you could see down the valley for miles, past the city and the suburbs, past the clear-cuts and the reservoir, all the way to the Coast Range. It was the same view the Brucemore’s enjoyed from their back patio, where I’d previously built Graham a teeing pad. The pad was terraced off the edge of their perfectly green lawn, which rolled away sharply into a large meadow. Sometimes, if I was working at their place and no one was home, and I was in one of those moods, I’d let myself into their garage and grab the 3 Wood from Graham’s bag, some balls from his bucket, and I’d take a few swings after lunch. I was a shitty golfer, but from a perch like that, the balls just sailed.
“Cody and I will do it together, but I will be right there the whole time.”
Graham stood with his arms crossed, had a little scowl on his face as he stared at the ground. “I don’t want this to put us over budget.”
“Not a chance,” I said. “I’ll eat this.”
“I don’t mean to be a pain about it,” he said.
“Not at all,” I said. “Actually, I really appreciate you pointing it out. You’ve got a good eye. Maybe I should recruit you.” It was all bullshit.
“I could never do this,” he said. I wondered if he’d actually meant would never and wanted him to elaborate. His expression seemed brighter, and I sensed that he gotten what he’d wanted, which was the same thing every client wanted—the sense that they were actually building the thing themselves, and not just purchasing it.
“Well, it’s not for everyone,” I admitted. I shook his hand. His nails were immaculate.
For some reason, he said, “Terrific.”
On the way into town, instead of our normal route, I took Cody up Loraine Street and over to Crest so I could show him one of my older projects. It was the wall I was building when I first started sleeping with Trish, but before Colleen found out, when I thought I had everything handled, even though things were already crashing to the ground. I didn’t say any of that to Cody. I said, “It’s just this wall you should see.”
As we’d been leaving the Brucemore’s, Cody had asked what Graham’s deal was. He said Graham had been totally uptight with him. “I felt like I’d fucked something up.”
I told Cody that Graham had only been asking about differences in the rock. And that the rest of it had been Graham and I going over the timeline for the remaining work. “A manager needs to feel like he’s managing things,” I said, “that’s all.” I wasn’t even sure if Graham was actually a manager. Cody nodded and seemed to believe me.
At the wall on Crest, I parked in the turnout across the street. The weeping Japanese maple I’d suggested had grown in substantially over the years, hiding a good bit of the rock. The house was new when I’d built the wall, with owners who wanted to get placed on the Home and Garden Tour. I’d mostly used stone from Larry’s, but I’d also done these circular inlays with some tumbled river rock that I’d had shipped in. The rock had a watery, blue hue. The red leaves made a striking contrast.
“Wow,” Cody said. He’d unbuckled his seatbelt and was leaning forward so he could see past me. “You did this?”
I told him I had. “This was a special one,” I said. Colleen’s dad had helped me with the money to get my contractor’s license, and it was one of my first real gigs. The tour got me a lot of work after that.
“Man, it’s detailed. It must have taken awhile.” You couldn’t see it, but around the corner, three massive basalt columns punctuated the wall, one for each member of the young family. I told them to contact me if they ever added more and it needed to be changed, but they never called. “We going to be doing something like this?” Cody asked. “Is that why you wanted me to see it?”
I told him I wasn’t sure I’d ever do a project like it again. It’d taken me over two months, and some of those days I’d worked until dark, trying to get everything done before the tour. I had a buddy who I’d hired to help me move rock, but mostly I worked solo. Sometimes Trish came by on her lunch break, parked right in the very same turnout Cody and I were using, and I’d run over and get in and tilt the seat back. A couple of times, we rushed to her place, or drove out to this private dead-end off Big Brook, and when I came back, scrambled a million ways, the rocks spoke to me. Almost unconsciously, I’d go to the pile and just pick up whatever rock was telling me it wanted to be picked up. I’d go to the wall, and there it would fit—different stones, from different layers of geologic time, matching together as if they were two halves of one piece. It was a kind of clarity and grace that I mistakenly thought blessed every aspect of my life back then.
“I guess our conversation at the quarry got me thinking about this one,” I said. “Thought it’d be good for you to see, show you something different.”
“Yeah,” Cody said, “I like it.”
I used to be able to remember so many details about some of the stones in that wall—could remember where I’d gotten them at the quarry, could remember if I’d had to dig for them, like Cody and I had earlier, or if they were just sitting right there waiting for me, like gifts. But rocks have a way of disappearing into a wall, just like walls have a way of disappearing into the world, and moments into life, and now all I remembered was Trish and Colleen and my old self. How even after Colleen said we’d work through it, I told her I wanted a divorce, something I immediately tried to take back. How once you shatter a rock, it’s shattered forever.
I was just about to start the truck when Cody got a text from Maddie. “I need to get you back home,” I said, “don’t I?” She’d texted earlier, on the way out of the quarry. She’d aced a Chemistry test and wanted to celebrate. She’d stopped at the store for beer and wine and all the stuff for burgers. She wanted to make sure that I knew I was invited. Her sisters were coming, and Cody’s pal, Diego, he’d probably show too.
Cody typed something into his phone. “We’ve got time,” he said. “I guess they’re just starting to make the patties.”
I eased the truck onto the road. Cody continued texting with his future-wife. I’d never given him an answer on whether or not I was coming, and I was hoping I wouldn’t have to. When he’d announced the invite, I’d asked if it was going to just be the sisters, or if the boyfriends and husbands were also coming. Cody wasn’t sure about Kelly, Maddie’s oldest sister, and her husband, but Trish—Cody didn’t think Trish was seeing anyone anymore.
Back at the stockyard, where Cody’s ratty Corolla was parked, he finally prodded me. “What do you think? Want to come over and eat some meat and drink some beers?”
I told him it sounded great, but that once I got home and took a shower, this old man probably wasn’t going to have the energy to make it anywhere past the couch. “Quarry day,” I explained.
He said he understood, but that I should still come by if I felt up to it. No one would complain if I didn’t shower first. He pulled his car keys from his backpack, zipped the bag back up, and slid it over his shoulder.
“Cody,” I said, just as he was about to leave. “Why don’t you meet me out at the site tomorrow? I’ll go out and get started, and then you and I can finish up the rest of that front wall.”
“Yeah?” he asked. “What are you thinking?”
I told him to celebrate with Maddie, to have a few for me, to sleep in a bit. We usually started at seven.
“How about I see you around nine?”
“I can do nine,” he said. “Easily.”
I told him he’d done a good job that day, and then we both headed off. He double-tapped his horn as he left. I was exhausted. Larry thought life was all mating and territory, and that probably was true, but I also thought life boiled down to something else: tearing things apart and trying to rebuild them better. The only trick was learning what never needed to be torn down in the first place.
In the morning, I’d get up at my normal time, and do my normal stuff, and then I’d head out to the Brucemore’s. I’d take apart Cody’s work and then try to build it stronger. I’d add enough new wall so that by the time he got out there, he wouldn’t even notice that anything had changed.