Laying Bricks
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Surfboard"
Originally featured on 05-22-2008
As part of our series "Summer Indulgence"

An unexplained occurrence sunk its teeth into a small town in rural…anywhere. It was the summer of…could be this year. The unexplained occurrence was not a singular event, but a series of phenomena of a disturbing nature, events that could not be proven to bear any correlation to each other. Nor could any of these macabre happenings be proven to have occurred at all.

As with all such breaches of the paranormal into everyday life, its impact and meaning will quickly decline—like a child movie star headed straight for low budget porn—into campfire fare to intrigue young people. The [horror] that is the subject of our present discussion bears no footnote to traditional myths of zombies, vampires and what other malevolently degenerate and paradoxically empathetic monstrosities stalk the night possessing occult capabilities for the disruption of all that is sound, holy and status quo. A society’s nightmares can only be understood in their proper context, and understanding them gives you the latitude to psychoanalyze them, but that doesn’t make you safe when your flashlight bulb expires on your way back from the outhouse and that rustling in the bushes sounds all the more deliberate, when you open the door to your bathroom cupboard with your contact lenses off, or when you walk past that slightly askew dresser drawer that casts clownish shadows on the hardwood hallway.

…Or when you tuck yourself into bed without stopping to ponder the source of that unfamiliar dripping sound coming from the ceiling…

It began, as such things always begin, on a most ordinary day among the most ordinary of people.

 

Cory and Richmond looked down from the second-story scaffold where they were laying bricks, down at the dog-shed and the gravel path, and then at each other. The sun jabbed at them between the ladder’s rungs like a mosquito sucking liquid out of their faces and onto the napes of their flannel shirts. Cory was still winded from climbing the ladder, and his breath made the afternoon taste to Richmond like whiskey and mayonnaise. It was going to be a long day. When lunch rolled around, the subjects of marriages, divorces, beer, the economy, the war and the Red Sox had all been exhausted, and they set about regaling each other with their favorite pick-up lines.

"I came up with this one myself," Richmond proudly began. "Before I met Emily, I mean. I’d save it for right when I’m about to leave the bar. I'll walk on up to'er and I'll say listen, there’s no need to be embarrassed, but I know you’ve been eyeing me all night, trying to work up the nerve to ask my telephone digits. I'll tell you what; to make it easier on you and relieve the pressure, you can just give me yours."

"How many phone numbers has that gotten you?" said Cory.

"That’s not the point. Come-on-scripts are for lightening the atmosphere, nothing more."

"Now I don’t know if I ought to tell you mine."

"'fraid I'll be offended?"

Cory leaned over the edge of the platform and spit out his tobacco onto the gravel below. "Let’s say I’m walking down Flaskar Street, middle of the day, and I spot a gal walking in front of me whom I wouldn’t mind seeing naked. I'll soften my footsteps so she won’t realize I’m right behind her, and I'll make sure we’re not walking by any plate glass windows or mirrors. I'll stop her real gently and cover her eyes with my hand. I say guess who in a low voice. Usually she'll start by blurting out a couple names. Odd thing is, it never occurs to her that I might be some asshole she’s never met. In her mind she’s sifting through all her old flames, people she wouldn’t expect to see, and she gets excited thinking of all the people she wouldn’t mind being surprised by. You can feel her excitement just standing near her, like a fragrance. Then, to up the ante, I'll massage her hair, maybe breathe on her neck a little, make'er rule out brothers or cousins. Now she’s got me narrowed down to the category o' love sweet loooove. Once she gets tired of guessing, I spin her around, and I lean in at the same time so that we’re kissing before she sees my face. That part takes a little coordination, but I’m a pro. It’s like hammering a roofing nail in one hit—you’d think it’s impossible, but after you’ve done it once, it’s easy. When she opens her eyes, I act just as shocked as her and say Jesus pickle on a splinter, you look exactly like my wife."

This was going to be a long day indeed.

"What you shaking your head for?" said Cory.

"I’m not shaking my head at you, I’m just stretching out my collarbone to avoid getting a kink."

"For a moment there I thought you were about to get all preacher on me. That just pisses me off when you're trying to have a conversation."

"There more to that story?"

"Not much more. Unless she’s hell-bent stupid, she knows what a dirty trick’s just been played, but she can’t deny that she enjoyed it and got into the moment, which makes her feel like a whore, and you know she’s gonna chug an entire bottle of Listerine soon she gets home. But now that she realizes what she’s just done and that nothing you can say will atone for it, you’ve got two options. You can duck and run like hell, or you can say something sweet, something like that was rude of me, but I just really wanted to kiss you and then duck and run like hell."

"Hey Cory?"

"Yeah?"

"How many women have you done that to?"

"Um," Cory counted on his hand. "Four."

With his fist, Richmond drove four imaginary roofing nails into Cory’s shoulder. Cory doubled over and winced, breathy cuss words dripping out of his mouth like farts.

"How’s that for getting preacher on ya?" said Richmond. "Do not ever do that little scenario again."

By quitting time, the chimney was starting to look like a chimney, and the sun sat politely behind it.

Mr Zhirfboordh of Zhirfboordh Masonry treated his crew to a round of beer. Mr. Zhirfboordh still found beer disgusting, and his distaste for the beverage was the source of endless good-humored heckling on site, but in his determination to assimilate American culture he made a weekly habit of treating his crew to pitchers of it at The Pitchfork Tavern every Friday during the span of time purportedly characterized by an emotion. The fact that it was called Happy Hour but in actuality was a length of time lasting closer to two hours confused him to the point of tears, but he enjoyed their company.

Still slightly buzzed, upon parting for the evening, Cory found himself ambling down Flaskar Street. Cory would not show up to work the following Monday, and would not be heard from.

In the interests of documenting the nature of this series of bizarre events with fairness to the persons involved, we will pause, switch gears and then come back to the Cory incident.

 

Richmond left The Pitchfork early to pick up his fifteen year old son Gavin from the peace rally at Nobb Glen. Upon reaching Nobb Glen, Richmond parked on the opposite side of the street and stood by his car, reluctant to venture more than a few steps from it. The crowd reminded him of rock concerts he had attended before Gavin was born, in between the opening act and the main event when the audience has been waiting for what feels to them like an eternity and the collective excitement has oxidized into something between malaise and violent restlessness. From experience, Richmond knew when to stand at a distance. He could not make out the lyrics of the chants, but he registered the printed words on banners.

’vote. As if you have anything better to do.'

'Recycle your S U V'

'There’s no such thing as foreign policy.'

'Grow/consume locally. Love globally.'

Richmond was relieved when Gavin emerged from the assemblage wearing normal attire—his Giants baseball cap and Jean jacket—hugged his ninth grade friends goodbye and jogged to the car. He had half expected Gavin to be wearing a necklace handcrafted from blades of grass, his jacket covered in buttons with political messages and/or his hair in a mo-hawk. Gavin was going through a phase.

"Hey Dad, you ever think about stuff like that?" Gavin said when they were stalled in traffic.

"Stuff like what?"

"I don’t know." Gavin looked out the window at the line of idling vehicles and frowned. "Things could be different."

Richmond was relieved that Gavin did not yet have the vocabulary to articulate his agendas. Gavin’s recent victory at home was convincing Richmond and Emily to start a compost in the backyard. Richmond was always getting reprimanded for forgetting that bacon grease does not enrich the soil. Emily always got caught leaving the light on in the bathroom, which made them even. Sometimes Richmond and Emily would frame each other and toss blame back and forth. Gavin would surely appreciate the humor when he got a little older and stopped worrying about such things.

 

The next week Richmond was stationed on the cement mixer. The sun was ripe and the black flies were biting. Richmond thought about Gavin, thought about Emily and the things they would do when he came home, thought about himself at Gavin’s age, thought about the dark puddle seeping out of the crumpled cardboard cup and discarded hot-dog by his feet, thought about anything but the act of mixing cement. His arms felt tight like the cables in bicycle brakes. Richmond liked his job. Especially when Cory did not show up. Where was Cory, anyway? Probably hung over.

It can only be speculated that at some point in the midst of his daydreams, Richmond saw something with the corner of his eye, something which he chose to ignore. Had he not gotten the phone call from Emily, he probably would have taken a good look, and his day would have then taken a different course.

Emily’s voice was sharp and muted like a guitar string with a dead fish lying across the frets. Before she spoke, there was a silence over the telephone line. The wordless void breathed itself into Richmond’s chest and expanded like compressed air in a tire.

"Emily?"

"It’s Gavin. He’s-…leave work and meet me at Fordham’s as soon as you can."

"He’s what?"

"I don’t know, they wouldn’t tell me. Are you on your way?"

"Fordham’s. Fifteen minutes. I'll say it’s, um, a family emergency?" His voice heat-sealed itself shut at the completion of each word and then tore itself open for the next word. The result was exhaustion.

"Hey Richmond?"

He said nothing.

She said nothing.

He hung up the phone.

A few minutes after Richmond deposited his tool belt on a coat hook in the trailer and sped off in his car, Frank, the foreman approached the cement mixer and saw what Richmond had not noticed. In the instant that Frank saw it, his brain opened wide to chew and swallow its entire index of knowledge and experience, groping for any available tool with which to logically assimilate what was before him. In the next instant, tears swelled to the rims of Frank’s eyelids. His hard hat dropped to the wet concrete.

 

Before they let Emily and Richmond in to see Gavin, Doctor Zimpleton sat them down in a private office that was quieter than Richmond imagined the subatomic interior of a pimple might be. As Doctor Zimpleton spoke, Emily’s hand lay in Richmond’s lap like a vice grip gone soft.

Richmond’s first question was is he alive? Moving on from there, his next question was is he alive and healthy? If yes, proceed to next question. If no, tear down the walls. Richmond could not sit and listen to a slow reveal of the complexities of what had happened on this day to cause Gavin to be quarantined in a special room and himself and Emily to be sitting in this office. Next question; has he killed anybody?

Doctor Zimpleton shook his head and the tail ends of his lips became ever so slightly engorged with whatever bodily juices smiles were made of. Richmond wanted to punch him.

"Wait, hold up. My wife and I are telling you that up until this afternoon, everything was normal and hunky-dory. You're telling me that my son is alive and well and has not been convicted of any crimes. We don’t know each other, but trust me when I say that I’m a calm, reasonable and patient man. When I get a vague phone call making me rush from work to a, a hospital, I guess—whatever this place is, I- you're not talking to a calm, reasonable and patient man right now, you got that, doc? So if you would be so kind, please tell me: why the fuck are we here, where the fuck is Gavin and when can we see him?"

Emily’s fingernails separated the meat of Richmond’s thigh as she trembled in her chair.

Doctor Zimpleton took a deep breath, his lungs inflating with the delicate longwinded explanation he had prepared. Looking at Richmond, he exhaled and said "As a parent, I cannot find it in myself to abide by the rules at this time. Please. Right this way." He led Richmond and Emily through some hallways and doors and stopped in front of a gray wooden door that had no window. "If you wish to see your son, you will find him in there. I highly recommend that we speak again after your visitation. And I beg of you, keep it brief."

Emily and Richmond looked at each other with a post-exasperation pre-humor limbo making loops with the air between them. Doctor Zimpleton opened the door for them and then stepped aside and folded his arms. Richmond felt a strange compulsion to suavely slip Doctor Zimpleton a twenty dollar bill.

Gavin was standing up, and seemed to have grown several inches taller. Emily was first to make the observation that Gavin’s feet were suspended above the tile floor. Gavin looked at his parents' white expressions, looked down, looked back at his parents and shrugged. "Yeah, weird, isn’t it? I can’t turn it off. They even tried sedating me. I was at the Marsh playground with the kids, I jumped off this swingy thing, and I just never hit the ground. I don’t know, it was like, I didn’t stumble or nothing, I just landed like this, and I’ve been this way ever since. They all freaked out, but I’m volunteer, so it’s not like they can fire me."

Emily could not look at her son, but she felt a warm satisfaction in the fact that his status with the Molly Marsh Summer Program was his biggest concern, never mind the fact that he was involuntarily levitating.

"I’m fine, mom, really. It’s like those days when you wake up and your clothes don’t fit, like, they fit, but they feel backwards and itchy and you just can’t seem to get them on right and you can’t figure out why, but then the next day you feel fine and comfortable, like getting over a cramp in your stomach or something. I tried to land on the grass, but the ground just…just didn’t fit, if that makes any sense. I walked around, but my legs didn’t lift up like normal walking, I just, I don’t know, moved like I was swimming, and then these people came and put me in this truck. If I grabbed onto a railing and muscled myself down, I could make my feet touch, but it was like doing a pull-up and hitting your head on a low ceiling. I don’t know what to do."

Richmond considered returning to work to finish out the day.

 

When he arrived at the site, the property was cordoned off with yellow caution tape. Mr. Zhirfboordh stood with his arms crossed. He spoke rapidly, but his accent was thick and Richmond could not gather any information until he walked over the caution tape and saw it for himself.

When Emily’s phone call came, he had departed leaving enough bags of cement to construct, at most, a six foot by twelve foot wall. What had that morning been an acre of woods was now a sloping grid of pavement larger in diameter than the dirt parking lot. Richmond could offer no explanation for this alteration of terrain, and none was requested. What Richmond did in the hours between that discovery and the police reporting him missing is anybody’s guess. What’s known is that he was last seen asleep on the mysterious pavement, in the center of a skillfully crafted and still wet—but unfinished—circular stone wall surrounding him, the cement mixer, a trowel, a rubber utility hammer and several empty buckets. What’s suspected is that at no point in time did he physically relocate from the premises.

 

Cory spotted a lady on Flaskar Street wearing a Def Leopard shirt and smoking a Camel cigarette. He walked in long, silent strides. A shiver of excitement pinched the fat between his hipbone and ribs when he got close enough to catch a whiff of her rum and ocean wind fragrance beneath the street lamp. Keeping pace at elbow’s distance behind her, he waited a few moments before his hand shot out in front of her eyes. His wrist wriggled like a fish caught in the net of her artificially colored frizzy black hair.

“Guess who.”

Her face felt soft and recumbent beneath his hand. Something was sticky. He wondered for a moment if he had been holding a scoop of melting ice cream in his fingers, or if he had picked up some animal feces off the sidewalk and been too drunk to notice. It was something on her face, but it was on his hand now, and she was not answering, and the alcohol was still lubricating these observations, and he could not feel her excitement. He retracted his hand from her eyes. It slid off her face. He looked at it twice. It might have been some mangled combination of food, but it was dripping, and it was blood.

The woman’s eyeball and a chunk of her skin had melted off into Cory’s hand.

The camel cigarette butt flickered itself out on the sidewalk. She turned around.

Cory’s whereabouts thereafter are entirely unknown.

 

Most relevant in these accounts—arguably—would be the sound of something dripping above your bed.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

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