|HOW TO BUILD A BRICK WALK
by David Landsperger It was a beautiful Sunday morning in July and he knew exactly what to do with it. Doing nothing would give him too much time to think, and he didn’t want that. He decided to immerse himself in that project he and Dan had planned over the winter: a new brick walkway from his front porch to the driveway. It would replace the existing bland concrete slab walkway, adding a bit of character to the place. He had learned how to do it last summer when he’d helped Dan install a brick patio at his house down the street.
The two of them had developed a special bond in a short time. They both moved into the neighborhood, a new development in a suburb of Pittsburgh, the same time a few years ago. They grew up as only sons with two younger sisters. They both always wanted a brother and he felt that perhaps these coincidences helped draw them together. They both loved Catch-22 and referenced it in poking fun at their respective bureaucracies. Dan Wade was twelve years older, tall and muscular with thick, wavy brown hair while he was short and paunchy with a prematurely receding hairline. The neighbors even good-naturedly took to calling them Mutt and Jeff. Dan nicknamed him Zink, jagging him that Sylvester Zienkowski was too much name for anyone and he’d gotten along fine with two syllables, thank you very much. Neither of them ever said it out loud, but he was sure Dan felt the same emotional attachment he did. He felt they were almost brothers.
Dan had taught woodworking and metalworking at the local Vo-tech School for the past twenty years, and had developed a talent as a metal sculptor as well. Dan could build things and knew how to fix things. He discovered one thing Dan couldn’t do and loved to tease him about his Achilles heel. Dan couldn’t pick up a dime from a smooth surface because he gnawed his nails down to stubs. “Dan, you’re going to need band aids if you nip those nubs back any more,” he’d remind him.
“Hey, these are a real worker’s fingernails, not like those pretty, manicured bean counter fingernails of yours.”
“Well, it’s not just for looks; we bean counters never want to leave any money on the table,” he shot back.
When Dan mentioned he was putting in a brick patio, he offered to help. He didn’t count on the blisters or sore back he got in return but they were temporary and what he learned from Dan would always be there in the permanent record in his head.
Dan couldn’t help him today, but he knew what to do. First he’d have to dig out the existing flat, tombstone-like concrete pavers. They were heavy, maybe 80 pounds each, too heavy to hoist into his wheelbarrow alone so he flopped each one on a heavy duty tarp and dragged them one-at-a-time step by step around to the back of the house, stacking them into some kind of rickety monument. It was hard work and he saw himself as a draft horse mindlessly dragging his heavy load but it felt good. It was a far cry from the tedious work he did auditing clients’ books at the CPA firm, working long hours and hoping to make partner in a few more years. He was good at it, yes, but it felt good to use his hands and back as well as his head.
He marked the contour of the new walk, widening it and replacing the walk’s right angle turn with an arcing curve. Next, he set about excavating the dirt to the proper depth, chipping and scalloping it out with a medieval-looking mattock he’d borrowed from Dan. He shoveled the loose dirt into the wheelbarrow, and periodically checked the depth and flatness of his excavation with his spirit level to make the trench just right.
The day was warming up, or at least, he was. His wife brought out a pitcher of iced tea and easily convinced him to take a break. He gulped down two glasses and stretched out on the cool cement floor of the shaded front porch, letting his body slowly relax for the first time that day. He closed his eyes and slowly exhaled, moving into the Savasana, or corpse pose, he’d learned last fall when he and Dan took a yoga class at the Y with their wives. Maybe it was his relative youth but he’d been more flexible than Dan, better able to achieve the plethora of pretzel shapes into which they’d twisted their bodies. He wasn’t bashful in chiding Dan that he’d finally found a way to outdo the old geezer. Their wives kept reminding them it wasn’t a competition but, in an unrelentingly chromosomal sense, it was.
If Dan were here, he’d be jabbing him, telling him his break’s over, time to get back to work. Preparation was the foundation of any job, Dan always said. Plan your work and work your plan. It sounded simplistic, even corny, but it was true. Just as true for financial auditing as it was for metalworking or building a walkway.
Back at it, he trimmed and laid down the landscaping cloth that would provide water drainage while preventing weeds or grass from growing up through the bricks. On top of this went the base for the bricks. Most people used sand or gravel but Dan preferred crushed stone, and not just any crushed stone; it had to be 2A Modified, a mix of coarse and fine granules that packed to a tight, even base. He’d dazzled Dan last year when he quickly calculated in his head how much crushed stone and sand he’d need for the patio, a side benefit of his facility with numbers.
The quarry had delivered the stone two weeks ago, dumping it on the tarp he’d spread on the front lawn. He’d planned to do the walkway that day and figured a few hours wouldn’t hurt the grass, but other events transpired to cause postponement after postponement. Now he’d have dead grass to deal with, as well, but that didn’t bother him. His wife didn’t even raise a stink about it.
After repeated leveling and tamping, the base was ready. He spread an inch of sand on top of the stone, creating a long, soft pillow into which each brick would nuzzle for its final resting place. He thought of Dan again and the freakish events that had pulled them even closer last winter. Dan had been having intestinal issues he couldn’t shake, which led his doctor to order a colonoscopy. It indicated two possible Stage 3 or Stage 4 malignancies and required immediate surgery. A week later, Zink was in a freak accident that put him in the hospital with a collapsed lung, a pain in his side, and blood in his urine. X-rays showed a mass on Zink’s left kidney that wasn’t supposed to be there. The doctor said he was lucky to have the accident because it triggered the bleeding that led to the discovery. He didn’t feel very lucky but knew the doctor was right. He and Dan were operated on within a week of each other and sent home to recuperate over that cold, dark winter. When they were well enough, they walked slow laps around the neighborhood to build up strength. At their post-workout recovery sessions at Dan’s, they tackled everything from the Steelers to spring projects and summer vacations. It was at one of those roundtables that he decided on a brick walk. Dan gave him his masonry hammer, suggesting he keep it displayed in a prominent place as a reminder of his commitment. Naturally, he’d kept it on his venerable Wiley GAAP , the book of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.
He picked up the masonry hammer in his gloved hand and felt the heft of it, hoping he was up to the task at hand, hoping he could do it justice. The bricks he was using were not ordinary home handyman 2:1 paving bricks. These oversized, red-orange mottled bricks had for years been Green Street in the next town upriver where he’d grown up. They’d endured a century of horses, motorists, pedestrians, winter freezes, and spring thaws until the town decided to modernize the street by paving it with asphalt. The dense bricks with their smooth, naturally sculpted faces were ploughed up and unceremoniously dumped along the riverbank. He’d rescued enough for my walkway that spring, hauling them in Dan’s ancient, rusty, mustard-ugly Chevy short-bed pickup. Working alone, he made three trips and stacked the bricks around the back of the house. Now it was time to restore them to their rightful purpose.
One by one, he planted the bricks in the sand, tapping each into place with the blunt end of his hammer and periodically checking for flatness with his spirit level. Using the chisel-end, he split enough bricks in half to allow him to create the staggered stretcher pattern he wanted. For a while, he succeeded in concentrating solely on the task at hand. But, his mind kept drifting back to those daily winters walks with Dan where he slowly regained his strength while Dan’s condition seemed to stagnate after an initial improvement. But, Dan’s surgery was more extensive, after all. Even so, he found it to be very un-Dan like when Dan began to talk about hoping to reach age fifty.
After three weeks, he was able to go back to work on a reduced schedule, coming home dead tired but happy to be back doing what he did best. He still stopped over to see Dan once or twice a week when he could, offering encouragement and waiting for that turnaround he knew just had to be coming soon.
It was late afternoon when he tapped the last brick into place. He then worked stone dust into the joints between the bricks with a broom to further stabilize the walk, followed by a light hosing down to further pack the stone dust in the joints. The brick walk was finished and a fine, sturdy walk it was, he told himself. He’d done it, built something that would likely outlive him, a brick walk that would make Dan smile.
The call from Dan’s wife that woke him early that morning meant Dan would never see the brick walk. Those last few weeks, they both quit kidding each other that there was going to be a happy ending. He knew it would be over soon, knew the call would be coming. Dan, the guy who could fix anything could not, in the end, fix himself.
And what could he have done? He was Yossarian patching Snowden’s wounded leg while Snowden’s guts spilled onto the floor of the plane. He did what he could but he couldn’t fix him.
Deciding he wasn’t yet done, Zink bent over and worked free one of the bricks that abutted the driveway. He pushed a dime into the sand and carefully reset the final brick.
About the Author:David Landsperger is a part-time bicycle mechanic and tungsten guru who splits his time between Sarasota, FL and Pittsburgh, PA, depending on the weather. His fiction has appeared in The Loyalhanna Review and his essays have appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and various cycling publications.