Submitted to the CBC Canada Writes Short Story Competition, shortlist to be announced February 2012, and winners in March 2012.
“Morning,” John said, hopping into the idling truck, beat-up lunch box in hand.His brother, Bob, handed him a hot coffee.
John was happy the job was in Ilderton today. The quiet of the morning drive, watching the sun chase the frost out of the shadows as his brother listened to the news, had always been his favorite part of the day. And, while he never said so, John had a feeling it was Bob’s favorite too.
In the early morning traffic, the drive went quickly. They had time to hear all of the news from but not enough time that either of them had finished their coffees.
The old truck shuddered to a halt, relieved, under a looming elm tree that had lost nearly all it’s leaves. Two pallets of stone sat awaiting them on the driveway across the street.
As the sun began to rise in the morning sky, the brothers set to work soundlessly, each going about his respective routine with a long-honed, deliberate, and rhythmic efficiency. A gradually sloping hill beside the driveway became a soft, clay-colored trench under their careful shovels as the garage doors of the neighborhood went up and down around them, mini-vans pulled out, and curious eyes on their way to work slowly passed over the brothers.
Soon the sun was high enough in the morning sky that it had found all but the thinnest cracks of frost tucked along chimneys and between shingles. The last school bus rumbled through and the last neighbor, running with bagel in mouth and fumbling with tie, roared past in a shining black car. John and Bob worked in silence, surrounded by houses and basketball nets and porches bedecked with pumpkins and hay.The rhythmic sounds of their mucking and scraping slowed and, finally, stopped as the trench reached a wooden peg at the end of the row identical to a peg where the first shovel had broken ground that morning. Wordlessly, the brothers acknowledged that break time had come and John leaned his shovel on the garage and sat on the pallet to roll two cigarettes while Bob retrieved two oranges from his bag on the seat of the truck.“Didn’t we do that driveway last summer with that Johnson kid?” John said as Bob sat beside him, looking toward a sprawling golden-bricked driveway across the street over the cigarette he was licking
“No, it was that other kid. What the hell was his name?” Bob said, passing the first orange he had peeled to his brother and taking the cigarette which had been rolled for him and placing it behind his ear.
“Which one? The redhead kid, Dusty?”
“Yeah, that’s him. Remember?” Bob said, “I think that might even be the house with the little pond that he threw up in when he was hung over,” Bob chuckled.
“Oh yeah,” John grinned, “Fuckin’ Dusty.”
They said nothing for a while, eating their oranges and looking at the long angled trench they had dug, sharing a match to light their cigarettes and drawing long thoughtful drags.
“That lady from Sterling called me last night,” John said.
“Oh yeah?” Bob replied.
“Yep. Looks pretty good like she can get me a job in St. Thomas soon as the season’s done fer
us,” John said, squinting his eyes against the smoke. There was a long quiet before Bob answered.
“Oughta be pretty soon the way this winter’s creeping up.” Bob said. Then he added, “This’ll probably be one of our last jobs.”
After Bob had laid the first heavy grey stone, the two men were again moving smoothly and soundlessly; laying one cool stone after another into the damp earth. Rough worn hands laid stone upon stone with artistic precision.
After the first stone was in place, the others followed quickly. Once in a while, though they no longer actually needed it, Bob would reach for a level, lay it across two or three stones just to be sure, and say, “Looks good.”
Occasionally, when a stone was laid unevenly, one of the brothers would just say, “Nope.” Up
would come the stone again and, as one brother held it, the other would neatly level the damp earth under it with his spade.
At exactly noon, John checked the time on the cell phone which the boss made them carry and said, “Lunch time.”
Whereas normally lunch consisted of sitting in the truck eating sandwiches and listening to the radio, lately, owing to the Red Sox having just won the world series and lengthy salary negotiations which had delayed the start of pre-season hockey, the radio was more than a little boring.
This was why, as the shiny red Dodge bombed around the corner, John said “Here we go,” with a hint of bemused relief rather than his usual eye-rolling frustration.
The truck belonged to J.J. Bostwick, of Bostwick Construction, as was stenciled on the door of the red Dodge and the door of Bob and John’s beat up Chevy. At one time, J.J. had traveled around in the truck and worked with Bob and John.
These days though, J.J. had his own truck; an impeccably clean Dodge Ram with air-conditioning and a CD player; and Bob and John now merely represented one of J.J.’s three crews. Bob and John still used the same old truck to haul materials to and from job sites and J.J. mainly used his truck to drive around and randomly check up on his crews.
Without leaving the warmth of his truck, J.J. reiterated to Bob and John what needed to be done; forgetting, it seemed, that they had all gone over the job details the previous day seemingly neglecting to notice the work that had already been completed. The brothers said little and merely nodded, eating their sandwiches and drinking root beer.
“Thanks boys,” he said as he drove off.
At exactly twelve-thirty Bob and John were back at work. They laid three more stones and completed the top row of the retaining wall. John picked up a shovel and started scraping the heavy soil from the high edge of the trench back into the hole and flush against one side of the retaining wall they had just constructed. Bob picked up his shovel and filled in the shallower side of the hole on what had once been the bottom of the short hill.
Lunch had seen some mini-vans driving kids back to school from lunch, but now, once again, they were left to the noise of their shovels scraping and echoing off the other houses in the cul-de-sac.
“You tell J.J. about Sterling yet?” Bob asked.
“Naw.” John said. “Fuck’em.”
Bob finished filling in the low side of the wall and climbed up to help his brother make the soil on the high side flush with the second to highest stone of the wall. Spreading the soil around, Bob with a rake and John with his foot, they leveled the earth so that it made one consistent line from the house to the wall.
The sod unrolled easily and the brothers once again fell into a routine; one brother turning to walk back for more sod and the second laying a piece where the line had been left off; a practiced, efficient and silent crew of two.
As they neared the end of the palette, Bob retrieved a spade from the truck and, as John put down the last pieces, cut the odd spots of sod that overhung the wall and the edge where their trench had been.
The sun began to fall, and a few of the cars they had seen leave that morning began trickling home, the same curious eyes that had passed over the brothers before now watched as they swept up and hosed dirt off the asphalt.
John threw the rolled-up hose into the truck as Bob putting the broom away and they sat simultaneously in the cab and closed their doors.
Both brothers looked out the windshield at the wall they had made that day. Save for the lines visible in the new grass, the wall looked as if it had been there forever. They had built similar walls hundreds of times but they sat some time looking before Bob started the truck.
John rolled up his window as the cold late afternoon air began to blow in.
“Pop in to the Black Pint for a quick beer?” Bob asked, but he already knew the answer. John frowned, “It’s Tuesday,” he said “You know I’ve got to pick up Robbie from practice.”
Bob put the old Chevy into gear and it growled reluctantly as it started off down the road. The sound echoed off the tall brick homes that lined the still quiet neighbourhood as the truck rolled off toward the highway.