Writing Sample

Chapter One

Red

The Brick Mason

March 2010

     Red Alexander stands at the exterior front door of his home, waiting for his two living sons to arrive. The sun is choking the day with its brilliance. It’s an early March morning fit for mid-May, one of those winter-snubbing sunups that mocks the very idea of the numerous cold dawns that preceded it. For most states this would be an anomaly, but in North Carolina it’s predictable: March is the month when winter and spring trade off days like fickle dance partners. Red stares at the bleached grass and the sun-streaked trees and the birds weaving a harmonious dance through the paper-thin air and—God help him, it’s not intentional—an instinctual stirring takes place, his body urging him toward the daily routine. A thought bubbles to the surface of his mind, shaming him: If it were up to him, he’d spend the day at work.

     From the grief-stricken recesses of the house emanates a pitiful sound, the ceaseless mewling of Red’s wife, Sandra. She has been crying for ten hours straight, and Red can no longer bear it. At the beginning he did his best to comfort her, but, never having mastered the nuances of consolation, he was destined to fail. Now he needs time away from her. He cannot help it. It’s how he is.

     Red opens the exterior front door, steps outside, and bends his ear toward the road, listening for the sound of a decelerating automobile engine. An acidic knot rises in his throat—guilt from wanting to be at work, he supposes—but he swallows it down determinedly. Mourning, he thinks, ought to be an individual exercise, not a collective endeavor. God knows he’ll find no solace in what’s about to happen next.

     A car out on the road hushes at the entrance to the drive, and Red figures it’s one of his sons. A throng of trees makes visual confirmation impossible but in a second he’ll identify whether it’s Dale or Brett by the speed of the tires on the gravel, the variations in their acceleration tendencies catalogued in his mind along with a myriad of his sons’ other proclivities and habits. He knows his sons the way mechanics know car engines, the way Jeopardy champions know trivia. He’s no great communicator of feelings—you’ll get no argument from him on that—but he’s always paid attention to the details. Always.

    The gravel fails to croak its who’s-coming song. Instead there is the minor prattle of first-gear industry, and then the automobile is heading back from whence it came, a wrong-direction case. Red sighs, wishing—it surprises him how strongly—it had been one of the boys.

     He knows his sons’ driveway speeds by heart, and he knows when it’s not one of the boys too. Like last night. It was midnight when the guttural rumble of crunching gravel commenced, some unfamiliar vehicle approaching. He woke up in bed with a start, the driveway calling to him like a guard dog, and he knew instinctively it wasn’t kin or company. Taking no chances, he reached for the pistol beneath the bed. Only three months earlier a couple of lowlifes had crawled up the drive in a beat-up Camino, thinking they could make a run on the goods in the shop and Red would sleep through it none the wiser; even forty yards away he heard the gravel grumbling its wake-the-hell-up alarm, and he had, grabbing the pistol and firing off a couple of front-porch rounds at the would-be thieves to send them skedaddling. This time, however, it wasn’t robbers. He was watching from the front door by the time the cop car ended its funereal ascent. Even then he knew which son the officer had come to tell him he’d have to put in the ground. Not Dale. Not Brett.

     Scott.

     The great shocks of life, he’s learned, sometimes aren’t even surprises.

     Out on the road another vehicle decelerates. This time the gravel sounds the alarm, a hastily compressed call given the speed of the truck. Red identifies the offspring even before the puffs of dirt-smoke stirred up in the truck’s wake make it official. Only one of his sons refuses to drive any differently on gravel than on asphalt, only one of his sons hightails it up the driveway like he’s a redneck Batman returning to the Batcave after a distress call. Brett is home.

                                                                         *

      Red eyes the sublime wonder of Brett’s girlfriend’s columnar neck beneath its canopy of lustrous brown hair, and supposes that settles once and for all the question of whether his middle son is gay.

     Brett approaches, eyes averted. When the two men meet they extend hands, respective gazes slightly askew. Brett’s hand binds like a rope when he wraps Red’s paw in his own; there is a threat in the handshake that suggests more than the patently obvious. Scott’s ghost looms, without a doubt—hell, Scott’s presence loomed over every interaction between Red and Brett when Scott was alive, so why should now be any different?—but Red also gets the feeling that Brett’s warning him off the girl, who, as far as Red can recall, is the first female Brett’s ever had the gumption to show at the house. It’s good to see that Brett’s got a woman. Not that Red ever truly believed Brett was a fruit, but the long hair in high school and the shit-ton of tattoos did occasionally give him pause for thought. They pump hands with excessive industry, a salutatory contest. Brett’s hands are work-strong, sinewy cuts of muscle, and when he squeezes Red’s own it’s like an exercise in pain conditioning. Red knows the handshake well: he himself once commanded the same unforgiving grip. Only, when he shook someone’s hands there weren’t tattoos bleeding into the frame like an encroaching oil slick.

     Brett skips the hellos. Give the boy one thing: he’s always been direct.

    “Mom … she making it?”

    “About as good as can be expected.”

     A double dose of head nods. The girlfriend hangs back like she’s guarding Brett’s rear flank. No question, then, that she’s been briefed.

    “Dad, this is Caroline,” Brett says. The lovely creature with the stairway-to-heaven neck steps forward, more guarded queen than debutante. “My fiancée.”

    The revelation isn’t intended to jar Red, and it doesn’t. Fiancées, new tattoos, personalia of any type: somewhere along the line Red lost the right to learn the headlines of his sons’ lives in real time. Dated dailies, he’s discovered, don’t startle the same.

     “Hello,” Red says. “Any fiancée of my son is a friend of mine.” The pun is not only rubbish but also incredibly awkward, and Red knows it, but still he lets it sit there, baking in the sun like the top layer of a compost pile. It’s a fatherhood trick passed down the ages: screw on a steely face and wait out everyone else’s discomfort. Usually the aggrieved will make a worse pun if only to alleviate the tension. Red drops his hand by his side and waits for the blush to bloom in Caroline’s cheeks.

    “Nice to meet you,” she replies. Her face is a mask, lily white.

    Brett intervenes. “Let’s go see my mother,” he says, taking his bride-to-be by the hand and leading her away from Red. They stride toward the porch, marching in unison like practiced soldiers.

     Red bets they worked out the choreography on the drive up. He supposes it’s natural. With young lovers there are always plans to deal with parents, and, it goes to reason, the more difficult the parent, the more involved the plan. He can only imagine the schematics he’s inspired, the countless “if A, then B” discussions he’s induced. Whatever their tactics, it’s clear they lack confidence: it took a brother’s death to force implementation.

     In a moment Red is alone again amidst the tableau of the property. He surveys the bucolic grandeur of it. His land. It still shocks him sometimes, to think that at twenty years old he had the gumption to purchase thirty-two acres. Back then he was making three dollars an hour working as a laboring grunt for Ned Bevy’s commercial masonry crew, with two dreams commingling in his head. He wanted to start his own masonry business, and he wanted land. Common sense dictated that he needed to establish himself as a mason first, but after coming across his future property he threw caution to the wind and jumped to borrow the money from the bank.

     He remembers it like it was yesterday. He and Sandra were out on their regular Friday night date, the two of them exploring the outer reaches of Ashcroft County in his yellow 1970 Chevy pickup truck, when they turned down an unfamiliar country road and happened upon a FOR SALE – 32 ACRES sign in front of a burly cut of forest. Red immediately jerked the pickup truck onto the shoulder of the road and angled the truck’s puny headlights into a cramped blanket of trees. “Do you like it, do you like it?” he was pestering Sandra within seconds of parking, and when she honestly replied that she couldn’t see a thing, he jumped out of the truck and yelled, “Well, let’s go have a closer look!” Mad with fervor, he bounded into the forest like some sort of half-cocked lycanthrope, blithely ignoring Sandra’s crank-window pleas not to leave her all alone on the side of a backwoods country road. At twenty years old he never failed to heed the all-consuming impulses and inchoate thought processes that frequently struck him, and he certainly didn’t that night, wading deeper and deeper into the woods until he was beyond Sandra’s cries and the headlights’ waning reach.

     He marched until he happened upon a shallow depression of ground strikingly vacant of the titanic oaks, elms, and poplars that lorded over the remainder of the property, at which point he stopped and peered up at a maize-colored moon. Gazing at the lesser satellite it dawned on him that he was standing in a dried-up creek bed, and this was when the tympanic thunder of hooves erupted, hurtling his way posthaste like a feral subway car. He scarcely had time to look down before the lead deer had closed within fifteen feet, a gargantuan buck of bullshit-storytelling proportions, and the buck, sensing him at exactly the same time, swerved in the spastic manner of startled deer worldwide, kicking its legs wide and almost tumbling before readjusting course and charging up a nearby hill. The herd followed immediately thereafter, the lot of them readjusting in the same helter-skelter way, except for one confused doe that stayed the steady compact line and flashed by him seemingly unaware of his presence, so close that if he wanted he could have reached out his hand and stroked her fur as she passed by.

    He rebel-yelled. He whooped and hollered. He danced a young man’s jig on the spongy earth, by the light of the maize-colored moon. If he’d had a flag in his hand he would have planted it and made a proclamation of ownership, but, lacking a banner, he did the next best thing: he kissed the ground beneath his feet, swearing to return.

    And return he did. One month later with a loan from First National Bank in hand, he purchased all thirty-two acres at $525 per, a bargain in the long run though in the short run it almost broke him. His father, who cosigned the loan, said, “You’re married to the working life now, boy,” seconds after the ink had dried, and his words proved prescient: for the first year it took Red three-quarters of a working month to make the loan payment, leaving only one piddling week to save what he could toward purchasing a trailer to put on the property. Sandra liked to have killed him. They had to put off getting married longer than she wanted, and even when they did tie the knot it was another three months of living in his parents’ house before Red finally got enough cash to purchase the single wide they would call home for the next four years.

     He chuckles at the memories, reams included in the panoramic view. The land is a veritable walking-tour timeline of his life. Twenty feet to his left is the light post, the savior of his marriage: Sandra threatened separation soon after they moved into the trailer on account of the all-consuming darkness that engulfed the property once the sun went down (all thirty-two acres were originally covered in trees, colossal pillars that blotted out the moon and stars with nightly indifference to Sandra’s fears); it took a strategically placed light post to convince her to stay. Straight ahead is the bountiful yard giving way to a rolling pasture: a lumber company ponied up to do Red the favor of clearing ten solid acres of obstructive timber; he parlayed the cash into stump removal and the creation of a sprawling lawn / ragged pastureland that matured with the years. Behind him is the woods proper, abundant with wildlife: on the property, he has encountered, at one time or the other, half the animals on Noah’s ark, including but not limited to deer, coyotes, raccoons, foxes, wild turkeys, owls, innumerable squirrels, and once, at a fair distance, a pair of copulating bobcats. And then, of course, are the areas of the property marked by the boys: the basketball court, cement inlaid, Dale’s domain; behind the barn, Brett’s late-night smoking spot, the same as Red’s; and the yard itself, Scott’s field of dreams, the only son who might’ve made good on Red’s goal to turn one of them into a Major Leaguer, or so Red always believed.

    He envisions them now, vividly, each son at his respective station.

    The driveway speaks. The car snuck up on him, but now Red hears the gradual churn of gravel, Dale’s calling card. He is the only son whose speed has changed over the years: once he bounded up the drive at a peppy clip; now he moseys at a cautious, guarded pace.

     Three boys, Red thinks, and two ended up with clipped wings.

     Dale turns the driveway’s blind corner, emerging with cocoon-shedding slowness. His ghastly-green Toyota Corolla is more locust than butterfly. Red misses the little black Nissan truck Dale drove when he was a teenager, the way it shot up the drive like a smacked cue ball. Dale traded it in before Red ever had the chance to buy it off him, and now Red regrets missing out on the chance to give it to Scott.

     Scott could’ve used a dinky rocket like that Nissan. Instead, Scott drove a hyperventilating Ford Tempo, a junker Red convinced a mechanic-friend to give him for next-to-nothing the year Red got out of jail. The car was a piece of crap, no two ways around it. The transmission constantly got hung up in second gear, so whenever Scott ascended the drive the Tempo would rev like a jet engine between twenty and thirty mph before collapsing into third. As a result Scott forever traversed the drive like an indecisive wussy, punching at the accelerator without conviction.

     Red goaded Scott to trade it in once he left home. Two years ago he did, though to Red’s disbelief, he opted for another Tempo. The new car developed the same problem as the old one.

                                                                          *

     Brett is insisting upon details. Lean, packaged facts.

     “Were there tire marks? Any sign that he tried to correct the car before it went down the embankment?”

     Is it selfish or sparing to withhold what the officer told him? Red can’t decide. He is sitting upright in his La-Z-Boy chair. From this position he watches his middle son pace the room, glaring down at him from the mountaintop of his inquisition. Brett’s fiancée—Red has already forgotten her name; presently he thinks of her as the girl with the neck—and Sandra are seated side by side on the couch, elbows on knees, endorsing the interrogation. It’s clear Sandra’s fallen in league with the lovebirds: she’s taking cues on how to comport herself from the girl with the neck. They are a self-righteous trio, resolute in the certainty that they’re owed an explanation. Explanations, Red knows, are worth about as much as the questions that precede them. Satisfying or not, they never change what occurred.

     “The officer said there weren’t any tire marks.”

     Brett remains undeterred. “How fast was he going?”

     Red glances over at Dale. His eldest son is sitting on the chair nearest the television, in a funky contortion. His eyes are glazed over, and he appears to be drifting in and out of the conversation as though the topic is too painful to bear.

     “The officer didn’t say.”

     “Did you ask him?”

     “I did not.”

     Red has made his decision. He’ll bear the burden of the officer’s report alone. What he doesn’t tell the room is this: The officer, a tactful and properly doleful man—Red wondered: Do they send the same seasoned vet out over and over again on death calls, or is it shit-luck of the draw?—demurred when Red pushed him for details, saying it didn’t matter because it was a one-car wreck. When pressed, however, the officer relented. “He was traveling awful fast, Mr. Alexander,” the genteel cop admitted, feeding out the information in teaspoonfuls. “Seventy, eighty miles per hour, from the looks of it. We’ve got an eyewitness who said it looked like he intentionally missed the bridge, but with these things, you never really know. He could’ve simply fallen asleep with his foot pressed down on the accelerator. It’s happened before.” The officer made eye contact then, conveying empathy, unaware that it wasn’t in Red Alexander’s nature to accept certain kindnesses. Red remembers retorting Huh, and wishing he had a chaw in so he could spit.

     Brett is fit to be tied. He looks like the world’s most intemperate prosecutor, boiling over with rage before he can even spit out his question. Red glances at the girl with the neck, sees that she’s eyeing Brett warily. Red figures Brett for his own late-twenties temper, so he straightens his spine and flexes his fingers, just in case.

    “What the hell do you know, then?” Brett demands.

     Red has spent a lifetime confronting sorry truths, truths unfit for their name. Truths conspiring in back alleys with Lies, indifferent to the company they keep. Truths cavorting with that desensitized rat pack, Horror and Fear and that son of a bitch, Pain. Truths that make voodoo dolls out of all those they touch, and spend eternity reveling in the moments they stick in their needles.

     “The officer said it looked like Scott fell asleep.”

     The room accepts the testimony with a spectrum of reactions typically inherent to hung juries. Dale twists tornadoes on the chair, writhing; Sandra moans a scything moan, burying her head in the girl with the neck’s shoulder; the girl with the neck plays the stoic, watching her man; and Brett huffs, snorts, paws his hooves into the carpet; the only thing he doesn’t do is charge.

     Dale’s spasms of mourning turn into demon-possessed jerks, and the room realizes he’s not suffering the news. He’s suffering his back. All at once he’s laid out on the floor, straight as a plank, inhaling breaths so jagged and violent they call to mind wind whipping through tattered sails.

     For a moment everyone stares, uncomprehending, and then Sandra jumps to his aid, a mother back in the moment notwithstanding the long respite, caressing his head and cooing, “Are you okay, baby? What’s wrong, what’s wrong, what do you need?”

     “It’s my back,” Dale whisper-screeches. “I hurt it playing—” A dagger of pain stops him.

     Every member of the Alexander family knows the rest of the sentence. He sure as hell didn’t hurt it playing jai alai.

     “Didn’t the doctor tell you ‘no more basketball’?” Red asks.

     There is ample bafflement in the room. When did father and son have that talk? Even Dale manages to infuse a soupcon of puzzlement into his grimace. The eldest son remembers then, the brief exchange over Christmas dinner, and he nods his head, yes, yes, the doctor did.

     “Huh,” Red says. He is thinking of Dale at age twelve, prowling at shortstop in his final Little League game, and of a snow cone catch he made, leaping with feline grace for a screeching line drive and pulling it in at the apex of his ascent. “Tough to stop playing the sport you love. You’ll see guys play baseball and softball deep into their forties sometimes. Basketball, though, the thirties thin the ranks.”

     He has driven at nothing other than the empirical observation that it’s easier to play baseball later into life than basketball, and yet here comes Brett, flashing his two cents like a gold doubloon.

     “If Dale gave a flying flip about baseball, I bet he would have appreciated that.”

     There is an assemblage of body positions in the room. Between the five present, two are sitting, one is standing, one is kneeling, and one is lying down. On the surface the family appears inert, motionless, as though they’ve been arranged for a family portrait by an unconventional photographer; but underneath this veneer of inactivity there is the palpable threat of violence, a suggestion that the standing tattooed man and the grizzled codger sitting on the La-Z-Boy are on the verge of deconstructing the tableau of static family life and going to war.

     “Since you brought it up, what do you give a flying flip about, huh? Laying brick? Is that it? Gotta be awful hard to do from way up on that high horse of yours,” Red says, needling Brett. He has a penchant for it. Always has. “By the way, if you ever run out of work and need a job, there’s one waiting for you, you know.”

     “I’ll pass, old man.”

     Sandra is ushering Dale into a separate world, cooing at him like a mother in wartime, drawing his attention away from the bombs falling outside. She’s a compartmentalizing queen: what she can address, she does; what she cannot, she looks the other way. An invisible curtain falls down the middle of the room, separating the nurturing mother / stricken son duo from the budding cockfight. It’s a common Alexander family scene. The only thing missing is Scott, in his role as silent observer.

     Brett steps toward his father’s chair, tattoos glistening on his skin like war paint. Red stands up, fifty-four-years-old quick, ready to go. The first punch/shove/tackle/grapple/whatever is the toughest—violence between father and son being close to taboo—but it’s clear by the heady scent in the air (like a near nigh thunderstorm) that a physical altercation is in the offing. This is the fourth time in Red’s life that it’s happened, and on each occasion Red feels that it’s both blessing and curse, this septennial opportunity to touch his son.

     Brett reaches Red and strikes him with a forearm, more push than blow. Red deftly deflects it and pins his offspring’s arm to his chest. Escalation beckons. But then two words blow in on the breeze, courtesy of Brett’s beautiful fiancée.

     “Brett. No.”

     Brett turns to her.

     Red knows that if the tables were reversed, Sandra couldn’t find a two-word combination in Webster’s to convince him to desist, but the girl with the neck isn’t Sandra, and Red can’t say that he blames Brett. She strikes Red as a woman worth listening to.

     The two young lovers reiterate silent vows via soulful stares, and then Brett jerks his arm clean from his father’s grasp. He immediately walks out the front door, not so much angry as understanding that if he stays nothing good will come from it.

     Once Brett is gone the curtain rises and they are all together again. Dale speaks, and to Red’s surprise, he sounds like Brett.

     “Hey, Dad. Lay off, alright?” He’s surmounting pain with each sentence, blowing the words out of his mouth like they’re piping hot. “Just lay off. Everybody’s upset, you know. Brett, especially. He and Scott had a close bond, so go easy, okay?”

     Red sits back down on his living room throne. He’s inclined to go and pat Dale on the back, tell him “That a boy.” For years he has thought his oldest could use a little of his middle’s piss and vinegar. With it perhaps he wouldn’t have lost a decade pitying himself over a couple of missed free throws.

     His eyes go to the girl with the neck. She’s watching him too, and for a moment they lock gazes, suspension-bridge stares over shallow waters. He finds, to his surprise, no notes of anger there. He smiles at her, as genuinely as he can. She doesn’t return his smile, but neither does she look away.  

     He thinks how nice it would’ve been to have had a daughter.