The Wall That Dad Built
An excerpt from the unpublished work in progress: Frying Spam and Other Things To Do Before the Rapture.
My dad never called me boy, man, buddy or son. He shouted my name. I knew I was chosen by the barking tone. Who else could he be talking to? I was the oldest boy, ten, and my brothers were half as tall, both of them. And my sister didn’t count, she was a girl, and she was too old.
“Got a lot of work to do today,” Dad said, rising up from the table, slurping his morning Sanka. The front door slammed. That was my cue. I knew I had two minutes to get there. Outside were shovels, a pickaxe, a sledgehammer, and a ball of twine.
“What are you doin’, Dad?” I asked, chewing my cinnamon toast.
“What are you doin’ with the string?”
“Drawing a line,” he said. He knelt to pound in a stake.
Dad was always erecting something: porches, additions, steps, buildings, sidewalks, and signs. He was a preacher. He said he worked for God. Spirit-filled and hell-fired. If he wasn’t sawing, he was typing sermons, two-fingers at a time. If he wasn’t hammering, he was praying for souls, loudly, pleading like blues singers do with women. It seemed I was always involved. Sometimes I pretended. “Raise up your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord,” he’d say. Dads, good dads, employ their sons in the work of the Lord.
“Drawing a line? What for, Dad?”
“So I dig the hole straight.”
Fishing around in the weeds at the back of the house, he found a thing he called a pin. “That’s where the yard ends,” he said, as if talking to himself. He drove in a stake. After digging around out front for a good long time, during which he had to call on Jesus a few times for help, and my mother for some iced tea, he found another pin. He drove in another stake. To that he strung a line to the stake in the back. Then Mr. Borus came walking down the sidewalk.
Dad called him Buxie. He rarely came down as far as our house. Dad never went up their sidewalk either. He only spoke of them when he backed the car out of the driveway. “They’re Catholics. Catholics are the whores of Babylon. Going straight to hell when Jesus comes in the rapture.”
“Am I saved?” I asked.
“You have Jesus in your heart. You’re saved.”
“Reverend?” Mr. Borus said. He stuck out his big hand.
“Praise the Lord,” said Dad.
“You need help findin’ that pin?” he offered.
“Well, whataya know, It’s right there where I thought it was,” said Dad, wiping his forehead.
Neither one said anything for a while. They stood there, combing their hair with their fingers and looking at the pin. “Saa-mmaay,” Mr. Borus said finally, walking away with his head tilted to the side. I could tell something was wrong by the way he tilted his head to the side.
Mr. Borus always said “Saa-mmaay,” and waved his lunch pail at me as I flew down the sidewalk in my wagon. He was a big shot in the steel mill. He sounded big when he talked. He was wide, and tall like the green man on the pea boxes in Mom’s freezer. After he’d go in the house I’d park the wagon and think. I could have him for my dad. I could play all the time and roll down his lawn. It was a new house, like in magazines. There was a garage in the basement, a den, a jukebox, a patio with soft chairs like at hotels, and a curved walkway lined with yellow flowers and seashells. But my dad built stuff. I never saw Mr. Borus build anything. And there were no dandelions in his yard, which Dad said was silly.
Dad stood looking at that line for a long time, thick, brand new, tight, and straight. I tapped on his round belly. I looked up at his sweaty face. I wondered what he was thinking. “Don’t pester me right now,” he said. He smiled at the line. It must have been a very good line.
Then he started to dig. “A footer,” he called it. By the next day, the hole ran the full length of the yard. Every day it grew deeper. Every day Mr. Borus came over and said, “Reverend?” Then he’d look in the hole, shake his head, and go inside. Something about his looking in the hole reminded me of a funeral. That’s what everyone did when they put Grandma down in her hole, Uncle Jim, Uncle Tom, Aunt Doty; they all looked in the hole.
“Is Mr. Borus going to heaven?” I asked. “Does he want to go up with Jesus?” Dad kept on digging. The deeper the footer got, the shorter Dad was, until all I saw was the straps of his dirty muscle shirt and his chest hair sticking out.
At dinner, something about the big hole was making Mom proud and happy. “It’s gonna be a nice wall,” she said. “Thank God we built that fence out back. Miss Hollywood can lay over there half naked all she wants now.” Dad got a big smile whenever she talked about Miss Hollywood.
“Sorry, Charlie,” she said, slapping his head.
“This is stupid,” my sister said.
“Mrs. Buckner gives me candy. She’s a nice lady,” I said.
“You’re not supposed to be over there,” my sister said.
I’m not sure if she thought the fence or the wall was stupid. Either way, I never paid much attention to her. No one did. I just hoped the wall would hide our house. It wasn’t a house anyway. Not like other kids had. It was plain and dirty white, with tall windows like the church. Mom called our house “The parsonage.” It was attached to the back of the church. We did have a lawn, “The church lawn,” as Dad called it whenever it was time to mow the grass. We lived at 75 West Fifth Avenue, Around the Back. That was our address.
The next day, the big cement truck came. The whole neighborhood stood on the sidewalk like it was a parade. The tires on the truck were taller than I was. The truck was loud like a locomotive. A giant rainspout shot out mushy gray stuff. “Mud,” Dad said. Buckets and buckets of mud poured in the hole. I didn’t do anything important. I stood there until he needed something. Most times he pointed at a tool and said, ”Give me that.” Sometimes he just said, “Pay attention!”
“Why are you smoothing it out?” I asked.
“It’s gotta be level.” I’d heard that before.
“Can I do some?”
“Dad? .. Dad? .. Dad.”
“That doesn’t look like a wall.”
“It will when we’re done.”
By Sunday the “footer” got hard. It was magic. It was only mud the day before. I jumped and ran on it, from the sidewalk to the back fence. Dad said it was “cured.” That’s what he said after he prayed over someone, “She’s cured.” After the Sunday morning worship service, Dad went in his study. “The Lord rested on the Sabbath day, and so do we,” said Mom. I got my trucks out and went down in the hole.
When I got home from school the next day, tall square stacks of gray blocks lined the driveway. Near the back of the yard, Dad was down in the footer leaning over a line of blocks, scraping them with a tool. “A trowel,” he said. He dumped a bag of gray powdery stuff in a big metal box, then stood there shooting water at it with the hose like he was putting out a fire.
“Get the hoe.”
I grabbed the only thing I didn’t know the name for. “You gotta mix this mud till it’s sticky,” he said, pulling the hoe back and forth and talking to Jesus. I wanted to mix mud, mix something. I kept begging. Finally, letting out a long stream of air, waving his hand, he said, “Okay, mix the mud.” I mixed, and he lay blocks, blocks on top of blocks, spreading mud between each one, like peanut butter on Saltines. I got to do what Dad called chinking too. That’s when you scrape a piece of copper pipe –left over from the bathroom project– up and down and across the cracks. “Clean up those joints. It’s an important job,” he said.
I wanted to be important. So I cleaned up the joints. Just like he did. I knew what an important job was and going to get things was not important. Tools were important. Measuring, marking and cutting. Tools are what Dad used to “get things right,” as he would say. I wanted to get things right. I wanted to get things right so I could brag to Mom like he did, go in for dinner, adjust my shirt, stick out my chest and say, “Would you just look at that.”
Every day the wall was higher. I could tell by eyeing up the top of the wall with the statue of the Virgin Mary over at the Borus’s. Dad said, “That statue is an idol,” and something about a calf made from gold jewelry, and people that worship idols burning in hell. Mary looked pretty, except for when they put a garbage bag over her head every winter. Her white dress went all the way down to two green stone frogs in a flowerbed. She had smooth soft round breasts and a snake wrapped around her feet. Her cheeks had red spots like Denise my girlfriend in first grade did when she came back from the beach. On top of her head was a blue handkerchief and a gold halo. But the more the wall went up, the less I could see of her. The frogs disappeared first, then went the snake, her legs, her breasts, her cheeks, her blue handkerchief, and finally, no halo.
We had a wall. Dad spread mud on our side. This time it was white mud, like Mom’s icing. “Stucco,” he said. We stood there studying it, first at the back of the yard, then at the front. That’s what we always did when we finished building stuff. I looked at Dad looking at the wall. His belly hid his belt. His belly humped out when he tucked his hands in his back pockets. His muscles were brown, his shirt the color of mud. His face looked thirsty and tired. He smelled sweaty. His hair was wet and shiny and black as licorice. He smiled. He looked proud and important like guys on baseball cards. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends at school. My dad built stuff. My dad was strong. My dad was bigger than their dad.
“Dad .. Dad .. Nice wall,” I said.
“Hey Hon!” he called to Mom. Mom came out looking at Dad smiling.
“Charlie! It’s beautiful,” she exclaimed, like she hadn’t noticed all week.
“How come nobody else has a wall like us?” I asked.
“Mr. Archer has a fence,” Mom said.
“So the dog stays in, right?”
“That dog barks all night long,” Dad said.
Mr. Borus marched over and stood up on a pile of dirt down the end of the wall. Dad looked down at me. “Stay right there,” he said. Mr. Borus yelled something important at Dad. Mr. Borus was pointing at the dirt, and waving both arms back and forth at the wall. I wanted to hear. “Stay on our side,” Mom said. Whatever Dad said must have been the right thing. Maybe it was because Mrs. Borus came out and stood next to the Virgin Mary.
Grownups had things to be upset about: dogs, cats, kids, tree limbs, ladies getting tans, walls and fences. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with the wall. I thought the wall was a great thing, so did Mom and Dad. It was straight and Dad said we got it right. It was brand new. It was white. Why wasn’t Mr. Borus happy? I resolved, as much as kid can resolve, that grownups lived in a different world. Maybe I’d find out when I got as tall as them or something.
So I spent a lot of time on the porch steps with my chin in my hands. Gone was the perfect view of the Borus’s new car, the silly lawn, the flowers, the beer delivery trucks, and the Virgin Mary. I could still see up the street, the front doors, the porches, the neighbors going in and out. I wondered if they were going to heaven. I wondered if, unlike us, they had Coca Cola in the fridge, or watched “Happy Days.” They were different. They were lost and I was saved.
And I had a wall. The only one in the neighborhood. I could sit on top of it anytime I wanted. I could watch the Borus girls on their patio, flipping burgers, making mocktinis, laying out in bikinis, laughing, and having Catholic whore of Babylon parties. Sometimes on summer nights, other kids in the neighborhood would come and climb up on the wall too. One Saturday afternoon Dad came out of the garage with his tools. “We’ll have no more of that,” he barked. He spent most of the day making a pile of stones into pointy arrows. Then he cemented them to the top of the wall. “Charlie! It’s beautiful,” Mom said.
©2022 Samuel Saint Thomas
Photo: Baseball by the Wall by Dad