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The Glory of Ned Wiley

by Braden Hepner
 

Ned Wiley stood on the scaffolding in a blue nylon jacket, a decal of running horses peeling on the back. He set his trowel down and hunched over and his small frame curled like his cupped hand as he lit a cigarette. He wore a tall cap, its brim pulled low over his eyes, and for a moment as he smoked he looked across the road where a river-bottom swamp sprawled out and the red late-summer sky blazed up the lily-pad ponds and set the expanse afire. From out of his ragged beard he blew smoke, and then he turned to go back to work. Its broken wreaths hung by him and rose around him as he bent and moved. Ned was laying brick on a church house. It was long-bodied with a tall steeple rising over a forty-foot gable at one end and smaller gables above the entries on each side. Red brick covered the finished portions with pale brown complements interlaid. It sat at the edge of a hay field, other fields spreading away from it until they struck the low mountains in the distance.

He picked up a triangular cut of brick and held it up to the wall near the eves of the small gable he worked on, eyeing it through smoke from his cigarette. His voice fell down to me like a musical grunt.

“Have you got any more like this one, only a bit longer?”    

I came back carrying several scrapped cuts. He stepped to the end of the plank and bent himself to catch them, and long triangular shapes of brick floated from my hands up into his. I had learned that morning how to throw them 25 feet up without more than a couple revolutions. I had learned, because the first one I threw had spun like a propeller, and when Ned caught it with a surprised grunt he barked down at me, “You spin one more of them billydamn brick and I’ll throw the son of a bitch back down at you.”

That was the second thing he said to me. The first was, “Hello. Can you get me some mud.” Ned spoke his questions like statements.

The second time I threw a cut up to him it had spun only a little, but it stopped short and caused him to reach out and nearly fall off the plank. “Son of a bitch!” he yelled. I had apologized and climbed the piece up for a hand delivery. Ned was not the boss. The boss was his younger brother, and he had sent me out here to work with Ned alone. I’d asked why the boss had chosen me, since I was new, and he said he hadn’t. He said the rotten bugger had picked me himself. I asked him why the crusty old man was willing to work with me when he wouldn’t work with anyone else on the crew and he had no answer but the shrug of his shoulders.

Besides the two of us, the only people around were the few electricians and the general contractor who sat in his old trailer and drank whiskey and flipped through raunchy magazines while watching the slow progress out the window. The men on the larger crew I had come from spoke poorly of Ned, but no one could argue with his skill. The man laid block and brick like he was born with a trowel in his hand. We had all been here to build the structural walls of this church a few months earlier, built them out of cinderblock, and I’d watched Ned use one hand when other men used two, despite his smallness of stature, holding the block by the middle grip and scraping mortar down both sides of one end. He would then lift it over the tall vertical rebar and set it down into place, and the block rarely needed tapping for his accuracy. Sheering the extra mortar off with his trowel edge, he moved on to the next, the process taking only a few seconds to complete. That was the way Ned built walls.

Any attempt of mine at conversation fell to the ground with the refuse mortar. A few days into it, around quitting time, he poked his head over the scaffolding and said, “Gary? Will you go to my truck and bring me a Mountain Dew?”

I told him I would and he called my name again. I stopped.

“Hustle a bit,” he said.

I kept the same pace to the outskirts of the jobsite to his old blue GMC pickup and opened the door. Inside it smelled of buttcrack and cigarettes. I grabbed a can from the open green box on the seat. On the other side, a half-empty bottle of whiskey lay over the exposed yellow foam of a tear in the seat. Hardener, he called it.

It was said that in his younger days he’d been involved in uncountable fights. He’d done some masonry work on a crew up near Coeur d’Alene in a string of mining towns. The masons kept their bags with them always, their tools slippery for the myriad thieves, drifters, and vagrants. Once when prodded by the crew he wielded his trowel before him and explained that it was very much like a knife and often sharper. He pulled his shirt open to reveal a jagged scar on his chest. He parted his beard to show another on his cheek. “Trowels,” he said. “Sharp as hell.”

I came back and tossed the can up 25 feet with the accuracy of a cut brick. Ned caught it, cracked it, and took a swallow. It was warm, but that’s how he preferred it. He pulled back and looked at the can in his hand. Then he took another swallow and sighed. He said, “Is that all the mud?”

“Yep.”

“It’s about damn time. Mixer clean?”

“Yep.”

“Mud covered?”

“Yep.”

“Cover the saw.”

“Think it’ll rain?”

“Never know. Cover it.”

“Anything else?”

“No,” he said, and turned back to the wall.

I heard his trowel hitting the board and scraping up the last of the mortar. I walked to the saw and threw a rough piece of plastic over it, and then picked up larger, discarded cuts of brick and placed them around it to hold the plastic down. I watched Ned climb down the scaffolding slowly in his shiny blue jacket and his levis as the chilly pre-autumn evening fell about the church.

Just before he reached the ground I noticed he had left his toolbag at the top of the scaffolding and said, “You want me to get your tools?”

“If I wanted my tools,” he said through heavy breathing, “I would have brought them down myself.”

He stuck his pointy cowboy boots in the bottom rungs, stepped onto dirt, then straightened himself and pulled his jacket down around his waist. He looked at me with bloodshot eyes, his face ugly. Because of his hat above and his hoary beard below, it was hard to ever see his face well. But the full view of it, haggard and gnarled, seemed like a small wonder. He lit a cigarette with a match and gazed across the swamp. His whole face looked like it had been stomped by a horse, and in fact it had, as he told it, or rather it was kicked by one while he was loading it into the back of a trailer.

“I’m not coming tomorrow,” he said. “So you can go to the other job, or you can go to hell. Whichever you want.”

“Where are you going?” I said.

“Never mind where it is the hell I’m going.”

“Do you need anything else from me?”

“No.”

I started to walk toward the slender blue john, but as he passed the scaffolding I had begun to set up on the 40-foot gable, he called to me. He bent over and tugged at a thin piece of wood I’d set under a scaffolding leg to keep it from sinking in the dirt. I watched him work at the board. He couldn’t get it. When he looked at me his face was flushed, and there was a rush of anger in his eyes.

“Now look, Gary,” he said. “When you set up scaffold, don’t put this wafer-board shit under the legs. They’ll punch right through it. And you don’t want me coming down in a rain of scaffold and brick on top of you, cause I fall with my trowel pointed down.”

“I’ll change them when we come on Monday,” I said.

“No,” he said. “You’ll change them now.”

I nodded. “I’ll do it after I visit the john.”

But he was already stepping off to his truck. I walked toward the back of the building where the outhouse was, and when I turned before closing the toilet door behind me I saw him sitting in his truck, a new cigarette filing smoke out the window as he wrote down his hours.

I sat down on the cold plastic and looked at the renderings of nude women and genitalia scrawled on the wall. I’d read the poems enough times to have memorized them. Also written with bulky construction pencils were strings of nonsense words: “Piggle biddy diddy kins,” and “Iggle biddy pop.” I wondered what Ned thought of them when he sat there, which was often. Having once visited directly after him, I guessed it was the alcohol wreaking havoc on his bowels. That or his alleged lunch and dinner custom of home-grown pork and canned beans, chased with warm Mountain Dew. It was rumored that he fed his pigs from his front porch, that he’d hammered their pen onto his house next to the steps so he could dump breakfast scraps and sour milk into it from his front door. When they fattened up, he butchered them and stocked his freezer with meat. I saw the back of his dwelling once when I went to the boss’s house to pick up a paycheck. Ned lived behind the boss in a hunched down cinderblock shack no bigger than a camp trailer. It sat huddled between tall trees next to a small creek. Ned had built it himself with left-over material, and many of the cinderblocks were glazed orange and blue, the kind not used in twenty years, and they looked like a mistake scattered through the regular gray. I’d then gone over to admire the fine racing horses Ned and his father kept across the street, inside good fences and a weather-proof barn.

Monday morning I slouched in my old Tempo and watched the silent church. The air carried hints of frost, and a low coat of fog hung over the swamp. Ned was 30 minutes late. I had made mortar in the mixer and had hauled a bucketful up to the gable where Ned had ended the last time we had worked and it sat up there now in heaps on his boards drying. I put the radio on scan. I looked at the gable and then down the side of the building and watched light seep over the earth. He’d never been late before that I’d seen. He always showed up on time or not at all. The church faced west, and as the sun appeared over the mountains its long rays began to spill from the tip of the steeple, over the roof, and down to the ground. He was now an hour late.

I took a piece of tier paper and wrote a note on it and climbed the scaffolding to put it near Ned’s tools. Then I drove seven miles of country road to a gas station. On the phone the boss said he knew of ten or 12 places Ned could be. He said to come to the other jobsite, but to get rid of the mortar I’d made and clean the mixer first. When I pulled back up to the church, Ned stood atop the scaffolding, heavily turning the mud on the board with his trowel. I walked over and stood at the bottom, looking up. “I need water up here,” he grunted.

“Joe thinks I’m going over there.”

Ned began to lay his tools out on the plank.

 I waited and said, “What about Joe?”

“Never mind him. You’re going to tend me here. Now bring me some damn water.”

I hauled half a bucket of water up to the top and tempered the mortar.

“Leave it here,” he said.

I stood back and watched him work. A few minutes passed and he turned around and said, “What the hell are you doing? Get down there and clean up. The ground’s a mess.”

I hurried down and started picking up scraps of paper and discarded material and Ned yelled for more brick. His stock plank was empty. I went over to a cube of brick and began carrying them over to the scaffolding. By the time I got a few tongs to the top Ned stood there, having laid the last brick, one hand on his hip and the other grasping the handle of his trowel propped on his mudboard like it was a gear shifter.

“Gary,” he said softly, unkindly. “If you don’t get what I need up here in time, I’ll get someone else to tend me, and you’ll be out of a job.”

He waited while my face filled with blood.

“Now pay attention,” he said. “And get what I need before I need it.”

I stacked the brick on the plank at his waist while he worked. I figured he would need several hundred more brick to finish the gable, so I climbed down and started carrying them over with the brick tongs, eleven brick in each and my shoulders crying with the effort. In the middle of my trying to get them up to the top he needed things: his mud tempered, his foot-plank raised, a few cuts, a warm Mountain Dew. I tried hard to keep up with him, but he worked like the devil. After I had the brick up, I climbed onto his stock plank to load and straighten the stock. He turned from the wall, reached in his pocket, and pulled out a pack of Kools. He lit one and his head fell sideways. I studied his face. He looked like he’d been dead for a week.

At lunch I sat in my Tempo listening to the radio. Ned got out of his truck and walk toward the john and the break was up. He stepped out and passed me with his head down and his hands in the pockets of his jacket. The wind and weather had finally grown cold enough to use that blue jacket he wore every day. After the john I walked over and started climbing up the scaffolding and was hit in the head with something that exploded and sprayed grit all over me. I looked up and another chunk of drying mortar pelted me in the forehead. My skin went numb after a flare of pain. My left eye burned from a small chunk that had lodged in its corner. The stuff had lime in it. I missed the next handhold and fell backward. The air left my lungs when I hit the ground, and while I rolled around grunting and making strange noises and trying to grab a breath another chunk hit my side and stung like a bitch. Another exploded next to me on the dirt. In the middle of all this I marveled that the old prick could aim so well.

I got up and staggered toward the saw and turned and looked up. Ned was calmly scooping up hard pieces of mortar and flinging them down with his trowel with bullet-like speed. They came straight at me, accurate and fast enough to make them hard to dodge.

“What!” I yelled. “What the hell!”

I hid behind the tall saw and peered around the sides. He threw the mortar down, chunks of it zinging into the dirt and bursting on the saw, until he had emptied his board. He said nothing. He lit a cigarette, turned to the wall, and began tooling the mortar joints.

I understood. He had needed water for the drying mortar, and now he needed fresh mortar. I guessed it was only a matter of time before he started hurling bricks and sharp tools at me. What I should have done was beat him to the wall. That was my job, to anticipate, to cause him no delay. Despite this reasoning, I considered dashing to my car and speeding off for good. I tried to make the decision quickly before he turned around and saw me still standing there. But in the end I only swore violently to shrug off the pain and anger and took it out in making mortar—throwing the wheelbarrow underneath the mixer, shoveling sand madly into its churning guts, and slamming down an 80 lb. bag of cement mix on the grate. I swore then to stay ahead of the old bastard. To read his rotting mind if need be. I would outwork him, outthink him.

We finished that week and I learned his peculiarities and characteristic demands as they pertained to laying brick. I learned to make the mortar on his board last exactly until noon, and to have fresh stuff in a bucket nearby for right after lunch. This cut my lunch break short ten minutes, 30 percent of it sacrificed. I learned to predict his moves and to get things for him before he asked. The weather came colder by the day, cold enough for a coat by morning and a sweatshirt by day, and still Ned only wore his blue jacket with its peeling decal. I mused whether it was his gauge, that when the cold began to bite through its nylon and padding, to steal into his creaking joints, it was time for him to drive to southern California where he spent winters laying a little brick for another brother, but this in mild weather and sunshine. 

I sat in my car on a cold gray day at lunchtime with the engine running and my hands in front of the heater vents. When 20 minutes were up I got out and walked stiffly to the scaffolding. I climbed up and dumped a bucket of mortar onto Ned’s board. I’d begun making it extra wet before lunch so that it could sit and harden to the right consistency by the time I came back. We had made it onto the last wall of the church, the last and tallest gable. I rearranged the brick and pushed them forward to the front of the plank so that he could reach them easier. When I was through he was still in his truck. The engine was off, and I couldn’t see through the windshield for the glare of the steel sky. He had always been 30 minutes on the dot, but then again, he did about whatever he wanted.

I climbed down and carried more brick, my shoulders burning in a way I had come to relish, and he still hadn’t left his truck. When I walked over the windows were rolled up, and as I got closer I could see that his head rested against the window of his door and that his hat had been pushed crooked by the glass. Before I knocked I looked at him. His hair, most of which his hat usually hid, looked like it had been shampooed with bacon grease two weeks before. His scrunched up, creased face looked like a knuckle, even when he was out cold as he was. There was no peace of slumber in that face. I expected him to wake any second and turn his vulgar eyes on me.

I tapped on the window, but he didn’t move. I tapped harder. Nothing. I thought about opening the door, but the way his head leaned against the glass, he might be in my lap if I did. I walked around the truck and opened the passenger door. A collection of empty bottles lay on the floor. A burned-out cigarette, its long gray ash still connected to the filter, stuck out from between the rough fingers of Ned’s right hand, which rested on his thigh. The son of a bitch was dead. I was sure of it.

“Ned,” I said.

I said it louder.

I climbed into the seat and shook him. His head bumped against the glass once and he turned his face around and looked at me.

“What, what,” he said.

“You were asleep. I was going to ask what you wanted me to do.”

“Mud,” he said. “You got mud up there?”

“Yeah,” I said. “And brick.”

He shook his head as he climbed out of the truck and reeled against its side a little. The air was sharp and cold as we walked toward the church.

A few days later, as he worked up the front gable one sunny afternoon, I stood on the stockplank and watched him work. I had everything clean on the ground and everything he would need up on the scaffolding. From that tall height I looked around and saw that the trees had lost most of their leaves. I hadn’t noticed how quickly fall was going. Gray empty cottonwoods stood in bunches through the swamp, their bare and knotted fingers reaching against the sky. Barren fields rolled into the distance. I hunched inside my coat and watched the man lay brick. I found it pleasing, the way he put brick after brick in the wall, the progress as he laid a course, raised the line, laid another. It was soothing work.

“You need to get a trowel,” he said without turning around.

“A trowel?”

“One of these things,” he said.

“What for?”

“To lay brick with.”

“I don’t know how to lay brick.”

“Do you believe it’s possible to learn?”

“Joe says I need to tend for a while.”

“The hell with what he says. You’re working for me. Might as well learn now as well as later, ain’t you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Make it a W. Rose,” he said. His W came out, double-yuh. “I don’t want you showing up here ready to play in the sandbox with a toy. W. Rose carries a good line of tools.”

“W. Rose,” I said.

“And don’t get one too big for you, neither. Start small, like your pecker.”

He laid a few brick and then said, “It’s getting colder, ain’t it.”

“It is.”

“Need to get this gable finished. And I need to get the hell out of here.”

“You going to California?”

“Sure.”

“You going to stop at the Mustang Ranch?”

“The hell do you know about the Ranch?”

“Nothing. What’s it like?”

“It’s sufficient for my needs.”

“What do you do there?”

“The hell do you mean, what do I do there? They don’t sell garden supplies.”

“What’s it like?”

He grinned and I saw for the first time that he was missing his top row of teeth. “It’s like getting your strength back. It’s a strength against the coming season.”

“When will you be back?”

“Spring.”

He turned to the wall to mark a cut. His tools lay on the plank. His palm had worn the leather-wrapped handle of his trowel smooth, the individual straps worked together with use. He didn’t use gloves. I imagined his fingerprints were gone, as happened to the old masons who didn’t wear gloves. His wooden level leaned against the wall, well-used but taken care of. The oiled wood was dark and looked clean. His tool bag wasn’t cluttered with unnecessary tools like some I’d seen. Some masons judged their skill by how many tools they could pull out of their bags. Ned had only what he needed. His skill was in his hands.

“Here you go,” he said. “Cut me several of these.”

He handed the brick to me and reached for his cigarettes. Before I got to the ground he called to me.

“Come back up here with that,” he said. “I think I can break those with my trowel.”

When I got back to the top, he took the brick in his left hand and the trowel in his right. He hit the trowel on the mud board a few quick times to rid it of mortar. Then he lined it up with the mark he had made and eyed it through cigarette smoke. Quicker than I could blink, he chopped the brick. It broke just where he had marked it and nearly as clean as the saw would have cut it.

I gave a low whistle. Ned grunted.

“That’s nothing,” he said. He held up the blade of his trowel, eyeing it between us. “Used to be able to slice a hornet in half out of midair.”

As he turned to the wall again, I took a deep breath through my nose. I took in the decay of fall, the approach of winter, all of it laced with the rich and now familiar odor of Ned Wiley—old sweat and smoke, B.O., stale breakfast, the peculiar scent of an aging man, and faintly, pigs. I breathed it in with the chilled air, and it seemed as much a natural part of the smells of a dying season as the moldering leaves and cold soil.

The next week we rose with the height of the big gable to where the roof began and each course of brick laid shortened the distance between sides. Ned had started a feature where he spaced brick ends in such a way to create the shape of a diamond and raised them out about half an inch. He’d begun a series of them once he reached the roof, and the pattern was handsome. He’d built leads in both corners and ran a line between them. I hauled brick up and stacked them on the plank. I lugged up an extra bucket of mortar, and when I had everything caught up, and the ground clean, I watched him work.

After a few minutes he turned, put his trowel point down on the mud board, and said, “Well, did you get a trowel?”

I nodded.

“Bring it up here and put it to use.”

The new handle of the W. Rose felt good in my hand, the metal course, the blade cold and thin as I ran my finger down it. It seemed a sacrilege to dirty it. I figured in no time I would be running the line with Ned, pushing him into a higher pace to keep up with me. It felt strange to climb onto the foot plank. It was forbidden to tenders. As I took a stab at the mortar pile and scooped some up with the trowel the tool became awkward in my hand. I smeared mortar all over the first brick trying to swipe joints on it and put it in the wall. I had none of the dexterity with which Ned worked so quickly. The brick sat completely crooked, and once I had it half straight I noticed it had sunk far below the line and had to pull it off and lay more mortar down. I worked very slowly. Most of my brick were tilted wrong, hacked forward or backward, and I had only put two or three in by the time Ned reached my end. He said I might as well go find myself a sand box and dig up some cat turds. Then he smiled, his cracked lips wrapped over his upper gum, a sound like a faint choke issuing out. A few taps with the butt of his trowel and the brick I had put in the wall were straightened as if by a spell.

“Now that you’ve learned the hard way,” he grunted, “come down here.”

He walked to the other end of the wall. He threw down a consistent row of mortar on top of the course he had just laid, and then furrowed it straight down the middle with the tip of his trowel.

“The first thing is to make sure your bed joint is smooth and reg’lar. If it’s reg’lar and even on both sides, your brick will sit straight naturally.”

He took a brick in his left hand, put a joint on it with two deft swipes of his wrist, and pushed it straight down to the line. Mortar oozed out beneath it. He sheered the excess mortar with the edge of his trowel and used it to joint and lay the next brick.

He turned and faced me, and I went back down to the other end to practice. As we worked on the wall together the cold wind brought the first snowflakes of the season. It was the moment of winter’s arrival, sudden and sure, as the snow floated down from the purple sky. Snowflakes landed on the brick and quickly dissolved, leaving a whisper of a wet spot. They clung on Ned’s blue jacket until they melted.

“You ever been married, Ned?”

“No.”

I waited.

“Ever come close?”

“No.”

I pulled a brick off and re-laid it.

“I was going to wonder what your wife thought of you going to the whores at Mustang Ranch.”

“When there ain’t no wife, there ain’t nobody to think anything of it,” he said.

“I always wondered what the women in those places were like.”

Facing my work, I could hear him working toward me from behind. He worked forward and I worked backward.

“Are they beautiful?”

He grunted.

“Well are they?”

“Good enough for me,” he said.

He had me on the wall when I had time that week and the next, and I began to get it down. I became faster as I went along, but he often came over and stressed quality before quantity. I got to where I could lay brick plumb and level and to the line if I went slow and concentrated. By the end of the week we had built nearly to the top of the gable. Once at the top, we would be finished with the church.

He worked furiously that last Saturday, trying to reach the top. He spoke little and I worked hard to keep him stocked and in cuts. The sun turned red and lit up the swamp. I dumped the last of the mortar on his board and he stopped. He took off his hat and scratched his head, looked up to the peak just above him and said, “Damn. We almost made it. But we’re short. Damn.”

His hair was wet with sweat.

“Clean up,” he said. “We’re done today. This mortar will freeze if we go much longer.”

I was crouched down, hammering at the beaters inside the mortar mixer, when I smelled him behind me.

“Gary,” he said. “Do you want a Mountain Dew?”

He had a couple green cans in his hands and held one out to me. We cracked them open and I took a swallow. It was cool from sitting in his truck.

“Would you care to work tomorrow?” he said.

“How long?”

“Not long. I’ve made plans to leave here Monday morning, for the winter, and they’re firm plans, can’t be broken. We were supposed to finish today, but we fell short.”

“Yeah, I can work.”

“You’ll be here alone.”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you up to it?”

“Probably.”

“Yes or no?”

“Yes.”

“Good. I need a take a horse to a vet before I leave or he’s going to die. I’ve built the leads up near the top, but you’ll need to do a little level work. I’ll put my level by your car and you can use it to finish. Leave it inside the north door so I can pick it up.”

He started to walk away but turned and said, “Gary.”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t forget to continue the detail in that gable.”

I showed up the next morning and mixed mortar. I hauled it in buckets up on the scaffolding and stocked brick. I went down to the Tempo and grabbed my trowel. I also carried a new jointer tool and a brush, which I’d purchased the night before. I laid brick all morning. I put them down straight and with some speed. After lunch a bitter wind came on and I hunched down in my coat and my movements became stiffer. By the time I leveled out the corners Ned had built, only a small triangle of wood needed covering. His level felt iced as I grabbed it and finished.

The weather had worsened further by the time I laid the last brick. There was something about laying the last brick on the building. It was something I remembered. I climbed down and cleaned up, and by the time I was through my fingers had grown rigid and cold in my gloves. I looked back to the top of the gable a hundred times and listened to the wind howl around the building, but not once did I notice that I had forgotten to continue the detail.  

I have a good idea of how it must have gone. Ned would have rolled onto the jobsite around the time that I sat down at my kitchen table to eat, driving his old blue truck, pulling an empty horse trailer. His horse died at the vet’s, so he paid to leave it there and drove back early. At the church he would have left his truck and walked through the wind to the wall to see what I had done. He saw that I had filled in between his leads and then finished the wall, but that I hadn’t continued the diamond-shaped detail. I picture him considering the situation for a minute, then letting out a deciding grunt and swearing at me with each step toward the mixer.

No one would have seen the old man throwing shovels of sand into the mixer in the cold wind. Nor would they have seen him pushing the wheelbarrow full of mortar, body bent, over the ground as a cold rain began to fall. The weather was bad and would have lashed and whipped at him like it lashed and whipped at my windows as he struggled to get the mortar up the scaffolding in buckets. The rain came sideways in gusts, and at this angle his blue jacket would have been soaked. He must have worked hard at loosening the brick, cleaning them, re-laying them. Certainly he cursed often as he worked through the short afternoon and into the dark, for even the comfort of his cigarettes was beyond his reach. The wind blew too hard to light one, and if he had finally gotten one lit the rain would have put it out before he could smoke it. While I soaked in a hot bathtub, Ned worked until the last brick touched the pinnacle and the clouds had fled and the cold moon rose in the sky and shone pale light on the brick church. He threw plastic over his work to guard it against the frost, and by the time he reached his truck with his toolbag in hand and his long wooden level tucked under his arm, he might have felt the tightening in his chest, the beginning of the pneumonia he did in fact catch, that would keep him holed up in his shack of a residence and waylay him from the Mustang Ranch.

When I returned to work I learned what had happened and I burned with shame and embarrassment. I worked with the other crew for a couple weeks, and one day the boss told me to go back to the church and take down the scaffolding.

I removed the plastic Ned had draped over the wall and examined the brick he had lain. I ran my fingers lightly over the brick face, tracing the diamond shapes and the uniform joints. The general contractor walked to the bottom of the gable and looked up to its pinnacle where I stood. “That’s really beautiful work,” he called. It was.

When I had taken all the scaffolding down and stacked it neatly at the base of the wall, I noticed something on the ground catching the sun. It was Ned’s jointer tool. I picked it up from the piles of refuse mortar and broken brick and ran my fingers over the brickworn, shiny surface where it had struck so much mortar. I would need to take this to him. I carried it to my car and laid it in the trunk beside my own tools. As I looked back at the church one last time his skill became flawless to me, his walls perfect, his hands sound, his methods inscrutable. I’d heard he was on the mend. I knew he would be leaving for California soon. Instead of going home, I drove toward the farther reaches of the valley, where Ned lived. I would give him back his jointer tool, and if he could bear me lingering around his sub-modest home, I might work up the courage to ask him if I could go to California with him.

No smoke rose from his chimney as I parked. Indeed there was a pen attached to his cinderblock dwelling, but it was empty. I climbed a leaning set of weather-worn steps and knocked on the door. No one came. I knocked again. My heart beat faster as I considered the doorknob. Fearing the old man could be dead inside I twisted it and found it unlocked. I had to use my shoulder to open the door. I entered what passed as a kitchen, with a sink, a cupboard, and a small yellow stove. Two refrigerators stood in the corner. There were empty shelves on the walls. The place smelled of ill-wrangled meals long since eaten. It smelled of Ned. Dim light fell through small windows, opaque from age or dust I couldn’t tell. To my left a table and one chair stood beneath the front window. Farther back was a narrow bed, its sheets pulled taut across it, no pillow. The floor was concrete, the walls cinderblock. I wanted to move around, but I didn’t. I could see it all from where I stood. Like the last toll of a bell Ned Wiley’s home rang of an emptiness that was just settling in. This emptiness would not be filled until spring, and it seemed I had desecrated it somehow by entering. I had disrupted the order of things as Ned had left it, for he was already gone.

  
  

Braden Hepner holds an MFA in fiction and teaches English. He lives in Teton, Idaho, with his wife, Liz.
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