The Humpty Dumpty Wall
Thad Brannock, hands on hips, stood at the peak of the hill looking down at Craig, at the small cottage… one small pimple in his vast plans.
The small hill was armadillo-ugly. An eyesore mound it was, a mound gouged up behind his house many thousands of years ago, scored from the cataclysmic heart of Earth, and dumped in a major distortion by the Ice Age at a near-endless push. That energy, he envisioned, must have had a fire behind it, an upheaval of fantastic orders. So contradictory, the elements; fire and ice, the reach and retreat of glaciers, lava movement behind it all, Earth at slow rampage. Oh, it could make him shiver, such imagination. Then again, Craig Jolly thought the hill not unlike a whale out-Jonahed and pushed by an angry sea up onto the beach at Nahant, marooned, to rot unto oblivion as carrion.
He hated the hillock, yet wished he owned it.
One-time teammate Thad Brannock, a realtor, had an inveterate hunger for the land all about the area, and had at last taken the hillock (some thought it squeezed) from the old neighbor, Gregore Pazewski. For a long time Brannock had wanted the meager holdings of Craig Jolly; the half acre, the worn-looking Cape Codder Craig was born in, the small garden beside it just starting to break ground, getting April green. For years there had been differences between them, first as boys, then as teammates, and now, this far along in life, as men with families, men with destinies. Craig had often thought: We’re so different, have different visions and memories that touch on other imagery, and decode unlike messages. If thought clouds, like in cartoons, were made graphic above our heads, they’d never match. Never!
His right leg in a cast from a ladder fall, Craig Jolly sat on his back porch looking at the ugly, sudden rise of land behind his house. If he owned it, he’d sure get it leveled, make two lots out of it, or more, whatever the building codes allowed nowadays. He’d bulldoze the highest part into the low portion just eastward; scrape with skill, he thought, his own Ice Age endowment. Some day sons Mark and Billy, at or near marriage, would have their own lots to build on, ones that would keep them close. It was another page, another color, of his imagination. Such things he was not sure of at all. More dreamy than investigative, more lucky than perseverant, was how he assessed himself at rare and chance occasions. The knowledge burdened him; that he could readily dream and project himself and the earth around him into distant and possible venues. Though he had trouble finding reality, he considered himself a realist. “Things are,” he might have said, the odd moments in traction.
“Hey, dreamer, whatcha up to?”
The voice, from the top of the hill, was none other than the ambitious realtor. The bromidic turn of his voice was still in place. Though it posed an exaggeration, Craig knew the exaggeration would never go away. Thad Brannock, hands on hips, stood at the peak of the hill, looking down at Craig, at the small cottage, the small plot of land, the small garden stretched out beside the house, one small pimple in his vast plans.
Behind him, the purple of sunset scorched the Earth again, and made a silhouette as stark as Craig could imagine. Thad, he was sure, had waited on that moment of sunset, that time of drama. Even in cast silhouette, even in shadow Craig admitted quickly, Thad Brannock was thick through and through his body. Even in the perennial dark suit with slight vertical stripes, his shoulders were wide as sails, his legs like stanchions that once stood under the old Elevated in City Square and other parts of Boston. Strength appeared to have been poured from a Pittsburgh vat or from a cement truck’s chute. As a fullback in high school Thad had been a devastating blocker, but always announcing his major hits in the huddle before the next play was called, during the following week in the corridors at school, and later, much later, at Mulvey’s Pub in the center of town. His memory of the make-up of those plays was prodigious, right to who had the responsibility of blocking who. His graphics and gestures were legendary, and colorful. Free drinks had always been at hand with discourse. Hack Mulvey loved to see him coming through the door of the pub, despite a slight hint of bile in his throat.
Thad, Craig had observed from the beginning, was very explicit in his moves and movements; always had the flair, a modern bard, a troubadour. Signals of a sort had always been a way with him, explanations accompanying the free broadcasts, the early notifications. Some men enjoyed that kind of communication. Some of Craig’s pals called it pride. Others gave it sundry derogatory names, most of them bodily in origin. Yet he wanted to believe Thad was just checking out the territory where his two sons had begun to play, now and then casting a stone at his house, taking out a window one day. They had become, earlier in their lives than their father had, absolute pains in the butt. Craig’s sons had definite instructions to stay far away from their activities, and had promised to make no amends for damages incurred. He would not have put it past their father, for the better of business, to instigate an edge of division, of separation.
“Hey, Craigie boy,” Thad yelled, “wanta sell that little piece of heaven? Wanta do it now, I’ll write a check right here and send it down with one of the kids.” He chuckled loud enough for his old teammate to hear it.
What he was saying was his kid Alex was going to be the starting shortstop on the Little League team, while Craig’s son Billy was slated for right field, the kind of out-of-sight, out-of-mind position for weak hitters in the league. Billy was a weak hitter for sure, but there were trade-offs and other advantages that came leaping at him, other valid measurements. Craig’s father had once told Billy about tipping his cap to old ladies, and the boy remembered it on every occasion. That pushed him up in Craig’s mental batting order, a No. 4 batter in life skills.
Craig gave Thad one curt answer. “Thad, you just make sure your boys keep their rocks to themselves when they’re playing around up there.” He felt strange saying it, feeling at a disadvantage, Thad up there on high, him down here.
“Hey, Craigie,” Thad replied, one hand on one hip, the shadow thrown, “Boys will be boys, and these two of mine know where their throws go. They got the goods, both them. They just about do everything but drive the bus.” His hands were on his hips, his head shaking in dramatic belief.
Two days later, and Saturday to boot, at exactly eight in the morning, birds were at a minor riot. The maple tree in front was full of what looked to be a thousand birds. Black as Hades they were, noisy marlins Craig assessed, a cloud settled on sprig and limb. Then, with a sudden roar, he heard an engine kick start. The house shook right to the timbers. In one window a shadow lifted across the sun as he sat in the kitchen with coffee. He was not sure if it was a puff of black exhaust from a noisy diesel engine or if it presumed the thousand birds leaping into sudden flight. The engine roar, though, was not unexpected. Thad, with his town permit, had informed him he was going to build a retaining wall. A twelve foot retaining wall. It would stare Craig right in the face, a mere fifteen feet from his house, almost atop his garage.
Thad, of course, had the right. Craig would have the shadow.
All morning the huge bucket shovel dropped into soft earth, swung bucketfuls onto the side of the hill. A number of times the operator had to do a switch, finding room where gravel and loam from the footing displacement could be stored pending the wall’s erection. The small green patch that was Craig’s garden did not go untouched. The operator at each transgression shrugged his shoulders and looked up at Thad on the crown of the hill. Thad, still suited but wearing temporary site boots, shrugged back. All of it seemed prearranged; damage assessment would be small. Thad would take care of any problems, work on the footing would proceed at a pace; Craig would understand. After all, they were old teammates.
The machine had to snake closely around Craig’s garage. The operator at one point shut off the engine and climbed down from his seated perch. He sought out Thad on the hill. “I’m a bit leery about that garage down there.” He pointed at Craig’s one-car garage. “Hell, one rock might drop it onto itself. For damn sure, if I bump it, it’s going down. Must be a thousand years old.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Thad had practically shouted, his voice carrying easily downhill. “If it comes to that I can rebuild it for a hundred bucks. Piece of cake.” He thumbed the operator back to work. Craig, hearing about every word, admitted to one saving grace in the realtor; he had never once heard Thad Brannock curse any man or any thing. It must mean something, he thought.
The work that whole day was tenuous at times; rocks rolling, the garden invaded by huge wheels, the invasion halfheartedly calculated to be noninvasive. Thad’s sons scampered around the hill, at a game of sorts. They seemed to be at home near the heavy equipment, and their father somewhat oblivious of their activities.
Late in the day, the footing trench all dug, loam and gravel pushed back onto the hillside, a cement mixer truck rolled up in front of Craig’s house. The logo said Wakefield Ready Mix in bright red letters. Thad yelled down to Craig, “I got this guy on overtime, Craig. Looks like I’ll have to have him access the trench from your end, from down there. Too tough up here.” He pointed over his shoulder. “That okay with you, old buddy? Save us a lot of trouble, both us.”
Craig, fully expecting the move, nodded. It was the least of possible evils. The truck rolled into his yard eclipsing only a few plants, a minor stretch of grass. In a short effort the footing trench was filled to grade mark, the shovel operator leveling with a trowel the final surface. Truck and machine disappeared into the deep April-purple sunset. In the shadows, Thad gone, Craig could hear Thad’s sons still at play somewhere on the other side of the hill. He left to pick up his wife from her volunteer job at the library. Change again, he realized, was at hand. Change was always at hand. The sunset was now a clear pinch of orange and pink, with a decent share of contentment.
Sunday evening, most things quiet, a small stone or pellet hit the side of the house. Craig and the boys raced outside but no one was in sight. A trail of sound limped into the darkness from beyond the hill, like a wounded animal making escape. Craig would not let the boys follow up the sound.
He also suspected that more was coming from Thad’s end. It would be inevitable that the forms truck had to be unloaded in his yard, the work performed from there. When the forms trucks showed up on Monday morning, two of them, a knock came at Craig’s front door. The driver said, “Brannock said we ought to talk to you about setting the forms up from your yard, if it’s okay with you. Do our work from here. Says we have to clean up, make any repairs, he’ll square things away for you.” He looked around the side of the house and up the hill. “It’d be hell working from up there.”
The driver had an honest look about him, generating an explicit plea to make his day easier.
Craig agreed, not making any demands, not exercising any rights. His wife Mona thought different. In the kitchen she said, “It’s plain abuse from an old teammate who’s just using you and your soft edge. God, the man makes me sick.” Not with a huff, but with some pronouncement, she left the room. On the way out she offered her day’s schedule: “I’m going to visit my mother. Be back at lunch. If not then, at least by 2:30 to get the boys to practice.” He knew her as countable.
The parallel wooden forms to set the cement of the wall were all in place by noon—about sixty feet of plywood forms, heavily reinforced, with their smooth sides facing each other, were erected one foot apart. Craig saw the hard-working crew tie in steel rods holding the forms together. They also served as spacers, and a series of PVC pipes were also set at specific distances down between the wooden forms. The PVC would allow drainage to occur from the backside of the wall, once it was filled in, preventing hydrostatic build-up, a force he assumed as powerful as what might have formed the hill in the first place. The crew chowed down at lunch, spreading themselves against the garage in a minor noon shade. Craig could hear the stories of other jobs, Thad’s name popping up a few times along with joined, risqué laughter.
On Tuesday morning the Wakefield Ready Mix truck returned, a monster in the early light, the huge barrel turning slowly. Two men from the forms company arranged the pouring of cement into the forms by chutes from the barrel of the truck. It went quickly and easily, without interruption. Little additional grass, and few of Craig’s plants, suffered. The clean-up was complete and thorough. A small load of rich loam was shoveled off a stake truck, spread, rolled, seeded, and watered. The yard looked better than it had before the project started.
For four days the forms sat in the April sun, the cement setting in place, twelve foot high from the top of the footing, and a full foot thick. The forms men came back on the fifth day after the pour, broke the heavy forms down, and loaded them on their flatbed truck. The ends of the tie rods were snapped off on each side of the wall by a smash of a six-pound hammer. Deep Portland gray, not unlike a prison boundary, the retaining wall towered in the back yard. The openings of the PVC pipes looked like Cyclops eyes on the gray surface. All the forms were hauled away for future use. Division, Craig noted fitfully, was complete. The old dream of buying the hill, leveling it off, was gone. Soon, Craig also knew, there’d be a bigger shadow atop the hill.
Nights, with the mosquitoes in play, the random fireflies beginning to dare entrance, the peepers singing at the pond, Craig was not bothered by the wall he did not see. It could have been a hazy daytime illusion that night took away. Once in a while he could hear children’s voices on the other side, at games, at tricks, their gaiety like songs. He could recognize the voices of Thad Brannock’s sons. A full two weeks after the wall was poured, another machine came and backfilled up to the top of the wall. It was a small front end pay loader and took much of the day to do the task.
A week after that the rains started. Rain came for four straight days. A lot of rain. Records were being unearthed, checked out. Part of Craig’s garden went asunder, some portions of new grass went mushy. When the hydrostatic pressure became too great behind the wall, when the unknown hundreds of gallons of water collected in one Earthly and powerful surge, the wall came down, bursting onto Craig Jolly’s garage and flattening it, dropping tons of gravel and loam and mud onto his back porch, obliterating his kitchen. The town engineer and an insurance representative, upon investigation, found every one of the PVC drainage lines plugged with tennis balls that had been jammed into the openings. Earth had seeped in, had formed a formidable block, had set store.
Thad, of course, tried to blame Craig’s sons, but nobody ever saw them near the wall. It was always Thad Brannock’s sons at play. Payment, at last, came due to Craig Jolly.
Tom Sheehan served in 31st Regt., Korea, 1951-52. His print/eBooks are Epic Cures, and Brief Cases, Short Spans, Press 53; A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, Pocol Press. He has 24 Pushcart nominations, 370 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine and work in Rosebud Magazine, The Linnet’s Wings, Ocean Magazine, Faith Hope and Fiction, Subtle Tea, Jake’s Locked-Room Anthology, Deep South Magazine, The Best of Sand Hill Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Dew on the Kudzu, Blue Lake Review, Eskimo Pie, MGVersion2datura, 3 A.M. Magazine and Nazar Look, etc. His eBooks from Milspeak Publishers are Korean Echoes and The Westering, the latter nominated for a National Book Award. His latest eBooks from Danse Macabre are Murder at the Forum, Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment and An Accountable Death. Tom’s newest book, In the Garden of Long Shadows, a collection of stories, was published this summer by Pocol Press. He also has an audio on Cahoodaloodaling site and a long prose poem on Literary Orphans.