About noon, almost lunch. August air is soup, does the opposite of nourish.
In a rich man’s backyard labor two poor ones. Today they turn their sweat and minutes into a retaining wall, not of blocks but of boulders. Yesterday they stacked quartzite into a staircase, each slab priced higher than forty hours of either man’s life. Tomorrow who knows. All these two know is it’ll be heavy.
They know a couple other things, too. What temperature of ache to expect come bedtime. How to eyeball a dumptruck delivery—from limestone backfill to itchy, syrup-smelling cedar mulch—and then calculate cubic yards into quarter hours. How this godawful gig is one’s first ever lawful job, as well as the other’s last chance.
Both have made the sort of mistakes that rip old folk into waking. The second one has got tattoos that chronicle his rap sheet. Only recently has the first come to suspect it might be wiser to keep such misjudgments hidden way, way down there. Tucked between remorse and those secret tickles, the velvety ones.
Second has felt them, too, the tickles. Like last week when his ma accepted a fistful of twenties with a kitten’s blush instead of a huff. Or on the shoulder of Sand Reckon Road, where a plump Mexican lady made her family wait in a minivan till his spare was bolted safe and the jack stowed. Not that he’d ever need (or ask for) help with changing a tire—nah. Still, it sure felt nice to have company.
Both of them also know that feelings so gauzy fray into trouble. Neither can afford to let himself go threadbare. Not yet. They have yet to find the right footing. You need steady ground for a level head. From there, at least one of them might be able to sift through his brittle parts, discern which bits are mendable.
And neither is fixing to quit trying yet. They will learn soon enough, because both will die poor, because truisms lie. Love alone isn’t anyone’s food, but hey. At least one of them will die having gotten a taste, right? You guess which.
Donkey dick, yells Second.
He is currently down on all fours. His entire body is clenched into a fist around a boulder, struggling to heave it into the trench that the two shoveled out at dawn. The rock is as big as a six-cylinder engine but got no valves or corners to grip, too smooth to be moved. It is stubborn. It ignores him. Their inertia obscures his efforts from the rich man watching from the balcony above.
First is watching as well, too close to miss the strain. He less sees than feels the veins clawing up Second’s neck, his tattoos flushing from sunburnt to shame. His grunts amass, crescendo in profanity, before he flops belly down on the stone.
First saunters on up, says, Where the pry bar at?
Second oozes off the rock, chins toward five feet of solid steel lying in the dirt. The tool has got the girth of his nephew’s ankle, plus a dull but menacing hook at one end. First dabs his tongue through that toothless gap in his gums, how he tends to while scheming.
Let’s see what you got then. Second spits, goads First with that affable nastiness of his, this time with a line about his friend’s stepsister.
First just shrugs, rolls his shoulders into a neck stretch. Limber and quick, he spears the pry bar into the earth, wedging the length of it up against the boulder’s underbelly. He squats, driving his good shoulder lower and lower till the rest of him is compressed between angled steel and flat dirt. He flashes a black-hole grin back at Second, tells him,
Just a matter of—
And he charges, up and forward till he has jammed himself into a grueling standstill. He struggles and snorts. His bootheels screw into compacted sod as the boulder inches toward but not quite into the trench.
Leverage, he says.
Balls, says Second. These two’s all that count.
Nah, says First. Just feet, really. All I ever needed to move what I got to.
With a shovelhead he shaves clumps of grass off his soles. He twists his elbow, greasing his spine, then lunges, wringing at the pry bar as if a chicken’s neck. Nothing. He deflates, adjusts his stance. He puffs once, twice, and charges again, locking himself back into that motionless grind till his brow cooks purple.
The boulder groans, thumps into the trench.
Between scorched breaths First mutters about moving a hole or the world or some other nonsense that Second can’t make out.
First coughs soot, says, The whole world.
It’s a dump, yeah. What about it?
Second clears his throat, shoots phlegm and soil dust onto the stone’s warm cheek. First just shakes his head, as if he ever had a say in any of it. He peers back to where a maple tree has draped a cool swath of shade on the lawn. Now that he’ll take.
This is where the two poor men will take lunch. They will recline in their wheelbarrows, heels kicked up onto the handles. They will rest, sit idle, let a full thirty minutes burn without an ounce of guilt. Second will trade a crumpled smoke for half of First’s bologna sandwich. First won’t share his banana but will comment on its bruise. This will remind Second of a distant Friday-night blunder. He will giggle, clucking on about a bunny kiss, a head butt, a coma.
It isn’t that funny, really. First only smiles because laughter just might signal growth, a distance from who they’d been and the hurts they’d caused. They should’ve but hadn’t known better. Every lesson and promise they’d heard either lied to or did not apply to boys like them, and so they just doggy-paddled from one misadventure to the next till adulthood marooned them here.
As for now they will keep laughing. With each chuckle and groan a lunch pail will bounce atop First’s stomach. It will continue to bob ever so gently, even once their conversation drifts to milder topics, from rent hikes to diaper coupons. If not better, by now they know more. Though they will discuss little of substance, they will do so with weight.
JAKOB GUANZON is the author of the novel Abundance, longlisted for the National Book Award in 2021. He was born in Manhasset, New York, and grew up in Minnesota. He holds a degree in sociology from Hamline University and a master of fine arts from Columbia University. He lived in Madrid, Spain for several years, where he began teaching, translating, and publishing prose. In 2015, he moved from Madrid to New York City, where he continues to live and work.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out Jakob Guanzon’s novel, Abundance, out now from Graywolf Press.