Say Uncle

by Eugenio Volpe

Last day at Assumption. Bricking the belfry. Two hundred feet in the sky. It’s hard thinking up here. So I don’t. I do my job. One brick at a time. Some small talk with the young tenders. One of them got lucky last night. They chisel him for details, but he stays mum. He says this one-night stand is the one. The others ask what I think. They take me for a saint. I never drink with them. I hardly say boo. Too much on my mind. I just work. I work hard not to think. The truth of what I’ve made. My wife knows. I’m finished. The last brick. It’ll break everything.

I take a moment to reflect on the view. Decayed factories and scrubby vinyl homes. Churches galore, but nothing like Assumption. It’s the tallest in the city, atop its highest hill. The mayor and bishop are praying it inspires the population to kick heroin. I take the elevator down feeling—against my better judgment—that I’ve done some good. People from the neighborhood gather around our trucks. They gift us a cooler of beer. I drink my fair share of them. The tenders mistake it for a miracle.

I pull into my driveway two hours earlier than normal. I approach the front door with every intention of begging Lori’s forgiveness, but when I enter, my four year-old niece is sitting there on the living room floor, alone, TV blaring. I can hear Lori and Lacey in the kitchen. They’re telling each other everything, heated words under breath, deaf to my arrival. I contemplate turning around forever, but…Lily. She can’t hear the sisters demolishing me. She hasn’t even noticed my presence. She’s mesmerized. Lacey usually forbids TV. Her daughter is a prodigy. She can play “Purple Rain” on piano. She knows every capital of every country. She can multiply almost anything.

There’s a jumbled pile of blocks at her feet. I bought them as a birthday gift last year, but she was already too smart for kindergarten geometry. My bad. I didn’t know better. Lori and I don’t have kids. Lily keeps the blocks here. Better than playing with nothing while the three of us drink Stoli and sing along to Prince.

I tiptoe my dirty boots across the floor and sit Indian next to her. She turns and smiles. I press a finger to my lips. She nods. There are twenty-six blocks. I stack six; Z up to U. Lily scours the rubble for T. She places it with unneeded caution. It’s barely tall enough to fall. She leans into me and whispers.

“Why did you buy me these?”

“I’m no good at giving,” I whisper back.

I stack S. She stacks the R, leaning into me again.

“You bought me blocks because you’re a bricklayer. That’s what I think.”

She’s onto something. I nod and stack the Q. Some care is now required.

“Whoever knocks it over loses,” I whisper.

“Obviously,” she whispers back.

The tower rises over Lily’s head. She stands to lay the F. Lori blows her nose. Lacey does our begging. I climb to my sore knees and lay the E. I do so with my eyes closed. It makes it right. I’m a certified master. She’s the girl. She can’t know the gravity of hanging balances. Not without a father. I stand and hoist her by the waist. She lays the B like a pro. I lower her. She jumps for joy, and hands me the final letter. I refuse it. I kneel. I lean. I whisper.

“Go to the fridge and get me a beer first.”

Lily streaks into the kitchen wielding the A. The sisters fall silent. I listen for something. A crash. A cry. Some supersonic sorrow from when. There’s nothing, so I stand. I turn off the TV. I stare into the balance, as if screaming thoughts could sway a thing.

“Christian,” Lori calls out.

I nod. Lily appears in the doorway. No beer. No A. I go vertigo, spiraling backwards. She snatches my hand, and guides me towards the archway. My miracle. I close my eyes and listen. I can hear it, the standing force of our unfinished work.

 

Eugenio Volpe is a native of Boston. His recently completed novel won the PEN Discovery Award. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son.