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Fiction

Still Life with Hammers, a Broom, and a Brick Stacker

Linc tucked down the bill of his worn Red Sox cap and closed his eyes against the sweat stinging them. The truck, lifting carpets of ash and dust into the air like someone spreading a bedsheet, provided the morning’s only sound. But Linc thought he could maybe hear the wreckers up ahead, monstrous, steel-tooth jaws spreading open to dump another load of bricks on the growing pile. In the shadows cast by the leaning, crumbling apartment towers stood black girls and a few jaundiced snow bunnies in leather, neon-colored short skirts, hips kinked to one side while the stone wall supported their lewd poses. The other men in the back of the truck with Linc, leaned over the side of the flatbed and whistled.

“Them trackmarks get me a discount?” one shouted.

“I’m just tryna put one in ya, guh!”

“Love bites, Mami, and so do I.”

“I get paid next Friday!”

They laughed and it sounded like thunder, joyous, irresponsible laughter and even as Linc gripped the handle of his hammer, he couldn’t help smiling. He wanted to get at least a little bit of sleep before they got to the worksite, but the heat was just a few dozen degrees past sleepy, so why not holler at a few whores to pass the time?

At least it wasn’t raining; at least it wasn’t cold enough to aggravate his busted knuckles and the smashed fingers and toes that belonged to any number of kids in various angles of repose in the flatbed. None of them looked up at the red-blue sky threaded with knife-scar clouds and the Colony hovering like a pitted moon overhead.

The whores vanished behind a corner, and the young men retreated to their seats. Hunger hung around them like an odor. Linc knew the work would be the best thing to happen to them. Otherwise, they’d be out there just like he was before rehab, letting hunger compel him to destroy the very things he needed.

“We pickin’ up Ace?” one of the youths asked. He had his hammer draped across his chest, his head propped against the rickety back of the flatbed, his hat brim low over his eyes.

No one answered.

“We pickin’ him up or what?”

Linc stirred, then rapped loudly on the back window. When nothing happened, he rapped again, hard enough to crack the plexi-glas. The driver’s side window creaked downward and a leather-skinned black man with a lazy eye, the ratty remains of a cigar in his false teeth and a straw hat on his head, leaned out on his elbow.

“You gon’ break my goddamn winda poundin’ like that.”

Linc leaned over to be heard over the rumbling through the abandoned roads by the old Ivy Quarter. “Yo, Bishop, we pickin’ up Ace today?”

“Whatchu think?” Bishop spat back. His cigar clung to his teeth. “His place comin’ up right now.” And with that, Bishop retreated. The window only went halfway up after that.

They drove out of the old Ivy Quarter and the dilapidated houses got smaller, their lean more pronounced. The broken windows with their crumbling frames like Bishop’s droopy eye watched them pass. The houses here on the outskirts of that neighborhood looked no different, but out front, piled up on the sidewalk were mattresses, some with blood stains like large copper half dollars on them, children’s clothes mixed in with dirty linens, ants swarming over half-empty bags of fast food, old radios that looked like they’d only recently stopped working.

When they got to Ace’s spot, a slouching duplex that used to be painted blue and yellow once upon a time, there was five-oh out front and a couple people that looked maybe like social workers. The County Sheriff was there, a large metal sphere with arms like a spider, one sporting a small caliber pistol. On its front, a display of a white man’s mustachioed face. Remote policing. The cops were likely partially cyberized, their essential parts replaceable; hence their stomping around irradiated wasteland. But the social workers looked flesh-and-blood enough. One of them looked like she might boot all over her jeans.

Nobody in the truck bed stirred. The chalky dust on their overalls and their jeans and their boots didn’t even budge. But they all watched silently the man they’d worked with being dressed down like a bitch in front of his family. Linc wanted to spit but had run out of saliva.

The front door hung open, and inside, Ace could be seen sitting down in his living room couch, his arms around his two kids, boy and a girl, relaxed but protecting them from the officer who, hand leisurely to his weapon, stood over them. Static-y blue and white from the TV flashed on the eviction cop’s back.

Linc couldn’t hear what was being said, but Ace, from where he sat, raised his voice. The officer never raised his, but eventually Ace shot up from his seat and screamed, “This some bullshit!”

Ace stomped out before the cop could make it look like he was being escorted, waited for the cop and made like he was standing his ground. “You ain’t got no right. You see this neighborhood? You see it? We the last family on the block. Ain’t no one livin’ here. So what goddamn difference it make if me and my family make a life here, huh? What difference do it make?”

The cop raised his non-gun hand, inches from Ace’s chest. “Sir, leave the immediate premises or you will be arrested.”

The social workers walked the children and Ace’s wife out onto the sidewalk and already movers had materialized to start offloading the family’s furniture. The TV blared. “Do you have a place where you can stay?” the social worker asked Ace’s wife.

“No,” she said back. She seemed too tired to be annoyed or upset that their life was being brought out into the street like so much trash. “We ain’t heard from his family in a couple years.”

The social worker’s face half-crinkled in sorrow. “There are some shelters further out. Fairfield and a few more further down the rail line. Our office can furnish you and your family with rail tickets.”

Ace’s wife had stopped looking at the social worker as she droned on, looked instead at the growing pile of furniture and appliances, some of them already rusting from exposure to the poisoned air, some of them already growing rusted blood blisters. Her son, six years old in overalls like the ones Ace wore to work, scurried back inside where his bowl of cereal waited on the table for him. The sight of the kid with his cereal, riveted on the TV while the movers emptied his house, reminded Linc of his own dad who, at the same age as that kid, had come home from school to see all their shit on the sidewalk, an eviction notice stapled to their front door. He hadn’t told Linc about it much, but Jake told him one afternoon when they were skipping stones off the Long Wharf that dad, as a kid, had spent the following two months living in a truck with his dad, their grandfather.

Bishop turned in his seat. The engine had been idling.

Ace’s wife held their infant daughter at her hip.

The officer said “good luck” to Ace and turned away, the silent but ever-watchful sheriff hovering like a pet bird over his shoulder.

“We ain’t dead,” Ace shouted.

Linc could barely hear him over the engine Bishop had now started revving, getting the car ready to peel off.

“You can’t talk about us like we dead. We right here! See this here? This still a family! Ain’t gonna break that! Good luck to you, Officer!”

The rest of Ace’s words were lost in the smoke that billowed from the tailpipe. Bishop shifted into gear and the truck bumped along before shuddering off. No one in the truckbed had moved. Anybody walking by would’ve thought they were sleeping.

“Guess Ace ain’t comin’ to work today,” Jayceon said, arm propped beneath his neck, head bumping softly against the back of the truck bed. Linc heard implied violence in the kid’s voice and wondered what would happen if Bishop spun the car around and caught up with that officer.

• • • •

The site was so fresh, the chalk and plaster and asbestos so thick in the air, that Linc thought if they’d gotten there a couple minutes earlier, the building might’ve fallen right on top of them. A couple of the men had once-white hospital masks they tucked over their noses and mouths. A few pulled up their bandannas, so did some of the women and other on-sighters who came in off the street, all chalky overalls and scratched up Timberland boots.

The stackers gravitated to their own fiefdoms, the slower ones pushed out to some of the isolated corners while the denizens of Bishop’s truck, among the first responders, got their pick of the waste.

“That there’s twenty bucks,” Jayceon said, indicating with his hammer a mound of rubble.

Kendrick hopped over a ledge, dust rising in clouds upon his landing. “I’m standin’ in about two days’ pay rightchea.”

Linc walked past Jayceon who shot back at Kendrick, “You standin’ in a pile o’ bats is what you standin’ in.”

They went back and forth a few times, Mercedes interjecting with her own putdowns, but before long, everyone was working. Dig, clean, sort, build. Linc flipped his hammer so that the flat claw pointed at the ground. Wide stance, he swung around in sweeping strokes, raking through the rubble, and when he found a brick, he flipped his hammer and, with one swift blow, dashed away the mortar that had clung to it. A quick glance, and it went into his pile. More sweeping, more hammering to clear away the detritus. A couple stackers had shorter handles on their hammers and had to stoop further than was healthy, hands that much closer to the wires, nails, broken piping, panes of glass. With each strike, mortar dust erupted, shards shooting in all directions. Grit settled on their clothes, filled their pores, turned the sweat on their brow into streams of mud that tracked the bandannas over their mouths like tearstains.

Rodney, who moved like a ballet dancer around his war-stiffened leg, had about five hundred bricks. He danced in the middle of his pallet, building his stack around him in the shape of an L. Before long, he had nine layers up, alternating the directions of the bricks on each layer so that the whole thing wouldn’t topple.

“How old is you, Bishop?” Mercedes shouted, surrounded by her own stacks.

“Eighty-two next Monday.”

“Coulda swore you was at least eighty-five last week.”

“Hah!” Bugs shouted from his pile of brick and ash. “Bishop, you been stackin’ for least forty-fifty years, that right?”

“Fifty-six years,” Bishop said around his cigar, working in smooth, slow, efficient motions. Once his body got stooped to a particular angle, it stayed that way for the entirety of his run. “Lord’s help, I just might retire soon.”

“That right, Bishop?” Kendrick sang.

“Yep. Get me a nice white horse and set out for Rancho Cooooooocamunga.” At which everyone, including Bishop, roared with mirth.

“You do that, we might miss you, Bishop.” Wyatt this time, athletic build coated in a sheen of muddy sweat where his muscled limbs showed beneath his workshirt. “Who gon’ preach to the congregation here when you gone?”

“The Lord provides,” Bishop said. Then again, beneath his breath, to himself, “The Lord provides.”

Linc was close enough to hear it between the clink his hammer made when it broke the mortar off a brick.

• • • •

The sun silhouettes them. Seen from above, they are ants. Black and brown ants with baseball caps or worn fedoras shielding their faces. Clouds of dust erupt with each blow of the hammer and chalk clings to them in their search for New Haven Heavies, those pitted off-white bricks that, when stacked on square wooden skids or pallets, will get shipped to the local transporter and then shot up, packaged and shrink-wrapped, to the Colony where they will build houses that look just like the ones on Earth used to look. The bricks won’t be irradiated when they arrive the way they’re irradiated now. Space will cleanse them, deepen their off-whiteness, and by the time they get to the docking station, they will be pretty and pitted and just the right kind of almost-dirty.

A brick in one hand, a hammer in the other.

When one gets too close to the other, the second, without raising his head, will shout, “son of a bitch” or “step off” or “we got a problem, nigga?” and the first will either retreat with an apology and a muttered epithet or he’ll say “get it like the Red Cross, nigga” and the two will fight in the dirt, punching each other in the ribs or pinning one guy to the ground and smashing his face with a bat until the blood and the mortar meld together and one of them is still and groaning on his mound of debris and the other stands over him, chest heaving, bloody, broken brick in his hand, finishes his skid and takes a smoke break, having lost the energy to work for the rest of the day.

The cheering subsides and one of the older stackers helps carry the defeated man out of the arena. Enterprising stackers take over his skid, divide the proceeds, add to their own.

“Heard your old lady won’t gi’ you back your Frank Ocean records,” one of them guffaws while some of the others shoot up in the remnants of the half-demolished building. “Heard she changed the locks on your ass.” They vanish into the shadows and sometimes an hour passes before they’re seen again, smooth and swerving and smiling, sometimes two.

One stacker challenges another to a race, see who can build a skid the fastest.

Sometimes, on a really hot day, motivation will evaporate. If one of them sits down for maybe an hour, he can’t get back up again. They all have to wait for the wreckers to finish with the building and in the pause between batterings, Timeica will light up a Newport and tell Mercedes about how there used to be a big market for Haven Heavies in the South when they wanted to replace all them wooden plantations with clean, white brick that looked just the right shade of old. Bishop will verify, mention his grand-pappy or great grand-pappy, and when the building is no longer there to shade them, after they’ve watched it crumble and covered their faces to the dust clouds, they resume their work, a roving part of the landscape like ants or beetles or butterflies.

• • • •

Linc fished a pack of Newports out of his shirt pocket and lit one up. Jayceon followed suit. From East Rock, a ridge grown craggy with poisoned air and sunrays devoid of nutrition, they watched the skyline. Smoke from dumpsters columned into the air, leaned and pitched with the wind. Cracks spread like thick-knuckled fingers through Orange Street, turning the bike lane into a makeshift mountain trail.

The university at the center of the Ivy Quarter jutted like a middle finger amongst the glass-and-steel high rises, made orange by the sunrise and the venom in the air. The whole place looked contaminated, but Linc appreciated how quiet that made it.

Somewhere in the distance, a shuttle shot off into space.

“This the part where I tell you ’bout wantin’ to get to space?”

Jayceon smoked in silence.

“’Bout how I always wanted to see the stars but because I came up where I came up, I got left behind?”

“You forgot the part about going back to school.”

Linc chuckled, pointed to where the old state college used to be, now a sunken pit surrounded by rubble built like the ridge of a crater. It had long ago been pillaged by stackers. No good bricks there. Only bats. “Oh yeah. Gonna go back and maybe study Engineering. What was it, mechanical or electrical?”

“Mechanical, last time you told it.” Jayceon took another drag.

“But then I get to the part where I talk about constantly putting it off.”

“And I say that bit about how they only let white folk up into space.”

Linc smirked. “And I get all poetical and shit and say, ‘they get to build the shit and we just pick up the pieces o’ what they done broke.’ That’s how it goes, right?”

“That’s how Bishop used to say it.”

Linc thought about Ace being put out on the street like that. Thought about space and being left behind. Thought about why God would make him capable of wanting something he could never have. And how most precious things often fall apart for no reason at all.

Jayceon, with his chin, indicated something silhouetted against the gray-gold firmament. It looked like a massive crucifix, cross-beam spread over Edgewood. “Looks like we got tomorrow’s work if they ain’t already pick that place clean.”

It was a crane.

• • • •

“This kinda work, you ain’t gotta pull a jux,” Kendrick told Bugs that first day Bugs had wandered in off the street, lost kid with eyes practically popping out of his head, too young, they thought, to be a dope fiend. But a couple of the stackers wouldn’t have been surprised to find track marks on the kid’s arms. “First of all,” he said between sweeps with his curved-claw hammer, “you get paid for this rightchea. Second of all,” a huff, “time you finish stacking your skids, you way too tired to go off and rob someone.”

“Beats sellin’ fake-ass roses on the corner of York and Broadway!” someone shouted, maybe Timeica, and a few of the stackers chuckled behind their bandannas.

Jayceon told Linc about a guy he knew, used to tell stories about how he preyed on women in abandoned apartment blocks just like this, cornered them where they couldn’t run then did them like those cats in Vietnam used to do the local women. Linc remembered that time after they’d gotten to a demo site and Mercedes had found an arm sticking up out of her mound. “Goddamn dead body broke my bricks!” she’d screamed. Timeica and Bugs and Linc had helped her cart the thing off, wrap it in a nearby rug on someone’s sidewalk, and toss it in a dumpster. The rest of the day, they worked under the stench of burning flesh and smoke filled with human ashes corkscrewing in whorls up into the sky. Jayceon had watched them in silence the whole time.

“This here craftsmanship,” Bishop said between breaths.

“Oh, he gettin’ ready to preach,” Timeica warned from her skid.

“This here what happens when labor meets love.”

“Preach, Bishop. Earn that collection plate money!” Mercedes cheered over her six-high.

“My great grand-pappy,” Bishop said with new wind, “worked this building site in Virginia. Him and his boys had to drive up from South Carolina every day. The carpenters were all white folk, so ’course them laborers and street sweepers and all them other folk were black. They’d watch the carpenters work in between their own shifts and they’d bullshit, but my pappy always told me how much he envied them carpenters. Pappy knew the trade some and he used to make that wood sang, woo!”

“Sang!”

“Oof!”

“Preach, Bishop, preach!”

“Made that wood SANG!”

Bishop waited for them to calm some. “So one day, he walks up to the foreman, makes sure no one else can hear ’im, and tells the foreman he sees the job the white carpenters are doin’. He doesn’t say how much better he is than them, though he could’ve and he wouldn’ta been lying. ’Stead, he asks if maybe he could pitch in a little, make hisself useful. Don’t even need no extra pay. He still take his laborer’s salary. Foreman say sure.”

“What else the foreman gon’ say?” Kendrick said, clapping his hammer to a brick. “Your grand-pappy pro’lly was the best carpenter that side of the Mississippi.”

“You ain’t wrong, Kendrick. You ain’t wrong.” Bishop had his hammer propped up underneath his two hands and chin. He was like that, could stop working for a bit, finish a sermon, then get right back to it. His back never straightened though, just changed its angle of hunch. “Anyway, pappy gets to the worksite extra early so no one can see him work. He do his work and the foreman’s smiling something fierce like he can’t believe what he’s seeing. Pappy was a blessed magician with wood, and the foreman saw it too. Then they’d hear the white folk truck comin’ up over the hill, and pappy would put away his tools, give back the foreman the one’s he’d borrowed, and he pick his broom back up so’s none of the white folk comin’ out their truck got the wrong idea.”

Reverent silence settled over the demo-site. A few had stopped stacking altogether.

“I’da let them see me carvin’ that wood,” Jayceon said, that implied violence thick in his voice. “They’d see I was that much better than ’em. And they wouldn’t be able to say shit to me on account of it.”

Bishop shook his head, sadly. “And they woulda asked you to come out back, help ’em with somethin’ else. And there wouldn’t a been nothin’ but them six white men, twelve foot of rope, and the peach tree they’d hang you from.”

“Peach trees only grow in Georgia,” Jayceon said, smirking.

“Whatever tree it is, it got branches. And that’s all they’d need.” He turned to the rest of the congregation. “So this right here, this all an honest man needs. Kinda work where he can make his own hours. He’s his own boss, and his pay is commensurate to his efforts. This is huggin’ the earth right here. Getting real, live dirt under our fingernails. This the type of work the Lord meant for us to be doin’. And I don’t know about y’all, but I’m a happy and content instrument of His will.”

• • • •

Among them are young men, hoping to earn enough to buy a girl a drink or to put some gas in their hooptie. Among them are men and women with prison-stink still fresh on their skin, the kind that repels most employers, hoping to find the type of work that’ll wash away the odor, or at least coat it in enough dust so they don’t have to smell it anymore. A few of them come from just outside the city limits, on the outskirts of the blast radius where the powers-that-be deign to send them public assistance checks. These come to supplement that income, maybe get their kids something extra for Christmas. The older ones come as an excuse to get outside, or out of habit, ignorant of what else their bodies were made to do. The junkies and alchies, the dope fiends and crack heads and addicts who manage to maintain enough self-possession to hold a hammer with purpose, they work. As do the rest of them. The homeless or destitute or wandering see them and ask if they can join and are welcomed. The bricks land on bricks. The hammers clank. The earth sings.

• • • •

“You get rough hands,” Linc said to Jayceon, feet dangling over the flaking steel waterfront pier. He felt the patches where duct tape had been put over his holes. Took off the gloves to stare at the skin of his palms, pale beneath the moonlight. Kendrick picked up bits of stone and shrapnel behind them and tossed them into the ocean. The whole place smelled like seaweed and skunk, but the moon shone bright overhead and he could pinpoint just where in relation to the celestial body the Colony hovered. It was a speck no bigger than the farthest star, but he imagined he could see it rotating. “Rough feet too, walking around in them boots all day, kicking piles of trash. Feel like I’m turning into a brick.” He turned his hands over, let them sit in his lap. “You think anyone up there got hands like us?”

Kendrick tossed more junk into the sea. “White folk ain’t got our constitution. Can’t none of ’em swing a hammer like I can.”

“Goddamn right,” Jayceon said quietly around a new cigarette.

Linc turned and could see, seated on a bench, Mercedes, with Timeica leaning against the back of the thing, testing its strength by propping herself on it by her arms. Mercedes was rolling a Turkish cigarette that glowed with flecks of radioactive dust.

“You ain’t a stacker ’til you smash your thumb,” Timeica said. “First busted finger I had, the nail turned all the way black and just fell off. Took about a year to grow back.”

Mercedes didn’t seem to be listening.

Timeica laughed, then let up off the bench, came around and sat in it.

Linc didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, but saw Mercedes wearing the look of someone whose head keeps falling off their hammer, someone frustrated, realizing any light at the end of the tunnel’s just more tunnel. She looked ready to die.

“You seen Ace around some?” Kendrick asked no one in particular. He’d stopped throwing shit into the water.

Jayceon lit up another Newport. “He somewhere he can’t stack.” The flame danced at the end of his cig. “Might be there for a couple years.”

Winter was on its way, and Linc could already see in his mind’s eye the warehouse they’d huddle in, the rusted garbage can whose burning refuse would provide their warmth. He could already feel the cold biting through his duct-taped fingertips, could see the stackers dropping off who caught pneumonia and couldn’t get it treated. He could feel hammers accidentally breaking hands, leaving them monstrously swollen and constricted.

“We ain’t dead,” Linc whispered to himself.

He looked up at where he thought the Colony sat. “Good luck to you, Officer,” he said before walking back the way he had come. His hands ached for a hammer.

Tochi Onyebuchi

Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of the young adult novel Beasts Made of Night, which won the Ilube Nommo Award for Best Speculative Fiction Novel by an African, its sequel, Crown of Thunder, and War Girls. He holds degrees from Yale, the Tisch School of the Arts, Sciences Po, and Columbia Law School. His fiction has appeared in Panverse Three, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Obsidian, Omenana Magazine, Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America, and elsewhere. His non-fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Nowhere Magazine, the Oxford University Press blog, and the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, among other places. Riot Baby is his adult fiction debut. You can find him online at tochionyebuchi.com and on Twitter @TochiTrueStory.