“The Community Builder” by Mary Grace Bertulfo

1st place, 2015 Short Fiction Contest

To disintegrate slowly into nothing, falling away one grain of clay after another as the Rain pummels me and the Ice threatens to crack me open and reduce me to nothing – that is my greatest fear. I cannot lay here, useless, in rubble, in this empty lot again, hoping a pair of human hands will pick me up, move me around, and give me purpose, give me motion. If only I had legs! I would run down the street and place myself wherever my will wanted to go. (I would even settle for a pair of hairy arms and opposable thumbs.) But, no. I must content myself with being placed wherever the Builders decide to put me.
That is fine so long as I am tucked in, snugly, with others. You see, with others, I am safe and cozy and usually the only exposed part of me is my face-side which has become weathered, pock-marked by Time, pelted by whatever the winds throw at me. When the Rain is gentle, it washes me clean, leaves me free of debris. I have what they, in architecture business, call character, a certain beauty and patina one gains from aging. But too much weathering and we fall apart completely. When I am joined, connected to other Bricks, then I am part of something larger, a structure, a purpose, even if it isn’t always of my own choosing.

I have been lying here on the cold, frozen ground for months now. All the other Bricks have been picked up and put to good use. But me? I am here, exposed, cold. More like a gravestone than a hearth. Well, you know how long construction takes. There are permits and inspections, the Big Planners and the Big No-Sayers, and the People who come to Oak Park because they love the beauty that is created. Yes, I have stayed for the beauty.

People. You fascinate me. All of your moving and busyness. All the differences your minds project onto others of your species. You’re hilarious, really. I love People-watching. It’s my favorite sport. But you may have never noticed me. I am everywhere in Oak Park and I have seen the way you live. Before I die, let us get to know each other. I know your deepest stories. Tonight, I will tell you mine. What else is there to do while I wait?

My clay came from the swampy shores of a river in Chicago, shikaakwa, land of the wild leeks, saints, tricksters, warriors, endurers, and healers, land of the First Peoples. I was prairie plant-life and bone, sunshine and air, a disintegrated consciousness, inter-webbed with roots and soil particles. I was wrested from inter-being with the earth, scooped, shaped into a small dense rectangular loaf by the brick moulder and fired in a kiln. The fire sparked my consciousness. The year was 1905 and Bricks were the pride of a booming Chicago.

My early days as a Brick were exciting, that first journey from riverbed to the moulder’s hands, to the drying racks, herringboned and stacked with my newly fashioned sisters and brothers. There were 80,000 of us made in one day. My siblings were sent to all parts of America. I was huddled inside a horse-drawn cart. It was the first time I was part of movement. The cart’s wheels rolled, the wind flapped beneath the canvas tarp, and I caught glimpses of the wild prairie in September, a mantle of yellow goldenrods and fluttering gold finches. I was made of river clay, so I could sniff out the land around me. As I travelled, I could smell the fifteen-foot roots of the prairie plants, which made the soil below rich and black, and the land fertile. The air above was perfumed with sweet grass smells, punctuated by cricket chirps. I have to admit, I loved motion, the constant roving over the land I once was a part of, and, to which I shall one day return.

Finally, the horses rolled across one last savannah, and pulled up to a dusty ridge amidst the shaded, leafy strands of Oak trees. There were seeds of a town here: a few houses and shops, a tavern, a railway station for steam locomotives, a post office, not too much, but a promising start. I was first set into a wall on William’s Street, into a controversial building, a church. Should the building exist or shouldn’t it? People seemed to be fussing over this very question. But it’s the quiet People I like the best, the ones who don’t seem be making a fuss at all. They keep to themselves, perfect their work, and see how they can provide.

1920. Del the Traveler was such a man, and one of my favorites. There were men who worked as porters on the North-bound trains. Fourteen hours a day they worked and when they came home, they smelled of salt-sweat and other people’s tobacco, their hands rough and bruised from hauling luggage. Without them and the railways, this town may not have grown. Del’s blood smelled of red mangroves, and cotton trees, the Bolilands, and iron crusted earth, a descendant of Western Africa. But his skin had the heady aroma of more local scents, the scents of the railway kitchens, and the American cities on the railway where they’d picked up passengers.

Del knew tired. He also knew hope. I used to watch Del’s feet as they shuffled down the dirt road to his family’s pointy picket fence, up cheerful, creaking porch steps of his little white, wooden house. Long before he reached the porch, his wife would call to him in Yuroba, “Ayodele! Joy has made its way home!” They embraced in the dim starlight. “Olivia, joy is achy and missing your food,” he’d reply. “Feed these bones.” He took her hands in his, rubbed her knuckles tenderly with his thumbs. Her hands were tired, too, raw from a day of laundering. But Del and Olivia, they had the bearing People sometimes have, the upright walk, that certain uplift of your chin knowing you live a life of freedom. Over the next few years, their baby, first one, soon two, then three would cry inside their white wooden house for their daddy’s return.

Summer nights. Fireflies blinked and danced in the grasses, the dry side-oats gramma stalks drooped with seeds. Heavy-lidded and aching from a long day with her hands in the wash-bin, Olivia took her rest on that porch. There, she nursed her babies on stories of queens and kings, a new messiah, on bitter collard greens and sweet garlic, plaiting their hair and crooning them to sleep with her rich, husky voice. Her songs lulled me to sleep, too.

It was on that porch that I also heard the town gossip, or, really, from my precarious perch topping Del and Olivia’s chimney. I like to think I added warmth to their home. “Do you think it’s really going to happen, Del? A church of our very own?” Her voice was wistful. “We’ve already been pushed off Chicago Ave. Some of them are polite enough when they have to be. But behind our backs…Maybe it’s time we be movin’ on.”

I could see her point. Olivia’s family had escaped to the North on the Underground Railroad. In the South and as they wandered the North, they’d dodged lynchings, endured hunger, and struggled to find work. The Hooded Men hunted them on horseback, riding into the descending night like lost souls. Eyes afire, they spat when they spoke, smelled of torch smoke, tar fumes, whiskey, and desolation. Some of these men lived nearby and they made Olivia nervous.

The women had their own sisterhood, smelled pleasantly of lavender and heather, talcum powder, the beautiful fens and moorlands of Europe, mosses, and a base-note scent of fear. The women’s klan formed their sewing circles, arranged games and social balls, showed kindnesses to each other’s relatives who’d fallen ill with winter fevers, and spoke in strident tones about patriotism, honor, and their white supremacy. (“We must protect the purity of our race! Please, do share the recipe for that lovely bundt cake, sister.”) They could tolerate mixing bleached flour with chocolate, but their beloved town was becoming too mixed for their taste. To my ears, they were clay speaking about clay not mixing with other cosmic molecules of clay. How do you stop the forces of transformation?

“I don’t think they want us here.”

“Listen, Liv, my love.” Del scratched his belly, a good long, comfortable scratch. “Things are changing. I see it every day. Our brothers and sisters in the South, they need to come up here. If we run, where else will they have to turn?”

Their nights were full of questions and dreams and the worries they murmured to the ears of the dark. But soon, it was known, up and down William Street, their friend who’d worked for years as a maid for Elijah Hoard, the oldest citizen of Oak Park, had been given land from his own holdings. (“He and Miss Ellen have no child of their own.”) Rumors flew about how there was a deal for a new church. Del and Olivia looked to the corner, so close to them at William and Marion Street, kissed the tops of their babies’ heads and wondered. Land was a blessing, but it would not be enough.

“What can we give?” they asked each other over again on their porch talks.

Del added another two hours to his shift on the railway, ran extra errands for the passengers, spread the word about the promise of a new church to kindly pastors he met who would squeeze meagre, but sincere, tips into his hands. Olivia scrimped every penny, went without lunch, skipped buying butter and milk or new fabric for sewing their clothes, and took on extra laundry from her Mistress’ neighbors. Even their eldest boy took to shining shoes.

Olivia arrived in her same well-worn laundress’ dress every Sunday to church meetings in the basement of the town’s other churches and Del wore his Pullman Porter’s uniform, impeccably laundered to Olivia’s taste. (“Soon, we can worship in peace and raise our voices to the Lord!”) In the end, they were able to give $2.39 and twenty-one bricks from their very own chimney to the community kitty.

Through their acts of sacrifice, I became the cornerstone of the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church. A more appreciated edifice did not exist in Oak Park. It had a tower topped by a steeple, a pitched roof, and arched stained-glass windows. To Olivia and Del, it was the fulfillment of a shining promise of home. I was proud to be part of a building that meant so much to Olivia and Del and pleased to be serving a good purpose in life: safety to worship and give thanks for our blessings. When Mt. Carmel Baptist Church was dedicated, some of the People of William’s Street gathered to celebrate. Descendants of Africa and descendants of Europe , reverends and parishioners, top hats, straw hats, bustles and dresses, maids, teachers, builders, and even a millionaire, everyone dressed in their Sunday finery. Olivia did not have a new hat for the occasion. She did not mind.

After church on Sundays, Del spread the news throughout the south as he worked the sleeper cars on Chicago Western Railways. He and the other porters secretly handed out issues of Chicago Defender to other descendants of Africa. If any of them were caught, they could arrested or beaten. Or worse. The descendants quickly folded the newspaper sheets, tucked into apron pockets and under shirts, and read aloud them in barbershops and churches. To each of them, Del’s voice rang with hope: “Come North, brother. There’s work to be had here. Breathe free.”

-o-

Bricks like me, we have a propensity for mixing. How can we not? We are born from clay that was born from plants and river water, which, in turn were born over millions of years. Mixing, we create new bodies each time, but retain the spirit of everything that came before. I am a brick on the ground now, but what will I be tomorrow? Constant transformation, that’s the way of God’s Universe. So, I find it endlessly fascinating when there’s a barrier to mixing. In Del and Olivia’s time, those whose blood carried the scent of red mangroves lived side by side with those whose blood carried fens and forests, uneasily, contentiously, sometimes in harmony. There seemed to be rules in place for where some People could eat, drink, and work and other People could not. Embodiments of earth lived parallel lives, some People in wealth and other People in poverty.

By 1930, Mt. Carmel Church had been torn down and William Street was changed forever. The descendants of Africa and those of China moved and, instead of wooden houses and a neighborhood of People who worked as builders, maids, laundresses, houseboys, factory hands, and gardeners, William Street’s name was changed to West Gate and filled with businesses and shops. There was a flurry of (creating, installing) brick buildings up and down West Gate. I had been picked up directly from the rubble of Mt. Carmel’s. The Builders graded the dirt roads and immediately installed my sisters, brothers, and to create Brick streets.

Over the last hundred years, I have been put to many uses in this town. I have been part of roads to support businesses, houses to keep families warm, flower beds, pizza ovens, chimneys, and walls. I help hold the town together and the town holds itself together through my existence. I have been put to a few ill purposes, too: thrown in fear and hatred through a family’s window, thrown at someone’s head. I am not the architect of my purpose.

But when the town of Oak Park falls, when it fails, it rises to its feet, again. When the Descendants of Europe won’t mix with the Descendants of Africa or when the Descendants of Asia, South America, North America are ignored by both, someone always raises their voice. Someone else listens and change begins, again.

1960s and 197’s. At long last, Descendants of Africa, Del and Olivia’s kids and grandkids, could afford their own houses. The sweet tang of economic freedom was in the air for their generation. The time of lynchings was, thankfully, gone. But all around Oak Park, in Chicago, the Descendants of Europe fled, abandoned whole blocks when Descendants of Africa arrived to live in their neighborhoods. They took their resources with them.

“White Flight is a problem,” you’d hear behind the closed doors of Oak Park.

“What will happen to the schools? To the laws?”

“Will our kids be left with no choices but to be poor?”

“How far we’ve come, only to stop here!”

After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a great leader and a Descendant of Africa killed for his unwavering view that love and equality should be afforded to all regardless of their skin color, I could see the laws Oak Park enacted from the seat of power, like the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The town decided to move Village Hall, its seat of government, south and east, to the neighborhoods where more Descendants of Africa and South America, and Asia lived. Village Hall was a building of aspirations, pale brick and open circles. I was, for a time, part of the Village Hall’s courtyard and gave the Village Officials a sanctuary, a place to rest as they helped make important decisions. Those were the days when my life served a purpose in Oak Park.

-o-

When will another Builder to come? Will I die alone on this empty, frozen field? I don’t like this feeling of helplessness. The ice bites at my pores, and smells are blunted except for the faint scent of smoke from fireplaces. If I could only be part of a fireplace or chimney, again. Oh, let me memories keep me warm!
2003, Janura Park, Berwyn. One spring afternoon, I was lying on a freshly cut grassy field, peacefully dreaming, in the strange state of feeling alone and free when suddenly, I sensed footsteps crunching across the grass. Many feet, came at first in a trickle, then in droves. It was an odd sight. The People gathered around an ice skating rink on a warm day – an array of hues and skin tones. Students wore paisley bandanas, tee shirts, hair dyed burgundy and blue, nose rings and buzz cuts and fades, sweats. Three young women wore face paints, the left side of their faces, white, the right side, black. Young mothers pushed their babies in strollers. Fathers in baseball caps with American flags on them scolded their sons, as they play-wrestled. Grandparents newly arrived from Mexico murmured to themselves, wondering what they were about to face.

An uneasy buzz charged the air and woke me to the presence of three-hundred police dressed in black riot gear. You couldn’t see their faces, but you could smell their fear and the power waiting to be unleashed beneath their batons. Fear has a distinct odor, acrid and sharp. Once released, it poisons the air. After nearly a hundred years, I had witnessed People’s ceremonies of love, the ringing of bells, feasts and jubilation when People gathered and parades of all merriment. But this –

The families, abuelitas, and students carried poster-board signs: “Defend our Right to Speech, too”. One read, “Smash the Klan.” A cacophony of languages bubbled, ones that curl up on your tongues with rolling rrrrrr’s and purring sounds, long syllables, short-jazzy ones, the slide and breath of tonals like the erhu. (One man, a descendant of Europe, told a reporter: “I’ve lived here all my life. My family loves diversity and tolerance. If we stay quiet, they win.”) There was a somber, heavy energy, and that, too, trickled into my pores. I could smell and taste remnants of lands around me, the scents of Africa, South America, Asia, and North America. Once again, in the blood of this crowd moved the scents of red mangroves. But now, added to the mix were rainforest canopies, atolls and coral, the dry desert and the fens, forests, moorlands, and white cliffs of Europe.

At last, beyond the barricade of police in riot gear, the spectacle they were waiting for arrived. Instead of a cheering, happy festival of bells or costumes, there appeared a strange, small parade. Fifteen men arrived in formation on horses, bikes, and foot, all of them descendants of Europe. (Or so they thought, because everyone has a whiff of Africa in their blood.) They carried a banner that read: Shock and Awe. White Pride Rally. In the center of the formation, with a bull horn, rode one white-hooded man on horse-back. Was he a ghost from the previous century? The air crackled with memory and horrible possibility.
The white-hooded man addressed the crowd: “White people, I am talking to you. We need to preserve the purity of our Superior Race.” The Hooded Man’s words challenged the crowd’s very right to existence, put them down and sought to keep them low. This was not a man who could appreciate the complex ideas of mixing, inter-being, and transformation. If I had a head, I would have shaken it and wondered how People can be so lost.

Ire sparked in the eyes of some of the parade watchers. They were like a kettle building steam, ready to erupt at any moment. One woman, a Descendant of South America, cried, “You have freedom of speech. But I can speak louder!”

Suddenly, one hand snatched me from the ground and lobbed me. My peaceful dreaming transformed into a nightmare. I sailed through the air, flying in a terrible arc, unwieldy and misdirected. I tumbled end over end, smashed through glass into a vehicle, a car. A siren whined on and scratchy voices choked the radio. A man’s voice on a bull-horn: “Break it up! Please leave the park! Time to go!” The Klan slogans grew louder, and the counter-protests from the crowd were shot back, rapid as fire-works exploding. Two women attacked one of the Klansmen. The police in riot gear arrested 8 men and left the Klansmen to continue their rally. (“Hey, why not protect our rights, cop? Why you protecting the haters?”) The officers did not, however, rush to help Klansmen when they were down.

It’s a pity that my one sensation of flying came during a time of unrest between People. The flight left me dizzy.

The flight, however, also gave me a new home. One of the officers whose squad car I landed in took me to her neighborhood and gave me to her neighbors, a woman and a man. “I heard you were looking for bricks to build an oven!” she announced as she let herself in through their back gate, a familiar and welcomed habit.

“What’s this?”

“A gift. Our squad was called in to help keep things calm in Janura Park. Look what landed through my window.” She held me aloft for them to see, wiggled me in her palms like a caught fish.

The man whistled. “They needed Oak Park? Must’ve been some event.”

“The Klan. White Pride Rally.”

“Seriously? They still do that?” asked the woman as she pinched peppers and pulled basil from her garden.

The officer laughed. “Apparently. The Berwyn people were pissed. Did not want the rally there.”

“I would be, too,” said the man.

“And you want to give us your hate brick?” The woman made a mock-disgusted expression.

“Think of it this way, you can change this brick’s karma. Use it for your oven. Spread love, pizza-love. Especially my way.” The officer pointed with her lips towards her house, three doors down.

The officer handed me over to the woman who took me between her thumb and forefinger. She wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue. “I’m gonna wash it first.”

Veronica and Tommy were Descendants of Italy and Vietnam and they were marvelous cooks. On evenings and weekends, they cooked lavish feasts. Weekdays, they worked in their offices, partitioned off from everyone else, as workers often are. The Brick Oven was another Oak Park dream, a wood-burning oven in their own yard, built by their own hands. They’d nearly rebuilt everything in their house anyway, from basement to attic. Oak Park had become a town of food connoisseurs and there was an offering for every palette: Cheese burgers and fries; sushi and tempura; moqueca and pao de queso; lamb vindaloo and pakoras; chicken and waffles; “Oh-my-God!” sweet-spicy-hot moles; kosher deli meats; vegan lentil stews; organic gluten free pastries. The mix of townspeople was becoming like a stew, itself, discrete pieces that held integrity, but changed the base-flavor of the entire broth. Veronica and Tommy’s specialty was down-home, comfort food from Italy, Vietnam, and America. That meant focaccia, beef pho, and barbecue short ribs.

The wood-burning oven took a month to build and Veronica and Tommy bickered good-naturedly, the way people in love do as they crafted. By the end of summer, my new home was finished. Tommy and Veronica placed me on the very top of the stone oven in their yard. I was snug, surrounded on four sides by other sister and brother bricks, my back to a warm fire, and another side faced the stars. In the evenings, Veronica made dough with her hands, silky and pliant, and rolled it out on top of a floured pizza stone. Tommy barbecued pork in a smoker next to our oven, which she would add to her pizzas. It was a delicious match. The pizzas bubbled with home-made tomato sauce, mozzarella, oregano, basil, and a pinch of thyme from her garden. The whole, delectable concoction crackled over an open log fire. A slight, smoky scorch on the bottom of the dough gave the pizza a nutty, earthy scent. Mmmmm…I absorbed all of those flavors and the fragrance of the couple’s exuberance, too.

Always in the mood to experiment, Veronica baked focaccias, pizzas with black bean toppings, tropical fruit sauces, home-cured meats. This, she shared widely with neighbors and friends throughout the year. Veronica and Tommy brought their inventive pizzas to block parties, Christenings, Shabbat dinners (kosher versions, of course!) with neighbors. Without discrimination, they fed People when they were sick, when they were homeless and in between jobs, and, always, when they were hungry.

There was a mixing of such scents in their friends’ blood, an honoring of the way spirit moves throughout the Earth. It was a perfume full of bouquets – French and African; Jewish and Filipino; Italian, Vietnamese, and Chinese. This is what People called it for themselves. But to me, they were still aromas of the land, of islands, misty forests, and warm sea shores. Intoxicating.

The care with which they lavished their lives soaked into me, strengthening my spirit. I, in turn, worked with the other bricks, crisped their food to feed the hungry. Since they shared generously with friends and family, I helped to sustain their network of kin. It was a good purpose and a beautiful existence and I was happy. I could have stayed there forever.

But, as it often happens, small dreams grow into bigger ones. Veronica and Tommy so enjoyed feeding the hungry by cooking outdoors. They decided to move to Miami, Florida and warmer climes, where they could start a restaurant and they bid me a fond farewell. The restaurant was called The Brick Oven.
The new owners demolished our oven home to make room for hostas. The parties in the neighborhood continued, even though Veronica and Tommy (and their pizzas) were missed greatly. I was sold, re-sold, and even bartered for lumber. Such is the flow of life, always moving.

-o-

2011. The Glassblower. In my final home, I ended up tuck-pointed into a building on Harrison Street, not too far from Veronica and Tommy’s old house. Here, was life at the edge of a city: Buzz Café always brewed coffee, the scent of eggs and pancakes sizzled and wafted down the street. Happy and tired People passed studio windows, zipping to work on clicking heels. A ribbon of traffic flowed under the Eisenhower; the pleasant chug of the Blue Line train as it arrived. People fell into yoga and meditation. Children walked by, holding teachers’ hands, to and from classes and parks. Bikers pedaled to their offices. Artists painted swirls across large swaths of canvas, wrote travel adventure novels, created water color and ink drawings of mountains and serene lakes, fastened fantastic jewelry from every day things, and stitched felted fabric together into joyous sculptures. I had been bartered into a hive of artists and artisans. This was a Bohemian place, a maverick part of town, where People fashioned their dreams and everyone was scrappy and resourceful. It reminded me of William Street, Olivia, and Del in the early days.

In this new home, there was also an oven, a kiln unlike any other kiln I’d known before. This kiln fired glass. My position was on the outer wall of the studio and I could see everything in the Arts District. Most of all, I loved the sculptures Max the Glassblower made, the rise and fall of shapes. Bulbous billowing forms graced shelves and display cases, morning dew twisted and frozen, undulating schools of glass fishes, brilliant angels, fused glass windows, and cheery tinkling earrings.

The Glassblower was magic and all the children of the neighborhood loved him, his fire, his ability to take danger into his hands and bend it to his will. He stood at the kiln, safety glasses and apron on. At the watchers window, an interior window that allowed visitors to see in and watch the glassblowing, six children of the neighborhood oooh-ed and ahhh-ed as the flames sprung to life and licked the glass. While they watched, they dreamt.

“I can’t wait til I’m tall enough to blow glass.”

“I’m gonna make an octopus swimming in a purple ocean.”

“I’m gonna make a rainbow castle and give it to my sister when she’s sad. Or maybe marshmallow cake.”

“I’m gonna make a giant mug, as big as a house, and pour root beer in it and have it for dinner.”

“You can’t fit a house in that kiln –“

“—yes, I can!”

The kids stood at the watchers window with wonder on their faces, completely unaware of how long it had taken to build a town where they could stand together and learn. They were Descendants of Africa, Asia, North America, South America, Europe, and Australia. I kept them dry and warm, buffeted from the Winds and Rain, the real Ice and Chill – so that they could learn how to make magic grow from their hands, too. I loved being a protector.

But one sleepy summer morning, I felt a strange grumbling that was a portent for ill. I was watching, vigilant. The Glassblower was alone, hard at work, a beautiful shape rising in his kiln. Suddenly, a low grumbling rolled into a loud rumble and with a roar, I slipped and fell with all of my sisters and brothers, a cascade of us. I hit my head with an awful crunch, on the Glassblower’s car, and then spilled onto the sidewalk. Plumes of dust from the mortar and chipped Bricks rose into the air. Tiny puffs of debris. Thankfully, the Glassblower was safe, but his studio would never be the same, again. So many of us fell, so many chipped. I felt badly that I had been one who’d fallen on the Glassblower’s car, wrecking it. He did not deserve that.

I wish that was the end of the damage. But I, too, would never be the same, again, dear listener. In this building, I was a protector, a bringer of shelter and that was a good purpose – so that the young artists could create their magic. They gave my spirit a sense of wonder and I gave them safety, for a time. It was the last bit of wonder I am likely to know now.

Now, dear listener, you have endured my tale, for which I am thankful because it may be the last one I ever tell in this form. I have to reveal to you that the fall I took from the Glassblower’s building was no mere tumble. I fell from a great height. When a Brick fall from a great height onto a hard concrete sidewalk, two things can happen: The Brick can bounce and maintain integrity. Or the Brick can crack.
I did not bounce.

My middle cracked, a great clean line wrenched my belly and broke me in two. Here I lay, on the cold frozen ground, less than I was before. All my sister and brother Bricks have been chosen by Builders to create dreams, to protect, to shield, and to beautify our Oak Park town. What Builder will want me now, broken as I am?

-o-

I waited for the Ice and Winds and Frozen Rains of the winter to do their work. I bear them no ill will because, if truth be told, the elements make me who I am, transform me from plant to clay to Brick to shelter. If I am to depart this consciousness, let it be in Peace, not in pieces – bitter and scattered.
Winters in Oak Park can be brutal, exhausting affairs of salted sidewalks and ice sheets and layers of snow banks. Then spring arrives, the warming chill, the purple and yellow crocuses popping up in lawns in jaunty defiance of the frost. They herald the sun. That is how I knew I had survived the winter, broken as I was. In the melting snows, the tender, pudgy hand of a toddler found me, George. His hands smelled of cinnamon and chicken adobo.

“What did you find?” asked another an older boy, Kuya Sol. His hair looked wild, feathered and wavy, like it had wings and his mind could lift off at any moment. Teen-boy hair.

“Wocks.”

“Those aren’t rocks.” Kuya Sol laughed. “They’re bricks.”

“Bwicks?”

“Bricks are like rocks made of other crushed rocks. For houses. They make home.” Kuya Sol picked both of my halves up gently in his hands, seemed to weigh the possibilities. He tossed me up in the air, like a juggler. I felt the sun warming, the breezes rush past my sides. I tumbled in a slow, easy arc. Flight, again! “What do you want to do with them?”

George and Kuya Sol smelled of warm jasmine rice. In their blood were the lands of the Philippines, Lebanon, Greece, Hungary, and Romania, shell beaches, desert, forest, and fen. The boys were making plans and the plans involved me. I felt a warm glow, something sizzled inside me. A spark.

“Plant home.”

Kuya Sol scratched at the wings on his head. “You want to plant? A home?”

“Car Van.”

George pointed at the empty lot and then down at the ground. I understood completely. He was a Builder.

“Car V–? Oh! Garden! Okay. Let’s see what we can do.”

The boys, one older, one younger, descendants of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe carried me to Madison Street, to the Community Garden. Gone were the days of the prairie and tall grasses. The People needed other ways to return to the Earth. George showed Kuya Sol where to put me. He dug two holes and added me to a mosaic of stone and pottery shards and other broken Bricks to create a path through the Garden. I was surrounded on five sides by Earth, again, and fat worms. They planted tomatoes, shiso, and mint. They tried their luck with a couple of corn stalks. Around me grew the herbs and vegetables of all the lands of the world, and the People of the world who came to build families of all hues came here. Del and Olivia’s grandchildren planted green tomatoes. I could support the footsteps of Oak Park’s children, give them a foundation upon which to stand with the community.

I am surrounded by the dreams and aspirations of Oak Park. I dissolve happily, now. Love and integration have come to fruition. I am becoming part of the Earth, again, and still serve as a path for young gardeners. That is a fine purpose for a broken brick, falling into time, facing the stars.

One thought on ““The Community Builder” by Mary Grace Bertulfo