Ken stood in front of the unfinished house, spreading mortar for the next brick. His rough, cement-covered hands were stiff from the cold as he gripped a brick in his left hand and a trowel in his right. Frozen breath puffed into the air as he whistled through numb cheeks and lips. He tromped with heavy feet in his steel-toed boots to his work truck for a level. His short legs took surprisingly long, fast strides. Everything he did was with quick precision—get the job done, but get it done right! He took great pride in his work and constantly examined other brick jobs—houses, restaurants, mailboxes, piers, you name it—to point out their flaws. “See that,” he’d say, walking into a McDonald’s. “See how the mortar joints don’t line up? Look, right above the window—see?” Every bricked structure was under constant investigation.
His grey-speckled brown hair stuck out from under his white St. Thomas hat—the embroidered Virgin Islands palm trees clashing with his winter Carhartt jacket and jeans. It had been almost thirty years of bricklaying in Illinois, and all he could think about was walking the tropical shoreline of Magen’s Bay and sitting with a cool drink in his hand by the sunny boat docks in Frenchtown.
Three o’clock rolled around, and he helped the two men who worked for him wrap tarp around their day’s work so the mortar didn’t freeze overnight.
“Are we working tomorrow, Ken?” one asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “They say it might snow, but if you wake up and it isn’t snowing, then I’ll pick you up, 6:30 as usual.”
His wife always knew when Ken was home, because she could hear him clearing his throat on the way in. “Ahem.” His voice echoed into the cold, hard air as he made his way to the doorstep.
Sitting down, he unlaced each dirty work boot while humming a tune, something he had gotten from his own father who was always whistling, humming, or tapping the “Bonanza” theme song on the table with his fingers. He and his father were alike in many ways, not only in that they shared the same name, but alike especially in that neither he nor his father before him could ever just sit quietly, motionless. Perhaps that’s why his father’s body, lying in the casket in front of a room full of mourners, had seemed so unnatural to Ken.
The heat from the house had made his cold skin tingle as he stepped inside. The aroma of fresh chicken broth revived his numb nose. The foyer of the house had a surf board hung on one wall over a ledge of tropical objects: fish, sailboats, and lighthouses. The other wall was painted blue with a design of fish and plants, representing the ocean floor. His wife stood in the kitchen tossing shredded pieces of cooked chicken into a steaming pot of broth and noodles.
For the past year their house had been for sale. The plan was that once it was sold they were off to the islands. There had been a few offers, but, every time, something went wrong. Ken had finally come to the conclusion that his mother, who was also originally from St. Thomas, had put a curse on him because she didn’t want him to move away from Illinois. He had even quit telling his mother when someone was interested or had made an offer. She never talked about voodoo or seemed to believe in it like some of her family members did, but Ken wasn’t going to take any chances.
He carried his boots to the utility room and stripped down to his red long-underwear. “Did you talk to the realtor today?” he asked his wife.
“No, Ken,” she answered. “Not today.”
He went to the sink and washed what muck he could off of his thick fingers. The warm water stung those bitter hands like the bite of a fire ant. Staring out the fogged window at the skeleton trees and dead grass, his eyes were glazed with thought—they were piercingly blue eyes, not icy blue, but more like the sea water that lies between the green shallows and the dark deep waters.
“Maybe we should call him,” Ken said.
“Ken, he said he would call us if anything happens. If we call, he’s just going to tell us what we already know.”
“I guess,” Ken said, sighing.
At the table, he slurped down a bowl of soup while reading the newspaper, splattering the thin pages with chicken broth. With his body warmed, he went to the couch and turned on the TV to see if snow was on the way, but he was asleep in a swaying hammock on the beach before the local forecast ever came on.
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