Alec Solomita was born in New York City and lives in Massachusetts. He writes fiction, poetry and criticism. His work has appeared in the The New Criterion, the Boston Book Review, the Boston Globe, the New York Sun, Tikkun, Eclectica, the Adirondack Review and the Mississippi Review, among other publications. He is currently working on a novel, while continuing to write reviews.
The Mason's Tale
We were the second shift to get high in Rosie and Ohan’s basement the afternoon of the barbecue. We did it in shifts so the kids wouldn’t get suspicious. Ohan, the chef and head of the household, had some excellent skunk he was sharing with us in a tiny stone pipe we passed around, coughing and laughing, while Rosie and Deb, my girlfriend, and Liza, Artie’s wife, already buzzed, were outside watching the burgers and the kids. There were maybe seven or eight kids over. A few were chasing each other around the small house, half naked and giggling. One was shooting baskets in the driveway. The rest were in the neighbors’ pool across the way.
It was a companionable group in the clean but cluttered basement, some of us lifelong friends getting high for the millionth time together. Through the billows of sharp smelling smoke, Stacey, with whom I had had an affair the year before and whose husband was leaning on my shoulder for ballast because he was laughing so hard at a comment I’d just made, winked at me with a tiny leer. Rob’s friendly hand on my shoulder, his open face, the little peninsula of dark hair that was all that was left on his forward scalp—all these made me think, “No harm, no foul.”
We were standing in a little semi-circle. Slow-talking Artie, whose wife I was currently seeing, was murmuring earnestly to Ohan, who suddenly quenched the pipe with a little finger and said, flashing a black-eyed smile as innocent as the one worn by his two-year-old daughter on the wall behind him, “I gotta get back to the grill. Get those sausages goin’. You know, Arthur, Mark was just asking me about patios yesterday. He’d be interested,” and started toward the stairs, winking at me as he passed. Artie, his pale blue eyes slightly magnified by the lenses of his glasses, gave me a surprised and pleased look, and as Ohan and Rob and Stacey filed past me to food and drink and freedom, he said, “Mark, let me tell you about this job I did.”
“Sure,” I said, hearing some quiet giggles and a closing door above me.
Instead of walking toward me, Artie rubbed his ample gray mustache pensively and backed off a bit in the now-empty basement, giving himself some room and making clear that the space in front of him was about to represent another space somewhere else.
“So, look at this. I’m building this patio for some lesbians, and it’s about yay wide,” he spread his arms, “and about yay long,” he paced down one side of the room and then crossed and walked in front of me, delineating the horizontal patio. “Small,” he said, “but nice, just a little open space in the back garden for a couple lawn chairs, a hummingbird feeder, whatever, and they want some little walks coming out from it, one to the house, one a little bit into the garden.”
“Yes,” I said. There were no windows in the basement from which to see the children’s legs flashing by as they circled the house, shrill and happy.
“They’re a couple. Not married, though,” he looked at me over his glasses, a slight drollness flirting with the corners of his doughy lips. Artie, we called him our whole lives, now he wants to be called Arthur. Carefully, he rolled up the sleeves of his flannel shirt. “They’re very nice,” he said with a quiet emphasis, as if perhaps I thought they weren’t. “Both professors at Brandeis.” He squatted down and ran his hand just millimeters above the imaginary patio. “I don’t think they’re Jewish, though. Powell. That’s not Jewish. So they wanted fieldstone, which I thought was a nice choice.”
“Fieldstone,” I said. “Yes.” I was so high that it was pleasant to stand there in the basement listening to Artie. It was warm outside but cool downstairs.
“You know fieldstone?”
“Yes, irregularly shaped, different shades of light brown? You see outside fireplaces made out of it.”
“Yeh, pretty much. Any uncut stone, pretty much. One of them is a sociology professor. She was the one who did most of the talking with me. She was very nice. They both are. Nice ladies, you know? The way I see it is, let ’em be. You know, I mean they found each other,” he said, rising and looking at the concrete floor like it was a job well done.
“Hard enough to find someone, you know. I don’t begrudge them. Just looking for self-fulfillment. It’s a genuine search for all of us.” Artie is self-educated and has a philosophical turn of mind.
“I still hate faggots, though,” he said and he smiled at my expression, even rumbled a little with interior mirth. “Anyway,” he said, rolling his sleeves back down methodically, fold after fold, “I built the patio. Took me two weeks, and then I built the walks. And they loved it. Gave them the bill. They didn’t even complain about the bill. Everyone complains about the bill.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, hearing laughter from the kitchen above, thinking of beer.
“The other one, the quiet one, she was from upstate New York. She taught at Rochester and just came down from there recently. To be with her girlfriend. Ever been up that way?”
“That’s where Liza and I went for our honeymoon. Not Rochester but up there in upstate New York.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember.” I knew this well because on one of our Tuesday nights Liza had told me about the honeymoon. About rowing across the lake in a storm to get Artie to the hospital.
“Yeh. We stayed up there at the Finger Lakes, the Finger Lakes District. Glacially formed lakes. Beautiful up there. I had some prostate problems at the time. But it’s a beautiful area.
“So, I get a call about a week later, about a week after finishing the work. This sociology professor notices that the walk out into the garden has thirteen stones.” He paused.
“She said to me, ‘I can’t let that happen.’” He shook his head, “‘I can’t let that happen,’ she said. You know what that is, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, “I remember that word.”
“Yeh, triskaidekaphobia—fear of the number thirteen.” He paused. I thought he was going to say something but he stood motionless
“Well—” I said.
“So I put in another one. Cost ’em a hundred bucks.”
“Another step. Cost ’em a hundred bucks.”
“Worth it to them, I suppose.”
“One other time I used this kind of stone,” said Artie, “was when I was working on an inside chimney up in New Hampshire, over there by one of the colleges up there. It was a professor’s house, too, and in the living room was this exposed inside chimney. Faced with uncut fieldstone and what they call native stones, which means any old shit. Some of the smaller stones were coming out. A lot, actually. The thing was falling apart. I guess one fell on him when he was sitting there.” Artie shrugged.
“Maybe he was doing one of his poetry readings. You know, in his living room? With co-eds? Guy’s a poetry professor. And a poet, too. He gave me one of his books. Signed. I’m holding on to it, you never know. You know,” Artie said peering at me with his blurry, light, bloodshot eyes, “this guy definitely loved words. In fact, we had that in common. I love words, too. But this guy wouldn’t shut up when I was working.
“There are some like that. But it’s usually housewives. They have to hover. Or sometimes if the guy thinks he’s Mr. Goodwrench, he’ll hover and talk and offer his expertise. But this Jewish poet. He didn’t know piss about masonry. And he didn’t care, but he loved to talk, this little bearded guy. He had this big dark beard, young guy, kind of a little guy but he had this big beard, big head. And his wife. His wife pulled out her hair. She was a professor, too. She locked herself upstairs in her office with her computer and wrote for hours and hours. When the two of them stopped for lunch, when he stopped talking and she stopped writing, they would sit at their table in the kitchen and he’d stroke his beard and she’d pull out her hair. Sometimes they had a glass of wine at lunch. With egg salad sandwiches, pop tarts, whatever. The whole first floor was kind of an open space with rooms flowing into each other, so I had to watch them while they had lunch.”
“Not very appetizing,” I said.
“You know what that’s called?”
“What what’s called?”
“The pulling out the hair thing. That’s a disorder, you know.”
“I didn’t know. A disorder?”
“Yeh,” he said, “Know what it’s called?”
“I didn’t even know it was a disorder.”
“Hair pulling compulsion, trichotillomania.” He looked at me challengingly, and continued.
“So, sometimes when she was up in the office or out teaching one of the two classes she teaches … That’s their job,” he snorted. “When she was upstairs or gone or whatever. He’d try to get me to go downstairs with him and listen to his jazz collection. His cellar was wall-to-wall records. Jazz. Once he asked me if I liked jazz. I’m working for the guy, you know, trying to fit these fucking little stones back into place, my eyes falling out of my head, and I say, yeah, sure, I like jazz. Why the fuck not?
“So, after that he’s after me to go downstairs and listen to some of his collection. Fine, I say, thinking it’s your money. And I don’t think he’s queer, you know, that’s the first thing you might think. Some little poet asks you to go down cellar and listen to his jazz and the next thing you know … ” Artie raises his eyebrow at me. “But I just had a regular feeling about him. So we go downstairs into the cellar. I sit on the couch and he says I think you’ll like this. Then he puts on something like I don’t know how to describe it. It’s old jazz, but not like Louis Armstrong or something you can listen to. It’s fast and … I can’t describe it. It’s like listening to traffic.”
“And then, he pulls out this fucking spliff, it’s like a fucking blunt, you know, and he lights up and we get pasted. Then he starts talking to me about his private life. He starts talking about how his father left he and his mom when he was just a kid, and his eyes start getting teary. He’s sitting on the couch next to me and his big brown eyes start filling with tears. And meanwhile my mortar’s upstairs drying, you know. I’m wasted, he’s crying, the wife’s on the second floor pulling out her hair, and I’m listening to this fucked up music. And I get to thinking, my estimate was way too low. You know?”
I moved a cardboard box from a wooden chair behind me. I squatted down and tested the legs with my hands before I rested on the edge of the seat.
“That chair’s OK. Sometimes he goes down to the cellar by himself while I’m on the footstool fixing the holes, and I can hear the music and smell the dope. Sometimes when he’s down there his wife comes into the kitchen and has a glass of wine. Couple of times she stops and talks to me. She’s one of those women who touch your arm when they’re talking.” He pauses. “You know?”
“And then the last day of the job. Which took a lot longer than I’d expected, the fucking chimney was falling apart. Shoddy craftsmanship. Then the last day, Lois is up there — that’s the wife’s name — she’s up there with her computer, and he says to me, ‘Want to catch a buzz?’” Artie picked up a hockey stick from against the wall and leaned on it, his hands closed on the top of the handle and his chin on his hands.
“And I say, ‘I’m almost done here, Louis.’ Her name’s Lois, his is Louis. And he says like a little kid, ‘Aw, come on.’ So, he puts on the asshole music and we catch a buzz and he starts talking to me about how he’s unhappy with his wife. We’re sitting on the couch and he’s leaning in to my face, and I’m kind of backing off but I don’t want to insult him, and he starts to cry again.” Artie looked at me and grinned, dropping the hockey stick. “Can you believe this shit? So, then he tells me he’s having an affair with one of his students. And I’m like whoa Nelly this is getting a little I don’t know what, you know?”
“Uncomfortable is right. So, he’s confessing to me, like I’m his wife. You know what I’m saying? I mean the lesbians look normal, you know? So, I sort of pat him on the back you know, like this.” And Artie leaned far away from me and stretched his arm out and patted my shoulder. “And I’m trying to get up and wrap up the job and get the fuck out of there.”
The door at the top of the stairs opened and Liza called down, “Let’s go, boys. Everything’s going to get cold.”
“Right up,” Artie said, without turning his head. As I started to rise, he put his hand on my shoulder and held me there, “Wait, you gotta hear what happens next.’
“I’m hungry, Arthur.” Artie picked up the hockey stick again and took a swing or two at an imaginary puck and then leaned it back up against the wall.
“So, then he asks me if I ever read ‘The Black Cat’ by Edgar Allen Poe. And I say, yes, which in fact I technically didn’t but when we were in 7th grade, Mrs. Mitzenmacher would read to us aloud at the end of each class for ten minutes. ‘The Black Cat’ was one of the things she read. Scared the shit out of me. Do you remember it?”
“No, not really.”
“You know, Mrs. Mitzenmacher kind of felt sorry for me or something, because that summer she offered to let me come up to the farm that her parents lived on. Speaking of upstate New York, it was in the Catskills, and my parents said OK, so I spent three weeks on the farm. They worked their asses off, those German farm fucks. And they made me work as hard. I hated that place.
“They had me haying. First loading a truck with bales of hay and then driving out and rolling them out somewhere else. You ever work with hay?”
“Itchiest fucking job in the world. I was out there in the hot sun with this farm boy I was supposed to make friends with. Sweating in the sun, grabbing the hay and hauling it up to him, and he’s like the young Clark Kent you know on the fucking Kent farm. And the hay particles get in your skin. You go crazy with the itching. It’s as bad as insulation. You ever work with fiberglass insulation?”
“No? Oh, Jesus, man, you’re lucky. That pink puffy shit gets under your skin and it takes a week of baths to get it out. It’s awful.”
“I’m digressing. Sorry. To make a long story short. This guy kills his wife at the end of this story ‘The Black Cat.’ And then he immures her. You know what that means?”
“He puts her in a wall. Her body parts, actually. He puts them in a wall. ‘Immuring,’ it’s called. So I say, yeah, I’ve read that story. And then he says, ‘Have you ever hated anybody? I mean really hated them with your whole self, your soul, your body, with the hate really in your body, so you can feel it all the time?’ So, I can see where this thing is going, and I’m getting kind of freaked out. I mean the conversation takes this macabre turn. And I say, ‘Louis, I’m not going to put your wife in a wall.’ You know, getting right to the point, so as not to raise his hopes or anything.”
“And he gets totally guilty and nervous looking and laughs like Peter Lorre and says that he had no intention of putting his wife in a wall. ‘I was thinking more along the lines of a trial separation’ or whatever. Very patronizing all of a sudden. Then he laughs again in this creepy crawly way, like I’m the weird fuck in that nasty cellar. That was the import.” He paused. “Of the laugh.”
“So, what did you do?”
“I left. Walked out of that cellar. Packed up my shit, and left him with a couple of holes left in his chimney. Billed him, though. He paid. That was almost a year and a half ago. I still read ‘New England in brief’ every day to see if she disappears or has an accident or something like that. I’ll never forget that, though. The way he said he hated her.”
“I don’t suppose you will.”
Artie started toward the stairs. “I could have done that job, though,” he said.
“The immuring job?”
“Yeh, I wouldn’t have done it in the fireplace obviously. Maybe the cellar floor. That’s what the guy in the ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ does. You know that story?”
©2009 Alec Solomita
'Shooting the Rooster', a Solomita story in the Adirondack Review
'Old Flame', a Solomita story in the Mississippi Review
Solomita's review of Descartes' Bones in The New Criterion
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