In 1970 forty-three thousand slabs of marble were shipped from the Italian province of Carrara to Chicago, USA, for the purpose of sheathing the new Standard Oil building downtown. At the time the building was Chicago’s tallest, with eighty-eight floors, fifty elevators, and tracks of vertical stripes leading the eye ever upwards, like piano strings graying out into the cold city sky. When Egidio Lombardi and his brother Dominic, who had followed the marble in hopes of a job, saw the stone the contractor had ordered, they didn’t need to wait for disaster to happen to know it would. In its haste to cut costs the contractor had ignored the considerable differences between winters in northern Italy and Chicago; the siding was far too thin. Neither man was surprised when, four years later, the first of those marble slabs buckled and fell, crashing through the roof of the Prudential Building next door.
“For this we hauled our asses across the ocean?” Egidio gestured to the stacked marble, hairline fissures striating the stone.
“Be quiet, they might hear you,” Dominic told him, even though they were speaking in Italian. This was before they’d been hired. They were perched on folding chairs in Turner’s dim warehouse, waiting their turn to announce their experience: a decade in the very quarries from which the marble sitting before them had come.
“That building is doomed,” Egidio pronounced, ignoring him.
“What do you care? It’s a job. Money to put it up, money to take it back down.”
Egidio shook his head. He didn’t remember his brother talking like this back in Italy. Somehow the journey across the vast, nauseating Atlantic had turned Dominic cynical. While Egidio was vomiting off the side of the Queen Anne, Dominic had been making friends with American tourists: execs and their wives with the money to fly taking the ship for the scenery, or because they were afraid of planes. Dominic’s networking required that he pretend he wasn’t just a quarry worker who’d never been farther than 10 miles out of Carrara prior to the voyage. It required he pretend Egidio didn’t exist.
“Do you want to be like those retards they keep in town?” Egidio knew his brother would know what he was talking about—the old stone asylum outside Carrara’s main square where the province had kept its disabled since Mussolini’s day. “You put a bow on a box and someone takes it off and tells you to put it back again?”
Dominic just glared at him. Egidio wanted to say: aren’t you afraid? Aren’t you afraid of leaving the only place we ever knew? Don’t you want to go back? But instead he said, “I thought you wanted to be part of something important.”
A man came to say it was time for one of them to go to the back office to be interviewed. They’d agreed Egidio would go first, but when he stood up Dominic tugged at his pants leg. “That,” he pointed out the warehouse window, “is what’s important.”
Egidio knew he was talking about America as a whole—the country, the concept. But all Egidio could see out of the smeared window was the bleak
desolation of Chicago’s north side industrial corridor, tires abandoned in brambles, train tracks overgrown with weeds, the sky unyielding as metal.
As the years passed relations between the brothers grew worse, until they weren’t speaking to each other, even though both of them had stayed in Chicago. This was how things were when, nearly 40 years after that Standard Oil interview, Egidio applied to be a mentor with a group called Generation Up!, which paired Chicago’s elderly with underserved urban youth. The old man had been hoping for a black kid, because even after all his time in the States black people still fascinated him, but instead he got Ronnie, who was Polish and had skin the color of a pierogi. Egidio swallowed his disappointment and took to his mentoring duties with zeal. Every Friday afternoon he picked Ronnie up from Saint Mary of the Angels in Avondale and took him to the nearby Dunkin Donuts. The old man was known at this Dunkin Donuts, as he was at most of the chain’s north side franchises. Donuts were Egidio’s great American discovery, his daily pleasure. Contrary to expectation, he had no problems with his cholesterol or his weight. Yes, he had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but that had nothing to do with the donuts.
“Listen,” Egidio would say during these Friday afternoon sessions, and then inevitably the story that followed would be about Dominic. His captive audience comprised Ronnie and Amanda, the Friday afternoon cashier who snapped her gum and rolled her eyes at everyone except Egidio, who tipped her and reminded her, she’d said, of her recently deceased grandfather.
“He’d point me to the heaviest loads,” Egidio told them. “And then when my knees would, what do you call it, buckle? He talked to the other guys behind my back. He thought I couldn’t understand. Because I couldn’t speak English as well as he could he thinks I can’t understand. Stupid. Do you know what he would say?” Egidio leaned in for effect and Ronnie leaned wide-eyed with him, so that their faces met over the box of a dozen donuts they split over the course of their session.
“What?” Ronnie was breathless, hyped up on the coffee he didn’t like but that Egidio was committed to getting him into the habit of drinking.
“What?” said Amanda.
Egidio smiled at Amanda, acknowledging her interest. A bracing January sun angled off the countertop, illuminating the pageantry of available donuts: shiny with glaze and thick with sugared ash, dotted with sprinkles like colored pebbles on a beach.
“‘Weak knees,’ he’d say to the others. ‘Weak knees means a weak dick.’”
“Ha!” said Amanda.
“You mean like your penis?” Ronnie said with obvious delight.
“What did you do?” said Amanda, ignoring the jangle of an incoming customer.
Egidio sat up tall. He should have had children; he would have been good with them. His years of wisdom were a burden waiting to be transferred.
“I slept with the woman he wanted.”
Ronnie, who was only eight, looked confused. But Amanda whispered “shit” approvingly, drawing out the syllable.
“Would it maybe be possible to get a donut around here?” said a man who’d walked in a minute before.
“She was a bombshell,” Egidio continued, even though he could see the boy had no idea what he meant by the word. “A church secretary. You should have seen her legs.” He slid the boy’s coffee over, finished it in two gulps. “She wore pantyhose like all the ‘good girls,’ but my God. Dominic liked to say Michelangelo could have carved them out of marble, had he not been omosessuale.”
“You weren’t bad looking yourself, right?” Amanda teased, punching the register.
Egidio nodded his thanks as if this praise were only his due. “She was second generation Sicilian and knew zero Italian, but she didn’t care if I didn’t talk to her. I think she liked it better that way. She said I had ‘espresso eyes.’ After we made love I found marble dust on her in the strangest places.”
“Eww,” Ronnie said.
“Then what happened?” asked Amanda.
Usually they kept Egidio and Dominic in the warehouse uptown, slicing and sanding to ready the slabs, but sometimes they got to go downtown to the site to check over their placement. On one of these days the American Sicilian came to visit. She gave Egidio a kiss and allowed him to taunt his brother by association. That day Egidio rode up dozens of floors with the crane operator. He saw her through the operator’s box, the plexi-glass that separated him from the sky misted with spray from Lake Michigan. From so far above her dark hair appeared uniform, like a nun’s habit. It came to him with a jolt how high he really was. He was proud to be so far above ground, watching the crane’s jib move across the sky and knowing she was watching too.
Egidio didn’t tell any of this to Amanda and Ronnie. Instead he looked at his watch. “Time’s up.” The boy’s mother, a nurse’s aide at Swedish Memorial, worked too much to know whether her son was home or not. But Egidio had made certain promises, and he liked to keep his word.
“Why do you want to be a mentor?” they’d been asked at the Generation Up! program orientation. “Because I want to give back to the community,” the rest of them said, and also, “Because the kids are gone to college.” They all seemed to have more money than Egidio.
“When I die, I want someone to mourn me,” Egidio said when it was his turn.
After that, the other mentors avoided Egidio.
But he was resigned to this reality; he was used to being alone. This was his life: in the summer he grew tomatoes on his apartment’s tiny balcony, pinning the vines to the iron balusters of the fire escape. He went to Mass on Sundays and holy days. He worked Italian crossword puzzles ordered over the public library’s Internet, which he had just learned to use. He was a marble cutter in retirement, but still a marble cutter: he went into the workshop maybe once a week to chisel away at his own projects, often vanity busts commissioned by his neighbors and friends. He lived on a combination of pension, social security and worker’s comp from decades of rock dust built up in his lungs. He had never married, but he had a great capacity to appreciate beauty. He struggled with his prostate, but this sort of ailment seemed inevitable, and he treated his frequent and often futile nighttime visits to the bathroom with wry fatalism.
And he thought about his brother. Dominic would come to him in the smallest ways as he was going about his day. When it was sunny he’d be sitting on his balcony and observing the patterns formed by the intersection of the El tracks with the power lines, and it would occur to him to wonder about Dominic’s view—his brother in the suburban ranch house where he’d lived with his wife for over twenty years. His brother with a pool in his back yard—a pool! It was a small pool, but still. If Egidio wanted to swim he had to go to a city rec center branch, where homeless men peed on the ancient tiles and old Polish women spread themselves out across the lap lanes, chatting for hours.
Drinking cheap Chianti, he’d wonder what vintage his brother could afford. Standing over the toilet bowl, bladder aching but nothing coming, he’d wonder if Dominic had succumbed to the ailments of old age. At these moments he’d remind himself that they hadn’t spoken in almost a decade, that Dominic likely barely ever thought about him at all. But this was precisely the problem: Egidio felt himself losing his hold on his brother. Not too long ago Dominic was cursing his name, telling the neighbors to keep an eye out for him. Now if Egidio picked up the phone they could probably make up. But what then? Thinking about reconciling with his brother made Egidio feel empty, like he had when Gethsemane MarbleWorks had nudged him into early retirement with the promise of a stellar pension and Egidio had thought, What now?
It was good to have the boy to talk to. Ronnie, who brought his Nintendo console wherever they went. If Egidio didn’t know better he’d think Ronnie wasn’t listening, the boy hunched over the machine so that his sleek brown hair (kept shaggy against his mother’s wishes) obscured his face. But apparently Ronnie could be fully absorbed in two things at once.
“The bastard broke my foot,” Egidio continued the next Friday. “You should have seen the size of this piece of siding. I was out of work and pay for three months.”
Ronnie made the man on his screen jump over a wall. This was a little Italian man named Mario; Egidio didn’t quite understand why Americans would choose one of his people to defeat pixilated creatures, but then again there were a lot of things about his adopted country that he didn’t understand.
“Well,” Egidio prompted, “What do you think?”
“I hate your brother,” Ronnie said with feeling, but continued to stare at his game.
Egidio sighed. He had the feeling provoking these sorts of sentiments in the boy didn’t accord entirely with Generation Up!’s “family values” philosophy. So he didn’t say anything, but he smiled in spite of himself. It was good to have someone on his side.
“When I got back I showed our foreman this piece of siding that was even more cracked up than the rest. I told him Dom was responsible for ok-ing the attachment, despite the obvious risk. Our foreman knew as well as I that it wasn’t just that piece; it was all too thin to do shit. But he had to fire my brother anyway, for form’s sake.”
Ronnie finally looked up from the game, pushing the hair out of his face and smearing a swath of powdered sugar across his forehead in the process. “Wasn’t that kind of mean?”
Egidio shook his head. “It didn’t matter. Work was done within a couple months. By the time the siding fell Dom was training for his realtor’s license. I don’t think he cared what had happened to all our hard work.”
By that time, the newly constructed Sears Tower had surpassed the Standard Oil Building—“Big Stan,” they’d called it—as the city’s tallest building. The symbolism wasn’t lost on Egidio: it was so easy for something grand and noble to become silly, a mistake. Humor columnists in the newspapers made fun of Big Stan, called the whole project a farce.
“I went by the other day,” Amanda said. “You’re right. The granite they replaced the marble with looks terrible. It’s pathetic, like it’s in some kind of pissing contest with Willis, and we know who’s winning.”
Egidio’s Dominic stories took up the rest of January’s Fridays. On the 17th he told Ronnie how his brother had posed as a social worker, sending their mother in Italy a letter informing her that her son was addicted to heroin. On the 24th he related the story of their fight in Eisner Grocery, when Egidio had Dominic called to the customer service desk only to knee him in the groin, bloody his nose and run before anyone had time to call the authorities. On the first of February he brought in a copy of the letter to the editor Dominic had sent in Egidio’s name to one of Chicago’s throw-away dailies. The letter complained harshly of the recent migration of blacks northward into the residential areas surrounding Egidio’s home. It recommended incarceration over social services, and it rather brilliantly made Egidio into the kind of person he despised: one of those immigrants who had forgotten they were immigrants, hardened and full of their own hypocrisies.
Ronnie was sometimes anxious about school, and the old man could see that his stories had a soothing quality on the boy, that he’d come to expect them like he would a fairytale told before bed.
So he drew out his account of how in 1985 he snuck into the reception room of Dominic’s wedding, to which he was decidedly not invited, and punched in the cake. He won Amanda’s sympathy all over again when he related the fate of two of his girlfriends, both of whom got calls from Dominic informing them, as a “public service,” that Egidio had Chlamydia. For his part, Ronnie was more excited about Egidio’s 1993 decision to spray industrial strength vinegar over Dominic’s garden, turning the hollyhocks brown and the dahlias into a glutinous paste.
But it was inevitable that he’d come to the end of their story. “That’s it,” he said one mid-February day, the outside air chilled stiff as meringued egg whites.
“That’s it?” Ronnie looked up from the Nintendo as if waking from a dream.
“That’s it?” said Amanda, who lately had stopped even pretending to wait behind the counter for customers, instead pulling up a seat next to the two of them.
“He said he didn’t want to have anything else to do with me,” said Egidio almost sorrowfully. “I was lying next to his Mercedes one day with a steak knife, deflating his tires. He said something like, ‘Aren’t we beyond all this?’ I said he might be, but I wasn’t.”
“And then?” Ronnie said.
“And then nothing. He didn’t do anything to me. We haven’t spoken for over a decade now.”
“Well, shit,” said Amanda very slowly. The three of them sat in silence as icicles dripped from a parking meter out the window. Then Amanda sighed, braced her hands on her denimed thighs and stood. She patted Egidio on the back.
“They’re good stories, old man, but you’ve got to let the feud go. Your anger is ruining you, anyone can see that.”
Egidio examined the pink flecks in his strawberry donut but did not respond.
Ronnie put the last half of his sixth and final allotted donut into his mouth. “We should go see him,” he said. “That would help you.”
“Bring him flowers,” Amanda advised.
“At least can we do something besides just sitting around here and eating donuts every week?” Ronnie said.
Egidio was a little hurt. He’d been under the impression the boy was enjoying himself. Clearly, being a Mentor took more initiative than he’d originally thought. “Well,” said the old man. “What do you want to do?”
“Let’s go to the marble shop,” the boy said.
It was inevitable, after all the stories, what Egidio would do with the block of marble he’d set aside to demonstrate his craft. Even before he’d known the block’s purpose he’d been roughing the surface, chipping away at the solid white, waiting for the stone’s destiny to make itself apparent. Now he knew he’d waited for a reason.
They sat together in Gethsemane’s windowless basement on an evening after the regular workers had gone home. No matter how welcoming the company was—and they really were kind to Egidio, encouraging him to come back often, letting him have spare rock and supplies for whatever he wanted to work on—he still felt a little like an impostor in his old shop, sneaking in to do something that made no money for anyone. There was a time when the stuff of his days added up to something, a time when he was useful—sometimes Egidio thought he’d never known how good he had it when he did.
“Why do I have to wear these,” Ronnie said, tugging at the strap of his safety goggles, “if you don’t?”
Egidio narrowed his eyes at the boy. “Because I’m a professional,” he said, but he put on a pair of his own anyway.
He wanted to get at the heart of the stone quickly, so he turned on the diamond saw and made a series of cuts along the edge, the stone filamenting quickly into dust, the damp basement air turning cloudy around them. When he turned the machine off he could see, through the powdery mist, that the boy was looking at him in awe.
“You got paid to do that all day?”
Egidio laughed. “Not enough,” he said. “Not enough to have a swimming pool.”
Ronnie shrugged. Egidio was pleased to see he hadn’t brought Mario along. Ronnie had told his mother that Egidio was helping him study. Wound tight with exhaustion, she’d hardly questioned the lateness of the hour. Elsa Dubinsky, who raised Ronnie and his brother on her own, was tenacious in her determination to cling to the lowest rungs of the undistinguished lower middle class. Since she had a salary that pushed her over the poverty line and vouchers to send Ronnie to Catholic school the family was better off than the typical Generation Up! participant. Egidio suspected she’d elbowed Ronnie into the program by sheer force of persuasion.
Chip by chip, his point chisel striking true even after all these years, Egidio formed a generic head shape from the stone. The work was all in the negatives: you defined the face against the body of the stone; you broke the stone down to bring forth something new.
Ronnie was a good sous chef, handing the old man tools when prompted, but he also asked a lot of questions. “Did you ever like your brother?”
“Well…” Egidio considered. He hadn’t ever thought about it in quite those terms. “Sure. We used to pick figs from our family’s tree and compete to see who could stomach the most of the fruit. Then when we were bloated and sick we’d crawl up on top of the hay bales and nap. The hay was scratchy, but always so warm.”
“My brother likes to shoot me with water guns,” Ronnie volunteered.
“See, if you had a pool, you could just jump underwater and escape him.”
“True,” Ronnie said. “What would you do with a pool?”
“Nothing. Just look at it. Keep the water pristine and just sit by the edge and look at it all day.”
Egidio shaped his faces by imagining them a series of interconnected points. Point: the ridge of his nose. Point: the center of the broad plateau that was his forehead. Point: the pupil of each of his censorious eyes. Dominic’s face emerged from the chisel with chilling ease. It was as if Egidio’s hand knew his brother better than he did, as if the contours of that face were engraved somewhere deeper than the old man could fathom with his conscious mind.
It was getting late enough that even Elsa Dubinsky would be asking questions, so they broke off work. Ronnie made the old man promise they’d be back in the workshop the following week. Egidio was glad he’d hit on something so captivating.
In the middle of that week they had to attend one of Generation Up!’s mandatory Mentor-Mentee “check-ins,” in which the mentors and their assigned charges sat in a circle of folding chairs presided over by an elegant elderly woman in an African print shawl, the program’s volunteer coordinator.
Egidio had advised Ronnie to keep quiet about their use of the Friday mentorship hours. He didn’t think serial donut eating would be considered an “enriching” use of the boy’s afterschool time, and there were surely some liability issues with taking him to the marble shop. But when he got there he realized he hadn’t thought of any activities to declare in their stead.
“E—Edge—Mr. Lombardi,” the Coordinator fumbled.
“Egidio,” Egidio said.
She gave him a benevolent smile. “How have you and Ronnie been spending your mentor hours?”
Egidio looked down at the dully-carpeted floor. He felt his bladder assert itself, that familiar pressure he knew by now to dismiss as crying wolf.
“Mr. Lombardi.” Again that smile. “I know you speak English nearly perfectly.”
“Well…” began Egidio, and then he faltered, blushed.
“Go on.” The Coordinator adjusted her shawl.
Egidio stared at the liver spots on his hands. It was a long moment before he realized Ronnie was talking.
“The Botanical Gardens, Lincoln Park Zoo, the Shedd Aquarium,” Ronnie was saying. “We go everywhere.”
“Very nice,” said the Coordinator, turning to the next mentor. Egidio waited until the group’s attention was fully elsewhere before giving Ronnie a relieved thumbs-up.
That Friday they were back in the workshop, finishing Dominic. Egidio used a rasp to smooth the contours of his cheekbones. He always had trouble with the ridge above the nose, that faintly hilled segment that demands the utmost precision. Egidio thought to be grateful that he still had the power of his hands, that they didn’t shake like some 70-year-olds he knew, that even with his lame bladder he still had something.
“Why do you go to the bathroom so much?” Ronnie asked him after he got back from his third trip to the basement toilet.
“I’m an old man.”
“So you have to pee a lot?”
“Most of the time nothing comes out.”
Ronnie made his eyes wide. “How does that feel?”
“Terrible,” Egidio said. “Let’s order some pizza.”
They ate and admired the finished bust, powder still piled around the base like the residue from a donut session.
“Dominic, pass the parmesan,” Ronnie said to the statue.
They put a slice of pizza in front of him.
“Dominic, it’s wasteful to leave the crusts,” Egidio said, and they both laughed.
One thing was clear: Dominic couldn’t just sit there; they’d have to do something with him. The statue itself seemed to pose that challenge, its grey eyes fixed on some indiscernible point. How, exactly, had their plan come about? Looking back, the old man wasn’t entirely sure. Who had come up with the idea? By what process had they hashed out the details? Most important: how had he ever been foolish enough to let the boy in on it?
They had to wait until the third Saturday in March, when Egidio knew Dominic and his wife went to a realtor’s conference in Florida. By the time they set out the first crisp edge of the day had worn to a dull patina of grey. Egidio drove the cement truck—a hulking thing he’d borrowed from one of his construction contacts to bypass the usual licensing requirements—and Ronnie sat in the passenger’s seat, his feet wedging the marble Dominic on either side. They drove west on North Avenue into Austin, where snow covered vacant lots and endless dollar stores, KFC franchises and billboards exhorting young men to stay off the streets.
“Remember,” Egidio looked significantly at the boy as they paused at a red light. “If anyone asks, as far as we’re concerned, we’re following orders.”
“I got it, Jeezy.” Lately Ronnie had taken to calling him this, apparently the stage name of a rapper some of the older boys at school had introduced him to. Egidio didn’t know how a little Polish kid knew anything about rap, anyway. “We’re the cement guys.”
Out of blighted Austin they drove into Oak Park, the nearest suburb with its meticulously plowed streets, expansive lawns and architecturally innovative mansions. Out the window two cardinals pecked at each other in the remains of the grit-covered snow. Egidio felt the first of the day’s proddings in his bladder. It was too much to ask, apparently, to go a day without being reminded of his infirmity.
By the time they got to Melrose Park they were quiet, buzzed on nervousness and anticipation. Egidio wondered about the Generation Up! Mentor Coordinator: if she found out about their adventure, would she take Ronnie away? She’d have to—there was nothing about the day’s plan that made Egidio sound like anything other than what he was supposed to be mentoring Ronnie away from: a “bad influence.” He was seized with a jolt of regret such that he almost passed by his brother’s house.
After Egidio had decimated the flowers over a decade earlier they’d changed the aesthetic of the yard entirely, replacing the flowerbeds with bonsai arrangements, cropped evergreens still covered with mesh to protect them from the winter. Dominic’s wife was an Irish woman with no more claim to the art of Japanese shrubbery than her Italian husband, but Egidio had to admit the landscaping did look chic. They’d drawn chardonnay-colored drapes over the front windows in their absence, and somehow the sight of those curtains, more than anything else about the house, made Egidio forget his regret, gave him back his old rage. It was as if with those silly drapes Dominic thought he could seal himself off in his own self-contained, self-satisfied world. It was so different from how they’d grown up, sitting around a broad wooden table with their entire extended family, passing a bowl of polenta with marinara sauce that their father always said looked like a sunrise.
“I can’t believe we’re actually here,” Ronnie said.
Egidio took a deep breath, then backed the cement mixer into the driveway and up onto the grass. He got out, opened the latch to the six-foot wooden gate that enclosed his brother’s pool, got back into the truck and backed it just a few inches further through the opening into the pool’s interior so that the barrel was facing the pool’s maw.
Dominic’s pool was voided for the winter, its hollow depths strewn with decayed leaves. Only the painted height markings spoke to its true purpose, the vibrancy of its summer life, warm air and the sweet chemical tang of chlorine.
“Maybe you should stay in the truck,” the old man said.
“No way,” Ronnie said back.
So after Egidio pulled the lever that set the discharge chute into motion they both got out to watch the auger lower and ooze the first of the viscous grit into the empty pool. Ronnie gasped a little when the stuff hit bottom. Egidio grabbed him with one arm and pulled him close.
“Your mother,” the old man said. “Must never, ever know about this.”
Ronnie nodded, fixated on the movement of the cement. The drum emptied its batter in folds. The stuff piled at the near edge and then spread, creeping steadily into the other three corners, crossing the one-foot mark. It settled, bubbles breaking laconically on the surface. The mixture made a faint but satisfying gurgling sound. Egidio closed his eyes to better hone in on it, but something about the darkness magnified his bladder’s ache.
There was a creaking at the gate. A man in a flannel housecoat shouldered his way in.
“Hello!” the greeting came out of Egidio’s mouth before he could think twice. “I am the cement man.”
“Cement?” the man frowned. Egidio figured he must live next door. “I don’t remember Dom saying anything about filling the pool…”
“All I know,” Egidio said, “is what he told me, which is that he never uses the pool—it costs him more in maintenance than he gets in pleasure. Summer only lasts a couple weeks around here anyway, right?”
“I suppose,” the man said. “Who’s the boy?”
“I’m his son,” Ronnie said, taking the cue perfectly, stepping close to Egidio and letting the old man put a protective arm around his small shoulders.
“It’s a family business,” Egidio explained.
The neighbor didn’t seem persuaded. He looked from Egidio to Ronnie to the cement oozing past the two-foot mark. Egidio stayed warily focused on what he guessed to be the logical trail of the man’s thoughts. On the one hand, this was certainly suspicious. On the other, it was hardly a conventional crime. Who would fill someone’s pool with cement against that person’s will? Though it was possible that Dominic had told this man about his strange brother, or even that the man had been around so many years ago for the floral destruction. In spite of himself Egidio liked the idea that they talked about him, that his presence was still palpable in his brother’s stories, that he was still important.
The flannelled neighbor retreated, backing out the fence door. “Ok…” he said in a tone of voice that indicated his acquiescence was provisional, reluctant. He looked profoundly uncomfortable. Egidio knew he’d go inside and call Dominic—they would have to finish quickly.
As soon as the neighbor was out of sight and before Egidio had to say anything Ronnie was at the passenger door. They lifted Dominic out together, struggling the few steps to the edge of the pool. Egidio held the bulk of the bust, his brother’s head and shoulders, while Ronnie walked backwards supporting the statue’s base. The boy’s arms trembled a little and he licked his lips, something Egidio had seen him do before when he was very determined. The old man felt a spasm of love at this, at the same time realizing how stupid it was that the boy was the one walking backward—the weight was too much for him. They inched the statue closer to the pool as the last of the sludge crawled out the end of the chute.
“I’m gonna drop it!” Ronnie yelled. His whole body was shaking now. “I can’t hold it up anymore!”
“Then put it down!” Feeling the danger full on them now, Egidio raised his voice to its most commanding. “Put it down and move to the side NOW.”
But Ronnie, stumbling backwards, didn’t move quickly enough. As he set the statue down his heel bumped against the ridge of the pool and he tripped backwards into the wet cement, arms flailing. Lowering the head of the statue and running to him, Egidio saw first Ronnie’s left foot and then his right stick into the grey murk. He watched the boy sway, struggling to right himself, to keep his backside out of the cement. Miraculously he’d managed to keep himself upright. There he was swaying, at first too shocked to make a sound but then screaming, holding out his arms and squatting for balance, as if someone had just thrown a beach ball his way. Egidio leaned over the edge, grabbed the boy under the armpits and pulled. The old man grunted and heaved, but the cement held fast. Elbows braced, chest clenched against the boy’s ribcage, Egidio tried again. Ronnie began to hyperventilate, to cry. Now they’ll have to take him away from me, Egidio thought. A door opened and slammed next door.
“I called Dom,” he heard the voice over the fence say, “and he said there is NO WAY he wanted that pool filled. He said you’re his broth—”
Emerging through the fence door, cell phone in hand, he took in the stuck boy.
“Holy shit.” Then he saw the statue. “What the fuck is going on here?”
Egidio had to remind himself: it was Dominic who’d brought him to this. It was Dominic who’d made something of his life, who’d left his brother behind without a glance back, who brought out that part of Egidio that made him hate himself. And here he was again, compelling Egidio to take advantage of someone innocent. He closed his eyes and tried to condense the force of his hatred into a single, pure beam. With a final anguished heave he pulled the boy loose into his arms. He’d separated Ronnie from his shoes, which were still lodged in the pool.
“I’m calling the police,” said the neighbor.
Egidio didn’t think it necessary to acknowledge that remark. He carried Ronnie, still panting and crying, and set him back in the passenger’s seat of the truck. He had to finish their task. While the neighbor described their location to the cops Egidio crouched behind the statue and tipped it the last inch forward, sending it into the basin. He allowed himself a moment to watch the marble Dominic sink just slightly, settling as planned, the cement folded neatly around the statue’s base, head and shoulders protruding unscathed. Domenico Rudolfo Lombardi was now exactly where he was supposed to be. The tableau was as they’d planned it, the visual effect unmarred…all except, that is, for the two lonely sneakers stuck halfway in and halfway out, strange accessories to the marble head above.
On the ride back Ronnie recovered. He dried his eyes and wiped his nose and began to breathe normally.
“Are the police following us? Will there be sirens?”
“I don’t know,” Egidio said truthfully. He wasn’t sure how much of a law enforcement priority their prank would be—but then again, the suburban police likely cared about those things more.
“Will we get in trouble?”
Egidio shook his head. His bladder felt like it might burst. “If anyone is going to get in trouble, it’s going to be me.” He tried to sound assured. “You don’t need to worry. Also, I will buy you new shoes.”
The thing to do now, obviously, was to separate from the truck. They needed to go somewhere and wait out the trouble. Why hadn’t he thought this part through? But of course: they were near enough to their Dunkin Donuts. If God were on his side it would be Amanda’s shift.
He pulled into the parking lot of a chiropractor’s office across the street. “Let’s go,” he said, but Ronnie pointed to his feet.
“Right.” Egidio picked the boy up and carried him across two lanes of traffic. Unstuck now Ronnie’s body felt so light, as if he were made of foam. He clung to Egidio with a kind of thoughtless need that filled the old man’s lungs with liquid tenderness.
In the shop he set the boy down. It was Amanda!
“Hi Amanda,” they both said. An opaque film of snot bubbled from Ronnie’s nose.
She frowned at the two of them, noting Ronnie’s feet. “Normally I’d say shirt and shoes are required, but—”
“Amanda we need your help,” Egidio said.
“What did you guys do?” Eyes flitting to the two other customers, she lowered her voice. “Never mind, I don’t want to know.”
“Can you let us hide in the bathroom for just a little while?”
“Pleeeease?” Ronnie said. “We’ll tell you all about it later.”
Amanda gave a half-shrug, half exasperated snort. She gave Egidio the bathroom key, which was attached to a plastic donut.
Inside the bathroom smelled of piss and disinfectant. They lowered themselves against the wall, butts on the cold tile.
“How long are we going to stay here?” Ronnie asked.
“Just for a little while.” The old man closed his eyes as if he were preparing for a nap. “Just until we feel safe.”
New customers entered the store, their orders sounding in murmurs.
“How mad will your brother be?” Ronnie said after awhile. “Will he get you back?”
Egidio considered. “I don’t think so,” he said finally. “He doesn’t care as much as I do.” When Ronnie looked confused, he added, “It’s better that way. Not to care.”
He thought of the bust stuck there in the cement. It would endure the seasons. When summer came, the head would glisten and bake. In the winter you wouldn’t be able to see it for the snow. Fast forward a hundred, a thousand seasons, and the elements would wear away the marble, sanding his brother’s head until it became a fine dust. Of course, Dominic would probably find some way to have the statue removed. But it would be difficult; perhaps he’d just keep it there. In that case Egidio’s work would endure. It would endure longer than the exterior of that ill-fated building that had brought him to Chicago in the first place, that ugly monolith they called the Aon Center now, resurfaced with granite that made the whole thing look imposing and cold. He’d heard they’d given some of the discarded marble to mentally disabled Illinois state workers to carve into souvenirs for tourists.
“Don’t you have to pee?” Ronnie said after a while.
“Yes,” Egidio admitted. “Horribly. But I don’t think I’ll be able to, especially with you around.”
“Just try,” Ronnie said. “I won’t look.”
He tried. He unzipped his pants and stood over the bowl. Turning his head sharply, he saw that Ronnie was looking. “Close your eyes!” he commanded.
Ronnie giggled and put a hand to his eyes. There they waited, but nothing came. Egidio’s bladder throbbed, but there was also a hollowness within him, as if there were really nothing left.
“Tell me something about the quarries,” Ronnie said. “The ones back in Italy.”
He was so sweet, that boy—he knew what the old man loved. Egidio knew for sure that he didn’t deserve the kid.
“They say you can see them from outer space,” Egidio told him, shaking his penis a little and sighing in frustration. “From above the whole place looks like it’s covered in snow. But it’s not snow. It’s white marble dust, dust on top of everything.”
In his periphery Egidio spied Ronnie uncovering his eyes.
“Sorry,” Ronnie said.
The pain in his bladder was unbearable. He would need to see a doctor, and soon. He should probably go right away, right after dropping the boy off.
But he couldn’t have Ronnie worry. So he said, “What I wouldn’t give to be an astronaut, to see that marble snow.”
“You know,” Ronnie said, “you can see all that on Google Earth.”
“Yeah,” Ronnie said. “I’ll show you some time.”
The old man smiled. Again he called the old quarries to mind. He remembered how when the stone was newly blasted, the flesh of the marble first exposed, hazelnut veins fractured the dove-colored stone.
He waited. Relief, he suspected, might never be possible.