He held the bronze key in the blinding sunlight with his greyed-fingers. The light shown through the small loop at the head of the key. “Small thing” he muttered under his breath as he twirled the key, eyeing it with almost a sense of sorrow. “Ah, well.” He lowered his arm and tenderly placed the key on the layer of cement that he had just lathered onto the brick. Lightly pressing it into the wet cement, Ernest eyed longingly at the key, now just cushioned by the cement. His nerves hesitated and made him restless. His lips began to quiver until a small cascade of tears flowed form the edges of his sweaty eyes. Shaking his entire body, he almost reached for the key until his heart stopped him and he shut his lips together. “Suck it up.” To the right of him were his stacks of red bricks, piled up three feet high. As rapidly as possible, Ernest reached for a brick, placed it gently– but not improperly, and pressed down on it slightly. The tears ran faster and the whimpers had broken down into a full sob. It was the end.
Ernest Smith was a bricklayer by trade. Every day, he used the same overalls that were spotted with dried cement as a testament to his purpose; he had no schooling, no other work. None of that mattered before. There wasn’t much else to it. “Till I don’t, till I die.” He was often quoted as saying but no one ever knew quite what he meant. Day and night he tilled under the hot sun of the small Arizona town of Soledad laying bricks for his neighbors. For five years since he had moved to Soledad, his given purpose was his wife; to make her happy. But that turned to ashes in his mouth.
Sucking the snot up his nose, he stabilized himself and kept laying the wall for his neighbor, brick by brick. He no longer needed the key; she did, but it’s not like that mattered. “I don’t even need that stupid cellar” he grumbled to himself as he locked them away earlier that morning “bunch of useless junk in there anyway, she can find their company down there. I don’t give a damn. That son of a bitch Randyll too."
Although what he did had weighed heavy upon his heart, he knew he had to do it. And indeed he did, with no second thoughts once he heard their perversions down in the cellar.It had seemed like just yesterday that fancy man with his grey suit and tie had walked into Soledad prospecting for his daddy’s company. Looking for oil was one thing in this small town, but betraying fellow man for a woman was another, especially. “Betsy…” he exasperated. “Betsy, Betsy, Betsy.”
What could have he expected? A high-flying girl from Tucson. The dusty roads of Soledad were no life for a budding socialite like her. Bronze-haired Betsy was never his to hold onto for long; this he knew well deep inside him, no matter much he appeared to keep himself aloof from all that could harm him. A bricklayer of the desert of Arizona versus the son of an oil-tycoon from far away Los Angeles, wherever that was. His beaten-up black Model-T with a barely live engine he had bought at the lowest price versus Randyll Howard’s newly driven roadster shipped all the way from the east. What is the power of bricks when it comes to the black gold that is oil? For long, rumor had it that there was oil below Soledad. Randyll’s daddy, Wyatt Howard sent him out to prospect for it to see if anything about it was true. When he came, there wasn’t much that caught Randyll’s eye. It turned out that the oil was simply never there. Yet something else caught Randyll’s eye, just like it had caught Ernest’s eyes that night in Tucson all those years ago.
Small towns chirp whatever gossip ever comes around like a troupe of mockingbirds. And before long, the entire town fully knew that it wasn’t the search for oil that was keeping Randyll Howard in Soledad, but Betsy Smith, the wife of Ernest. With each stroll the two took, the neighbors who he laid bricks for began to murmur disturbing things to him. “I don’t trust that man” said one usual client. As if the embarrassment wasn’t enough, it killed Ernest inside to strike Betsy as he did when she returned home. Her screams and sobs echoed through its walls as she pleaded with him to stop, that Randyll was just a friend. It was in the small garden Betsy tended where he found her. Her red hair knotted upwards with delicate strands falling from the knot like palms. Ernest remembered the moment when he witnessed Randyll take off his hat while he slumped over the fence between the sidewalk and the garden; Ernest himself sat inside and spied from the window, not daring to intervene until he thought the two had had enough smiling and laughing. He burst out with a smile and inquired Randyll’s business in Soledad as Betsy looked on unhappily. Randyll kept his cool and smiled backing, shaking Ernest’s hand “Hello sir! I’m in Soledad for…” Ernest did not remember what else he said because quite simply, he didn’t care. All that mattered then was that he get this dashing stranger in his three-piece suit away from Betsy. Betsy, who he prized above all else in his life, could never feel the same. “You shouldn’t talk to that man” he scolded her once Randyll had left the front yard. “Strange people from California ain’t welcome here.”
She was silent and paid him no mind. Indeed, for the months following that encounter, he witnessed them walking about the town together, smiling and giggling. When he confronted her about it, she blew it off. “You worry too much Ernest. Let me have a little fun in life. Mr Howard is a respectable man.” She said it with a smile but her words had poison to them. Betsy had always detested Ernest. Detested what he had “lied” to her about when he had won a small lottery in Tuscon five years. He could’ve had the money he promised her, if he had not spent what he had won in the first five days to woo her. “Come to Soledad” he said to her on that night many years ago. “It’ll be a ball. We’ll spend the rest of our lives there together. We’ll be happy.”