sidewalkJot My Moniker

by Brian Panhuyzen

originally published in Pagitica under the title “Damn Old Folks”

DAMN OLD FOLKS who rise at dawn like crazy rooster cock-a-doodle-doo, creaky bones and joints snapping and popping past my door. I duck under the covers and hide from the pinch of sunlight cutting under the blind’s edge, Grampa moving on his bad foot thump thump along the hallway to the bathroom. Now it’s quiet for a long time, I guess he just sits there nothing happening and flushes anyway. O, why is my bedroom on the sunnyside of the house and beside the bathroom too, especially with me hating mornings more than pumpernickel and blood sausage?

My name is Tim and I’m eleven and this is the story of how a young man can’t make his mark in the world because the old guys keep you down. Sure, they’re slow and they’re bentover and they smell funny, but make no mistake, the world is still their toaster.

In summertime a feller likes to sleep in, eat a waffle or a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, and set out to seek his fortune. It’s been like that since knights and romans ruled the earth; if you don’t give us our due we go funny in the head, become undertakers or bum doctors when we grow up.

You know the way a sidewalk is made of blocks? Well, sometimes they break or get old or they have to dig them up for wires or pipes and then they gotta put in new ones. Yesterday some guys in orange came and I watched them sweat in the morning heat as their jackhammers busted up two blocks in front of our house, cracked and split them like eggshells, lifted the chunks out and threw them in the truck, got right down to the dirt so it looked like a little grave. Why they pick those two blocks? Probably because they were older than the ones beside, older and darker, chipped from stuff like the snowshovel (pushed usually by me, not my brother Giddy) scraping them all winter long. Then the guys banged in stakes and set boards in place, laid planks over the hole, and put up pylons and warning signs, but when they were gone we walked on the planks and Hainsburgh pulled one up for no reason but to blow a booger into the pit.

It’s a timecapsule, he said. My snot will educate the future!

Very pretty. But now there’s a hullabaloo outside the window and guys calling and swearing and laughing, so I pop up the blind, squint into daylight and there they are, those same orange guys, smoking and joking while beep-beep-beep a cement truck, barrel turning and I can hear the slop inside is backing up to the hole, boards stripped away and Hainsburgh’s booger baking in the sunshine.

When the truck’s in position one of the guys (cig hanging on his lip, that looks so cool!) swings the chute over the pit and pulls a lever. And here comes the slop. The other guys jab their shovels into the flow, sweep it down, and grey muck pours into the hole like porridge into my bowl, and just as appetizing. I watch this scene, the guys chat and gabble and smoke and sometimes move a shovel as the level comes up, it’s so cool that this goo will soon be hard enough to crack your head, like Jimbo Gunther’s last May when he jigged left to his skateboard’s right, I think his brain damage is getting better or his spit’s drying up, whatever the case he drools less now.

Not just kids dig this thing, cause there’s gramps in his Tilly hat shuffling out to watch and gab with the workmen. You can tell by the way they look away that they hate him goggling over their work, saying dumb stuff I’m sure like, “In my day, cement came in a tin and you could eat it with a spatula!” or something else dorky. Pretty soon the flow stops and they haul out the rakes and start smoothing the stuff down like cake batter. Looks like not enough and the truck spews more until the rakes get it even with the rest of the walk. Then it’s work for a trowel, only one of the guys does this, he must be the pro in the know, and Grampa starts hollering encouragement so the trowel guy’s brow wrinkles under his hatbrim. He cuts a groove between the two and works until the slop is combed and so where the hole was there are now two dark blocks, sort of new brothers to the other sidewalk blocks. Gramps is laughing at something he just said, the boys don’t care they got work someplace else, but first they put up the barricades, the signs and flags and warnings and as I sit there on my bed all cowlicked and groggy I suddenly realize that what we got here is a race for time. That cement is going to harden, but you better believe it won’t without my mark. Forget Hainsburgh’s subterranean booger buffet for the ants; my name’s on a trip to eternity – set in stone!

Now the cement mixer is rolling on up the street, now the orange boys are spreading canvas on the wet cement and stowing their rakes and shovels and trowels in their truck, now the old man is lifting his hat in farewell.

I roll out of bed while peeling off my pyjamas. No time for underwear, just shorts and yesterday’s stinky shirt. It’s time, it’s time, friends, to make my mark.

The screen door busts shut behind me and though the old man can hardly hear my mom when she tells him he’s got sour cream on his earlobe, this noise spins him.

Hey there, lad, he says as I approach while jabbing my feet into unlaced sneakers. Up early for once.

Yeah, the noise from those guys. Hey, lookit, new sidewalk, I say, pointing so he looks but meanwhile I’m scouting for a stick. Damn grass, I cut it yesterday and Giddy raked so it’s clean as a kitchen table. Gotta get rid of the old man.

Hey, pee, I say. Pee, hey pee, piss. I gotta go piss so bad. Pee, man do I gotta pee. Piss and pee. Then I make a sound like going pee.

Gramps just looks at me then the sky, like he’s waiting for the rescue choppers or the angels to airlift him outta here. Course I just got up and with all the pee talk now I gotta go and petty bad, goddamn. But I hang in there and we glance at each other and the grass and the street and the sky, and there is nothing to say to this old guy, the world is a different place, better believe it. I got my legs crossed and I’m hopping a bit but there’s no remedy for a full bladder except to empty the sucker.

I run inside and do the job, then stick my hand under the tap to wet it so I can slick down the cowlick, but it don’t do nothing but stick up. I bolt to the kitchen, dunk two poptarts into the toaster, and suck back half a jug of juice. After I’ve gobbled the tarts I go out and he’s sitting there, no shit, sitting in a foldup chair he must’ve grabbed from the garage while I was feeding my face. Right there in front of the sidewalk. Sitting there. Watching. I go stand by his chair and he circles a bony arm around my waist, calls me “young feller,” moans something about the old days. I yawn big and bend over the barricade, just look at that damp canvas like it’s a wrapper on a candybar.

Hey there, young feller, you back off now. Leave that cement to harden. You hear?

Ya, I hear, but I ignore, hop on my bike, bomb up the street and back down, lay down a skid. It leaves a thick stroke of rubber on the blacktop, and hey I think, here’s how I can jot down my name for the future! I ride off, turn, zoom in from a right angle and jam my foot on the pedal, cross that big T with rubber. Scoot up the street again, pick up speed, shoot towards that T laid out on the asphalt, jam the brakes, sketch an I beside the T. Four skids from immorality, pedal up again, jump on the juice, and the first stick to the M lays down all thick and black. Now I gotta ink the next arm at an angle, trickier now, scoot forward and at the start of the skid and I lay the bike down, here comes the hard part, gotta meet the top of the first line just right, and I do it, I actually do it perfect, on my way to stardom! The next line is the same angled opposite, I set up for my attack run, bend low with my chin on the handlebars, gonna slash my name onto the street, onto the avenue. The incomplete letter slides under my wheels and with ultra-precision I stomp on the pedal, wheel locks, lay me down rubber, and the hard part is done! Then sssssss, what is that sound like someone pissing, at first I think it’s the old man letting go in his foldup chair, but then I see that he’s laughing, laughing at what? Pointing my way as the back of my bike sinks and steel meets pavement; I leap off and flip the bike over but there’s nothing to do, air gushing out through a flat patch, tire dying right before my eyes, and Gramps cackling the whole time. I look down at the road, at “TIM” with only three-quarters of an M, looks more like “TIN” with a cockeyed N, and the old guy larfing. Fuck!

Hey Tin! he calls, and I don’t even look. Rin-tin-tin! Ha! If your name was “Mark” you coulda writ it with one skid!

It’s hot and the old guy is sweating under his hat, but he don’t get up, he don’t move, just sits there, self-appointed guard of the block, and that concrete getting harder by the second, damn! Then a voice is calling from the porch, it’s Mom and she’s got just what the doc ordered, a cool tall glass of lemonade, she’s holding it out and I dart up the steps and grab it without even a thank-you ma’am.

For your grandfather, she says as I lift it to my lips. Crap! Double-crap! Who decided that old guys rule the rust? The door bangs shut and I gulp three quarters, leave half a swig for the old man.

Here ya go, cramps, er, Gramps, I say as I hand him the glass. He gives me a look with a crunched sweaty brow, then sips.

I gotta tell you, he wasn’t always a cranky puss. Just last year he was a here’s-five-bucks-sonnyboy-git-yerself-some-candy kinda gent, grins and glee and a laugh like thunder. I actually liked to be around him. Him and Nan. But four months ago Nan died. She had cancer and we knew what was coming, all of us, we got to say goodbye, but Gramps was not the same friendly gent after that. He still speaks her name like it’s a flower or the moon, Amanda, Amanda, (big sigh), Amanda. I miss her too, she wasn’t just nice she was double nice and made stuff too, things I didn’t like when I got them (scratchy sweater, gloves) but now I love. Sometimes I even wish for winter so I can wear that stuff. Crazy, eh? Who wants summer to end, duh!

Well it must be high noon cause who stumbles onto the porch and ties his shoes but brother Giddy, my personal torture puppet. He’s groggy and sleepy, so I run to the back of the house and load my squirt gun, return to where he’s chatting with Grampa, and squirt him in the ear.

Hey! he yells, which Grampa echoes, as some got on him.

Whoops, I go. I was trying for that bird. I squirt into the air. Then I shoot Giddy’s ear again.

Tim! he yells, and Grampa goes for me, he actually takes a swipe with a big wrinkled hand. He’s never done that before. Misses by a mile but I can’t believe it, why he do that?

Giddy laughs and I think maybe his ear’s not adequately lubricated, but don’t spray again, not sure why, maybe I don’t want to get stung by the old man. Not that it would hurt.

And now I’m bored. I mean, there’s gotta be a way to draw the old guy away from the sidewalk so I can jab a stick into its gooey skin, etch my name before it turns rocksolid. Aw, screw it. I hear there are some spray cans piled under the Eastview Bridge, think I’ll check them out. Myron, who is supposed to be my best friend except I think he’s an idiot, he said we should make a fire and toss them in. Aerosol grenades. Of course I can’t ride to moron Myron’s place with a flat tire. Shit! Maybe I’ll take Giddy’s bike. But then I remember that it’s a girls’ bike which our my mom bought at a garage sale. So much for that!

Giddy’s been jawing with the old man, explaining Pikachu and Yoshi and stuff and the old guy is nodding like he even cares, but hey, now he’s getting up, and hey, now he’s heading up to the house. Time to act.

Damn, and me without a stick! I burn to the backyard and find a twig, maybe too limp but it’s gotta do, and I run around to the front and who the frig is standing there, arms crossed and oh sure, as if he’s going to stop me, but Giddy.

Step aside, boy, I say in a mean voice.

Over my dead body.

I was hoping you’d say that!

I reach out, ready to pick him up by the nostrils, when, like a siren, Mawwwwwwwwwwm!

It ain’t Mawm who comes out the house, it’s the old guy, lumbering, clubfooted like some clunky old android, clutching a plate with a sandwich in one hand and a lemonade in the other. I wonder if there’s time to peel away the canvas and jot my moniker, am actually tilting over the barrier with the edge of the tarp between my fingers when thwunk! as something busts me in the back of the head. I think maybe it’s Giddy, whirl around to give him his due (meanwhile rubbing what I can feel will be a bump) but see him there with both hands clutched over his mouth. His eyes are laughing and I know the rest of him will soon follow, check to where he’s looking, and there’s a plastic plate on the grass with crumbs on it. I look up and the old man is glaring, hand that was holding the plate crushed into a fist, sandwich on the grass at his feet.

Giddy lets it go, howls, Frisbeed! He frisbeed you! While I think holy shit, he did. I even forget to punish Giddy, just glare at the old man as he glares back.

You come here Tim and pick up my sandwich, he croaks. At first I don’t move, think, there’s no way you old goat, but I can’t believe I’m bending over, lifting the plate, and my feet are walking me over there, stooping to collect the sandwich, then the old guy drops a heavy hand on my shoulder and we walk together, old guy using young me like a crutch, back to the chair, where he eases down, sets the lemonade on the grass, and holds up his hand for the plate. I pass it over and he starts to eat. I want to yell “forgodsakes man, that’s been on the ground!” but he knows that of course, eats it anyway, eats it because he doesn’t care, that unlike for me or Giddy or even Mom or Dad, it don’t matter that it may have got dirt or ants or dogshit on it, he’s eating that sandwich. And it’s at that moment that something happens inside me, like a switch clicking off, and I know before the thought even finishes that I can’t beat this old guy, he’s made from different stuff and I am gonna lose no matter what, so it’s time to give up, to get in the house and get done some Playstation, forget about my mark. This zone is protected, that cement is meant to remain unmarred, and I ain’t got the gumption.

He stays out there all day, while the sun hammers down on his Tilly and Giddy brings him cookies and lemonade and iced tea and apples before the sun finally sets behind the house, and he sits on guard for thee, thee being our fresh new smooth sidewalk.

I guess that’s what killed him. He went in that evening and got to bed early, didn’t even stay up to watch citypulse, and I woke to the sound of voices in the hallway rather than his slow creaky clomp, I come out still in pyjamas in time to see the stretcher, body veiled head to toe like in the movies, rolling out with two dudes in blue, Mom walking beside with one hand on the rail as they clacked it down the front steps and across the lawn, past the sidewalk barricades where two orange guys stood smoking, silently watching as the cart slid into the back and the doors banged shut. No lights or siren as it rode away, Dad comes out in his suit and he and Mom climb in the car and she rolls down the window and calls me over.

Timmy, do you know what’s happened? Your grampa, he’s gone. I can hardly stand to look into her red eyes, think I might cry if I do, so I gaze over the cartop, at the light shining through the green leaves of the birch that shelters our house. Take care of your brother. We’ll be home in a while. Give a kiss.

I kinda throw my head into the window, her arms clutch it and she kisses me again and again on the cheeks, and instead of pulling away like I should I just let her lips and wet face press against mine, because you know what? I’m crying too. Finally she lets me go and I look at her and she looks at me and we don’t say anything, but Dad goes, All right sport. Make sure your brother gets some breakfast in him. He cranks the engine and they back out and the car zooms up the street.

The two orange guys are still smoking, look at me for a second before they get embarrassed, grind their cigs under their heels, and set to work.

For fuck’s sake, one of them says as he peels back the canvas.

I go over and look.

You do this, kid? the other guy asks.

Naw.

Yeah, right. Probably your girlfriend’s name. I’m sure she’ll be real pleased when she sees it. Might even give you one with tongue.

In messy letters, awkward, jagged, but etched in rocksolid concrete, is scrawled a name: “Amanda.”

 

Creative Commons License

“Jot My Moniker” by Brian Panhuyzen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Canada License.