Toward the end of the summer of 1966, Pop decided to build a brick barbecue grill in the backyard. One weekend, he took me to the public library and parked me and Tanya, my big floppy doll, in the children’s section while he looked through various how-to kinds of books and Sunset Magazine pamphlets until he found a plan that he liked. Pop checked out his books and I checked out mine. I’d had my own library card since first grade.
A couple of evenings during the next week, after he’d finished his shift and come home from the plant, we’d go out back with the tape measure and the beam level and plan it out. Pop did some experiments; he stood at the spot he would be standing if that were the spot we decided to build the barbecue.
“Okay now, son,” he said. “Go in the kitchen and pretend to bring me a big platter of T-bone steaks.”
I’d go inside through the sliding glass door, count to ten, and Tanya like it was the Melmac platter piled up with meat. Pop would watch me carefully while my mom would watch us both through the kitchen window. He watched how I came out and where I was walking.
“How was that?” I’d ask him after serving him Tanya.
“Pretty good, pretty good,” he’d answer. “I think a few more feet back and maybe over toward the willow some.” Pop wanted the layout to be efficient, to not require waste in travel time. He’d move and we’d repeat the experiment.
“Nadine,” he’d call to my mom. “Nadine. What do you think about this spot?” She’d wave her hands through the glass and he’d move an inch or two in that direction and then I’d go back into the house with Tanya for another dry run.
“Hey, these steaks are going to be good,” Pop told me as he pretended to cook them.
The weekend after, we went to the brickyard with a list of materials, mostly bricks and mortar, that we’d need to build the grill. The parking lot was full of other pickup trucks.
Pop took his list and started looking at the piles of bricks in the yard. All different sizes, shapes, and colors, they formed what to me looked like a small city with streets and alleys. I sort of tagged along behind him, wandering this way and that, while Tanya sort of drug in the dirt behind me. I liked the way it smelled there.
Up ahead of us, I saw my father stop and start talking to one of the other men looking through the bricks, a man named Fisher Martin who worked at another factory but his kids went to the same school as me, a boy in the third grade like me and twin girls in sixth. I kept wandering but let myself gravitate toward where they learned against a pile of cinder blocks. They were smoking cigarettes.
After just a little while, there I was right next to them, knee level, and looking up.
“Hey, Mr. Martin,” I said.
He just looked down at me for a moment.
“Well, hey there,” he finally said.
“Is Nelson here?” I asked him in reference to his boy.
Mr. Martin just kept looking at me and I noticed he was also looking at Tanya a bit and I got embarrassed. I mean, I was a little kid and all, but not too little to know what some people thought about me dragging a doll around.
“He’s playing ball,” Mr. Martin told me.
“Umm.” I made that noise because I was sure out of things to say and pretty much wished I hadn’t said anything. Pop was looking at Mr. Martin and I felt pretty bad for him there in the brickyard with me and Tanya.
“You ever play much ball, son?” Mr. Martin continued. “I mean, I don’t see you too much down to the ball fields. You ever think about playing ball?”
I started feeling even worse then. Pop wasn’t saying anything at all and I really wished I’d left Tanya at home. I just wasn’t thinking. Mr. Martin didn’t like all that quiet and had to fill it up.
“How old are you?” he asked me, but he was looking at Pop. “I mean, how come I never see you playing with the boys and such? And just what is that you’re dragging around behind you? It ain’t a big old doll, is it?”
I couldn’t think of a thing to say to answer him. He’d asked too many questions and the answers weren’t lining up in my head to give him. I just looked down into the brickyard dust.
There was a flurry of quick movement in the corner of my eye and the next thing I knew, there was Mr. Martin down there in the dirt. I was a little surprised to see him there.
“Whoa, Fisher,” I heard Pop say and he was leaning down to pull Mr. Martin up to his feet. Mr. Martin was red and wheezing and Pop just sort of handled him. “You oughta be a whole lot more careful. Looks like you slipped or something there.”
Pop leaned Mr. Martin up against the cinder blocks and patted some of the dust off him.
“You better just rest a minute there, Fisher,” Pop told him. “Think some about safety.”
He had Mr. Martin’s cap in his hand and whacked it a few times against his thigh before he set it back on Mr. Martin’s head. It was a little crooked up there and Mr. Martin was still wheezing, his eyes were wet looking, and he couldn’t seem to catch his breath.
Pop reached down and took my hand.
“Come on, son,” he said. “Let’s let old Fisher Martin catch his wind here and we’ll go get us some bricks.”