the sidewalks are made of cement / he understands cement / the way academics understand / the meaning of things beyond / what the words tell / … when he talks cement / what an articulate tongue
—from Gianna Patriarca’s “Five Small Lives”
The poem reminds her of a neighbour from Grace Street. He would also “talk cement.” Every morning, Zia Sestina would see him leave his house, trowel in grip. That’s when she’d skitter to the front yard with a peach or apple, sneaking the fruit into his hand, maybe his lunch pail. She had to be extra careful, because if Zia Francesca or Zio Nino, or one of the children spied her handing-over their well-earned food—enough said. But the neighbour’s wife had Alzheimer’s, and Zia felt obligated to help. So she’d stash almonds and walnuts in a shoe under her bed, or dried apricots in the cuff of her sleeve; then, when morning dawned, she’d withdraw the morsels and give them to the man who talked cement.
One day, he returned from work early, around 1:30pm. Zia Sestina was in the front yard, ripping dried-up roses from the ground. Zia thought he looked more tired than usual—she broke through like a weed and offered him an espresso. Downing it in one gulp, still on his side of the lawn, the man told her about his apprenticeship in bricklaying, back in Calabria. Explained how the trowel he carried belonged to an older brother he never met. His daddy said he had to follow his brother’s footsteps.
Concrete became familiar: he knew everything about it. How the wet mixture would gleam under sun before solidifying into a dull slab. How the trowel would swipe over poured concrete and pull the thick, gritty mass inward. These things were predictable, comforting. Zia asked if he felt proud to make the streets. He said it never finished with his hands. He’d find his work cracked by tree roots, split by ice. Doodles and words and names carved into the concrete he’d taken so long to smooth out.
Zia Sestina smiled—told him, The city’s speaking to you in silence.
That’s when the man who talked cement told my aunt he loved her; she let him hold her hand but didn’t squeeze back. He had a wife and she didn’t want anybody’s half-love left to dry in the sun.