Echoes in Stone
Just as Julia rinsed the conditioner from her hair and turned off the water, her gaze fell to one of the stone tiles on her new shower wall. It appeared to be the shape of her cat Sybil’s head. And a reddish-brown stain topped one ear. She swiped at the flaw with her washcloth to no avail. Squinting at it, it almost looked like dried blood had set in the stone.
* * *
Neither of the stonesetters, a father and son from a country few Americans had ever heard of before its endless war, was familiar with the material they were hired to set in their new client’s bathroom. The flat stones in random shapes glued to squares of netting were so soft to the touch, the father was enchanted the moment he saw them.
“This is really something,” he said to his son. Continuing to run his rough fingers over the smooth, greyish-white pieces, he added, “Something like this could only be invented in a country like America!”
Their adopted country seemed limitless in its invention and production of things that couldn’t have even been imagined back home. In fact, the last TV news they’d seen of their hometown lacked any sign of humanity other than a decade of war. A pack of skinny dogs roamed in and out of the shelled and burned-out housing. Dirty cats skirted the dogs and chased rats. Only the gulls, dipping and circling over the city’s broken minarets, seemed unaffected.
Alex didn’t really need his father and his old-fashioned saw table on this job. But his mother begged: “Your father stays home, he gets bored. He gets depressed.”
The house they were working in seemed uncomfortable to Alex. There wasn’t a scrap of carpeting, and the high ceilings and naked glass windows seemed to conspire with the hardwood floors to amplify everything from his footsteps to whispers. Though he was in a houseful of people, some of them making a lot of noise, he felt cold and alone. If he ever owned a home, his would never sound as empty as an echo.
Julia’s eyes fell on Alex’s heavy work boots every time he entered and exited her house. She hated the invasion of it all. The expansion of the downstairs bathroom to accommodate a jetted tub was a monstrous disruption to her daily routine.
The workmen were all strangers—loud immigrants who used only rudimentary English. Half the time she couldn’t tell whether they were trying to communicate with each other, or hollering out a question she needed to answer. The intermittent roar of saws, drills and hammers made it impossible to finish her edit of a college history textbook, its deadline looming. The endless swirl of dust made any kind of housework a joke, and she couldn’t even concentrate on a crossword.
“Just think about how good that whirlpool bath will feel when they are all finished,” her husband cheerfully chirped each morning when he left for the tranquility of his office.
Julia hated the idea of sitting idle in the middle of it all, like some queen bee among drones, but by the afternoon of the first day, when they were smashing through a wall with sledgehammers, all she could do was surrender to the spectacle.
She observed that the men setting the stone on the bathroom walls and floors resembled each other and were probably a father and son team. They spoke little English with the plumbers and carpenters, but conversed with each other in a language Julia studied in college, but rarely had the opportunity to practice. She was happy to see that the older man took his shoes off whenever he entered her house.
Dmitry urged his son to do the same, but Alex chose to follow the plumber’s lead, which was to drape tarp wherever he walked. The loose canvas on the polished wood stairs, however, made each descent a dance to keep from slipping. A Calico cat, washing its ears at the foot of the stairs, skidded away the first time Alex’s foot hit the covering.
Julia surmised that the father’s approach to masonry was more traditional and time consuming than his son’s. He used a cumbersome stonecutting table that his son helped him set up outside on the deck. It didn’t look like anything an American craftsman would use. She wondered how the pair had managed to get out of their country with something so clumsy. Surely, the war necessitated a hurried, even hasty, departure.
The two men took a lot of time in their painstaking efforts to properly fit each tile at the shower’s corners. Every time a tile needed trimming, the father would bring it upstairs to adjust with his saw. Sometimes this took only one try. Other times, the same piece went up and down the stairs more than once. By 11 a.m. on their first day of work, the father was sweating and panting on each trip up the stairs. Julia was relieved when the son started bringing the pieces to the father, whose name she learned was Dmitry.
At lunchtime, Dmitry sat on the rear bumper of the contractor’s truck, trying to balance a boiled egg on his metal mess plate.
“Here, let me get you a chair,” Julia offered.
Dmitry deferred but Julia quickly retuned with a folding lawn chair. Dmitry bowed and scraped, as if she had suddenly changed everything about his life for the better. She responded with a few pleasantries in his native tongue, and asked how long he had been living in the United States.
Thrilled that Julia could speak his language, Dmitry bubbled on about 10 years of adjustment to life in the U.S. Julia didn’t understand all of what he was telling her, but at one point she thought he said, “Everything in America seems possible and impossible all at the same time.”
Dmitry went on about his wife and her troubles in the American healthcare system until it occurred to him that the politely nodding woman probably understood only about half of what he was saying. When his son, who never took any time for lunch, came out, he asked him to answer Julia’s questions in English.
Alex put the stone he needed trimmed into his father’s hand, and studied Julia without expression. “We came here when I was 11,” he offered slowly. “My father taught me his skills before I finished high school.” When Alex turned his back on them to go, Dmitry got up and admonished his son in the language Julia realized she only partly remembered. Before the younger man entered the house again, he added, “My mother is here also.”
Dmitry shrugged off his son’s social indifference and focused on the stone he held in his hand. But Julia surmised he was trying to hide the pain his son’s unhappiness brought him. She wanted to reassure him, and suggest that perhaps his son was still too young to realize that he had an excellent chance at a better life in the U.S. But such a message was too important to mess up in another clumsy attempt at Dmitry’s language, so she chose instead a smile and a comforting pat on his back before retreating to her kitchen for lunch.
In the days that followed, Julia and the stonesetters exchanged little but the usual client and contractor pleasantries. While Dmitry took the greatest delight in receiving Julia’s compliments in his native language, she was mindful that his son preferred to be spoken to in English.
When all of the work was done, Julia signed off on what she considered an overpriced job on everything except the stone-lined bath and shower. It was beautiful, like the walls of an elegant spa she had once visited in Tuscany.
By the time she moved everything back into the bathroom and washed out the new tub, toilet and sink, she no longer had the time for the leisurely whirlpool she had planned. So she inaugurated the remodel with a shower.
The water from the new, broader showerhead fell more softly on her shoulders than it had from the old one. She soaped up and wondered if the stonesetter’s wife was any happier than her husband and son, or at least relieved to be living in a safer, more secure country. Had the decade they had been here brought any of them even a scrap of peace? She wondered if they thought about one day going back.
Before stepping out of the tub, she looked back at the shower wall to see if she had just imagined that stone in the shape of her cat’s head. But her eyes found it immediately. Again, she swiped at the reddish-brown smudge on its ear, but gave up. Perhaps it was natural. She prayed it wasn’t mold or fungus.
When her husband came home and asked if she had enjoyed her first shower in the new bath, Julia’s mind drifted back to the flaw in the stone, but she didn’t mention it. Halfway through dinner it occurred to her that when Alex shook her hand upon leaving, his thumb was wrapped in two or three Band-Aids.
The next day, Julia finally indulged in the whirlpool bath she had looked forward to since the remodel began. Settling in to the warm, bubbling neck-deep water, she studied the stone in the shape of her cat’s head. The brownish red stain on its ear was, she concluded, Alex’s fingerprint made with a smudge of his blood. Some bleach would probably get it out.
She dipped further into the water and dunked her head to get her hair wet. When she looked at the wall again, her eyes settled on another stone. This one looked like a dog’s head. It was a little larger than the cat’s, but clearly, it was a dog, though of no particular breed that she could tell. She was rinsing her hair when she noticed that another stone, this one more jagged-shaped, looked like a wide-winged bird in flight. What?
Was this something deliberate? Did the stonesetters mean to leave some kind of message? Or was she cracking up from all the noise and disruption? She quickly searched the rest of the wall for any more animals, but found none. She studied the cat, dog and bird from different angles as she toweled off.
That evening, after her husband used the shower for the first time, Julia asked him if he had noticed anything unusual about the shower wall.
“Why? Is something wrong?”
“No,” she said. She didn’t see any point in taking the issue any further. Her husband was not the most observant man in the world. She was always noticing things he didn’t.
But he persisted. “Don’t you like it?”
“Yes, of course,” she said, “It’s . . .” She flashed on something Dmitry had said about the city he fled, something he had seen on TV news involving roaming cats, dogs and seagulls.
“What don’t you like about it?”
“No,” Julia said slowly, “I love it. It’s . . .” she hesitated, then took in a long breath and let it go without finishing the sentence. The word “beautiful” just didn’t do justice to the stonesetter's work. And every other word she could think of seemed somehow hollow.
About denize springer
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