Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
MID-JULY. The heat beats down like hammer on tin, driving wrinkles into the hard headache blue that stretches the x and y-axes for as far as
anyone cares to look. The only break in the sky’s sweep is the stinging orange sand beneath our feet, a few scrubby acacias rooted at the base of some low-lying dunes, and this tower.
The tower, which is really more like a pyramid or ziggurat, we are building by hand, brick by brick. Each brick is imprinted with a sentence of great import. This explains why after four weeks with four crews working double shifts the tower is only seven stories tall. Add to this the bricks are mighty heavy. But I shouldn’t complain. The brick I’m carrying is fairly light by relative standards. aim high! it reads, a pretty straightforward sentence. And as there is nothing dodgy about an imperative, I hoist my brick onto my shoulder and lengthen my stride.
“It’s Leland, by the way,” I say to the man in front of me. Why not? I’ve been looking at the back of his head for three hours now.
“What?” He stops and glances over his shoulder.
“Leland,” I say. “That’s my name.”
With a grunt he stops, hefts his brick a little higher onto his shoulder. “Dwayne, with a w,” he says and starts walking again. I can tell by the way he grimaces that his load must be quite a bit heavier than mine. It reads: successful interrelation of the parts is the result of compatible communication between the parts.
Up ahead two men carry between them a brick of massive density. They work with the silence of men who’ve known each other for a long time. And it’s a good thing, too, because their brick, a compound complex sentence, of which the relative clauses—loose constructions of camel dung and straw—leave a long trail of droppings we take great care not to step in: who, where, which, when.
“Remember, men, there’s no I in team,” Mortensen calls from his perch in the boom lift. With some artfully placed cardboard, he’s transformed the basket of the lift into a shaded minaret. We nod to the lift, then tuck our chins to our chests and keep moving. Before all this tower business, Mortensen was a motivational speaker employed by the biggest and best, flown to shipyards and hangars to say the words, the right ones, that would inspire workers to reach their potential, which is a concept of mathematics I have never quite understood. Which is why we need Mortensen, who understands such things, to motivate from beneath the shade of the cardboard minaret. The other reason is because Mortensen has the lovely canting voice of a true tenor. And he’s not afraid to inspire in unconventional ways: bagpipes, bullhorns, cat-o’-nine-tails.
We wear coveralls, orange. Hardhats, orange. Bug-eyed safety goggles, orange. Super-strength gloves, orange. The bricks are also orange, though some carry a slight cast of umber or rust. In front of the north face of the tower the night crew mixes sand, camel dung, and clay while another crew bakes the brick in the kiln, which is really a long, covered trench dug deep in the sand. The scholars stamp in the sentences, and to watch them work brings a sting of salt to the eyes.
But it’s the hod carriers, the hoddies, and the grunts who do the real work. The hoddies mix and carry in their wheelbarrows the mortar, which is, in accordance to specs, a bituminous sludge. Grunts like me follow, humping the bricks as fast as our stocky legs can manage to the masons who rest on bended knee and slap the bricks into their places. There’s a covert ops contingent of engineers who disappear at dawn into the hidden heart of the tower. To ponder the blueprints? To test the staying power of their cell phones? I can’t quite figure, but such musings are a distraction, and thus, not at the heart of successful interrelation, and if there’s one thing we agree we must do well, it’s interrelate. Which explains why we have these bricks stacked upon bricks, these sentences side-winding into the sky, our switch-back ramps, our ropes, our wheelbarrows, our camels that crap with a high degree of regularity, and, of course, Mortensen.
At shift’s end, Mortensen trades the bullhorn for his bagpipes and his fluty cries turn to twangy skirling. The noise scatters the birds and breaks the resolve of the unending blue, leveling dusk to grainy lavender. Later, after the buzz and hum has died down, we gather in the shadow of the tower and Mortensen marks the day’s progress by the length of the shadow fall. If we’re ahead of schedule, we get double rations at the canteen. Then off we go to the tents huddled at the south side where ambition is a blanket we tuck tight around ourselves to stay warm. From beyond the dunes drift the songs of the scrub sparrows and babblers. We listen and watch the changing shapes of the dunes. They are camels slumbering. They are women lying side by side, their smooth hips dark and rolling. When the sun goes down, the dunes, the sand that composes the dunes, are anything you want them to be.
Overhead the stars snap on, one by one, and we close our eyes. We dream of a sky that weeps in the subdued shades of gray and slate. Some of us harbor visions of the women we wish we’d known. Some of us consider the tower that reminds us that we are men with a mission. I think of the girl who wipes down the metallic counter at the canteen. Her noble and aloof bearing reminds me of the camels who sit kiln-side, impervious to our human presence. The older woman who works the grill calls her Zamira, but her nametag reads “June,” and I like the sound of her name, both of them, even though June in the desert is a crushing heat wave. Her eyes are dark as the water at the bottom of a long long well, her skin shade beneath a tree. She wears a yellow Yukos T-shirt, which is just tight enough to give me some hope: only Coptic girls wear clothes that conjure a shape, and this is good news because I’m Christian, too—a Methodist of a very broad stripe. And I think if I don’t screw things up, I might have half a chance with her.
At daybreak Mortensen takes a ceremonial pee from the boom lift. Then up goes the signal orange bullhorn and the call to work sallies forth in pure notes that warm the wax in my ears:
Language is the means of becoming human, the record of wit at play. The right hand of thought, language is the evidence of life, the substantiation of meaning.
Pretty heady stuff and sometimes, like right now, even Mortensen has to stop and ponder the substantial meanings. But only for a minute and then it’s time for boot-up, for the Q-and-A portion of the morning sound-off.
“What are we making of our words?” Mortensen calls out. The boom lift ticks up up up, forcing cricks in our necks as our gaze follows it up up up.
“More words!” we cry, tugging with a last savage pull on our boot tongues.
“And what are words?” he shouts.
“Markers!” we shout back, taking to our stations.
“And what are we marking?” Mortensen’s cadence is so even and sure-footed that I suddenly feel as if I have inherited his certainty that some things we can count on, were meant to be counted.
“That we were, that we are, that we will be!” we bellow, even as our joints buckle down in their sockets and our vertebrae crack on cue.
The weight of the bricks we are assigned to carry depends on our relative strength, a value determined by the width of a man’s shoulders or his IQ. For example, when I consider myself the numbers break down neat and tidy:
Shoulder width: 24
IQ (estimated): 95
As a quarter grunt with a double-digit IQ, I am good for fragments (intended or accidental), simple declaratives, and imperatives such as workers of the world unite! Zamira-June, I bet, could carry a bigger brick, but thank heavens for the small mercies: she works the east-side canteen and can’t see me here, struggling up the west side, which is, in accordance to ziggurat specs, a level 45 degrees. It’s a burden, this climb, and frankly, it’s Zamira-June and her coffee that’s helping me gut it through.
August. Even though the tower is twenty stories tall, Mortensen’s in a sweat. We’re on a tit-tight schedule. Dwayne’s words, not mine. Point being, we have to really haul some brick if we’re going to finish this build on schedule. We shave our heads high and tight so as to reduce friction. The average temp hovers at 121 degrees. The scratchy smell of sand scorches the air. The leaves on the tamarisk bake to paper and the seeds inside the pods of the acacia rattle at any suggestion of a breeze. We hallucinate. Our words, these messages on these bricks, are like the long-legged birds that peck the dumpster behind the canteen. Awkward on ground, the birds are graceful once they reach their intended height. I say this to Zamira-June during a water break and she smiles. A first, this smile. She tells me a man invented an alphabet and a whole dictionary of words after watching cranes wing their flight patterns through the sky. Is this man’s name Mortensen? I ask her, and she laughs—also a first.
With enough cooperation anything in this unruly world is tractable, within our grasp. We can conquer the sky, subdue the clouds.
As if summoned by us, Mortensen calls through the bullhorn and back to work we go. By late afternoon the sun is a slow-moving blister. The songs of the birds have dried up in their throats and three men at the kiln pass out. The scholars are calling for salt tablets. But we press on. Electrolyte imbalances and dehydration give us our dreams. I remind myself that it takes a desert to produce any mirage, this kind of unrelenting heat to convince the eyes to see with an alternate, I think, better vision. To see not as things are, but how you wish them to be. In a thousand years, I tell myself, the sand under our feet will be a sea of glass. And when considered this way, the tower assumes even grander proportions. People like us built something mighty, something wonderful, and we did it together. Giddy with this potential accomplishment, my feet falter and I stumble. “Stupid ass!” the guy behind me calls out, and I blink in surprise. Clearly the heat is getting to us: name-calling is not at the heart of cooperation, and is expressly forbidden in our standard-issue book of rules and regulations.
Heavier than any brick I’ve ever carried is the book of rules and regulations. Wedged between the slurry-sludge indices and the special note about emulsifiers is a hazardous material advisory regarding certain forms of thought, speech, and conduct. Because we lack the proper certification, three things, maybe four, quarter grunts like me are instructed to avoid.
Metaphors. Similes. The frisky forms of figurative language that vex even the scholars as the bricks, high in fibrous content, exit the kiln woefully under baked. More than once I’ve witnessed such bricks slide out of the grip to land on the feet. In general I’ve discovered that the more figurative the brick, the bigger the bruise, and lately we’ve been shoving these types near the base entrance where the engineers stand around smoking, looking drafty and superior.
Whether on shift or off, and regardless of rank, jokes are to be avoided by all workers at all costs. As with fig-lang, jokes afford a wide latitude of interpretation, which Mortensen says increases the likelihood of confusion by at least 63 percent, and confusion is certainly not at the heart of cooperation. Also we have been advised not to date the help, specifically mess hall and canteen workers, many of whom are displaced persons and therefore forbidden to us. Asking why is unacceptable, as questions are the last item on the list of things we are absolutely to avoid.
Questions we are not to touch, Mortensen cautions, as they so often illuminate just how much one doesn’t understand. But what’s been bothering me for days now: won’t it get awfully confusing—all these bricks with different messages piled one on top of the other? If there’s a pattern to them, I haven’t seen it yet. And should we read the bricks right to left, left to right, or start at the sand line and work skyward? And why shouldn’t I ask the beautiful Zamira-June out if I want? It’s a mystery all right, and at the risk of sounding like a naysayer, I bring it up with Mortensen on our break.
“What color is your hardhat?” Mortensen asks in return.
“Orange,” I say.
“And what color is my hardhat?”
“You’re not wearing a hardhat, sir.”
“Pre-cisely.” Mortensen stretches a munificent smile across his face. Then Mortensen blows his whistle, the signal to double-time it.
It’s late by the time the last wheelbarrows and trowels are stowed away. The sun is a leak of blood smearing the dunes. Down I go for the last call for coffee. There’s June polishing the metal counter to a shine so high I tell myself I can read her thoughts. I tell myself she’s thinking about me. She’s thinking about her being with a guy like me.
Though there’s sand stuck between my teeth, I smile anyway. “I’m not good with women,” I blurt. If I had a brick to carry the rest of my life, that’s what mine would say.
“Most men aren’t,” June says. And then, the heavens open and stars tip on edge. June leans and puts extra sugar in my coffee.
“Let’s you and me go out some time,” I say. Risky, sure, but as I’ve kept it simple and Mortensen is at the far end of the canteen, I’m feeling relatively safe.
June bites her lip. “How much taller is this tower going to get?”
I want to laugh, to say: “Oh, June. Such questions!” It’s what Mortensen would say.
“I don’t know,” I say at last. The tower is twenty-two stories tall now. There’s talk that they will dispense oxygen masks soon, and the bricklayers have been claiming that the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders are to deploy sometime next week and provide ground support in the form of morale boosting.
“What’s this tower all about, anyway?” June asks.
Another question, and it’s one I’ve asked myself—silently of course. And the answers have taken their time arriving. It’s hard to explain the meaning of the tower. Hard to explain the need for a reminder that you were, that for a time you lived and spoke. That you had a name. That this means something to a guy like me, unimportant, completely forgettable in every way. I try all this out on Zamira-June but my words are awkward, long-legged and short-winged. Though my tongue flaps and flaps, my sentences achieve negative gain, zero lift. We are standing so close that our shoulders almost touch, and yet June is far away from me, her eyes impenetrable and as shiny as that counter she has been cleaning this whole time.
“Don’t you know who you are?” June asks. It’s a long and thick silence between us. June points her nose eastward and inhales. “I think this tower is bad news. I think you have no idea what you have gotten yourself into.” She sighs, throws the cloth onto the counter and pushes past me. Well, it has been my secret belief all along that June is in possession of a sturdy reservoir of negativity that some people get from living in places like these. I also think that behind her words is a secret message she wants me to decode. And I think, time, that’s all we need. Me to understand her, her to understand me, and I drift to sleep lulled by the rhythmic pound and slide of bricks being kilned and offloaded.
The next day the wind is up. In this desert nothing is more terrifying than what wind can do. Not even this tower can defeat it, and even a small gust drives Mortensen to his knees. We’ve all witnessed how a true gale can lift a brick right out of our hands, send it sailing into a dune, which is why we all harness up now that the tower is twenty-five stories tall.
“Success is just another name for ordinary people working together to achieve the extraordinary. Think: my yoke is easy, my burden light. Whistle happy tunes!” Mortensen calls. His toupee flaps wildly. But his words are so soothing, rooflessly soaring, that we keep on. The desert rises up and folds around us. The hills undulate and disappear. What is June thinking about, I wonder? And why am I carrying this brick, whose meaning I care little for and understand even less? But then I remember how thorny unanswerable questions are, how relatively thin these super-strength gloves.
Dusk tamps the desert down one grain at a time, and at last our luck turns: management reports that brick production at the kiln has reached an all-time high. Shit production from the camels is also at an all-time high. The Cowboy cheerleaders arrive at last, and morale soars. Cooperation abounds in the barracks and in the shadow of the uncomplicated tower. The tower is so tall we can barely see Mortensen in the boom lift, but we can hear him counting, brick by brick, our ambition, our desires, and the numbers are running very high. For the first time in weeks I feel a calm singularity in my blood, which moves clean and bright through my veins. I imagine this is what Mortensen, Dwayne, and all the others must be feeling—that giddy weightlessness brought on by too much oxygen, or maybe not enough. We are surrounded by an ocean of possibility. Endless sand, umber and orange and rust and all of it begging to be brick, shaped into the hard-edged sentences that stack up so nicely, one on top of the other. I think of our unfailing delight in the possibility of possibilities and the architectures such dreams might assume. I think of what a magnificent accomplishment a tower like this is. “Upward, onward,” I mutter my way toward sleep that night, that is, until June throws a misshapen brick through my tent. love hurts, she’s spray-painted on it, and I have to admire her humor, since I think she may have broken my ankle.
I limp outside where darkness is pierced by long banks of klieg lights trained on the tower. The smell of camel piss and diesel fumes waft over the sand. June points to my swelling ankle, which even under the harsh light is turning a marvelous blue. “Sorry about that. I was aiming for your head.” Another joke, I think.
Then June turns her gaze to the tower. “It’s so exaggerated. Why don’t they just stop now?”
I tip my head to the side and study the tower. Her words are mere scratches scuttling sideways over my eardrum. My heart is so full of admiration for what our hands have done, what our minds dreamed up, and yes, even for Mortensen’s motivational bagpipe playing, that I can’t help loving the magnificent tower, which I think loves me back just a little. “God, it’s beautiful,” I whisper.
June folds her arms over her orange sweatshirt. “You know, Leland, a desert is cruel but just. It levels all things equally in the end.”
There’s an arid quality to her voice I’m sure I don’t know how to interpret. “Huh?”
“All I’m saying is things built out of sand and dung usually don’t weather well in places like these.”
It’s all very un-aim-high-ish kind of talk, and I shake my head to will it away.
“Just think about it, Leland. How many towers have been built out here that are still standing?”
I shrug. As if the past has any bearing whatsoever on the future.
“If other people built grand monuments in the desert and then those monuments crumbled, and now you people are building a grand monument in the desert, then what do you think will happen next?” I study the grout lines of the tower as if the answer might be hidden there somewhere. The truth is, I’ve never been good at filling in the blanks or reading between the lines. It’s why this whole build, I’ve been carrying declaratives.
“C’mon, Leland. It’s a simple conditional if-then construction. Think.” June’s dark eyes are so solemn it puts a hitch in my breath.
“Is this, by any chance, something I could look up in the rules and regs?”
June is beyond exasperation. “Oh, Leland, you really are thick,” she says, stuffing her hands in her pockets and brushing past me for the canteen.
Name calling is not, I repeat, not, in the heart of cooperation, and as I watch June take her station behind the counter, it occurs to me once again that June is a bit of a naysayer.
Inside the tent my ankle swells and my head swims. The greasy feeling that June may be onto something coats the lining of my stomach. I repeat each of her words quietly. If-then, if-then. There’s a balance to her words, but the tower is so tall now, the pounding from the kiln so rhythmic: If-then, if-then, I fall asleep anyway, etherized by the even sounds of constant motion, which Dwayne has assured me more than once is a name for progress, the sound of people achieving their potential.
The next morning panic rocks our base camps. The tower has been vandalized. Mortensen is pale as alabaster as he reads and rereads through the bullhorn the graffiti spray-painted in day-glo tangerine:
look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
What could it mean? It’s a head-scratcher, all right, and the spraymanship leaves something to be desired. Thank heavens the scholars are on hand to tell us that we are gazing upon a literary reference. From a poem, no less. “Oh, that’s swell,” Mortensen splutters in outrage, as literary allusions we all know are highly hazmat due to their weighty overuse of fig-lang. And at this point all the scholars can assure us of is that whoever defaced our magnificent tower does not have a firm grasp of contextual boundaries, the proper use of irony, or MLA style documentation. “All in all, it’s terribly juvenile,” Mortensen pronounces, and for some reason all the scholars turn and look at me.
By evening the corporate head offices have faxed their response, and the hydraulics of Mortensen’s lift whine as he positions himself in the optimal air space. He waves the fax in one hand while in the other the bullhorn cracks and spits.
At high noon tomorrow the violators of the tower will be drawn and quartered, tarred and feathered, hung from the side of the tower and—purely for motivational purposes—shot. Sincerely, your friends at Omnicom, Bechtel, Inc., and Gazprom.
Very dramatic. And the scholars are digging it, though I can tell by the way they roll their eyes that they think it’s a bit clichéd.
“It’s a reasonable use of the unreasonable,” Dwayne elbows me in the ribs. “I myself never went in for twee half-measures.”
I nod. Everyone knows you don’t get in the way of men and their ambition.
“I’m sure whoever wrote that meant it in the best way possible. Like a joke. Ha!” June offers later by way of consolation. It’s quiet in the canteen. Sugar rations are suspended until the culprit is identified, and I can tell by the way she’s grinding that washcloth over the counter that she feels a little sorry for us.
I think of my ankle, June’s oddly developed sense of humor. “A joke—well that spells a 63 percent chance of misinterpretation,” I say at last.
“I know. I know,” June says, “I’m sorry,” and she slides a forbidden sugar cube into my hand.
Morning call to work is sweet and simple. At the kiln the brick I’m given is the biggest I’ve ever carried:
the meek shall inherit the earth, but not until they’ve first stormed heaven’s gates.
An unauthorized metaphor. And sloppy, too. All the way up the tower my load exudes the green reek of fig-lang and slides from shoulder to chest to hip to knees, and I know it’s going to be a tough haul. Below me the camels kick and snort and balk at their feed. Above me the sky is the color of tarnished metal, and for once the over-bright sand is subdued. Beside me Dwayne is chatty. After the vandals are punished, Dwayne says, Omnicom, Bechtel, and Gazprom are going to battle it out in a flag-raising competition. We have to raise a flag, Dwayne says. But not a green one, as green is culturally insensitive. And blue, he says, is far too pushy, too eager to be seen. And orange? Well, frankly we are all mighty sick of it.
By mid-morning the wind is up and gusty. The ribbons of Mortensen’s bagpipe fly at a crisp 90 degrees. The tower is forty-three stories tall now and at this elevation the lungs labor. The bricks feel heavier. A low and ominous growling swells from beyond the dunes. “Put your backs into it, lads!” Mortensen shouts. But the wind whips up even harder. It pushes us back, pushes away all thought. Mortensen’s bag squeals obscenities, and his face turns purple as the notes skirl through the air. And still that growling is getting louder. I’m thinking crane helicopters. I’m thinking Harrier jets. I’m thinking we are in deep shit here. Mortensen signals the cheerleaders back to their civilian transports, and just in time, too: his toupee lifts from his head and cartwheels through the air. There’s the smell of ozone. Then from the clouds a bolt of lightening streaks sideways and unzips the x-axis from the y-axis. One second later thunder erupts with such concussive force that the camels are forced to their knees. The tower groans. Mortensen’s bagpipe sails away without so much as a squeak. There’s blood draining from Dwayne’s ears and a thin trickle from his nose. “God damn,” I think he says, but it’s so hard to tell, the wind is howling and there’s a strange liquid shift behind my ears. And then the unthinkable: the tower begins to crumble. “Retreat!” Mortensen shrieks. We are lucky to unharness in time, and we scurry down the switchback ramps as fast as our stocky little legs can carry us. Bricks fall to the sand. Story by story, sentence by sentence, the tower is stripped. Behind the orange veneer of our safety goggles, we watch our words topple and fall down, down, down.
In the grounded boom lift Mortensen sobs, his shoulders quaking. The scholars throw themselves into the roofless trench that used to be their kiln. They rend their clothes and gnash their teeth. The engineers unholster their cell phones, but there’s no time for damage reports: the wind is driving the sand, lifting it from beneath our feet in thick swaths. The engineers, hoddies, and masons take refuge behind strategically positioned camels who have closed their nostril flaps, tucked their snouts between their colossal feet, and are sleeping. At the place that used to be the canteen is June, the girl of my dreams. She is crouched behind her counter, the top of which the wind has peeled back like the lid of a sardine can. The wind is tearing at her, threatening to carry her off. “June!” I yell.
She peers from behind the counter. “What?” Another metallic flash lights the underpan of sky. Blood leaks from her ears and trails down her neck.
“Wait!” I cry.
She can’t hear me. I realize that nothing I ever say will reach her, not with this wind. I run toward her, and as I get to the counter her mouth, round in astonishment, makes the shape of my name. In this moment she is more beautiful to me than anything I have ever seen, and that I can know this is like the answer to every question I have ever wanted to ask. I strap my safety goggles over her eyes. With my left arm at her back, my right arm under her knees, she is up. And so light by comparison to any brick I have carried that I almost lose my balance. It’s a haul in this wind, but we’re in luck: a camel big as a boat sits snoring not two paces away. We tuck tight lee-side and June looks me over. “Your ears—they’re bleeding.” I’m reading her lips because the wind is just that loud.
“So are yours,” I say, blotting her neck with my sleeve.
“Your eyes are bleeding a little, too,” I think she says.
“Nobody’s perfect,” I say, pulling off my gloves, which I see are good for nothing now. June tosses them into the air and we watch the wind take them where it will. And for several minutes we sit, a snag in currents of sand. And in those minutes that become hours, her body fitting the hollows of mine, I am beyond the noise, beyond the confusion. What I don’t know and don’t understand, I see—even without my safety goggles—no longer matters. For when the wind wears itself out—in an hour? a day?—we will be standing on a sea of sand that never knew it had been brick. Suddenly the world becomes very simple. Because here’s June, dabbing at the warm fluid draining from my ear. And I am never so happy to be here, beside June, in this complete state of disrepair, which I think may be necessary for a guy like me to understand even the tiniest little thing. To lay hold of another name for a hard and hurting wisdom I sorely lack.
June squeezes my arm. “I love you,” she mouths. It’s still a job hearing her over the ringing in my ears, this wind, and the penny whistles of our camel snoring. “What?” I say. Then, solemn as ever, June kisses me.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.