Thick as a Brick: Masonry’s Response by Mike Cohen

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The god of cannibals will be a cannibal

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Don’t look around so surprised that a brick is talking to you. 

I’m compelled to speak because someone inside the building where I have been installed has been playing over and over those ridiculous sixties and seventies British albums—so-called classics—Thick as a Brick and The Wall. All of us bricks could hear them clearly from where we are concretely lodged anywhere from one to twenty cubits from the ground and twelve hands from the corner (I prefer measurements to be in the biblical lexicon). 

All of us are livid over the musical misdescription of bricks as representatives of convention. And who is Jethro Tull, anyway? A general contractor? And Pink Floyd? No bricklayer, that’s for sure. 

I’m here to inform you that a brick is not just a face in the crowd. Uniformity is not conformity. That can be misunderstood if you simply listened to The Wall. You could get the idea that bricks are not thoughtfully collaborative. (Those long-in-the-tooth Brit rockers should be careful who they throw brickbats at, unless they can explain Brexit.)

While leaning against a wall you might mistakenly be inclined to see us as monolithic, but our metaphysics are a great deal more complex. A brick’s life is not thick, or non-ruminative. We are not a voting bloc, but we are on a mission. 

We welcome bracing in nature’s elements, whether howling winds, snowstorms, torrential rain, or roasting sunshine. It makes no difference. A brick radiates unspoken resilience in the face of a cloudburst. Shrugs off a blizzard. In a drought, where we learned a trick or two from our cousin adobe, we are specimens of magical stability, holding in the cool, reflecting away the heat. And when the change of seasons requires it, we reverse, sealing in warmth and daring the frigid forces outside to take us on.

By the way, bricks use the word WE proudly. There is no I in TEAM. Or in WE. Or in US for that matter. These are OUR adages that some football coach highjacked. Brick dogma includes an admirable, selfless, and generous usefulness. Who wouldn’t want such a legacy?

We are not senseless. Unlike humans who remain utterly unconscious of the moment and manner of their creation, bricks happily recall when we became wetlings: the music-like sounds of water pouring into a tumbling drum joined by fine clay and lime, then rocked about in optimistic abandon until smooth, a slurried composition of eco-endorsed products (non-gluten) sluiced into cuddly, welcoming, wooden trays. This is our neonatology unit, each coop a crib, the warm sides supporting us like the palms of a nurse’s hands. 

You should hear all of us cooing in the moist, open air! The pleasure of drying together outdoors is exquisite, our equivalent of suntanning. As we stiffen and gird we could be body building in a gym, the earthy scents of loam and limestone substituting for talc, lotion, and sweat. You can bet that we would gladly stand flexing in front of a workout mirror (more about mirrors and glass later).

Travelling out of the brickyard in a grand stack, each of us can’t help but admire the others, red, rigid, and rugged. You should see the look of respect in the eye of the masons who select us one at a time, then nestle us into a cool, wet pad of mortar. The stuff fits the backside perfectly, then slops and sloshes as we settle in with a sigh, getting comfy. 

Some folks might get the heebie-jeebies to be surrounded by drying cement, but once set, mortar can fit like a new suit of clothes, light in the tight spots, giving a trim look, handsome and balanced.

For us the passage of time poses no hurdle. There’s actually an emotional release being permanent. It’s like hiding under the blankets. Just settle back and watch, up close and personal. What happens, happens.

By comparison, humans barely abide touching each other. They seem apprehensive and a bit queasy when being a bit squished. Not us. The tighter the better. 

A little secret: Once in our structure, we experience an undetectable capacity for mutual telepathic transmission. We may not read, but boy, do we watch, listen, and share!

We reflect some of the highest symbols of the world. You want patriotism? Check out schoolhouses, post offices, libraries, and armories. Peering at Fourth of July fireworks from atop our buildings brings a tear to every eye.

How about aesthetics? The best gardens are surrounded by ivy-covered brick walls. Don’t forget park bandstands, or brick wine cellars with pungent, yeasty air roiling about oaken casks. Sports? Fenway Park and the Indianapolis Five Hundred brickyard.  

We do utility as well. Breakwaters, bridges, sewers, castles, fortresses, and aqueducts are no challenge. We’ve been composing them for centuries.

Needless to say, we are the paramount paperweight. Nothing flies away from under us. Nothing. 

Now comparisons may be beneath us, but let’s point out the questionable suitability of metal and wood, who some say are our competitors. With the former, rust comes to mind. And wood? Ever seen a brick infested with and eaten by termites? Not a day goes by without rotten lumber, decayed doors, beams, posts, or floors extracted from our buildings. It’s like watching teeth being pulled in a dentist’s office. Ever see a brick set on fire? 

Don’t get me wrong; bricks don’t judge, just observe, but glass is particularly execrable. You know what they say about people in glass houses throwing stones? That should end the usefulness debate. And brick houses? Check out “The Three Little Pigs.” I could rest my case, yet there is more.

Nothing is more transparent than a windowpane, unreflective, brittle, and monochromatic, each a two-faced prima donna. They strangely brag about light passing through. Isn’t the imperfection of human awareness seeing through a glass darkly? Or the goofiness of life viewed through the looking glass? 

And the supporting cast? Face it; glaze and putty can’t hold a candle to the consistency of mortar. Think Roman Empire. Case closed.

We have another quality ignored by the Brits: The highest spoken accolade of uncompromising character is “You’re a brick.” And yes, we have a reverence for a wall, one that continuously stretches to the cosmos. It is a brick’s dream of heaven, the connection to our maker, the First Mason, who, as you can see, was not satisfied with thatch, mud, adobe, or wattle and daub, the imperfect products of the first five days of creation. WE were our maker’s splendid discovery on day six. And after finishing us, the First Mason could rest on the seventh day in a peaceful enclosure… Made of bricks, of course.

Mike Cohen’s work has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, American Writers Review, FRiGG, Furious Gazelle, Good Works Review, Litbreak Magazine, The Nonconformist Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Off the Coast, The Penmen Review, STORGY, Streetlight Magazine, and Umbrella Factory. His short story “The Cantor’s Window” was acknowledged as a Shortlist Winner Nominee in Adelaide Literary Magazine’s 2018 “Voices Literary Award for Short Stories” and was included in both the 2018 Literary Voices Anthology and last year’s 2017 Streetlight Annual Anthology. His story “The Time I Got an Oak Leaf Sticker in Printing” was anthologized in San Fedele Press’s American Writer’s Review Summer 2018. His story “Running to the Caymans” (LitBreak Magazine, Sept  2019) was a best story finalist in the Fourth Annual Adelaide Literary Award Contest 2020 and was published in the 2020 anthology.

In 2017 Mike Cohen published his first novel, Rivertown Heroes, to good reviews from Kirkus and others. An excerpt has appeared in Evening Street Review (July 2020). His collection of eleven short stories, The Three of Us, was published by Adelaide Books in 2018.

Mike Cohen has studied fiction writing with West Coast authors Craig Lesley, Tom Spanbauer, Whitney Otto, the late Robert Gordon, and attended the Portland State Haystack Summer Workshop Conferences (1992–96) and the University of Washington Extension Writing Workshops (1995–98). Mike Cohen has practiced law for over five decades. he holds a BA from the University of Washington and a JD from Georgetown Law Center. He lives with his family in the Pacific Northwest. Visit him at his website and at his Facebook page: Mike Cohen Author.

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