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Authors: Cynthia Voigt

Building Blocks

BOOK: Building Blocks
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Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

TO WALTER

who built it

and

DUFFLE

who crawled in

One

They were fighting again. Brann lay on the folded-up sofabed in the den/bedroom/TV room and listened. The door was closed, but in this rickety-tickety box of a house you could hear almost anything that went on, whether doors were open or closed.

You'd think, he thought, that on the first day of his summer vacation they could restrain themselves. It was a clear morning in late June. He should be out riding his bike around the neighborhood, and here he was instead, feeling like a lead weight was pressing him down onto the sofa because his parents were fighting. At eight-thirty in the morning.

He should have left the table sooner, but his mother was using her Level One voice, so Brann figured it would all be OK. Besides, the sunlight was lying like a puddle in the middle of the table and his glass of orange juice shone like an undiscovered jewel and it was the first day of vacation—how was he supposed to know it would turn into a Level Two fight?

He should have known, Brann said to himself, listening to the voices from the kitchen (his mother's sharp and angry, quick and final; his dad's low and apologetic). Ever since that letter from the lawyer had come, a big fight had been building. Before then, for almost a month, his mother had been dancing around the house, teasing everybody, because she had scored so high on her law school aptitude test. Number one percentile in the state. In New York that really meant something. She said she only took the test for a lark and a challenge, just to see. She said she knew she couldn't actually go to law school, not yet, not for years; and by then probably she wouldn't be able to get into anywhere good. That didn't matter now. Now she was just glad that she had done so well.

Brann knew that feeling, knowing that you were quicker and smarter than almost everybody else. You felt like you were on top of everyone, like you could do anything. You felt so good about yourself—there was nobody you'd rather be.

Then the letter from the lawyer came, saying that some old cousin in Arizona had died and left a farm to his father. Not a farm in Arizona—that would be a
ranch—but in Pennsylvania, near where his father had grown up, over by the Ohio state line. Brann had the same idea his mother had, right away: if they sold the farm, she could quit her job down at Legal Aid and go to law school. His imagination soared away on the possibility. She would be a lawyer, and she'd earn pots of money and they would move into a house where Brann could have a big room of his own and maybe a swimming pool, but for sure a new ten-speed bike, the kind most of his friends had; and summer camp, too, and enough spending money to have a hamburger whenever he felt like it.

But his father didn't want to sell the farm. He wouldn't say so, not out in the open and clear. His father didn't say things out like that. He just hedged and hummed and said, “Anyway.” After he said, “Anyway,” he never said anything else. It could drive you crazy. It drove Brann crazy and it drove his mother crazy too.

The fight that morning had started with the farm. They were eating scrambled eggs, with bacon. Brann sat alone in the middle of the table because Sarah was off at the beach for the weekend, and Harry had gone to ROTC summer camp.

Brann's mother had looked up from her last bite of eggs and smiled at Brann. Her bright brown hair (red like his when she had been his age, she said) caught the sunlight; her brown eyes that poured out all her feelings had green flecks in them. She had a sharp face, with dark eyebrows. Harry and Sarah looked like her, except for the dark, thick eyelashes that they got from their father, and the big eyes set deep into their faces. Brann looked like his father, with quiet gray eyes that took things in but didn't let them out. His red hair lay straight and flat, like his father's pale brown hair. Brann's father, Kevin Connell, had a quiet face that didn't give anything away, and a wide, wide mouth that didn't very often smile. They were opposites, his mother and father. She was all short, quick energy, and he was tall and slow and didn't do much. Brann's mother poured her personality out, all over the house so you couldn't get away from it. His dad didn't say much, and you never knew what he was thinking, except that his wide mouth made you feel like whatever it was, it wasn't too exciting. Brann felt like he was his father on the outside and his mother on the inside. He wondered why they had married one another. Especially, he wondered why she had wanted to marry him.

This Saturday morning, Brann was sitting there feeling good about summer all stretched out ahead of him, and his mother asked his father: “Why did she leave it to you? She had children of her own.”

“You know why, Diane,” Brann's father answered. “There was more than enough money and she knew Uncle Andrew wanted me to have it. He said so, he said if it worked out he'd like me to get the farm. That's what the letter says.”

“Why would he do that? What about his own children?”

“Both of his sons died in the war,” Brann's father repeated the tired information. “His daughters weren't interested.”

“But still—”

“And I guess he had a good idea of how much I liked it,” Brann's father said. “Maybe he wanted to give me something, maybe—he was my godfather too.”

“All you did was work there when you were little,” she continued.

“I was happy there, and I guess he knew that. When they told me I couldn't go back for summers any more—I don't remember a worse time. Ever.” His voice faded away, as if he had changed his mind about
saying something more. Brann felt a flicker of curiosity about what his father had been going to say. The flicker died away, because it probably wasn't interesting anyway.

Brann's mother waited for a minute, then made an impatient gesture with her hand.

“No, I mean it, Di. Remember when we had to put Victor down.”

Brann guessed his mother remembered. He sure did. Victor was old and smelly and had cataracts in both eyes and could barely get out the door to make his messes he was so weak and arthritic. They knew they had to have him put to sleep. Nobody wanted to do it. Brann's father had dropped Brann and his mother off at a Saturday matinee—
Blazing Saddles
—and Brann remembered they'd laughed more than the movie was funny. When they got back home, his dad had taken care of everything, even wrapping old Victor up and burying him over by the little garden patch. Brann and his mother were still laughing about the movie. Brann knew that he was laughing because if he didn't he'd be bawling and making useless protests and thinking about things he didn't want to think about. He didn't know why his mother was
laughing. He hadn't wanted to hear anything about Victor, and his dad hadn't told him anything. His dad just looked at his mother and said, “It's all done, Di.” His mother had said “Thank you,” and then, surprising Brann, “I'm sorry, Kev.” His dad just asked them about the movie. That was last fall, a long time gone. But what did Victor have to do with this farm?

His mother asked, “What does that have to do with the farm?”

“I felt the same way, when they told me.”

“But that was years ago. You never went back. How can say you liked it so much if you never went back?”

“I felt too bad about it to go back.”

Brann looked at his father. He knew that he himself avoided going out onto that part of their little yard where Victor was. Wasn't. But why should his father feel so bad about an old farm?

“That's all years in the past anyway. What does it matter now?” Brann's mother asked impatiently.

Brann's father shrugged, and he looked away.

“The place must be worth thousands now,” she insisted.

“I guess maybe.”

“More than enough—we can't expect Sarah to get a scholarship, Kev, and there's Brann coming along—”

“Hey!” Brann protested. “I'm only twelve. Much too young to start worrying about college. Don't drag me into this.”

His father looked at him with those thick-lashed, gray eyes. For a minute, Brann wondered what he was thinking, and then abandoned it. What his father thought didn't matter, since he never did anything about his ideas.

“And I could start law school in the fall. I can't go to law school part time like I did NYU, Kev—”

“I know, Diane.”

“It isn't as if I've ever asked you for anything before. I always paid my own tuition—”

“I know.”

“And kept the house and managed to live within the budget—laundry, insurance, meals—driving the kids around—doctors and dentists and parties—”

“I know, Diane.” Brann's father seemed to get flatter and flatter at his end of the table. Brann drank his juice down at one gulp and stood up.

“And now when there's a chance—I could succeed, Kev, you know I could. I could compete and succeed. You don't. You don't even try.”

“It's fate, Di,” Brann's father said. Brann put his dishes in the sink. When his father said, “It's fate,” a big argument was going to begin. His father always said that, “It's fate,” as if that should end all trying. Those were his giving-up words, as if fate came and wrapped around you like a huge feather pillow. Brann could feel his mother beginning to get steamed. He walked out of the kitchen, through the narrow living room, and closed the door of the den/bedroom/TV room behind him.

“You never try,” his mother said, her voice rising.

“I've stuck to my job—”

“A job you never liked. That's not sticking. That's inertia. Drawing the fronts for development houses . . . ” Brann could hear the quality of his mother's scorn. “Don't try to tell me you're satisfied with yourself.”

“I don't,” his father said. “I'm not.” That was true, Brann thought, listening from under the lead weight. His dad didn't lie about things.

“But that's
your
problem, and I've stopped trying
to solve it for you. It's your life and if at forty-seven that's the way you want to be, go ahead and I'm not feeling sorry for you.” She began to bang dishes around in the sink. “But I'm almost forty and this is 1974—and I care about
my
life, I care about
me
, about not being trapped. I can't spring
your
trap, but I can spring mine. I've done your laundry for twenty years and you haven't done one damn thing more than you've had to. You owe it to me, Kevin.”

Brann got up off the sofa. He didn't feel like going outside. He opened the den/bedroom TV room door and slipped into the living room.

“I'm sorry, Di,” his father said, low and helpless. “Anyway. I try. It's just he way I am. It's fate. I've never stood in your way.”

“You never helped either.” His mother had her back to the room. Brann could hear the angry tears in her voice. They would be rolling down her face. Why didn't his father do something? Why was he always shambling around doing the same things over and over making people ashamed? “And now, when you could really help me—”

Brann opened the cellar door. He flicked on the light. From the cellar you couldn't hear anything.

“Just for once in your life
do
something!” his mother cried.

Brann closed the door and hurried down the stairs. If they got a divorce it would be easier. Sarah, wise at seventeen, said that too. Everybody's parents got divorced and it felt strange for a while but you got used to it, Sarah said. Harry, going to college on an ROTC scholarship, just ignored things.

Brann knew that if his mother threw his father out of the house his father would go. His father always did what his mother said to do. She hammered at him and hammered at him in her angers, and his father would inevitably do whatever it was. He'd sell this farm eventually; but by then it would be an old poison in all of them. Why couldn't he just sell it right away? Why did he have to pretend to himself that he wasn't going to give in?

The cellar had concrete floors and concrete walls. There were two rooms down there, a laundry room, which had the furnace in it, and a smaller storeroom, where his father's tools and worktable were.

Brann pulled on the overhead light in this small room and closed the door behind him. The yellow light shone bright. He couldn't hear anything. The
room was a little sack of silence, hanging off the bottom of the unhappy house.

Brann stood before the high worktable and fiddled with his father's tools, kept there in neat rows. He flipped through the stack of artist's notebooks piled up at one side. He found the design for Sarah's dollhouse and for all the furniture in it; the plank for Harry's wooden train set, which was now packed away in a big box in another corner of the room, behind the blocks Kevin Connell had played with as a boy, which all of his own children had played with in their time. Brann had just outgrown them a year ago and they, too, were stored down here.

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