From the Improvement Era, March 1953 –
The Man Who Worked with Cement
By Agnes Schiller
The man who worked with cement took odd jobs of fixing broken-down places on the sidewalk. An order had been issued to have it done. He was not an important contractor with a large cement mixer. All he had to mix the stuff in was a square trough. to him cement was an item. He doled it out in small portions, mixing up a little of it at a time.
Four boys were watching him work. Their eyes followed the long-handled shovel, back and forth. No one spoke when he filled the hole in the sidewalk with the gray substance and packed it down hard.
From time to time, the man took a look at the boys and smiled. About them hung the low and swaying branches of a pepper tree. It spread a warm spiciness around and gave them shade.
When he had smoothed the cement, the man made seams in it according to the design of the rest of the sidewalk. The absorption of the youngsters was breathless. it was only when he started to move his tools on to the next crack, a few yards farther downhill, that the boys came to life.
“May I write my ’nitials in one corner, Mister?” one of them asked.
“Me, too, please!” another followed the leader.
“With a stick?” from the third.
“Can we, please, Mister?” the fourth was the smallest.
The man who worked with cement went on moving his tools. “Now, tell me,” he said in a patient and kind voice, “why you want to write your initials here? Give me a good reason.” The boys looked at him with interest. It was a new game. “Each of you think about it a while,” he said, and poured a little cement from a bag into his trough, “and if I find you have good enough reason – I’ll let you sign.”
“It’s fun,” the first one said, right away.
“I’m afraid you thought too fast. It’s not a good enough reason for cutting into the smooth surface. It took me quite a bit of doing,” the man said.
“I’d like to … because my big brother does it,” said the second boy, with a child’s defiance.
The man shook his head. “No good at all. That’s just being a copycat.”
“I like to look at my name when it’s hard and remember when I did it,” said the third, a bit self-consciously.
“Well, – it’s a reason, – but not quite up to the mark.” the man went to work cleaning up the next hole. He picked out broken pieces and leaves, in readiness for packing in the wet cement. The boys edged close.
“Please, Mister …,” said the fourth and smallest boy. His shirt was patched and faded. “I live here. I’d like my ’nitials on the sidewalk so the mailman knows where I am … and Santa. he couldn’t find me last Christmas, and … there’s been no letter from daddy for a long, long time.”
“That so?” asked the man, packing down the cement hard with his trowel. “Then you have two good reasons. But, can you write?” The boy shook his head. The momentary joy was already leaving his eyes. “Never mind,” the man said, “I’ll help you. We’ll do it together.” He brought out a pocketknife and walked back uphill with the boy to the finished patch of cement. “What’s your name?”
“Benny – Benny Brown.”
“B.B. it is. Take hold now.” The large hand covered the small one to guide the knife. Neatly, they shaped the two B.’s in one corner. The three boys watched. The man worked slowly on the smooth surface so they could all see how important a business it really was. “Won’t do to hurry and make a mess of it,” he said. “These letters ’ll be here for many long years. We want to feel proud every time we look at them.” When it was done, he wiped off his knife, folded it carefully, and dropped it into his coveralls. He smiled at the four thoughtful little boys and moved on downhill.
The boys stayed on. They sat down to watch the initials dry. When a dog came along, sniffing the curb, they all got up and shooed him away. “We won’t let him spoil your work, Mister,” they said to the man who worked with cement.