When I first saw Jesse, he was standing in the front yard, talking with my husband. From a distance, his body looked like a “C.” His shoulders, neck and head curved forward, as if he were studying something that lay at his feet. His stature was small. He shuffled slowly as he followed my husband into the house. How was this somewhat frail looking man in his mid to late 70’s, ever going to cut and carry stone into my house for a week to build a new fireplace?
Jesse had come with a glowing recommendation, that he was the best mason that there was, that he worked slowly, but his work was impeccable. The person who told us that also said “ . . . and he’s the best man I’ve ever known.”
Jesse stood in the corner of our living room by the old fireplace and looked up and down the wall, holding onto a piece of the dusty sample rock that he’d brought with him.
“Here,” he said pointing at the old fireplace. “We’ll place the rock in an arch around the top of the fireplace box. Then we’ll go straight up.” He gave us a timeline and told us when he could start. Leaving that day, he shook our hands, addressing us as “sir” and “m’am.” He was the kind of gentleman that has grown rare in our culture, so respectful that he compelled deep respect in return.
Limestone is easily quarried in this part of Texas. The stone comes in a few shades of white and beige. It’s soft enough to be cut into large bricks, its ragged, rough edges adding character to homes, garden walls, and in our case, a fireplace.
The whole thing was my husband’s idea. He wanted a substantial fireplace that would anchor the room. Rock from floor to ceiling. I was the one who suggested the limestone. I wanted the fireplace to be like something that you’d find in a sprawling hacienda, long before these hills became housing developments and sub-divisions.
I was relieved when Jesse showed up for work the first day with an assistant. But my relief was short lived when I realized that his assistant was just as old as Jesse. The two men shuffled in and out of the house, the air sliced by the high-pitched sound of a buzz saw that cut the stone to make it fit. Heads down, stopping only to drink water, they moved deliberately, focused on measurements and mortar; back and forth from the stone on the front porch to the fireplace. Jesse was no longer recognizable as the old mason we’d hired. Instead, I saw him as the master he was, imbuing his work with a sense of agelessness.
Cutting and chipping stone is not a glamorous job. It’s hard and it’s heavy. It’s fraught with dust. But as I watched Jesse work, I started to feel that I was in the presence of nobility. A man who can make something with his hands, something that will outlast my lifetime and his, is special. Stone by stone, the fireplace grew. Jesse climbed on and off of the scaffolding as if he were 30 and not 70-something. The stone eventually made it all the way to the ceiling. The familiar, sure-footed dance that he’d learned over 50 years of masonry was something sacred. He never dropped a stone, never dropped a tool, never swayed out of balance and never spoke anything that wasn’t positive.
My husband and I went about our daily routines, stopping now and then to view the slow progress and the accumulation of dust. One day, standing at the kitchen sink, I heard Jesse singing softly to himself as he worked. Every day thereafter, I listened and he was always singing. Sometimes he sang in Spanish and sometimes in English. Like a monk with a mantra, the sounds became part of the creation he was birthing.
In a week’s time, the three of us stood back and admired the new fireplace. Jesse held a rag in one hand having just wiped the dust from the hearth. We marveled at the monolithic art that he’d built with his hands and with his heart.
Here is the story that I made up about the new fireplace, a story more fitting of Jesse’s noble work. In my story, I tell you that my family has owned this land for 7 generations, and that the original hacienda was a majestic architecture of limestone and hand-hewn beams that looked over Lake Austin. I tell you that when the hacienda burned down and the family scattered to make new lives for themselves, that this fireplace was all that remained. So we decided to build a house around it. Of course, none of that’s true. We live in a development, but I like the story I’ve made up — because it seems more fitting for the fireplace that Jesse made.
When the work was finished, Jesse returned to looking like the old man, shaped like a “C.” When he drove away in his slightly dented truck filled with rocks, I was left with a sense of having witnessed greatness. The anchor that my husband had wanted for the room was a true masterpiece. And the original recommendation turned out to be true. Jesse did beautiful work and I he is definitely one of the best people I’ve ever known.