There was a man who lived back when the city was young with dirt roads and walkways. He was a road man, laying the first layers of asphalt and concrete, working the mixtures down smooth with handheld tools in the thick summer air. In other places they used mixers and rollers, but those places hadn’t lost the war. He didn’t mind, though; he was building his city piece by piece with his own hands. Besides, he decided, hand tools allowed him to wave at the passing children from their own height rather than above a roller.
The children were one of his greatest motivations, a generation that would use his streets and sidewalks until they cracked, and from that generation would come his apprentices who would one day lay the second and third layers of the city. But as the children grew, he knew they would turn away from the hearty greetings, turning instead toward indifference and sometimes disgust. It was that way with all manual laborers, appreciated for their work but not idolized for it. Nobody looked to a road man for a role model, he once theorized to a coworker, but without us the road is mud.
As the city began to take form, automobiles began replacing bicycles, and the majority of his work moved to nighttime to avoid the crowds, which meant no more waving to the youngsters on their way to school. He didn’t mind, though. The youngsters had been waving less and less anyway, and the ones he first knew were now in high school and couldn’t be bothered looking at a road man, let alone wave at him.
The times moved quickly then. Divorces became fashionable so his wife left him for an architect in the big city. He didn’t grudge her for it. Even when they were young he had been an old man, and she was full of a wonder at the world that couldn’t be quenched by the night shift. His hand tools were traded out for mixers and rollers, apprentices came and went or else came and rose the ranks, and the first layer of the city gave way under the weight of life. He didn’t grudge that either, and when his retirement cake turned out to be only a slab covered in frosting, he smiled with tears in his eyes as his coworkers clapped, cheered, and finally bowed. His layer was all but forgotten by then anyway.
For the first few years of his retirement he tried his best to take part in his neighborhood–cleaning up the crow-torn garbage bags on Tuesdays, wearing an orange vest and helping the children cross the street in the afternoons–but like his layer, he too began to give way under the weight of life. The days became too hot so he walked at night, searching the city for road men hard at work, but they did their best to hide their work from the city with thick canvas strings and younger-but-still-older workers waving him hurriedly by with flashlights.
Eventually he gave up even the night walks, resigning himself to fade away quietly and solemnly, his work all but gone under the layers of the city. Soon it was only the family next door with their mixed-race daughter, a sight he wouldn’t have believed forty years ago, that seemed to know he existed. Yet, even though she was shy, she took an interest in him, asking him his name (he told her) and how he got so old (he laughed at her), and that was enough for him. He would while out his last days talking with his young friend or watching the cars pass by on the many layers of the city, the first of which he had helped build, and that would be enough for him.