I am not used to ill health in myself, which is why not too long ago I signed up to build a chimney with a friend — a friend who should no longer build chimneys. I knew it. John knew it. The clients knew it. But building a chimney is all John wanted to do, so that’s what we did.

I hoped building a chimney would make things feel normal again for John. The aches and pains would surely return, as would the calluses. Although the calluses never really went away, and come to think of it the aches and pains didn’t either. Perhaps other pains would diminish.

John’s ankles don’t work anymore, but he is slender and looks strong. The door handle on his Ford is broken so he has to leave his window open at all times. It’s okay, mine is too.

At work we load pans for mixing the mud, then I mix mud, lay cinder blocks, listen to the radio, sort through brick from stacks all over the Island, mix more mud. Some bricks come from Cottle’s. Some are buried under a pile of horse manure so high it blocks the sun as we dig through the weeds in search of Old Virginias without flaws. They can be flawed according to some parameters, that is the point, but there are flaws that are just not acceptable. In John’s driveway there are a few hundred leftover bricks from a prior job; same clients.

We have one wheelbarrow and instructions not to damage the lawn during construction. We take a different route each time we cross the lawn. This makes crossing a more enjoyable activity than if you were just trying to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. At the end of each work day I walk backwards and gently rinse the dust and debris from each blade of grass, then shut the water off, close two gates behind me, then a third at the end of the driveway. But the stress of the job is mostly low. One afternoon I even shot a rabbit on the property. The chimney was close to a basketball court so I bought us a ball.

We had a deadline but it was reasonable. We created competitions based mostly on guessing weights or costs of things and often would bet on who could guess the exact time of day. Eventually, we needed scaffolding. We joked we were always one step away from our “big mistake.”

John felt something would go wrong. He wasn’t sure what but something always does, doesn’t it? Most mornings I would take our wheelbarrow to the gas station to put air in the tire which had a slow leak, but company rules disallowed me from fixing it. When working with John, there are a lot of unwritten rules you must learn.

Most of the time we would meet on the job. We shared newspaper clippings, sometimes clothing and told a lot of stories as the weeks went by. He loaned me his father’s umpire’s mask, as some days I needed to leave early to call Little League games. As a volunteer umpire you can arrive about 15 minutes before the start of the game and not be considered late, so early meant about 3:45 p.m.

John had been my Little League coach. I was on the Tigers with his son and my brother. I remember my first at bat, how hard that pitcher was throwing and how tall he was. I was scared. As I sat in the parking lot of the soccer field in Vineyard Haven a few nights ago, I watched that same pitcher at bat during a men’s league softball game. His name was written on the back of his shirt like a professional ballplayer. I expected him to hit a home run. I was sad when he struck out, cartwheeling his bat with a flip of his still mammoth wrists.

John remembers many things from his days playing Little League: the time he pulled a hidden ball trick at third and was scolded by his father, the controversial trade he was involved in with his best friend and a rival team.

I still remember the triple I hit off the fence with the bases loaded versus the White Sox one spring long ago. We were playing behind the Boys & Girls club that day. I remember the holes in my pants at the knees from sliding and the smell of the grass that stained my pants. I often see my other Little League coaches around. I wave to them in their pickup trucks and on their early morning bicycle rides. Most of the time they wave back. I try to remind myself when calling balls and strikes that these small moments in time will always be remembered by someone.

Each morning when I unroll the air hose at the gas station before beginning to mix the mud, I see trucks filled with landscapers fueling up the machines they tow behind their trucks, and the many empty containers they had finished off the day before. Oftentimes I grab a coffee for John and me after filling up our wheelbarrow tire.

I ended up in the hospital before the job was entirely finished. I guess that’s how it goes. You fight through what you think is the hard stuff and when you put down your tools and dust off your boots, things fall apart and you end up in the E.R. Almost two months later I found myself back at the hospital. What had been considered a successful recovery proved temporary and I was given a prescription for time off and sleep. So I bought film for my camera and got a haircut from a barber who remarked on the same cowlick I have now that I did when playing Little League all those springs ago and sat in the very same barber chair. He probably gave me the same haircut then that he did now.

As I was getting cleaned up a man without any hair on the top of his head walked in. He walked into a nearly empty room and smiled because there was no line. He and the barber traded jabs and pleasantries. They called each other by their first names and were genuinely pleased to see one another. I told the barber that when I reopen my store I want it to be just like his.

“You want to open a barber shop?” he asked.