It starts about a foot below the surface. First maybe a movie ticket – the thick old cardboard kind, the ones that last forever underground like the newspapers you can dig up now and then in trash dumps – the headlines, the pictures still visible, the dates and captions, the stories you can still read – even the weather from whenever they were printed. It’s something in the paper, maybe – or the soil – they hardly even turn brown under there, even if they’re wet and the print shows through to the other side of the paper, and if they’re folded, then they might as well be fresh yesterday.
Another six inches and it’s a box lid from a Whitman’s sampler or maybe an old 45 like the kind you only bring out on a first date – or maybe amusement park trash like those little colored aluminum disks with letters you can stamp on. These you definitely can read and they all say stuff like ‘JOHN AND CANDI – TRUE LOVE FOREVER’ like the sort of things kids carve on picnic tables and counters in school lunchrooms. The sort of stuff we all tell each other when we’re in love – the same words almost every time, the same way of saying them. Nobody gets too original with these things – maybe we’re all afraid to put too big a label on it. Or maybe we’re all just afraid of telling the truth.
After another foot or so a plastic fork or spoon turns up with a sandwich wrapper or a Styrofoam box like the kinds of stuff you can buy at a deli comes in. Maybe a few soda cans or a wine bottle, depending on whether this was at lunch or after work, and the little clear plastic cups that double for wine glasses at outdoor parties. Maybe even the cellophane from a bunch of flowers bought quick on the sidewalk from one of those drive-up stands: still rolled up, a few sprigs of baby’s breath still inside. And then you know that’s the second or third date – the picnic in the park, all the trash left behind so it’s nice and clean: no dishes to bring home, no evidence, no chance the husband at home doing the yard work will find out if he accidentally spins the garbage a couple of days later when she’s out to visit a friend.
Maybe we’re really only meant to know these things years later, like if the truth came too soon, it would hit us the wrong way, we’d do the wrong thing. Maybe some things can’t be found out too soon; maybe they’re just kept from us as if there’s some logic to it. I hope there is, because without a pattern – without a plan, I mean – well, what’s left of everything we ever thought or did, or felt? If I told my wife – if I told Brenda I loved her, and there was no point or plan, then what difference would it make to me that she was in the park that day I first started digging down the side of the outside wall, following the crack in the cement all the way down to the foundation?
My mother comes out onto the porch and stares at the sky. The screen door slams behind her. I keep digging as she stands there, one hand on her hip and the other holding up a greasy spatula, like a sword. "It smells like rain," she says. The wind stirs the hem of her dress.
She waves the spatula back at the house. "Lunch’ll be done in a minute. Get cleaned up and I’ll have it all ready." She turns and goes back inside. Because I’m right outside the basement wall I can hear her footsteps through the living room and into the kitchen. I toss another shovelful of dirt up and hoist myself up to the edge of the hole.
Sitting on the grass, I can see the crack better; it starts out as a hairline at the edge of the dark gray stain that marks the underground part of the wall, then broadens out to a crevice toward the bottom of the hole. Maybe I’ve dug four, maybe four-and-a-half feet. Down the sides of the hole all sorts of trash and stuff pokes out: old bottles and newspaper, a plastic doll’s arm, a whole lot of broken-up cement. A minute ago I turned over a waxed-cardboard Chinese carry-out box like the kind Brenda’d bring home when she was too tired from work to cook.
I swing my feet up over the edge and stand, cracking my back as I stretch. The same thing’s going on all over the neighborhood: people excavating, filling in cracks and stopping leaks. The landfill is settling, the foundations shifting. You can see it in the sidewalks where they buckle here and there and in the really old trees, the ones they left standing from before the development, mostly in the alleys: they grow a couple of inches off plumb every couple feet or so, then twist around to keep balance. Basements are flooding. The neighbors swap stories and hunches about the situation over backyard fences. One guy uses a cement patch, another tries tar. One guy down the street laid a sheet of heavy plastic over the hot tar before he filled in. It lasted a week. The earth is moving under us.
I leave my boots on the porch and go in. My mother is putting a plateful of hamburgers on the kitchen table. "Go wash yourself downstairs," she says. "You’re too dirty for the bathroom. I just cleaned in there this morning." She turns back to the stove and pushes a pile of onion slices from the cutting board into the frying pan. They sizzle as they hit the grease.
The stairs have a watermark halfway up the second step, maybe a foot off the floor. So does the piano across the room. I smack the keys as I walk by. They rattle and a flat buzzy sound comes out. It’s probably ruined, like the couch I wrestled up the stairs and out yesterday so Ma could clean the floor. The couch was Brenda’s and I didn’t even bother to ask. The city came and took it this morning on their daily round through the neighborhood. In the laundry room I wash all the way up my arms, then splash water on my face, bending low into the laundry tub. I grab a towel from the pile of laundry Ma’s left, folded, on the dryer. At least the washer and dryer still work.
"You didn’t walk around down there in your stocking feet, now did you?" she calls out before I get to the top of the stairs.
"So take them off before you come into the kitchen. I just got the floor done in here."
" You just cleaned down there, too. They’re clean enough."
"Not for the kitchen, they’re not. Go. Take ‘em off." I sit on the landing steps and pull off my socks. There’s no point in arguing: she woke me up this morning, knocking on the side door with a plastic pail full of cleaning stuff and a mop. I was hung over, squinting at her through the screen door.
"So, what?" she said. "Are you going to let me in or not?" I opened the door.
"Ma, what’re you doing here?"
"I’m here to clean." She props the mop in the comer of the landing and sets the pail down beside it. "I’ll bet your basement’s a mess – not as if she ever lifted a finger around the house."
"That’s not true."
She pushed past me, into the kitchen and stood, looking around, at the dirty counter, the sink full of dishes. "You’re telling me you did all this?"
"In three days?"
"I been busy."
"Busy." She pushes up her sleeves. "Too busy to finish the work outside when your basement’s flooding. I’ll give you busy – go get some pants on. I asked Norm Salwoski next door about the basement. He knows just what to do. Go."
I went. Now she’s standing over the sink, washing up the cooking things. Lunch is on the table in what looks like every clean dish left in the house: a plate of burgers, a bag of buns and bowls of sliced pickles, onions and tomatoes. She’s even put the mustard and ketchup in bowls with spoons in. "It’s a lucky thing your gas is still working."
"Ma, sit down. Take a break. You been working all morning."
"So’ve you. Sit down and I’ll be right there." She dries her hands and throws the dishcloth into the sink. "They took the couch?"
"Just about when I got started." I put together a hamburger as she sits down. ‘There’s stuff out all over the neighborhood, these days. With all the rain."
"Rain, hell. Somebody oughta sue the developer – a couple summer thunderstorms and the whole neighborhood floods. Pass me the onions. Norm said he saw a crack outside by his garage this morning. You might ask him if he needs a hand later on."
"And I emptied the trash," she says with some emphasis.
"Thanks." I pile on the onions and reach for the mustard.
"Empties are heavy, you know."
"Thanks." I pull the bowl of pickles over and nudge a few slices out onto my plate. It’s maybe the first solid meal I’ve had since Brenda left. "I didn’t tell Brenda about the couch."
"She didn’t tell you about him – serves her right." She picks up her hamburger and, both elbows on the table, bites down. Her hands are red from an the soap and stuff, and her wedding ring and the big diamond Dad got her for their fortieth anniversary glitters. She has hands like a woman whose children are all gone: big and raw-boned with nails done once a week. Brenda never did her nails: not professional, she said – just clear polish. And her hands were soft, too.
"So what if she asks?" She takes a napkin from the holder and wipes the corner of her mouth.
"So what? I’ll tell her the truth. It got damaged. That’s all."
"Serves her right." She glances around the kitchen. The dishes are draining in their rack, the counter top is spotless. It looks like she’s even polished the toaster.
"Next I’ll do the upstairs."
"You got other things to do, Ma – don’t bother. I can take care of the rest."
"Do I?’ She looks up at me, eyebrows raised, over her hamburger. "Since when do you know so much?"
"Look, thanks for everything – really, it’s great, but I can take care it."
"You got other things to do. God knows – your whole house is coming down around your ears. It could at least be clean."
"Well, OK then. OK. I’ll finish with the hole."
"And talk to Norm Salwoski – he could use a hand, poor man. His wife is dead, you know."
Brenda and I married right out of high school, and that’s about the whole of it. We both thought she’d finish a business program at the community college before we had kids, but two years turned into three when she transferred to the University commuter campus to finish her degree, and three years turned into five when she went to work. She met the guy in one of her classes her senior year, and they were hired together that spring at an accounting office. Just a coincidence. She’d work a few years, we decided, before we started a family. I was laid off last fall, anyway, and we needed the money. Things just worked out that way.
Outside the sky is clouding over. It does smell like rain. Maybe, if I’m lucky, the basement won’t flood so bad if I can dig deep enough below the hole. I leave the table and find my socks in t he basement, then put my boots on.
Another eight inches down or so I find a man’s hat wedged under a chunk of scrap cement. The felt is muddied and cut through by the shovel, but the band still has a feather, mud-colored and clumped together, stuck into it. It’s a banker’s hat. Or an accountant’s. For a moment I turn it over in my hands, feeling the felt spongy and cool. It’s the sort of thing a guy’s likely to lose: leave behind in a restaurant or on a park bench, maybe in a motel room. The sort of thing a woman sees and picks up and comes running after him with. Maybe she puts it on his head and smiles when she doesn’t settle it on quite right. Maybe she kisses him then. I take it by the brim and toss it out of the hole, across the yard. It settles in a heap on the driveway.
"Hey, ain’t that litterin’?"
I look up again. Norm is watching from his yard, smiling, leaning on the fence. "They got rules against that, you know."
"Yeah," he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. "How’s it look?"
"Can’t tell yet – not down far enough. Good sized hole here, though." I pull myself up out of the dirt, glad for the interruption. I’m maybe five feet down now and the crack still runs straight into the earth. It’s probably across the slab, too, for all I know. "Ma said you got the same?"
"Yeah, something by the garage. I noticed the side window broken when I was cuttin’ the grass last week – whole wall inside’s stressed out of joint." He looks back and spits into his yard, then opens the gate and walks out onto the driveway. "Lucky the roof didn’t go." He prods the hat with the toe of his shoe.
"What’s this, a hat?"
I look down, following the crack into the dirt. A broken Coke bottle, half full of muddy water, pokes out the side of the hole next to my boot. "Looks like it."
"Jesus. The stuff you come across. Makes you wonder."
"Sure does." I press my heel against the bottle. It slides out of the dirt wall and drops to the bottom of the hole, hitting a chunk of cement with a pop. Bits of glass scatter across the ground, clean on their broken edges, shining like diamonds.
Norm squats down next to me. "Let’s see what you got here." He cranes his neck over the edge. "Jesus, that’s a bad one. How’s things inside?"
"Pretty bad – piano’s shot, I guess – but Ma’s got things cleaned up now." I hear the water running in the kitchen: the dishes again.
"I saw the couch," he says, like at a funeral. "So Brenda’s gone, huh?" I look up. He shrugs. "Your mother told me."
"Oh. Yeah, I guess." It all happened quietly enough, no scenes or arguments out on the lawn or nothing. Just I got home from the hardware store with a new shovel – the old one broke after the first two feet or so, right after the picnic stuff – and her car and a bunch of her clothes was gone. I didn’t even bother to go inside, at first. Maybe she was running an errand or something. Maybe I already knew – I don’t know how to say it, but two feet down the side of the house, I was catching on. Like from the stuff I was turning up. Maybe we only see things we’re meant to notice.
"Well, that’s real tough. Oughta know better," he says, standing up again. At first I think he means me. I look up: his head’s blocking the sun and rays of light seem to shoot out from around him. He looks like a picture of God in some kid’s book – in bermudas and bifocals.
"Guys like you got enough troubles. Work an’ all that. A wife oughta be a wife. Jesus." He spits into the grass. "We never had that problem – guys my age, you know? We got married for life. Stayed that way."
I look back down. The light around his head’s burned into my eyes – I can see it glowing in the bottom of the hole: Norm’s halo. "You need any help with the garage, Norm?"
"I don’t know. We’ll talk later – how’s about that?" He’s turned away from me and for just a minute, I think that maybe he’s crying. Poor guy: the old woman’s been dead what – five years? He visits her grave on Sundays. Every Sunday – always with flowers, rain or shine. You see him with a potted plant or a big green waxed paper cone under his arm, walking cross town to the cemetery. You honk the horn and he waves. It’s sort of a neighborhood thing. He pulls out a handkerchief and blows his nose, takes a deep breath. "Later. When you’re not busy. I’ll come over, I’ll find you."
"Sure, Norm." I keep my eyes down as he starts back across the yard, then stops at the hat. He gives it another nudge with his foot and grunts to himself. When I hear his screen door slam I get back to work.
The chunk of cement at the bottom of the hole’s a big one, a good foot and a half across, and thick – not paving. Part of a building, maybe part of an old house. Part of someone else’s basement, from someone else’s flood. I work around it for a few minutes, trying to lift it with the shovel wedged under one side, then the other, feeling the handle strain against the weight. It works its way out slowly and the dirt above it on the side of the hole wall falls loose as it swings free. I take a few shovelfuls and toss them up over the top, thinking maybe if I get a good enough clearance around the chunk to get a grip, I can lift it to the edge without help.
I can hear the washer running inside: Ma doing another load of wash – probably rags by now. She’s got a system: she works her way down from good clothes to work clothes and finally to towels and then rags. It never changes. Brenda used to think that was funny, the way Ma had rules for everything – like the way she did the dishes with the glasses first, then the plates and silverware and the pots and pans last – but she and Ma never really got along. A minute later the dryer goes on – gotta be towels. Always in the same order. I don’t know why – there’s probably a good reason. Something you learn over a lifetime’s worth of wash.
I’m digging around back behind the chunk of cement when I feel the shovel blade cut into glass: it’s a sharp, soft sort of impact, and you can hear the crack of it down in the dirt if you listen. I pull the shovel back and part of a wine glass – the fancy kind with the thin stem and cut designs on the base – falls into the hole. It’s just the base and the stem, though: I must’ve cut it right in half. I aim the blade up, above where the rest of it should be, and dig into the dirt, scooping it out, onto the cement. It rolls out easy, dull and stuffed with dirt, decorated around the bowl with more cut designs. I pick it up.
It’s fancy all right: too good to just throw away. I pick up the stem and fit the two pieces together and they almost match, as if the shovel had only cut through and not crushed the glass. The bowl’s decorated with a picture of a sailing ship cut into the glass in long thin overlapping lines – real fine stuff, like you sometimes see in gift shops. Maybe engravers do it, I don’t know. The ship’s a beauty – a whaler or a frigate or whatever they called them: three big high masts with lots of thin ropes cut into the glass, lots of flags and stuff around the sails. A statue of a woman under the bow. It’s all detail work, careful – just beautiful. People pitch out the craziest things. I hold it up: there’s a gold line around the edge of the glass at the top.
I turn it upside down on the edge of the hole, on the grass so I won’t shatter it, and tap the dirt out. It’s full of stiff mud, really, and the stuff sloughs out easy. I rub the bowl of the glass to get the rest of the dirt out, and reach two finger’s inside to scrape out what’s left. I can hear something scratching around inside and at first I think it’s just more glass – a chip or part of something else that got stuck inside – then my finger rubs up against it, and sorta goes inside it, and I pull it out.
It’s a ring – an old-fashioned type of thing with lacy open strands of gold wrapping around a stone. I scrape the dirt away from the stone, but it’s caked into it all around, so I spit on it and rub the grime away. It’s a diamond – or at least something like it, I can see. I pull myself up out of the hole as Ma comes out on the porch again. I hold it up to her.
"Hey, look at this."
"What. What is it?" She bends over the wrought iron rail and squints down at my hand. "It’s dirty – what is it?"
"Just a second." I get up and go around to the garden hose on the driveway and turn on the water. The hose coughs a few times and sends up a spray from the nozzle. I hold the ring down into it.
Ma comes around the side of the house. She’s got an old sock in one hand. "You aren’t hurt, are you? Come inside."
"No. Look." I rub the ring against my jeans and hand it to her. She holds it back and down and squints at it, then dries it off a little more with the sock. "You found this?"
"Inside a wine glass. In the dirt."
She looks up at me, then back at the ring. "Huh. Maybe it’s worth something." She hands it back to me. "Have it looked at." She opens the side door and turns to go in. "I’m mending your socks – there’s a whole pile of stuff she left in a basket under the ironing board. She didn’t have a sewing basket, did she?"
"I don’t know." Probably not. I can’t remember Brenda ever sewing anything.
"I’m sewing on buttons too, but I have to run out and get some more. I’ll be back in a minute." The door doses behind her, then opens again. "You talked to Norm yet?"
"A little while ago. He came over."
"Good." She goes back down the stairs, disappearing into the dark. I take another look at the ring. It’s smooth and the stone’s clear now – bright in the sun with colored sparks and reflections inside. Maybe it’s not real, but it’s a good fake. I push it down on my ring finger, but it’s too small: it’ll just fit around the little finger of my right hand. The front screen door slams. "I’ll just be a minute," Ma calls around the side of the house, then her car door shuts and she starts the car and pulls away from the curb, past the end of the drive.
Brenda came back last night for some stuff she said she’d forgot. I was asleep on the couch in the front room when I heard the side door open and the kitchen light went on. The rest of the house was dark and she looked in through the doorway as I looked up.
She had her hands down at her sides, tense. "I have to get some things."
"Yeah." I go to sit up, lose my balance and sprawl back onto the couch. The room’s dark and I can’t see the armrest to catch myself. She takes a step past the doorway and the room darkens even more.
"You’re drunk, aren’t you?"
"Well?" I was – or at least a good part of my way to it. I’d called in to work that morning, saying flu and meaning hangover: I hadn’t wasted much time when I’d figured out she was gone.
Brenda turns and goes down the hall to the bedroom. I hear her mutter "Shit," under her breath. The bedroom light goes on and for a few minutes I just lie there, letting my eyes get used to the gloom. She rummages around for a while and then I hear the closet slam and she’s back, standing again in the kitchen doorway. "I’m going."
"Yeah, all right." I close my eyes. What does she want me to say – goodbye?
She’s halfway out the door before she turns back and, standing in the middle of the kitchen, shouts through the doorway. "You’re just a shit, Billy, a drunk shit!"
I kept my eyes closed – too smart for this: I wouldn’t give her a scene, won’t make her feel as if she’s got a reason for leaving besides the guy I guess is in the car outside. I was drunk, maybe, but I’m not about to take the blame. Too easy. Like I wouldn’t tell her about the crack in the wall and the water downstairs. It’s not her house anymore. When she goes she slams both the kitchen door and then the screen door behind her.
So I spent the second night. The next morning – this morning – Ma was over, bright and early, with a bucket and a bag of groceries.
I go back to the hole. Standing over it it looks much deeper – maybe six feet. As deep as a grave – just about as wide, but not as long. The crack runs in a diagonal from the bottom of a basement window to the dirt I haven’t dug out yet, and I don’t know how much farther it’ll go. Maybe all the way down to the foundations of the house.
The next thing to do is get the cement chunk out of the hole and I think a minute before I pick it up: I’m going to have to lift this almost over my head, then push it away far enough so it won’t roll back.
It’s a lot to lift at first. I fit my hands around it and feel for a good grip, then hoist it up until I can get a knee under it. It takes all I’ve got, just about, to hold it there, and I let it rest for a minute, feeling the weight of it push my foot down into the dirt at the bottom of the hole. Above me, with my back against the wall of the house for balance, all I can see is sky above the rim of the hole, and clouds working their way from one side of the edge of the dirt to the other, It’s like all we ever see – just our own part of the sky. I get my grip again and brace myself.
I take a deep breath and pull the chunk up to my chest, pressing myself against it to get under it for support. It scrapes against my chin, but I can just hold it if I use all my strength and throw my weight in the right direction. The last thing to do will be to get under it and lift from my knees. If I keep my arms tight and straight, I should be able to throw it over. I look up again to get a feel for the distance, and I’m standing there when I realize I’ve still got the ring on my finger.
And I don’t know why, but I keep my eyes on the ring as I lose my grip, and I’m still looking at it when the chunk drops down and hits my foot and I see stars – real stars, like the sky above me just went out and it’s dark. I close my eyes and step back from the chunk of cement, pulling my foot out from under it, and in slow motion, it feels like, I crouch down. For a moment, with my eyes closed, I can see the two of them in the dirt just below me, her glass – the one she just threw her ring into – is missing. They’re smiling at each other over the table, holding hands deep in the dirt below the house, surrounded by every little piece of trash and clue I’ve dug up. It hurts too much for me to yell out.
I lay my foot against the rock and untie my boot, and every tug on the laces aches until I pull the boot off, and then I see blood coming up through my sock and the real pain hits. Enough to bring tears to my eyes. Enough to make me clench my teeth and shout, because the sky above me is bright, bright day again and the ring is winking on my finger and I’m stuck in this hole, lame and leaning against the crack in the house behind me.Find more imaginative stories and poems ... return to the Summer Fiction 2001 home page