Digging Ditches

Gloves wouldn’t have prevented more blisters wet or dry; John’s skin was too thin, too papery. To unstick them from his fresh palms he pulled at the fingers and flexed his palm. He did this every few feet as he slogged backward down the ditch. Tomorrow, he’d be sorry and raw, but the hot, ripping sensation stretching across his hands was the physical manifestation of pain – of his progress. Proof he could actually show his poker buddies, or the neighbor farmers, or his wife.

John had waited a few days too long to start digging, not because he was dreading the labor, but because he was a betting man. He went with his gut. It was the reason he had come to Oregon to be a farmer – plant here or there, plant now and not later, hope the weather held out the way you wanted – farming was the biggest bet you could play.

And he’d catch on, eventually. Maybe become more like Buckley, the neighbor who’d shown up in John’s driveway a few weeks before, driving a bright blue New Holland with an irrigation blade attached to the back.

Buckley knew everything about farming. He knew when to dig your ditches, when to stop digging your ditches, where to dig them, how to dig them, what to dig them with, for how long you dug them, how deep, how to fuck John’s wife while simultaneously planning his next ditch.

For now, John didn’t know how to do any of these things, and he was left with a half-done ditch, the muted color of which were even more blurred by the steady sheets of rain that were falling. The late-morning drops filled his incomplete ditch easily enough.

Despite the time of year, when the days were getting longer, the light was shadowed and sucked away by a dark veil of clouds that stretched across the entire sky. It seemed much later than it was, the confusion of which seemed to weight John down, his body screamed at him that it had been working longer than it should have been.

From where he stood in the very center of his trench John could hear water bubbling down on the west side by the small grove of trees, the water that he knew was gushing on that side, speeding up over the ridges in the floor of his ditch, and slowing down in the troughs where the blade of his shovel had bit too deep.

At the east side of the field there was a pool of stagnant water that wouldn’t drain because the middle of the trench was curved upward, creating a deep set at either end. He’d made it as far back as the shallow run in the center, cutting away little bits for the third pass down the ditch that day.

Every time he cut a small chunk away, the water rushed down into the lower chunk he’d cut, then stop, swirling around like a mini whirlpool. He felt his shoulders slump a little to relieve the pressure that was burning down his spine, and he shook his head sluggishly, planning. The middle was dribbling miserably and his slices did nothing.

He flexed his fingers and flinched when the glove didn’t immediately let go of his skin. Then, clasping the handle of the shovel with his palms he scraped the blade along the bottom, trying to smooth the rough grooves.

When he lifted the shovel out of the ditch to see what he’d done, the water rushed back over his work, instantly clouding to a ruddy red color, bubbling once more.

He looked down at the thick clay that coated the shovel blade and made an

amused snort. The mucus-like mud that had come off his hands was oozing down the handle. It reminded him of his wife’s facial mask the night before.

“Your mother called,” she’d said, standing at the mirror, reddish-brown muck seeping down her face and neck. “Something about money.”

“Surprising.”

She’d huffed. “Is it?”

He’d hoped she’d be done in the bathroom sooner so he could undress. He hadn’t been naked with her in any amount of light for years. They’d been really good at avoiding this kind of encounter throughout the entirety of their marriage. This shocked some of his younger friends – the fact that you could enjoy intimacy with a woman without needing to see every detail. But, in the beginning it had been different, interesting. John supposed they got so used to the niche they found to ever find the courage to bring up something different from the different it had been. Now, with the blisters hidden in his closed fist, and the thin, whiteness of the skin that hadn’t been exposed concealed beneath streak of dirt, he was afraid of her glimpsing these things.

She was still making faces in the mirror, using her fingers to pull her skin around. He stepped beside her to wash the dirt off his face.

“No.” He’d said. “Surprised that you talked to her long enough to tell me anything besides the fact that she called.”

“So how much did she pay-off in total?”

John remembered that feeling down his spin, standing in the bathroom, the feeling of molten lava – hot, angry rock running from the core. It happened when he exerted

physical effort, or when he was about to lie.

“I don’t know why you say it like that, Hannah. It was only a few hundred from a poker game with the guys.”

“He doesn’t know why I say it like this!” She’d turned toward the mirror and had thrown her hands up like she was hailing an audience. Small specks of mud mask had spattered from her neck onto the white tile countertop. John imagined the audience’s laughter at such a rhetorical question.

“I’m dying to know.”

“Don’t you think it’s a little sad that a grown man has to have his mommy pay off his gambling debts?”

“They’re not debts; they’re small dues for Christ’s sake.”

She had turned to him, face splitting into a cackling grin, mask flinging in all directions.

“It’s no wonder your dear mother doesn’t like me. I refuse to pat your bottom and pour your milk before you go out for the night to drink and screw my money away.”

I’m not the one fucking the twenty-five-year-old neighbor.

They had stared at each other for a few silent seconds. For months those words had roamed through his head without being said. All the knowledge and understanding behind that sentence was swirling around, muddling up with each spin until it was just as clear as the water that sat stagnant in his field. The water he was dying to drain.

When he hadn’t said anything she’d turned back to the sink and started wiping the mask off, careful in her movements. He had stood at the other sink pretending to dig dirt from beneath his fingernails, watching her with sideways glances. Until that night he had never noticed how pink and soft her skin looked after she took of those masks. With no black makeup around her eyes or blush on her cheeks she didn’t look as severe.

That night in the bathroom John had imagined, for a moment, that the words he had heard seconds before were things that could never come out of such a soft mouth.

_____________

John straightened and tilted his head upward so the rain would cool the incessant itch that had started when the fight replayed in his mind. He was positive that it was late afternoon by now – the sky darker than ever – and glanced at the watch on his wrist. It was a nice watch, waterproof and durable, with little windows that told the month and year. As if these were things that someone would forget. He’d won it from his dentist one night playing 7-card-stud. It showed 12:05.

He heard a large engine choke and catch, turning over with a grinding screech. Buckley was moving his Stieger Panther out of the rain, the large machine moving roughly but efficiently across his field. Buckley had pointed out the tractor when he had come over with the New Holland for John to borrow. He’d told him that it was just a pile of rust before he had gotten a hold of it.

“Took me a while, but I fixed her pretty good,” he’d said.

John leaned over the top of the shovel handle and watched the Panther stalk slowly to the edge of the field before it eased out of the steep drain channel and onto the road.

I didn’t take long for John to realize that the gloves were hurting his hands more than they were helping. About an hour after the Panther had disappeared down the road, he trudged the ten acres back to the house, which was a faint outline from the ditch. The light from the windows was the only thing that penetrated the thick veil of rain.

Buckley’s bright yellow truck was parked in the driveway, nose-to-nose with John’s Toyota short-bed when he got to the rusty gate; it sat behind a dilapidated shack that he used to store things that he thought might make him money if he ever needed fast cash. Almost half the roof was caved-in and the low rafters were always stuffed with Warblers, Swallows, and Bushtits. They feasted on the huckleberries in the garden before shitting them out over the corroded treasures that littered the floor.

John had to throw his shoulder into the gate three times before the post skidded onto the uneven slab of concrete he’d poured. When the metal post ricocheted off the lock a flash of pain went through his elbow and he fell against the gate holding his elbow away from his body – into the cooling rain.

John looked at the house through eyes rimmed with pain. Large waterdrops clung to his eyelashes, dropping to his cheeks whenever he looked at the ground. He could see Buckley and his wife through the kitchen windows. He was taking something from her across the island countertop. John thought he saw her laugh and lick a drop of whatever off her thumb.

The door into the master bedroom was closest to him, through the backyard. But his waterlogged annoyance and curiosity about whatever joke had his wife laughing so

hard propelled him through the front door without taking off his muddy boots.

They were sitting at the kitchen table, their heads close together; both had their hands wrapped around steaming coffee mugs.

“Hannah, where do you keep the gauze tape?”

She turned her head to look at him as if an annoying waiter had stepped up to harass her and her date. “I’m guessing in the bathroom somewhere.”

John recognized the quiet, passive-aggressive nature of this tone; it was one he used to find daring when they were first dating. Whenever a waiter interrupted them he could practically hear the snapping, hiss-like fire behind her eyes. The tone had remained attractive, even after a few years of being married. Now the boldness in her tone was always edged the angry words toward him.

“Buckley was just telling me all about the financial workings of their family farm. He just took over from his sick father, poor thing.” She rested her hand on Buckley’s briefly. “It’s fascinating really, what all goes into managing the money of a farm.”

“You’re the one who put everything into the bathroom cabinets sweetheart, why don’t you go get the tape for me?

Buckley took a sip of his drink and nodded at John. “You should have something warm, the rain’s only going to get harder and colder.”

“He said he would be happy to help out, with the money and all,” she said smiling at him from a foot away.

When had the sweat sprung up on his palms? It was running into the sores, pooling and stinging.

“Hannah, God dammit.”

She twitched enough to splash hot coffee on her hand. It was silent before she got up, and silent as she brushed passed him to get the tape.

Buckley broke the silence. “My father had a gambling problem too.”

John wasn’t sure what to say to the man – the boy – Who was trying to connect with him about fathers or people with gambling problems, or whatever it was he was trying to get at. “Well, I’m sure it won’t burden him now that he’s sick.”

“I figured helping was the least that I could do to pay your wife back.” Buckley said. He frowned into the steam.

Quick guilt sprung into John’s throat, and he was about to open his mouth to say what, he didn’t know, when Hannah returned to the kitchen wearing a t-shirt and no bra, shoving the roll of medical tape into the crook of John’s crossed arms. Those words, whatever they were going to be, gummed up in his throat.

“What were you boys discussing?”

Buckley stood and dumped the almost full mug into the sink. “The rain,” he said. Then he nodded in John’s direction.

For a moment John didn’t know what to do. He felt like his boots were full of muck and clay, sucking his feet to the floor, as if he were trying to walk through mud with boots that were too large. He was afraid that if he moved then his foot would come out and he might end up with his face in mud.

They all stood for a minute. Then Buckley cleared his throat and walked toward the front door, his socks making no noise. Without looking at his wife John turned and

followed Buckley onto the worn porch. The light was fading, time had seemed to jump forward while he was in the house.

The rain hadn’t let up.

He didn’t stop when Buckley stepped to the side to put his boots on. He walked and tapped his hands through the incessant bombs of icy water striking his skin. He stepped through the rocks at the edge of the driveway without stopping to look. He didn’t hesitate or turn when Buckley said, “you’re doing a good job Mr. Hansen.”

He didn’t falter at the uneven gate or at the wide trench that split the back field from the lawn – didn’t stop until he came to the east side of the field, where the stagnant pool was swelling. He knew that this end was too deep to flow over the middle; he needed to start cutting deeper groves.

He thrust the blade into the ground and yanked, flinging the clay feverishly out of the ditch. Every time he did this there was small sucking sound and then a dull pop when the chunk came loose. The sound was odd but it reminded him of many things:

His mother’s gum when she blew bubbles. Suck, pop.

Champagne corks whenever they celebrated something. Suck, pop.

The way it used to sometimes sound after sex with his wife. Suck, pop.

His poker buddies lips when they smacked after taking drinks. Suck, pop. That fish tank at his old bank that sat outside the loan office. Suck, pop. His wife’s crying breath when he told her they were moving. Suck, pop.

Down the ditch he waded, remembering a story for each sound remembered, each time noting the fact that every story ended with some sort of failure. By the time he had gotten toward the middle of the five-acre long trench, he had gone through every one of his failures in his adult life.

A heated chunk of mud was sitting in his stomach; its glutinous arms extended to the base of his skull, the tips of his shoulder blades, and under his scalp. The tape on his hands had gone a red-black color; it curved into the deep craters on his palms. He tried to peel the tape from his hands but stopped and held them under his jacket out of the rain when the first piece took enough skin to reveal light pink muscle.

John looked back toward the house through the rain. Buckley’s yellow truck unyielding through the haze, driving away.

He thought of that saying about people digging ditches as the lowest form of work. His teachers and parents used the phrase when referring to the type of people who couldn’t do anything else right except for moving dirt.

The chunk of iron-like clay in his stomach turned over and he heard a dull sound. Felt it vibrate within him enough that, for a moment, he thought the sound had come from the mud ball inside him bursting.

Suck, pop. Then, the musical tinkling of water.

The stagnant pool at the east side had filled so much that the water broke the dirt wall that was holding it from the unfinished ditch along the edge of the field. The initial rush of water pushed against the sides of the ditch, smoothing the edges like the ocean polishes and pulverizes the rocks. In time, the stream of water would create it’s own trench, cut just the path it needed so it could flow easily across the field.

The rain continued to come down. The sky was the same blurry grey. John breathed in deep, filling his chest, and tried to find a sense of accomplishment.

All in a days work.

The map of progress on his hands would still be there tomorrow – he might wake up with some of the tape still knotted around his fingers.

John let the air out of his chest. The feeling of accomplishment he was holding his breath for, the feeling of release he was sinking into the mud for didn’t come. What filled him when he took a tight breath in was pointless despair.

He had water moving through a ditch in an empty field.