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Arts & Liberties => Writer's Block => Topic started by: George Potter on April 17, 2005, 10:47:26 pm

Title: Trenching
Post by: George Potter on April 17, 2005, 10:47:26 pm


George Potter

      Hank Reilley's daddy always told him he'd end up a ditch digger, and Hank never had a reason to doubt that prediction.

      It wasn't that he didn't know that his daddy meant it as an insult, and it wasn't that he thought he was dumb or worthless like his daddy meant him to.

      No, Hank figured he was fairly smart, at least as smart as any other kid around, and the whole concept of worth hadn't ever really took with him on the personal level.

      Hank figured it was true because he by God liked digging ditches.

      Or digging holes.

      Or digging anything.

      He had a talent for it, he reckoned, and had gotten his ass busted more than a few times for breaking through the skin of the world to see what lay beneath.

      Sometimes he had a reason.

      Like the time he had stumbled across a weird bit of rusted metal protruding from the ground and spent an entire summer day excavating a big block Chevy engine that had to be twenty years old if it was a minute.

      He was six then, and he did it with a little coal shovel all by himself.

      He didn't get a whipping that time, but his momma had looked at him funny and demanded an explanation for why he'd wasted a day and damn near ruined a good pair of pants and a t-shirt.

      Hank knew why, but couldn't find the right words at that age, so he'd just shrugged like a dummy.

      If he'd been a little older he might have explained that -- at first -- it was just pure old curiosity.

      To the mind of a boy, that could have been an alien spaceship. After he'd got enough of it unearthed to guess what it was, though, he kept on for other reasons.

       The first was simple; he was having fun.

      The second was more complicated and a bit vauge, even in his own mind. That motor didn't belong in the ground, Hank knew.

      It belonged bolted into the chassis of a big old car. It was supposed to be shoving metal down a road at an ungodly speed and roaring like a demon.

      That was it's right and proper place, and even though Hank knew the engine was dead and cold now, and that there was no way he could truly put it where it belonged, that didn't mean he couldn't get it out of the ground at least.

      No sir.

      What's more, he knew he could do that.

      So he did.

      Other times he just did it to do it.

      If he was feeling bored or lonely or angry or confused, he'd find himself a tool and a quiet spot and just start digging.

      He liked the see the emptiness emerge, and see the underneath revealed in delicately layered strata like a record of God's thoughts. It gave him a chill. He liked running into a tangle of roots and figuring out which nearby trees they belonged to. He liked the challenge of hitting a big rock and having to carefully plan out and side dig and worry that bastard out of the way.

      He enjoyed the idea of that rock, buried under the blind dark for more years than he could understand, now given a chance to bask in the sun and have it's very existence acknowledged.

      Sometimes he'd even talk to them, in a quiet, calm voice. "Don't worry, Mr. Rock" he'd say "I'll soon have you free." He'd heard a line something like that in a movie where firemen were digging through a collapsed building.

      He liked the sound of it so he used it. It made him smile.

      His daddy would bust his ass when he caught him doing it, but his daddy would bust his ass for almost any reason. Hank got the feeling that his daddy was completely disappointed that his son had no interest in being a football player and, no doubt, eventually a used car salesman.

       His daddy had been the first and was the second. He was almost religious about the former and seemed to think the latter was the only thing a real man should aspire to. Hank disagreed viciously on the inside, but on the outside just played dumb, like usual.

      Football held no fascination for him. It seemed like a lot of work for nothing. You didn't even find out new things like you did in digging a good hole. Plus, people ran into you and you had to run. Hank liked cars a lot but only for riding in and looking at and one day -- he couldn't wait -- actually driving them. The idea of selling them to people seemed sort of boring.

      The older Hank got the more his daddy seemed to detest him. This really bothered him for a long time, and almost made him hate his daddy right back. But Hank figured out, in a sort of revelation, that his daddy just didn't understand certain things.

      Sometimes, when Hank's daddy was feeling bad or sad or out of sorts, he'd go into the basement and set up his projector and watch the blurry films of the days when he played football for his high school. Hank could usually sneak in there and, if he stayed quiet, his daddy would accept his presence and sometimes even talk to him like a friend.

      Hank realized in those films that, for his daddy, playing football was the same as digging was to him. Hank saw the joy in every motion his daddy made on that screen, saw it reflected in the older man watching that screen with almost teary eyes, and understood.

      When his daddy played football he heard the thoughts of God, just like when Hank dug. He saw that when he threw that football he was helping it fly, and was doing the same thing Hank did when he freed a big rock: giving it something it wanted but couldn't obtain on it's own.

      After that, Hank couldn't hate his daddy. He could only feel sorry that his daddy would never understand why he was so mad all the time. That he should be out throwing footballs into the autumn sky or showing kids how to do it.

      But Hank's talent wasn't words, or using them to bring understanding, it was digging. So that's what he did that evening -- found a good spot high up on the hill behind his house and dug and dug until his arms felt like slack ropes and his breath felt like fire in his lungs.

      He tore into his world until he hit water. He looked up and the hole leading to the air and dying light of the sun seemed distant and tiny. The water rose up around his feet, leveling off about at his ankles, and for a quick moment Hank imagined that it was the blood of the Earth itself, and that he'd wounded it. A second later, though, he realized how ice numbingly cold it was and all he could do was laugh.

      He thumped his butt back against the soft dirt wall and laughed, because life was just funny. It wasn't funny because it made no sense, but because it almost always made sense if you thought about it the right way.
      Ignore the reason you are here and you'll be miserable, without a doubt.

      Dig deep enough and you hit water.

      He climbed out of the hole and regarded it a moment. Then he set to refilling it from the gentle hills of dirt he'd created. It always seemed there was never enough dirt to refill a hole, and that was curious. Eventually he decided that it was because in the act of making a hole, a digger let some of that dirt free, into the open furnace of the universe of light and air. Maybe it got to go somewhere else and maybe be something else. He kind of liked that explanation.

      Hank went home ready for a whipping, but he lucked out. His momma was asleep in front of the TV and his daddy was passed out in front of the movie screen. He cleaned up and went to bed, and slept the quiet sleep of the man who puts in a day's real work.

      The foreman was fit to blow a vessel. "Who in hell is that freakin' kid and why in hell is he doing you boys work?"

      Barney Kinder gazed up at the foreman with a mixture of contempt and amusement. Barney was an ex-con who looked the part, from the penitentiary build to the intricate scars that decorated his face and arms. He was relaxing in the shade of the lunch tent and admiring the more than half a mile of fresh ditch that had appeared in the three hours since the foreman had wandered into town with a mumbled excuse. When he answered, he did so in a tone that seemed he was doing the local man a favor.

      "Says his name is Hank. Showed up here 'bout twenty minutes after you left. Asked polite as you please if he could help us dig."

      "And you let him?" interjected the foreman, face growing redder.

      "Funny sight that boy. Had a pickaxe tied round his chest and a 'hangin' from his back like a knight with a sword in them old stories. Had a shovel in his hand that he held all.." The word Barney was looking for was 'graceful', but he'd never used that word and had no call to start. " he knew how to use it."


      "A couple of the guys ribbed him, but he just smiled, hopped down into the trench, and went at it."

      "Why didn't you run him off? He can't be no older n'.."

      Barney shook his head. "We just watched him. I ain't never seen the like before."

      The foreman ignored it. "Look, dammit, this is a state funded project! We're laying gas mains on the State titty, and if my boss finds out..."

      Barney stood up suddenly, all six ten of him, and stared down at the fat soft foreman like a lion eyeing a baby gazelle.

      "Will you shut your hole a minute and look, man? Look at that ditch! Look how damn exact the sides are, how even the piles on both sides roll. That's over a half mile of trench in under three hours and the rest of us ain't done nothin' but sit and admire. A couple boys went up behind meaning to pack in the sides a bit, and found they didn't need any such favor."

      The foreman was beyond red now, and was rendered speechless.

      Barney gave up. No point in trying to make this chump see that something powerful had happened. Chumps like the foreman were blind to all but their own petty concerns.

      When he'd been doing ten years in State for armed robbery he'd met this little  black man from Louisiana who could draw a picture that looked like it was about to crawl off the page, and on many nights of restless sleep and counting the days till he could see the sun again, Barney had dreamed of those pictures, especially a well stacked redhead drawn just for him.

      She'd came into his dreams often, and made those last years in lockup almost bearable.

      Some folks have talents that go beyond what you expect bland reality to hold, and Barney was always thrilled to witness them.

      So, instead, he just hollered out to the boy to take a damn break already.

      The boy, almost grudgingly, complied. He crawled out of the trench and sauntered over to them, grinning like a fool.

      In the end, the foreman gave him twenty dollars and told him to go home, still ignorant of anything more than his bottom line and addiction to procedure.

      The boy's face fell and you could see him slump visibly, but he took the money and his tools and took his leave.

      When Barney finally went back into the ditch and continued where the boy had left off, he felt like a vandal drawing a mustache on a beautiful painting. The difference between his ditch and the boy's work was that apparent.

      He sighed, put it out of his mind, and continued his vandalism.

      Shortly after his 19th birthday, two important things happened to Hank Reilley. The first was that his daddy died. They found him one morning in front of the blank movie screen, cold and sad faced. The doctor said heart failure.

      His momma cried a bit, the owner of the car lot had stopped by to pay his respects and put a little money in the widow's hand, and Hank was quiet for a while. He was sad that his daddy had died, but didn't really miss him. He'd never loved him, but had done his best to respect the man, even when it was hard to do so. Hank figured it really was heart failure that did his daddy in, but not the kind the doctor meant. His daddy had just been too long away from the thoughts of God, too far from doing what he was meant to do with his days and muscles and mind.

      When the grave diggers arrived the morning before the funeral they had a surprise waiting for them. The grave was dug, six feet down to the inch, perfectly squared, sides taut and smooth, the mounds of dirt beautifully piled and sculpted on either side.

      At the bottom of the grave lay two items. The first was a tattered but still whole football.

      The second was a dinged and bent and rusted coal shovel.

      They debated for a moment on what to do. Neither of them wanted to remove the things. So, instead, each took a shovel of dirt and lightly covered them.

      Then they took the rest of the morning off.

      The second important thing that happened to Hank arrived in the mail a week after he saw his daddy laid to rest. It was a letter that informed him in formal language that he was now a draftee in the Army, and needed to fight in a war several thousands of miles away in a land he'd only heard of on the rare occasions when he watched the news.

      Hank didn't know anything about wars or killing, other than what he'd seen in the movies and television shows. But he did know that good diggers were always a help in such situations. Foxholes, fortifications, latrines; all good honest uses for a digger. So, with his momma wailing and the clothes on his back, he took the ticket that arrived just after for him and made his way to the bus station.

      It would be over a year before he saw the place he'd been born and raised in again.

      "This report is obviously bull." The colonel told his superior officer over cigars and brandy. "Lieutenant Matthews is, or was, a fine young officer, but I think he's been in the field a bit too long."

      "What exactly is the problem?" his superior asked, mellow with the good liquor in him. He'd seen his share of bizarre and unexplainable reports from men in the middle of combat. In fact, he'd seen his share of bizarre and unexplainable events in the middle of combat. He had stories he never told, from the hell torn islands of the Pacific and the frozen wastes of northern Korea. He didn't refrain from telling them because they were so horrible, but because he didn't think they'd be believed. In fact, he wasn't completely sure he believed them himself any more.

      The colonel sighed. "Matthews platoon is the best I've ever heard of at finding and storming underground VC redoubts. You yourself commented on their impressive record if you recall."

      The old man didn't. He saw and commented on a lot of things these days. But he just nodded for his man to go ahead.

      "So I asked him for a report on what they were doing and how they did it. I expect a long, detailed report on various techniques and hopefully repeatable methods. Instead, I got a short and cryptic note back. One second." The colonel searched his desk for a few moments, then plucked a single page from a stack. He read:

      "I got a PFC here who is either half angel or half demon. He can read the ground like a mole and digs like a man sure there's treasure just a few more inches down. I never saw anything like it, and I don't care to know how he does it. The fact is that he finds the Cong and digs into their deepest hiding holes, and we take care of the rest."

      The colonel made a face. "The boy has cracked."

      The old man shrugged, and sipped his brandy. "Maybe," he said quietly. "And maybe not."

      "Surely you don't believe it?"

      He decided to be diplomatic. He liked the colonel, even though he'd made it to where he was by political connections and a willingness to use them. This safe and well stocked base was as close to combat as he'd ever been. But the man was good at his job and did his duty with the highest resolve. He lost sleep over the thought that supplies were even slightly delayed. He respected the men under him and showed it. But he couldn't have any clue of the importance men in the middle of hell placed on what they chose to believe, or how it got them through the days and nights.

      The old man finished his drink.

      "I believe that as long as this Lieutenant and his men are producing results we shouldn't go jogging their elbows. If it's working it's working. That is what I believe. And I also believe it's well past my bedtime."

      He thanked the colonel for his hospitality and the use of his bottle,  bade him goodnight, and left him looking non-plussed.

      As he made his way back to his room he found himself thinking of a scrawny and atrociously accented boy from Georgia he'd fought the Japanese with on several hellish flecks of South Pacific real estate. That boy had claimed to be able to smell a jap through miles of jungle and the very earth -- claimed he could smell their hate and fear. He'd been laughed at until his nose proved to be unfailingly right in every single case. After that, his word was law.

      He went to bed and -- for the first time in decades -- dreamt about the Pacific.
Title: Trenching
Post by: Elias Alias on April 18, 2005, 05:02:34 am
Title: Trenching
Post by: Joel on April 18, 2005, 08:31:32 am
George, this is super.  Can't wait to see where it's going.  You rock.
Title: Trenching
Post by: Roy J. Tellason on April 18, 2005, 12:03:47 pm
Title: Trenching
Post by: Docliberty on April 18, 2005, 12:45:18 pm
Great work George.  Keep up the good work. :D  
Title: Trenching
Post by: Bill St. Clair on April 19, 2005, 07:03:17 pm
Hank figured it really was heart failure that did his daddy in, but not the kind the doctor meant. His daddy had just been too long away from the thoughts of God, too far from doing what he was meant to do with his days and muscles and mind.
Yes! Beautifully said.
Title: Trenching
Post by: Lightning on April 19, 2005, 07:56:19 pm
Wow, wow, wow.   B)  
Title: Trenching
Post by: George Potter on April 27, 2005, 03:08:28 pm

Working on the second half now; making decent progress.
Title: Trenching
Post by: Roy J. Tellason on April 27, 2005, 11:01:27 pm
Working on the second half now; making decent progress.
Looking forward to it!  :-)
Title: Trenching
Post by: Tin-Man on May 02, 2005, 07:08:28 pm
It wasn't funny because it made no sense, but because it almost always made sense if you thought about it the right way.

This is quite possibly one of the best lines I've ever read.