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About a month ago, one of the manager’s gals at the plant hit on me. It took every bone in my body to resist. She leaned over while I drank black coffee in the break room, the gal’s subtle perfume wafting over as her blouse smashes up against her breasts, which billowed out the top like two marshmallows crammed on a roasting stick, a crucifix dangling between them—I kid you not—and she said, so quietly in my ear, “You poor soul. You look so tired. Doesn’t your wife care for you?”
I felt myself being pulled in by her. Felt my heart race and my brain fog, and I almost laughed as though I had not a care or commitment in the world. And then the microwave beeped, and I remembered she was a distraction like everything else: like the talking heads on Sunday television, like the doctors with their fake diagnoses, like the mayor who denied fracking in our town, the dream of selling for a profit and living peacefully on a lake like a normal family—the waking up and eating pancakes with butter and syrup, the sitting out on the dock with our feet in the cool water, the laughing while the fish nibbled our toes.
It’s true what they’re saying online, you know—that anti-fracking lobbyists aren’t protecting the environment; they’re protecting secret underground government facilities. I read it on Reddit last Tuesday, and then on Thursday my friend who lives in D.C. said he overheard staffers at a bar talking about “the Washington machine” run by the Clintons and the Bushes, proof that Republicans and Democrats alike collude to keep power—literal and figurative power, it seems—away from the American people.
That’s why we pump all of our oil from Alaska, because the ground there is too frozen for those fluffy politicians running our government to build offices and apartments in it. It’s too cold for those snowflakes to live there, but not too frozen to drill for oil, apparently? See the logic here? It’s so messed up.
It’s rained some this last week, so until today I’ve been stuck inside with the baby and Mary, who has been avoiding me, dragging from room to room so we don’t run into each other, and I wonder what it is she does all day. Sometimes, when I’m on my computer in the den surfing the net, I hear them on the other side of the house, the baby babbling in toddler talk and Mary saying “No, don’t touch,” or “Mommy’s coffee,” but hardly anything else.
And what’s a man supposed to do at home, just because the Ties at the plant said the company needs to offset losses? Which they’re lying about, anyway. I’m sure my layoff has something to do with the underground political machine run by the Clintons and the Bushes. Those damned people have no idea that I’ve got a two-year-old and a sick wife to care for. They have no clue how much money I have saved that company, clocking in to work every day fifteen minutes early, refusing smoke breaks because I don’t smoke, clocking out ten minutes late, and packing a bag lunch so I won’t chance a broken-down truck on my way back from McDonald’s. It makes a man wish we could build a time machine or something. Makes a man want to start a revolution.
Or, dig a hole, as it turns out.
It’s getting awfully big, this thing in my backyard where they wanted to frack those years ago, when an oil company had promised to pay good money for my property and we were going to move up North and buy a big homestead and get jobs at a new factory up there. But then those dumb lobbyist got involved, and those damned protestors showed up, claiming they worried about my daughter’s health and our drinking water.
So far today I have dug about three feet down in a circle about ten feet wide. At first, I hauled all the dirt to the back fence and piled it there, but then the pile became so big that I had to start a second pile closer to the hole, and then when that pile started sliding down on itself, the loose dirt no longer sticking to the top and only rolling down the sides, I started a third pile even closer to the hole where I don’t have to haul the dirt in the wheelbarrow far away, my back beginning to ache, my knees beginning to buckle, my hands starting to bleed as I grip the dry, splintered wooden handles. But I keep on working, because I know any day now I’ll hit cement, which would be the roof over those bureaucrats’ heads. I plan on knocking loudly with my auger before I drill right through, scattering cement dust and dirt all over their white office, all over their Dell laptops.
At night, I lie in bed with my Mary, she huddled into a small ball, facing the wall, away from me.
“You’re digging a hole,” she says, turning on her back, her eyes cast to the ceiling.
“I am. I’m going to save us.”
“I thought the Zapper was going to save us.”
My wife and I bought a Clark’s Zapper a month ago. It electronically kills microbes and parasites in the brain. She has a disease—parasites that make her drink and sulk all day, talking of giving away our child, of disappearing and never returning. She’s sick, sick as in a bug sick. Not sick in the head, like our family doctor would have us believe. He sent us to some quack who sat my Mary on a couch and asked her about her childhood. Her childhood, for Christ’s sake! What the hell does a run-in with a drunk man at an overnight at her best friend’s house when she was eight years old have to do with her sudden confusion, her constant exhaustion, her wandering through the house in her pajama pants until dinner time? We went to that quack for six weeks, and he did nothing but make her worse and eat up all our money. Snake oil. That’s what they sell. The doctors—the ones wearing white lab coats and talking down to me in their closed-door offices—like to spout off hokum, ivory tower words like “bipolar” and “genetic alcoholism” and “post-partum depression.” Well, which one is it, then, if they’re so wise? No, no more quacks in lab coats for us. My Mary plugs the Zapper in every night and spends her twenty minutes of alone time on it, and I can tell it’s working already.
“I don’t like it, that hole,” Mary says, turning her back to me again, huddling up into her bedtime ball. “It’s ominous.”
“The truth is always a little scary, Mary.”
Digging a hole this size isn’t as easy as procuring a shovel and putting your back into it, you know. Most people think it is. First, you have to make sure no electric, gas, or water lines run through the area. You’re supposed to call the utilities, but I don’t. I’m no dummy. The utilities are run by the government, and they’d tell me there are lines all over the place when there aren’t, just to scare me away from digging. No, I got my buddy who owns a private mapping company to come out and use his radar to find them. He asked me why, and I told him my Mary was starting a garden. Ha! Mary in a garden.
Next, you’ve got to plan a hole’s structure, because one that size tends to refill itself. You have to haul the dirt away in a wheelbarrow, far away from the hole so it doesn’t slide back in. And then, of course, you’ve got to consider ground water and temperature, which is why fall is the best time to dig, when the ground is dry but packable.
Also, you have to find your groove. Let the mind wander. I do a lot of thinking in the hole, my arms in a rhythmic motion. It makes me realize why there are so many songs out there about laying railroad. There’s something almost spiritual about it. Zen, I think they call it. My muscles aching until the point I think I’ll stop, but then I don’t, and they become numb and my mind is free to wander. I think about the time my daddy brought me into the mines, showing me all the supports on the walls, how they kept him within inches of his death. I remember being in that darkness, breathing the smallest of air, knowing my daddy went there every day.
I also think about my daughter, of her face in the early morning as she wakes and sees me, her eyes blinking and squinting until she focuses on my ruddy cheeks, my scruffy beard, and then her eyes alight and she pushes herself up, her hair a nest for chipmunks, and she lifts her arms and says, “Daddy!” and I pull her up and out.
And then I think about our future, what I have left to give her, and I get a chill, and I am forced to stop and catch my breath. That’s when I wonder if she wouldn’t be better off without me.
The second day in the hole doesn’t go as well. Rain comes down sometimes in sheets and other times as big drops that stick to my eyelashes. The ground grows thick and heavy. Every time I force my spade into the ground, brown muck displaces the space. I take a break for lunch and find the baby playing with pots and pans on the kitchen floor. Her diaper has leaked, and my Mary sits at the kitchen table watching shit drip down the baby’s leg. Mary’s coffee is suspiciously murky, diluted.
“Are you going to change her?” I ask.
“I thought you had a hole to dig,” she says, eyeing my muddy pants, the line where my boots cover my whiteish socks at the bottom but not at the top. “If you muddy this kitchen, you’re going to clean it.”
I sometimes wonder if the drugs the doctors put in Mary when she delivered have caused the parasites to take hold. She was fine before that. She was fine when we met at a neighborhood bar one Tuesday trivia night, she with two of her girlfriends, Sarah and Emily, I think—I can’t remember. They weren’t really friends, it turned out, but two other secretaries that worked in her insurance office. She was fine when we married, smiling when I touched her shoulder, when she gave up her job at the real estate office willingly, claiming that she was going to be the best wife this town has ever seen.
Now, the best wife this town has ever seen is sitting in my kitchen, wearing a stained bathrobe, her chipped toenail polish bobbing nervously before me, her hand shaking only less with each sip of “coffee.” Sometimes I think she lied to me back then. Sometimes I wonder if she’s always been sick and just covered it up until our I-dos. But why would my own wife do that? A good, Christian woman who once ironed my work shirts and kissed me on the cheek as I left. Why would she lie, gaining nothing, when it was so much easier for the machine—the gravy-train elitist machine—to do it?
The hole waits for me, now almost six feet deep. My shoulders hit just below the edge, but the piles of dirt surround me, and I feel like a child in a fort, waiting for the neighbor boys to pelt me with water balloons or snowballs. I have brought down a ladder, knowing that at some point I won’t be able to climb out on my own.
I lean the ladder against the side along with a rope I’ve secured to a nearby tree. The wheelbarrow leans against the garage now. It’s of no use, the piles of dirt taking up most of the backyard so that I have resorted to slinging the mud over my shoulder in various directions, trying to clear the lip of the hole by a few feet if I can. Though these dirt piles have started to climb higher as though by themselves, like beasts casting shadows over me, like walls between me and the rest of the world, and I’m reminded how unforgiving the world can be, how we must take care of ourselves, since no one else will care for us. I decide to embrace them, as they block out my view of the house and of the kitchen window, where I sometimes spy Mary staring out blankly, slowly bringing her coffee to her lips. That stare goes right through me. I start to picture the crucifix hanging from that office gal’s neck as she had leaned over me. I think of her perfume and her soft voice, and my muscles tighten. I dig faster, my spade carrying wet and heavy sand-like mud over my aching shoulders. I breathe hard and dig.
I hit something. A rock? A pipe? I drive my spade in all around it, six inches in every direction. It is solid, and I wonder if the bunker could possibly be sitting so shallowly in the ground. Of course! Right under my nose! So that anyone could find it if he built a shed or a safe house in his own yard. No wonder the city council requires permits for such structures. We never needed one in the old days. I never had to file paperwork if I wanted to dig a hole as a kid, not in my own backyard. My daddy might have whooped me with a switch, leaving scars like blades of grass, but he left no paper trails. Never any paper trails.
I grab the ladder and start climbing the side. I need an auger. The ladder sinks under my weight into the soft mud.
“Damn it!” I shout, the rain returning my curse with a deluge. I wrap the rope around my forearms and grip it, testing my weight against it. I have tied it well. I lean back and climb my feet up the hole’s side, careful not to push the soil away, lest the sides collapse. But the mud is too soft: my feet sink into it and I slide down the side.
“Mary!” I shout. “Mary, can you hear me?” But the rain is my only audience.
The day is dark, the sky clouded over, the lights inside the house turned off. I think my Mary is in there somewhere with the baby, sitting, perhaps, in the dark, letting the baby stumble all over the house in the shadows.
I sit down and poke at the hard bottom with my spade. I wonder if they can hear me down there. I wonder if I bang hard enough they will emerge and find me in this hole, lend a hand to pull me out. They aren’t evil, after all, those people. They’re just duped, awaiting their enlightenment—that beep of the microwave that snaps them awake. They might seem like selfish sons-of-bitches, but they know no better. They’d surely help a man out of a hole, if they saw me. They’d surely not care to bury some man in a hole. Right?
I try the rope again, this time gripping at the top edge with my left hand. I catch at a secure, grassy edge and pull. It comes loose and slides with a clump of mud on top my shoulders, and my feet slip under me. I stand and tamp down the mud clump, knowing I can use it as a step to help me out. I pull down more of the edge pile, stamp it down around my feet and climb higher, negating all the progress I’ve made but growing closer to climbing out, at least, to continue the digging another, less wet, day. I reach with both hands to the edge and pull, and an avalanche of mud comes toppling down, on my head, over my eyes. I feel the sides slipping. I feel my feet sucked like plungers to that hard bottom, the mud collecting around my boots like poured concrete, filling in the spaces around me, slowly and yet too quickly, it seems.
I fumble to scoop up mud with my spade and sling it, but I can’t get good leverage and earth comes faster than I can work. I stop with the reaching and the climbing and the scooping and focus, rather, on the down, on what’s under my feet. I am so close to the bunker. I can feel it under my boots, the hard lip of the ceiling pushing against my soles, becoming more and more real with each square foot of mud that slips into the hole around me. Still, it eludes me. It all eludes me.
I once told the gal at the office my theory about the Washington Machine Bunkers.
“You know,” she said, letting her blond head tilt and her lips to draw a half smile. “My husband believes that Finland doesn’t exist.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Apparently, it’s a big lie the media and governments have always told us to support the Japanese fishing industry. Everyone is in on it.”
“Really?” I say, wondering if her husband’s crazy. But it made sense. I mean, if they can do one thing why not another? “And you? Do you believe it?”
She stopped to contemplate, folding her arms against her chest, at the same time squeezing her breasts together. They peeped out. They winked at me.
“I would if you would,” she said, leaning over. “I think you’re the smartest person I know.”
I wonder now if I believed in her conspiracy or not, or whether I had agreed just to impress her. I think now how foolish I’ve been. A damned fool. I’ve gone and let them all get the best of me, all be smarter. They’re all sneaky bastards.
All I know is that Mary won’t pull me from this hole that slowly fills itself as the rain falls, my feet glued to the government like a hero to his fate. But no one will save me. That I know. And now I’ve failed myself, too. I have dug myself into a pit without an escape plan. That is the truth now: the rain and the heavy mud piled all around me, mud that falls faster and faster the more I try to pull myself out.
Mud as unforgiving as my own soul.