One Scoop at a Time
by Matthew McGuirk, October 10th 2022
What if I told you the end of the world wasn’t all fire and brimstone, all cracks in the earth and angry fists, all horseman and good versus evil? The end of the world felt a little like a dream. We all wandered out of our houses at the same time: urban or rural, night or day, extreme weather or no weather and stood there for a moment. I’m sure if you were in a place like New York or Rome or London, people would have been lining the streets and looking upward and I’m sure if you were in a place like rural New Hampshire, you wouldn’t have seen anyone and that would be the norm anyways.
In a little suburb like ours, we lined the street in our pajamas and looked up. I was in a pair of boxers and a yellow Bruins shirt and Lani was in a light pair of athletic shorts and a tank top, she didn’t bother replacing the bra that came off before bed…none of us bothered with anything like that. Mike and Janet Johanson were standing naked on their front lawn, his penis overshadowed by his beer gut and her sagging breasts displayed under the clear night sky for the neighborhood to see, but nobody seemed to notice and if they did their eyes went straight to the sky and didn’t gawk at what their neighbors had failed to replace or hide. There wasn’t really much to see in the dark night sky, just some stars scattered across a black canvas like they normally are and the moon, which wasn’t full or new, it wasn’t an eclipse or a blood moon or really anything outside of waxing or waning this way or that.
I remember standing for a long time and then suddenly feeling the urge to go to the garage and grab a shovel. It was more of a calling than anything, not an urgency but something that I knew was mandatory. Lani stood there as I made my way across our well clipped lawn and through the side door of the garage and was still standing there as I brought back the fiberglass handled shovel that we’d bought from Home Depot all those years ago. We’d used it to plant hydrangeas, lilacs and a large rhododendron along the skirts of the house.
Rita Emerson from two houses down across the way was already back with her shovel and staring at the sky again. Don McCann continued rummaging past junk in his garage and you could hear clattering as he gathered up his shovel. I saw Mike returning in stride with one and Janet right behind him holding a hand trowel. It seemed every house on the street had garden tools and people were all off to their garages of their split-level ranches to pick them up. Soon, we were all standing at the center of our stamp sized lots, looking into the darkness of the sky and waiting. I remember thinking about the lightness of the breeze and the sheen of the stars in the sky and the weight of the fabric on my shoulders, but Lani for once was far from my mind. I’m not sure anyone’s thoughts were centered in a normal way or askew, conscious or just wading through subconscious filters waiting for the next unwritten direction.
I remember the first cut into the soil, that chhhhh that everyone knows and then a thump of the mix of grass and soil hitting the ground. As if controlled, directed by some force outside myself, my own shovel scooped the first hole in the ground. It was a deep dive with the chhhhh and I felt the weight of the soil on the end of the shovel and then cast it over my shoulder in a ceremonious fashion, cartoonish in a way and heard the thump as it hit the ground at Lani’s feet. I didn’t feel movement from her, but I felt conscious that the shovelful of dirt landed right near her. The next came quicker with a chhhhh and thump in succession. Over and over and now the hole was eight inches deep and four feet around. I heard the chhhhh and thump from other yards and a lighter one coming from those that had hand trowels instead of shovels.
The hole continued to grow and the darkness still stood in the sky as I continued shovel after shovel, in and out of the ground but it didn’t feel monotonous somehow, didn’t feel forced but somehow still was. I knew this was what I was supposed to do, but I was never told to go and dig and I think that was the way with us all. Lani stood near the hole and I noticed that she’d now step up on the growing pile of soil outside the hole and gaze down on me as I worked. Her eyes carefully inspecting my work, seeing the precision of the cuts into the soil and the depth at which the shovel now worked.
I saw across the way Mike’s hole was growing, but Janet seemed to work at a feverish pace to keep up with his progress using the smaller implement to dig with. They were both already covered in a grimy brown as scoopful after scoopful of soil clouded the air. I heard the echoes of chhhhh and thump down the street and knew that progress continued. Piles began forming like small hills throughout the street. Down the street, I saw Brooke Tanner standing on a pile about her height and clouds of dirt puffed up and settled next to her on top. It must have been Evan down in the hole, digging away. She just seemed to watch, as Lani did with me. I didn’t mind thinking of Evan digging shovelful after shovelful of dirt from the hole for no reason. I didn’t mind his back working hard against earth that had been there way before anyone on this street. I hadn’t minded him, despite the cocky air to him, until he made a pass at Lani. She shot him down quick enough and let me know about the whole situation, but I thought he came off a little flirty with her even after that point, but I was never one for confrontation, so we never tussled over it. I just quietly resented him, waving to his face and shaking my head after he’d disappeared or we had.
My pile grew and I stepped into the hole finally. It was a good six feet wide and growing deeper by the moment. Two feet and then three and Lani just stood on top of the pile watching me. The chorus of chhhhh and thump continued to work through the night. It was when there was a pause in the work that your ear caught on, like the beeps and buzzes of a house and then when the power goes out, it’s just silence. The first silence I heard on the street was from Mike and Janet. A few words passed inaudibly between them and Janet began to fill Mike’s hole back in and Mike began to fill Janet’s. Their bodies now glistening with sweat and caked with dirt. Once they’d filled in the holes, they just stood on the corner and looked up at the sky waiting.
As for my hole, it continued to grow and Lani just looked down. I wondered if she admired me for the persistence with which I dug and I wondered if she saw that in other aspects of our life together. I was now shoulders deep in the hole and she stood on top of the growing mound on the outside. She looked down and asked plainly, “why are you digging?”
I answered as casually as if she were asking if we should get candy with our popcorn at the movies, “just seems right.” I continued to dig. Lani was a good woman and she didn’t ask any follow-ups and continued to show her support. If she had asked one, I’m not sure I would have been able to give her an answer or at least not the one she deserved. I sort of always felt like that with Lani, whether it was not being the most highly paid guy, not being the fittest guy, not being the smartest guy, but she stuck by me and we loved each other, even through my flaws.
The shovelfuls, chhhhhh and thump, continued to come furiously and now I was past being able to see how others were doing and what their progress looked like. I was sure Evan was through to China by now and Brooke was standing on top of Everest, but that wasn't surprising because there was always that distance between them. They fulfilled each other’s manufactured dream of dating the high school quarterback or the prom queen and settling down in the suburbs and that was what they did. I wasn’t sure about Rita from two houses down across the street and how her progress was going, but I could still hear the faint echoes of shovelfuls of dirt hitting growing piles and knew others were still digging.
The hole was over my head at this point, but I thought I could see a faint glow in the sky, a tinge of pink framing Lani’s beautiful face as she peered down into the hole. Her voice a hollow reverberation as she cupped her hands and shouted down to me, “why are you digging?”
“It just feels right.” I shot back, but I hadn’t taken my hands from the shovel and wondered if the words made it up to her or cut in some form of obscured collage or misheard telephone message from that game you play as children. I wished I had a better answer for her, a reason why my shovel kept sinking into the soil and throwing dirt out of the hole, but it was instinct, required in a way without being said, like I was supposed to do it. Thinking back on it, I wished we’d spent more time talking outside the hole. Thinking back on it, I wondered if I’d ever really answered her questions even before she started asking me why I was digging this hole. Thinking back on it, I wondered if I ever really listened to her at all or if the words that passed between us were scripted, what a man and wife should be saying and what the perfect life in the suburbs should look like. But all of these thoughts and memories were widening, the hole deepening and her mountain of soil rising out of our lawn.
The sun was up and I was sure of that, but it was a pinprick at the top of the hole. One light colored spot in all the brown and black of my world. I heard a faint metallic echo from above and a slow shuffle or scratch that snuck closer and closer, down the long hollow I’d created in the suburban lawn. I paused for a moment, waiting as it got closer and closer. I inspected my hands, which blistered but didn’t hurt from the work I was doing. I felt the same forward momentum physically that I’d resigned myself to long ago mentally. The scratching shuffle came closer and closer and soon I saw a wink of reflection near the mouth of the hole. Down something came at first just interrupting the pinprick of light and then coming into focus in the dark cavernous space I’d created for myself. Soon it landed, a bucket on a rope with a folded piece of paper inside of it.
Why are you digging?
I checked the bucket and sure enough there was a pencil. I snatched it up and quickly scrawled back, it just seems right. I folded the letter and worked the rope, hand over hand to the top of the hole. I wished I could go back and give her a better answer, write something that might make her happy or understand what I’m thinking, but some things can’t be undone and we have to live with that.
Soon, day and night blended and the pinprick of light was far removed. It was impossible to tell what time it was and how long I’d been digging for, but somewhere in my mind I knew that I hadn’t done enough and that I had to keep going. There was no strain on my muscles, no wavering in my mind, no depth that the shovel couldn’t reach at this point. Once again I heard an even more distance shuffle and scratch and knew the pulley would drop the bucket again and I’d get news from Lani and the world that I felt so far removed from. Dampness was all that surrounded me, the moisture of soil slicking my once clean boxers and my yellow shirt forever browned, soiled and unforgiven. I saw the specter of the bucket come into sight. I sheathed my shovel in the soil momentarily and grasped the metal pail, already caked with dirt from shovelful after shovelful as it descended. In the bucket was another letter: Do you think you’ll ever stop digging?
I wrote my response quickly: When it feels right. I folded the paper and sent it back up and wondered if it’d ever feel right, if I’d ever feel right again. I wondered about Lani and if she stood on top of that pile waiting for the bucket to come back up and if she’d read it right away or if she already knew what it was going to say. I wonder if she stands there all day and sees shovelfuls of dirt spitting out of the forever deepening hole and just continues to climb her mountain of dirt in our front yard, which I’m sure has now eclipsed our house or if this whole thing is done and she’s sitting inside watching reruns of Dexter and wondering why her husband is still outside digging a large hole when everyone else has filled theirs in. Still, I wonder about Brooke’s mountain and if that’s eclipsed skyscrapers or if she’s running thin on air and has Evan hit magma yet and is his skin blistering and shovel melting against its heat?
I wonder about all these things, but each shovelful of dirt and all the chhhhh and thumps haven’t seemed to answer them yet and they haven’t cast away the feeling that I still need to dig. Do the others feel this urge, feeling, sensation? We all lined up together and began, so I assume they do, but could I ever really know? Is the world full of tunnels and mountains at this point? When they all meet and our shovels clink together and echo through the tunnels will they all collapse on us and relieve us from this burden, the constant chhhhh and thumps of the world? Is everyone else getting letters in buckets from loved ones? Do they write back and is it something better than because it feels right or do they hold the curving letters to their hearts and remember what it was like to press that person’s skin against theirs–an echo of a past that wasn’t so simple or so complicated at the very same time?