While we’re on the homeowner tiff, let’s get out of the house and into the yard. The missus had this fabulous idea not so long ago to replace the massive iron stanchion that the previous owners of this estate had installed to hold up a clothesline. I guess they didn’t believe in leaving a job half done; this thing was a monster, a great crucifix of iron pipe three inches in diameter sunk into a piece of concrete the size of a steamer trunk. Originally there were two of these massive gallows spanned by two strands of cable salvaged from the Queen Mary. It was over-built a little, is what I’m trying to say, unless the previous owners were giants who wove their clothing from lead. In any event, I cut the cables and took one post out just after we moved in, on my wife’s initiative. The other one I left in because, well, because of the lessons taught by removal of the first one and, also because this one was holding up a beautiful wisteria that had entwined itself around the pipe over the years and around my wife’s heart almost instantly.
So there it sat for a few seasons until the missus had the above-mentioned fabulous idea to get the stanchion out of the way and build a small pergola in that corner of the garden. I put the pergola project on my list but when it became apparent that this list was an evil snake growing faster at the tail than I could lop it at the head, the missus seized the initiative back and gave it to a professional, the same professional who had so neatly constructed a fence around the garden in the time it would’ve taken me to complain about it. His work was good, it was simple, it was true and so he was tapped to build the pergola.
He cut the iron pipe off at the ground—he did not remove the concrete pig, so he gets points for ingenuity but I will always suspect him to be a weakling—and he simply slipped the pipe from the wisteria’s grip and gently laid the vines to one side, built the pergola in less time than it normally takes me to get drunk and went home to congratulate himself on a job well done, presumably. I never laid eyes on the fella. I got back from my job to find the missus carefully introducing the wisteria to its new home.
It struck me that this stranger had, in some important respects, out-husbanded me by delivering a good share of what a woman wants from a man and then getting lost. No whining, no complaining, no postponing, and I’m quite sure m’lady spent zero time out in the yard telling him what an awesome job he was going to do and assuring him that no one could do it better. True, he charged for it—a reversal of the traditional cash flow—but I’m quite sure I would’ve spent twice as much on inappropriate and unnecessary tools at Home Depot. And, had I been in charge, the pergola would still be perfect—that is to say, unsullied by the limitations of corporeal existence.
So, good deal all around, I suppose. That said, it was a wiser and more wary husband who listened to the next plan the missus offered up. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” she said, “to have an electrical outlet on the back post of that pergola.” And she was right. An outlet there would have many suitors—a string of decorative lights, the lawnmower, even a radio tuned to the ballgame on a hot and sunny afternoon and sitting just in reach of a hand dangled from the hammock.
I know a good idea when I hear one and I also know I’m no electrician, so my gal called up a man she knows and he came over on Saturday and specked out the job.
A no-nonsense fellow, he eyed it up and down and pronounced it “no problem” but he did let on that he’d just as soon not dig the trench. “Well,” the wife clarified, “He said he would dig it, if you didn’t think you could.” Hello! So it was that on Sunday I found myself, shovel in hand, undertaking to create a ditch some twenty feet long, six inches wide and eighteen inches deep.
The work was pleasant and satisfying after I found my rhythm. At first, I was a little daunted by the difficulty of moving some of the big pavers near the patio, and by the rock in the soil beneath them, but that was just at the fringe of the job. The great bulk of it cut across a little archipelago of lawn in the shade of an old pear tree. I took the turf out first, cutting the margins first with a sharp flat-bladed shovel and then under cutting it with a narrow shovel I’d gotten a few years ago when I thought I was going to have to consider digging some post holes. The grass came up in one strip, which I laid to one side. Then, sinking the narrow blade in on the left, the right and then crosswise to join the first two cuts, I took out blocks of the thick moist dirt, eighteen inches deep, six inches square on the narrow end. It felt so familiar to me that it took me a while to remember when I’d done this work before. Last week? Last year? The soil was the right consistency for this job, holding together rather than crumbling, and when I lifted out the second nearly perfect ingot of earth, it was like a dirt madeleine, and the memories came flooding back.
In the middle of a vast salt marsh, three figures in hip boots toil beneath a white hot sun. The leader of the crew is Capt. Sullivan Eldridge. Sully is a compact man in a blue work shirt and a battered sailor’s cap. He is 58 years old and has worked for the Cape Cod Mosquito Control for 35 years. Across from him is Todd Greenhaugh, a hulking, powerfully built man in his early thirties, with reddish blonde hair and an impressive handlebar moustache. Each man wields a flat bladed shovel, sharpened to a gleaming edge with a file Todd carries in the back pocket of his jeans. They stand on either side of a long, narrow declivity in the marsh—an old drainage ditch that has become entirely grown in with marsh grass so that it is barely distinguishable. Chopping with the shovels they cut away chunks of marsh bound by the grass roots and pry them loose into the ever-lengthening ditch. Below them, downstream a step or two, a boy with a long-handled rake, a kind of three-fingered claw on a pole, muckles onto the loose chunks and hauls them up out of the ditch.
“Get ‘em fatha’ back off the edge, son,” Sully says, through a mouthful of Red Man. “We want the tide flowin’ in and out, like. You don’t want to build a wall of it.”
The ditches were originally dug, by hand, back in the ‘30s as part of a Depression-era work project. Piece work. And you can see in them evidence of how little man changes. Some of the marshes that are hard to get to were left entirely unditched. Some of the more accessible marshes were pretty well made into graph paper.
“Why dig way the hell out thar, when you can dig up next to the truck,” Sully says, and he spits a black stream of chaw. He worked with some of these guys as he was coming in and they were going out and he’s still shaking his head over it fifty years on.
The men cut and step, cut and step and that way work down the ditches, setting them straight between them again. The boy follows, struggling to keep up. Sometimes he has to jump down into the ditch to get under a bigger piece.
“Don’t cut ‘em quite so big, Todd,” Sully says. “That one’s bigger than the boy.”
“Ahh, it’s good for ‘im, Sully,” Todd says. “Put some muscle on him.”
“Ok,” Sully says. “Don’t cut ‘em so big.”
“Hey kid,” Todd says to me. He’s plunged the blade of his shovel into the spongy, wet peat and is pushing it forward and back to create a rhythmic sucking sound. “That remind you of anything, eh? That’s nice, eh?”
At this, Sully plants his shovel in the bog and pulls out a white handkerchief. He lifts his cap and wipes his brow. Then the handkerchief disappears and the red and white foil pack of Red Man appears.
“Listen, Jed,” he says.
His use of my name gets my attention. I make one desperate tug on the giant block of loam I’m hauling out of the ditch and, winded, turn to face the man. He dips his thumb into the bag, pulls a wad of black tobacco out and fills his mouth with it. There’s a few seconds while he chaws it down to fit in his cheek. He takes this time to wordlessly offer me the Red Man. I wordlessly decline. We wait. Finally, he spits to the side of his boot and then looks up at me.
“I’m gonna tell you somin’ ‘bout pussy,” he says and he waits, just looking at me. I look back at him. He’s thinking about it. He’s trying to decide if he was right to tell me. He’s trying to decide if I’m ready. Then he nods his head.
“Some of it’s sweet,” he says. “But some of it’s rotten.”
As he says the word 'rotten' he pulls his lips back in distaste and shows his teeth, corroded stumps swimming in an oily brown discharge.
Todd is delighted. He is chiming in from the fringe like a sidekick sheepdog.
“But all of it’s good. Right Sully? Some of it’s rotten but all of it’s good. Huh, Sully?’
It was like Sully couldn’t hear him. He just kept looking at me, waiting for me to lock eyes. And then he said again, “Some of it’s rotten.”
That was my first day on the job, a job I returned to every summer, or whenever I had a break of more than two weeks, through the rest of high school and all of college. That job was good to me and I learned many, many things over the course of my time there, mostly tangential to the job at hand, but nothing I learned was as vivid and useless as Mr. Eldredge’s advice about pussy.
Except that maybe it wasn’t about pussy at all. Maybe it was about control and the exercise of compassion in power. I don’t imagine he would’ve put it that way but when I think back on it, I was exhausted in that ditch, trying to keep up with these men. It was hot. Muggy. Todd had begun to focus in on me as a target. Sully had already put a shot across his bow to no great effect. And then, in a moment, he deflected attention from me, entirely reset the conversation and the mood, and bought us a breather besides. After that things carried on at an easier pace and we worked pretty much in silence except for Todd saying, every now and then, “Some of it’s rotten,” and me laughing every time he said it.
A couple years later I had my own truck and my own crew, this kid Chris, a heavy metal guitarist from the Voc school who probably weighed all of 90 pounds. We liked each other pretty well but one day we were cutting ditches and I was feeling full of myself, bare-chested in the sun, a would-be man. Now I was wielding the sharpened blade, and I cut bigger and bigger chunks out of the marsh and exhorted him to jump on them, like I was Flask pushing his boat. Chris complained steadily and I ignored him steadily until I cut a piece loose that fell with a splash into the watery mud and Chris said, “What are you doing? That thing weighs as much as I do.”
Now, today, as I chopped at the ditch in my yard, those lessons came back. I had been digging harder and faster, arguing in my head with this stranger who was coming the next day to do the electrical work. “I guess I can dig my own ditches,” I said to his phantom. “I guess that’s a neater ditch than some you might see.” He said nothing back but I could feel his eyes on me and I pressed harder and harder. I was quickly exhausted, just a couple feet into the job.
“What’re you doing?” I said out loud.
That’s when I tapped directly into the wisdom of Sully. I took a moment to lean on my shovel and mop my brow. I eyed the job up and down, then set into it at a pace I could maintain. Easy. Rhythmic. The missus had something she wanted done—she didn’t need it done fast, she needed it done right. The goal was there, in sight, but it was the journey again. Always the journey. I got the rhythm of it right, I felt my muscles rocking into it, and, if I ever got to where I felt my breath in my throat, well I’d just rock back on my haunches and give the thing a look-see, kind of supervise the job, maybe give it a tweak here or there with the flat end of my spade. Like that, I can keep at it until the job is done or the missus tells me to stop. Sure, once upon a time I might’ve had the strength to bull through. What of it? I’m not able to go that fast now, but I couldn’t have gone this slow then. That’s grounds to be either satisfied or dissatisfied one’s whole life, depending on how you take it.
I’m shooting for satisfaction. I’m not there yet. But I’m shooting for it.
Anyway, after a pleasant while, I had a trench as deep and straight you could’ve buried an anaconda with rigor mortis, if you’d happened to have one. I felt so good I almost wished I could keep going, but when the job is done, the job is done. I went over and sat on the porch, waiting for my shirt to dry.
Next day, the electrician came. I did happen to be near an open window when he and the missus went out to inspect the ditch. He whistled low. “Yeah, that’ll do,” he said. “I don’t think he needed to go quite so deep, though.”
No, that’s right, fella. Didn’t need to. Wanted to.