His hands were bleeding. He sat on the low mound his efforts produced and held his hands up near his face, squinting in the waning light. At some point, the skin on the backs of his knuckles had blistered. At some point, those blisters had popped and peeled, leaving symmetrical ovals of fresh pink flesh, oozing drops of red. He wondered if these events occurred before or after the locking mechanism on the folding shovel failed. Or was it after the blade tip snapped off? Was it during the transition from digging, to raking, to scraping the earth toward him like a child in the sandbox? He remembered kitting his class out for work in the community garden with water bottles, proper spades, sunhats and leather gloves. A roomful of ten year-olds were far better equipped to dig an improvised gaol from a rocky coastal forest, and they would undoubtedly love the adventure. A curriculum supplement for experiential learners. Hah!
Flinching, he loosened his boot laces and withdrew his swollen feet. No field-trip first aid kit. Not even a goddamn handkerchief. He thought of Colleen’s big tan leather hobo bag, covering the entrance table the last time he saw it. She had everything in there. Band-Aids, Bactine, Advil, you name it. A change of clothes for at least one of the kids, and a green silk scarf to dress up whatever she was wearing on her way to an emergency open house. A book and a crossword. An accordion sleeve of photos of their college years, their honeymoon, their babies, her parents, nieces and nephews. He bugged her about carrying prints around, like a little old lady, he’d said. She told him you need to feel the memories with your hands, sometimes, or you’ll wake up one day without them.
He rolled his socks over his toes, ignoring the blisters on the sides of his feet. He couldn’t dig with his feet. White tube socks bought in a bag of twenty for five dollars, damp with bands of grey. Using his teeth, he tied them tight over his palms, eased his feet back into his hikers, and left the laces loose. Colleen would bring him ice, if she were here. She’d give him and his project a wry once-over, and wave a hand as if languidly rejecting a fly. Come and find me when you’re all done, love. In a way that told him she thought he was a total fool, but welcome in her bed all the same. He’d never told her their life together was temporary. How do you tell someone something like that? And while he’d guessed it, late nights staring at the ceiling where the past’s film reel unwound, the knowledge itself seemed transitory, changeable. Until an unexpected gift presented risk like a crater. And he had chosen not to fall in.
Thirsty, bone tired, aching with hunger, the man settled into his shallow trench and resumed scraping its bottom with the trowel blade. Colleen and Connie and Bruce, he couldn’t bear for them to know what he was. How little he deserved their love. His suffering was fuel, his sole remaining resource. All that he needed to complete this tomb for the one person who could reveal him.
© Desi S. Valentine, 2012