Buryin Time


Just before I flush the pot, I hear the old man out on the porch, carrying on to my kid. The place is the same as always. Maybe that's kinda misleading, my folks never could leave anything be and it really showed in the house. Everything was always getting 'fixed,' every time we visited something was changed. Not little things, either: a wall ripped out or one thrown across a room to make two 'spaces.' The ceiling gone from the bathroom for six months, supposedly to put in a skylight, which eventually happened, but first they had to 'appreciate the difference' awhile. And try, in their weird ways, to come up with the money. Without becoming 'wage slaves.' Meantime my brother and I froze in the morning before school. They must have too, but if I'd asked, they'd just have figured out some explanation for liking it.

It looks like Mom has finally won on the front porch. All the stuff that used to scatter itself around it's vanished and a couple big chairs and a table with vases of flowers crowd the small enclosed space. It always seemed like the old man, with his ideas and explanations, caused it all to happen, but when I stop listening and look carefully, HER influence emerges on all sides. Not that she didn't buy into his trip. But maybe she was freed by it, instead of possessed.

I can tell Harold is getting an earful, but it doesn't worry me much; I managed to survive it, after all.

“I don't believe in teenagers. They were invented in Kansas City. By a bunch of clothing merchants and ad men trying to sell short dresses and extra large slacks. In 1926. You don't believe it. No, there's nowhere to look it up, they don't let 'em keep facts like that. Look in Tom Sawyer. See any teenagers there? That's what I mean, it was before their time.”

“... Just another dang capitalist plot. Teenagers and bean counters ruling the country. What're ya lookin up there for? This old porch got too many spiders or something? Here you, take my coffee cup in and roust yer dad outta the toilet, I won't bother your public-school-educated head with any more IDEAS.”

I bristle at the old man's obdurate ridicule but Harry doesn't seem to notice. He's amused, intrigued; engaged by the absurd banter. But whenever I talk to him, conversation turns to interview. I remember yesterday, at home. How the sound of the front door opening penetrated to the study, over the hum of the computer. It closed with a bang. It's a heavy, wooden door, very free swinging and, unless it's done very carefully, it always closes with a bang that shakes the house. Harry never closes it carefully. The little Christmas bell, left over from the wreath, emitted its cheery jingle simultaneously with the bang. None of this should be happening, I'd thought, nobody's due home for hours, in fact Harold and his mother had just left.

Harry pokes his head in the study, “Car's broke down,” he announces a little gingerly.

<span style="font-size: 13px;">I look up. Not possible, damn it. What now. What did THEY do now. Okay, it's probably not their fault, they wouldn't break it on purpose, and have to face telling me. Hope springs up, not a thought exactly, maybe they got it home anyway.</span>

“Where's it at?” I ask.

“Out on the highway, almost to the trestle, by… where,” the forlorn, doomed look he's engendered gives Harry pause. “You know,” he ends, lamely. Some of the look he had on his face yesterday is there now, as he sees me approaching. I feel a vacancy in us again. The old man jumps into the space, keeping us apart.

<span style="font-size: 13px;">“Ever thing come out okay... ha-ha... you still spend yer whole life in there? Where'd the boy go? I 'spose we'll have to wait on him now.”</span>

“We better get a move on soon. There's a hole to be dug and it isn't gonna dig itself. You 'n young Harold... Harry... whatever, you know… you toss a couple three shovels in the truck. Get those smallish ones from the back, where your mom had 'em, they'll dig in that stuff easier. And get a pick, there's bound to be some of that awful hard dry clay stuff up there too, breccia I call it, but that's likely wrong, never could find that in the book, wait I'll go look it up... Oh never mind, it can wait. The good pick's still broke, but there's that little one, it's the army one and there's one of them tree planting ones around here somewhere, I forget what they're called.”

“Do ya got everything now? <em>Hoedads</em>, that's what they're called. Hardest work I ever did, plantin' trees. I went out with Crazy Will one year. You were just a baby. We signed on with a crew of bikers and felons from Montana. Yeehaw. Scary. Invigeratin. You heard it, right? Maybe that boy of yours can work with some bikers, if he grows up.”

<span style="font-size: 13px;">I don't offer to take my car. Or vehicle, rather. He'd have had it grating on him the whole way. Too expensive. Cars, vehicles I mean, are after all just tools. Wasting resources the species needs for survival on ostentation. He's right, naturally, and can probably quote artists and philosophers from six centuries to back him up. Maybe it's easier to live in six centuries than in this week. For him.</span>

<span style="font-size: 13px;">Harry's kind of like him, I guess, a jalopy man.</span>

<span style="font-size: 13px;">“Harry, you better drive. Can ya' get it started? The solenoid's been acting up some lately, these little foreign trucks don't have a great deal electrically anyway. No, just pop the hood a second. There's a little ball peen under the driver's seat, ya gotta move that sheepskin thing, it never does fit just right. Yeah, okay now, just give the solenoid a little tap, It's just an aluminum casting so don't bust it wide open, just a tap to loosen up the contacts. IT'S THE LITTLE CYLINDER TOP OF THE STARTER, for cryin' out loud, what's gonna happen to you? Car payments or something? This is the twentieth century and you're an American male fercrisssakes. In my day... While yer under there give those battery terminals a little tap, never hurts. Too bad it's electronic ignition, used ta be you could just file the points a bit and they'd always start right up. Okay, she'll go now, betcha.”</span>

Growing up, I always had a sweet spot for Mom's dad. He was a big time professional man, spent money like anything. Swimming pool, trips to Disneyland, NEW cars (we ended up with the old ones sometimes.) Steaks! On the barbecue, not cut up in a casserole. I took it as a cruel personal joke, the way he died. Alzheimer's got him. Before anybody figured it out, he'd lost his money, lost the big house. Lost his memory and his mind. Mom used to go sit with him, in the end.

That's how she started doing hospice. I think the old man usually put her up to it, though. He could notice when somebody needed it, when the family or the wife or whoever was at their wit's end, not knowing, not wanting to ask but needing help; he could see that all right but nobody could stand his philosophizing at a time like that. He knew it, I guess. Give him that. That's about when we started digging these dang holes.

Burying hides stuff, stuff we don't want to face, can't face. There's nothing preserving or memorializing about it. Out of sight, out of mind. There's plenty of stuff I'd like to bury, but a man's supposed to face up to things, not make up cute ways to avoid them. Somebody's got to take responsibility, finally.

“Head on out the river way, we'll give Alan a honk. He won't come along of course, nobody does anymore, but later on he'll bring some cool ones if he knows we're up there diggin. He helped dig for Ed though. That was one of the first your grandma killed. Ages ago. I guess maybe great grampa was the first. He doesn't count entirely, bein family. Too much politics. It's not fair, when they're that close, everybody's got expectations for ya, personal grieving and such. That isn't dyin, it's more like a bunch of turkeys trying to get organized. Ha-ha, specially in grandma's family. Dyin's about the end of personal. It's time. You say this life, my life say, is longer. You measure time with clocks and such. Time is in life, a life. Short, long; the same; one life. if your life gets too many clocks, it's just confusion, dilution. STAY ON THE ROAD! Are you asleep?”

“Jeeez, she's really been puttin' em down lately. She's got the touch though, I don't know. I just can't get the right tone with the about-to-be-bereaved, but she just goes in and takes it natural, makes em get after the chores and such and cools em off with that way-of-nature stuff. Not that it's anything so weird. Happens to the best of us. Then she sits around and weaves that chain, by the nearly corpse, talking. Talking about nothing I can see. What they're gonna do, which is nothin 'cause they'll be dead, but nobody minds that. How they're sposed to shuck beans, which they won't, cause they'll be dead, or plant shrubs, or... pretty soon it's okay, and they die."

The river road has deteriorated a lot, Harry, only recently licensed, is getting a workout. Every sinuous twist wakes me a little, puling me up the valley, to the heights. Like the old man's chatter.

<span style="font-size: 13px;">“Hell, there's Alan, MOWING THE LAWN. Kee-riste. Gets up Sunday morning to mow the lawn. And him a working stiff... huh, wage slave more like. Lawn. Give me yer grandma's yard any day, all that flower stuff overgrowin' everywhere and all them little paths covered up with that funny green mossy stuff, what's it, Irish moss, and witchy herbs and just that one little patch of grass that she cuts with a HAND mower. Didyaknow I can still get parts for that old thing? That's what I call a damn fine appliance. Pull on over, I wanna give Alan some advice, ha-ha. It'll be quick, don't get so antsy.”</span>

Harry and I wait in the truck. We talk about what's around us, the road, the river, the lawn, if he's coming, and don't look at each other much. Still, we're okay. In a while the old man comes down the drive, whistling and giggling.

<span style="font-size: 13px;">“All right, all right, all right. That Alan always could talk, he'd probably talk the ears off an English teacher. Didya see that rig he's got. Heck, I thought he was mowin but he was just edging with that monster. He RIDES on the one he mows with. Then he sits on the porch for about ten minutes lookin at all that grass. Don't get me wrong, I like him alright, but that's what I'd call a giant dearth of imagination. I never could stand lawn grass anyway.”</span>

<span style="font-size: 13px;">The creek had come down from the spring flood some, into a fine, deepening green, early summer fullness. I remember the hills as nearly bare here, logged clear off, piles of refuse moldering away, but they'd grown mostly back on me now, greened up, softened, inviting. I should know from experience what a breathless struggle a tramp across them would be, but the memories have softened up some as well.</span>

<span style="font-size: 13px;">“Hold on a minute here, Harry. Yeah right there, geez DON'T put er in the creek, that's a dang fine drop there and you'd best respect the heck out of it. Okay now, see how that old loggin road winds down to the river, then up the other side. Useta be a bridge but the second flood got it and the new road comes in from the other side. Now look about halfway up the ridge over there, see the place where the largest stand is? Yeah, it's clear cut on the left there, and that brown is where the old spur washed out. That spot's where your dad here and your uncle cut their first load of firewood. With this very truck. Your dad just got his license, wasn't it, and Grandma and me worried like anything but they did okay. Cept they had to go back for the mall if I remember right. I used to cut wood with her before that. She toted wood and pulled poles, plenty strong and a sweatin worker. Those glorious fall mornings, us with our little truck just loafin along, weekdays, only retired and self-employed out then, not like weekends when the serious cutters showed.”</span>

“I always got real satisfaction out of going in the woods, even these industrial farms we got here. Them boys caught it some too, I 'spect, but they never let on to me.”

The old man gets out and moves off to gaze down the valley. Look at him there, I think. That same old preposterous figure—a damned gnome really, some underworld vision climbed out of the sixties; I used to think he'd lose all his hair and secretly be glad, but it stopped halfway and turned silver and there's still enough for a respectable ponytail and I doubt he's cut it in twenty five years—that same preposterous gnome that haunted my life... that pulled me unsuspecting into his schemes; into HIS dreams time after time, then I wake up, oh no, not here again and it all peters out... stories from Freud about the ogre father SIR—the sir is his invention—about killing the father and laughing like it's never going to happen or it's always going to happen and HE doesn't care or wants it or needs it or DEMANDS it like I got to do it FOR him... like he killed his father and his family and his whole childhood; killed them to himself, in his mind, in his reality, running away for a decade always stoned and communes and alternate families and philosophical distance and socialism until he really could just make up his own origin, his own genesis... like some kind of demigod, and for what except to bring me forth in HIS image, in his idea, in his revenge; make up his own reality that nobody else sees or knows or uses and stick me in it forever—alone.

“I wish Grandma could be here with us.” Harry is restless, waiting behind the wheel. He remembers how the tension between us always relaxes in her company. I never really understood how she felt about the old man. If she thought he'd been unfair to us boys, she attacked with a fierce rage he could never answer. Sometimes they'd glower for a week, hissing and muttering in passing. Then she'd be right back with him, flying high on some daft project, cajoling us into believing—she'd been an uncertain ally at best. I smile at Harold and say I wished that too and that he was driving great and almost say a lot more but he looks at me and something stops me.

“Grandpa's coming back,” I say, barely getting it out before he's at it again.

“Take it easy on this grade. The road's all washboarded up from the rain and them log trucks hauling out. It's the middle fork here, there off to the west is what we usta call Inky Cap Flat, after some mushroom Alan found on the corner one time. I dunno, one year there was bumper Chanterelle there, fore they cut it. Up on top a spooky hemlock grove, pretty old. Lotsa weird fungi. We found some kinda cheesy lookin stuff there, wheelbarrow loads of it, white and smelly. Didn't ever find out if it was good for anything but if it was, we had plenty.”

<span style="font-size: 13px;">“Chasing mushrooms is about the most fun you can have, and when you come to one of those magic forest places, it ALL makes sense. One time your Uncle an me climbed from the highway to the top of Salmonberry ridge. We came on this saddle ridge, kinda flat, with a bog. One little creek, tiny, just a trickle, to the right out of the bog and a copy of it to the left. Still had cedars growin and lotsa big trees. A real tangle to get in there, brush and blowdowns, then a tiny opening and this bog, this cradle, and two courses rising up, slow, tiny across the opening... with fairy baths, and mossy beaches for beetles and waterfalls for ants—all just as perfect as sunshine or dew—and then those two streams rippin down the ridge on both sides, sawin it in half, tearing the ridge back toward the bog, bit by bit, fillin up the gorge.”</span>

Once there was this song. When I was growing up, there was always this stack of LPs, old records, the real thing, vinyl. We moved them around the house, this closet or that, but we never had a turntable that I remember, only tapes. Both of them would get misty about those records, we had to set them up careful, out of the sun, like holy relics. One day right before I left, we found an old set up; table, amp, tuner, a little stand with storage and a glass top and front and wheels—the whole rig—at a yard sale. The lady just gave it to us. I was skeptical, but when I got it hitched up to those salvaged speaker columns that he loved, the thing actually worked.

<span style="font-size: 13px;">There wasn't any stopping him for a while after that. Scratchy, popping, skipping rock-and-roll blasted the house, jiggling the glasses off the shelf. There was this one record, it must of been from the sixties, with LBJ and the Vietnam war, just the most 'get down' hippie, acid stuff. He played it over and over. There was a song about a crazy woman, she had a basket of rings which "when you put it on your hand... made you a member of the angel band... but what it did for her... you never did understand...” That was us, me and my brother, the angel band, HIS avenging angel band. Maybe I still don't understand.</span>

<span style="font-size: 13px;">“Okay turn up this track on the left. Easy this buggy's got practically no clearance, springs about shot and never did have shocks. See how it's different here. It's the old Norman place. The nuts tried to farm up here on top for about twenty years but had to admit defeat finally and move to town. They got the pasture going though and the woods never could get back. We need to go up the little knoll over there. Should be a turn, do ya see it anywhere? Used to be behind the barn, years ago.”</span>

<span style="font-size: 13px;">“Normans got real well off eventually, used cars or something, they ended up dealing property finally of course, before they sold out, but by then most everyone in town was related to em somehow it seemed. That was just a bit before we got here. Okay, here’s the turn. Oh just do it, it’s still hard enough under the weeds. This rig’s so light, anyway, the three of us could probably carry it out if we need to. Anyway, the old folks had buried a kid or two here on the place and maybe a parent or somethin, I never pay much attention to these genealogy stories. After a while it got to be a tradition thing and the city got involved and sorta kept it up cause they were like a city treasure or something, but not lately... too much dough fer these hicks.”</span>

<span style="font-size: 13px;">“Look away down there. See the white speck? That’s the big old church up on Lumber Hill. You can just make out the downtown. It always seemed to me it’s the wrong direction, should be more to the left. That silver glint’s where the river turns, before the highway bridge. Lately we’re digging under those big firs off to the side, with all the ivy. There’s lotssa feral ornamentals up here, Norman women brought ‘em in from the valley. Some grew. Yer gramma used to steal ‘em, the Daphnes especially. These old ones have a sweet smell in the evening, you’ll notice it off the porch when we get back. Oh heck, just park it here, it’s easier to walk than fuss around like this.”</span>

<span style="font-size: 13px;">Harry stops the truck and looks, then grabs a shovel and hurries after him. He's headed for a pair of tall firs. I lean on the fender and stare at the church, at the dim spot that was supposed to be the church, the church none of us had ever set foot near in twenty-five years. I turn away from the church and the town and the valley; turn my back and take the last shovel out of the truck and head toward them, toward my father and my son. He still talks; he still listens.</span>

“Here’s a good spot, I can still see into the valley. Whack away the vines an stuff with a shovel, there’s a machete in the truck... aw, don’t bother. It’s always tough for the first foot or so, then it’ll be outta the roots mostly but harder dirt an clay. We dug ‘bout twelve up here I bet, there’s the last two right there, brush is just coming back. We never put markers, just in our minds... all this diggin, ya don’t forget soon. That one’s gramma Faun, she lasted ta hunnerd an twelve, do ya believe it? Her mom was the same... old, old ladies. I gotta say they IMPROVED some after a hundred, got kinda ethereal, stopped tryin to control everything with soup. The other’s Jack... Jack Power it was—maybe—or Powell. I never really knew I guess, or cared. He was the last one that Paula took up with. Got killed in the woods. He was alright probably but her guys were always defensive with me. Like I’d take up with her! Come on you guys, let’s get down in the dirt, mornin’s almost gone already.”

<span style="font-size: 13px;">The hole's starting to take shape, only one person can safely work in it at a time, now, without getting nicked. The old man's down there now, in the hole—my father, prematurely in his grave, his too shallow grave... I wonder will any grave ever hold him, or death, or will this vision always confront me, confound me... dead and buried, a real grave, an operating cemetery, covered up and prayed over or 'blessed' or whatever they decide is appropriate (no, not they, not they, I, whatever I decide, I will decide what's appropriate then, my decision then, my appropriate then), an official burial then anyway and still, down under the ground, out of the box already, this busy little ghost, picking and shoveling at the dirt, and telling what the soil is maybe or why there's dark or death itself even... Telling who? Only me? Am I actually the only one who hears him, that he speaks to... through? Now the old man's down there, doing some “squaring up.” Every foot or so he drives us out and carves at the sides until they're straight to his eye. He piles up dirt until the hole's half filled in again then back in one of us goes to throw it out and start down again. At first glance he seems like that demon ghost, bigger, heavier but still projecting that feverish aura, a frenzy of energetic rebellion, biting remorselessly at the earth, which has, evidently, in some unseeable way, rebuked him... a second revealing look though, the callous scrutiny only a son could make... hardened finally by inevitable, inexorable disillusionment... something new strikes me. The old man is being careful. Imperceptibly almost, but he pulls back every exertion. The spade slices into the ground earnestly and effectively but without abandon. He is afraid of hurting himself. And of anyone finding out.</span>

“Okay, you guys, knock off. That's a pretty nice hole. Six by three by six. Hard to believe it's just a hundred cubic feet of dirt. I'll just jump down and square the edges some. I always like the feelin down here... what'ld ya call... worry free I guess... ha-ha, like ya got the chores ALL done—forever. Do ya spose that's what your gramma had in mind? We dug a lot of these memory holes... dug em down, tossed in a memento or two, had a couple toasts an filled back in... but only when people died. Where'd'ya spose she got the notion ta have one for her lost fertility? She's a great one for these passages though, always memorializin something or other. I STILL don't feature how WE ended up doin the diggin. She'll be along soon, then we can fill it in, just enjoy the view.”

<span style="font-size: 13px;">“That dang Alan never did show with the beer, did he.”</span>

<span style="font-size: 13px;">The old man ambles toward the truck—and toward the view again, like a moth, I think—what's eating at him today anyhow? Harry leans against the tree and the ivy, a lanky teen, whatever the old man thought, the work, the precious digging, doesn't show on him anyway.</span>

<span style="font-size: 13px;">“What's with him today?” Harry asks idly, “What's with all that stuff he's saying?”</span>

“I don't know,” I answer, “Don't let it bother you. I guess he's never really let his hair down with you before.”

<span style="font-size: 13px;">“I don't mind. It's just... well... it's interesting sometimes. I wish I knew what he was talking about sometimes.”</span>

Yeah right. I groan inside a little. I wish I knew what he was talking about, ever. Or never. “Just don't worry about it,” I say, a little quickly and sharply, “At least he didn't bring his drum.”

Harry looks at me, interested. “He's got a drum? I didn't know he had a drum.”

I look at Harry. I look at the hole, the hundred cubic feet of earth we'd emptied out to make room for... what? Ourselves? Space between ourselves? I look back at Harry and see that space, that awful space, the old man's space. “Why don't you go ask him about it?” I tell Harry, “I want to sit in the hole for a minute.”

Harry looks at me again. Different somehow, like I've finally surprised him. I shrug and have to grin. “Go on now, go ahead. Ask him about his drum. Just come back and help me get out. I don't want to get buried, yet.”


Author Bio:

<em><span style="color: #000000;">porcupine 'pp' sage was born in the late eighties on a seven-modem, village BBS in the mud hills of western Oregon. At that time, his children were about half grown and the shit had yet to hit the fan. Since then he's left bread crumbs here and there on the web, especially in door games and writing forums, but Buryin' Time is his first official publication. He blogs at <a href="http://ppsage.com/" target="_blank">ppsage.com</a></span></em>


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