man digging a dirt hole

By Patrick Evans

The men from the city came on the fourth day. They stood around the hole in high-visibility vests and smoked even though they weren’t supposed to. At first they shook their heads and talked about utilities and power mains, but after a while they just watched. They were silent, as though attending a mass they’d come into part way through.

Down in the hole came the sound of digging and childish grunts. The growing pile of dirt next to the hole sampled the layers underneath the yard––the thin sod, the black Indiana topsoil, the leaching layer and finally the substratum, where the boy was now. Stanley emerged from this layer covered in filth. None of the men helped him climb out of the hole, because to help would have been an insult. They watched as his spidery body clambered out onto the backyard grass, dumped the dirt on the pile, and hopped back down into the pit.

On the day Stanley announced his intentions, he had the good shovel from the shed, the one I just bought from Home Depot, the one with the heavy handle and serrated edge for cutting weeds and roots. He was holding it in the kitchen while we made lunch and the sight of him, with shovel where a shovel shouldn’t be, was enough that I put the mayonnaise down. “What’s that for?”


“Well, what are you planning to dig?”

“I plan to dig until I can’t dig anymore.”

I put down the carton of ham, too. “And where do you think you’ll be doing this digging?”

Stanley looked out at the back yard.

“Not a chance, mister.”
“Then it’s the front yard.”

“Not there, either.”

Stanley’s shoulders tightened in impotent fury and his face screwed up. “I have to dig somewhere,” he howled.

I decided to attack this first part. “Why do you have to dig?”

Stanley hefted the shovel, and for a second I thought he might try to hit me. I stepped back and pretended I needed the mustard. “I want to see how far I can dig.”

Regina was in the home office and I brought her the half-finished sandwich and talked it over. We had once agreed that we would support whatever Stanley set his mind to, or whatever his identity was, and that we couldn’t very well claim that we’d support something larger if we couldn’t support this small thing. “The backyard needs sodding, anyway,” Regina said by way of conclusion.

I didn’t think the backyard needed sodding. I’d just done it in the fall, when all the websites say you’re supposed to do it, and there might have been some patches where the roots didn’t take, but I did it cheaper and faster than the service Regina wanted to use.

At the end of the first day Regina made Stanley take a bath but there was still dirt under his fingernails when he ate an extra portion of casserole and drank two glasses of milk, spilling a bit down his chin. He asked us to let him work after dinner but we said he couldn’t dig in the dark. This was a pretty good reason; Regina said so later when we were in bed together drifting off and it made me pleased. The real reason was that he had to go to bed and sleep. Stanley had been digging for eight hours, and he was loath to accept that his body had needs he had to attend to like food and rest, even if they weren’t what he wanted to do. I took a flashlight out and inspected the yard after he’d gone to bed. I was also looking at the sod Regina said needed to be redone. It was pale in some patches but it wasn’t bad. Then there was the hole, six feet straight down. I shone a light on it. I forget what I saw. I went back to bed and wanted to tell Regina what I thought about the sod, but she was asleep.

One of the men from the city came by and knocked on the screen door leading to the back patio. He looked apologetic but asked if he could use the bathroom. I said sure and led him to it. After he was done he came to where I was in the kitchen and looked out the glass screen. “Kid’s at seven meters, now.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. I wanted to make conversation with him, but I didn’t know what to say.

“I don’t know how he does it,” the man from the city went on. “It seems impossible he’s moving so fast, but you can’t argue with a hole.”

“Or a brick wall.”

“What about a wall?”

“It’s just––nothing.”

The man looked annoyed, like I wasn’t getting something important, and went back outside. From the window above the sink, the grass crept up to the hole’s edge, so that it looked like the men from the city were just staring at the ground. They looked so intent I almost went out to join them but instead I went back to my office to work on my syllabi for the upcoming––algebra, American History, and theater.

At the end of the fourth day, at Regina’s prompting, I asked the men if they wanted to stay for dinner. I was hoping they’d say no; I didn’t have enough in the fridge for all of them. It was getting late, and Stanley’s digging had slowed. He sat blinking at the lip of the hole, blackened like a coal miner. The men looked around as if coming out of a state. I hadn’t seen any of them eat lunch. They shook their heads and said they had to be going.

I stopped the one who’d gone to use the bathroom, presuming this interaction had afforded me some honesty. “I just want to know. Is this alright? I mean, you came from the city.”

“There are some old lines he cut,” he said, his eyes drifting back to the hole. “I think he should install a rope,” he added. “For climbing out.”

I wondered at him saying that Stanley should install a rope, and not me, though I had no clue how one ‘installed’ a rope. Wouldn’t ‘secure’ be the better verb? “I’ll do that in the morning.”

The man looked at me. “Good night, Mr. Cotesworth.”

On the sixth day the news crew arrived. The hole was now about twelve meters deep. Stanley had taken a break on the fifth day to ask me to drive him to Home Depot to purchase wood for bracing. Apparently the man from the city had told Stanley what to do, what to look for. He hadn’t told me anything. As the boy’s father, he should have said something to me, first. Stanley talked to the clerks while I stood back. I tried to make sheepish eye contact with them, like, ‘hey, sorry my kid’s bothering you,’ but the clerks were focused on Stanley and ignored me. I was quiet on the drive home. When we got back I saw he’d installed––secured––the rope. I wasn’t at all sure where he’d gotten it from. I asked Regina if she knew.

“I don’t know, Nathan,” she said distractedly. She was answering an email. “The yard is your responsibility.”

“Well, I’ve never seen that rope before,” I said, hoping she’d hear from my tone that I was concerned in a calm, reasonable way. She didn’t look up. “What if it’s from the old owners, and it’s too old, and it breaks?”

I was pleased with how well-thought and rational this hypothetical scenario sounded. Then, I thought about what I’d said, and started to worry. What if that really was the case?

“Stanley knows what he’s doing,” said Regina, frowning at the screen. Someone from marketing was giving her grief over the choice not to include someone from their team in the weekly wind-down meeting.

The news team set up their cameras in the backyard. Regina stopped working to tidy up the living room, but I said they weren’t going to be interested in the living room.

“No, but they always film an interest segment, you know, the parents inside. They cut to us sitting on the couch while we talk about Stanley and the place is a mess.” She took her glasses off in advance of the presumed interview. I could have told her I thought they looked good on her––and I did, too––but she’d take my impromptu compliment not only as a prediction of her future behavior, but as an implication of her insecurity, which would make her take them off explicitly and not say a word to me for an hour.

But she needn’t have worried. The TV crew had joined the men from the city, who’d been coming by every day to stand in the backyard. The newscaster stood, her microphone slipping down her hand and toward the hole as if it might speak suddenly. The camera guys didn’t even have the cameras on. They were too busy staring down the hole.

This wasn’t Stanley’s first project. We called them that, his projects. When he was six we tried teaching him how to ride a bike. He was pretty fearless about falling, which I said wasn’t as good as Regina kept telling everyone, especially her father. If he wasn’t afraid of falling, he’d be reckless. After about an hour he started biking all by himself. Later he asked to be taken to the library and very carefully informed the reference librarian he was looking for a book about road laws, and not one for children. The reference librarian got a kick out of the way Stanley stood, the way he talked, and kept remarking to me how he seemed like an adult. I could tell by the way Stanley’s shoulders pinched that he was getting close to a blowing point. Kids never know that they’re childish, but they do know when they’re being mocked. I found the book myself and, later, he brought it into the den to read alongside me. A few days after that he was pedaling around the neighborhood, stopping at stop signs, but he never went beyond the parapets inscribed with the name of the neighborhood, Shady Oaks, in curlicued wrought-iron lettering. He’d stop and look out on the road that wasn’t a highway but that we called a highway because cars sped by on it all the time. He’d rest on his bike and stare and then turn around. He wasn’t afraid, not really. Just aware of the fact that no matter how well he could bike, or how well he knew the rules of the road, something could happen to him that was out of his control. That injustice was something I wanted to spare him from until later, much later, when he would be wise enough to start to forgive us.

By the ninth day, the hole was thirty meters deep. The crowd around the hole was about three dozen strong. Every day they came by and stood in our yard. Regina asked me to do something about it and I said that to do something about it, I’d have to do something about the hole, about Stanley, and that shut her up.

I leaned over the edge, wishing there was a railing to hold onto. I could see Stanley’s shape, pale and small and hurried. A string of utility lights dangled down into the maw, powered by an extension cord that slithered through the grass to a power outlet on the side of the house. But that wasn’t our extension cord; someone had brought one for him. Was he paying them? Or had they simply brought it for Stanley, knowing he’d need it?

I saw the man from the city again. I think he never introduced himself, but on the off-chance that he had and I’d forgotten, I started talking to him without preamble. “I wanted to ask,” I said, lowering my voice. “The scaffolding–”

“It’s safe,” he said, his eyes never leaving the hole.

“You’ve checked?”

“I’ve got eyes, yeah?” He sounded more upset that I was distracting him from the hole than implying he’d done a shoddy job.

“Look, I don’t mind you all coming here every day,” I said suddenly, even though I did, and their constant presence was trampling the grass and then Regina would be right again that we need more sod. “But don’t you have jobs?”

The man shrugged. “There’s more important things.”

There’s more important things. Usually that was the line in the bad TV movie the middle-management dad said to his tyrannical boss before leaving to go see his son’s ball game, or his daughter’s dance recital, knowing full well he’ll get fired because he’s abandoning the corporate team just before the big pitch meeting or whatever, but he doesn’t care because there’s more important things. I tried to imagine saying that about a hole in the ground.

And yet there were three dozen strangers in my yard watching my son dig a hole in the ground, presumably having told their bosses just that. Or maybe, given the way some of them forgot to eat or blink, they hadn’t said a word.

When at the end of the day, Stanley crawled out of the hole it was like a spell was broken. There are these YouTube videos of hypnotists letting their volunteers come out of trance, and it was a bit like that. The onlookers blinked and shook their heads and started towards their cars. Some of them had started carpooling together. None of them stopped to speak to Stanley when he crawled out of the hole, or peer into the hole when it was empty. They were only interested in the moment of synthesis.

That night for dinner I made Stanley’s favorite, chicken parmesan heroes. The whole house smelled like melted cheese. Regina rubbed my thigh under the table while we ate. Later that night I went to the kitchen to drink a glass of water and looked out at the hole. It hadn’t rained a day since Stanley had started, even though it’d been humid and hot and had cooled down the last few weeks. Like the air was waiting, breath holding itself.

On the twelfth day, at forty-six meters, I realized the error of my grammar. These people, the weather––even the birds, which halted their song in a wide perimeter around the house while Stanley dug––they weren’t waiting to see what Stanley would do. They were there for what he was doing.

On the seventeenth day, at fifty-eight meters, the cops came. When they squawked the sirens, everyone in the crowd jumped. I ran out to the front yard and asked them what the problem was.

“We’ve got a report of a continual noise complaint during the day, cars crowding the street, and there’s reports of a young boy creating a dangerously unsafe cavity in the ground.” The officer in charge looked me up and down like she couldn’t believe I was asking her what the problem was. Her terminology sounded purposefully obscure, like using the word ‘utilize’ instead of ‘use.’

Regina asked me what the problem was as the police pushed through the latched fence door leading to the backyard and I don’t think I ever answered her. The cops started to break up the crowd, who moved away like they weren’t totally sure what they’d been doing there. In the meantime, the officer in charge knelt down to the mouth of the hole and started to shout down. It took a few seconds for the sound to travel back and forth, and there must have been some kind of accord or understanding reached because she got three other officers to work the elevator Stanley had made. He’d only needed two forty-five-pound weights he found in an old box in the basement as a counterweight. After a few minutes Stanley emerged, sullen but too frightened by the cops to say anything. The officers were staring down the hole and for a moment, I thought everything would be alright, that they’d see it, too, but then they pulled away and shook their heads, began talking about needing to bring a backhoe in here, how we’d have to foot the bill for the job, where on earth the dirt had gone. Stanley clung to my leg. “Don’t let them, Dad,” he said.

What was I supposed to do? Push the police down into the hole? I could see some of the lights on in other houses, curtains flickering. I imagine explaining this to them at the next block party, imagine retelling how I threw four officers of the law down a 46-meter shaft. And what would Stanley do with the bodies?

Stanley stared up at me, still holding my leg the way he did when he was even younger and we went to the block party and Ron from up the street brought his brute of a dog and Stanley did everything right––slow approach, didn’t look it in the eyes, let it sniff his hand­­––and still the monster barked and slavered and pulled to get a piece of Stanley and Stanley retreated to me. But this time I didn’t get rid of the cops the way I’d told Ron to take his monster back to his house and Regina beamed and some of the neighbors came up to me privately after and thanked me and Stanley looked at me like I was a superhero. This time I held onto the back of his shirt while the cops erected plastic barricades around the hole and wound them together with yellow caution tape. Their orange lights blinked in the gathering dusk, drowning out the fireflies.

That night Stanley didn’t come out of his room. I put his dinner into a Tupperware container. Regina was at the kitchen window. “I can see them watching the yard,” she announced to me. She meant the neighbors.

“That means they can see you, too.”

“It’s like there’s a crime scene in our backyard.”

It is a crime scene, I thought, but didn’t say. Regina stayed by the window for so long that she was in my way when I cleaned the kitchen. I skipped the usual chamomile tea this evening and poured myself a neat glass of scotch. Regina poured herself one too.

“I wanted to see where it would go,” she said wistfully. I almost finished my scotch then and there––I actually thought about pitching it down the sink to prove a point­­––but it was nice stuff, so instead I finished it and pretended not to notice Regina leaning towards me.

That night I heard Stanley leave his room a little after eight. The condiments and bottles on the fridge door clanked as he opened it quietly. I laid in the dark and listened to him forage and close the door and rinse the dishes and put them in the sink. Then I could hear him looking out the window, even though I couldn’t, really. I wanted to be out there, to redo what I’d not done earlier, to get it right this time, but even then with a pillow under my head I couldn’t put the words together. I waited for the other noise, the one I was sure was coming––the snick of the lock of the kitchen door, the rattle of the blinds as they bounced against the window, the surgical slice of the caution tape, the shovel ringing like a sword, and the creak and strain of the pulley.

But there was nothing. Stanley closed the fridge and padded back to his room and that’s how I knew it was finished.

Patrick Evans is a library student and staff member at UNC Chapel Hill. He loves novels, birds, public transit, and fancy mechanical pencils. He is not good at writing bios.