My father was passionate about holes, and for him, any patch of exposed dirt in the yard was cause for celebration. Whatever I was doing, whatever time it was, Dad would appear with that big grin on his face and we’d go dancing out to the shed for tools. Whether it started as a vole tunnel, a squirrel cache, a lawn mower scuff, or a place our dog thought something important was buried, it always ended up the same, a hole. Sometimes I’d help, but mostly he just wanted me there as a witness. I remember a few times we ended up with what looked like an open grave, and when that happened, my Aunt Rose would show up to check on my mom. Rose lived across the street and worried about those big holes. But Dad wasn’t that kind of crazy.
Each of Dad’s holes would yawn empty for days, and then one morning before it was light, he’d wake up Mom and me and take us outside with a flashlight to show off what he’d done. The hole would be mounded full again around a newly planted wild raspberry bush he’d dug out of the woods. Mom would smile and kiss him on the cheek, and he would say he couldn’t wait to taste the raspberry jam. We didn’t ever have much money, but we always had raspberry jam. Dad had such a way with raspberry bushes that by the time he died it was impossible for me to mow that yard without getting brambled half to death. After both Mom and Dad were gone, my little sister and I let it grow wild, and when we listed the place for sale, we called that stickery tangle “a wild raspberry meadow.”
Dad’s hole digging was fun until I knew what obsession meant, and then it was sad. Adolescence and the distance of college have a way of turning things you thought were cool into something else, and my attitude towards his obsession swung beyond sad toward distressed. He was gone before I understood that it was his way of dealing with problems. He summed it all up in the last coherent thing he said to me. “Don’t ever worry, Sweetie. Whatever happens, you can always dig a hole.” Then he patted my hand with a self-satisfied nod, and a few minutes later started the rambly mumbling he kept up till he had no more breath.
Anyway, that’s why I think I come honestly by this solution to life’s problems. Hard physical labor like breaking up shale and hardpan clay clears my mind, and the muddle in my head unscrambles. Options appear that I swear weren’t there before. But digging holes can do other kinds of things, too.
The hole I was working on was already about three feet across and close enough to the road for people to see. I wasn’t sure who would come, but it really didn’t matter; whoever happened to be mowing the lawn or going for the mail or feeding the chickens would be just fine. Clayton would probably be there – he was always watching what went on, and he was eager to talk. I swung the pick and brought it down with a grunt, feeling oddly satisfied as bits of heavy clay tumbled into the bottom of the hole.
With his full head of grey-white hair, Clayton reminded me of the actor Sam Elliott except that he was short. He lived one farmette down in what had been the original farmhouse on our one-lane road. His family had owned all the property on both sides of the road until his grandfather’s hard drinking led to selling the land off a piece at a time. All that was left when it passed to Clayton was a few acres and the rundown house. Clayton drank, too. He got sober when his wife was sick and said that was the first time he noticed what a wreck the house was. He fixed it up and the two of them got to enjoy their “new” house and his sobriety for a few years before she died.
“You know,” he said, sauntering up beside me with his hands in his pockets, “you’re about the digginest woman I ever met. Always digging. And look at you, not even wearing gloves.”
I smiled at him over one shoulder and kept throwing dirt the other way.
“So, Ms. Alicia, what’ll it be this time? Another garden, or maybe a tree?”
“Nope, neither of those this time, Clay,” I shrugged, and smiled again. I could have told him the truth, that I could either dig this hole or make all those phone calls, but I didn’t.
Looney crackers. That’s what I heard my Aunt Rose call my father when she didn’t think I could hear her. And that’s the way Clayton always looked at me when he saw me doing what he considered tearing up a perfectly good lawn. But then he didn’t grow up with my dad.
My shovel clanged and clanged again.
“Looks like you hit a big rock there,” he said unbuttoning his shirt cuffs. “Here, let me help.” I handed him the pick – Dad’s old one with a new handle – and gave him room to swing it. “Best step back in case it chips,” he warned me and then he really whanged that rock. Chips certainly did fly and kept flying as he went to town on it. “This is sure a big ‘un,” he puffed after a good ten minutes. Ten minutes is a long time with a pick. “Now, you’re sure this is the spot you want? Not a couple of feet that way?”
“Exactly there,” I answered, looking around. The best part of him whaling away at that rock was that anybody who hadn’t already noticed me digging would come to investigate all the noise. Surely somebody would come, somebody. It wasn’t another five minutes before we had company.
“My goodness, look at the size of that hole. It looks like you’re burying something!” I turned to see a very worried face surrounded by a gorgeous mass of kinky brown curls. “Please tell me that sweet cat of yours is okay, Alicia.”
Contestant #2, I thought. I smiled at Bonnie and told her that Chloe the devil cat was just fine, and then asked her if she knew Clayton, though I already knew she didn’t.
Though Bonnie and her husband had moved in close to six months before, I think I was the only person in the neighborhood she knew at the time. I don’t know why I’m the one people talk to, but it’s been that way as long as I can remember. Grocery stores, bank lines, gas pumps. Apparently, Bonnie’s husband did something that involved his company in a lawsuit so he lost his job and they had to move. He couldn’t seem to find another job, and was struggling with what sounded like clinical depression.
Of course I didn’t let on any of that – it wasn’t my business to tell – and Bonnie and I watched Clayton give that rock one final whack. He smiled when it cracked into half a dozen pieces, put the pick down, and then wiped his hands on his khakis. “Pleased to meet you, Ma’am,” he told Bonnie, nodding as if he was doffing a hat that he wasn’t wearing.
“Ma’am? Oh, please not ma’am,” Bonnie laughed, curls bouncing. “Just Bonnie, if you don’t mind.” The smile she flashed was shy and Bonnie blushed.
“Ms. Bonnie, then,” he answered with a country smile.
“For real, Alicia,” Bonnie said, “What are you guys up to?”
“I was digging, and Clayton came over to see. Then he just jumped right in!” I made my mysterious face, “Care to guess what it’s for?”
“Oh, a game! Okay, let’s see. If you’re making a game of it, then it’s probably something unusual. You’ve already said you aren’t burying anything, so, ummm, how about a lamp post? You want a light out here so you can tell where your driveway is at night. Right?”
“Then a bird house? Or a bird feeder? That’s it, a bird feeder! But it’s pretty far from your house.”
“Nope and nope,” I answered, as I stooped to help Clayton lift the pieces of the rock out of the hole. Even the pieces were heavy.
“Then how ‘bout a time capsule?” Clayton suggested and we all laughed.
I didn’t know Jan had come up behind us until she spoke. Jan would do just fine. For the millionth time I wondered why so many people looked like their dogs – Jan’s hair was the same color as her golden retriever’s. “Hi, ya’ll,” she greeted us. “Gorgeous day! What’s the joke?”
“Time capsule,” giggled Bonnie, and we all laughed again before Clayton explained the game I’d begun.
Jan worked for an insurance company and her husband taught high school math, but with both their daughters in college, I knew they both had part-time jobs, too. “I had to come home to walk Mara’s dog. Right, Faith?” she said more to us than the dog. “Got to get back to work soon as I can, but I just had to know what you all were doing. It looks like such fun!”
A few summers ago when their older daughter was in high school, Jan had found Faith in a ditch. She’d been interning for a vet that summer, and used her pay and her employee discount for the surgery. Mara and Faith had been inseparable until Mara left for college, but since then she seemed to have lost interest in the dog. “She’s absolutely beautiful,” Bonnie said as the dog licked her hand and wiggled in front of her. “Can I pet her?”
“Try and avoid it!” Jan said. “Seriously, please go ahead – she’s very friendly.” Jan looked around the little group. “Clayton I know, but we’ve never met.” She held her hand out to Bonnie, “I’m Jan Rogersen.” Bonnie shook the offered hand and blushed again as she reached down to ruffle the dog’s silky coat. Her obvious discomfort made me wonder whether it was the stuff about her husband that made her feel that way or something else. Whatever the cause, it seemed that the dog helped.
“The suspense was killing me,” Jan said as she pushed her blonde hair behind one ear and leaned over to look into the hole. “I know addiction comes in all forms. Alicia, but this is a new one on me. What’s it for?”
“That’s why we were all laughing,” Clayton told her. “Alicia won’t tell unless we guess.”
“So far, we know it’s not for a garden or a tree,” Bonnie giggled, still blushing, “and Alicia swears she’s not burying anything.”
“And we know it’s not for a lamp post, a bird feeder, a bird house,” added Clayton, and together they all said, “or a time capsule.”
“I’ll play,” Jan said. “Hmmm, I’ll bet it’s, uhhhh, a worm bed!”
Everyone looked at me and heard again, “Nope.”
“Then an earthquake sensor,” Jan bubbled, “you know, like in that Kevin Bacon movie Tremors with the giant graboids that travel underground? It’s for an earthquake sensor, isn’t it!”
I laughed out loud and though I was shaking my head, I was nodding inside, thinking how my Dad would have loved this conversation. “Got to stretch my shoulder for a second,” I said and maneuvered myself so I could look for Diana. She lives in the house closest to ours, just the other side of a row of pines that grew from five years of live Christmas trees. I could see her picture window from where we were standing. Then I saw her, arms wrapped around herself, and I waved big. If Steve were still here, he’d have done something goofy like running down there to dance in front of her window like it was a TV camera. Everybody liked Steve, some for his easy manner, others for his nutty humor, and a few for his blonde surfer body. Diana would have laughed at him and come outside. I waved again.
Diana doesn’t leave her house much. She spends a lot of time on computer games and all sorts of social media, but real people make her nervous. She even orders her groceries online. I can occasionally get her over for coffee if I tell her I need to talk, but lately I hadn’t even managed that. I waved my arm in an exaggerated motion and mouthed, “Come on over!” I could imagine the flash of panic on her face as she considered going outside – and with strangers out here, too – but I also knew she’d be curious. “You seem to know everybody around here,” Jan said to me, and then inclined her chin to indicate something behind me. “Here comes your friend. Wait, she’s turned back – maybe she forgot something or maybe her phone’s ringing. No, here she comes again.”
I knew how far outside that old comfort zone Diana would be, so I handed Clayton my shovel and then went to meet her.
“What’s going on, Alicia?” she whispered when I linked arms with her. “Is there something wrong?” She was blinking fast and breathing in little gulps.
“Everything’s fine. They’re just watching me dig.” When Diana and I first get together, I find myself talking to her as if she were one of my frightened kindergartners on their first day. If anybody talked to me that way, I’d resent it, but it seems to calm Diana. “Come on and join us,” I told her, hoping that my tone was encouraging rather than pushy or demanding.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think I know any of those people.” “It’s okay. You know me, and I want to show you something over there.” I watched her glance back at the carport where it was safe and felt her body make an involuntary move in that direction, but she stopped and looked at me from behind fingerprinted glasses.
“I’ll try,” she said very quietly, and allowed me to lead her back to the others, our arms still linked. I was ecstatic. She showed up, exactly as I’d hoped.
As we approached the group, I could feel her hanging back, so I stopped us a good ten feet away from everyone else. After I introduced everybody to Diana, Clayton and Jan tag-teamed an explanation of all that the hole wasn’t for while Bonnie petted the dog. Then everybody focused on the hole and we got back to work.
Finally, enough of them are here, I thought as I recovered the shovel from Clayton. It might have worked better with one more person, but four would do.
Being able to focus on the hole instead of the new people seemed to help Diana, and she even talked a little to the others. I noticed she was ripping at her cuticles as she talked, but at least she wasn’t leaving, and I also saw that she’d moved to stand next to Faith, smiling as she stroked the dog’s ears.
By the time everyone finally got around to talking, each had taken more than one turn with the shovel and the hole was so deep that we had to get into it to dig. With every change of digger, each person paid less attention to the digging itself and more to the other people. Laughing is a great way to get people talking, and that’s what I’d been hoping for.
Little by little the needs came out. First it was the easy ones like what trash service everybody used, who was a reliable plumber, and did anybody know somebody who could help with simple home repairs. Slowly, slowly, bit-by-bit, some of the rest got said, and some of what didn’t get said got assumed. It wouldn’t take long for them to figure out that some of their solutions were right here, and I hadn’t had to make one single suggesting, finagling phone call.
By the time we quit and I climbed out of that hole, they were all tripping over each other’s sentences saying how glad they were to have met and were making plans to talk again soon. Whether they followed through or not didn’t matter, because at least they knew that there was someone willing to help, someone who lived close by.
Diana stayed after the others left, standing beside me looking down into that hole. “Jan’s daughter told them to take Faith to a shelter,” she said, “but they didn’t think that was fair to the dog. I agree. Bonnie said she might take the dog, but if she decides not to, I think I’ll offer. What do you think?”
She already knew what I thought, so we just nodded to each other. Perfect. For her to even consider such a move was huge. “Coffee?” I offered. “I promise I’ll wash up first.”
“Deal,” she said, and then looked at her shoes, not because of the red clay stuck to them, but because of what she was going to say. “I should have called you. I meant to, but…” her voice trailed off and got lost in a swallow. She cleared her throat, “Has it been bad? Since Steve left, I mean?”
I took a deep breath and let it out a little at a time, savoring the pause between in-breath and out-breath that’s the most stillness we ever get to feel. Finally I breathed normally as we started toward my carport. “I had no idea how it would be,” I told her. “The house is just too big now. Everything echoes.”
In the carport, I kicked off mud-caked shoes and looked her full in the face. “Sometimes it seems like I echo. You know?”
She didn’t say anything, but I knew she got it. Despite her fears, and despite whatever happened to her to cause those fears, Diana has a gift. She listens, listens like you’re the only person who ever talked to her, like what you’re saying is the most important thing she could imagine. Somehow that interrupts the loop of old tapes that keep replaying in my head. “So,” she poked my shoulder with a smile, “what are you really going to do with that hole?” Diana also understands when the subject should be changed.
I thought of Dad, about him saying, “Never waste a good hole, Alicia.” Part of me wanted to tell her that it had already served its purpose, but another part of me wanted to keep that close. “I’m not sure,” I told her, but I knew. It would be the perfect spot for a trio of raspberry bushes.
Author’s Comment: “Never Waste a Good Hole” started out as a story about how Alicia tries to help her neighbors realize they each hold the solution to someone else’s problem, but somewhere along the way, it became more about the struggles people hide. It seems that whatever we’re willing to share, there’s always something we keep inside – some fear, insecurity, pain, grief, or shame – and the longer we hide it, the bigger and blacker it becomes. Digging that thing out, letting the sun shine on it, and then maybe planting something in the hole that’s left is one way we can heal.