“Holes” By Heather Knowles

04 May 2018 on Blog, Nonfiction   Tags: ,

Our house was the only one for miles around with a swimming pool.

“Dug that sumbitch with nothing but a pick and shovel,” Dad would say.

Roughly twelve feet square, it was four feet deep in the “shallow” corner where he affixed a ladder he’d fashioned from steel pipe, and five feet deep everywhere else.

I dimly recall the plastering stage, but I was too young when the digging happened to remember observing it. It must have taken most of the first three summers we lived in Douglas for him to bust through all that caliche with a pick, a shovel, and an improvised water auger.

He created this tool with a one-yard-long, one-inch-diameter piece of heavy steel pipe, threaded at one end to attach a hose. With the spigot turned up full blast, he could push the pipe down into the rock-hard dirt, forcing voids that made it easier to break up with the pick and shovel. In some spots the earth was so unyielding that he would just scrape a dent in the surface with the shovel, then auger a bunch of holes, then fill it with water to soak, and hopefully soften up, overnight. Heavy Arizona borderlands monsoons each July must have helped, too, keeping the ground wet for weeks at a time—a fair trade for the intense humidity that would have made the work even hotter, even sweatier than it normally was.

I can imagine Dad marking out the boundaries of the future swimming pool with skinny wooden stakes and lengths of colored string. I don’t recall the sound of his digging, but I can imagine that, too. The pick would chunk into the softer dirt or ring against the rocks or make the disheartening thud-bounce noise that came with glancing off an impenetrable vein of the nemesis, caliche. These were the same sounds I heard innumerable times whenever we dug post holes or planted trees.

He must have swung the pick thousands of times during those three summers, while I gradually outgrew my babyhood. By the time the plastering was underway, my little brother, Brian, had arrived to take my place as the diapered, crib-confined member of the family. Brian was an “accident,” but not a mistake, Mom and Dad told me and my adopted older brother, Paddy. Seemed like they needed to remind themselves.

What would possess a sane man to dig, by hand, a hole twelve feet square and five feet deep? To gather up twenty or thirty of the old railroad ties that had come with the forty acres and the trailer house, and stack them up log-cabin style to make underground walls around the sides of the square hole? To secure the ties with spikes to each other and to the concrete-like dirt behind them? To cover the ties with chicken wire, and then smear the whole thing, walls and floor and a three-foot-wide skirt of decking at ground level, with a three-quarter-inch-thick coating of hand-mixed cement plaster?

Can we even be sure this was the work of a sane man?

*

I decided pretty early that Dad was not to be messed with. He was unpredictable, a bit crazy. He obviously hated kids. He was a devil in human form. At times, I believed even Mom thought so.

Once, when I was about three years old, Paddy and I had collected eggs from the chicken coop. They were beautiful brown and green and blue eggs, and I was walking as carefully as I could while carrying them in a big metal coffee can. Dad was at the back door of the doublewide, urging me forward with his typical noisy impatience.

The mobile home was set aboveground, and four or five wooden steps led up to the door. I was just a toddler. I didn’t yet have enough control of my movements to climb the steps quickly while holding onto the can of fragile and precious food. Dad grabbed the container away from me, throwing me off balance, and then I was in the dirt on my backside and wailing. I scrambled to get back up. The minor scratches I got from falling off the steps were soon healed, but not the fear I felt toward Dad for making me fall. Maybe if he’d never hurt me again, I’d have forgotten it. Instead, that terror, along with the anguish that went with having tried my best and still failed, took up permanent residence in me.

This was around the time when my brother Brian came along. He was allowed diapers, of course—but Paddy and I were expected to be fully potty-trained—including nighttime.

I guess my dad believed it was some perverse need to draw attention away from baby Brian that caused me to suddenly regress to peeing in my bed at night. Mornings when I’d wake to find my sheets and jammies soaked, I knew what was coming, because Dad’s idea for teaching me better bladder control during sleep was to spank me every morning my bed was wet.

My dread of those spankings grew mountainous, alongside my powerful sense of their injustice. All day long I tried so hard to be a good girl, but nighttime was different. There was nothing I could do to regulate my little body while I slept, no way I could control the situation. The morning puddles appeared unbidden, dooming me to pain and humiliation at Dad’s hands.

Mom, bless her, tried to help. Once or twice she kept the news of my wet bed a secret from Dad. Another time, she even let me hide from him. It was a Sunday morning and she succeeded in cheering him up enough over breakfast and coffee for them to have a laugh at my silliness. When he finally called me out from behind the couch and put me over his knee that morning, he was half-laughing and couldn’t spank properly. It hardly even hurt.

As I matured, Mom would tell me little things about him to try to help me understand why he was the way he was. Through her, I learned that his dad—my own dear Grandpa Mac—was the kind of dad that was common back then: If he found out you had misbehaved that day, he gave you a whuppin’ when he got home. But my dad’s mother was a whole nother story.

To me, Grandma Mac was just a sweet old lady—one who seemed to prefer me over all her other grandchildren (even the other girls). Toward Dad, however, I gathered she’d been something of a harridan. I saw for myself how she disliked boys, how she treated my brothers and male cousins and even sometimes Grandpa himself. But between her and my dad, there was something more than just her usual level of animosity toward the male of the species. It was a mysterious, unspoken enmity.

Mom told me once how Grandma Mac made Dad angry with a careless remark in a birthday card. (“Hope you like your big fancy card. Your Pop always has to buy the most expensive one.”) He furiously scribbled out a check for five dollars, threw it at my mom, and spat, “There! Seal that up and send it to the bitch!”

Another time, Mom mentioned that when my dad got his first wife pregnant—when they were unmarried, seventeen, and in high school—Dad insisted on doing the right thing, but my fiercely Catholic grandmother refused to consent to his marrying Marie. Instead, Grandma wanted him prosecuted for statutory rape. Dad and Marie married anyway and conceived a second child not long after the first one had entered the world. Both were boys. The second one died in infancy.

Decades later (Grandma Mac long dead, Mom just recently so), Dad himself gave me another hint of what things were like with his mother. Chuckling at something irreverent I’d said, he took his glasses off and laid his finger alongside a little scar on the bridge of his nose, still visible despite sixty-odd years of weathering.

“That’s what you get when you make a smartass comment like that to Mother—you get backhanded so hard your glasses cut your nose.”

*

Dad’s memorial service is at the Turquoise Valley Golf and Country Club in sunny Naco, Arizona, where he had lunch and a few Miller Lites almost daily for the final five years of his life.

Brian gives the eulogy, as he did at Mom’s service seven years before. He’s always been the orator. This time he goes for funny all the way—does a little slide show and everything. At one point, he brings up a black-and-white image of the three-year-old me alongside a five-year-old Paddy. My hair is so blonde it’s almost transparent. Paddy is shirtless, but with some kind of scarf around his neck, holding tight to both sides of a kid-sized sombrero, his expression a bit unsure and his hair as black as mine is white. I’m grinning radiantly at Dad, the cameraman.

Now Brian is saying something about the image and I see where he’s headed, and I yell from the back of the room to steal his joke: “That was the last time I smiled!”

It goes on like that for a while. Then Brian wraps it up and introduces Kerry.

Dad’s first son, Kerry. The half-brother I always knew existed but had never met until today. In true McIntyre fashion, it took a funeral to bring us together.

Kerry talks about how he grew up separated from his father… my father. He talks about his mother, my dad’s first wife. Dad had rarely mentioned her, but when he did, she was always “that bitch Marie.” Before now, I’ve had only that epithet, the story of the second baby’s death, and a photo of Kerry at four years old to link me to this other family of my dad’s.

It has been on my list of grudges, my very long list of grudges against Dad. How could he let his first family fall apart? How could he hate this woman who had suffered the worst possible loss, the loss of a child? How could he have another child out there somewhere who he never saw or spoke to? Didn’t he care at all?

But from what Kerry is saying about his mother’s personality and behavior, I begin to consider if maybe Dad had a legitimate beef with her.

*

I lose the thread of my half-brother’s story as a memory takes over. I’m re-experiencing a time just a few years past, when I visited Dad at his new (post-Mom) place in Bisbee.

Dad beckons me to follow him into the spare bedroom. I go somewhat unwillingly, the customary fearful tangle heavy in my innards. This time it’s due to leaving my two young boys unsupervised in the living room, where they might break Grandpa’s stuff and cause him to yell at them. I hate him when he yells at my babies.

In the spare room, Dad fumbles around in his file cabinet and then pulls out a manila folder.

“Now this is as far as your ma got on the genealogy before she died,” he says, pronouncing it “jenny-ology,” as usual.

He opens the folder ceremoniously and shows me sheets and sheets of dim printouts from Mom’s old inkjet. He’s pointing out some of the entries he finds most interesting in all these pages of our incomplete family tree, while I’m trying to keep one ear on him and one on my boys in the other room.

Suddenly I’m riveted by a tiny, one-inch-square photo in his hand. It’s a picture of a baby, the once full-color hues now faded to something like sepia.

“There’s little Kevin Kelly,” he says, though I already know.

I’ve only ever talked to my mom about baby Kevin.

My heart isn’t in its usual location; my lungs aren’t working. To get myself breathing again and to break the silence between us, I prompt him quietly, “He was your baby that died?”

“Yep,” Dad says, his tone even, but his eyes fixed on the little scrap of an image.

I wait as he takes off his glasses, pulls out his bandanna, and wipes his thick “coke bottle” lenses. It’s a ritual that he probably developed very young, having worn glasses since his toddler days. It’s part of his personality, at seventy-two, but in this particular moment, I doubt it has much to do with actually cleaning the lenses.

“I was out in the garage,” he finally goes on. “Marie came and told me, ‘You better take a look, Ted. Something’s wrong with the baby.’”

He puts his glasses back on and then continues speaking, still studying the tiny picture.

“I went to Kevin’s crib and picked him up. He was cold. The blood had already pooled in his chest, and he was blue all over.”

I can see it all in my mind as he says this—Marie going to check on the baby as he naps, and finding him lifeless; going for her husband in desperate hope that he will somehow make things right; my dad finding the baby past any possibility of saving, with no apparent reason why this is so.

Dad puts the photo back in the little envelope that keeps it safe, while I try to make some kind of sound, some physical gesture or facial expression, something I’m hoping will be recognized as respectful and supportive. It’s not a moment for the kind of snarky one-liner I usually use to get him chuckling.

He makes a few more comments about the contents of the genealogy folder, then hands it over to me. His intent is for me to continue what Mom started.

We return to the living room, to my own two boys, both of whom have somehow survived their crib days. I think of times when he dandled each of them on his knee and pronounced them “robustly healthy.” I realize it was not an idle comment.

It was part observation, part prayer—a benediction born of his own loss.

*

What did I do with that stupid folder? I wonder.

Kerry’s voice continues from the front of the room, while Paddy fidgets audibly behind me, perched on the windowsill and barely able to contain his impatience at the newly found half-brother’s verbosity.

I lost the folder, I know. I haven’t done any genealogy, and now there will never be a chance to make it up to Dad.

It’s time to focus on the present.

I force myself to pay attention. Kerry is explaining how he got separated from Dad after baby Kevin died. Marie—“Mom,” he calls her, of course—took him away to California. She simply packed up and moved away from their place in Phoenix one day, leaving no forwarding address. Kerry tells how he later learned from his… my… our Grandma Mac that Dad went to the neighbors’ houses to try to find out where his wife and remaining son had disappeared to, but no one knew or would say.

*

There is a scene in the seventh and final book of the Harry Potter series (the book my mom eagerly awaited but didn’t live long enough to read), a beautifully tragic and somehow uplifting scene that has been imprinted on my memory for years. As the second anniversary of Dad’s death came and went, that scene and the swimming pool suddenly became linked in my mind.

In the book, Harry’s beloved elf friend Dobby has been killed in the process of rescuing Harry and his friends. Harry is grief-stricken, but resolute: He digs, alone, a deep grave for Dobby. He could use magic to move the dirt easily and instantaneously, but instead he chooses a shovel and hard physical labor. Harry’s grief at little Dobby’s death and his rage at those responsible pour out of him in sweat and tears. Every shovelful is a tribute to his lost friend. The physical strain of the task is a cleansing of his soul and a ritual preparation for the battles to come.

My dad lost his second-born, Kevin Kelly, suddenly and mysteriously. Baby Kevin died in his crib before he was six months old. Before my dad was twenty. (And long before Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was recognized and new parents began to be exhorted, as my husband and I were, to always, always place babies face-up in their cribs.)

More than a decade after the baby’s death, in answer to my wondering why Dad didn’t believe in God, Mom told me about baby Kevin. She told me how Grandma Mac tried to make my dad—her only son—understand that Kevin’s death was God’s will. God needed baby Kevin with Him.

However young I was when we had that conversation, I could see that a loss so profound needed a better explanation than that.

Instead, it was followed by another seismic event in Dad’s young life. During Kerry’s speech, it suddenly crystallizes for me: the real reason Dad’s family fell apart. He didn’t just let it happen… he didn’t cause it to happen… he wasn’t the bad guy. Some time after my dad and Marie both held their second son, cold and blue, for the last time, she chose to disappear.

This altar-boy-turned-teen-father had fought his mother for the right to marry his pregnant girlfriend, and he had worked hard to hold together the little family they created. He had tried to do everything right. But there was so much he couldn’t control.

*

I have little idea what Dad did for the couple of years between Marie’s abandonment and my mom’s arrival on the scene. I know my mom and dad married three weeks after they met: crazy in love, or just plain crazy, doesn’t matter which. They tried to start a new family. Two miscarriages later, the second one seriously endangering Mom’s health, I can imagine my dad having a growing conviction that if God did exist, he was one mean sumbitch.

Still, what was there to do but keep on keeping on? They adopted Paddy at birth and with him, as piles of black-and-white photos indicate, they brought the proverbial bundle of joy into their home at last. Eighteen months later, I came along and broke Mom’s pregnancy losing streak. Less than a year after that, the four of us escaped the heat and traffic and crowding of Phoenix for the lonely open spaces outside Douglas and our own little home on the range. Things maybe, finally, seemed to be looking up.

But there was still alimony, child support, the mortgage, and who knows what other bills—barely enough left to feed everyone, with Dad’s teacher pay and Mom’s temp work. I don’t remember Dad digging the pool, but I recall a lot of dinners of beanie weenies or gamey roast jackrabbit at our dinner table, which was fashioned out of a huge wooden spool left over from someone’s electric cabling project, with benches Dad built from scrap lumber in place of chairs. In those earliest years in Douglas we were, as I recall him saying often, the poorest people he knew.

He battled the dry climate to try to make grass grow on every inch of the three-quarters of an acre he had fenced off as our yard. He battled the dust and pollen to keep all that grass mowed, a wet red bandanna over his nose and mouth and another, his “Lawrence of Arabia,” tucked under his trucker cap.

He battled his kids’ laziness and wouldn’t stand for us to shirk a task. When we’d had the place just a few years and the grassy area was still fairly small, Paddy and I were made responsible for picking up before the mowing. One day we missed some good-sized rocks, and the mower hit them. Dad was furious. He stood us up against the front gate as if lining us up for a firing squad, and shouted: “From now on, anything the goddam mower hits is gonna hit you. Maybe you’ll be more careful to do a good job if you know”—stooping to pick up rocks—“anything the mower hits”—taking aim—“is gonna hit you!”—flinging them at us as we tried to dodge, the gate behind us blocking our escape.

Another time, we failed to look under the big cypress tree by the chicken coop, about a hundred feet away from where he was digging the pool. There was never much grass growing in the shaded areas under our few trees anyway; we must have assumed he wouldn’t mow just dirt and tree sheddings. But he did, and hit a big piece of cast-off wire. It was a couple feet long, and thick, maybe eight-gauge or so, stout and barely flexible. Paddy and I both got a good whipping with this wire “switch”—because, as Dad had warned us, anything the mower hit was going to hit us. If my dad said he was going to do something, he liked to follow through.

*

I never got to ask Dad the questions I should have asked when he showed me the picture of baby Kevin: What did you do next? And after that? And then? What was every single detail of every day that followed? How did you go on?

The image of the tiny blue baby inhabits my psyche. I thought we would get around to talking about it again someday. Someday, when his mellowing process and mine had reached a point of intersection that allowed me to let go of certain memories and recast others in light that would be more flattering to him, I planned to forgive.

At the same time, I nursed vivid recollections of his cruelty. Many of them were as “true” as any memory can be; that is, like the mower stories, they contained events in real life. But one was of a dream I’d had at age four or five, in which I was being pursued inside our house by something terrifying.

In the dream, I scrambled from room to room like a rabbit about to be caught and eaten, holding very still in each new hiding place until the noise of my pursuer grew loud enough that I had to move again. Finally, it found me hunched down on the bathroom floor, and I woke up— right after realizing it was Dad. He was recognizable even though he was partly a snarling beast, with long, long claws and a clear intent to rip me apart.

I held that dream against him, too, even though I knew it wasn’t his fault.

But still I was sure that the time would come when we would get right with each other. And then, finally, I would be able to talk to him.

*

What would possess a sane man to dig a hole twelve feet square and five feet deep with nothing but hand tools?

The same thing that compelled Harry Potter to labor over Dobby’s grave.

Grief. Rage.

I can imagine Dad down at the bottom of the hole as it’s starting to take shape, in Levi’s and lace-up work boots, his shirt off, his hat on and his red bandanna underneath it. Cheap, dark- tinted clip-on lenses cover his black-framed glasses and hide his eyes. A long wooden ramp behind him stretches from the bottom to the top of the squarish hole, and a wheelbarrow sits half-full of dirt at the base of the ramp. He leans on his shovel, with something between a grimace and a grin on his face. I know I’ve seen a black-and-white photo just like that, of him down in the hole. I can turn that into a whole movie memory of him working, see and hear him at it as if it were happening right now.

“Work is good for the soul,” Mom loved to say when we kids would gripe to her, out of Dad’s earshot, about a chore.

She said it ironically, but I bet Dad knew it was true.

I could see that he was wounded somehow, even before I learned some of the most crucial reasons why. But down in that hole, picking away at the impossibly resistant earth, hauling up wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of dirt and rocks as the project gradually took shape and began to seem not just possible, but inevitable—maybe he put his soul back together just enough to keep fighting.

He couldn’t understand, much less change, the death of baby Kevin. He couldn’t undo the disintegration of that first family. He couldn’t get out from under his bills or control his temper or live without beer and tobacco. But he owned a piece of land. He was blessed with forty whole acres of dirt. He could make up his mind to turn that dirt into something worth having, and then, by God, not let anything stop him.

How big would a grave have to be, to contain as much sorrow and as much fury as he had been carrying around? Twelve feet square and five feet deep?

There was no body to put in it; the dirt wasn’t going back in either; and some of the demons he might have exorcised as he excavated never did budge. Maybe he should have gone deeper.

He decided twelve feet square and five feet deep was the right size. And then the former altar boy filled up this vessel of his own creation with cool, clear water.

Water he taught us three kids to swim in, without our realizing he must have wished the other two could be there as well. Water he and his sweet, slender second wife stripped bare to float in together. (They must have skinny-dipped, right?) Water the neighbor kids came over to splash and belly flop and Marco Polo in, summer after summer.

He turned dirt into water.

It was a goddam miracle.

----

Heather Knowles is a writer and visual artist living in Arizona's central highlands (where almost everyone but her is from some other state). When she's not hiking the local forest trails, she enjoys writing about life, painting in acrylics, and strumming her ukulele. She's currently trying to get her two sons to join her in creating a family band to entertain their captive audience, Annie the Dog.

"Resilience", watercolor, Arches cold press archival paper, 12" by 9" by Frank Torres. Born and raised in New Jersey and Puerto Rico, Frank studied art-painting in New York City and received a Bachelor’s degree from Lehman College in the City University of New York. Since then, he has completed graduate studies in administration and in education and is currently an art teacher in the Bronx, New York. He has been working as a professional artist and a designer since 1992. Most of his artwork is privately owned, and his preferred medium is watercolors, although he enjoys oils, acrylics, and mixed media. He is very comfortable with watercolor because of his experience in creating architectural renderings for many years, and as he ventures into a new series of mystery within landscapes, his desire is to explore the complexity of the mind in creating lands of magic and beauty. You can find his work at franktorresart.com and on Instagram at @franktorresart. 

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