Letter of Recommendation: Digging a Trench

By the time I entered the backyard with a shovel, the pool had evaporated. The shovel ricocheted off the stony earth, stinging my hands like a shanked fastball. I went to the hardware store and returned with a pickax. Because I’d never swung a pickax, I’d never seen, in my peripheral vision, my shadow looking like a prospector’s. That shadow made me feel a little insane, as if I expected to strike gold in my backyard. The pickax hit the ground with a satisfying thunk, tearing a deep hole in the earth. I continued to dig deeper, chopping roots and cracking stones under the spot where the pool had been. Eventually I uncovered a white PVC line that belonged to a long-lost sprinkler system. Brushing the dirt away with my hands, I found the PVC undamaged.

I followed that white PVC line farther into the yard, digging a trench about two feet deep and two feet wide along a curve that approached a row of dead Pyracantha. I found digging a trench to be repetitive and physically demanding work, similar to going on a long run, except where I might breathe through a cramp or troubled thoughts while running, here that same discomfort and confusion seemed to rise through my arms and into the pickax, which discharged as I drove it into the dirt. I didn’t realize how hungry, thirsty and exhausted I’d become until it started getting dark and I had to stop. That night I dreamed of digging the trench the way I dreamed of waves after being on the ocean all day. More feeling than vision, my dream rose and fell, hinged as it was to the pickax.

The next morning, I picked up where I left off, swinging with the same rise and fall, inhaling as I stretched skyward, exhaling as I drove the pickax into the ground. I’d dug holes before, to plant trees and post fences, and I’d chopped wood to heat the house in winter, but those jobs took place in one spot. Their focus was stationary, whereas the trench had a vector that carried me into the unknown.

Hours spent digging felt like days and days like weeks, though not because of boredom or drudgery. Time simply passed at a compressed rate. This relativity extended to my position — there in my tiny backyard, in the wider desert, atop the spinning planet. I’d step out of the trench feeling as though I’d traveled a great distance, only to drink from the hose attached to my house. Though I still feared for my kids and missed my Navy friend, I had to move on. Now I began to wonder if the river that my character had come to was not an obstacle after all but the point of the story itself.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/16/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-digging-a-trench.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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