Dig Well, by Gabriel Orgrease

For all the wells which his father's ser­vants had digged in the days of Abra­ham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth. Gen­e­sis 26:15
Damn, I hate August… hot, humid, stink­ing dead days entombed in bore­dom. Dead sum­mer, an armpit-per­spir­ing stink. Worm fod­der dol­drums. August here is a burn­ing pis­s­hole.
Dis­cussed with the fam­i­ly when Pop sug­gests —as he sug­gests many projects—that we dig out the old stone well in the back yard. Enthu­si­as­tic, I am for it this time, it fits me. For one, I like to dig holes, and then, it keeps me out of trou­ble to go along and do what­ev­er.
Don’t go down to that place, I say inside, but I can’t help myself. My ear­li­est mem­o­ry of Pop we are at the kitchen table eat­ing and we are jok­ing and laugh­ing and he throws a wash­cloth at me. You can say it hap­pened then and not now, it is the past and over, and I should not talk like it is hap­pen­ing right now, but when­ev­er I remem­ber, it is just like it is hap­pen­ing all again, I’m afraid inside and want to escape. The cloth strikes me in the eyes and I laugh. I throw it back at him. It is a worn brown wash­cloth thin with holes and slight­ly damp with his hand sweat. It strikes him on the mouth. I throw it back at him, laugh­ing at our game, like he has thrown it at me with the force of a child. Not fun­ny. Pop swings with the back of his heavy arm and hits me in the head. I am knocked out of the chair onto the floor. I am not allowed to cry. A strong boy nev­er cries. I hold my lips, they want to break.
Des­per­ate for two wells. Pop argues. The house well beneath the garage is hard­ly good for one show­er per day. We can­not use the new Ken­more dish­wash­er with­out wait­ing an hour to flush the toi­let, before and after. I’m sick of wash­ing dish­es in the sink, my chore. No labor saved, we are thirsty half our lives. With bud­get we could have a well drilled hun­dreds of feet deep through gray mud and boul­ders to the aquifer above the clay line. (Mon­ey, who has mon­ey for sen­si­ble stuff? We live on onions, kid­ney beans and ground chuck. We col­lect food in the woods like it was a con­ve­nience store. He buys a Cadil­lac.) Drill a well for good water, more of what we already get, or… run into sul­fur water like our neigh­bors. Sul­fur. A stench all year of bad eggs, drill a well and then sul­fur.
Depres­sion. August. At the home­stead well ring near the gar­den, fat Pop splays in his lawn chair. Near­by, I cut brown sod, repeat­ing an old begin­ning. The stones uncov­ered look like a fire ring, the oppo­site of the water ring that these stones are. I strug­gle, with my rat­ty sneak­ers slip­ping on the shoul­ders of a shov­el blade. I jump up and sink down, alter­nate­ly swat­ting black no-see-ums that want to sting my eye­balls. I do not know what Pop is think­ing, strain­ing the nylon strap­ping of the chair, did­dling around with a recent copy of Clutch wrapped in Pop­u­lar Sci­ence.
He says, “Son, you have to lean into the shov­el when you break ground.” I lean my very hard­est, and break a skin­ny wind.
Down we dig, then dig more, and dig again. The sun recedes into a radi­ant halo above my head, a 40W light bulb slow­ly dimin­ished by a rheo­stat, or a can­dle sput­ter­ing as the wick sucks up the very final drop of wax. Dim­ness of lost light. Every­thing bur­rows down to dark­ness, while Pop explains stuff. Pop, his mind wan­der­ing into the fad­ing sun of a dead August wind, drones on camped there, describ­ing amaz­ing won­ders of the mod­ern uni­verse. Above me the last gasp of an aper­ture to the 4th dimen­sion. I bur­row. More days pass dig­ging. I am clum­sy with tools. I want to dig with my hands and sharp­ened sticks, claw the deep blan­ket of earth with my teeth. Just me and sol­id ground.
Days go sub­ter­ranean, bur­row­ing into the cool­ness of earth. Progress slow­ly down­ward day by day into a mayfly cocoon of stone. In dim­mer and dim­mer light I scratch mud and fibrous roots from with­in the cir­cle of glacial-deposit boul­ders. As if they were here, those pio­neers that plant­ed our apple, lilac and quince trees, I join them in this dig­ging.
Drops down the lad­der, every morn­ing. I climb down. Pop pulls the lad­der back up. I dig with a rusty trow­el, a ham­mer, and a Chock Full O’Nuts cof­fee can. Earth beneath bare feet, cold feel­ing to squig­gly toes. Crouch­ing in this shirt­less hole, abysmal. Then mole far­ther down­ward. Fill the cof­fee can with loos­ened earth—with it, crouch over and fill a tin bale buck­et. Pop, when he is there at the top, pulls the clothes­line rope. A tin din is echoed off the sides of the stone tube as the buck­et weight ris­es. Some dirt escapes from the buck­et and fil­ters down through the dim light, land­ing on my head. A cen­tipede crawls on the back of my neck.
Dirt, I love dirt. Snuff of dirt. Suck­ing out the brown-caked crust under bloody fin­ger­nails between dry lips. Sift­ing it through the hair, scratch­ing my head. The funk smell of dirt clogged in my nos­trils. Any time, dig­ging well or no well, I suck and squirm and roll and bathe in dirt. When Pop is not there to pull up the buck­et I wait alone and am hap­py with the dirt and imag­ine. There are no pro­duc­tive dis­cov­er­ies in an imag­i­na­tion frozen with fear of life, but a con­stant return­ing to the same abort­ed hole.
Thirst of life. Dig­ging past every­thing, all the scenery down there. I look upwards to the sun­light, and Pop sits there in his regal pater­ni­ty talk­ing to the hole in the yard. On occa­sion he remem­bers to let down the wood­en lad­der. I ascend. Drink rasp­ber­ry bug juice. “Piss in the woods, Son. Save on the well.” Pop spreads his weight and basks in the lawn chair, sweat­ing in his shorts, and gives edu­ca­tion­al pro­nounce­ments to the hole in the yard. “I killed a man in Korea. I was lying at night in a hole I had dug, freez­ing in the cold, when this Chi­nese came out over me to kill and I stabbed him with the bay­o­net. We were just there on the land with noth­ing and we dug a hole.”
Des­ti­na­tion eter­ni­ty. I’m no longer sure what direc­tion to go in, like a beaver trapped in an amuse­ment park cage: eter­ni­ty. At Bible class they tell us about God the Father and Jesus the Son and the Holy Spir­it, a trin­i­ty. Quite a big project, this begin­ning and end of every­thing. I quick­ly learn not to say what I think. I do not want to blow it. I learn from Mrs. Mey­ers in Bible class that God may speak to you, but you don’t talk back. You nev­er throw in the tow­el with God. Are there times when nobody gets the com­plete mes­sage? Or am I alone? Even when you are sit­ting at the table for the chick­en din­ner in the church base­ment and peo­ple are easy with each oth­er and laugh­ing, you behave your­self and take a small glass of water when the pitch­er is passed. Reach­ing out, there is noth­ing but pain.
Dig­ging a hole. When­ev­er I sur­face, the smelly neigh­bor kids tease, “Esek is dig­ging a hole to Chi­na.” I don’t know where Chi­na is, but now I want to be there if that is where the hole goes. With all Pop’s oth­er projects on the prop­er­ty, I also hear about Ori­en­tals. Pop says, “In Chi­na they would put one hun­dred coolies on your job. It would be done in one day.” Pop says he knows tor­ments that I will nev­er know. Hid­ing in the well I am one alone. There are only so many days in August. In time I will escape, though the veloc­i­ty of pain is for­ev­er.
Down past the lay­er of worms. Rem­nants of a rusty hinge and a bro­ken med­i­cine bot­tle, things that I fin­ger and turn over and exam­ine before send­ing the frag­ments upward for fur­ther scruti­ny and clas­si­fi­ca­tion and the com­ment, “Keep dig­ging.” Down past my own height. The earth tow­ers over as I reach out from side to side, not quite able to stretch ful­ly, con­fined with­in the tube of boul­ders, some larg­er than my bel­ly, some
small­er. I will find this water. Down I dream, and down I dig in dream­ing to the core of the world or beyond, down­ward in search of mud­dy water. Like any oth­er immi­grant to here, I am mud-hog­ging the stone lin­ing of a dark womb. After a lengthy silence Pop shows up. “How does it look down there?”
Dark, divin­ing thoughts. The lad­der hard­ly reach­es this day’s work. There is no clue as to how deep this well will go or how deep it will have to be to give up life and find us water. The dig­ging con­tin­ues. Pop is dis­tract­ed: we are too close to suc­cess, and suc­cess is to be avoid­ed at all cost. He goes back to the house to watch an Abbott & Costel­lo movie on the new col­or tele­vi­sion. He does not stay with any one project for very long. If we do not arrive soon at the end of a task, he changes direc­tion. When I fol­low him we are always going in cir­cles, like the cir­cle of the stone in this dark­ness. We nev­er know when we will find water, or food, or money—but we keep on in this search­ing.
“Death and tax­es,” is what Pop says. Yet some of us keep dig­ging. Some of us go off in the woods look­ing for anoth­er hole to talk to. Some of us wan­der around look­ing for a hole that will delib­er­ate, that will respond when spo­ken to, that will give up answers. Some of us keep dig­ging despite the fact that all we find is a replen­ished source of dirt and murky water.
Divert­ed to anoth­er search, Pop comes back in the after­noon and tells me about this atom­ic sci­en­tist, Edward Teller, talk­ing on the tele­vi­sion. I do not know who Mr. Teller is. Pop says he blows things up for a liv­ing, like dyna­mite, but I know “atom­ic” means that. All the kids know about the bomb. I won­der, lis­ten­ing to Pop speak­ing from the top of my hole, how many days Mr. Teller would spend dig­ging his well whether Mr. Teller hates August as much as I do. Does Mr. Teller wash his dish­es by hand in the kitchen while look­ing out the win­dow above the sink and dream­ing of escape? Pop says we can turn the well into a bomb shel­ter if we do not find water. I go back to pick­ing, with a piece of bro­ken tree limb, at the pun­gent soil com­pact­ed in the spaces between boul­ders of sand­stone and gneiss, feel­ing with my fin­gers the cold­ness of laid stone. I won­der how old this well is.
Deliv­ered as fif­teen days for fif­teen years, on the after­noon it is about the sixth hour of dig­ging, as when Isaac's ser­vants came and told him, “We have found water.” It springs up sud­den­ly between my toes. At first I am not sure what is hap­pen­ing. I see brown water mixed with mud. Then I am excit­ed, an ever­last­ing spring. It appears slow­ly between two stones and then rapid­ly increas­es in flow to fight for clear­ness, to be free of mud. The heel of my foot is now wet. The well is deep, and with­out the lad­der I have no way to climb out. I yell for Pop. My ankles are mud­dy, and the water is cold. I call for Pop some more. There is no answer from above. My knees are shiv­er­ing. I’m scream­ing, for no answer. The water is cold, around my waist. Pray­ing, I think about float­ing to the top. I think about climb­ing the stones. I am thirsty and wet, all at once. There is noth­ing more to dig, as the water ascends. Now my shoul­ders are shiv­er­ing. Pop final­ly sets the lad­der down.
Drenched, I climb up. My hair is wet, and my breath is labored. He shows me a puff­ball mush­room that he just found in the woods. Cut open, the inside looks like white brains. He says that when it is fried in bacon fat it tastes like ham­burg­er. I pay atten­tion and won­der what the les­son behind all this is going to be. He is an art­ful cook, learned it in the Army. I tell him about the water. “Oh, yeah, I for­got about that.”
Dis­en­gaged, Pop leans over toward the hole and says he is wor­ried. “It smells like shit. Too close to the sep­tic tank. I think we should fill it in. You did a good job, though. I’ll say that. You dig well. A real good job.” I stoop per­plexed next to the well hole, bask­ing in the depth of my accom­plish­ment and Pop’s pride. I want to slam a rock into his head. I’m no longer sure what direc­tion to go in, like a beaver trapped in an amuse­ment park cage. Trapped. Some­times I think it is just not good to fol­low too close to Pop. Silent­ly I want to slip away behind him into the woods and take a leak, then climb a pine tree to the top and watch the wind above the world, from one of those places where he can­not fol­low. Hold­ing to the top­most crown, the last limb, with pitch stuck to my hands. I will nev­er come down, until sup­per.
Pissed, I stick around and help Pop pull up the lad­der, and then I begin to fill the hole. The trow­el and cof­fee can, my dig­ging tools, are left down there, to await a future exca­va­tion. The wood tools float on the sur­face, ris­ing, fake bat­tle­ships, which I pre­tend to explode and drown by drop­ping shov­els of earth on them. The sound of a released dirt storm splash­es and echoes with­in as it is dropped from the spade.
I do not dig a hole to Chi­na. There is no cli­max. I do not explode. I go inward. The dumb motion of work takes me.
Pop goes off some­where into the base­ment to play with the wah-wah ped­al on his elec­tric gui­tar. Odd­ly, shov­el­ing the dirt back into the well does not take me enough days to notice. I work morn­ings and evenings to avoid the heat. I take lit­tle notice that the midges have gone to sting oth­er eyes.
On some days there are thun­der­storms, light­ning and rain strik­ing the earth around us, and the air chills, though only for short snaps. Pop decides to trade for a cheap horse, a black stal­lion that will let nobody but Pop ride him. We sta­ble it in the garage above the good well.
In time I pre­tend it was not such a bad thing to fill in the old well. I went down behind the first dig­gers until I found water, and now I fol­low oth­ers in the act of refill­ing the well once again. In the Bible they stopped talk­ing about dig­ging wells and giv­ing them these real­ly weird names once every­one had their fill of drink. I’m still thirsty.
Today Pop talks about build­ing an exper­i­men­tal air­plane, but I am not so inter­est­ed in crash­ing. I’m learn­ing to shov­el horse manure and lime it. We still take care to not flush the toi­let and run the dish­wash­er at the same time.
Sep­tem­ber is a cool­er month.

Gabriel Orgrease dug out the well in Bese­mer, near to Brook­ton­dale, near to Slater­ville and Car­o­line, NY. If you check on a map that is up north for Appalachia that there­abouts is pro­nounced dif­fer­ent than in the south. It is like almost anoth­er place but it still has rocks, cricks and woods and hills. He likes to play with stones. He now lives on Long Island very close to the Atlantic. When it rains heavy or snow melts his base­ment floods with­out his hav­ing to do any work. Though he does not love flat land he has got a bit used to it.

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