Practical Mechanics

The hole started as a prototypical answer to a hypothetical. As it grew — in length, mostly, but also in depth, it became a joke. Now, I’m not sure. At its deepest, the hole is nearly as tall as Brady. I knows this because, when he is digging, I can see just the top of his head, red from exertion. It runs for about twelve feet, between the spot where, earlier in the fall, we buried our dog (the first hole) and an ungainly pile of bittersweet vine and felled young maple that had previously formed a dense shield between the woods and the lawn. I had agreed that the shield should come down, but when it did, I regretted it. The thick vines had blunted the scraggly trees and white sewage pipe, the bits of fence and decking, an abandoned raised bed, dozens of empty planters — so much accumulated outdoor suburban flotsam and jetsam. Now, any errant glance out the window is a reminder of how much remains to be done before the woods are the sort a person might want to walk through. 

But the hole, to my mind, will not aid in this transformation. In its prototypical stage, it was meant to hold shrubs. Another shield, but — Brady argued — intentional, non-invasive, from the ground up. He had proposed planting blue holly, and I, who’d been keeping an eye on the progress, or lack thereof, of the neighbor’s row of hollies, hemmed and hawed, sending links for mountain laurel and rhododendron and yew (poisonous). I wanted something instantly beautiful, or nothing at all.

In the end, we bought no shrubs, but that didn’t stop the hole. One Saturday, we rolled a boulder out of it that must have weighed a hundred pounds. I enjoyed the physicality of it, but after, when the boulder was on level ground, I did not understand why we had bothered. There are so many linear demands on our time. The hole is, maybe, monotonic.

Now I watch through my office window as Brady crouches over the rim of the hole, removing the straggling taproots of the bittersweet. The hole is cleanswept; it is almost a root cellar. But we already have a root cellar, I whine, to myself. A root cellar and a regular cellar and endless unfinished crawlspaces. 

Provided you have the means, there’s nothing preventing you from buying a house. It’s not like a car, where you have to learn to drive before you’re officially handed the keys. And yet a house, and property are unwieldy things, full of mysterious and potentially hazardous componentry. There are hundreds of wires running along the rafters of our basement. Most of them must be dead — but are they the sort of dead that a lightening storm might resurrect? Likewise, there are dozens of overhead pipes. Which ones work? Which ones lead to the outdoors and must be turned off before winter? There are baseboards running along every room in the house, but we’ve only identified the controllers for half of them. There is a sauna (we think) with a very staved in ceiling — a fairly horrifying sight in what is already a creepy crawly space — but, we’re told, it’s no big deal. A self-contained space. The milk-paint walls and wainscots and trim, on the other hand: positively dripping with lead. The friction points get primered over; the windows replaced altogether. But lead is still everywhere, Brady tells me, over and over. I learn, slowly, to recognize tiny white specks as the enemy, requiring immediate vanquishing by vacuum. 

Unlike the house, or the acre of lawn and bedraggled forest (forest is the wrong word — too grand — but it’s too many trees to be a stand, or a copse), the hole is controllable. It could be filled in in a day, or continuously extended. That, I understand. 

Weekend afternoons, we all walk to the man-made pine barrens past the railroad tracks. The deer field, I call it, because I’ve yet to walk through without seeing at least one white tail. Alone, I often see a whole family, buck included. Together, we are slower, louder. Each time, I fear we won’t spot one — you cannot control the comings and goings of deer — but then we do. I am always the one to spot it, because Perry and Brady are looking down, at holes, or the promise of them. 

Yesterday, we had our first Thanksgiving in a house that I imagine has seen hundreds of them. Up until a week ago, we were going to Vermont, but the Green Mountain State is playing it safe. For now, no ingress; no egress. So we had it here, and I feel guilty (lucky, but also, guilty) at how normal it was. For a few days, it was touch and go — Perry ran a fever, and even though I knew it had all the signs of the 24-hour virus he gets a few times a year — this year, I had to stop and think. I sat beside him in bed, listening to the nutcracker, watching him sleep, sweat curling his hair. Did I know? And then he woke and began shoveling Annie’s graham cracker bunnies down his throat. Mechanically, and then ravenously, and I thought, okay: Thanksgiving continues. 

As goes Thanksgiving, so goes the hole. The hole could lead to treasure. To arrow heads. Buried dowries. A regency-era weapons cache. When we bought the house, we knew of one head stone, belonging to the 24 year-old daughter of one of the earlier owners. The men who repoured our barn foundation unearthed another. Both are in white marble, one large, one small. Perhaps the hole will lead to third. So far, all it’s disinterred are stones. One morning I look up and see that Brady and Perry have built a short retaining wall out of all but the largest of them. 

I marvel even as I mock. I understand how to spot a good rug, how to nominally decorate a stoop. I have memorized Farrow & Ball’s dictums on painting by size and ordinance. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to build a stone wall, no matter how small.

But then, I remember a funny thing that happened a few weeks back. I understood a house project. Tea lights, strong across the beams of our post and beam ceiling —I understood that if we wanted them to hang on straight nails, they would need to operate under the same physics as hair when it’s being braided. So silly, but that was the click. 

(I’m good at braiding hair, by the way. Out of practice, but it’s like the trill of Fur Elise. The fingers remember.)

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