Raymond J. Harding
Pepperell, MA. c.1985
Let’s put it this way, I didn’t really start out to go live in a hole. Nobody in their right mind does that. Things just grew on me. They got out of hand, and there I was.
I suppose that the fact that my fortieth birthday was coming up had something to do with it. Mid-life crisis looming on the horizon, depression …. Boy was I depressed.
I think my wife, Muriel, was a part of it. The twins, Fred junior and Darleen, were also a part of it, both seventeen, both precocious; both advanced a grade in school, making them high school seniors at seventeen. They had gone from middle school to prep school. Muriel arranged that. Muriel arranged a lot of things.
I’m a school teacher. We got by pretty well on my salary while the kids were young. I had inherited the house free and clear with no mortgage so we managed quite well.
When the kids first started the sixth grade, Muriel announced it was time for her to start her career. Fine. Muriel was an intelligent woman with advanced degrees in accounting and business management. We could always use a little extra money for the “luxuries”. “Go for it, sweetheart,” I told her. Muriel went for it.
Life went on as usual for a while, and I just didn’t notice the little changes at first. But I think it was the chain saws that set me off. This particular morning, as I was walking down the front steps, I heard that first chain saw start up. Actually it sputtered once and died, and then it came on again with that annoying, whining screech that only chain saws can produce. That was when I made my abrupt left turn and walked the wrong way.
It was a nice, warm, autumn morning, a Friday morning. For that past fifteen years I had been going out my front door, turning right at the end of the walk, and going three blocks to the bus stop where I could catch the bus for downtown Portland.
Those three blocks are residential with nice old houses, mostly white with green or black shutters. One is yellow, with white trim and black shutters. I like that combination. If you turn left at the bottom of the drive, you leave the residential section and enter a zone quaintly referred to as rural. That’s because for the next quarter-mile the road borders the land that my grandfather once farmed. Beyond that is mostly forest land until you hit the county road by-pass.
I had gone about a hundred yards in the wrong direction. It felt good. Immature, but delightfully refreshing. It was wine for the mind. When I got to the spot where the embankment drops eight feet in a slope from the road, I sat down on this old chunk of granite that the glacier dropped there for me, and I stated thinking. That was when Freddy junior found me.
“Hi, Dad,” he said. “Why are you sitting here? Aren’t you going to work?”
“I don’t go to work,” I told him. “I go to school. Your mother goes to work. How did you know I was here?”
“I watched you from my room. You never turn left when you go out the door.” It was the first time I ever realized that my son watched me go to work-school.
“Well,” I said, “why don’t you do me a favor and go back to the house, call the school, tell them I’m taking a personal day, and bring me back a shovel.”
“Sure, Dad”, he paused, “but if I do that I’ll be late myself”
Why don’t you take a day off too? Do you good.” Muriel was out of town for a few days, and Darlene was staying over with a friend. Freddy and I were “baching” it, so this seemed like a good time for a father and son project.
I sat and thought some more for the half-hour it took Freddy to get back. “The school sounded worried,” he said. “Said you had a lot of tests to give today.
“Tough,” I said.
“I brought a shovel,” he said as he handed me an aluminum snow shovel. My son, the genius. Actually he was, or pretty close to it. He and his sister tested out with IQ”s of 175 and 177 respectively. Their SAT’s were the highest in their class, and they never came home with marks under 90. And now he hands me a snow shovel.
“Do you know what this is, Freddy?” I asked patiently.
“Sure, Dad, just what you asked for, a shovel.” I didn’t think he was humoring me.
What kind of shovel is it?” I asked, as a good teacher should, leading the student closer to the truth.
“It’s a snow shovel, Dad.”
“Right,” I said and waved my hand to encompass the pastoral scene before me. “And do you see any snow out there for me to shovel?”
“Gee, no Dad, but I didn’t see anything else for you to shovel either, so I figured it really didn’t matter.”
“I want,” I said, “to dig a hole.” I really did want to do that, just to do some physical labor. My hands were soft. So was my mind.
“In your Brooks Brothers three-piece suit?” Freddy asked.
Maybe that was it. He shouldn’t have said that. What, you may ask, is a school teacher doing in a Brooks Brother’s suit? Muriel bought it for me. Three of them, actually. She took me into the best men’s store in Portland, had me measured and fitted, and took care of the bill herself. This was after she had been working for only two years. She worked for a company called Digidata or Datadigi, or something like that. They made computer parts, sophisticated electronic toys, and controls for missile guidance systems. A lovely company that took care of their personnel.
I felt a little awkward, letting my wife buy me expensive clothes that I couldn’t afford myself, but I thought, “What the hell, she’s been saving her pennies and wants to do something nice for the old man. If it gives her pleasure, just accept the gesture with thanks.” Little did I know.
My son, the genius, came back in ten minutes with a good, long-handled digging spade. “Much better son. Thank you.”
“Sure Dad. Look, I really would like to hang around but I’ve got a big exam coming up this morning and I don’t want to miss it. Besides, I can’t count on my math teacher being out digging a hole on exam day. Lots of luck!” And with that he was gone.
So much for father and son stuff. “What the hell,” I said to myself out loud, and started digging. It was fun. By the time I had turned over a three-foot square patch of sod, I had to take off my jacket and vest, and roll up my sleeves. Under the sod there was about eight inches of loam, good, rich, black stuff. Under that was almost pure sand, great for digging. Within an hour I was down as far as I could reach with the shovel, almost five feet. I climbed back on my granite perch to rest and contemplate my hole.
There’s nothing like staring into an empty hole that one has just dug with his very own hands to help a man to think. What I thought about was the day a few months after the Great Brooks Brother’s Safari when I came home on a Friday after school and Muriel met me at the door with a martini in each hand. “This one’s for you darling,” she said as she kissed me lightly on the cheek.
Behind her I could see about twenty or thirty assorted workmen in overalls and jeans. Some were carrying carpenters tools while others had gun-belts with pliers, screwdrivers, and other electrician’s tools instead of six-shooters. “Who…?” I began.
“Ssh darling, it’s a surprise.”
“It sure is,” I said.
“You know how you’ve always wanted to re-do these downstairs rooms and the twin’s rooms? Well, they’re here to do just that, and they promised me they can have it done by Wednesday.”
“Great, but I can’t afford it.”
“Oh, but we can! I got a raise at work, and I have more than enough to cover it. You just go on buying the groceries and paying the electric bill. Let me take care of the little extras.”
“How are we going to live in this chaos until next Wednesday?” I asked in my innocence.
“Another surprise! The twins are staying with my sister and you and I have reservations at the nicest motel on Cape Cod. We have to leave right after you finish your drink.”
“I haven’t packed.”
“I’ve packed everything you’ll need. Now drink up, darling”.
Fine again, I thought as I drained the martini. Arrangements had been made. All I had to do was drive the four hours to Hyannis. Piece of cake.
I picked up my shovel and went back to work. I started to fill up the hole. Honest! I dropped three shovelfuls back in when the thought hit me; “Hey, this would make a great root cellar!” All I had to do was to enlarge the original hole a little enough so that I could get down into it – maybe a set of steps. I could run a wooden stringer down later with proper stair treads. Then, all it would need would be a cavity dug into the side of the embankment. Great place to store potatoes and turnips, and carrots….
The only problem with this was that I hadn’t put in a garden since we took over the house, back when the twins were two. Well, it was high time I got started. A man needs a garden, needs to re-establish his touch with nature, get back to the earth so to speak. And it followed, that if a man had a garden then he needed a root cellar to store stuff in.
By noon I had a room that I could stand up in, and I was ravenous. Back to the house for lunch. I made myself a salami and cheese sandwich and sat at the kitchen table with my Gucci-clad feet on Muriel’s chair. Millie was on vacation. My clothes were a mess and I though about changing, but there was something comforting about doing this work in my three-piece suit.
I popped open a beer and while I munched and swigged, I thought about the day I came home and found Millie.
“You must be Mr. Murray, she said. “I’m Millie.” She was a portly, matronly friendly type person. We shook hands.
“Actually,” I said, “I’m not Mr. Murray, I’m Mr. Carlson.” That was when I first realized that Muriel was using her maiden name. Fine, I thought. Today’s woman must assert her own identity. “Who are you, Millie?” I asked.
I’m your, cook.”
“Fine,” I said.
“Fred,” Muriel said, “we just have to have her. You certainly can’t cope with teaching and then come home to face cooking for yourself and the twins.
“True. Besides, whenever I do the cooking, they make faces and call it gross. They don’t do that when you do the cooking.” I suppose that it was a subtle hint that she should continue to do the cooking, but it was already too late.
“I just can’t depend on being home in time from now on, darling.”
She put her arms around my neck and gazed up at me with those lovely brown eyes. “Now that I’ve been made an associate vice-president. “And besides, the twins love her.”
“Love?” How can the twins love her, she hasn’t even been here for a full day!”
“It was love at first sight. Besides, the twins need a grand-mother figure.”
“They needed a grandmother figure when they were five. We don’t have a grandmother for them, and if I thought they needed one, I’d….adopt one.
“Darling, don’t be upset; why not just adopt Millie?
So we adopted Millie.
After my lunch break, I went back and poked around the hole for a little while. There wasn’t much more that I could do with it as a root cellar, but I needed more exercise, so I started cutting another room on the right. The digging was even easier, but I had to take each shovelful up my make-shift steps and toss it outside.
Soon the sun was setting and my body was all aching and racked with pain as the old song says, so I just left everything as it was and hobbled home.
Freddy was there with two young friends from school. Luckily they had brought in enough pizza to feed a small village. I had no scruples about helping myself. After the pizza and two beers it was all I could do to stay upright in the shower. I was in bed by eight-thirty and asleep in minutes. Muriel was due back from Silicon Valley at noon tomorrow, Saturday.
I was up with the sun at six. I didn’t feel half as bad as I thought I would. A few sore muscles, but my hands hadn’t blistered, and I was ready for more work. What to wear? I asked myself. I chose the blue Brooks Brothers and the black L.L. Bean loafers. Just right for digging.
The work went just a slowly as it had the previous afternoon. What I needed, I thought, were some tools. Then Freddy showed up.
“Boy, dad, this is awesome!”
My son, the genius. He uses words like that. He gets an education in a school that caters to rich, third-generation Yankees and oil-sheik’s kids, and he says, ‘awesome’.
“Thanks, son,” I said.
“Mom’s home. I told her you were very busy.”
“You didn’t tell her what I was doing did you?”
“I don’t know what you’re doing Dad. When I left you yesterday you were sitting on that rock, giving me lessons on different types of shovels, remember?”
“Oh yeah,” I said quietly.
“But this is great, Dad. What is it?”
“Well, son, (I was back to the father and son stuff again) it started out a just a hole. Then I had this idea for a root cellar, and then that got little out of hand. I think now, I’ll make into a little place like Emerson had on Walden Pond. A place where I can get away for a while. A place to think long, deep thoughts. A man needs a place like that. Where he can get away….sort of.”
“That was Thoreau, Dad, and his was above ground.”
I knew that. I always did get those two mixed up. Anyway, my son, the genius, missed the whole point. Before I could admonish him properly, a trickle of sand ran down from the roof near the entrance and made a little cone on the floor.
“You know, Dad, this could be dangerous. What we need are some two-by fours and maybe some plywood, and we could shore this up.”
“Good thinking, Son.” I took out my ever-present notebook and started to make a list for him: twenty, seven-foot two by fours; thirty sheets of marine plywood; ten sheets of walnut paneling; ten pounds of assorted nails, and a power saw. If I think of anything else – oh yes, a wheelbarrow — gotta have one. And get the tool box out of the cellar. Now, go get you mother’s credit card, shoot down to Wilson’s Building Supplies and pick up all this stuff.”
“Dad, it will never fit in the back of the Volvo.”
“You’re right again. Tell your mother we have to have a pick-up truck. A red one.”
“Sure, Dad.” He gave me a very strange look, but off he went, the dutiful son routine. I liked it. I went back to my granite seat, and while I listened to the snarls of the chain saws, I contemplated the joy of hard work, the sense of accomplishment that a man can take in something that he has crafted with his own hands, and I waited. I had always wanted a red pick-up truck.
That got me thinking again, about the day only a month or so after the adoption of Grandma Millie, when Muriel came to see me and said, “Fred, that old Ford you’re driving should be replaced.” Actually, she was driving it most of the time, but she was right, it was on its last legs.
“You don’t mind if I trade it in, do you?”
I said no, I didn’t mind, expecting to be invited to go down with her on Saturday to do some serious car shopping. She was back in less than an hour with a brand-new Volvo station wagon.
“Isn’t that expensive?” I asked. It knew it was expensive. It had every gadget known to science, either mounted under the hood or on the dashboard.
“Not to worry, darling. I got a bonus this month”
The following morning a man in a white cover all delivered our other car, a Porsche.
Freddie showed up a little after noon in a shiny, new full-sized, all-American-made, red pick-up truck. In the back were piled all the goodies I had asked for, topped by a wheelbarrow, also bright red. I joined Freddy in the cab of my new truck. He had thoughtfully brought along a pair of Italian grinders and a cooler of beer and assorted soft drinks.
“Awesome!” I said. “How did she take it?”
“Oh, she just made a few phone calls, drove me down to the dealer’s in the Volvo and took off. She said she had some work to do at the office.”
“Yeah, but Dad, she said something to me – not to me, really — she just said it.”
“What was that?”
“She said, ‘that’s the only thing he ever asked for.’ “
By mid-afternoon, Freddy and I had the first room framed, plywood in place on walls and ceiling, and a rough floor down. We had even managed to get one sheet of paneling in place, just so we could see what the finished effect would be like.
“Are you going to move in here, Dad?” Freddy asked. His voice was serious and a little apprehensive.
“I don’t think so, son. I told you, I just thought it would be nice to have a hideaway. If I built a tree house, people would think I was nuts. Maybe I’ll make it into a mother-in-law apartment”
“You and Mom don’t have mothers-in-law.”
“I forgot. That’s why we got Millie.”
Freddie ignored that. I could see that he was thinking some rather deep thoughts himself. I wondered if he was going to voice them. He did. He looked at me and asked, “Does it bother you a lot that Mom makes so much more money than you do?”
I had to mull that over for a minute. “I didn’t used to think it did, Freddie.” I said. “But now, I’m not so sure.”
“Don’t you like what you do?”
“I used to. Now, I’m not sure about that either. I went into teaching because it was what I wanted to do. I just assumed that the money would get better, that I’d advance — perhaps a college position – but that just doesn’t work out too often.”
I think that Freddy had more to say, but we were interrupted by a horn blast from the
Volvo behind us. We scrambled out of the cab to greet Muriel and Darlene, both back from their respective journeys. Muriel gave me a quick hug and a kiss and said, “I like your new truck.”
“Thanks,” I muttered, “it’s the nicest truck I ever had.”
Darlene brushed past me with a quick “Hi”. I helped Muriel down the embankment and the four of us stood staring down the steps into the cavernous depths of the first room. The only thing that could be seen from where we were standing was the paneling. It looked crooked.
“What is it father?”, Darlene asked. She had been calling me ‘Father’ for several weeks. I hated it.
“Yes, father,” Muriel echoed, “what is it?” There was a glint of amusement in her eyes.
“It’s going to be my hideaway,” I announced. A place where a man can get away from it all and contemplate nature, the meaning of God’s Universe, and ponder such all-encompassing questions as; Why are we here?”
“Oh, Father”, Darlene wailed, “it’s a cave! What will my friends say when they hear that my father is living in a cave?” With that, she staggered awkwardly up the slope, and then re-flounced her way down the road toward the house.
Muriel looked at me, then at Freddy. “Her friends will never find out unless one of us tells them, will they?”
“Don’t look at me Mom,” Freddy said. “I plan to spend some time out here myself if Dad let’s me. This place is going to be great.” I could have hugged him for his loyalty.
“Why are you wearing one of your best suits?” Muriel asked me.
“I don’t know, really.” I said weakly. “I was wearing my grey one when I started. It seemed like a gesture I guess.”
“Well, try not to get it too dirty. Can you spare Freddy for a while? I need him to help bring some groceries into the house”
“Sure. I’m almost done here for now.”
I watched as Freddy helped his mother up the embankment. Muriel blew a kiss as she turned the Volvo around and headed back for the house. When they had disappeared from sight, I went back up to the truck. I sat in the cab, behind the wheel and opened a beer. Just then, somebody cranked up one of those damned chain saws. I felt as though I wanted to cry.
The chain saws. Muriel had given me a big kiss a week ago in the living room. It was Saturday, early afternoon. I had just come from my den, looking for a textbook that I had brought home with me. When she heard me poking around, she came out of her den. Since the renovation, we both had our own den-office combination each with its own phone. Her number was unlisted.
“Listen, darling, I just received a call from New York, the home office!” She was beaming. “You are now looking at, and talking to, a full vice-president! I’m to be in charge of the New England section – distribution, sales, and special promotions.”
“Congratulations,” I said. I was happy for her.
“There’s just one small complication,” she said
I knew that had to be just one small complication. “What might that be?” I asked.
“Well, I was just on the phone with old Boroughs, the senior VP in charge of personnel. You remember him? He was at our Christmas party two years ago…”
“Right,” I said. I didn’t remember, but then I didn’t have to.
“He reminded me that all our top executives have helicopter transportation. He wanted to know if there was somewhere nearby where the company could put in a landing-pad for me and I did mention that we had that wood lot down in back. They’ll pay for clearing it, and putting in a drive from the house down to the site. Isn’t it exciting?”
And, of course, I agreed that, yes, it was exciting and golly gee I can hardly wait for that first old whirly-bird to come flip-flop-floppin’ into the back yard to take Mom off to her glamorous job. The truth is that I was green with envy.
So, when I walked out of the house on Friday and heard that first chain saw fire into action, I turned left instead of right. That’s why I started the hole. I took some of my accumulated sick time and spent the next two weeks finishing the project. I had a little –a lot – of help from Freddy whenever he could spare the time. I had complete silence from Darlene who, convinced that her father was mad and would eventually bring shame down upon them all, had stopped speaking to me. Muriel was thoughtful, but she didn’t say much.
When I was done, I had two paneled rooms, eight by nine with wall to wall carpeting. In the back room I had a large cot, a small chest of drawers and a night table. The front room held a desk, a two drawer filing cabinet, and a new recliner that Freddy and I had just managed to squeeze through the doorway. The door was rigged like a cellar entrance, on a slant with counter-weights to make it easier to raise and lower.
Freddy, the genius, had insisted that we run a power line underground from the house. I had wanted to use kerosene lanterns or camping lanterns, but Freddy quickly pointed out that these would eat up all my oxygen, and I would die. Since that was not part of my plan, I agreed to his logical suggestion and let him tap into the power panel at the house for power.
“But no TV. and no phone!” I was adamant. “They’ll defeat the purpose of the whole thing.”
So there it was, all finished. After supper on Sunday, I took my old portable typewriter and a bottle of bourbon, and announced to the family that I was going out to my hideaway for a few hours, and that anyone who was interested could join me later.
It was dark, and I almost killed myself getting the door up and getting myself down the stairs. It took me a few minutes to settle in. Then, with the soft glow of the lamps on the warm paneling, everything in its proper place, and a drink in my hand, I sat back in the recliner and waited for the long, deep thoughts to begin. Perhaps I would write. Try my hand at a novel, my memoirs….
Three drinks later there were no long deep thoughts, and the hard reality began to dawn on me: there would be no long, deep thoughts. There never had been any; there never would be any. I was not a man of long, deep thoughts. For a few minutes I felt as if I wanted to cry for the second time in less than two weeks.
My reverie of self-pity was interrupted by someone rattling at the door. “Hey, how do you open this contraption?” It was Muriel. I pushed on the door from my side and it swung open. “Well,” she said, “this is nicer than I thought it would be. It’s actually cozy.” I gave up the recliner and took the desk chair. “Can I have one of those?” she asked, pointing to my half-empty bourbon glass.
I got a glass and some ice from the camping cooler that Freddy had set up, and I poured her a generous shot. She continued to glance around, taking in everything as she sipped her drink. Suddenly, she put her drink down and looked straight at me. “Are you unhappy?” she asked.
I thought about it for a moment before I answered. “I have been, yes, but I’m getting over it.”
“You know,” she went on, “when I first took this job, I wanted to see what I could do on my own, just see what I really had. The money was fun too. I thought we could afford a few little extras now and then for the kids, – or for ourselves – but that wasn’t the important thing. Now, I know what I can do, and we don’t really need the money.
“You know”, she continued, “that damn truck was the only thing you ever asked me for, and I’ve had so much from you. If it will make you happy, I’ll quit this job tomorrow. I’ll have to give a months notice, but after that, we can be a family again.
“We never stopped being a family, Muriel,” I said. Then I asked her, “Do you like what you’re doing?”
“I love it”, she said quietly.”
“You must be good at it,” I said”
“I am. But what about you, Fred. Do you like what you do? Are you a good teacher?”
“Honey,” I said, “I not just good, I’m the best damn teacher they’ve got. And I do like it but it’s a closed-door deal. Nowhere to go. But you, that’s a different story. How far do you think you could go?”
“I have no idea, really, Fred.”
“Want to go for it and see?” I asked.
There were tears in her eyes as she nodded, “Yes.”
Then we were in each other’s arms, kissing like a pair of over-sexed teenagers. “There’s no phone in here, is there? Asked Muriel, when I let her catch her breath.
“No,” I said, as I nibbled her earlobe, “I’m lucky I’ve got lights.”
“And the kids aren’t likely to come out?”
“I’ve got the door locked.”
“What’s in the back room?”
“Let’s find out.”
Much later, cuddled in the narrow bed, I said, “I’m thinking of tearing all this out and filling in the hole. The end of Carlson’s Folly.
Muriel put a finger against my lips to hush me and scrunched a little closer. “Don’t be silly, darling. How many people have a place like this to get away from the kids?