by William Michaelian

One afternoon, when I was thirteen, I found my father digging a hole in our backyard. When I asked him if I could help, he said yes, and went to the garage for another shovel. After handing me the shovel, he pointed at the pile of dirt on the sidewalk and said, “Try to keep it neat. Your mother will kill us if we get dirt on her flowers.” When I asked him what the hole was for, he gave me a serious look and said, “I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to find out.”

My father did things like that. My mother claimed it was because he wasn’t all there. In fact, she insisted on it. Many times, as I was growing up, she said to me, “Richard, I hate to say this, but you need to know that your father is — how shall I put it? — unbalanced.”

My father and I went to work. The ground was nice and soft, and each shovelful yielded a knot of fat, wriggling earthworms. In no time at all we fell into a steady rhythm, alternating scoops while the other added to the pile, like a well-timed pair of human backhoes.

In something like half an hour, we had a rectangular hole about six feet long by three feet wide, and in the neighborhood of two feet deep. At first we did our best to keep the dirt on the sidewalk, but the pile was growing so fast that we gave up and concentrated on the digging alone. Little by little, we smothered by mother’s border of powder-blue ageratum, and then suffocated her prize petunias.

As we worked, my father became more focused and more intense, and looked as if he had lost something very valuable or important and was trying to find it. This, also, wasn’t unusual.

All at once, he stopped digging. “There,” he said. “Do you hear it?”

“Hear what?” I said.

“Voices.” My father crouched in the hole. “There it is again,” he said. He pushed some dirt aside with his hand. “Listen. It sounds like two people talking.”

For my father’s sake, I pretended to listen.

There really were voices.

We stared at the bottom of the hole.

“Richard,” one voice said, “you do know that your being alive isn’t an accident.”

“I do? How do you mean?”

The first voice belonged to my mother. The second voice was my voice. Both voices were muffled, but unmistakable.

“I mean, you’re here on earth for a reason.”

“Oh. Well. You know I’ve never believed in that stuff.”

My father interrupted. “Do you hear them?” he said.

I looked at him and nodded.

“I never told anyone,” I heard my mother say. “Not a soul. You’re the first person.”

“Told anyone what?”

“That I had you on purpose.”

“You did? That’s nice. Thanks.”

“I mean you specifically.”

“Oh. . . . Okay.”

“I would have told your father, but with his handicap how could he understand?”

“I don’t know. Dad’s all right. Maybe you should have tried.”

“Poor man. He does have the mind of a child. But he can be so sweet. A long time ago, when he could still make love, he would — ”

“Mom. Please. You don’t need to tell me these things.”

My father stood up. With every ounce of his strength, he rammed his shovel into the bottom of the hole. “That isn’t true,” he said. “It isn’t fair. She can’t say that. I’m still a man. I’m still a man.”

He started digging again.

I joined him.

The voices stopped.

At about three feet, we rested.

The hole was silent.

We dug some more.

Soon, the hole was four feet deep.

Then it was five.

Like a haunted spirit, the dark, moist earth embraced us with the fragrance of centuries.

The next time we rested, I heard my mother say, “I willed you into life, Richard. I gave birth to you so I wouldn’t be alone.”

My father bit down hard on the back of his hand.

“Life is too long,” my mother said. “Too long, and too lonely.”

Dots of blood appeared where his teeth broke the skin.

“Your poor father. I feel sorry for him. He hears voices, you know.”

Trembling, wild-eyed, my father licked the blood on his hand.

My mother’s voice grew weary. “Everything I love, Richard. That’s what hurts so much. Everything I need. Everything I care about. All that I am, is locked away in the past. I try, but nothing helps. Nothing. Tell me — why are the good things all in the past? Why am I so alone?”

“I don’t know,” I heard myself say. “Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I’ve let you down. Maybe I should do something.”

“I’ve become a burden to you.”

“No you haven’t. We could go somewhere. Take a long trip. Or go to school, or join a club. Start over. That’s the main thing. Start over, and get it right this time. I don’t want you to be lonely. I want you to be happy. You’re my mother. You shouldn’t have to be sad.”

My father gripped my arm. “It’s not your fault,” he said.

We looked at each other.

Neither of us spoke.

The back door slammed.

Both of us jerked.

“Your mother’s flowers. Oh, my god. I forgot about your mother’s flowers.”

“It’s all right,” I said. “It’s all right. She won’t be mad.”

I hugged my father.

He was shaking with fear.

I held him close.

I tried my best to love him, but I don’t know if I succeeded or if I failed.

To this day, I still don’t know.

The voices died away.

We listened to the sound of my mother’s approaching footsteps.

I looked up at the empty sky.

I cursed the universe for my duty here on earth, and for the kind of future I’d been given to live.

Then, we slowly descended.

My father and I tasted the earth. Our flesh rotted, and our ancient, dry bones crumbled to dust, and we slept for an eternity in our grave.

The next day, my mother called some workmen and asked them to fill the hole we’d dug.

When they came, there was no hole, nor any rough ground to show where one had been.

The workmen smiled.

They’d heard about my mother.

They’d heard she was — how shall I put it? unbalanced.

William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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