The Dig


Some things never change. I am, and always have been, a creature of habit. Routine comforts me. I’d choose a nice straight getaway over a fork in the road any time.

Even as a kid, my life was dictated by schedules.  Every minute of the day was accounted for, and every day I did the same thing. As soon as I got home from school, I headed to our backyard. Then plastic pail in hand, I went digging. I had outlined a rectangle about the size of my bathtub, and each day I’d dig around three or four inches down.

We lived in South Florida. It was the fifties, and only the swankiest people could afford a pool. My long-term plan was to build one but somehow, I never reached my goal. The hole I created one day would disappear the next. Like Sisyphus, each day I’d start over. I’d dig my hole, take the hose, fill it up with water.  Then I’d take off my shoes and dip my toes.

It didn’t bother me that my task repeated itself in an endless loop.  That each afternoon when I walked into my backyard I was confronted with another rectangle of muck. That one day to the next I made no progress whatsoever. Dig. Muck. Dig. Muck. Dig. Muck.

No one in my family had the vaguest clue what I was doing. Looking back, my mom was a creature of habit, too.  Years ago, we didn’t know the fancy terms, words that are juggled today like bowling pins on the TV and in the news.  All we knew is that Mom liked to stay inside the house. She checked the stove fifty times a day and scratched her scalp until it bled.

Dad was no help.  My father was a guy’s guy, a mad man, someone who sucked the marrow out of life and the life out of his family. He was happiest when he was playing poker, betting with his bookie, walking the fine line between legit and not-so-legit business deals. The riskier the deals, the more Mom checked the stove.

Dig. Muck. Dig. Muck.

How I loved school.  The neat rows. The satisfying whir of the pencil sharpener standing at attention behind my teacher’s desk.  Our teachers liked to make inspections. Did you polish your shoes today?  You’d stick out your hands while they checked your nails.  If your nose was runny, you’d better have a hankie in your pocket or else.

It wasn’t until the final bell rang that my day unraveled. Dig. Muck. Dig. Muck.

One of the rare times Mom ventured outside was Tuesdays. How I hated Tuesdays, the way they lingered, the way I held my breath waiting for the day to end.  The mothers on our block rotated carpool duties, and Tuesday was Mom’s turn to pick us up. Usually she was late but on more than one occasion she forgot altogether. There’s nothing worse than a clutch of ten-year-olds standing alone in a school parking lot, throwing pebbles in the street, digging at the asphalt with their toes. My brother and sister were already in high school, and sometimes having a youngster at home just slipped my mother’s mind.

One afternoon it was Mrs. Schaefer’s turn. Seven of us were crammed into her Buick –no one wore seatbelts back then–when she pulled up in front of my house.  The PTA sold pretzel bagels after school, and I was holding mine in one hand and my book bag in the other when I maneuvered out of the car.  Usually Mom left the door unlocked, and I let myself in. Miami was a small town back then. You knew your neighbors. We had little anyone would want to steal.

One sidewalk ran up and down our block while another led to my front door. My eyes inched forward to find my mom sitting on the stoop. She had planted herself on a cheap plastic folding chair and was staring into the distance.  Behind me I heard Mrs. Schaefer put her foot on the gas and pull off the curb. Mom didn’t speak. She didn’t move. She just sat there holding a white towel around her hand, a towel that was growing redder by the second. It was blooming blood, the borders creeping outward while I watched.

Words spun in my head. Oh my God, Mom! What happened to your hand? Don’t you like…have to go to a hospital?  But in my family, reality always had a way of interfering.  I inched closer and eyed the door knob. I felt my foot lift its way up the step.   

I cut myself,” she said. Her voice was flat, her face expressionless. “Cutting carrots. I’m waiting for your father to get home. He’ll take care of everything. Dad will be home soon.”

Kids, of course, are sponges. We absorb all lessons, good and bad.

“Want some pretzel?” I asked.

She wagged her head.

I have no idea what time my father got home that night. Sometimes he went to the track and stayed late. Instead I went into the garage, found a wheelbarrow and discovered a rusted metal shovel. Then I attacked the soil like a crazy person, throwing up great clods of earth, working myself into a sweat. I expected if that I worked hard enough I’d find my way to China. It just felt good to be getting somewhere fast. At the least, I’d build a bigger pool.



Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. She is the author of a short story collection as well as a recently completed novel.  

Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Prime NumberUpstreet Magazine, The American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best American Short Stories.