Popcorn Ceilings and Scottish Spades
A Short Story by Jason Moore
Written using the suggestion "Step"
Originally featured on 11-08-2007
As part of our series "Journey To A New Word"

The two women walked up the steps of his modest row house, and through the front door, quietly closing the screen door behind them. It was late July, and the air in the house was house was dry and stuffy. Paula was in her mid thirties, dressed in khaki shorts, white tennis shoes and a flowing, white button down shirt. Julie was in her late twenties. She was much heavier than Paula, and had trouble walking up the steps. She wore a loose, flowery dress and plastic beach sandals.

Paula said, “Hi Julie. How have you been? How are the kids?”

“They’re good, and yours?”

Paula replied, “Everything is fine. Man this is weird. Thanks for meeting me — I didn’t want to come in here alone.”

They looked around the living room. A few pieces of furniture were clustered around a burl wood coffee table in the middle of the room. There was a faded tan leather couch, two wooden rocking chairs, and a small television with rabbit ears pointing out. There were books and magazines everywhere. Bookcases lined nearly every wall, and were filled to overflowing, so chaotic it looked like the contents had been thrown on the shelves from across the room. Several cheap still life paintings hung on the walls, all renderings of bowls of fruit.

They avoided the furniture, standing near one of the bookcases. Paula said, “It’s really strange being in his apartment. There’s an odd smell, like moldy wool. His sister called me and asked if we could come in and make sure everything was all right. She can’t get away right now, too busy at work or something. My god, it’s such a sad case really. The police say it was an accident. You know, I never got to know him, I just smiled at him every now and then. I guess that’s why no one missed him for a week. Did you know him well?”

Julie looked at the titles of some of the cookbooks. “Not well. He was my neighbor, but you know, we never really got to know each other. I usually just said ‘Hi’ and that was about it.” She turned and looked directly at Paula and said, “He was nice enough, quiet, a little strange. I think he played drums down in his basement, and sometimes he played ping-pong on Sundays at the University. I saw a few people come and go, mostly his sister, but it was pretty rare.”

“It’s really sad. Did you hear how it happened?”

Julie said, “No, I just heard that they found his body at the beach.”

Paula continued. “It’s all so strange. He was quite friendly with Mr. Peterson across the street, and would talk to him about his hobby, like it was normal. Mr. Peterson said he was pretty normal on the outside, but he knew that there was something going on inside his head that wasn’t right. He never bothered anyone, and went to work, so no one seemed to care. Do you remember seeing him carrying shovels and picks and buckets to his car?”

Julie went back to looking through the cookbooks. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, I did. I thought he was an amateur geologist or something. You know, guys who work at the post office do strange things. I thought he was in a geeky club or something.”

Paula grabbed a piece of paper from the top of the TV and handed it to Julie. “He left this on his coffee table. I showed it to Mr. Peterson yesterday, and he thinks it’s pretty accurate.”

 

***

I’m a digger not a writer. My passion lies in things that you can take away, not in putting words on paper, so please excuse my simple explanation of my extraordinary habits. I’m into things that you can remove, then things you can get into, in that order. That’s the only way to know your true self from the outside, like dead bugs you find in your garage, forgotten in a mason jar years ago when you had a crush on the girl with pigtails down the street. Freud thought we all wanted to sleep with our mothers, but he was only part right. We really want to climb back into our mothers and never come back out.

You see, I’m really into digging holes. I’m not talking about little holes in my backyard or working construction and digging holes for the betterment of society, but big, important holes that could change the world. I drive all over the world digging these holes, and it has changed my life. I don’t use any power tools or explosives like the lazy modern hole diggers. I want to sweat and toil and hurt my shoulders and swear at the hairs on the backs of my hand. Bad hairs. (That’s a joke. I do have a sense of humor.)

I always do it by hand. I do it in the mountains of the mighty Cascades, the deserts to the east, the beaches at the edge of the great deep, even up in the snow where the bigfoot roam and the lichen doesn’t care if I’m out of deodorant. I don’t care if it’s hot and my elbows itch, or raining so hard that my ears clog, or snowing so light it tastes like fairy fur, I dig my holes.

I usually arrive at my destination a little before dusk. My ‘64 Ford Falcon wagon has never let me down, and I hope to reward her with a proper burial someday. I park the car, turn on a light opera to set the mood, recline my seat, and watch the darkness chase the light into the corners of the world.

I like the beach the best for digging. As the sun dips slowly behind the water I always feel a burning warmth inside me. It starts at my throat, and work its way out in every direction all at once, like a benevolent creature growing inside me.

Once the sun has finished its journey, and the night rules are in effect, I get my tools out. I prefer ancient Welsh and Scottish digging implements to start and end the job, but its all modern steel for the heavy work in the middle. For beach digging I like to start with my rutting and paring spades to mark the outline and move some initial sand, then move on to the reproduction 19th century Tuscan grain shovels for the heavy lifting, and finish with a two-pronged clay fork and a Suffolk peat clipper. I like to dig a hole about six feet wide, four feet long, and six feet deep, with a total volume of 144 magical cubic feet. I estimate that I could stack 42 Egyptian mummies inside.

Once the hole is finished, which requires several glorious hours, I return to my car to get the steps. I designed a set of steps for my holes myself. They are made of pipe, wood, screws and bolts collected from the abandoned brick factory down the block from my house. It took me a year to design and build, but it was worth every sliver and bloody knuckle. It folds neatly into a cube, and opens to make a perfect set of steps that allow me to descend into my hole.

Once at the bottom I lay out a red, silky blanket. (Sometimes it’s tough to get it clean between sessions, but I’ve learned that with enough lye and vigorous beating I can achieve almost anything.) When it has been properly sanitized with lemon juice I carefully push all creases and folds to the edge, and release them to the waiting spirits in the unfashionable corners of my hole. Then, I carefully disrobe, oil my body (any common household cooking oil will do) and lay on the blanket on my back. I’m careful not to touch myself in an impure manner during this procedure. It’s such a holy and simple ceremony that as your children watch they won’t know if its me or the Messiah himself preparing for his journey into the next world. They won’t think too much about the grown naked man lying on his back in front of them.

I’m usually ready to wrap it up after an hour or so of lying on my back soaking up the night rays. I have been dangerously close to death at this point, at the bottom of many of my snow holes, but that’s the price I pay for my art. This is what I am.

***

Paula said, “Mr. Peterson thinks it’s like that thing where autistics like to be really confined and have a lot of weight on their bodies, only the opposite. It’s beyond me. Anyway, according to the police he was laying in his sand hole when the beach cleaning crew poured sand in and covered him up. Apparently, they come at night and fill holes that people have dug the day before. Only this time someone dug it at night.”

Julie asked, “How did they find him?”

“Some kids saw the top of his stairs sticking out the next day, and dug them out. They found him laying at the bottom.”

Paula pulled another piece of paper out of her pocket. She said, “We found this taped to the back of the door. There are more things like this all over the house. What a strange little mind.”

 

***

I want them to write it well. I want them to sit in my chair, use my oatmeal soap, smell my clothes, lay on my couch and make flying insect noises as they stare at my popcorn ceiling. If they take the time to look in the corners of my cupboards they will see what I ate for Tuesday-special breakfast, what colors I liked the least, what my favorite TV dog names were, why I never said no to chocolate, why I thought socialism could never work, why I was beguiled by corsets, why I never learned French, and why I couldn’t hold my breath for 30 seconds twice in a row. They should know where my birthmark was and why I had it removed. It wouldn’t be that hard to see how I lost my innocence, how many friends I had named Chris, who lived to the north of me. I know they won’t get it right, but I really want them to try. I should probably just write it myself.


***

 

Julie put the cookbook back on the shelf. “Wow. A little dark, but sensitive. ”

They looked around the small house for open doors, leaking faucets or dead pets—anything out of the ordinary. They didn’t really know what they were looking for, just something that needed to be reported back to his sister.

Paula said, “Well, everything looks fine. Let’s get out of here. This place is creeping me out.”

Julie grabbed Paula’s hand and said, “You guys really have to come over for dinner. It’s been nearly a year. I miss you.”

They hugged, and Paula said, “Me too.”

They locked the front door, and headed down the steps. They turned in opposite directions at the bottom.

Read More By Jason Moore

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