“Shunk!” The two blades of the posthole digger sink into the lawn’s skin. The grass doesn’t cry out, the dirt doesn’t recoil, and any insects remain mute. I pull the two handles apart like giant chop sticks so that the tips of the two shovel blades in the ground come together. I hear the roots pop as I tear away a ragged chunk of earth. The displaced dirt tumbles down the cone-shaped pile already beside the hole. “Shunk!” I bury the blades again and leave them stabbed into the beginning of what will be a three and a half foot deep void, resembling the rest of the holes behind my house.
I strip the work gloves off my hands and hang each to dry at the ends of the post hole digger’s handles. Two arms seem to be waving at me. I wipe the sweat that’s forded up at my eye brows with a sticky, dirt-flecked forearm and squint towards the midday sun. Forecast is calling for a hot, cloudless week. I turn when I notice the movement of the glove fingers. Heavy, from my damp hands, they begin to wilt as if hands reaching out. I swipe the gloves in one quick motion and shove them into the back pocket of my jeans.
At the makeshift steps to my sliding door, I take off my dirt-caked work boots and enter the house. The kitchen, like the rest of the rooms, is quiet. The phone on the wall is blinking red. My finger punches the plastic circle and I listen to the first message.
I hear Shelly’s voice. “Steve, hey, I called because I … I just wanted to let you know I’m here for you. All your friends are. Whatever you need, we’re here. I know it’s hard … I’m sorry, but we’re here, Steve. Okay? Love you. Call me some time soon.”
The second message has the same tone: quiet, slow, riddled with short pauses then rushed words.
“Yeah, Steve, it’s Roger. I haven’t seen you since last week. You should really get back to working out with us, it’d help. But, I mean, when you’re ready—if you want to—it’s okay if you don’t. Uh, well you know I know a little about what it’s like, and I can understand if you need time. Take all the time you need, man, then give me a call when you … um … when you’re ready. Remember, bud, we’re all here for you. Talk to you soon. Bye.”
There are more messages, but I don’t listen to them.
The next day, after I finish digging the last of the post holes, I place white five gallon buckets in the bottom of each hole. I lug the saw horses out of the shed, connect the skill saw to the orange extension cord, and get to work cutting four by four posts. Once the wood is cut, and lying among saw dust in a stacked pyramid beside me, I take the wheel barrow up to the first hole, heft a bag of cement, add water with the hose, and begin mixing the chalky packed powder with a short shovel until it transforms to thick concrete. I pour the gray slop carefully from the front of the wheel barrow into the hole watching as the wet chunks splatter into the plastic bucket below. The shovel blade scrapes and clangs as I scoop up the last dregs. Next, I take a freshly cut post and stick the wood down into the concrete until it settles at the bottom of the bucket. With my level balancing on top of the protruding wood, I watch the bubble wobble in the green fluid and settle between the black lines. I hold the wood for a few minutes, the concrete now beginning to set. When I’m satisfied the post will be able to stand on its own, I begin the process over again for the next hole. I finish the last post by supper time, although several times during the night I come out of the house with a headlamp stuck to my damp brow and through wide eyes I check to make sure the posts are staying even.
The next day, I fill in the post holes with the piles of dirt. When that’s through, I get in my truck and head to the hardware store. The lumber I want is pressure treated, and has a waterproofing sealant already applied. A clerk writes up my order, gives me a yellow copy, and points toward the cashier.
The cashier is a woman in her forties whose curly, red hair has exposed gray tailings. The skin on her face is pulled tight. Her smile, like her name badge that says, ‘Winter,’ is pinned on. The way she asks, ‘Well, how are you doing today?’ tells me she’s got energy to burn. In my year living in the small town of Purgatory, South Carolina I’ve come to understand that urgency is not something these town people care to sense.
“I’m fine.” I clear my throat and am surprised at the feeling and sound of my own voice. “How are you?”
She takes my question as if it’s a start gun and dives into discussing the weather, her kids, and an aggravating customer.
I nod and smile like an idiot and wait for her to give my order slip (currently being held like a cigarette between her red, square-cut nails) some attention.
“You’re new to town, right?” Winter asks.
“I’ve lived here for about a year.”
We pause; I take out my wallet, and flash my credit card. She shakes her head and rattles off the order to her cash register. When she takes my card she reads my name. “Steve Craft. Craft, Craft …,” she cocks her head, scratches her scalp, and looks me in the eyes, “I feel like I’ve heard that name somewhere recently …”
I rub my palms on the front of my jeans and stand up straight. “Do I need to sign?”
“The machine takes a minute, sorry, Mr. Craft.”
I watch her look at me then back at the stamped lettering of my name on the credit card. After a moment of staring at the card her eyebrows leap in unison and she peers at me out of the corner of her eye. The machine starts printing the receipt all at once, which seems to startle her. She hands me back my card with the freshly printed slip.
I pluck a pen from a mason jar and while I’m bent over signing my name she says, “I’m really sorry, Mr. Craft, just awful.” She drags out the word ‘awful’ then wags her hand. “Read about the accident in the paper.”
I stop writing and without looking up at her I say, “It’s fine.” I hand over the slip and take the receipt. She never takes her eyes off me.
As I get to the door, I hear her say in a strong voice, “God be with you, Mr. Craft.”
I don’t respond or turn to acknowledge. I just push through the door and find my truck.
The guys loading my lumber order work fast and quiet as if this is their time to catch up on their own thoughts.
At the house, I open the partition in the fence and drive my truck through to the backyard. I start to walk inside through the back sliding door to retrieve a bag of nuts, washers, and bolts, but am stopped by the note stuck to the glass.
“Stephen, I stopped by but you were out. Your dad and I have both called several times, but haven’t heard back from you. I see you’re hard at work back here. That’s good. Please call us back when you can, hon. We love you and want to know how you’re doing.”
I peel the note off the window, crumple it, and toss it in the waste bin.
The remainder of the day is spent measuring, cutting, and drilling. I take very few breaks. By night time I’ve made all my cuts and drilled all the holes for the beams and cleats.
Morning the next day, I attach the cleats to the posts for support and drive the bolts through successfully securing the beams, which now run parallel two feet above the ground. As I begin work on the joists, I run into logistical issues, and stop working to figure out how I’m going to handle setting the joists by myself.
I’m standing over the beams and rubbing my chin with a calloused finger when I look up and see my dad. He has a full tool belt hanging from his grip, paint-stained steel toes, blue jeans, and a plaid shirt. His belly protrudes out a few inches past his belt, but his shoulders and arms are thick with muscle. Dad’s hair is combed, graying but not without some resilient streaks of black. Owl eyebrows loom over blue eyes that hold a rigid concentration. His cheeks are sun-burned red, and his mouth is flat. I pause, almost as if to figure out if he is really there, and after a moment I nod to him. He nods back and joins me, standing over the frame at the opposite side.
We go to work in silence. His practiced hand attaches the side rim joists to the ledger on the house at one end while I align the frame and start attaching the side rim joists to the end rim joists. We do this until we have a large rectangle below us that’s sitting on the beams. Dad begins nailing tie down connectors to attach the rim joists to the beams while I start measuring out and nailing in joist hangers on the ledger board. I chance a look or two in his direction as we work. I’m waiting for him to break the silence or to ask how I’m doing. He doesn’t say anything, but what’s necessary to the task at hand. With dad on one end and me on the other we begin setting the field joists. An hour of work and we’ve got a nearly finished frame sitting on top of the beams. Looking from above, the whole deck resembles an exposed rib cage. As if I’m looking down into a man’s chest to see his guts: a wooden locker for his soul.
“It fits flush,” dad says.
I smile involuntarily. Dad catches the grin.
I put a hand to my mouth and sniff, then say, “You have the time to help me finish up attaching this thing to the beams?”
“You’ve got the wood. Why don’t we aim to finish this tonight?”
I cross my arms. “I doubt we can finish it all before it gets dark.”
“Let’s go as far as we can, huh?”
I pause, look at his resolute eyes skeptically, and finally nod. Dad smiles as he always does when his hands are busy. Funny, as a kid, I’d hated this kind of work. Now, the smell of cut wood, the impact of a hammer, the squeal of a skill saw . . . the work seems to have so much purpose.
We attach the joists by hammering ties to the beams. Dad banging at one end, while I cast echoing sounds from the other. We work till we meet at the middle. I notice the sun is now working my cheek from the western sky. Maybe three hours till sunset. I still need to make the stairs, nail decking, and attach the rails to the taller posts around the perimeter: a hell of a lot of work, even with two people.
I start to speak, “Maybe we ought to—”
“I’ll do the stairs,” Dad cuts me off. “You should lay the deck. You’ve always had the better eye for fitting boards.”
I hesitate. My first thought is to say, ‘That’s enough for today.’ Before I can speak, my teeth bite down on my lower lip. I squeeze out the word, “Okay,” then hastily add, “but we’ll stop there. Don’t think we can finish the railings tonight.”
Dad doesn’t say anything, as he’s already grabbed a board, tape measure, and pencil; he starts marking off cuts for the stairs immediately.
I start pulling decking boards and slide them across the frame. I mark where each will go before I begin screwing the wood to the joists.
Half-way through, I see that dad is nearly finished putting the stairs together. A simple three set that will lead straight off the back. I hasten my own work to try to finish with him. Despite my best efforts, he finishes before me, and when I look over he’s busy trimming and power sanding the deck’s edges.
When I screw the last decking board snug, I stop to watch dad as he’s now making quick work with a pencil and ruler; marking where we’ll fit each baluster that will attach to the cap rail. We have maybe an hour till it will start to get dark. As if reading my thoughts, dad suddenly shuffles to the motion flood light. He flicks the switch that keeps the light on, goes over to the saw horses, and begins making the angular cuts for the balusters.
“Dad . . .”
The skill saw whines as it enters the wood and he doesn’t hear me. I stand up, and for the first time walk across the entire length of the deck. The boards take my weight effortlessly.
“Hey,” dad says, as he examines a wrist-thick stick of wood, “that the cut you want?” He lobs the baluster up to me.
I catch the wood and hold it up to my face. Cut the way we’ve always angled them. I nod and he gets to work slicing another. I head to the side of the deck and line the baluster up with his markings. Then I use a tape measure and get the wide, flat boards for the rails from my truck. By this time, dad has already made a pile of balusters. I take over the skill saw and cut the cap railings. Together we attach the balusters to the railings. It becomes dark, but we have the flood light and each of us has donned our own headlamp.
The railings come together faster than I realize. Dad moves away from his work on the railing to finish some final touch ups, leaving me to drive the final screws. I work until I’m ready to drill the last baluster for the stair railing. I stop.
My heart works like a sump pump against a rising tide. I look at my dad. He’s put away his sander and is now watching me.
I speak, “If I finish this . . . if I screw this last goddamned screw, it’ll be finished.”
“That’s true.” Dad takes off his tool belt and hangs it off the new rail.
I look at the screw gun in my hand. “When we got married, Lisa told me she always wanted our first house to have a deck. So we could grill, have friends over, you, and mom. Stare out at the woods there. Listen to the crickets.” I sniff and swallow. My throat’s dry and starting to tighten. “Chloe, she would have pretended she was a princess and this would have been her castle.”
“They would be proud of the job you’ve done, Stephen.”
I’m suddenly on my knees in the hard packed ground. My eyes stray under the deck where it’s dark; there are only shadows. “I can’t do it, Dad.” The tears begin to sting; my vision starts to blur. I drop my tools and wrap my hands around my own chest. “How am I supposed to live without them, Dad? How?” I shudder as I exhale and say, “I miss them so much.” Now, I’m shaking and sobbing. My face feels warm and the tears cool against my cheeks. The crickets have begun their music. When I look up, dad hasn’t moved from standing on the deck. His head lamp, like mine, is off and the flood light shows the glint of his own tears in the shadow of his face.
“I wish I could give you the answers, son. I want the girls back, too. And I don’t want you hurt as bad as you are.” He takes a breath and shakes his head saying, “I can fix anything, but this.”
This is the first time I’ve seen my dad cry. Somehow it hasn’t occurred to me how much Lisa and Chloe’s deaths have hurt him. I get off my knees, and walk up the new steps. In front of me, dad looks down at the new deck. His eyes full of water, his face like mine, but older. I hug him and he hugs me back hard.
His mouth is close to my ear as he says, “I’m so sorry, Stephan. I wish they could come back to you, I would do anything—anything.”
Together we cry on the new deck— that holds us—suspended above the dirt.
David Rawding has a BA in English from The University of New Hampshire and an MFA in Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University where he teaches Creative Writing as an online adjunct professor. David’s Children’s Book, Lucas the Traveling Crab won the New Hampshire Literary Awards’ Reader’s Choice Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature in 2011. David’s short fiction has been published in Barnstorm Literary Journal, Black Lantern Publishing Magazine, and Forty Ounce Bachelors.