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Volume 11, Issue 5: Pictura

Shovels

Nathan Wilson

It really wasn’t much of a day. The sky was sulking like Achilles, but without any apparent motive. Its closest friends had encouraged it to make up its mind and go with blue and save the afternoon, or if cheerfulness was too much for it to manage, simply to storm and get it over with. But in the true spirit of the pouter, it did neither. It merely sat there: grayish.

Earlier the sky had been the only moody one, but such spells are just as contagious for the elements as they are for people. Now the wind had quieted its original playfulness and no longer even bothered to come any closer to the ground than the tops of the trees. For most of the people forced to live beneath such a touchy firmament, the atmosphere of discontent in which they breathed was enough to put them on edge, but not necessarily enough to ruin their day. For others it combined with hangovers, or with some especially slippy eggs at breakfast, to make existence utterly unbearable. But for one man in particular, whose morning, it might be said, was legitimately the worst of any living creature in the region, (apart from the chicken Mrs. Grady was unsuccessfully attempting to slaughter on the other side of the county), the attitude the weather had chosen to take was nothing. It didn’t even noticeably ice his cake. His cake was of the sort that sneer at such accoutrements.
While the wind whined and the sky moped, he stood on top of a hill. This hill beneath him was mildly pretentious in its posture. It was not steep, but it prided itself in the fact that it sloped upwards rather tastefully, and its crown was well above the rest of the pasture. Pride aside, the hill was still just a pasture; nothing more than a place for cows and the occasional horse to eat. At the uppermost portion of this particular hill, was a small patch of bare dirt. Nothing whatsoever went on in this little patch. No blades of grass grew, no flies landed, and why would they? It was just dirt, and such boring dirt that not even the ants were curious. If the worms found it interesting, it is most likely because life underground is such a bunch of nothing that even the most blase bit of the earth’s crust is vacation material for them. How this bare patch felt about its inferiority remains unknown. What is known, is that on this morning the only two things that occupied the patch were the only two things that ever had occupied it, and had also created it. Those two things were feet, and, what is more, they were the feet that held up the said creature experiencing the now unchallenged worst morning around. For, due to Mrs. Grady’s concentrated efforts, the chicken of previous mention no longer had existence, although it was doing a good job of pretending. These two feet were wearing a pair of nice brown dress shoes, size ten if it’s of interest, which were barely visible beneath all the denim. And when the word denim is used, what is meant is, of course, the denim that composes the lowest portions of some of the more rugged variations of bib-overalls.
As interesting a picture as the shoes made, they really only arouse our curiosity as to the composition of the remainder of the image. Above the shoes were legs. These legs were also wearing overalls, but were doing so in a more official capacity than the feet. What the eye could not notice was that beneath the blue baggy pant legs there were slacks, the light brown of which would have combined wonderfully with the color of the shoes beneath them to cause remark in regard to the good taste manifested in such a well-chosen combination. But no such remark was made. For even if there had been another soul on the hill to make such kind speech, it most certainly would not have been spoken. The mind of such a hypothetical observer would have been far too distracted by the gaudy apparition of the overalls to inquire as to what lay hidden behind them. Of course some might have expected slacks in such an hiding place, for visible beneath the bib above was not only a blazer, but a finely starched shirt and bow-tie. But even now, our picture is not fully painted. The man’s right arm was extended, terminating in a fist wrapped around the wooden handle of a shovel just beneath the blade. Of course all of these things, the feet, arm, bow-tie and overalls, were merely part of the complete image and so we must step back and look at the whole.
We see a man in a suit, with a shovel, packaged in overalls, standing on a bare patch of dirt, on top of a hill, in a pasture, beneath a sulking sky. And above that man’s bow-tie, and below his bald head, was a face so obviously contemplating homicide, suicide, nuclear war and spitting, as to be entirely expressionless. He lifted his wrist and pointed his blank face at the watch it bore. Twenty-two minutes had passed. Another five and he knew his wife would pull the station wagon into the gravel road that ran past the pasture. Of course if she’d been slow getting out the door, it might be a little longer. Sometimes it took her a little while to notice he was gone. Once, she hadn’t noticed at all and had gone shopping for the day. That time, like the first few times it had happened, he had walked all the way home. But even then, he had spent the whole walk thinking about the worst of them all, and so he hadn’t been too glum. So far nothing had even approached that November night. The shower had kept running, even after he had been whisked away, and his wife just assumed he was still in it. He had been naked and wet beneath the overalls that time, and his wife had been an hour and a half getting there. Of course it could have been January.
This time she was early. He saw the car turn into the road about two miles away, and begin picking its way through all the usual traps country roads think witty to set for city cars. He watched for a short while, and then began his descent. He had two normal routes. The older one was more worn and was therefore more susceptible to slippage after a rain. The younger was less direct and longer than its predecessor, although never slick.
Choosing the older after a brief hesitation he made his way down to the wire fence, passed through it casually, hopped the ditch and stood silently staring at the gray grouch above. The station wagon bumped to a stop next to him. His wife awkwardly scooched herself across the Kleenex box that separated driver from passenger. He threw the shovel in the back seat and doffed his outer robe before sending it back to chat with the shovel. The sky watched him as he did so, and his demeanor seemed to betray him as a fellow martyr. What it was the sky was upset about, we cannot know. It can’t have been much, for a sky’s life is comparatively easy. What we can know is that as it watched the jerky discharge of his props and the vicious routine he put the station wagon through in getting turned around, it knew that in this man it had found a friend.
“We,” the sky seemed to say, “ought to form a club.” “And meet on Tuesdays,” it added. The first nineteen and one quarter minutes were of the sort that embarrass any sensitive automobile. Neither of its passengers even looked at each other. Speaking was out of the question. They both stared out the windshield with much the same expression they used when spending family time in front of the TV. The faces didn’t change even when the silence did. “I called in sick for you.” She was not expecting an answer, and he tried not to disappoint her. “I said your headache was back.” She paused to let this bit sink in. “Frank said you should see a doctor, but I told him that was highly unlikely unless there had been some change in the company policy.” Her voice had the topography of a pond, but when arriving at her witticism it had almost rippled, or at least it seemed to think about rippling. Perhaps he was inspired by the sky’s example, which was now hinting at blue on the horizon, or perhaps he was registering agreement with his wife in regard to the company policy. Regardless of his motivation, the facts of the case cannot be denied. He had grunted. His silence usually lasted longer after an incident and the grunt surprised his wife. She sat and waited. Such noises were typically the crack in the dam. Grunts might seem innocent enough when contextless, but these never were. They were the acorns from which those mighty oaks we all hear about grow. And with a much quicker growth cycle than any mighty oak, mind you. She had been expecting noise but she still jumped when it came. Her husband had not spoken, he had casually placed his elbow on the horn and did not appear to be entertaining the possibilities of removing it. They were in their own suburb now, and housewives and children watched bewildered as the noise drove by in exponential excess of the residential speed limit: a multimedia presentation of the Doppler Effect. The car turned up the driveway and into the garage. The key was turned and removed and still the barbaric yop continued.
“Leroy! Stop it!” The elbow was removed, and its owner stepped out of the car. He gathered the overalls and shovel up in his arms and marched out the door into the backyard. Stopping at one of those small imitation sheds of tin and plastic that bewitch the middle-class homeowner into purchasing, he jerked the door open and gazed into a veritable heaven for anyone fond of shovels and overalls. The pile increased by two and the door slammed, accompanied by some choice words of unknown origin.
At lunch the tension had settled a little. Leroy seemed a little less liable to break out into shrieks as he had done when staking the For Sale sign in the front yard. He was wrapping himself around a grilled cheese while his wife watched her handiwork go down.
“I really don’t know why this has to happen to me. I’ve never led any Black Masses. I’ve never eaten any children. I used to shoplift Oreos in college, but that is it.” His voice had that explosive calm quality that lawyers, coaches and bishops use when they want to be especially biting. “I’ve put up with this through two years and five exorcists. I refuse to zing off to that field one more time.” His grilled cheese attempted to demonstrate its innocence, but to no avail. An example must be made. “We’re moving to the east coast, and staying at your mother’s.”
The sky was four years older and seemed to have grown out of its moody phase. It was beaming down blue upon its little friends below, and occasionally raced a camel-shaped cloud past, just to keep things interesting. The pasture was still feeding livestock, and its hill was still pretentious. There were more than two paths down now and many different men had walked them. There was one at the top now.
He was standing, shovel in hand, with a pair of big blue overalls over his boxers. He was younger than a lot of things; it was his first time in the field, and he was laughing. It was very strange, he thought, to one moment be reading the newspaper and the next to be standing in a field with a shovel. The sky nodded assent. He was grateful for the overalls, they were a nice thought. As much as he’d always wanted something strange to happen to him, he was thankful he didn’t have to go through it in his boxers, which, though flashy in their origins, were too ragged for public appearances. But why the shovel? He looked up to the clouds and watched a camel dash for the West, neck and neck with a mushroom.
“Shovels are for digging” the camel seemed to say, and the mushroom agreed. Shifting his view from up to down, he stared at the dirt between his slippers. Then, whistling a tune of his own composition, he went to work. The wind patted his back.

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