Underground

by Andrew Dutton

My name is Theodore and I am an only child. I live on Pearl Street in Mystic, Connecticut, in a large and broken Victorian with extra bedrooms for my brothers and sisters—the ones that never came or came halfway, expiring inside my mother.

In our backyard is a crabapple tree and a garden with tomato vines that wind around wooden stakes my mother has pushed into the soil. My father’s sailboat is propped on stilts in the side yard, next to the driveway and basketball hoop. On foggy nights like this it looks like a ghost ship moving silently through space.

Lately, things around our house have been delicate. That’s my father’s word. “Be good to your mother, Teddy,” he said. “Things around here are going to be delicate for a while.”

My parents are teachers and it is summer so there is no school, there are no responsibilities. There is nowhere for me to go in the mornings and this is good for me because I can focus on my digging. I’m digging an underground house for me and Juju behind the garden where the soil is easy to break. I’ve been shoveling since May and now, when I drop to my knees in the middle of the hole, my neck is nearly covered. This is a milestone.

I have tied a rope around the trunk of the crabapple tree and I use it to lower buckets and haul them out when they’re filled with dirt and rocks. Juju, who is a Golden Retriever, has bad hips and wheezes when he walks. He mostly lies in the dirt pile I have made while I do all the work. My father says Juju doesn’t like being in my underground house, but I know he’ll like it when it’s done and he has his own lair. It’s good to have Juju with me while I dig, even though he is mostly blind and can’t bark.

****

My mother likes me to sleep with my door partly open, but I like it closed because of the crack of light that comes in from the hallway. Tonight my door is closed and it’s so dark I can’t see the animals in my wallpaper. I can hear better this way. I will be in fourth grade at Gallup Hill Elementary and I’m not afraid of the dark. Instead of goblins, I imagine the layout of my underground house before I fall asleep—long, winding tunnels leading to hidden chambers, trap doors, and storage rooms for emergencies. There is depression in this, I know. That, too, is my father’s word; “Honey,” my father once said to my mother, “there’s so much depression in this house it’s coming through the floorboards.”

From my bedroom, I hear Juju dragging his toenails on the linoleum floor downstairs. He lumbers across the kitchen to the living room. The couch’s springs murmur, which means my father was sitting there and has gotten up to help. Juju has to get lifted onto the couch. I get out of bed and lie on the floor and press my ear against the carpet. Downstairs, my father is turning the pages of a long book. I watch my clock radio and time how long it takes him to read a page. The first page turn comes twenty-two seconds after 11:17; the second flip comes thirteen after 11:18; the third, four seconds past 11:19; and it goes on like this, I guess, until I fall asleep with my ear still pressed against the carpet.

****

When I wake up I’m in my bed and I don’t know how I got there. I go down to the kitchen. My mother is sitting on the counter near the sink, drinking coffee. My father is getting food for Juju. The pellets clink when they hit the sides of the bowl in a way that makes me think you could count them if your ears were really sharp. Juju rustles and pulls himself off the floor because he knows when he is about to get fed. Before setting the bowl down, my father drops in a blue pill. Sometimes dogs need medicine too.

“Morning, buddy,” my father says.

I go over to Juju and pat him on the back to let him know I’m there. My mother still wears her robe and slippers, though my father is dressed. I get down next to Juju. He flaps his black gums and licks my face.

****

The ground outside is soft today. The air is warm. It’s good to be in an underground house on a warm day because the soil is wet and cool. I’m cutting away at the sides with the flat end of a heavy spade, scraping dirt into a bucket. When I get out the first time, my mother is waving to me from the kitchen window. The buckets get so heavy sometimes I have to get her to help me pull them out. This load, though, isn’t very heavy; I have separated the rocks from the soil and left them down in my underground house. I’m thinking the rocks will be useful when it’s time to reinforce the walls of the tunnels. I pull the rope hand over hand like a pirate and let it coil at my feet. Juju pokes up his nose and blinks when I overturn the bucket on my dirt pile. I climb back down with the empty bucket and when I come out the second time my parents are sitting in the garden, pulling up weeds and trimming plants.

I smack the dirt off my hands and walk over to them. Juju startles and follows me, limping along all the way to the garden. My mother sits cross-legged between the tomato plants and pumpkin vine. She’s wearing a loose black t-shirt that has been faded by the sun. A broad hat shades her face. I can tell she has been crying by the way she turns her back when she sees me coming and doesn’t look up when I come closer. My father pushes himself off the soil and meets me partway. He asks me to show him how my excavation is going.

Though I don’t know why my mother is crying, I have some idea. Another sister or brother has expired inside of her. This is why things have been delicate.

This is what I know about my sister or brother who came halfway: it is not my mother’s fault. It’s not because she ate unpasteurized cheese and it is not because she didn’t take folic acid. Sometimes, these things just happen. It’s the way things go sometimes and it’s nobody’s fault. It’s not because she’s too old to have more children; she is still a young woman. Sometimes when two people love each other they get dealt a hand of bad luck. And when it happened, my sister or brother flowed away from my mother. That’s my grandmother’s word. These are all things she has said to my mother while smoking a cigarette on the back porch. “How’s your flow?” she asked my mother through the screen door.

****

I lead my father to my underground house to show him the progress I have made. Juju follows us and lies on the mound of cool soil. My father is a project-man. He seems happier to work on projects than to finish them. This is why there is a sailboat propped in our side yard that has never been in the water; the hull needs to be patched and repainted. My father attends that project in waves—sometimes working into the early hours of the morning under the glow of a headlamp, sometimes forgetting the boat for a month. I imagine this is why he and my mother bought the house they did; it is an endless project. Plumbing, electrical work, re-flooring—these are the things that keep my father’s heart pumping in the summer.

If nothing else, my father appreciates the dedication I show to digging my hole, and I can tell he’s impressed with the progress I have made. When we both get down inside it, though, it feels cramped. I can hardly cut away at the sides without touching him. The way he’s standing the walls don’t reach much past his knees, which is discouraging. He scrapes away at the sides with a gardening claw for a few minutes, then we trade and he takes the spade, which slices easily into the soil under the weight of his boot. My father helps me fill a few buckets and he doesn’t even need the rope to haul them out. He lifts the buckets and sets them on the grass near Juju. I climb out using the rope and dump them on the pile.

I dump three buckets on the dirt pile then drop back into the hole.“Dad,” I ask, “why is Mom crying?”

He tells me she’s going through a rough patch. She’ll come around and everything will be just fine. I pause. He starts to dig again, and then I ask him, “Is it about Patrice?” Weeks ago, I pressed my ear to the carpet in my bedroom and listened to my parents talking in the kitchen. “What do you think about…Patrice?” my mother asked. “Or Geoffrey, if it’s a boy?”

My father wipes his face with his forearm, leaving a streak of dirt across his brow, and sets the butt-end of the spade in the crutch of his arm.

“Did your mother say something about Patrice?” he asks.

“No,” I say. “I must have heard something when I was sleeping.”

“Teddy,” my father says, letting the shovel drop against the sloping wall of my underground house. He gets down on his knee so he can look me in the face.

“Yes,” I say.

“Patrice isn’t coming. False alarm. And, yes, your mother is crying because Patrice isn’t coming anymore. We’re both sad. But let’s not tell your mother what we know about this, right?”

“Right,” I say. “But, Dad? Why isn’t Patrice coming?”

“I guess I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe it just wasn’t her time.”

I don’t say anything to that. I look up and squint at the sun, then go back to scraping dirt away from the walls of my underground house.

****

This is what I know about Juju and old dogs in general: when dogs get old their souls escape their bodies and they can’t move or bark anymore. It happens to all dogs eventually, but this process can be prolonged by medicine and safe behavior, like exercise. When dogs get old, their bones rust and their joints get sticky like the axles of a Matchbox car that has been left in the rain. This is what is happening to Juju. Also, sometimes old dogs grow lumps that can be removed by the veterinarian. Will Juju’s soul be able to run and play with me when it leaves his body? This I do not know.

****

By July 4th I am ready to begin hollowing a tunnel in the corner of my underground house. This is what I tell our guests, who stand in the grass near the dirt pile: I would have liked the hole to be deeper by now; after all this work, I am still not fully underground when I stand in the middle. Digging is a kind of unforgiving work, but I knew this from the beginning.

“You’ll have to crawl on your stomach,” I tell them, “to get to the master bedroom.” This, they like—that I say “master bedroom.” They laugh. They think I’m joking.

We eat hotdogs and macaroni salad, and I feed my tomatoes to Juju, who will eat them sliced but not right off the vine in our garden. When it gets dark, we all stand in the yard next to my father’s sailboat and watch the fireworks from the river. Though I am not standing in the front of the crowd, I have the best view because I’m on my father’s shoulders. Bright flashes are followed by deafening booms. The way the sky gets lit up makes me feel nauseated. Night is the time for darkness, and I wonder if there are some things people should see only in daytime. My mother’s palm is set on her forehead as if in disbelief; her face reflects the blue, red and purple blazes in the sky. The booming thumps my chest so hard I can’t find my heartbeat, though I know it must be racing.

****

“Dad, do the babies that don’t come have souls?” It’s August and we’re in the side yard working on the boat. We’re wearing white masks that cover our mouths and noses, and I’m playing on the deck while my father makes dust below me. The dust from his sanding settles on the grass and on Juju, who is lying under the boat for the shade.
“Well, I guess it depends on who you ask.”

“I’m asking you,” I say.

“I imagine some do. Maybe some are a little too young to have souls.”

“But Juju’s pretty old, so he’s got a soul.”

My dad pulls the white mask off his mouth, looks at me, then looks back to the boat and runs his gloved thumb over the raw patch of hull he’d been sanding. “Yep,” he says, “I’d say he’s got a soul.”

“But where do the souls go?”

“I couldn’t say for sure.”

“But I never saw any soul escape anyone.”

“No one can see ‘em, buddy,” he says.

“O.K.,” I say, “but I’ll have a lair for Juju’s soul in the underground house.” I slide down one of the stilts that hold my father’s boat in space and go around back to where I can get back to digging.

****

Fourth grade starts in September and my father says I’m not allowed to work on my underground house until I get bigger. It’s not that I can’t do it, he says, he knows I can; it’s just that he worries about me. I have dug my underground house so deep my entire body is covered when I’m in it. There’s a chance it’ll cave in on me, Dad says. The ground has gotten too dry in the summer heat and I’ll have to wait until springtime when rain showers make the walls sturdy.

Although we do not go to church, my mother prays when she can’t have the things she wants. “Please, God,” she says. “I deserve this.”

The night my father tells me I can’t dig anymore, I can’t sleep. “Please, God,” I say, though all I know about God is that some people think he looks after souls like Patrice’s after they escape. I mouth these words from under the blanket in my bedroom: “I deserve this.” In school, when I remember how my father told me I’m not allowed to dig anymore, I sometimes think my soul has escaped my body; I think I might be a body without a soul and no one around me knows it.

Every day I check the notches in the kitchen doorframe to see if I’ve gotten big enough to keep digging. I sometimes check two or three times each day, asking my mother to mark my height with a pencil. I haven’t grown, so there’s a thick line on the kitchen doorframe I have to walk by all the time. It marks the progress I haven’t made.

****

I lie on the floor beside my bed, my ear pressed against the carpet. My door is closed, my room is dark. My mother and father are below me in the kitchen. She says, “Just listen to yourself. I don’t even know who you are right now.”
It seems to me a strange thing to say; I am certain, even from here in my bedroom, that it’s my father in the kitchen with my mother, not some man she doesn’t know. I know the weight of his steps, the pace he makes as he moves from room to room. A kitchen chair is dragged a few feet across the floor. Someone opens a cupboard, runs the faucet. Water rushes through the pipes in the wall.

“This isn’t easy for anyone,” my father says, “but he’s suffering. Just look at him.” The house is silent. I imagine them staring down at Juju, who is probably lying on the cool linoleum. Juju lets out a long, shallow cry which curls up at the end like a question.

My mother says, “I can’t deal with more death in this house.”

“Sweetheart,” my father says, “death is just part of life.”

Death, I know, is when a soul escapes a body; it’s the opposite of digging. It becomes complicated with souls like Patrice’s because she may or may not have already begun to live when her soul escaped her body. It depends on who you ask. This is what I’m thinking about when I fall asleep.

When I wake up I look out the window at my father’s stilted sailboat in the side yard. I hear the front door creak open and watch Dad and Juju go slowly out to the car, where my father lifts Juju into the back seat.

I push my face against the screen and call out to my father, “Where’s Juju going?” My father looks up and doesn’t say anything. And then he looks down at the driveway.

“Who’s taking me to school?” I ask. It takes a long time for my father to answer me, as if he was thinking about not answering me at all, and then he says, “Mom’s bringing you, Teddy. It’s early. Go back to bed.”

I’m suddenly afraid I’m not going to see Juju again, so I run downstairs and meet my father in the driveway as he’s backing out the car. I run up to the car and my father stops and then starts to go again and then stops at the mailbox and gets out. He comes over to me and gets down on his knee and holds my shoulders. He looks me in the face, exhales and says, “Let’s go have breakfast.”

My father goes back to the car and shuts off the engine and opens the back door. Juju doesn’t come out. He looks crumpled in the back seat, as if he has landed there on the cushion after falling from a great height. He makes choking noises when he pulls in breaths. My father picks him up and carries him inside, sets him on the carpet in the living room.

In the house, my mother pours my father a coffee and looks at him like she’s happy and angry at the same time. Mom pours me cereal. I open the cabinet to get food for Juju, and my father says, “Don’t do that, buddy.”

“What’s happening to Juju?” I ask, even though I think I know what’s happening.

“Juju’s soul’s going to escape today,” my father says.

****

That day in school, I recall my plans for my underground house. I sketch them onto three pieces of green construction paper. Mrs. Farrell is my teacher and she is the best teacher because she is young and doesn’t get us in trouble for blowing soap bubbles in the boys’ bathroom. She comes over to my desk and asks me about my drawings. I explain the tunnels and storage rooms and tell her about Juju’s lair. She asks me if it’s called “Teddy’s Underground Estate” and I tell her, “No, it’s called ‘Heaven.’”

After school, my mother cries and tells me Juju’s gone for good. “Too much right now,” she says. “It’s all too much for me to handle.” When my father gets home a few minutes later, I meet him in the driveway and tell him to use caution. “Things around here are going to be delicate for a while,” I say.

****

That night in bed, I keep thinking I hear Juju’s toenails on the linoleum floor in the kitchen. I crawl to the top of the stairs, then walk quietly down to the kitchen, where I lie on the cool linoleum and listen to the sounds of the house. I can see my mother on the couch in the living room. Near her in the corner of the room is Juju’s empty bed, a yellowed puff of once-white fur matted down in the middle where Juju slept. The only light in the room comes from the television, and my mother’s face gets lit up as if by fireworks. She’s watching a program about the ocean; her face is blue, then green, then black when the man on the television talks about the depths of the sea.

She is wrapped in a knitted quilt. Her arms cradle her belly. Next to her on the couch is a box of Kleenex, and next to that are dozens of rumpled tissues. I think of Juju, how the ocean—so big and deep and mysterious—must remind my mother of how his soul escaped. But, if anything, I think, my mother should be pleased Patrice has a new soul to play with.

I once heard my mother say bad times bring memories of worse times to the surface like goose-bumps. Looking at her there in the living room, I think of all the people and dogs she must have known whose souls have escaped. To remind her of better times, I trace my fingernails on the cool, hard floor.

I run my nails gently back and forth, mimicking Juju’s steps. My mother mutes the television. I stop, then start again, dragging my fingernails over the linoleum. My mother says, “Teddy?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Come here,” she says.

I go to the center of the living room. My mother looks at me, wipes her nose with a Kleenex, then turns off the television with the remote. The room goes black. Several seconds pass with my mother curled on the couch in the darkness and me standing sleepily in front of her.

“You know how much I love you?” she says.

“So much,” I say.

Again, several seconds pass where the only noise in the room is my mother’s breathing.

“That’s right,” she says. “So much. I want you to have everything. I wish I could give you the world.”

I’m not sure why she says that or what she means. “I know,” I say.

I don’t hear her when she gets up from the couch and comes to the center of the dark living room, so it startles me when she touches my hand. I jump slightly. She tightens her grip, then pulls me in close. “It’s too late for you to be up,” she whispers. I feel her breath on my ear. “It’s too late to be up,” she says again, so quietly it’s almost impossible to hear. But she doesn’t stop holding me, even when I start to pull away.

****

The next afternoon, a man with a mustache and a white coat delivers a small leather box and a fern. “What is this?” my mother wants to know.

“Your husband didn’t tell you?” he says.

Just then my father comes to the door, thanks the man, and tells me to play outside for a while. My father closes the door. The white-coated man waves to me and drives away. I stand outside by the kitchen and listen to my parents.

“I thought this is what you wanted,” my father says. “I thought it would be nice.”

“Nice?” my mother says. “You thought it would be nice to see it there every day?”

I can’t hear what they say after that, except that my father says he thought he was doing the right thing and don’t forget it was his dog too and mine. My father comes out the front door with Juju’s bed and the cardboard bag of leftover food. He walks to the green trashcans at the end of the driveway, stuffs Juju’s things inside and comes to meet me in the yard.

He gets down on one knee and looks me in the face and says,“Everything’s going to be all right. You’ll see.”

“What’s in the box?” I say.

My dad sets his hands on his hips and looks to the sky as if he’s actually not sure, then says, “That’s Juju’s soul, buddy. Mom’s not too happy I had it brought back home because it reminds her how Juju’s not around anymore.”

“I didn’t know a soul could fit in a box,” I say.

“Well,” my dad says. “Some can.”

****

Inside, my mother has set the fern in the corner of the living room, in the spot where Juju’s bed was. The leather box with Juju’s soul is on the mantel, and I am waiting in my bedroom for my parents to fall asleep so I can see what Juju’s soul is like.

I crawl out of bed and press my ear to the carpet and listen. There are no sounds of television; my father turns no pages of a long book in the living room. I make my way down the steps by flashlight, pull the leather box off the mantel and set it on the living room floor. It’s brown and smooth, about half the weight of a bucket of dirt, with corners made of brass and a little golden hook keeping the lid closed.

It has been so long since I’ve been allowed to dig, and all progress on Juju’s lair has halted. Still, I think, he will not be disappointed; my underground house is much better than the small leather box.

I open the screen door on the back porch and am cautious not to let it slam shut behind me. I go carefully to the edge of the hole, set the leather box in the soil and kneel down beside it.

I pinch the flashlight in my arm pit, so I can use both hands in case Juju comes out quick and I have to snatch him. What I know about souls is they are fast—so fast, no one can see them escape. More than that, I do not know. Will Juju’s soul be transparent, like a ghost? Will it expand to Juju’s normal size, or come out a miniature version of itself, a Matchbox-Juju small enough for the box? This is what I’m thinking when I point the box toward the hole, flip the golden hook and lift the lid.

Inside, it is not a soul at all, but powdery grey dirt with white pieces of stone. I wait for a few seconds, for the dirt to spin into a tornado of dust and for Juju to reveal himself like a genie. When nothing happens, I shine my flashlight all around me to see if I maybe missed seeing Juju’s soul get out.

Just then, I hear my father’s voice from the porch.

“Teddy,” he says. “Are you out there?”

“No,” I say, and click off the flashlight.

He walks over to me by the underground house and asks me what I’m doing. I click on the flashlight, and my father says, “Good God, what are you up to?”

I tell him, “Releasing Juju’s soul into his lair.”

“Yes,” my father says. And then he says, “I’m so sorry.” He reaches for the leather box and closes the lid, gets down on one knee and says again that he’s sorry. He hugs me hard, so hard air is pushed out of my lungs.

“It’s been a tough year,” he says, then releases a kind of breathy cough and a long moan. Tree branches click against each other over our heads and we stay like that, kneeling by the hole. The wind dies down and everything is still and quiet for a long time. Finally, he stands, walks into the darkness, and comes back with the wooden-handled spade and gardening claw. He reaches out for the flashlight. I set it in his palm. He puts it high up in the nearby Maple where two branches come together in a V. It shines down on us like a spotlight.

“Let’s dig,” he says, and so we do. We dig wordlessly, deeply, until our hands are hot with blisters. The flashlight begins to dim, then flickers and goes off completely, but it doesn’t stop us. We dig for hours, exhausting ourselves, making progress.

~~~~~~

Author Bio
Andrew Dutton is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas… More >
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4 thoughts on “Underground

  1. John Tewksbury says:

    I like the voice you use. I am able to live and see the world through this 4th grader’s eye. Good work, keep it up and thank you.

    Like

  2. Lorri Meyer says:

    I loved the story you crafted through the eyes of a child. You’ve touched my soul with your writing. I admire the point-of-view you gave the story and the voice of the child’s thoughts were right on. You wrote them the way a child that age would think. I’m a current student learning the creative writing craft and your story was a great example of literary work I aspire to generate one day too!. Thank you….Great Job……

    Like

  3. lois sorace says:

    Your mother told me to look up your story and I found it to be very profound and moving. You are very gifted – your mom was right!

    Like

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