Measuring the Hours, the Days, a Life
He got up late, refused to go to work, did not call in. He made a cup of coffee and walked outside. The recent storms had finally broken, and the hillsides were deep green and the rocks still wet and shiny. The sun was already high, but the day was cool, and the logs in the woodpile steamed.
He checked the rain gauge on the fence. Of late, he had become concerned with specifics. The exact reading was 3.75 inches. He was pleased that mankind had found a way to reduce 48 hours of violent weather to a simple, precise measurement. He poured the clear, cold water into the gazanias and tried to remember how much was in the gauge the last time he’d emptied it out, two days ago. The figure slipped his mind. As carefully as he’d monitored each day’s rain, he had only the vaguest idea what the year-to-date total might be. It wasn’t totals that counted; what counted was that the present moment be unambiguous and understandable, something he could get his head around.
He sat on the porch and read the newspaper through the clear plastic sheath in which it had arrived. The front page, above the fold, had stories about the new President, students who carried guns to school, the continuing political disgrace of a local supervisor. When he flipped it over, the bottom of a feature page was displayed: A columnist decried violence against minorities, and an article described new efforts to “rebuild L.A.” after the spring riots. He didn’t follow the articles or see the other sections because the plastic was around the paper. Some specifics he was glad to be without today.
He thought. Earlier that week he had gone to a reputable and well-known Orange County sporting goods store, in search of a skeet gun. Working behind the gun counter in this store were two young men, one of whom refused to look up from the invoice pad he was staring at, the other of whom was busy in the corner selling handguns to two gang kids who looked about 21 at the oldest. At this point, the generalities of Second Amendment rights collided directly with the specifics of gangbangers buying semiauto handguns, and he remembered a time right here in this county, some decades ago, when his father would take him hunting in a seemingly endless orange grove off I-5 and the only people found in gun rooms were men with flattops, paramilitary demeanors and little interest in purchasing Glocks or cop-killer ammunition.
These were also the men who gave Orange County its “bad name” in the ‘60s, the old saws like reactionary, racist, Bircher, what have you. The idea hit him that the county was a different place then, and in a lot of ways a better one; but bemoaning the tides of history was hardly top on his list of things to do that day. Interestingly, there was not a single suitable firearm for the sport of shooting skeet in this allegedly top-drawer store, but rather an abundance of pistols and high-tech carbines tarted up to look like weapons in a Schwarzenegger movie. It was depressing.
Sitting on the porch, he remembered some advice handed down from his mother: If you’re feeling bad, do something for someone else.
This would be easy. The day before, his neighbor had lost the greater part of his back yard to the rains. Scores of tons of earth that was once studded with blooming aloe and agave and ice plant now sat in the middle of the road, a mass of sludge 50 feet long and 10 feet high. He could hear the backhoe working on it. Every minute or two a wisp of black smoke would waver up onto the sky and the engine would groan, and a moment later the agile machine would lumber up the road, up onto a level spot, and dump a load of the former back yard.
He found a shovel and gloves and walked down. The neighbor had a shovel too, and was doing what he could to help the backhoe operator get good loads. This meant chopping the mud away from the embankment so the blade could scoop it up.
There was a steady stream of water coming down the road, runoff that would continue for the better part of a week. When the stream came out of the shadows and into the sunlight, it shimmered like mercury. The mud itself had behaved like mud often does, spreading over the road in a two-inch-thick layer that was easy to slip on.
He smiled to the neighbor, shook his hand, and joined the work. The neighbor was happy to have some help as well as the opportunity to spin some yarns about days long ago: the time the pump station at the top of the road got wiped out, the time his wife barely made it out ahead of a giant slide, of the bobcat that got into his chickens, the rattlesnake that got into his house.
He helped the neighbor divert a rivulet of water. He felt the roundness of the shovel handle in his gloves, listened to the sharp grate of the metal on the asphalt, felt the muscles in his legs tense as he began the thrust, noted the radical change in heft when the blade took a full load, and wondered if mud was as heavy as lead. He could remember a little over one year ago, in a different place, a patch of earth being manipulated for a very different purpose. First, a hole was dug. Then, after the completion of events that were still etched in his memory as clearly as the lines on his face, the hole was filled. It was funny how many important things had to do with the ground.
A few hours later, half the mudslide was cleared. By then the sun had risen high, and long beads of sweat trickled down his face in the still-cool day. He watched the backhoe dig in.
The neighbor was talking, but he couldn’t hear him over the engine. He looked up at the hills, where a punishing brightness reflected from the wet shrubs and a black cloud claimed its place in an otherwise pure blue sky. It is unbelievable, he thought, that an entire year has gone by.
The backhoe left with another load. It was the 14th--he had been counting. He had been counting everything for the last year: inches of rain, days passed, pages written, hours wasted, miles to and miles from. It had been a way to contain things.
The neighbor came over and leaned on his shovel, surveying the damage. “She died about a year ago, didn’t she?”
He nodded, squinting. How could sunshine this cold be so bright? “One year ago today, exactly. Well, in a few hours, I mean.”
Later, walking back up the road to his house with the shovel over his shoulder, he counted the steps to his front door. He would count the next few hours too. After that, he wasn’t sure. It might be a good idea to let some of it go, to just let the days pass.