Out behind Marelton Park, Harshe in deep, dug through wet worm and oak root, his game plan set, he wanted to get to the bottom.
Liz in garden shorts, bibbed blue, suspender straps and the slightest white t-shirt beneath. A lean doe to Harshe’s rounded goat, red hair roped in braids, she looked across the yard and asked for something to be planted.
He bought her a cherry tree, drove home from the nursery, burlap sack holding the tuber stem packed and placed in the bed of his truck. “Dig it.” Liz had in mind a spot on the side, half in the sun and half shaded, a soft spot for the baby bulb, a want to nurture.
Before she married, Liz knew men who flexed hard muscle and left her feeling beaten. Harshe at forty offered a more temperate embrace. Liz liked the way he carried himself, purposefully yet not like guys who coiled up in knots and pinched their jaws too tightly. With Harshe there was a willingness, a calm unruffled sense of all things being conquerable. They met six years ago, each copying papers at Staples. Harshe could not quite get the machine to work and Liz provided assistance. She asked him out and he laughed to think.
“I want.” Liz with legs raised and temperature tested, waved Harshe over to the bed. She enjoyed his stomach moving against her smooth flat surface, the way he held himself above her and let his eyes go soft. He stood near, his white t-shirt stretched across a belly gone fat, his pants off, his member eager, rising past and ready to lay in fertile soil. No limp noodle he, Harshe had captained his high school football team, backed the line with reckless exuberance, played a year for the local Community College, until injury and circumstance caused him to reexamine his ambitions.
All winter they tried to plant. When nothing grew, Liz distracted herself with thoughts of starting a garden. Harshe bought soil and mulch, cleared and tilled that spring, carried rose root and saplings against his chest. A surprise when his seed didn’t take, he tried vitamins and diets, exercised and quit bad habits, worked the boys into a lather, went off exactly when Liz told him.
With Lynda, his first wife, the complications were different. A brief attraction, they found early on they didn’t much like living together, came to feel like animals caged and circling. Even after Frankie was born, the baby boy, broad fat with Harshe’s head and Lynda’s calves and pink-white skin, the gripe and growl between them continued. Harshe quit school and was working at Ridgeman Steel when Lynda left. He didn’t mind, though he missed his son, an effort to stay connected, like trying to glue bits of sand together. He let Lynda take the boy when she moved to Connecticut with a biotech salesman. Frankie came in summers and Harshe made trips east where they spoke of all the many things they didn’t do together.
Liz in June wanted to build a compost. Harshe cleared a space at the rear of the yard, sank a metal trash can into the ground. With Ridgeman downsizing, shifts shortened, the market soft for steel, layoffs and terminations and early retirement packages, Harshe had extra time to help. Eighteen years in, he’d heard the recent rumors, talk of bankruptcy, of Ridgeman being sold or closed, splintered and auctioned off in pieces. He worried about his pension, the chance of losing everything to loopholes and legal slight of hand. J.T. Blane – another Ridgeman steelhead – called it, “A grab your ankles kind of fucking. Shit Harshe,” J.T. said, “what’s a couple of fish like us to do when the hook’s in the water?”
Liz taught third grade at Everbrooke Elementary, worked in the summer with remedial kids who paid for special sessions. When Ridgeman shut down for a week and sent all three shifts home, Liz told Harshe to “Take the buyout. You can go back to school.”
“Maybe.” He had his doubts, old dogs and new tricks. His skills were narrow, his ability to handle hot metals, how to temper and roll, granulate and run the hard drawn and continuous furnace. A trench mule, his value was measured by the muscle in his arm and willingness to sweat, he came home from half shifts and read the paper, looked for part-time work, placed calls to fertility clinics, hoping to improve his chances.
When he made love to Liz, he could no longer find a comfortable rhythm. His confidence gave way, his big raw hands conspicuous, his large bones set in fleshy mud, his broad droop face a pug mutt where even an acquired taste was generous. Thursday night, they lay in bed, watching summer reruns. Liz reached over and touched Harshe’s wrist. He left his hand there even after his fingers began to cramp. The news came on and they listened through the sports scores. Liz fell asleep and Harshe went out into the front room where he looked at the job ads in the evening paper.
In the science section, he read about the natural florescence produced by lightning bugs, about cures for poison ivy, and the anniversary of the record dig in Kola, Russia where the deepest hole ever drilled by machine was a snake-like boring nine inches wide and 7.5 miles down. A state-of-the-art rotary engine was used to spin the bit at the end of the lubricated shaft, the pressurized bit buzzing through rock and sand, iridium and basalt, coesite and fossil. Scientists hoped to reach the Mohorovicic discontinuity where the Earth’s crust and mantle met approximately nine miles down, but the drilling fell short after 24 years; everyone surprised by the intensity of the heat, the melting stone folding in and gripping the shaft.
Harshe pictured himself on top of Liz, laying inside while scientists confessed, “Every time we go deeper, we find the unexpected.”
Back in bed, he dreamed of things beneath the surface. The next day, after work, he went to the library where he read more about the Kola Superdeep Borehole Project, and the record dig in Greensburg, Kansas where the deepest hole ever dug by hand was an ancient well, 109 feet, excavated by a team of hired diggers, circa 1887. Harshe memorized the statistics, pictured the men with shovels tunnelling into the oceanic crust, steel spades sharp at first then worn back by the repetition. He told J.T. about Kola, how the drilling went on for 24 years before stalling.
“That’s a marathon, man.” J.T., in heavy lead-lined gloves, moved chains with fresh steel sailing overhead.
Harshe kept hot sheets on the rollers, had thought the same, the years it took and still barely a dent, the distance to the center some 3,500 miles off.
“It’s a long way to the heart of the matter.” J.T. peeled back the cuff of his glove and wiped his forehead.
Liz was in the yard when Harshe got home, pulling weeds from between the flowers. He got the push mower from the garage and cut the grass. Halfway through, he stopped and took off his shoes, moved his toes and felt the ground beneath, the solid weight and softer top soil inviting temporary impressions. He jumped a few inches to see what moved, imagined the Earth floating there in space, rising and falling in its orbit as he bounced. Liz with her back turned, didn’t notice. She went walking after dinner with three of her friends, as she did two nights a week. Harshe went out to the garage, put a shovel in the bed of his truck, drove to the field behind Marelton Park.
Far back from the main path, he sank his shovel into the dirt, worked his way through the first layer, down to the grayish clay and silt below. He made the hole round, carved one side and then the other, thought about the last time Frank came to visit, a few weeks ago, how they went to watch the Renton Monarchs play. Frank at fourteen was lanky tall, not broad like his father. The game ended with the Monarchs taking a beating. Harshe was disappointed, felt he’d somehow let Frank down. On the way home, he took Frank to the empty parking lot at the high school where he let him drive around between the lampposts. The gesture, simple and spontaneous, proved the highlight of Frank’s visit, made Harshe think how much of life came from what was least expected.
He dug deeper, did not get home until after dark, went to shower while Liz watched tv. The ache in his arms and back felt right somehow, his hands sore. He came to bed hungry and hopeful. In the morning he worked an early shift, went to Ace Hardware, bought a chain ladder, a pulley and rope, stakes and bucket, a new shovel and pick and gloves. He spent a week digging down below his waist, below his shoulders, below his head where the ground did not so much surrender as slowly gave way.
“Deep in it,” Harshe told J.T.
“You need a real hobby, man.” J.T. wasn’t quite sure what to do with the news. “Come fishing,” he invited Harshe to, “Cast your line.”
“Thanks but…” Harshe had no interest in standing by the water with a pole in hand waiting for something to bite. He rented a video camera to document his effort, placed a call to the Guinness Record people, asked what a man had to do to make his mark.
The hole dropped below 25 feet and J.T. came to see. “Let me ask you something.” He brought beer, sat with Harshe at the lip, his feet large as football lineman’s dangling. “What if you could keep digging all the way through to the center? Hypothetically, not that you could, but we’re talking about a finite distance. What if you got right down to it, to the core and all, the geodynamo, what would you do?”
Harshe considered the question, pictured himself where J.T. said, in the middle of everything. “If I got there?” He didn’t know.
He came home tired, sat on the floor of the shower and watched the dirt from his face and hair and arms wash off him. He told Liz he’d landed some excavation work for a friend, felt bad about the deceit, smiled awkwardly when she pointed out the pun, “Landed excavation work.” In the kitchen, he leaned against the counter, watched Liz at the table reading through poems her students wrote.
The hole grew and Harshe climbed down in it. On Tuesday flyers were passed out in the parking lot at work, encouraging those still undecided to take early retirement or accept a buyout. “For the good of the whole,” the flyer said.
J.T. laughed. “You hear that?” He folded the flyer into a paper plane and tossed it into the air.
Harshe called a friend who did home improvements, asked about picking up some hours. “Things are slow right now,” he was told, “but maybe soon.”
He called his union, asked for advice, said “If I leave where will I go?” The rep on the phone answered as if Harshe was joking. “That, my brother, is the question for the ages.”
He called Liz over, reached for her urgently, made love holding on until she pushed him back, pushed him off, said “What gives?” She turned him over, climbed on board, assumed control.
A tease of days when Liz was late. Harshe bought the kit, studied the strip, took it hard when Liz got her period. He went back to the woods after dinner. The night was warm and clear. He set the stake for the chain ladder, dropped the free end into the hole, lowered the rope with the bucket attached. The bottom of the hole was hard with rock, the air inside warm as if already breathed. Harshe could taste the dirt, the clay and plant root. He filled the bucket, tugged the rope up through the pulley, let the bucket tip and empty, then lowered it again to remove still more. Bits of soil slid down the walls, tiny avalanches spilling around his feet. He shovelled out all that was there, did not think of reinforcing the walls until larger chunks of dirt peeled away from the middle.
The moon came out. Harshe rolled his shoulders, pressed the point of his shovel into fresh earth. In the underground between Lakes Michigan and Huron, down some 700 feet, as the amount of space narrowed from fifty to two miles across, the pressure created forced the waters to shoot through the thinning gap at speeds approaching 300 miles an hour. Harshe imagined the whir and pull and pounding waters churning below while the lakes above disguised the rush and did what they could to appear calm.
He bent his back, worked the hole, thought of Liz as he touched her, her skin soft, a mix of air and roses. He pictured himself at Ridgeman, in thick lead-lined gloves, the hot metal chains and steel made orange and steaming. His hands on both had to adjust each time. The light changed and his fingers ached. He thought about what J.T. asked, how if he ever got to the center what he’d do, and climbing from the hole he went over to the stake that kept his chain ladder in place and pulled it out of the ground.
Piles of dirt and stone removed in the weeks before surrounded the edge of the hole. Harshe kept on digging, began shovelling the earth back in, re-filling the hole completely. When he finished, he smoothed the dirt and stood on top, shuffled his feet across the middle before tossing his shovel into the bed of his truck and driving home. The next day Frank called from Connecticut and Harshe listened to his son’s voice through the line. He remembered teaching Frank to drive in the parking lot, how the lightposts served as beacons, and the way he showed him how to draw close and still make the turn without crashing.