Linda Downing Miller

Tools for Digging

Stooped over the small, dead bush, Regan dug at its roots with her trowel.  The barren stalks of brown blighted the neat row of green outside her front window.

She managed a circular trench, her rubber-clad hand plunging deeper into the earth.  She supposed she should get a full-sized shovel, maybe some cloth gloves.  She wasn't much for gardening, but she wanted to protect her investment.

"It's nice to see someone taking care of the place," said a nasal voice.  

Regan's shoulders jumped.  She glanced up into the sun and the shadowed face of her next-door neighbor.  Regan recognized the brown bowl of hair she had seen at her kitchen sink, through two sets of tilted blinds.

"Sherry Tucker really doted on this front yard," said the pinched face beneath the bowl.  "It was all she had after her husband went off the deep end."

Regan squinted, trying to process her statement and come up with an appropriate response.  

The face leaned down further, sending a small breeze of stale breath in Regan's direction.  "Alzheimer's," it said.

Regan frowned and nodded.  

"I'm Connie," said the face.  A hand reached out toward Regan.

She dropped her trowel.  "Regan," she said, extending her smudged glove.  

Connie gave it a light, careful shake.  The dead bush rustled with a sudden gust of wind, and Regan let her eyes return to her work.  

Connie's brown shoes remained planted in the grass.  Regan exhaled silently, thinking of the potted palm that graced the lobby of her former apartment building, with its anonymous neighbors.  She squinted into the sun again.

"Are you here next weekend?" Connie asked.  

"Yes," Regan answered, wondering as soon as she said it if she would be asked to take in the mail, or worse, come over for dinner.

Connie smiled, though her face still looked pinched.  "Everyone will get to meet you then.  It's the block party."

"Oh," said Regan.  She tried to restrain a grimace.

"I'll put a flyer in your mailbox, so you'll know the agenda," Connie said.

"Great," said Regan, turning to the earth.  She let her sweaty, graying hair fall over the edges of her frozen smile.  

* * *

Regan pressed herself into the curtains at the edge of her front window and peered down the street.  Someone had already set up two orange-striped barricades to block traffic.  A matching set would be at the other end--no easy escape route.

She had told herself she had to make an appearance.  It would be a quick way to quash the interest of nosy neighbors, removing the mystery of the unknown.  Now, she dreaded the prospect of small talk with strangers.

For the rest of the morning, Regan busied herself inside, away from the windows.  She could at least permit herself to miss the height of the shrieking children's games. She couldn't stand the thought of the parents pitying her, assuming as they often did that any single woman in her 40s experiences stabs of regret and longing when she sees someone else's offspring.

As the afternoon slipped by, Regan entertained the idea of staying inside.  She could turn out the lights and pretend she wasn't home, despite her open curtains.  Her neighbors might spend the evening speculating about her.  Connie would mention their brief conversation.  "She said she'd be home."  

They might even critique her half-hearted landscaping.  "She took out that bush, but it's been a week.  I hope she doesn't intend to leave a hole."

Regan forced herself out the front door at 5:00, when the volume of childish shouts had begun to fade.

Clusters of adults stood around a checkered picnic table in the middle of the street.  Regan aimed herself toward it, passing a bleached blonde who had stopped by a few days earlier to deliver a misdirected piece of mail.  She was absorbed in conversation now and didn't notice Regan.  

Her body came to rest against the edge of the table, laden with mysterious-looking, homemade foods.  She picked up a styrofoam cup from a small stack and glanced around for whatever was being drunk.

A red-nosed man with dark, curly hair and a shiny forehead stepped up close.  "I don't think we've met," he said, grinning and breathing 100-proof fumes into Regan's slightly open mouth.

She closed her lips, swallowed, and shook her head.

"Thayer Godfried.  Gray stucco four-square, two from the corner."

"Regan Crisp," she said, sticking out her hand in the tiny space Thayer had left between them.

He clapped a palm on her shoulder and swiveled his head around.  "Brick Georgian?"

"Yes, I guess it is," she said.  

Thayer stared at her a few seconds, his blue eyes momentarily sharp and focused. Her mind registered revulsion, but her body prickled.  A bead of sweat trickled down the side of Regan's hairline.

She leaned back against the table, and Thayer dropped his hand.  

"Cheer up!" he boomed.  "There's plenty of food!"  He wandered a few feet away, plucking something that looked like a potato chip from the top of a gooey casserole.

Regan felt the trapped heat evaporate into the air.  She continued to lean against the table with her empty cup.  It was too soon to glance at her watch.

Another 30-something male wandered up.  "You must be the new neighbor!" he said, with a heartiness that didn't match his slight build.

"Regan Crisp, brick Georgian," she said, following Thayer's lead.

"Ralph Ramer, the Tudor over there...wife Katya, and my girls, Chloe and Clarice." He pointed to three small brunettes nearby.

A few other husbands wandered up and introduced themselves.  They identified their houses and sometimes, their family members.  With little conversational help from Regan, they foundered and moved on, inching imperceptibly away or making abrupt excuses having to do with their kids.

Regan was making tooth marks on the edge of her still-empty cup when the woman who had delivered her misdirected dating club ad approached.

"So, you're all settled in?" she asked.

"Yes, thanks," said Regan.  She scanned her mind for anything she might say about getting settled.  She'd unpacked her few boxes the first day.

"I brought my specialty...twice-baked tuna," said the woman, gesturing to one of the dishes behind Regan.  

"I think a few people have already tried the topping," Regan said.

The woman clicked her tongue.  "Those slobs.  I'm Lorraine, by the way."

"That's right.  I'm Regan...brick, well, you know the house."

Lorraine took a sip of something red from her cup, then looked into Regan's empty one.  "Have you tried the plantation punch?  It's a Taylor Street tradition."

She pointed to a small metal can, lined in plastic, underneath a corner of the table.  Regan walked over and peered in.  A fly had gotten drunk and passed out in the mixture.  She spotted some cans of lemonade in a cooler behind it.  

When in Rome, Regan thought, and: I need something stiffer than lemonade to make it through this.

She dipped her cup into the red stuff, careful to avoid the fly.  "Cheers," Regan said, but Lorraine was staring at Thayer and a sturdy brunette down the block.  They were tangled together in a game of Twister.  A group of kids were laughing and manning the spinner.

Regan looked at her watch.  5:45.   She took a long, deep drink of plantation punch.

When the dinner buffet began, Regan moved to a green woven lawn chair a few feet away.  A large, older woman with a full plate of food sat down heavily in the matching chair.

"Enid Pryor," she mumbled, her mouth full of food.  "Yellow bungalow."

Regan identified herself again.  Enid gobbled her food and got up for seconds.  The chair creaked and wobbled.  Thayer Godfried sat down with a plate full of brats.

"Atkins," he said, pointing to the meat.

Regan nodded.  A diet that justified the male appetite.  Thayer polished off his plate and used Regan's shoulder to hoist himself up.

"Off for more?" Regan asked. She hoped she sounded off-hand; unperterbed by his informality.

"More of something," Thayer said, with a wink and a snort.  Regan looked away.

Darkness and punch blurred the edges of the block party.  Dirt-streaked children with second winds screeched again at top volume.  A huddle of adults in lawn chairs grew around Regan.  Without noticing, she'd become the anchor point for a circle of women.

"So Thayer's down there twisting again with that bitch Maya," Lorraine whispered loudly in Regan's face.  "But I've got him beat.  I'm screwing the general contractor for our kitchen remodel."

Regan leaned back, wondering whether Lorraine had mistaken her for another, more familiar neighbor.

"All of 'em have to have a midlife crisis," said Enid from two chairs away.  "It's who they stay with that matters.  I was with my Alfred when he took his last breath."

Regan's chest constricted with unwanted confidences.  She wanted to get up and leave, but to extract herself from the rickety lawn chair and make an exit now seemed impossible. It would only call attention to the fact that she was a stranger in their midst.

"I was such a baby when I married Ralph," said the small, trim Katya, with a faint Russian accent.  "He can't expect me to die having only one man, can he?"

Lorraine laughed loudly.  

"For my fortieth birthday, I've decided I will give myself a present," said Katya.

Lorraine leaned forward to high-five Ralph's wife. The circle of women laughed together, without Regan.  She pictured herself entwined in the ivy she'd pulled off the side of the house.

Regan's bowl-haired neighbor scooted her white plastic seat further into the circle.

"I went to a psychic," Connie said, glancing over her shoulder at her sausage-shaped husband a few yards away.  "She told me I have an artistic soul and that I'm married to someone without one.  She asked me if we had troubles in the bedroom.  I couldn't say no."

"I can send Thayer over to help you out with that!" Lorraine crowed.  "Or maybe my kitchen guy, when I'm through with him."

Connie pursed her lips but looked pleased. A little girl came crying for Katya, and she excused herself from the ring.  Regan felt a stab of longing for an excuse of her own.  

The confidences continued.  A lump in a breast.  Lipstick on a collar.  Blow jobs after 10 years of marriage--did anyone still give them?

The conversation lulled, and Lorraine elbowed Regan.  "So how about you?  Tell us wives some exciting tales from the world of the still-single."  She winked and stared expectantly at Regan.

Her tongue felt thick and numb.  She couldn't summarize her long string of short, failed relationships into a witty anecdote.  She didn't want to bare her sexual longings to strangers.  She scooted her chair back and collapsed to the ground as it folded.

"Guess the plantation punch got to you," joked Lorraine.  

Regan silently thanked her for the excuse as she struggled out of the chair.  "I think I'd better turn in.  Nice to meet all of you."  

She walked stiffly to her brick Georgian.  The circle of eyes seemed to follow her.  Regan closed the door hard and fast to keep them out.  

* * *

Regan sat up on the couch, her head pounding from alcohol and information.  Nausea rose in her throat, and she swallowed and stood.  When she opened her curtains, she saw Ralph Ramer jog past, unaware that his wife was plotting to sleep with someone else.  

Regan adjusted last night's clothes and stepped outside to retrieve the paper.  On the parkway, the sausage-shaped neighbor who was bad in bed reached for a steaming pile.  His panting poodle strained at the leash and started yipping at Regan.  She ducked back in.

The nausea returned.  Regan ran to the bathroom and threw up.  She sat on the edge of the tub with a cool rag on her forehead.  I'd have to eat the moving costs, she told herself.  She knew she'd be able to re-sell the brick Georgian without a problem.  It was a good investment for anyone.

She sipped a glass of water and opened the real estate section of the newspaper.  Her old apartment building was advertising studios with balconies for $1400 a month--only $200 more than she'd been paying before she moved.

She just wasn't cut out to be a landowner, especially if putting down roots meant getting strangled in the undergrowth.

Regan called her old landlord and arranged to sign the papers that afternoon.  As she backed out of her driveway, she saw Thayer Godfried taking out the garbage.  He gave her a hearty wave, then pantomimed downing a drink.  Regan met his smile with a serious stare.  A bead of sweat formed against her hairline.

The potted palm in the lobby of her old building looked strong and secure when Regan walked in.  Her landlord of 10 years didn't seem to recognize her.  He didn't ask about her absence or divulge any personal information.  He simply directed her to his office and handed her a lease.  

Regan signed it, accepted the pink copy, and returned to her car.  From the back seat, the metal edge of a full-sized shovel gleamed.  Regan touched the smooth handle.  It was a shame her purchase had never touched dirt.

She'd stop by later and offer it up to Thayer, making sure she stood just an inch or two closer than comfortable.  She could leave her change of address, just in case.

He'd be easy to cut loose when the time came.

Linda Downing Miller is a published journalist and writer of creative nonfiction and fiction.  Her essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines, and journals, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Parent, and Scrivener's Pen.  She writes and lives in Oak Park, Illinois.


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