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Digging up memories

By Guy Biederman

I was raking and got in over my head. It started out as a tidy little task. I raked some leaves into a pile and just kept raking and raking. Pretty soon the pile was taller than I was and I still hadn't hit dirt.

The leaves were thick and crunchy, and some didn't seem to be from our yard. The oaks and maples I recognized; the yellow hourglass leaves were a mystery. As I worked this one spot near the fence, some puzzling things began to surface: last year's gardening gloves, my son's red trowel, a plastic angel on a pedestal. I traded my skimpy bamboo rake for a shovel, and things got real interesting. My first scoop yielded a love letter to a girl I barely remembered. It was followed by my first novel, which was badly warped but readable; a pack of Marlboros; and a basketball with no air.

Deeper and deeper I dug, creating a tunnel of leaves. I felt ecstatic. I dug with gusto. It was time to clean this mess up for good. I upgraded to a snow shovel and picked up the pace, flinging each load with wide, extravagant strokes.

Farther and farther I descended, oblivious to everything but the job. The ground's surface was far above me now, and the light came through a moon-shaped hole. I caught the glint of keys to a long-forgotten Ford. Unburied an old mower, an old blower, and a couple of promises that had been snapped right down the middle.

Well, OK, I said, taking a blow.

Next came my valedictorian speech from high school, followed closely like a second show by the one from college. There were pictures, too: defiant long-haired days from the eighth grade; old girlfriends I dumped; Salzburg; a matchbook from an Amsterdam bar.

And one grainy photograph of a perfectly formed unborn child.

That one made me stop for a moment and wipe the sweat from my eye with my sleeve.

I tossed a canceled paycheck over one shoulder, a lost library book over my other; a Steely Dan ticket stub, my mom's obituary, my dad's obituary, and a small wooden box with a gold ring inside.

Right shoulder, left shoulder, I alternated just like that. Until my shovel glanced off an old expectation, hard as concrete, and a shiver shot up my arms.

Stunned and amused, I went around it, discovering an eight-track tape of Harry Belafonte singing "John Henry." I danced, and dug with short efficient strokes, until at last my shovel struck solid earth.

Behind me, the pile of leaves was incomprehensibly high, the tiny hole of light gleamed like a distant star. But it felt wide open where I was, resting on my shovel, so far below the surface of things.

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From the May 31-June 6, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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