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The International Writers Magazine:Holes

Ashes of Old Fires
Thomas Healy

Sabonis relit the stub of a cigar he had started smoking this afternoon then followed his Irish setter around the corner to Raphael Park where they walked nearly every evening for half an hour. Smiling, he didn't know if he or Murphy enjoyed the outing more, probably about the same he reckoned. At the drinking fountain the dog paused and looked around to make sure he was still behind him then sauntered along the cedar chip path that wound through the neighborhood park.

Three times they circled the path, which they usually had to themselves in the wintertime, proceeding as deliberately as two old men. Tonight it was so cold his breath was as thick as his cigar smoke.
Rebecca, his last girlfriend, used to accompany them some nights until she moved out of his apartment nearly two and a half months ago. Still, whenever he was here, he half expected to see her waiting for them around one of the turns in the path. It hadn't happened so far but he still kept an eye out for her.
"I'm not coming back," she told him.
"I don't believe that."
"Don't believe it but I'm not," she insisted. "We never go anywhere. We never do anything. You come home from work and all you ever do is walk your damn dog and watch television."

Murphy was only a few steps in front of him but it was so dark he could barely make him out despite the faint glow of a streetlamp on the corner. Always he carried a small penlight with him but seldom switched it on because he had walked the path so many times he knew it by heart. He could lose his sight tomorrow and he was confident he would not have any trouble making his way through the park.

A few minutes later, he heard Murphy bark sharply and smiled again, figuring he must have spotted a squirrel. When he first brought him to the park, the dog would wear himself out chasing squirrels but now he only barked at them. He was getting too long in the tooth to run that hard anymore. Usually he only had to bark once before a squirrel ran away but tonight he wouldn't stop for some reason. Sabonis frowned, hoping the dog didn't step on a splinter of glass. So many people left their empty bottles on the path, often smashed to pieces.

The barking seemed to grow more intense every moment then, moving down a slight incline, he saw Murphy staring at a walnut tree a few feet off the path. The dog was almost rigid, scarcely moving a muscle except for his head which furiously jerked up and down each time he barked.
"What's the matter, boy?" he whispered as he bent down and patted the dog's head. "What's got you so riled up tonight?"
Murphy growled angrily.
"You ought to have your dog on a leash, mister."
Sabonis, not realizing anyone else was here, almost jumped out of his skin.
"That dog comes near me he'll be in a world of hurt."
Squinting, he saw a burly figure standing beside the walnut tree with a shovel in his hand. "He's not going to bite you."
"He better not because if he does I'll clock him. I swear I will."
Sabonis then noticed the hole that the man had dug behind the tree. "What're you doing out here?"
"I don't see how that's any business of yours."
"I'm a volunteer custodian at this park so I believe it is my business," he replied curtly. "You aren't burying your garbage, are you?"
"No, sir," the man responded promptly. "I'm trying to find some ash from the volcano that erupted a few years back."
"A few years," he blurted. "That was more than twenty years ago."
The man did not reply but continued to stare at him.
"Well, you better not be digging that hole for your garbage," he warned.
"I told you I wasn't."
Sabonis, not replying, prodded the dog along with the toe of his boot and trailed after it, not believing for an instant that the man was searching for volcanic ash.

He did not make another loop of the park but, instead, returned home with Murphy. He was concerned that the man with the shovel might take a swing at the dog if they had further contact with him. He did not actually have any custodial status with the Park Bureau as he told the guy but because he visited Raphael so often he felt obliged to look after it as if he were a groundskeeper. And he believed he fulfilled this obligation when he asked the man what he was up to, suspecting most people would have just ignored him. What more could he do? he asked himself, while numbly surfing through the channels on his television set. Still, he remained troubled by the encounter, doubting very much if the man was digging for ashes from a blast a quarter of a century ago. So around eleven o'clock he got in his car and drove back to the park, curious to see if the digger was still there. He didn't bring Murphy because he didn't want anyone to know he was there and he figured Murphy would start barking again.

He parked half a block from where the guy was digging then got out and walked to the spot, moving as quietly as he could on the cedar chips. Intently he listened for the clank of a shovel but all he heard was his heart pulsing in his ears. When he saw the walnut tree he moved off the path and crept ahead until he was within a few feet of it. No one was there. He was not surprised, considering how late it was; he was probably the only one in the park at this hour.
Slipping the penlight out of his pocket, he switched it on and pressed ahead, pointing it toward where the man was digging. It took him a moment before he could make out the hole, and when he did he was startled by its size. It was as long as a kitchen ladder and almost half as deep. His heart shivered. Anxiously he stared into it, wondering if it was a grave.

He was so disturbed by the hole that when he returned to his apartment he was unable to go to sleep. He just sat at the kitchen table, sipping rye whiskey from a water glass, wondering if he should tell anyone about it. He considered calling the Park Bureau but knew no one would be there to answer the phone so, somewhat reluctantly, he decided to call the police.
"East Precinct."
He hesitated, not sure now if he should have made the call.
"I saw this hole in Raphael Park and I thought maybe I should let you know about it," he said haltingly.
"What sort of hole?"
"A pretty good sized one."
"So you saw a hole, so what?"
"It looks like it might be a grave of some kind."
The desk sergeant paused for a brief moment. "Where did you say you saw this?"
"Over at Raphael Park," he answered. "Right behind a walnut tree."
"That's in the southeast part of town, correct?"
The sergeant paused again then asked, "May I have your name and address, sir?"
He started to answer then, abruptly, hung up the receiver.

Still at the table, he took another swallow of whiskey. He was not sure if the police would follow up on his call, probably depended on how many other calls the precinct received tonight. The desk sergeant also might dismiss his as a crank call and not even pass it on to anyone. He didn't know if it really warranted much investigation, maybe the digger was searching for volcanic ash as he claimed. But someone could clearly fit in the hole so he believed he was right to make the police aware of it.

The next evening, as usual, Sabonis went to the park with Murphy. He seriously thought about not bringing the dog, concerned that the digger might be there, but decided it wasn't fair to leave the dog in the apartment. He supposed he could have gone somewhere else with him but he was curious to see if anything had been done about the hole. At the very least he expected it would be enclosed by some tape or stakes. To his surprise, though, the hole was completely filled, without any indication that anyone had been digging there the previous evening.

Smiling, he bent down and stroked the back of Murphy's neck. He was glad now that he had made the call last night, figuring, as a result of it, the desk sergeant must have contacted someone at the Park Bureau who had the hole filled.
"See," he whispered to Murphy, "I did something right for a change."
He walked over to the hole, circled it once with Murphy, then gingerly walked across it, knotting his fingers so he didn't sink to the bottom. He didn't and walked across it again, amazed the ground was so firm. It was hard to believe someone had dug a deep hole here last night.
Right away, he assumed a groundskeeper had covered up the hole, but as he continued around the park, he began to wonder if the digger did it early this morning. Maybe, he thought, the guy buried whatever he wanted to get rid of in the hole and then covered it up so no one would find it. Alarmed, a cold feather twitched deep inside his chest.
"Tomorrow," he muttered to Murphy, "I'll call the Park Bureau and see if anyone there ordered the hole filled."

And he did call tomorrow and was astonished when the person he spoke with was unaware of any report of a hole at Raphael Park and assured him no order was given to fill it. Then she asked his name and, as he had with the desk sergeant, he hung up the phone.
"Son of a bitch," he groaned into the dead receiver. "Son of a son of a bitch."

When he returned to the park that evening, he didn't bring Murphy but did bring a small entrenching tool he bought a few years ago at a surplus store. He decided, if no one else was concerned about the mysterious hole, it was up to him to find out what, if anything, the digger had buried in it. He never thought of himself as an officious person, was in fact someone who seldom paid attention to the concerns of others. But ever since last summer, when a motorcycle skidded off a road a few blocks from his apartment, he had made a conscious effort to start paying attention.

He had just gone to bed when he heard the bike crash into a guardrail. He didn't consider getting up to see if he could be of any assistance, however, figuring others who lived closer would do that, but the next day he learned no one had bothered to help the cyclist who bled to death. "If she had received immediate medical attention," a paramedic was quoted in the morning paper, "she might have survived." He was stunned, felt almost responsible for what happened, and swore to himself he would not be indifferent again. The next time he became aware of something that was not right, he resolved to do what he could to correct it.

Despite how tired his shoulders had become, he continued to shove the entrenching tool into the ground. Already he was almost knee deep, his trousers covered with dirt, his hands slippery and sore. Naturally, he wished he were back at his apartment, watching television, but he didn't have any regrets about being out here tonight. He was determined to find out if anything was left in the hole. He just hoped no one happened by and reported him as he reported the digger the other night.

© Thomas Healy

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