A story about volunteers.
Of all the things I’d hoped to accomplish that fall, digging a six-foot-deep moat around the family house wasn’t one of them. But the governor decided to end all Covid restrictions in the middle of the pandemic, causing the state’s heavily armed population to take it as a sign and go berserk. When that happens, you dig a moat. So I couldn’t argue with Uncle Red’s decision to fortify the premises. Nevertheless, there were problems.
My own troubles started a week before I moved in. Hauberk College cancelled its spring semester in the interests of social distancing and good hygiene. So instead of moving into the dorms the second half of my freshman year like I’d planned, I found myself staying at the house my mother once described as “a ramshackle pit” and trying to spend as little money as possible. I was supposed to have received a dining hall meal plan along with my freshman year scholarship. Given my Aunt Phoebe’s cooking, I think losing that meal plan depressed me the most.
“Put your back into it,” Uncle Red said, “or I’ll make you mask up!”
I nodded and tried to approximate what “putting your back into it” looked like, but I was tired. I’d been shoveling my assigned section of moat since morning, my back hurt, and I’d gotten blisters on my hands. This, I thought, is no way to start an adult life. If I’d wanted to dig moats for a living, I could have joined the Peace Corps like my brother.
In my uncle’s view, masking up was the ultimate dunce cap, fit only for democrats, Marxists, social justice activists, and professors. In this branch of my family, wearing a mask to protect against Covid was a sign of weakness, wrong thinking, unworthiness, and shame. I had a pack of five N95 masks in my suitcase, but I hadn’t taken them out.
It was enough that everyone knew I was attempting college. Anything more and I felt the generosity of my relatives would become strained beyond the bounds of credulity. As Uncle Marty liked to say, I’d be just another “freak peckerhead.” And nobody wants that. More importantly, I’d also be out on the street.
“That’s hardpan you’re digging!” yelled Aunt Phoebe from the porch. “Too hard for you!”
“No doubt about it!” yelled Uncle Marty.
“You got that right!” yelled Uncle Red.
I said nothing and kept trying to look like I was putting my back into it.
Uncle Red was called “Red” because his first name was “Redding.” There was a story behind it that no one ever talked about. He was short, had a beer belly, small eyes, and a round face. He was also completely bald and never had anything close to red hair. Uncle Marty looked completely different: tall, muscled, with blue eyes and a thick blond goatee that made you think of King Arthur.
Aunt Phoebe, on the other hand, was completely gray and starting to develop a stoop from osteoporosis. She liked to say her bones were getting smaller along with her brain. None of them looked like each other. And none of them looked like me. I sometimes wondered whether any of us were actually related.
The moat was wide enough for two grown men to stand on the bottom shoulder to shoulder. We knew this because that’s exactly what my uncles did. They checked the depth with a wooden yardstick as we progressed. We dug our way clockwise around the house; past the corner of the porch; past the enormous red-brick chimney that started at the base of the foundation and went up six feet above the roof; past the completely rusted propane tank, which everyone agreed would someday explode; past the back porch and the far corner of the house, gray and disintegrating like the old barns you saw from the highway; and back around to the front. It didn’t dig like hardpan. The ground was relatively soft. Still, it was an enormous project to attempt in one day.
When we found our way back to the front yard, the ouroboros could almost bite its tail. So we broke for dinner. It was ham and cheese sandwiches, brought out by Aunt Phoebe on her Franklin Mint 2016 commemorative platter, featuring Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln healing the sick of Bombay. Above them, the good Lord smiled down from his golden throne in the clouds. Aunt Phoebe liked to joke about it, but I also noticed she kept the platter on a decorative stand by her boom box over the sink.
My uncles and I sat on the edge of the moat, our feet dangling down like kids at swim class taking a break. There was a festive air, a certain delight that Uncle Red and Uncle Marty never seemed to show. But when they looked at what we accomplished they smiled and high-fived each other.
Back on the porch, Aunt Phoebe turned and yelled, “Eat up, boys, but don’t take too long!”
“Not a chance!” yelled Uncle Red.
“We’re on it!” yelled Uncle Marty.
Then the three of them looked at me. I raised my fist in solidarity and took another bite.
Uncle Red, Aunt Phoebe, and Uncle Marty, lived together in the house about 40 miles northeast of Hauberk, Missouri. It was a two-story Coronado foursquare build by the Louis Company for my great-grandfather in 1912. He moved there from Kansas City with the expectation that the town of Hauberk would eventually grow along the railroad in his direction, raising the value of the land. That proved, however, to be a precipitous assumption. The property was the last bit of an unproductive patch, which before the Great Depression had been optimistically designated as farmland, but which was now just a flat plain of grass and birch trees with dry creeks and too many crows.
The house had been going to seed for the last 80 years, just like our family, and was known to be an area where you might get threatened with a .410 for trespassing. Still, Uncle Red, Aunt Phoebe, and Uncle Marty, having survived their respective spouses, retired together to the old house in the late 1990s. Since then, they seemed to have given themselves over to the kind of melancholy one feels when the good old days are unquestionably gone forever.
When they weren’t digging moats, they were a fairly morose bunch and they were avoided at all costs by the rest of the family. I’d learned that the feeling was generally mutual; though, the three of them maintained a reverence for our grandfather and his property that bordered on religion.
They did not keep the place up, but they did admire it greatly, if only in the abstract and usually in the evenings after a certain amount of alcohol. The house signified the last good, common, family thing in their lives. They were not well off, but they treated the old homestead not unlike one of the great estates of a lost European nobility, a sad reminder of a grander, more glorious age.
“You’re never gonna get it done!” Aunt Phoebe yelled.
“I know!” yelled Uncle Marty.
“Damn shame!” yelled Uncle Red, pitching his crumpled can of Bud into the open leaf bag in the center of the front lawn.
I looked at the remaining distance we had to cover, maybe about 15 feet, and realized that Aunt Phoebe would have said that even if we’d only had one shovelful left. That was just her style, the same way that my uncles agreed with her no matter what she said. I was a guest in the house, yes, but I was also a spectator.
When the George Floyd protests came to Hauberk and someone tried to burn down the Walmart Megastore a block west of the college, Uncle Red, Aunt Phoebe, and Uncle Marty defaulted to the fatalistic, medieval siege mentality that had been lurking in their DNA all their lives. They ran up their credit cards at the gun shop and patronized whichever local box stores were still open in order to prepare for the worst. They figured the End Times had finally arrived. It cheered them immensely.
All Hauberk was on edge. Everyone was talking about what had recently happened in Nirvana, just over the Arkansas line, where an anti-police brutality protest turned brutal and an entire strip mall went up in flames, including a bank, a nail salon, a Mongolian restaurant, and a storefront sculpture gallery featuring Remington reproductions and assorted objects of rodeo art.
Though the editors of the Hauberk Gazette condemned the violence in the strongest possible terms, stressing the need for dialogue and down-home midwestern tolerance, there was an abiding sense that anything could happen. One worried that the civil unrest, which had so recently and shockingly boiled through the country on the coattails of the pandemic, might rush inward from the coasts once again, burning everything in its path, until it all coagulated in the center of Hauberk’s main drag.
“Knees! Dig from the knees!” yelled Aunt Phoebe.
“That’s what I keep telling him!” yelled Uncle Marty.
“Absolutely!” yelled Uncle Red as he tossed another can of Bud into the bag.
Unfortunately, the moat had not been dug from the knees and it was decidedly not watertight. The 50 gallons of bituminous tar specified for that purpose in Uncle Marty’s Medieval Siegecraft for the Modern Home was not obtainable from Amazon Prime in less than a month, the local Home Depot having sold out of it two weeks earlier. We weren’t the only ones digging moats.
Things got more difficult when Aunt Phoebe strained her back boiling crab apples in an enormous cast iron cauldron behind the house. This took most of the joie de vivre out of the moat digging experience, seeing that she then parked herself on the front porch swing with a Mason jar full of ice water so she could critique Uncle Red’s and Uncle Marty’s shovel technique.
“The knees!” she yelled. “It’s all in the knees! If you don’t hurry it up, you won’t get finished before sundown! And then what?”
“I know!” yelled Uncle Marty.
“Dig like you got a pair!” yelled Uncle Red—I think to me, since he had his back to Marty and it wouldn’t have made sense had he been addressing Aunt Phoebe. But I’d learned to take nothing for granted while staying at the house. And though we hadn’t talked about it, I think we’d all seen enough zombie movies to know what happens after dark when moats are only half-dug.
Mercifully, Aunt Phoebe left me alone. Yes, I had bad shovel form. I knew it. At 19, I’d already developed what some might call “rickety knees,” which ended all career paths involving well digging, trench maintenance, basement retrofitting, pool resurfacing, and freelance latrine management well before I could investigate those brochures at the Hauberk Job Center.
Sometimes, Uncle Red called me, “boy” or “the kid,” not in a condescending way but because, to the three of them, that’s what I was and probably what I’d always be. Uncle Red often said, “A man busts his ass.” By that calculus, I was just a kid with an unbusted ass and weak knees, who’d therefore gone to college to study Marxism and smoke dope.
“You’re hopeless!” yelled Aunt Phoebe.
“Truth!” yelled Uncle Marty.
“No kidding!” yelled Uncle Red.
I did my best to put my back into it and dig like I had a pair. I shoveled as fast as I could, thinking we’d have to engineer some sort of pit trap or at least a deadfall with broken rocks and shards of glass at the bottom to stop the house-invading hordes of liberals my aunt and uncles expected any time now. In case we didn’t get the tar, my Uncle Red said they had a backup plan; though, none of them felt inclined to share it with me just yet. And I knew better than to attempt to pry it out of them. They had their secrets, jointly and severally, to be sure.
Still, in spite of the fact that none of us pleased Aunt Phoebe with our shovelry and my uncles took regular piss breaks, constantly bringing more Bud Light out from the pantry, we completed the moat by nightfall. They completely filled the plastic yard bag with their empty cans. By the end, they were, as Aunt Phoebe put it, “drunk as two otters.” Nevertheless, it was a magnificent moat, yawning, black and ominous as a skull in the dark.
I felt we would all sleep well that night—my uncles from an abundance of beer, me from physical exhaustion, Aunt Phoebe from her nightly Halcion crushed up and taken with warm milk. In the upstairs hallway, she grabbed me by the arm as we passed each other on the way to our rooms. It was dark, but we paused in a slant of light from the circular window over the stairs. Fingers digging into my arm, she warned me not to go outside if I woke up before dawn.
“Cause you don’t know what’s out here,” she whispered. “You never know.”
I thought Aunt Phoebe was going to caution me against falling into the moat, but I couldn’t imagine what caused her to think I might be wandering out there in the middle of the night.
“Ain’t no bears in Missouri,” she said. “Leastways not around here.”
She sighed, frowned at me, then let go of my arm and shuffled down to her room at the end of the hall. One day, Aunt Phoebe would tire of my sarcasm. Then there would be hell to pay. Until then, it would be either liberals or bears or perhaps liberal bears, and hell could wait.
It was a big house, two stories up on a high footprint. The wood and flagstone front porch was painted dull clay red on a gray concrete foundation about six feet off the ground. The top floor—four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a solarium full of cardboard boxes and miscellaneous dusty junk—felt more like a third story.
I opened the bedroom window and felt the night air on my face. The window was more like a set of narrow doors with yellow glass panels. It had little French handles made of pewter and, when it was fully open, it framed my body from mid-shin. No screen. You turned both handles at once, swung both sides inward, and then it was just you and the night sky. No one, to my knowledge, had ever fallen out and broken his neck, but it was the first thing I thought of as I stood there listening to Uncle Red snoring two rooms away.
The flat blue-gray plain of dead farmland stretched out under the moon. Here and there a black copse of birch broke the monotony. Uncle Red called them “volunteers,” because the birds had dropped the seeds. The saplings grew tall and thin together like groups of people mingling at a party. My uncles were too superstitious to cut them down. When I asked, Uncle Marty just said, “You don’t fuck with the land.” And that was that.
I looked for the moat, but I could only see the edge of it if I leaned way out, which scared me when I did it. I’m not afraid of heights and old creaky houses, but there was something about how the stands of trees cast long shadows in the moonlight that made me think no one would ever notice me out there if I fell and broke something.
The room smelled like they hadn’t vacuumed since the Kennedy Administration and I wondered how many people had slept in the lumpy queen bed over the years, what their lives had been like, and how many of them might have stood at the window on a moonlit night and watched those dark stands of trees sway in the wind.
In the morning, I came down to the kitchen, feeling groggy and sore from the previous day’s agricultural labor, all that putting of my back into it and digging like I had a pair. Aunt Phoebe set out a bowl of Cream of Wheat for me with a slab of butter in the middle like a tiny radiant sun. She was in a good mood, doing the dishes, whistling, had the local conservative radio show going full blast from her ancient boom box over the sink.
I noticed she’d washed and replaced the Franklin Mint platter beside the radio. After I’d been sitting at the table for a minute, Aunt Phoebe fell back into her unconscious habit of answering the show under her breath—“Right” or “Not a chance” or “That’s for damn sure” as she moved around the kitchen. I thought it was a holy roller radio service at first. But it was just an agitated republican.
“We’re pretty much stocked up,” she said. “Nothing can touch us now!”
“What about the crab apples, though?”
Aunt Phoebe gave me a sour look. “I dumped ’em. Too much work. And I was short on jars. The squirrels’ll get ’em all before the end of the week anyhow. You’ll see.”
The speaker on the radio had a feverish, almost breathless way of spitting out his words, as if each one were a bullet. The question under debate was what the violent liberal rioters were going to do when Trump won again. A group of illiberal Marxist dissidents was supposed to be holding a sit in that evening in downtown Saint Joseph and the local militia was set to come out and prevent various statues from getting beheaded. The speaker paused, then asked with great intensity: “Will they burn YOUR town next?”
“Not this damn town,” muttered Aunt Phoebe; though it was unclear which town she meant. It was all a bit hard to take with a bowl of greasy porridge after a day of engaging in medieval siegecraft.
The moat, as I have already mentioned, was lacking a sealant, at least one appropriate for a crusader stronghold. But the backup plan was sound and had already been put in motion. My uncles returned in Marty’s Dodge Ram just as I was forcing myself to swallow the last spoonful of breakfast. Roped steady in the truck bed was a 50-gallon drum of self-hardening fiberglass resin they’d bought that morning at Complete Building Materials over in Columbia.
Uncle Red explained the plan as we looked down into the moat. “This turns to stone and it’s watertight. When we have to, you know, pour Greek fire in there and light it up, it won’t burn extra hot like with the tar, but it’ll keep it going.”
Uncle Red lit a cigarette, squinted, gestured at the moat with his smoking hand. “An incendiary weapon first used in Byzantine warfare in the seventh century, Anno Domini. What’d they teach you at school?”
“Napalm,” Uncle Marty said and grinned. “They never expect napalm.”
“Isn’t that against the Geneva Convention?”
Later, we sloshed the self-hardening resin around the entire inside of the moat, got harangued from the porch by Aunt Phoebe for sloshing it wastefully and not bending our knees (“I know!” yelled Uncle Red. “Yeah! Exactly!” yelled Uncle Marty.), and got dizzy from the fumes. Then Uncle Marty took me out to see his cattery.
Two things are always true in this existence of toil and servitude, no matter who you are and no matter what you do for a living: one never expects napalm and visiting a cattery will change you. The former is true because napalm, like moats, is something out of myth and legend, something we only see on TV. No one says, “It’s looking like rain tomorrow, Bob. We better roll out the napalm.” It just doesn’t happen.
The latter is true because feral cats are sons and daughters of the goddess, Bastet, and therefore inherently divine. And 38 furry divine beings peering at you from the roof and through the slats of an ancient collapsing barn will deliver such pagan grace as to make you rethink certain fundamental assumptions and generally reconsider your life. Uncle Marty explained this to me when we got there, which also made me reconsider Uncle Marty.
He had a large black cat statue, which he’d positioned at the edge of the roof overlooking the broken side door. “Soon as I put the statue up,” he said, “they started coming. They told their friends. I’m well known.”
“You’re a cat celebrity.”
“Don’t joke.” He nodded at the Bast statue, which had been carved so artfully that the black cat sitting next to it looked identical. “She’s a goddess. She’s kind. But she’s got her dignity. You know?”
I didn’t. I also didn’t know whether he meant the black cat sitting next to the statue or Bastet herself. When we got out of the truck, the cats started meowing.
“Ancient Egypt’s always called to me. I got a ton of books on it. Started having these dreams. Then one day, I came out here to shoot some cans and I saw a cat sitting right over there.”
He pointed to a cement block sticking up about a hundred feet away, part of an old house’s foundation, what they used to call a “ghost basement.” The house got torn down and all that was left were concrete basement walls sunk into the earth. But the barn had remained, slowly listing until a tornado or maybe just age and termites caused it to definitively collapse sideways. From the look of it, one more bit of harsh weather might do it in completely.
Uncle Marty opened up five large tins of cat food and positioned them around the doorway. He talked as he washed out and refilled two aluminium water dishes of the sort the local farmers used for goats and alpacas. “I followed the cat inside here but it was gone. Then, about a week after that, I had a dream of cats in a golden temple and I knew.” He straightened up and gave me his King Arthur smile as if the rest of the story should have been self-evident.
A large crowd of cats had now formed around my uncle, some taking sips of water, some rubbing against his jeans, or nibbling at the food. A row of them looked down from the edge of the roof like vultures. Pairs of eyes stared at us from spaces in the wood. The meowing was prodigious and incessant. I’d never seen feral cats act like this. Then again, I’d never seen an ancient Egyptian cattery barn dedicated to a goddess before, either.
“You knew what?”
“I knew I touched on the infinite.”
In the evening, Uncle Red got drunk up in the attic, watching C-SPAN on the house computer. Uncle Marty disappeared to his room. And Aunt Phoebe put on the AM ballroom station, twirling around the kitchen like an ingénue of the early cinema. Contrary to what one might initially think, this was their usual routine.
It was also why I hadn’t asked Uncle Marty to explain what touching the infinite meant. After many nights of watching my aunt bow to an invisible dance partner, whom she referred to as “Mr. Godfrey,” and listening to Uncle Red have heated drunken arguments in the attic with his dead wife (Aunt Paula—I met her once when I was very young), an Egyptian cat shrine in backwoods Missouri didn’t seem unreasonable.
Aunt Phoebe and my uncles weren’t stupid. They weren’t insane. They were simply ingrown, weird, haunted by people or things long gone, by memories or regrets or fantasies. And to watch them in their evening pursuits, to pass judgement on them, even silently, seemed indecent, made me feel as though their loneliness could add to mine. So I gave them as much room as I could in that dusty old house, retreating to my bedroom after dinner to read.
My great-grandfather’s bookcases were still in the basement, preserved under dusty drop cloths and I liberated the complete Dickens in hardback, the stories of Guy de Maupassant, an illustrated Moby Dick. I kept a diary on my laptop; though, I was often uninspired and only tapped out a few lines. And that was the circumference of my nights when I wasn’t recovering from digging like I had a pair. I’d hoped to study English at Hauberk College, since reading was the only thing I ever truly enjoyed, but given a long enough timeline in that house, I felt I, too, would be holding seances, talking to ancient cat goddesses, and sharing a Coke with Mr. Godfrey.
I’d never been normal, if normal meant barbeques and baseball games. I wasn’t fond of team sports, wasn’t voted most likely to succeed at anything. Toward the end of my senior year, as I was getting ready to go away for college, after noting loudly and critically that I didn’t have a girlfriend, my mother pronounced me too smart to be normal and cast her own form of divination, part curse, part prophecy.
I would, she said, be lonely and miserable in the years to come. But there would be a time when the tables would turn and all those kids who seemed to be having fun now would despise themselves and their lives. Then it would be my turn as long as I studied very, very hard. She had that angry righteous light in her eyes when she said it. But she never foretold that a virus would sweep the world or that I’d wind up living in “the ramshackle pit” instead of taking British Literature at Hauberk College. My parents hadn’t returned my last three calls. I could only assume that they didn’t want me coming home so soon. Maybe they thought some moat digging would be good for me.
We were about ten miles out from the house on a dirt road without a name. I asked Uncle Marty if the barn was part of the family property, but he just smiled and shook his head.
“Somebody owns it,” he said. “Or nobody does.”
“Maybe the cats.”
Uncle Marty laughed, nodded. Maybe so.