IN A MORE THAN usually misanthropic move, Virgil Handy put a bucket on the front of his old 8N and dug a four-foot ditch between the highway and his front yard one morning in early September. To ensure proper drainage he severed his driveway, briefly creating a short, dry moat. He dropped a length of corrugated pipe in the pit, restored the driveway above it, and flanked the narrow entrance with tall concrete pillars studded with the shiny chrome and plastic remnants of past auto accidents that had invaded his yard over the years. Henceforth, those late-night visits would be eliminated. That the vehicles might be damaged by his handiwork was an inevitable side-effect, but he took no pleasure in such anticipation. He sought protection, not revenge. Drivers – and their cars – had no right to leave the highway.
“I know, I know,” said George Wattler, the town supervisor. Wattler, a happy dumpling of a man in a too-small suit, had held this position for over 20 years, running unopposed in most elections. “I talked to Virge. He says as how it’s his property to do with what he wants and all.”
“That’s a state road!” Claude von Scholly thundered. As head of the highway department, he maintained a small fleet that plowed and oiled the non-state-owned streets in town. He begrudged the state its newer equipment and always could find fault with its work, but was quick to defend all highways against hotheads like Virgil. “There’s a right-of-way, you know!”
“We know,” said Wattler. “We told him. He don’t care, he says, and we’re welcome to sue him. He says as how we should tell our attorney–that’d be you, Doug–to get in touch with his attorneys.”
“Who are his attorneys?” asked Doug Baer, fresh out of law school and chafing at the indignity of doing grunt work for this and two other tiny upstate towns.
“He said it’s a firm called Smith and Wesson,” said Wattler, and, when Baer failed to respond, added, “That’s a joke, you know.”
Baer pressed his lips together and reddened. “I’ve still never heard of them,” he said. “Where are they, Utica?”
Von Scholly laughed and clapped his hands. “Oh, they got branches all over the place, Doug.”
JULIA AND JASON had been seen together twice at the movies by some classmates and by just about the whole town when they sat side-by-side at the chicken barbecue at the church hall. This made them an item. Julia was a high school senior. Jason, who achieved his high school diploma only after a couple of stabs at Regents’ testing, now worked for the highway department because he was Claude’s son. What others might see as nepotism was considered fitting and proper in a town like Millcross, because it gave the otherwise unemployable a stab at a decent living and there weren’t, when you came right down to it, any other candidates for the job. Workers with even mediocre ability were snapped up by companies in Albany or Utica, and no able-bodied boy in his 20s wanted to languish in the rural nothing of Millcross after glimpsing the excitement offered by, let’s face it, Schenectady or Binghamton.
Freed of classrooms, Jason was more self-confident than Julia’s coevals, and proved so gentle and predictable that he was easy to control, a process she intuited but would have been horrified to overtly acknowledge. Because Julia in all other respects was selfless to a fault. Unfortunately, her many virtues – kindness, generosity, patience, honesty, and punctuality among them – were obscured by her beauty, and she became known only as the most gorgeous girl in town, as if that sufficed to characterize a human being.
Still, “She could have had her choice in boyfriends,” said Dorcas Devere, who ran the notions shop next to the general store. “Why Jason?”
“He’s too dumb to be afraid of her,” said Old Betty, one of the sewing club regulars, and the others nodded in agreement.
Call it irony if you like – I prefer to think of it as one of those happenstances that emphasizes how small-town life is stranger than fiction – but Jason was the first to put Virgil’s ditch to the test. He didn’t even have excessive alcohol as an excuse. Pride and stupidity, if they’re not the same thing, caused him to race his newly-acquired Camaro down the far side of Skunk Hill fast enough to send it into a fishtailing spin around Virgil’s corner, and the car plunged into the ditch and landed wheels up near a stand of pine trees at the edge of Virgil’s lawn. Both occupants hung unharmed in their lap-and-shoulder harnesses when the car came to a stop, but they were too shaken to release themselves right away. Thus, Virgil found a literally captive audience when he ran down the driveway, rifle in hand, to confront the malefactor.
“You git that piece o’ junk outta here!” he shouted. “I’ll blast that thing to kingdom come you don’t git it away this second!”
Receiving no articulate reply, he advanced to the side of the car. “Beat it!” he shouted. “G’wan! Git!”
Jason swung down from the seat and helped Julia do likewise. They wriggled out the driver’s-side window as Virgil continued to shout at them. “Don’t you leave that thing here! You listen to me now, you punk kids!” Still receiving no adequate reply, he raised the shotgun to his shoulder, aimed it at the car, and blew out the back window. Julia screamed.
Jason regarded the scene with a detached sense of horror. Bad enough that his own impulsiveness had caused an amazing amount of damage to his car. Now this crazy man compounded it out of nothing more than spitefulness, a spitefulness that led to the creation of this ditch, Jason now recalled, without which his car would have survived the skid.
Then Jason processed a couple more pieces of information. Only one of the gun’s twin barrels had been emptied. The weapon remained potentially lethal. Virgil was trembling. He remained dangerous. But because Jason was angry at the man, not the gun, it was the man’s face at which he aimed his fist, connecting with the crunch of a hoe against ripe cabbage.
Virgil staggered backwards and fell into his ditch, his gun landing harmlessly nearby. Just before grabbing Julia’s hand and breaking into a sprint, Jason noticed that all of had happened so quickly that his car’s wheels were still spinning.
AFTER A BRIEF SPELL of cool nights, the last two weeks of September were warm and dry, perfect weather for an old man to enjoy on his porch at night, although you could hardly say that Virgil enjoyed it. He sat there much of the day and night, shotgun across his lap, prepared to punish anyone seeking redress. He didn’t begrudge Jason the punch, reasoning that he’d have done the same in the young man’s position, but he sure didn’t want to have to start explaining things to lawyers and councilmen and what-all. So far, one week since the accident, the only visitors had been a trio of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they were so lost and tired they didn’t even try to give him their damn magazine once he pointed them back toward town.
He had some haying to do while the weather stayed nice, and blocked his driveway with a stout chain while he rode the fields in his tractor. Still, the only traffic that stopped on the highway was a state department of transportation truck, recognizably orange in the distance. A couple of small figures got out and examined the ditch, but they were gone by the time he’d hurried down the hill.
They snuck in through the mailbox instead. Dave the Mailman swung his pickup to a stop at the end of Virgil’s driveway and summoned the occupant with a horn blast. Virgil, a sweepstakes addict who carefully assembled and returned every entry that came his way, had dreams of a multi-millions payoff when he signed for the certified letter. It turned out to be a summons, written by that sniveling Baer, instructing him to appear blah blah blah.
Virgil telephoned George Wattler. “Tell him to shove it up his ass,” he said by way of greeting, and there was a silence before George said, “Hello, Virge. Yeah, it’s pretty rough.”
“Son of bitch ended up in my front yard, peeled the bark off my trees.”
“Well, you sort of peeled the back window off the car, so maybe you’re even.”
“Then you tell him he forgets it, I forget it, call it square.”
George recognized this as a generous offer. That is, the act of making the offer was generous. The fact that Handy was giving away nothing didn’t alter that. “That’s real kind of you, Virge, and I’ll be sure to tell him that.” The line went dead in Wattler’s hand, which was Handy’s typical goodbye.
George telephoned the young attorney. “Doug? George. Listen, Virgil just called.” He described the farmer’s offer. Baer laughed in his ear.
“He’s being sued, George, for assault with a deadly weapon, endangerment, attractive nuisance, everything in the book. We’ve got internal injuries – ”
“Those kids weren’t hurt!”
“Internal organs guy from Albany doesn’t think so, says you try rolling in a seat belt harness at that rate of speed and see what happens to you. He’s got charts and x-rays and everything to show in court.”
“Gets to use them over and over, something like that?”
“If there’s one thing I’m going to teach this town, George, it’s to take the law a little more seriously.”
George murmured a polite good-by, hung up, and sighed. The town had never had a lawsuit of any kind until 1982, when the new people on the old McDuffie place objected to the assessment that resulted from the too-high price they’d eagerly paid for it, and it had been downhill since. Insurance was next: The town moved its health coverage to an HMO as a new breed of physician erupted around them, physicians who kept you waiting for forty-five minutes before whisking you through the exam room in less time than it took to get one’s shirt off, sending you away with a fistful of prescriptions in your hand.
Talk about your march of time! George, who ran a small print shop, was yanked unwillingly into the new technology when he bowed to the inevitable and switched from job case to computer. Setting type by hand was so predictable that he took just the number of jobs to carry him, with modest remuneration, through a workweek of five eight-hour days. The computer was slow to master but quick to perform, which meant that, tasting wealth, he burdened himself with too many projects. Now he rarely put in less than twelve hours on weekdays and several on Saturdays and Sundays besides.
He stared at the electronic layout of an activity placemat ordered by a local fast food restaurant. Angered by the young lawyer’s bullheadedness, George toyed with the idea of adding Doug Baer’s face as a placemat target, offering a prize of fries for creative obliterations. Ah, for a little more nerve. He left the shop and strolled the half-mile to the General Store to grab a sandwich.
BACK IN THE ERA of farming by hand, Millcross harvested hops and wheat and every family kept at least a few cows. As mechanization and subsidies set in, the valley turned almost exclusively to dairy production. Industrialization made small farms unprofitable, so acreage was sold and combined as Albany office workers found comfortable hideaways in the town.
But there always was a General Store. In the middle of the 19th century, when the Erie Canal brought a commerce boom to the area, the store boasted an upstairs dance hall and was denounced from the pulpit of the nearby True Reformed Church, a short-lived Calvinist splinter group.
The dance hall turned into a pair of apartments, both now too dilapidated for rental. The store passed a couple of times from father to son, each descendant forced to buy out a flock of siblings in order to retain sole ownership. Sam Bullock, the current owner, disliked having actually to face the public, and leased the business to Cassie Fliegelman, an artist (pottery, dance) who missed her native Manhattan. Her husband, Larry, was Schenectady’s corporate counsel, and both preferred rural life to what Schenectady had to offer. The store gave her a chance to recreate the kind of neighborhood meeting place she enjoyed on Bleecker Street.
She achieved that goal, all right, especially thanks to the free-refills coffee policy. Every morning at eight a group of a dozen or so regulars pushed two or three tables together, drank coffee, and spent a couple hours bitching about politics, taxes, and whichsoever of the regulars weren’t there that day. The tab for the coffees rarely exceeded ten bucks, and the group bought few of the fresh pastries or bagels that were delivered every morning. Cassie called them her kaffee klatsch, a term embraced (and innocently Anglicized) by the regulars.
. . . . George Wattler and the schoolbus arrived simultaneously, so he walked in alongside Julia, who worked the afternoon shift. A glum-faced Jason waited inside, wearing a neck brace. “It was my dad’s idea!” he said instantly. “I don’t want to do this.”
Julia continued walking to the back of the store, saying nothing. She was eloquent in her silence as she fastened her green service apron and took up her behind-the-counter position. “What’s the rest of your dad’s idea?” George asked.
“Suing Mr. Handy. That’s why I have to wear this stuff. And my car is, like, on display and all and I can’t even get it fixed up.”
“Your license is suspended,” Julia said.
“Only for a couple months.”
“In a way, your dad’s right,” George said, sitting at Jason’s table. “That ditch shouldn’t be there.”
“Yeah, but this way it’s all gonna drag on forever.”
“I’m sure there’s some other way.”
The screen door slammed. Dorcas Devere strode toward the counter and paid for a cup of coffee, which she then decanted from a nearby pump thermos into a mug she carried. Although the store was casual about payment, Dorcas insisted on “paying my way as I go so I don’t owe nothin’ when I go.” She was bent, gnarled, and dressed in grey, looking like an old tree buffeted by decades of windstorms. She parked herself at George’s table and squinted at him. “Well?” she said at length in a thick contralto. “Why don’t you do something about it?” This was meant to be hilarious. As she’d explained many times before, George was an elected official and elected officials were supposed to do things and there always was something that needed doing.
Wattler forgot the old joke for a moment and assumed that she, too, was ditch crazy – but the look in her rheumy eye showed only her usual discontentedness. And then he remembered his usual reply. “Wheels within wheels, Dorcas. Can’t always see them turning.”
“Damn school bill – ”
“I got one, too.”
“ – This landfill nonsense – ”
“Have to wait for the committee report.”
“ – And now there’s this ditch!”
“So I understand.”
“Well, he – him!” She pointed at Jason. “Ask him!”
“We were just talking about it.”
Dorcas slurped from her mug and said, “As if this table hasn’t heard enough about it!”
“George. For heaven sakes. You think it isn’t the sole topic of conversation with the coffee clutch? That and the school bill? Driving Cassie crazy! Some of them are saying,” she said, “as how this is a test for you, see if you really got the people skills. Beach is saying as how you’re just wimping out.” She shrugged. “Me? It’s not like I got a whole lot of feeling onto it one way or another.”
Jason fidgeted with the cellophane of a snack-food product as he tried not to gaze too obviously in Julia’s direction. He felt unfairly oppressed, with the same foreboding he once felt in the classroom: someone is about to call on me for an answer, and I have no idea what the question is. Julia had provided him with unprecedented stability, deflecting such problems when they were together by offering her superior mind. Since the accident, however, she’d been keeping her distance. Was it this lawsuit? Why was the idea so unpopular when everybody hated that ditch in the first place? Julia would know.
And now Mr. Wattler was looking at him, grinning at him like some big joke was going around. “What do you think, Jason?” he asked. Shit.
“Oh, sure,” said Dorcas. “Ask him. His father wants to take a truckload of dirt over there and fill it all in, says he ain’t lookin’ to see any more kids get banged up.” She glared at Jason for a moment and then slapped her hand on the table and declared, “You ain’t hurt,” and marched out of the place.
George, embarrassed, said nothing, but Jason construed the other’s quiet as an oppressive judgment. He dared not glance Julia’s way. Yet he was horribly uncomfortable with the silence in the room, which he broke by murmuring, “Could so be hurt. What does she know?” and then grabbing quick eye contact with the other two to turn their impassiveness into assent. “Could so be hurt.”
THE PROBLEM OF VIRGIL’S DITCH, like so many problems in which human stubbornness butted heads against civic necessity, begged for an elegant solution that George knew he would recognize when it revealed itself. He viewed the world with a mathematician’s eye, and thus saw a world in which problems and their simple solutions long ago had been determined. The solutions – here was the problem – were revealed to self-absorbed humans slowly and only when they were ready to understand such things.
Setting type by hand, for example, had been a satisfying solution for the problems of interpersonal communication. A wedding announcement is nothing more or less than a wedding announcement, it can be argued, and the social ramifications exist off the page. Yet to coax this news into a few lines of ten-point Garamond, each line the length of the line above and below, was to resolve the situation into elegance. For the few moments in which the reader regarded the notice, the world was simple, the problem solved. No wonder the term for those regulated line lengths was justification.
Computers destroyed this, of course. Oh, the process still existed, but you nevermore contemplated placement of an en-space while pressing a forefinger against a capital B and noting, upon releasing contact, the deft, fleet impression that quickly vanished from your flesh.
George had saved his old typesetting equipment, of course, and promised himself that there’d be time enough one day to enjoy it again. “You hung onto it,” Claude von Scholly said with approval back when he first visited to admire the new computer. Claude hung onto old radios, floor-model Philcos and Atwater Kents on which he tuned clear-channel AM stations at night, the large, resonant speakers giving even the most adenoidal announcer the timbre of a Ben Grauer. Dorcas Devere hung onto back issues of magazines, her National Geographics stacked into a yellow blur against one wall of the garage. Beach Johnson had his collection of antique guns and Chester McCandless had Edison cylinders. If lawyer Doug Baer hung onto something he still hadn’t said so, and the table (during Doug’s infrequent absences) was divided into two opinions: one, led by Dorcas, decided he was too young to understand the need for hanging onto stuff; the other (George, Claude) held that his hobby was something juvenile like baseball cards or beer cans and that Doug was too ashamed to say so.
. . . . and so George Wattler eased into the store the following morning and seated himself in the midst of the “coffee clutch.” He knew how they regarded him; he knew how the whole town regarded him. Ineffectual. A dreamer. They kept him in office only because he was too easygoing to refuse the position. His wife did most of the paperwork and the really important tasks were delegated to ad hoc committees that took the liberty of reporting back to him rarely, if ever.
“Them state DOT trucks’ve been all over the place,” Claude von Scholly declared. “If we don’t fill in Virgil’s ditch, they’re probably going to do it for us!”
“Let them,” said George. “Save us some money.”
“But that’s not the point! That’d still be like giving in!”
“Remember that time Virgil treed his brother Ed?” Beach Johnson wore a beard with no mustache and a flat cap pulled to the eyebrows. His vast expanse of belly was almost covered by a green tee shirt permanently stained with the oils he encountered while repairing tractors and other farm equipment. “Ed and him, they hadn’t spoke for years, but somehow Ed got convinced that ol’ Virge was going to throw out some damn photo album just because Ed’s picture was in it. So Ed goes nosing around one Sunday night, right before trash pickup, and he makes enough noise to wake up Virgil, who never was a very heavy sleeper anyway. Now, Virgil to this day claims he thought it was a bear going through his garbage cans, and anyway he never did shoot at anything but the ground and Ed’s pants was already ripped, or at least he tore ’em going up that tree. And he says all he heard was squeals and grunts, even though poor ol’ Ed was probably up there pleading for his life. Kept him up there half an hour, too.”
Doug Baer, visibly impatient, said, “We don’t have to hurry into this. I sent DOT the information they requested, and they said – ”
“What information?” asked Claude.
“About the ditch. Measurements.”
“See?” Claude got to his feet. “That’s them! Think they own the roads!”
“As a matter of fact – ”
“Like I told my idiot son. We got a pile of fill and other crap we pulled out of the gutters in April, sitting back of the town barn. I put Walt in a ’dozer, he fills it up, one truckload, boom, it’s done. Virgil tries to dig it out again we fine him or shoot him or something.”
Doug Baer shook his head. “It’s not that easy.”
“What? We have to put it out to bid or something?”
“It’s a state road.”
“It’s our ditch.”
George Wattler shook his head. “There’s another way to look at it.”
Beach laughed. “Sure! Wait long enough and it’ll fill itself in.”
George smiled as the others laughed, then said, “We talk to Virgil.”
“You said you did that already.”
“Maybe he’s had time now to change his mind.”
Claude slammed his hand against the table, sending tremors across the surfaces of the waxed-cardboard coffees perched before each of the attendees and almost obscuring the sound of the screen door slamming as skinny Walt Mikler hurried in.
“Claude,” he said breathlessly, “they got, like, two trucks and a whole survey thing going!”
“State DOT. Out over to Hawk Street.”
“So? That’s what’s got your panties in a bunch?”
Walt shrugged. “They’re surveying.”
“They don’t tell us shit. Why should I care what they’re doing?”
“Suit yourself.” Walt poured himself a coffee and sat across the table from Claude. “Jason’s already loading the truck with fill.”
“No he’s not. He’s not back at work yet.”
Sure he is. I – ow!” Walt pushed back from the table. “Well, maybe not exactly back there working.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“The point is,” said Claude, “we can do something about it. I don’t want to see nobody else getting hurt. State DOT sure as hell ain’t going to help us, it’s our people getting hurt over there, we need to take a little initiative.”
Chester McCandless, a fleshy blonde man with a red face and bulging eyes, wheezed out a laugh and said, “Sure will piss off ol’ Virge.”
“That’s the part I want to see,” said Beach.
“Then what are we waiting for?” said Claude. “Let’s go.”
A SHORT CARAVAN rumbled over Skunk Hill to Virgil Handy’s house. Claude and Walt, in the town’s two-ton dump truck, led the pack, followed by Beach, Chester, and Doug in Beach’s not-too-old Crown Victoria. George took up the rear in a Subaru, with Dorcas Devere beside him. Jason declined to join the trip.
“We’ll talk to him,” George insisted. “That’s all we’re going to do.” They passed a DOT work crew of orange trucks and bare-chested men. “That’s all we need to do.”
“You have to do something, George.”
“Maybe he won’t even be home.”
Virgil greeted the group at the foot of his driveway. “Go home,” he said.
Claude leaped from the truck and ambled toward the man. George hurried to catch up but found Claude in mid-sentence: “. . . have to do it this way, Virge. You knew we’d have to.”
“Don’t know any such thing,” said Virgil, looking pointedly at George.
You’d think the heat would have worn off by now, but Indian summer had scooted in early and the bugs, with no threat of cold to discourage them, still kicked up a racket. A wall of jewelweed waved from the unditched portion of the road. George caught the faint aroma of burning plastic, which probably meant that Virgil was inexpensively getting rid of garbage.
“I just wanted to talk a little more,” said George.
Virgil laughed. “Ditch’s been working fine.”
“That’s from your point of view.”
“What other point am I supposed to have?”
“The good of the community,” George said, surprised at the amount of pride he attached to that statement.
“Community done nothin’ for me lately.”
“Yeah, well, we’re doing something now,” said Claude. “We’re filling that goddamn thing in. We don’t want anybody else getting hurt.”
Virgil shrugged and spat. “Suit yourself,” he said, and turned and walked back to his house.
There wasn’t much to see after that. Claude, clearly disappointed by his easy victory, climbed back into his truck and positioned it to dump as Walt kept an eye out for traffic. Beach and Chester stood around uneasily for a few minutes, then eased toward Beach’s car, followed by Doug, who had said not a word during the proceedings. Dorcas looked inquiringly at George, who shook his head. She, too, climbed into Beach’s car and the foursome drove off.
. . . . George soon shrugged off his coat, worn only for image enhancement and thus chosen with care not to impress anyone: it was a dun-colored windbreaker with a thin plaid lining. He folded it over his arm and repositioned his weight to relieve an ache traveling up one leg. Watching the truck at work was a delightful reminder of his boyhood fascination with industrial vehicles. His small fleet of Tonka trucks moved many pounds of backyard sand, with no other purpose than to fill and empty the bright yellow hoppers.
Claude spilled a hillock of dirt and Walt raked it to the edges of the ditch; Claude jockeyed the truck to another position and spilled some more. He’d filled about seven-eighths of the ditch, George reckoned, by the time he ran out. It really should have been a one-trip project. Claude also had run out of enthusiasm, and swore lustily as a DOT truck rumbled by with a payload of fill, as if to mock him.
“I’ll finish it tomorrow,” Claude growled.
GEORGE WASN’T IN the General Store next morning when DOT showed up. They found him in his print shop, Claude first, the DOT flunkies right behind, the yelling audible long before. George saved his work and stood to greet the men.
“They never talk to us!” Claude was shouting as he entered. “Like town roads aren’t good enough! Just ’cause they’re not state roads – ”
“That’s not the point,” one of the men was saying, but they simmered into silence once assembled in front of George.
Shushing Claude’s periodic outbursts, George learned that the department’s fall project was the widening of drainage ditches along the state highways. In some cases, as in the stretch of road by Virgil Handy’s house, new ditches would be dug. Someone saw Claude dumping a final load at Virgil’s that morning, and reported that he was sabotaging the state’s project.
“Since when is Virgil on their payroll?” Claude shouted.
The DOT could, if it chose, levy a fine against the town, one of the men explained. This irritated George. He believed that he and his town fared best when state interference was kept low, and saw his relationship with Albany as a needless series of mandates to be swatted aside, directives issued from an urban capital where urban politicians worked in ignorance of rural life.
“I don’t think there’ll be a fine,” he murmured, studying his computer screen. He was doing a swift, simple letterhead for the church, which he would give them, over the pastor’s protest, free of charge.
The lead DOT man, the one wearing a necktie, his cheeks gleaming from a recent shave, said, “No, no, not something we want to do. But we have to dig that ditch out all over again.”
“You didn’t dig it in the first place.”
“Well – yes. Technically, that’s true.”
Had Virgil known this all along? Were Virgil the sort of person to gloat, which he wasn’t, he’d enjoy this turn of events, George figured. But Virgil had a field to tend, and, as the orange DOT trucks continued to empty the just-filled ditch, his old 8N was silhouetted against the hill, creeping along the loam, leaving a wake of furrows.
Back at the store, Claude tried to find a way to tell the story in which he didn’t look too foolish, landing on the finish with a rueful laugh. And, as it got repeated day after day, somebody else – Walt, perhaps, or Beach Johnson if Walt were running errands – would say, “But they didn’t dig it in the first place.”
“Exactly what I told ole Virge,” Claude would snort. “And you know what he says to me? He says, ‘It’ll be a cold day in hell when I help the goddamn state!”
“Tell him to fill it back in!”
“He says he might. He says he just might do that.”
– January 31, 2000