STORYGLOSSIA    Issue 16    October 2006


  Finalist — Storyglossia Fiction Prize 2006


Roots and Limbs


by Chris Sheehan



So these poor people living in the house Lane kept up in Willits, their sewer had given out a few months ago, and something had happened, keeping us from making the drive, the kind of thing you'd like to tell your buddies, drinking beer in the dump truck, or at the bar, or on your porch. Maybe it's enough to say someone died, or someone's heart stuck in our last trench, someone you don't know, and Lane and I'd found a nice place to sit, just off the Shakespeare exit in Berkeley, where a broad swath of thistle and wheat-grass had been cleared for parking. So yes, we had our own underground construction company—Sewer Connection, we called ourselves—but we weren't the type of characters you wanted showing up on your doorstep. I know I'd send myself away. I know I wouldn't pay however many thousands of dollars for us to work on your home. But like I said, we replaced sewers. It's the kind of work people have a fair amount of sympathy for. You'd be surprised how much business we turned away, even with Lane handling the customers, in whatever voice they gave his mild tourettes.

If you want to know, Lane had run codes in the Coast Guard, or maybe it was the Air Force, but that's how he put it. They're all the same anyway. It could've been the Navy. He'd done that and something to do with having access to nuclear missiles, if you believe that. But he was a savant of sorts, and I didn't learn much about the service in the Marines, before I broke my kneecap to get out, honorably somehow, which is just a long and embarrassing story of its own, and I'd rather not get into my childhood, and all of the other reasons I ended up there.

Like I said, I'm not the kind of guy you want showing up on your doorstep. And I know Lane's not. I know why he was in the service, too. But I promised him I'd never tell anyone else, not even my son. Some things you have no choice but to hold close to your heart, as they say. What I can tell you is he was from a different generation and had spent a year or two running in the same circle as the Hell's Angels, and he'd won a few arm-wrestling championships in Petaluma, where they have a little bronze statue of two guys locked up along their main street. I know this because he drove us by it once, when we happened to be in the general area.

It just happens Willits was where we ended up that day, and I remember driving under the town sign arched over the highway as Lane said, It all seems fuck it smaller, it all seems smaller. Isn't that what everyone says fuck it?

Here, milkweed grew sparsely from the front yard out to the rail's ballast, thickening along the vacant lots near the switchyard and the mill, where steam rose over the house, gripping in the still air. Far off, the ridgeline rifted down and the depressions, slumped on the green-cleared hills, showed rigid in the foggy light.

Don't make it up here much fuck it, he said.

A few doe moved out from the oak scrubs and picked their way across the tracks, toward the overgrown lots. He sat still and watched the deer, his wrist on the wheel, shaking with the idle. Then he shut the diesel down and opened the door.

I need a few more beers, I said. I'm not ready.

He closed the door and sat back in his seat. Fuck it. Fine by me. I didn't fuck it plan on working today. Just wanted fuck it make sure you weren't.

A few beers turned into a few more.

Eventually, as the sky broke to a light mist we decided to get out and at least see what the line looked like. We set up the camera at the cleanout by the house. It couldn't have been more than a thirty foot run, and if it was shallow enough, we could pull a new one through in two or three hours. But the line was still full. Typically, if there's grade, even an eighth of an inch per foot, the liquids, or whatever you want to call them, will slowly seep through the blockage. The monitor, an old wood-paneled television, went black a few feet in. We ran that camera all the way until we were clearly in the city main. Even with the debris on the lens we could see a little light in the eight inch city sewer. The line was flat.

We'd pulled flat lines before—our ethics seemed to vary day to day. We knew it worked well enough to outlive any warranty we slapped on it. But Lane owned this house. In a year or two he'd have the same problem. I'll spare you the details about ejection pumps and so forth and all the codes involved, and just say I didn't feel up to open-trenching this line into the street. It was the kind of job we liked to run away from, screaming.

I put the camera in the truck's bed, then set the monitor in the back cab and fastened the seat belt around it. There's nothing we can do today, I said. I opened a beer and watched him wrap the extension cord over his shoulder, shaking a little more than normal. His case was mild, like I said. There was nothing out of the ordinary about him unless you got close enough to hear his tick or study his hands, though once he'd told me he didn't know what he said when he lost control of himself. I know what he said around me, but I'm sure I was the only person he'd ever asked.

He wrapped the cord tightly in a professional way, then set it in the bed and pulled out a shovel. Let me fuck it know when you're ready fuck it to start fusing the pipe. Fuck it I'll dig this one. He walked to the property line, where dirt gave to the sidewalk, and started digging.


I'm not the kind of person who can watch someone work. Neither of us were. Like I said, this wasn't a city operation. I'm also not the kind of person who likes working for no reason. You don't need to understand the particulars to know this wasn't the best solution. Honestly, we only pulled flat lines when the customer didn't have money to do anything else. We tried our best to lay it all out for them, explain how the earth moves, how roots aren't too picky about their nutrients—how shit likes to flow down hill.

But he wouldn't let me in the hole. Every few minutes he'd ask for the saw, or a new blade, or to plug the cord back in. There were roots, and the shovel wasn't doing much good. He tried for a while with a pick. He tried loosening the soil with the little roto-hammer, but there wasn't much soil around the roots. I wasn't going to be a part of this, I remember deciding. I took what beer was left from the truck and sat down on the porch. But just then a man stepped out next door and lit a cigarette. There's always an old man coming out to talk.

He walked to the side, where a gravel drive ran into the backyard and I could see his RV parked in the thistle. He stood a time, studying the mill, as if somehow he'd never seen it before, then he walked to the porch and held out his hand. Usually, I'd be drinking out of a coffee cup and lighting a cigarette, but we weren't getting paid for this job. Paul, I said. It's good to meet you, Frank.

I offered him a beer.

The old lady, he said, and nodded to the near window, where the shades were cracked against the light. Oh, what the hell, he said. You only live once, he said. I can't remember the last time I said that. He was tall, thin, and bald, and he seemed to want to cover his face when he took a drag from his cigarette. She won't leave me alone about this, he said, and knocked on the siding. What are you digging up, there?

A lateral, I said. The sewer's broken.

Those roots will get you every time, he said. We just had ours replaced, must be a year now. You can see where the roots brought up our walk, here, he said, and walked toward Lane, where he followed the roots to his property. Damn things, I don't know where they came from. Not a tree around, I can see. Boy, he's onto something there, he said. That boy's digging to China.

Lane stopped then and turned toward us, breathing heavily. I thought no I recognized you, he said. But I don't. No, then he went back to the roots.

Where you two from? he said. She's one hell of a truck, he said, and then put his hands on the rack, looking into the bed. You boys use cast iron, he said, and held up a forty-five degree fitting. I hear ABS is the new thing now.

I crushed my can on the sidewalk, then threw into the bed. I could hear it hit against a few other empties. We don't use plastic, I said.

This here looks like plastic, he said, and pulled down on the pipe, strapped to the rack.

You could run a truck over it, I said. He didn't need to know what it was made of or how we fused it—he didn't need to know anything except we wouldn't be around for more than a few hours. I wanted the guy to leave. I wanted to drink beer on the porch. I wanted to go home and get out of the rain. Like I said, I never dealt with clients. Neither of us liked people, they just responded better to Lane. It was getting late, too. We weren't getting home for dinner, I could tell that much. I knew I'd have to give the wife a call. At some point I'd have to find a pay phone. When we first started we'd had cell-phones, but I got frustrated with mine and threw it out the window, driving down the freeway. So we figured they were a bad investment. It's possible she would have called me twenty times by now. We would have talked about nothing twenty times already. We would have said I love you twenty times.

I saw that screen of yours, he said. From a fair distance, he said, nodding again to the facing window. He set his empty beer in the bed. She's been watching the whole time, you know, he said. But you can't blame her. Inside don't look any better than a shit line. You boys are just here to do your job, you don't want to hear about all that. I know. I should go in, anyway. She's probably worried about me catching cold.

I was quiet. I waited for the blinds to turn. Then I asked Lane what the fuck was taking so long.

Fuck it there used to be a big oak, Lane said. Fuck it old man burned out his clutch trying to pull the stump. He was out of breath and sweating heavily through his Wranglers and undershirt. Fuck it there's roots and fuck it there's limbs. I can't fuck it tell the difference. Fuck it, he twitched, fuck it, holding the shovel tightly against his chest. Then he used it to step up the foot or so he'd gotten down and took a seat in the wet grass. It was raining steadily now. He ran his hands through his red hair thinned along the sides. You don't ever expect fuck it this fuck it to happen to you, he said. Fuck it I should have hired someone fuck it. He stood up then and walked in circles around the yard, as if explaining something to himself, before he sat down on the porch and looked off toward the tracks stretched through the narrow ravine, pulling into the dark cut, his hands still moving on him.

I picked up the shovel, sunk in the mud, and started digging. If this means anything, there is an art to digging. I'm not a big guy and somehow this was a source of pride for me. You won't hear that from many people, I know. But these roots split like a sapling, like a madrone sapling, or any other hardwood. I went at them with the narrow shovel—the sharp-shooter, we called it—until my calluses were blistered and raw. I didn't like using anything electric when I dug. I kept at it until light had pulled down the ridge and backed a thin shadow across the yard, the tracks, the house.

In the distance the mill lights lit steam off the tall stacks. I watched the steam hold in the rain while I tried to catch my breath. I watched for what seemed a long time before I lit a cigarette and looked around for Lane. There were a few lights on inside the house.

I climbed out of the hole and looked into it. From above, it looked deep. I remember how deep it seemed. It seemed as if I'd dug twelve feet. But it was dark. And the shovel's handle was still above ground. I snapped the shovel over my knee and set it into the hole. It looked better. I lit another cigarette. I was still out of breath but something about digging made me want to smoke. I remembered a liquor store just off the highway. I thought I should give Lane some time alone. I had an idea about tomorrow, maybe driving up early. I was done digging. I was sure about that. I didn't have anything left in me. And I hadn't eaten anything since last night. But I was past the point of eating. I needed to get hydrated and see how things fell into place.


Outside the liquor store there was a pay phone. I had two quarters in change. I dialed home and my son answered. He was twelve. He was doing homework. I could hear the wife yelling in the background. She wanted him to get back to the table so they could finish doing his homework. I told her it'd be a late one. I said this job is kicking our ass. I said it's just another nightmare job. I didn't tell her where we were. I didn't want to get into specifics. Any source of logic I'd had about coming up here was lost on me by now. I didn't know where to start. I told her not to wait up for me. I said it's possible we'll work through the night and sleep in the trailer. We didn't bring the trailer. But it was something we'd done before when we'd work on restaurants. I just hoped she wouldn't notice it in the backyard. I told her to put my daughter on. I wanted to hear her voice. I don't know why. She was more like me, is all I can say. They were both young and at that age you can't tell much, anyway. But she'd already hung up. She'd heard enough to know what it all meant.

I'd thrown a bottle of Gatorade in with an eighteen pack, but I set the dead weight in the garbage can out front as I turned down the street. I had a fresh pack of smokes, too. Things didn't seem that bad. I was thinking about maybe watching some late night television. Maybe getting into bed at some point and making up with the wife the way we sometimes did on these kind of nights. My buzz was gone by now. It must have been hours since my last beer. I had the whole drive home to drink beer and think about what I'd say and how I'd say it.


Down the street, I could see even in the dim mill light that the truck was gone, though there was a glint around the hole, or where I thought the hole should be, as if something was moving there. I set the case of beer down on the sidewalk and saw the hole half-filled with water. It seemed to be rising. I'd gone deeper than I thought, or at least the line was shallower than we'd thought. At some point, I'd broken it. I could see pieces of the tar-and-paper line bubbling at the surface. Somehow dirt had gotten down the line and clogged it up.

The front door was locked, but then I lifted the garage door. Water ran from every faucet and fixture throughout the house. There weren't many of them. But the house was a mess. The carpet was torn out and mattresses were spread everywhere. The bathtub had a film of dirt-red along its rim, and the water-heater had been disconnected, along with the washer and dryer, which lay on their sides in the backyard. If they'd had cabinets, those were gone too, though I couldn't see them among the other debris—a muffler, television antennae, clay pots, silverware, rugs, the refrigerator, oven. The house wasn't big, just a small two bedroom with an attic for a dormer. You see homes in this condition sometimes, where they'll position their laundry drain to shoot out their window into the neighbor's backyard, or let the walls rot down to the plaster-wire or studs. I did what anyone else would do. I shut the water off. Then I went outside and boarded the hole.

It's possible he kept driving north through Oregon and Washington and maybe even Canada, where he found a dirt road and stayed on it until it ended or he got stuck, something he'd done in the past for no apparent reason. I never asked—we only spoke a few times, generally about our pending lawsuit. I found my way to Shakespeare—somehow the whole ordeal had brought me enough sympathy from the wife to drive out and pick me up. So we managed to have a good time and make a day of it. It was a Saturday, after all. But that's another story. Who knows what I told her.


Copyright©2006 Chris Sheehan