I step up into the cab of Montana Louie’s truck and slam the door behind me.  It’s the kind of door you can slam as hard as you want; it makes the same deep, dull thud no matter what.  The thing is huge – a big diesel Ford “F”-something “Powerstroke.”  He hates driving it in the city, and I don’t blame him.

“Pat. How ya doin’?”

“Good, Louie. You?”

“O.K., Pat, O.K.”

That’s as far as we get.  Louie looks like he might have tied one on last night, and I stayed up much too late, as usual.  Sometimes just knowing I have to get up early is enough to make me not sleep.  I manage to have a fair bit of insomnia for other reasons too, but none of them are very impressive.

Louie hunches over the wheel as he guides the truck carefully down the side streets of North Seattle and onto the freeway.  We both relax a little and listen to the radio.  Usually we listen to KEXP, the local public, post-college, indie-rock station, until about Everett where the signal weakens and we can’t take the static anymore, but this morning Louie is tuned in to the news, and we silently listen as we barrel north up the interstate toward Camano Island and the job site.

I like Louie; he’s a good egg.  He’s in his early thirties and actually from Buffalo, but moved himself out to Montana a few years ago having had enough of Buffalo, New York City and the whole Northeast.  Louie’s a plumber by trade, but he’s also working as a framer on this job.  Tall and solid, with dark hair and a dark beard, he could be cast as an Italian movie peasant if they gave him the right clothes.  He’ll slow down long enough on the job to give me instruction on something before I screw it up, and cost us time and someone else money.  What I like most about the guy is that he seems to like me; we take smoke breaks together even though I don’t smoke.

The first day of the job I offered to give him money for gas on the way home.  “No, no, don’t worry about it, Pat.  Foss is giving me money for gas on this job,” he explained. “But thank you for offering.  I don’t think anyone has ever done that before.  The dickheads I usually work with just say, ‘Well, you were going there anyway.’”  He shook his head, and I was glad to have raised myself up above the dickheads in his estimation.

Usually, we talk in the truck about all sorts of things.  Louie is the only person I know who has taken Oxycontin, or “hillbilly heroin,” recreationally.  He got hooked after back surgery – the result of poor lifting technique he tells me.  When he was out, he asked his girlfriend to help get him some more, but she refused, and he flew into a rage, putting one of his meaty fists through a wall of half inch sheetrock.  That was when he realized he was hooked and had to quit. So he did.  He’s tried it a few times since, but it no longer has a hold on him.  His girlfriend used to be a big crystal meth “tweaker” herself.  She’s back home in Montana working at a natural foods cooperative, while Louie is here on the coast for a few months to make some money during the long Montana winter.  This morning we are both tired, and don’t say much other than him asking me to see if I can’t find him a cigarette in the heap of paper coffee cups and empty packs piled on the bench seat between us.  I do, and he thanks me.

The damp air that floods the cab when he cracks the window to exhale smoke has a smooth, cool feel as it wraps around the dull ache of my head.  It’s refreshing, but I try to resist it, hoping to eke out some more sleep before we get there.  Instead of opening my eyes, I pay attention to the radio.  From what I gather, there has been a bloodless coup in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and a new, young leader has emerged.  According to the voice on the radio, this guy is pretty impressive, and apparently, “a new kind of Georgian politician.”  The voice says that, “for example, he is a graduate of Columbia Law School.”

I smile to myself as my head bounces against the passenger side window in time with the seams in the pavement.  Louie looks over, cigarette perched in the corner of his mouth.  He sees me, quickly exhales a plume of blue smoke out his side window, and turns toward me.  “What the fuck are you smiling about?”

I point to the radio.

He’s been listening, too.  “Is that where you went?”

I nod.  We’ve been through the fact that I used to be a lawyer before, but the idea is fascinating to Louie.  It’s true; I managed to parlay an Ivy League education and five years at a prestigious law firm into a job as a construction laborer.

“Did you know that guy?”

I shake my head.

“Does it make you want to go back to the law?”  He pronounces “back” like a Long Islander, squeezing the “a” up against the roof of his mouth and holding it, which cracks me up.

“I don’t know. It makes me feel like a failure. But I don’t think it makes me want to try to get back into it.”

“But doesn’t this job make you want to?”

“No, man, it was nightmare.  It’s a bad way to make a living.”

“Yeah, but how much coin were you making?”  We’ve been through this before, too, but he can’t get over it.  I can’t really get over it, either.

“A lot.”

“One hundred and fifty G’s, or some shit, right?”  He smiles and shakes his head as he says it.

“Yeah, at the end.  That only lasted about six months, though.”  I say this almost as an apology, an attempt to downplay the money somehow.

“Jesus Christ, Pat, that is one hell of a lot of money.”  He laughs, and I can’t help laughing with him.

“Yeah, I know.  Trust me, it was more than I was worth.  It’s more than anyone’s worth, really.”

“Jeezus.”  Louie shakes his head.

“It was hell, Louie. I couldn’t stand it.”

“Oh, I believe it.  Trust me, man, I’ve never had a job I didn’t hate.”

I shrug, nod. Good point.  It’s hard to convince someone who’s literally breaking his back in the mud and rain just how bad it was making $150,000 a year in a warm, dry office.  It’s getting harder to convince myself now that I’m slogging in it for a tax-free twelve bucks an hour.  I didn’t exactly walk away, but I ask myself if I couldn’t have tried a little harder, held on a little longer.

April first – a nice touch – of the year before last, my boss, the managing partner, came in and gave me an almost teary speech about how things weren’t working out and that it wasn’t all my fault and it wasn’t all theirs, that he really wanted to work with me to find a place that would be a good fit, where I would thrive.  He said that it wasn’t goodbye, or the end of our relationship, but the start of a new process.  It was all very heartfelt and touching – and, in a way, I was touched – and that was the last time I ever spoke to him.  I didn’t walk out and never look back; I hung around the office for weeks wringing out every last second of paid employment.  He never came back to my side of the building.

It wasn’t really a shock.  People had been disappearing from the office for months; it was like a disease stalking the halls.  A colleague got the same speech about twenty minutes after I did.  We went out and got bombed that afternoon after work.

I didn’t tell my girlfriend right away.  First, it was because I was bombed, then, much later that night, she had to go to the emergency room because of what turned out to be a minor, but painful, kidney infection.  I drove her to the hospital and sat beside her bed while we waited for tests to come back.  We watched some funny stuff that I don’t remember on a rebroadcast of Conan on the lousy hospital TV, and I played with medical gadgets in the room.  Once we knew it wasn’t serious, it was sort of fun; it felt sort of dramatic to be there, but not dangerous.  She said she was sorry to keep me up so late, and that I should go home and get some sleep, because I had to work in the morning.  She would take a cab home.  I told her not to worry about it, I had worked plenty of days with almost no sleep and maybe I would just go in late.  What were they going to do, fire me?  She agreed, they wouldn’t fire me for having to take her to the hospital in the middle of the night.  They might be complete jackasses, but they liked to put on a good face, and that would not be a good face.

Sitting there in the hospital, I felt freer than I had in a long time, like my life was mine again.  But I didn’t tell her.  I mean I couldn’t tell her I lost my job as she was lying in the hospital, could I?

The next morning I didn’t go in late.  I wanted to sleep in – what were they going to do, fire me again? – but I remembered there was a meeting.  From the tone of the e-mail memo, it sounded as if something big was going down.  I’d read the message just after I’d been fired, and wondered if I was what was going down.  I’d missed meetings before, and it didn’t matter now, but I wanted to show up at this one, partly to show them I could, but mostly I was curious.

I drove to the office after a couple hours of sleep.  Driving violated my first new rule – take the bus to save money on parking – but I didn’t have time.  So, the parking lot guy, Abbibi, got a final twelve bucks out of me, but that’s O.K., I liked him, and all the times he gave me the “early bird special” when I came in late I hope he was pocketing the cash.

The meeting ended up being an ass-chewing of the senior associates by the managing partner.  Then he left, and the senior associates turned on the juniors.  Something about needing to show commitment to the firm by canceling vacations at the last minute.  I didn’t really understand.  Business was so slow we were all surfing the net pretty much full time, but I decided not to ask.

One of the senior associates came to my office after the meeting and told me that I showed “a lot of class” by being there.  Apparently he knew I’d been sacked the day before.  He told me it said a lot about my character, and that I was going to be fine.  I didn’t tell him that I had shown up more or less out of curiosity.  He said that he wanted to sit down with me and have a long discussion about my future soon, but that he had a lot on his plate that day.  I told him not to worry about it, I was pretty tired, had a rough night.  He shot me a look and said that he understood.  Of course, he didn’t understand; it wasn’t about losing my job – I was just short of ecstatic about losing my job.  I told him I’d had to take my girlfriend to the hospital.  His look adjusted from plain-serious to concerned-serious.  Was she O.K.?  I really, really wanted to tell him she was dying and had been for a while now – that would certainly make them feel like a bunch of assholes – but I couldn’t do it.  She was fine, I assured him, just a minor kidney thing.  I went from unleashing a tide of sympathy and guilt, to him thinking I was having a lot of sex.  He promised that we would talk soon, that he considered me part of his family and that he would not forget me.  I never saw him again, either.

After that, I went down to the parking garage and took a nap in my car.  I don’t know how much class that showed, but it felt good.  When I got back upstairs there were two voicemails and three e-mails from a particularly annoying associate.  I had been working for her over the past month on a merger that had once kept me awake and in the office for three straight days and nights.  She always wanted four different things done at once, and they all had to be done before lunch or the sun would explode.  Her messages usually ended with a remark about how if I didn’t think I could handle it, to let her know, and that she would find someone who could.  She sounded frantic in the messages, but that was normal.

I e-mailed her back saying that I couldn’t help her because I was swamped with some other urgent stuff that had just come up, and that she better find someone else who could handle it, because I couldn’t.  Then I headed down the street to a café, picking up a newspaper on the way.  It was a beautiful spring day, and I sat outside among a bunch of other paper-reading, coffee-sipping, nothing-to-do-at-ten-thirty-in-the-morning types.  The sun felt good on my face and my life seemed full of possibility again.  I wasn’t a corporate lawyer anymore – I could do anything.

I remember it like it’s the last real thing that happened in my life.  Of course that’s not true. Plenty has happened. My dad had emergency quintuple bypass surgery; I became an uncle; and my girlfriend became my wife.  Still, I feel like I’m sort of pretending, like time passing doesn’t count because I’m standing still.  Things will start up again when I get my life figured out.  It occurs to me periodically, sneaks up when I’m standing on the top rung of a ladder or cutting something over my knee with the circular saw the way I’m not supposed to: this is my life, and it’s real, and there probably isn’t as much of it as I think.

The days since that morning I walked out of my office and into the spring sunshine turned into weeks, then months and a year. As the time slipped away, so did the feeling of possibility.  Gradually, it was replaced with an impossible busyness – tasks unrecognized by others that I could neither fully explain nor complete – until finally I couldn’t imagine how anyone had time for anything, let alone a job.  Eventually my old friend, Foss, asked if I could do some work for him.  It wasn’t that I wanted to, so much as I couldn’t explain why I was too busy.

“I just don’t know why you want to do this, Pat.”  Louie’s words bring me back.  I don’t know why I want to do this, either.  I get paid, but it’s not much, and I need money, but I don’t need it quite yet.  I squirreled away enough as a lawyer to live modestly for the rest of my life, as long as I die in the next three years.  But here I am.

We finally pull into the job site, a bluff overlooking the Puget Sound, and I climb stiffly down from the cab of the truck.  It’s cold and I reach my arms up over my head in an attempt to stretch without letting the chill seep under my jacket.  Inside the house we have now mostly built, Foss is already scratching his head about something.  He bit off a big chunk on this job and has somehow held it together despite a less than optimal crew, cost constraints, and all the screw-ups that come on a big construction project.  At least it actually looks like a house now – a house of plywood and two-by-sixes, the kind eleven year old boys would be happy to live in if they could.  Two months ago, it was a hole in the ground.  I’m amazed at how much goes into building a house, now that I’ve been mostly through it.

Foss greets us with a quick look up from the plans and, “You’re late. You’re fired, everybody’s fired.  I need a real crew instead of you losers!”  He’s not really mad, but he is a bit annoyed.  This is typical and we shrug it off.  Sometimes I have to remind myself that, whatever I’m doing here, Foss is trying to make a living and provide for his family.  It’s serious work for him even if we can joke around a lot, and I respect him for doing it and running his own business.  He’s not getting rich. I think he’s barely getting by, but he is getting by, and that’s admirable.

“What should I do, boss?”  I enjoy calling my old friend “boss.”  In fact we all do it now – an homage to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.

“Set up.”  He goes back to staring down at the plans.

The fact that the compressor isn’t humming or the air hoses attached, and the power cords aren’t run means that Larry, the other member of our crew, hasn’t been here long either.  All that is up and running is the beat radio blaring from the top of the lumber stack outside.  This is the first piece of equipment to be plugged in each morning.  The person who plugs it in gets to set the station.  Larry has it on some classic butt-rock station, which, to be honest, isn’t that different from the classic alterna-rock station anymore.  The butt-rockers just take a few more years to adopt things.

Larry is a guy from Foss’s soccer team.  He lives north of the city, in Lynwood with his sister in their mother’s old house.  From what I gather, she died a few years ago.  I don’t know exactly what Larry was doing before this, but it doesn’t sound like he’s been doing much for years, though he is a nationally ranked darts player.  We don’t really talk too much about anything outside of work.  I’m not crazy about the guy, and I don’t think he likes me much either.

From the moment he started on this job, he’s worked to climb up what hierarchy there is to a position somewhere above me.  I was really the only person he could rise above, and he’s succeeded, so now he’s my boss too, which I guess is fair.  He works hard (when he’s not in jail), and he seems to know a bit more about this stuff than I do, but I don’t really need a supervisor when I’m moving lumber or stapling tar paper.  Questions like, “Larry, do you have anymore quarter inch staples?” are answered with, “You should always have more staples in your bags, Pat.”  The problem is I know he’s not trying to be a wise ass – just show that he knows more than me.  No shit, Larry.

I run the power cords to the temporary service box and lug the air hoses over to the compressor in a semi-somnambulistic state.  There is really no need to wake up before I absolutely have to, and even walking around like a zombie seems to go just a little way in satisfying my desire to be asleep.

The set-up complete, I head back inside for further instructions.  Whatever was bothering Foss ten minutes ago has passed, and he looks at me and yells, “Go, go, go, Pat!”  It’s a job site joke from a month ago when we rented a sixty pound jackhammer to chip out a forgotten door in the foundation wall.  It was a dirty, loud, muscle-cramping job that no one wanted to do, so it fell to me.  I sort of enjoyed it.

“O.K., boss, what do you want me to do?” I ask, presenting myself at the table made of two sawhorses and a sheet of quarter inch plywood piled high with plans, tools, chalk boxes, water bottles and coffee cups.

“Let’s see . . . you can work in here with Larry putting in blocking, the facia boards need to be put up on the garage, or, if you want, I can come up with some framing for you guys to do in the loft.”  These aren’t bad jobs; they involve some hammering, which is fun, and also measuring and cutting, which can be entertaining, but I just don’t feel like it this morning.

“I’m pretty beat, boss, I’d kind of rather just dig.”

He looks at me for a second and then says, “O.K.  Some days I wish I could just dig.”  He looks away over his shoulder and yells, “Larry, you do the blocking in here, Pat’s going to dig.”

“Sweet!” Larry whoops like he’s won some kind of award.

“O.K., just continue the ditch to where the gas comes into the house, and then dig out the holes where the deck pilings are going.”

“How deep?” I ask.  He hates it when I ask a lot of questions.

“Until you hit hard pan.”

“What’s hard pan?”

“It’s hard.  You’ll know when you hit it.”  He adds the last part before I can ask.

I decide not to antagonize him and leave it at that, walking outside and choosing a shovel.  The ditch is about twenty-five feet long and three feet deep.  It is pretty tough digging, but I nearly finished it yesterday.  The nice thing about digging is that you can think about whatever you want while you are doing it, because you don’t have to think much about digging.  I work on finishing off the last few feet of the ditch.  I am actually connecting two ditches, because I decided to start at each end and meet in the middle like the transcontinental railroad.  It made yesterday a little more fun.

I think about mobster movies where they drive out into the country, pull spades from the trunks of Cadillacs and dig a grave to dump a body.  The more I dig the more preposterous it seems.  Digging is hard work.  It would take a couple of fat guys all night to dig a decent hole with those little shovels, and they wouldn’t be able to go out for breakfast afterwards, because their wiseguy suits would be filthy.  I think about old time miners and the guys who built the trail I hiked down the Grand Canyon last year with my dad.  That must have been some work.

Soon, the ditch complete and, the Pacific and Atlantic railroads meeting with fanfare, I move on to the holes for the deck pilings.  This is easy digging, because the earth was disturbed and then back-filled after the house’s foundation was poured.  This, I hypothesize, is why we have to go down to hardpan.  It is exactly the type of question I would normally go annoy Foss with, but I don’t feel like it right now, so I just dig.

I think about what I’m doing with my life. It seems a suitable topic while digging a hole.  I’ve applied for some fairly uninteresting-sounding jobs, but none have come through.  Disappointment at not getting them is coupled with – and ever so slightly overcome by – relief, all in the same deflating thought.  My wife is understandably unimpressed.  She doesn’t tell me, but I can tell.  Most people in her position would have given up on me by now, and I wouldn’t blame her really.

The hole was started by a backhoe at the time the back-filling was done.  Why it wasn’t completed by the backhoe, I have no idea, and I’ll have to get to the bottom of that at lunchtime.  Presently, it is about two and a half feet deep and four or five feet square.  I put my foot on the back edge of the shovel and push the blade into the soft earth.  It gives way easily without my having to put much weight on it.  Taking my foot off, I turn up the blade and lift a heaping pile of dirt up out of the hole.  Now this is the kind of digging the wiseguys could handle.  I think about being a gravedigger – steady work, not too stressful, clean, calm environment.  In little time I am down another foot and a half.  Off the bluff, an eagle holds what seems like a stationary position high above the gray water of the sound, riding the wind like a river eddy.  He must be fishing.  I would like to see one actually take a fish, but so far no luck.  The radio is droning from the lumber pile about fifteen feet away.  As a tribute to Kurt Cobain on the tenth anniversary of his solving all his problems with a shotgun, they are playing a lot of Nirvana today, though it’s not like they don’t everyday, and, despite what everyone says, I’m not sure how well it holds up.

I lose track of time and thoughts.  The digging continues as if someone else is doing it, and I’m just watching dreamily – it’s kind of nice.  Another thing about digging is that it can be the hardest single day of work you ever put in in your life, but when you get home you’re still an unemployed loser.  I mean, are you going to brag to your friends, parents or wife about a hole you dug?  I’ve tried, no one cares.  I return to my body after a while and check my progress.  It’s very good.

As I go deeper, it is getting harder to maneuver the shovel to throw the dirt out.  The soil is still soft, and I keep going.  I can no longer see the radio, but I can hear it, and I keep throwing dirt up over my shoulder in that direction.  Judging by my own height, the hole is now six feet, two inches deep and my shovel is still cutting through the bottom like butter.  I have to continually scrape out the sides in order to give myself room to work.  Dirt streams back into the hole as Larry walks by the rim in search of something.

“Having fun yet, Pat?” he calls.  “You diggin’ to China?”

“Shut up, Larry, you tool,” I say knowing he can’t hear me.  Who the hell still says that?  Channeling my irritation into the digging, my head is soon a good couple of feet below ground level.  Now I really have to heave the dirt up to get it out of the hole.  Some of it inevitably rolls back in, but I’m still gaining on it.

Another thirty minutes of solid digging just to see how hard I can go, and I can no longer really throw the dirt out.  I can’t even reach the surface.  Everything above sounds muffled, and when I look up I see the sky framed in the hole as if from the bottom of a well.  The walls tower up above me as I sit down in the bottom on the cool, damp earth and rest.  It must be nine feet deep by now.  I’m not even sure I can get out.

The compressor motor stops as the nail guns inside the house fall silent.  I can hear the radio softly; the ads repeat even more often than the songs.  This is the depression ad for “Wellbutrin,” or “Paxol,” or something:

“Are you having trouble sleeping?  Are you sleeping too much?  Are you not eating?  Are you eating too much?”  The symptoms cast a fairly wide net.

I remember an article in the New York Times last year about a construction worker in Ohio who was buried when the trench he was working in collapsed.  The company’s owner expressed profound grief, but he was the third guy lost that way in five years, and they continued to ignore the OSHA regulations about trench boxes and safety equipment.  With the radio going and everyone inside, it wouldn’t matter how loud I yelled, they wouldn’t realize I was gone until lunchtime if this thing caved in.  I decide to sit there a little longer.

Finally, using the shovel to stand on and get me started, I begin climbing out, putting my feet on one wall and my back on the other like I was going up a chimney.

The radio continues:  “Does it seem like you are living your life in black and white?”

The dirt is soft and it sloughs off the sides sliding down into the bottom as I climb.  The process is surprisingly difficult. At the surface, the world seems new – sounds louder, the gray light brighter.  I look out over the lead-colored water of the sound to the Olympic Mountains on the horizon for a color check.  The stark white snow band is all that differentiates the gray of the sky from the water.  The eagle continues to hang in the foreground.

Looking down into the pit I’ve dug, I feel strangely good.  There is no real reason for it.  Nothing has changed. I’m still not making any money. I’m wasting thousands and thousands of dollars worth of education and my life.  My mom can’t tell the friends she runs into at the grocery store about the hole I dug.  But it doesn’t matter.  Climbing out of that hole, I feel more satisfied than I ever did catching a cab home from the firm at three in the morning after the final turn of a document.

I don’t think about doing what I love, or following my dreams, or even money.  It isn’t about money – well, it’s sort of about money.  I think about when I’ll be able to stop and get a beer.

Foss comes up behind me and peers into the hole.  I have to admit, it’s pretty impressive.  “Jesus Christ, Pat, how deep are you going to go?”

“Until I hit hardpan.”

“You still haven’t hit it?”

I shake my head.

“Well, forget it, we can’t go any deeper than that.  We’ll just make the footings wider.  How the hell deep is that, how did you get out?”  These are questions he doesn’t really want answers to.

Louie calls from where he’s sitting on the roof, “Don’t fuck with Pat!  Ain’t no president of Georgia – he’s a new kind of ditchdigger.”

I smile.  I’m starving, it’ll be lunch soon.