Pacific Northwest Flood of 1996. Portland Corps/Wikimedia Commons

Rain pelts the back of Harriet’s slicker like the palms of a thousand needy toddlers. Without relent it pours, so surprising in its force that its mammoth drops coalesce into one entity, one massive, sopping curtain coming down, trying its darnedest to prostrate her onto the soaked earth. After only five minutes of digging, her shovel feels waterlogged; in each split-second that the emptied blade faces upward, it fills to its edges with new rain. She supposes the cool moisture is good for her hands; absent the downpour, rubbing against the dry wood of the shovel, she would already have given herself blisters with her furious digging. But then, absent the downpour, she and Curtis wouldn’t be back here at all.

She tosses a heap of mud into the mound taking shape a few feet from his head. The poor dingbat’s eyes and mouth are wide open. His head fell back when she tipped him out of the wheelbarrow, so now even his nostrils are angled up to receive the water. Won’t take long for that little skull to fill right up. His gaping features (even his eyebrows won’t come back down), they freeze his face in a look of surprise, like the one he had the day he found out four of his lotto numbers had come up and she had to remind him that he hadn’t bought a ticket. She forces her eyes away and goes back to digging, staring into her growing hole-puddle. But that dope’s face has made its imprint, and she can’t blink it away. She closes her eyes, she stares hard at the ripples in the water, lifts her head and stares into the streetlight beyond her rooftop. His stunned expression overlays it all.

She stops, gathers her breath, long enough to eyeball first the hole and then Curtis. Yup, he’d just about fit in there, if you pulled his knees up to his chest. But it won’t do to have him right up against the surface.”

So she digs harder, faster, to shake the grief and guilt. She’s not big, and you could hardly call her strong, but in the same way that her desperation gripped her muscles to drag Curtis to the door and roll him into the tilted wheelbarrow, it now doubles her speed, lifts more leaden mud into her shovel, tosses it away with that much more force. It feels like only a few minutes before a hole the size of a shoebox turns into a trench a couple of feet deep. She stops, gathers her breath, long enough to eyeball first the hole and then Curtis. Yup, he’d just about fit in there, if you pulled his knees up to his chest. But it won’t do to have him right up against the surface.

Her digging slows when she starts up again. She gets back to speed by tapping into her fear. All the what-ifs of getting caught, those are good for a few minutes. But what really gets her back into it is the thought of how she and Curtis ended up here. She’s got a good picture of early evening, as the clouds gathered, and she can recite that darned two-sentence conversation word for word. But she can’t find a bridge between Curtis’s last words and her tipping the wheelbarrow sideways in the kitchen doorway and rolling him into it. The only clue to her lapse is a blotch of bruisey blue-grey, an inch above the dark thicket of stubble he always misses – missed – when shaving around his Adam’s apple.

She stops digging long enough to sigh, “Ooooohhh, Curtis!” When she lifts the shovel to resume, the name returns to her as a mantra. “Curtis! Curtis! Curtis!” she hisses with each squelch of the blade. A ticker in the back of her mind counts off the repetitions, “Curtis, Curtis,” ten times, twenty, quickly rising to fifty and more. She tells herself she’ll stop at a thousand, that the hole will be deep enough then – that it’s the only appropriate conclusion to this thing Curtis had coming to him. After all, in ten years, the same exchange happened, and each time she had that thought: He’ll never get tired of this – gonna say the same darned thing a thousand times, I’ll bet, and then

“Curtis! Curtis!”

Part of it, of course, is her fault. Staring out their kitchen window at the rainfall turning Eugene Crescent into a river, she was the one who set him up. Every time. The words were always there, waiting to jump out of her mouth the instant the raindrops’ pounding rose above a drizzle. In the early months here, a contented newlywed, she hadn’t had the foresight to stop using them once Curtis came up with his comeback. It took only days for Curtis’s little morsel of wit to get tiresome, weeks for it to progress to infuriating, but in that time her set-up words became a habit which, exasperatingly, she couldn’t shake. She’d hear them, her own voice a traitor in her ears, before her thinking brain could grab them and strangle them in the back of her throat. Out they’d come, as predictably as the drumming of water from the overflowing gutters on the nearby living-room window: “Boy, it’s really coming down!”

“Curtis! Curtis!”

And, just as predictably, she would instinctively stop whatever she was doing and put out her hand against the counter or the fridge, to brace herself for Curtis’s excited blast of stupidity – here would come the six words that, fired from his self-satisfied grin, would nudge her those inches closer to her tipping point: “Well, it sure ain’t goin’ up!”

“Sure ain’t goin’ up!” she barks, and has to look around to make sure the lights aren’t on next door. Lowering her voice, she goes back to digging.

“Curtis! Curtis!”

A rueful chuckle long served to deflect Curtis’s little assault. Over time, that chuckle eroded into a kind of bumpy sigh, one which became weaker with every heave. She can’t recall today’s sigh, can’t say whether she got it in, or whether it got swept up in the tsunami of her rage. Not that it matters.

“Curtis! Curtis!”

Her favourite, comfy, perfectly-worn house shoes. Ruined – and how many murder mysteries has she watched in which the trace of dirt on the shoes leads the detective to the killer?”

Before she knows it, her mental ticker is at seven hundred and she’s looking up from a four-foot hole. Only upon stepping backward for a better angle does she feel the gooey wetness inside her loafers. “Oh!” she gasps, and chokes back a sob. Her loafers. Her favourite, comfy, perfectly-worn house shoes. Ruined – she’ll never manage to scrape the mud completely off of them, and how many murder mysteries has she watched in which the trace of dirt on the shoes leads the detective to the killer? Besides, the wet has probably permanently messed up their shape. Yet another win for the rain. That confounded rain.

“Curtis! Curtis!”

It could have been different. In their first blissful month of marriage back in Des Moines, when the company had promoted him, they’d given him a choice: come shore things up at Headquarters in Phoenix, or head up the new West Coast branch in Portland, Oregon. She’d lobbied for Phoenix, with its wide-open desert skies. But Curtis had wanted a taste of being the boss.

“Curtis! Curt-is!

That makes a thousand. The hole is shaped weird, more a funnel than a ditch, but the edge comes up just over her five-foot-six head, and she figures she can cram Curtis into the bottom three feet if she crumples him up.

“Curtis! Curtis!”

His name keeps leaving her lips after she’s tossed the shovel out of the hole, as she scrabbles up the side and onto the grass.

“Curtis! Curtis!”

With a haste that doesn’t allow for ceremony, she kneels at Curtis’s side and rolls him toward the hole.

“Curtis! Curtis!”

On her second heave, his head and shoulders clear the edge. Gravity pulls the rest of him over; he gives the impression of diving in.

“Oh! Curtis!”

Always plunging headlong into things.

“Curtis! Curtis!” Kicking her loafers off into the hole behind him, she finally begins to cry. “Oh, Curtis!”

He’d been the boss, all right. And she’d played the good wife, packed up and followed him here.

“Curtis! Curtis!” The shovel is back in her hands.

“Curtis! Curtis!” Another few hundred sobs of his name, and the last shovelful of dirt is packed back into place. Exhausted, Harriet finds just enough get-up-and-go to drop the shovel into the wheelbarrow and wheel it, barefoot, back to the house. Falling against the back door, before turning the knob, she turns and shakes her head one last time at the bald patch of mud somewhere out there in the rainy dark.


This sure wouldn’t have happened in Phoenix.


Brett Marie, also known as Mat Treiber, grew up in Montreal with an American father and a British mother and currently lives in Herefordshire. His short stories and other writing have appeared in publications including The New Plains Review, The Impressment Gang, PopMatters and Bookanista, where he is a contributing editor. He recently completed his first novel The Upsetter Blog.
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