The man knocking at my door waved at me through the window, centered in the cross hairs of the pane.
I opened the door. “Hello, Doctor J.”
“Let’s build a pond.”
“Come over tomorrow at nine o’clock.” He walked away, crossing my lawn and into the street before I could say, “Uh…okay.”
In the morning, I walked across the street to his house. It stood in front of a forest and was an exact replica of mine, with everything on the other side, prefabricated twins staring at each other in a housing development. I walked around the side of the house along a worn footpath that led to his garden. The plush green trees carried the exotic denseness of a Pennsylvania summer, and the cicadas and chiggers zapped and barked in the canopy.
Behind his house was the garden, which had a few rows of carrots with bushy Mohawks sticking out of the ground, a shrub that could’ve been Marge Simpson’s hair, a fern, and two rows of tomato plants tied to sticks with neat bows. In the middle of it all, he stood there with a shovel half buried in the dirt. He looked up at me as I walked across the deck.
“I have no idea how to start.” Dr. J was stroking his black push broom mustache, and his pale legs shone against the dirt. We had nicknamed him Dr. J, after the famous basketball player, since, with his skinny legs and driveway basketball hoop, he was the closest thing we’d ever known to a famous basketball player.
I placed my hand on the hilt of a shovel that leaned against the railing. “Me neither.”
“I guess we should dig a hole.”
We dug into the ground, uprooting the shrubs and tossing them aside. We dug out stones and roots, de-housed spiders the size of plump ravioli and worms like fleshy shoelaces. Three feet into the ground we found an arrowhead; at four feet we found a lawn mower engine. By that afternoon we were squatting around the hole like experienced contractors. A pile of dirt and stones heaped a few feet away.
We talked about everything pond related: water, hoses, ducks, frogs, drainage, waterfalls, and tarpaulins. In between, we chatted about things non-pond related: the weather, neighbors, and sports. We talked about college, as I was a month away from entering my freshman year. He gave me advice like: “Schedule your fun,” and “Reward yourself only after you’ve done your promised work,” and other life tidbits that I wouldn’t realize the value of for another decade or so. We talked about everything—everything but his son.
About two months before we stood in a hole in his garden, Doctor J’s son Mike had died in a manner befitting an after school special. He had been inhaling butane with friends and died on the floor of a local pizzeria as his high school gym teacher tried to resuscitate him. His death had rocked our suburban community in a way that only a teenage death can. And so we spent hours digging and measuring and actively not talking about Mike, death, or vaporous gases.
At the end of the first day everything on my body hurt. My knees ached and my palm was sore from gripping the shovel. My hands were crusted in dried mud. We had exhausted our conversation topics after two hours and so we worked in quiet before panting goodbye to each other. “See you tomorrow. 9 a.m.,” he said. I nodded.
I limped home, covered in grime; my mother met me at the door. “Don’t even think about it.” She pointed me to the garage and tossed me a towel. I stripped, revealing abrasions and bruises. My sister spotted a tick on my calf and tweezed it out as my mother ran a bath.
“So, what are you doing over there?”
“Digging a pond.”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you talk about?”
On the second morning we talked strategy and design and ate the stunted carrots that had been refugees to our project. We drew sketches and stood on the deck for perspective. His wife came out with lemonade and oranges. We sat in the shade and made a list of things we needed from the hardware store and then he gave me a few orders and got in his car.
I wheeled the dirt pile into the forest and thought about Mike. We’d ended up neighbors through the serendipity of settling parents, and clashed at a barbecue when he scratched my leg and I bit his arm. After the ensuing tears, and a watermelon Bubblicious olive branch, we became immediate friends. Then followed all the suburban rites of friendship passage: playing catch, street hockey, Halloween cemetery excursions, and mock combat in the woods. We staged rainy day ghost story marathons in his basement, and Dungeons & Dragons tournaments in our tree fort.
He had been exactly two years and a day younger than me, and every year we battled for rights to a birthday party day. Nevertheless, on the day after mine, we’d eat the leftovers of two Carvel ice cream cakes and pool our birthday loot. We had spent dozens of summer nights in a tent in this garden, irritating his father with underarm farts and butt cleavage. More often than not, I was banished across the street in the middle of the night to sleep in my own bed.
And now, he was gone and his father and I were digging a hole.
After finishing with the mound, I stared down into the hole and wondered what it was like. I decided to test its depth, so I jumped into it, my boots reaching for grip on the uneven floor. I stood, looking into the woods as one would from a foxhole, as men had done in the Ardennes. I lay down in the hole and stared up into the trees that elongated and stretched far into the sky. It was cooler in the hole, the cold dirt offering a respite from the damp hotness of August. I felt a sense of relaxation and closed my eyes. The forest chattered away in a thousand voices and I drifted into a comfortable and peaceful rest.
“Hey, I got some great stuff at the store!” He looked down at me and swallowed. “There’s some stuff in the car, can you help me?” He had bought a tarp, a hose, and a bag of stones in various sizes. There were also some Bonsai sized bushes, four koi, and a turtle.
I didn’t mean to upset him, but it was clear that I had, since for most of the morning his quiet was laced with a distant gravity. In the afternoon we laid down the tarp, pinning it to the ground with large stones and tucking the edges into the dirt around the ridge. We looked at the black tarp and frowned.
“We need that dirt back,” he said and clapped me on the back. The garden was littered with memories of Mike. I could see us fitting our knapsacks with supplies for a trek into the woods. Usually we didn’t go more than a hundred yards from the garden I was now standing in, but once in a while we’d venture to the deep woods and, once, the deep deep woods. We brought peanut butter sandwiches, binoculars, and a bungee cord in case we had to fend off a bobcat, whose complete absence from Pennsylvania was inconsequential. We’d storm off into the woods and his mom would chase us down with a sweatshirt in late June and scold him for coming back late before we even left. And true to her prediction we’d come back late, sunburnt, and covered in ticks.
But then different high schools pulled us to separate corners of the teenage social hierarchy. While he was brought into a circle of popularity, I went to a boy’s prep school in the city where I wore a polyester blazer and my dad’s ties. Before long, we were only meeting one evening a week to chew tobacco on the swing set in the woods. We’d tell stories about our new schools and new friends, and talk about things that seemed outside acceptable conversational boundaries of our current social scenario. Once he swallowed chew spit and vomited, and I patted his back as he retched into the dirt.
“You’re a good friend,” he’d said. “The others would have laughed at me.” I knew he was right.
Dr. J and I became a great source of interest to the other neighbors. They stepped out on their decks and watched us work. Some walked their dogs behind the house and made small talk, though we barely acknowledged their presence, having made an unspoken agreement not to talk to anyone. They asked questions and we answered in monosyllabic grunts until they grew frustrated with us and moved on. Some of Mike’s other friends had gone to Israel and planted a tree in his honor. They came to our pond and handed Dr. J a certificate. He took it and mumbled his thanks, then turned to me and said, “Do you think we should put in a stone path?”
“Yeah. It’ll be a nice touch.”
His wife invited the other boys in for lemonade, and we continued our work. He shook his head when they were gone.
“A fucking tree,” he said. “In fucking Israel.” And I was glad he did, because it was exactly what I was thinking.
Though I never asked, I did wonder why we were building the pond. It didn’t carry the same metaphor as planting a tree to signify life. In fact, we were doing the opposite. In building the pond we killed grass, destroyed carrots and tomatoes, and displaced animals and insects. All I knew was that our immediate goal was to build a pond and we were working towards this goal with some unmentioned drive. It was some memorial to his son or to occupy his time, and he was not interested in involving anyone else.
I was initially baffled by my inclusion in his project. Dr. J and I had never been close; in fact, I had always thought that he wasn’t very fond of me. He had scolded me often and had even admonished me for horning in on their father-son time. But I began to get the feeling that he considered my friendship with his son as something deeper. I’d known and loved Mike even in his uncoolest moments and was free of the need for popularity and social acceptance. By being included to work on the pond, Dr. J told me that my grief was on the same level as his. And even though I somehow recognized all of this, I never called attention to any of it. There was a level of fragility to the situation, as though it would end the moment he came to his senses. As a pitcher’s teammates will do nothing to upset the balance of a perfect game, I did everything he told me to, spoke very little, and answered his queries in brief.
We stopped working in the late afternoon and walked away from our pond, which was now just a ditch in the middle of the garden. In the hazy evening I walked down the hill from our houses and circled the ponds at the base of the hill until I had hunted down a toad. I dropped him in a jar with holes poked into the lid and put him on the desk in my bedroom.
On the third day we were reading each other’s minds. We filled the pond with water from the hose, and he built a stone waterfall. I dug a slit trench so that the hose could be laid underground. More people came and he ignored them, focusing on his work as I dug into the ground and measured the depth with my spade. He complimented my trench and the visitors stared at me with a jealousy they couldn’t comprehend. When these visitors left, we both paused in a moment of acute telekinesis and rolled our eyes to each other; he shook his head.
We finished it that day, lining it with rocks. After filling in the hose trench we put in a stone path that ran between the pond and the deck. We put in the koi and he put the turtle on a rock at the base of the waterfall, and it instantly dropped forward into the water. I got the toad from my desk and surprised Dr. J with it.
“That’s great,” he said. “Let’s have some hot chocolate.” We christened the pond with hot chocolate and his wife snapped a photo of us standing in front of it. I had never been prouder of anything in my life. I visited it almost every day for the rest of the summer—the last summer I ever spent at home. I would walk around it and they’d wave at me from their kitchen table, sometimes he would come out and we’d talk about the animals that had been gathering at the pond.
On the morning I left for college, he came to my house and handed me a box, which I opened to find a golf shirt. “The girls say this is fashionable,” he said. “You’ll be fine; just remember that sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t.” We hesitated with extended arms, like two men trying to negotiate a couch though a tight doorway, and hugged. And then he left. On the other side of my lawn he turned around, “Oh, and don’t forget that stuff about scheduling your fun.”
In years after this experience I came by to see the pond and Dr. J would give me the scoop on pond affairs. There were anecdotes about blown hoses and stories about animals that had made the pond a part of their rounds of the forest. Once there was a picture of a deer drinking from the pond, just like in a Hallmark Christmas card.
Only now, as the years eke by and I catch myself saying things like “schedule your fun” to my students, am I allowed an occasional glimpse into the meaning behind it all. Our love for Mike was part of the pond we’d put in the garden. It’s something that can be looked upon with some sense of happiness, and maybe it represents something that was good and safe and pure, before it changed, and then was gone forever. Whatever its elusive power, maybe it’s only recognizable to the two of us.
And though at times I come close to comprehending the pond’s meaning, perhaps I’ll never be sure of it.