AT THE WELL by Nathan Grover

They’d been driving for six weeks straight. Six weeks of business parks and parking lots, shopping villages and live-work lofts, coming and going in the car’s chalky windows. Six weeks of lights lengthening across the baize ceiling, of tires vibrating against asphalt like a needle in a record’s groove searching for a song. Perhaps by now they weren’t the most well-adjusted people they’d ever been. Perhaps by now they’d become, even to themselves, a little strange.

They were two: the big one who drove and the little one who told the big one where to drive and how. If the big one took a wrong turn the little one huffed and jabbed the map with his finger. They had a system, which the little one had devised. When the system worked they didn’t need to speak. They both wanted the system to work.

Over six weeks the backseat of the gold sedan had vanished beneath burger wrappers and grease-beaded styrofoam cartons and paper coffee cups dyed brown at the seam. The car had begun to stink, but the little one forbade the windows to be rolled down lest the wind play havoc with the map he worked so hard to keep neat across his thighs. As they went, he marked their progress with a red pen, spinning a red web that wiggled and wended outward and consumed entire neighborhoods.

At the beginning of the seventh week, they saw it. They weren’t sure what it would be until then. The gold sedan jerked to a stop in the street. The motor idled wearily. Both men stared and smacked their lips. The little one accused the big one of nearly missing it.

Here was a house, just a house, same as any other house on the row. The homes here had rustic touches—a snail-crossing sign in the vegetable patch, parched ears of Indian corn mounted to the front door—clear tokens that the two had driven far, to the very fringes. What differentiated this particular house was that in the front yard, centered on the lawn, there was an old well.

The resident of the house, a retiree, was out on his driveway trying to untangle an 80 foot neon orange extension cord from itself. The struggle had taken most of the morning, and now he stood frowning over the cord with his arms folded and sweat drizzling down his freckled forehead. He was moments from throwing the damn thing away for good.

It was just then that the gold sedan scooted to a stop in front of his house. Its turn signal blinked on as it backed into a space across the street. For a moment the two men in the sedan argued and shook their heads at each other. Then they stepped out onto the street and approached his house.

“Good afternoon,” said the big one. “Name’s Ike.”

“Hi, Ike,” said the resident.

Ike stopped just short of the well, placed his hands on his hips, and rocked on his feet with a big fool grin.

The little one stuck out his hand: “I’m Higgins.”

This was a bit formal and weird, but okay. He shook Higgins’s hand.

“Terrific well,” said Ike.

The resident regarded the old well.

“Jeepers,” he said. “Thanks.”

Higgins circled halfway around the well, studying it point by point.

It was a perfectly typical well, the kind you picture when you think of an old well, though the kind you see less often nowadays. A circular stone and mortar wall rose out of the earth about waist high, just high enough to keep the pets and children from falling in. Suspended above the mouth of the well, beneath a rusty, corrugated, tin roof, was a crank scabbed over with rust. Enormous white bows had been tied around the posts, and the roof and the posts were laced with strands of holiday lights. The lights weren’t on at the moment, but come nightfall the well would serve as a cheerful beacon for the whole neighborhood to enjoy. 

Higgins smoothed his hand along the rim of the well then gripped one of the stones.

“What kind of stones are these? A local quarry probably.”

“Got me,” said the resident.

“Is it deep?” asked Ike.

“Yep. Pretty deep,” said the resident.

“How deep?” asked Ike.

“Can’t see the bottom,” said the resident.

“You’ve never measured it?” said Higgins.

“Never had the need,” said the resident.

Higgins looked thoughtfully down the well. He cupped his mouth and said, “HELLO!”

“Oh,” said the resident, “The old hello test. That’s a good one.”

Ike snorted.

“Is the water clean?” asked Higgins.

“No idea,” said the resident.

“You’ve never tasted it?” asked Ike.

“Nope, never tasted it,” said the resident.

“Ha!” said Ike. “Imagine having a well right on your front lawn and never tasting it!”

“I don’t have to imagine,” said the resident, “I’ve done it.”

Higgins gave Ike a waspish look. Ike shrugged his big shoulders.

“Any idea how old the well is? When it was dug?” asked Higgins.

“Who am I? A tour guide? I have no idea,” said the resident.

Ike leaned into the well and made clucking noises, possibly trying to imitate the sound of dripping water.

“I bet there’s a lot of quarters down there,” he said.

“No,” said the resident, “the kids around here aren’t dumb enough to throw money away. They like to drop rocks down there, though. Rocks are free.”

“Those are smart kids,” said Ike. “You throw enough rocks down there and you won’t have to go down to get the water. The water’ll come up to you.”

“Assuming there’s water down there,” said the resident.

“Right,” said Ike. “It’s like that story about the crow.”

“Sure,” said the resident.

He had no idea what story Ike was talking about.

“If you dropped that many rocks down there, you’d only plug it up,” said Higgins, “You’d block the flow.” Then he frowned. “Why don’t you think there’s water down there?”

“I don’t know if there is or isn’t,” said the resident. “I’m agnostic on the subject.”

To tell the truth, the well inspired little besides irritation for him. The well was his wife’s project, not his. She was the one who dolled it up with bows and lights. He’d had to lay PVC under the sod and run power out to it for her. Couldn’t have cables stretching tackily across the lawn. It seemed like he spent a lot of time nowadays trying to make straight, clean connections between things.

His wife and he had a son, a successful lawyer who’d helped them buy the house a few years ago. Finding the house was an endless, exhausting process. His wife wasn’t happy with anything they looked at, not until they found this place with the well. The real estate agent didn’t know anything about the well, only that it’d been there before the house. His wife loved the well immediately. For him it was just something to mow around.

Ike reached out and gave the rusty crank a turn—the crank screeched. The three men cringed.

The resident was bored of this now.

“There’s no rope,” said Higgins.

“No pail to bring the water up in either,” said Ike.

“Nope. No rope, no pail,” said the resident, “I guess that’s pretty much it then.”

Ike’s big, dry, bottom lip poofed out.

“Guess so,” he said.

Higgins aimed another waspish look at the grass.

The resident headed into the house: “You guys get home safe now.”

Ike and Higgins moped back to the gold sedan.

# # #

Inside, the resident heard the voice of his wife.

“Duncan? That you?”

“Yeah, it’s just me,” he said.

His wife was in her tanning bed, a Christmas gift from their son. The tanning bed was in the mud porch, which was a straight shot through the front door to the back of the house. She tanned in there all the time now, all day like toast in a toaster. He didn’t know how she could stand it. Then again, she used to always complain of being cold.

He’d grown used to talking to his wife not as a person but as a beam of light radiating from under the lid of the imposing silver coffin. If he ducked down and looked in the shining crevice, he saw her plump, brown hand with scarlet fingernails. She’d always been the kind of woman who talked with her whole body. Now all that expression was reduced to the movement of this one hand.

“Two cornball bastards were out front looking at your well.”

“Oh? Did you tell them to come back tonight and see it lit up?”

“No,” he said, “They weren’t the kind of people you want to encourage with a personal invitation.”

“Hm,” his wife said.

She tap-tapped her fingernails on the glass.

“Undesirables?” she asked discreetly.

“Not exactly,” he said. “Just a bit off, I guess.”

“Well I hope they didn’t mess anything up too badly,” she said.

“I don’t know what there is to mess up,” he said, “but I sent them packing, regardless.”

As he spoke the last syllable of this sentence he saw, through the rosette window beside the front door, someone dart into his front yard.

Duncan marched out the front door and caught the two cornball bastards dropping a rock down his well.

“What’d I tell you? That’s the end of it. Now get lost! Git, git!”

They fled back to the gold sedan and peeled away.

You’d think people’d never seen a well before.

Duncan returned to the driveway and found the 80 footer as he’d left it—in a sprawling, nameless knot. How much had he paid for the blasted cord? Twenty bucks? Twenty-five? Would he pay twenty-five dollars for the luxury of not untangling the knot? Normally, no. He was a painfully thrifty man. But today, yes, he’d tender that plus tax to have his problem go away. This was more and more the case with him lately.

He gathered up the cord and carried it around the house. He knocked the lid off the trash can, letting it clang to the ground, and tried to stuff the cord inside. Tomorrow was trash day. The trashcan was brim-full. As hard as he squeezed it down, the cord wriggled every which way and hung all down the sides to the ground. He was reminded of trying to jam spring-loaded snakes back into a prank can of peanut brittle.

He swept the extension cord to the ground and stepped up onto the contents of the trashcan. This made him so tall he could reach the rain gutter of the house. He clutched the gutter to steady himself and stomped the trash—right, left, right, left—and then jumped on it—up and down, up and down. It never stops, he thought. You just keep making garbage until the day you die. Nothing you can do but jump, jump, and pile it down, though all you’re really doing is making it denser and more substantial.

He climbed down out of the trashcan, shoved the cord inside, and crammed the lid on top. The lid didn’t fit down all the way, but it was close enough. He dragged the can out to the street and set it at the curb for tomorrow morning’s pick-up. He looked around: first on the street with his can out. As usual. He tried one more time to shove the lid flush to the can but the lid wouldn’t go, so he left it.

Just then the gold sedan pulled up and parked in front of the house.

“You two just don’t quit!” said Duncan.

They got out of the sedan. Higgins, the little one, had a massive coil of fresh new rope. Ike, the big one, had a shiny new pail.

“Where on earth did you get that stuff?” asked Duncan.

“From the hardware store,” said Ike.

“Quick trip,” said Duncan.

“We know where all the hardware stores are,” said Ike.

“We know where everything around here is,” said Higgins.

“I wasn’t playing,” said Duncan. “I don’t need people like you hanging around and messing up my well.”

“We’re not going to mess it up,” said Higgins defensively.

“We’d never mess up your well,” said Ike.

“All the same,” said Duncan.

“Look,” said Higgins. “This is important. We’ll let you keep the pail and the rope. You’ll need them both if you want to have a functioning well. Or, if you don’t, they’re good things to have around anyway. In any case the rope and the pail are yours. Okay?”

“Aren’t you even a little curious?” asked Ike.

Duncan looked at the two desperados and their supplies, then looked at the well dressed in its lights and bows. The well, it now occurred to him in a vision, was like a workhorse that’d been taken from the field, gussied up like a show pony, and stuck in a parade. The old workhorse lowed stupidly. It didn’t know the difference. And that made him feel even sorrier for it. Only he could restore its dignity, allow it to pull the plow through the field one last time. Also, Duncan was one of those rare men who could be tempted by a long rope and a shiny new pail. He sighed.

“Listen here,” he said. “You listening?”

Ike and Higgins nodded eagerly.

“The minute I say we’re done here, we’re done. Got it?”

“Yessir,” said Ike.

“Of course,” said Higgins.

“And you’re going to watch those bows. The minute you mess up a bow, or any of the lights, we’re done.”

“Understood,” said Higgins.

“Completely,” said Ike.

“Okay then,” said Duncan, “Get to it.”

Duncan stood planted on the lawn, arms folded across his chest, while Ike and Higgins got to work. Ike, after some initial complications and ignoring all instruction from Higgins, finally got the end of the rope tied to the crank.

“Ha!” he said, “That should do it!”

“A regular boy scout,” said Duncan.

“I was, actually,” said Ike.

“Just turn it,” said Higgins.

Higgins fed the rope while Ike turned the rusted crank, which sang like an air raid siren. Duncan searched his neighbors’ windows to see if anyone was witnessing any of this. Soon the crank settled into a repetitive screak-squeak.

The rope coiled neatly around the crank then, due to the rope’s length, began to clump.

“Jeepers,” said Duncan. “You pay by the foot?”

“We don’t know how deep this thing goes,” said Higgins.

They kept winding. Screak-squeak, screak-squeak.

Ike stopped. “We could cut it,” he said. “So we don’t have to crank so much. We’ll just cut it. If the rope isn’t long enough we can tie the rest back on.”

“Nope,” said Duncan, “You’re not going to cut my nice new rope. Keep turning.”

“It’ll be the same rope,” explained Ike. “It’ll just have a knot in the middle.”

“Then I’d have two medium ropes instead of one long rope,” said Duncan. “I’ve already got medium ropes. Keep turning.”

Ike kept turning.

After they finished winding the rope into a giant ball around the crank, Ike began to tie the rope to the pail.

“Let me,” said Higgins.

“I’ve got it,” said Ike.

“You tied the crank. Let me tie the pail,” said Higgins.

“Look. Done,” said Ike.

“What kind of knot is that?” said Higgins.

“It’s a tie-the-pail-to-the-end-of-the-rope knot,” said Duncan, “Now lower the damn thing down there.”

Ike turned the crank and lowered the pail into the dark. Squeak-screak, squeak-screak. Higgins stuck his face down the well to supervise.

“I hope the water’s at least clear,” said Ike thoughtfully. “I don’t see how water underground can be anything but muddy, but they say soil makes a good filter.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” said Duncan.

“I think the neighborhood would be disappointed to find out its only well was full of mud,” Ike said. “I know I’d be disappointed.”

“I’m sure my water is going to be just great,” said Duncan.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” said Ike.

Squeak-screak, squeak-screak.

“But how can you be sure it’s your water?” said Ike.

“What do you mean?” said Duncan. “It’s my property, it’s my water.”

“Assuming there’s water down there,” Higgins echoed, his face down in the well.

Duncan frowned.

“But the water could be pretty far down,” said Ike. “How far down does your property go?”

“What do you mean how far down? All the way down. My property goes all the way down.”

“It can’t go all the way down,” said Ike.

“Why can’t it?” said Duncan.

“Because,” echoed Higgins, “If your claim went all the way down then you’d own a plot of equal size on the other side of the planet. In China.”

“And that probably already belongs to some Chinese landlord,” clarified Ike.

“Okay, my property meets the Chinese guy’s property halfway then,” said Duncan.

“So you’re neighbors,” said Ike with a big smile.

“That’s right,” said Duncan. “Seeing as how our properties abut somewhere around the fiery center of the earth me and the Chinese guy are neighbors!”

“Okay,” said Ike.

“Jesus Christ!” said Duncan.

They cranked on without speaking. Squeak-screak, squeak-screak.

The ball of rope around the crank became a reasonably sized coil again. Meanwhile, the well hawked and coughed as the pail clattered down its endless throat.

“My property goes down at least as far as this goddam rope is going to go,” said Duncan.

“Okay, okay,” said Ike.

At last Ike stopped.

“The rope,” he said. “It’s gone slack.”

Higgins pulled his face out of the well. “It what?”

“Look,” said Ike. “It’s looser. That means we’re at the bottom, right?”

“Of course that’s what it means,” said Higgins.

They stuck their heads in the well to have a look.

“Okay!” barked Duncan. “That’s it! Pack it in. We’re finished here.”

Ike and Higgins looked up, incredulous: “Huh?”

“I said we’re finished,” said Duncan. “Ike, look where your hand is.”

Ike inspected his big paw wrapped around the post, under it a crushed white bow.

Higgins’s lips pinched pale. He gave Ike a withering glare.

“No, it’s fine,” he snipped. “Here, look.”

He shoved Ike out of the way and perked the bow with a few quick tugs.

“Look. See? Fine.”

The bow was surprisingly resilient. After Higgins’s primp job it looked nearly as good as the other bows.

“Okay? Are we okay?” said Higgins.

“I am dead serious,” said Duncan. “The next time one of you guys even breathes on a bow I’m pulling the plug.”

“We fully understand,” said Higgins.

“Absolutely,” said Ike.

Higgins gave Ike another hateful look.

“Well,” said Duncan, “drag it up then.”

Ike began to crank the pail back up. Screak-squeak, screak-squeak.

“When it knocks against the wall the pail sounds different than it did before,” said Higgins. “It sounds heavier. It definitely has something in it now.”

“It feels heavier too,” said Ike.

“It does?” said Higgins.

Ike nodded solemnly.

They both swallowed dryly. Ike cranked faster. Screak-screak-screak-screak.

“Easy does it,” said Duncan.

“Yeah. Not so fast,” said Higgins.

Ike slowed his tempo. After a few moments he returned to his previous compulsive rhythm.

“Here let me,” said Higgins, trying to squirm his way in.

“Easy now. Watch the bows,” said Duncan.

Ike bumped Higgins away with his hip and cranked faster.

“It’s my turn,” yelled Higgins.

Ike muscled on with the intensity of a runner nearing the finish line, his face set with worry that the prize would be yanked away from him at the last second.

“Careful,” said Duncan. “If you’re not careful you’re going to—”

Screeeak. The rope sprang taut.

Higgins flinched as though he’d been zapped.

“You stupid beast!” he shouted and pounded Ike on the back.

“No it’s fine,” said Ike. “Just let me . . .”

Ike pulled the line back and forth and around in circles, which did nothing. He could crank down, but when he cranked up the rope caught always at the same spot.

“Is it stuck?” said Higgins. “It’s stuck. You stupid, stupid beast!”

“I don’t get it,” said Ike.

Higgins thrust his face down the well and tried to free the rope.

“You know what?” he said. “Actually it’s not that bad. The rope’s just snagged or something. I think I see it. Here, Ike, lower me down—”

“No,” said Duncan. “Absolutely not.”

“But I can see it. It’s just right there,” said Higgins.

“I don’t care where it is. He’s not lowering you down in there.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’d be the most obvious thing in the world for a little guy like you to fall down that well. And then I’d be stuck with you. I’m not having it. Besides, it’s not the rope that’s caught.”

“How would you know?” said Higgins.

“You watch your tone, buster, or I’ll end this snipe hunt right now,” said Duncan.

Higgins gnashed his teeth and paced on the lawn. A fly buzzed by his face and he swiped himself in the nose swatting it away.

“All it needs is a little . . .” said Ike. He pulled the crank handle, tugged, then strained . . . “Just a little—”

There was a loud grinding pop. The entire mechanism cocked crookedly in its rigging and froze.

“Great!” screeched Higgins. “Fantastic!”

Ike kept pulling at the crank. “It just needs a little . . .”

Duncan shook his head. The crank’s rusted rigging had buckled. The rope was pulled as tight as it would go with most of it tangled down the well. So much for his long rope and his shiny new pail. He envisioned the old workhorse exhausted, impotent, collapsed in the field.

“Back it up!” commanded Higgins.

“It won’t back up,” said Ike.

“What do you mean it won’t back up?” said Higgins.

“It’s completely, I don’t . . .”

Higgins charged Ike and wrestled to reach the handle of the crank, also mashing one of the bows with his stomach.

“Hey! Hey!” said Duncan.

Ike shoved Higgins with one hand. Higgins collapsed backwards onto the grass and sprang back up.

“Whoa! Easy now!” said Duncan.

Higgins leapt onto Ike’s back, working his arms into a stranglehold around Ike’s neck. Ike stepped back from the well, reeling side to side, swinging Higgins like a cape over his shoulders. Higgins’s grasp broke loose. With one exaggerated shrug Ike flung Higgins onto the lawn. Ike wheeled around and lifted his foot to squash Higgins, but Higgins clung to Ike’s foot. Ike’s leg rose heavy from the earth wearing Higgins as a boot. Higgins gnawed Ike’s shin.

“Ow! Ow! Ow!” said Ike.

Ike toppled over, thundering to the ground. The two began to roll on the lawn, doing everything they could to destroy each other.

# # #

She heard the front door slam and turned down the stereo system inside the tanning bed.

“Duncan, is that you?”

“It’s me,” her husband said.

He was breathing hard.

“Everything okay?” she said.

“Those cornball bastards I was telling you about, the ones interested in the well . . .”

“Yeah?” she said.

“They’re murdering each other on our front lawn.”

“Should you phone the police?” she asked.

“I probably should,” her husband said. “From the look of it, though, the little guy’ll be dead before they get here.”

“Maybe you ought to try and break it up,” she said.

“Maybe,” he sighed.

She heard him go back outside and close the front door.

Now then, where was I?

Secreted deep in her capsule of light, the plump little mahogany-brown woman wore nothing but her UV spectacles. She shifted her shoulders and tweaked the volume knob on the stereo system until she again heard slow crescendos of surf.

Ah, yes, she says. I feel calmness wash over my body now. I remember how long, how far I searched. I gave up for years at a time. But finally I found it and made it my own. Now I project myself into that special place. I’m deep in my well, where sacred waters flow free, where all is transformed into radiance. I feel waves of light and warmth break over me. I drink and am full forever.


Nathan Grover lives and writes in San Francisco's most beautifully named district: The Inner Sunset. Ahh. He is a part of a collective called The Ghost Paper Archives. The manuscript for his novel, Nineveh, has been a finalist of the New American Fiction Prize and semifinalist for the YesYes Open Fiction Prize. Say hi at http://nathangrover.com/.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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