THE USELESS SHOVEL • by Douglas Campbell

What a friend the night is, the kindly, paradoxical darkness. It makes all the world a private room, but grants us all a key. Night colludes, covers you, lets you acknowledge and live your heart’s truth.

Such were Victor’s thoughts as he gripped his father’s boots and dragged his body across the backyard where Victor had killed him. When he reached the grove of holly trees, Victor dropped his father’s legs and stood over the corpse.

He looked at the property line fence his father had made him build thirty years earlier. Vandals had cut holes in the wire and the earth had slumped, pushing some of the posts sideways at odd angles, soon to fall. He’d been far too young back then for such work, every posthole an ordeal of impossibly heavy tools, sinewy roots, layered rock. He’d stopped to rest once, tears of exhaustion sliding down his cheeks. His father saw him. “Did I raise a goddamn sissy? Is that what you are?” He slapped Victor across the face. “Dig, goddamn it.”

How many postholes had he dug? He counted the posts in the open, silhouettes in the faint glow of distant streetlights. But beneath the trees the posts vanished in darkness, and he lost track, couldn’t tally the full measure of his suffering. Another of his father’s crimes concealed, the thief who’d stolen the morning of his life, the warden who’d shackled the bold, playful boy he might have been.

Today the final insult. No different, really, than the thousand that had come before, but this time maddening beyond endurance, the breaking point after a lifetime of humiliations. Victor had walked into his bedroom, found his father removing two twenties from Victor’s billfold.

“Put it back,” Victor said. “Get the fuck out.”

His father pocketed the money and shoved past him. “I own this house, pal. You don’t like it, you get the fuck out.”

Victor hawked up a clot of mucous and spat it down on his father’s death mask, a grimace, locked in the pain of his life’s final instant.

Time to bury the fat pig, at last.

He had to dig deep, and swiftly. He’d hoped to do the deed earlier, but his father stayed up late watching television, drunk, cursing every commercial that interrupted the old sitcoms that never made him laugh. Half the night passed before the old man took his customary bedtime piss in the backyard, giving Victor his opportunity. But his neighbor, Harlan Miller — perfect haircut, perfect lawn, perfect wife — would be along at sunup, walking his perfectly matched pair of yellow Labs. Night would keep his secret, but dawn would tell all.

Victor plunged the shovel into the ground. It hit stone. He moved, plunged again. Stone again. Moving, plunging, moving, plunging, stone, stone, stone, until the handle splintered where it slid into the steel.


A brand new shovel, useless.

Victor froze. Laughter. Scornful, deep-throated, off in the dark somewhere. Impossible. Who would be out at such an hour, laughing like that?

Victor flung the shovel away and grabbed his pickaxe, the lovely tool that had set him free, pointed end driven deep into his father’s brain, the blow flawlessly aimed and executed.

Free. Free to follow his heart, work his will. Time, so long in coming, to learn true, good things about himself. At parties, in bars, a few beers for the better, he’d speak up, speak loud, broadcast his achievements, no matter how small, proclaim his opinions, no matter how absurd, like all the other loudmouths, narcissists in their dry-cleaned Oxford shirts, stinking of aftershave.

The pick hit stone too, threw a salvo of sparks, the vibration needling into the bones of Victor’s hands. He grabbed the posthole digger. Tempting to plunge it into his father’s chest, wrench the heart out of the dead shell like a rotten clam.

No time, though. He had to bury everything: the father corpse, the cruelty of those hands turning blue, the crimes heaped on that bloody head. And his own crime now. The world would point its finger and shout: “Patricide! A man robbed of precious years!”

“Wretched years!” Victor would shout back.“Robbed of cheap piss beer? Sitcom re-runs? Days tinkering in a chilly garage, scowling over hopeless engines?”

First light brushed the ridge top forest on the western hills. Victor drove the posthole digger down with all his strength, into more stone, another launch of sparks. He knelt, tore at the ground with his hands. God almighty, was the earth nothing but stone? A rising wind rushed past him, and Victor looked around. Trees, streetlights, phone lines, houses — all leaning at odd angles, it seemed, and like the hated fence, destined to fall.

Was everything just wind, then? Wind passing over a stone?

A dog barked. Victor turned. Harlan Miller stood at the fence with a clear view of the body, the shattered head, the blood-soaked hair, Harlan Miller already poking at his phone. His yellow Labs wriggled through a hole in the fence, came springing, bounding toward Victor, tongues rolling, their joy soaring and stainless.

For a mad instant, Victor thought about romping with them. A playful boy at last! Such happy dogs — surely they could teach him to play. But now he had to run, escape, save himself. Maybe the dogs would follow. If they could reach those western hills they could all run free in the shelter of the forest, leaping logs and creeks, whooping and barking, tireless.

With his first stride Victor stumbled over his father’s boot and fell, sprawling on his chest. The Labs converged on him, sniffing him from shoes to hair. One of the dogs licked his cheek with a warm, gentle tongue, as if coaxing, Get up and play! But Victor couldn’t move, too exhausted to dig another hole. He lay beside his dead father, eyes closed against the stone cold earth, waiting for those who would soon come and carry them both away.

Douglas Campbell’s fiction has appeared in many publications, including Smokelong Quarterly, Able Muse Review, Vestal Review, and Fiction Southeast. His chapbook of short fiction, “Sunflowers, Rivers, And Other Stories,” was recently published by Monkey Puzzle Press,, and can be ordered in print from the press or in an Amazon Kindle edition. Douglas lives in a challenging old house in a little town in southwestern Pennsylvania, where he watches the birds and clouds, and every day is touched with wonder.

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