Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
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The Accident

The child was a slip on a snowy March midnight in 1963, Hattie and Abel tipsy on champagne and staking their fates on a diaphragm so brittle it should have been tossed away months before, whispering under blankets so as not to wake the five children asleep in rooms down the hall. The champagne was to celebrate their move from Chicago to their homeland in Kansas, their first night in the first house that wasn’t a rental, and to mark the new leaf in Abel’s career.

After the war ended he’d gone to law school on the GI Bill. There’d been a glut of new lawyers the year he graduated, and so he’d decided to wait to start a practice. Before they knew it Theodora and Nicholas were toddlers, the child who would be Jesse was on the way, and in no time at all Claire and Gideon came along to make five. Thanks to Hattie’s frugality and a booming economy, they got along all right, and at last, a decade after Abel had passed the bar exam, they were able to put a down payment on a long, low, stone house on three acres in the outlying village of Amicus, where Abel had been hired as town counsel. Another purpose of opening the bottle, though neither would say it and both tried hard not to think it, was to blunt the recent, terrible news—the diagnosis of their eldest son’s heart defect and his diminished life expectancy.

Their Nick was a skinny thirteen. He had soft brown eyes and long lashes, sand-colored hair, a high forehead. On his cheek below his right eye was an oblong birthmark the color of Mercurochrome. His nail beds were blue, his fingers had started to club, and when he tried to run he wheezed and had trouble catching his breath. He would probably not live past twenty, the doctors said. Neither Hattie nor Abel could bear to think about this. Nick had been Abel’s hope, his first true joy since before the war, and he made no secret of this. In his son he saw traits he wished that he himself possessed—Hattie’s patience and kindness, for two—in addition to a good mind and a sense of justice. It had been Abel’s worry about Nick’s health rather than Hattie’s—she was pragmatic about illness and tended to brush off sickness or to expect time to do its promised work—that led to the cardiac catheterization and the diagnosis: tetralogy of Fallot. A defect of birth. Four holes in their boy’s heart.

As winter turned to spring, the weather warmed, and as Hattie missed first one and then two of her monthly cycles, she wondered if maybe she was entering the change of life. She was forty, and she was eager to see the end of her moon-ruled days. She’d put her education on hold to marry. Back in the days right after the war, everyone was getting married—her sisters and brothers, her friends, everyone. The world had turned into a whirl of bridal showers and weddings. She and Abel were married in Hattie’s church, First Baptist, with the aisle and dais lit with candles, with sheet cake and frilled nut cups in the church basement, a honeymoon trip to the Ozarks. They hadn’t made their destination that first night for the rise of desire that in all the years they would be together would not diminish, a desire that caused them to turn the shoe-dragging, tin-can-clanking black Studebaker into the first highway tourist court they came to after leaving the city limits. They parked and hurried to check in, the white painted letters scrawled on the car’s sides announcing—for all the world to see and to Hattie’s maidenly embarrassment—Abel’s lustful ambitions: Hot Springs Tonight!

Now, with the childbearing part of her life drawing to a close, Hattie intended to go back to school and finish a degree in elementary education. Maybe teach school part-time. She knew well that her work was her husband and children and house, and she didn’t question it, but often through the years of infants and young children she had looked up from the stove or the sink or the washing machine to imagine the day she would be free. She loved the children, but still she had counted the years.

When other signs that something was going on inside her came on—tenderness in her breasts, morning queasiness, an odd blurring of time, the longing for an afternoon nap—she thought again, until the reason for these changes dawned on her like a slow and terrible change of mind. After disbelief came dread. She remembered the sleepless nights, awakened by a baby’s cries, her exhaustion, how confined she’d felt, how haggard, tethered to a newborn, to infants and toddlers, her life become urine-drenched and soiled, the reeking diaper pails, the calf-mash smell of Karo syrup and evaporated milk, curdled and everlasting spit-up. Magazine articles and glossy advertisements made motherhood look like bliss, like an enterprise the resourceful woman could control with the latest products and even take delight in, cooking balanced meals, greeting her husband at the door in a pinafore apron, freshly bathed, a steaming crown roast held out on a platter. What a laugh, if it hadn’t been so sad. Not one of her friends would admit to a similar sense of doom, and so she felt alone, beleaguered and worn to a nub. Her doughty little mother had given birth in their farmhouse in the same bed she’d conceived seven children in, nursing each baby until another was due. How had she done it?

Abel was a camera buff and he loved to photograph her, artfully staging her, or worse, catching her when she wasn’t expecting him to aim the camera. He didn’t seem to notice her distress, but when Hattie saw candid photographs of herself in those years, even long after they were over, she had to look away. The haunted look in her own eyes made her feel sick. She had moved through the days of early motherhood as though—it was silly—as though she’d committed some unknown sin and she couldn’t get away from what she’d done, as though she were laying offerings at the altar of an unknown god.

Every Saturday Abel had stayed home to watch the children while she took the car to do the week’s marketing, and sometimes she imagined pressing her foot on the gas pedal and driving away, driving and driving and driving as far as she could go. On one particular Saturday, deep in the frigid Chicago winter when she was most desperate to get away, if only to sit in the cold car in the stillness, Nick and Jesse had hidden in the back seat, planning to pop up and surprise her and trick her into taking them along to the store. She’d driven only a block when they shouted, “Surprise, Mommy!” She’d screamed in shock, and then turned the car around, sent them to the house, and gone on alone to the store. When she returned to the house and parked the car in the alley, for the longest time she couldn’t make herself go inside. She’d sat in the car until night fell and frost flowers bloomed on the windows and the lights in the bedrooms went out.

She wondered if something was wrong with her. Maybe it was that as a girl she’d been a wanderer, lonely as a cloud and happy, in pastures and creek beds, a poetry lover, easily seized with romantic ideas. She had often consulted her heart to see if she had a religious calling; sometimes on her long walks she talked to God, and more than once she thought she’d heard Him speaking back. Through the rustle of wind in cottonwood leaves, a meadowlark’s sudden swoop, a cloud over the sun, but definitely God. Maybe in order to consider the things she liked most to think about, the great mysteries of faith and love and hope and to feel like herself in her own skin, she simply needed great stretches of quiet.

When she hinted at her tiredness to her closest sister, Sammie agreed that having babies and young children was difficult and, really, just ridiculous for what it put you through, but from her laugh and her jolly pink face Hattie could tell that she didn’t feel  . . . what, what was it?

She tried to take inspiration from Proverbs, the 31st chapter. She’d known the words from girlhood, if not by heart entirely at least by familiarity, but their meaning set her back all the more—all that virtue and spinning and weaving and vineyard-buying, the rising up in the dark of morning and all the candles not going out by night made her weary, and what did the virtuous woman get for it, besides a nice eulogy? In the only act of sacrilege she’d knowingly committed she’d hurled the King James Bible her parents had given as a wedding present against the kitchen wall. It lay on the floor, pages fluttering, for almost a minute before, wracked with guilt, she seized it up and sent a sorry prayer heavenward. But finally, blessedly, she had gotten through the difficult years and was ready to begin her life again. Now this.

When a third month passed without a cycle, Dr. Cobb confirmed her pregnancy with a rabbit test. It was after the manner of the time and place to wait to announce the news, even to a husband, and so she kept her own counsel until later that day. After supper she made a pitcher of lemonade, musing bitterly about the phrase—it seemed that no matter where she turned she couldn’t outrun platitudes—and took two glasses out to the south yard where Abel planned to put in a swimming pool.

He lounged in a metal lawn chair, wearing khaki pants and a white V-neck T-shirt, smoking a Winston, glasses on the end of his nose, contemplating the shape and dimensions of the pool to come and sketching his plans on graph paper. He loved nothing so much as a mechanical problem. She pulled a chair beside him and they sat quietly amid their children’s activities.

Fifteen and suffering the dual miseries of an awkward adolescence and a solitary nature, Doro sat in a crook of the sycamore, reading Look Homeward, Angel for what was surely the fourth time. Beneath the tree, Nick and Jesse tossed sycamore balls, trying to hit their sister’s dangling legs. Hattie knew she should stop them but they’d just find some other devilment, and anyway Doro needed to learn to get along with them, stinkpots though they were. The girl alternated between stormy and standoffish. She was, Hattie had determined, too sensitive, wound too tight. Like her father.

ClairBell at eight and Gideon, seven, had dragged an old mattress to the cinder block patio wall Abel had built and were jumping off the wall onto the mattress, bouncing and bobbing for attention, and then climbing up to jump again. ClairBell yelled, tirelessly it seemed to Hattie, and in a screech that set her last nerve quivering, “Look at me! Look at me!”

Gideon was in his Mighty Mouse phase. He wore a ragged bath towel around his neck as a cape. “Here I come to save the daaay!” he called as he jumped—again, again—from the wall.

“Six?” Abel asked when she’d gotten the words out. “I can barely support you and these five.” He took a sip of his lemonade and made a face. “How far along are you?”

His reaction irked her, but she was determined to put up a good front. “Maybe three months.”

She smiled. It was funny, but if she’d been unsure that she wanted a new baby, after Abel’s negative reaction she was having another think. Maybe the life growing within her was a kind of second chance. A chance to be less worried, less overwhelmed, a better mother. A chance to do things right, and—Oh, heavenly days—maybe this was her old pal God, speaking to her in His inscrutable language! Without knowing she was even considering it, she heard herself saying, “I was thinking that if it’s a boy we could name him after your brother.”

Abel’s mind raced. He felt conflicting, arguing voices coming at him from many quarters, all seeming to crowd into his own dry, constricted throat, and he was at odds with every one of them. He wanted to tell Hattie about the osteopath who had fixed unwanted pregnancies for several clients, but he wasn’t sure he should bring this up now. He wasn’t certain how Hattie felt about the subject. Abortion was against the law, so maybe there was his answer; Hattie was law-abiding to the core. Maybe he could sidle around to the subject later. He needed to think. “Come to the ham shack,” he told her with a nod to the yard full of children. “We can have some privacy.”

Off the garage he’d made a room to house his amateur radio equipment. Among the transmitters, transceivers, receivers, condensers, the vacuum tubes, and Morse code keys was all his salvage: the first little glowbug he’d built as a boy, his Collins and Hallicrafters and Hammarlund and Heathkit, his radio paradise. He’d put two stools near his workbench, plugged in an old refrigerator, and installed a cast-off couch. Outside he’d built and erected a forty-five foot antenna. This was a city code violation, but if anyone on the council said anything he planned to argue the ordinance was a breach of his rights under the First Amendment.

He locked the door behind them and went to a cabinet above his workbench for the bottle of Dewar’s a client had given him. Into one of the baby food jars he saved for storing parts he poured two fingers for himself. He extended the bottle’s neck to Hattie but she declined. “How about some crème de menthe?” He had a bottle of that as well, another client gift.

“All right, but only a little,” she said. She drank only rarely, but this night she felt the need, though she wasn’t sure why, to join him. Lately Abel had been drinking more, she’d noticed. She blamed his clients and his law school buddies. As well there was a group of doctors and pharmacists and businessmen, World War Two veterans all, that he’d taken up with. A fast crowd, she thought, big talkers, big drinkers. This bunch went pheasant hunting up on the Nebraska line, elk hunting in Montana, was contemplating buying a boat to moor off the Gulf Coast of Florida where they’d invested in a shrimp cannery. She wasn’t sure of the details, but the cannery involved a bond issue and some other civic finessing. Pie in the sky plans, she suspected, though Abel meant business on at least some of his enthusiasms. He’d already brought home three motorcycles, a BSA 650 for himself, and a Honda 50 and a Honda 90 for the boys to ride around the yard. It was illegal for Nick and Jesse to ride on the street, but Abel told them to keep to the dirt roads outside the town limits and they’d be fine. She wondered what he was teaching them about the law and how he could possibly construe that it didn’t apply to him. He had a saying that infuriated her—“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying”—and she wished he’d quit using it in front of Nick and Jesse and even Gideon. What was he teaching them? They were already wild boys, cut from his cloth. They didn’t need a standard like this to march under. She had given up on the dream that one of her sons might have a call to the ministry, but she would at least like to see them abide by civil laws.

He poured her a capful and handed it to her. He hadn’t known he would do what he did next, but he extended his jar to her capful and, remembering one of his father’s toasts, said, “May we get to heaven before the devil knows we’re dead.”

At first Hattie’s eyes widened at the mention of the devil—she took hell and its high angel seriously—but then she laughed. She felt strangely spirited, a little like she had nothing left to lose, so why not throw caution to the wind? They clinked cap to jar, and Hattie slugged the crème de menthe and felt the slow, syrupy burn.

Abel downed his Scotch and looked at his wife. She was a beautiful woman. In the domestic clamor of their daily life he sometimes lost sight of her loveliness. Her squared jaw and chin; her high, broad cheekbones; and the warm color of her wavy hair like brown sugar candy had slain him from his first sight of her when they were children. Her dark eyes were canted, one more so than the other, and though her ancestry was English and Welsh, she looked as though she’d blown straight off the Russian steppes. Kirghiz eyes, he thought. He’d picked up the phrase from some long-forgotten novel. If she had a flaw, it was the whitened scar at the end of her nose. A girlhood accident with a barbed wire fence had ripped the fleshy tip of her nose and the line still showed white, especially when she was upset.

She’d nursed five infants and her breasts had fallen slightly, but her figure was the kind people turned to watch, something about the way the small of her back curved, her posture. She had the most beautiful deep-clefted derriere he ever hoped to see. And she was modest, not aware of her beauty. Because her ways were demure, nothing carnal about them, this made her irresistible to him.

They met at grammar school during the Great Depression when he was twelve and she was ten. Having set off a firecracker in a classmate’s lunch pail, Abel was racing one way around the schoolhouse and Hattie, engaged with her friends in a game of Run, Sheep, Run, came barreling around the other. They collided at the corner, knocking the wind out of both of them. When he saw the female creature with her nut-brown skin and wide cheekbones, her dark eyes at a fetching slant, he was poleaxed. For a long minute they regarded one another, and then they turned around and ran back the same way they’d come. At the time he’d had what he later, when retelling the story, called a “reaction”—his elaborate enunciation of the word and a look over his glasses suggesting that if the first two letters were reversed, the “e” placed before the “r,” a more accurate idea of the phenomenon that overtook him, physically speaking, would emerge. Nothing more happened until a dozen years later and after the war had ended. When they met again in a college Spanish class he’d had another reaction.

He had one now.

“We need to think about this,” he said, “before it’s . . . ” But it was already too late. He kissed her, and down onto the ham shack couch they went while outside their children jumped and raced and shouted as dusk came over the yard and the cicadas set up their squall and the fireflies came out. No more was said of choices.


That November, on the day Abel finished digging the hole in the south yard where the pool would go and Hattie had her eight-month checkup and learned that she should prepare for a Christmas delivery, the president of the United States was assassinated, just down Highway 81 in Dallas. In Amicus, all was ready for the new baby—the cradle in Hattie and Abel’s bedroom, a bassinet against the wall, a new oaken rocking chair, as the pitiful, creaking old one she’d had for the first five was good for little but kindling—but it seemed that in the sadness and upheaval of national events, everyone forgot about the child to come.

On doctor’s orders, Hattie went to bed, letting Doro, who when she wasn’t shrinking from human company could be bossy and officious enough to get the younger children off to school in the mornings. Her sisters Sammie and Alma brought casseroles and did the laundry and cleaning. The neighbors pitched in. Hattie had Abel move a television set into the room, and she lay watching the funeral cortege as horses drew the caisson slowly through the capital’s streets, followed by the caparisoned, rider-less horse. She had not voted for the man and she was not given to tears, but this terrible tragedy defied her usual reserve—somehow it was tangled up with her own doomed Nick, who probably wouldn’t grow to adulthood, and with the new baby to come and her fears for it—and she sometimes rose from her pillow to find it moist. Saddest of all the sights on the screen was the little boy in short pants and a blue coat on his third birthday, saluting his lost father. Into what kind of world was she bringing another child?

Christmas came and went, but finally, on the last day of the year when Abel was about to leave for an office party, her water broke. They left the younger ones with Doro and drove to the hospital, where a few minutes before midnight their infant boy entered the world. They named him William Blackstone after Abel’s brother Bill and the British barrister who was Abel’s hero. And—Hattie did not tell him—William Wordsworth.

In the early morning hours, Abel left Hattie and the baby at the hospital and drove home to a houseful of sleeping children. He let himself in the back door, cocked his ear to listen for any wakers, but all was still. He went down the hall to the back bedroom to check on the boys and then poked his head in the door of the girls’ room. He went outside to the ham shack and poured himself a Scotch and stood in the dark. Idly he flicked on the power switches, and the vacuum tubes began to crackle and hum to life, signals to be heard, their high frequency squeal sounding ghostly and faraway, evidence of the world outside the narrowing boundaries of his own. He looked through the window at the frost-covered ground, and for a moment it appeared that a massive shadow loomed over the yard, an ominous-looking cloud, a black hole, a frozen star at the boundaries of which time stopped. He rubbed his eyes and looked again and understood that he was seeing only the empty pool.


Hattie had finished her pregnancy in the shock and sorrow of the assassination, but now the baby’s new life seemed to wash away her grief. She stayed on bed rest for a while, and the children flocked to the bedroom where she recuperated. They gathered around her, clamoring to hold the baby, their crown prince, their Billy Boysie. They rocked him, sang to him, played with him, and it seemed that with the turning year her happiness knew no bounds. The infant days that had once stretched lonely and long now seemed almost to glow. Around the little boy the family seemed to grow up a second time, reordering itself with Billy at the center. He was funny and sociable, a gigglebox, an endlessly diverting new toy. He loved it when they nuzzled him. He flirted with them to entice them into his baby games. Hattie felt she’d entered a second youth. She had loved the others, of course, but never like this. Here, maybe, was the child she could train up in the way he should go. Here, maybe, was her little man of God.

Away from the center of things, Abel entertained himself and slowly grew away from the messy goings-on in the house. He worked and tinkered. He built a cabana beside the pool and then a machine barn. He took up motorcycle racing, brought home more Hondas, a BSA, and a Ducati. He still turned to her in the night, and his appetite was strong as ever, but Hattie knew that with the new baby some balance between them had tipped.


From an early age, Billy knew how to get what he wanted from his brothers and sisters. His ways were fetching and funny. He was interested in beautiful things—jewelry and statuary in particular caught his infant eye—and he loved best to play in Hattie’s jewelry case, in Doro’s makeup box, with ClairBell’s pop beads and plastic barrettes. He was lively, a miniature showman, a clown, dapper in his dress from an early age. From his mother and her Singer he commissioned a business suit, complete with vest and tie, to be sewn from mint green polyester double-knit in a herringbone pattern. Hattie happily ran up the little garment on the machine, and everyone laughed and admired the suit when Billy put it on. He wore his tiny suit to church, to the grocery store, to the Dairy Queen for a cherry-dipped cone. He rode directly beside Hattie, standing up on the bench seat of the white Lincoln Continental Abel had taken in trade from a client who couldn’t pay his fee, his arm around Hattie’s neck. “He looks like a game show host,” Nick said once, laughing.

“A tiny butler,” ClairBell said, “or Richie Rich.”

Hattie worried a little, but not much, and they all doted on him.

If Billy did something cute and someone took notice, he repeated the action until the joke grew stale and it was clear he needed to be called down, which he rarely was. Hattie lamented, “You children are spoiling him!” But the truth was that she, too, indulged him. Only Abel tried to bring order and calm to his youngest boy’s upbringing, to put the quash on the wholesale adoration of his youngest son, but in vain.


When Billy was three he fell facedown in the deep end of the pool, drained for the season except for six inches of black, leaf-and-twig-littered water. On that September evening, Abel was at town hall for a council meeting and not due home until dark. In the kitchen preparing pork chops, her mind on whisking lumps out of the gravy, Hattie had no clear view of the pool, for her back was turned to the glass wall that took up the south ell of the house. She failed to notice that Billy had ridden his tricycle onto the apron of the pool and had parked it at the brick coping that rimmed it.

In the big central bathroom off the kitchen, home from college for the weekend, Doro made ready for a movie date to see Doctor Zhivago. Nick and Jesse rode their Hondas around the property, playing a charge-and-dash game called Spartacus. The object was to snatch a towel wrapped like a toga from a gladiator-boy who stood in a clearing, facing his mounted attacker. Though Jesse was the stronger rider, Nick usually won because Jesse would lose his nerve. At the last minute he would dodge the oncoming opponent. ClairBell and Gideon played on the banks of the creek that ran behind the house, trying to trap a garter snake. ClairBell had just pinned the creature’s head in a forked stick and they were watching it writhe. It was Gideon’s idea to transport the snake to the big bathroom and let it loose on the slick tile floor to scare their big sister and maybe send her running in her underpants through the house. ClairBell and Gideon snickered for a while about that possibility, exciting themselves with the imagined vision of their prudish sister exposed, and then ClairBell picked up the snake and they made their way up the bank.

Left alone by the pool, Billy contemplated his own prank. The family cat loved the sandpaper-like texture of the diving board and she often lazed on its rough surface. She was drowsing there now. Billy’s plan was to catch her and drop her into the black water ten feet below.

He climbed up the low board and made his way to where the cat lay, a task he’d done often enough through the summer, though always with a brother or sister waiting to catch him when he jumped and always with the beautiful blue water rippling below. Ribbon was an old marmalade kitty, manhandled by children and accustomed to being picked up under her forelegs and dangled limply, helplessly. At first she submitted patiently enough to Billy’s will, but when he got close to the edge of the pool, she drew up her hind legs and clawed the air, flipping herself over. She made her escape from Billy’s grip, but fell ten feet down into the muck at the bottom of the pool. In the struggle Billy toppled over, cracking his head on the brick ledge. He fell, unconscious, into the filthy water.

No one had witnessed the accident. Hattie’s first indication that something was amiss came when she caught sight of Ribbon, muddy and yowling at the patio doors. Wondering what had happened, she hurried outside. Scanning the pool, she saw nothing out of order. The shallow end was empty except for a plywood plank and a homemade skateboard one of the boys had abandoned. There at the deep end was Billy’s tricycle parked on the apron. The dark, debris-clotted water at the pool’s bottom lay in shadow. At first it revealed no clue, and she had almost turned to go back into the house to resume her dinner preparations when she caught sight of a patch of dirtied white fabric, half-submerged—the training pants she’d put on the baby not twenty minutes before.

She didn’t remember afterward how she got down into the pool, whether she’d jumped into the dry shallow end or hastened down the steps, or how she pulled the still body from the water and laid him on the dirty concrete. Standing there, she knew only that she had to think of what to do.

Only think.

But she couldn’t. No thought would come, and it would be this way all her life, that in dire times she would freeze and be unable to summon a thought. Something would shut down in her brain.

She stood, trying, trying.

ClairBell and Gideon had made their way to the south side of the house, to the door nearest the big bathroom, garter snake at the ready. When they saw their mother standing alone in the deep end of the pool, and that the bundle at her feet was their baby brother, they dropped the snake. Yelling, they banged into the house and barged into the bathroom and then ducked out of the way so Doro, who was dressed in madras shorts and a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, who had worked summers as a lifeguard, could race past them to help. Nick and Jesse had come in to wash for supper, and they called the police, who dispatched an ambulance.

Doro knelt in the bottom of the pool over the baby’s body. His skin was cold and blue. She turned him so he was on his side, stuck two fingers in his mouth, scooped out a clot of matter, leaves and sticks, turned him further on his side. Black water poured out. She put her mouth to his blue one and began to blow the way the Red Cross had taught. Another murky spring of water gurgled up. As sirens sounded in the distance she kept breathing into him, not sure she was doing it right, worried that she was pushing more of the foul-smelling water into him. Her only practice had been on the rubber mouth of Resusci Anne. She looked up once to see that neighbors stood around. The woman who lived next door brought a blanket and she put it over her brother, tucking in the edges, and then the ambulance was there, the attendant lifting him to secure it to a gurney. He was unconscious.

At town hall, Abel had heard the police call come in. He raced home to find fire fighters, police, and an ambulance on the property. Neighbors and gawkers, drawn by the sirens, stood around. When it was clear that his son was breathing, he fell to his knees in the empty pool, his face in his hands, not to pray but to cover the horror at the terrible bargain, the profane prayer his mind had too suddenly, too easily supplied: Take this boy, spare the other.

By the time Hattie came out, grim-faced, shattered, dressed for the drive to the hospital, he had composed himself.

Billy recovered, seemingly no worse for wear. Abel labored for several years to forget his unholy exchange, to tamp down the sick feeling he’d had when he found himself thinking the unthinkable. When Billy was six, the pool’s concrete cracked in a bad freeze, and though Abel groused about cheap materials and a capricious water table and his own workmanship, he was relieved to drive the earthmover across the fill dirt where the pool had once been.  

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