My trousers fell to the floor with a heavy, metallic thunk. My husband, Brian, complains that while other women undress with a whisper of silk, I tend to clank and require the services of a squire to disrobe. He doesn’t mind, though, really; there’s a certain cachet to being married to an archaeologist that he likes to think rubs off on him. I pulled my shirt off over my head without unbuttoning it, balled it up, and threw it in the general direction of the corner where the rest of my clothing from the week had been piling up, forming my own laundry midden. One thick, overworked sock followed the shirt, and then was followed by its mate, but the second sock went awry and landed on my desk amid piles of notes and books, scattering about a dozen empty film canisters onto the floor. I stared at the new disruption tiredly, took another sip of my well-deserved beer, and decided to take my shower instead of picking up. No one would have been able to tell where the new mess began and the old one ended anyway.
In the bathroom I reached over and set my beer bottle on the cracked tile ledge of the shower and turned on the water, hot and full blast. The shelf was a precarious perch for the beer, already crowded with my soap and my shampoo, but it was worth the risk. The utter luxury of a cold beer going down my throat at the same time that steaming hot water poured over my body was not one to dismiss lightly. I could never decide which was more desirable, the beer or the shower, but the combination of the two was positively restorative. Life-giving.
Outside the shower, I got a start as I caught my reflection in the mirror and grinned: I was still wearing my baseball cap. I looked more closely at the lines that were developing around my eyes and mouth and decided that once again, the Red Sox had let me down. The crow’s-feet made me look a little older, which I suppose, horrid to say, lends a little more credibility to me as a scholar. I could be as much a feminist as I liked, but I still had to admit that my age and sex were working against me. Academia is still very much a man’s world.
Cynic, I chided myself. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You’re just tired, same as every other day—but there I stopped. Today was most certainly not like every other day.
The steam from the shower rolled across the room, fogging up the mirror, obscuring my reflected image. I was forced away from my morbid thoughts as I watched the steam creep down the mirror, blurring and then hiding the freckles on my nose. I batted my eyes in my best imitation of a Southern belle, convincing myself that I came off more like Scarlett O’Hara than Blanche DuBois. Hazel eyes, instead of green, notwithstanding, and red hair, closer to chestnut than black, though. Okay, so what if I was born in Connecticut, was presently working on the coast of Maine, and had never been within spitting distance of Georgia—it doesn’t matter. Every girl needs to believe she’s belle-quality indomitable. As the steam reached the bottom of the mirror, I made a kissing noise and bade my image farewell—y’all come back now, girl, y’hear? With that I slung the hat out of the bathroom door, shucked off my underwear, and prayed that the shower would work its magic.
The moment when that hot water hit my back was like my own private revival meeting. A moan escaped my lips, and I thought, if my muscles loosening could feel any better I’d be speaking in tongues. In fact, I realized I was already. I was chanting “Oh god, oh man, oh man, oh thank you—“ as the water hit my head and worked its way through the sweat to my scalp. With another sip of the cold beer I thought my knees would buckle with pleasure, and as I got down to the serious business of trying to scrape the remains of the day’s labor from my body and troubling thoughts from my mind, I began to believe that I might just make it.
When I’d finished, I stood under the water for an extra five minutes; not only was it one of the few moments of privacy that I would enjoy all day, but it was getting physically harder and harder to tackle this kind of work. I couldn’t move around as carelessly as I did when I was eight when I started this work by trailing after Oscar, my grandfather and first mentor in archaeology, and I couldn’t bound in and out of meter-deep pits the way I could when I was eighteen and starting my own small-scale digs. It was all Oscar’s fault, I decided. If he hadn’t introduced to me to fieldwork, got me addicted, I’d be working in a nice air-conditioned office somewhere. A nice boring air-conditioned office.
At thirty I was in great shape for your typical American adult, but it was clear from the way that I was hitting the Advil this field season that I had to be better about delegating work if I was going to oversee things the way they deserved. I was just having a hard time convincing myself that the students could dig as well as I could, and for no good reason. After all, I’d trained most of them, except for Meg; it was just that I wanted to do it all myself. My role as project director was to organize and to synthesize. Archaeology is no place for the incurious or the perfectionist: I couldn’t dig the whole site by myself and expect to get the big picture. But who can resist trying?
Tomorrow, I thought as I groped for the taps. Tomorrow I’d definitely practice delegating.
The shower, as good as it was, had taken all the starch out of me. It was almost as if the dirt that seemed to fill every single one of my pores had been holding me up and, now that it was washed away, I was no longer capable of standing on my own. To hell with it, I thought, I’m going to make something real for dinner tonight and go to bed early. My notes are nearly done, and the rest of the paperwork I can do tomorrow. I’m doing laundry and calling a half holiday for myself. After what I’d seen today…I quashed the thought again. Never mind, Em, it’s over now. Get on with life, because that rocky little patch of land called Penitence Point, Maine, is going to make your career, and you can’t afford any distractions now, of all times.
I finished my beer and started to dry off. The towel felt harsh against my skin thanks to the growing collection of aches, bruises, scratches, and mosquito bites on top of the sunburn and the windburn. Lucky for me the site had no poison ivy, else I would have been a real mess. Pulling on my clothes was a chore—I was really stiffening up now—but there’s no way to describe that luxury of having that last pair of clean panties if you haven’t spent all day sweating and soaking up bug spray. Fieldwork makes you appreciate the little things in life like you wouldn’t believe.
Feeling much more human for the shower and my decision to take the night off, I started gathering up my laundry from around the room. I picked up my dirty work trousers and started to empty out the pockets. I found the usual miscellany: a piece of chalk, a tangle of string and bright orange flagging tape, three ballpoints and four markers, an eraser, two pennies, a small plastic bag, a dirty tissue, a pair of root clippers. And how did I end up with three tape measures? I must have absentmindedly picked up the two that weren’t mine, trying to keep the site tidy. My husband has tried unsuccessfully to break me of the habit of stuffing my pockets like a chipmunk’s cheeks, but then he has to admit that I always have an item when I need it. I picked up my Marshalltown trowel and affectionately placed it on top of my boots, where I’d find it tomorrow when I got dressed.
Laundry sorted into piles, I turned my thoughts kitchen-ward and to another cold beer. The students, with whom I was sharing this dorm as well as the work on the site, were unusually quiet. They’d already finished their dinners, I thought grumpily, but their subdued behavior was extraordinary and no one was in the common kitchen area. What generally went on was the sharing of six-packs and trading of improbable stories about fieldwork: who worked on the most unusual, most difficult, most boring, most exotic sites, with the most irascible, most inept, drunkest, or luckiest director. I knew that it wouldn’t be long before this summer’s stories became a part of that circulating canon of anecdotes. I mean, excavating the earliest English settlement on the American mainland should be enough for anyone, but I’d be interested to see what they’d make of this day’s events in particular.
A piece of paper taped to my door caught my attention as soon as I tried to leave my room. I pulled down the scrawled note and read that Tony Markham would be visiting the site tomorrow. While this was an excellent opportunity, my heart also sank a little, realizing that my hopes of an early night were now dashed: I had to prepare for a state visit. Resigned, I headed for the fridge.
As I passed it, the phone on the wall rang right next to my head, startling me badly and providing yet another distraction from dinner.
“Yes?” I answered it impatiently.
“Em?” The welcome sound of a familiar man’s voice came across the line.
“Brian? It’s so good to hear you!” And it was: Brian Chang and I have been married for nearly five years, and even though we’ve been forced to spend a lot of time apart because of our respective jobs, just hearing his voice was enough to raise my downcast spirits.
“You too, Em. How’re you doing?”
“Pretty well, I guess. I just got the message that I’ve got company coming tomorrow, in the form of Tony Markham.”
“You haven’t met him yet; he was away on sabbatical last year when I started. Tony’s the other archaeologist in the department, a Mayanist. He’s a big honcho and knows everyone, so it’s nice he’s taking an interest. Just means more work for me tonight.”
“Yeah, poor me. But he’ll probably be the chair when Kellerman retires next year and it never hurts for me to start impressing folks with my tenure dance.”
“Just so long as you keep all your veils on, hon. So what’s this Markham want? Why’s he bugging you? You want I should have a little talk with him?”
Since Brian is from southern California, his attempt to sound like a tough guy from the Bronx was laughable. Fortunately, a laugh was what he was going for. “Yeah, sweetie, I think you should beat him senseless for me. Oh wait,” I pretended to remember something. “But that will you’ll have to get your lazy butt off the sofa and indulge in some physical activity. It’s too much for me to ask of you.”
“Actually, I know a physical activity that we can both do on the sofa—”
“And that’s the only exercise you ever get! Not that I mind, of course.”
“God.” My husband pretended to yawn. “You East Coast types and your exercise. Life is too short.”
“It is this summer.” I laughed. “And now with an official state visit tomorrow, that means no rest tonight, if I want to show things off tomorrow.”
“Tell this Markham guy to take a flying leap. Tell him, ‘I got better things to do than to cater to the whims of overindulged academics who privilege the white, androcentric hegemony!’”
I snickered. “Now I know chemists don’t use that kind of language; you've been reading my books again.”
Brian ignored me, however, wrapped up in his monologue. “You tell him, ‘I got to get my work done so I can go home and play Warlord and the Slave Girl with my big, angry stud of a husband.’”
“Yeah, right!” The snicker was turning into a full-blown laugh now, and I tried to stifle it, hoping none of the students would pick just this moment to walk by. “I’ll be sure to pass that one on.”
Brian reverted to his normal voice, warm, with just a hint of the Valley. “And just so we’re clear, I want to be the warlord next time,” he said, mock petulantly.
“We’ll see,” I said. “He did actually call up and let me know, which is nice. He could have just dropped in and surprised me, you know.”
“I’m sure he’s a prince,” Brian observed. “So how’re things going? You got the fort yet?”
“Not yet.” I hated saying that, hated thinking what was riding on this project, but I knew that Brian had to ask and that I would have been hurt if he hadn’t. “It’s still early yet, but I think most everyone is down at least to the eighteenth century—”
“By most everyone, do you mean whatshisname is still lagging behind?”
“Alan’s not the best excavator in the world,” I admitted, my hand over the receiver, making sure I wouldn’t be overheard.
“Is he still drinking?” Brian asked.
“Rather more than usual,” I said tonelessly. Down the hall, a door opened and someone went into the common bathroom. “I’m going to have to speak with him about this, and I shouldn’t have to. Frankly, he’s not cut out to be an archaeologist. I don’t know why he keeps insisting he loves it when he’s so defensive most of the time and plainly miserable the rest.”
“I’d drink too, if my father taught in my department.” Brian was fascinated by the soap opera-like events that inevitably characterized the life on a dig. “That can’t be easy.”
“Nope. It’s not a choice I would have made,” I said tersely. Oscar had never, ever pushed me like Rick pushed Alan. I was sick of the whole mess and my role in the middle of it. Rick Crabtree, Alan’s father—whom Brian had once accurately described as “the pudgy little weasel with glasses and a combover”—was impossible to get along with and had been loudly unhappy about Alan working with me. “Everyone else is doing okay, but unfortunately, there’s a little romance blossoming in our midst.”
“Em,” Brian warned, “What those kids do is none of your business. They're all over twenty-one.”
“I know, I know,” I said. “But it just seems like a recipe for disaster—what if it doesn’t work out? I’m not so worried about Dian, she’s sensible enough, but Rob tends to get these…these enthusiasms and not consider the consequences. He just dives right in, and devil take the hindmost.”
“I don’t think that particular phrase has been used since about 1790, hon,” Brian pointed out. “You might want to consider that when conversing with the rest of us ordinary mortals. I like Rob, though, he’ll be fine.”
“You just like him because he’s got the same warped sense of humor as you,” I groused. “But you should see him mooning over Dian; you’ve never seen such big puppy eyes. Dian’s enjoying the attention, but I think she’s still deciding about him.”
“Your new kid working out? The one who arrived last week?”
“Meg’s in good shape, I think. A bit prickly, yet, and I don’t just mean that spiky hair of hers, but I think she’s just sizing us up too. I wouldn’t have had her in this program if I didn’t think she could do it. Any mail or anything?”
“Oh yeah, the department administrator called. The goofy one.”
“Chuck? Oh, be nice to Chuck. I like him and he puts my check in the mailbox. What did he want?”
“He left a message on the machine. ‘Ah, Professor Fielding?’” Brian began to imitate Chuck’s slow, hippy-surfer cadence. “‘Like, I know you’re not there, but I thought you should know, it’s time to order books for next semester, and I know you’re rilly, rilly busy and all, doing the fieldwork thing—rave on!—so if you want to call me with the titles and all, I’ll take care of it for you, ‘kay?’”
I laughed. “Okay, I’ll get back to Chuck.” Then I was distracted by my rumbling stomach. “I gotta go, Bri, I’m starving.”
“You haven’t eaten yet?” Brian’s voice was filled with alarm. Being hungry was about the worst thing he could imagine.
“Not yet, I’ve been trying to get something for the past half hour now.” My stomach rumbled louder, as if in chorus to our discussion.
Brian sighed. “I’ll be glad when this is over, hon.”
“The dig’s only a couple more weeks.”
“No, when all this is over. When we can have a normal life together, and not spend all our time on the phone.”
It was my turn to sigh. “I know, I know. It’s not forever, but for now, we have to be where the work is. Somerville’s not so far from Caldwell, maybe we can start looking for a new home someplace between Massachusetts and Maine when I’m finished here.” I was employed at Caldwell, a small private college in Maine.
“Maybe look for a house?” He sounded hopeful.
“Not this year, sweetie.” I hated to be a wet blanket, but we’d been over the finances every way till Sunday. It just wasn’t in the cards with the dirt-pay of an as-yet-untenured assistant professor and a chemist who’d only recently made the change from prestigious but impoverishing postdoctoral research grants to a small company. “Besides, we don’t need a house to be together.”
Brian snorted. “We need a house if we’re going to be together in the same building as your books.”
“Not if we clean out your record collection. No one listens to vinyl anymore anyway.”
“You philistine.” Then Brian began our traditional spiral of good-byes. “I miss you.”
“I miss you too. I gotta go.”
“I know, I know. Go get a sandwich. Come home this weekend?”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
It took me a minute to figure out what he was waiting for. “And next time you can be the warlord.”
In the face of everything else, my husband’s phone call had buoyed me, distracted me so that I hadn’t even thought to tell him about this morning. Never mind; I’d tell him next time we spoke. I slapped together a peanut butter sandwich, stuck it in my mouth, and headed down to the dorm’s laundry room with my basket. As much as I was grateful for the opportunity to rent the dorm space for the crew for the duration of the dig, hot showers and cold beer aside, I was a hundred times more grateful to be able to wash my field clothes on a daily basis. I may be a slob, but mine is a hygienic sort of clutter.
Not wanting to put the sandwich down on any of the gritty surfaces of the other washers, I held it in one hand while I loaded the washer with the other. I had just slapped the coin tray with my six quarters into the machine when my crew chief, Neal Fenn, came in with a duffel bag full of his own laundry.
One eye on the rising water in my tub, I nodded to him. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Neal ducked, his short sandy hair, streaked with premature gray, just brushing one of the water pipes that were suspended from the ceiling. They weren’t all that low, and I’m not a short woman; generally speaking, I had to stand well back to see all of Neal at once. He’s not beefy-huge, but the fact that one is always left with an impression of legs, knees, and elbows seems to accentuate his height even more.
The water now covered my clothes, and I could see a bit of dried grass that had been stuck on my trousers floating on the top. I stuck my sandwich in my mouth again and measured out the soap. Watching the debris swirling on the surface of the water and now fully able to appreciate just how unfragrant I had been, I threw in an extra quarter cup of detergent.
“Things are quiet tonight,” he began, shoving his glasses up his nose in a characteristic gesture. “I guess it’s because of—“
“When’s a good time to strategize for tomorrow?” I interrupted, licking some peanut butter off the back of my hand.
“How about now?” Neal answered.
“Okay.” As I hopped up on the washer next to mine, I noticed Neal wasn’t sorting his clothes, and I bit my tongue to keep from pointing out this fact. Neal was a grown adult; if he wanted to put the darks in with the whites, all on the hot water setting, that was up to him. “You first.”
“Alan’s down a little further than he was this morning.” Neal tore the tops off a small package of detergent and one of powdered bleach; I shuddered as he threw both of them in at the same time, right on top of the dry clothes. “He’d have gotten more work done, but I had to get him to clean up his balks—they were bowing way in. Again.”
He didn’t have to say anything more; after two years of graduate school and this his second field season with me, Alan should have been able to keep the walls of his unit straight as he worked. Doing this would allow him to see the relationship between the layers of soil in the ground, the most important evidence that we use to reconstruct the history of a site. Alan’s lack of progress and ability was a genuine concern.
I chewed my lip, thinking this over. “And then there was that little spat between him and Rob—”
Neal broke in. “Rob was teasing him about going so slowly. He didn’t mean anything by it, he never does, but Alan took it too seriously and blew up at him. I just told Alan to cool down and then I took Rob aside and told him not to bug Alan anymore. He doesn’t understand that Alan’s really not getting it.”
I sighed. “Okay, well, we’re stuck with this situation for a couple more weeks. Nothing we can do about it. For this year,” I finished significantly. “As for Alan’s work, well, if his notes are okay, and he’s not throwing away any significant features, we’ll just keep him where he is and keep an eye on him. Otherwise, if it looks like he’s going to miss the very early stuff, we’ll…make other arrangements.”
Translation: If Alan didn’t show more care as he came down on the fragile seventeenth-century material, we’d move him to a less sensitive area. Which, to an archaeology student, was about the most humiliating thing that could happen. But better he learn on something that wasn’t as delicate than destroy valuable data. Especially my valuable data, I thought provocatively. And this on top of his moods and drinking.
I decided I needed to change the subject. “How’s Rob doing over by the pine trees?”
Neal was silent for a moment, which was nothing unusual. He was a thoughtful guy, not a real chatterbox by nature. I’d learned to interpret his silences very well, I thought.
“Good,” he finally said. He closed the lid of his washing machine and threw out his soap boxes. “Rob wasn’t thrilled about moving from the old unit to the new one—I think he’s, er, been enjoying working next to Dian—but he settled down to it and made good progress after lunch.”
I nodded. “Did you tell him that I wanted to put Meg by Dian so that she could watch Dian’s stratigraphy?”
“Yeah, he stopped slamming his tools around after that.” Neal lowered his voice confidentially. “I think he thought you were trying to break them up or something.”
“Well,” I said with a sniff, “I do actually have better things to do than worry about his affairs de coeur.”
“He made a production about setting up the unit very precisely,” Neal said, “and then began digging like a champ after lunch.” He paused, frowning. “He took his sweatshirt off. I warned him that he’d be covered in mosquito bites but—“
“But it’s such a small price to pay for showing off one’s brawny shoulders to two potentially adoring females,” I observed dryly. “Besides, he’s such a little gorilla that nothing could bite through all that hair. Did you explain that I think, judging by the lay of the land, that in addition to being an extension of the test pit near where Pauline found those first potsherds, he has a good chance of finding a defensive wall or ditch over there? If there’s anything still left, that is.” The ditch might not have looked like much of anything, just a shallow trench that eventually filled up with dirt over time. Nothing might remain of a masonry wall, if the stones were taken and reused by later generations. It was incredibly important to the project to determine what kind of defenses the English built and was a vote of confidence on my part to stick Rob there, despite his raging hormones.
“Yep, he very carefully explained that to Meg,” Neal said. “You know, to bring her up to speed.” He leaned against his washer and grinned knowingly. “Dian is in good shape—she thinks she might be hitting a seventeenth-century living surface; the soil’s got that dark, greasy feel to it. She and Meg are getting on okay, and she thinks Meg is catching on just fine.” Another small frown suddenly replaced his grin.
I hazarded a guess. “What about Meg?”
He shook his head, puzzled. “I don’t know. She’s going awfully fast, for someone who just started with us. She seems to talk a lot. She’s not the easiest person to get along with.” He fell silent suddenly.
I don’t need this, I thought, not more friction. Alan’s outbursts were enough, a blight on an otherwise great crew. “What’s the problem?”
No answer. Then, “She’s just got an attitude. She’s not interested in accepting help where it’s needed.” Neal started rummaging through his pockets, picking out change.
Aha. I thought I might know. “Where was it needed?” I asked gently.
Neal colored. “Well, it was nothing in particular. I just offered to give her a hand, to get her started, and she blew me off.”
“Is her work okay? Is that going to be a problem?”
“No, her work’s good.” Neal clammed up again for a few moments. He went over to the Coke machine and started putting his coins into the slot in a deliberate fashion. “She’s just kinda brusque. Her work’s fine, I guess.” He got his soda and then began to clean the lint trap in the dryer he wasn’t going to need for another twenty minutes.
And it was that anticipation, Neal’s attention to detail, that was the key to the problem, I realized. Neal is very disciplined, very organized—that’s what made me glad to hire him as the crew chief—but sometimes he was a little stiff when others, in his estimation, didn’t measure up. Precision is a good quality in an archaeologist, but a good supervisor knows when to emphasize it and when to lay off.
I sighed and leaned over to check the progress of my wash. When Neal started in with the terse monosyllables, he wasn't going to be any more generous with his thoughts.
“Who else?” I changed the subject. I’d talk to Meg myself tomorrow and see if I could figure out what was up from her side of things.
We ran down the list of other students, Neal offering his suggestions, me agreeing or reorganizing things so that we got the most work done with the most care possible. Finally, I gave him my plans.
“We’re getting down to Fort Providence,” I said. “Obviously, everyone has to be super cautious not to miss anything, from here on in. The English were only at this site for a little less than a year and they wouldn't have left much behind. If we’re going to find anything of that period, we’ve got to keep an eye on every soil change, every little thing. We can’t afford to blow it,” I finished, almost to myself.
“Don’t worry, Em, we’ll get it. Your hunches have been right so far.” Neal’s words were comforting, but the sudden thought of all I had riding on this project made them fall flat.
“We need more than hunches and good luck.” A thought struck me. “Oh, before I forget, I got your note about Professor Markham coming to visit the site tomorrow. Did he say what time he’ll be round?” The washer finished and I began loading the wet clothes into the dryer.
Neal shrugged. “He said he was having lunch with friends in the area and would drop by near closing time.”
“You gave him directions?”
“He said he knew the way.”
“Well, it’s nice he’s making the effort, even if we don’t have any monumental architecture or gold treasures.” I shut the door to the dryer and started it. “Just let everyone know that there will be a Divine Visitation; they already know they need to be on best behavior for me,” I joked, “but extra-best behavior for Tony would be appreciated, of course.”
“No problem, Em.”
I started up the stairs when Neal called out hesitantly, “Are you okay, Emma?”
I paused in the half shadows of the staircase, the smell of clean warm lint and detergent in the air, neither of us able to see the other’s face. The sound of the washing machine and dryer filled the silence that hung between us. “Sure, Neal. Thanks.”
“I mean,” his words came out hurriedly, “I just mean, what with this morning and all.”
“I’m fine. Really. Good night.”
I turned on the steps and headed back to my room to wait for the clothes to dry, realizing just how long and odd a day it had been. It was funny how one bizarre occurrence could be so effectively blocked out by the minutiae of everyday life, as though your mind was struggling to divert itself elsewhere. The memory seemed to wink at me through the protective layers of daily duty and organization, letting me know it was still there, waiting for closer examination.
I closed the door to my room tightly and, robbed of my night off, began sorting paperwork in anticipation of the coming workday. But it was no good. Pushing my chair back, I went into the tiny bathroom, came back with my glass, poured a generous measure of bourbon into it, and then put the bottle away. I sat down, finally, to address the fact that I had stumbled across a corpse on the beach this morning.
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