Excavations by Regina Rae Weiss

I’d been here a few weeks in relative peace but now the park was being dug up all around me, and I was having trouble finding out why. At first I thought they were going to excavate and replant the flower beds and shrubberies. I panicked then about being displaced from my comfortable abode in the heart of the ancient rhododendron, which was larger than my last apartment and rent free. Would I have to go back to the west side tunnels? I couldn’t do that. Peggy was probably still marooned over there and she wanted, understandably, to kill me. But I couldn’t go to a shelter either. The city’s shelters bring out my claustrophobia worse than any tunnel ever could.

Finally, on the third day, they were throwing up wooden barriers around all the plantings, including my rhododendron – apparently to protect them from whatever it was they had planned. They used cross rails that I could easily squeeze myself between so I was actually kind of grateful once I realized that my sanctuary wasn’t at risk. The rails made me feel safer at night while allowing me easy ingress to and egress from the gnarly innards of the gigantic bush. I had it made.

The small, bony woman who appeared on the fourth day was a fascination. By now I was used to the parks department engineer who visited the site indecently early each morning, a burly guy in his forties with an overstuffed clipboard that was always losing its papers. It must have been embarrassing to the crew members trailing after him each time he stooped to pick up the flying pages, either unaware of or uncaring about exposing his hearts and arrows boxers and pale white butt cheeks to the world.

Today, Butt Cheek and his three subordinates followed this new arrival around the park, a frankly petite woman in her fifties speaking very fast, with an accent I was pretty sure was Balinese. She stopped every few yards and did a little dance, gesticulating up at tree heights and nearby buildings.

“I don’t know about this project,” I heard one of the park rangers say to another. “I just think it’s too avant-garde for New York City.”

Honestly, that shocked me. What could be too experimental for my hometown? Nothing, that’s what.

The next morning Ms. Petite was back and this time she had some serious muscle with her. Three women and a guy hauling hard black boxes of saws, hammers and other hand tools. A quiet compact solar truck trailed after them, its flatbed filled with upright bolts of that fabric the seamstress in Queens used to make my daughters’ tutus from. Only this . . . what’s it called? Oh, right: tulle. This tulle was bright green, not the pink and lavender of little girls’ dance recitals. Jammed between the huge rolls of the gauzy stuff were four shiny steel contraptions that looked like outboard motors with jackhammers attached.

That morning the real noise began. The digging, it turned out, had just been the overture. The machines they’d carted in were pile drivers that shoved straight into the bedrock, motors shrieking and whining and spewing diesel dust and fumes, dirt and friction-charred rock.

By that evening all the traumatized creatures disturbed by the hellish fracturing of the earth had found their way into my rhododendron, the place I sleep and eat and stew. We didn’t share a language, so I welcomed them. Two groundhogs, a vole, three skunks and what I recognized after sifting through memories from childhood were a group of cicada-eating wasps.

Of course, I realized. The drilling had collapsed the brilliant insects’ expertly constructed tunnels.

The next morning I left as soon as the crew arrived, heading over to the river with my net and knife. Whatever was coming, I couldn’t take another day of listening to it unfold. I needed some solitude, easily found at the greasy riparian water line at low tide.

When I returned to the park that evening I was amazed and relieved. The construction vehicle was nowhere in sight. The pile drivers were gone. The cross rails they’d put up to the protect the plantings were gone. Rolls of sod covered the huge scars they’d made of the ground. These glossy new emerald grass layers, backlit by the pre-dusk sun, mesmerized me.

Then I noticed the columns rising alongside the trunks of the trees. I moved to the nearest, cautiously reaching to stroke it. No, it wasn’t alive, but it sure was a skillful imitation of the trunk and bark of the linden tree it stood alongside, deeply textured and even fake lichen stained. I walked over to the towering ash that shades my home on these late spring afternoons. A fake trunk stood next to it as well,driven into the ground between the ash’s venerable roots, its erupted, ridged layers visually indistinguishable from that of the actual tree. I touched it and again felt the absence of life, of warmth, of grit.

I looked around. Sure enough, each tree trunk in this section of the park had been paired with a shadow of itself. What could it mean?

I followed the path out of the grove toward the construction fencing they’d thrown up near the sidewalk, but it too was gone. Then I saw it. A small signpost sunk into a tub of concrete. Forest of the Future spelled out in . . . what was that hideous typeface? I studied it. Oh, of course. Biome light. I stepped closer and read, in a smaller version of the same ugly lettering, An art installation by Shirley and Andres Mollusk, on display until September 30th. Oh great.  

The following afternoon there was a ribbon cutting. The borough president spoke, along with some lay member from the public design commission and that city council member who was always bragging about this particular park like he was personally responsible for its existence. Thank god they didn’t use microphones, but the crowd! Gosh, you’d think people would have better things to do than stand around looking up at fake trees and drinking . . . what? Something tinged a gross ghostly green.

I hated these people. Hated listening to their ignorant, witty comments about the installation. The subtlety of the artists’ vision. The values inherent in the contrast of muted materials and dramatic execution. I wanted to gag them. But of course, I reminded myself, that was exactly why Peggy wanted to kill me. For all the harm I’d done by voicing my distain of the art industry she and I had long made our livings off of. Because of me, Peggy had lost her income, and with it her quiet, dependable home.

Now I worried that somehow, over there in the tunnels, Peggy would hear about the Forest of the Future. If she came to take a look at the installation, she might find me here in the park. Then what would I do?

It wasn’t my fault, after all. When my husband disappeared with the girls it just seriously undermined my ability to spout drivel. So naturally selling experimental pieces by unknown artists had become impossible.

As, increasingly, I’d found myself unable to utter anything other than my own unvarnished truth, I’d had to shutter my gallery and take stock of my debt, which had long reflected my inflated, probably grandiose belief that I could sell venom to a viper. No more.

Of course, it wasn’t Peggy’s fault either. I’d hired her as my bookkeeper straight out of high school. She’d built a safe, respectable, nondescript life for herself in my orbit. But when I stopped selling paintings and sculpture and could no longer pay her, we’d both discovered that no one needed bookkeepers anymore. Not in this city. Maybe in some rural town without bandwidth somewhere, but Peggy couldn’t go on a pilgrimage to find out. 

After I obliterated my art business with honesty, people kept asking me how I was. No one really wanted to hear that I was, in fact, murderously angry, but it took me way too long to see that because, after all, surely everyone felt that way at times. One by one the people I called friends stopped calling.

It was just as well. Being out in the world by myself suited me more than anything ever had. More than the visceral scent of my babies. More than the shiny high of a truly operose sale. I’d never had such delicious freedom of thought, such a plethora of clearsighted, hyper focused moments as these days and nights alone provided me.

In the weeks preceding the excavation I’d been fretting because no one who wandered by ever seemed to really notice the rhododendron, despite it being the most magnificent thing in the park. Now, though, I was grateful. I could stew within its branching cavities in peace.

No, I assured myself, Peggy wouldn’t hear about this paragon of public art, and even if she did, she wouldn’t want to come see it. All she really cared about was getting a job, any kind of job. Surely that would’ve happened by now with this shortage of low-skilled workers everyone was screaming about.

I’d just have to get through the weeks of listening to inane commentary about the Forest of the Future. I could easily absent myself during the most crowded times. Or, if the mood struck me, I could sit here in my magnificent shrub or on any park bench, listening and making fun of it all in my head.

Later, of course, there’d be the disruption of the installation’s demolition. Gee, by then, autumn would be well underway. The rhododendron would hold on to its leaves, but the shade that comforted me now, in the heat of late spring, would only make me cold in October and beyond. Yeah, I’d have to go back to the tunnels in the fall. It’d be okay. Peggy would surely have found her way back to civilization by then.

Regina Rae Weiss is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing and Literature program of Stony Brook University in New York. Her nonfiction, focused on sustainability, has been published in The Philadelphia InquirerThe Huffington Post and elsewhere. Her fiction is forthcoming in Still Point Arts Quarterly. You can find more of her work at reginaraeweiss.com or find her on twitter @reginagroks.