Solitary figure standing along in Western cultivated field

My Time in the Dirt

An Excerpt of The Crown Package
by Joshua Dewain Foster

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I know by now that the undead doesn’t stay buried—it works its way to the surface.

 
Consider that in 1982—the year I entered this world as a complete being with hands and feet and vocal cords—a certain tract of land in the foothills of eastern Idaho, surveyed and recorded at approximately 2,000 acres, was owned by seven different men: Amle Landon, Arthur Harris, Erroll Spaulding, John Wheeler, Orlando Smith, Stewart Simmons, and my father.

An excerpt from The Crown Package: A Personal Anthology by Joshua Dewain Foster, by permission of the author and publisher.

The Crown Package, by Joshua Dewain Foster

Blurring boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, the narratives of The Crown Package: A Personal Anthology roam from his inherited Mormon roots in Idaho and Utah to strange and new landscapes in Alabama, Arizona, California, Texas, and even New York City, from which Foster reports on and fictionalizes his postmodern Pioneer life in the ever-evolving American West.

Learn more and purchase the book.

Near that tract of land, up on a hill, is a small country cemetery. There are a few trees and a handful of ornate headstones. This is the place I may or may not be buried. The entrance is marked with an arch and the name “Ririe-Shelton Cemetery.” 

For many years I think the cemetery sign says “Ririe-Skeleton Cemetery” which to me makes perfect sense.

On that farm—where the soil is fine as flour, and the earth packs and blows like snow, and the dust billows up from every seat cushion and the dirt sheets down the pickup windows, reminiscent of raindrops chasing raindrops down glass—I grow dirty.

My first work requires me to pull weeds next to the repair shop. Inside, my father plans with the men what to till, what to sow, what to bury, what to burn. I lull in the shade until the meeting is almost finished. Before the men trickle out, I rub handfuls of dirt into the thighs of my jeans, across my chest, I powder dust in my hair. All this to create the illusion that I’ve been engaged in the cause. But all around, red root and wild oat stand green and vibrant and untouched.

Once, in front of the other men, my father teases me for being lazy. Rain falls that morning; work is slow. I mill about inside the shop until I ask my father to take me home. “I’ve got a job for you,” he says. “Go out there in the dirt and turn all the rocks dry-side up.” And I do for a while, just to make him feel bad, then sit in the pickup until he takes me to the gas station for a drink.

In junior high, I sketch a cartoon during church à la The Far Side that is titled “Strange Similarities Between Potato Farmers and Prison Wardens.” The cartoon is two-paned; in the first, a potato farmer stands in his field, holding a tuber up to the heavens. The farmer says, “Partner, you’re gonna fry!!!” In the second pane, the prison warden, his hand on the breaker switch to the electric chair, in which sits a grizzled mass murderer, echoes the potato farmer’s refrain.

Until the late 90s, most of the schools in the farming regions of Idaho offer their students a two-week vacation called “Spud Harvest.” My friend Victor comes to work with me. We work six days a week, as many hours as possible. Only the weather, or mechanical failure, stop us. One morning driving to the farm, bouncing along a gravel road in my ‘65 Ford, I fall asleep at the wheel. Vic had conked out as soon as he got in. The sagebrush and gutter weed wake us, scratching against the windows. Vic pushes us out of the dugway and we make it to the cellars on time. Later, Vic tells me he’d been dreaming about potatoes.

My uncle stops taking daily showers during spud harvest. He spreads them out to once or twice a week. “Why should I?” he says. “I mean, I go to bed at midnight. I get up at six in the morning. What’s the point?” His wife claims that his pillowcase has a corona outline of dirt, that she can shake dust out of the sheets.

Potato harvester in dry field
Photo by Joshua Dewain Foster.

I attend a local Mormon college so I can be close to the farm. I bumble through journalism and business classes, not finding much that engages me, until I take a Spanish literature class and read a story by Juan Rulfo called “We Are Very Poor.”

“And Tacha cries when she realizes her cow won’t come back because the river killed her. She’s here at my side in her pink dress, looking at the river from the ravine, and she can’t stop crying. Streams of dirty water run down her face as if the river had gotten inside her.”

In his career, Juan Rulfo works as a traveling tire salesman and writes two books, a short story collection, The Burning Plain, and a novel, Pedro Páramo. He is heralded as one of Mexico’s finest writers.

So when the chance arises to study in Mexico for a semester—in Jalisco, no less, home state to Rulfo and the setting for his books—I leave the farm during grain harvest and don’t return until the whole place is buried under two feet of snow. By chance, I meet a University of Nebraska professor in Guadalajara who is writing a book on Juan Rulfo’s life. He agrees to allow me to accompany him on his endeavors. I associate with students that, for the first time, are not Mormon. One tells me the reason he transferred from his state university to a liberal arts college was that he tired of seeing his friends share needles. On the ranch, I tell him, with the cows, we use the same needle over and over until the damn thing breaks.

I travel with the professor south of Guadalajara for a weekend. We are to interview the prominent local scholar on Juan Rulfo in a town called Sayula. We leave the metropolitan area and surge out into the wilds. Here are men herding cattle on the road’s shoulder. Here are nine children riding in the open bed of a pickup truck. Here are toothless women drinking Coke from bottles. This is my type of country.

The prominent local scholar is the owner of Sayula’s hardware store. He tells us that Rulfo lied about everything—his age, where he was born, what happened to his family. I don’t believe the man. To me, it seems that he’ll stroke out at any moment. I pass the time watching chickens scratch for seeds in the dirt pavilion of his home. I take a picture in Sayula by Juan Rulfo’s home. The plaque says he lived there, so it must be true. But there is another, exactly the same, on a different house a kilometer away….

Here is what I think I know: Rulfo’s father was a wealthy landowner killed by revolutionaries in the Cristero Revolution. Rulfo became a child of the state when his relatives would not take him. Rulfo studied in Guadalajara, then dropped out, then went to Mexico City, then took a job working as a rep for Goodyear Rubber. While in Mexico City, Rulfo started a literary journal called Pan. Pan, in Spanish, means bread. Pan, a Greek prefix, means everything.

That night, back in Sayula, I walk to the local library. There are just two shelves of books, neither of which contains anything by Rulfo. I leave once it’s dark. In an alcove of a small restaurant is an arcade. Inside, barefoot girls in pink dresses play Dance Dance Revolution. The worn gameboard is encrusted with dirty footprints.

In Azatlán, the professor and I search for a waterfall he remembers from his time in Mexico as a graduate student. We find it, except that it is no longer a waterfall. Local entrepreneurs, in the last 30 years, have dammed the creek and created a water park. Now the place is deserted. The swimming pool is half full of rainwater and run-off, sludgy and leaf-splotched. We walk freely through the buildings, behind the cash counters and soda bar. The professor explains how the creek once rushed off the mountainside into a pool of crystalline blue. He and his student friends would jump from it with the local kids. There is a photo of me next to a merry-go-round, half buried in sediment, the once-bright clowny colors faded to a transparent brushing.

Joshua Dewain Foster in tractor
Photo by Joshua Dewain Foster.

I return to Idaho and take a job at a call center for a local company that sells all-natural bullshit. When a caller asks me a question that I know I cannot answer, I put them on hold, hang up on them, and return to reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a work that Rulfo cited as an influence to his novel Pedro Páramo. I quit the phone center before they’re able to fire me.

Pedro Páramo, the novel’s antagonist, is a wealthy landowner who lives in a town called Comala. Pedro has conglomerated all of the farms in the area to his own through means both dastardly and damning.

Juan Preciado, the novel’s protagonist and most frequent narrator, starts the book by saying, “I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him. I squeezed her hands as a sign I would do it.”

By the time I finish college, my father—through means neither dastardly nor damning—has conglomerated all of the land belonging to Amle Landon, Arthur Harris, Erroll Spaulding, John Wheeler, Orlando Smith, and Stewart Simmons. What once seven individuals owned is now controlled by one.

That is how these stories tend to be going….

Instead of going back to work that ground, I apply to graduate school. My father does not believe I am leaving until, the week before classes start, I tell him I need time off to pack the moving van. He says, “You’re really going to do that?” I answer by driving south on a Thursday morning, my father just starting in on the ripe barley out at the desert farm. In Tucson, the yards are made of dirt and gravel. They pay the landscapers to rake rocks rather than mow grass.

On the days I feel homesick, I drive south of the city to the Tohono O’odham reservation where the mission of San Xavier del Bac juts out of the desert floor like a white dove. I climb a little hill and look over the reservation farms—those straight field lines, those muddy canals, they feel familiar even though they are foreign. I finish college in Arizona. My father offers me a job back on the farm. I take it and make the trek back to the northern country in the middle of winter.

The first year I am home, I help the farm manager repair an irrigation pivot—those monolithic robotic waterers. Water floods the field and I don’t have irrigation boots, so I take off my tennis shoes, roll up my jeans, and walk barefoot the quarter-mile into the problem area. I feel as though I am halfway around the world in a rice paddy, tending to my mu.

Potato fields in bloom
Photo by Joshua Dewain Foster.

I make it through planting, irrigation, and grain harvest, and I find myself in a complete potato harvest for the first time in a decade. My job is to stay at the cellars and make sure the trucks unload without any problems. My crew eliminates dirt: we pick dirt clods from the potatoes, we shovel dirt from beneath the conveyor belts, we scrape the dirt into a pile away from the line. When I get gear-lube oil on my hands, I wash my hands in dust and mud. I exist in a perpetually filthy state.

One night—it is past ten o’clock, we are pushing it until midnight or the temperature dips below freezing—a truck arrives with pieces of junk mixed in with the crop. 

Twisted metal and petrified wood. 

A bent irrigation riser. 

The sole of a British Knight sneaker. 

The front half of an old toy pickup. 

A sprocket like an ancient sun dial. 

A chain. 

A septic tank cover. 

A heater grate. 

A mangled egg beater. 

A black plastic toy poodle. 

Truck springs. 

Half a dozen horseshoes.

Where did this come from? A young kid we’ve hired for the harvest, all of 14, says to me that his father—Arthur Harris’s grandson—remembers eating plums off his grandfather’s tree during potato harvest 30 years ago.

And then, like a flood, like a cascade of mud and water, the memory returns: out in the middle of the farm once stood a homestead. Arthur Harris had built a house there, a mile from the nearest paved road, where he stayed during the summer. He hauled in water from the canal and stored it in a wooden tank. He planted apple and plum trees. My father bought him out when I was very young, and we took our depreciated equipment out to the plot for our equipment boneyard. As a kid, I’d go with the mechanic out to Arthur’s to scavenge parts. There, I’d eat apples and hunt blow-snakes and hide out in the windowless shack. When my father finished buying out the other men and the land became contiguous, he developed the farm for irrigation pivots and this required him to topple Arthur’s place, again move all that machinery, and bury the plot.

I stand near the pile pulled from the potatoes and think, 20 years ago, when I was seven, I crawled across this junk when it was still above ground. Is this my black toy poodle? My sandbox truck? I sit down in the gravel and measure the British Knight sole up against my boot.

I reel with the remembering, the re-memory, of the Harris place. Now all is covered by crop rows, by ten feet of soil and rock. What other things, half-alive, did I prematurely inter? I know by now, wise at 27 years old, that the undead doesn’t stay buried—it works its way to the surface. Hell, even Juan Preciado, who dies on page 58 of a 125-page book, rises up from the dust, interloping, his voice warning the other ghosts. I know that, as dirty as the farm made me, I can’t get clean of it. As long as I live, this mud and crust will mean something to me. I know too there are other clods that have stained me: books, curiosity, a pair of restless legs. What can be done? I stand in the halogen white of the cellar lights, holding the toy pickup. 

If I leave this place, will these memories, these seeds, cease to exist? 

If I stay, what will I never discover? 

I go to my pickup for a notebook and begin to catalog the items collected from the potatoes. 

For the time being, I am here to recall, to investigate, to report, to experience this midway purgatory between earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, my only hope to be like Juan Preciado when I’m buried at the Ririe-Skeleton (or elsewhere) and from my back, six feet below the surface, I say to whomever will hear me: I believe the weather is changing up above.

Truck carrying potatoes across dry landscape
Photo by Joshua Dewain Foster.

 

 

Joshua Dewain FosterJoshua Dewain Foster is a writer native to the Snake River Vally of Idaho. There he lives and works with his wife and creative collaborator Georgia Pearle Foster in farming and ranching, parties, and publishing. “My Time In The Dirt” is collected in Josh’s personal anthology The Crown Package (2022) available now at fosterlit.com/new-releases and on Instagram @foster.literary.

Header photo by Joshua Dewain Foster.

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