Ditch Days by Kase Johnstun

And then there were days when the ditch was full but no one to play with. My cousins weren’t around, and my brother didn’t want anything to do with me, so I put on my swim trunks or cut-offs or whatever lingered clean in my dresser drawer and what I had deemed worthy of ditch wear – and slid into the dirty water from the river.

I did what we all did together, but I did it alone. I walked and waded in the ditch the full stretch from my house to my grandma’s house, seven houses and about a quarter of a mile down 6600. I jumped out to cross the driveway and then jumped back in and followed the current through our neighbor’s yard by dropping down into the water, just barely keeping my head up, so if they looked out their window, they couldn’t have seen a kid floating by. They didn’t like it when we did.

I passed by other homes, climbed out when I had to, and then climbed back in. The hot summer sun reflected off the muddy ditch water around me but did not touch me, my body immersed in the murky liquid. I think this may have been the first time in my life when I embraced being completely alone and liked it. I followed the ditch, made my own choices when to jump out and when to stay in, got caught in a stick tangle, but figured my way out of it, and just looked up at the sky while floating, contently drifting like a leaf toward my grandma and grandpa Cordova’s house. I remember, mostly, the contrast from being in the cool water and standing up and letting the sun bake my skin and then dropping down to float again. Simple pleasures of warmth and coolness on my outer shell that I would trade the world for now.

After about 20 minutes of floating and walking, I smacked into a thin metal sheet, reddened from rust, that sat at the edge of the ditch that began at my grandpa’s property. The water flowed away from the main scar in the earth and into his garden. He had created thin ditches of his own that ran up and down his rows of corn and chilies and tomatoes, perfect water transports to feed his vegetables, his babies. I had helped him dig many of them out, having spent so much time at his home alone with him on days like that.

I pulled myself out of the ditch by placing two hands on the concrete slabs that held the metal sheet in place and looked up to always find him there — it seemed like always at least — and I walked along the edge of his garden where the water flowed in and out of the rows in his tiny ditches.

“Time for lunch,” he’d say. “You comin’?”

“Yep,” I’d say.

“Okay, first, amigo, help me pick some of these tomatoes and some of these here chilis, and then we’ll go in,” he’d say and wave me over, both of us shirtless in the sun. An older, darker version of me walked between the tall corn stalks ahead of me. I’d tip toe through them and grab a few tomatoes and chilis on my way to the edge. We’d walk together across the lawn and into my grandma’s house where she would have already cooked a batch of tortillas and some fried corn. Fresh pinto beans sat in a bowl on the table. As soon as I got in the house, the house became hers and not his, and she would disappear for a moment into her guest room and pull out some dry shorts for me to wear

“I don’t know who the hell these are, but they’re dry,” she’d say and hand them to me, swapping the tomatoes and chilis in my hands for the shorts in hers. By the time I changed, she’d have the tomatoes and chilis cut, skinned, and placed in the mortar and had begun to grind them with the pestle until she lay the fresh salsa on the table in front of us and sat down to roll beans into a tortilla so we could eat together, just the three of us on those ditch days.


with Featured Art by Danielle Hark


Kase Johnstun is an award-winning essayist, novelist, memoirist, and teacher. He is the Manager for The Utah Center for The Book. He is the author of Cast Away (forthcoming from Torrey House Press, 2024), Let the Wild Grasses Grow (Torrey House Press, 2021), Finalist High Plains Book Award, Fiction, 2022, Women’s National Book Association Great Group Read 2022, Beyond the Grip of Craniosynostosis, Winner of the 2015 Gold Quill, League of Utah Writers. You can visit him at kasejohnstun.com and listen to his literary podcast at http://www.thebanyancollective.com/literally/.

Danielle Hark is a writer and artist who lives with PTSD and bipolar disorder. Her photography and mixed-media work come from her lived experience with mental illness and trauma, including sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, and the loss of her father to ALS. She is the founder of the non-profit Broken Light Collective that empowers people with mental health challenges using photography. Danielle lives and creates in New Jersey with her husband, two sassy young daughters, two and a half ukuleles, a Samoyed pup, a Scottish Fold cat, and a typewriter named Cori Blue. Her website is: www.daniellehark.com

Go ahead and Leave Feedback about this essay for a reply from the author.

Memoir Magazine