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[whitespace] Dirt

By Kevin Peters

There are colored light bulbs, now, in all the fixtures--blue, yellow, and red--to change the atmosphere, but over along the wall where the bar is you can still see where the ice-cream counter used to be, and a break in the carpeting betrays where the kitchen was. Two small pool tables cover the change, but it's there if you know to look.

Jerry takes it all in just that fast, oblivious to the country band blasting from the corner until the lap steel makes a particularly annoying run, and he is shoved forward into the present. It's a redneck bar. A pretty, young cocktail waitress with blonde hair and freckles smiles by, and he imagines her milking the cows and the dozen other chores she did before coming down here to work this evening.

He takes a deep breath remembering the smell of manure as it violated the air conditioning of his rental car. Turning to walk out, he is suddenly accosted by a herd of pointed boots coming through the door that lend substance to the memory of the intrusive aroma. Jerry retreats to the bar. The band starts again, and couples shuffle to the floor, then shuffle back and forth redistributing the sawdust. Now there is a bartender leaning across the ice-cream counter. His shirt has mother-of-pearl snaps.

"Scotch." And then upon seeing the hesitation, "Beer."

This produces recognition and presently a urine-colored substance.

Foam runs down the sides of the glass to soak the paper napkin. Jerry pays but does not drink, and as the bartender retreats to the far end of the bar to listen to the freckled cocktail waitress yell her order, Jerry measures the distance to the door, checks for pointed boots, and walks out.

Later, in the hotel room, waiting for Tom's call, he stares at the yellow and orange carpeting, imagining the rows of small tufts that run from the bed to the wall are brown dirt freshly turned. He looks at his hands half expecting to see that dirt beneath his nails, but they are trim and clean. The red light on the phone flashes just before the ring, and Jerry picks it up.

"Hello?"

"Hey, baby."

"Hey."

"How's it going?"

"All right. It's settled. I'll meet once more with the lawyer in the morning, and that'll be it."

"Good." Tom pauses, then asks, "How you holding up?"

"I'll be all right. I miss you."

"Me too, baby. Come home soon."

"I will."

"Austin and Mike are here," says Tom.

"Tell them I said hi."

"OK, baby, love you."

"I love you too."

"Bye."

"Bye."

Jerry listens to the line go dead, then hangs up the phone. He lies back on the bed and stares at the dark TV knowing that the news is all weather predictions and crop forecasts. Later, with the lights off, he will count trucks passing on the interstate a block away until he dozes.

That dirt, that same dirt, from beneath his nails, from inside his shoes, in his clothes, in his hair, that same dirt his mother cursed on her kitchen floor and his father worshipped, that same dirt that they turned every year and poked and prodded as if it would not green of its own accord, that same dirt that grew their food and paid their debts and broke their backs, that same dirt now covers his father. Beside that dark brown rectangle, his mother's grave shows only typical vague depressions from three years of settling beneath the well-kept lawn.

He stares at the new name on the stone; it is his own name, the same as his father's, dragging him now forward instead of back to face his own demise, his own mortality. Nearby, an angel weeps granite tears. Further down cherubim dance. He looks around. Here they all lie now, row upon row, in this dirt that sustained them, that gave their lives meaning, that ultimately killed them. The futility of that circle produces his one and only tear. Here, at last, is a piece of land the bank cannot take. Reaching down, he grasps one handful of dirt, letting it tumble out between his fingers, and just before the last of it falls away, rakes his nails through it, embedding some small bit.

He's counting backward, now, the hours until he arrives home, subtracting each part--15 minutes to the crossroads, 15 minutes to the highway, a half hour plus to the airport--as he pulls out on Road No. 5 and turns north. It is that particular moment in the season when the corn stands tall, like two walls hemming in the road on both sides, eight or nine feet and blossoming, paralleling the road in two straight lines as far ahead as Jerry can see.

He feels, suddenly, an inward pressure, a slight discomfort, and removes his foot from the accelerator. The car's speed drops from 60 to 50 to 40; time for one more stop before he goes. Leaving the car running on the road with the door standing open, he walks to the edge of the field and without hesitation, disappears between the rows. The plants are heavy with ears ready to harvest, and the smell is rough and green and familiar. He stops at one particular plant, indistinguishable from the rest and glances up at its top as he zips down his fly, pulls out his penis, and begins to urinate.

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From the October 31-November 6, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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