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Dirt


by Dallas Woodburn


Filling his nostrils, cold and moist against his cheek. The primitive taste of it, like licking a grave. Prayers tossed from his mind to the heavens as stray small coins are tossed into a fountain. His left arm throbbing beneath his weight. All around him, darkness. So dark he cannot tell whether his eyes are open or closed. 

He tries to roll over, but can't. His hip feels like a bent protractor, all the angles wrong. He thinks of a baseball smacking into the tight webbing of a glove; the mortar and pestle Elaine used to grind spices in the kitchen; puzzle pieces snapping together in a perfect fit. What his hip should be. But his joints do not fit perfectly together anymore.

He tries to prop himself up on his right arm, but it trembles, refusing to support his weight. His left arm, pinned uselessly beneath him, pounds in pain. He chews his lip. Tastes dirt. Thinks of copper pennies, pesticides, worm feces. 

Worms. Splayed across the gray sidewalk after a night of heavy rain. There was a song Ben sang, in preschool, about eating worms. What was it called? “Worm Spaghetti.” Elaine's homemade spaghetti sauce, a recipe handed down from her Italian grandmother. He can almost smell it, simmering on the stove, tomato and garlic welcoming him home from a long day in the operating room. He breathes in, ever so slightly, and is jolted back to the damp musty dirt. And worms.

In grade school, his class did a science experiment with worms. He snuck up behind Beverly Kimbrall and delicately placed a long, thin, slate-colored worm on her sweater-covered shoulder. Predictably, she screamed, and predictably, he had to stay after school and copy sentences across the wide expanse of chalkboard. Beverly Kimbrall had shiny hair the color of autumn leaves. He wanted to touch it, gently, but instead he slipped apple cores into her lunchbox and chased her with spiders across the schoolyard. She moved away when he was twelve; it was only years later, looking back, that he realized how much he had wanted to kiss her.

The first time he kissed Elaine. Dripping mulberry branches above them, the moonlight like an oil painting. They had met two nights before, at a barn dance. Her dark hair braided in pigtails and tied with ribbon like a cowgirl. “I'm William,” he'd said, shaking her hand. Surprised at how firm her grip was. Her smile began at her lips and spread across her face, made her eyes glow. “Would you like some punch?” he'd asked, because he wanted to talk to her but couldn't think of anything else to say. The punch stained her two front teeth pink. He'd borrowed his brother's cowboy boots and they were a size too small, pinching his toes. Instead of dancing, he and Elaine went outside and sat beside the duck pond, talking until the moon was low in the sky and nearly everyone else had left for home. He didn't kiss her that night. He wanted to, but he waited.

Two nights later he took her out to a movie, something with Fred Astaire. She loved Fred Astaire, loved to watch him dance. Her favorite number was in Holiday Inn, the one with the firecrackers. They watched that movie every Christmas. She squeezed his hand when the firecracker number came on. Fred Astaire wore a collared white shirt with a stars-and-stripes tie, his pant legs rolled up a few inches above his ankles. He tap-danced with his hands in his pockets, as if he were taking a casual Sunday-evening stroll, and then the music picked up tempo and in a flash he whipped out his hands and threw tiny firecrackers down onto the stage. On the couch, Elaine jumped with every burst of explosions. When the number ended, with a grand finale of firecrackers like the fourth of July, she applauded as if Fred could hear her. Sometimes he brought his fingers to his mouth and whistled. Teasing her.

He was never much of a dancer. His arms felt heavy, his hands cumbersome. His feet never went where his mind told them to. But he tried to learn, for her. At their wedding they danced to Ella Fitzgerald and he twirled her and didn't once step on her toes. Her hair was swept up in a chignon. Tiny jasmine flowers tucked in, their petals starkly white against her dark curls. She looked beautiful, but also like a stranger. Like a woman in a magazine advertisement. That night, he watched her take the dozens of bobby pins from her hair one by one. Slowly, she returned to her old self. That's when she felt like his wife.

The very first time he kissed her, after the Fred Astaire movie. In her front yard beneath the mulberry tree. Her hair hung loose around her face. In the moonlight, with her dark loose shining hair, she looked both older and younger than she was. A woman and a girl. He leaned in towards her. Whispered in her ear, was it all right if he kissed her? She smiled at him and nodded, but her eyes looked slightly afraid. He wasn't sure what to do until she draped her hands around his waist and pulled him to her. The tree bark rough against his palms. He kissed her gently, remembering her fearful eyes, holding himself back. Later she told him it was her first-ever kiss. He was glad he had been so gentle.    

Their last kiss, he can't remember. Must have been an ordinary goodnight peck. If he'd known it would be their last kiss, he would have really kissed her. He'd have kissed her and kissed her again, and when her heart hiccupped and gasped and then stopped beating altogether, she would have been in his arms, kissing him, instead of slumped silently over the toilet bowl because she felt nauseous but didn't want to wake him.

He was always being awakened in the middle of the night. The shrill ring of the telephone. Instinctual alarm jolting him from sleep with a racing heart. Other times he was pulled from sleep slowly, only gradually becoming aware of the ringing phone. Disoriented, one hand groping around the bedside tabletop, mind still foggy from dreams.

This is a warm night for April, yet still the moist dirt is cold on his cheek. He always hated winters especially. Having to roll out of bed, leaving the soft warmth of Elaine's body for the darkened chill of the house. Slipping on his coat, fumbling with his shoe-laces. Fingers stiff on the frozen steering wheel as he backed the car out of the driveway. Sometimes he felt resentful. Then, guilty. This was what he had signed up for, after all. The E.R. wasn't a matter of convenience.

From down the street, a girl's high-pitched laughter. A boy's murmuring voice. Loud footsteps smacking the concrete, getting louder.

He tries again to prop himself up on one arm, but he can't move. “Over here!” he shouts. “I'm over here! Help! Help me, please!”    

Footsteps almost upon him now — the sidewalk only twenty feet away, across the grassy lawn. But it is dark, and he fell in the bushes along the side of the house.

“You're such an asshole,” the girl says.

The boy laughs. “You know I'm just kidding. Hey. Hey. I love you.”

“Help!” he shouts. “Over here!”

The footsteps grow softer. 

He sinks his head back down into the dirt.

In high school he ran track, the mile and two-mile. Without fail, he threw up after every race. Coach told him not to run so hard, it was just a track meet. Sometimes after workouts, when the rest of the guys headed straight home or met their girlfriends at the corner drugstore, he lagged behind. Cool-down lap, two laps, three. When everyone else was gone, he'd give in to his wobbly spaghetti legs and let himself collapse onto the red dirt track, softened by millions of footsteps. Sometimes he curled up into a ball; other times he lay spread-eagle, attuned to his breathing as it slowly returned to normal. The very best kind of tired. The sweat cooled on his bare skin, mixing with the red dirt. When he finally stood up, a thin layer of track dust stuck to his chest and arms and legs.  

Those days, he couldn't imagine not running. But then a bullet to the knee ended his racing days for good.

The complete idiocy of it. The needlessness. One of his own men, half-asleep on sentinel duty, spooked, an accident. Two years in combat scot-free and then suddenly stuck in a foreign hospital bed. Knee swollen like an enormous bee sting. Then his ear infection. Shots of penicillin every three hours. Pain so achingly constant he began to grind his teeth in his sleep. Nightmares punctuated by groans of wounded men. Nothing to do but lie in that hospital bed. Helpless.

His mother wrote that Matthew had been drafted into the army. His kid brother and the whole bunch of neighborhood boys, all sent to Europe. A platoon of green soldiers fresh out of high school. Bobby, Fred, J.T. all died at Normandy.

The war ended. He couldn't wait to get home and marry Elaine. Start afresh. He enrolled in college courtesy of Uncle Sam. Medicine felt like the right path. A challenge. He would conquer the helplessness he associated with hospitals. Banish his feelings of impotence by earning surgeon's scrubs. 

Meanwhile, Matthew's grieving heart fell in love with France. And with Marie. Forty-five years he guessed they'd been married now, living in the same small French town where Marie grew up. Cordes-sur-Ciel. He still couldn't pronounce its name correctly.

They were happy, Matthew and Marie. Sent letters occasionally and every few years made a trip over for Christmas. He didn't much care for Marie because she never offered to help Elaine with the dishes. Elaine said it was no bother, really, Marie was a guest after all. But he was disappointed. Matthew should know better than to let his wife put on airs. Sometimes they even spoke French to each other at the dinner table. When that happened, he'd kick Elaine under the table. She'd gently place her hand on his thigh and ask if anyone wanted dessert. 

“Hudson, no!” A woman's voice, footsteps. The jangle of tags on a collar. A dog's heavy panting.

He tries to raise his head. “Hello!” he calls. “Help me! Over here! I need help!”

The footsteps stop. “Hello?” the woman says. Voice guarded. “Is someone there?”

“Yes!” he shouts. “Over here, by the bushes! Help, please!”

“Are you okay?”

“I fell. I was coming to take the trash barrels out for tomorrow. But it's dark and I tripped and now I can't get up. It's my hip.”

“I'm sorry,” the woman says. “I have my dog with me — I need to take him home first. He goes crazy around strangers.”

“Please. I live here. Help me, please!”

“I will — I'll come right back. I promise.”

“Okay,” he says. Can't think of anything else. The footsteps hurry away. “I'm an old man!” he adds.

“I'll be back,” the woman says. “C'mon, Hudson!”

Alone again. The sound of crickets and the smell of dirt. He closes his eyes.

Nearly every night, he used to dream of running. The setting changed — sometimes he ran on the California beach, other times through the woods or in the cornfields of his childhood or around the lake where he and Elaine used to go in the summertime, before the kids were born. Sometimes he relived big races from his high-school days, like the time he just barely beat Johnny Galston in the two-mile by leaning past him at the finish line. The setting changed, but the feeling of running was the same. Running as fast as he could. Catapulting down hills. The breeze against his face. Joy, freedom. Peace.

He would wake up smiling, but the happiness quickly dissipated. He walked downstairs slowly. Slight limp. Morning coffee tasted bitter.

Since September, he's been dreaming of Elaine. Nothing out of the ordinary, which makes it harder to return to reality upon waking. Sometimes she's sitting beside him on the dream-couch, reading. Or he'll hear her soft footsteps coming up the stairs to bed. Sometimes, his dream-self wanders around the dream-house looking for her, and finding her is the greatest relief he can imagine. He wraps his arms around her and presses his face against her neck and breathes in. She smells of cinnamon and soap.

 He sleeps with one of her nightgowns under his pillow. It still smells like her, if he closes his eyes and pictures her face and breathes in deeply enough.  

Nightmares are when he wanders around the dream-house and can't find her. He wakes up feeling like his insides were drained away and replaced with heavy stones while he slept.

After the war, he was never apart from her more than a couple nights in a row. Weekend medical retreats, her grandmother's funeral, occasional school trips with the kids. And then that one time they fought, seriously fought, and she might have left for good if not for — for what?

How foolish he'd been. The argument began in a familiar way. He fixed himself a gin and tonic. Sat at the kitchen table, watching her cook dinner. She complained he was away at the office too much. That he hardly spent time with the kids. “You've never been to a parent-teacher conference,” she said. “Or to one of Susie's ballet recitals.”

He was tired, irritable from a difficult case that afternoon. “It's always been a chore for you, hasn't it?” he said. “My career?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you've never supported me, not really.”

“That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.” Her cheeks shone as if sunburned.

“You knew what you were getting into when you married me,” he said. “I do the best I can.”

She tore fistfuls of lettuce in half. “Well, I'm just asking you to make a little more of an effort.”

“You know something, Elaine?” he asked. The weight of his eyelids, the weariness of his limbs. His body sagged in the kitchen chair like a half-empty sack of potatoes. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think I should never have left France.”

In France, at a war hospital, a nurse named Bernadette asked him to stay and live with her. He chose Elaine. Wasn't even a choice, really. Elaine was the one he loved. Since that first kiss under the mulberry tree, he'd been hers alone. But the story slipped out one stupid drunken night. Elaine nestled it deep inside her. Stagnating. Somewhere out there lived another woman who loved him, who he had loved. She said it made her feel untethered.

“What if you'd chosen her?” she asked, more than once.

“But I didn't,” he told her. “I never would have.”

“But what if you had?”

It didn't matter how many times he told her. And so he knew what to say, if he ever wanted to cut her deeply.      

He knew it, and still he said it.

The naked hurt on her face. Her indignation to his apologies. As soon as the words left his mouth he knew they were irretrievable. Tried to take them back, to touch her shoulder as she brushed past him out the door. She would not meet his eyes. She bundled the kids up in the car and left. Her mother lived three hours away. He tried calling, over and over. No one picked up. He vomited into the sink. Slept on the couch in his undershirt, awakening with a start every few hours. Listened for her key in the lock, her footsteps in the hall.

Dirt on his dry lips. Footsteps. Sneakers? Hurried steps? He opens his eyes, blinks grit from his eyelashes. He can't tell for sure.

The moon peeks out behind the clouds. His hip feels strange and his knee is stiff. His left arm, pinned under him, is numb.

That moment the front door flung open and there she was. The sunset blazed copper behind her.

The dirt is cold against his cheek.

He thought at first he was dreaming her there.

Just maybe those are approaching footsteps. Coming to save him. 

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