Excerpts from Dirt

From Chapter 1

“Eye, heeem,” Nick said. He reached up and touched his open eyeball, then blinked at the unexpected jolt of pain. The pain spread, flashing red light everywhere. He could feel the sharpness opening outward, and he silently endured it, waiting for it to subside. There were no sounds in his throat right now, and he was glad. His noises made Mommy talk to him, and there were always too many words itching deep inside his ears.

A few moments later, there was only a soft ache behind his lid, and he opened his eyes. They were clear again. He looked skyward, and his eyes followed the rays of the sun to where they hit the porch door. He liked the way the sunlight slanted when it went behind a cloud, like an eyelid closing. He shut his eyes and rotated his head until he almost couldn’t see it. The light became a tiny ribbon, shining across the back of his eyes. Happiness coursed through him at the beauty he was seeing. “Heee, light,” he said quietly. Every now and then, his own words appeared to him, and he could say them. Letting them out was like bubbles popping, like the ones Dan used to blow. Nick enjoyed the tiny sound of their pops; he felt he could hear the little click each breaking bubble made. Also that was how words came out of his mouth: a sudden, round pop in the air.


It was Mommy, and her line of words flew past his ears, like a sharp, stinging wind. He shut his eyes so that she would stop looking at him.

“What. Happened. To. Your. Eye?” Mommy said this the right way, with spaces of air between the words. Nick loved air. He liked to squeeze it with his hand—open shut, open, shut.


Mommy was very close now. He could smell her skin, which he loved. It made him want to sleep. He knew she was waiting for him to talk, and his stomach squeezed itself. Then he realized Mommy was saying a lot of words again. He felt them rushing up to him like water, and enjoyed the sensation, without trying to break the sound into words. He closed his eyes while she talked, rat-tat-tat, like when it rained hard:

“I know you won’t like this, honey, but I have to look at your eye to see if it’s okay.” She approached him slowly, and Nick felt her pry open his lid. “It looks okay, just red,” she said. “You must have gotten something in it and rubbed it too much. Try not to rub your eyes, Nick.” Mommy let out a big gust of air and tilted her head, still looking at him. Her eyes were so big, and he could see that shadow in them. He knew the word for this: sad. He would never forget that word. He saw it pass over Mommy’s eyes, like the cloud and the sun. He hated that because it always spread into him.

Once she saw that he was okay, Emmy leaned over to give Nick a kiss but then thought better of it. A kiss would feel good to her, but not to him. Nick endured kisses and hugs, but never offered them himself. She sighed, breathing extra deeply to suck in the cold air so that it might freeze the flare-up of sadness before it got any worse, then walked through the garden, back inside the house.

•    •    •

From Chapter 4

The crackle of tires on gravel startled Emmy, and she lifted her head. Recognizing the little black Mercedes, of Lucy, Eric’s sister, Emmy quickly wiped her face. As always, Lucy’s timing was just horrible; she had a seemingly uncanny ability to know when Emmy was at her most vulnerable.

“Hellooo,” Lucy sang out from her partly open tinted window. “Look at you, so industrious! You’re so good,” she said, somehow making it sound like it was the most pathetic thing she’d ever seen. Lucy was a decorator, the big-ticket type who was hired by the matrons of Lincoln, Concord, and Weston, the software baronesses who needed to project a certain tasteful Old World style in their newly minted McMansions but had no idea where to begin. Lucy knew what they wanted because she was one of them, evidenced by the way she tooled around in that sporty Mercedes, barely holding the wheel with one perfectly manicured hand, her other hand pressing her iPhone to her ear.

Lucy stepped out. She wore a pale pink wool crepe skirt that skimmed her ample round hips and fluttered outward at the knees like a mermaid’s tail. The pink skirt and the cream cashmere coat set off her carefully waved shoulder-length red hair in a very Susan Hayward way. Her penny-brown eyes scanned Emmy’s face. “Have I come at a bad time?”

Emmy suppressed a sigh but ignored the question. “So what’s up, Lucy?” Lucy had actually never visited Emmy since Eric had left, except once right after the split, when she came to pick up a few things for him that he’d been too cowardly to get himself.

“Wait till you see! I thought of you the minute I spotted these!” Lucy turned and dove into the tiny backseat of her car, grunting a little as she pulled out a pair of antique flower urns.

Could it be that for once Lucy was doing something nice? They were gorgeous! Just as Emmy started to smile, Lucy said, “Now, of course, they are lead, so that’s the only thing. You might not want them around Nick, you know, in case he, well, touches them and maybe puts his hands in his mouth. Still sucks his thumb, right? Darling boy. But he’s done with all the growing, right? I think by fifteen there’s no more worry about, you know, further neurological damage…” Her voice trailed off.

Somehow, it was the word further that did it. Emmy felt as if she’d been punched in the belly. She had realized that Lucy was shallow and insensitive, but she’d never known her to be that way toward Nick. Okay, yes, Nick did have neurological damage. But. To talk about him as if he were some hopeless case! She took a few moments to answer, not even knowing where to begin. Should she just push Lucy down on her abundant pink ass? That would feel good—but no; she didn’t want to give Lucy something that big to complain to Eric about. So she simply choked out, “You know, I don’t think so,” in a thick voice.

Lucy blinked as if she were having trouble understanding. “Oh?” she said, her pale cheeks darkening. “You don’t think—what?” She was clearly waiting for something else, probably for Emmy to thank her, but that was not going to happen.

“The urns. No thanks,” Emmy said. And then, emboldened now by Lucy’s confusion, she added, “We don’t keep lead around the house. I even had to find new bullets for my gun because of how toxic lead is.”

Lucy’s eyes widened. “You have a gun? Oh, Emmy, no! Do you know how dangerous they are? There could be an accident with the boys! What if Nick—?”

Emmy stepped forward and leaned in so that she was almost too close to Lucy. Eyes narrowed, she said softly, “You know, I think you’d better go.” Lucy took a step backwards, turned and grabbed the lip of first one urn, then the other. She hoisted them into her car. Grunting, she reached in behind the seat, arranging them on the floor. She turned and merely looked at Emmy through hooded eyes, then swept into the dark cavern of the Mercedes. The door clicked shut and the window purred open. Lucy poked her head out and sputtered, “You know, Emmy, you shouldn’t be so sensitive! Always telling people to go. Pretty soon there won’t be anyone left.” She floored the gas before Emmy could respond.

•    •    •

From Chapter 9

Henry held the door for Sylvie, who passed through without looking up. She was flanked by two other girls, as always, and staring straight ahead. Sylvie hung out with girls who were okay, not too stupid—meaning they didn’t whisper, giggle, and spread rumors too much. But they were on the young side: all leg, tiny bodies. Whereas Sylvie herself—well, she was definitely growing up fast. Big difference from last year, that was for sure. Henry lowered his eyes so that she would not see him looking at her.

“Let’s go,” barked Dan, who was standing next to Henry. “You always have to hold the door for girls, like yer some kinda grown-up!”

“Yeah, so what?” Henry said, reddening. Why did Dan have to call attention to the fact that he did nice things for girls? “It’s called being polite. You should try it sometime.” They passed through the doors behind Sylvie and branched off across the playground.

“Can we stop and play here?” Dan asked, as he always did.

Henry considered his homework load. He had an extra essay assignment now because of Smithers and the fucking cheating. He’d been such an idiot to do that; he hadn’t even needed to, really. He’d just been kind of bored and pissed off at everyone.

In spite of his annoyance, Henry wanted to make Dan happy. “I guess,” he mumbled.

“Yay!” shouted Dan, tossing his SpongeBob backpack on the ground and running for the glider.

Some things are so easy, Henry thought. Reading Dan was one of them. Dan was a good kid, but he was like a porcupine, especially this past year. Henry didn’t remember feeling that crabby when he was that age. Only now. Henry pulled a book out of his leaden backpack and settled down on the wall by the play structure. The book was The Red Pony, by John Steinbeck. Another coming-of-age story, he thought. Kids who struggle with tough situations and end up mostly worse off. Sad shit. Why did the teachers think that they had to learn that crap? They all knew what was what.

But Henry must have gotten pretty engrossed in it because the next thing he knew, he saw Dan standing a few feet away from him, his hands rolled into fists like a cartoon angry kid.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Henry asked, knowing better than to laugh.

Dan glowered at him without answering, which Henry knew he would do. Dan got so mad so easily, he reached the point where he could barely talk.

“I asked you a question.”

“Nothing,” Dan said through clenched teeth.

Henry put his book away. “Dan, what is it?” he asked quietly.

Dan looked at him, his eyes bright with tears. “Why is he a retard?”

Henry blinked. “Huh? Who?” But then he knew. He saw two other boys standing close together, fourth graders, smirking and looking over at them. “Dan,” he said, barely audibly. “You know he’s not a retard.” He wished he didn’t feel tears coming. This would not be a good time to go emo.

“He is so.”

“Dan. He isn’t. You don’t have to listen to those guys. They’re idiots.”

“He’s a crazy nuthead, and I hate him. He can’t even talk!”

Henry’s stifled emotion burst into anger. He put his hands on Dan’s shoulders. “Dan. Shut up,” he said harshly. “Let’s get out of here,” he added, more quietly but still radiating heat. Without waiting for an answer, he gathered up his backpack and threw it over his right shoulder. He shook the hair back from his eyes and saw Sylvie standing ten feet away, by the playground parking lot, alone. Watching him. How long had she been there? “C’mon, Dan,” he said, his throat dry.

•    •    •

From Chapter 14

This felt so right. It was what she was supposed to be doing: just playing on the floor with her little son. She wished that this simple way of being would happen more often for her. She gazed dreamily at Dan’s head, bent on his delicate neck as he dexterously gave life to tiny monsters. He demanded nothing of Emmy, except to keep him company as they formed their creatures. Being so close to him, she could smell his hair very faintly—a clean-skin smell.

Hearing a horn somewhere outside, she looked around—and immediately noticed her computer sitting there in the dining room. She felt the flow of the moment stop and drain away. “I’m going to go clean up, sweetie. My hands feel uncomfortable with all this clay on them, okay?”

“Okay.” Dan did not look up. He was still working. She felt that maybe it was okay that she was done. A job well done.

She checked. There it was. Just two lines. But her insides contracted when she saw the familiar name: wcabot@gmail.com.

“Hi, E—

“Can we meet again? —W”

She straightened her back and sat perfectly still, trying to think clearly and assess the situation. The left side of her head tingled, and her cheeks felt hot.

This time, it was not about the house. Otherwise, he would have said so.

She thought of the way he had patted the bench next to him, commanding her to “sit.” The smell of his black leather jacket. The decisiveness of his movements, his unconscious ease with himself. She did not let herself think about his idiotic remarks, his blatant sexism, his wife. Nothing penetrated this hot haze in her head. He was attracted to her. And he was very attractive, in a bad-boy way. And he wasn’t Eric. Her fingers were poised over the keys.


She pressed Send. Her heart was pounding and she felt slightly nauseated, but she pushed the realization away. Now she watched the mailbox, hardly able to sit and wait for whatever might come next.