Back to Issue Twenty-Three.

DIRT

BY TIMOTHY DAY

 

            I stopped on my way into the animal shelter and squinted at the tiny cardboard sign that had been tacked onto the door: dirt shelter. The receptionist inside had scraggly hair and bloodshot eyes. His name tag read Zach. I approached the desk and waited for him to finish a phone call.

            “Mhm. No, no, you got time. Just get here by eight or it’ll be the broom for Dirt 3. Mhm. No, I’m sorry, we can’t wait longer than that. Eight o’ clock, then sweeparoo.” He hung up and smiled at me. “Here for adoption?”

            I hesitated. “Maybe,” I said. “Are there cats here?”

            “That’s a common mistake,” Zach said. “This is the dirt shelter.”

            “Dirt?”

            He nodded. “Piles, mounds, specks, what have you.”

            He stood and gestured for me to follow him into the back, where the dirt was kept on the floor within barred cells, lit weakly below flickering desk lamps. Taped to each of the cells was a scrap of paper listing names and locations of origin. There was Dirt 1, a reddish-brown heap who’d been stupid enough, Zach told me, to try and blend in at the beach.

            “It’s like, we’re not colorblind, Dirt 1,” he laughed. Dirt 2 was a stately dune composed of all the dirt collected from Zach’s attic. Dirt 3 was a sad little lump, discovered scattered across the sidewalk. It won my heart immediately. I pointed to it and Zach raised his eyebrows at me, then shrugged. “To each their own,” he said.

            At home I put Dirt 3 on the coffee table in the same bowl Zach had scooped it into. I kneeled over and reached a finger inside, brushing the surface of it gently. It wasn’t as companionable as a cat, but at least this way I wouldn’t have to clean a litter box. 

 

            At work the next day I made sure to take my lunch at the same time as Sheila. This was the best icebreaker I had since an armadillo had been seen wandering the hallways of my building. We were sitting at the fun-size tables in the break room, each of which could only accommodate one person.

            “I got a pet,” I called across the room.

            Sheila looked up from her sandwich, a bit of relish at the side of her mouth.

            “I have five of those,” Josh said from the corner.

            “Oh.”

            Dan walked in and took the table in the middle of the room. He looked around. “What’s up, guys?”

            “Aaron got a pet,” Josh said. “Breaking news.”

            “Fun!”     

            Sheila finished her sandwich and left the room.

            Our boss Jodie was going around collecting ideas for renaming the company. Latex Gloves and More wasn’t truthful, since we sold only latex gloves. The more was supposed to be an eventually-maybe kind of thing, but the board had gotten impatient. My first idea was Latex Glove Is All You Need—like the songwith to clean in a sanitary manner in parenthesis after. My second idea was Latex Gloves. When Jodie got to my cubicle I handed her the scrap of paper with the names written down and she nodded approvingly.

            “I think we’ve got a contender.” She pocketed the scrap and moved on. Around four Sheila peeked into my cubicle from over the divider.     

            “Hey,” she whispered. I looked up from my computer. “What’s your pet’s name?”     

            “Dirt 3,” I whispered.     

            “Does it like you?”     

            “I don’t know,” I said. “I kind of treat it like dirt.” Sheila frowned and I realized she didn’t have the information necessary for the joke to land. “Oh.” I shook my head in a silly-me way. “I was kidding because it’s a pile of dirt.”     

            Sheila looked confused for a moment, then her lip curled into a half smile. “I get it,” she said. “It sounds cute.”     

            “It’s adorable.”     

            “Bring it in! I’d love to meet it.”     

            Dan’s head rose over the cubicle on the other side. “What’s up, guys?”     

            “Aaron’s pet is a pile of dirt,” Sheila said.     

            Dan lowered his eyebrows. “That’s not very nice, Sheila.”     

            I looked at Sheila and we shared a private smile.

 

            At home I ate dinner on the couch, Dirt 3 on the cushion next to me. We watched a movie as I typed and didn’t send a series of text messages to Sheila:     

            Hey, how’s it goin’?     

            That was funny today.     

            I’m watching this movie right now and you remind me of one of the characters. She’s funny and she makes that clicking sound you make when you finish something.     

            Wutup, colleague?     

            After the movie I lit some candles and ran a bath, placing Dirt 3 on the toilet seat. I sank into the tub and closed my eyes. A train moaned in the distance. Footsteps overhead. I never heard my neighbors speaking, only the sounds of their scurrying; a silent species. I thought about Sheila and her frayed ponytail. The collection of bobblehead skeletons on her desk, those collages she had on the walls of her cubicle with different people’s features glued together to make one face. I thought of her polka-dot blouse and bell-bottoms, the way her laugh seemed to start in her chin and contort its way up to her mouth. I wondered what she was doing right now. Could she have been thinking of me, too? I imagined the two of us alone in the office after hours, her desk lamp throwing a small silver glow over our skin as we undressed each other. Our lips moving together, followed by our bodies. I started masturbating in the tub and then remembered that Dirt 3 was right there on the toilet.     

            Before going to bed, I spent some time on my latest cartoon. The concept was that these scientists had collected the filthiest used latex gloves in the world and put them in a giant dumpster to see what would happen to them over time. Each page displayed the dumpster as it looked ten years later, the scientists standing by in various empirical poses. So far my drawings of the gloves were more or less identical, though the scientists’ hair grew longer and longer, pooling on the ground, and after five decades, mushrooms and flowers had begun to sprout at its edges.

 

            Dan came into work in the morning with a sign-up sheet, pushing for a company ski trip. They’d had one at his old job and he said it had been good for morale. I didn’t know how to ski but thought I’d wait to see if Sheila signed up. Dan tacked the sheet onto the wall in the break room but by midday his name was still the only one on the list. Someone had put a question mark after the exclamation point he’d included so that it read: Dan!? I added another exclamation point at the end so that the uncertainty could be sandwiched by enthusiasm.  

            Later that afternoon I went to the copy room to print the updated statistics of latex glove use that Jodie had asked for and found Sheila cutting out someone’s eyes from a magazine cover. On the counter was a face in progress, discordant lips, ears and nose brought together. I asked how she chose which features to use and she said it was more a matter of not choosing in order to reflect the random incongruities our insides are liable to feel. I wanted to emphasize how cool I thought this was and so I said, That’s so cool! The last page of statistics printed out and I shuffled them together as long as could be appropriate for such an action and left the room.

            In bed that night I placed Dirt 3 on the covers beside my leg. I’d been looking forward to the warmth of a curled-up cat and was thinking it was too bad Dirt 3 couldn’t supply it. Then I had an idea. I got up and took Dirt 3’s bowl into the kitchen, heating it in the microwave for thirty seconds. We went back to bed and I nestled it against my skin. It was nice for a few minutes and then it started cooling down and then it was back to its normal boring temperature. I turned on the light and opened my sketchbook. By two in the morning I had finished the page showing the scientists and the dumpster a century into the experiment. The latex gloves were still the same, but trees had grown from the ends of the scientists’ hair, creating a forest around the scene.

 

            The next day I brought Dirt 3 to work and passed it around the conference room during the morning meeting. People cooed and doted over it, whispering sweet nothings into its bowl. Josh asked if I was going to plant anything in it and I shrugged; I hadn’t thought about it.     

            “Just seems like the next step,” he said.     

            Dirt 3 was considerably diminished by the time it got back to me. Everyone had particles of it on their fingers. Jodie called us to attention and performed a mini drumroll on the table before announcing the company’s new name: Latex Gloves. I was disappointed but I understood; maybe I’d tell Sheila my other idea later and we could imagine it together.

            After the meeting we all went to wash our hands at the same time, forming a line outside the bathroom.

            “Hey.” Sheila tapped my shoulder. “Just to say, I think Dirt 3’s fine how it is.”     

            “Thanks,” I said. “Everyone needs some validation.”   

            “Totally.”     

            I paused. Looked at the floor. “Do you want to get coffee sometime?”     

            Sheila didn’t respond and I wasn’t sure if she’d heard me. When I looked back, she was walking to her desk.     

            On my way home after work I went to the nursery and perused the seed section. Dirt 3 could become daisies, sweet peas, marigolds and poppies, or a million other things. None of them felt right and I was almost ashamed for looking. I got back in the car and looked over at Dirt 3, strapped into the passenger seat. It really knew how to just exist.

 

            That weekend I decided to take Dirt 3 on a trip to the countryside, just in case it was getting homesick or something. We wandered around a bit and then sat together in a large field. I lay down on the grass. Pale sunlight shone down from the sky, briefly filtered by a flock of crows. I tried to just exist like it wasn’t a big deal, because it wasn’t. Then a gust of wind came through and Dirt 3’s bowl tipped over. I scooped as much of it back in as I could, but several specks had been blown away. I placed its bowl in my lap and thought that maybe it needed a friend; it looked lonely, even for a pile of dirt.

            Back at the dirt shelter, Zach was on the phone. “Could you describe it to me? Mhm, mhm. Every dirt we have here fits that description. You’ll just have to come and look.” He hung up and smiled at me. “Back for more huh? Aren’t you a dirty one. Just kidding. It’s like, what does that even mean, right? Sex is a beautiful thing.”

            In back, two men in white coats were entering one of the cells with a broom and dustpan. “Oh shit,” Zach said. “You might not want to be here for this.”     

            “Wait!” I shouted. We rushed over to the cell, where the two men were standing on either side of a massive mound of dirt named Dirt 5. “I’ll take it!” I blurted.     

            At home I pushed Dirt 5 into the living room on a wheelbarrow and emptied it out onto the carpet. Dirt 3 was resting on the couch in the cat bed I’d gotten at the pet store. I thought about how easily Dirt 3 could become a part of Dirt 5. How quickly it could lose its identity. Picking it out of Dirt 5 would be like a game of find the hay in the haystack.     

            On the second-to-last page of my cartoon, ten autumns had passed since the trees had been there, and many leaves had fallen into the dumpster, mingling with the gloves. On the next page a new tree had grown from the bottom of the dumpster. Some of its leaves were latex gloves, some were just leaves, and some were a leaf-glove mix. The scientists had taken each other’s hands and lay on the ground to die.

 

            On Monday morning there was a knock on the door as I was eating breakfast. I opened it to find a woman holding an empty cage, eyes hopeful.

            “I got your address from the shelter,” she said. “Is my dirt here?”     

            I should have seen it coming; I had forgotten all about an original owner. “Oh,” I said, feeling a drop in my chest. “Yes. Come in.” Dirt 3’s bowl was on the windowsill, shimmering against the morning light. She went to it and petted it tenderly.     

            “It’s so much smaller,” she said. “What happened?”     

            I apologized. “I was careless with it.”     

            She picked up its bowl and put it in the cage. I thought about saying goodbye but I didn’t want our last interaction to have bars between it. It was better this way. I said I had to finish getting ready for work and left the room. In the hall I realized I’d forgotten to give her Dirt 3’s bed and rushed back to find her scooping some of Dirt 5 into Dirt 3’s bowl. I stopped in surprise and the woman hurried out of the apartment.    

 

            A few minutes after I got to work, Jodie emerged from her office with a megaphone and announced that Dan had broken his body and was in the hospital. All of us were to visit him at once because life was fragile and whatever bullshit we were doing was infinitely less important than even the slightest sensation of camaraderie Dan might glean from our presence.     

            There were several extra chairs in the waiting room and I was too shy to sit next to Sheila so I sat next to the empty chair next to her. We were silent for a while and then she leaned over and said:

            “Hey.”     

            “Hey.”     

            “Sorry about the other day.”     

            “That’s okay.”     

            “I got nervous.”     

            “I understand.”     

            She took a breath. “I’ve collected my thoughts.”     

            “Okay.”     

            “Let’s get that coffee.”     

            “Cool!”     

            We were silent again. After a minute I got up and sat in the chair next to her.     

            Dan lay mummified in his hospital room, eyes brightening as we entered. “What’s up, guys?” We shrugged collectively and made murmurs of sympathy. Dan smiled, loopy on morphine. “I love you guys.”                

            Josh scoffed. “You’d love anything right now, Dan.”     

            “We’re all anything,” Dan said.

 

            At the coffee shop Sheila and I both got Americanos. We sat at a table by the window and talked about what a terribly sterile world it would be if the concept of latex gloves was applied to other aspects of the body and mind. We conspired to blow up corporate headquarters if we sensed the strictly sanitary nearing a complete takeover of the real. Sheila took a pen from her bag and drew blueprints on a napkin and we planned it out using stick-figure versions of ourselves. In the midst of our scheming, her hand closed over mine and shook with fervor and it was warm. Towards the end of our conversation I told Sheila about Dirt 5 and she said she wanted to meet it. Since bringing it into the office was impractical, I invited her over to watch a movie with us. As we walked to my building I spotted Zach heading towards us, covered in dirt. I waved and asked what happened.     

            “This activist group came into the shelter with a bunch of fans,” he said. “Set all of them free.” The three of us stood and squinted in the sun. Zach sighed. “I have so many dirts on me right now. It’s like an orgy.”

            “How dirty,” Sheila said. “Just kidding. It’s like, what does that even mean.”     

            “Sex is a beautiful thing,” I added.     

            Zach smiled and patted us on the shoulders, then continued on his way. He’d gotten some dirt on us and at some point during the rest of our walk we made a joke out of pretending it was magnetized, bringing our shoulders together with more and more force after exaggeratedly strained separations.

            Back in my apartment, Sheila and I stood before Dirt 5 for a moment before entering the kitchen and grabbing a bowl each. We went to the living room and opened the window, taking scoops of Dirt 5 and sending them flying out into the world. We worked fast and in five minutes the task was nearly done. We spotted a tail sticking out of Dirt 5’s remaining pile and in another few seconds the armadillo emerged from within. It sniffed around the floor a bit and then looked up at us blankly. We could have been anybody.

 

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Timothy Day is a pun enthusiast and MFA student at Portland State University. You can find links to his published work here.

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