DIRT, THE LAST WAR

By Kat Meads

Oh how tired she is of the bitching and cleaning, cleaning and bitching. That voice flat as a spatula, slapping at air, same questions and accusations, her mother crouching in some who-sees-it corner, scrubbing at mouse turds. What do you plan to do with yourself? What kind of answer is that? How do you expect to earn money? What kind of answer is that? Twenty-three years old. No job, no husband, no house. You call that a life?

Leona never interrupts the stream, learned long ago that to interrupt was to prolong, swore in that same long ago that young/old/dead she'd never ask questions a) that had obvious answers, b) had no answers. Are you still in bed? Are you wearing THAT downtown? Is that jewelry? In your NOSE? You're 15, 18, 20, 22--do you know how old you are?

This morning: does she mouth off, ask for coffee, ask for anything except some peace and quiet, a little breathing room?

Jesus.

From the garage, because her mother thinks anything left out overnight is ant bait, Leona drags a sway-back lawn chair into the backyard. Shoving aluminum in dirt, she could be killing a few ants herself, but that's not her aim: she means to stabilize the thing, prevent a chair from pitching her out too. Facing the fence, she's actually alone--what? Three seconds? Five?

"Is this how you intend to spend the morning? Staring into space?"

She's not STARING, she's THINKING, trying to figure out if she really is sorry Darrell kicked her out of the apartment-she and the cat-claiming he couldn't stand the stench of cat piss another day. She's trying to seriously reevaluate the merits of a man who'd get that distressed over a loaded litter box.

"You think this house cleans itself?"

She didn't want to come back to the house or to her mother, but when Darrell threw a tantrum, where else could she go? What else could she do but knock, grit her teeth and brace for the harangue that started as soon the front porch light switched on and continues to this very hour?

"Do you know what time of night it is? Is that a CAT in your arms? A HOUSE cat?!?"

Upset herself, Leona must have squeezed instead of petted. The cat hissed, clawed free, and vanished. Missing now for three days. It was used to fire escapes, unfamiliar with boxwood shrubs. Three days was a long time for a cat to stay away. A little too long, Leona fears.

"Just look at yourself."

That night, instead, no choice, Leona eyeballed the woman body-blocking the door. This morning, this very second, if she looks over her shoulder she'll get an eyeful of the daytime/back porch version of that unvarying vision: skint-up knees, baggy shorts and blouse, a face that looks like something soaked, then hung in a bitter wind to dry. On her 12th birthday, Leona made a solemn vow: the day she wakes up, looks in the mirror and sees that ever-bitter face staring back, she'll take a gun to her head and pull the trigger. Break into Darrell's apartment, steal a pistol. Whatever it takes not to see that face on her face twice in a row. No lie.

"Is that a bottle of beer, not even 10 o'clock in the morning?"

Her mother can stand on a porch, front or back, night or day, red hands perched on saw-board hips and harp for hours. She has the stamina. The will.

"You know I don't promote drinking in my house."

But Leona's not IN the house, is she? That's the point. She's outside, deciding on her own what to do about Darrell and the cat, whether to call the SPCA or just drop by and pick out a substitute that could use a little no-strings-attached affection.

"What makes you think you can come home, move in, and not even pretend to listen?

The sun beams down. Leona squints. It's one of those moments, those revelations, that creeps up on a girl, but once in the vicinity hits like a ton of sludge. Listening, that's her problem. Not pretending to listen. Actual, in-fact listening. All her life she's been listening too well to everything she's done wrong with body/brain/boys/men/jobs/money. Listening to threats, listening to gripes, listening to her long and ever growing list of screw-ups. Listening so hard her ears rang from the effort. Listening and listening and listening some more. It's been her biggest mistake by far: listening.

"Out here, barefoot in this dew. Fixing to track Lord knows what all into my clean house."

Leona shifts slightly in the lawn chair, digging in her toes, making sure before making her move that those toes get nice and wet and gritty, filthy with dirt and ants and dandelion fuzz. Because in her head, see, it's already happened. All she has to do is kick off the chair, storm the porch, throw down the challenge, holler: Listen here, old woman. If it's a knock down, drag out fight you want, you got it!

All she has to do now is start, follow through, and win, of course--by playing fair or dirty.



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