Raised up and down the coast of California, Anthony moved to Portland, OR after earning his degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. He cut his teeth in freelance entertainment journalism, having written for publications such as Heroic Hollywood and Word of the Nerd. He now writes prose fiction and indie comics. When he’s not writing you can find him sitting in his back room with a cup of coffee, his two dogs, and a good book.
The House That Dirt Built
You hear a car pass on the street behind you and you turn around. It’s a white car, and under the grey-black sky of the midwinter morning it looks just as dark as the clouds. The car passes in front of the corner plot where your dad built your house, sheltered your family. It’s an acre and a half of land; so much of it, at least to your seven-year-old self, that you think you would never be able to explore all of it, uncover all its secrets. And in a way that’s true. Your house is set back about two hundred feet from the edge of the sidewalk that wraps around the block. It is not exactly Victorian—your dad didn’t want it to stick out in small town Oregon—but it isn’t exactly contemporary either. It’s a strange hybrid of the two with patches of red brick and long ovaloid windows; cube shaped with muted, soft colors. A hybrid much like your dad, who values a glass of scotch and an old book just as much as he values rewarmed movie theater hot dogs and Star Wars.
You look back to what you were doing, which was watching worms try to dig through the dirt frozen by last night’s rain and this morning’s frost. One has miraculously pushed itself a quarter of the way into the ground. You watch it for a minute, its pulsating grey-pink body continuously moving, continuously digging before you pick it up and place it somewhere new. Somewhere where the earth hasn’t been worked yet. Somewhere for it to struggle.
The cold dirt is making your legs numb through your jeans, and the gusts of icy winds cut through your t-shirt, and your red pull over hoody, and the blue and white wind breaker the neighbor lady insisted you wear. She had said “The last thing your mom needs is for you to all get the flu right now,” when she walked you and your siblings back to your hybrid house earlier that morning. Your mom wasn’t sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee, nor was she in the large square living room curled up on the brown corduroy recliner reading Anne Rice or Peter Straub, although the book shelves filled with them, and others like Stephen King, Larry Niven, and Tolkien were toppled on their sides. The books that your dad wouldn’t let you touch blanketing the living room floor, dust covers torn, and pages bent at odd angles. You saw a Stephen King book open on the floor, and when you walked past read the line “Sometimes dead is better.” It will be years before you can appreciate the irony.
Another car passes behind you and you turn around. This one is a small car, grey turned black by the overcast sky. It slows down for a moment, and your heart beat quickens. Your arms and legs tighten, and you feel a pressure build up behind your ears. But the car keeps driving past your house, and you let go. Your arms and legs feel tingly, and your chest feels sore as you heart settles back down.
“Andrew,” you hear your sister call. “Come play.”
You look over to where your sister and brother are playing. The field across the street from your house is empty, but construction companies have started digging holes to lay the foundations of new houses, leaving the dug-up dirt sitting for weeks before they come back to clean them up. Of course, all they ever were to you were piles of dirt that you could climb and hide in like your brother and sister were doing now.
“C’mon Andrew,” she calls again. She is tall, a good foot taller than you and your brother, although she is only eighteen months older than you. Her hair is cropped to her shoulders, and in the winter winds it whips around her round face. Even from this distance you can see the gap in her overbite, and you wonder what she’s smiling about. You wonder how she can be happy. You also wonder if she can whistle through her teeth. Your brother is sitting crosslegged at the base of the monolithic pile clapping two rocks together which makes a small click that sounds like footsteps echoing down the now empty street. You think again about the neighbor lady with the soft blue eyes, wrinkly smile and straight white teeth who came over to your hybrid house and took you and your brother and sister down the street to her house. The house she shared with her family; two boys, a girl, a husband, and an uncomfortable amount of cats.
Your dad had told you it was going to rain that night, and that he was going to drive you out to the creek to sail the boat you and he made together for Boy Scouts—the one that won second place. It had been an act of God, winning second place. Your dad, who handled the construction of the boat while you passed him tools, would stare at the block of wood in front of him, arms crossed, brow furrowed, and wood knife pressed lightly against his tight, thin lips. You would tug on his shirt tail and he would look down and smile. “Well, what do you think?” he would ask, and you would giggle and reply “But you haven’t done anything yet, Daddy.” He would chuckle, pick you up, set you on the work bench, and start to whittle the fourth iteration of the boat for the Boy Scouts while you continued to pass him tools. It wouldn’t be until you start middle school that you realize your dad isn’t a very good woodworker.
Your dad had told you he’d take you down to the creek to sail your second place boat, but instead he came into your room and tucked you into bed and gave you a kiss on the forehead and said “Some other time, little guy. I promise.” You gave him a hug, the thick scent of smoke, scotch, and Old Spice aftershave surrounding you for a brief moment, and after he left the room and turned off the lights, leaving you and your brother to stare up at the dinosaur glow-in-the-dark stickers the two of you had put up on your ceiling, you laid unmoving, waiting for the rhythmic pitter patter of the rain falling against your window to put you to sleep.
There was a break in the storm when you were rushed out of your house and down the street to the neighbor lady’s house. The ground was wet and slick from the rain mixing with the oils in the asphalt, and the windless air smelled like copper and gasoline and chemicals brought down to the earth by the weight of the water. The neighbor lady has a small, boney hand that she wrapped around your upper arm, and another that she wrapped around your brother’s. Your sister walked next to you whispering things you didn’t remember in the morning. You can still feel her hot breath warming your neck as you turned your head around to look back at your corner house. The porch light is on, and the yellow light is reflected off of the water droplets clinging to the grass of your front yard. The neighbor lady gives you a slight tug, her fingers squeezing your upper arm. You start to slide on the wet asphalt, but the neighbor lady lifts you up off the ground and for a moment you’re weightless. Then she drops you back onto your feet, repositioned, and you continue walking. “Look forward, Andrew,” you hear her say. “You need to watch where you’re going.” But you continue to look backwards. The neighbor lady tugs your arm causing you to trip again. Your parents have stepped outside and you can see your dad silhouetted by the porch light. He’s waving his arms above his head, and his back is arched forward. He’s shouting something but you can’t make out the words, you can only hear that it’s his voice. Your sister grabs your head and forces it to look forward. You can hear your mom screaming too. You reach the neighbor lady’s front door, and for a moment the world is silent.
You hear a car pass behind you and you turn around. This one is small and green, and for a moment you are on your feet. But it doesn’t slow down and is soon gone. You sit back down and look around for the worm you had been playing with. This time it has made it deeper into the earth and struggles against being pulled up. When you do yank it free from the ground it is only half a worm, the rest of it still pink and wriggling, unseen in the dirt. You set the rear half down, and watch as it slowly stops thrashing. You read in a book somewhere that if you cut a worm in half it will grow into two worms, so you sit and watch and wait to see if it becomes something new.
As you wait you remember your dad taking you for drives in his green car. You remember his hand on the gear shift, his knuckles white against the black leather of it. And you remember the way his brow furrowed, and his eyes narrowed behind his gold rimmed glasses as he looked down the road ahead of him. Sometimes he would drive so fast that you sank down into the passenger seat of the two seater; he never did make you sit in the car seat when it was just you and he driving together. “It’s unbecoming of a man to sit in a car seat, and you are a man, aren’t you?” your dad would always ask you before he put you in his car. “Yes,” you would reply flashing your toothy smile. Your dad would wink at you, climb into the driver’s seat, and two men would take off down the road. The car would accelerate, and his right hand would move the gear shift up and down, up and down. And you would giggle as you slid down the black leather seat, and the seat belt would cut into your chin when you slid down too far. Your giggling would break your dad’s concentration, and his eyes would grow wide again, and his brow would ease up, showing the deep wrinkles in his forehead from years of frowning and he would look down at you and smile.
“Andrew,” he said on the way back from Boy Scouts, “When you’re old enough to drive, you’re learning how to drive stick. I’m teaching you, because if you learn how to drive stick first, driving will be so much easier.” He turned his eyes back to the rode, the head lights from his car lighting up the shadowed street, the skyline behind the both of you a vibrant orange-red as the sun sank slowly. You clutched the hand-carved, imperfect wooden boat in your hands, the bottom still damp from the race. The silvered boat on a plastic pedestal laid at your feet; the second place trophy won by you and your dad. “You wanna get some ice cream?” he asked looking straight ahead, the edge of his lip curled up into a half smile.
“Really?” you asked, for a moment forgetting about the boat in your hands.
“Yeah little guy,” he said looking down at you. “What do you want?”
“Banana Split,” you said, even though you both knew you couldn’t eat the whole thing. But that was okay, because you ate one banana and the vanilla ice cream and your dad would eat the other banana and the chocolate ice cream. The strawberry ice cream would end up in the trash because your dad couldn’t understand the point of strawberry ice cream, and by proxy neither could you.
“Okay,” your dad said, looking back at the road. “Banana Split it is.”
You sit in the dirt not knowing that your whole life is about to change. That in three months you would be sitting in the front seat of a U-Haul with your uncle, following your mom down I-5 to Oakland, California. Not knowing that your dad would soon be on a plane to Providence to live with the other woman he loved.
Instead you sit on the cold, hard dirt and grow tired of waiting for a new worm to grow. You grab a rock and start pounding and grinding the worm into the ground. At first it makes a squelching noise, like a grape being popped, but soon it stops and all you hear is the rock moving against the earth. And you think about the car rides with your dad; the way his forehead wrinkled when he smiled at you, and the way the seat belt cut into your chin as he accelerated. You think about boat building and the silver trophy shaped like a schooner that is sitting on your faux distressed book shelf in your bedroom. How the orange-red light reflected off of it on your way to get ice cream. You think about how you only ate the vanilla ice cream the last time you went with your dad to get banana splits. You think about how he smelled like smoke, and scotch and Old Spice the last night he came into your room to tell you he was sorry.
You hear a car pass by on the street behind you, and you turn around and hope like hell it’s your dad’s car because you haven’t seen him all day and you need to explain that the mess in the living room wasn’t your fault. You need to tell him that the creek should have enough water in it still to go sail your boat. You need to remind him that next week is his turn to bring snacks to Boy Scouts. And you need him to be there because his car is the only one with a stick shift that you know and he needs to teach you how to drive it someday.