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Stealing Dirt

ISSUE:  Winter 1990
Would-be lovers, teen-agers blue-cheeked with acne, always
end up where they’re not allowed: over the cemetery wall,
balancing on the lip of a bricked-over vault to pocket
handfuls of goofer dust—dirt of a grave, any grave—that
can turn a girl’s head, if only her sandal scuffs it while she
helps her aunt bring groceries in from the car. Certain
parlors still sell Controlling Oil in vials, plastic bags of
Come-to-Me Powder. The boys don’t have that kind of
money, tourist money: the dozen tens and twenties in a
monogrammed gold clip, wads of cash coughed out of red
leather purses for paintings of dead jazz stars or a round
trip ticket anywhere, New York, London. “This town is
nothing but souvenir shops,” gripes one boy, poking his
toe through the tip of his tennis shoe. The other picks at
his cheek, stares into the river. Souvenir, his father told
him, is French for memory. Remember that, he joked,
peeling carrots for stew. The boy wants the English girl his
father once knew: wants that other river ancient with
swans and heavy-headed willows, and the girl’s sing-song
in the prow of the flatboat rented for this memory he’s still
inheriting. She lived in a brick flat with a creaky gate and
gooseberry garden, his father said, nanny to French
children marooned in Oxford. Willow-light fills the boy’s
head, he wants to be the river she puts her hand into.
Father met her in a pub, they got half-drunk on pink gin
and stole a bicycle, pedaling it along the canal with her
perched on the handlebars until the front tire gave out. Her
hair whips around the boy’s head, it’s midsummer eve
sixteen years ago and he’s twenty in another country,
preparing not only to kiss but to undress this girl whose
name is Moira, who lights two candles in the little room.
She would speak French in candlelight, father said, faster
than he could understand; afterward, she might translate a
little. But he ran out of money, had to fly home. Months
later he married the boy’s mother—who left a long time
ago. Dead to me is father’s phrase for her. But to think of
the English girl peeling carrots over a sink, graying, telling
a daughter how well she once spoke French . . .the boy
feels the stolen dirt in his pocket, knows what he wishes is
wishing on death. But in the dresser drawer he isn’t
supposed to open, nestled between the .32 caliber revolver
and the packet of Trojans, there’s a swan feather, and when
he remembers it, he can feel the girl’s head—heavy with
sleep—filling his hand. She’s asleep, and he’s a man
whispering how he won’t run out, won’t run out of money
this time.


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