Stealing Dirt

Stealing Dirt

WO Stealing Dirt ARTBy Lydia Kann

Let’s say the phone rings in the middle of the night and you are shocked out of a sound sleep, that just-fell-asleep sleep, pre-dream, pre-restless, pre-subconscious insight, and your hand reaches to find the cordless, somewhere, it’s somewhere on the nightstand, and maybe you knock over the cute little lamp with the blue and green painting of a beach scene, and finally you find the phone, lift it to your ear and go, huh? And it’s the police.


“Hello. Is this Lydia Kann? This is the Hadley police calling about your son. We have him here…”


“Ma’am, we have your son, Mickey, at the police station and would like you to come pick him up.”

Now you, or more to the point, I am up. Woken. Awake. “What?”

“Your son has been involved in an incident…”

“What happened? Is he okay?”

“Yes, ma’am, he’s fine. We are impounding the car…” The policeman must be covering the mouthpiece because all I hear is a muffled, “What is it?” And then he comes back on, all cheery like, “and the wheelbarrow, as evidence.”

“Evidence of what? What happened?” I am hyper alert by now, heart bumping, breath short.

“Ma’am, can you come in to the station, and we’ll explain it then?”

Great. I had been sleeping the sleep of the innocent, assuming my son was safely in bed after an evening out with a friend. Isn’t that what all the parents say after… after horrible crimes are committed by or against their children – I thought he was asleep in bed?

Let’s say you get in the other car, the small sporty vehicle you bought to replace the huge minivan when the boys got their licenses – you get in the vanity car, let’s be honest here, and hustle yourself down to that police station, a place you have never had the occasion or necessity to notice.

And as I drive my sweet little car down the dark abandoned streets – it’s only 1:30 in the morning, but these are small New England towns I am traversing and most folks are happily tucked into their warm beds. As I drive, I scan the possibilities, and know that whatever Mickey has gotten himself into, I am to blame.

I am the mother. Have been for almost nineteen years, since the arrival of my first son. So much has been said about mothers, and yet not enough. Or is it that more could be said about mothering, a godlike state, the wonder, the innocence. There you are, left with a tiny body so fragile that any movement, any decision – shall I carry him in this arm or on my shoulder, shall I go when he cries or wait, shall I let him sleep in my bed or draw a line – each lifted eyebrow of reaction leaving a residue of consequence that will live on until your death. A snake of responsibility lying coiled in the corner, not visible until it attacks, venom, toxic serum infusing your blood, your head, your heart. There is no return from this land, galaxy. And all of it, the whole experience – the anxiety, the decisions, the guilt – is so damn normal. Common. Who isn’t a mother, after all?

The police station is cold and bright on this dark late spring night. Fluorescent lights ricochet off the white cinder block walls. The officer behind the glass window – they’re not taking any chances in this tiny harmless town – stands up when I announce myself and says he will get my son.

My son. Taller than me by a head. Gangly. Is that a smirk on his face or embarrassment? Or are those the same thing? The obstetrician predicted a girl when I was pregnant with Mickey seventeen years ago. The way I was carrying. He put his stamp on it. “A girl for sure.” I already had a boy, my firstborn, his pulsing male nature overridden by a golden temperament – most likely a result of a Leboyer birth – a technique, trendy at the time, of placing the newborn in a warm bath and promising a gentle transition from the womb to the outside world. And therefore, a calmer child.

I had been raised alone by a woman, my mother, and there were no men to be found. Sameness permeated my days. No collision of strange body parts, of voice tone, of scent, no testosterone-fueled exuberance or aggression. Women reflected off mirrors as far as the eye could see.

When Mickey arrived into the cold January light of that hospital room, the most noticeable characteristic visible from my vantage point was the blood red balloon sized sack between his legs.

A second boy. A boy so different and yet familiar. A boy designed by a Dennis the Menace screenwriter to ask of me a kind of forbearance uncalled for previously. A challenge, as they say. Clearly the choice to forego the Leboyer birth here – a decision based on the predictable exhaustion of a second delivery in less than eighteen months – had its projected outcome.

“What happened?” I now ask, for the third or fourth time. The police officer, who has entered the room with Mickey, looks quite serious. He is also young enough to be my son, but he expands himself into the stern demeanor required of his profession.

“Mickey was apprehended at the Garden Center on Route 9, trespassing. An officer patrolling nearby noticed the minivan in the parking lot. Your son was found inside the premises, having scaled the fence, it appeared. He had taken three forty-pound bags of soil.”

Okay. An answer, but not really. I am confused. “I don’t understand. The Garden Center. Huh?”

I sound and feel inarticulate. What is expected under these circumstances? Anger, compassion? What would I be angry at? What did he in fact do? And most obviously, what the hell was he doing breaking into the Garden Center? Dirt?

The officer reiterates that they will need to hold on to the car and the wheelbarrow ‘as evidence’ until the hearing, but we are free to go. He gives us some papers about the legal process and returns to his desk.

We leave in my car, Mickey silent in the passenger seat. “I’m sorry, Ma.”

“What are you sorry for?”

“Sorry you had to come get me.”

“What happened? Why did you want dirt?” I am moving toward a slight hysteria, wanting to either yell or laugh.

“I can’t tell you.” He is staring out the front window and speaks with no inflection.

“Why not?”

And that interchange becomes the template for the many future conversations about the incident. After we found a lawyer to represent him at the hearing and he was acquitted, thanks to his spotless ‘good kid’ record. After months of silence about the issue, then years of refusal to come clean.

I am a mother. I have theories I comb through. Was he stealing dirt with someone else and protecting him or her? Was he planning to grow some pot and read somewhere that he needed clean dirt? But then why wouldn’t he just buy it?

The whole event was symbol of what can’t be found, or understood. A manifestation of the mystery of where I end and he begins. My son.

Years after, many years, my son, now in his thirties, and I stand at the grave of my mother. A raw fall day, rain drenching our flimsy jackets, hands icy from holding umbrellas aloft. It is Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and I suggest we do a little ritual, Tashlich, which traditionally is practiced on Rosh Hashana, ten days earlier, but I had looked it up and it’s acceptable until Sukkot, a holiday a week after today.

None of this matters, in fact, since we are atheists, but we are on a search for something together, a way to make contact perhaps. It is a quick visit for my son, the first in months, and this will be our one chance.

Mickey agrees. According to local custom, one throws bread or food into a body of water to symbolize casting off the sins of the year before. Our version is that we each name three sins of the year before and three intentions for the coming months. We then each take a noodle from a Thai noodle take-out we happen to have in the car, place the noodle on my mother’s headstone and then pour water from a water bottle on the noodle and say a baruch atah adonai facsimile. Cute but functional.

And it’s in this primitive ritual that it happens. A kind of touching. The final sin we each speak is in relation to the other.

“I always thought that I didn’t give you enough credit, Ma, for what you did right. For all the ways you are so able. And that I couldn’t get past your weaknesses, the way you…” He went on to tell me what drove him crazy about me. No big surprises there. But then he said, “I think about what I will tell my children when you’re dead, about the kind of person you are. And I realize that it wasn’t that I didn’t give enough credit – I always gave you so much credit for being strong that I couldn’t forgive you for the times you didn’t hold it together. I couldn’t let you be human.”

If I say I was blown away, if I say I was moved, if I say I wept and then spoke my piece and then we hugged, if I say all that, it wouldn’t be the whole truth.

To be seen – as in vision, as in heart, as in soul – for one moment, by another, to be recognized as worthwhile, as having substance. Is it that there is too little time, or too little language, or too much distraction? Let’s say it’s all of the above and more. Three bags of dirt and the search for an answer.   In the end, it turns out that my son, too, must be human. And the dirt is the ground in which he grew.

Author’s Note: Having adult sons offers a surprising mix of distance and closeness.  One minute they seem like strangers, these grown men with beards and massive shoulders, working, partnering, and so thoroughly independent, but then the next moment something splits open and there we are, as close as when they were tots, and for those brief interludes all the mystery evaporates, and it’s pure honey love.

Lydia writes fiction and creative nonfiction and has been published in literary journals such as Threepenny Review, Nimrod International Journal, and the American Literary Review. Lydia is also a psychotherapist and visual artist.