Dirty Soles – Caleb McGhee
December 17, 2022
A raw morning light hung over the landscape, though the rawness may have been only R. Wyth’s perception after a stretch of insomnia; all winter he had his sleepless nights, and spring promised to be the same. He would leave the duplex before sunrise and walk through the countryside, even on damp, gray mornings like this. Today he had trudged through the woods at the edge of the yard, through a field of sage grass, through another thicker wood, and finally came to a little pasture with an iron-colored pond. He sat on a log by the water, getting the seat of his trousers wet. He often saw two old men who looked like brothers fishing here, but today he sat alone.
He clutched his legs for a moment and let them go. He thought of the slight burning in his sinuses which never turned to a cold and also the coffee waiting in the kitchen, to be drunk before his drive to work. He calculated perhaps a half hour, forty-five minutes of sleep for the night. He’d use the little Mr. Coffee on his desk to get through the day. He knew he would have to get up and walk home in only a few moments; he took these strolls because the exertion kept him focused and alert. He did not meditate or think, his mind exhausted and barely coherent. Reflexively brushing the lap of his trousers, Wyth rose and tried to find his way home.
He was not too far from the duplex, simply approaching it from a different direction. He walked down a gravel path separating two uneven rows of houses. One of the houses had a crumbling brick wall in the yard, perhaps enclosing a garden; clay had heaped up against its base, and it was overgrown with vines. Wyth saw a man trying to climb over the barrier; he wore no shirt, and Wyth could not see his face, only his dirt-covered back and the distinct notches of his spine. He could hardly form the words in his head and laughed slightly. He presumed that he had stumbled onto a domestic scene he was not meant to witness. He looked away and continued home, though he did notice the narrow fingers with which the figure grasped the wall.
The bare white bedroom reeked of miserable nights. Wyth remembered a winter of laying in the mattress conveniently placed on the floor, looking at the boxes in the corner. He had lived here for two years, but it still seemed as if he had just moved in. A few times after Christmas he half drifted off but woke up gasping, convinced that a figure stood in front of these boxes; this did not better his insomnia, of course.
Tonight, he lay in a nest of sheets thinking of the day gone by. The morning walk had not refreshed him and hardly gave him more energy; he trudged through paperwork, emails, and a tedious conference, no amount of caffeine sufficient to change his torpor. Tedious as it was, tomorrow would be far worse: he would have to drive four hours on the interstate to a store outside a rambling state capital. They had been making serious safety overhauls, and Wyth’s position required that he inspect these changes, file a report, and discuss them with both the local management and the office. It would last at least two days. Fortunately, the company paid travelling expenses and would put him up in a motel; he wondered if he would sleep better or worse there.
Closing his eyes, he remembered the fury he had felt during a traffic jam this morning. He had not been happy with a higher-up in the conference either, despising his leathery voice and clog-like pauses. Yes, Wyth had his rage, though it was all incidental, all brief enthusiasms he could not extend. How lovely to keep a little hatred in the heart, yet how much work to keep it up. Even maintaining some ugliness of spirit proved no small challenge: could he remember every line of a grimace seen in the mirror? Every withered crease? It wasn’t even him there. After a span, the memories fled him. Malaise and sleeplessness were his only inheritance, a faint bitterness sloshing in him like cold coffee.
Not that Wyth lacked cause for ill-feeling: there were the pugilisms of childhood and the faint traces of blood spotting a mattress, the doctor half-chuckling as he hinted at “the nocturnal struggle,” eventually deciding on night terrors. There were countless little slights, there were friendships that turned to hatred, there was a staleness felt only by rats pining on an abandoned ship far past any port; there was a marriage for eighteen months after college that ended on amicable terms. There was a time when he examined his face in the mirror and found himself reminded of a toad’s skull. Perhaps he would dwell more deeply on these things if he rested more, if he didn’t fear waking up to something staring at him from the corner.
Tonight, he forgot his daily angers and saw nothing by the boxes. Contrary to the usual scheme, Wyth slept soundly. A rosily pregnant mother would long to dream as deeply.
Wyth stopped at a gas station on the way to the distant store. As he grabbed a bag of peanuts, a man emerged from a lavatory, appearing as suddenly as Death in a ballad or remorse after a vicious act. His nose drooped to the upper lip like a collapsed vegetable, while the eyes lay in cratered sockets. He stared at Wyth with an eel-colored gaze and gently scratched the flesh over his cheekbones, his fingers narrow. Wyth simply looked away, presuming a mistaken resemblance, and took his things to the cashier.
Later, he drove through the capital trying to find the local office for his company: documents to pick up and a brief meeting with the regional supervisor before his visit to the store. He took a wrong turn by the railroad tracks, and his phone led him through an upscale neighborhood; after a halting trip through the campus of the state’s flagship university, he ended up downtown, stopping at a pedestrian crossing. He fiddled with the air conditioning while a mob of varicolored garments trod the white bars. Wyth thought one of them was scowling at him, some grey fellow largely disguised by the other pedestrians’ bodies. He quickly accelerated forward when the light turned green, to satisfy the car behind him.
The business in the store lasted until 8:00 in the evening: he conferred first with a middle-aged woman who wore a smock over her business casual and then with a plump man who always grabbed his short blonde beard. He proved intractable; Wyth declared that he was enforcing not merely the company’s policies but local law as well. Their recent overhauls were laudable but insufficient: they would have to rearrange merchandise in the back, and it would be best to space things out on the shelves, allowances made per department. Wyth cared not in the slightest for any of these strictures and simply executed his duties. The bearded fellow complained about the nightstock employees and the ones who did the unloading. He could very well do things by the book, but these gentlemen simply took no care—did Wyth know the turnover rate? It’d shock him. It was getting harder and harder to find good help. They went over laminated binders and a spiral-bound handbook and eventually drew up some new policies by sunset. Wyth excused himself to the restroom, satisfied that he could leave after tomorrow.
The back of the store consisted of unfinished walls, supports on the ceiling, and a little office by the breakroom. The manager permitted Wyth to use the private lavatory in the office, being a guest of honor. Wyth relieved himself and looked up at the Styrofoam panels above him, then looked down at the floor: it was covered in dark soil, as if someone had tracked in mud. The spatulate prints of feet covered the linoleum and, in many cases, the walls. A line of dirt had even been streaked over the mirror, outraging his sense of hygiene: what hogs could be running this place? They could hardly manage a gas station, let alone a department store. He felt unclean washing his hands there. The mirror’s diagonal streak of dirt cut his face in two, his bulbous crown divided evenly, the right segment getting a larger portion of chin.
Withered mimosas stood on both sides of the front office, flanking its wing of the motel like shocks of hair on the temples of a bald man. Wyth left with a key attached to a slab of plastic, ascending the stairs with duffel bag in hand and noting the dry rot on the stairs’ wooden rails, paint and splinters flaking off like memory. He got to his sere room and lay on the bed; an altogether desiccated place, the shiny plastic office the sole exception. The TV, a boxy flatscreen with a built-in DVD player, had nothing for him. The menu was unreadable, and he did not recognize the channels. So he lay on the berry-colored comforter, turned off the lamp, and shut his eyes.
The phone on the nightstand woke him up; yellow light came through the blinds. For a moment he thought work was calling, but he realized that the office had closed and anyway would try his cellphone. He rolled over and picked it up, giving a perfunctory, “Hello?”
He heard insects in the distance and a gentle ripping sound, as roots make when torn from the earth. He thought he could hear fingernails drumming on wood as well. Receiving no answer, he again asked, “Hello? Who’s there?”
A wet mouth began breathing and tremblingly exhaled.
“You,” it said, “You’re not going to shut me up. You’re going to let me talk. You won’t talk over me, do you hear me?”
The voice almost screamed. Wyth asked, “Excuse me? You must be dialing a—”
“NO!” it screamed.
Wyth hung up. It puzzled and somewhat disconcerted him for a moment, but he imagined that it was a wrong number. The caller was trying to reach the previous occupant of the room or else another guest with a similar extension. They used extensions at most motels, he knew. He tried to go back to sleep but had no success.
Wyth was facing the phone on his side when the next call came; against his better judgment, he took it.
“You’re going to listen to me,” it rasped.
“I don’t know who you’re wanting, but—”
It screamed and told him to listen and let him talk.
Almost like a vortex, the voice cried, “Where I was born, and where I’ve lived my life, I had no sun and no skies, only dirt above me. So I imagined real suns and real skies, thinking of my brother who walked the earth. Rapt in thought, I imagined other suns and skies, not forgetting how I hated him.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Stop talking over me. Do you know how ugly I am? I could never stand to look at myself, but I thought you were beautiful. I thought you were so beautiful. But when I first saw you I was shocked that you were as ugly as me. You were so ugly.”
The caller sobbed, repeating “ugly” a few times, convulsing when he said it.
Wyth made a few words of comfort, but the caller began screaming obscenities at him. At this juncture he imagined he was easing a drunk or madman. He almost hung up but feared the consequences.
“I’m going to tell you about my life,” the voice cried, “and you’re going to let me speak. You won’t talk over me.”
Wyth said nothing for at least a minute, hearing only the caller’s breath and the distant uprooting noise. Enraged, the caller screamed, “ARE YOU STILL THERE?”
Feebly Wyth said “Yes.”
“You’re going to let me talk.”
“Okay, I won’t interrupt you.”
“Let me talk. I’m not going to warn you much anymore. I was born to a horrid mother and a horrid father. I lived in a horrid house. And do you know what I ate every evening?”
There was a brief pause as Wyth considered whether it was a real or merely rhetorical question. He offered:
“You must have—”
“Stop interrupting me. I ate a horrid dinner, at a horrid table. It was covered in scales. The table, not the dinner.”
“And they were—horrid scales, weren’t they?”
“Jesus Christ, shut up.”
They went silent until the caller shouted incoherently. He finally told Wyth, “This call isn’t going anywhere. I’m going to come up there. I’m going to come into your room with you.”
His heart began to beat harder, and he said, “I’ll call the front desk. I’ll call the police.”
“Shut up. I’m coming up there. It’ll be like when we were kids, in the dark. Only a few inches of dirt, and I pushed a bottlecap through the soil so you’d know me. Well, we’ll be closer than that now.”
He hung up. Wyth lay paralyzed; he remembered it. He couldn’t have been older than seven, alone in a cellar lit by an electric lamp hanging from a pole. He was playing with action figures in the dirt. He could not remember where: a grandmother or aunt’s house? A friend’s? He had no idea. But he remembered seeing the dirt stir and putting down his toy. A red bottlecap emerged from a pucker of soil, and he examined it in the faint light. He could not read the letters, which looked like foreign pictograms. The dirt still stirred, as if a curious hand lay beneath it. Terrified, he threw it into the dark and ran upstairs.
Always Wyth to cheat and lie, to harbor a secret hatred, to revile his brother and keep an ounce of bile in the breast. Always Wyth to deny the foam at his lips, the ardor to strangle in his wrists. Wyth would not return to sleep that night, nor would his insomnia get remedied. Still, we might imagine the dream he would have that evening, if he could truly sleep, if he did not lay in wait for a knocking on the door of a motel room hidden from the interstate by a noise wall and a space of dying pines. He would dream that he lay in this same bed, the phone ringing festively. He could see himself as if floating near the ceiling. Wyth’s body would tear itself asunder, flesh parting from waist to forehead like the teeth of a zipper. And from this deflated shell of skin, a tall stalk of pink flesh would rise, carrying a swollen round bulb at the top, ready to bloom at any moment. The chicken-skin along the stalk would twitch, and the hairs on the bulb would sway in the air-conditioner’s breeze. No light would ever come through the blinds, however. It would never quite be able to bloom.