“The Dirt Room” by Anna Oberg

Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Summer, circa 1991. The house on Avalon road. My mom and her sister stand in the dirt room discussing china patterns. They are looking for something they haven’t seen in a while, but know it’s down there—a punch bowl or spoon rest, some needle in this antique haystack. The conversation unspools long and tiresome in my memory, one of so many just like it. 

I weave in and out of the shelves, lightly running my fingers over candlesticks and saucers, teacups so thin they’ve turned a milky blue, translucent and flecked with a scrim of dirt. If I break something, it can’t be replaced. I’m told to be careful, and I am. 

Their conference about the lost dishes or found heirlooms drones on, and I study the floor, amazed. The dirt ripples under the bare, pull-string light bulb. The room has no window. The cinderblock walls are painted a pure, thick white. I wonder what it is for, this room with no floor. I wonder why it was never finished, why in such a fancy house like my grandparents’ this one place was left undone. 

I pull a piece up from the dirt, roll it between my thumb and forefinger. It crumbles, falls. My instinct, when I think of soil kept in the recesses of the house, is to wonder if a seed could grow here, if planted in the dark.

I dare not venture out into the rest of the basement. The finished part. It is the scariest place on earth. Ghosts live in the closet under the stairs, the one with the wood panels cut into a door with a wrought iron handle where my grandmother keeps the movie projector, a beach umbrella, and the old handmade broom that looks like a witch’s ride. 

Once in a while, my mom or aunt remembers I’m there and holds up a piece of china to ask if I’d like this or that pattern when I grow up. Implicit in the question, in the “grow up” part is—when I get older and get married and “settle down.” I stay quiet, hoping to defer my answer. The old china holds no draw for me. I don’t need a souvenir from this unfinished space—I already understand my incompleteness. Even I if I do marry, I never plan on settling down. 

The china itself doesn’t fascinate me as it does the other women in my family. They remember who used what at which occasion. Which set was inherited from which aunt on whichever side of the family. It’s as though there is a string of memory connecting each salad plate to the one who first owned it. This is their way into the story of their own growing up, settling down. Each set of china—from great-grandparents or great-aunts is a yoke around someone—and maybe that’s why I don’t want it. I don’t wish to be prematurely placed in a future I haven’t chosen. But, mostly, I’m unable to see the point of pretty things I can’t touch or use.

Eventually, we head upstairs. They’ve found what they’re looking for, or something else, equally irrelevant. An opaline candy bowl or an etched vase to arrange my grandmother’s roses in. 

Maxine, my grandmother, sits in the kitchen talking on the phone at her desk. She’s removed the clip earring from her left ear, so it doesn’t click against the receiver. Costume jewelry. Who knows who she’s talking to—it doesn’t matter. I’m mesmerized by her long, red fingernails tapping the Formica, a stack of diamonds on her ring finger. 

Later, she’ll go out to the screened porch and smoke a long cigarette as she watches a squirrel nibble a seed in the summer grass. I watch her watching, take note of her elegance. I hope for something like it when I grow up—a sophistication that goes beyond the reach of china patterns. 

After the musty basement, the kitchen smells of my grandmother’s cooking: squash cakes and collard greens. Turnips. Pork chops. On the porch, a cantaloupe ripens beside the picnic table. A stack of old newspapers a yard high waits to be recycled. The oak trees behind the house loom above the rooftop. The bright green grass is trimmed perfectly. 

A neighbor mows in the midday heat—the sound lulls me as I doze, bored on the sofa. I hear acorns drop on the driveway as the leaves whisper in the breeze. An afternoon storm blows in. Clouds, anvil-shaped with lead bottoms, tower to the west. The cicadas cease their sawing at the first thunder. A rumble, and the glass knickknacks tinkle on the shelf by the fireplace. I take my book to the porch, hoping to listen to the rain. 

This is how it is at the house on Avalon Road. One day might as well be the next. But, it is like nowhere else on earth. I’m fascinated and frightened by my sense of this place. 

Knoxville, Tennessee. November, 2021. I’m visiting my parents for Thanksgiving. I ask my mom if she has any photos of the house on Avalon Road. She leaves the room for a few minutes and returns with a red, leather-bound volume of photos from the place where she grew up. She tears up as she hands it to me. This is a world already gone.

I flip through, amazed. The photos bring me right back—there’s the desk where my grandmother sits, the one with the rounded shelves on the end where I play on the kitchen floor with little copper figurines. Tiny pots and pans. A miniature watering can. It’s an anthology of curio-sized kitchen utensils that occupies me for hours. 

I turn a page in the album. There’s the living room with the baby grand piano and the curved couch, custom-created to fit the wide bay window. Hard buttons dot the back of the sofa. It isn’t comfortable. And, there’s the painting of Venice that hangs across from the couch, above the fireplace with the brass fan as placeholder for flames. No one ever builds a fire there. I remember staring at that painting for hours, listening to REM through headphones snaking up from my portable cd player. Unless my aunt hammers out a hymn on the piano, there’s no music in the house on Avalon Road. It’s true— anytime I hear Enya, now, I remember that picture—some strange association of “Oronoco Flow” with that room, the strokes in the oil painting, a loose impression of boats on a Venice canal. 

I flip further, and there’s the basement. There’s the coffee and side table set, inlaid wood notches, mid-century style—I have it in my living room now. There’s the black and white box television that sits on the floor in the shadow by the dingy, brick fireplace with an old mortar and pestle set on the hearth. My dad and I watch the Wizard of Oz on that TV one night, and I become terrified, inconsolable. It is the damn flying monkeys, the face in the door. I still can’t think of Oz without shivering. 

And, there it is. The dirt room. A vacant, cinderblock affair with a mud floor and a pipe running up to the ceiling. It’s empty. In the whole album, this is the only photo of an unadorned room. And, I can’t help but wonder why my mom deems it important enough to photograph. I guess it is part of the house, and thus belongs in the book—for sake of completeness.

As I scan through the photos, I ask my mom why my grandmother wasn’t as obsessed with the material stuff as she and her sister are. Why Maxine always seems withdrawn from the things in her home—as though they matter enough to keep, but not enough to discuss the way my mom and aunt do. My mom thinks her motivation to use her expensive things, her heirlooms, left her. That everything changed after the house on Avalon Road was robbed. 

Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Circa 1995. Any time we leave for more than an hour or so, my grandmother is the last one out the door. She lingers, setting the burglar alarm. It is loud, boisterous in the first moments when we return, before it is disarmed. It heightens the chaos of transition between home and away. There is something vaguely ominous about the need for it. 

I’m told stories of when their house is robbed, of what goes missing. How Maxine begins that day by asking my mom—where are my rings? She calls from the bedroom at the front of the house. She looks in the closet, then, rapidly moves down the hall, anxiously jerks the door open. Where is my mink stole? She flies around to the sideboard in the dining room and yanks the drawer open—where is the silverware? It isn’t this linear, of course. There is the careful looking in every drawer, throwing aside tablecloths and scarves and shoeboxes and towels. 

The burglars leave behind the tarnish of violation, of someone coming in and taking valuables while the family sleeps, quiet in in their beds. They know just where to find the things they will take, as if they’ve been there before and know where the items are kept. A fur from the closet. Silver from the drawer. Jewelry from the vanity. Nothing has been ransacked. There is no mess. Just the precision of a lightning strike—they know what they want, where it is—and they take it. Never to be seen again.

The burglar alarm becomes the echo, the wide sound of what is missing. It fills the empty space with the reminder of things held tightly, but lost anyway. It is the sound of knowing no one can be trusted. 

At the house on Avalon road, no trains pass by forlornly suggesting distance. The house isn’t close enough to any tracks to hear a whistle in the night and know of another place and time. There is an undercurrent of hostility toward things outside. It is insular, this place. I have the feeling when I am there, that I shouldn’t think of anywhere else. Beyond these walls, nothing much matters. 

Even as a child visiting my grandparents, I understand there is a fear of the outside coming in. Sometimes, it feels like this applies even to the daylight. Heavy drapes are drawn in the living room. Window sheers cover the bay window at the front of the house. Either the answer is something to do with unwanted dust, dancing in beams of light, or maybe there are secrets that dance between the walls, moving like sap, faster when the warmth of the sun kindles their blood. The dim, watery light through the curtains keeps the ghosts of the gone things from stirring too much. 

Knoxville, Tennessee. November 2021. In my parents’ house, still looking through pictures, I begin to think of the day a decade ago, sitting on the bed in what used to be my brother’s room talking to my mom in the dormer window, when the frames on the wall begin to shake. The floor rumbles as though a train is suddenly traveling there, right under the foundation of the house. It’s an earthquake. Not unheard of for this part of the country, but not common. It’s the first one I’ve ever felt, and I’m nauseated. Something in me shifts. An internal vertigo is unleashed. The tectonic plates of my soul jostle. I’m unsettled. Nervous. 

When it’s over, my mom tells me of the first quake she ever felt at the house on Avalon Road. How all the china clinks together on the shelves and she worries the paintings will fall from the wall. Immediately, I think of the dirt room, wondering if there are cracks, small fissures in the packed mud, or if the floor just ripples like water after a pebble is thrown into the pond. 

The dirt room always makes me think of things shaken, unsteady. I consider the value of the china. Did its value differ from its worth? Perhaps value is what the insurance company notes after my grandmother’s things are stolen. Worth, though, is the space left over—emptiness left behind by desire. It is the constancy of wanting what is gone, the stories no longer held. 

Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Spring, circa 1999. I’m sixteen. My family is visiting my grandparents for Easter. At the house on Avalon road, the subtext is worth. How much money a person has—based on what they do for a living—is a continual topic of conversation. Those with more are worthy of more is the story I hear.

My future self is also a recurrent conversation piece. Only now, the talk has changed from which china pattern I will choose when I marry to what I will do with my life in the intervening years. What I will do for a profession before I settle down—the thing that will make the most money. Don’t you want to be a doctor when you grow up? Or maybe a lawyer? You’re good at reading, writing. You could go to dental school. Or how about Real Estate? If you get into a good school, if you get a scholarship, if you play your cards just right. If you save this much, starting now… At sixteen, all I want is to be a writer. At sixteen, all I want is to be worthy. 

A current underlies everything. I recognize it now as space vacuumed free of questions, where the answers are given, nailed down so tightly no wind of change could ever blow through. Increasingly, in my adolescence, this sureness makes me want to scream, shake the walls. Invade the curated space. Shake up the inhabitants of this pretty, little snow globe. 

And, I do, that Easter, when my grandmother disinherits me.

I only remember the scene. We are sitting down in the formal dining room, the one used for special occasions. I think I knock into something. I think I say, damn. Or shit. Something. My aunt gasps and corrects me. It’s annoying. I ask what the big deal is. This is a nice dinner, she says. Admonishes me in some way. My grandmother gets involved. We have yet to start eating. Now everyone is yelling at me, looking at me to change some behavior. Take back something. Fuck all of you, I mutter, under my breath. 

Something in me rises. I’m angry. Whatever it is about lights a fire in me. I feel insulted—one of them says something about my future, what I will amount to—I remember that much. My grandmother and my aunt—they are horrified. My mother tries to make peace. She is caught in our strange triangle of fury and only wants to tamp down the flames.

All that remains are the wrong details. The way the afternoon light glints off a scalloped bowl on the buffet. The weight of the dining room chair as I pull it out to sit down. The look my grandmother gives as she straightens her spine. A shadow crawls over her face, unable to hide the boiling resentment in her eyes. All the air leaves the room.

It’s interesting—with all I can’t remember about the day, I do recall the china, the place setting. Maxine’s pattern, the roses ringing the edge of each plate. I want to smash it all. 

I remember the tone of her voice, raised so I would hear. You won’t get a penny of our money when we die, if this is the way you behave. A little shock, a thrill ripples through me. 

It’s an impulse on Maxine’s part. I see that now. It isn’t a planned maneuver or a manipulation. It’s a knee-jerk. A reaction to my tone, my words. When she says, “You won’t get a penny,” what she means is to take back all the things robbed from her. Not that she thinks I broke in and stole her diamonds, her silver. Her fur. But, someone did. And, someone needs to pay for the lack of security she feels. She’s tired of it being her—so, it’s me. I’m the scapegoat. The black sheep. Instead of getting into trouble for my disrespect, my bad language, my blatant challenge of authority—I must pay for something else, for the empty space she holds in the shape of what was stolen a long time ago.

A vacancy opens up in me that spring day. Suddenly and emphatically, my grandmother wants to keep my hands empty. I never desire anything from her—only to be worth more than what could be taken away. A sinking feeling stays with me after I leave the table—a knowledge that I have broken something, but I don’t really understand how. I have the sensation of everything falling away like framed photos knocked from the wall, the earth quaking underfoot. It is crushing, this feeling, this particular wound—the realization that nothing can ever be the same. 

The thing I remember best is the texture of the carpet in my bedroom, lying on the floor as I sob into the phone, telling my best friend I can’t take my words back. She says I shouldn’t want to.

Knoxville, Tennessee. November, 2021. Turning the pages of the album, I understand what is gone is gone. Nothing lingers unfinished forever. Both sets of my grandparents are dead, and some of what they once owned is mine, gifted to me by my parents. But, then, things never were important—not even the pictures I hold in my hand. Only the memories matter—the figments, the ghosts who come through the walls and float me back in time.

The thing is, I have no idea if Maxine follows through. If she takes my name out of her and my grandfather’s will. If it was ever in it. I ask my mom if her mom went through with it. She evades the question. 

It doesn’t matter. I don’t see our relationship as about that infamous Easter dinner, but I wonder if Maxine did. I wonder if she remains vindictive still, beyond the bounds of the rippling dirt on her grave. I wonder if I am, writing about her this way, after she’s gone. If she sees me as someone who will take something from her—and, she feels the need to stop me. Even now.

Maybe, back then, at the dining room table, I do rob her of something. Maybe this rocking boat, my bad behavior, is another thing standing between her and the safety of shore. Maybe she wants to think of me as a haven, but suddenly I turn on her, too, and must be cut off. Maybe I’m an unfinished room in the basement of her experience, empty and waiting to be filled with things she owns, things she’s not ready to relinquish.

Even after I apologize for my language, there is no forgiveness. Maxine brings it up sometimes, passively. When I go off to college and don’t visit as often, still I am blacklisted. And, then, it is over. She dies of cancer before I can ever know if I’m okay, if I’m worthy, with or without her inheritance. 

I look again at the photo of the dirt room. It’s so unremarkable, it feels strange trying to write about it, attempting to explain how the space comes to represent me to myself—a little harbor of my own disarray, a metaphor for my own self in a house where I don’t quite fit. In the photograph, everything has been hauled out of the room already. All that remains is a mud floor and four white cinderblock walls. It is a drawn breath, held there in the bottom of the house. The emptiness highlights the irony that expensive china was ever kept there in the first place. The dirt begs some question, some association. It tells the vague truth of what it means to cast pearls before swine.

Anna Oberg is a professional photographer based in Estes Park, Colorado. When she’s not arranging family portraits with the perfect view of Long’s Peak as backdrop, she focuses on writing tiny memories and small stories. She has been published in Mud Season Review, Pidgeonholes, Causeway Lit, The Maine Review, decomp Journal, The Festival Review, and Split Rock Review, among others.