Dirty Feet, Squashed Tomatoes
by Cassie Kellogg
I started biting my nails again.
Well, not right now.
Last month, I think, I started that again.
I look down. I see dirt. Crumbly dirt. Not wet dirt. The floor isn’t dirty. I am. My feet are, actually. I don’t have on shoes because I don’t want to wear them for this. So my feet are dirty from walking to the back house from the main house.
That makes me sound rich.
The main house is small. I don’t know about square feet or anything like that but I know it’s a small house that only has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It doesn’t even have a dining room or a living room. It has a kitchen that flows into the family room where my baby brother’s crib is set up and the tiny TV is perched on a sideways bookshelf and the couch has a dark purple throw that’s stained with apple juice.
The back house is a one-car garage that my uncle built when he first bought the house. I turned it into a place to paint when Uncle Henry sold it to us.
I haven’t painted in forty-five days.
I look over at the last thing I painted. I stopped because I realized no one had seen anything I’d painted, ever. There are canvas’s propped against the walls.
The last one I painted was blue and grey. I wanted to mix the paints to turn it black, but I wasn’t there yet.
My nail beds are bleeding now.
“Fuck,” I say. And then I say it three more times.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Mom used to say fuck when she thought I couldn’t hear her. She would say it after she fought with my dad. She’d go into her bathroom and start washing her hands roughly, and when she couldn’t get them clean she’d say it. I was usually there. I usually heard it, but still, she always seemed to be surprised when she’d turn around to see that I’d come after her.
“Maggie!” She’d yell like I was burdening her when all I was doing was standing there.
I used to start crying when she would say my name like that.
You know when a tired mom runs into an old friend in the grocery store at the worst possible time? When her kids are hysterically crying because she said “no” to the strawberry shortcake and she feels like shit because she’d just been screaming at the kids and now she sees this old friend who probably thinks she’s an abusive parent and she wants to set the friend straight but she’s still got to make the kids calm down, too?
That’s how I felt, like an unwanted old friend butting in on someone’s life when I have no right to do that.
She doesn’t say fuck anymore. She doesn’t say much of anything anymore. Well, at least she hadn’t.
This time she was depressed for sixty-eight days. Sixty-eight days of deflection, and of disinterested stares when I’d try to cheer her up, and of barely eating anything, and of sometimes forgetting that the toddler needed to be fed too.
Day sixty-eight was last Tuesday. Today is Monday.
Today, she told me I should bring in something I’ve painted to hang on the wall. I told her I’d go get one, but that’s not what I’m doing.
I’ve thought about it a lot.
I’ve thought about everything a lot.
I’ve thought about how even though the sixty-eight day stretch has broken, it’d probably only last about twenty days, if we were lucky. I’ve thought about how she told me last month that looking at my face made her want to vomit and leave.
I asked her what she meant, and where she wanted to go.
Her eyes became glossy like she was thinking of a place she would rather be and she finally said, “Anywhere else.”
I’ve also thought about how I cried when she told me “Anywhere else,” and how she responded to me crying by looking bored, bored, and just flatly said, “Don’t act like you’re surprised.”
Maybe I should bring in the blue and grey painting. I think about it for a minute, only because that feels like my default. During the good stretches, when she’s happy, I try to prolong it as much as I can.
Not for me anymore, but for June and Max. June shouldn’t be raised by a mom who hates her; I can’t do that do her. And Max is only two and a half. I have to protect them.
I used to have to protect them.
I don’t now.
My feet are dirty. Is that how I’d like to be remembered? Dirty feet and sad paintings?
June always has dirty feet. She would go outside into the garden that dad grew during the summers and jump in the soil, like really jump. She’d ruined dozens of tomatoes (they were her favorite to jump on), but dad didn’t care. Mom would yell at June and then yell at dad for not being mad and he’d just say to her, “Laura, you’re missing the entire point!”
June would say it wasn’t her fault, though, when mom yelled at her. She’d always look at her and say, “Maggie made me do it!”
That was her catchphrase. “[Enter person to blame here] made me do it!”
Someone always made her do it.
The garden thing though, well I did make her do it. I told her it’d be funny. It was for a moment. It made me feel like a kid again, like when you could jump on tomatoes and be happy to have tomato guts all over your feet and between your toes and things were still all right.
June is so different from us. If I am blue and grey, she is yellow.
June deserves all the yellow paintings.
Maybe one day she’ll grow up and move far away and be happy. And maybe, when she packs to leave she’ll come out here and look around and somehow just know, and she’ll take all the yellow paintings.
I hope she does, anyways. They are for her.
My feet are dirty. I’m staring at them. Well, going back and forth between staring at my dirty feet, the blue and grey painting, and the crate on the floor.
What am I supposed to say right now?
What does anyone think to say right now?
All I can think is that I really should just bring the painting inside.
Instead I remind myself of day three of the sixty-eight day stretch. Mom had been cleaning, but cleaning when she’s depressed isn’t regular cleaning. It’s scrubbing until her body is aching and bleeding, yes, literally bleeding. Her nails were breaking and bleeding underneath the nail beds because she was scraping the ground trying to get something off that had dried onto the tile.
I did something that day.
I told her she needed help.
Really, I did that. I said that to my mom. I think I said this exactly:
“Mom, I think you need to see someone. I think you need some help.”
She said this:
“Go kill yourself!”
I got this crate from the garden. It had cucumbers in it. I dumped them out onto the grass around the side of the house.
I press my toes against it, just barely.
I think when I do that I’ll want to step back, or run away or something.
I don’t want to, though.
Someone’s crying. June, I think. It sounds like her. I think my heart breaks a little because June crying is the happiest sound I’ve ever heard. She cries in a good way, you know?
I mean, she doesn’t cry because she hates herself, or because she just relapsed, or because her mom has been sleeping for twenty-seven hours.
June cries because she wanted five cookies and only got four.
June cries when she realizes it’s gotten too dark outside and she has to come back in now and stop playing for the day.
June cries for all the things any normal person wishes they could cry about.
I don’t go in. Not even after hearing June.
I know that.
But sometimes in life, I think I’ve learned, you have a bunch of things you should do, and the whole point is finding the one you should do the most.
And I think this is a thing I should do the most.
Do you remember when you were a child and you didn’t even know that people died? I do. I remember when mom told me her sister died when I was four. That was when I found out the big secret: people die.
I still didn’t get it then, of course, I was just four. But I found out that day that dying was a thing that people did.
I step up onto the crate. I move away the rope that I haven’t looked at yet. I don’t think I will at all.
Once I told someone that I thought I should commit suicide. It was mistake. They told me, “Then do it.”
They didn’t even ask why or anything.
I did tell them why, but only because I said, “You should probably at least act like you care.”
So they asked why, and I answered: “Because I have counted the days that I remember being good and the days I remember being bad and the bad outweigh the good.”
They said, “Your goodness isn’t something you get to define.”
They walked away after that and I still don’t know what they meant.
The rope just rests on my shoulder, waiting.
June isn’t crying anymore. That’s good. She’s good. Her good outweighs her bad.
I put the rope around my neck and wait to feel scared. I still don’t. I still don’t feel anything.
I look at the blue and grey painting and think that if I were to paint something right now I’d use those colors, but this time mix them until they were black on the canvas, because I’m there now.
I smell tomatoes and want to smile. Well, I want to want to smile, but I just don’t want to. Like I want to want to live, but I don’t want to.
I think of mom yelling at June over the squashed tomatoes and June saying, “Maggie made me do it!”
I’ve never said that. I guess because I couldn’t. I just never could. My only job was to not say it, in fact. My job was to say the opposite. Because how do you really say that?
But my job is over now, I think.
So I say it,
“Mom made me do it,” and kick my dirty feet forward.
Cassie Kellogg is currently an undergraduate student at Arizona State University studying English and Philosophy. She works as an editor for Canyon Voices Literary Magazine and as an Editorial Intern for Pants On Fire Press. Her hobbies include reading books, blogging about reading book, and drinking Dr. Pepper. This is her first publication. You can follow her on Twitter @cassiiekel or read her blog at howshereads.wordpress.com.