Jan Donley, Author of The Side Door


Dirt - full text

The action occurs during a Sunday night church service in the Oklahoma panhandle in 1935.

SETTING: A church pulpit. Any windows should be covered with sheets. The audience is the congregation.

(As a church hymn comes to an end, ANNIE, in her late 30’s, enters the stage from the audience. She wears a loose dress and stands at the pulpit.)

ANNIE Amen. Ain’t nothing like sharing time—folks coming up here and giving a little testimony about something that happened restoring their faith in the Almighty. Lord knows we barely got time to live the stories, much less tell them. But we do it—‘cause without the sharing, living ain’t worth it. I’ve been thinking about that lately, not the stories, but this coming together we all do.

Dependable, you know. Must be why God made ceremonies—give us all something to depend on. Lord knows, ain’t much else to depend on in these troubled times. (Laughs.) Well, there’s the depression. There’s something to depend on. Depression and dirt. And here in the panhandle, we know all about dirt. (Pause.) That’s right. Amen.
(A Pause. ANNIE takes a breath.)

Dirt. (A small laugh.) I hear people talking. I read the papers. Everyone’s telling everyone to have faith. It’s a hard time to be living. Money’s bad. No work. No rain. (Pause.) But plenty of dirt. You know what I told my daughter just the other day? I says, “Duststorm’s just God’s way of reminding us how dirty our souls have become.” (Laughs.) Say Amen, people. (Pause.) And walking across a field, seeing all them cows smothered with dirt—that’s God showing us a picture. Can’t ask for a better sign than that. That’s right. Thank you, God for giving us land and air. (Laughs.) Land and air. (Pause.) I grew up on this land, and I love it like my own child. And now it’s dry and cracking with age—my own child, older than me. My own child about ready to die. What makes something grow old before its time? (Pause.) I used to have this habit of saying my prayers each morning and evening. Oh, I still say my prayers, but they’re missing some of their old fire. And that’s kind of why I’m standing up here tonight, ‘cause I’ve lost some fire, and I’m wondering about getting it back. (Pause.) Used to be I’d say my morning prayers to the sunrise and my evening prayers to the sunset. That sun would come up and I’d thank the Lord for another day—that sun would go down and I’d praise God for getting me through. Keeps a soul humble, that’s it. Thinking about how right under these feet this old world keeps turning. Thinking how simple faith is when the world keeps on doing what it does. (Pause.) So even after the storms started—I kept up that routine. My daughter, she’s been studying in school—she calls it my ritual. (Laughs.) My ritual. (Pause.) But something changes when you can’t see the sun through the dirt. You lose track of when it’s morning and when it’s night.
(A long pause.)

Just the other day I was looking out the east window and my daughter came in asking what’s for supper. (Laughs.) Don’t that beat all? I thought it was breakfast time. Even had a pan of oatmeal going on the stove. (Laughs.) Don’t matter. Oatmeal’s just as good for supper if you put some cornbread with it-better still if you got something green beside it.
(A long pause.)

Thought I heard a stomach rumble out there. I know. Just the mention of cornbread’ll do it. (Pause.) And we all know who makes the best cornbread in town. May Lynn Turner. (Pause.) There I said it and I don’t imagine no lightning’s gonna come strike me down. But during this drought—it might be a welcome sight. Now I know y’all know May Lynn but pretend not to ‘cause she don’t come to church regular. But I’m telling you people, there’s a special kind of worship in May Lynn—comes like a big hug every time you see her face. (Pause.) I suppose by now y’all have heard the news. (Pause.) It was me that found her. See, every Saturday afternoon, I’d go calling on May Lynn. I’d take some of my plum butter and she’d have a fresh batch of cornbread. Last Saturday happened just the same. Me walking the mile to her place and knocking on the door. Usually she’s calling “come on in.” Being old she don’t like to move unless it really means something. I knocked again but didn’t hear a thing. So I let myself in, figuring maybe she’s out back doing some business. (Laughs.) And we all know, the older we get, the slower the business gets. But she wasn’t out back—she was smack dab in the middle of her floor—all covered with dirt, which ain’t unusual. I mean the dirt, not May Lynn lying in it. Folks wanting to keep their floors clean these days got to learn how to sweep while they’re sleeping. So I says, “May Lynn,” real soft, like that. She’s one of those could fall asleep without warning. She’d be talking one minute, then her head would fall down on her chest. (Laughs.) I always wondered how it stayed there, loose like that. Still, it didn’t make no sense why she’d be taking a nap there on the floor. I bent down and just when I got ready to say her name again, I knew it wasn’t no use. Her nostrils were all full of dirt and her eyes—well—they weren’t like no sleeping eyes I’d seen before.
(A long pause.)

I sat there a long time thinking I should get some help and bury May Lynn. But I couldn’t keep my eyes from looking for that special worship that left her face. And I noticed she’d opened up her windows—dirt pouring in like rain. That’s when I knew. (Pause.) I should’ve listened better that Saturday before when she got to remembering her childhood. Talking about how much she missed opening up the windows-always having to cover them up with sheets to keep the dirt out. She got to talking about how when she was a child she’d stick her head out her bedroom window seeing how many raindrops she could catch in her mouth. (Pause.) And sitting there next to her body, I got this clear picture of May Lynn trying to catch raindrops and getting dirt instead. Then it hit me—duststorms ain’t God’s way of showing us our dirty souls—duststorms got nothing to do with God at all. They got to do with us, people. We’re the ones been tearing at the land all these years—same way it took to tearing at May Lynn’s face.
(A long pause.)

That dirt just kept pouring in, covering May Lynn. Kind of like a burial without the digging. (Pause.) I forgot myself. Watching the dirt. Watching May Lynn. A ceremony. That’s the word kept playing over and over in my mind. (Pause.) A person can’t just walk away in the middle of a ceremony. (Laughs. Pause.) Dr. Clem called it a heart attack. But if you’d have seen May Lynn lying there—you’d know it was more than her heart that give out.
(ANNIE closes her eyes in prayer.)

Dear Lord—May Lynn lost her fire, and I’m losing a bit of mine every day. I kind of guess some of these folks feel the same. Now I ain’t sure what’s gonna bring it back—but I don’t think a few drops of rain would harm it none. (Pause.) Amen.
(ANNIE opens her eyes and looks out at the congregation.)
(ANNIE goes back to her seat in the congregation.)

All writings © Jan Donley 1985-2018
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