On my back and spitting out soil

7:25 p.m. I am looking at the ceiling. The potting soil that’s not already underneath and around me is drifting down onto my face in a fine, gritty mist. Sydney is yelling upstairs, in her bed. Piper is yelling outside, next to the house. The dog next door is barking his fool head off. I turn my head experimentally: success, though more potting soil falls. I spit grit, feeling the crunch of good black earth between my teeth.

Stop. Too soon. Let’s back up a bit and see if I can pinpoint where I went wrong.

6:10 p.m.  It’s been a beautiful day: mid-70s and dry, and while sunset is some hours off, all the early signs are good. Kate is working and won’t be home until close to bedtime; I’ve been on kid-delivery service today, dropping each girl off at her designated care facility, provisioning the house and heading to work for some hours before returning home, switching back to the car to run errands (hardware store: faucet thread tape, hose splitter, staple gun; paint store: mini-roller, tray, scraper, a shockingly expensive gallon of exterior white paint suitable for picket fencing) before picking up our kids.  First pickup: Thing 1, from camp, smelling of sunscreen, leaning tiredly against her carseat and requesting repeated plays of “Destination Moon ” on the way home. Second pickup: Thing 2, from our friend’s infant care half a block from our house. Thing 2 is asleep when we get there, but our friend says she’ll call when she rouses, so Thing 1 and I head home to start making dinner.

Chop an onion and start sweating it, then turn it off while we go out to the street and retrieve Sydney from our awesome friend, who’s delivered her. Go back inside, park the infant where she can see me and squeal to an audience.  Piper is quietly reading a book to herself.  Turn the onions backup: add some leftover TJ’s spicy chicken sausage, some okay but ho-hum tomato sauce, a splash of Chianti in the pan (and a glass for the cook), and then some thyme, oregano, parsley and basil from the herb plot out back.  Half the herbs in early, half just before serving.  Fresh linguine into heavily salted water, broccoli steaming for Piper, salad greens and radishes and carrots for me.  Offer a bottle of breastmilk to Sydney, and some minutes later, notice the level’s not dropping despite her working on it. Inspect the nipple on the bottle: a quinoa grain is blocking the end.  Oops.

Piper declares the spicy sausage “too spicy,” but has four helpings of broccoli with butter and salt and lemon “and pepper, Abba!” along with a small handful of noodles.  We’ve got a tree full of perfectly ripe cherries out front and a bucket of raspberries from my mom’s garden in the fridge, but she declines both and requests mango sorbet with frozen blueberries.  No problem, kid: enjoy that while I take your yawning sister upstairs to bed.

I take Sydney upstairs, change her and swaddle her. She’s not really as obviously tired as she could be, but I haven’t really had much of my own dinner, and as I can hear Piper heading out the front door, I figure accelerating bedtime isn’t a terrible idea. Baby in her cosleeper, I head down to check on her older sister, who’s grabbed an orange plastic snow shovel and has announced her intention to dig a hole with it.  Good luck with that, kid.

Inside, I scarf down my now-cold pasta and now-warm salad before going back upstairs to put Sydney’s pacifier back in her mouth. She’s drowsy but far from asleep, and since she has the dexterity of a stoned lobster wearing boxing gloves at the best even when unswaddled, it’s generally our job to return her pacifier to her when she’s spit it out.

Downstairs, I head out to the front stoop to talk with Piper, who’s been unsuccessful in her hole digging, but is now talking with our orange cat about it.  I notice (and here’s where you should start paying attention again) the green plastic flowerpot on our front steps. It’s a pot capable of hanging that we’ve had sitting on concrete instead, the sweet peas in it yellowing and wrinkled.  Nobody has remembered to water these: neither with the inside plants nor its compatriots in front of the house.

“Oh,” I think to myself. “I’ll take the pot inside and fill it at the kitchen sink.”  Piper decides the digging may be better behind the house and carries the shovel back there. I carry the pot, maybe the size of a medium mixing bowl, to the kitchen sink. I’m hearing Sydney squawking upstairs as I get to the sink and run a short burst of water into the pot.  The soil is dry as a bone and absorbs it instantly, so I give it a few more bursts and start walking it back outside to the stoop.

If you were to ask Google Maps to chart you a course from our kitchen sink to our front steps, the directions would run like this:

  1. Make a u-turn and walk four feet due south.
  2. Turn right into the dining room.
  3. Walk ten feet on wood floors through the dining room and into the living room.
  4. Bear left when the front door is visible across the dining room.
  5. Cross the faded living room rug, another patch of wood floor, and into the front vestibule.
  6. Elbow open the front door.
  7. Destination will be in front of you.

I’m partway through the dining room when the hand I’ve got supporting the flower pot registers that some water is dripping out of the bottom of the pot.  “Crap,” I think. “I thought there was a drip pan built into this pot. Well, I’d better hustle and get it out to the front before any more water comes out of it.” I’m on the living room rug as I think this. More water comes out of the pot, which I’m holding in front of me.

It’s like the watery bursts I poured in not 15 seconds before went through some sort of looped time-wormhole and have now started coming out of the bottom of this pot just as forcefully as they went in.  My rational mind closes the store, leaving only an index card taped to the front door: “GET WATER/FLOWERPOT TO FRONT STOOP STAT.” I accelerate off the living room carpet and onto the stretch of wood floor before the vestibule.

Stop. Matrix-style bullet-time. Slow motion: the water flowing from the bottom of the pot in three neatly defined streams dropping true as plumb-bobs and spattering into chaotic drops on the hardwood floor. My eyes, fixed on the screen door in front of me as my right foot comes down. Piper’s loud objections to the barking dog carry through the screen, her voice slowed to a distorted moan. My heel strikes the wet floor just before the throw rug in the vestibule.

Freeze-frame. Sportscasters use an onscreen chalkboard to draw arrows indicating the particulars of what is about to happen: angular velocity, center of mass, acceleration, rotation, trajectory of plastic flowerpot, impact, wind patterns, dustfall probability zones.

Resume the action. The flower pot tips and flips, releasing sodden soil in arcing sprays familiar to anyone who’s stood in front of the Bellagio. I pinwheel in the air, all four limbs akimbo. There is a ringing, stretching moment of hang time, and then I slam down on the floor, butt-first, followed by back, head, arms and legs. After a moment, the entire pot’s worth of potting soil covers me and the floor around me. Fade.

When I get up, it becomes clear I’ve provided a neat body-shaped absence of dirt on the floor, at least. A quick inventory says nothing’s strained, nothing’s sprained, and both kids are still yelling.

I stumble outside to see what’s going on with Piper, who stops, mid-yowl. “THE DOG IS BARKING TOO LOU … Why are you covered with dirt, Abba?” I stumble upstairs to replace Sydney’s pacifier.  Sydney, bless her, doesn’t ask me anything.

Because this world occasionally shows mercy, Kate returns home about ten minutes later, in time to fairly and justifiably laugh uproariously before helping me clean everything up, which is service above and beyond the call of duty.

We got married seven years ago, today, and the fact that this woman can laugh her ass off at her bruised and disheveled husband and then help him sweep damp, black soil off the living room floor: this only underscores the immense luck I had in finding her.