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Issue 50 / December 2012

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In a series of arrested spurts, it straightens its form into the upright position of a man roughly the same height and build as Thomas, round-shouldered with some thickness about the waist.

Photograph: © Danica Novgorodoff

The Mud Man by Benjamin Percy

Thomas is weeding when it happens, when he hacks at the cheat grass and goosegrass choking his daffodils and rips up pubic clumps of the stuff with a garden claw that makes a silvery arc in the air when driven down into the soil, into his hand. He wasn't concentrating. He was thinking about something else. At this time of year, when everyone crowds his office at once, throwing onto his desk rubber-banded W-9s and wrinkly bunches of receipts, he is always thinking about something else--about reductions to the gift tax rate, the new exclusions for estates and trusts, the valuation of qualified real property, and on and on, his mind clogged with numbers and forms, his fingers dirty with ink and crosshatched with paper cuts. If only I didn't need sleep, he often said to his wife. If only there were more hours in a day. If only there were two of me.

            So it takes Thomas a moment to process the injury, his thoughts snagged on the problem of a split refund. He does not curse--he is not the cursing type--but immediately tears off the glove to account for the damage. The webbing between his thumb and index finger is a ragged gash. And the nail of his middle finger has peeled over, hanging by a red thread. A nub of bone peeks out. The pain arrives a moment later, an electric heat. He can feel his pulse in his hand. A drop of blood gathers at the tip of his finger, swells fatly, and then falls into the cup of a daffodil, its bloom a bleeding mouth.

            He likes daffodils more than tulips for their practicality. You can't count on tulips. You dig so many holes with your spade and arrange the bulbs within them in a tidy design so that staggered throughout the garden the flowers will appear, blooming in different stages, different colors, Darwin tulips and a fringed tulips and parrot tulips and triumph tulips. But that never happens. Things never work out as you expect them to. The squirrels find the bulbs, sniffing them out, burrowing through the loose soil, chewing them like blighted apples. And when spring finally comes, maybe you have a tulip here, a tulip there, scattered survivors soon gnawed down to a serrated edge by a rabbit.

            Daffodils you can count on. Squirrels hate their bulbs, and rabbits their leaves and flowers, for the bitter taste. So daffodils are what he plants, and once their bloom ends, the iris and the daylilies take over, the peonies and columbine and hollyhocks, the hostas, the whole garden color-coordinated, tidily weeded, mapped out perfectly, like the rest of his life.

            Next to the toilet sits a magazine rack arranged alphabetically. He folds his socks into neat little balls that run in white, brown, and black stripes through his drawer. Every Saturday he washes his car, a tan Honda Escort, kneeling to pick the bugs from the grill, to fingernail any rust specks off the hubcaps. He organizes his grocery list according to aisles. He alternates his mowing patterns--north/south, east/west, diagonal--to ensure the grass doesn't go streaked with wheel wear.

            So the messiness of his hand bothers him more than the pain. He peels off his fingernail and flicks it aside and it drops into the soil like a seed.

 

His is a life without music. He finds it distracting, irritating. Even on long car trips he keeps the radio silent, the only noise the hum of the engine, the hiss of the air conditioning. So it is as he drives the hospital, his hand wrapped in a towel, his mouth tightened into a line as he chews at the insides of his lips and calculates the hours lost to this injury, not just an afternoon in the garden but the weeks ahead in the office, punching numbers, flipping through files.

            Later, when he returns home, his hand is gloved in bandages under which his skin is glopped over with Neosporin and stitched up with black string that looks like the coarse sort of hair that might grow on a fly, like the flies that fill the bloody daffodil, buzzing and drinking hungrily and making the flower bob and surge with their boiling presence, when once more he stands in his garden, collecting his tools, his gloves, his kneeling cushion.

            It is then that he spots, in the very same place he lost his fingernail, the swollen belly of dirt. Along its edges several flowers lean sideways, displaced. It is cracked along its crown and from the center of it pokes a cluster of green, muddy shoots that look like nothing so much as a handful of fingers, reaching upward. He toes at it with his shoe and mutters, "What the?" but before he can crouch down and observe it more closely, his wife opens the kitchen window to tell him to please come inside, his Tuesday night casserole is ready.

 

By the next morning, what appears to be a crooked tree--almost an arm--a sinewy tangle of bark and vines and leaves--grows from the garden. And throughout the day it grows larger, and larger still, thickening, branching out, taking on the eventual appearance of a man curled into a fetal position. This is what Thomas observes after work when he rattles the lawnmower out of the garage and into the backyard.

            The wind is blowing, and at first Thomas believes it is responsible not only for the trembling of the grass he stands on, but the shivering of the bush. A bush. That is what Thomas--squinting his eyes, cocking his head--processes the hunched shape as, some invasive species of bush. And then he realizes it has its own animation, as it hunches against the wind, slowly untangling itself, shuddering to life. In a series of arrested spurts, it straightens its form into the upright position of a man roughly the same height and build as Thomas, round-shouldered with some thickness about the waist.

              He, the mud man, stands in the middle of a shallow crater. His joints issue a series of blistery pops like pitch pockets boiling out of a log thrown on a fire. Clods of dirt fall off him and patter the garden, freckling the daffodils and hostas. He has all the calm of a tree, the breeze rushing around him, bending the loose vines and leaves hanging off him like hair, carrying a smell like worms washed across a sidewalk after a hard rain. The mud man seems to be staring at Thomas, though it is hard to tell as his eyes are hollows with black scribbles in them, like the insides of a rotten walnut.

            When the mud man steps forward, Thomas steps back, so that for a moment they are mirror images of one another. The mud man raises his arm, extending his rooty fingers, and at first Thomas thinks he means to shake hands. But the mud man is instead reaching for the lawnmower. He rips back the cord and the engine coughs to life. Immediately he sets off across the lawn, making a dark green path all the way to the fenceline, where he flips the mower neatly around and continues back toward Thomas, who can only stand there, blinking, scratching vaguely at the itch beneath his bandaging.

            His mind is never off-the-clock, always accounting. He knows how many tiles there are on the floor of his master bath: 15. He keeps a notepad and a pen in his Honda and every time he fills up he calculates his gas mileage: 21, city; 32, highway. He can guess with great accuracy the number of bowel movements he will have in a day based on the dinner he ate the night prior: meatloaf, 1; fish fry, 2; Mexican, 3 1/2.  Before the NCAA tourney, he spends weeks studying stats, injuries, coaching strategies, while composing his bracket. The tidy calculations exhilarate him and inform nearly everything he does, as is the case now, when he glances at his watch and realizes that with the forty minutes saved from mowing the lawn and sweeping its clippings off the sidewalk, he will have time to finish the Anderson Jewelry portfolio before dinner.

 

The mud man trims the hedges. The mud man lays down fresh mulch. The mud man empties the garbage. The mud man sweeps out the garage. The mud man cleans the winter's ashes from the fireplace. The mud man polishes the mildew from the grout in the basement shower stall. The mud man cleans the gutters, pulling out dank fistfuls of leaves, crushing hornet's nests and tossing them aside as if they were balls of paper. The mud man tries to wash the dishes, but gives up after the water darkens and thickens into a kind of gravy.

            At first his wife worries. "What will the neighbors think?" she says. "That I can't take care of our own home? That I'm sitting here all day doing nothing?"

But then, when the Mud Man brings her a Diet Coke with a slice of lemon, when he irons the wrinkled Oxfords that have piled up in the laundry room, when he fixes the satellite so that a jagged line doesn't run down the middle of the television, she begins to grow fond of him, the way he remembers the little things that Thomas doesn't have time for. "Thanks," she says.

            Coming home from work and seeing so many tasks completed makes Thomas feel renewed in the world. He smiles and claps the mud man on the shoulder and then goes to the bathroom to scrub the mucky residue off his palm.

 

Thomas has a son, a two-year-old named Owen. They don't spend much time together. When occasionally Thomas tries to play with the child, piecing together a puzzle or pushing a toy tractor through the sandbox, they both end up frustrated, because Owen doesn't do things correctly--he fails to put the edges of the puzzle together first--he throws sand into the air and dirties the patio--and Thomas finds himself constantly correcting him, saying, "No, no, no," until finally the boy collapses into a red-faced fit.

            Sometimes he forgets Owen even exists. One time he returned home from work and stepped into the kitchen as the garage door rumbled closed and nearly tripped over the boy as he played with his magnets on the refrigerator. "What are you doing here?" he said and meant it in more way than one.

            Owen has a large head and short legs. His knuckles are dimpled. His muddy eyes match his hair. The boy seems to enjoy the Mud Man as if he were a pet, something to be chased and pestered. He races between his legs. He plucks leaves off him and tosses them into the air like green confetti. At the end of the day he grabs the Mud Man by the hand and asks him to help pick up his toys. The Mud Man never complains. Thomas even observes him help the boy up and pat him on the head after a nasty tumble off his tricycle.

            This evening, Owen is playing on the living room floor with a plastic dragon the size of a cat. When he pushes a red scale on its back, it stomps forward and opens its jaws and looses a roar. But the batteries are low, so its steps are sluggish and its roar more like the squawk of a strangled bird.

           Thomas comes out of his office to get a glass of milk and sees the boy whimpering over the toy. He says, "You wait one minute," and goes to the cupboard where they keep the batteries and a small plastic toolbox and squats down on the carpet next to the boy. "I help," Owen says and Thomas says, "No. You watch and learn."

But his bandaged hand can't grip the dragon properly and his good hand is cramped from clutching a pen all day and he keeps fumbling the screwdriver, which is too big for the small screw on the dragon's belly where the batteries are housed. After he bungles the screwdriver for the third time, he stares at his hands, simply stares at them, as if he were at the controls of the machine that has broken down.

            At that moment the mud man walks into the house after fertilizing the lawn. He wipes off his feet on the rug in the foyer and leaves some grassy deposit in its fibers. He moves toward Thomas with a noise like whispering. Without hesitation he plucks away the dragon and the screwdriver and proceeds to finger out the old batteries and replace them with new ones charged with energy. And then he proceeds to another room of the house to complete some other task and leaves Thomas staring after him.

 

It is April and Thomas is busier than ever with so many of his clients rushing the deadline on the 15th. Three of them are small-business owners who tried Turbo Tax and got lost in the papery labyrinth of payroll. They all have ideas about deductions. "But what about..." is how most of their sentences begin.     They seem to blame him for their mistakes. Secretly he hates them, even as he nods his head and smiles mildly at their jokes about Uncle Sam and says that he will get to work immediately so that they don't have to file for an extension even as he wonders how he will find the time.

 

His wife comes home with a new perfume. Something by Estee Lauder. She leans against Thomas and asks what he thinks. He tentatively sniffs at her. "You smell like flowers," he says. "You smell nice." And then his nose feels suddenly full of ants that needle and burrow and gather into a tremendous sneeze. They are in the kitchen at the time and he moves away from her, bothered by another sneeze, and then another. Finally his back runs up against the counter and he can retreat no farther. His eyes are watering. His upper lip is damp with mucus. His wife asks if he needs a tissue and he holds out an arm to shoo her away.

            The mud man is in the nearby hallway. He has stopped his sweeping. His hands grip the broom's handle as if it were a sword. He is looking at Rebecca with his hollowed-out eyes. His nostrils appear to flare. Right then a worm slides its pink head from his forehead, probing the air, pulsing like a hungry vein.

 

For Easter dinner, the mud man prepares mashed potatoes, a fruit salad, wheat rolls, and a lamb roast jeweled with garlic and rosemary from the garden. The table is set with the wedding china. Two pale green candles sputter and hiss against the breeze that purls through an open window. Everyone--even little Owen--makes an "Ooo" sound when the mud man carries in the roast on a silver platter and sets it on the table. When he lifts the carving knife, Thomas stands up from his chair so suddenly that it nearly tips over. "I'll take that," he says and snatches the knife and begins to carve thick, red slices onto plates. "There you go," he says. "There you go."

            The mud man is watching all of this, as if waiting for an explanation.

Thomas takes his seat at the head of the table and tucks a napkin under his chin and says, "It's the principle of the thing, you see."

 

There is a streetlamp outside his bedroom window. Even on a moonless night, even with the blinds closed, the room glows with a pale blue light. The mud man is backlit by it, a dark silhouette that Thomas observes when he wakes from a nightmare about an audit that shut down his firm.

"Is that you?" Thomas says, his voice only a whisper. "What do you want?"

The mud man does not say anything. He never says anything. The window is open to let in the cool, spring air, and at that moment the wind shifts and sucks the blinds against it with a clatter. The room grows momentarily darker.

 

Thomas comes home to find the stereo blasting the Rolling Stones. In the living room the Mud Man is dancing. He is bending his knees and pumping his arms. Next to him, Owen leaps about, clapping off-rhythm. And there is his wife, her hands above her head, twirling in a circle. Her eyes are closed and the corners of her mouth are turned up in a faint smile, giving her a satisfied look, as if a friend is whispering to her.

            Thomas goes to the stereo and snaps it off and they all go still and he fills the silence by saying, "That's enough of that, I think."

 

At work, he tells a farmer no, he cannot write off his dog and all of its food and chew-toys, even though it chases down mice and nips at the heels of the heifers to hurry them into the barn. At work, he lays out differences between state taxes in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, and Wyoming, and makes clear to a musician why he has to file with all of them for the gigs he's played. At work, he tries to explain itemized deductions to a college kid wearing mirrored sunglasses that reflect a warped and ghostly image of himself, his office.

            All of them stare at him open-mouthed, still pale from winter, their faces like the faces of the drowned.    

 

He comes home to find the house empty. He calls out for his wife and his voice flutters down the hallway to die. He goes to the bedroom to pull off his tie, to change from his suit. There he finds the bed tangled and muddy. He slowly walks toward it, his loafers thudding against the hardwood, and bunches the sheet in his hand and pulls them to his face and breathes deeply. They smell like grass, stone, rain, earthworms.

            He feels suddenly boneless, filleted. Dizziness comes over him and he holds out his arms like a man about to fall through rotten ice and catches his weight against the dresser. It is then that his glance falls to the window and he spies them, his wife and the mud man. They are kneeling in the garden, among his daffodils, yanking up weeds to set in piles they will later dispose of. He can hear music faintly through the glass, playing from a boombox they dragged outside. His wife is bobbing her head. His son, Owen, plays nearby, pushing a toy truck through his sandbox, his lips pursed, no doubt making little motor sounds. Above them the sky is a lush blue scattered with thick clouds. The window is latticed and Thomas feels suddenly jailed by it, so separate from them.

            All of this is difficult to process, completely outside the boundaries of mathematical principles. He cannot lick his thumb and leaf through the IRS Manual or download a PDF from some .gov website for the answer. He cannot punch numbers into his calculator and thumb more lead into his mechanical pencil and correct his mistakes with an eraser's grayish-pink nub.

            Because he doesn't know what else to do, he slams down his bandaged hand on the dresser. The shock of pain forks up his arm and he relishes its distracting force. With a whimper he slams his hand down again and again until he can feel the heat of blood leaking from him. A perfume bottle rattles and tips and rolls off the dresser to fall to the floor, where it shatters in a starburst of glass.

            Outside, the mud man turns and raises his head, as though he hears--or maybe senses--Thomas in the window. Across the twenty yards of lawn a stare seals between them. Thomas tries to hold it, but the perfume rises up in a rank fog that makes him sneeze, once, twice. His eyes are watering, tears spilling down his cheeks, so his vision is inexact, but he is almost certain he sees the mud man's normally slack expression tighten into a frown, regarding Thomas as if he is the bothersome scrap of dream or maybe a weed that might be unrooted, disposed of, like something that shouldn't have existed in the first place.

 

 

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Benjamin Percy is the author of two collections of short stories, The Language of Elk and Refresh, Refresh, which is currently being adapted for film.  His first novel, The Wilding, will be published in 2010.  Percy lives in Iowa where he teaches the creative writing program at Iowa State University.

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Tuesday, 22 December, 2009

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