Why We Ate Mud

By  |  October 21, 2013
"Capture" (2011) by Alexi Hobbs "Capture" (2011) by Alexi Hobbs

“How will we know when the biscuits are ready?” Ellie is staring into the oven window. The tray is on the second rack from the bottom. The dough, still wet, isn’t doing much. Harry sits on the countertop, the back of his tennis shoes thumping the cabinet door. His black hair hangs sheet-like over his forehead, and he flicks his head quickly. It’s a tic he’s got.

“My mother’s making me go to church in the morning,” he says.

“When I was little, we hardly went to church,” she says. “But I prayed every night, and I had this magazine cutout on my wall, and I thought it was a picture of God but later I realized it was just Allen Ginsberg.”

“You should just see my mother at church,” he says. “It’s obscene. She waves her arms like this during the songs.” He has his hands up over his head.

Ellie can’t help but laugh. Harry is living at home again and that means he has to do certain things. Take out the trash. Keep his nails clean. Believe in a higher power.

The biscuits glisten in the oven.

“Sometimes I wonder if my mother is on something,” Harry says. “I wish there were more drugs. Different ones. I wish there was a drug that made everything look two-dimensional. Like we were living on a sheet of paper.”

“I wish there was a drug that made everything taste like fried chicken,” Ellie says.

“I wish there was one that let you see every kind of light there is and all the colors we can’t see now.”

She looks back in the oven, and the biscuits are golden, maybe even a little brown.

“Let’s take them to the park,” she says. She wants to hang upside down from the jungle gym. The way they used to.

 

They go to the park with their biscuits protected in paper towels. Ellie has blueberry jam on her biscuit. Harry has butter on his. A little girl is already on the jungle gym so they sit down on a bench like the parents do. Ellie lazily twirls a long strand of her brown hair.

“You know,” Harry says, “I’m not a big fan of Bryan’s.”

Ellie has been dating Bryan for not quite a year, but she doesn’t object when Harry puts his hand on her bare knee. It’s like old times. They finish their biscuits, and Ellie pulls him into the women’s bathroom and locks the door. Harry lifts her onto the edge of the sink, and the sink is wet. She feels herself sliding back into the basin.

“It’s kind of gross in here,” Harry says. “Sorry.”

He’s right, but that doesn’t stop them. They keep their tops on, and Harry is fast. He goes outside to wait on her. She needs a moment in the stall. On one of the walls, someone has written “Hallelujah Bathtub.” Ellie wouldn’t mind a hallelujah bath, whatever that is.

She joins Harry on the bench outside. The little girl is gone from the jungle gym, but they don’t feel like hanging upside down anymore.

“I know I was a little fast,” Harry says.

“Next time will be better,” she says.

 

Next time is a little better. They are in her bedroom on top of the covers. Her mother is out to lunch. When it’s over they agree a nap seems like a good idea, but neither of them can fall asleep. Ellie closes her eyes and sees Allen Ginsberg’s shining bearded face. Harry, arm draped over her side, pretends to snore, then asks if she wants to make something in the kitchen. His mom recently taught him how to make éclairs, he says.

“I can’t,” she says. “I’m supposed to meet up with Mary.”

But Ellie doesn’t have any plans with Mary. She drives over to her boyfriend Bryan’s house instead. He’s been out of town for a few days to see his aunt and uncle. They watch some television and eat fruit popsicles. During a commercial break, Bryan mutes the volume and announces that he may be moving to Charlotte.

“Why?”

“My uncle got me a job at his bank.”

“But you’re a drummer.”

“I’m still a drummer,” he says. “And now I’m a banker too.”

But she suspects that it is not possible to be both things. That you can only be one or the other.

Bryan asks if she’d like to move to Charlotte, too. It would be a big step, he knows—their names on the same mailbox, on the electricity bills, on a one-year lease. Ellie says she wants some time to think about it, and then they kiss for a little while.

“Are my boobs too small?” she asks.

He puts his hands on her breasts.

“Not exactly,” he says. “No. Not too small. Is that the right answer?”

 

When Ellie leaves Bryan’s house, Harry is parked across the street in his mother’s car. He has followed her here. His window is down but he doesn’t say anything until she’s all the way at the car, one hand on the roof. The paint between the ski rack and the top of the door is bubbled and cracked.

“I thought you’d broken it off with Bryan,” he says.

She never said that. Not exactly.

“Get in,” he says. “Please.”

They drive to the top of a small mountain and park at the overlook. He climbs over the rail and pretends to fly. With his phone he takes a picture of Ellie on the hood of the car.

“I’m ready to go home,” she says. “Let’s go.”

They stop for soft-serve first. In the car his paper cup springs a leak. He’s got vanilla ice cream dribbled across his jeans. She rubs her hand up and down his knee a few times and points at the milk.

“That was fast,” she says.

He doesn’t think that’s very funny. He tosses his empty cup out the window.

“Litterbug,” she says, and before the word has even escaped her lips, she already hates herself for saying it.

By the time they pull up in front of her house, she’s made a decision.

“I’m moving to Charlotte,” she says.

Harry says that’s awful news. The worst kind of news. Just what’s so bad about where they are now, he wants to know. He might be crying. Or maybe it’s the car’s dry heat. She can’t tell. “It’s not definite,” she says, and he perks up a bit. “Good,” he says. “Then we can talk about it more later.”

 

She moves to Charlotte and works in an art gallery. Her favorite painting is on the back wall. Two red squares intersected by one blue. If someone asked why she likes it most, she’d have nothing to say. Every afternoon she drinks a small iced mocha with whipped cream on top. Bryan goes to work in a suit and within the year has gained twenty pounds. But their apartment is well decorated. The furniture comes from various online catalogs. She craves biscuits on the weekends but never makes them. She wants to stop taking birth control but Bryan says no. He has a friend named Kara who also works at the bank. Kara has pecan eyes and speaks German, and she takes them all tubing on a river outside Charlotte. “I could live my whole life floating down this river,” Kara says. Ellie thinks Kara is friend material. But one evening Bryan comes home and says he wants to be with Kara now. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t plan it this way.” Ellie wishes she was more surprised. When he moves out of the apartment, she can’t afford to stay for more than a few months. She has to move back home again.

 

She doesn’t call Harry. She’s not sure if she’s ready to see him. It has been two full years. Her old restaurant, despite new management, gives her a job that requires she wear black pants and a black shirt.       

The bartender is new. Everyone calls him Big D, but he’s not very big. He drives a blue truck with a faded DOLE/KEMP bumper sticker that he says came with the truck when he bought it.

“Where are you from?” she asks.

“From Georgia.”

“What do you like to do? For fun?”

“Sudoku,” he says, then adds, not at all sheepish, “If you want to know the truth, and probably you don’t, I spend a lot of time reading about aliens because I don’t think that we’re alone in the universe. I think we made contact a long time ago. Did you know that Eisenhower was on vacation in Palm Springs in 1954 and that he disappeared for a whole night? Later they said he was getting a cap put on his tooth, but there’s evidence he met aliens for the first time that night at Edwards Air Force base. It’s possible aliens are already living among us. You don’t believe me, I can tell, but go to this website.”

He writes down the address on a bar napkin and slides it to her.

“What if God is an alien?” she asks. “Like, a really advanced one. So advanced that we wouldn’t know the difference.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice,” Big D says.

Ellie isn’t so sure.

 

Big D takes her to a restaurant with a thirty-page menu and every item seems to include cheese—macaroni and cheese, cheese strudels, cheese salads, cheese sticks, cheeseburgers, cheese chips, cheese on cheese. Then he takes her to a dinosaur museum where they buy T. rex t-shirts. Then he takes her to a theme park with roller coasters named after movie franchises, and after that she starts staying at his house most nights. He likes to sleep fully clothed. Big D really wants her to move in with him. Even his mother likes Ellie. She wants to take Ellie shopping. Unlike Big D, Big D’s mother is actually big, but she dresses in a way that deemphasizes her weight. She wears outfits, not clothes.

“My son really likes you,” she says and holds up a strange dress with large white circles. “You are just adorable.”

“Don’t you think that would call attention to this area?” Ellie gestures to her chest.

“Darlin’, that area is perfect,” she says, without really giving a good look. “Let me tell you. My sister had breasts the size of basketballs. Her back hurt so bad she had to have surgery. You should have seen them. She could have made a million dollars.”

Big D’s mother buys Ellie the dress and then drops her off in front of her house. Ellie’s mother is waiting for her inside with a big pot of ravioli. She has good news. A friend of a friend put in a good word with her boss, and Ellie has a job interview, if she’s interested, and of course Ellie’s interested, right? Ellie doesn’t want to wait tables for the rest of her life, does she?

 

The entrance to the building is lined with prickly bushes. Ellie is there early. Not because she wants the job. It’s just that parking was easier to find than she expected. She could care less about this job. When people ask her what kind of job she wants, she usually says, a job where I can use my hands. “Your hands?” her mother often says. “But we all use our hands.” Her mother sells insurance policies and uses her hands every day. How else would she dial out?

But Ellie wants to use her hands to fix something. Bones maybe—or pocket watches. A hundred years ago, you probably could have made an entire career out of repairing pocket watches.

Inside the building, she gives her purse and keys to the guard and walks through an x-ray scanner. She watches the guard watch the screen. Maybe he can see her bones. She hopes her bones are beautiful, or at least average. At the front desk, she gets a sticker that says TEMPORARY. In the elevator, she peels the sticker off her chest.

She has to wait for her interview. She sits down beside a man in a rough-looking suit. He seems nervous. When he scratches his mustache, little flakes of dandruff fall out of the hairs. His wristwatch is two minutes off the digital clock on the wall. He fiddles with the silver knob on the side until the times are perfectly synchronized.

Later, the secretary calls Ellie’s name and leads her down the hall to an office with glass walls. The man on the other side of the glass motions for her to come in and sit down. He is on the phone but smiles at her.

“Let’s talk about it over dumplings,” he says to the person on the phone. “You ever eat them? Good Lord, you gotta try the dumplings at this place I know around the corner. Yeah, they got chicken in them. You don’t eat chicken? Did I know that? Shit, sorry. I’m pretty sure they got fish ones too.”

The phone call ends. He stares at Ellie with bright green eyes, his hair combed forward and cut straight across his forehead, his blue shirt almost shimmering under the lights. He introduces himself as Burton. He takes some papers and a pen out of a desk drawer. He taps the pen against his chin.

“You might find our method unusual,” he says. “But we’ve found that the typical questions don’t tell us anything useful. We like to start with hypotheticals.”

“Okay,” Ellie says.

“Excellent,” he says. “Here we go. You’re given a shoebox. In the shoebox are three mice. All the mice are going to die, but if you smash one with a hammer, the other two can live. What do you do?”

Ellie has never killed a mouse before, not even in a trap. Growing up her family had the cat. She tries to imagine smashing a mouse with a hammer. She imagines the mouse as a very still fluffy thing on a cold cement floor. She imagines the hammer in her hand. She swings the hammer down but instead of a crunch, she imagines wind chimes.

“Don’t think about these questions too long,” Burton says.

“I guess I’d kill the mouse,” she says.

Burton makes a mark. Did she answer correctly?

“No right or wrong,” he says. “These are hypotheticals. Next. You’re on a spaceship. You’re set to become the first person to leave the galaxy by traveling at the speed of light. But then you realize that, because of relativity, a hundred years will have passed when you return to earth, and everyone you know will have expired.”

“Expired?” she asks, and thinks of milk.

“Yes,” he says. “They’ll all be dead, but you will be the same age. Do you complete your mission?”

“So,” Ellie says, “I only realize this once I’m all the way out there in space?”

Burton makes another mark. Then he says, “You’re a devout member of a religious group. You discover that your Spiritual Leader, henceforth referred to as SL, is a charlatan. He’s stealing money from all the other followers. This one’s multiple choice. Do you: (a) Call the authorities. (b) Interrupt a religious service and present evidence of the SL’s wrongdoing to the followers. (c) Alert both the authorities and the followers with a strongly worded letter. (d) Confront the SL in private. (e) Claim to be a new prophet and banish the SL from the existing group for reasons unrelated to the financial crime. (f) Leave the religious group and write a tell-all book. (g) Blackmail the SL for a cut of the stolen funds.”

“How many choices are there?” Ellie asks. “I think I’m losing track.”

“I’m almost done,” Burton says. “(h) Start a new religious group and declare spiritual war. (i) Go on a pilgrimage to a religious shrine and ask for God’s guidance. (j) Wear a recording device and try to get the SL to admit the financial crimes on tape. (k) Become an atheist.”

Ellie doesn’t know what to say. She grew up Methodist and nothing like that ever happened in her church. Their wine was grape juice. The minister played an acoustic guitar.

“I guess I’d do the thing where you confront the SL in private,” she says. “I mean, how much money are we talking about here?”

He doesn’t answer but makes another mark. Then he says, “You find out you’re pregnant and—”

He stops talking and looks up at her.

“Just so you know,” he says, “we ask the men this one too. Okay, you find out you’re pregnant, and it is revealed that your baby will very likely save the entire world one day. But giving birth to this baby might result in your own death. Would you terminate the pregnancy?”

“God,” Ellie says. “I guess I’d have to keep it, right?”

“And if that child only has a fifty percent chance of saving the world?”

“I guess I’d still keep it.”

“Twenty-five percent chance?”

“Maybe not,” Ellie says. “No, in that case, I probably wouldn’t go through with it.”

Burton makes a mark.

“I like you,” he says. “You seem to have your head on straight. You’d be surprised how many people don’t. By the way, do you know how to make a spreadsheet?”

Ellie says she does. Burton makes another mark and then presents her with a booklet and a pen for the essay portion. Ellie had no idea there would be an essay portion. He says it’s nothing major, just a few quick paragraphs. She’ll have fifteen minutes.

“Here we go,” he says. “The question is: How will the world end, and what will happen when we die?”

He leaves the room. Ellie didn’t get much sleep last night. She was out late for her friend Mary’s thirtieth birthday party, and her mind feels like Swiss cheese. She doesn’t have a watch. She starts writing.

The end of the world will be like when the candles get blown out on a cake. Everything will end very fast but with a final little flicker so that we know it’s happening. Then the earth will just stop existing. And we won’t know why. We won’t even care why. Our mortal souls will still exist but in a different way and they won’t care about why it ended because we won’t need the earth anymore. When we talk about the earth, we’ll laugh about how silly it was to be here. Earth will be like some dream we all had together. It will be like one of those dreams where you eat mud because in the dream eating mud seems like a perfectly natural thing to do. After the earth ends, it will be like waking up from a dream like that. We’ll all stand around wondering why we ate all that mud. Also, we won’t have private parts.

After Burton collects her essay, he shakes Ellie’s hand and says he’ll be in touch. She doesn’t feel confident. She probably shouldn’t have mentioned the bit about the mud. She probably shouldn’t have said she’d abort the baby with a twenty-five percent chance of saving the world.

Outside the snow is falling into the prickly bushes alongside the building entrance, collecting in the green groove of every leaf. She can tell the leaves are prickly but sticks her hand in anyway. It pricks her in a few spots. She can’t tell where it hurts most. When she squeezes her palm, a few small drops of blood rise to the surface of her skin.

Ellie walks to the parking garage. She should call her mother. Her mother will want a full report. That can wait. She feels something in her pocket. She pulls it out. It’s the sticker that says temporary. She sticks it on the dashboard above the heater and drives to the soft-serve place where Mary works. Mary gives her soft-serve for free so long as Ellie doesn’t overdo it with the toppings. Ellie tries to never overdo it with the toppings but sometimes she can’t help herself.

 

Two weeks later, Burton calls to offer her the job.

“You’re our top choice,” he says. “And that essay. Loved it. So funny. I showed a few people. Hope that’s okay?”

Ellie doesn’t ask him what exactly he found so funny. She’s not sure she wants to know. She tells him she’d like a day to think about the offer, as if she has ten others to consider, but Ellie knows, eventually, she will accept. Otherwise her mother would kill her.

Big D organizes a small going-away party on her last day at the restaurant. He brings in chocolate cupcakes from the grocery store since the kitchen restaurant isn’t open yet. All the waiters and cooks stand around with dark chocolate in their teeth, asking Ellie questions about what’s next. This job, she wants to say, and after that, probably some other job. Big D pours everyone a shot. He’s ready to pour another round but the manager says that’s enough.

Big D’s mother takes Ellie shopping again. This time, she wants to buy Ellie something more professional. A pantsuit maybe. They stroll through the food court and decide on chicken nuggets and salad. The floor is covered in black and white tiles, and Ellie imagines a giant game of checkers. She’s one of the pieces. So is Big D’s mom. The woman slurps up her giant Diet Coke and goes for a refill.

In the parking lot, Ellie sees Harry for the first time since moving back to town. He’s loading the back of his car with giant boxes. Christmas is a month away. She tells Big D’s mother to go ahead without her, and she gives Ellie a hurt look.

Harry can’t believe it’s really her. Yes, she changed her hair. It’s shorter. He looks different too. He has a patchy beard and distant eyes.

“My oh my,” he says.

“Let’s get coffee,” she says.

They leave in his car. It’s snowing.

 

They order holiday coffee drinks and waters and a figure-eight pastry with some kind of cream filling in the holes like little yellow swimming pools.

Harry runs a food bank now. His jeans are too big for him. They sag low on his hips.

Ellie tells him she’s sorry, about everything, and he nods.

“So, you changed much?” he asks.

“Yes, maybe,” she says. But then again, probably not. She’s back home after all.

Harry has big news to share. He’s engaged.

“Who’s the lucky lady?” she asks.

He whips out his cell phone and shows her a photo. The woman in it has brown hair, and she is very aware of the camera. That is, she’s smiling broadly, her teeth twinkling, brilliantly white and possibly a little sharp.

“Her name’s Caroline,” he says. “We met at the church.”

“As in, your mother’s church?” she asks.

“Technically it’s my  church now too,” he says. “Caroline’s a teacher. We live on the other side of town.”

Ellie considers asking Harry if his fiancée waves her arms during the songs at church. But she decides that she shouldn’t. That would not be kind. Then she asks it anyway.

Harry smiles and blows a dent into the foam of his pumpkin spice latte.

They haven’t touched the pastry. Harry insists she take it with her, but the look of it makes her feel sick. She isn’t ready to go home yet, and so he drives them to the park, which is empty and a little cold. She wraps her jacket tight and leans into Harry. Through the metal bars of the jungle gym, she watches two gray squirrels chase each other around a tree. Around and around and around. So gratuitous. Harry puts his hand on her knee, and she doesn’t object. It’s like old times. She asks him if he thinks they are alone in the universe, and he smiles and says he reckons not. They climb onto the jungle gym and hang upside down. His hair touches the ground. Her face turns pink. She hopes they’ll make biscuits later.


Check out this illustrated review of Thomas Pierce's collection, Hall of Small Mammals.

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Thomas Pierce was born and raised in South Carolina. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. His short story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.