Contents | September 2003
More on fiction from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"Electric Wizard" (June 1998)
"They sat calmly, waiting to hear Jason's poem, and the weight of what had happened to them hung heavily in the room. I hoped they'd start fighting again." By Elizabeth Stuckey-French
"Junior" (April 1996)
"I help people find things," her aunt said. "They call me up from all over the U.S. and Canada. Missing dogs are my specialty." By Elizabeth Stuckey-French
From Atlantic Unbound:
Facts & Fiction: "Wise Kids, Childish Adults" (June 11, 1998)
A conversation with Elizabeth Stuckey-French.
The Atlantic Monthly | September 2003
he summer of 1916 would later be known as the last summer of peace. Within a year the United States would be at war, but that summer we still believed that President Wilson could keep us out of it. As a nation, we were told, we were getting bigger, better, and more stylish. Our population had risen to 100 million. Prohibition laws had been passed in twenty-four states. Every household would soon own an automobile. Ostriches, grackles, blackbirds, orioles, egrets, herons, and doves were slaughtered by the thousands so that their feathers could adorn women's hats. Americans were full of all kinds of foolish hope, and my mother and I were no exception.
A short story
by Elizabeth Stuckey-French
On the morning of July 20 Mother and I were riding in a small wooden bus over the rutted back roads of Indiana, heading for magical Mudlavia. Every time the bus jounced, I felt a sharp pain in my knee, a pain that shot through the dull ache that had been my constant companion for three months. I was sweating in my wool knickers and jacket, which my mother had insisted I wear. Whenever she saw pain on my face, she drew me against her. I was too hot to be so close to my mother, smelling her too-strong lavender scent, but I was also afraid, and I felt lucky to have her with me. Six other passengers were on our bus, all adults, all traveling alone. One had a cane, three others hobbled on crutches. A fat man had been carried onto the bus by four farmers in Attica. An elderly woman lay flat on a stretcher at the rear of the bus. She kept making little whimpering sounds that drove me mad.
I closed my eyes to the dust, the cripples, my mother's round face, her dimpled chin, her lips pursed with concern, her eyes searching for every nuance of my feelings, and imagined myself, older and more handsome, soaring over a six-foot crossbar as a stadium crowd roared. I was only ten years old, but I was already determined to become an Olympic track star, setting world records in the high jump and the long jump. That summer, because of my knee, I'd had to give up daily jumping practice in my back yard. I was looking forward to our stay at Mudlavia, because without jumping, my life had become a bore. My father was often away on business. I was tired of playing silly games with the Dotties, tired of going calling with Mother on Wednesday afternoons. I was also tired of the ache in my knee, but, I must admit, that was the least of it.
Why hadn't I told my parents as soon as my knee began to hurt? Had I sensed how serious it was? Perhaps I feared being totally smothered by my mother's love and concern—which felt stifling under ordinary circumstances. I'll never know why I didn't tell them, but I still take a peculiar pride in the fact that I managed to hide the pain for so long.
The night they found me out, we were putting on one of our plays—my best friends Dottie B. and Dottie G. and I. Each week Dottie B., who wanted to be a writer, wrote a new play. Every one featured the same two characters—a stupid married couple called Susanette and Losenette Floosenette, who were always having "misunderstandings" with friends, family, and everyone they met.
We put on the plays at my house, because my parents had the biggest house on Ninth Street. That night thirty or so neighbor children and parents were sitting on the new rose-colored carpet in our parlor. My mother's precious Globe Wernicke bookcase and her fumed-oak chairs and couch, with their elaborate carvings and spindles, had been pushed back against the wall. The new carpet was displayed to its best advantage.
I was playing Losenette, in my father's suit coat and bowler hat, and Dottie G., in her sister's red nightgown, was my wife, Susanette. We were visiting the Eiffel Tower on a trip we'd won through a soap-flakes sweepstakes. Dottie B. was the gendarme, telling us we couldn't take our dog, Monique, up to the top with us. I was in love with Dottie B. then, and still am to this day.
"But you don't understand," I said, glaring at the gendarme and tweaking my imaginary moustache. "She's a French poodle." I put all my weight on my left leg, accommodating the ache in my right one.
"Oui oui, miss-ouer," Susanette said, patting her hair. She clutched my squirming cat, Flip Flop, who was playing Monique. Susanette went on, "We promised her she could see her native Paris from the Eiffel Tower."
A ripple of laughter emerged from the audience. As always, I listened for my mother's laugh, and I heard it.
The gendarme drew herself up. Her reddish-gold hair was tucked up under one of my newsboy hats, and she wore a pair of my knickers. So beautiful, Dottie B. "Sorry, mes amis," she said in a deep voice. "But what if she should do her business up there?"
This was the riskiest line in the play. Somebody tittered.
"We've come prepared," I said, whipping one of my father's handkerchiefs from my pocket.
"Oui," my wife said. "We'll take it back to Indiana as a souvenir. They'll display it in the courthouse, and people will line up to see it. Because it's French business, you see."
More laughter—a few nervous chuckles from the adults, snickers from the children. I glanced at my mother, who was shrinking back against the wall. My father got up and left the room. To my surprise, instead of feeling afraid, I felt frustrated and angry. The whole purpose of the plays, I realize now, was to insult an audience that didn't even have the sense to be insulted. The Dotties and I were imitating everything we hated about our stuffy parents, but most people thought we were poking fun at someone else, and some, like my father, took offense at a small impropriety and missed the point. I knew I was in for a spanking, so I decided to step off the plank and say something truly awful. Before I could speak, Flip Flop, for no apparent reason, went berserk. He began to twist and claw at Dottie G., who shrieked and held him out to me. I lunged for him, coming down hard on my right leg, which hurt so much that I collapsed in a ball on the floor. My mother rushed to my side. No spanking after all.
Our family doctor diagnosed my problem as rheumatism and suggested a visit to Mudlavia, which he described as a health spa known for its curative mud baths and mineral waters. It was only forty miles southwest of Lafayette, near the state line. Dr. Heath explained that a Warren County farmer, a Civil War veteran, had been digging a ditch near the spot where they later built the spa, and the mud had cured his rheumatism. People from all over went there to take the cure. Medical doctors were on the premises. It was just the ticket, Dr. Heath said.
"Sounds shady to me," my father said at dinner, the night Mother and I told him about Mudlavia. He helped himself to roast beef, clicked on his stopwatch, and began to eat. That summer he was practicing Frederick Taylor's regime of time management. At first he'd tried to impose it on Mother and me, but we'd rebelled by doing everything as slowly as we could, so he gave up and was now bent on improving only himself. He was thirty years old but looked twenty, so he'd taken to wearing rimless spectacles of plain glass and had grown a sleek blond moustache. I suppose he wanted to look more like a school superintendent and less like the man he'd been before he met my mother, a young rake who'd had a tempestuous, short-lived marriage to a woman named Toots Goodall. I'd stumbled on this information one day when I was poking through a box he kept hidden in the back of his closet. I'd found photos of him and Toots. In one of them he was perched on a large, gaudily painted quarter moon, Toots sitting in his lap. When I asked her about Toots, Mother told me about his failed marriage, and made me promise not to mention it to anyone, including him. I thought then that she didn't want to remind him of his earlier, wilder life, fearing that he might decide to go back to it, but she must have known that part of him already had.
While Father fiercely chewed his roast beef, he stared at Mother and me with accusing eyes, as if we were hiding something from him, and I guess we were—we were hiding the intensity of our desire to go, to get away. "How do we know the place is safe?" he asked Mother.
"It's out in the middle of nowhere," Mother said. "It must be safe. Dr. Heath wouldn't have recommended it."
"I suppose you're right," Father said, clicking his stopwatch. "Two minutes, thirteen seconds. A new record."
Small-town doctors were gods, and to ignore Dr. Heath's advice would be a social snub. Mother had said the right thing.
udlavia was tucked back in the woods, up against a hillside. As our bus rounded the last bend, we passengers strained to get a good look at the place that would cure us. The sprawling building was four stories high, green with white trim, and had a wide wraparound porch. In front was a manicured garden, bordered by hedges, with a bubbling limestone fountain in the center. Despite the heat everything looked fresh, even the pink hollyhocks lining the dusty road.
The bus pulled into a dirt lot beside the hotel, and the engine rattled and died. A feeling of peace, along with the dust, settled over me. It was the quietest place I'd ever been. Ninth Street was one of the busiest streets in Lafayette, and all day long we heard the roar of motorcars and the clatter of trolleys struggling up the hill. At Mudlavia, I heard individual sounds—a crow calling in a tree behind me, the atonal tinkling of wind chimes. A side door of the hotel flew open and a group of men, dressed in white, marched toward the bus. A few of them were pushing wheelchairs.
Mother touched my shoulder. "One of those chairs is for you," she said.
"Why? I don't need it." My crutches were beside me, leaning against the seat.
"The doctor here recommends it. It will put less strain on your knee." She bent over and whispered in my ear. "For you, it's only temporary." Her windblown hair, pulled loose from her egret-feather hat, tickled my cheek.
"Your hair's a mess," I said, sounding like my father.
Flinching, she turned away.
"Welcome to Mudlavia." A deep, southern-sounding voice filled the bus. The speaker was one of the men in white—a tall, strong-looking man with a squarish head. "We're here to make your stay with us as comfortable as possible." He spoke as if reading from a prepared speech, and his eyes were trained on a spot at the back of the bus. "Do not hesitate to ask if you are in need of anything, ladies and gentlemen." His eyes shifted to me. "And young fella." He smiled, two front teeth popping over his lip. Every head turned toward me. My mother had tears in her eyes. I bowed my head, embarrassed and pleased to be the center of attention.
t dinner Mother and I sat at a table for four in the dining room, I in my wheelchair, she in a ladder-back chair. There were white tablecloths and huge chandeliers. We picked at our helpings of glazed ham, mashed potatoes, and steamed vegetables from "Mudlavia's Healthful Garden." In the corner of the large dining room a piano player in a tuxedo played popular tunes that we could barely hear over the rattling of dishes and the diners' chatter, some of which, especially from the table next to ours, was raucous.
At that table sat a thin, almost emaciated man with dark, sleek hair who perched on a red rubber cushion. On his right sat a voluptuous young woman with an elaborate, piled-up hairdo. She wore a low-cut, short-sleeved dress made of shiny silver material. On his left sat a woman who had dark hair cut in the new bobbed style, and wore an equally revealing black dress. A huge green parrot sat on her shoulder. The two women nestled in close to the man with the cushion, and all three were laughing loudly, as was everyone else at their table. Everything about these people was overdone, from the timbre of their voices to the sparkle of their jewelry. I'd never seen a parrot outside a cage before. And except for the man with the cushion, none of them appeared the least bit sick.
I couldn't look Mother in the eye. Somehow I felt embarrassed, as if I were responsible for these "unsuitables," as my father would have called them. I wanted to protect her from them, or felt that I should. And more of these big-city types were scattered throughout the dining room. Only a few people, most of them passengers on our bus, had the same scrubbed demeanor we did. We were outnumbered.
Had Dr. Heath ever been here? I wondered, not able to take my eyes off the threesome at the next table.
"One would think," Mother said, frowning at me, "with all the sick people ..." She didn't finish her sentence, but I knew she meant that our neighbors ought to be more considerate. "I think this place is more of a resort than a health spa." She took another bite of glazed ham, chewing slowly.
"We could leave," I said, knowing I should offer the option. "We could call Father, and he'd come get us." I drained my glass of milk in one swallow, the way I was forbidden to do at home.
Mother didn't notice. She was staring at the man with the cushion. "No," she said. "We'll be here only three weeks."
"Paul Dresser wrote 'On the Banks of the Wabash' at Mudlavia," I reminded her. This was something else Dr. Heath had told us.
"You say the most intelligent things." Mother smiled, giving us permission to enjoy our dinner.
"Good evening." The cushion man stood beside our table. The woman in the silver dress waited there with him, hugging his cushion to her large bosom.
Mother set her fork beside her plate. "Good evening," she said to the man, but she looked at me.
"Your first night here?" His voice was surprisingly soft.
"Of course it is," the woman in the silver dress said. She also had a big nose. "Isn't this the first time we've seen them?"
The man ignored her. "I'm Harry Jones," he said. "This is Sylvia Smith." He kept smiling at Mother in a way that made me afraid he was going to cause trouble, like the villain, Flip, in the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland.
Mother said, "Nice to meet you," but didn't tell him our names.
"Come on." Miss Smith gave Mr. Jones a little shove with the cushion. "Let these people eat in peace."
"Enjoy the pecan pie," he said, still smiling at Mother in that peculiar way. "We'll get acquainted later."
Mother nodded. Miss Smith gave Harry another gentle shove, and the two of them left the dining room.
Mother said, " 'Mr. Jones' and 'Miss Smith.' Do we look that stupid?"
I wasn't quite sure what she meant, but from then on I thought of them as Harry and Sylvia.
"Let these people eat in peace." I imitated Sylvia's rasping voice.
"Why does he have to sit on a cushion?" Mother said.
I choked on my ham, and she spewed iced tea into her napkin. We couldn't quit laughing. Finally we had to abandon our dinners. Still snickering, Mother pushed my wheelchair out of the dining room while everyone stared at us.
Mother and I shared a room, which embarrassed me, but I was also grateful for her company. We took turns undressing behind a Chinese screen in the corner, and later, as I lay on the hard mattress in my four-poster bed, I listened to Mother's even breathing in the next bed and held my aching knee. I stayed awake for a long time, imagining Harry's eyes watching Mother from the corner of the room.
he next morning I had my first mud treatment. Someone rapped on our door at seven to wake us, and Mother and I had a quiet breakfast of eggs and bacon in the dining room. Only a few other guests were there, and they all seemed to be the sick ones—in wheelchairs or bent over their plates in a twisted way. I looked around for the woman on the stretcher who'd been on our bus, and the fat man, but they were nowhere to be seen. They'd get breakfast in bed, I decided. Being among sick people again brought my condition home, and I felt my heart thump dully in my chest.
"There's our friend Harry Smith," Mother said. "Or is it Jones?" She cut her eyes over to a table next to the wall. Harry was eating alone. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he had the previous evening. He wore an ordinary white shirt, brown trousers, and a linen jacket, but somehow he did not look ordinary. He was again sitting on his rubber cushion.
"Wonder how he managed to get that cushion in here all by himself," Mother said.
I was feeling so nervous that all I could do was shrug. Her efforts to distract me seemed frivolous and coldhearted.
"No need to worry," Mother said. "The treatment is painless."
"How do you know?"
"They assured me."
Harry turned, as if drawn by the sound of my mother's voice. He nodded once and then turned back to his toast and coffee and the Chicago Tribune.
"Who assured you?"
But she was watching Harry, studying him, so I went back to my breakfast. I tried to imagine what Dottie B. was doing at that very minute—probably reading L. Frank Baum in bed. If she'd been at Mudlavia, eating breakfast with us, I told myself, she would've ignored Harry and tried to comfort me. But I couldn't imagine Dottie there, couldn't imagine anyone I knew there. That's when I realized how far from home we were.
fter breakfast my attendant, who turned out to be the tall man with the squarish head who'd boarded our bus and welcomed us to Mudlavia, wheeled me into a long, narrow ward at the end of the first floor. The room was lined with rows of small metal-framed cots. Men lay on the cots, but I could see only their faces and hair—their bodies were covered with mud. Eyes watched me pass. Attendants were bustling up and down the aisles between the cots, pushing carts of steaming mud.
Buster, as he told me to call him, stopped beside an empty cot lined with a few inches of mud and asked me to remove my clothes and give them to him.
I couldn't think how to tell him that I couldn't possibly do either thing.
Buster squeezed my shoulder. "We're used to naked bodies round here. People with clothes on look strange to me!"
His words only made me more self-conscious, but I untied my shoes and took them off, and then slowly took off my socks, pants, shirt, and undershirt, and finally my undershorts. I held the bundle of clothes in front of me, burning with humiliation.
"Lie down there," Buster said. He snatched up my bundle and stuffed it into a wire basket. "Be back directly."
I rolled onto the cot, twisting my knee as I did so. The canvas sagged down inside the frame, so lying there was like being in a shallow tub full of warm mud. I stared up at the beams in the ceiling. Despite the heat in the room, I began to shiver. I listened to flies buzzing and someone breathing beside me.
Finally a voice said, "Hello there, young man." Harry Jones was lying in the next cot.
I'd been so distracted that I hadn't been looking left or right, but now I fixed my eyes on his cadaverous face. I couldn't look at the rest of him. "I'm Matthew," I said. For some reason I didn't tell him my last name.
Harry pointed to a big room adjoining ours. "They dig up the mud out back and heat it up in that room there, over the wood fires. Then they dip it up into buckets and put those buckets on the carts. Here comes my man now." Harry pointed to an attendant and a cart coming toward us up the aisle. "Watch and see how it's done." He winked at me.
"Yes, sir," I said, grateful for his unpatronizing manner. I watched as his attendant, a wiry little man with a narrow red face, pushed the cart up next to Harry. He took a small bucket from the side of the cart and dipped it down into the big bucket of mud, bringing up a steaming heap. He tipped the bucket and, starting at the toes, poured the mud over Harry in a slow, leisurely way, as if he were watering a garden. He refilled the bucket and repeated the process until Harry was covered with a thick layer of mud up to his chin. Then he leveled the mud off with a strip of metal and scraped the extra mud back into an empty bucket. "Relax and get healthy," the attendant said. He wheeled his cart down the aisle toward the mud room.
"Is it hot?" I asked Harry.
"Like a nice warm bath."
I saw Buster starting up the aisle with a cart. I asked Harry, "How long?"
"Not long enough. Hour every day. You'll look forward to it."
I had a squeeze of panic when the first bucket tipped over me and mud began sliding over my feet. I held my breath, waiting to be scorched, but as Harry had said, it was like a warm bath. When Buster had finished, he said, "Relax and get well." I was plastered to the cot. I couldn't move, and didn't want to. The oddly pleasant smell filled my nose, and I realized that I'd always wanted to play in mud, to pick it up and squeeze it, smear it on my body, lie down and roll in it. I remembered the day that Dottie B. and I had come back from playing in the creek behind her house, and how horrified my mother had been. She had sent me straight to the bath. She made me promise never to go near the creek again, and I kept my word. But mud was good. Dirt was good. It was healthful!
My body relaxed under the mud blanket. I was an Indian, hiding from white men. Or a leech, waiting for my next victim. Or a log, buried in a creek bank. This forced passivity was a peculiar feeling. Freeing, somehow.
"You're right, Mr. Jones," I said, turning my head toward him. But his eyes were closed, and he seemed to be asleep.
The time passed too quickly. Buster brought me cool water to drink and wiped my sweaty face. When he pulled me off my cot, breaking me out of my cocoon of drying mud, I had the sensation of landing again on earth after being away for years and years. I felt both younger and older at the same time, and I was no longer self-conscious. Buster escorted me, naked, out of the room and into another room lined with showers. Old men and their attendants were busy scrubbing. I looked for Harry, but didn't see him. I stood on the green-tile floor, and Buster scrubbed my back and legs with a big rag; then he left me to wash the mud off my front as best I could. My knee still ached, but I told myself it felt a little bit better. In a bathrobe Buster gave me, I rested awhile in the cooling room. Later, after I'd dressed, Buster wheeled me along a dirt path toward the front porch. "What will you be when you grow up?" he asked me.
I answered without hesitation. "An Olympic champion in the high jump and the long jump."
"You heard of Ray Ewry?" he asked.
"Of course! The Human Frog!" Ray Ewry, my idol, had gone to college at Purdue, in West Lafayette, and I'd read all about his triumphs in the Daily Courier. Ray had won ten Olympic gold medals, in the standing high, standing long, and standing triple jumps—more than any other Olympic athlete has ever won. He might've won more medals if his events had not been discontinued after 1912.
"You know, Ray Ewry was a cripple when he was a boy," Buster said. "Polio."
Yes, I told him, I knew that. The fact that Ewry had had polio was included in every story I'd read about him.
"Doctor told him to take up jumping to strengthen his legs," Buster said.
"And the rest is history!" I said cheerfully, though I felt anything but cheerful. I didn't have polio. I only had a sore knee. Was Buster trying to tell me that I was a cripple too?
Buster wheeled me up a ramp onto the porch, where my mother, in her puffed-sleeve blouse with the pearl buttons, sat in a rocking chair doing needlepoint. She took my hand, and I noticed the mud still caked underneath my fingernails.
"Won't ever get it all off," Buster said, hanging over us. "See you when the cock crows." He ruffled my hair, turned, and lumbered off the porch.
Mother and I smiled at each other.
"So it went well?" Mother dropped her needlepoint in her lap—a picture of three roses, but she'd done only half of one. Our house was full of her framed needlepoint pictures. I hoped she was losing interest in them. "Tell me all about it," she said.
For some reason I didn't describe how pleasurable it had been. I think I felt a bit guilty about how much I'd enjoyed it. I also left out the part about talking to Harry. I wanted to paint a braver picture of myself, or maybe I was wary of letting her know my changed opinion of him. She listened to me, but I could tell she wanted me to hurry up. When I finished, she picked up her needlepoint and began stitching again.
"I've got a scary story to tell you," she said, staring intently at her work. "One of the ladies over there told it to me. Don't look."
I did look, annoyed that her story was usurping mine. All along the ivy-clad porch were groups of white-wicker chairs and tables. Three women sat at one table sipping glasses of lemonade. They were all middle-aged, fat, and dressed in starched shirtwaists and full skirts, their gray hair coiled at the napes of their necks. None of them looked as if she had an interesting bone in her body.
"I said don't look," Mother whispered.
I sighed and stared out at the gardens. It was mid-morning, already hot in the sun, but the porch was shady and cooler, and the gladiolas and zinnias looked bright and fresh. The air smelled of cut grass and soap from the laundry. The limestone fountain gurgled. A young man and woman strolled down the path toward the woods. He held a pink-and-green-striped parasol over her head. He said something in her ear and she jerked away, but then, a few steps later, she allowed him to take her hand.
"One of those ladies is from Chicago," Mother said, still stitching. "She's here with her husband, a banker. He's taking the cure."
"That's a story?"
"She said that this place is a gambler's paradise. Listen." She lowered her voice. "They have card games in the back parlor, all night sometimes. For high stakes. They drink gin. Most of the people here are from Chicago. Gangsters, or friends of gangsters. That man with the cushion—Harry Jones isn't really his name—is some big mob boss, hiding out from the law. We're in a nest of criminals."
"Really?" I sounded more shocked than I was. I'd been to Chicago only twice, to shop for new school clothes, and had found it a dark, claustrophobic place. That one would want to escape if one could seemed only natural. Surely not even gangsters would misbehave here, I thought. I noticed that one of the middle-aged women had a bee crawling down her back. I hoped it would sting her.
"Well?" Mother said, frowning at me. "What should we do? Now that we know?"
I didn't even think to question the woman's claim. It might have been an out-and-out lie, or more likely an exaggeration, but both Mother and I wanted to believe it. "My knee is feeling better," I said, bending it a few times. That was a lie. It felt the same.
Mother nodded and looked relieved. "There's our answer," she said.
"Hello there!" Harry Jones was calling to us from across the porch. He tipped his straw hat in our direction. The woman with bobbed hair stood behind him, clutching his rubber cushion. The parrot teetered on her shoulder.
Mother and I smiled and waved back as though we hadn't just been maligning him, as if he were one of our friends. For a second I was afraid he'd come over and tell Mother about our conversation that morning, but he merely called out, "Off to get some sun!" He and the woman walked arm in arm down the porch steps.
"I suppose," Mother said, rocking too hard in her chair, "that you can tell who his current lady friend is by taking note of who's carrying his cushion." She clucked. "As if he couldn't carry it himself." I heard a fondness in her voice, a fondness for Harry that I also felt.
I said, "He must be very sick. He's much too skinny."
We watched him and his friend disappear down the garden path.
"A boss?" I asked Mother. "She said 'boss'?"
"Of one of the biggest crime rings."
"We can never tell your father about him," she said, meeting my eyes and clasping both my hands in hers. "Never ever. Promise?"
I promised without a second thought.
We sat awhile in silence, watching the strolling guests, and I marveled at the dishonesty and secrecy that hung so lightly in the sweet-smelling air of Mudlavia, air that had infected not only me but my own dear mother. It was strange, I thought, how much at home we both felt, and how quickly we had come to feel that way. I was suddenly sorry for the Dotties back home, who were no doubt having a very dull summer.
y days at Mudlavia fell into a comfortable pattern. I took my mud treatment every morning, always in the cot next to Harry's, and he and I chatted while we waited for our mud. He asked me questions about myself—my last name, where I was from, what my father did, what he was like, and so on. "Goodall," I told him. My mother's first name, I said, was Toots. We'd come from Attica. I told him that my father had once been a gendarme in Paris, but that he'd been fired for shooting a tourist. Now he was a fat farmer who raised cows. Lying became easier as I went along.
Harry nodded as he listened, and I have no idea whether he believed me or not. I think not. He told me he was from LaPorte, Indiana, and had worked as a mailman until he was stricken with crippling arthritis. He came to Mudlavia every summer. He was widowed. "My dear Ida passed five years ago this summer," he said. "Not a one could ever take Ida's place." Ida? Mailman? I fixed a sad, sympathetic look on my face, admiring our ability to pretend. This was much more fun than making up plays.
"I can jump over a fence five feet high," I told him. "World record is six feet."
"No kidding," he said.
"I'd show you," I said, "but, you know." I pointed to my knee.
One morning, as we both lay under our mud compresses, Harry said, "This place is a con game. This mud's just mud. It won't cure me, but I don't care. I love it, but I never let on how much. If people knew how pleasant it was, they'd all be clamoring to get in, and there'd be no room for you and me."
"We won't tell them," I said, and we both nodded our heads, which was as good as a handshake.
Harry always fell asleep as soon as he was covered, but I would lie awake daydreaming, not of high jumping or Olympic glories, as before, but about being all alone, buried up to my neck in the red dirt of Arizona, or the dark earth of a Canadian forest, peering around at the strange and dramatic landscape. For the first time in my life I escaped the prison of my own body, and I found the sensation soothing and exhilarating at the same time.
While I took my treatments, Mother worked on her needlepoint roses and talked to the ladies on the porch, finding out bits of gossip about the guests. Many of them were part of the same Chicago mob family, she told me with a knowledgeable air, of which Harry Jones was the boss. He was wanted for the murder of a South Side butcher. I pictured a mean-faced butcher in a bloody apron. I wondered if Harry had shot him with a pistol or a shotgun. "The butcher probably deserved it," I told Mother, who said, "Matthew!" and then, "Probably so. Maybe they were in rival gangs." I still hadn't told her about my conversations with Harry. Because I'd started out keeping them secret, continuing to do so felt easiest, and so far he hadn't given me away—he'd only waved to us from afar.
After lunch Mother and I would retire to our room. Mother was slogging through a romance novel called Go Forth and Find, which she said was tedious. I'd brought along a few Frank Merriwell adventure stories. Heroic Frank was handsome, popular, good, and, most important, athletic. Time and again he won the day in boxing, baseball, football, fencing, lacrosse, crew, shooting, bicycle racing, or, my favorite, track. I loved Frank, but now, for some reason, his feats seemed obvious and pointless and didn't hold my interest, so I took to writing letters. Mother and I had agreed that we wouldn't mention the criminals to anyone we wrote to. We'd write only about the beauty and peace and quiet and the fact that my knee was steadily improving, which it wasn't.
"Should I tell Father I've seen the doctor?" I asked Mother one afternoon. We hadn't seen a doctor around the place since we'd gotten there.
She put down her book. "Good idea," she said. "So he won't worry."
We didn't mention the fact that we'd yet to receive a letter from my father. My mother kept up her correspondence with her older sister, May, a spinster dressmaker who suffered from neurasthenia. Mother wrote enthusiastically to May about Mudlavia, trying, not very sincerely, to persuade her to join us, mentioning the healthful food, lithia water, and musical evenings along with the mud baths, but we both knew we were safe, because May wouldn't set foot outside her house in Cleveland if she could help it.
I also wrote to Dottie B. and Dottie G., telling them I'd met some "interesting guests from Chicago." Dottie G. never wrote back, but I knew I could count on Dottie B., because she liked to write. One day I received a postal with a photo of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and on it she said that she missed me "like crazy." I repeated this to myself over and over while Mother took a nap, and I stared out our window at the sky, which seemed always to be blue, listening to wasps buzzing against the screen. Many of the guests went hiking, or swimming in the creek, but Mother stayed with me. Often we would end the afternoon by sitting in the parlor with the other guests, or if it wasn't too hot, she would push me around the garden in my wheelchair. She seemed to be growing younger by the day. She moved in a stronger and more agile way, she laughed more, and her face glowed with sun.
One night, after Mother and I had just sat down in the dining room, Harry Jones and Sylvia Smith approached our table. Sylvia, wearing what looked like a man's suit coat and bow tie, dropped Harry's cushion in a chair and sat down beside him, a sullen expression on her face. Harry said hello to me and then turned to my mother. "Good evening, Mrs. Goodall. May we join you?" My mother gave me a look I've never forgotten. She was not just surprised that I'd ever even spoken to Harry but amazed, as if she'd never imagined I could be so strangely devious. An assessing glint was in her eye, as if she were rethinking everything she'd previously thought about me. But of course she couldn't have done all that, because in just a matter of seconds, during which I held my breath, not knowing what her reaction would be, she turned to Harry. "Certainly," she said. "Everyone calls me Toots."
Sylvia knocked back a glass of iced tea. "Toots," she said, to no one in particular.
Mother gave her a tepid smile.
The piano player launched into his favorite song: "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag."
"Matthew tells me you're from Attica," Harry said to Mother. "You and your husband raise cows."
"Herefords," Mother said, nodding.
She knew nothing about cows. I couldn't even believe she'd come up with "Herefords." I knew she couldn't pull it off.
Sylvia must've had this thought too. "Tell us about cows," she said to my mother. "Harry here don't know a thing about cows."
"Surely we can find something else to discuss," Harry said. "Toots is probably sick and tired of cows."
"We both are," I said. "Tired of cows."
"Well, no, actually," Mother said. "I never tire of cows." While the waiter served our drinks, Mother proceeded to describe our life in Attica, our herd of cows, our team of Belgian horses, and our chickens—good layers. It was my turn to marvel. But then I realized she was simply describing her own childhood on a farm in Ohio, a place I'd never seen and she rarely talked about, because her parents had died before I was born.
Sylvia made a few snide comments and then stared across the room as if she were deep in thought. Finally, right in the middle of dinner, she got up and left the table, giving me a sneer. I was the only one who acknowledged her leaving.
The next evening Harry joined us for dinner again, this time carrying his own cushion. His lady friends sat across the room at another table, their backs to us. The parrot, perched on the shoulder of the woman with bobbed hair, turned to face us, his head cocked, as if he were spying on us. That evening I noticed a hint of repressed excitement in the flush of Mother's cheeks, her sputtering laugh, the way she leaned toward Harry when he spoke. He asked her about my father's experience as a gendarme in Paris, and the tourist he shot.
"It was a crazy man, the tourist," Mother said. "A butcher. An Algerian butcher waving a knife. My husband was simply doing his duty."
A butcher! She'd said "butcher"! But Harry's expression didn't change. He asked her about Paris, and she began to talk about Algerian restaurants and the Louvre Museum as if she'd actually seen them. Although they mostly ignored me, I was thrilled by the whole thing, thrilled by my mother's lies and my part in getting them started, thrilled that someone like Harry found us desirable.
I ate my soggy baked Alaska, looking around to see who'd noticed us sitting with Harry. Nobody paid us any attention, but that didn't quell my excitement. My hand, with its mud-caked fingernails, reached for my water glass again and again. I had become a dirty person. Mud had invaded every crevice of my body, and I was always picking off little patches that the shower hadn't washed away. I thought about how I could present this place to Dottie B., how much to tell—the rubber cushion, the parrot, a woman in a man's suit coat?—and how much to leave out, and how impressed she'd be.
After dinner Harry left us with a bow, disappearing into one of the back parlors.
"Sin City," Mother said, cocking one eyebrow.
I asked Mother, "If everybody knows these people are criminals, how come nobody calls the cops?"
"Don't say 'how come,'" Mother said. "Don't say 'cops.'" Then she rubbed her fingers and thumb together. "Boodle," she whispered, and we both snickered.
On the way out of the dining room she pushed my chair past the parrot, who turned to watch us, his beady eyes blinking. I lurched toward him. He gave a loud squawk, flapped off his perch, and then swooped low over the tables and circled the dining room like a mutant bat, causing the diners to shriek and duck. The bobbed woman leaped up and charged after him. Finally the bird perched at the top of one of the tall windows, and as we left I heard the bobbed woman imploring him to come down. "Tyrone," she was calling. "Come to Mama." Mother called me Tyrone for the rest of the evening.
So Mother and I were having a grand time. The only trouble was that my knee wasn't getting any better. For the first week it didn't feel worse, and I credited the treatment, but now I think the wheelchair might've been the reason. Then it began to hurt worse, with an even sharper pain that kept me awake at night. I didn't say a word about the pain, didn't even acknowledge it to myself. Harry's lady friends had disappeared, and he began sitting with us every night at dinner, and Mother and I were having too much fun thinking of ways to get him to reveal his true identity. We got bolder and bolder.
"So how did you carry your mailbag?" Mother asked him. "Over which shoulder?"
"Right, of course," Harry said. "We're required to."
"What's the most collected stamp ever?" I asked him.
"Pocahontas five-cent." He took a slurp of his cold cucumber soup. He always answered our questions without hesitation, and he could've been telling the truth, of course, though we preferred not to think so.
One morning I got another postal from Dottie B. "We saw your father in downtown Indianapolis," she wrote. "He was walking with your cousin. What a stylish lady! Her skirt was up almost to her knees and she wore a sailor hat. I pestered Mother till she bought me a sailor hat too." Something told me, even at age ten, to rip this postal up before Mother could see it.
"Your mother is a beautiful woman," Harry said to me the next morning when we lay on our cots, covered with mud. "But don't tell her I said that."
"I won't," I said, even though his tone indicated that he wanted me to tell her. Everything said at Mudlavia seemed to mean just the opposite. I didn't like his saying that my mother was beautiful, because it was true, and the whole point of our relationship was to tell lies. Mother doesn't really like you, I wanted to tell him. She's just pretending. But I knew that she and I were only pretending not to like him. It was all too confusing. "Mother likes you," I was surprised to hear myself say. "I do too," I added.
"Really?" he said, grinning at me. He was so thin that he looked like pictures I'd seen of Egyptian mummies. "She does? Really?"
I assured him that she did, but I was surprised to find myself hurt that he cared about Mother more than about me. I'd thought of us as the new threesome, now that his lady friends were out of the picture. "My father has a lady friend," I said to Harry, and told him about the postal I'd received the day before. He listened to me intently, frowning, and without saying a word. I expected him to express shock and outrage, to jump up and do something, or to at least promise to do something. When he continued to lie there, silent and unmoving, I felt a cold anger welling underneath my mud-warmed skin. I'd confided in him because, despite all the games we were playing, I believed that he would want to help us. I'd thought he was our friend.
That night at dinner I watched him joking and talking with Mother, listening to her silly replies. They didn't seem to notice that I wasn't participating in their little charade. I realized, with a sickening feeling, that I had served my purpose and was now expendable. I didn't like the way he stared at Mother, and I didn't like the way she gazed back at him. I'd never seen her look at anyone else that way. It was as if she'd been infected by some strange virus and couldn't help herself. I sulked through dinner, refusing to meet their eyes, grunting and shrugging when I was addressed. Before Mother could finish her cherry Bavarian cream, I told her I was tired and wanted to turn in early. I hoped she would read in bed and keep me company, but she tucked me in and said she was going back down to sit on the porch. It was too hot to read upstairs, she said. Did I mind?
"What happened to the parrot lady?" I asked Mother, who was brushing her hair in front of the mirror. "And Sylvia? Where'd they go? Maybe he rubbed them out."
She rewound her hair in a bun and dug a tortoiseshell comb into it. "Don't be silly," she said.
"Harry says this place is a con game," I said. "He says the mud is just ordinary."
"Go to sleep," she said.
I lay in bed, sweating in my nightshirt, imagining how I was going to get even. I considered calling the cops and ratting on Harry; then I decided to write a letter to Father, not mentioning Harry but asking him to come and get us. I was sorry that I'd ratted on my father, and I asked God for forgiveness. I finally dozed off. When I woke up, a full moon hung outside my window, and Mother's bed was still empty. I clambered out of bed, ignoring the throbbing in my knee, and hopped to the window, where I stuck my head outside, hoping to feel a breeze on my face.
Then I heard Mother and Harry talking on the porch. Their voices were quiet and intimate. I heard no teasing or laughing, no protesting or measured politeness. For the first time since we'd been there, I was hearing the sound of honest speech, and it spooked me. I couldn't see them, and strain as I might, I couldn't make out their words. Were they sitting side by side? Or standing, looking up at the moon? A sharp, stabbing pain went through my knee, and I collapsed on the floor. As I lay there, stinging truths seeped into my conscious mind, drop by drop. Something was very wrong with my knee. I would never be an Olympic champion. I would never jump again. Never use my leg again. Never.
I crawled underneath the bed and curled up in a ball. Mother finally found me there when she came in. "My God!" she said. "What's happened?" She kneeled in front of the bed, sounding satisfyingly terrified.
I rolled out from my hiding place. "My knee's been hurting worse and worse," I said. "It's not getting better." I started to cry then, relieved to be telling the truth, but feeling that I was tricking her all the same, and doing it for her own good. For our own good.
She laid a cool hand on my forehead. "We'll see the doctor first thing in the morning," she said, and I could hear the despair in her voice. "I'm sorry. I'm a terrible mother. I'll never forgive myself."
I closed my eyes and said nothing.
The next morning Mother found the Mudlavia doctor playing poker in Sin City, and he advised her to take me immediately to a hospital. Mother notified my father and made arrangements; we sat in the lobby with our suitcases all morning, waiting to leave. Many people stopped to wish us well, including Buster. He bowed to Mother and shook my hand. "The Human Frog didn't go to the Olympics till he was twenty-six," Buster said. "Remember that." I could give him only a distracted smile. Harry never appeared, and Mother never left my side. That afternoon she and I began a journey to Chicago's Augustana Hospital. The doctor declared that I had a malignant tumor in my knee, and half my leg had to be removed. If we'd waited much longer, the surgeon told us, I might be dead.
e returned to Lafayette, where I was fitted with a wooden prosthesis and began my life as a cripple, learning to hobble around my bedroom with the help of Mother and Dottie B. My mother acted falsely chipper and then wept periodically in her bedroom, muffled, gasping sobs. I assumed she was crying for me and feeling guilty, but the situation was more complicated than that. Three months later, when I could finally manage to get downstairs on my own, using a cane, I told Mother I was going to walk across the street, alone, to Dottie B.'s. I can't remember if she encouraged or discouraged me, but it wouldn't have mattered. I was determined to go.
Since I'd last been outside, the seasons had changed. The world had gone gray and cold. It was only midafternoon, but the lights were already shining in Dottie's house. I left Mother standing on our porch, arms folded, watching me go. When I reached Dottie's front steps and turned to wave, she'd already gone back inside. Did she act different right before I left? I couldn't say, because I'd been preoccupied with making my escape, with getting some relief from her weeping.
A couple of hours later I returned home, sweating with exhaustion. When I called for Mother, she didn't answer. Upstairs, in my parents' bedroom, I saw that her clothes were gone from the wardrobe. I rummaged around the house for a note, all the while knowing I'd never find one. She had taken the sudden opportunity to leave, and she hadn't wanted to linger long enough to write a note, having no idea when I'd return. Maybe she told herself she'd send me a letter when she got to wherever she was going, thinking that a letter would be better than a note anyway. She'd have time to really think about what she wanted to say.
On her bedside table lay Go Forth and Find, a leather bookmark near the middle. Later I read the book cover to cover. It was a romance as banal and unbelievable as the stories of Frank Merriwell's athletic prowess, and I assured myself that the book hadn't influenced her in any way. She'd read many such romances, and surely she knew how far-fetched they were. Besides, she'd told me it was tedious. She hadn't finished it, and didn't bother to take it with her, because maybe, at long last, she'd found the real thing. I wanted very much to believe that.
One afternoon, not long after her departure, Father sat on the sofa beside me in the parlor, wearing only his undershirt and pajama pants, his fake glasses and moustache gone, his stopwatch abandoned.
"You sure?" he kept asking me. "She didn't talk to any men?"
I never mentioned Harry Jones to anyone. I told myself that I was keeping our secret, and that Mother wouldn't have wanted me to blab, but that was only part of it. Harry Jones seemed like a fantasy, a figment of our imagination, and I didn't want to expose him to the harsh light of conventional Lafayette. Besides, she could've gone anywhere, with anyone.
"None?" my father said again. "No men at all?"
I recalled her saying good-bye to Buster, thanking him profusely. "Nobody except Buster," I told my father, and he wrote the name in a notebook.
I felt terrible that I might've caused Buster some trouble, so I lashed out. "Dottie told me she saw you in Indianapolis. With your cousin."
He flushed but didn't hesitate. "That's preposterous. I haven't gone anywhere near Indianapolis in months." Then he gave me his superintendent's smile. "Dottie's not too bright, son." He patted my good leg, got up, and left the room. He never again pestered me about Mudlavia, and after a while he refused to speak about my mother at all.
For a while I thought about trying to write to Harry, or waiting till I got a little older and looking him up in Chicago, but I did neither of these things, telling myself that Harry Jones couldn't possibly be his real name. I tried to accept my losses, feeling deep down that I was at fault for losing both my leg and my mother. Of course, when I was angry, I also had to ask myself how she could have gone off and left her only son. Especially one who needed her so badly. Perhaps it was because I needed her so badly. Or perhaps her flight had nothing to do with me, or with my father, or with Harry Jones, or with anything or anyone we knew about. I kept expecting to turn around and see her, and often thought I heard her calling me on the street. Even now, even though she's long dead, I'm still waiting for her to reveal herself, wearing her egret-feather hat.
After I went away to college in Bloomington, I received a letter from my mother's sister, May, in Cleveland, whom I hadn't seen or heard from in years. Aunt May wondered if my father had told me the truth about what happened to my mother. My mother had written to me many times, the letter said, but May suspected that Father had never shown me her letters. My father, she wrote, had been notified that Mother was hit by a trolley and killed not even a year after she left home. She'd been living alone in San Francisco, working in a hat shop, trying to make a new start. Someone had sent her the money to go out there, set herself up, and hire a lawyer. She'd served my father with divorce papers, which he'd refused to sign. "You must believe," my aunt wrote, "that your mother loved you and didn't want to leave you. She intended to send for you, but she had to escape first." May said that she had no idea who had given my mother the money she needed, but I thought I knew.
I fired off a blistering letter to my father, but he didn't respond. He continued to pay my tuition and expenses, but after I graduated we didn't speak again for seven years, until after the birth of my first child.
I did hate my father for a while, but I never could bring myself to hate my mother. Even now I'd give anything to be with her again, to sit close to her the way I did on the bus to Mudlavia, to laugh with her as we did in the dining room, to hear her breathing quietly in the bed next to mine. I long to go back in time, before everything changed, and in this, I realize, I'm no different from anyone else. Life eventually takes away everything it gives.
Five months after my mother left, America entered World War I. My father began spending more and more time in Indianapolis, and we moved there when he took a position as superintendent of the Indianapolis public schools. Dottie B. and I married young. I worked my way through medical school in Bloomington and became an orthopedic surgeon. Dottie B. wrote a number of popular children's books, including one best seller: The Floosenettes Go to Mars. We had five children. Our oldest son, a farmer with young children of his own, suffocated in a grain bin at age thirty-three. Our youngest daughter, when she was twenty-nine, won a medal in kayaking at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. I never returned to Mudlavia, but I read in the newspaper that it burned down, and was rebuilt, and burned down again, and today is a pile of rubble.
In the late summer I always remember Mudlavia, and not with any bad feelings. I remember the gurgling fountain and the hollyhocks, the wide porch, the soggy baked Alaska. Buster saying, in his southern drawl, "Relax and get well." Harry whispering, "This place is a con game." I remember lying beneath the mud, soaking it up, the stillness and the smell and the flies buzzing, forgetting myself, forgetting that I was even a human being with all the worries and vanities and self-deception that go along with it, and I think that if I could've stayed there forever, buried in mud, I might've had a happy life, instead of simply a good one.
Elizabeth Stuckey-French teaches fiction writing at Florida State University. The paperback edition of her novel, Mermaids on the Moon, was issued in July.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2003; Mudlavia; Volume 292, No. 2; 121-134.