please forgive the spaces between paragraphs.
He took a deep breath and plunged his face into the soft, tan mud. He pressed until he could feel it touch his hairline, then pulled away slowly. The mud made a thick sucking noise as he lifted, adding gentle thuds as clumps fell from his skin. With firm swipes, he cleared his eyes and mouth, flinging the excess towards a tree, where it hit with a satisfying pwap. He ran his muddy fingers through his hair and laughed.
This is how Toby spent every weekday evening, and several of his weekends. It had taken two years to find an affordable house so close to a patch of woods, and so excellent a patch of woods at that. A mere twenty minute walk to the stream. He rinsed his fingers in the stream now, but only to get them wet enough to slip easily into the closest clump of coffee-colored mud. He threw himself backwards just to hear the squelch and looked up at the trees, mud oozing all around his limbs and soaking into his flannel shirt. It found its way past his cuffs and up the legs of his jeans. It suctioned itself onto his hair, making his head heavy. Toby was completely, utterly coated in slimy, gooey, dripping mud. Studying his mudlogged limbs, Toby thought about what his mother would say if she saw him now.
But she couldn’t see him now. She lived on the other side of town. She had no idea what her son was up to every day. Toby flung out his arms and legs and made a mud angel. He laughed again.
After an hour of this, Toby gathered his plastic bags from their tree branch and made his way out of the woods to his house. He carefully covered his hands and feet with the plastic bags and went straight to the bathtub. He threw his clothes and the bags into their usual corner to await laundering, and turned on the shower. The water carved hundreds of little rivers through the mud on his skin. He scrubbed the dirt away, watching it disappear down the drain, where no one could ever find it or suspect it had ever been there in the first place, until he could go back again tomorrow after work. Toby grinned. It was all so perfect, so perfect.
It’s not that Toby found his mudplay to be particularly odd, or that he needed to keep it a secret from everyone. All of his past girlfriends knew, a few of them even joined him. Just last week his best friend Steven had been out there with him, discussing the merger of the company they worked for, as they chucked handfuls of cold, sticky mud at one another. He might not even be quite so diligent in his cleanup, might let his muddy clothes sit in the laundry for an extra day or two, had it not been for his mother’s occasional surprise visit.
Toby’s mother was an excellent woman. An excellent cook, and excellent seamstress, and a excellent housekeeper. She wasn’t going to let a boisterous little boy ruin her perfect record of house cleanliness. So when she gave birth to young Toby, she took a deep breath, rolled up her sleeves and set about raising him to be as neat and tidy as her standards demanded. They were high standards. Toby was rushed to and from the car when it rained, wrapped head to toe in bright yellow raingear. Not a drop touched him. He was expressly forbidden to set foot in a sandbox, or to go down a slide to crash beautifully into the soft brown dirt below. He had been confined to the swings, the playground equipment with the least likelihood of soiling young Toby’s crisp clean shirts and muddying his rosy cheeks. He hadn’t even been allowed to go fishing with his father, in fear that digging for worms would lead to just digging for the sake of digging, and heaven knows how much dirt a boy would track into the house then! Safer to go to movies, or stay home and help his mommy with dinner.
The rules may have been enough, but the incident that made Toby adhere strictly to a life of walking around rain puddles and wiping his feet when he entered the house happened twenty-six years ago, when he was five years old. It had been raining, because it always rains when something bad is going to happen. Toby’s father had called and said he was bringing home a surprise. Little Toby had run around the house all day, trying to speculate. Maybe it was a dog? He bounced around the kitchen, barking. His mother put a quick stop to that, saying she wouldn’t tolerate a dog tracking dirt all over her house. A bird, then. Toby flung out his arms and tried to take off. A birdy would leave little poo drops all over the floor, explained his mother. No bird for Toby. At last, at last he heard his father pull into the driveway. Wild with anticipation, Toby flung open the door before his mother could catch him and dashed out to meet his father. Just before he reached him, Toby slipped on a wet patch of grass and went sliding across the entire lawn, collecting rainwater, grass stains, and globs and globs of mud along the way.
Unhurt, he might have laughed. He didn’t even have time to consider it, however, because his mother was upon him in seconds. Her mouth was open, and the most hideous sound Toby had ever heard was coming out of it. A high, shrill, quivering shriek careened from her lips and pounded Toby’s ears. He was terrified. His horror didn’t end there. His mother grabbed him up with one hand and swooped him into the backyard, where she stripped him of his clothes and set the garden hose on him.
In retrospect, the backyard was fenced in and no one could see into it, but in Toby’s mind, every eye of every neighbor was fixed upon him and his muddy shame. The rain had been light and warm, but to Toby, each drop drilled into his skin. The hose had hardly any pressure at all, but it was like a fire hose turned on a riot to Toby. He has never cried harder since. Sitting in the tub now, remembering, he shuddered.
So Toby lived a squeaky-clean life with polished shoes and starched shirts until his freshman year at college. One warm rainy afternoon, much like that fateful day of the hose, young Toby hurried along the quad, eager to get out of the rain. The frat boys holding an impromptu football game had other ideas for this skinny, fastidious little mouse. The biggest one shouted Toby’s name and winged the muddy, slimy football at him.
Toby looked up just in time to see the brown, gooey missile come hurtling through the misty air. His life flashed before his eyes. Toby at seven, using a nail brush on his toenails. Toby at ten, handwashing his sweaters. Toby at sixteen, applying spot cleaner to his socks. Toby just a month ago, disinfecting his suitcase before adding his carefully-folded slacks. In a matter of moments, the football hit Toby square in the chest, knocking him over into a gigantic mud puddle. The mud squished up the back of his shirt. It splashed up and coated his face. Mud in his shoes, between his toes, clinging to his hair in thick clumps, lodging itself in his collar. The warm rain fell down, mixing with the cold mud on his arms, and Toby clung to the football. He waited for the shriek.
Instead, laughter. Arms helping him up. Pats on the back. The biggest frat boy grabbed a handful of mud and patted Toby’s head with it. Toby was muddy, and these people were adding more mud. Making him dirtier. Toby shook his arm, and the mud flew off and hit a nearby tree. The sound was glorious. Pwap. Toby laughed. Toby laughed.
He slipped and nearly fell. He’d never come out here without changing his clothes before, and his oxfords just didn’t have the proper traction for running in the woods. He kept running anyway. He reached the stream in seven minutes flat.
He could still hear Steven crashing through the trees after him. The problem with Steven was that he had no grace whatsoever. As if to prove his own gracefulness, he waited until Steven had caught up with him to arch his back and fall backwards in one swift, balletic movement. He landed in the mud with a loud splat.
“Christ, Toby, you’ve ruined your suit.”
“Who cares? I don’t need it anymore.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Steven picked his way through the mud and tried to pull Toby up without getting himself muddy. “You’ll need it for interviews, and to wear to your next job.”
“I’ll never get another job, not with the market the way it is,” Toby said, lying perfectly still in the mud. “I’m going to lose my car, my television--” He sat upright, flinging mud everywhere. Steven leapt out of the way. “Steven, I’m going to lose my house. I’m not going to be able to come out here anymore.”
Steven sighed heavily and picked up a handful of mud. “Maybe the new owners won’t mind a thirty-one-year-old man coming into their backyard to roll in the muck?”
Toby was not amused. “Where am I going to go?”
“I wish I could help you, buddy, but with the baby on the way…”
It had all been so perfect, thought Toby. All so perfect. He scooped mud into each hand. Damn merger. He brought his hands together, squishing the mud into one big glob. Some fell out the bottom and landed on his pants. He stared at it.
“Come on now, chum, it’s not all bad,” said Steven with far too much cheer in his voice. “It’s a new adventure. A whole new mud puddle for you to get all over yourself. For every end, there’s a beginning!”
“That’s what my motivational calendar said for today.”
“I know. Steven, what the hell am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do for basic shelter?”
Steven thought this over. “Any other friends who’ll hole you up for a few months?”
“No, Gil just got married and you’re having a smelly brat.”
“You’re a delight when you’re angry. See, this is why I kept telling you to get another girlfriend. You could have someone to shack up with.”
“Sure, because girlfriends grow on trees.” Toby fell back into the puddle again.
“Well, they don’t sprout full-grown from the mud.”
Steven drew little designs on the ground with a stick. He’d never seen Toby so depressed, especially when he was soaking in his gooey mud puddles. It was a terrible sight. “You’re ruining the fresh woodland air with your gloom, my friend,” said Steven with the false joviality again. “Cheer up. It’s not like you have absolutely no place to go. You can always move back in with your mother.”
Toby rolled over and buried his face in the mud. “Glug,” was all he said.
Toby’s mother was an excellent woman. She had excellent patience. So when her son told her that he might have to live with her for a few months, she just cleaned out his old room and started doing double groceries.
She made him wipe his feet when he came in, despite the fact that he was carrying an enormous box and needed to set it down quickly. Once he got his boxes into the house, Toby looked out the window to the backyard. There was no wooded area, just a fenced-in section of lawn. Coiled near the back door was the garden hose. Toby moved away from the window.
He’d noted a park just a few blocks away from the house, with a dusty baseball diamond that looked like it got watery after rainfalls, but he knew he’d never be able to sneak past his mother’s watchful eyes. Besides, the bathroom was on the second floor. Even with the most diligent of plastic-bag wrappings, he’d never make it up the stairs without getting mud somewhere.
Sitting neatly on his old bureau was a bottle of disinfectant. He opened it and started cleaning out his drawers.
Toby would come home every day from his job search and plunge his face into a basin of water. He sank until it reached his hairline, then pulled up slowly. The water made plinking noises as it fell from his face back into the basin. Carefully he toweled up the droplets that landed elsewhere. He ran his clean fingers through his hair and sighed.
Toby’s mother wasn’t used to having someone in her house, not since Toby’s father had died nearly eight years past. She couldn’t stop being surprised when he found the soap dispenser on the opposite side of the sink that she’d left it, or the milk cap not screwed on all the way. She found evidence of water droplets on the sink. To keep things in order, she started cleaning every other day rather than the once-a-week she was used to.
Toby was startled to find his flannel shirts and blue jeans neatly washed and folded when he came home one day. They hadn’t needed washing, as they hadn’t been used since he moved. He buried his nose in them, hoping that the faint earthy scent was still in them. He purposefully used mild detergent to keep the smell. Now, the odor of a synthesized mountain spring wafted up to meet him. He rushed to find his mother.
She was busy scrubbing out the refrigerator. Toby kept opening soda cans and sticking them back in the refrigerator, and they were leaving rings on the shelves. “Yes, son, they smelled like dirt. What kind of detergent do you use? Anyway, it’s all better now.”
Toby stared at her. She scrubbed away. “You know, I hadn’t cleaned out this refrigerator in two years! Isn’t it funny how having someone living with you can motivate you to do certain things?”
Toby walked home instead of taking the bus, so he could walk past the park. It had just rained, and the smell of wet earth permeated the air. He sat down on a swing.
There was a little plastic bag in his pocket left over from lunch. Without even realizing what he was doing, Toby leaned over and scooped up a handful of mud from under his feet. He deposited it into the little bag and put it in his pocket.
His mother wasn’t home when he arrived. He wiped his feet and wandered into the living room. The room had just been dusted. Not a speck of filth to be seen.
Depressed, he shoved his hands into his pockets. Splish. His fingers touched the sticky brown mud there. He thought about taking it into the bathroom and dumping it into his hair, but it wouldn’t be the same. He pulled his muddy hand out of his pocket and examined it. The park mud was much darker than his woodland mud. It was grainier, too, like it was made of more soil, where his old mud had had a lot of clay in it. This mud didn’t slide around like his old mud, but stuck together in soggy little clumps.
Toby glared around the room. Nothing even came close to resembling the earth he held in his hands. Nothing smelled like it, looked like it, felt like it. The room was spotless. Toby felt his temperature rise. How long had his mother spent, cleaning this room? Who was she cleaning it for? Did she think the dirt was going to hurt someone? Dirt was harmless, he knew from first-hand experience. How would she know that dirt was harmless unless she actually took the time to come anywhere near it?
He could have stopped himself, but he didn’t. He lifted the corner of the rug and smeared a glob of mud on the underside.
The next day, he smeared a little on the backs of the picture frames on the wall.
The day after that, he placed a glob on the underside of the easy chair.
The following day, he filled the pockets of her winter coat.
The day after that one, he put a clump behind the refrigerator.
Toby never pushed in his chair when he left the table. His mother started pushing in the chairs every time she walked by them. Toby never used a coaster. His mother started wiping down the counters three times a day to prevent rings. Toby left specks of toothpaste in the sink. His mother started scouring the bathroom after his every use.
When she wasn’t looking, Toby pressed his muddy thumbs against the bottoms of all her dolls’ shoes.
Steven stared at Toby over their drinks. “Relax, friend, I know you’re low on cash. I’ll cover the drinks,” Steven assured him.
“It’s not that.”
“Well, you look a terrible mess about something, pal.”
“I don’t look a terrible mess.” Toby took a swig of his whiskey. “There can be no terrible messes in my mother’s house.”
“That bad, eh? Missing your mud?”
“It’s been six weeks.”
Steven chuckled. “So this is what mud withdrawal looks like.”
Toby eyeballed his ice cubes. “I keep screwing up at interviews, man, it’s like I can’t concentrate.”
“Well, everyone who got laid off is having a hard time, sir.”
“Not me, it shouldn’t be me!” Toby slammed his glass on the table, making the ice cubes gnash in surprise. “It had been perfect, all perfect!”
“Sounds like it’s pretty close to perfect now,” laughed Steven. “No mortgage to pay. Not to mention that your surroundings sparkle. Your mom keeps that place pretty perfect.”
“We have different meanings of perfection.” Toby downed the last of his drink.
He did it. He went to the park after the rain and went straight for the baseball diamond. He pitched mudballs. He dove for pretend flyballs. He ran around the bases. He slid into first. He slid into second. He slid into third.
He strolled up the walk, feeling the mud around his ears and sticking under his arms. It felt heavy, and it felt good. He walked backwards to see the muddy footprints dirtying the otherwise spotless sidewalk. He fully intended to wrap himself in plastic bags before entering, until he saw the doorknob.
It sparkled. It shone. It had been freshly polished just a few minutes ago. He couldn’t believe that she’d take the time to clean something like the doorknob. The first thing he would see when he got home. The first thing he would touch would have to be completely dirt-free. Filth: No Admittance.
He reached out a muddy hand and turned that doorknob, opened the door and crossed the threshold, stepping hard to make the mud fall off his shoes and onto the floor.
He came up on his mother, who was hard at work polishing the shelves inside the cabinets. She took one look at her son, one look at her floors, and her mouth dropped open. But instead of a shriek, she hollered, “Get out of the house! Get out!”
Toby didn’t get out. He just leaned over and swiped his hand across the cabinet she’d just cleaned, leaving a wide brown streak. “It’s dirt, mother,” he said.
“It’s dirt!” she cried, and rushed out the back door. Toby stomped around the kitchen, smearing mud all over the tables, walls, and chairs.
His mother appeared at the door, brandishing the garden hose. Water gushed out of it, and she turned it on Toby. He yelped and ran for it, but his mother chased him through the house. She sprayed beneath the rug, behind the picture frames, under the easy chair, in her coat pockets, behind the refrigerator, and her dolls’ shoes. She sprayed Toby until the mud ran off in little rivers. She sprayed and sprayed until not a speck of dirt was left.
thanks for reading!