Monday
Feb142011

Whale Man

By Alan Michael Parker



WordFarm
February 2011
288 pages
978-1602260078

 

 

Nylon shorts, a ratty shirt, his holey old Reeboks, once-white socks—Avi always wore the same socks for mudding, a pair of 99-centers that could be bleached back only to a miserable gray—the mudder’s uniform was complete. Dolly couldn’t believe her luck, bouncing and barking around the car like a wind-up dog, her ears flopping with each elated bounce. He was cranking one of his favorite bands as he drove, The Rub Dubs, their new CD poached from Dwayne, the former med student now waiting tables at the Blue Egg, a kid who may have had something on Giacomo, or so the rumor went, the kid keeping his job despite a couple of brutal no-shows. Gotta testify/not a drive-by/In a cop’s eye/I’m a dead fly: Rx, the The Rub Dub’s lead singer, fairly spat the last line in her signature growl.

Avi wanted a signature growl. Dolly had one.

The Elsbeth Regional High School groundskeepers cultivated four fields of play lined for use, the first just beyond the stadium and track and each of the others down a hill, three hills in all. The bottom field had been recently tilled, or just dug up—at the foot of its approach lay thirty feet of gloriously churned dirt. On a previous walk, Avi had eye-marked the area for mudding, waiting for just the right warm, torrential rain.

Tap dancing in the back seat, Dolly sniffed until she snorted, snorted until she semi-barked, how-ulled. How amazing that a dog knows what she knows. Okay, so the extra towels were her Pavlovian signal, but still, his Doll was a brainiac of a pooch.

Not Avi. He was a dummy—to build a whale with a guy who had to be a Fed, or The Camel’s accomplice? Rick with a hearing aid that was probably some kind of transmitter. Tomorrow Avi would try sign language, a test: Hello, Camel Central, this is Mud Whale One, over.

Dumb, dumb, dumb, moron, he told himself. It was just like Kuala Lumpur. It was just like Tottenham. Avi was always falling for everyone, until someone stole everything from him. Dummy.

But dummy or no, Avi was psyched. Mudding! Dolly’s doggy glee was infectious, and the weather was cooperating, a perfect mist filtering down at the end of the storm, almost foggy, the springtime air-brushed, the colors blended. On his travels, Avi had come to think that, closer to the equator, the colors went together better, but now he wasn’t sure about this theory. Elsbeth had screwed up a lot of Avi’s theories.

Only a few cars remained in the lot after hours (no big Lincoln, the twins feeding elsewhere). He parked. Dolly was all joy. Not one jot of pathos, nor of fear, nor an awareness of her own mortality—a dog gamboling and gavotting about, ready for mud, may well be the essence of the universe, what unhappy people in their grumbling disenchantment miss. So why miss out: Avi was intent upon being the dog Dolly was being, or the man in a dream, or just a man. Well, whatever! He wanted to taste the world, to eat the world, as a dog does. To hell with the twins; en garde, Mimou! Mudding!

They ran together across one field and then slid down a hill, Dolly already nipping at his hand, running sideways at times, then across and down another hill, then to the third hill. Atop the last rise, facing the glory of the mud below, Avi stopped to breathe as the mist collected, the trees shrouded and fuzzylimbed, the weather a bit sci-fi, the world solid and wet.

"Ready?" he asked Dolly.

"Woof!" she said. Her eyes blazed with glee, her tongue already hanging out, panting floppily, doggy mania.

"Ready!" he shouted. "Go, go, go, go, go!"

Avi sprinted down the hill heels first, short strides compensating for the incline, and bellowed the whole time, his soul poured into a crescendo of voluminous vowels. At the base of the hill where the true mud began, he launched himself—a kamikaze, comic-book, mock-Olympic dive, head tucked and arms first—and belly-flopped into the glistening, fantastic, eight or so inches deep, top soup of Earth.

What a slide! Ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty feet! This was real living!

From his belly, when he looked up, there was Dolly, all four legs deep in the muck and tossing her big head with glee. She had been barking the whole time.

"Again!"

He stood. Dolly gave a full body shake, beginning at her head and traveling down to her tail, launching gobs of mud skyward with each ripple. Avi put out his arms and shook too, his head, his shoulders, his hips, he shook it all; then he half-stepped and half-waded out of the bog and charged up the hill, laughing, gasping for air, slower toward the top, with his big ecstatic dog nipping at his sneakered heels. Avi and Dolly, Jack and doggy Jill.

Again, only this time better lubricated from chaps to nave, he managed to slide further. "Ahhhhhhhhh!" Avi came up with a mud-packed face, which he wiped with his mud-caked hands, rubbed his eyes with two fists. "Pbbb," he spit.

"Again!"

"Again!"

"Again!"

He had lost count of how many times. Not counting but being, a man thrown to earth, a man renewed.

"Again!"

He sloshed out and angled himself up the hill, his dog running crazed circles around the man’s more considered path. Oh, Doll-Doll. What a delightful, simple beast. She’d stink, and sleep for hours.

"Go, go, go, go, go!"

This time a butt slide, his body crooked, arms and feet up, less diving than splashing as he powered through the muck—and finally mud-tired, Avi lay back in the geological gumbo, and closed his eyes.

Dolly barked twice and bounded through the muck.

"Arghhhhh!" Someone yelled.

Avi sat up. At the edge of the bog, fingers splayed and eyes wide in disbelief, all carefully attired in what might once have been white pants and a deep-lilac top, was a mud-splattered Bean, around whom Dolly was racing excitedly.

And then, BAM! Dolly skittered too close, banged into this formerly clean person, and—WHUMP! SQUELP! PLISH!—down went Bean, muddied.

The humans stared at one another. "Hi," Avi said, uh-oh.

"This better be fun," Bean said.

"It is," Avi said.

"Fine," Bean said. "But I’m charging you 100 bucks, off the top; these clothes are done." She picked up a gob and threw it at him. "And you better watch out. I like to tackle boys."

"Again!" Avi yelled and rose to his feet. "Dolly." He charged up the hill, Bean laughing close behind.

Rejuvenated, Avi mudded with Bean, three more good runs, Dolly friskier too, another friend in the pack. Then at the bottom of the hill, Avi and Bean fell upon one another, wrestled and jumbled, tangled in a knot of limbs, their bodies corruptible. He was aware of Bean in her wet clothes, of Bean’s hand here, of his leg there, slippy mud, Bean’s butt. Of Dolly’s big head bumping in between the two mudders.

"Again!" Bean yelled.

"Again!" They climbed up together to the top.

Avi hurtled down face first, bulldozed the muck with his chin. He stood up: Bean had come tumbling after. She was right there—she pushed him and he fell. Avi laughed and grabbed her ankle, yanked so she flopped into the soup next to him, a butt-first kersplash.

She had a spectacular lump of mud on the left side of her head, like a potter’s error. She had a giggle that seemed endless, a kind of happy crooning high in her chest and throat. "Maybe..." she tried to catch her breath and talk through her laughter.

"Forget it," Avi said, laughing too hard. "Pbb," he spit more mud. She had nice arms.

"Damn, I’m dirty," she laughed.

"Oh yeah?" He scooped a handful of mud, reached forward, and drizzled the guck down upon her head.

"Why, thank you," she cooed, her eyelashes batting. "You look like shit."

Then laughter took them both and they laughed together, a duet.

"Damn, Susan Junior. I haven’t done this since... ever," Bean said more calmly. "You’re a sneaky one."

Avi began to pack handfuls of mud to his chest, just because. "It’s not Susan Junior," he said. "It’s Avi. A, v, i."

"Avi?"

"Yes." His chest was covered; he had become a mud monster. He noticed too, now that the adrenaline had abated, that his shoulder was stinging a little in the wound where the splinter had been. Time for antibiotics and ale.

"That’s a better name," she said, and followed suit, lumping her torso with mud packs. "Damn," she laughed again. "I’ll never be clean. The dirt here is so red.... What does Avi mean?"

Avi felt self-conscious. "Lord of mine," he said, breaking eye contact. "It’s Greek."

"Not Hebrew?"

"Naw," Avi said. "Dolly! Come!"

"Lord of mine," Bean repeated, slathered anew in mud, the Mud Woman of Loch Elsbeth. "I don’t think so," she said.