Fred Mugford


It all started after exceptional heavy rains in late February. Twenty four inches in twenty four hours. Roads inundated. Basements flooded. Dry cleaners handing out plastic bags to cover clothes patrons picked up at the laundry just to walk to their cars. It rained cats and dogs, donkeys and mules (quote, Channel 7 news). It rained heavy and hard. No grandfather or grandmother could remember such a downpour. The weather was for once legitimate news.

On the corner where Elm Street T intersects into Broadway, mud was beginning to overflow from the corner lot left vacant following the demolition of the library two years ago, next to a four story office building. Grass and garbage and old brick foundations were being covered by rising black puddles of mud and water. Mud was trickling along a cement groove on the sidewalk, at the head a tiny lump of earth, like a leader, bringing more wet earth behind it, slowly moving down the sidewalk. The mud was not discriminate, pulling along with it pieces of paper, small pebbles and bits of dog excrement. As the mud accumulated on the sidewalk, new rivulets were forming, one splitting into a central branch. The mud dammed, started taking on a shape, until a boy passing by on his way to school almost stopped to point it out to his mother. Mom, that looks like a blob. The mother, not looking, said Yes, yes . . . is that right, holding the umbrella steady, urging her son to hurry up. The boy smelled the invigorating stench of wet earth. He looked back once, straps of his backpack dangling loose at the ends, same as his limbs, his eyes staring back at the shape, but he was too far to see it now.

The boy was right. The mud had formed what appeared to be two arms and two legs, a body, a head. It was a definite shape, resembling a human being. As the rain continued, the mud collected, seeping out of the empty lot. The shape seemed to move on its own, maybe it was floating now under a thin layer of water, hydroplaning perhaps, or it was all an illusion. The blob, if that is what it was, was taking on different colors gathered in the center, some purple flowers and green leaves, some discolored wet papers, earth colors on the outside limbs. It was a definite human shape, paisley patterns on top and some purple on the bottom, something green around the neck, weeds or grass, a clump on the right side might even look like a purse. The shape lifted its head. It had a mouth, some kind of opening it was slowly widening, other slits and holes. The outer limbs, what would be arms and legs, were bending in their appropriate places, at the elbows and knees, shoulders and hip. The head appeared to have hair, a black entanglement of roots. Was it a noise the shape just made? It sounded like a call, a wet squeal or groan of life, a primeval scream of silence no one has heard before or all have heard regardless of species. The rain was still coming down hard. The coffee shop two blocks away was getting ready to open. It was maybe fifteen or twenty minutes before nine. Dawn had arrived two or three hours ago, but in this deluge weather, all looked dark with a bluish cast of dawn.

The guard working at the office building next to the empty lot unlocked the interior glass doors from the inside, set a few feet back from the sidewalk. The lights were bright inside the building. He held a ring of jingling keys attached to his belt by a retractable elastic string, took three steps forward and unlocked the metal corrugated gate from the inside. He was in his white short sleeves. He wasn't worried about the rain. He would be indoors all day until six. He threw the gate upwards with one hand, it made a tremendous clatter, a loose train going over a track. The guard stood looking right then left under cover of the roof. He stared at the mud accumulating near the street corner. The mud seemed to be moving. The words mud and wet and rain came to him unconsciously, and spilling, to go with the visuals his eyes were providing. Wet and mud were things to be avoided, probably since he was a boy, when his mother would tell him don't go out in the rain or don't play in the mud, his young brain saying yes, I want to, but now as an adult he told himself no all by himself. The guard turned and went back inside the building.

The shape had cleared the lot, crawling on to the pavement past the weeds. The muddy hands and underside of the legs and knees were dropping pieces of earth a quarter inch thick. Skin was being revealed. The purple of a jacket and matching skirt was being uncovered. The shape could not grope to think as a complete human yet. It was nearly there, maybe as a fetus thinks, still forming its human shape, possessing all its future characteristics endowed by its DNA.

The shape convulsed above the shoulders, lifting its neck, shaking its head in a revolting spasm of new life or near death. Two slits opened to reveal the glistening whites of eyeballs. White teeth appeared behind the wet oval shape of sticky lips parting. The hair dripped. Fingers groped, pulling the shape forward. Ah, or Huh, the shape said. A neck bone, a vertebrae, cracked. The shape lifted its head, still prone, palms flat on the ground pushing up. Imagine the shape frozen in a push up, legs flat on the ground, body curving upwards, head held high supported by the extended arms. Maybe it was looking around, absorbing, trying to understand, gathering strength. In the interval a truck passed by delivering groceries to the chain supermarket half a mile away, the shape became perhaps what it was meant to become. It was on its hands and knees, head looking straight ahead. The strap of a purse was wrapped around the right wrist, lying on the ground. The shape took a breath and exhaled. She knelt, touching her forehead. If you saw her you would think she had fallen and was trying to gather her senses. She stood up. She looked down at herself. Rain drops were wetting her clothes. She tried to brush them away. She plucked a piece of root, some wet paper, from her purple and green paisley blouse (the design might have been purple flowers or buds with green stem and leaves). She straightened the purple skirt and jacket. She was using her new mind, her senses, becoming aware, maybe admiring her clothes, how purple and green complemented each other. She felt something around her neck and touched it. It felt soft. She tried to look at it but her neck could not bend that far down. She pulled the end out and saw it was a green silk scarf. She moved her jaw, contorting her face, trying out her muscles or stretching them. She felt a drop on her face. She held out her palm, looking at the grey sky. What was she doing standing in the rain? People would question her if they saw her getting wet not moving. She took cover under the office building entrance a few feet away, a recessed square cave with cement roof and walls.

The guard heard her heels clicking outside, mixing with the sound of rain, from behind the glass doors. He had been standing waiting for people to arrive. He moved his foot activating the automatic sliding doors. You're soaked. She looked at him. Something clicked inside her, some recognition at words, an awareness she did not have two seconds ago. She had a use for her ears, her mouth, her voice. She stepped through the doors. Her heels clicked inside the building. The guard did not recognize her, but he saw she was wearing a name tag pinned to her jacket, laser cut or stamped on hard blue plastic with a thin white edge, same as all the other employees. No raincoat or umbrella? She looked at herself, at her bag. She looked at him. Looks that way. The guard thought she was like a little girl, forgetful and naive, or like an old woman, forgetful and senile. She felt an itch on her elbow, tried to scratch it from behind her back, but it was too awkward, so she raised her left arm while scratching with the hand holding the purse. The guard was looking at her. Two people came running in from the rain, a man and a woman, panting and dripping wet. They stopped at the entrance as she was blocking their way and wasn't moving. She was brushing rain drops from her hair. You want to step aside, the guard told her. She looked behind her, saw the two people and moved to one side. The man and woman came in. The guard looked at her badge, at her name, at the logo to the right of it, two hands shaking in a circle. You're up on the second floor, he said. You can take the elevator. His left hand indicated the single elevator, two metal doors with a slit where they met, two buttons to the right of it. She did not say thank you. Maybe she had not thought of it. She walked a few steps to the elevator and stood there waiting. The guard was staring at her for a minute. You have to press the button. The top one. She did not look over her shoulder. She was feeling a new sensation, like she was smaller, and her face was warm. She didn't know the word for it, and felt like turning around to say something to the guard, to make herself not appear so small in his eyes, but she was glad she didn't. She felt her mind stronger for that.

She pressed the top button. A red arrow pointing up lit up. A bell rang, the metal doors slid open. She saw herself looking at herself at the back of the elevator. She felt attracted and repulsed by this image. She touched her hair. Is that me? She was confused. There were two people inside her, maybe the one facing her was speaking to her, inside her head. She went inside the elevator, looked at herself in the mirrored walls, fixing her hair, adjusting her green neck scarf. Is this me? Among all the displeasures she was finding quietly in herself, she found something to be pleased about. I have style. The doors were closing. Hold it . . . A slender hand with long purple nails shoved itself between the doors. The doors opened again. A tall woman came in. They looked at each other. There was something silent and belligerent about the tall woman, but also friendly. The tall woman looked at her name badge. You're starting today, aren't you? Yes, was what the woman with neck scarf said, unsure of what she was saying. The doors closed. The tall woman pressed a button. The elevator moved. The woman with neck scarf was looking at the tall woman, at her hair, at her tight pants, form fitting jacket, high heel shoes, heavy eyeliner, shiny purple lipstick. She wondered why she wasn't all those things . . . Would I call that pretty? The rain just won't let up, the tall woman said folding her umbrella, looking at her up and down, at her wet clothes, but the woman with neck scarf did not say anything. You have some mud here, the tall woman said, pointing at her own right shoulder, feeling superior for having pointed out a defect. The woman with neck scarf looked at her own left shoulder, then at her right. She wiped the mud off with her hand. The mud smeared on her jacket. She wiped it again, but the smudge remained.

The elevator doors opened. You can clean your jacket in the bathroom, the tall woman said. Let me show you around. She followed the tall woman into the second floor offices, a vast space with cubicles, desks and chairs, with couches and kiosks arranged along the center line. Her clothes were drying, acclimated to the dry office environment, a few drops still falling on the carpet, from her sleeve ends and skirt hem. The tall woman was waving at people sitting at their desks as she walked past, saying Hi, Good morning, had a good weekend? She never stopped to talk, just kept walking, and turned back once, to see if the woman with neck scarf was following her. She pointed to one of two empty desks. I think you are sitting in one of these, the tall woman said, turning her shoulders back, hips hinged on a waist with amazing flexibility. Her long curly hair was bouncing with every footstep. Bathrooms are through the white doors, to your right, she said, making right angles with her right hand. The tall woman kept walking with loud footsteps on the carpet, shaking the floor, you could feel tiny earthquakes announcing her arrival (most looked up) and departure (some looked down at papers or screens once she was past).

The woman with neck scarf was left alone standing not knowing what to do or where to go. She did not want to go to the bathroom, but since there was nothing else to do, she went. More mirrors. She wiped the smudge off her jacket with a paper towel. There was another woman applying lipstick looking at herself in the mirror. The woman turned her eyes to look at the woman with neck scarf in the mirror and said Morning. The woman with neck scarf said Morning too. She didn't want to, but it was easier to imitate than say something original, or what was on her mind. She wanted to ask many questions, What are the badges for. Why the lipstick. There were many more questions, but she kept them to herself. She opened her purse, found lipstick inside, and put some on her lips. She was feeling different looking at herself with red lips. Something felt forced, or false. Still, she had to admit she felt attractive, but she didn't know why. Why this doubt all the time? The other woman left the bathroom. She felt different again, without another person around. She wasn't sure if she liked the feeling or not, which she preferred, being alone, or with company. Did she have to prefer one over the other.

She left the bathroom and stood by the two empty desks. She didn't know which one to choose (she thought of going to the bathroom again). She looked around the office, saw people sitting at desks, doing things with their hands, or not moving at all. She had more questions. What is this place, why does everyone seem to know what they are doing, why isn't anybody getting up and walking away (her first impulse). She felt her heart beating fast, she was not in harmony with her own nature, she felt fear, afraid of strangers, of being indoors obliged to do something she would rather not.

She sat at the empty desk closest to her, moved papers around, picked up a photo of a smiling teenage girl, looked at the braces on her teeth, and put the photo back down. She noticed people down the row were sitting looking at lit screens, some were talking not looking at each other from across their desks. She looked at the black screen in front of her. She could see her reflection. Her hair appeared a mess as if it was a matted growth of wild weeds, without the flowers, or perhaps roots, deep, dark, never seeing sunlight. Why had she not seen this before. Perhaps the screen was not an accurate reflection. She sat straight. Was it pride? It might just be her upright spine demanding she sit straight with shoulders back, or the chairs were ergonomically designed to encourage every conceivable human shape with correct posture. She felt she commanded attention and respect by how she was sitting straight with her chest out (she could not exist below her waist right now, she thought that would be okay, but she wasn't sure about that). She held the phone in one hand, put it to her ear. Who was she calling, who was she talking to, or was she just pretending. She put the phone back. She looked all around her at the things she had not noticed before. The walls were white, some were blue and calming, telling her no anger was permitted in here. Some lights in the ceiling were round, some rectangular. She stared at a rectangular light, it hurt your eyes so she didn't stare at it anymore. The carpet was made up of grey squares. When she looked at each square, it appeared to have red lines, but when she stared at it with intent, she saw they were not red lines but grooves, the red was an illusion created by the light. If someone asked her what color was the carpet, she would have said grey with red lines. Red also made her feel in danger. If someone had asked her, how does red make you feel, she would have said angry, loud, or fast, without knowing why. She wondered what sort of person would ask her these kind of questions.

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© Fred Mugford