A Princess in the Mud

“A Princess in the Mud” is a short story I wrote in response to the following prompt: Chuck met her in Thailand, fitted her into his tackle box, and snuck her across the border.

A Princess in the Mud

          That morning, he realized the subtle shift. Most days, in his crumbling New York City brownstone, Charlie patted his blaring alarm clock resignedly and welcomed cool water from the tap to shock his face. He stumbled over the purple blouse that had been laying in a crumpled heap in the middle of his bedroom floor since the day of Lena’s death. He saw it there and remembered the night he met her. She’d been coming home from a bar alone. She thought she could do everything alone. He’d been following along behind her at an acceptable distance, coming home from a bar himself. He’d merely wanted to watch her, but then two men had coalesced into the form of a threat out of the innocuous black night.

One moment the street was empty, just Lena and Charlie and a flickering street lamp. The next, two figures had emerged from an alley. When they came out onto the street, they didn’t bother to look both ways. They had only seen Lena pass in front of the alley’s opening and had locked onto her as their target, blinded, salivating at the thought of her money and darker temptations. They didn’t even look behind them; never noticed Charlie at all. The men lurked behind her but ahead of Charlie so that they formed a chain in the shadows – Lena followed by the men followed by Charlie; oblivion followed by threat followed by curiosity.

From his vantage point in the back, Charlie saw the largest of the men draw a small switchblade and sidle up behind Lena, locking his arm around her throat and muttering something sinister in her ear. Charlie heard her whimper. The sound was squeaky, cartoonish, so that Charlie wasn’t fully sure whether the event was even really happening. The six beers he’d had earlier didn’t help much either. He’d never been the kind of man to stand up to a threat. He preferred to avert his eyes, pretend he hadn’t seen. But even his meek and flimsy conscience wouldn’t free him of this situation, and when he heard her pitiful mew, he acted. He formed his fingers into the shape of a gun and shoved his hand into his pocket, trying to mask the lie. He shouted, “Hey!” The men whipped around. The smaller one, the coward, seeing the gun-shaped outline in Charlie’s pocket, put his hands up in fear.

“J-just let us go,” the man said.

“Shut up,” the larger man said, “It’s not a gun, you fuckin’ idiot.”

“This sure is,” Came a voice from behind Charlie. He heard a real gun cock behind him. He turned to see two policemen, pointing their weapons at the assailants. Both put up their hands then.

*          *          *

          After that night, Charlie assumed the role of guardian. He’d never protected anyone before in his life, but Lena allowed him the chance. There was never another situation like that first one, but Lena still needed to be helped. He made her tea in the mornings, cooked dinner often, and sometimes washed her hair for her in the shower. These things gave him more pleasure than he could fathom. Then, she’d gotten sick. Her hair started falling out in clumps, her body grew thin and frail, and she cried very often. The cancer came on quickly and with unforgiving ferocity. Although Charlie had devoted all his energy to tending to Lena, he was unable to save her in the end. It burned him to admit it, but he was angry: angry at the cancer, angry at Lena for dying, and angry at himself for being so impotent. He stumbled over her blouse on the floor, and he stumbled over it every single day because he refused to do another thing for her ever again.

Although it still hurt, and probably always would, most days Charlie was able to elbow the pain aside and trudge along. That morning, he couldn’t. The alarm clock was just a little harder to turn off, the water not quite as refreshing, and when he unwittingly grabbed his dead wife’s mug from the shelf for the umpteenth time, his knuckles tightened around the smooth ceramic handle, and he shattered the thing in the sink.

“Sick?” His boss had said, sounding puzzled. “Maybe try some chamomile tea. My wife says it works wonders.” Traitor, Charlie thought, but said, “Oh my god! I’ve never thought of that, but, my god, you’re right!” A cup of lukewarm flower water is going to fix it all, he thought. And he was sick; he was sick of this claustrophobic city and the suffocating way everything here reminded him of her. He was struck with a desire to leave.

Instead, he spent that day ordering Chinese from the tiny neon place down the block, sitting on his old green corduroy couch he’d had since college, suited in slippers and a cloud-covered blanket with sleeves in the sides, so that it could be worn like a garment. He and Lena had purchased it after watching a midnight infomercial. They’d laughed like ten-year-olds. “A blanket,” Lena had gasped in hilarity, “with arms! An army blanket! Chuck, why didn’t we think of that?”

Chuck. She had called him that. They’d watched the infomercial for a full hour and then ordered one. Damn thing was comfy, too. The day turned dark, but Charlie couldn’t tell with the blinds drawn so tightly. It was only when the infomercials started, the plasticky actors with eerie static smiles glowing in the dark room, that Charlie had a semblance of the hour. The word “Thailand,” paired with shots of white beaches and tangerine sunsets, splayed thickly across the top of the screen; when the images of fly fishers in rubbery waders surrounded by jungle and pheasant-tailed jacana appeared, he dusted off his rod and called the 1-800 number. It was perfect – space to breathe.

*          *          *

          The hotel was as expected, the brilliance of the waxed lobby floors an insult to the sweat and chaos of the fish market one block away. The staff was impenetrable, smiling with gritted patience at every inane American request, but on breaks, they slouched against the back wall of the building, smoking cigarettes and complaining. When he saw a waiter pull out a pack of cigarettes, he followed him outside through a back door. The waiter was sympathetic, seeing the mournful thing in Charlie’s eyes. The two communicated through a combination of hand movements, facial expressions, and cigarettes. After half a pack, the two were laughing together about the ridiculous hotel guests and the humbling humid air that razed them all in dignity, covering them in a slippery, oily sheen. Charlie enquired about fishing, his request materializing as his two arms thrown behind his right shoulder. He had not left Charades in middle school, after all. The waiter giggled, and introduced Charlie to a kind fisherman. Charlie spent the rest of his days knee-deep in the muddy jungle river, casting and reeling with a rhythm that passed the hours quickly.

Charlie met the kitten after his second day of fishing. As approached the hotel, he saw her a few yards away, cowering in the lower branches of an African Tulip, treed by two snarling mutts. She was wailing ferociously in the way only a desperate animal can, vocalizing screams that so close to a human’s, but not. She was something to save. Charlie chased the dogs away, thrashing at them with a branch. She regarded him, wary and trembling. When Charlie raised up a piece of gummy fish, she ate it tentatively and then licked a streak of blood from his thumb. The next afternoon, she was waiting on the dusty path in front of the hotel. She sat there royally, her soft calico fur glossy in the sunshine, tail swishing back and forth – a princess in the mud. He was generous with her portion of fish, and he felt a rattling purr as he scratched between her ears. “What will we call you?” he asked. “Are you an Arthur?” When he found out her sex, it was already too late. Arthur she was. “And you,” he added, “can call me Chuck.” She purred.

“Quiet,” he told her as they taxied to the airport a week later. He peered down at the tiny head poking out of his button-down shirt. Arthur’s ear twitched, and she blinked her assent. He feigned confidence as he strode toward metal detector. Arthur rested in the kitten-sized cloth hammock created where his shirt tucked into his jeans, her warmth pressed to the skin of his abdomen. On the other side, Charlie entered the bathroom and transferred Arthur to his tackle box, padded with a simple white cotton shirt. She slept most of the way home, and as they descended into the city, he was bowed by the strange humanistic urge to wake her and point out the skyline, the Twin Towers glinting in the afternoon sun.

Arthur became Charlie’s day. She bounded to his feet when he entered the front door after work. She sat on the table beside his dinner plate at night, tail dusting the table top. She knew she’d get a taste. She fell asleep curled to Charlie’s side but would wake him up in the middle of the night, climbing onto his head and draping herself over his eyes, a downy mask.

When he got back from work one day, no one greeted him. He searched for Arthur, wondering where she might have hidden herself. He didn’t have to look far. Her soft frame was tucked into itself, a fuzzy handful of a knot, curled up in Lena’s purple cloth. Charlie stroked Arthur’s head, and then gently shifted her off the blouse. He sighed, gingerly picked up the purple shirt from the floor, and began to box Lena’s things.

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