FRUIT (an excerpt)
Stover sneaked out of bed each night to trowel behind the tool shed. By moonlight, he filled his mouth with soil and washed it down with greedy gulps of water from the garden hose. The fruit wanted more dirt, so he ate it. And wet scraps of newspaper from the trash. Stover was on a rampage. He gobbled fistfuls of grass clippings from the lawnmower bag in the garage. And vegetable leavings from the kitchen counter. This was his secret life: the bizarre comestibles, the alien commands worming through his brain.
The fruit had started out as a marble-sized obstruction in Stover's lower bowel. There was occasional discomfort sitting on the toilet. The odd cluster of roots marbling his stools. But he ignored it. He still made it out to the pool hall with his other retired buddies, still took his wife, Carolina, dancing at the supper club on Fridays. Stover didn't tell anyone about the fruit, about the dull abdominal ache, the high androgynous voice that had suddenly invaded his head, which kept asking to be fed. Water, dirt, trash. More water, more dirt.
One afternoon, Stover locked himself in the bathroom while Carolina napped on the back porch with a novel tented in her lap. He stripped out of his tennis whites, set a hand mirror on the tile floor, and squatted over it, one foot on either side. It was a mess down there: cock and balls hanging like a trio of wilted tubers, the swampy cleave of his fat ass staring back up at him.
Stover pumped some of Carolina's boutique lotion into his hands, slicked his right middle finger and clumsily stuffed it inside himself. He flinched at the sudden cold, but was surprised at the comfort of it, the filling of a void he hadn't been aware of before.
At the knuckle, he bumped up against the fruit.
--Aha, Stover cried, gently wagging his fingertip. What is this?
--Why do I smell vanilla, the fruit whined.
Its skin was egg-smooth. Hard. Stover retracted his finger and parted his anus to get a look at the growth, but it was too far embedded.
--What are you? he asked.
--Fruit, said the fruit.
If the lock on the bathroom door were broken, Stover thought, if Carolina walked in on him like this, what would she say? What would he say? How could he explain the need to know, the need to probe and explore?
The weeks passed. On the coast, where Stover and Carolina lived, it was summer -- the second or third cruelest season, depending who you asked. Stover carried around his secret, occasionally prodding the doughy flesh beneath his belly button for signs of growth. The fruit had thickened considerably, now the size of a fist. It pressed insistently against the intestinal canal, skin flushing from an immature parrot green to an angry red. The intensity of the fruit's appetites grew alarming.
--I'm hungry, it said, over and over, night and day.
Its voice crowded the walls of Stover's skull and sent strange pangs through his tongue and belly. Its hungers became his hungers. Stover drank water when the fruit cried for water. Ate dirt when it wanted dirt. Or rotten leaves from the compost bin in the back yard. It was insatiable.
The key to a long, successful marriage is selective blindness. Carolina tried to ignore her husband's obsessive behavior, his muddy pajama knees, the grit in his teeth, the half moons of filth wedged under his yellow fingernails. But she couldn't ignore the stink. As the fistfuls of trash and earth slowly digested, Stover belched tropical clouds of rot and methane. He emitted so much of the flammable gas, in fact, that it soon became too dangerous to share a bed with Carolina, lest he poison them both in their sleep, or even to remain in the house, lest he touch off the pilot lights on the kitchen stove. And so Stover had to move out onto the screened-in back porch where, exposed to open air, he would be less of a danger. He giddily set up camp, arranging a love seat and card table facing the small yard. Both he and Carolina were secretly rather pleased at the development. In forty-six years of marriage, they had never acclimated to each other's fussy manner of sleep.
Because being close to Stover was unpleasant to the nose and potentially lethal, and because he and Carolina had no good explanation for what was happening, they gave up their ring of withered friends, their supper club, their garden walks. Stover's methane-laden breath also made it too dangerous to go to the pool hall. His friends were inveterate cigar smokers, after all. It wasn't worth the risk. And so, with disquieting ease, Stover and Carolina slipped out of the larger world, becoming something like shut-ins; regressive non-verbal creatures of habit. Carolina read her novels and went for walks around the neighborhood while Stover remained on the porch where he watched the comings and goings of clouds, worked on a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and talked with the fruit.
--Where did you come from? he asked one afternoon. How did you get here?
It was a sweltering day, the air bright and soupy. Stover's oily, pigeon-gray hair was matted across his forehead.
--Why would I have come from anywhere? the fruit sneered. Wasn't I always here?
Stover had just started the puzzle -- an image of a bowl of cherries. He separated the red cherry pieces from the black background pieces.
--What do you taste like?
--I'm hungry again.
--Are you sweet? Are you poisonous?
--You're good at puzzles, said the fruit.
--Thanks, Stover smiled. Are you just going to keep growing and growing?
--Why, does it hurt?
--Not much. Tickles mostly.
Stover didn't want to hurt the fruit's feelings, but he was beginning to feel a bit like one of those small-mouthed bottles with the improbably large model ship inside. There was only so much space, he figured. And it was his space to begin with. He resented having to share, having to be the one to do all the adapting, though the fruit wasn't bad company.
--What? asked the fruit.
--What do you mean, what?
--You got quiet there for a minute. What were you thinking about?
--Come on. Tell me.
--Okay, said the fruit, sounding skeptical. Let's eat.
Jeb Gleason-Allured enjoys a night of fine literature followed by loud bars and blaring bagpipe versions of "The Caissons Go Rolling Along." Indeed how could he -- how could anyone? -- not enjoy himself? Only a fool would let the fact that he didn't know what a caisson was ruin the experience.