Annie arrived at the crowded, smoky, cackling party and saw no one she knew, including herself in a mirror. She wore frameless glasses, cheapest she could buy. She hadn’t put on makeup, not for work, from which she had walked across the bridge. Her University of Louisville sweatshirt was smeared with potter’s clay. Looked awful. How she felt.
“No, no, no,” a girl was saying, voice authoritative, describing snorkeling in Montego Bay. She dove down to swim along a reef’s mesmerizing street-like passageways and there wasn’t anyone with her. She’d gone way too far out, she realized on surfacing. “I totally lost track. The sea had me and getting back wasn’t easy, but things that happen are better than things you plan.”
Annie thought of joining the group but had no idea how to pursue the girl’s point. She had never planned anything in her life, and she was tired. Shouldn’t have told Rich she’d come. Where was he, anyway? Hadn’t come himself. But going home seemed beyond her. She’d trudged over from the pottery, and now she’d have to trudge back the same way to get her car and drive to Asheville just to sleep a few hours before returning to the pottery, which was a false name for it. It was a ceramic production factory in a failed hydroponic vegetable greenhouse Rich and his partner Greg had bought from a friend who had given up. They had motorized shades, large fans, and more plumbing than they needed except when it came to the bathroom, which was an outhouse on the fringe of the slope down to the river. “Or we could shit here and fire it,” Greg said. “Might sell better than what we’re doing.” Rich didn’t like that.
Annie sank into a chair. Within a minute a guy sat on the chair’s arm with his back to her. Next he’d turn and speak, but there would be nothing he could say as important as her own thoughts because she’d spent the day working so hard she hadn’t thought anything, wearing a rubber respirator mask and concentrating on producing flawless plates and cups as samples of what Rich hoped to sell Simple Homes for their twenty stores throughout the U.S. And she didn’t think with her mind when she worked, she thought with her hands. She mixed mud—that’s what they called it, not shit—poured it, glazed it, fired it, and cooled it. Just the three of them. She wanted to think about that. She wanted to think about why she had picked Asheville and scanned Craig’s List for jobs in Asheville and liked this one—join the team of one of the fastest growing potteries in the Southeast—without realizing it wasn’t really in Asheville and how bad minimum wage sucked, but for a while she was happy not to be in Louisville working as a daycare assistant.
When the guy turned, she got up, found her way through the kitchen to the back steps, went around the house to the top of the hill and paused, listening to the rocky river’s susurrus under the bridge. To their credit, Rich and Greg sometimes declared time off for tubing, and they’d scramble down to where the cool water blessed them and the unmediated sunlight freed them. Nothing as risky as Jamaican reefs albeit semi-unplanned. Annie liked floating along the bank, studying exposed roots and the sight of true grayish brown, muskrat-scratched mud.
She passed the hamlet’s three-store commercial cluster—grocery store, bar, and post office—and then the expensive new condos tucked into the rusting old mill and recrossed the bridge and climbed the hill a quarter mile to the gravel road that led to the pottery. She liked crunching along in the overhanging hardwoods’ deep darkness and considered again what she’d considered before. She could sleep in some unused corner of the building and save rent money. In the winter, the kilns would keep the place warm. In the summer, she could crank open the windows and run the fans for ventilation.
She had a blanket in the trunk of her Echo. She got it, thought about not being able to brush her teeth—so what, she’d wear the mask all day tomorrow—but would have to pee and couldn’t bear the thought of the slap of the outhouse door and the updraft of the waste below. So she’d go in the woods where she heard two owls hooting and then the crying scream of a fox. She peed and remained squatting a long time, just thinking. About the coolness of the air along the forest floor. About the fox. About the river and what it would be like at night.
Pivot point, she would have said if she’d had the energy to enter the conversation at the party and deal with what happened versus what you planned. But now she had the energy for some reason, and she wasn’t dumb, she knew what the girl was talking about even if she had never planned anything and just waited for what happened to smack her in the face.
She took off her clothes except for her boots and carried them with her to the river. When the leaves stopped rustling under foot, she removed her boots and padded barefoot into the mud, slipping right into the water. The frogs plopped away in urgent succession, abandoning their insect hunting on the river bank until this large white creature went away.
The river chuckled and whispered. Up close it was its many sounds, not the unitary susurrus of the distance. She listened a while, half floating, half standing, sometimes dropping down to cover her shoulders because the water was warmer than the air. She looked up at the stars and pondered her meaningless education, which had included courses in literature and economics and U.S. history as well as sculpture, pottery-making, drawing, water-colors and oils. None of it had the cool passion of the river water, the mud, and the light of the stars in the heavens raining fire into the night. She loved this, all of it. Anyone else would ruin it, man or woman. But that was only a passing thought. She wiped away anyone else and was alone again. She used her toes to dig into the mud the way she used her fingers in the daytime and climbed back up the slippery embankment where she stood on one foot while wiping the other before putting on her socks and boots. Then she threaded back through the forest to her blanket and pile of clay-smeared clothes and went into the pottery to make her provisional bed.
She fell asleep wanting to dream what she had been living just now, driving this pivot point deeper into her, making it fast and sturdy, but her dreams were of fugitive mud. As she sank into them, they slipped away. What stuck was patchy and crumbly and indecipherable, and then the rising sun congealed everything, took away its excitement as well as its frustration, created reality as though light were glue. Even looking at the pipes and tables and wiring and vents and kilns and shelves and boxes from down on the floor did not help. Planned or not, daytime is what stayed in place.
With more than 90 stories in print and online journals, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary writers of short fiction. His stories have appeared in Mississippi Review, Quarterly West, The MacGuffin, Main Street Rag and elsewhere. His most recent novel is Suffer the Children. He has published two other novels, The Man Clothed in Linen and The Way Home, and two books of nonfiction, Nights in the Pink Motel and Identities in North America. He reviews a wide range of books at firstname.lastname@example.org. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.