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Kudzu by Andrea Bobotis

 

Andrea Bobotis, a native of South Carolina, received her Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Virginia. Her novel manuscript The Middlings won runner-up for the 2014 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and her essays have appeared in journals and book collections, including Victorian Studies and the Irish University Review. She lives in Denver, where she teaches fiction to young writers at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

2nd place - 2015 Raymond Carver Contest

 

She could barely make him out. He—she was certain the figure was a he—was a fleck, a disturbance on the horizon, and—this was another certainty—he was coming her way. She was right, which didn’t surprise her in the least, although her accuracy didn’t ease her irritation. When he came into focus, he was a jumble of limbs advancing down the pale country road: a man on a boy’s bike.

She watched him from the window seat, where she had been installed since breakfast. Her eyes ticked past him momentarily to scan the landscape. She had lived her entire life in this old mill town. Its buildings had gone to seed; so had most of its people. 

He was now on her lawn. When he dropped the bike on its side, the handlebars twisted up sharply. Like a broken neck, she thought. He knocked on her door, his knuckles rapping out a rhythm, and when she didn’t answer, he stood there, looking unflustered, hands on hips and sweat claiming his shirt. 

He knocked, and waited, his hand hovering there. Before he could knock again, she opened the door—a loud thwack of suction, followed by a surge of polar air escaping into the midday heat. 

“What?” she barked.

“Ms. Dodge?” The screen door remained between them.

“How do you know my name?” she asked. Her annoyance only slightly outweighed her alarm.

He gestured toward the road. 

She peered beyond him at her mailbox. It had been a gift from her son, Arlen, which was to say something he had hustled and to which she had succumbed. Selling personalized mailboxes had been his last-ditch attempt at a job, a sorry enterprise. Didn’t he know thieves would use your name against you? Or maybe, because Arlen was a thief himself, he felt her immune to further swindling, in the way one can’t catch the same cold twice. 

“Ms. Dodge?”

“What do you want?” Millicent said, wearily this time. This young man looked about her son’s age, in his thirties. She stood there staring, eyes settling on him longer than was appropriate, but her interest was concealed by the way the screen door deadened the light on her side. His chest was small and tight as a hazelnut. He had an exuberance her son lacked—it animated the small muscles around his mouth, giving the impression he grappled with a deep inner amusement. She wished he would just get on with it, try to sell her whatever he was selling and be on his way, yet she also felt a dim twist of pleasure when she noticed how he struggled to discern her form while she could see him so clearly. 

He took a sharp step toward the screen, angling his head so that he could see her. She rocked back on her heels, but he kept his eyes with hers. “I’m traveling across the country,” he said. 

“Where are you from?” she asked. “Originally, I mean.”

“Originally?” His face loosened, as if he had been waiting for this question so that he could show her how old-fashioned it was to ask such things. “I’m on an excursion,” he said brightly. “A permanent one.” He glanced back over his shoulder. “I know the bike is too small for me. I’m not crazy.” He laughed—a little crazily, she thought. 

“I don’t have any money to give you,” she said, stepping back to close the door.

The screen door brayed as his hand whipped forward to open it. The movement, swift and precise, startled Millicent. 

“I don’t mean to be pushy,” he said, leaning his body through the doorway. She could smell him now, an arable odor that reminded her of pumpkin guts or potted meat. “I’m not looking for money. I’m looking for a place to stay for the night. I can pay you.” He laughed. “Well, I can’t pay you.” 

“Absolutely not.” She gripped the edge of the door, but didn’t close it. 

“Let me do some yard work for you,” he persisted.

“I told you I have no money to give you.” 

“What if I do something for you? For free.”

“Like some sort of Good Samaritan nonsense?”

“Yes!” he said, grinning, and his gaze traveled beyond her, into the house.

Following his eyes, she caught her reflection in the entryway mirror. Staring back was a miniature version of herself, with the large eyes and small mouth of a cat and a cloud of white hair suspended above a pink scalp. 

“My son moved out,” she said suddenly. “So I could use the extra help.”

.  .  .

When he finished the chore, she brought him a glass of lemonade, the kind made from mixing powder with water. He drank it in several gulps, swallowing a chunk of ice in the process, which triggered a fit of coughing. She dashed to his side, an instinct that surprised her, but he held up his hand in a good-natured way. 

Afterward she felt badly for what she had asked him to do. She didn’t want anyone to know Arlen had moved out again, and this stranger had pulled the information loose from her so effortlessly. As punishment she had made him scoop the dog shit that littered her yard. Arlen’s dog. An ungainly, straw-colored mutt that her son treated like he treated most things, with flashes of consuming affection followed by great stretches of indifference when the gambling laid hold of him. But the young man shoveled the excrement while humming a tune she didn’t recognize. Millicent couldn’t understand that kind of satisfaction with life.

“I could put you up for the night,” she heard herself saying.

.  .  .

One night turned into two weeks. His name was Teddy, and over the past year, he had worked odd jobs, selling newspapers on Oregon sidewalks, making natural soap for a woman named Erma in Oklahoma. For three months, he had been a panhandler, and when he started working again, washing dogs for a mobile pet grooming service in Maryland, he had accepted the bike as a gift, having refused payment, and set off southward. Months later, he arrived on Millicent’s doorstep in the foothills of South Carolina. She wasn’t sure why he had chosen this place, which to her didn’t feel like a place at all. The surrounding vegetation seemed to concur. A hearty variety of kudzu vine, which had always blanketed the countryside, was now coiling its way into town, encountering little protest along the way. But Teddy seemed happy to be there, wearing a silly grin and a flimsy drawstring backpack.  

Another week passed, then another. Teddy moved his meager belongings from the backpack to the bureau in Millicent’s guest room. 

“You don’t have to make me breakfast every morning, you know,” Teddy said, sitting on the kitchen counter and watching her fry two eggs.

“It’s the least I can do,” she said, not looking up.

“What do you want out of life, Millicent?” 

He had been asking questions like that since he turned up. Frankly, making breakfast was a relief.

“Why don’t we plant the black-eyed Susans today?” she replied. He pushed himself off the counter and began humming merrily. She felt the warm rush of having given an answer that pleased him.

That afternoon they planted the flowers without wearing gloves, at Teddy’s request. Millicent squatted on her gardening chair and raked the soil with her fingertips. There were so many things she had forgotten about—the way the dirt crowded beneath her nails, the strangely pleasant prick of ant bites on her calf—things that released the heaviness inside her, like uncoiling a wet towel twisted deep in her chest. She imagined if she could peek into her middle she’d find a center as dark as the flowers’, a spot of mold that needed airing out. 

.  .  .

It was too hot to have the windows open, especially right before bedtime, but Millicent didn’t mind because it was Teddy’s idea. 

“I like the sound of the cicadas,” he explained. He sat cross-legged on the carpet, his arms buttressed out behind him. They listened to the shrill calls expanding and contracting in the night sky. 

She sat, enduring the cicadas, and then he said, “Tell me about Arlen.” She was surprised it had taken him two months to ask, given his fondness for probing questions.

She waited a long while before speaking. “Arlen is Arlen” was what finally came out. 

Teddy tilted his head, appearing satisfied. She supposed it did sound a little philosophical, but philosophical in the good way, the way that Teddy liked.

“Has he always lived with you?”

“Off and on. When the betting is good, he leaves. When the betting is bad, he moves back in. Better than the York County Correctional Facility, I suppose. He can attest to that.”

“What does he gamble on?” Teddy lowered his back against the floor. He closed his eyes, but she could tell he was still listening.

She coughed. “He’ll bet on anything that can be bet on.” 

“I see,” Teddy replied.

“He’s trying to get better.” She turned her head away.

When she looked back at him, she was relieved to see his interest had been diverted to a new activity, applying a BIC lighter to unite several thumbs of used candles he had found around the house. No further questions about Arlen seemed forthcoming. 

Motherhood for Millicent had been a lesson in disappointment. She had been eager to let a child temper her hard edges, believing the transformation would be easy and unforced, would exact no cost because the bond between mother and child was supposed to exist above the everyday transactions of life. She was furious, then, when the first flutters in her belly were an encroachment, when softening felt like erosion. She knew it wasn’t fair, that no child could make amends for simply being, but maternal instinct had manifested in her as a wicked sort of intuition, one that anticipated her son’s limitations and predicted his failures. Arlen was keenly aware of this. She had believed that when he became an adult, he would readily distinguish his thoughts from hers. But to her dismay, the thinnest membrane still separated mother from son, just as when he was a newborn—his mouth always foraging for her breast, his finespun skin an extension of hers—and despite her best efforts, her desire to be different than she was, she could not tolerate this seamlessness; not then, and not now. 

.  .  .

The kudzu fields engrossed Teddy. He spent hours there, walking along the periphery where the kudzu swallowed bushes and trees and then venturing further into the fields, trying to calculate where the greedy vines concealed drop-offs and ditches. 

“What is it you like about the kudzu?” Millicent asked him. They were sitting together on the front porch swing, Teddy propelling them with his foot so forcefully that the chains wailed in protest. 

“I love the way it devours everything in its path.” His mouth dropped into an ample smile, and she noticed that he looked the same, absolutely the same, as the first time she had laid eyes on him, his facial hair in that perpetual state of a few days’ growth and his eyes wide and busy. 

“It kills trees, you know,” she said in a small voice. But she could tell he wasn’t listening. His momentary focus had fanned out, and he tipped his head back to look at the clouds, then a robin, then the water oak that towered in the front yard, then a nest of caterpillars tucked under the southwest eave of the roof. Millicent watched him, but kept her mind on the kudzu. What he had said about it left her cold. She could understand something smothering you with its awful intensity, and she had been careful to keep clear of things like that. 

Teddy began humming his tune. One of the kudzu fields near her house shimmered green; it seemed closer, as if at night, or in the moments when she turned away, it silently army-crawled toward her. Millicent had lost track of how long Teddy had been living with her. It didn’t help that summer had dug in that year, refusing to yield to autumn, the chronic heat welding the days and weeks together. 

She tried to trace events back in her mind, but this was an impossible undertaking. Teddy raced from one pursuit to the next, leaving a blur of abandoned projects in his wake. She couldn’t quite recall, for instance, when Teddy had bought over a dozen chickens, whose perturbed movements drove Arlen’s dog to take refuge—and unburden his bowels—in the neighbors’ yards. Teddy would probably forget the chickens in a week. 

Yet it was hard to resist the certainty with which Teddy approached his life. He was all momentum, tearing through experiences with a downhill gait. She hadn’t asked him to leave because she didn’t want him to leave. It was as simple as that. And the neighbors, who were clucking louder than Teddy’s chickens, well she was going to let the dog fertilize their lawns because that’s what she thought about their gossip. She felt defiant in thinking this, and it shook a chuckle loose from her.

Beside her Teddy laughed, too. Whether in shared merriment or at his own wandering thoughts, she couldn’t tell. He reached over and took her hand in his.

.  .  .

Two weeks later Arlen showed up. Teddy was out taking his daily trek through the kudzu. Millicent sat on the porch and watched him approach the house, and she was shocked to see how fragile he looked, sepia-toned. But his bearing had deceived her before; this impermanence was part of his guile, like a minnow slipping through sealed fingers. That same impermanence helped him avoid debt collectors and evade the men—giant oaks of men—who sometimes came looking for him. 

Arlen stopped several feet from the porch steps. “He’s still here.” 

“What’s it to you?” she replied, and she felt a crisp separation in her chest, as a slender wishbone snaps, when she saw how his face emptied out. 

Arlen sat on the steps, facing away from her. “I met him down at the store. Had a few words with him. You ought to get rid of him. He’s up to no good.”

“You’re certainly one to judge.” 

“Does he know you keep cash in the empty Crisco can?”

“It worries me more that you know.”

A papery laugh hurried out of him, and he seemed all the more diminished for having released it. “You mean to let him stay?” 

She was silent, tipping back and forth in the rocking chair. A cicada sat alongside one of the rocker’s curved feet, which scythed forward every few seconds. She continued to rock, watching the insect, until she finally kicked its clothespin torso away. 

“This house is fit for two,” she said. She didn’t say which two.

He stood up abruptly and faced her. When he had used up all the silence between them, he said, “Best you get rid of him. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” As he withdrew down the driveway, the dog followed him, nosing his thigh, but Arlen pushed his thick head away.

She watched her son’s lean body disappear up the road. After that, she spent much of her afternoon in the rocker, though she had planned to plant the purple verbenas. Instead she watched the dog mope around the chickenless yard, careful to avoid the small plots of his own waste. 

.  .  .

Summer had officially ended, but there was no relief from the heat. Humidity curdled the air, and the sun was bullying its way through the curtains of the kitchen window. Millicent stood over the sink, her hand resting on the cool belly of a stainless steel bowl. Pulling the curtains back, she hummed one of Teddy’s tunes and watched the dog sprawl out in a patch of dirt. 

The dog’s tail began to beat the earth, as if putting out an invisible fire, and this made the corners of Millicent’s mouth flatten outward and down. It meant Arlen was there. When he came into view, she was puzzled to see him talking with Teddy. She watched as Arlen reached into his front pocket to produce a slab of folded cash. She made herself turn away before witnessing the exchange. Her first thought—that of course Arlen was the loser of whatever kind of bet it was—filled her with such shame that a pinched cry broke from her mouth. When she looked again, Teddy was alone, rubbing the dog’s back.

The next morning, while sweeping the porch, Millicent heard Teddy knocking around the house. When he came outside, he launched himself through the screen door with such enthusiasm that its frame smacked the house and she dropped her broom.

He stopped in front of her. “Don’t sweep. Life’s too short to sweep!” 

She bent down for the broom. He lunged forward and grabbed her extended arm. “Come with me!” he said.

“Where?”

“You’ll see.”

Trailing after him, down the stairs, along the side of the road, she realized she was wearing her house slippers. When she thought to tell Teddy, she withheld her complaint. Running after him in her slippers made her feel girlish, just the right amount of foolishness to be meaningful rather than ridiculous. 

“Slow down!” she cried.

They walked several blocks, cut through the schoolyard, and did switchbacks to descend a shallow ravine. Teddy was being very attentive, she thought, helping her over downed tree trunks and retrieving her right slipper when, on two occasions, a cluster of roots seized it. 

“Here we are!” Teddy said. It was one of the larger kudzu fields, and he motioned for her to follow him.

They had to be careful in the kudzu. It was insatiable, clambering over everything and gobbling up whatever it pleased. It tumbled upward with the assistance of pine trees and utility poles, its waxy green leaves glittering up to the blue sky. There was something arrogant, something overreaching about it, yet also comforting, the way it seemed ponderous and patient, like a grand hulking creature from prehistory rising up from ordinary fields.  

Teddy walked ahead of Millicent and talked incessantly. Did she think kudzu could be boiled and eaten, he asked, like kale or Swiss chard? Maybe pan seared? Did she see that mound of kudzu in front of her shaped like a gorilla? 

Listening to Teddy carry on, she remembered that Arlen too had a fondness for kudzu. She didn’t know why she had forgotten that. He liked the way it absorbed everything without discrimination; how it preferred objects already on their way out: decaying old barns and rotted out cars. Kudzu knitted into itself things that the world had abandoned. Such acts of generosity, he told her, were rare in nature.

She recalled, with discomfort now, what she had said to him: “Son, there are no gifts in nature. Just necessities. Kudzu is one big weed.”

Millicent felt disoriented and thirsty. She had been walking with Teddy for such a long time. She saw a hawk gliding above her. It coasted downward in a large languid spiral, giving a flap of its wings, a tiny wink in the big sky. When she brought her eyes level again—how long had she been studying that bird?—Teddy was nowhere in sight. All she saw was green sprouting around her, lurching at her. Her tongue felt thick and foreign in her mouth; she had been sweating profusely, but now the trickles down her forehead had dried up.

“Teddy,” she called. A wild impatience gripped her. “Teddy!” He was probably just around the way, studying some remarkable expanse of kudzu, who knew what might catch his fancy. He would find it humorous that she had misplaced him for a moment. He would tilt his head and tell her not to worry. But she was not feeling generous. Her head hurt, and she was tired.

“Teddy!” 

She heard panic bloom in her voice, though her emotions felt delayed. She scrambled toward the direction she thought he had been walking, but the way the kudzu blunted its surroundings was disorienting. She repeated his name until the syllables came apart in her mouth. 

Teh. Dee. Teh. Dee.

She was moving faster when she noticed both slippers gone. Sometimes a patch of kudzu on the ground consumed her whole foot, sometimes up to her calf. She stopped and threw her head back, searching frantically for her hawk. The sky was hollow and white, bleached out by the sun. 

She sat in a patch of kudzu. A ripple of wind, cooler and drier, crossed her face. So autumn had arrived after all. She was too dizzy to sit any longer. She brought her back down on the kudzu, and as she looked up into the sun, which stood tall in the sky, she lost track of the shape of things. She drew her hand to her face, and her own hand might have been a tendril of green stretching across her cheek. She imagined it was. 

.  .  .

“Millicent?” Teddy’s voice, floating above her. “Are you taking a nap?” He sounded both puzzled and amused, and she let him help her up from the ground. She didn’t know how long she had been there, and she didn’t ask.

“Let’s go home,” she said. 

“About that,” Teddy said.

“I know. You don’t have to tell me.” There, stretched out in the kudzu, she had figured it out: Arlen had paid Teddy to leave. 

“All right, then,” Teddy said, his tone rising, and he seemed to catch sight of something out in front of him, something in the air, that Millicent couldn’t see. 

“That house is fit for two,” she said. She knew which two.