Illustrated Fiction: Mud Show

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"Mud Show" is a work of fiction that Christine Stoddard wrote while an undergraduate at VCUarts in Richmond, Virginia. It was the basis for a short film that the VCUarts Cinema program produced in 2011. This version features illustrations created by Virginia artist Sarah V. Smith.

Now here is the story for your reading pleasure:

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"Mud Show"

Clouds roll through a vast, azure sky. We see a boy's face, upside-down, with a tuft of hair glued to his upper-lip and small ballpoint marks like stubble dappling his cheeks. Monkey, age 10, hangs from a tree branch and peers at his reflection in a puddle. He wears a torn felt hat, rainbow suspenders, and Coke bottle glasses. When Monkey's glasses fall and hit the puddle, his entire collection of toy animals gets splashed. The zebra topples over and crashes into the baboon. Monkey retrieves his glasses, seizes his pimp cane and bangs it on the ground. Then he clears his throat and announces:

"Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! What you're about to see may frighten you, but have no fear for I am a trained professional! I present to you a beast capable of incredible feats."

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Monkey loiters for a second before heading to the makeshift cage beneath his favorite tree. A beagle huddles inside of the rickety box. Monkey lights a hoop swinging from the tree and then places his right hand on the cage door. The beagle whimpers.

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"Now...prepare to see--"

Monkey opens the cage and the beagle sprints off.

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"Hey!" He shouts. "You're still have to jump through the ring of fire!"

Monkey wilts before the empty cage and flaming hoop, the failed ringmaster.

Later in the day, Monkey shuffles down the road, kicking up dust. Monkey spots a poster nailed to a telephone pole up the road. He races toward it and sees an announcement for a traveling carnival. There's a short list of acts, including THE DENVER DAGGER. There's also a note saying: FREE ADMISSION TO ALL PIE COMPETITION CONTESTANTS! Monkey rips the poster off the pole and runs back to the sagging Victorian on the edge of town that is his home.

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Pearl, age 30, Monkey's mother, is washing the dishes. She is pretty in a Midwestern farmer's daughter kind of way, but tired beyond her years. Pearl finds comfort in the sound of running water until Monkey barges into the house.

"Mom! Mom!"

Monkey pops into the kitchen.

"Hi, Monkey."

"Mom! The carnival's coming this weekend and--"

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Pearl tenses up. "What about that movie you wanted to see?" she asks.

"Movie? But Mom--"

"The carnival's expensive, Monkey."

"So's the movies and--"

Pearl throws the dishrag on the floor. "You're not going to the carnival."

"But this poster says Dad's gonna be there."

"You dad's dead, Monkey. You know that."

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Pearl snatches the poster from Monkey. Silence hangs between them until Pearl's face stretches in horror.

"That's his name," Monkey mutters.

"Must be another Denver."

Pearl rushes out of the kitchen. Stunned, Monkey stands still in the kitchen while his mother slams her bedroom door and collapses on her bed.

Pearl tears up the poster and puts her face in her hands. She sniffs and drops her hands. Shel leaves the shreds of paper on the floor as she unzips her dress from the back. A single scar marks her shoulder blades. She steps into the bathroom to draw a bath.

By the time Pearl's fingertips have turned into raisins, Monkey is now in his pajamas and playing in his bathroom. He wipes condensation from the mirror to reveal his wild eyes.

"Watch Shep the Fierce Canine jump through the ring of fire."

Pearl's voice cracks from down the hall: "Go to sleep!"

Monkey sadly stares into the mirror.

"Goodnight, Monkey."

"'Night, Mom."

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Monkey waits until he hears Pearl close her bedroom door, transfixed on his reflection. He looks exactly as his father did at his age, at least as far as Monkey can tell from old photographs. Monkey snaps out of his reverie, spits out his toothpaste, rinses his mouth, and walks toward the kitchen.

Monkey removes an empty pie tin and an ancient family cookbook from the depths of a dusty cabinet. Then he opens the book on the counter and flips to a pie recipe. He sucks a breath of air through his teeth after glancing at all of the ingredients and steps required. He shuts the book and looks forlornly at the pie tin, alone on that arm of the counter, save for a single cockroach wing.

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Monkey pulls a few dry ingredients from the pantry and sets them on the counter. He starts fitting them in the pie tin like a puzzle. The sugar bowl like this and the cinnamon container like that. Monkey tears the crusts off a few slices of bread and lays the rest of the bread over the tin like a pie top. He neatly presses the bread crusts to the edges of the tin like a pie crust, pressing and pressing until the bread finally tears. He pulls and patches the bread back into place. Proud of his creation, Monkey takes the tin and puts it in the fridge. Then he tiptoes back to his bedroom.

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The next morning, shadows dance across Monkey's face and on the ceiling as he wakes. The muffled sounds of animals and carnival music haunt the soundtrack playing in Monkey's mind. He looks around and then down to the side of his bed. He lifts the hem and the noises grow louder and clearer. Silhouetted carnival images flash beneath his bed. Monkey drops the hem, laughs and gets up to dance with the silhouettes now projected on the ceiling.

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"I am the ringmaster!" Monkey cries, arms raised in victory.

When Pearl opens the door, Monkey's standing on his bed. The shadows have faded.

Pearl scoffs. "What on earth are you doing, Monkey?"

Without waiting for a rely, Pearl goes to the kitchen and opens the fridge. She yanks out Monkey's pie, huffs at it, and jams it into the garbage can. Monkey darts toward Pearl.

"Mom!"

"All that bread wasted. What were you thinking? I do my best to provide and--"

Pearl shakes her head. She slams a frying pan onto the stove and turns on the burner. She cracks open an egg, letting slime dribble all over her fingers.

Monkey glares at the slime slick on Pearl's wrists and then storms out of the house. He trudges through through a few bushes to sit under a tree. He looks up through its spreading branches, closes his eyes, and remains there for the rest of the afternoon.

When Pearl calls Monkey in for lunch, he sits calmly at the table. He hesitates to grab the peanut butter sandwich before him.

"I'm sorry, Mom."

"It's okay, baby."

Monkey forces a smile and picks up the sandwich.

"I'm cleaning the Peterson house today," says after swallowing a gulp of sweet tea.

Monkey nods.

"A nice house. The O'Sullivan's, too. You know, the one on Grace Street. After that, I'm making dinner for the Zemels."

Monkey nods again.

"Don't forget your celery," Pearl says and then kisses Monkey on the forehead. "I'll be back around 8 o'clock."

Monkey pokes a celery stick, almost grabs it, and then decides not to. His mother picks up her purse from the table and leaves the house.

After lunch, Monkey goes to his room. He falls into a pile on the fall, barely leaning up against his bed, still looking upset. He pulls a piece of paper and a crayon from the shoebox beneath his bed. He doodles break-in plans for the carnival, groaning as his frustration mounts. None of his plans seem plausible. Monkey crumples the paper and walks to the window. His demeanor changes and he spins around, grinning at nobody or nothing in particular.

Monkey cuts through the withered field by his house as he makes his way toward town. The closer he gets, the closer the houses are placed to one another. He slows down his pace until he's found his target.

Monkey stalks through his neighbor's yard before crouching beneath the kitchen window. A fresh pie, illuminated by the kitchen light cools off on the windowsill. When he thinks the coast is clear, Monkey reaches for the pie. He nearly touches it when Mr. Walsh, who's babbling on the telephone, approaches the windowsill, too.

"Looks like Ethel wants to win again this year," Mr. Walsh says under his breath.

Paralyzed, Monkey waits in horror as Mr. Walsh's hands fly toward the pie. Their fingers nearly touch except that Mr. Walsh freezes. His hands hover in the air. Whatever the person says on the other line has distracted Mr. Walsh. Then Mr. Walsh recovers and continues blabbing.

After several agonizing seconds, Mr. Walsh eventually steps away from the window and retreats farther into the house. Monkey snatches the pie and starts to sneak away when Mr. Walsh yells, "Get back here!"

Mr. Walsh runs after Monkey. When he catches up to him. Mr. Walsh grabs Monkey. Monkey drops the pie, but Mr. Walsh is too angry to commend. Instead he drags Monkey into the house. Then Mr. Walsh picks up the phone to do what Monkey dreads most.

Half an hour later, Pearl, Monkey, and Mr. Walsh all stand outside Mr. Walsh's well-kept house. A furious Pearl, still dressed in her work clothes, takes Monkey by the wrist and turns to Mr. Walsh.

"I'm sorry, sir."

"Next time he pulls a stunt like that, I'm calling Sheriff Murphy. My wife's award-winning pies are worth a pretty penny."

"Oh, he wouldn't dare. Right, Monkey?"

Monkey stares at his feet, clenches his teeth. "No, ma'am."

Pearl puts her hands on Monkey's shoulders and they scamper off.

"I'm taking you to work. Your father's dead, Monkey. Quit chasing ghosts."

Before long, Pearl is kneeling on the floor of her client's big and beautiful home. She dusts the furniture, while Monkey sits on a chair in the corner, pouting. He fishes a toy tiger from his pocket and makes it prowl across his thigh.

"Quit it," Pearl hisses.

Monkey stops, but only for a second or two before resuming.

"Mrs. Peterson's not at the carnival?"

Pearl purses her lips. Since Monkey continues playing, Pearl pretends it doesn't bother her and keeps scrubbing the floor. Yet Monkey grows louder and louder. He drops from his chair and starts stalking like a tiger toward his mother. He bumps into a corner table and breaks a vase.

"Monkey!"

As Pearl marches toward the broom closet, Monkey quickly gathers up his animals into his backpack. He considers the broken vase and pulls an animal from his backpack. He sets it on the pedestal and bolts for the door. Then Monkey runs off into the night.

We now find Monkey lingering outside the chain link fence surrounding the carnival. He looks through the fence. He tries climbing the fence, but to no avail. Monkey waits until something snags his eye: a hole in another section of the fence. He tosses his backpack through the hole and then crawls through the hole himself.

Monkey floats through the carnival, lost in his dreams of ringmaster fame and Denver the Dagger. Eventually Monkey half-steps out of his reverie and runs, slowed as though through space, toward a lone, glowing carnival tent in the middle of a dark field.

Monkey enters the tent where Denver, 32, an unusually handsome man, is throwing daggers at his assistant, who looks exactly like a dolled-up Pearl. She stands in front of a large circular target. Neither one notices Monkey at first. He moves closer.

"Hello," Monkey mouths.

Denver does not hear Monkey.

"Excuse me, sir."

Denver turns and faces Monkey.

"Why, good evening, little man."

"Can I help?"

Denver laughs. "Wanna get into show business?"

Monkey's only response is a gulp.

"No, I'm sorry, kid. We're busy."

Denver turns back to throw more knives. This one lands closer to his assistant's face. She smiles uncomfortably.

"I'd be really good at it," Monkey says slightly louder.

"I said no, alright? You deaf?" Denver addresses his assistant,"Now make sure you scream this time. They need to believe the terror."

When Denver realizes that Monkey's still there, he whips around. "Get outta here!"

"Can't I just help?"

"Shut up and scram. You're wasting my time."

Denver throws another knife, which lands close enough to her face to cause her to really scream. Denver bends down to lock eyes with Monkey.

"What's up, you little prick?" He breath stinks of brandy.

"You're my...my..."

"I'm what? Just a showman. Denver the Dagger, here today, gone tomorrow."

"Pearl Oxley!" Monkey spat. "You're my dad!"

Confused at first, recognition soon hits Denver's face, but he doesn't let it show for long. He grabs Monkey by the collar and growls, "I never gave a shit about Pearl Oxley and I sure as hell don't care about you."

Denver shoves Monkey to the ground and turns back to his assistant, throwing another knife with no regard for his mark. His assistant shrieks and ducks. The knife lands exactly where the assistant's head just was.

"Don't you ever move from your mark!"

Denver approaches his assistant, clenching a knife. He stabs it into the mark and then smacks his assistant. The woman sulks off and out of the tent.

"Don't smear your make-up, love, or they'll see what an ugly whore you really are," Denver cackles.

Monkey charges for Denver, whose back is to now to him, but Denver is sober enough to notice. He grabs Monkey by the collar and throws him at the foot of the target.

"Fine," Denver snarls, "You can help."

Monkey brushes himself off and stands up, shivering in place as Denver launches a knife at him. Monkey closes his eyes before the knife lands by his right shoulder.

"Open your damn eyes. When I was your age, I was already taming lions."

Monkey opens his eyes, focusing on Denver's shoulder. Just as another knife comes toward him, Monkey shrieks, "Is that what you're wearing?" The land hits a spot just above his left shoulder.

"What do you mean?" Denver's hand freezes in the air.

"Where's your fancy clothes?"

"All I got's these rags, kid."

"Oh," Monkey murmurs, visibly disappointed.

"Hey," Denver barks, "I used to have the finest clothes. Sparkles and silk and shit."

Monkey squirms.

"Hold still."

Monkey's hands fall to his crotch. "I gotta pee."

"Bullshit."

"No, really."

"Okay, you wanna play that game?" Denver asks, arching his brow. "I'll really make you piss your pants."

Denver throws a knife directly for Monkey's face. In an instant, Monkey ducks and rolls, rising to his feet with a wet patch on the inner-thigh of his trousers. As Monkey tries to scamper toward the open flap in the tent, Denver swipes at him. Then he kicks Monkey in his tiny shins, presses his boot on the arch of his tiny back, and slurs in his ear, "Give me all your money and the keys to your house. I'm gonna pay Pearl a visit."

"I don't got money."

"I don't care. Give me the key."

"I don't got a key."

Denver shoves his fist into Monkey's pocket and scrunches his nose. "You couldn't hold it, huh?"

"No, sir." Monkey sees from the corner of his eye that Denver has stolen his toy tiger. He drops the tiger on the ground and crushes it with the heel of his boot.

"I'm done with you, kid."

Denver releases Monkey and goes to the target to retrieve his knives. Humming, Denver ignores Monkey. Monkey hops up and scrambles out of the tent, sprinting through the carnival, tears blurring the sights into a kaleidoscope.

As Monkey passes booth after booth, he hears women wail and dogs howl. Teeth gnash in the sky, distorting the carnival into a nightmare. The stars no longer shine in his mind and the fireflies have all gone to sleep. Monkey crawls out from the same hole in the fence he used to enter the carnival. His shirt snags on the fence and tears as he pulls away. Then he hits the road.

About halfway home, Monkey hears his mother call his name. He looks up. Pearl chases after her son, but Monkey ignores her. When Pearl finally reaches him, she grips his shoulders. Monkey wiggles away and keeps walking.

"Monkey, come on. It's too early to go home. Let's go back to the carnival. How about some cotton candy? Or a ferris wheel ride?"

Pearl catches up to Monkey and drops to her knees to lock eyes with him, just as Denver had done.

"Monkey, whoever you saw...it wasn't him."

Monkey heaves a sigh and uttered, "Liar," before he turns and dashes into the darkness, far from the carnival lights.