This story is by Marianne Pen and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Around the boardroom table at AVERis Inc. all eyes were on Mr. Robert Billam, as he pointed to the upward trajectory of the graphs on the power point.
Robert, in his Bironi suit of charcoal wool-silk blend shimmered silver under the overhead lights. He was their moneyman. Whatever he touched brought wealth to the corporation. Of course, it was his due that he benefited with shares, bonuses, a handsome expense account, and the use of corporate cars and jets.
Rob did all right. He worked hard for his success; he was proud of it. He had a mansion, a country house, apartments in London and Puerto Vallarta, a smart, beautiful, lawyer wife, and two sons who looked and behaved like their father with a slight air of entitlement.
Board members were proud to know and associate with Rob Billam or Rob Bullion as they called him. He got the job done and done right. There were nods from the Board, nods from Bay Street, nods from government. Some said moving up; it was whispered the next… He knew all the right people, moved in the right circles, golfed at the best courses where deals were made out of earshot. Handshakes on the 18th hole, glasses clinked at the bar. Business concluded. Oh, what a fine man.
“With profits like these we will expand into,” Rob paused. He felt a surge of energy through his feet, a rush up his body, a powerful force filling him. His face turned red. His jaw unhinged like a tailgate as he erupted spewing a vile, stinking stream of mud along the table over reports, laptops, and phones. Men scrambled to get out of the way over-turning chairs and grabbing possessions. Commands were shouted: call an ambulance, get a doctor; close the door.
The mud was the color of bleached brick, thick like porridge and smelled like raw earth. As the eruption ended, Rob Billam in his shimmering, grey suit leaned over the table and fell head, face, and chest into the disgusting vomit.
Rob’s assistant was the first one to think about lifting his face out of the muck. The paramedics were not surprised to find a red-faced corporate president collapsed at the board room table but they had never seen the likes of this— a path of red mud oozing down the table.
There were many tests. Samples taken of the mud proved it was mud. Questions were raised. How could this be? Patients were known to have vomited the contents of last night’s dinner, bile from too much drinking, or blood, but never mud. Rob was released from observation and told to take some time off. Board members felt it would be best if these shocking events remained private.
Rob and Sylvia flew to a quiet resort in Palm Springs where he could rest and regain his composure.
“Will I ever awake from this goddam nightmare?” he asked her. “Of course darling,” she’d replied. But he resented her solicitousness.
“A week here is enough,” he said, “I got to get back, otherwise I’ll lose control over things. I’m going to carry on as if nothing had happened,” Rob announced at family dinner with his sons. No sooner had the words left his lips than his guts began to heave. Rob belched mud over the dining room table and over the silk carpet he had shipped home from his last trip to China (Sylvia could never get the mud stain removed).
“I can’t take this,” said Liam and left. Kerry stayed to help his mom clean up the mess.
Sylvia was sympathetic. She called medical specialists she knew— the Mayo Clinic, the Institute for Internal Medicine. Rob suffered tubes inserted from the top end and bottom end. Health care providers poked, prodded his body parts, and sampled all his body fluids. His diet was monitored and analyzed. Research papers were being written at this moment; reputations would be made on his case.
Rob worked at home for a while but mud-spewing events occurred at the golf and country club, with his friends over dinner, at a meeting with senior managers. His colleagues started joking about “old lava lips.” The tales of erupting, belching Billam spread.
Then the media frenzy began. Eruption stories dominated the news: MUD SLIDE WIPES OUT AVERis. Share prices dropped — no, they plummeted. “Get out now,” his lawyer told him. But Rob was a fighter, not a quitter. Finally his communication director, no longer able to manage damage control, resigned. Supporters began slipping away. A meeting of executives and shareholders pleaded with him — take a leave of absence. When he protested, they demand his resignation.
“Too bad you didn’t cash in your shares earlier,” said Liam.
The slide to ignominy was swift. Within a half a year he’d lost his career, reputation, half his wealth, many friends and colleagues, his fame, and power. His sessions with a psychiatrist resulted in such large eruptions the shrink would no longer see him in his office. He came to his home to pester him with questions about his relationship with his mother. (Thank god she was no longer around to witness the spectacle he was making).
The effect of vomiting mud had affected his body. The spewing action loosened his teeth, gave his voice a gravelly sound and disrupted his digestive system. His sense of control and self-confidence was eroded.
“You will have only months to live if you keep this up,” his family doctor said. “I recommend you go where you are no longer connected to the business and financial world. Go where you have no access to media. Get out in nature. You need complete rest.”
He found a rustic cabin beside a river. It was nothing like the designer rustic cabins he was used to with amenities like hot tubs and wine cellars. This small cabin was wood frame with just one room, a hand pump for water and a wood-burning stove.
His first week alone was pretty tough. The hairs on his neck bristled and he jumped when he heard the reverberating WHOOO, WHOOO, of an owl. He’d never experienced night so black. One night he saw an eerie light dancing across the sky. Must be northern lights he thought, as he watched in awe. He couldn’t remember ever seeing the night sky except as a backdrop for city lights. He began looking for stars and constellations.
He slept a lot at first. It seemed he had years of sleep to catch up on. The spot was so peaceful and by the end of the summer he had started to relax. He was tanned and toned from chopping wood. Dismay, anger, regret, and confusion washed through him. He vomited less. There was a small heap by the door.
In September Sylvia came for a weekend. She was pleased to see him looking so healthy — back to his old, virile self. But on Sunday morning when they started talking about business decisions to be made he erupted again, again and again. They were both shaken.
“You can’t stay here for winter,” Sylvia said, “You’ll be snowed in and isolated. Why don’t I see if I can find a cheap place in the Bahamas? You always liked the Bahamas. We still have a bank account there.”
“No, I don’t want to leave here.” His face was ashen. He could feel another eruption coming. “I can’t do it, can’t go there.” He started to cry, racking sobs. Tears, snot and mud dribbled down his face.
“Rob, Rob, — I’m so sorry.” They held each other as they both cried.
“Let me see if I can fix the place up and stay the winter,” he said. And he did.
When the snow was deep and the wind howling, he sat and read or thought. He thought of who or what was to blame for his demise. He’d gone after what he wanted. Competition, getting ahead was just good business. How could it have all gone off the rails?
He saw how complicated his life had been. Now he enjoyed simple routines. He made a bird feeder and watched the birds. He explored the woods on snowshoes and delighted in sightings of wildlife. He slept peacefully. He no longer woke in the night in a sweat thinking about some big deal or worrying about some fast deal (only slightly illegal) that netted him a profit. He thought about those things sometimes during the day and was surprised when he regretted his greed.
Dripping icicles announced spring one morning. Snowdrifts shrank. Spring flowers and new growth burst green and yellow around him. Flies and bees came out of hiding places. New birds arrived. Frogs filled the night with their chorus. His sons arrived to see how he had fared.
“Dad,” said Kerry, “If you’re going to keep up this Thoreau thing, I thought you might want to plant a garden,” and he handed him seeds and a gardening book. Liam shrugged as he offered a bottle of scotch and some business journals.
Rob stood on the bare earth and felt the subtle trickle of ice melting. It ran like a current through the soles of his feet. Was he becoming more sensitive to things after all this time alone, he wondered? Gardening wasn’t really his thing. However, the physicality of it appealed. The flat area near the porch seemed like a good spot. He wasn’t sure how to prepare the earth. He scraped leaves and twigs away and turned over the soil. Eyeing the mountain of mud he had spewed, he decided to mix it in. Hadn’t the analysis shown it full of minerals and nutrients?
He planted. He watched. He waited. When the first seedlings appeared, Rob knelt and looked at them with curiosity. He couldn’t get over how quickly growth happened. It seemed silly to be so pleased when the lettuce and radishes were ready to eat. He savored the freshness. He watched with interest as the peas and beans developed. He was proud of his new potatoes.
There was something about having his hands in the earth that engaged him. His senses felt like antennae twitching to receive information. Using his body in a primal way, he felt the hum of the energy in his heart. It broke him open. He lay on the earth and wept for his life. The earth whispered, “Listen to me.” He heard it in the rattle of the aspen leaves; he heard in the rushing green river; he heard it in bird songs. “I am here with you— in you.”
“I can’t go back to the way it was,” he said when Kerry came to help him get the cabin ready for winter. “My life has changed. I’ve found my way out of that dark wood.” That evening Rob and his son sat around a small fire amid the incense of wood smoke. They listened to the fire crackling and felt the faint flitter of bats in the stillness.
“A clear night sky,” Rob observed. “We’ll probably get frost.” In the morning sunlight, every blade of grass, every branch shimmered silver. Rob beckoned Kerry to the door. Together they stepped outside awed by the brilliance of the scene around them.
“Dad, what do you think,” Kerry hesitated, “what do you make of what’s happened to you? I mean— why do you think there was all that mud? It was so strange.”
Rob looked at his son. “Can’t explain it,” he said shaking his head. “I’m learning to accept there are mysteries in life. The truth, as I see it, is that my suffering led to me to parts of myself buried alive. I heard the earth speak to me: you need mud for growth— no mud, no lotus.”