Dustin Heron's Paradise Stories is a marvelously told tale. At times grotesque, bizarre, often hilarious and always painfully true, it features a cast of vivid characters, including several ghosts and a talking stack of shit. There's a lot of shit here, but then there's a lot of shit and shitting in real life, so the ratio is about right. Heron has penned a moving meditation on our mortality.
-Linh Dinh, Blood and Soap and Borderless Bodies
Published in 2007 by Small Desk Press, Paradise Stories is a story cycle that takes place in Paradise, CA and centers around the Wrights, a working class family struggling with loss, poverty, and a very real pile of shit. Below is a sample story from the book. If you are interested in purchasing the book, contact me via the "Contact" page on this site, or message Small Desk Press on Facebook or Twitter.
Two Very Long Arms
When he was ten, a shit field sprang up in Billy’s front yard. It started in the house, coming back up and out the toilet. Water splashed out so fast the toilet lid flapped up and down in the rush. The dingy brown water spilled across the linoleum, old floaters and forgotten wads of toilet paper swimming towards the shag carpet, which became thick and wet with humid toilet stink; the whole house took on the atmosphere of a marsh.
Everyone was out of the house when it happened, and one by one came home to clouds of stale piss and flies. When Billy’s mom, Ant, came home from shopping, she saw the water running out from under the front door and went to her parents house on the other side of town. When Billy got home, he opened the door and went slowly inside, squishing across the carpet for the phone. He called his grandparents and Ant came home. They laid down towels from the kitchen to Ant’s bedroom and watched her TV until Billy’s dad, Stan, got home. His sawdust covered work boots left giant footprints in the carpet that filled with water. Sawdust and shit floated in the puddles left in his wake.
“This place needs a concrete foundation and hardwood floors,” Stan said, swinging a claw hammer around his meaty index finger. Stan’s idea was impossible: the house was a lima-bean green trailer up on cinder blocks—a mobile home—that did not belong to them.
Ant said, “Just fix this for now.” She always said this to Stan. There were boxes of unused collectibles and hand-me-down junk stacked around the house, and every bit of clutter had, at one time, been addressed with this command. Still, it remained.
But this day, Stan went out to the front yard, found the septic tank markers, and dug into the hard, red dirt until he had formed a basin around a slender black pipe with a valve at the top. He released the valve. Whatever pressure had forced the old shit into the house now released it out of the pipe and into the yard, filling the earthen basin until it became a putrid, shit-filled pond; a swarm of flies hovered immediately over the water and mosquito larvae began to multiply uncontrollably. The pipe coughed up wads of stringy old paper, sinking into the water with a plop only to reappear floating, pulled apart and trailing across the surface like fake spider-web. The shit was probably not all theirs—some surely belonged to former tenants, and had been stored in the rusty old pipes and murky limits of the tank as old memories are shuttled off to the dark corners of the brain—but it seeped out into what was now their yard, and was entirely their problem. The sudden excess of water and crumbly old shit was sucked up by the crusty, hard land, filled for years and years by pine-needles that would not decompose, would not give up nutrients to earth so stale it had no choice but to drink up septic water as if it were lapping at a wholesome fountain of youth. Billy’s parents had tried growing a vegetable garden, but all that mountain soil ever yielded was hard tomatoes and wilted broccoli. Now they grew shit.
After a few days, the water began to flow out of the basin and throughout the front yard, until even the gravel driveway squished when you stepped on it, as if the whole quarter acre were sitting on top of a sponge. When a car pulled into the driveway, the whole yard shifted and sloshed like a waterbed. The septic would have to be replaced, but it was expensive, and they had no help from their landlord.
They lived in Paradise, California, but a tour of their small lot would make you think they lived on a farm in Wyoming, which in fact was their dream. Paradise had been their dream once, too, back when they lived in Tracey and Stan worked graveyard at the box plant; but now paradise had turned into Wyoming while Paradise was flooded with shit. To simulate Wyoming, they tried to squeeze a farm onto their quarter-acre rental lot by stuffing it with themselves, Billy, three dogs, nine cats, six chickens, four geese, two goats, and a cow. The cats were various degrees of stray, the dogs stayed strictly in the back but were let in at night, the chickens fought with the geese in a shit splattered coop in the corner of the front yard while the goats and cow were on either side of the mobile in their own too-small pens, built by Stan’s hands with leftover lumber from Meeks, where he drove truck. The cow was still a baby, gotten after they had slaughtered the pigs the spring before. All of this Wyoming in California meant that, when their septic tank exploded into their house and yard, they couldn’t call their landlord for fear of being evicted.
Stan used a Shop-Vac to suck up most of the water from the carpet, but the smell still hung in the air, a smell of old water at the bottom of a well, a smell like the wisp of a fart filtering from the room, a smell that hung around and mixed with Ant’s potpourri, or that of a cooking dinner, to make an entirely new smell, like shit lasagna or a bouquet of shit roses. Everything they ate tasted like shit, everywhere they went, they were sure they smelled like shit. For a long while in the beginning, they sat around with their noses pinched in clothespins, but, slowly and unnoticeably, they grew used to it: Ant no longer stopped in the corner of the grocery store to sniff herself, and she no longer dabbed Billy with Stan’s cologne before letting him leave for school; Stan, who worked in the sun and sweated and stunk like a mule anyway, was never bothered by thoughts of carrying the shit stink with him. They had come to a point, collectively and without speaking of it, where they believed that if they had to smell like shit, so be it. The yard was the big problem now, and it would require hiring a septic specialist to come and dig out the old tank and replace it.
Ant got a job taking care of a couple of old fogies down in Chico, and had to stay with them until after dark. Stan started going to the dairy farms after work to see if they needed help running their milk tankers in the winter—with persistence, but little luck. It was October and most of the tankers had drivers already. Still, Stan came home late after waiting on the edges of farms on the off chance of work, digging his toe into gravel like waiting to be picked for schoolyard baseball, and so it was up to Billy to get the fire going when he got home from school and make sure all the animals were fed. He would do this and, once it got dark, turn on the TV in his room and look out the window, waiting for one of his parents to come squishing into the driveway.
He came straight home after school, which was no problem, because he had no friends. Besides, if the goats got too hungry, they would start bleating like crazy. Neighbors had complained, and threats had been made of calling the landlord. Nothing had been done yet. Billy learned that when one of their neighbors came knocking at the tall front gate, ignore them. They always wanted to come in and brought with them all sorts of questions about his parents and where they were and how they could leave such a young boy home all alone. If he heard a knock, or if the phone rang, he turned out his light, and turned the TV off, and lay on his bed. Alone in the dark, the septic smell became the entire world. He imagined that stale stink of piss and shit moving through the house as visible as snow in the wind, climbing through his nose and into his lungs, filling his bladder and stomach again, so that all he would eat and breathe and drink was distilled piss and shit, and he would piss and shit it out again, and it would go right out the toilet and into the front yard to rise up into the air. He was learning about the water cycle at school, about how the world moved only in circles—every toilet flush became a gurgling splash in the yard, confirming this.
Now it was mid-November. Billy was home from school, about to feed the goats. Heavy clouds, black and grey, were boiling quietly overhead. The pine trees around their yard stuck up like black sticks, scraggly and jagged. Stan had dropped a big pile of alfalfa hay in the driveway the night before, so Billy went out to it and gathered up two big handfuls, pressing them against his chest. Dry flakes of the dense, stringy hay stuck to his sweatshirt and his nose filled with the green dust. He used to let his nose fill with the flakes to cover up the shit, but, at this point, it wasn’t the smell that got to him: it was how the soggy ground slid beneath his feet, the way one step would make the gravel ripple and rupture, a thick black sludge oozing from secret pockets hiding just beneath the driveway surface. He imagined that any day now the shit would start poking up through the ground like clover, toilet paper would open and flower like dandelions. He breathed in as much of the hay as he could, and walked quickly, and made his way towards the goat pen, on the other side the shit pipe and its dark pond.
As he was walking by the shit pipe, trying not to look at it, he heard a sudden, vaporous gasp, followed by a gurgle; a thick gust of wind, foul with the smell of old toilet water and fresh shit, came rushing over him. The smell, so fresh, as if a ragged shit had been smeared beneath his nose, penetrated even through the hay. It was as if he had smelled shit again for the first time. He gagged, bent over, and spat strings of thick vomit slime onto the ground.
It smelled as though a fresh shit had just been spat into the yard. But no one had been home all day. Old shit didn’t normally come out during the day. Billy thought that all of the old shit was already in the yard, out in the open, floating beneath his bedroom window. He turned towards the smell. It was not a fresh stream of shit, after all: rising slowly out of the water, dripping wet and blinking, was a tall pile of shit. Just a small mound at first, it kept rising up, growing taller and wider, until it loomed above Billy, casting a long, dark shadow over him. For the most part, it was an indefinable brown mass, but here and there individual logs and features stuck out: it clearly had a mouth, which opened and closed, lips smacking, releasing the same fart smelling air with every breath; its eyes were globules of toilet paper.
The great mound slid like a slug to the edge of the water. It moved slowly, its whole mass wobbling. “Do you have the time?” it asked.
“Four o’clock,” Billy said. “Are you my poop?”
The pile laughed. “Not entirely. Tell me, what year is it?”
“Nineteen-ninety four.” Billy pressed the hay tighter and tighter against his chest. He stepped backwards. Though the shit was enormous and bubbling, it had no smell at all, save that dull and muggy stink that filled the house and that Billy had gotten used to.
“Ah,” said the shit, and it leaned back, or appeared to: the shit that was its face slid up to the top of the pile, and the shit at the top rolled off, cascading down its great back, plinking and splattering into the water. Then its face slid back into pace. “Forty-five years!” said the shit.
Billy could say nothing. He was still amazed by how tall the shit was. Easily two feet taller than him. If he had been as tall as the shit, he could play basketball at lunchtime with the older kids. They would pick him first, and they would all know his name.
“What are you?” he said finally.
“It’s a long story,” said the shit. Little bubbles were always popping all over the pile, making a sound like moldy fruit being dropped from the top of a table. The dogs started barking in the backyard.
Billy stepped backwards, until he felt the jabbing end of a pine branch in his back. “I need to feed the goats,” he said.
“Wait!” said the shit. “Don’t you want to hear my story? I have so much to say!” Its eyes stretched out wide, until the toilet paper that made them was thin and transparent; its mouth opened until it was as big as Billy was tall.
“Like what?” Billy asked, squinting into the windy, fart-smelling yawn of the shit.
The shit gave a squirm, a sloppy turning that shook turds form its sides and back like a dog shaking off water. “Um.....hey! Do you like to read?”
Billy took a step towards the goat pen.
“Because I’ve got a book,” the shit said breathlessly. “Have I got the book for you!”
“Me?” Billy tried to point at himself, as if the shit wouldn’t know who he meant, but his arms were full and tiring from holding the thick bunches of hay.
“Yes, you! That is, if....” the shit looked around conspiratorially: it’s eyes swished back and forth and all the shit from one side of its body swung to the other; great streams of brown sludge ran down its sides. Finally, its eyes settled in the middle again, and it teetered dangerously over the edge of the water towards Billy. “....if you want to live forever!” it whispered loudly.
“You can live forever?” Billy dropped the hay.
The shit leaned back again, a smug smile on its face. “Apparently so, my friend. Apparently so.”
“But you’re poop.” He gestured with his hay-dotted arms at the festering shit field. His arms felt light, and, for some reason, capable of anything—as if he could lift up a great pile of bricks, or push cars all by himself.
“Yeah, but I feel great!” The shit flexed like a bodybuilder.
Billy stepped towards the shit. He stood at the edge of the water. The shit smiled down at him. Up close, Billy could see the various colors of the shit, dark splotches here, raggedy brown speckles there, mysterious greens and impossibly whole chunks of food all over. It still had no smell, nothing more amazing than the tang of pine or the gathering whiff of rain. He reached towards the shit. His hand passed through the shit as if he were putting his hand into cold, wet cookie dough. It globbed onto his fingers, it was thick, and sticky, and yet wet, squishing loudly. When his arm was up to his elbow, he felt the hard edge of a book. He grabbed it by the spine.
“There you go!” said the shit.
He pulled his arm slowly out, and as the pocket of shit he had made refilled with air and shit, it made a squelching, farting sound. Both he and the shit laughed. His arm was completely covered in runny blobs of shit. He went to the hose, holding his arm and the shit-soaked book out away from him. One good spray from the hose cleaned everything off; he wouldn’t even have to wash his sweatshirt, and the book was undamaged. He was near the corner of the house. He flipped the book open and glanced up at the shit, who had floated over to the nearest edge of the pond and was looking at him, a big smile and wide eyes shining between two branches of a small, black oak.
“Yes, yes,” said the shit. “We never have to die!”
There were pictures in the book and lots of words. A slight wind picked up, coldly crossing over Billy’s face with the terrible stink of shit. He gagged. His eyes watered. The goats started bleating from their little pen. The wind passed and, again, there was no smell. He dropped the book and went to where he had left the hay.
“What are you doing?” said the shit.
“I have to feed the goats.” He picked up chunks of the hay, stuffing them in his pockets and down the neck of his sweatshirt.
“Don’t you want to learn how to not die? Aren’t you afraid? I was afraid. I was so afraid of dying I looked everywhere to avoid it. Thank god I found this book! I’ve seen people die, and it is so painful. And then, you’re gone. But, this way, you never feel pain, you never go away. Have you ever seen anyone die?”
“Yes,” Billy said, and he thought first of his siblings, twins, who had died, but that was before he was born. He thought next of the pigs they had slaughtered. The pigs had been mean, sloppy animals covered with mud, with black eyes that would lower at Billy when he went to see them; they would charge at him, grunting, when he came in their pen. To feed them, he had to stand on the porch and pour the feed over their fence. When they were killed, a man came from the butcher shop and brought the two muddy beasts out into the front yard. They weren’t mean at all to him. It was raining and the pigs were covered with even more mud and shit than normal; they were almost black with it. The man dumped a pile of green pellets onto the ground and while the pigs rooted around for it, he pulled a rifle from his truck and shot one, and then the other, squealing, in the head. Then he took a knife and slit their throats and blood pooled beneath the giant, writhing monsters, mixing with the muddy rain water and flowing out across the yard in dark, swirling rivers. Billy watched from his bedroom window without once looking away. Yes, he never liked the pigs, and yes, it was terrible to watch them die, and he was sure that they hurt very much just before they were gone, maybe even while the butcher hung them up and cut their bellies and took all of their guts out into a pile in the dirt. But he was certain, also, that all the blood that flowed so freely down the driveway was still partly there—there was too much to ever wash it away completely. The shit was maybe right; it would probably hurt to die. But when you were dead, you also didn’t stink, or scare little boys who were only trying to be nice and feed you, and so when you were dead, all that little boy would have left of you was the dried blood in the driveway dirt and the memory of how sad he felt when he watched you die.
“What if everything changes when you die?” he asked.
“You a gambler?” laughed the shit.
“No,” Billy sighed. “I have to feed the goats.”
He went and fed the goats. He set the hay down in their trough and then stood in the center of their small pen, arms out straight, while both Lilly and Pearl circled around him, nibbling the bits of alfalfa off his sweatshirt with their nimble, purple tongues. Lilly licked his face for the green dust and followed the trail down his sweatshirt, pulling the sharp pieces from against his neck. Normally, this was Billy’s favorite part of the day, letting the goats search him for food. They were gentle and warm, and would rest their foreheads on his when they were done and let him run his hands up and down their long, coarse necks. He thought about their heads, how when they were babies they had little nubs of horns. His dad had burnt them off. He told Billy to hold their baby goat legs while he pressed a red-hot iron against the horns. The little goats screamed and bleated and their legs pushed against Billy. He thought they would hate him like the pigs hated him, but with reason. A few minutes later, though, they were running all over the yard, jumping onto the deck with their clacking hooves and bleating playfully.
He felt a drop of rain on the top of his head. He looked up into the blackening sky, here and there a white drop of water streaking across. He gave Lilly and Pearl a final pat on the head and went back to the shit, picking up the shit’s book on the way.
“You have to go away,” he said to the shit. “My mom’s coming home soon.”
“She won’t get home until after dark,” said the shit.
“Still,” said Billy. “You can’t be in our front yard. You have to go back to where you belong.”
“Your dad opened the septic tank. He released me,” said the shit, sliding away a short distance. Then, quickly sliding back, “Have you ever heard of black magic?”
Billy looked up at the sky. “If it rains, will you wash away into the yard?”
“I hope not!” Something burst on the back of the pile, and shit sprayed the side of the house.
Billy sighed. “I have to go inside now. You should be careful.”
As he walked away, the shit yelled after him: “This offer won’t last forever, buddy, but I will!”
Billy went in and sat at the kitchen table, which was cluttered with a bunch of Ant’s papers and files, stacks of Stan’s old hunting magazines. The whole house was cluttered, and the whole back yard, too; wherever there wasn’t an animal, there was some old piece of junk that his dad had dragged home from work. Billy pulled out his sketchbook and pencils from his backpack and pushed his mom’s papers aside. One of her folders opened, exposing the edge of a picture that he knew without seeing. It was the only picture taken of his older brother and sister, Lucy and Travis. They had died in the hospital shortly after birth. In the picture, his mom’s face was thin and sweaty, and her eyes were red and huge; Travis and Lucy, identical and premature, were still covered with goo and their eyes were squeezed shut and they were crying and tiny and pink. Billy had asked once which one was Travis, and Ant had gotten very quiet, and said she didn’t know, and she had gone away into her room and didn’t come out for a very long time. Billy closed the folder and put it at the edge of the table, far away from him. It was true, too, that when you died, you made everyone who knew you or who would have known you sad. He could hear the shit out in the yard singing softly to himself. It had the voice of an old crooner, and was singing a medley of Sinatra songs.
Outside, it was starting to rain. Billy began drawing a picture of the shit to show his parents when they got home. When he finished the shit, he opened the shit’s magic book, flipping around for pictures. He found a painting of Ponce de Leon standing on a rock and pointing to some jungle. Billy copied the explorer’s picture onto his paper, next to the shit. Then he drew himself on the other side, what he hoped he looked like when he got older: tall, with big muscles, on top of a skateboard. Billy gave the shit two very long arms, and put one on his shoulder, and the other around the great Spanish explorer. He looked at the picture for a long time, for so long, when he closed his eyes he could still see the three of them, together. Rain began to patter hard against the aluminum roof.
He put his hood up and went back out front and stood before the shit. It was almost completely dark, but the shit was half-covered in the yellow porch light. Rain fell between them.
“Mooooon Riverrrrr,” the shit sang, looking away from Billy.
“How do you live forever?” Billy asked.
The shit faced him, not by turning, but by sucking its face through the pile until it slowly emerged on the other side, blinking away pieces of shit until it could clearly see. “First, you have to put your soul into a container,” it said, turds falling from its mouth.
“Like a septic tank?” Billy asked, scrunching his nose up.
The shit sighed. “I would urge you to take longer to make your decision than I did. But, yes.”
“What happened to your body?” Billy crossed his arms and held his shoulders. His legs were shaking.
“It rotted away. Most things do.” The shit gave a kind of shrug, the pile bubbling and heaving up.
The rain fell and fell, forming little streams down the sloping gravel driveway, dripping in wide curtains from the edge of the roof. The sound of it was everywhere.
“But not your...soul? Do you have a soul?”
“Oh, yes. Yes, you have a soul, and it won’t go anywhere, as long as you put it somewhere safe.” Rain ran down the shit, taking big chunks of it along its wide mass, dropping with a familiar plunk into the shit pond. The shit appeared to be growing smaller. One of its toilet paper eyes was running down its face in stretchy globs.
“That’s what I thought,” Billy said, kicking some gravel into the shit with a plink. He looked up at the dark sky through the pine trees. The made a kind of jagged circle, like a crown, filled with roiling grey and cold. “Why did you flood our house?”
The shit sunk with the slobbery sound of a deflating balloon, closed its eyes as if thinking. “Have you ever felt so trapped that your spine twists inside your body, just trying to pull out of your skin?” it asked quietly.
“Sometimes,” Billy said, stepping eagerly forward to the edge of the shit, reaching out as it shrunk away to an unavoidable nothing, reaching out to keep it there, for just a moment longer, because suddenly he wanted to say just so many things.