Mating Habits of the California Land Snail
by Kilby Allen
She was small for her age in all ways—fifteen, flat-chested, and five feet tall. Worse than that, though, was her name: Doris. Doris Agatha Denby. Her parents were assholes.
After school and on weekends she worked at Cinema Three out on the highway. Mostly she stayed behind the concession stand, but on Sunday nights it was also her job to scrape up the week’s accumulation of spilt soda and melted candy. It covered the floor like a coat of shellac, and with a palette knife duct-taped to a broom handle she harvested it in long, caramel-colored strips. It was gross, but she got to watch movies for free. They didn’t have a TV at home, not anymore, not since the old one broke and that must have been five years ago.
Her parents didn’t believe in things like television. They were old. No television, no candy, meat or processed flour, no fashion magazines, and no dates until she was sixteen. Not that Doris ever had the occasion or desire to go on a date. She was just glad that her school required uniforms; at least she could disappear into the crowd, mostly. A few years back she’d gained some unwanted notoriety when Josh Tearney pointed out to the class that she smelled like an old lady.
“Like library books and mothballs,” he said.
Hopefully everyone had forgotten about that by now, though Doris thought probably not.
It was Friday, double feature night at Cinema Three. Unlike everyone else, Doris usually didn’t mind working Fridays. The other kids bitched. They couldn’t shut up about missing the football game, the party, but for Doris it was a relief. Friday evenings meant B horror movies and high school comedies from the eighties, half-price tickets and college students. Usually Doris looked forward to Friday, but not tonight.
That morning, her biology teacher, Mrs. Fleming, had announced she would be taking maternity leave. She had grown noticeably chubby over the last couple of months, and that wasn’t the only change. Last year, she’d been Miss Oliver, young, blonde, and new-minted from the state college. She’d come back to school in the fall with a new name and, presumably, a new husband, though no one had ever seen him, and Mrs. Fleming never talked about him. Doris decided that with a name like “Fleming” he couldn’t be worthy of Miss Oliver. In her head she still called her that, Miss Oliver. In class she called her nothing at all.
When she announced the pregnancy the class erupted–girls awwing, boys shuffling, coughing lewd words. Doris turned to stone. A cold dread dripped into the pit of her stomach. Why? She knew it was a strange reaction. Babies were supposed to be good things, everyone else thought so. But babies meant sex, Miss Oliver having sex, Miss Oliver having sex with her husband, who, in Doris’s mind, was alternately fat and hairy or pale and skinny with flesh-colored eyebrows, never handsome, never worthy.
At the bell Doris stayed in her seat while the rest of the tenth graders squeezed through the classroom door to join the herd in the hall.
“Doris?” Miss Oliver/Mrs. Fleming said. Doris got to her feet and shoved her notebook in her bag.
“Um, congratulations,” she said, gesturing vaguely to her teacher’s midsection. Doris did this. She talked with her hands. They seemed to act independently, especially at times like these when her insides turned into a hive of bees, rumbling, stinging, nervous. “What about the science fair?”
“Maybe I was a little hard on you. Hormones.” When Miss Oliver smiled, the corners of he eyes crinkled, almost like an epicanthic fold, the blue of her irises translated to a glint. “If you haven’t started your project yet, you could just give me a detailed drawing of a pig’s physiology. I think that’s fair, considering the rest of your class did more organ throwing than learning.” This was what she loved about Miss Oliver, how she talked to her like she was an adult, like she was in some way special, separate, a friend.
Doris had already started her project: The Mating Habits of the California Land Snail (Helix aspersa). She’d started the night Miss Oliver assigned it, the night after pig day.
Doris had known that pig day was coming. Everyone knew. In tenth grade you have to dissect a pig. It was a rite of passage. Doris knew, but she wasn’t ready for the actuality of it–the three ten gallon buckets full of floating pig fetuses, the formaldehyde smell of death, the way you could see blue veins through the translucent skin of the pig’s tiny, perfectly formed snout, the rigid length of umbilical cord. It didn’t make her sick at her stomach, which was what she’d feared, but instead it made her chest ache, her eyes water. I can’t, she’d said, looking Miss Oliver in the eye, pleading, hoping she would understand. Instead there was Mrs. Fleming: don’t give me a hard time. She told Doris to sit in the hall and read the next two chapters of the textbook. She tried, but she couldn’t see the diagrams for the tears, which inexplicably welled though she willed herself to stop. After class Miss Oliver/Mrs. Fleming handed her a flyer–Regional Science Fair January 17th!–make-up work.
She started the project that night. She ordered the snails, filled out the USDA snail-shipping permits. She cleaned out the old aquariums her father kept in the garage.
When the snails arrived in their over-large LIVE ANIMALS carton, she divided them into two groups: Ideal Mating Conditions and Control. It didn’t matter which snails she put together. They were neither male nor female, but could choose which to be when the time came. She watched her snails ooze up the aquarium glass, intertwine on mossy braches, all the while dreaming of the science fair. She imagined standing in the community college gym, a blue ribbon tacked to her foam-core project board, Miss Oliver walking across the room, parting the crowd, coming to stand before her. She would put a hand on Doris’s shoulder, crinkle her eyes and whisper so only Doris could hear, I’m proud of you.
Tonight’s films were Dead Alive! and Dawn of the Dead. Usually Doris and Shannon, the other concession girl, took turns sneaking into the back of the theater after the shows started. Shannon always seemed to know someone in the audience, and sat with them. Doris typically stood at the back of the theater next to the door. She would never commit to a seat. It seemed wrong to sit down when she was supposed to be working, to sit alone surrounded by so many people. Doris didn’t plan on going into the theater at all today, though. She liked scary movies but she hated gore.
“There’s this scene with intestines!” Shannon said. Lately she’d been very interested in horror movies, probably because of the guy she’d been sitting with the last couple of Friday double features. “Could you cover for me during the second movie, Denby?”
Doris liked that Shannon called her Denby. It was like they were old friends, but they weren’t. Shannon was seventeen and on the yearbook staff, blonde with huge breasts, a C cup at least. Every time she spoke to Doris, Doris wondered if she was somehow making fun of her.
“What should I tell Wylie?” Mr. Wylie was the manager; he hardly ever came out of the office, so he wasn’t much of a threat.
“Tell him I’m in the bathroom or something, but he won’t ask. He’s too busy with Internet porn.” Doris felt her ears burn, and turned away so Shannon wouldn’t see her blush. “We’re out of nacho cheese. I’ll take out the bathroom trash if you refill the machine?”
Doris hated refilling the cheese machine. The cheese came in ten pound bladders that were stored two to a box in the basement. She lugged a bladder up the stairs and dropped it on the concession counter where the contents slowly spread out and puddled, turgid against clear plastic. It looked like a giant yellow mound of silly putty. There was a trick to it, putty the cheese in the machine. You had to open the valve and connect this hose really quickly before it leaked out everywhere. Doris had to do all this on a stepladder. It was a dubious operation.
She upended the bladder and unscrewed the plastic valve cap. A cheese bubble squeezed out and popped. She held the bladder in both hands and started to climb the ladder.
“Oh my god! Guess what I found in the tampon dispenser!” Shannon shouted as she sprinted into the empty lobby. Startled, Doris fell backwards off the ladder and the cheese landed full weight on her chest. The bladder burst. Processed cheese food suddenly covered every surface. It was all over the floor, all over Doris–in her hair, soaking through her Cinema Three polo shirt. She could feel it oozing into her underwear.
“Shit, Denby! You okay?” Shannon rushed over and pulled Doris to her feet. A stream of cheese sluiced onto her right boob.
“Sorry! Sorry!” Doris muttered and tried vainly to scoop handfuls of the goo off of her own non-existent chest.
“I should have helped you.”
“Can you hand me a napkin?” Doris asked.
“You need more than a napkin. Can I run you home? For a shower? We still have an hour before the doors open.”
“I live like fifteen miles away,” Doris said miserably. Her eyes burned. She may have gotten cheese in them.
“We’ll go to my house then.”
Doris went down to the basement to take off her shirt. She mopped up as much of the cheese as she could and was just about to put on her school uniform (she didn’t want to get cheese all over Shannon’s car) when she heard someone on the stairs.
“Denby?” Shannon called, keys in hand. Doris was standing there, basically naked to the waist, wearing only a cheese-soaked training bra. She frantically crossed her arms to cover herself. “Hey. It’s cool. I have boobs too,”
But Doris didn’t have boobs. Couldn’t Shannon see that. She was just being nice.
Shannon’s car smelled like cigarettes and magazine perfume samples. It would probably also smell like nacho cheese from now on. There was a dolphin swinging from the rear-view mirror.
“God, I’m really sorry,” Doris said for the hundredth time.
“You need to stop saying that,” Shannon said. “You want one? Take the edge off?” She offered a pack of cigarettes.
“You’re a good girl, aren’t you, Denby. You probably don’t drink either.” Shannon lit her cigarette, inhaled deeply and blew the smoke through the window before starting the car.
“Oh? What do you drink?”
“Wine mostly, and my dad gave me a bottle of whiskey he got for Christmas because he has ulcers.”
“Really.” It was sort of true. Actually her father had said stay out of the liquor cabinet. That was what parents were supposed to say. Then he said if you have to take something, take the whiskey. Her father was a realist. “I like to mix it with root beer.” She’d only ever tried it once. It tasted like stomach acid and made her feel like a shadow.
“Hey, you should go out with us tonight.” Shannon said this as if she’d just thought of it. “Yeah! You can tell you parents that you’re staying at my house, which would sort of be the truth, because you can. My mom’s going on a date and my sister is at her dad’s for the weekend, so we don’t actually have to come home, but it’ll be fun. Say yes.”
“You know that guy, Paul? The one who’s been coming to the double feature? He’s bringing a friend tonight. Double date!”
“Oh come on, Denby. You’re totally not living into the Catholic school girl cliché. It’s your duty to be bad sometimes.”
Shannon smiled and threw her cigarette butt out the window.
At Shannon’s no one was home. Doris used the phone in the kitchen to call her mom.
“Mama, can I spend the night at a friend’s?”
“Have I met this friend?”
“Dad has,” (which wasn’t exactly true. Her father had seen Shannon a few times when he picked up Doris from work.) “It’s Shannon from work”
“Will there be boys?”
“Of course not. Shannon doesn’t even have a brother. It’s a girls’ night.” (And there it was, the first time she’d really lied to her mother.)
“Well. I’m glad you’re making friends, honey. Should I call her mom?”
“Mother. I’m fifteen years old.”
Doris showered in the guest bathroom. Everything was done up in pink tile.
“We call this the Pepto Bismol room,” Shannon said. Doris had just gotten all the cheese out of her hair when Shannon burst into the bathroom.
“So I picked out some clothes for you.” There was no way Shannon’s clothes would fit Doris. It wasn’t just the boobs; Shannon was at minimum six inches taller. “They’re my little sister’s,” she said as if reading Doris’s mind.
“How old is you little sister?” Doris asked, back to Shannon while she pretended to re-shampoo her hair. The shower curtain was clear plastic.
“She’s eleven. But she’s really big for her age.”
Doris thought Shannon’s sister must be a very mature eleven. The sweater had a plunging neckline and the skirt barely covered her ass. She took off the clothes and put them in her backpack. Shannon loaned her a spare Cinema Three polo. It hung off of Doris like a tunic.
“The guys are picking us up from the theater. We’ll change in the basement,” Shannon said.
“These guys are from school?”
“Our school? No way. All the guys at St. Francis are total fags. They wear sweater vests for god’s sake.”
“It’s the uniform.”
“Totally beside the point, Paul and his friend are college men.”
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“Only if you have sex with them. Just tell them you’re a senior. They’ll believe you. The waif look is totally in now.”
Back at work they mopped up the congealed cheese. It had developed a skin in their absence and was refusing to go peacefully. Then the theater opened and they were busy—scooping popcorn, watering down cokes, waiting for eight year olds to decide which kind of candy.
Finally the lobby emptied.
“You mind if I just slip into the theater for a minute? You could probably come too. If they don’t have their popcorn by now they don’t deserve any.” Shannon said.
“Nah, that’s okay.”
“Don’t like scary movies?” Shannon poked out her lip like a baby, but then smiled and punched Doris in the arm.
“Don’t like gory movies.”
“But it looks so fake, it’s hysterical.”
Doris wiped down the counter with a wet rag. Usually she brought a book to read, but today she only packed a bunch of scientific journal articles on snails she’d gotten through inter-library loan. It seemed pointless to read them now; Miss Oliver was leaving.
Once when she’d first started working at Cinema Three, Miss Oliver had come to a show. She didn’t stop at the concession stand. She walked through the lobby purposefully, the whole time carrying on a conversation with a woman Doris had never seen before. For a second she thought about calling out Miss Oliver! But then she remembered that it wasn’t her name anymore and the moment had passed.
Now, in the empty lobby, after such a horrible day, Doris wished that she’d said something, that she’d called out no matter how embarrassing it would have been. She couldn’t escape the feeling that she’d never see Miss Oliver again. It was like Miss Oliver had announced today that she had a terminal disease and would be dying over Christmas break. Really, to Doris, it amounted to the same thing. What was the point of the Science Fair without Miss Oliver?
“Hey, quit daydreaming!” It was Shannon and with her were the college men. Doris hadn’t noticed them walking across the lobby. She jumped when Shannon spoke.
“Whoa, Denby.” She introduced the guys. They didn’t look much different from high school boys, skinny, acne scarred, except one of them had a mustache. “This is Paul. You’ve seen him,” Shannon said. Her arm was around Paul’s waist. He was playing with her hair. “And this is Linus,” she indicated the mustachioed one.
“Hey, Doris,” Linus said offering his hand to shake. Doris awkwardly took it. She couldn’t remember ever shaking someone’s hand, maybe an old man in church, but certainly not anyone her own age. Then she remembered that Linus was not her own age. “Aren’t you going to ask me where my blanket is?”
“What?” said Doris.
“You know, Linus. Charlie Brown. The blanket?”
Doris had no idea what he was talking about.
“My parents were watching the Christmas special in the hospital room after I was born.”
“Oooh. I love that one,” Shannon gushed and clung to Paul tighter.
“We don’t have a television,” Doris said. It was a dumb thing to say. “My parents are crazy.”
“No. That’s cool,” Linus said, and then the guys went off on a rant about corn syrup blood versus real pig’s blood. Doris started making more popcorn for the between feature rush, but Shannon listen to them with rapt attention, laughing at the appropriate pauses.
It was a little after midnight by the time Doris and Shannon met the guys in the parking lot. They were sitting in a door-less old ice cream truck drinking beers from paper bags.
“Whose truck?” Shannon asked.
“Linus’s,” said Paul. The truck was gray and on the side where the ice cream menu should have been someone had painted a giant face with a mustache. Mister Mustache and the Grapenuts! It said underneath. It looked like a blind five year old had done the lettering.
“It’s our band,” Linus said.
“You have a band? They have a band, Denby!”
“Neat,” Doris said.
“I play the drums,” Linus said leaning in and tentatively touching the small of Doris’s back.
“Where are we going anyway?” asked Doris.
“Dead Baby Bridge!” the three of them said. Only Doris was left out of the joke. She shrugged.
“It used to be called Piss Road, but then they found that baby skeleton a few years back, so Dead Baby Bridge. I thought all you high school girls knew about it. Isn’t that where you go to dispose of your unwanted fetuses?” Paul laughed.
“Um,” Doris said, making eye contact with Shannon.
“It’s okay. Don’t be scared, Denby. They’re just being funny. Let’s get you a beer.”
One of the ice cream freezers still worked. The beer had stayed in too long and was a little slushy and it tasted like dog food smells, but Doris drank it fast, and then she had another.
Dead Baby Bridge was out in the middle of nowhere, more out in the middle of nowhere that even Doris’s house. It seemed generous to call it a bridge. It was just a dirt road that ran over a ditch between two fallow fields. Dozens of cars were parked all along the road and someone had built a fire. Kids drank and smoked. Someone had a guitar.
For a long time they sat around the fire, drinking. Doris felt warm and fuzzy from the beer. It was like she was swaddled in a layer of cotton batting. She wasn’t nervous anymore. After a while Shannon and Paul drifted away, melded into the dark. Doris imagined they were having sex. She laughed.
“What?” asked Linus, too enthusiastic.
“I’ve never been drunk before,” said Doris. “I mean, I’ve had alcohol before, but this is different.”
“It’s great, right?”
“Sort of, sure.”
“You like kittens?” Linus asked. “I have two kittens. You want to see their picture?”
He pulled out his wallet and flipped through the little plastic picture pages, then he handed it to her. There was a photograph of two yellow kittens fighting on a couch.
“Their names are Meat and Chainsaw.”
“You wanna see where they found the dead baby?”
“Please. It’s so creepy!” He grabbed her hand. His hand was moist and warm. He’d been sweating. She followed him out of the circle of firelight. Here she was, Doris Agatha Denby, following a stranger into the dark.
They climbed down the embankment to the ditch. He guided her down even though it wasn’t that steep, squeezing her hand a little too tightly. They stood there listening to the trickle of ditch water while their eyes adjusted to the darkness. Linus squatted down and pulled out a cigarette lighter. He struck the flint and held the tiny flame out to the drainage pipe that ran beneath the road. It was clogged with rotted leaves and garbage.
Linus reached up and tugged the hem of Doris’s skirt. His cold hand brushed against her thigh and she flinched, a liquid chill running up her spine.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Come down here,” he whispered, and she knelt down beside him. “It was in there. No one knows how long, but for a while. It was only a skeleton when it finally washed out.”
Doris imagined the baby, rigid like a fetal pig, bobbing down stream.
“Probably the rats got to it,” he said. “On of my brother’s friends saw it. He said the finger bones were missing but there were still little strips of meat…”
“That’s okay,” Doris said, stopping him. Her stomach felt untethered, like it might float up into her throat.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said, but he was smiling, his face too close. She could smell his breath, sweet like a rotting banana. He pushed her back, almost gently, onto the grass.
So this is kissing, she thought. She had expected to feel something, something other than stubble and saliva. She expected to feel something in her soul, or at least in her stomach or somewhere lower, deeper. Something. But all Doris felt was a sort of solemnity. She imagined that somewhere out there (up there?) someone, a great, disembodied hand, made a check mark next to this experience–her first kiss, done. Tomorrow she would feel guilt and then, later, relief. This was proof that she was a normal girl, just like everyone else. She’d kissed a boy. For a second, before she realized it was impossible and weird, she imagined telling Miss Oliver about it next Monday, the desk between them, that’s right, boys like me too.
The kissing lasted for maybe ten minutes. When Linus finally stopped, Doris scooted away from him a little, put some distance between them so that he wouldn’t start again. The skin around her lips felt raw, scrubbed. Her chin was sticky with foreign spit. She didn’t want to wipe it, she knew that would be rude.
“Sorry, I…” Linus said.
“No, No, it was good. Thank you,” Doris said, stumbling over her words, smiling but not meeting his eyes. “It’s just…getting so late,” she looked at her wrist–no watch.
“Sun comes up in a couple of hours,” he said. Then he sprang, mock-playfully throwing his arm around her. She let it rest, dead weight on her stooping shoulders. It stayed there for a long minute. Then she could feel him leaning in.
“I need another beer. You?” She delicately extricated herself and went to find Shannon.
The boys dropped them off at Shannon’s just as the sky was beginning to turn gray. Shannon’s mom was still out. In Shannon’s room they changed into pajamas. Doris put on a pair of flannel pants that were so long they covered her feet and dragged along behind.
“God, I’m so drunk,” Shannon giggled. She pulled back the covers and fell into bed. Doris stood there dumbly, thinking maybe she was supposed to sleep on the floor or out in the living room on the couch. “Come on, silly,” Shannon patted the bed “you’ve got to be tired. This was like the biggest night of your life.”
Doris climbed into bed on top of the comforter. She hadn’t slept in the same bed with another person since second grade. She lay down on her back and made herself as small as possible.
“Jesus, get under the covers already. You’re like trapping me under here,” Doris awkwardly wiggled between the sheets. Shannon rolled over and pulled the blanket up to Doris’s chin, tucking her in like a child. “It was your first kiss, wasn’t it?”
Doris shrugged, the covers slipped down a little.
“Oh, Denby,” Shannon laughed and then did a strange thing: she leaned over and kissed Doris on the forehead, a quick peck, but Doris felt the warmth of it spread through her body. “You’re so weird.”
Later, Shannon was snoring, soft, but unmistakable. Doris had never heard a real person snore before. She knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep, but it was sort of nice, this strange bed, the night sounds of another person. She thought about Miss Oliver, Mrs. Fleming–she would call her Mrs. Fleming from now on. She thought of Mrs. Fleming curled beside her husband. She thought of the baby. She might have slept, but not for long.
At some point Shannon rolled over, her head on Doris’s pillow, and breathed her humid boozy-sweet breath into the hollow of Doris’s neck. She thought of the snails, how she put a heating pad under their terrarium and sprayed them down with water to simulate mating season. It occurred to her that she should probably push Shannon away or roll over herself, but she didn’t. Instead she fell asleep, hard, like a coma. And when she woke at noon, she was alone.
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