Steve Gronert Ellerhoff
Dr. Stufflebeam hoped against reality that the one rapping on the slugatorium's insulated door might be Dr. Estes, his former colleague, who left two weeks prior for a more promising bio firm up in the Twin Cities. Instead, in stepped the fairest creature ever to grace the worm-wet oubliette. She was small and wore a spruce green turtleneck, her hair in two loose braids behind her ears. He would always recall that first sight of the new chemist, before realizing how he must have looked to her: meek and stomached, the slug herder amidst his terrarium flock, tinkering with the misting lines.
"Hi, I'm Mariel Greenblatt."
"Where'd you come from?"
"Scappoose?" she answered, as if asking herself. "I'm the new chemist."
"You're Doctor Greenblatt?" Estes's replacement. Successor. Godsend. The only woman on the project. "I'm Bill." He pulled in his stomach. "Stufflebeam."
"Nice to meet you." She offered her hand, which he took, holding her so-soft fingers so as to kiss them. But he didn't. He let go, put his hand in his lab coat, stood Napoleonically. She didn't seem to notice, peering into one of the terrariums at a European Black Slug chewing a strip out of leaf lettuce.
"You're the malacologist. Dr. Harrison said you might be here."
She tilted her chin and followed the slug, a dribble of living India ink, as it coursed over the edible hill. "I start tomorrow but I wanted to bring in a few boxes."
"Well," he managed, "welcome."
"Thank you." She squinted. "Arion ater."
His heart twirled at her expertise. "You know your species."
"Not yet. I just read the label on his tank."
"But I've seen slugs like this one, growing up in Oregon."
He leaned to watch with her. "The European Black Slug's a non-native, invasive species."
"They always decimated Mom's garden. She had us throw salt on them."
His heart cringed purple. "Salt," he horripilated, "brings about an ionic imbalance, dehydrating them inside out."
"Lucky for this guy and all his friends, I'm a reformed woman. Here to study, not to harm." She turned to Bill, their faces close. "Did you grow up where slugs propagate?"
He shook his head. "I'm from Des Moines."
"Did you ever put salt on them?"
He stood rigid and backed away. "No."
Stepping past and eyeing the other terrariums, she was agog at the sight of a nine-inch slug basking amongst dead leaves.
"They don't all have names do they?"
"The biggest in the slugatorium does."
"Slugatorium?" She lifted one of her plucked eyebrows. "You know if you lick a banana slug your tongue goes numb?"
"The Indians used to put them in their mouths for toothache. So they say."
"It's true! I licked one—years ago."
"Another thing I've not experienced."
She walked to the door and he leaned against Arion ater's tank. "Our coworkers," she lingered. "What should I expect?"
"Um," he muttered. "Well, they're chemists."
"Hey! I'm a chemist. What's that mean?" She was humored.
"Oh, no, it's…"
"Yeah, yeah. Well, I just wanted to say hello. There'll be time to discuss our struggle to replicate slime later. See you tomorrow, Doctor Stufflebeam."
She closed the door behind her.
He reeled, sick with twitterpation, the sweet nausea of soul-encompassing desire. There was a woman in the lab—not just any woman, this woman. Her braids. Her turtleneck. And Oregonian, too, hailing from holiest habitat for slugs in the entire world. He was still leaning on the terrarium when the misting line hiccupped an airy wheeze, razzing him for not asking her to stay and help fix it.
The next morning, Bill sat in the slugatorium with the door propped open. Definitely not good for the humidity level, but he wanted to say "hi" when she walked by.
Dominic paused, silhouetted in the doorway. "Who left Sluggo's cave open?" His shoulders jerked when he saw Bill in there. "Oh, hey. You're up early."
And then Mariel stepped into frame alongside him, hands behind her back. Her hair was pulled back, and she wore a brown dress flocked with tiny green leaves. A nymph from a temperate rainforest, layer upon layer of harmonized mosses, rapturous with the vitality of old growth.
Startling anew, Dominic mutated from one kind of surprise to another. Removing his rimless glasses, he grasped her hand in a decidedly masculine way. "You must be Doctor Greenblatt!"
"I am." She seemed impressed by the tall, narrow man.
"Dominic Rumsfeld." He rubbed her hand. "No relation to the warmonger. Haha."
"Haha," she said.
"Here, why don't I introduce you to the fellas in the lab?"
"I've met Doctor Stufflebeam."
"Bill," Bill piped.
She was whisked away by the one man he truly loathed.
He got up and toed the stopper free, letting the door drift shut.
The next time she slunk into the slugatorium was just after five that Friday.
"Dr. Greenblatt," he mumbled.
He shifted pens from breast pocket to desk and asked, at last, "Looking forward to the weekend?"
"Well, Dominic asked me to dinner tonight, but I'm hoping he forgot. Think I'll be safe in here?"
"No!" She set her purse on his desk and, drawn by the produce-aisle exhale of the misting lines, stepped over to contemplate what looked like a plop of bird poop but was, in fact, a Milky slug. She kept her eyes on the wee slug, but fiddled with the cuffs of her turtleneck. "Is he actually related to Donald Rumsfeld?"
"The glasses," he said, "the perfect part in his hair, the shrewish smile…"
"He's poured salt on my back every day for three years." A montage of stifling memories not worth sharing with her crossed his mind.
Mariel's hands had retracted behind the cuffs, her eyes down, no longer on the Milky slug.
"It's fine." He fingered the spiral coil on the slug feeding log. "They call me Sluggo."
"I didn't know if you knew." Her face turned toward him like a light.
"They don't know I know."
She rubbed her lips together. "I call you Bill."
Dominic invaded uninvited. "Bill, have you… There you are!"
She perked, hands shooting out of her sleeves. "Here I am!"
She grabbed her paisley purse, looking at neither of them.
"Have a good weekend."
"Sure thing, Bill," Dominic responded, even though it was meant for Mariel.
"See you Monday." She said it quick, clipped.
They were gone. Bill spun his legs under the desk and stared at winged banana slugs drifting in wavy lines across his monitor. He shoved the mouse, blinking them away to the desktop background, a high-res of a cow-spotted Ariolimax nibbling the mucus plug out of the caudal pore on its mate's canary-bright tail.
Sunday morning he dreamt.
Mariel was leading him from the slugatorium into old growth forest, leading him by the hand with a smile—the spruce and fir smelling fresher than scented polish, the hanging mists cool, not cold. The ferns made an emerald frond road, the Scappoosian taking him to a tree grown like a candelabra, up-reaching trunks where branches should be. Nested him at its base. Poured her body upon him. They spooned afterwards, feeling so good to spoon. Wanting to tell her how good, but she had fallen asleep. Looking down, a thirteen inch Ariolimax columbianus gliding across the crown of her nude thigh. The little engine that could in a coat of gristle and mucus.
He awoke from the vision priapic, knowing what he wanted.
Bill emailed on Monday, proposing an intimate Friday night shindig in the slugatorium. To his delight, the new chemist accepted. When he suggested pizza, she suggested beer. Her acceptance defibrillated his work ethic. He gathered new mucus samples from resting slugs, theirs being the densest, exactly what the chemists were trying to recreate artificially. Unraveling how the pedal gland produced that fibered trelliswork of polymers might be but one eureka away. Anything to impress her.
Thursday evening, Bill looked up, from razor-blading the slime trails off the glass in a curiously locomotive slug's tank, to the unexpected presence of his opponent.
He dropped the razor and reached in to fetch it. It vanished in a clump of leaf litter.
"Listen, Stufflebeam," Dominic hissed, taking three steps forward, "Mariel and I, we have chemistry."
He winced; appalled that Rumsfeld would stoop to intimidation by wordplay.
"It was me she went out with last Friday. By what right did you reserve her this Friday?"
Bill's hand shook and he feared cutting himself on the hidden blade.
"I know things you don't. You've got no chance. I do. Tomorrow night's a one-time deal. Then she's mine." With that, Dominic adjusted the glasses on his snout and egressed.
He reached into the tank and carefully lifted the leaves one by one. A wet, striped tail curled under one like the Wicked Witch of the East's feet beneath Dorothy's fallen farmhouse. Peeling back the leaf revealed the blade, propped razor's edge up by some moss. The slug was already on it. Taking its time, it performed a feat, mounting the narrow blade like a beam. The little thing traversed the full length, dragging its foot across sharpness from end to end before cruising, completely unscathed, onto the spongy sphagnum.
"How do you do that?"
He plucked the slickened blade from the tank, balled the slime off with thumb and forefinger like dry rubber cement, and returned to scraping the glass.
The next night, Mariel sneaked in at five with a six-pack of Boddingtons. They waited for their coworkers to leave before ordering the pizza, agreeing on a large thin crust with green olives. He'd never met anyone else who liked green olives on pizza. Halfway through can number one, sitting next to her at his desk, he wasn't so worried about what to say.
"I sure hope this beer isn't a trap," he said.
"And what kind of trap would I be setting?"
"One for your garden: a butter tub full of beer drowned slugs."
She casually pulled out her ponytail, letting her hair fall on either side of a suspicious pout. "You're not a slug, are you?"
"No," he joked, waving the can at the terrariums, "but most of my friends are."
When the pizza came, Bill went out to get it, tipping the delivery guy with the Bosnian accent ten bucks. Slipping into the stairwell, he slid down the railing on one cheek, pizza box balanced, and spring-stepped back to the slugatorium where she was pulling the tab on her second beer.
Feasting, he teased her over her date the prior Friday. She set him straight on a thing or two concerning Dr. Rumsfeld and their dinner at the Something-Or-Other Grille on Court Avenue. She had linguini; he ordered a perch. It came on a platter standing upright on its pelvic fins with eyes shriveled and sauce drizzled over its head and into its crozzled maw as if tasting its own marinade in death. Other diners were curious. Many pointed. When the fish's tail caught Dominic's sleeve as he adjusted his napkin, he'd squeaked. Hearing her tell it brought Bill nothing but glee.
He offered her the last slice, but she bade him eat it, which he did while giving her a species-by-species tour of the room's occupants. She was admiring his misting system when she snapped her fingers.
"Slug sex!" she exclaimed. "I was going to ask you about slug sex."
"They're both sexes, right?"
"They are indeed hermaphroditic. And this one over here," he said, salaciously drawing her attention to one of the cow-spotted banana slugs. "Its species name is dolichophallus, which is the Latin way of saying, uh, well-endowed."
"You malacologists are a peculiar breed, aren't you?"
"When two join together, it's…"
"You've seen it?"
"I've got footage on my hard drive."
"You have slug porn on your computer?" She smirked in a most perverse way.
He sat and drew up the folder on his PC. She rolled her chair close and he clicked through the labyrinth of files. "It's something to see in Limax maximus." He adjusted the monitor and brought up a picture. "Here they are hanging from a slime cord."
"Once they've found each other, they chase in slow circles until they hit a precipice." He scrolled through pictures of the leopard-patterned slugs. "They coil together at the edge, producing and exchanging mucus. So much that when they drift overboard, a slime cord forms that's strong enough to hold them. And they hang."
"They look like soft-serve ice cream."
Next picture. "These two blue-gray tubes coming out of their heads?"
He nodded and advanced another shot. "Here they've coiled their penises together below them."
"They're so long!"
He cued the final one. "Their penises unfold like flowers. And they exchange sperm."
"So bizarre…" She scooted back. "But if it works?"
"Well, sometimes they get stuck."
"Yes, and one of them chews the penis off the other."
Her mouth gaped.
"There's a word for that?"
He opened a new folder. "This is time lapsed so it zips by. Normally the whole process takes a while."
He found the right file and double clicked. Up popped a window, and two chartreuse banana slugs started their dance, nibbling at each other's skirts. Too big for coitus on the flying trapeze, they docked yin and yang and braided their penises together like rope. The tension mounted, the pair of quivering yams gnawing frantically at a string of spaghetti pulled taut between them, like the famous scene from Lady and the Tramp. Then, like a stretched rubber band set free, one penis snapped.
Mariel took her hand from her mouth. "Does your mother know what you do?"
He laughed. "These are from my dissertation research. Which is what, essentially, got me this job." He turned the monitor away. "How about you? How did you come to Malachemical Labs?"
"Actually, my boyfriend heard about it through Eric Estes."
"Eric's one of his old fraternity brothers. So when he got the job in Minnesota and knew I was looking for one myself, he told John I should apply."
"And is John…" he managed flatly. "What does he do?"
"John's a botanist." She sipped her beer. "Specializes in carnivorous plants."
He closed the windows on his computer, unable to look at her. "Fly traps and…"
"Sundews and pitchers. He just took a teaching position at the University of North Carolina."
"Are you seeing anybody?" She sipped again, waiting for his reply.
"I should probably break up with him. We haven't even lived in the same state for almost two years now," she pondered, turning the can in her hands. "But I don't know. I love John. I do. It's just…"
Dominic's warning returned like heartburn. That Rumsfeld had been right about something as precious as Mariel Greenblatt squelched the blood right out of him. So the night dissolved along with his hopes. She let him have the last beer, which inspired belches he tried to cover and yawns he couldn't. While she expressed her confusion and yearning, aspects Rumsfeld would use to his advantage, Bill pretended to listen, meditating instead on disappointment. When that razor's edge grew too wearisome, Mariel slurmed back to him. Sitting across there, opening up, her hair tucked neatly behind her ears.
It wouldn't be hard.
Just to pluck the can from her. Lean in and, drying his lips, kiss her. Velvet-cheeked Mariel. His will rejected her display of vulnerability, her wavering confidence in her relationship. Maybe he didn't want her enough. Surely if he did, he would seize and seduce her right here, right now. But familiar inaction felt more manageable. Premature resignation. Bill's slime trail led elsewhere. He was a slow mover, if a mover at all.
She left after ten. There was less awkwardness in their parting than he would have expected. She saw herself out, wishing him a good weekend. He didn't even have to leave the slugatorium. Neither drunk nor keen on driving, he sat there rattling Mariel's last can, its widget sloshing in dregs, and tipped it to his mouth, lips not touching. There was enough beer left for a final taste and then, he saw, some droplets along the rim.
Marching amongst the terrariums, he stopped at the biggest tank. He reached in and shifted leaves and moss to expose the best hiding places. The reclusive banana slug hid under a shield of tree bark, eye stalks retracted under its foreskin-like mantle. Bill grabbed the bottle full of distilled water and sprayed liberally. Jabba curled into a jaundiced ouroboros, which he scooped into his hand. Twisted head to tail, the slug filled his palm.
He waited for it to come out of its wagon circle. Prudently, the lower sensory tentacles appeared, followed by the long optic stalks, unfurling like noiseless party blowers. After rearing one direction, then the other, it coasted along his fingers.
Grabbing the empty can, Bill shook the last driblets of beer onto his middle finger and let them run until they found the slug. It flinched, withdrawing its handlebar tentacles. They emerged again and Jabba overtook the beer trail, slithering up his middle finger. Then he felt the tickle of teeth, like a kitten's rough licking, supping. The meticulous scrape-grazing of sweet ale from the tiny whorls on his fingertip was a comforting sort of closeness. He lifted the beer-happy, brown-gold slug to his face. As Jabba gorged, its nostril-like pneumostome dilated into one long satisfied breath.
Bill wet his lips and slid his tongue out, hovering just above the keel running the length of its tail. Committing himself, he licked the silken slug skirt to mantle, hoping that everything he had read was right, that the American Indians were right, that Mariel was right: that merciful numbness would follow.
About the Author
Steve Gronert Ellerhoff is an Iowan. His work has appeared in Fourteen Hills, Vol. 1 Brooklyn Sunday Stories, Stimulus Respond, College Green Magazine, and how to hug your ex. He lives on the Irish Riviera.