Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Phantom Drift, Passages
North, Emerson Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Iron Horse Literary
Review, Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3 and
many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red
Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of
Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. His
first short story collection, The Plagues, will be released by Cornerstone
Press in 2023.
SING WITH ME AT THE EDGE OF PARADISE
Mitchell leans against me, his ear squashing on my shoulder. We’re sitting at the edge of a cliff, looking down into the Garden of Eden. We’re alone, which is surprising, considering just how many people have been trucking it to St. Louis to gawk at the Tree of Life and to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Most people, I guess, decide to hire out a guide to lead them down the winding trail into the Garden itself while we are content here, far away, Mitchell drinking canned kombucha while I slurp from my water bottle.
He starts humming, a medley of his favorite Tina Turner songs, starting with “Proud Mary” and shifting to “The Best” when he gets to the part where the metronome takes a hard uptick. Then it’s “River Deep Mountain High” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” I can feel the vibration of his vocal cords in my neck, and I wrap my arm around him to feel it in my bones. He doesn’t object when my fingers press against his jaw; in fact, he starts humming louder, eventually setting down his can and screaming out, the words echoing across the highest treetops. He lets out a warbling, “Oooooo,” then turns and buries his mouth against my neck, making me tweak and squirm away, but not so very far because I like the feel of his lips, slick and sticky, against my skin. I let him nibble there, and when I turn my head he kisses me straight on the mouth, his vinegary spit slipping onto my tongue.
We don’t leave until the sun is going down, turning the foliage of Eden into a bright emerald shimmer. Most of the tours stop when darkness slips in because the trails are treacherous with tree roots and brambles. My blood tingles between my ears, which are hot as if they’ve been ironed. When we tumble into Mitchell’s car he kisses me again, pushes his hand against my sternum. I feel the impression of his fingers long after he’s let me go and turned on the engine. He clicks off the stereo before any music can stream out.
“I need to tell you something,” he says.
Mitchell leans back, flicks a strand of hair out of his face; it’s grown long and wild, beachy. He opens and closes his mouth.
“I’m leaving, Charlie.”
“What do you mean?”
He turns to look at me square. Somehow, I’ve never noticed that his nose points slightly to the left.
“I’m going to California.” He says something about a friend’s cousin who has an in at a recording studio, some low-level producer who will give him a chance. I don’t hear the details. Something warm seeps into my chest, like blood is pooling in my lungs.
“Oh,” I say.
He puts the car in reverse and backs away from the cliff. Eden slips out of view. Mitchell rolls down the windows and lets hard wind whistle in as we barrel down I-70, brake lights flashing like rubies on one side of the highway, headlights like pearls on the other.
I am unable to sleep after Mitchell drops me off at my apartment, so I turn on the television to the news. It seems another Eden has been found, this time in Palermo, Italy.
The St. Louis Eden is not the only Eden. They’ve been popping up for the last six weeks, in dipping valleys and forests around the world. St. Louis is the only American location so far, but intrepid explorers are scouring Tongass National Forest, Pisgah, the White Mountains. Sects of hikers are convinced there must be one somewhere in the Grand Canyon or tucked away along the Appalachian Trail. As each Eden is discovered—in Jakarta, Algiers, Sarajevo, Nagoya—more people flock not only to these new slabs of paradise but into the wild, hoping to be the ones to uncover yet another Garden, another Tree of Knowledge, a Tree of Life. Biblical scholars have gone on PBS and Fox and pointed out the problem of claiming these places as Gardens of Eden: “Genesis,” one spectacled, tweeded academic said, “is very specific about the flow of the waters that wind through the Garden, that they must flow to particular places.” But most people don’t care. It doesn’t matter that the little creeks in the St. Louis Garden can’t possibly dump into the Tigris or Euphrates or Gihon. Such details don’t keep pilgrims away.
This new Garden has been found in Monte Del Gallo Park, right near the Tyrrhenian Sea. On tv, a wind-blasted reporter with salt-and-pepper hair stands near the edge of the Garden, the sharp blue water at his back looking like a painting. Despite the fact that the story of discovery has just broken, there is already visible activity in the Garden; the people scrumming through look like ants, blurred and bitty.
When the first Garden was discovered, I asked Mitchell, “What do you think it all means?”
He sighed and smiled. We were at the cliff but didn’t know yet what we were looking at. “Oh, Charlie. I don’t know. It’s a beautiful mystery.”
“So it has a solution? All mysteries have one.”
He looked at me for a long, silent moment, then looked out at the trees. “Maybe,” he said. “But is it so important to always understand the logic of the world?”
I wanted to say, “Yes, of course,” but instead I set my teeth, which were starting to chatter. The evening had gone chilly, but Mitchell made no move to leave, so neither did I.
Mitchell comes by in the morning before work; when he isn’t playing shit-paying gigs, he loads up as often as he can on double shifts at Zapps, a wings place that offers deep discounts on beer from two to four every afternoon. He works straight through from eleven to nine, but he doesn’t complain. He’s genial and fast and doesn’t forget sides of ranch dressing, so he rakes in generous tips and manages to eat mid-shift, washing his hands so many times that his fingers dry and crack. He hums to himself as he runs food or fills drink orders and the other servers demand he serenade them while they do side work, refilling sugar caddies and plopping scoops of sour cream into tiny plastic containers.
“When did you cut your hair?” I say.
“Hi,” he says. “I had it done this morning.”
Where he before had thick swoops that flew back from his forehead at a diagonal, he now has short bristles. When he stands in the light of my living room window he glows. I tell him he looks angelic. He smiles. I wonder if he’s told his manager yet that he’s leaving.
“Come to the restaurant tonight,” he says, tickling a hand against my left arm.
“I want to take you somewhere after I’m done working.”
“It’s a surprise,” he says. But then he leans in close, grinning. “But I’ll give you a clue.”
“Okay,” I whisper back.
I can smell his Pert shampoo and the crisp, oceanic scent of his deodorant. He drapes his arms over me like he’s a heavy cape I’d never take off. “Think of paradise.”
I walk into Zapps, which is low-lit and smells like cigars even though smoking in restaurants has been a no-no for years. There’s no hostess but the sign next to the abandoned podium says to wait to be seated, so I stand there with my hands in my pockets. To my right is the bar, a long L-shape behind which a bartender is pouring beers from a tap for a trio of guys my age, each hunched over and gnawing on a chicken wing. Their heads are cocked toward the massive flat screen television airing a baseball game. This is the one kind of place, I imagine, where the news is never on. A reprieve, of sorts, from talk of Eden.
Mitchell appears around the corner; with his new, short hair it takes me a moment to recognize him. He stops and smiles, then waves for me to follow him. I snake around the bar, which is buffeted by a trio of booths and then some bart tables after the turn. Mitchell leads me through a pair of glass double doors into a private dining room that is unoccupied except for another server and a tub of silverware with a stack of napkins next to it.
“I have to finish rolling these,” he says, “and then we’re off.” He sits down across from the other server, a good-looking redhead with muscular arms. “This is Doug.”
“Hi,” Doug says. He waves one hand at me. He’s wearing a yellow Livestrong bracelet.
“You want help?” I say, slipping into the seat next to Mitchell. I squeeze his thigh under the table and he smiles.
“English majors know how to roll silverware?” Mitchell jokes.
“Not only that,” I say, “but I can explain its symbolism until you die of boredom.”
We develop a steady, quiet rhythm, and the silverware disappears quickly. As we roll the last of it, Mitchell hums his ubiquitous Tina Turner medley. Then he whistles. Doug smiles and bobs his head, asks, “Who is that?”
Mitchell tells him.
“I don’t know her music,” Doug says.
Mitchell shakes his head.
When the silverware is all wrapped, towered in a square of cinched-up napkins kept closed by plastic tabs with Zapps! printed on them in black letters, Mitchell vanishes for a few minutes into the kitchen, and when he comes back he’s already got his apron off, a folded loop of fabric in his hand.
“Ready?” he says.
Mitchell drives. As we hit I-70, he rolls down the windows and the sharp cool of night comes streaming in. I put one of my hands against the back of Mitchell’s head and feel at the bristle of his hair. It tickles my fingers and he leans back against my touch, which sends a throttle down my arm. I want to bring up his departure, the doomsday clock counting down the days until he is gone, but any words I might say turn sticky and tarry in my throat.
“So what’s the surprise?” I say when he swoops off the interstate. We’re at the exit for Eden.
“You’ll see,” he says, even though we both know what he’s up to.
Mitchell takes our regular route. Hard, silver light from the moon hanging fat in the cloudless sky illuminates the trees and the slashes of lane markers on the frontage road. When we turn onto a rural route with clipped shoulders of gravel and dust the path grows dimmer. As usual, there are no other cars around as we pull into a small, barren splash of ground and Mitchell throws the car in park. He squeals open the moon roof before cutting the engine.
“Do you know what day it is?”
Of course I do. Two years ago, the summer after we graduated from college, he dragged me to a party where, it turned out, we knew no one. We left before either of us had so much as a pull from the keg of shitty beer or any of the sterilizing Jell-O shots mounded in a messy kitchen filled with gyrating bodies. We drove here, to this spot, a hidden cliff off the interstate that overlooked a wooded area that had not yet become a Garden of Eden. Mitchell turned off the engine, just like now, and started humming. When he was finished, I asked him why he liked Tina Turner so much.
“She’s unabashedly her. I wish I could be that way.”
And then, as we sat in the silence of late May, I leaned over, ignoring that my seat belt was trying to choke me, and I kissed him. He smelled like sourdough bread and ranch dressing even though he hadn’t worked that day.
When I leaned away from him, Mitchell stared out the windshield. For a second I worried I had done the wrong thing. But then he said, “Thank you.”
“For what?” I said.
“For doing that. I wasn’t sure I could.” He held out his hand, resting his knuckles against the gear shift. I laid mine in his.
“You’re welcome.” Then we stared out at the treetops flickering in the moonlight. For nearly two years that’s all they were, trees and brush that served as a backdrop when Mitchell drove me out here during my breaks from graduate school. We spent two gap-filled years kissing and collapsing into one another, gearshift be damned, and now I am here for good and he is leaving.
Mitchell leans across the seat to kiss me. He presses his thumb up behind my left ear, his fingers tracing the swoop of my zygomatic bone.
“I’m still glad you did that,” he says, his lips close, his hand hot. He still smells like bread and dressing. He waves his free hand out toward Eden. “That’s not a miracle.” He taps at my chest. “This,” he says, “is the real miracle.”
Then he pops open the driver side door and gestures for me to follow him out of the car. He lifts open the trunk and extracts a log of canvas fabric.
“Think of it as an anniversary gift,” he says.
The log is a tent. From the trunk, Mitchell also extracts a pair of sleeping bags and a red Coleman LED lantern that he turns on with a twist of its base; the car, the supplies, the entire dusty outcrop where we’re hidden away is lit up like a movie set.
“Powerful,” I say. “But what are we doing?”
“Camping out near paradise.”
“But why?” I say. “It’s hot.”
“It’ll give us a leg up.”
“Our hike tomorrow.”
“We’re going down there,” he says, pointing.
“Why not?” The entire time we’ve been talking, Mitchell has been unfurling the tent and manhandling thick, wiry poles. He pauses, one in each hand like a pair of nunchakus.
“I prefer looking down at things,” I say, even though it’s not right or true. I don’t even know what it means.
“Well,” Mitchell says, “why don’t we try being in them?”
I have no real way to contend with this, so I help him erect the tent. Then we unfurl a pair of swishy sleeping bags that provide no back support. The ground is hard, pebbly, uneven beneath us when we squirrel into them, but at least the tent fabric keeps the mosquitos out. I expect Mitchell to curl toward me, to make our two sleeping bags into one, for his warm breath and slick mouth to find mine, for his hands to wander, for the stiff, hard parts of his body to meet me and turn the unfriendly environment into one of comfort and bliss, but he lies on his back and breathes softly, eyes closed. He falls fast asleep with the lantern still blazing, and I have to wrestle my way out of my sleeping bag to turn it off.
I fall into something like sleep shortly before Mitchell jerks to life without so much as an alarm. When he does, he leans over me and gives my throat a gentle peck. I don’t bother pretending to be asleep, but when I try to pull him toward me he moves away, saying we need to get going. Before I can object, he’s starting the tent’s deconstruction, so I scramble out. The morning—a discombobulating combination of gray and pink, like smoke warbling through a field of azaleas—is filled with hot mist, a low-hanging sheet that blurs the Garden of Eden below. I’m sweaty almost immediately. In a bit of a miracle, I can hear no other human traces besides our own footfalls and Mitchell’s whistling.
“Ready?” he says when we’ve loaded up the car and ourselves, trading out the tent for a pair of backpacks Mitchell produces from the trunk, handing me one. Its weight like a sandbag.
I want to tell him I am not ready. That my stomach has curled into itself like I’ve been swatted with a virus. That I like perching on the edge of paradise with him, listening to him hum and sing. That the fact that he wants to go into the Garden of Eden looms like a bad omen. That I am sweating and queasy and the idea of the granola bar he holds out to me going into my body makes my nausea worse.
Instead I tell him to lead the way.
We march through scutch grass and scrub. At first, I think Mitchell is just going to send us charging through underbrush until we punch our way into Eden, but after a few minutes we are tossed onto a walking path that has been tread upon by legions of pilgrims. Trash bludgeons its edges: candy bar wrappers, fast food containers, crumpled soda cans. Mitchell says nothing of these earthly scars.
I can immediately tell when we’ve entered. The flora is green with summer bounty, but as soon as we cross some invisible line the plants and trees kick it up a notch. Everything is as verdant as a high-def film. Fronds the size of my legs fan from huge trees. Animals that don’t belong in the same biomes—rhesus monkeys, blue monarchs, even a pair of jackals—rush through the knotted trees and bounce from branch to branch and flutter across leaves. The predators blink and stare and at first I’m hit with a cold shock of fear, but then they simply watch, heads cocked and eyes blinking at us through heavy blankets of bougainvillea and Spanish moss.
The sun shimmers as it climbs into the sky. All I can hear is the scrabble of animal claws, the shuffle of Mitchell’s booted feet, and my own heavy breathing. The Garden smells like fresh rainfall, and there are no signs of animal scat or carcasses anywhere. I wonder how the carnivores survive if they are not eviscerating prey, but I chalk this up to the miracle of paradise.
Mitchell seems to know where he’s going. There isn’t a set path: once we’ve entered the Garden, we aren’t so much on a trail as we are wandering through a series of pleasant grottoes, bulbous grassy spaces where the trees bevel out and leave room for standing and sitting, as though Eden has carved out little private picnic cubbies. But Mitchell doesn’t stop as we traipse through these. He doesn’t pause to observe the macaws or the panthers, isn’t distracted by the sight of a giraffe stuffed into a small plain or a lion stalking amongst the brush. Even the flash of a skunk darting past us doesn’t hitch his gait.
“Where are we going?” I ask after we’ve been in the Garden for ten minutes. From our usual birds’ eye view Eden looks small, traversable in mere minutes, but Mitchell has taken some kind of circuitous path; I feel as if we’ve backtracked and looped, wandering through a hedge maze.
“We’re almost there.”
“But where is there?”
“Just trust me, Charlie.”
“You know I do.”
“Then let’s go.”
His voice is brusque, filled with an impatience I do not recognize. I wish he would whistle, or hum, or sing. Anything to tether me to him. But all I hear is the shuffle of our feet through the grass, which is short and even. I wonder if Paradise has its own landscaping company, or if even the St. Augustine knows not to get tangly and unkempt. Everything knows its place.
When he stops, I recognize the Tree of Knowledge, with its thick-ribbed greenery and heavy fruit. I know where we are, now, within this maze; from our usual spot on the cliff the baldness of this one space is obvious, the thick hairline of trees opening up for this sprouting deciduous giant. The Tree of Life is somewhere nearby too, its tantalizing gifts of youth humming.
“So,” I say. “Here we are.”
“Come on,” Mitchell says.
I’m not surprised that the tree is lush and full of fresh fruit, that no matter how many grubby hands pluck its wares each day it is always bountiful and giving. Each Eden’s Tree of Knowledge is different; ours is weighted with peaches. Mitchell marches right up its trunk. I expect to see a serpent slithering around, or for something to happen as we get close. Maybe I should feel a deep tremor of holy reverence. But I’m simply out of breath from our long haul through the Garden. Mitchell looks pristine, glimmering with morning light and effervescence.
He plucks a peach from the Tree and takes a bite. He is messy with his teeth; juice sprays down his chin. He’s staring at me as he chews. When he swallows, he takes another bite, his face glossy with sticky sweetness, and although the thought of licking all that pulp and liquid from his mouth makes the back of my head tingle, I am queasy.
After another bite, Mitchell clears his throat, bobbing his head as if a song is playing that only he can hear.
“I needed information,” he says.
“Knowledge.” He half-turns toward the Tree. Juice oozes onto his fingers. “I needed to know what to do.”
“About you leaving?” I say. Finally, the words are there, out, spat. I feel like I’ve horked up a wad of gum, old and wizened and hard.
“Yes. About that.”
“I need to sit down,” I say, but I don’t move.
“No, you don’t,” he says.
“Did you get your answer?”
“I think so.”
“That was quick.”
He nods at the peach. “It’s good fruit.” He holds it out to me so I can see the long, narrow trenches where his teeth have scraped through. “Do you want to know anything?”
I shake my head. The idea of food sounds repulsive.
Mitchell shrugs and looks at the peach, then tosses it over his shoulder like it is nothing. It lands somewhere at the base of the Tree. I imagine it rotting, pulling Mitchell’s DNA into the soil where the roots will grab it up. He will enter every peach anyone ever plucks from the Tree of Knowledge, a little bit of him moving through visitors from far and wide. I imagine his singing and humming vibrating in their cells, their bones, their muscles aching to belt out Tina Turner.
“Are you going to tell me what you found out?”
“Charlie,” Mitchell says. He takes my hand.
He bends down as if stretching his lower back, but then suddenly he’s bent on one knee.
“What is this?”
Mitchell smiles. The sun catches in the prickles of his hair. He reaches into a side pocket of his backpack with his free hand, the fingers that are holding mine tightening but never gripping me painfully; he knows how to treat my bones. He rummages, blindly, and never stops smiling. Mitchell has this way of turning up his mouth just enough that you know he’s full of joy. I’m surprised he isn’t singing.
“Here we are,” he says, and produces a small felt box.
“Mitchell,” I say.
“Here’s the thing.” He holds the box tight in his fist. “What I needed to know was whether I should ask you.”
My mouth is gummy like it’s full of jam. I open and close my lips, feel spit caked there.
“I needed to know if I should ask you to come with me. When I leave.”
“You weren’t sure?”
“No,” he says, shaking his head. His hair flashes in the light. I can see the precious tenderness of his scalp. “That’s not it. I just couldn’t bear the idea that I might ask and you might say no.”
He pops open the box. There’s a small onyx band nestled inside. It gleams dark and hard, smooth and reflective.
While Mitchell blinks at me, I feel like something’s rattling up my intestines. I try to hold it in. I picture myself leaving everything I know behind. I’ve never been to California. I picture bright beaches and sunshine. I picture shirtless people strolling down wide boulevards, the sounds of weights clanking around outdoor gyms in Venice and Santa Monica. Then my mind slips into a darker future, where Mitchell is soaked into the music industry, dragged down into a world of cocaine and Quaaludes, tequila shots and absinthe, discotheques and raves and bars that I can’t afford to dress nicely enough for. I hear the horrible silence of him no longer singing to me.
Mitchell’s hand clenches the box tighter, his knuckles going white. Sun gleams down.
“Mitchell,” I say.
He starts to stand. “It’s okay, Charlie, if your answer is no.”
“Of course it isn’t.” I bray out the words, spittle flying from my teeth. Mitchell must have known I would say yes, thanks to the fruit. And of course I’m saying yes.
“But you can’t stop singing to me, okay?”
He grins. With no warmup he starts, his voice syrupy and thick:
In your heart I see the start of every night and every day
In your eyes I get lost, I get washed away.
When Mitchell stands, he grabs hold of me, tight. He’s still holding the box, and I haven’t touched the ring, but I don’t care, because he keeps singing, and though his voice is muffled against my throat, I can feel the vibration of his body. It travels up and down and out, sinking into the grass and threading its way through paradise.
The drive to my apartment is quiet; Mitchell keeps the windows rolled up and the air conditioning high, the cold blasting the sweat on my face into a hard, chilly shell. His eyes go to the ring, which is hard and heavy on my left hand. I’ve never worn jewelry of any kind, and I fiddle with it, twist the ring around, my fingers needing motion and distraction. I’m trying to picture life on the West Coast. I’m trying to picture myself emptying my tiny apartment, boxes scattered on the floor like blocky landmines. I run through the phone calls I’ll need to make, to my landlord, the electric company, my internet provider. I try to picture Mitchell and me standing in my tiny kitchen, choosing which drinking glasses and plates we’ll need and which we won’t, whether we’ll move my bed or his. I try to see myself finding work, cobbling together a gaggle of adjunct gigs to get by while Mitchell is meeting famous deejays and auto-tuned pop stars, spending spectacular nights in high-rises and forgetting about our sojourns to the Garden of Eden. I’m trying to tell myself that it would be okay for us to find another thatch of trees to look at.
We park in front of my building, and Mitchell asks if I want him to come inside. I say yes, even though I want to be alone. As soon as we step through the door, he kisses me, his hand on the back of my head. He is celebratory, and why shouldn’t he be? Our legs get tangled up as he marches us toward the bedroom, where my mattress seems suddenly lumpy and expendable. Everything around me feels unnecessary.
“Charlie?” he says when he’s lying atop me. The wideness of his eyes makes it clear he’s only now seeing that something is wrong. “What is it?” His voice is at my chin.
“Nothing,” I say. “I’m tired. Long day.” Something cold crawls down my throat.
“Okay,” Mitchell says, but I can hear the doubt in his voice.
“Do you think we’ll ever come back here?”
That makes him smile.
“When we’re there, will we come back here?” I say again. “Maybe once in a while, to look at Eden?”
“What if we discover another one? Tacoma, Palo Alto. There’s got to be one somewhere out there.”
“I like ours.” I can smell the sour build-up of sweat from the day. It clings to him like film.
“Well, what if we make our own?”
“How would that work?”
“It wouldn’t be hard. As long you’re near me—”
“I know the line.”
Mitchell’s breath is close, hot. “I know you do.”
I nod. I’m not sure what I’m agreeing to.
When I slip into sleep, Mitchell heavy and close like a small moon, I dream of Eden. I’m standing on the edge of our familiar outcrop, the nose of Mitchell’s car scalding at the backs of my knees. It’s nudging me forward even though there’s nowhere to go. And so I tumble into thin air, dropping toward the treetops like a rocket. But then when I spread my arms I slow down, as though my flesh has become a parachute, and I land softly on the canopy of leaves and branches. I can walk across them like Jesus on the surface of water. But I’m directionless. I’ve no idea how to find my way. When I look up and behind me, all I can see is the sharp sun. But I can hear Mitchell, humming and then singing, the words familiar. And even though I’m not sure how to get to him, I hope that he will somehow lead me home.