Winner of the 2003 Eating Mothballs Fiction Prize


An old man left alone will eat mothballs.

That's the way of it. If he's past the age of caring whether his body fits in his pants, whether his wife is the same woman she was 50 years ago, whether he was wrong to move away from the Midwest in his 20s, then eventually, his old-man mind will not flinch at the thought of the inedible. It won't even question. Instead, he thinks, Yes, mothballs would be tasty. They're round like a pop-'em snack. They're crunchy. They have aroma.

And the ultimate enticement: Somewhere, in the back of his old-man mind, he remembers that eating mothballs is forbidden. Forbidden like heavy chocolate cake. Like reaching out to touch young women's bottoms on the subway. Like going out for the mail in only your slippers.

Joshua Bartlett had white mothball crumbs all over his pilly navy-blue pullover. It looked from a distance like he was watching TV in the living room, but his milky-blue eyes were fixed on a dream. His skinny fingertips brushed back and forth over the mothballs rolling gently on a lamp table next to him. He had been alone for six hours, and had gotten hungry after hour two.

First he had looked in the refrigerator, leaning on the cool door, which had a tendency to swing shut. Eggs. He pulled one from the open carton and it slipped from his hand and broke on the linoleum. A little clear gook got on his sock. He shifted away, closer to the door, and his hip banged on the milk shelf. He grimaced and shuffled away. The door fell shut.

He opened cabinets, stared into them and left the doors open. A yellow and blue package of something stood open toward the front of the cabinet under the sink. He thought dimly of square, salty crackers and pulled open the flaps of the box. White. Round. He picked one up and put it in his mouth.

The taste had made him spit, peyew, onto the floor. He looked into the box again, picked one out that looked tastier, lipped it, gummed it, put it against his molars and bit down hard.

The ball came apart in hundreds of fragments. Joshua pressed the crackly particles with his tongue against the roof of his mouth. The texture reminded him of communion. He relaxed, thinking of prayer, dark pews, confession, hymns. Joshua sing-songed the first lines of "Now Thank We All Our God" and started his slow way back to the living room. He set the box on the table next to the frayed leather EZ Boy, and he sat, crushing the balls in his mouth and tasting communion, until his daughter came home at 6 p.m., carrying groceries, and saw the mothballs on the table under his fingers.