I've come in here where no one see my growth. I can hear them, though. I can hear the way the old man clears his throat and the way the old woman examines her cuticles before extending one clean hand, five fingers and all, to stroke his Adam's apple. I wish she wouldn't do that. When Cousin Adolphus gets here, he isn't going to like it.
We used to live in a house. Then we lived in another house.
Now we only meet on special occasions.
We were walking down the old road when we saw a bear.
We were hiking up the old path when we met a family going in the other direction. They were a father, a mother, a girl and a boy. They whistled and wore Lederhosen. In that place the stream roared on its way elsewhere. Even the bird, circling, hinted at winter. I waited for the appropriate moment to point out that dinner was going to be delayed. We walked on and on. We met a family going in the opposite direction. They were a father, a mother, a girl and a boy. They whistled and wore Lederhosen while the stream rushed on. "We're lost," someone said aloud, voicing all of our thoughts. We met a family going in the opposite direction. The mother had a growth on her face, a mole. It rose just above her eyebrow on the right-hand side.
"I know," our son said, "let me climb that tree." Our son loved climbing. He thrust his sneakers onto the tree's elephantine trunk and hoisted himself onto a branch. It was the same branch where Louise DiUdulo sat smiling while other children marched around and around, singing, "Louise and Douglas sitting in a tree." She just went on smiling. Later her parents sold that house and moved away, someplace warmer.
Someone is knocking on this door. Someone is saying, "Are you almost through in there?"
I'm so small now, I can almost fit through the cracks, except for my growth.
My name is Mindy. I come from Montana. I sell moonbeams and my husband's name is Marcus. I'm lying, of course. My name is Nancy. I come from New Mexico. I sell nanoseconds and my husband's name is Nellie Bly.
"Your turn," I say, unlocking the door.
They're sitting at the table with their hands folded together. They're very old, nonagenarians, and none of us understands what they see in one another. Actually, with their cataracts and hearing aids, it isn't about sight, is it? My dog likes to nose between my legs. If I'm wearing a dress, he pushes while I pat his rump. I give him a last two-handed pat and with one more wag of his cropped tail he's out the other side. These two, though, you can tell they never get enough. They're making slurping noises. Just wait until Cousin Adolphus gets here.
"Oh! Oh! I can't abide those noises!" my aunt insists, flinging up her hands.
But she's the one who drove to the Home and got them released for the afternoon. "You can't just leave old people to fend for themselves, no matter how lubricious," she insisted. She's an artist whose collage-paintings feature old houses and barns. In the barn out back she keeps nine sheep. There was a goat, too, but the wolves ate him. This growth is really beginning to bother me. I think this growth is like a time bomb, ticking or pulsing.
They are holding each other's hands, each fist caught in its opposing image, they are reaching across the table, they are drooling, they are smiling idiotically, they are releasing each other's hands and reaching across the table, they are running their hands down each other's bodies, they are pressing into the loose folds of flesh there, they are repeating each gesture many times, they are ruining Thanksgiving with all this touching.
The toilet flushes. Someone says, "Are you finished yet? I have to get in there right now."
I come in here so no one can see me. I cry and cry. I wash the tears out of my eyes and run the tap water. I blow my nose and fart and listen to other people blowing their noses. Cousin Adolphus, who's come to take the nonagenarians away, has a head cold but it doesn't stop him. "They're going back to the Home right this binute," he hollers. "Look at them! Will you!"
"No! No!" my aunt fiercely insists and she shoves him right through the door and back outside. She carries a lot of weight around here. She's shoving Cousin Adolphus toward the sheep cote. Now we hear his cries. Now we can't see his bleary eyes and red nose and handlebar moustaches anymore.
He's certainly crying, "Let me out of this badhouse!"
"Let me in!" someone pleads.
I unlock the door and little Lucille, clutching her crotch, staggers past me. I walk into the living room. The old people are grappling with important issues on the floor. They have sunk that low. My sister is playing Parcheesi with her boyfriend. My brother's new wife is happy living on a houseboat. They always are happy, at first. But poor Cousin Adolphus may never again see the light of day. My aunt returns, triumphant, and hauls open the oven door, which has a tendency to fall off. Sure enough, with a sickening thud, a lampshade topples right onto the cat, who flees, screeching. The dogs are growing restless.
"He's giving the sheep a check-up," she informs us.
Once, hiking up the mountain, we passed a family of four, a father, a mother, a girl and a boy. They were all dressed in Lederhosen. They were going the wrong way, we joked. I wanted to run after them but my son was just getting down from another pine tree. That summer, the summer before he got his growth, he only wanted to see life from on high. Later, when I turned forty, I had the sense of traveling across a plateau from which I could see the distant forests of life, past and future.
The bathroom door opens, Lucille saunters out, and I scoot back inside where no one can find me. This growth is definitely larger and redder. "Is she coming out?" someone calls: that must be Second-Cousin Marfa, about whom never mind. "I don't think she's ever coming out." "But the turkey is ready." "I want to taste that stuffing." "Did you remember not to put walnuts in?" "I loved your cranberry sauce last year. You didn't use too much sugar." "Yes, I called the doctor just this morning." "Well, I think they're sweet," someone adds. That would be my daughter, who is young enough to believe in sentiment. I want to scream: the woman in the mirror has a growth just like mine! Her growth is red and raised and round like a potato. It feels like it has roots, too, like a potato. It feels like a tuber growing beneath the winter of her skin.
When she emerges, at last, and takes her place at the table, the nonagenarians pause just long enough in their sweaty exertions to clap their hands. "I have a growth above my eye," I start to explain but it's the hour of the clapping game. We play the clapping game each year. We clap at the hospitable charity of my aunt, although Cousin Adolphus might abstain. We clap at the size of that turkey. We clap at the rate at which our planet is hurtling through the solar system and we clap because the youngest among us believes in love. Throughout the meal, at unpredictable times, someone will announce still another reason to celebrate. We aren't religious. We don't thank anybody who isn't here in this room.
I find a reason to slip away from the table. I want more than most things to creep into the bathroom and have another look at my growth. Instead I let myself out the dog door and glide through my aunt's studio, filled though it is with ancient stone and decrepit sheepskins, and I stumble, wine glass in hand, wine in the glass in my hand sloshing over the rim, toward the barn. I expect Cousin Adolphus to rush past me but he's just sitting on the half-wall of a sheep's berth. He looks so sad, I don't know what to tell him.
"Nobody likes doctors," I explain.
He lets out a long, shuddering breath. "I can't stand this much longer," he hisses, reaching.
After that it's easy. We aren't just in the business of exchanging bodily fluids. Why do we say "bodily," anyhow? It isn't an adverb, is it? His mouth becomes my mouth. His long arms become my short, somewhat mottled arms. His hairy chest is my drooping bosom. We are taking a terrible risk—he's thrice married, I'm moribund—and this knowledge provokes us to further exchanges. When we get dressed again, still panting, and rush inside, nobody has even noticed anything unusual.
I sit down. I resist the desire to rush into the bathroom. If it's melanoma, I've doubtless let it go too long. One way or another, I'm going to join the others in the old meat freezer. That's where my aunt keeps us stacked: her husband Frank, who fought for civil rights and taught eighth-graders, and Great-Aunt Rita, who hid her riches and died quite mad, and the old dogs, of course, Duchy, a proud Rottweiler, and Rembrandt, a snarly setter-poodle mix. The nonagenarians, I see, have been strapped into their high chairs. I turn to point this out to Cousin Adolphus but it's too unnerving to gaze into his waxy moustaches (they're a little moist, a little downturning) right here, at this laden table, surrounded as it is by faces, faces I've gazed into all my life or all their lives, depending on who first slithered shrieking out of that black hole.
"I think we lost our heads a bit back there," Cousin Adolphus whispers and I squeeze his hand beneath the table. He's afraid I'm going to hold him down, or try to, but I knew when he whispered those words of love, such fiery love, he was really admiring my growth.
"I know," I tell him shyly.
"You aren't dying," he says, "I know my moles."
"Then I'm living," I say.
"You sure are," he says, winking. His epaulets shudder and his belly breathes in and out. His cold seems better, though. "Are you two telling secrets again?" someone asks; it's little Lucille, who thinks she knows more than she does.
The Brussels sprouts strike Second-Cousin-Once-Removed Erica (the one with the squint) as particularly well braised. "Please pass the gravy," she says.
This sounds more like an announcement than a request and for a moment I think someone is going to start a round of clapping for the gravy, which does smell wonderful from this end of the table. And then the conversation dies down and I realize that for the fifty-third year in a row, I'm starving.