Friday, August 7, 2009

Surface of Flesh--Mrs. Genthner

I’m standing in the checkout lane at the supermarket and the cashier is taking forever. I tried so hard to pick the shortest line, but once again, I picked wrong. I look around the woman in front of me, the one who has neatly stacked six piles of frozen diet meals and a 24-pack of diet soda on the scan belt to see who’s causing the holdup. An old stooped man is waving a wrinkled coupon in front of the cashier’s nose and she’s scowling at him as she slaps her way through the store’s weekly ad.
I sigh and look at my watch, then at the food piled in my cart. If I don’t buy it, we’re having Chinese again, and if I stay in line, I’ll be late picking Maggie up from school.
I stay in line.
I pick up a magazine, one with a sleek black chair on the cover. The wall behind it is stark white and the floor is glossy tile. I practice looking sophisticated as I flip through ads and articles with glossy photo layouts. Charlie’s taking me to New York City next month for our 15th anniversary. I’ve never been there and I’m afraid I’ll look too much like what I am: a 35 year old stay at home mom who quit college to have a baby. A Midwesterner who shops the sales racks and knows she’ll always look like a ghost in black. And all New Yorkers wear black: it’s on TV.
The line finally begins to move and I am shoving the thick magazine back on the rack when I see the picture. There’s this Asian man with his shirt pulled up to his armpits and there on his stomach is a swollen peach-sized growth. “Parasitic Twin Cut from Beijing Man!” the headline screams.
My fingers itch to touch the sooty pages, to put that story in my cart, but I know what Charlie will say. I stare at the man’s belly until the taut skin around that growth stretches my eyes.
I want to laugh or blink or sneeze or something but I can’t stop looking.
After I pick up Maggie and unload the groceries, I sit down on the front porch with a cup of coffee and spread the tabloid across my lap. I turn slowly through ads for foot powder and allergy medicine, past articles predicting the second coming of Jesus and revealing the shocking story behind the human offspring of a pair of pygmy goats.
There it is, then, on page 17. I can’t stop reading, not even when Mags sits down next to me and leans on my arm, reading the article with me.
I finish reading and sink back in my chair. “What’s this about this Chinese guy, Mom?” she says, prying an Oreo apart and scraping the white frosting off with her teeth. “Why’re you reading it?”
I fold up the paper and take a sip of coffee. “Oh, I don’t know. It just sounded—you know—funny. A guy absorbed his twin in the womb and it spent forty years roaming around inside his body. Where do they get this stuff, huh?”
I can’t help it, but my hand creeps up and rubs the bump on the back of my neck. I must wince because Maggie asks if I have a headache.
“No, baby, I’m fine.” She’s not convinced. She’s a smart kid, always has been. She didn’t baby talk, didn’t say a word until she was three, and then she started out with full sentences. She still isn’t much of a talker, more of a watcher. And she never misses anything.
“Hey,” I say, “I tried to load a new CD onto my iPod this morning and can’t get it to work. Can you help me figure it out?”
She sits up and puts the last Oreo in her mouth whole, nodding. Then she launches out of the chair, heading for the computer. I fold the tabloid again and again as I follow her, and when I reach her, my hands are black.
Two months ago, at my yearly physical, I told my doctor, Patti VanDerMere, about this lump I’d found on the back of my neck, right up by my skull. She smiled at me. “It’s probably nothing to worry about,” she said. Then she let me guide her fingers to the spot. “Sometimes, when I have a headache, if I push on the lump, my headache goes away,” I said.
“Hmm.” She closed her eyes. The first time I had a physical with her, I knew I liked her. Her smile was warm and her hands were smooth and dry. She had closed her eyes when she examined me the first time and got a tiny smile on her face. Not the creepy kind of tiny smile, but the reassuring kind. The kind that let me know she knew what she was doing.
I studied her face as her fingers pushed and stroked the lump on my neck. I waited for her to smile.
She opened her eyes then, and I noticed they were the color of ripe wheat, a strange color I’d never seen before in eyes. “It’s probably nothing,” she said again, “but let me know if it gets any bigger.”
I probably touch that lump five times a day, at least. More when I get those headaches. How do I know if it’s getting bigger? When I told Charlie about what Dr. Patti said, he suggested drawing a circle around it with a permanent marker. Then if it got bigger than the circle, we’d know if it had grown. I hate it when I can’t tell if he’s joking. I haven’t drawn the circle.
I wash my hands and come back to Maggie. “Mom, didn’t I show you this last time?” she says, looking up at me through her bangs. She needs a haircut. “It’s so easy. You just—” and her hands shifts the mouse around and she clicks so fast, I can’t follow it. How can an eleven-year-old know more than her mother? I sigh and it comes out like a shudder. I shouldn’t have had the coffee.
Maggie pulls my iPod from the dock and hands it to me. I run my hand from the silken crown of her head down and cup her cheek. “Thank you, baby. I don’t know why I couldn’t figure that out.”
By the time Alex pulls into the drive with Charlie, I’ve got dinner just about ready. Spaghetti with meatballs. Maggie’s in the kitchen with me, tearing lettuce into a bowl for salad.
Alex comes in from the garage. “Any casualties?” I ask as he wraps his arm around my shoulder. He’s just gotten his learner’s permit, and I try not to think about how dangerous the roads are.
“Nope,” he says, dipping his finger in the sauce. “Arggh, that’s hot!” He sticks his finger in his mouth, pouting.
“It’s boiling, dummy,” Maggie says, washing a tomato now.
Alex leans down to whisper in my ear. “She called me a dummy, Mom. Can I wash her mouth out with soap?” What god did I please to get kids like this? My friends are always complaining about their children: the fights, the constant video games and internet surfing, the messy bedrooms. Alex and Mags aren’t perfect, but I’ve never heard of a fifteen-year-old boy who hugs his mom as often as Alex does. I shake my head. “I’ll get the hydrochloric acid out after dinner,” I reply. “Much more effective for an infraction like this.”
Charlie walks in and wraps his arms around me from behind, putting his chin on my shoulder and inhaling deeply. “Grandma’s meatballs?” he asks, kissing me on the neck. "How did you know that's what I've been craving all day?"
I set the spoon down and curl around in his arms. "I'm psychic, you should know that. We've been married how long?" He smiles at me and kisses my nose.
"Not long enough, I guess."
"Speaking of psychic," Maggie says, picking up the salad bowl, "guess what mom bought today."
I shoot an evil glance at her and she just grins at me. I wonder when she'll grow into her front teeth. I remember when Alex had those same buck teeth, but I don't remember when they melted into the shape they have now.
Charlie is staring at me and I blink. He smiles patiently. "Did you ask me something?" I say.
"About what Maggie said. What did you buy?"
I shake my head. "Oh, it's nothing." I turn back to the stove and turn the burner off. "Just a tabloid with outrageous headlines."
"Anna, we talked about this. You said you weren't going to buy that garbage any more. You know it's all just made up."
"I can't help it. They make me laugh."
"Did you laugh when you read this one?" He leans on the counter and sticks his face up close to mine. How does he know? I turn away, hoping he'll think I'm looking for something I need, like a pot holder.
"I chuckled, yeah. It was funny. Let's eat." And I hand him the sauce, which is still bubbling.
After dinner and dishes are done, I pour another glass of wine. I like this label. It's got a rooster on a roofline and he's crowing at the moon.
Everyone's in the living room and I step carefully over the lip of the area rug. I've never spilled anything on it, not in the seven years since we bought it at an upscale shop in Chicago. I remember I had taken one look at the price tag and walked away, just glancing back maybe once, thinking about how many months of groceries or gas that rug would cost. I am glad now that Charlie talked me into it, though. Every time I sit down on the couch, I dig my toes deep into it, feeling the wool pile spring back a little. And white, too. With two kids, what were we thinking? When we first unrolled it on the floor, it smelled like a sheep, but not in a bad farmy way. Like a natural way, a way that brought me back to the summer days I had spent sitting in my Grandpa Weston's old barn up north. But the time I was a kid, the only animals he kept were a few chickens, a one-eyed German Shepherd named Sallie, and a fluctuating number of barn cats. He told me, though, that he had kept sheep once, when my dad was a boy, and goats and cows and a pig too. The barn boards still wheezed those animal smells under the hay-dusted sun.
I slide my feet over the rug and head for my chair, the one by the window, my favorite place to read. I navigate past Alex's long legs and Maggie's homework spread across the floor, past Charlie's kicked-off loafers and still-knotted tie. I'm almost to my chair when it happens.
I'm struck with shakes. Shakes so bad my arms jiggle down to my fingertips, my legs vibrate, my heart beats against my ribs like a trapped bird. The wine glass slips from my fingers and I don't even notice. My eyes, they're darting everywhere, roaming around the room, but they won't slow down and I don't see anything.
Then it's black.
When I open my eyes again, it's like I'm looking through the wide end of a tunnel, down its bright walls to a tiny point of light. In that small circle of light, I can just see the faces of my family crowded together, and when I blink, they've moved closer and then closer and then closer until their faces are huge and round.
"Anna," Charlie says, and I think his voice sounds strange, like someone's been trying to strangle him. The tunnel fades then and the darkness around it recedes and I can see. I am lying on the floor and I try to talk, but my tongue is thick in my mouth. I want to say I'm fine, that I just fainted or something. Maybe because of that big storm that's supposed to come tomorrow. That would explain the headache I've had all day. I feel rain on my hand, my right hand, and I roll my head that way, an enormous task. Maybe I'm not ready to get up yet.
Alex is frozen, his eyes so wide and dark I want to crawl into them and sleep for a thousand years. I reach for them, but my arm flops beside me. Maggie is crying, not making a sound. Her mouth is a thin white line and her eyes are so dark I want to crawl into them and go to sleep. I think I smile at her. My lips shiver and lift at the corners, like they're supposed to, but she doesn't stop crying.

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