by Carl Wilhoyte
It is a fingernail.
Growing in the side of my back.
Hard, beige-colored, about the size of a dime.
The doctor proclaims it to be a perfectly healthy fingernail, and afterwards, I'm charged $115.58. Then I'm referred to a derma surgeon who also proclaims it to be a fingernail, charges me $78 even, who refers me to an orthopedic specialist, despite the fact it's not technically a hand problem. They all say the same thing: a perfectly healthy fingernail. It just wasn't supposed to be there. They all also say it was very odd for it to be there, Mister Coleson, very odd indeed.
"Thank you, doctor," I say as I sign the checks.
• • •
At work, I'm just trying to make it through the days one at a time, like I am a hopeless addict and my drug is disappointment.
"I can't believe it! I just can't believe it! Marty!" The fragile voice on the phone, Louis Merchant, yells to someone.
"Huh?" A faint, male response. Harold Merchant, 66, with Stage 3 lung cancer. From the profile I'm looking at, he's probably not going to make it to 67.
The company I work for is a finely tuned machine dedicated to doing absolutely nothing for as long as possible. It's called a "health dump", a bureaucratic cemetery where overdue and contested medical bills go to rest forever entombed, a lot of times, along with their owners.
"The insurance company's going to reopen our claim!" She's almost giddy.
"Ma'am, I'm just letting you know I can't guarantee anything."
"Oh, I know, I know." No, she doesn't know. "We've just been given the run-around so much."
"I'm very sorry about that." A truth. "The company will re-review your claim and give you a response within seven to ten business days." Another truth. I know for a fact that the response will be a professional and polite statement that she and her Harold should shut up, sit down, and die quietly. Our commercials are always so pleasant, filled with grey-haired, plump grandmothers whom I assume look and smile exactly like Louise. Her name sounds alien, an ugly word I don't even want to say.
If a patient grows a nice, fruit-sized tumor and obviously can't afford their doctor's haircut, their policy often lapses into a coma-like state of default and falls into our data purgatory. I say "fruit-sized" because it's an interesting trend that tumors are almost always compared to the size of fruits. Tumors and breasts, now that I think about it. Big as a grapefruit. Shape of a ripe pomegranate. Small as an apple.
Louise thanks me seven times, and I am mandatorily obligated to explain a series of company-mandated, intentionally confusing procedures to her so the wide maw of the company will just swallow her whole. She's not really listening to me, just thanking me.
"You're very welcome, ma'am. You and Harold... have a good day, okay? Feel better."
She thanks me for an eighth time and hangs up the phone, and the silence afterwards is agonizing. My side itches. There is something growing out of me, and I hope it sees a better world than I do.
• • •
I do not want to visit my parent's house for Thanksgiving. I do not want a constant stomach ache for four hours. I do not want to be piled with dried-out dead bird and canned mushroom everything that taste like paste. I really really don't want to go to my parent's house for Thanksgiving. The nail has turned into a perfectly healthy fingernail and lump, like it's on a pitcher's mound. It's cancer, I know it is. What else could it be? It's not a perfectly healthy fingernail but a malignant tumor that's going to turn me into a stick figure with credit cards before killing me. The doctors and my wife, Julia, are just too nice to tell me. It's spread all through my body like a freeway system. They're just too nice to tell me.
The entire car ride there resembles a slow-moving funeral through traffic with the three of us: Julia, my cancer and I. We glide through the grey drizzle in a slow slide into my parent's icy driveway for Thanksgiving. I'm not giving thanks, not if I can help it. I smile at Julia, and she doesn't smile back for some reason, just keeps changing the radio station every ten seconds or so. Hip-hop to rock to country to Jesus back to rock again.
I knock on the door and my brother, Aaron, lets us in. He's wearing a blue sweater and a stupid grin and lets me and Julia into the house. He asks us about the drive, the house, I smile and feel sick.
Spending time with my family is like stepping onto some unknown, subtly dangerous shore. The trees just don't look right. There is an ill wind in the air. Weird sounds everywhere. Mom is in the kitchen, scooping a grey substance out of a can. Dad is in his easy chair, squeezing a stress ball, watching whatever game is on. I am amazed humanity has survived as long as it has.
We all chat, and I try to avoid the faintly chemical smell from the carpet. I feel like everyone is following me around into every room, always touching me. I keep stifling the urge to scream, putting more and more food into my mouth, talking about work, the car, when Julia and I are going to have kids. Mom says she wants to be a Grammy. I ask Dad if he wants to be an Oscar. No one gets it.
The food is cleared away and there's a cold pile of wet dumplings in my gut. I breathe. Mom, all grin, comes back into the kitchen.
"It's time… for… the Cornucopia!" she yells to the four of us.
Julia smiles and claps. Dad wipes the last of the mashed potatoes out of his beard and heads out into the living room. Mom is setting up the puppets. Oh God.
"Do we have to do this every year?" I say, trying to hide my panic and failing.
"Oh, you. It's tradition!"
"I don't know of any other family that does this. How is it tradition if no one else does it? Dad?"
My dad pipes in, "Jerry, listen to your mother."
"Jerry, it's fun. I like it," Julia says. I have been abandoned to the wolves.
The Cornucopia is something my mother created out of menopausal desperation when she stopped teaching grade school. She felt kids learned mostly through stories, unlike in real life, where they learn from disappointment. After her brief career as a teacher, she had an old set of felt hand puppets from a 80's Sunday School set called "Mister Willoughby," starring an eponymous old shopkeeper who would gather his felt children together for old-fashioned Bible stories using felt-covered appendages. That quiet, Santa-type that always ends up with a collection of tiny, unexplained shoes, placing the barrel of a 12 gauge into his mouth while a SWAT team rams down his door.
There is also Sally, the blond girl with no face to speak of, Slim Jim, a local youth (no relation to the jerky), and Grumpy Gus, a local hobo complete with booze and red nose. Grumpy Gus is always getting into trouble, mainly because of his gosh-darn un-Godly ways. He is a dysfunctional plot device, and I sympathize with him more than anyone. Mom always recruits me to perform with her, and I think I enjoyed it at one time before everything just changed on me. Before they moved to this 15-year mortgage, neighborhood kids used to stop by the old place, and it was fun to play pretend. Be the hobo. Make funny voices. See them enraptured by a hand puppet. But it just seems pointless and hollow now. I tell myself, just do it. Get it over with. It'll be over soon.
I'm to play Sally and Grumpy Gus this year. It goes like this: Grumpy Gus is out on the streets because he made some bad choices in life. Sally wants to help Grumpy Gus, so she invites him to her house for Thanksgiving dinner. When Grumpy Gus gets there, Slim Jim and Mister Willoughby share the true meaning of Thanksgiving. Grumpy Gus turns his life around and becomes a clerk at Mister Willoughby's shop. Applause. Close curtains. I'm tempted to ask for a little finger puppet for my nail and lump, get them in on the action. They'd probably love it. Mom glances over the lines, but I know the play by heart. I've done it twenty-seven times.
• • •
We're at the scene where Sally meets Grumpy Gus in the alleyway. She's gone to the store to get some butter.
"Hey Gus, how are you doing?" my left hand says. This is the hand I normally masturbate with. Now I'm using it to teach someone the meaning of Thanksgiving for the twenty-seventh time. My wedding ring is right where Sally's liver would be. Golden bile.
"Not too good, Sally," my right hand says. Right here is where I'm supposed to spontaneously go into Grumpy Gus' back story, an odd thing for a drunken homeless bum to just spit out to a young girl. In real life, he would just show her his lumpy penis. That would take a lot less time and would mean exactly the same thing.
But the story won't come out. He is supposed to come from a bad family on the wrong side of town, with bad parents who beat him and called him names. His mom had lots of kids for the welfare. Grumpy Gus was used to getting checks from the government and he just drank a lot. All of these things are supposed to happen but they don't.
I start up a new story about a kid who never got any breaks, always was unlucky. He never had the background to be successful. His parents said they loved him but never did anything to show it. They never hit him or yelled at him. In all honesty, they were pretty good from the outside. But really, they were all just like strangers living in a hotel. He had to go to a state college because that's what you do after high school. He got married because that's what you do after college. There's a hole in Grumpy Gus' side and I stick my thumb through. This is what Grumpy Gus has to look forward to, a thumb growing out of his side.
Aaron rubs his face. Grumpy Gus tells him to stop being bored.
"I'm going to go check my email."
Grumpy Gus tells Aaron he's actually going to go jerk off to Internet porn and he could at least wear headphones. That would be the polite thing to do, he yells to Aaron, who is climbing the stairs.
Dad shakes his head. "You know son, we're just trying to get together as a family."
Grumpy Gus tells Dad he's a cold, distant asteroid floating in deep space. He tells Dad that he talks more about his anal polyps than his grandma's suicide. That he could recite an entire season of Cleveland Browns statistics, but he can't remember Grumpy Gus' favorite author. Mom starts to cry and Julia just sits there cross-legged, jiggling her foot. I breathe in their collective disappointment like perfume. I'd like to think Julia would have found that little scene funny at one point, or at least in concept, but she doesn't now. She glowers at me. I don't know exactly what I am turning into, and I can't explain it to her in a way this newer, more refined version of Julia would understand.
Julia and I aren't driving home alone. I still have Grumpy Gus on my hand, his miniature foam booze bottle glued to his palm. He and I have a great conversation about the finer points of the Robert Coover collection, Pricksongs & Descants, which I find illuminating and engaging, but he finds it obtuse. Julia just stares out the window.
Grumpy Gus describes the point of the book to Julia as directionless fantasy with cheap moral underpinnings. The characters are stock and trade with a nice post-modern sheen. He ends up in the glove-box with a greasy tire pressure gauge and the expired registration.
"What the hell was the point of that, Jerry?"
• • •
When we get home and settle in, the house is quiet. The single-floor bungalow has always been quiet. I don't remember ever hearing the wind or any children playing outside, just dead silence everywhere, like the place was wallpapered in quiet. The Thanksgiving debacle is sure to give her ammunition for the Big Dramatic Argument soon to come. But she doesn't yell or even appear angry, just exhausted with me. I wander around the kitchen and open the fridge, staring at condiments.
She's been subscribing to a new pantheon of magazines that arrive with colorful covers with actresses tilting their heads, flanked by hair care and sex quizzes. One's on the counter next to me, a women's magazine called "Women", open to a random page. I grab it and walk into our bedroom where Julia is already lying in bed, watching a talk show where a fat woman is being painted green while she eats a hot dog. The crowd goes wild.
I mock flip through the magazine, trying to lighten the mood. "This quiz says I should scrub out the garbage disposal if I want a blow job. Do you want me to use steel wool or a scrubber pad?"
She doesn't laugh. "Doesn't matter."
Were we always this lifeless? Before I can think of an answer, I go into the bathroom and slowly shut the door behind me. I place a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, some needle-nosed pliers, and a fresh towel on the toilet. I explore the nail, poking around the cuticle, tugging at it gently with the pliers, seeing if it moves. The nail, curved like a half-moon, smiles at me. I take a deep breath and pull as hard as I can.
A common torture is to yank the fingernails out from a victim's hand.
I can easily see why it works.
The nail remains firmly embedded in my side. A knock on the door after a long, unintended scream. Julia silently cleans up the blood and mess I made, not asking me what happened. After she's done, she comes out to the living room where I am and sits next to me, holding my damp, shaking palm. She gently kisses me on the cheek. That night, I sleep out on the couch for the first time in years.
Later that night, I watch an infomercial about a new device that will change my life forever, and they just can't believe how easy it is. I should call now. I really should. In the morning, Julia is gone and I know why, but I am still crying anyway.
• • •
It's not cancer. I don't die.
The nail indeed grew into a thumb, then a hand. For a full day, it was giving the world a thumb's up, everything's a-okay. Julia hasn't been home for weeks, and she ignores my calls. I'm dangerously low on frozen ravioli, so I end up having to go to the grocery store wearing an ugly, poofy jacket the same shade as old mud.
For Christmas, I buy myself a Virtual Hug, a device designed to replicate the feeling of being embraced by a loving, breathing human being. I try it out on Christmas Day underneath a blanket. It's surprisingly life-like, sadly comforting, and I fall asleep for most of the day, nestled in its warm latex arms.
The cupboard is now full of bachelor staples: pot noodles, lots of pasta, some chips, cheap beer that I like and Julia hates. I call Mom and Dad to apologize, but they're out, so I have no idea if they got the message or not. I promise to return Grumpy Gus (who is actually still out in the car). Julia doesn't pick up her phone. The house is a new, ugly kind of quiet.
The new hand goes limp as wrinkles and fingerprints start to form. I clip the nails very regularly. It twitches when it touches cold, like when I open the fridge or go get the mail, but other than that, it's inert. I flick it, poke it with needles, the whole gambit. A perfectly healthy lifeless hand growing out of my side. It continues to grow as I watch TV, shower, haggle with my insurance company over the doctor visits, like it's reaching out into the world to grab onto something vital.
I eat some ice cream.
Days pass blindly, and I see part of a wrist emerging and the fingers begin to slightly curl up. More days pass. It's growing like a vine in a smooth arc out of my right side. I wonder if others are going to sprout, and I'll end up looking like some American Krishna, which sounds more like a bad college band than a doctor-sanctioned, perfectly healthy, non-cancerous growth. I begin to get sensation in the new appendage, which is now an arm grown out to the elbow. It is hairless, like a kid's arm, but soon hair and moles start to appear. I almost don't notice it at first, but the moles match my own in their constellation pattern. Most interesting, Mister Coleson, most interesting indeed, the doctors say. I eventually stop going to them.
The arm is a newfound sense of entertainment. I can masturbate and swing a golf club, change channels and eat a bowl of cereal, scratch places without needing to bend over. I learn to juggle from an online video. I could give someone fifteen. My typing speed on claims jumps to almost 200%. I can ten-key and type QWERTY, and I get lots of emoticons in emails and a modest pay raise. Due to my increased productivity and an elaborate explanation as to what my "condition" is, mainly involving bad smells, work legally is required to allow me to telecommute and direct-deposits my checks.
The whole arm thing is actually quite fun for the few days or so, until the day I stop being able to see out of my right eye. It starts off as a kind of haziness, like a cataract, then when I wake up, everything is pitch black on my right field of vision. I'm half-awake, swimming upwards from a dream: lost in the forest of tumors in my dad's colon. I stumble around the bedroom (no depth perception) until I can get to the bathroom mirror. Clawing my way up to my reflection.
My right eye is starting to split.
It looks like a figure eight turned sideways. The same pale blue iris, off-white cornea, slightly bloodshot. Just like an amoeba. Splitting off a new, fresh version of itself. I am the polyp Shiva television god of colonic death. Worship me.
• • •
The world has shrunk to the size of my house.
Time passes slowly, and I start going online a lot. Soon I am online all the time. I don't own a webcam, which is probably a good thing, considering I am starting to resemble a fleshy basketball net. I order lots of take-out and clothes online. I file my taxes. I get divorced from the comfort of my living room, just signing the documents and skipping the hearings. I am rather comfortable, even if walking took a few days to re-master. For an interesting period, I was a tripod, three legs. Two penises. An odd number of testicles.
I piss in stereo.
I talk to Julia to figure out the details of our upcoming divorce. No kids, only two cars (one I owned cash before I married her), very little equity to argue over. Even over the phone, losing her stings. It hurts more than I like to admit.
"A nice, clean split," she says very dryly. Not a drop of irony. I am still laughing when she calls me crazy and hangs up. I stop laughing and start crying. This cycle goes on for a while.
When it comes to the actual condition, it's always an adventure waking up in the morning. Some new bump, itchiness all over, but overall the growth is just like a slipping effect. No blood or scabs or anything messy. Just a gentle tugging away. Falling in slow motion. A new body part will appear, is numb at first, then mimic my own movements for a few days, then go limp again. I tried feeding the new mouth, but it wouldn't chew. I can't taste out of it.
Nothing makes sense. I check my email.
• • •
For about three hours now, the body is lying motionless, slowly breathing, on the living room floor, arms and legs spread at uncomfortable angles. It is an odd feeling, being separated now. Strangely lonely. I have to get used to only having two legs, the singular thoughts. Before it slid off, I would have thoughts that were like echoes. I'd think one thing, I'd like some toast and then I would think it again, without trying to. Dolby surround sound. It got extremely loud, happening closer and closer together, like ripples of water near a riverbank. Machine gun thoughts. Now the person-shaped tumor is lying in the middle of my floor, eyes open but blank. Chest rising and falling. I'm coated with sweat, fear.
I call Julia. I tell her what's happened.
"Congratulations," she says, crunching an ice cube in my ear. I can hear Love's Lost on the TV in the background.
"What do I do, Julia? What do I do?"
"You know what the best part of being divorced is?"
Click. I get it.
• • •
Jerry 2.0 is awake and talking now. He is not confused or lost, mainly because he's not technically an infant. He speaks in complete sentences and has clear, logical thoughts. He is surprisingly polite, asking for objects and items with a "please" and "would you" and "you're welcome." I am slowly becoming less terrified of him but not completely. He sits on the edge of the bed, wrapped in a garish beach towel.
"May I have some clothes, please? I'm, uh, still nude."
"Yes. Sure. Hold on."
I rifle through a drawer. During my condition, clothes stopped being useful after month four, when the third leg showed up, and I just starting wearing gigantic bathrobes and muumuus, like some Geraldo circus tent. The guy who grows so fat he has to be lifted out of his trailer by a crane. The woman covered in hideous warts. I have a growth that resembles me perfectly and says, "thank you."
"Thank you," he says as he puts my pants on, left leg first. For a brief moment, I am surprised they fit. He rubs the fabric and looks around for a second. "I couldn't trouble you for some food, could I?"
He eats a cheese sandwich and drinks a full glass of tap water. I simply cannot stop watching him. I feel I am making him uncomfortable, so I try to get used to having two legs again.
"So what's the plan, Jerry?" he asks me, finishing the last bite of sandwich. He wipes his mouth with a napkin, swallowing. His Adam's apple bobs.
"I have no goddamn idea." I cling to the doorframe of the living room.
"Okay. We should figure something out then. Can I borrow a pen?"
He jots down the pros and cons of going to the medical and police authorities. I suggest he could just pretend to be me for a little while, but he absolutely refuses. No one would believe us; it would also be against the law. Too much trouble for Mom and Dad. Just excuse after excuse, shooting down every good idea I have. It actually starts to make me mad after a while, his stubborn goody-two shoes attitude. He drinks a lot of water and then opens the curtains. The light is blinding, I haven't seen the sun for weeks. I look like a ghoul.
"If it's all the same to you, I'd like to meet the family. Get to know them," he says, popping open a window. Cold autumn air invades the room. I sit on the bed.
"You mean my family."
"Ours, Jerry. By the way, I should have a name."
He stops and taps his leg. My leg. "How are they any less my family, Jerry?" A brief pause. A smile, pointing at me with my index finger. "We should have Mom pick out a name."
I shoot up from the bed. "Don't call her that. She is not your mom!"
"You don't have to raise your voice, Jerry. We're just talking." He crosses the room, tucking his, my plaid shirt in, talking to me in the mirror while he buttons. "Technically speaking, we're brothers. Twins, kind of."
This is happening. This is not happening. This is happening.
"I mean, we haven't known each other exactly like brothers do. But I'd like to."
I'm floating in mid-air, swooning. "Easy boy… easy…" I see myself lowering me down onto the bed. Black and white spots smear across my eyes. Mixing together, not turning grey. Just black and white shapes dancing on my own face in front of me.
• • •
I sleep for about 18 hours, or so he tells me. I could have been sleeping for fifteen minutes or a year. All I have is this thing's opinion. We have a long, painfully boring chat over some coffee he made in the kitchen. I asked him how he was able to use the coffee pot and he replied that he was new, but not stupid. He read the directions. He actually knows how to do almost everything I do. He has all of my intellectual abilities, such as the ability to read text, but none of my memories. He doesn't know who is President, but knows what a President is.
Factory default settings.
His chirpy optimism is driving me fucking crazy. He never swears. He blows his nose discretely. He puts his napkin in his lap. I just want to get out of here. I've been cooped up in this goddamn house like a leper, and I'm trying not to scream as I grin through my coffee. He scoffs at my idea of splitting my work hours, giving him half my pay. It would be dishonest. I just agree to all his ideas. Just say yes. Get it over with. Soon, it'll be over.
I call Mom and explain. She takes it in a very unexpected way.
We're invited for Thanksgiving.
• • •
On the drive over, he needs a tissue, so he just starts rooting around in the glove compartment. We chat for a bit, and he doesn't seem overly excited to be out of the house. A world he's never seen. I have to get used to driving around again, being out with people in the open air. He explains that it's just like going to a city he's never been to, not an entirely new world or anything like that. My stomach is completely cold, and I feel oily all over. Everything is too smooth.
"Your registration's expired." He holds it up, then places it back in the compartment. He pauses. Something purple is in his hand. Grumpy Gus. I forgot he was in there.
"What is this, Jerry?"
"Nothing, just put it back. Listen, I don't really know how they're going to respond. If they freak out or act weird, just…"
"They're our family. I'm sure everything'll be fine."
Our family. Yes, everything will be fine. Meet my walking tumor, everyone, he's sure to say please and thank you. He's new to the area. He's only about three weeks old, so make sure to cut up his food into little bits. Give him sippy cups. He'll be sure to scoot Mom's chair back and seat her, ask how Aaron's thesis is coming, watch the game with Dad. Be Grumpy Gus for once.
In the foyer, he shakes hands with Mom and Dad, Aaron too. They have a few expected questions and he answers them to the best of his ability. Mom is weirdly excited, eager to meet him. No one treats him like me. No guilt trips or emotional bear traps. No unfair expectations. No one even asks about Julia or how I'm doing. I've just been a disfigured pile of limbs for the last nine months. Thanks. No problem. How are you?
We all sit down to eat boxed stuffing and dry, tasteless turkey. I force food down, force it to stay down. He, him, he puts his napkin in his lap, of course, and lays compliments on the spread. Mom smiles. Dad does his best to carve, but ends up making it look like mostly flakes and odd-shaped chunks. I drink soda out of an old McDonald's giveaway glass. I really just want to go. I smile and chuckle at jokes. He wipes his mouth. There's a lull in the chatter.
"I was wondering if I could ask you folks something."
"Sure, tiger," Dad says. He used to call me tiger and I hated it, but now I feel insanely jealous. I seethe. That's mine. That's my nickname, and even though I hate it, it still belongs to me. Just like this family, this house. I may not like any of it but at least this tiny patch of humanity belongs to me, like a rock I am clinging to in a violent ocean.
"Well, I'm not quite sure what the popular response to this would be. But seeing as I'm a new member of the family, I'd very much like it if you and Mom, well, named me."
Dad leans back in his chair. "Hmm."
"You can say 'no' if you want. I don't want to put any pressure on you. It's just that due to the unusual circumstances, I don't have one. You folks have been extremely welcoming, Jerry has been... great. I want to be a part of this family."
Mom's eyes water. "Of course. Your father and I will come up with something." Tears start showing up everywhere. We all hug, and I want to die. After the hug, Mom kisses him on the cheek. She squeezes my shoulder and looks so proud of me, like she did on the day Julia and I got married.
"We have a tradition that we do every Thanksgiving. You don't have to do it if you don't want." She explains the Cornucopia while he listens, nodding his head. I shrink against the wall, my hands tucked under my armpits.
"I would love to," he says. The perfect son. The smarmy shit. He never looks at me, but I can tell what he's thinking.
The puppet stage comes out. "Well, we may have to adapt it this year. We had a little guy called Grumpy Gus. We, uh, lost him last year."
"Captain Dipshit over here made off with him," Aaron says. I'm 12 years old again, wanting to punch a 5-year-old in the gob. My face burns.
"Hey, language," Mom says.
"What's he look like? I'm sure he's around," the copy says.
"He's a little purple guy. About this big." Mom holds her fingers about three inches apart.
"Does he have a little red nose? Something in his hand?"
"Yes! Have you seen him?"
"In Jerry's car. Be back in a second. Keys?" he says to me. I dig in my pocket.
"The big black one. The key goes into the door and you turn it." I pantomime a turning motion and toss him the ring. He catches it with one hand.
"I know, Jerry."
Grumpy Gus is reunited with his creepy little cadre, and the play goes off without a hitch. I offer to be Grumpy Gus. Very smoothly and subtly, Mom says, "No thanks. It's okay, honey. You don't have to this year." Aaron offers to take my place. I sit together with the tumor on the couch. He laughs at the old, old jokes, 27 11/12ths years older than him. The felt people moving across Willoughby Station. It's weird being on the other side. I've never actually seen the whole thing from the couch, only a part on some old home movie. I mouth the words, except for some new stuff that Mom's written. There is a musical number now and Dad jumps on the piano, his clumsy, amateur playing. Rough notes for a new year. I pretend quite adequately to go along, enjoy myself. No outbursts. No new stories for Grumpy Gus, just the old story with a new twist. Some music, some tears. Curtains.
Coffee and some after-dinner Hostess cakes are served. Aaron watches the football game in a dead-eyed turkey haze while the rest of us sit around the living room.
"So tiger, what are your plans?" Dad says, slurping down the last of a cup.
I almost start to talk and then I subtly realize he's not talking to me, just the other me.
"Well, I thought I might go to school."
Aaron turns from the game. "You mean like kindergarten?"
"No, not that kind of school. College." He eats a bite of cake.
"Have you thought about what you might do? Gonna be a little hard to apply. No birth certificate, Social Security card. Hell, you couldn't even get a library card," Dad says.
"I'll figure something out."
Dad crosses his arms. "What would you study if you went?"
"Thought I might go for engineering. I think I might be good at math."
Stop this. Stop this.
"That was me." I finally say. "Not him, me."
I get frowns from Mom and Dad. "No reason he can't go. You should help him, honestly. He's like a brother," Dad says, wiping something from his nose.
"Let's get something straight here. I am your son. Not him. I just brought him because—"
"Don't start, honey," Mom says. Aaron is deliberately quiet.
"I just brought him so you wouldn't feel weirded out… he is not your son!" I point at that thing sitting in the easy chair. The talking, polite growth.
"Maybe I should go," he says, starting to get up, "I don't want to cause problems."
"No Jerry, you should stay," Mom says. She called him my name. My name. My blood boils.
"I'm Jerry! Me! I should be Grumpy Gus and all of you can go fuck yourselves! It's just some goddamn fucking TUMOR!"
A few moments later, Dad is hauling me up by my shirt and throwing me out the front door. I hit hard on the steps. Mom cries. Aaron hides near the steps, not saying or doing anything.
The drive back is quiet, a pop station on the radio. In Love With Life, by Sara Bell. I switch the radio off. After a few seconds, the tumor sitting next to me switches it back on. I switch it off. He switches it back on. Unbelievable.
"Unbelievable," I mutter over the wheel.
"Listen, we don't have to talk, but I'm not just going to sit here in dead quiet."
"I hate that stupid trollop."
He throws his hands up, turning to me. "Why do you have to hate everything? Why? I don't get it, Jerry."
"Why do you care, tumor?" My foot sinks on the pedal.
"That's not funny, Jerry. Why did you do that back at the house?" He glances out the window. "You missed the turn."
I run a stop sign. I smile at him, teeth bared. Showtime.
"Stop the car, Jerry."
I take a corner way too fast on a derelict street. A dumpster screams into view and I see red splashes on the right side of the car. A horrible buzzing sound. Warmth on the passenger side of my face. He doesn't look like me anymore, most of his face is embedded in the windshield. An older car, a failed seat-belt. A disembodied eye, pearl white in a strawberry jelly mess, looks at me.
I'm shaking. The song on the radio ends.
"What the," I mutter. The eye is still looking at me. Considering what just happened, I am surprisingly calm. Floating even, the weight of light. He hasn't died. Jerry Coleson has died. Jerry Coleson is no more, they'll say. He has passed on, reset to factory default settings.
A new world awaits me. A chance to start over anew, clean and perfect.
• • •
No authorities are notified, Jerry Coleson is never declared legally dead. How would anyone know the difference? We looked exactly the same, down to the skin blemishes and fingerprints. I tell the family Jerry was just too shook up to drive, and that I didn't see the icy patch on the road. I killed Jerry, my brother, and I feel so, so guilty about it. They forgive me faster than I have ever forgiven anyone else for anything. I buy a new Chevy. Mom and Dad have named me Frank, and I decide Frank likes Chevys.
There is a private funeral out of town for a "distant relative." Paid in cash, no questions asked. Closed casket, as much of his face looks like ground beef. The head is wrapped in white cotton bandages, fresh as the new Christmas snow outside. Wreaths start to grow on lampposts. Lights appear in icicles. Santa emerges from his hibernation and everyone is happy. We decide to go ahead with Christmas anyway, despite the cloud of grief that has settled over the house. I am tastefully upset, melancholy but trying to be strong. Inside, I am another world entire.
I'm happy. I'm free from him. I'm free to make my own decision, my own choices. Just like something he would say. I should go back to school, too. I could get a loan or even a scholarship. Frank's life is like a new pair of shoes I slip on with ease and start walking. And I just can't believe how easy it is. I really can't.
It's starting to get dark, cold now. The lights on the street slowly turn on. Plastic reindeer infest the street. Luminaire bags line some driveways. A warm glow from my house's window, the curtains pulled back.
Julia appreciates Frank's direct, simple honesty and kindness more than Jerry's crass sarcasm, and needs plain good ol' consoling after Jerry's horrible death. Both of you are refined versions of who you were, so it is fitting. Make him move, eat, shower, go on dates with Julia, kiss Julia, remember what she tastes like. Go Christmas shopping together, buy her a tasteful cashmere sweater. Refine how he holds the door for her, holds her hands, licks her small breasts. You create his every move, absorb him back into yourself.
It is a lie.
Growing in the thick of my heart.
Cold, sad-colored, about the size of a death.
Copyright © 2013 by Carl Wilhoyte