House to House
The first Big Person who ever had It was Gramps with his ducks and his dogs and his driveway that broke seven of his ribs on the icy slope his second to last winter. He coughed too often as he built the five-foot-long 3-D jigsaw puzzle of the Titanic in his shed. When we’d play Scrabble he’d let me play Heinz, like the ketchup—a proper noun worth eighteen points. He’d allow it, wink, and call me a crook. Corporal John Talbot, John Talbot Yacht Sales, John-John, Johnny, J. I didn’t know his name was George till he’d been dead ten years. They played bagpipes at his funeral; they looked like holiday birds held in the nooks of the skirted men’s elbows: food. Then of course Grandma had It. The first time was no big deal. Mom got the apartment in the city, the boys and I visited often, delighted to miss school, full on the sympathetic stares and pats of our teachers. Grandma read and read in bed. She shrank so small I thought the sheets would overpower her and then one day a pound came back, then two, then four, a whole baker’s dozen. She didn’t quit smoking. Two packs of Cowboy Killers a day, for ten more years. She always bought us BrainPOP quiz books and laundry stain sticks for Christmas. I kept the price tags on the quiz books so my friends would think I was super smart, though I’d memorized the answers. It came back and Grandma said if she had quit she wouldn’t have gotten that bonus decade—the sadness, the urge would have killed her. The last day I saw her conscious, I entered the hospital room and she had a Q-tip between her lips, a pack of matches in her hand, her neighbor’s oxygen tank feet away. Who gave you that? I shouted, then laughing, Who the fuck gave you that? My uncle gave her the matches; he thought she was embarrassed by the smell of her own shit. In those ten years a lot of people had It. Globally more than eighty-two million died from, or causes related to, It. For three months I tried to break the Guinness World Record for the longest time wearing a hat. My chosen hat was star-spangled; Mom bought it on Canal months after the Towers. There I am holding a Build-A-Bear in the late June sun wearing my woolen beanie. There I am wearing it on stage at the Count Basie Center with that locally famous person, that guy from the singing show, holding my sweaty palm as we sing “God Bless America” together. A fundraiser for Jason’s Dreams for Kids. Kids who have It. Look, there I am again, this time the hands dragging mine are my brothers. Me and my fresh bowl cut, hair unseen from beneath my patriotic topper. My brothers pull me house to house like a sick trick or treat. Sometimes they even manage tears and the neighbors cry also and hand them bills and write them checks and kiss my pale cheeks. When our mother discovers the money and elicits a confession she talks through her teeth and this, I know, is dangerous. House to house again we go. Neighbors can’t remember just how much they’d given—for most, all the cash in their wallets. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, our mother says, our three little heads downcast, feet shuffling. She doesn’t have It, thank god she doesn’t have It, but the neighbors aren’t thinking of god, they’re thinking of hellfire and how I should burn in it. Crazy Blanche across the street spits on my shoe and calls me a miscreant. Meanwhile Lucas, up the block has It. We sell poinsettias at school to raise money for his treatment. One week in late winter he isn’t in class at all. We see his mother at the pizza place in town next to the pharmacy. Mom buys her pie and squeezes her hand while they wait for the cheese to warm in the oven. Lucas’ picture on an old coffee can next to the tip jar. I ask if I can have a Snapple and she tells me to get three, and to remember my brother doesn’t like lemon. But he does, he loves lemon. This way he can have something sweeter. In high school a new friend Chloe says she has It, and we all believe her and feel terribly. But then Aiyanna sees Mrs. Collins in the parking lot and asks her about it. Chloe comes out of the gymnasium in black knee pads, sweaty from Volleyball practice. Mrs. Collins gets out of the car, walks across the lawn, and slaps her daughter beneath the flagpole, next to the War Veterans Monument. Some of the parents there report her and there is an investigation, police at Chloe’s apartment building. Nothing ever comes from it and I did not invite her to my Halloween party. She transfers schools not long after that. Alyssa Velasquez also says she has It, but not to me, to Madison in the locker room after Track. She shaves her head the next week and I wait and wait for her to tell me, too, but she doesn’t and I fear she’s learned about the star hat, my brother’s scheme, the Great Dupe. She starts coming to school dressed in white and I learn she’s becoming a Santera, she doesn’t have It, she lied about It. She didn’t want us to think she was practicing witchcraft. Kathleen’s dad dies from It. Aunt Ellie survives It. I hug her too tightly at Thanksgiving, she winces and says, Watch it. Mr. Whitman fights long and hard. He used to serve Casey and me hors d’oeuvres in their backyard after we’d spun round and round on the periwinkle octopus. Bite-size Hershey chocolate bars atop Nacho Cheese Doritos, our favorite snack. He’d tease my Czechoslovakian nanny, Lenka, when she’d pick me up. He’d sing this song: Lenka-Lenka-Lenka-Lenka, Lenka Lenka Looooouuuu. He was such a big man that he’d say he couldn’t go to New York on parade day, they’d inflate him and string him up in the air. The day he died he was still cracking jokes. A pregnant nurse came in to check on him and he said, don’t you know women look fat in stripes? The gag hid the cold creeping. Uncle Ken had some of It removed from his face. We split a bottle of pinot, Hot & Spicy Shrimp, and the Zucchini-Parm Veggie Bursts at MJ’s. He had four Band-Aids on his nose. We discuss how potatoes are not really a vegetable, how guiltily indulging in white carbs feels like dessert. He says It looks worse than It is, that they got It, they got It all. Shannon tells me her mom has It while I slice open a pomegranate. It’s not fair she says. I know, life’s the pits, I say, wiping pom juice on my pants. My father was killed in an instant, she says (he was in the Towers). Now I have to watch her die slowly. Two years they’ve given her; she doesn’t want to try the experimental treatments. She wants to see the red rocks in Utah. She wants to eat breadsticks in Genoa. But her stomach, Shannon says, she can’t fly, it’d be a nightmare, she’d have to wear a diaper. The last time I see Mrs. McNally she looks fantastic, in better shape than I am. I feel jealous of the way her moon-sliver calves look in her skin-tight leggings. I bring her hydrangea, for having me as a house guest. Usually I’d bring wine, but she’s just gotten back from a “retreat.” Shannon says she’s on the wagon. That night when we get home from a show, Shannon goes to bed and I go outside for a cigarette. The light is on in the pool house. Through a break in the curtains I can see Mrs. McNally clutching a glass of wine. Wiping her eyes, intently staring down at the table before her. I open the door. She’s playing solitaire with Cheers Trivia playing cards. I used to play online. There’s a cheat in Draw Three. Ctrl+Alt+Shift. Click the deck and the cards will turn over and over and over. Are you okay, I ask, hovering in the open doorway. Close the door, it’s cold out there, she says. Want to play Go Fish?