We’re at Trader Joe’s. Mom’s putting produce under her armpits. She closes her eyes and asks her colon, “Will this spaghetti squash travel through you—calm—like a vegetable on Valium?”
Mom calls it “divination.” If her colon burbles, that means her digestive system is communicating, “Julie, that squash is going to fuck us up.” If her colon is mum, that means her digestive system is communicating, “Bon appétit.”
Patrons push their carts past us, slow down, rubberneck. They see a forty-eight-year-old woman, mushroom-colored hair, army-green eyes, a thermos of hot chicken broth jutting out of her purse. They see her nineteen-year-old son, rail-thin, moppy black hair, wearing a white T-shirt with red letters that read An American Werewolf in London.
We don’t feel good. I don’t know how else to say it. Mom, she’s got something. Thyroid issues? Lyme disease? Heavy metals? Candida? Defunct chakra? Something.
I’ve got something, too. A burning, as if my stomach is subletting to an arsonist. The reflux won’t quit. It keeps climbing up my esophagus, blistering my throat and tongue, until I can see the acid bubbling in between my teeth, and all I can think is: Look—air bubbles—I told you there was something deep down, living underneath.
I’m examining a banana. It’s organic, fair-trade.
Mom shakes her head and says, “I wouldn’t.” She says, “High glycemic index. Elevates your uric acid level.” She points to her armpit, suggesting I ask my digestive system about the repercussions of eating that banana.
It’s been two years and ten thousand dollars of medical bills since we felt normal. The new normal: me cradling a banana with my armpit, Mom holding a parley between my body and me. Back home, a brood of hens await dinner. Lucy, the oldest, stopped laying eggs two months ago. She’s grown a hump. Might be a tumor.
We’re at an energy healer. There’s music in the background: synthesizers, flutes, bird sounds. Mom’s lying on a massage table. I’m seated in a suede chair, watching as Donna Henderson, a former nurse practitioner, rubs her hands over Mom’s body, making small circular motions and wiping her hands clean, never quite touching Mom, like a masseuse with OCD. Donna says she’s working on the pancreas and spleen right now, synchronizing them to the endocrine system.
It’s a half-hour commute to Donna’s Natural Healing and Health Solutions. Mom didn’t want to drive alone. Besides, she’s hoping I’ll make an appointment, too. Mom likes acolytes, miracles, proselytizing. She’d make a good Christian, if she could just shut up about all that other stuff: meridian points, third eyes, frequency therapy.
Donna says, “You’re dealing with some form of grief.”
Mom says, “Tell me about it.”
“It could be that you always felt different.”
“I wore military boots in middle school.”
Mom talks about her inability to make connections with her coworkers, her neighbors, her ex-husband, her sister. She says, “They don’t want to hear about my health, and I don’t want to hear about their cats.” We don’t have friends. Mom can’t make them; I don’t want them.
Donna nods her head and pauses the New Age music on her laptop. Her diagnosis: negative energies are strangling Mom’s chi. She says, “Julie, stop accenting your health.”
I want to say, “Donna, I get it. We’re monotone. We inflict our illness on others.” I want to say, “Donna, I get it. It’s boring. Pain is boring. Listening to people bitch about their pain is even more boring. Even the pain finds it boring. That’s why it spreads, traveling up and down our bodies, searching for new notes. Sharp, flat, burning. Blisters, ulcers, hemorrhoids. It’s tired. I’m tired. Mom’s tired. We keep hitting the same fucking notes.”
I say, “Donna, do you have an opening next week?”
We’re in the living room, watching Wolf: Jack Nicholson is pissing on James Spader. Mom’s blinking heavily. It’s past her bedtime. A paused YouTube video titled How to Rejuvenate Elderly Chickens with Oregano Supplements glows on Mom’s laptop.
Werewolves used to comfort me. I was never scared of full moons; I was scared of the Cuteness Ratio, a fear which began here, in this very living room, back in middle school, when Mom paused E.T. and said, “You know it’s rigged.”
She pointed at the television. “It’s predetermined. We’re wired to like E.T.”
Mom said Spielberg’s producers cheated and consulted mathematicians from MIT. These mathematicians discovered The Cuteness Ratio. Mom said that large eyes, bulging craniums, receding chins— “that crap”— help the brain to recognize infants who need our protection. She said, “It’s hardwired affection. Hollywood has it down to a formula. We stare at a bunch of numbers and our brains flood dopamine.”
I got up and took a piss. I thought to myself: Before you graduate high school, the universe will be a ratio. Everything will be transparent, solved, complete, dull. We’ll all have X-ray vision, and we’ll all be miserable. It wasn’t long before I was renting monster movies, filling my head with curses, lurching, crucifixes, waiting for that one comforting scene where the doctor shakes his head, shrugs, and confesses, “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
But that was seven years ago.
Mom stirs from the couch. She leans forward and wraps her fingers around her thermos of chicken broth, sipping like she’s drinking chamomile tea. She says, “I’m done with this movie—”
“Put a silver bullet in me.”
“Yeah, I’m tired too.”
“You need to try essential oils.”
“Fuck essential oils.”
“Fine. Why don’t you call Nate?”
Nate was my best friend. Nate went to college. Nate doesn’t stock shelves at Target. Nate doesn’t wait five hours after dinner and then sleep in a recliner. Nate doesn’t take sixty milligrams of a proton pump inhibitor to suppress his acid secretion until he can’t digest greens or nuts or berries or crust.
Mom says, “Friendship is anti-inflammatory. Spikes serotonin.”
“Yeah, I bet.” I laugh.
“What would you know about it?”
Mom says, “Goodnight.”
I’m left with the TV. Just me and Jack Nicholson. He’s transforming, his cheeks bristling with brown needles, his eyes dilating aquamarine. Jack, he’s suffering too. Rabies? Midlife crisis? Lycanthropy? Hard to say. Every diagnosis is guesswork. At best, alchemy. And yet—get this—I used to be afraid of the possibility of a panacea. I was afraid that there would be nothing left in this world to solve—all answers, no questions—like the last page of a mystery novel.
Two more hours until I can brave gravity and sleep in my recliner. Lying down is dangerous; it lets the acid creep up. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be me. I imagine becoming something else: a wolf, a vampire, a zombie, dinner. Even a host. Let my body be a host.
We’re feeding the chickens, tossing out handfuls of alfalfa sprouts and black soldier maggots. Mom breeds them—the maggots—in a trough full of composted coffee, sweet potato skin, and broccoli stalks. Our neighbors don’t love us.
Mom says, “Where’s Lucy?”
Lucy, our hunchbacked chicken, is missing. Mom has a soft spot for Lucy, so she lets her fly over the fence, shit on the driveway, and perch on the ledge of the kitchen window. No predator deigns to kill Lucy.
I say, “Who knows—maybe Lucy’s luck ran out?”
Mom says, “That hen is half-cat. Nine lives.”
“I think I’m going to cancel that appointment with Donna tomorrow.”
Mom pauses. Her face is disappointment, helplessness. “Okay, your call.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Death by clotted chi.”
“You know what, I’ll finish here. Why don’t you set the table.”
I start walking back to the house. It’s a summer evening. The sun is setting, and the moon is winking, as if saying, Werewolves, twenty more days—no need to handcuff yourselves to the radiator yet—relax. But they can’t. I can’t. It’s not a one-day affair. It’s accumulation. The moon should know better.
After dinner, Mom calls it an early night. But I’m working on a new transformation. I walk outside and find Lucy in the driveway, pecking at the gravel. Lucy’s hunchback juts out of her back like an egg that won’t hatch. She makes a sound ending in a lilt. Together, we stand in the moonlight and wait for owls and foxes and other nocturnal opportunists. We breathe together, and with each breath, we invite something to come in or something to come out.
Andrew Gretes is the author of How to Dispose of Dead Elephants (Sandstone Press, 2014). His fiction has appeared in Witness, Booth, Passages North, and other journals.