We gather every year in mid July, the longest day of summer. Our windows crack to blow away the noise. The sun is boiled white with heat. Hundreds of bodies pour into a cinder block house, bearing steaming glass bowls and tinfoil-covered trays. The house is surrounded on three sides by fields of corn. The fourth side leads to flat sky and a freight train track. Beyond the track, there is a church. A gathering of pine trees shrouds the body of the church. The steeple rises in the distance, sometimes lifting up the sound of bells and voices, sometimes drowning out the whistle of the train.
We check in at a table by the door, where they give me a nametag and a number for the raffle. It seems like all I see are peoples' bulging stomachs. Embarrassed, I look down at everybody's knees.
"Are we being shy?" my mother asks. My mother's knees are round and yellowish. I'm not the only one who feels ill at ease. I nod as she bends to correct a misspelling on my nametag.
The only relatives who look me in the eye are Grandma and her older sisters; I suppose it's because they're too old to stand up in the first place. They sit along the sides of the buffet so they won't have to move to eat. They smile, plucking chicken legs and scooping out piles of scalloped potatoes. "You're almost as tall as your Aunt Alma," my Great Aunt Rosemary tells me. Their cold cream melts into a sour-smelling paste.
I carry my dish to an empty corner of the room beside the wooden stage. I pull out the red velour curtains as far as they'll go. I tuck myself inside them, leaving a small open slit so I can watch my family from a distance. I see my Aunt Alma feeding spoonfuls of slaw to her new boyfriend, who's covered in tattoos from head to toe. One of the tattoos is a skull full of roses. The vines of roses wind through the skeleton's body, curling out from the sockets like needled lashes. It makes me think of eyes and how they're blind beneath the sleeve of someone's arm. I push aside the bare bones on my plate. The chicken meat is dark and greasy, so I only eat the skin.
I nibble at the skin until I'm too full to move. Every year, I eat too much of something. The theme of this summer is skin.
Days later, I find a dead mouse and a dead bird in the backyard, barely a few feet apart. The cat must've killed them. I wonder if she carried them both to the same place. I bury them under the rose bush and I give them funerals. It bothers me that there were two dead bodies though, not three, and different species, so I look around for something else that's dead. I find some old leaves and some bugs encrusted on the windowsill, but they're no good. They've already decayed. I want to see three separate mounds of different bodies of the same size laid out neatly in a row and all decaying at the same time. For a moment, I think about killing my goldfish. I scoop him into the net. My eyes try to measure the space that his body takes up as it wriggles back and forth. It's the wriggling that stops me. I can't kill him. It's too hard to measure something when it's still alive.
Next summer, I don't even touch the chicken. Watermelon is the new theme. I secretly devour seven bowls of seeded cubes. I take my water-bloated belly outside to dry up in the sun.
I find a girl my age sitting on a bench beside the baseball field. Her nametag says Diana. She sits with her legs wide open, like she's watching the game too closely to care for her body. I notice a deep red stain on the crotch of her denim shorts. I have not begun to menstruate, but I breathe the air deeply, nervously checking myself in its scent. I smell nothing but wetness and heat. I try to look her in the eye for just a moment, but the sunlight beams too harshly. I see nothing but her outline and the red stain flashing.
The boys are unfamiliar in their white suits, in the sun glare, but I don't know why. I guess they could be family. They have the same thick necks. My cousin Diana whistles, then looks back to see if I'm impressed. But I barely see her; I just see she sees me, so I shrug because I don't know why she's whistling.
One man is playing baseball with the boys. He has the thickest neck. He starts to argue over something. He pushes a boy, lightly at first, like he's playing. Then he pushes harder. Then the boy trips backward and I shudder. "Who is he?"
Diana spits her gum into the grass. "That's Uncle Ian," she says. She sees the way my muscles twitch. She says, "don't worry. I don't think he knows we're watching."
I can't look away. Ian lunges toward the boy, unfolding the surrounding huddle of the white-suit bodies. They flutter off like paper cranes. His body seems so heavy in comparison, as if nothing else on the field belongs there. He's frightening, and yet I can't help thinking how I'd like to feel more like him. The watermelon weight dissolves inside me. I wish I could be seen without the need to be compared to something more substantial.
"What gets him mad?" I ask. "He knows it's just a game."
Diana shakes her head. "Some people are just like that. I'll bet nothing's a game for him."
Later on, I see my Uncle Ian strolling beside the train tracks. My Uncle Ian appears unreal, but much too powerful to seem to not belong. He looks like he's trying to imitate a boy, someone who's never seen those tracks. His forehead starts to flush from his imagination. He's weaving as he walks and laughing softly. I think it's strange to see a man so large become so small. It makes me think that I, in all my smallness, could contain his kind of power.
Seeing him like that reminds me of a song my Uncle John sings. He gathers the family together each year after dinner, and the grown ups sing along without sheets or books of lyrics. Most of the words still escape me. I don't know if it's an old song everybody knows or a song my Uncle wrote himself. It tells the story of a boy who wandered off somewhere. His body was discovered by the railroad track. Each verse ends with the same line: "And his name was Little Jack." I always shudder at the way it rhymes, how I know he was named for the way his life would end. The song names the boy Little Jack so that he can die easily. It seems unfair.
At the last "his name was Little Jack," the adults all look each other gravely in the eye. I always wonder why a grown person would bother to sing that song and get so sad about it. If they feel so bad for Little Jack, why are they singing? Why won't they help him? Sometimes I wish I knew who wrote it in the first place.
I rustle closer through the cornfield. I part the stalks to peer between them. My Uncle pauses to sip from a bottle. His black hair shines. He's not as frightening up close. I look down at my own black hair to make sure it is shining. When I look up, he winks at me. He smiles and waves his bottle in the air as if to say Oh this? Well, this is nothing. I return his smile uneasily. I hear the train approaching in the distance.
One morning, I wake up and feel something hard beneath my nightgown. It rubs against me in a tender way, so I lift the gown and try to brush it off me. Then, I realize the rubbing is within and not without my skin, like something could be trapped underneath. I examine my chest from above, squeezing my neck and my chin together. One nipple's flat and pale; the other is bright red and raised. At first, I pick the nipple like a scab. I try to find the thing that's rubbing, but that only makes it redder, so I just ignore it. The next morning, I wake up to find the other nipple has turned red. I worry that the rubbing won't stop, but I figure if its spread to both my nipples, there's not much I can do. A few weeks go by. The nipples start to swell. The redness darkens to the color of a faded bruise. Ok, I think, I see where this is going. Now I know, so I can calmly wait for it to end.
Another year goes by. I pick up smoking. At first, it feels awkward just to know that I can't grind the ashes in between my teeth. But by the time the days grow longest and the air becomes too thick to breathe, the thought of blowing smoke seems natural to me. This year, when we pile the car with the usual tin trays, I pile my face with powder and put on my darkest pair of glasses. I crack the window not to let the air in, but to breathe it out, to let it go.
This year, the room feels fuller. Everyone looks fatter. At first, I think that maybe it's because I'm tall enough to see the heads that belonged to the stomachs and knees. Then, I notice that even my mother looks fatter this year. She used to wear her hair in tendril curls. She'd pin the curls above her temples to show off her cheekbones. Now, those bones are almost fully hidden under flesh. Her forehead is pink. Her lips are pale. She's pulled her hair back in a handkerchief: a dreary way of opening the face to others like herself. Her hair is not pulled back to show her beauty, but to show there's nothing left for her to hide.
I wander through the buffet for awhile. I'm not that hungry, so I take a single chicken leg without a plate. I notice in the absence of the salad, corn, and baked potatoes, that the bone becomes more visible, like part of something half alive. I scrape away the crackled flakes, peel back the leathered flesh, and I reveal a strong blue vein. The vein points like an arrow toward the velvet curtains and the wooden stage. They're setting up a table for the auction. Family artifacts are scattered all around the platform: bits of heirloom china, baby quilts made out of Grandma's wedding gown, a gold framed portrait of my great-great aunt, and some ugly frog-shaped cookie jars. My Aunt Alma taps my ear with her smoky voice. "Aw, honey, there's your softy dog." She gestures toward a ragged felt-eared doll with mismatched button eyes. "I can't believe your mother's getting rid of it."
I don't remember having a doll like that, but I feel sorry for the dog. I used to pile my bed with dolls because I used to be afraid to go to sleep. Its terry fur body is balled up in lint. It looks as though I used to chew its threadbare feet. I know that when it's sold it will be moved to someone else's bed. Or maybe worse, someone will buy the doll recalling how I played with it.
I don't remember playing, but I think about the bed and the day my dolls began to seem disgusting. Does my mother know I touch myself at night now? Does my mother know why I swept all my dolls to the floor? My chest feels tight. I look down at the chicken and know I can't eat this, so I toss it in the trash on the way to the bathroom.
Diana is there, pressing into the mirror. She's blotting something blackish on her eyebrows. She smiles without looking back at me. "You want some?" she asks.
I lean against the stall behind her. My reflection is mostly concealed by a smudge on the glass. "No thanks," I tell her, shifting further back into the smudge spot.
"God," she says, "it smells so bad in here. Someone took a nuclear shit." She dabs a blob of lip gloss on her lips. In the tube, the gloss looks violet red. On her mouth, the color browns like fruit left out to rot. She rolls her lips together like she's forgotten they're part of the rest of her face. "Well, what do you think?" she asks me.
"What do I think? They're fine, I guess."
"Not that," she says, "about your Uncle Ian. Are you sure you don't want some? You look like a creepy little kid, you know."
"What happened?" I ask, trying to roll my voice the way she rolls her lips.
"He's in jail," she says, "you didn't hear?"
I think the painted white walls of this building look like jail. I can't imagine being locked in here for years. "What did he do?"
She smiles a blobby little smile: "Rape."
I'm counting the cinder block bricks now, scanning the edges for abnormal blisters of paint. "But what did he do? I mean, what does that even mean?"
She re-seals her lip gloss. "That means he fucked someone, I guess."
I shake my head, "you know he didn't fuck someone. That's not a crime. They don't put people in jail for that."
"My mother said the woman was someone he'd never met before," says Diana, "so I guess that means it's rape if it's a stranger."
I don't care either way about the so-called rape, but the way she says stranger makes my throat turn cold. She says it like the way they sing, "His name was Little Jack." I feel sick for having seen Ian, thinking he was Little Jack, for thinking I should pity him. I feel sick for knowing he could pin his loneliness on someone else so easily. But now he's locked away, I think, not wandering the tracks pretending to be someone else. He's gone for real now.
"Well?" Diana asks, "Do you think he did it?" I think, it doesn't matter. Diana says, "My mother thinks the woman made it up. I mean, why would somebody fuck someone he doesn't know?" I know she knows there are no answers to this question and she's just repeating what her mother said, but I still feel sick. I understand, I realize; I understand that stupid song.
Later on, I see my aunts have placed a large box on the stage. The box is labeled Collection for Ian. It's mostly filled with snack foods: cracker boxes, cans, saran-wrapped pastries already flattened up against the edge. Someone set aside a stack of books with the covers torn off. I feel a chill when I notice my doll at the top of the pile. I see my bed; I see a flash of man and woman moving in the dark of my imagination. I will myself to not see Uncle Ian, to not fill in his features, but I start to see his hair, the bottle, and his hands. I know it's not my fault. I know I didn't rape the girl myself. I scan the room like I'm looking for someone to blame. I try not to look at the bodies, but I catch a glimpse of Aunt Alma's new tattoo: a pair of female silhouettes that face themselves across her chest. No, I think, I can't help noticing, but I feel guilty for still not caring. I can see my uncle, and I see her shadow falling back; I hear the whispered words and she was raped and feel disgusted. And yet, I still don't really care. I just can't care that she-whoever she is-was.
At night, I try to touch myself, but something has gone wrong. The steel fan is humming on my dresser. The night sound creeps between the blades, the cars, the bugs, the distant sirens, the television set downstairs. The branches of the oak tree stir. The leaves move heavily. The sound enfolds me from all sides. Most nights, it never seems to pass the fan.
I hear a muffled scream, and I can't tell if it's a real person or the TV or just something I imagined, so I try to focus on my finger and the lapping sound it makes. I still can't concentrate. My hand moves faster. The muffled screaming blends in with the lapping and begins to sound like someone's being choked.
I get scared. I can't help it. For a moment, I want someone else, another body to block out the noise. I don't really, though. I'm distracted enough as it is. I wish I could get the stuffed dog back. I wish I could see things in a different way. I pushed my dolls away too soon; I thought I couldn't touch myself and have them there still. I need something to hold onto, even if I can't remember what it used to mean. I can't believe my Uncle Ian has my doll.
Another year goes by. Why even bother trying? I stop wearing powder, but I keep the glasses and the cigarettes, which come in handy when I'm trying not to eat. This summer, I don't think I will pretend to eat. The house is haloed in a sort of greasy stench. It builds with every tray that enters. I wonder how I never really noticed this before. My aunts and uncles wave to me and say hello. I wave and suck my lips around the cigarette.
I stand outside and smoke until I see a young woman with pin-curled hair. She's swept it up at the sides with plastic cherry clips. She wears bright red lipstick and her skin is perfect. I guess I'm glad I wore my glasses. Her nametag says Diana.
Diana leans against the wall beside me. She takes out a cigarette and smiles. "Light me up," she says. I fumble with the matches. The last one is a dud, so I light her cigarette with mine. I close my eyes and wonder what we'd look like in a photograph, a close-up of us kissing from a distance. I wonder how my lips could be related to her own.
"Another summer," she says.
I say, "yep."
"It's like noon and I already want to pass out," she says.
I say, "yep." We smoke in silence til the cigarettes burn out. What now?
Diana says, "let's take a walk." We cross the yard, the empty baseball diamond. As we walk, the humming of the AC unit fades to silence. I can hear Diana's breath begin to quicken. When we reach the cornfield, she wavers to the side as if there's somewhere else to go. I step into the cornfield. Diana tries to follow for a minute, but she gets caught in something. She's wearing a tight pencil skirt with layers of bows and cherries. I give her a look. I guess the look is pretty awful because she lowers her eyes and clutches herself. I don't feel bad because she really looks ridiculous.
She turns. I tell her, "go. Just go inside."
"Uncle Ian is out there," she says.
I tell her, "I know."
I watch her as she walks away. She wiggles her hips, at first, but stops after a few steps. Her heels dig into the dirt. Poor Diana, I think, she forgot where she was.
I wander through the stalks until I reach the train track. I see my Uncle Ian strolling in the spot where I saw him two years ago. He's still drinking from his bottle. He's still weaving back and forth. In the heat, his movements shimmer like an aimless ghost. But this time, I've lost whatever kept me from approaching him before. I'm the only one who's really changed.
Up close, he looks much older. Perhaps he just seems old now that's he's not a stranger. He has the kind of look that says he's always looked this way. His eyes and cheeks are shadowed. Something in his skin attracts the shadows, but his hair is thick and healthy, and his teeth are almost glaring bright. He's drinking what I'm sure he drank when he was my age. I take out another cigarette and eye him hopefully. "Light me up?" He does.
"Who are you, again?" he asks. I realize I'm not wearing a nametag. I shrug. He shrugs. "This place," he yawns. His voice is not as deep as I expected. "I just can't get enough of it."
I squint. "This place?"
"Oh yeah," he says, "you know. I've come here every year since I was 6 or 7. I used to hate it as a kid, before it meant something." He moves his hand across the cut between the pale grass and white blue sky. He doesn't make a sweeping gesture, like the kind that draws attention to the hand, not what it's showing you. He draws a long, slow, careful line. He says, "I think this is the only place where I can be myself."
I watch the muscles of his face to see if he's lying. He smiles. I try to smile back and fail. He asks, "what about you? Have you found some place to be yourself?"
"Not yet," I answer.
"Fair enough," he says. "I mean, I guess to be yourself you have to know who you are. Do you know who you are?"
I tell him, "no." I hope he'll add, of course not.
He takes a sip. He acts like he's going to say something. He takes another sip. I watch him drain the bottle. He looks at me before he tosses it. The bottle goes so far I barely hear it crash. He says, "I used to see that stretch of field, and I'd think, why? Why bother? There is nothing out here. Nothing to do. Nothing to look at. Everyone's talking. Too many people talking at once. It seemed like—no, it is —a kind of set up. It's all meant to make a person feel small." He looks at me. I feel small. He says, "I used to hate it."
Something happens, then. The air gets heavy and the woods that hide the church begin to chime. I remember time is passing. He is speaking as the person that he used to be. "What changed?" I ask. "What changed your mind?"
Ian says, "one day, I looked over this space and thought of something funny. It's like we're the only ones that matter here. We own this. We reign over this. Because family, you know. That's all there is." I shudder. I don't like how he says we.
"Why would you want this, though?" I ask. "I mean, you said there's nothing here."
"We're here," he pats his chest, "you, me. The years go by, we move apart. We live in separate places. We might call each other, catch up, maybe do someone a favor. But we live apart. What do we own? We have our separate houses and our wives and kids, but where's our legacy? Our sense of history?" He grinds his shoe into the stones along the track. "Right here," he says, "is something we return to. This is what we own."
A familiar dread is building and I think, this feeling always comes back, but I'll never own it. I breathe as softly as I can. "I never see you go inside."
"Come again?" he says.
"You never go inside. You walk along the train tracks."
"Even here, we all own different things." His voice turns dark.
"Like what?" I ask.
"The track," he says, "I guess it's mine."
"But why? You still don't go inside."
"That's not my place," he says, "that isn't what I own."
"Our family's in there."
He says, "that's right."
I shudder. "You're out here."
He says, "you're out here too."
I shake my head. I know it's different. I don't want to be here. Inside, outside, anywhere even close. But I think, in a way, he might be right. He started out like me, then he was drawn to something in this place. Now, I'm drawn to him. "I guess they mostly go in there to eat." I admit, "I'm just not hungry."
Uncle Ian isn't fat, though, and Diana isn't fat yet. Ian smiles again because we're getting somewhere. "Then don't eat," he says. He moves closer as he speaks. He isn't fat, but he smells. I move back.
"I won't," I say.
"Then don't," he says.
He says, "good."
He's almost pressed against me now. I don't want to think about it, but I do. My body thinks I have to. "Last summer, you raped someone." I whisper the words. I don't want him to hear. I just know that they have to come out.
He hears. His smile flattens, but it doesn't disappear. He says, "you don't know what that word means."
I repeat what I heard. I know it's a lie, but it's easier than speaking to this kind of dread. There's no answer. There's no reason to prolong this feeling. I can't tell it to calm down because I still don't know. Besides, we're in the middle of the train tracks now. I whisper still more softly, "it means you fucked a stranger."
"You fucked a stranger... fucked a stranger..." I can see how far we've traveled with him moving forward and me stepping backward, so I just repeat myself, getting quieter and quieter until I'm barely speaking.
"I can't hear you," he says. "How do you expect me to respond when I can't hear you?" I mouth the words. I feel the outline of my lips, my throat, the weight of what lies in between. He grabs my shoulders. "Say it!"
I hear the train coming. It sounds the first warning. It must be a few miles away. I look over my shoulder to try to see it, but my uncle turns my chin around and forces me to face him. I wince. He looks a little sorry, but he tightens his grip. "Look, I won't be angry," he says, "I promise. They've been saying things. I know we've all been saying things. What did you hear? Just say it."
I start to cry. "Say it," he says. There's no way to make me talk when I start crying. I just shake my head. The whistle sounds again. The train's less than a mile away.
I try to tear away. He pulls me back. His eyes are bulging. He makes himself laugh. "Come on!" he says, "I won't hurt you. You have to say it, though! You have to say it!" Another whistle. Now he turns my whole body around. He pins my legs between his legs and holds my arms down to my sides. I'm pressed against myself. He asks again, "What did you say?"
The train is so close I can see the surrounding dust. It sounds again. The wood and the rocks are rattling beneath us. I pull against him. He doesn't let go. Even if I say it, I don't think he'll be able to hear me, but I hear him screaming, "now!" I fling my neck forward and back and then pound my head into his chest. I start to say the words, but then I realize he's let go, so I run across the tracks.
I hear the train go past just as I reach the bottom of the rocky hill. I run toward the trees. I don't look back to see if he's following me or if he's even made it off the tracks. I want to care. I want to look. I want to help him somehow, but I know I can't. I run. I think, it's not my fault. I have to run. I have to push myself as far as I can from the train sound.
Meghan Lamb lives in Chicago. Her family meets in Paxton, Illinois. Every year, she brings a bowl of pasta or a veggie tray and mostly just eats that. She was born on Bastille Day.