2016 Nonfiction Contest Winner, Judged by Harrison Scott Key
The word “benign” has several meanings. It can mean kindly or harmless. Or gentle – which is nice. I thought it also meant “sitting around doing nothing,” but this is incorrect.
If you are busy, it can be irksome to observe others doing nothing. “If you’re not doing anything…” my husband says. I would argue that reading is not “doing nothing;” nor is smoking.
I am of robust health. You may find this offensive, given the above. Perhaps you do not feel robust yourself, or must work at it. If so, you may be glad to know that I will get my comeuppance.
One of my grandmas used words like “comeuppance.” If you don’t get on the stick, she said, you will get your comeuppance. That was Grandma Louise, my dad’s mom.
* * *
On the other, maternal, side of the family we do not have comeuppance; we have longevity. Great-Grandma Eve lived ninety-three years; Great-Aunt Mabel, one hundred and three. Grandpa Morris was determined to clear one hundred and made it with two weeks to spare. Mom believes she will follow her family example. At age seventy-seven she continues vigorously, though she seems a little bored. Life is so long, she says. I don’t know why it needs to drag on and on.
At one time I had seven living grandmas, step-grandmas, great-grandmas, and step-great-grandmas. They are all dead now but one. The last one standing is “Granny Grunt.” This is not her real name. Granny Grunt is breathing down some necks, longevity-wise. “I’m ninety-two,” she says. She’s forgetful, so this continues to surprise her. She seems a little bored as well. She says, “I hope I don’t live to be one hundred like Morris did.” When she sits in her chair, her breasts sit in her lap, like cats.
In the matter of health, I myself can complain of nothing more alarming than one uterine polyp, one possibly arthritic knuckle, and an abundance of moles.
About this uterine polyp. Just between the two of us, my husband and I call it the pussy polyp. (We also prefer the word “knob” to the word “penis.”) The pussy polyp is “benign” in both the correct and incorrect senses: It is harmless, and it just sits around doing nothing. My stepsister Michelle is “benign” in the sense of being gentle. She is also a stealth feminist. Michelle tells me, gently, that the word pussy denigrates women. I’ve been mulling this over. Personally, I find pussy a good word and a useful one. Also it’s more fun to say pussy polyp than uterine polyp, and less worrisome. I don’t wish to denigrate anyone, though, including myself. The next time I see her, I will ask Michelle to gently expound.
Moles and polyps will be my comeuppance. Just so you know.
Moles used to seem harmless; like freckles, only bigger. The difference between moles and freckles: Freckles are clumps of pigment, while moles are clumps of cells that make pigment. The lack of cells makes freckles “benign,” in the sense of being harmless. Moles, being made of cells, can go either way; “benign” or otherwise. It’s the cells that are the wild card.
Where your pigment-making cells spread out instead of clumping, you will have no moles. Where the pigment itself spreads out, no freckles.
I possess both clumping cells and clumping pigment. The latter is paternal, gene-wise. If you were to follow my paternal line backward, you would eventually find yourself trudging backward from west to east across North America with an ox team and some freckled pioneers, sailing backward across the Atlantic with freckled immigrants, and landing backward in Ireland, mythical land of the freckled.
Grandma Louise had very pale skin. If you could have peeked under her clothes at the portions of her hide normally hidden from view, you might have seen this for yourself. Dad and I are the same. Under our clothes we are so pale that we are almost see-through.
Naturally, Grandma Louise would never have allowed you to peek under her clothes.
I imagine you are forming a question: You do use sunscreen?
I do not. I have reasons, perhaps not very good ones. One: I get sidetracked easily and forget. Two: I heard sunscreen is toxic. I could use the herbal kind, but everybody knows the herbal versions of anything, though “benign,” are less likely to do the trick. Can I get a real caffeine buzz from herbal tea? I cannot. I require diet soda.
Three: I am not consistent about my ideas of healthful behavior. Four: I do not enjoy maintenance.
* * *
Summers, ages twelve through fifteen, I “laid out.” This was tedious, but I believed a tan would help me get a boyfriend, which was both important and hard to pull off. So was a tan. Mine never lasted anyway, so I quit trying. There are other ways to get a boyfriend, it turns out.
We now know that “laying out” is a bad idea.
Marie – another of my stepsisters – is an enthusiastic caretaker of her own skin. She practices a rigorous skincare routine and buys expensive skincare products. Her skin is soft and fine-pored; it’s creamy. I don’t have creamy skin. Mine is weathered in some places and see-through in others and variously clumped. Marie and I do not share any genes, nor do I share her enthusiasm for skincare. In spite of these differences we are quite fond of one another.
Note: I have several sisters; three “steps” and one “half.” The half sister is my mother’s daughter from her first marriage; I’ll call her “Dot.” Dot and I have half our genes in common. Not the freckled, comeuppance half. The longevity half.
* * *
When I’m not sitting around doing nothing, I have a propensity for developing “enthusiasms.” My most recent enthusiasm is birding. An incomplete list of former enthusiasms: macramé, bookbinding, making pickles, keeping hens, gardening.
Initially I found gardens quite exciting and miraculous: the shoots thrusting, the petals spreading, the insect proboscises penetrating. Gardens are shameless orgies of outright sex, and then they make food. Recently, though, I seem to have lost my enthusiasm for gardens, which, while miraculous, are demanding. I’ve kept many gardens and this is nearly always true.
It’s worth noting, however, that our yard features eleven apple trees and about a million blackberry brambles. With no toil on our end, we still get wormy apples and lots of blackberries. Conclusion: The world can make food all by itself, even if I don’t help. My friend Meredith says there are also plenty of other people who will enthusiastically grow food. Just let them do it, she says.
I once heard Germaine Greer say that it’s better for us and for nature if we just let the things grow where they want to grow. Of course I like this idea. She said it would work better if it weren’t for introduced plants like blackberries, which grow so enthusiastically that unless we stop them they will crowd out the native plants. There’s no getting away from maintenance.
* * *
The cells in our bodies die all the time, and new ones emerge. Our cells have consciousness – I read this once – and are used to all the coming and going. It’s more fun to go along with this notion than to reject it. I like to think of my cells clumping together and holding tiny birthday parties and funerals for each other.
Some people believe that humans come and go, too; that we live many lifetimes, in many times and places. This is also fun to go along with. I can think of several things to try, if given extra lifetimes. Being very good at singing harmony, for example, or being the possessor of a knob instead of a pussy. Or being a person who genuinely enjoys maintenance.
The people I love would come and go, too; sometimes we would clump, sometimes we would spread out.
What I like about beliefs is that you can believe anything you want. Grandma Louise believed that bodies are supposed to stay covered. She also believed that everyone should keep a garden, dig clams, and glean fallen fruit from the orchards. Then everyone should can the hell out of everything. No waste, was her thinking. She did not waste a thing, religiously, until she died. She did not say hell. She did say crap though, if provoked.
Age seventy-six, stroke. She had recently learned she had breast cancer. The stroke got her first.
Granny Grunt also gardened, if not so unswervingly. She was a “free spirit,” though not a feminist. She didn’t burn her bra; she just didn’t wear it. She used to “lay out” naked in the backyard, stretched out on a towel. Sometimes us kids went tearing past playing trolls or stabbing things with sticks, and she did not seem to mind. She trusted the sun and lay under it dreamily, in her fat white body.
We did not stab her with sticks. Just so you know.
Another meaning for the word “benign” is “not malignant.” Recently Granny Grunt has been having moles removed from her arms, ears, face, hands, and back. She calls them “little growths.” Oh, that’s just a little growth, she says. Some of her little growths are “benign” and some are not.
I do not call her Granny Grunt to her face. I just call her Grandma.
Some people prefer facts to beliefs. I say to each her own. I’m not always convinced by facts, myself. They are great fodder for speculation, but not immutable. I prefer notions.
A bumper sticker I would like to see: Logic is optional.
* * *
If you don’t eat much, you will live longer. I read this once on a longevity website. Or maybe it was the less you eat, the longer you will live. There must be a point at which this is no longer true. If you decided against eating entirely, you wouldn’t become immortal – not literally. You could get metaphysical with it, though.
On my dad’s side we do not count upon longevity; we are, you will recall, more inclined toward comeuppance. Dad has Parkinson’s disease in his brain and arthritis in his spine. He has to wear suspenders because his belly is very big and his butt is very small and they don’t make a belt for that. He has one of those motorized easy chairs that tips him upright.
I read online that Parkinson’s may be comeuppance for eating too much sugar. This does not qualify as a fact, but is nonetheless rich fodder for speculation. Here is what Dad eats: candy, ice cream, cookies, lunch meat, cheese. Sometimes he eats fruit. For breakfast he eats “oatmeal fruit bars.” Those are cookies. For an afternoon snack he often has a “fruit smoothie.” That is ice cream.
Bladder cancer may be comeuppance, too, for smoking. Dad came down with bladder cancer a few years ago, but his bladder guy says he’s okay for now. He’s also had a mole removed from his face, just to the left of his left eyebrow. It left a divot.
His mole wasn’t “benign,” either.
A partial list of Dad’s health care providers: general practitioner, dentist, dental surgeon, ear doctor, hearing aid technician, eye doctor, Parkinson’s doctor, pain specialist, bladder guy, physical therapist, speech therapist. Some of these professions have Latin names, like birds. These are just the common names.
Mostly Dad’s health problems cannot be cured. His health care providers have medications they can prescribe and adjust, and devices they can implant and adjust. Recently he had a device implanted near his spine. It emits electronic pulses that are meant to diminish his pain. Dad says it might be working – he isn’t sure. He’s still in pain but is it less? He says maybe.
He uses four walkers. One for the house, one for the shop, one for the car, and one to get lost because he forgot where he left it. These are interchangeable. If you are one of Dad’s walkers, you could be anywhere.
There are two elementary schools in near Dad’s house, and neighborhoods full of kids chasing balls into streets. Dad still drives. We are appalled, but he passed the goddamned test.
He’s seventy-eight. That’s a pretty good span. Not as long as one hundred years plus two weeks, but you wouldn’t call it short. Anyway, he’s doing okay. He’ll make it awhile yet.
He’s had fun. He used to read Winnie the Pooh out loud to Dot and me. He laughed and laughed.
A story Dad likes to tell: Long ago, when your mother and I were still married and you girls were little, we all went on an explore, like Pooh, out in the sagebrush country. We pulled off the highway onto a dirt road to make sandwiches and drink a beer. Your mother went off into the sagebrush to pee. She came back with her pants around her knees, hopping down the dirt road and yelling, “Rattlesnake! Rattlesnake!” Dad laughs helplessly when he tells this story. She peed on the snake, he says, wheezing.
Mom says she did not pee on the snake. Also her pants were not around her knees.
Urologist: Latin name for “bladder guy.”
* * *
An incomplete list of things that require maintenance: gardens, gutters, breasts, cats, floors, cars, bathrooms, kids, friendships, teeth, “fitness,” skin, marriage, yards, memory, draperies. I don’t have draperies, I have curtains. All you do with curtains is every five years or so you notice how grubby they are and you throw them in the wash.
If I could persuade someone else to do my maintenance, that would be ideal. No one is volunteering except my friend Meredith, who enjoys cleaning if it isn’t her own house and will come over and clean my bathroom for twenty bucks. This is twenty bucks well spent, plus it’s fun to watch. Meredith gets into her work; she takes off her shoes and splashes water around.
It’s important to have fun. I read this once. Also to be optimistic. Here is one of my notions: Since you can believe anything you want, you might as well believe something hopeful. Believing things that are scary will only make you afraid and maybe sick.
* * *
Some things Dad and I share: the see-through skin, the ancestral clumping gene, and this propensity for developing enthusiasms.
Some of Dad’s former enthusiasms: searching for Bigfoot, searching for lost meteorites, taking black-and-white photographs of nude or scantily clad women.
* * *
Birding is more involved than just knowing crows and robins. Currently I’m learning finches. I have to pay attention and note details, so I can tell one finch from another. It looks like fun, flying.
Most birds are maintainers rather than enthusiasts. They preen their feathers so they’ll be reliable in the air. They keep their nests in good repair. If something goes wrong, a bird can’t seek a specialist. If its feathers fail, the bird can’t fly. If the nest isn’t sound, the eggs will fall out.
There are exceptions. The bowerbird creates an artful structure to entice a mate but does not keep it up after the fact. I feel I am more of a bowerbird.
* * *
Some things I don’t know: How to identify the more difficult finches. Whether Dad’s bladder cancer is comeuppance for smoking or the result of exposure to nuclear testing on Enewetak in 1952. Whether my mother will outlive me, as she fears she may. Whether Dad did or did not take certain photographs of Dot when she was sixteen years old. Dot tells me he did, and that he took her shopping and bought her a negligee to be posed in.
Dad used to say sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do. If I tried to argue against that statement I always lost. There is no logical argument.
Dot has always been “off,” which makes the reliability of her claim uncertain. “Off” is not a diagnosis; she has not been diagnosed. All we have are illustrations. She blinks excessively and cries easily; she seems to exaggerate all emotions, possibly for attention and dramatic effect. She is often “inappropriate.” During the memorial service for Grandpa Morris she played “Voices in the Sky” and danced to it alone, in front of the crowd. This was painful to watch, and squirmy. Once, when we were playing a board game, she lost her temper and flipped the board onto the floor. She was nearly grown up by then and her rage “inappropriate” to the circumstance. It seemed to come out of nowhere.
She went along with Dad, she says, to protect me.
Fact: Dot is not Dad’s “real” daughter. Maybe, in his view, this fact rendered his enthusiasm for taking photographs of her “benign.”
If he took them.
* * *
My risk is pretty high for comeuppance. Dot’s risk is low – she did not “lay out” much, or smoke, nor does she eat too much sugar. But neither does she appear at risk of longevity. She has tumors in her head – pituitary tumors – which are “benign,” in the sense of “not malignant.” One tumor wrapped around her optic nerves and rendered her partly blind in one eye. She’s had two scary operations and radiation treatments as well, but her doctors can’t predict her future. Radiation has increased her risk of stroke. Tumors have grown into cavities from which they cannot be removed. These tumors, while “benign,” may continue filling up cavities and wrapping around things in her head.
They may one day kill her. This sense of the word “benign” is not in the dictionary.
I quit smoking, though. Just so you know.
Annie Sheppard is an essayist and novelist, a former cartographer and hospice volunteer, a feminist of some sort but not the kind that blames men, and an admirer of birds. This is her first publication, and it’s been a long time coming. She lives within spitting distance of Eugene, Oregon, where lots of other people do exactly the same things.