The Things We Grow
Sweet Gum is a woman who lives in a hole. Her torso is racked with long arms. Each arm is unique, and none come in pairs: on the rungs of her ribs alone, she has a brittle arm, a lovely soft fat one, one with seven fingers, a felted one, one striped, one triple-jointed, and one whose thumb is more snakelike than digit-y. She tends to sit on backless chairs, and her dresses are mostly sleeve. It is difficult to discern her age, because her arms often obscure her face. She chain smokes and wears Birkenstocks. One of the arms on her back, the longest of them all, can stretch high enough that she can pluck even the stubbornest fruit from tall trees. This may be why she moved to town five years back. We are famous here for our nectarine orchards.
I absolutely adore her.
I don’t mean that I adore her romantically or anything like that. She’s a whole adult, and I’m a munchkin. My love for her isn’t like how I’d love a girlfriend, or my mother, or my old parrot, may he rest in peace. It’s almost spiritual. It’s the kind of reverence I’ve held for rare, special albums and the movies that’ve repolarized all my atoms. When I see Sweet Gum, and she sees me, I feel wholly myself. I become aware of the direction of my blood flow. I remember that I have bones inside me that brace me and carry me around, that my body is all I have, that it is right so long as I am inside of it. Seeing Sweet Gum is my reminder that the sun keeps coming up. The days when I see her make everything else bearable—my dwindling art supplies, living with my mother, the disappearance of our bedsheets, the ache in the middle of my back.
When Sweet Gum goes to the farmer’s market every Saturday morning, and I see her at our stall, she sometimes smiles at me while I’m selling her a basket of fruit. She never minds that I sometimes don’t know to which of her hands I should offer up change, or that I clam up and get speechless when she greets me. Last week, she touched my wrist and said, “You are the sweetest thing.
Thank you for being you. Never stop. Your smile is as good and nourishing as your fruit. Take care of yourself.” It’s the salve that’s keeping me breathing, I tell you.
It’s a damn shame about her job and her house. Sweet Gum was fired last year, right after dusk came on picking season. This particularly sucked because her home had just caught fire for the fourth time since she’d moved here. This fire, the worst one yet, had reduced her living space to an ashy, charred-up basement. She took the firing with more grace than I would’ve, though.
She pitched a tarp over the basement’s mouth and took up freelance writing. She’s very good at typing, seeing as she’s got so many fingers and all. Even so, I feel horrible about it. The only thing she buys at the farmer’s market is our nectarines. She could eat as many as she liked back when she worked for the orchard.
Once, I asked my mother about why they’d fired her. They worked together, after all. Asking my mother questions, broadly, is a mistake.
It’s a Friday and I avoid her coming home after school. I head for my sheet-and-blanket-less room, shuck off my bag, my shirt, and the evil apparatus of my underwire bra, which lands in a heap on my spider plant. I go straight for my closet. My art sleeps in there.
Doors scrunch wide and I gather it up, slip my art over my head. It’s itchy but it has sockets that fit my aches, caps them like gloves. Takes an edge off the throbbing. The art’s upper arms are made of this sequined blouse material I found in a thrift store, and the elbows are accordion pipe from under the sink. The forearms are painted cardboard, and the hands I knit myself. There’s a string from each wrist that connects to arm bands, so if I move my meat hands, the art ones sway in response. I can marionette myself around for hours like this. I couldn’t tell you if it’s drag or prosthesis. Maybe it’s both. With my four hands, I feel alive inside myself. My crafted limbs swim with cosmic stem cells. My ribs are scorching, and my guts feel warm. I back up, stand under the ceiling fan, and spin.
My love for her isn’t like how I’d love a girlfriend, or my mother, or my old parrot, may he rest in peace. It’s almost spiritual. It’s the kind of reverence I’ve held for rare, special albums and the movies that’ve repolarized all my atoms.
Something darts out and grabs me. The strings that link my wrists snap. Centripetal force sheers my art off my back, and it batters around the backs of my knees, mangles underfoot. I stop spinning. I’ve split the shoulder seam; it’s snagged around my ankles and torn. My vision keeps moving. It makes it hard to see my mother. She kaleidoscopes around my room, my third and fourth wrists still crumbled in her hands.
“We’ve talked about this.” All twelve sets of her whirling eyes, which quickly coalesce into a single pair, are fixed on the art at my feet. She looks spectacularly normal without double-vision, aggressively dual. Two brows, two lips, both frowning. “You promised me you’d stop. Jesus, I knew it was a mistake to let you talk to her during sales. She’s not like us. She’s not from here. It isn’t safe, understand?”
My throat is closing. I don’t say anything back. I couldn’t if I tried.
“You have to help me with the booth tomorrow. Set up’s at 6, be ready by 5:30.” She holds my art in her only fists and shakes it. “This is the last time I’m catching you with extra arms, understood?”
I salute her and smile with my teeth.
When she leaves, I rip the sliding door off my closet. I overturn my mattress and pull out all my drawers. I don’t come out for dinner. I yank the posters off my wall. My bedroom morphs into a whirlpool of stuff I don’t want anymore, of things I don’t recognize. I collapse on a softer patch and cough until my lungs hurt. The aches between my shoulder blades break skin.
* * *
We run the orchard stall from 6:30 until 11 a.m. The only thing we sell is nectarines. You might think that we would eventually do something with them, make pies or preserves or butters, but my mother has always been disinterested in transformation. We just sell fruit.
Leaves and dirt flecks and everything. It’s too early in the morning, and the blue gingham tablecloth we use makes me feel like we’re selling off Dorothy’s back, but Sweet Gum always comes buying at 10:30 on the dot. She buys a medium basket of nectarines and shakes all of them before making the purchase. She says she’s looking for a rattle, which means the stone’s broken inside. Luckier that way.
It’s 10, now. She’ll be around soon.
“Start loading the crates.” It’s the first thing mother has said to me all morning. “We’re closing up early, the whole market is.”
I look at her like, What are you talking about, we get the most traffic close to closing and we use money from sales to do things like, I don’t know, live?
She doesn’t say anything back. She starts shoving little baskets into the big crates with abandon, so furiously the motion bruises up the fruit. She’s got so much tension in her face that it looks waxy. Her mouth moves, and she breathes something that suspiciously sounded like “fucking Gum.”
Across us, the squash growers and the tomato people are stowing away their wares. The people who make candles are laying them in boxes. The wire jewelry peddlers haul their whole displays into the back of their trucks. I feel like I’m oozing through the treads of my shoes.
Somebody from the meat truck yells to the eggplant people, “Are we going to need the tablecloths later?”
Someone who sells eggs proper cuts the eggplant people to the chase. “Couldn’t hurt. I’m bringing mine.”
“Keep yours. What we have should be enough. I’m not torching Dorothy just yet.” My mother kisses me on the forehead, then says, “Stay in tonight, will you?”
I’m not listening. I’m trying to fit a medium basket in my backpack without mashing up the contents. If I abandon my chem book, which I am more than willing to do, it fits in the bag quite nicely. The fruits look like moons in my backpack’s dark. My stomach turns, which is my body’s attempt to remind me it exists. It’ll feel better once Sweet Gum’s got her fruits, I think. It’ll scrub clean the griminess of market sellers’ ire, help my skin breathe. I zip up the bag and nod at whatever rot my mother had said. The place where she kissed me feels warm.
* * *
There isn’t exactly a doorbell. Her hole is deep, and she’s pitched a make-shift tarp ceiling like a big top. I have no idea where the entrance is, if there is such a thing. I mean, she has to get out somehow. Maybe there’s a flap somewhere? It’s an hour past sundown and consequentially it’s hard to see. I would’ve come earlier, but this was the soonest I could sneak away. Mother’s mood is tense to giddiness. She’s been hanging on me all evening long. I wait but the hole doesn’t magically produce Sweet Gum.
There’s a string from each wrist that connects to arm bands, so if I move my meat hands, the art ones sway in response. I can marionette myself around for hours like this. I couldn’t tell you if it’s drag or prosthesis. Maybe it’s both. With my four hands, I feel alive inside myself.
My backpack feels heavier. It chafes the aches, which are protruding further now than ever, taking shape. I clear my throat and say, “Sweet Gum? I’m the nectarine seller; that one, the kid one, and I’ve come and brought you some fruit. I know why my mom closed shop early, or at least I think I know. It’s awful and it isn’t fair, so I’ve brought you these nectarines for free, if you’d like them. I would understand if you wouldn’t. I—”
The edge of the tarp lifts, and light foams up from the earth. A hand holds the tarp aloft. It’s the one, I think, that makes her so good at picking fruit. Another hand, slimmer, polka- dotted, floats through the air like a curl of smoke and beckons me to come closer. I creep to the edge.
“Ah. You.” Sweet Gum peers up. She is wearing a bathrobe fit for a sea urchin. There is a set of concrete stairs beside her, and a shag carpet under feet. “You’ve brought me nectarines?”
I nod a bit too vigorously. It jostles my brain like a broken stone.
“Does your mother know you’re here?”
“Definitely not,” I say. “I just love seeing you around, and I hate the way everybody treats you. You’re part of the community, too. You’re the only person who I’ve ever met—”
“Like this?” She wiggles her fingers.
Sweet Gum lifts the tarp higher. It crinkles against her fingertips. “Well, come down, then. Let’s see these nectarines.”
I come down the concrete steps, and Sweet Gum drops the tarp behind me. Her hole is strung with fairy lights. She’s covered the walls with maps and pictures, and three computers glow between house plants and a fat, sleeping cat. There are bookshelves and ancient, tartan couches. Shell-shaped ashtrays. A coat rack just for gloves. I step further into the hole and breathe for a moment. The air is coated with incense. Everything smells like clove.
One of the pictures on a shelf, the one nearest me, is of three people leaning close together. The one in the middle is clearly Sweet Gum, albeit younger. The person on the left has arms like dragonfly wings. The person on the right has fingers that are triple the length of my own. They all look happy. Someone’s blowing bubbles out of frame.
I swing off my backpack. “Could I ask you a question?” I fiddle with the zipper. “You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to.”
“That goes for any question.” She perches herself on the computer bench, which leaves room for her posterior limbs. She pets her cat with one of them. “I’ll answer one of yours, if you answer one of mine.”
“Why do you stay here?” The zipper unjams, and I shove it back. The nectarines look mostly un-jostled. One or two of them might be dented. They’re seeping juice in my bag.
“People are so horrible, and you have miserable luck with fires.”
“No luck about it.” She puts a set of hands over her knees. “I’m from here, not that anybody remembers. My mother died about five years ago, and I came to handle her estate.
There has been a lot of deliberate amnesia going around this town. I know I looked different back then. I understand that they might not recognize me. But they knew my mother, and liked her enough, so their obstinance about not claiming me is disappointing. I wouldn’t say it’s a shock, though.”
“Looked different how?”
“That’s two questions.” She makes a sound in her throat, a low of shade laughter. “I didn’t have more than two hands when I was little. I’ve got friends whose arms were visible from birth, but I was something of a late bloomer. I grew my third hand in college. The rest, well.”
“Oh.” I reach into my bag, start hoisting up the fruit basket. There’s a tremor in my grip. I make myself swallow. “Right. Your turn.”
“The pair that’s shoving up against the back of your t-shirt. How long have they been growing?” She hums a note. A hand with a purple palm swoops from her left and pushes the hair off her forehead. “That’s the first and less important question. The second one, because fair is fair, is this: do you’ve got any shirts with sleeves in the back?”
I don’t move at all. I stand with the basket in my hands, cook the fruit with my body heat.
“I don’t know where I’d get one.”
“There are places. Not around here, but not far either. A friend of mine in the city has arms in his back; I’m sure he’d let you borrow a couple of shirts. It might be a little big on you, though. You could always make your own if you’re good with arts and crafts. Might be wiser while you’re actively growing them in. You’ve got more liberty to chop and change things around that way.”
“I’m good at arts and crafts,” I say. I can barely hear myself. There is music in my head.
Sweet Gum gets up. A velvet hand of hers snakes through the air, plucks the topmost nectarine from the basket. It’s a plump one, yellow as her cat. The nectarine whizzes through the air, glosses juice where her fingertips press it, until it comes to a stop by her ear. She cocks her head and shakes it. It rattles like a dried-out gourd. She smiles.
There is a clattering, and the sound of rucked-up fabric.
Ropes crash down from above.
They fall along the sides of the hole, the places with gaps between tarp and concrete wall. There are big knots all along them. The knots bind together starchy cottons and patterned polyesters, terry cloth, winter scarves, powdery lace you might use to run a table. I see neck ties braided with mattress covers, the downy fluff of comforters contorted into shape. Torn bedsheets that look suspiciously like the missing ones of mine. The ropes are all slick with something.
They shine in the light, drip an oily, foul-smelling substance on the carpet.
People shout above us. I think I hear my mother.
Sweet Gum jerks up her head.
My hands clamp even tighter around the nectarine basket, for some reason. There’s a hissing, then a whoosh!
Fire gushes down the length of each rope. Thorny fire, noxious and copper colored. Huge licks of it try for the walls, and when that fails, they lunge for sofas and bookshelves and the three glowing computers. They rip along armchairs, spill across tabletops, blacken over the shag carpet’s shagginess. Heat ruffles the leaves of the houseplants. It wakes the cat, who yowls and leaps through the air.
Sweet Gum catches it mid-arc. She seizes the plants with an onslaught of arms, then her purse, and a picture off her desk. She whirls and reaches for me, puts a hand around my shoulder.
She shakes me a little. “We’ve got to go.”
“How?” I look up at the tarp warping and billowing up above us. Its edges are singing, and the smell makes me choke. Flakes of it fall in my hair. I hold the fruit basket so tightly that it’s edges bend in like violin dips. “My mother’s up there.”
“We go the same way I always go. Come on, move your body or lose it.” Her cat climbs on top of her head. She swings the purse and the house plants, pushes me toward a smoldering door. “That way, go now. I’m right behind you.”
I run. The door opens forward, gives no resistance. There’s a hallway ribbed with cobwebs on the other side. I run over exposed roots that try and trip me, but I push forward, sprint over the snags. My lungs thump around my torso. A nectarine slips free, smashes by my ankle on the dirt and gravel floor. I can’t stop and save it. It’ll rot here in the dark on the roots. I know that Sweet Gum is close on my heels, because a hand flies past my ear and points at a spot in the darkness. Her skin looks molten peachy; it dances with the fire’s light behind us.
One of the pictures on a shelf, the one nearest me, is of three people leaning close together. The one in the middle is clearly Sweet Gum, albeit younger. The person on the left has arms like dragonfly wings. The person on the right has fingers were triple the length of my own. They all look happy
I smack something hard in the darkness. There’s a whisper of fabric against my elbow, and the sound of a doorknob twisting. Sweet Gum pushes open the door. Night air gusts in, and we go out into it. There’s grass underfoot. I stand aside, hug the basket to my stomach, as Sweet Gum steps onto the hillside. I gasp, then reach back, closing the door behind us with a fresh hand from under my shirt. My older arms still clutch the fruit. Bruised now, but ours even so.
We’re not far from the people burning the hole. They’re peeling back the tarp. I imagine my mother’s silhouette among the shadows, but I can’t tell the arsonists apart. I don’t think they notice us. Sweet Gum leads me away from her old pit toward the road that takes you out of town.
I follow her and try not to look back. I treat myself to a bruised-up fruit. It oozes when I bite it, drips honey down my chin. It keeps my chin from wobbling. Sugars the thick smoke taste. Perhaps it’ll be like I died down there. Perhaps my mother will come check the hole in the morning, look through the fifth fire’s wreckage for dead Gum limbs and find instead my backpack. I jog to keep Gum’s pace.
I say, “Where are we going, Sweet Gum? Where can we even go, now?”
“To catch a train that will take us to the city,” Sweet Gum says. Her voice wavers when she speaks but does not break. She’s cradling her cat now. It meows like a baby. She kisses its nose and looks skywards. “We’ve got to go buy you some art supplies.”