I’m watching you. You’re part of a supporting cast, in a chorus of mendicants. Thus far, you’ve been only in crowd scenes, but now you are in a line in the front of the stage, your mouth open in chant, your costume of jewel-toned tatters flapping at your thighs as you take synchronized steps on the waxed floorboards. The person I sit with—a member of my own supporting cast, you might say—sends me a concerned look. Though she will, in a few weeks, compliment you on how beautiful you look in your prom dress. And, yes, you will look elegant. That’s the problem right there: bones make a great clothes hanger. I let you blur, but your skeleton continues dancing.
It’s these x-ray vision glasses I’m wearing. I ordered them from an ad in a comic book. Archie, Richie Rich—I’m not sure which anymore, it’s taken so long for them to arrive. I don’t know how we stand the wait, my brothers and I, for those sea monkeys or the thumb-sized spy camera that produces photos of gray smears, something we only realize after months of waiting for the film to be developed. Another mail order disappointment, some stomping or yelling, then we’re off again to play with neighbors, share our Barbies and G.I. Joes, our pink convertibles and jungle-camouflaged jeeps. Until the blossoming, the boys not wanting hormones around their wars. A shunning I carry, a hunger.
Great Hunger—that’s what the academics call it now, what used to be known as Ireland’s Famine. It’s a semantical point, “famine” meaning no food available in a region. But it was only the potato that suffered the blight of the 1840s, not the export crops, the grazing livestock, the wheat. Had these been kept in the country, the argument goes, the millions would not have died on the roads or crowded into ships for America. This is the research I’ve been doing during your high school years, imagining and turning into story our fore-family, their wasted limbs clawing the earth for grubs or the air for mercy, their bodies in rags for selling their clothes.
And here is the day of my epiphany: You are at the kitchen table, your arms that used to pitch cannonballs now hidden in the sleeves of your softball sweatshirt. (“You throw like a man!” someone said to you once. You were proud.) I am sharing with you an essay I have just stumbled upon. It is by T. K. Whipple, about ancestors, how “we live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers.” And I stop, hope you are not listening after all, that the apple you have been gnawing, slowly to the point of affectation, or dream, has been the singular source of attention it has seemed. You suck at it until it is a shiny core, then you set it on the polished wood in front of you.