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Finger Squeeze

The day my cousin Carrie got married I took my wedding ring to be resized. I wore a leaden black skirt and sea-foam T-shirt so thin it shone sheer in the sunlight. But apart from my skirt’s wool shield, everywhere but between my navel and my knees, I felt as invisible as I ought to be for a woman soon to shed her ring.

The last time I walked inside a jewelry store I had just turned seven years old. My grandmother bought me emerald earrings that made my earlobes itch, verdigris stars I lost in our municipal pool within the month. They fell out in the shallow end while I imagined myself a mermaid, holding pretend clamshells at my pretend breasts, among the algae overspreading the drain. While I held and held my breath.

So I can be forgiven for forgetting the allure of polished minerals, so hard they’ll cut through glass. For only half recollecting a species of sparkle at your finger fat means the jeweler must buzz you through three bullet-proof doors. Not when I have always preferred softer things. Not when winter has bled the back of my hands, otherwise soft as butter melted over a warm rubber ball, now supple as an autumn husk of corn.

But I should have remembered my mother’s birthday, because the ring was really hers—a finger squeeze, I called it, even after it grew loose. Even after my mother was nine years gone, the diamond still so hard.

A month before my wedding, my mother brought her grandmother’s engagement ring, which she’d worn the past 20 years herself, to the jeweler’s I had not visited since I was seven years old. She paid to have it widened to fit my wider finger looking none like her own, long and lithe as tree branches tapering into wind. While mine are doll’s hands coursing with blood, sprouted from the arms of a woman resembling no doll still softer than she need be to the touch.

The skin on the back of my hands, though, draws itself too thin. So that at February’s end and the dawn of March my hands look etched into petroglyphs. So that I can crack their scabs merely by clinching my fists, snapping apart the dried and corded blood then letting it flow again. So that I can lick blood hot as juice from pie with its crust still warm at my knuckles’ ravine. Which I have always preferred to wedding cake, so sweet it makes you sick.

But jewelers care little for suckling on scabs. Even less for customers who never bought their wedding bands to begin with but accepted their great-grandmother’s with a wince. Those who freely take a mint to lean deeper into gleaming glass, sighing with freshened breath over carbon shined fit to blind that they have no intent to purchase.

When I told the jeweler I needed my ring shrunken, ever so slightly please, because the thing fell off in bed only the other night, she smiled, saying how wonderful. When I shook my head no in response, having to disagree. Because if my hands are losing their doll’s proportions, then what else might be subject to further entropy?

My cousin Carrie’s eyelashes’ droop like Spanish moss over hangdog eyes. There is no reason not to think her wedding was not her life’s apogee, a sure sign of stupidity. Her skin glistens like peanut butter in the sun against a dress too tawny a cream, eclipsing the sparkle of her ring. Which would have been as large as my fist had her fiancé more funds.

When she was two and I just five, Carrie’s father and my uncle, Nelson, awoke at the usual time. After finishing a bowl of oatmeal and cup of instant coffee with cream, he walked onto a porch in need of paint, sat on a yellow lawn chair made yellower by the sun, and laced his boots, long mottled with mud. He bent dolefully at the waist then ruffled his dog’s sorrel mane. He plodded down the slope of grass behind his kitchen and shot himself in the temple. With a rifle that had only ever killed pigeons lining the barn roof like song notes before.

But a decade earlier, Nelson had planted a thicket of walnut trees on the farm where he had come of age, where my sister and I were later born, awaiting his walnuts’ fall. Where once a year Carrie and her brother, Kevin, visited for Christmas a day or two before the actual holiday.

My father, as nearly long dead as my mother now and almost twice her weight, once called Carrie a butterball after she’d left our house. When he repeated, “yes, a vain little butterball,” I laughed until I had to breathe into a sandwich bag saved for the leftover ham. Because there is something wondrous about a pot that calls the kettle black when you love the derisive, pudgy pot and the kettle is so dumb. Overhung with eyelashes too long.

I remember nothing of Nelson but his sideburns, clutching at his jowls like caterpillars. If I ever met his gaze, I can see his eyes no more. They too, photographs show, were shaded by eyelashes slung with dew that never dried. But in my mind’s eye he sits always in profile, on a chair of fibers the color of inchworms. His elbows rest on his knees, eyelashes alert as antennae, watching his stupid baby girl crawl inside a brown paper bag only to shorten her oxygen supply. This though she would have made him happy enough, as daughters of fathers none too smart themselves always do. I say this as a father’s daughter of my own. A melting ball of butter still forced to breathe through a bag when she laughs too hard at too cruel a joke.

The woman in the jewelry store told me the necklaces were on sale, that I should feel free to browse while she entered my information into a database. I told her thank you but that I harbored little interest in jewels, however long rid of base metal. Then seeing her stare at my clavicle, I explained I wore the glass evil eye hanging from its silk rope only because it refused to blink. When her lips contracted into a spider folding its legs, saying much but deciding not to speak.

So I clarified the eye was not evil itself but kept watch for that afoot. That my husband had bought it in Turkey when I calculated its reasonable price given the rate of exchange. That its lightless pupil was raised with an excess dollop of paint—like a nipple, I always thought—which I liked to finger whenever I felt evil myself.

But talismans, I could see at once, were of little interest here. So she reminded me Mother’s Day was this Sunday next, that perhaps my mother enjoyed conventional coruscating things even if her daughter did not. She did, I acceded, but that hardly mattered now, she with eye sockets so long clotted with dirt. She who would no longer know the sparkle of diamonds from that of head lice hatching in the sun. Then I plucked an Altoid from above a display of sapphire pendants, asking her what the mints were for other than to whiten my fingertips. To fingerprint me should I feel compelled to steal? I laughed then laughed some more. As a courtesy, to freshen customers’ breath, she clipped, without a laugh in return. So I nodded as if I understood while trying on different ring sizes with rings looking like bolts, saying I’d go half a size down.

And as my cousin Carrie uttered her vows on an altar carpeted the color of scar tissue, I left the jeweler without wearing my great-grandmother’s ring for the first time in years. So that I felt lighter walking beneath tree limbs weighted with flowers themselves weighted with bees, when I grew hungry for walnuts and walnuts alone. But then few foods, I’ve found, ever fill me as long.

I stopped at the grocery store a few doors down and smiled at the man standing behind the cheese. He stepped out from behind a pinwheel of Swiss and waited for me beside the milk, asking would I like to try some samples, honey. I smiled again and told him no, when I really would have liked some Swiss since I saw no walnuts about. But without my finger squeeze, I was too soft to the touch to stand long beside a man with a mastiff’s appetite himself, with drool pooling at the corner of his mouth. Who ate who knew how many wheels of cheese a week.

After I came home and put my few groceries in their place, I turned and looked in the mirror, checking whether my panty line shown through my skirt, that he hadn’t too clearly seen my buttocks’ outline while I walked down the aisle of frozen meats. This the wool had concealed, but my shirt looked sheerer than it had before, shot through with swelling sunlight, now that it was afternoon. And hanging in between my breasts, my evil eye stared back at me, its gaze black as my mother’s with her pupils long lightless with loam. I felt for its nipple, thinking that next time I might take some cheese when it was offered me. That these were the riches that mattered most.

When I asked my father why Nelson had planted the walnut trees, between an arroyo and a mailbox battered by baseball bats, he said so we could chop them down someday. Their wood exacted a high price, he explained. It made the most expensive inn tables you could buy to set your coffee cups upon, which I would understand when I wanted to sit and drink some for myself. And so Nelson had made an investment in the future he never had, which we might remember to his credit, he said with something close to pride. But at the time I wanted only to let the trees grow tall, with fingers lean as my mother’s groping toward the sky, weighted only with walnuts for rings. To never cut them down at all.

Those walnuts that fell to the gulch that would become a deluge in time, flooding our driveway so we couldn’t leave home, looked green as the grass they collapsed within and so were difficult to spot. Most were eaten whole by snakes that would wrap themselves around the trunks they’d fallen from, suffocating them of resin that would turn to amber in time. Just to have something to hold, I thought, after they’d swallowed all the mice they could.

Covering the nuts we never ate from trees yet to be cut was skin soft as a tennis ball, a rubbery rind that refused to crack, sturdier than wood. Shaking them like tambourines, I heard the nuts rattling inside, sure as a fetus kicking the walls of its womb. But my parents had no wish to extract them, so busy were they picking our garden vegetables and smoking the ribs of cows recently disemboweled. And then as the trees grew taller, the nuts thinned farther from reach. If we could only have sold the walnuts rather than waiting for the trees to fat themselves wide as birthing sows, we would have been so much richer so much sooner, I knew even then.

Nelson had planted too many trees to survive in such a small space. He forced them to vie against each other’s branches for sun, so that half have since stopped growing, leaving endless unborn walnuts to expire silent as red dwarf stars within their hulls, slowing their kicks to a listless thud unheard by all but the snakes alone. So that those trees standing on thicket’s perimeter seemed to swallow more light than they should.

So that there is a ring of walnut trees now where before was only a clump. So there are half as many grown twice as tall. With nothing but snakes writhing among them, feeding on what falls.

My sister and I rent my parents’ farmhouse to a couple who breed mastiffs striped like tigers on our back porch. Weekday nights, they quaff Bud Light and watch dogs big as elephants hump atop piles of newspaper where we used to store our garden tools. They sell their puppies to anyone who will buy them for $250 apiece, by way of fundraising to adopt twin girls, fed on nothing but breast milk in the Namibian desert, for two years now, we think. Infertility, they tell me privately, has nearly broken them apart, when I think I have never been so grateful not to have children myself. Not when I would have to show them bucking mastiffs against old classifieds where once were a scythe and garden plow. Where a growing girl still with the hands of a doll once tried prying nuts from shells sealed shut.

Carrie, recent pictures show, becomes a bigger butterball every day. I’m far from svelte myself, but I still somersault—I still leap, I still catapult—into the bed where my ring fell off. The wedding ring that is still more my mother’s more than my own. That remains willfully blind to all the evil in the world, with no nipple for an eye.

I may not be the world’s smartest person, but I’m not stupid either, however short my eyelashes are. Only half of me ever goes opaque at a time.

My husband asked me what the jeweler will do with the gold. Will she keep it and sell it to someone else? Will she return it so I can make a tooth? What are the odds that she’ll have to put it back, to widen the ring once I widen again too? Feeding myself walnuts from a bag in bed, I told him that the ring would expand and contract like a sidewalk in the snow, that it too would eventually crack. That the gold would likely wind up in some sewer until it flowed into the ocean. That I was leaving this ring to no one when I died or we divorced either one.

And there were shinier, harder rings out there, I reminded him. I’d seen more than I’d wanted in the jewelry store while biting my Altoid into as many piece as I could. Each bauble brighter than the next, so that I finally had to squint. Then I said that if wearing a finger squeeze was the price of getting married these days, the price was too high, I thought. That there are better kinds of rings, anyone with half a brain should know. That walnuts like these can feed you forever if only you can crack a rubber hull. That if Carrie was too stupid to know the walnut trees were hers, someone else would have to tell her.