The room is hot with the crush of characters, but Lumpy McGhee won’t unbutton his coat. He won’t take off his hat, either. Shaking hands is a thing of the past, so he doesn’t wear gloves.
Unlike with the others, I don’t motion him forward. Our eyes meet and that’s enough.
Here’s the truth of Lumpy McGhee:
In 1934, Don McGhee was thirteen. He played sports, climbed trees, and fished at Owen’s Lake with his shirt off, coming home with awful sunburns which his mother treated with tannic spray. July came and it rained all month, four days out of seven. The Guyandotte River, narrow through Harshbarger Mills, overflowed and flooded the town. No one was alarmed because the waste water went into the bottom, a sinkhole of land acres wide between Chasen Street and Route 40. People were used to seeing water in the bottom. It always dried. Sometimes, the boys could walk through it without sinking. But that summer, the bottom became a muddy lake.
The mosquitos went wild.
Don lived on Chasen Street. His home sat on a deep lot, a double lot, so though he didn’t live on top of the bottom, he was close enough.
What he remembers most about that summer, other than the painful mosquito bites, is the sounds of windows banging open and shut. They’d no air conditioning and his mother couldn’t get the screens to fit. No matter what she did, mosquitoes got in. She carried a fly swatter, burned citronella candles, and stuffed rags between the window cracks. It was useless. At night, they woke his father, who slept with a beer buzz.
Those on Chasen Street suffered like Egyptians.
In September came an unexpected cold snap that wilted the four o’clocks but stopped the mosquitoes from breeding. Harshbarger Mills was a town of three churches, each on a corner. All three gave thanks.
Lumpy thinks it ironic that it was the last bite that started the trouble. A lump the size of a dime formed where the last mosquito bit. When it grew quarter-sized, his mother took him to Dr. Veach.
The doctor examined his arm without alarm. “That’s some bite you’ve got, Lumpy. Must have been a monster.” Dr. Veach lanced it, allowing watery blood to drain. ” I’ll give him a shot of penicillin,” he told his mother. “That should fix it.”
The incision healed over, but the lump remained. He showed it to his friends. He repeated what Dr. Veach had said, “That’s some bite, Lumpy!”
The boys shrieked the words back at him. Then they ran at one another, pretending to be monster mosquitos, diving for bites.
Dr. Veach had put a bandage over the lance, and told him to keep it on as long as he could, but, “When this falls off, don’t put on another. It will need air to heal.”
Seemed to Don, who woke up with another lump the next morning, that oxygen had only multiplied it.
His mother took a darning needle, broke it open herself, then rubbed citronella oil all over him.
The lumps that had started on his arm now multiplied in earnest. They went to his back, and then to his stomach. Down his legs, on his feet. Dr. Veach lanced them, shaking his head, and recommended him to a specialist. The specialist ran blood tests but found nothing. Only the lancing stopped the growth, although the lump itself never disappeared. The lumps became hard and white, protruding from his skin. Nor did they tan in the normal manner, but darker. And as the protrusions changed the pattern of his skin, so changed his name.
He went from doctor to doctor, got treated with a sulphur drug and once drank gold. When it became clear that only the lancing worked, Lumpy began to dress the part.
By the tenth grade, only the teachers called him Don.
He wore long shirts. He buttoned his collars. He grew sideburns as best he could (the knots had appeared on his face and interfered with hair growth), and he dropped out of sports. He gave up swimming and fished at night. He never had a girlfriend or asked a girl to dance. Other than being called Lumpy, which by now he called himself, Don wasn’t ridiculed. People remembered that summer and thought it was a tragedy.
Lumpy had always been good at math, but after the strange growths occurred, he excelled. The straight columns, the correctness of it all. Math was a place where accidents couldn’t happen. He had high recommendations and somehow he was able to stumble through an interview at United Alloy. He was put in accounting where looks didn’t matter. Soon, he had his own office and worked long hours in long sleeves, though he did loosen his tie.
He retired from United Alloy as the head of Accounting, just before the plant was computerized. It took three people to replace him.
Now, he does retirees’ taxes for free. They are, by and large, the same people he went to school with. Most call him Lumpy. A few, shamefaced, call him Don. It hardly matters. He delivers their taxes at night, standing on the porch, and though he’s invited, he never goes inside.
I’ve always felt guilty about Lumpy. “Okay,” I tell him. “I’ve had it with the truth. Let’s go back and I’ll invent a cure. Or I’ll make it simple, something right under their noses! You can lead a normal life and live to be 110! A wife and kids. Would you like that? “
He tilts his head and grins. There’s a growth about the size of a pea in the corner of his mouth which prevents him for showing all his teeth, although it doesn’t interfere with eating. He speaks clearly as well.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” He says clearly now. “I’ve seen enough of human nature.”
copyright 2021 Joan Spilman