It's true. The proof is on the leader board at company headquarters, a large basement warehouse under our town’s mall. There’s no sign anywhere advertising what we do, but every so often a wayward consumer will wander down the elevator, hopped up on a rush of shopping adrenalin, and ask what we sell. They’re usually sent back to Kevin. He checks them out and decides if they seem like the type that would want to join. He looks for longing in their eyes. Otherwise he lies and says the basement floor is the maintenance team.
"But don't you think it's not only about the costume?" I say. I mean, I work hard to engage the people. It's all about having an affable attitude. About being open. It has to go beyond the plush.
Kevin puts his finger up and disappears into a back closet marked "Captains Only." He returns with a turkey suit on a hanger.
"It's all about the costume." Kevin pushes the suit towards me.
I take it. "Don't you have anything a little more, you know…loveable?"
He raises his eyebrows.
I take the suit.
So this is how it works. Kevin sends out an email to all those on the list of patrons interested in coming to a Cuddle Party. The list has been compiled from people who have attended before. Or else friends of friends email Kevin. Sometimes, he’ll send scouts out into the mall to discreetly recruit customers.
A couple of days after the email goes out, Kevin puts together a list of the RSVPs. The day before the Cuddle Party, he sends another email with directions to the secret location. There have been Cuddle Crashers before, so it's important he doesn't reveal the party’s location until the last minute. Of course, cuddlers find out a week ahead of time. Some participants make certain requests for which Cuddlers they want at the party. Just for the record, I was always requested. We'll see how much they like hugging a fucking turkey. "Come nuzzle in close with this North American patriotic bird that tastes good between two slices of bread and slathered in gravy. Oh and it can't even pull it together enough to fly!"
Dinner is a mealy pot of corned beef hash with fried eggs on top that look like eyes. Mavis noshes on Choco Puffs. Mom offers Mavis’s uneaten portion to the fox stole, nestled as usual between her hair and neck.
“I’ll just leave it on the table if you change your mind.”
Guess the fox isn’t hungry tonight.
It’s Mavis’s turn to be on duty – stay home and be on call to make an excuse for me in case our parents come looking while I sneak out. I’ll take tomorrow. Thank God these parties are at night or I’d never get passed my folks. Outside the window of our Jack and Jill bathroom is a large ash tree, perfect for getting us safely down to the street. It’s a system that’s worked great over the last year, minus that one time I accidentally locked her out during a snowstorm. Part of the reason it works so well is that I don’t always hold up my end of the bargain. If I know there’s a Cuddle Party happening, I make it my business to be there. Every penny counts. I just have to be sure and get home before she does.
Mavis spent the afternoon with friends from school finishing up a knitting project that Mom got her started on weeks ago: soda cozies. Mom thinks it’s going to be a cash cow. I don’t bother to ask her why anyone would want something that actually makes her soda warmer.
I’ve been doing laundry and resting up for my big coming out as a turkey at the Cuddle Party tonight. I finally get around to greasing the tracks on the window, too. It’s been making this awful squeaking sound when either of us slides it open. Mavis hasn’t said anything, but I’m pretty sure she has a boyfriend. She’s been asking me to cover for her a lot more than usual lately, and at school, I sometimes see her eating with this Conor kid from her math class. Dad would hate him, always chewing gum and brandishing hair long enough to tuck behind his ears.
Dad sits at the table reading the paper.
“Anything interesting, Dear?” asks Mom.
“War moved.” He grumbles. He’s been obsessed with war news ever since this whole thing broke out years ago. Part of the reason he wants me to join the army, I’m sure. He’d join himself if he weren’t so old, but since he can’t, he’s willing to sacrifice me.
“Where did it go?” Mom rearranges the dying white peonies in a vase on the table. They’re starting to give off that sweet stench that makes our food taste like rotten flowers.
“North by northeast. Into jungle territory. It’s a whole new game now. Says here the highlights will be on channel four tonight. Nine o’clock. Remind me.”
After dinner, we help Mom clear the table. Dad is already planted on his rocker, waiting for nine o’clock to roll around. I think we both feel kind of guilty having to lie to Mom when we go out, so we try hard to help her out after meals. We form an assembly line. After the table is cleared, Mavis washes the dishes, I dry them, and Mom oversees the process, wicking away any overlooked droplets with the fox’s tail.
Tonight, the Cuddle Party is at ten o’clock, at Gia Smith’s house on Pine and 24th. I slide my crumpled bill in the slot and grab my change. It's my job to arrive there in uniform. But I don’t like taking buses in full regalia. Taxis are hit and miss. One cabbie begged me to come to his daughter's third birthday party the next day. He said he'd let me have a beer and take a swing at the piñata. Most cabs drive right by. I've changed in public park bathrooms, department store dressing rooms, and once behind an installation at the Modern Museum of Art entitled, "Disney on Crack." The docents thought I was part of the exhibit.
I couldn’t stomach Mom’s hash, so before changing I grab a bite to eat at Stellar Burger. The suit is heavy, stuffed inside one of Mom's donation garbage bags.