The Circle before Cuddle Parties are similar to Mrs. Passomanik’s. Mikey lets us know if we have any returning clientele, and if they’ve made any special requests for specific Cuddlers. The energy in the room is electric. We are ready to begin our work.
Cuddlers begin the evening on the periphery, waiting to be approached by someone looking for a hug. Once we’ve given out our first hug, we can circulate. The only word we’re allowed to say is “Yes,” in response to a patron asking, “Cuddle me?” I lean against the wall and wait and watch.
The adrenalin has worn off considerably by the time my bus pulls to a stop. With my costume double-bagged and stuffed in my backpack, I get off the bus and walk the two blocks to my house. The rain has stopped, which means I’ll need to be extra quiet sneaking back into my room.
My first night as a turkey was mediocre. It was at least forty-five minutes before anyone asked for a hug. As Lion, I was heavily pursued. Sometimes a small line would form and after receiving their hugs, my fans would go right to the back of the line again. Tonight, I wanted to pound my chest and shout out, “I’m really Lion! It’s me!” Chick seems to have taken the lead. Probably because Easter is just around the corner.
I hoist myself up to the window and try to slide the cold glass up. It’s locked. I’m going to fucking kill her. I’m exhausted. All I want to do is find a good hiding place for my costume and crawl into bed.
I knock lightly on the window.
I tap a little louder, using my fingernails to drum the William Tell Overture on the glass. My sister responds to rhythm. She opens the window.
“What the fuck?”
“Sorry, I fell asleep.”
She takes my bag as I climb through the window, the T.V. still blaring the war downstairs where Dad has, no doubt, fallen asleep.
In the morning, when Mom leans down to pour orange juice into my empty mug, the fox's nose touches the inside of my ear.
“They lost a nuke.” Dad startles me, rattling his paper with fervor.
“Who did?” Mom brings in the boiled eggs as Mavis has a seat with a box of Choc-O’s and gives me the middle finger while no one is looking.
“We did. In the jungle. They have trained monkeys over there. It’s the new biological warfare.”
“The monkeys stole the bomb?” Mavis adds a handful of marshmallows to her cereal.
“Monkeys are smart,” I say. Trying to get in on the conversation.
“Yeah, smarter than you,” adds Mavis.
“Hey, I did so well I threw the entire curve off for the math test yesterday.” I look at my dad.
“Damn monkeys,” he says, his blue and white striped union suit unbuttoned at the top so that his scraggly, gray chest hair sits like an unmowed patch of grass.
“What are you two going to do today?” asks Mom.
“Homework at the library.”
The next week, we’re at a posh brownstone on Circle Road. It’s a nice neighborhood – a whole lot nicer than the one I live in. The owners, Frank and Gretchen, have hosted before. They make it a point to serve their own appetizers – things like fried calamari and chicken satay with peanut dipping sauce in addition to the usual veggies and dip. Even though last night wasn’t a shining moment in my cuddling career, I’m optimistic that I can transform my new status as a turkey into something desirable – after all – beneath all the fake feathers and polyester, it’s still just me.
It was my turn to stay at home tonight so that Mavis could go out, probably with that Conor joker. I let her have a ten minute lead, just in case she forgot something and had to come home, before checking that Mom was asleep and Dad was flaked out in front of the TV before making my own escape out the window and down the tree.
Mikey pulls me aside and says I have to do something with my limp beak before people show up. I ask him what I'm supposed to do, but he shrugs and says, "Get creative." Doesn’t he know that turkeys aren't right brain kind of creatures?
“I’ll be back,” I tell Chick and the gang. Chick shakes her hips back and forth. She gets all amped up before a party.
Outside, the cold seeps through the mesh fabric in front of my mouth. I breathe heavily and see the frigid air rise. Why couldn’t I have been a peacock or a penguin? How to fix my beak?
Two blocks from the house there's a laundromat and a deli and, across the street, a liquor store. The rest of the businesses look closed. Evening commuters honk at me as I jaywalk towards the liquor store. I give them the middle finger under my wing.
It dawns on me that in this roomier disguise I might be able to get away with breaking Rule No. 7: "No alcohol is to be consumed by employees while attending a Cuddle Party." Maybe a few sips would take the edge off and help me get my groove back.
I don't know what I'm looking for to help fix my beak, but I'll know it when I see it. What would Mavis do in this situation? She’s the artist in the family, after all. I picture her in Ghana with a bunch of kids sitting around and making batik t-shirts. She'd find a way to make this beak look good stuffed with grass or cotton balls.
A guy next to me holds out two bottles. "Which do you think? Cabernet or Chardonnay?"
"What are you having for dinner?" I ask. He looks surprised, like he thought I wouldn't talk.
"Chicken. Hope that doesn't offend you." He laughs and looks at his girlfriend.
"Cabernet," I say. That bottle looks more interesting, abstract statuesque bodies interwoven like they're participating in a Greek orgy.
The checker hears our conversation and decides to butt in.
"You're supposed to have white wine with bird," says the checker.
The guy holding the bottle shrugs. "I'm going with the turkey on this one."
Towards the front of the store is an assortment of mini liquor bottles. I pick out three: tequila, gin, and vodka and set them on the counter.
“Is that packaging?” I point to the pile of shredded paper behind the counter, hoping to distract the checker from remembering to check my ID.
“Mind if I take some? For my beak?” I shake my head to emphasize my dilemma. The limp beak jiggles. “Oh, and I’ll take these as well.”
The checker rings me up and passes a handful of shredded paper.
If I don't get back for the ringing of the opening triangle, I'm out for the evening. It's in our contract.
Outside I take my head off and place two of the bottles down my left wing. I swig the tequila and then tightly stuff the paper in to my beak and voila.
Back inside Mikey is orienting first timers to the routine while a few guests stand around the food table, sipping wine and chewing on vegetable sticks. He's good at gathering people in circles and making them follow directions. He used to be a preschool teacher.
"Looking better, Turkey," Mikey puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes. He unwraps a bell from a cloth bandana and strikes it with the metal rod three times. Tonight I’m brimming with optimism and tequila. I will play the part of confident, wingless bird. I will be desired.