“And what if it does?” Gretchen asked.

“Then we’ll have to get them scraped out,” Lisa reported.

I lifted my head over the backseat. “What’s a uterus lined with, anyway?” I imagined something sweet and viscous. “Like whatever it is that grapes are made of.”

“That would be grape,” Amy said. “Grapes are made of grape.”

“Actually, it’s a good question,” Lisa said. “What is a uterus lined with? Blood vessels? Nerves?”

“Your family,” Hugh said. “I can’t believe the things you talk about when you’re together.”

I later reminded him of the time his sister, Ann, visited us in Normandy. I walked into the living room after returning from a bike ride one afternoon and heard her saying to her mother, Joan, who was also staying with us, “Don’t you just love the feel of an iguana?”

Who are you people? I remember thinking. That same night, after my bath, I overheard her asking, “Well, can’t you make it with camel butter?”

“You can,” Mrs. Hamrick said, “but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

I thought of asking for details—“Make what with camel butter?”—but decided I preferred the mystery. That often happens with company. I’ll forever wonder what a guest from Paris meant when I walked into the yard one evening and heard her saying, “Mini goats might be nice.” Or, odder still, when Hugh’s father, Sam, came to visit with an old friend he’d known from the State Department. The two had been discussing the time they’d spent in Cameroon in the late sixties, and I entered the kitchen to hear Mr. Hamrick say, “Now was that guy a Pygmy, or just a false Pygmy?”

I turned around and headed to my office, thinking, I’ll ask later. Then Hugh’s father died, as did his old friend from the State Department. I suppose I could Google “false Pygmy,” but it wouldn’t be the same. I had my chance to find out what one was, and I blew it.

One of Hugh’s greatest regrets is that his father never saw the house in Sussex. It’s the kind of place that was right up Sam’s alley: a ruin transformed in such a way that it still looks pretty beat-up. The main difference is that now the wiring is safe, and there’s heat. Mrs. Hamrick visits, though, and sometimes she and Hugh will sit in the kitchen and talk about Sam. It’s not the snippets of conversation that betray him as the subject but rather their voices, which, almost a decade after his death, are still brittle and reverential, full of loss and longing. It’s how my sisters and I used to be when talking about our mother. Now, though, after twenty-seven years, almost every discussion of her ends with the line “And can you believe she was so young?” Soon we’ll be the age she was when she got cancer and was killed by it. Then we’ll be even older, which just seems wrong, against nature somehow.

I made up my mind eons ago that I would not let that happen, that I would also die at sixty-two. Then I hit my midfifties and started thinking that perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. Now that I’ve scored a couple of decent guest rooms, it seems silly not to get a little more use out of them.

When visitors leave, I feel like an actor watching the audience file out of the theater, and it was no different with my sisters. The show over, Hugh and I returned to lesser versions of ourselves. We’re not a horrible couple, but we have our share of fights, the type that can start with a misplaced sock and suddenly be about everything. “I haven’t liked you since 2002,” he hissed during a recent argument over which airport security line was moving the fastest.

This didn’t hurt me so much as confuse me. “What happened in 2002?” I asked.

On the plane, he apologized, and a few weeks later, when I brought it up over dinner, he claimed to have no memory of it. That’s one of Hugh’s many outstanding qualities: he doesn’t hold on to things. Another is that he’s very good to old people, a group that in the not-too-distant future will include me. It’s just this damned middle-aged period I have to get through.

The secret, of course, is to stay busy. So when the company leaves, I clean their bathrooms and strip their beds. If the guests were mine—my sisters, for example—I’ll sit on the edge of the mattress and hold their sheets to my chest, hugging them a moment and breathing in their smell before standing back up and making my rickety way to that laundry room I always wanted.

Now We Are Five

In late May 2013, a few weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday, my youngest sister, Tiffany, committed suicide. She was living in a room in a beat-up house on the hard end of Somerville, Massachusetts, and had been dead, the coroner guessed, for at least five days before her door was battered down. I was given the news over a white courtesy phone while at the Dallas airport. Then, because my plane to Baton Rouge was boarding and I wasn’t sure what else to do, I got on it. The following morning, I boarded another plane, this one to Atlanta, and the day after that I flew to Nashville, thinking all the while about my ever-shrinking family. A person expects his parents to die. But a sibling? I felt I’d lost the identity I’d enjoyed since 1968, when my brother was born.

“Six kids!” people would say. “How do your poor folks manage?”

There were a lot of big families in the neighborhood I grew up in. Every other house was a fiefdom, so I never gave it much thought until I became an adult and my friends started having children. One or two seemed reasonable, but anything beyond that struck me as outrageous. A couple Hugh and I knew in Normandy would occasionally come to dinner with their wrecking crew of three, and when they’d leave several hours later every last part of me would feel violated.

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