Cover image courtesy of Karina:
On Porter Street, at the corner of Willow Avenue, the houses gave a deceptive appearance. One might think the neighborhood was wealthy until one noticed shabbier dwellings surrounding them. The owner of each house, at the corner of Porter and Willow, was the same man. He rented them to tenants who would have caused damage to their respective properties if not for the owner’s consistent upkeep. The most challenging repairs were to the Goldman’s residence. Those not familiar with any Goldman family member would assume the lot of them lived comfortably with a fine income. Comfortable was a term most of the Feldmans would use on themselves. Others would use the term horrific.
Janet Goldman was whose name appeared on the lease. She had originally rented the house so she could escape the family turmoil. However, her brother, Greg, knocked on her door one day and the result was that he moved in with Janet and he brought his wife and daughter with him. Greg Goldman’s family had lived in a trailer park in Evanstown. Their mobile home was completely paid for but the lot rent was one thousand dollars a month. Greg had used his share of his late father’s inheritance to pay for the house, knowing full well that the lot payments were once a month and not once a year, but he was tired of living in Lakeview, the better neighborhood with low income housing, and wanted to upgrade his social status. He had trouble discovering that people who always wore dirty clothes and smoked cigarettes constantly were not the best examples of well to do individuals. He saw that many who lived in Memory Mobile Mart were close to his weight, four hundred pounds, so he trusted his family would be in a good environment.
He became troubled not with the neighbors but the fee. He had enough from the inheritance to pay for the first two months and then decided, when the inheritance ran out, he would no longer pay. He was not going to use his regular income on a lot when his house was paid in full. He figured the landlord would understand. After three months of no payments, the landlord understood the Goldmans had to leave.
Daphne and Letitia, wife and daughter respectively, panicked. Greg did not share that panic. He was relieved about not having to deal with any more payments, even if the result was homelessness. He figured Janet would let them stay at her place. Her house was not big. Greg and Daphne would have to sleep in the living room while Letitia used a sleeping bag in the kitchen for her slumber hours. Joseph, Janet’s son, the only member of the family who was slim, refused to let any of his uncle’s family share his bedroom. Greg was known to have cockroaches crawl on him after continuous episodes of his wheelchair crashing into the bushes while he went shopping. Daphne spent most hours in bed watching television while Letitia looked at movie magazines, collecting pictures of one specific male actor.
Janet had let Greg’s family stay with her because, several years ago, the situation was vice versa. She had lived in an apartment with several drug users and, though they managed to pay their rent, the apartment manager was shocked when he entered their apartment during a routine house inspection. Papers, litter and rotten food was spread everywhere. He gave them a month’s time to make the place look reasonably bearable, if not immaculate. That next month, the place looked worse. He called the health inspector who gave them five days to get rid of all the junk. After five days of no effort started, they got evicted. Janet arrived at Greg’s apartment in much the same manner he did so at hers, and stayed there for a year. Somehow, her noticing Greg’s family’s eccentric ways that were not because of drugs made her decide to get clean, except for her cigarette habit, and save up enough money to rent her own place.
She was getting government assistance and could have probably afforded another crappy apartment but her share of her father’s inheritance allowed her to rent a house, albeit not in such a great location but at least a house was a step up from an apartment. She saved the inheritance money to pay her rent and used the government assistance for her food and cigarettes. She asked her son, Joseph, to live with her. He could do the occasional shopping and house cleaning in exchange for free room and board. He was sharing an apartment with several friends and was reluctant to move until he realized how things would be easier for him by saving all that money.
Living with his mother was not fantastic but, while it was just her and him, bearable. When Uncle Greg’s family moved in, Joseph spent a lot of his time in the public library or the park. When he was home, he kept his door locked and did not socialize much with his family. Janet’s smoking was bad enough but Greg’s whole demeanor and behavior would put anybody to the test. Greg was not the only obese one in his family. He was four hundred pounds and so was his wife. His daughter was three hundred and fifty pounds, which was a small improvement, but she was not tall so she looked as heavy as her dad. Their idea of a classy night was ordering takeout from a fast food restaurant. Otherwise, Greg bought the cheapest canned food he could get, with a lot of artificial ingredients. He did not even pick food for its taste. There were some cheap brands of junk food that tasted good but Greg only bought junk food that tasted bad. What Greg liked, everything from food choices to preferred music, books and movies, made Joseph want to be distanced from him. Since Greg bought food for everyone in the household, Daphne and Letitia and Janet gladly appreciated what he bought. Janet, at two hundred and eighty pounds, was soon to be as fat as her brother if she continued to allow him to be the food provider. However, since Greg paid for meals in exchange for not paying rent, Janet appreciated what she thought was a favor.
The Goldman trend of obesity did not stop there. Janet’s one friend, whom she kept in touch with since high school, was three hundred pounds. Her name was Florence and, once a week, she came by to give Janet a ride to the water estuary, in their small attempt to be acquainted with nature. The time spent there was thirty minutes at most but perhaps that was an improvement over Daphne’s and Letitia’s never going anywhere and Greg’s only going to the supermarket.
However, once every two months, Greg’s friend since boyhood, a fellow named Bill who was two hundred and fifty pounds but still looked bigger, invited Greg and his family to Bill’s house for dinner parties. Since Greg now stayed at Janet’s, Bill invited Janet and Joseph over also. Janet was appreciative of the invitation because Bill’s house was clean and his neighborhood was in a better area of town. Joseph was not enthusiastic about going to the parties but Janet insisted and Joseph realized it was a situation where he could spend an evening in a pleasant neighborhood where hopefully, one day, he might be able to move.
During the last two parties Joseph attended, he noticed Bill had a few other guests, two men whose names Joseph did not know and an old woman named Paula who was slim, the only other slim person there besides Joseph. She was in her seventies and did not say much. Joseph wondered if she felt awkward being there. His reasoning was that, if she shared being slim with him, maybe she shared a similar attitude about the party. However, neither time she was there did she give a hint she wanted to talk with him. Plus, she did not look interesting. She just seemed like an old woman not having much fun.
Joseph was thinking about those last two parties because he had heard, from Greg, that Bill invited the family to the next gathering, which was tonight. Joseph felt uneasy. Now, he walked out of his room and went in the living room, where Greg was watching a video on how to repair refrigerators. Joseph said, “You ought to tell Bill hello for me. I don’t think I’m going tonight.”
Greg said, “Well, I’m ready. Everyone else is ready. Bill expects you to come.”
“Why? The food isn’t all that great and I don’t have anything in common with any of his friends. Who will I talk to, the old lady? She only talked about how she needed a plumber to help her fix her sink.”
“Paula is Bill’s next door neighbor. He invites her because he knows she’s old and it’s a chance for her to get out of her house and socialize. Plus, I don’t see what you have against Ben and Peter. They used to be in rock bands when they were younger. I thought you liked rock music. You can talk about music with them.”
“I didn’t know they were in bands. Do you know which ones?”
“I don’t follow rock music. I don’t know.”
“Well, okay. I’ll give it a try.”
“It’s up to you, but Paula won’t be there. She’s visiting her son. He graduated from college and it’s a big to do. Paula’s daughter will be there. Her name’s Katherine. I met her once. She’s your age.” What Joseph did not want to ask was if she was good looking because Greg’s opinions varied differently from his. He would find out when he arrived.
When Florence came to drive everyone to Bill’s house on Prospect Avenue, Joseph noticed she was wearing an outfit similar to Janet’s, Daphne’s and Letitia’s. They were wearing dresses with flowery prints that looked like cheap wallpaper designs. Florence told them they looked cute and they blushed and giggled. How phony everything was. The only way Joseph could ignore them was to think about how the car ride was only ten minutes long.
Everyone went in the car. Joseph stayed quiet and the others yelled enthusiastically about the dinner party. He would have asked his family to stop talking for five minutes but he knew that would cause them to talk even more.
He thought about how he used to go on dates with women who dressed sexy. That was when he lived with housemates before moving in with Janet. Women would wear form fitting tops and pants, not thrift store rejects. Now, all the women in Janet’s neighborhood were either as drab as her appearance or worse. When everyone got out of the car, on the way to Bill’s house, Joseph wanted to change his mind about going and leave. When Greg knocked on Bill’s door, a woman answered and she looked uncommonly out of place with the situation.
She was wearing a beige sweater tucked tightly into blue jeans with a brown belt and her sleeves were pushed up. No one who ever associated with the Goldmans ever wore a shirt tucked in, let alone a sweater. Since Greg walked in first, he called her Katherine. Joseph figured she would be Katherine just by how Greg mentioned her earlier.
Everyone, including Florence, walked in. Joseph heard her thanking Janet for the invitation so that explained it. Previously, she just drove them to the party but did not attend herself. He looked back at Katherine who smiled and waved at him. He wanted to walk towards her and converse but Bill interrupted the plan. Bill said, “Hi, Joseph. Guess what we’re going to have for dinner tonight?”
Joseph was irritated but kept that to himself. He said, “It would be hard for me to guess.”
Bill laughed. “Ham with turkey gravy. It’s Paula’s recipe. Paula used to be a cook in a restaurant when she was young.”
“What kind of restaurant was it? Did she own it?”
“She didn’t own it. It was called Beauty’s Diner. It was owned by a man named Ronald whose nickname was Beauty. I think his mother had wanted him to become an actor.”
“Hmm.” Joseph nodded. He wanted Bill to go away.
Bill said, “I notice you never talk to Peter or Ben. They’re my oldest friends.”
“I heard they were in a band.”
“We were like a barbershop quartet. We sung for our relatives at family reunions. We were called Porter’s Pals and specialized in singing Cole Porter songs. That didn’t last long. We did that for a month or two.”
“I guess, then, my uncle Greg was wrong when he said it was a rock band.”
Bill laughed. “Greg thinks the Kingston Trio was a rock band. He’s always been a little out of touch. But I’ve known him a long time. Did you know he used to be slim when he was in high school?”
“He mentioned that but I never saw any old pictures of him and it’s hard to believe.”
“I know. He’s let himself get out of hand. His parents used to tease him. They meant it in fun but he got sensitive. They called him Froggy Face because he wore glasses and the glasses were odd looking. He would leave the house early in the morning and walk practically all day around town, looking at the various neighborhoods. It was his form of meditation. Later, he met me so he would come to my house and we would hang out.”
“Bill, I was thinking of talking to someone here.”
“You can talk to her later. There’s plenty of time to talk with her. She’s welcoming the guests. How about if you talk to Ben? Right now, he had an argument with Peter and he’s sad. Peter thinks Ben is gay and Ben is angry about that.”
Joseph frowned. “What can I say? Why would Ben want to talk to me about it?”
Bill shrugged. “I figured that you’re an artistic type. You like to read books and write stories. Ben might feel he could tell you a story like you’re hearing a book.”
“I guess so, for a little while. At least you’re serving ham tonight instead of tofu and green beans.”
Bill nodded. “I did the tofu that time for Ben. Its not because he’s a vegetarian. It’s more because he doesn’t like the flavor of meat. He likes vegetables. That’s another reason Peter thinks he’s gay.”
“I know someone who thinks that soy products causes changes in gender.”
“Well, let’s keep that away from the conversation with Ben, okay? I’m glad that fellow isn’t here, your friend. He’d spook Ben. Poor guy. I’m not supposed to tell you this but he said he was thinking about lipstick. I’m not sure what he meant.”
Ben approached Bill and Joseph. Ben said, “I’m glad Peter isn’t here, yet. So, who this handsome fellow?”
Bill said, “Joseph, this is Ben.”
Joseph nodded. Bill walked away. Joseph was hesitant about talking with Ben. The man might proceed to chatter all night and be a deterrent against Katherine. Joseph wanted to look back at her again but doing so would be way too obvious. In the past, his experience with women was better when he applied patience. Bill did say there would be time later for Joseph to talk with her. However, the odd smile on Ben’s face and his yellow jumpsuit made Joseph uneasy. Hopefully, Ben would walk away after a few minutes if Joseph acted indifferent.
Ben said, “Peter started a rumor about me. He told people I was gay. He did that because I had a piece of pizza in my hand and I called it Mr Pizza. I said, ‘Mr Pizza, I’m going to eat you.’ Peter asked, ‘You like sausage, right?’ I said I did and he said it figures. I laughed because I thought it was funny but he took it to mean I consented to some sort of secret I have yet to publicly admit. Okay, there was one time I held hands with my friend Harold when we walked across the street but that was because Harold sprained his ankle and needed help getting home. Peter said I could have held his shoulder instead. I mean, I did what I thought was appropriate at the time. I wasn’t thinking about it any other way. Peter has been my good friend since we were young children. Okay, I accidentally kissed him on the cheek a week ago but I was happy he found the first issue of a vintage comic book for me. He didn’t have to get weird, like a bitch.”
Suddenly, Peter approached them. “If I’m a bitch, you’re a porcupine.”