Cover image courtesy of Nina
Harold Goldman was dressed in clean clothes. At age fifty two, recently dismissed from his position as janitorial executive at Washington Hospital, where he worked after quitting his job at the mental facility, he felt less inclined to look good except on a rare occasion like the party in which he was attending. He brought his wife, Thelma, his daughter, Christine and his sister, Rose. He allowed Rose to invite her son, John, though Harold figured John would not like the party. John had a bad attitude and did not speak much at family dinners unless to complain. He would say he could not eat turkey breast and plain tofu unless they were seasoned with salt and pepper. Well, if John complained tonight, Harold would not worry. The party was hosted by Walter Benton.
Walter was four hundred pounds and trying to convince Harold to gain weight. Harold was three hundred pounds and wanted to be slim but Walter thought that was a bad idea. Walter said, “The reason I invited you was so you can live a little. I was once two hundred and fifty pounds. I was not slim but I thought my weight was not at the right size. I read up on foods that will help you build up muscle and bulk. What would you do during the cold winter months when the electric heater does not work and you are freezing? Look to the Eastern European tradition of eating large meals. The Pennsylvania Dutch have it good with their Yorkshire pudding and old fashioned mincemeat pies. Have you ever been to Vermont? My brother Gary lives on a small quaint residential road on a hill. It’s beautiful to sit in the living room and watch the rain fall and the breeze blowing the trees. He plays his vinyl records of Andre Kostelanetz on his old phonograph console and serves glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon and we sit and talk about the nineteen fifties before people honed in on their health food kicks.”
Harold listened but was not sure he agreed that obesity was the way to happiness. At Washington Hospital where Walter was a patient, Harold worked the graveyard shift when few people were roaming the halls except for a few nurses who would spend time huddled together in the cafeteria, sipping coffee and talking about cute hosts of infomercials. The floors were kept close to spotless anyway so Harold had a light workload, occasionally cleaning up spills or dusting off x-ray machines. He was able to goof off a lot and spend time with patients who could not sleep and were leery of asking a doctor or nurse to sit and talk with them. Walter was situated in a room that was close to the area Harold spent the most time doing actual cleaning. As he was walking by, mopping, Walter would wave and ask if they could talk. Harold would finish mopping the end of the hall and then enter Walter’s room where they engaged in long conversations.
Walter would say, “I envy you, Harold. You don’t have to be here during rush hour when there’s the most traffic. The regular hours stress me no end and I try to sleep through them. The medication helps me to doze off as quick as lightning. It’s great talking to you. If I try asking an early afternoon janitor to come in and chat, he’ll see if i need fresh pillows and ask if I’m supposed to be in restraints. It’s stressful.”
Harold nodded. “If I want stress, I have a wife, daughter and sister who can help me get it. They are my stress pills, but not the kind to alleviate stress. They cause stress. I work here at the late hours because it’s my time to feel a bit of calm.”
Walter laughed. “Thanks for sitting with me and letting an older man give the gift of gab. I can’t help my monologues. I’m Irish. Anyway, when I get out of here, I’m going to celebrate with a party and I want to invite you to come. I don’t have loads of friends but I have some and I’m sure a few of my neighbors would be willing to attend and partake of the food. That’s one thing I’ll have is food and not that organic crap. This will be real processed TV dinner goodness.”
Harold shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not a doctor but you should stay clear of junk food.”
“Listen, Harold. What is life? Life is abundance. Life is huge. Life is fattening. I see that, from the looks of you, you’re not the most weight-conscious of individuals. You eat cupcakes and ice cream, right?”
“Not anymore. I used to. My parents fed me a lot of that stuff and they just recently died so I’m trying to watch what I put in my tummy. I bought my sister a cookbook on how to eat healthy. She’s been making meals for me. I haven’t been able to lose the weight yet but at least I’m not gaining more.”
“I bet, though, that sometimes you wish you could gorge on something decadent like a chicken sandwich either with barbecue sauce or a turkey pot pie made with real butter and fat, am i right?”
Harold nodded. “I have to admit, I do wish Rose would add just a pinch of salt to the Brussels sprouts and add something to the baked potato, even if only sour cream.”
“Well, when you come to my party, you can consider it a pit stop where you can take off your tie and chow down.”
Harold patted Walter’s shoulder. “I appreciate the offer. If it happens, give me a call.”
Now, Harold looked around and noticed that, aside from two slim people, everyone at Walter’s party was heavy but they seemed happy. Perhaps Walter was right in suggesting he fix a big plate of whatever he wanted and enjoy himself. A part of him wanted to do so and the other part was afraid of what Rose would think. He decided to go for it. If Rose criticized him, he would say, “I’m not Harold. I’m Walter.” That would confuse her and make her be quiet.
Thelma was pretending to mingle with the guests. Someone would approach her and talk. She would nod her head as if she was listening, for a few minutes, and then walk away.
Christine sat on a couch reading a book. She did not even pretend to mingle.
Rose was halfway between wanting to make sure Harold stayed away from fattening foods and observing if there were any young women at the party whom she could introduce to her son. As she looked back and forth between Harold and John, she achieved neither. She stood in the middle of the living room, as if she was lost. Some of the guests smiled condescendingly at her.
John did not want to attend the party. However, he figured he could indulge in eating what could be considered tastier food than what his mother made. When he looked at everything, he decided that perhaps it was going to the other extreme, food that was too salty.
Walter approached John and asked, “Does anything look good to you?”
John said, “I’m not sure. I don’t mean to be rude but, since I was invited by my mom and not you, I’ll take my chances. This stuff looks like you bought a whole bunch of stuff at the dollar store and took it out of the jars and bags and presented it in bowls and trays as if it had been catered.”
Walter smiled. “There’s nothing wrong with saying that at all because that’s exactly what I did. This stuff is better than the things being labeled as good for you. The food colorings and preservatives are made from certain vitamins and minerals. That stuff helps digestion. The people into all natural diets are starving themselves. Back in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, it was healthy to put on a few pounds. There were less diseases. Now, all the stuff that is non-pasteurized has harmful bacteria that affects our health. Okay, so I’m fat. I’m also very healthy.”
John shrugged. “According to Harold, you needed several bypass operations and you’re on medication to level whatever is screwing up your system.”
“It’s all a matter of interpretation. It’s the vegetarians getting high on natural herbs who have toxicity. There’s a little bit of good and bad in everything. You have your way and I have mine. Anyway, your mom said you’re looking to find a girlfriend.”
John sighed. “My mom is strange. On the one hand, she believes in eating healthy foods but on the other hand she believes people look better when they’re overweight and she thinks I’ll be attracted to a woman who’s her size.”
Walter shrugged. “Well, I can’t say overweight people are attractive. What I can say is they’re healthy. My next door neighbor, Janet, is slim. I invited her because she gave me a ride home when I was released from the hospital. My other neighbor here tonight who lives across the street from me, Zachary, gave me a get well card so I invited him also. He’s too skinny and doesn’t eat enough. Janet, though, I’ll make an exception towards. She looks good and she’s smart. She’s taking law classes but her real interest is the humanities and philosophy. If you’re a writer, she would be the one to talk to here. The rest of us are stuck in our memories of the old days. You’d find us boring.”
John nodded. “Where is Janet?”
Walter pointed at a woman wearing a tucked in grey shirt with a zipper collar, with long sleeves pushed up to her elbows, and blue jeans. She looked both casual and intriguing and that prevented him from feeling comfortable enough to talk with her. She would be someone he would glance at from a distance while moseying around the room.
Zachary, Walter’s other neighbor, approached John and introduced himself. He said, “So, I take it you’re not one of Walter’s old school chums, right?”
John laughed. “And I take it you’re not one of the members of his COB club. C.O.B. Club Of Obesity.”
Zachery laughed also. “That’s funny. No, I’m afraid I wouldn’t qualify. I live across the street, I’m a writer. Well, unpublished but I like to observe people’s behavior and write about them. That’s why I showed up. You don’t usually find a bunch like this unless you’re at a clinic.”
“That’s true. I’m also a writer. I’m John. My uncle, Harold, was invited. I don’t know why I came. I mean, now, I’m very glad I did so. Actually, forget I said that. I talk too much.” He blushed and laughed.
Zachary nodded. “Hmm. Something is making you act really awkward and agitated. Could it be me? I’m not gay but if I affect you that strongly we could have coffee and talk. I wouldn’t be offended.”
“I’m not gay either. I’m thinking of something else. No, I’m not. I mean, you know…” He looked at Janet and felt irritated he could not calm down.
Zachary looked behind him and said, “Oh, okay. I think I get it. You have the hots for Janet. She’s very pretty and also smart and approachable. Come on. I’ll introduce you.”
John was not against someone introducing him to Janet, but not Zachary. He knew that John liked her and his tone of voice might give everything away. John said, “I’d rather you didn’t.”
Zachary shrugged. “Okay. I’ll tell her to talk with you.”
“No. That’s even worse!”
“How can that be worse? I’ll just tell her you like her and you’re extremely afraid of rejection so you are agonizing about it.”
“That’s not at all the right thing to do! That’s what someone says when he wants to see a person crack up.”
Zachary smiled. “The best form of communication is honesty. When you open up your heart and become vulnerable, it is the most beautiful thing. Trust me. What if someone said that was how a woman felt towards you? How would you take that?”
“I would be very understanding and act gentle and kind. I would understand.”
“So, do you think she’d treat you the same way?”
John raised his voice. “That’s not the point! I’ll be even more nervous because the reason she talked to me was because of what you said. If she approaches me of her own accord, that’s fine.”
“Okay. You want it to be natural.”
“Something like that.”
“Okay. I’ll just tell her to talk to you of her own accord and make it happen almost by accident.”
“I’m getting really upset .” John walked quickly close to a group of people who were talking. He needed to forget that embarrassing conversation with Zachary.
There were six people, three men and three women, all overweight. The men wore loose plaid shirts over corduroy trousers and the women wore plaid dresses. John observed that only one man and one woman talked while the others listened.
The man asked, “Dorothy, remember when we visited Pakistan and heard the most wonderful music from a street band at the outside market?”
Dorothy said, “Yes, Trevor. I almost feel like I understand what Paul Bowles went through when he lived in Tangier. They say it’s good to get out of your familiar surroundings and see the world.”
Trevor nodded. “How true. The only other experience I can compare with it is Holland. I heard some of the most exquisite jazz in the clubs and I must say the alcohol was quite strong. I almost think the bartender spiked my drink with hallucinogens. I remember a tiger walking in the club and sitting down at my table, speaking what sounded like monkey language.”
“Oh, dear. How could it be monkey language if it was a tiger? That, in itself, is quite strange. You must have been tripping.”
“I knew it was monkey language because he told me so. He recited a bunch of letters and numbers and I somehow mentally translated it to mean that he was a gentleman tiger from the Andes and he would beg my pardon if he could speak monkey language.”
“Okay, Trevor. That was a very silly little story you told. You should send it to the local humor magazine. People would get a laugh from it. I believe you should drink some milk. That will help you stay grounded and milk is also your favorite drink. I am clever, aren’t I?”
“Ha ha. Yes, you are a wit, Dorothy. I would love a glass of milk.”
He pointed at John. “Hello, young man. You seemed to enjoy my little anecdote. Perhaps in exchange for soaking up my humor can you get me a glass of milk?”
John asked, “Where’s the milk?”
Trevor pointed ahead. “It’s in the kitchen, the next room.”
John said, “No problem.” He walked towards the kitchen. He saw the refrigerator and took out a carton of milk. He grabbed the glass, poured the milk and put the container back in the refrigerator.
Suddenly, Janet walked in. She smiled and said, “Hello.”
John was nervous and almost could not talk but managed to say, “Hello.”
She said, “I’ve noticed you the whole time you’ve been here. Give me a hug.” She held out her arms.
He figured Zachary talked with her. He walked quickly out of the room. Janet followed him. He walked towards Trevor and handed him the milk.
Harold waved at John. Harold said, “I want to leave. John, you can stay if you’d like but if you want to go, I’m leaving right now. Your mom, my wife and daughter have rides back.”
John said, “Perfect timing.” They walked outside and went in Harold’s car. As the car backed out of the driveway, John noticed Janet was next to his window, waving.
She said, “I need to talk to you.”
When the car drove off, John said, “You just did me a favor.”
Harold said, “I guess.”