This is kind of like food fiction, if there is such a genre…Except that it’s more about hunger than food.
(Published in the Fall 2008 issue of The Madison Review)
Reinholt Crampton was awakened from a midmorning nap by a mynah feather that landed on the bridge of his nose. It was a perfect shot, as if the bird had been aiming for the narrow space between his eyes.
“Pig!” the bird cawed, flying to its perch on the dresser against the opposite wall, easily out of his reach. Reinholt’s arms had become useless in defending himself. Their only benefit to him now was as a means to parry the blows of a world intent on forcing him to fend for himself. “Still hungry, Cramp?” The bird stood on one leg, preening its wings, then fluffed out its feathers as if to shock him with its sleek beauty.
Reinholt turned away from the bird and wiped his dirty face against a permanently indented pillow. He managed to lift his body enough to turn the pillow over, and while at this new, hard-earned height he was able to look out the window at a crabapple orchard that had fallen into ruin upon his inheritance of it. The land had been in his family since the time of his great-grandparents, who had moved to America at the turn of the century to avoid persecution in some part of Europe he could no longer remember exactly. He never thought of his forbears, other than his parents, though a vague sense of persecution slithered through his own mind like a whip, thrashing at him constantly, drawing forth dark memories like blood.
Even if his weight would allow him to visit his family’s graves, he knew that he wouldn’t. If his weight would permit him, he would move away from this place and start a new life. He was born here, and would probably die here, and would be buried here, too, if there was a plot wide enough, that could be dug deep enough, to support his six hundred pounds. He thought he might like to be cremated. The notion of cremation seemed somehow inviting, for being turned into ash would be a victory of sorts; it represented the only success he could be sure of any more: reducing himself to the smallest possible being, into ash that could be lifted by the slightest wind and carried away to someplace better; deposited not just in one place, like he felt life had cruelly done to him here, but scattered indiscriminately, beyond the here and now, maybe upward forever – forever carried upward into a cool and deep blue sky.
Reinholt’s body shook with the strain of holding his head above the sill, and soon gravity filled his every pocket of flesh and overwhelmed him. He fell backwards into his bed. It took half a minute for his flesh to stop sloshing back and forth, like a boat pitching on a rough sea, and he slowly turned his head to watch the bird fly across the room and land on the footboard only inches beyond his bulbous toes. It started pecking at the thick skin on the ball of his foot. Reinholt moaned, though it wasn’t for the pain – he couldn’t feel the beak of the bird poking at him, but he could see it, and the fact of seeing his flesh being pecked at without being able to feel it frightened him – and he managed to push his feet beneath a wadded-up blanket to the side. The bird squawked. It stared at him, its small black eyes unblinking, and in the voice of Reinholt’s dead father bellowed, “What do you know about love?” The bird raised its wings and screeched, “You have no right!” They were phrases Reinholt’s father yelled at his mother, though he could no longer recall the exact context in which they’d been used. Some days he’d begin to remember such things, but then the force of his visions would envelop him with dread and he’d quickly shake away their encroachment.
His mother had been named Marge, and because she too was extremely large, behind her back people called her Marge the Barge. His father had been a sergeant in the army and, even after he was forced to leave, he dressed and talked and acted as if he still was. People called him Sarge behind his back and to his face. Sarge and Marge they were in public, and Sarge and Marge the Barge they were when the public turned private. Marge had taught art at an elementary school, though she’d graduated from some famous art institute in the Northeast and had once enjoyed her paintings being exhibited in several big cities. She’d received a lot of publicity over a series of paintings of old men helping little boys dress up in women’s clothing. All the old men looked like Sarge with a few years tacked on, and all the little boys looked like him too but with a few years shaved off, and it was he who’d bullied Marge into early retirement. Too many of his old army friends had gotten sight of the paintings and insinuated that Sarge led a secret double life. But both Reinholt’s parents were dead now, bones in a box beneath a well-grown crabapple on the southern end of the orchard. Side by side, at different depths, Sarge and Marge. Several months ago, Reinholt’s housemate, Sissy, told him she’d hung some of his mother’s paintings in the house, and if Reinholt squinted from his bed he could make out half of one hanging on a living room wall. Sissy told Reinholt that the boys in the paintings looked exactly like him. In the face, despite the fat, Reinholt bore an uncanny resemblance to his father, more so than he happened to realize.
It was in a treehouse, which Reinholt and his father had built over a succession of Sundays one summer, that he discovered the freedom which privacy grants a private child. His discovery started with his mother’s fashion magazines, pilfered one at a time from the high stacks in her room, and soon graduated to items of her clothing. He’d ball up a pair of underwear, carefully select a nice bra, stuff these and, hopefully, a pair of old high heels down his pants, and on occasion, when he knew she wouldn’t notice it missing, a full-length white dress with shoulder straps, frills, and lace. He’d sneak them up to his treehouse, hurriedly remove his own clothes and put on those of his mother, arrange a mirror against a wall and clear space for himself to walk and dance and spin across the floor. His mother wore makeup frequently, so he’d steal this too, although she, it turned out, knew about both things, and only later did he realize that she’d been encouraging him all along. It was in that very treehouse, where Reinholt taught himself what he most wanted to know, that he came to discover how an early understanding of mortality can imprison a heart for life.
Sissy seemed nine feet tall when she entered his room and towered over his bed. Her dark brown eyes would scan the length and curvature of his mammoth body, then she’d smile sadly and shake her head. “Worse, Reinholt, you’ll get worse and worse every day you do nothing more than lie on that bed and feel sorry for yourself.” Her words would layer on top of each other until they were nothing more than something rickety anduninhabitable. But it was this that endeared her to him, the love she proposed in the caring attitude and behavior she always showed him. He knew – he was positive of nothing else in his life but this – that certain opportunities existed with Sissy which he never had reason to consider before she entered his life. He wanted to tell her how he thought of their relationship as one enormous egg that had taken the full two years they’d known each other to get to the verge of hatching. The shell, though, in its opaqueness, was what kept them from witnessing the birth of what could have been a strong and healthy love. In retrospect, Reinholt realized that he’d only imagined the shell cracking, and crumbling to dust with their mutual efforts at closeness. What he’d discovered, ultimately, was the unexpected emergence of an unbearable betrayal.
In real life Sissy was around five and a half feet tall, with long black hair that fell down her back and lay folded there like the wings of some dark, beautiful angel. She wore scant make-up, which appealed to Reinholt, even if normally he preferred women to be in lipstick, eye shadow, and heavily rouged. She made her living as an actress for local theater productions that occasionally toured the Midwest and, once, took her all the way to Canada. And she waited tables in a French restaurant and sometimes brought home scraps for Reinholt if she knew they’d otherwise be wasted. “I hate wasting food,” she often said, “knowing there are so many hungry people in the world.” And then she’d stop and stare at the terraced gray flesh covering Reinholt’s body. Over the last few weeks Sissy hadn’t brought him anything from the restaurant. When he asked her why, she explained that the restaurant had hired a new chef who refused to let anyone leave their table before finishing every last bit of what he’d prepared. Reinholt nodded, impressed by this rule, then floated away in a reverie of himself at the restaurant, at a table cleared of flowers and wine lists and candles, with its surface filled instead by the most mind-shattering of French creations. He liked the roundness and bounce of Sissy’s breasts beneath the button-down shirts she had to wear. He imagined eating entire meals off her naked body until the vision of the traitorous egg came back and forced away the picture he’d built in his mind. He knew his dreams were rooted in false hopes, but it didn’t stop him from dreaming. There was something not so distant from hope in these failures, and it was a vague sense of having nothing to lose by them that led him again and again to battle his way back from libidinous defeat and deflation, then to start them all over again.
At six o’clock, as usual, Sissy skidded into the driveway in the pick-up truck she’d been borrowing from Reinholt. If he failed to notice her approach out his window, he always heard either the oil-crying creak of her door or the metallic thud of her slamming it shut. Today, only the driver-side door closed, which was always a good sign. She shuffled up the walk, stopped, jingled her keys as she fought to remove them from a pocket, then opened the front door with a noise like a gasp. There was the thump of her coat flung on the couch by the window, keys rattling as they landed on top of the coat, then the thwack of leather boots hitting a wall. A hiss of static heralded the television coming to life, and footfalls drummed upon the floor. Sissy’s voice floated over all the noises she produced, which seemed to Reinholt to have grown increasingly uncommon lately. “You home, Cramp?” She flitted across Reinholt’s line of vision as she walked toward her room. In that brief moment, he saw her unbutton the top two buttons of her shirt.
“No,” he called softly, “you know I’m never here.”
“What?” she hollered from some corner of the house he hadn’t seen in several months.
“Why don’t you love me?” he called in the same soft voice. There seemed to be doors slamming all over the house.
“Why don’t I what?”
“Nothing,” he finally replied. He placed his hands over the saggy curve of his stomach and let a thumb dangle in the deep hollow of his navel. He stirred it around for a while, anxiously. “Sissy, I’m starving.”
There was no response. He’d unhappily anticipated no response.
“Please, Sissy, you know I can’t move.”
Sissy appeared in the doorway, in a black silk kimono with her arms folded across her chest. On the back of her robe was a picture of two dragons climbing over opposite sides of a mountain, which, at its peak, was lost in clouds containing a trace of a beautiful woman. He’d ordered it for her on their first anniversary as housemates, and also halved her rent. Back then he’d only weighed five hundred. She looked at him and opened her mouth, then clamped it shut as if whatever she thought of saying might be better off left unsaid. She was usually kind in the way she spoke to him, but lately she’d minced no words. She opened her mouth again and this time spoke in the yowl of a cat. Something moved in her sleeve and then a furry tail flopped out against her wrist. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m not coming in with him.”
Reinholt hated cats, but he let her have one to make her happy. It was a way to reciprocate for all the help she’d given him over the months. The cooking, the cleaning, the yardwork. Mending his clothes, buying him new ones, bringing her friends over so that he’d have a chance to meet new people. Once she even bathed him, late one night after she’d come home drunk from a cast party. It had been her suggestion – a deafeningly loving, “Come on, Fatso, let’s see if you can still fit in the tub.” He had fit in the tub, though there had barely been room for any water, and he sat there crying shamelessly while she revolved around the porcelain edge and used up a whole bar of soap getting him much cleaner than he needed to be, she just as naked as he was. It had happened only once, and they’d never spoken of it afterward. He might have asked her to bathe him again, but getting out of the tub had been too difficult, his abundance offering no traction against the porcelain. He’d cracked the tub in three places, forcing Sissy to buy a new one that Reinholt never got to use. He figured he’d probably get stuck in it now if he tried to take another bath. Besides, there was no getting out of his bed as it was. Taking a bath was now nothing more than a lost dream.
“That cat’s in here half the day anyway,” he said, watching the tail swish back and forth. Larry was what Sissy called it, named after her present boyfriend; its previous names came from men she’d recently dated – Bobo, Brick, Mick, Moose, Rock, Stud, and some guy she just called Cowboy. “And Mona Lisa,” Reinholt went on, motioning with his eyes at the mynah on his windowsill. “Mona Lisa’s hungry, too. She was eating the skin off my feet this morning, Sissy. Eating the skin off my feet!”
“If you’d get out of bed and wash your feet, maybe she wouldn’t do that. It smells really bad in here.” She loosened her belt and hitched the hem of her robe to her knees and the cat passed down her front and landed softly on the floor, front paws first, and for a few seconds appeared alarmed at having been delivered to a different room. Larry rubbed against Sissy’s ankles but stopped when it spotted the whale of Reinholt’s body shift. It hissed at him, but then returned to rubbing Sissy’s ankles, yowling continuously.
“I can’t get out of bed and you know it,” he complained, turning his head back toward Mona Lisa, who had flown to the windowsill and was clacking across the marble, glaring at him from above. Something in his mind clicked: he pictured himself dying on his bed, being eaten alive by a slew of terrifying animals. He imagined Sissy bringing home a vulture to speed along his demise. “I haven’t eaten in two days,” he said. “I implore you, Sissy, as your landlord and dear friend, at least bring me a bowl of pudding or a piece of cake…”
“Why don’t you get it yourself?” she quietly replied.
Reinholt stared at her. He loved her painfully. He thought he’d proven this by allowing over different boyfriends, all of whom made terrible fun of him, or just glared at him and made him feel uncomfortable. When Sissy noticed her boyfriends behaving cruelly, she’d break up with them on the spot. More than one of her boyfriends used to refer to him simply as “The Sideshow.”
“I’ve told you before, Cramp,” she said, walking toward the windowsill and extending her arm for the mynah to jump on, “the first step you must take is to learn to care for yourself. I’m sorry you’ve had a bad life, but if you’re hungry, you need to feed yourself.” She whirled around and left his room, with the bird on her arm and the cat at her heels. She closed the door behind her. Reinholt thought he heard the mynah repeat Sissy’s last words – “Feed yourself!” – but then wondered, with the continuing echo of it, if there was any truth in what she’d said.
“Don’t shut the door!” Reinholt yelled. “Don’t leave me alone and hungry in this darkness!” It occurred to him that the physical pain of going hungry was less wrenching, less mortally threatening, than the pain of a starving heart. It occurred to him that he was starving on both fronts, but that maybe in another day he’d be able to rise up and prove to her his human worth and dignity, and at the same time get something to eat.
Reinholt’s mother had relished the telling of how he, at an early age, would walk into her bedroom as she folded laundry on the bed. Reinholt, when recalling his youth, would once more find himself immersed in the apple-like scent of laundry soap, and the humming of his mother that mingled reassuringly with the indescribably parental air of the room, the sun shafting through the window and marking an area of the bed he’d climb to, lie on his back, and watch his mother snap out clean sheets and let them fall over him, like descending winter skies. The sheets would cling to him with static that crackled through his hair, and he’d lie there giggling and sifting through folded clothes while she went through exaggerated motions of trying to find him. The game would last a few minutes, whereupon she’d touch his lumpy mass, exclaim with surprise over what she’d found, then pull the sheet back and smile at what she saw: Reinholt wearing her underclothes, absolutely delighted with himself. She’d lead him by the hand into her studio, her free arm clutching to her ample bosom a basket of dresses and women’s shoes, then commence sketching him in whatever costumes and poses he fancied.
But sometimes, after finding her drinking from Sarge’s bottle in a dark and silent room, he’d be invited to sit on the floor between her legs. She’d proceed to tell him sorrowfully of the sister he almost had. He’d see in the soft strain of her face and neck, and in the tremble of her painter’s fingers, how devastated her life had become after finding her first child face-down and blue in a crib. ‘Rachel’ was what she sometimes called Reinholt when she painted him in her studio. Sarge never spoke about his daughter, but Reinholt could infer from his unpredictable weeping that he was demonstrating the painful ways a life survives a loss.
Two days ago, he saw something come over Sissy that caused her to stop taking care of him. She’d made his usual breakfast of eggs (four scrambled, four fried), bacon (at least 40 strips), pancakes (a dozen or more), orange juice (a two-liter carton), and an entire chocolate cake (at his request, “to get him going in the morning”). On her fifth trip, she stopped in her tracks about a foot inside his doorway. He watched as a strange trembling started in her knees and spread to her waist, stomach, chest, down through her shoulders and arms and fingers, as he lolled on his back and worked his tongue through a stew of salivation. His right hand grabbed at his left as if a war were about to break out in the country of his stomach and each was vying with the other to stock up on foodstuffs needed for some terrifically long battle. Wet noises and a sort of pre-orgasmic series of sounds bubbled forth from his mouth. His eyes glazed over; his head craned up and down; his hair was clumped in strips from not having washed it for days. The contents of Sissy’s tray began to rattle, lightly at first, like a tremor beneath one’s feet that passes with little if any notice, then they began to shake violently, a Richter-shattering earthquake, until the tray tumbled out of her hands and everything spilled onto the floor. “I can’t do this anymore,” she stammered, backing toward the door. “It’s not healthy to live like this.” She was gone from the house before speech could edge toward Reinholt’s mouth (where, inevitably, it would be sucked backward into his stomach). He lay there, silent as a mountain, the fidelity of his thoughts competing between the food on his floor and the woman who in his enormous straining heart he imagined loving forever but whom he saw now was gone like she’d never been gone before. Larry strutted into the room and started licking the icing off the cake. Reinholt lay there, unable to chase away such a minor enemy, unable to clean up the mess.
He opened his eyes, and though the room was dark he could see shadows scrambling in every corner. The window had opened a crack, and a finger of wind had crept in and smeared the thick air with a scent of rotting crabapple. His door opened slowly, as if some horrendous creature of the night was stumping at it to inch its way in. Each further opening allowed for the widening view of something large, of human form, looming in the doorway. The door creaked open still further. A dull white face hovered in the pitch-black hallway. It shuffled straight for Reinholt, immobilized in his sunken bed, under blankets, under trembling layers of fat and fear. So, this was Death at his door, he thought; he wasn’t ready like he imagined he’d be. Had he invited Death? What would Death see fit to do with his body? And if there were an afterlife, would he live eternally as a slim or obese soul? Out of nowhere, an enormous black bird materialized, filling the room with screeches, its rough wings beating in front of Reinholt’s face. Inside his chest, cannons pointed inward and fired at his fluttering soul.
Death turned out to be Sissy, much to Reinholt’s confusion. A gerbil was cupped in her hands, its whiskers twitching, its tail hanging down by the underside of her fist. Mona Lisa was perched on Reinholt’s footboard, her talons slowly clacking, and Larry remained quietly by Sissy’s slippers. Sissy stood more than an arm’s length away from Reinholt, petting the small rodent, whispering to it, “You pretty little thing, I love you, yes I do,” and wouldn’t look Reinholt in the eye. His chest continued to pound, anticipating something worse than death, some sort of inevitable cruelty he’d either have to accept (and endure for the eternity that was life) or be killed by. His breathing was labored, and he couldn’t slow it down enough to speak.
If he could have moved from his bed, he’d have lumbered to his truck and raced through the darkness to anywhere the highway might take him; he’d have climbed into the tallest crabapple and raged so loud that the sky and heavens would catch fire and burn to ash; he’d have spread his massive arms and jumped toward the slivered moon and pulled it crashing down to earth; he’d have risen with strength from his bed and kneeled at Sissy’s feet to tell her that his only dream now and forever was the mere opportunity to love her. He’d have chosen these things – any of these impossible actions – but as it was he couldn’t even roll over in his bed or utter a word she might understand or care to hear. As it was, he could do nothing but breathe with difficulty and listen to whatever Sissy had to tell him. Helpless. Dying slowly. Deliberately courting some end to it all.
“Cramp,” she said, then cleared her throat. “I’m leaving here as soon as I can. Tomorrow, hopefully. Larry wants me to move in with him.” The cat, at hearing its six-month-old name, yowled in the dark.
Reinholt managed two words, feebly, which she didn’t seem to hear. “Feed me,” he wheezed.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to move in with Larry, but I can’t live here any longer.” Finally she looked at him, at which point he turned his face toward the window. Against some dim light in a far reach of the house, the outline of Sissy’s face was illuminated in the reflection of the glass. No escape, Reinholt thought, and the saggy edges around his mouth curled fleetingly into a smile.
“Love me,” he said, but the words were drowned out by the flapping wings of the bird as it lifted effortlessly into the air and came squawking to a rest on the high mound of his stomach. Reinholt swung at it fiercely, bellowing, but missed it and rolled to his side, the bed creaking beneath him in protest. The bird repositioned itself on the footboard and began pecking again at the soles of Reinholt’s feet. Sissy stood staring down into his face, as if she were looking into a deep hole, very deep and wide.
Reinholt vaguely understood that there were things he could say to keep her in his life, explanations that couldn’t be rejected outright because they were relevant and from his heart. It didn’t occur to him that there were things he still might do.
“I’m sorry,” she cried, and covered her face with her hands.
- Love of my life, from where does hope spring, or happiness, or sadness? Across what rivers does the hollowness of loss carry through to the heart, and then the emptiness get filled, and what becomes of that which is drained from the feeling person, and where does attraction begin and end? -
“You’re chasing me away, Cramp, you’re trying harder to die than you’re trying to get better.”
- and what are the odds of two people feeling equally attracted, in a world of infinite experience and love, and how much is it truly possible for the physical to bow down before what can only be guessed at of the soul, and is joy as much a part of life as pain? -
“Your disease is in your head, not in your stomach. Your disease is an attitude, and it’s killing me even quicker than you’d have it kill yourself.” She turned on her heels and marched out his room, but stopped in his doorway and whispered over her shoulder, “I’m leaving here this weekend…”
- By what means and whose rules is true love reconciled? Is love redemption? Soon I will stand on my own two feet, and they will take me away from here, and away from you, before you leave me as I know you must. I will go down paths I’ve never walked. And for once I will be happy -
“…and I’m sorry, Reinholt. I wish there were some other way.” The door closed behind her, quietly this time.
The very thought of Larry made Reinholt shudder. He once held some respect for Larry, though he despised him for his chiseled features and toothy white smile. He also despised him for his quick wit, muscular torso, curly brown hair, and vegetarianism. But most of all he despised him for the charming personality he candywrapped and handfed to everyone he met, which was what Reinholt believed had won Sissy’s devotion. Actually, Reinholt never saw how Larry behaved in the presence of other people – only in the presence of Sissy, and only in the presence of himself. This doubting and despising of Larry boiled up from his gut, full of disrespect that chewed at him and then spit it right out – rude and sweetly satisfying. Larry had once spent an entire evening playing poker with Reinholt while Sissy memorized lines to a play. Reinholt had asked Larry some probing personal questions, which Larry never hesitated in answering. Reinholt had asked what his thoughts on life were, and Larry had said, in the midst of shuffling cards, “Life to me is simply the greatest thrill and privilege.” Reinholt had scoffed at this, thinking that Larry had gotten life confused with Sissy, then grabbed the cards and doled them a new hand. Larry asked for his opinion on the matter, and Reinholt surprised himself by finding there was nothing to say. “Life is…” he began, then his head started to throb and he massaged the beefy flesh around his temples without finishing what he’d started to say. Larry won the next ten hands decisively, which caused Reinholt to make up the excuse of being tired and tell Larry to leave. As soon as Larry had turned off the lights, Reinholt muttered, “Life to me is just time to kill. I hope Sissy chooses to spend hers some other way than with you.”
“Sorry?” Larry said, distracted by something in another part of the house that Reinholt couldn’t see.
Reinholt broke into a loud sob, but it came out in a way that sounded like short laughter. “I said I let you win those last games.”
“…last games,” Larry said absentmindedly, and glanced in the direction of Sissy’s room. “Well then, I guess you’d better hope that the next time we play you’ll be dealt a better hand.”
With the shutting of his door, darkness enveloped Reinholt, smothering his deluge of self-pity.
In the familiar darkness, Reinholt pondered life. It came to him slowly as a worn-out map full of streets with names too blurry to read. He saw each street as an opportunity, some faith in himself being happy, and he knew it would only take the effort to get out of bed, out of his house, out into the world to visit each street for himself and identify the names on their signs. And once there, once the far journey had been made, what could be easier than walking, running, skipping down those streets? He figured that the map of his own life was undetailed and small, but he believed in the possibility of it being made up of more pages which were simply his to unfold. But for now the map was lost to him, which meant no way to find out where he was, no idea of where he might turn to escape.
By the next morning Sissy’s words had absorbed through his skin. She was leaving him, out of disgust and disappointment, to live with a man for whom her hunger, Reinholt feared, might go forever uncontested. Maybe it was possible to lose enough weight that he could rise up resurrected and perform his own miracles. Maybe Sissy was being kind to him after all, setting him up rather than back, caring for him like he wasn’t able to care for himself. Maybe her starving him was the purest love ever known. Six hundred pounds wasn’t the end of the world. The end of the world would be the final starvation that Sissy might level on him to emaciate what in his own judgment was a blameless and beautiful soul.
On the morning of Sissy’s move, Larry awakened Reinholt by pouncing on a fly that had alighted on the fatty ridge around his armpit. Larry scurried off with the fly between his teeth, his eyes darting from side to side, then jumped onto Reinholt’s dresser across the room. He stared at Reinholt as he chewed the fly and swallowed it. Larry sat there, several feet above Reinholt, with a smug and challenging look on his face as though he’d settled into some seat of power that only recently might have been held by Reinholt himself.
“Tick, tock, tick, tock…” droned the bird, who stood staring at him from just beyond his feet. Its black beak was tinged with bloody streaks. Reinholt shot a foot forward and startled the bird into flight. It lifted into the air and flew straight for Reinholt’s face. Curved yellow talons, their ends pointed like toothpicks, flashed before his eyes. Reinholt punched the bird in the beak. Mona Lisa landed, cawing angrily, on the opposite side of the dresser as the cat. The two animals remained above Reinholt, perched and staring stonily like gargoyles at an entrance to some ancient Roman courthouse.
Reinholt lay there, on display for the world – if only the world were to bother visiting – imagining what he’d do to that winged, vocal menace if he were to catch it. Break its damn neck, that’s what he’d do right off. Then pluck it, he supposed, pull out its innards, chop off its big head and long feet. Barbecue it maybe, eat the whole thing for breakfast. Use the bones to lure Sissy’s eternally yowling cat and kill that too. Skin it, disembowel it, cook it – eat it maybe for lunch. Break down her bedroom door and smash the orange plastic gerbil tunnels that ran up the walls and along the ceiling and then stop breathing and be silent for a few minutes. Let gerbil feet pound and stomp in terror and then search for them amidst the rubble. Catch them too, all twenty or thirty of them, throw them in a pot with some potatoes and onions and curry powder and have stew made for when Sissy got home from work.
But he couldn’t move, couldn’t break down even the weakest of doors other than by leaning, and then couldn’t manage to step through the new entrance, much less stop himself from gasping after such exertion. He continued to lie on his bed. He started to cry. Something contracted inside him, somewhere beneath his heart.
Despite a weight comparable to a small pachyderm, Reinholt rolled off his bed onto the floor. The floor was sturdy, and underneath the collapsing mattress there was cool musty air for him to breathe. Larry and Mona Lisa began to shift on their perches, and Reinholt thought if he could manage to crawl through the door he might shut it behind him and lock the two animals inside. He wormed his way toward the door. Though weak from hunger, he knew he’d lost weight, and the thought empowered him as he tried to squeeze out of his room. Just below his chest, where his stomach tapered out like a bell, he got stuck. Madness struck him, a furious humiliation that combined with claustrophobia, and he swung his arms and legs from side to side until the doorjamb began to creak and the plaster around its frame started to crumble and sprinkle the top of his head. He lowed and heaved himself forward. Inch by inch he made his way through the doorway and into the hall. It took several laborious minutes for him to turn around and face his bedroom. There seemed to be nothing he could do to shut the animals inside. Reinholt had forced a trauma upon the doorframe that had warped it beyond use. He slammed it over and over and then, finally, left the door leaning, not quite shut. “Feed me!” he thought he heard the bird screech behind the door.
Although Reinholt still recalled storyhour every night with his father (the scarred upturn at the corner of his mouth, his bearlike hairy hands, the smell of alcohol on his breath as he bent down to bark the conclusion of a story in his ear) and knew these memories to be exactly so, he also recalled, with equal vividness, rainy days in his mother’s small studio (the crinkling newspaper on the floor, the quietude and clean space, the good-behavior gift of chocolate cookies that crumbled apart in his hands almost before he could cram them into his mouth) when his father would dress him up in women’s clothing while his mother sat grinning and painting at her easel. But then to throw it all into doubt, in his memory there would be a crumpled black silk kimono surrounded by bars of soap in the middle of the room, or a ten-foot tall mynah bird that could speak a thousand tongues, or his dead parents lying twisted atop tree roots protruding through the floor, and that would be enough for him to question the reality of everything.
Reinholt was a few weeks shy of his tenth birthday when Sarge shot Marge out of his treehouse. The day had begun as any other, one of strong winds in the cooling autumn, leaves spreading their dark colors over sodden earth like bruises on beaten skin. Sarge had surprised Reinholt in his treehouse, interrupting him as he read Marge’s fashion magazines. His father entered with a rifle in one arm, half a bottle of whiskey in the other. He chased Reinholt away with pestering knocks on the head from the barrel of his gun. Sarge stayed there all night, yelling incoherently through the treehouse door and shaking his fists toward the stars. When Reinholt asked his mother what was happening, she tousled the smooth hair on his enormous head and said, “Daddy’s not well, honey, and I don’t know what to do to make him better.” The next morning, when it appeared that Sarge was either sober or sound asleep, Marge decided to bring some breakfast to the treehouse and see if he’d like to pose for a painting. She told Reinholt that it calmed him, his posing in her clothes. She left Reinholt in the kitchen hovering over his fifth bowl of cereal. Her last words to him: “Loverboy, don’t fret now, I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”
Reinholt wriggled down the hall until he found himself straddling the threshold to Sissy’s room. Gerbils rushed above and around him; bullets of brown fur shooting through orange plastic tunnels. Continuous chatter and occasional squeaks traveled through the stink of gerbil bedding and straw in the air, mingling in his ears with the steady gnaw of cardboard toilet-paper cores. For some reason he could neither help nor understand, he found himself wanting to destroy this city of rodents that lived in Sissy’s room. They were above him, though, far beyond his reach. He hated them. He despised the fact of their location, of the care Sissy gave them, of the gentle handling every single goddamn gerbil had gotten without ever appreciating it. Suddenly: a hand, a sliver of carrot, tender scratching behind the ears, a gentle pinch at the base of the tail, then a return to their simple and carefree existence. He counted six full water bottles and eight large bowls of sunflower seeds in their thirty-six gallon aquarium. He wondered how many gerbils watched her while she slept, while she undressed, while she made love to a man Reinholt envied with all his soul.
Reinholt hesitated, then squeezed inside the room, spotting himself (the half that could be seen) in the full-length mirror of Sissy’s dresser. He stared at his sprawling figure. He balanced himself on his knees, teetering, bleary-eyed and tired, staring into the mirror. Something in his own image triggered him to recall that at the age of ten he had breasts that surpassed those of girls in the neighborhood who were fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. Cheeks so fat they nearly pinched his eyes shut and seemed to swallow them when he smiled. A stomach with a navel so cavernous that his classmates had once forced him to lie on a playground while they explored it with pencils and a flashlight, and then tested its volume with streams of urine. He remembered times when he cried from some cumulative notion of unfairness, and could close his eyes and still see in a mirror his mother’s mascara running down his face in widely arcing lines. Red lipstick would smear his cheek, small squares of it missing on his lower lip from where he’d scraped it off with his upper teeth as he collected his thoughts between sobs. Now, he saw that he’d become unrecognizable as a human to everyone but himself. With a lugubrious wail, Reinholt lowered his head and charged into the mirror, knocking off the dresser’s door.
Reinholt teetered on the dough of his knees, spitting out fragments of sunflower seeds he’d poured in his mouth from a twenty-pound bag against the wall. He’d nearly choked on the first mouthful, but managed to swallow them, not bothering to chew, before filling his mouth again. His hunger was an endless drumbeat, and the seeds couldn’t have satisfied him any less. He crumpled the bag in fury and heaved it toward the plastic tunnels overhead. It fell short, however, and crashed to the floor, spilling and frightening the gerbils. He glared at them as they scrambled back to their cages, where they huddled in their store-bought bedding and pounded their feet in terror.
As soon as he got to the kitchen, his eyes swung to the refrigerator. He crawled over to it, nearly ripping off the door as he opened it. His stomach throbbed at the sight of the empty shelves. A stale stench wafted out and shot up his nostrils. Shuddering, he wondered if he’d eaten everything in the house. But why, he thought angrily, was there no food for him when Sissy’s pets had more than they needed?
On his hands and knees he worked his way toward the back door where he could see the sun disappearing slowly behind the clouds. He wrenched the door open. The air was crisp and clean, so pure it was almost drinkable. Near the end of the yard, parallel rows of crabapple trees framed his parents’ shared gravestone. Even from the doorway he could see that dead leaves and bird droppings fouled the stone slab, and that uncut grass concealed its lower half.
Now that he was here he couldn’t imagine what had kept him in bed for months, hibernating like a bear. The notion that pride had been involved seemed preposterous, especially now that he was finally doing something for himself and could feel the shame of his prolonged inertia. Rolling out of bed hadn’t been impossible. What, then, had prevented him from moving? Was it the fear that once he’d left the deathtrap of his bed there was no turning back? Being in bed was almost like being dead; there was no coming back to the other side; yet by his own free will he had come back.
He hoped Sissy would soon reappear and recognize that thanks to her he’d found the motivation to get onto his knees, if not his own two feet, and return to the world of the living. There was even the possibility, however remote, that he could persuade her to stay with him rather than move in with Larry. In desperation, he tried to think of how he might convince her not to go.
A rush of adrenaline enabled him to place one foot beneath his body, and then, quaking with the strain, place his other beside it. With all his strength he stood up. After a moment of vertigo he stumbled toward the living room where he was reminded that his muscles had atrophied from so much time in bed. Nearly toppling from the effort, he aimed himself for the front door.
As he caught his breath, he saw his old pickup truck pull into the driveway, Sissy alone behind the wheel and the truckbed loaded with cardboard boxes. Reinholt opened the door and watched her get out. Halfway to the house she spotted him and covered her mouth with both hands.
“You’re up!” she cried, running to him. She almost knocked him over as she jumped into his arms.
He couldn’t help but gasp at the closeness of her body, and with an intake of breath he sucked a few strands of her hair inside his mouth. He let them rest on his tongue, then sucked in a few more while thinking of how to ask her not to go. Chewing on her hair, he wondered if he ought to beg. He wasn’t sure he could get up again if he kneeled to make his case.
“I’ve been so worried about you,” she said. “I’ve felt guilty this whole time about leaving…”
The hair on his tongue intensified his hunger and an urgency to consume something, anything within his grasp, came over him. As if her hair had suddenly transformed into soft Chinese noodles, he began to swallow.
Sissy stopped hugging him. She patted her hair, recoiling from its dampness.
Before he could apologize, another truck pulled into the driveway.
In his rush to retreat before Larry could see him, Reinholt stepped on something he hadn’t known was there. Falling backward, he clawed at the wall for something to hold onto, but to no avail. The whole house shook as if a bomb had gone off, and when he turned, rolling onto his side, he saw Mona Lisa, her black feathers puffed out, her wings raised as if ready to pounce on him.
Reinholt looked into the living room and was shocked by the sight of his mother’s paintings. He’d forgotten how beautiful they were, how vividly they’d preserved a happier time. His mother’s love had brought him to life in these paintings, celebrating him as something the world had deemed worthy of exhibit and award.
Desperate for a closer look at them, he tried to get up but fell back. He struggled to his hands and knees, and for the second time that day wondered what had prevented him from standing before.