Text by Matthew Vollmer
The kid was fat. Like really fat. Obese, I guess, is the word. Not morbidly obese, I don’t think, but I can’t say for sure. I’m no doctor. I can’t observe the particulars of a body—human or otherwise—and tell you whether or not it may or may not be teetering on the verge of extinction. I do, however, have eyes. I like to think—and in fact I feel pretty confident in saying—that I know overweight when I see it. So, like I said… this kid, he was fat. In fact, I’d say that he belonged to a specific category: the kind that elicits pity. The kind you look at and say, what chance does a kid that fat have? It’s terrible to think, I know, and worse to say. And it’s not like I have a lot of room to talk. I could stand to lose a few. But still. This kid? His fatness? Whole other story. Wherever he went, the fact of that fatness was, if you’ll pardon the expression, the elephant in the room. I’m not saying he was like those thousand pounders whose corpses have to be airlifted out of their bedrooms, just that this kid’s fatness was something you would’ve had no chance of not noticing. You could tell yourself that you weren’t going to judge, but I’d bet a dollar to a doughnut you couldn’t help wondering how could someone, specifically a child, could get that big. Was it the fault of his parents? His pediatrician? Was he somehow genetically disposed? Was his problem—supposing you wanted to distinguish it as such—glandular in nature? What and how much did he snitch when nobody was looking? Did he get in trouble for raiding the pantry or refrigerator? Did he sneak out to the nearest convenience mart, where a raspy voiced woman with bloated eyebags and a diamond ring on her finger rang him up and called him “Hun” when she asked for the total, and if so did this make the fat kid feel good, if only because it seemed to him then that in the cashier’s eyes he was a regular person like anybody else, living in a world where all people were potential “Huns,” and did he then give her a handful of quarters and say, “Keep the change,” and ferry the snack cakes to his room where he stuffed each one whole into his mouth, not eating as fast as he possibly could, but with a steady consistency that still might have been accurately described as “wolfing,” little beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead and air whistling through his nose as he chewed, not even really enjoying it except for the fact that he knew he shouldn’t do it, but fuck it, who was he to deprive himself of this one joy in life, not that he didn’t only have one joy, but this was one only he knew about, a secret joy, the way his teeth cracked the brittle icing and then squished into the yellow cake and the gooey filling and maybe he had a chocolate milk to wash down each massive bite, who knows? Maybe all he needed to do was get through the eating and emerge on the other side.
But maybe I’m getting it all wrong. Maybe the only thing to say about any of this is that it’s wrong to see a kid and think first and foremost the word “fat,” wrong to imagine that said kid was somebody who lacked the necessary willpower to be not fat, the kind of person who couldn’t control his desires. Aren’t we all guilty of indulgence? Don’t we all practice our own singularly ludicrous acts of self-sabotage? And might the only difference between our sins and his be that the consequences of his supply more physical evidence? What if, for instance, every time we got angry, our bodies started, ever so slightly, to balloon? What if we evolved somehow so that we grew what scientists would later dub on the cover of Time magazine, “the fat gland,” and that every time you lost your temper, every time the Dream Team lost to the Sacramento Kings in NBA2K14 or if your spouse washed something that shouldn’t have been washed and dried or if your kid took too long finding a jacket to wear because he’s pathologically slow in the mornings and the bus will be here any minute, what if every time you got mad this little gland secreted something, like fat, maybe, or cellulose, or whatever, and what if bodies started metabolizing—or not--anger or sadness or lust? In other words, what if you could get fat in ways other than eating too much and not exercising enough or having the wrong kind of metabolism? What I’m saying is, what if it had to do with something other than metabolism or genetic dispositions or food? Might you change your tune? Could you then eavesdrop upon our fat young friend as he confesses knowing how to make a “mean” spaghetti sauce without wondering what the everloving fuck he was doing making spaghetti sauce, regardless of said sauce’s intensity or flavor profile, or what hole he’d been living in that would have prevented him from having heard that he, as a person of extraordinary girth, should be avoiding carbs and instead be subsisting mostly on a diet of nuts and fruits and vegetables and grains? Then again, do you have any room to talk about willpower? Do you know a thing or two about deprivation? Do you assume it would be no big deal to survive, say, on a diet of apples, just as a man I know named Junior once did, a guy who recently arrived to de-branch the trees in my yard, a guy who was certainly not, by any measuring stick, slim, but who, having learned that a person can eat as many apples as he or she wants and still lose an extraordinary amount of weight, embarked upon such a diet, and so for days and weeks ate nothing but apples, one after the other, just and only apples the entire livelong day, and that by doing so he shed—“burned it up,” is how he tells it—an extraordinary amount of body fat, and is now lighter on his feet than he’s been in years? Could you imagine a world where people like Junior took stock of their lives, and of what they might stand to lose, and then lost it? Is it too much to think we could teach ourselves to look at a person without inserting “fat” or “thin” or “black” or “white” or “straight” or “spiny” or “sticky” or “bedraggled” or “clean”? Might we learn to relinquish our hold on our qualifiers? Might someday we see a kid of a certain size and circumvent the adjective altogether, going straight—as we ought—to “person”? I’m tempted to say—sad as it sounds—that the premise sounds preposterous. But then I think of Junior, a once ground-bound body who regained, through sheer will, his mobility, and who now scampers nimbly up tree trunks with a chainsaw in tow, and once he gets high enough he begins what he climbed up to do, which is to say he chooses which limbs need to go, lops off the excess, making trees lighter, opening them up so that more sun can shine through to the yard down below, so that the grass there can grow once again richly green.
Matthew Vollmer is the author of the story collections Gateway to Paradise and Future Missionaries of America, as well as inscriptions for headstones, a collection of creative nonfiction. He edited the anthology A Book of Uncommon Prayer, which collects everyday invocations from over 60 writers, and with David Shields co-edited Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, "Found" Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. He teaches at Virginia Tech.