13 May, 2015
Curtis walked until West Girard turned into East and his feet hurt. It was 5:15 in morning and the sky was still as black as it comes when he went through the bright blue door with the sign above saying PHILADELPHIA POLICE DEPT 26TH DISTRICT. Inside, it was too hot and crowded. He felt itchy. But he kept still as he waited his turn. When it came, he unfolded the flyer with the pictures and put it flat on the counter with the thick scratched glass between him and the cop. He said, “I’m the one killed them kids.” He turned the paper around so the two children in the black and white photo stared right up at the policeman on the other side of divide.
Around him in the stuffy room all the sniffling and cussing and shuffling stopped. The all of a sudden quiet made Curtis sweat. He started to unzip his coat, but the officer put his hand up and Curtis stopped moving. Somebody held up a phone and took his picture.
The man behind the glass was saying things into a walkie-talkie stuck to his shirt. A door in the waiting room Curtis hadn’t noticed opened, and a white man in a suit stood there, said for him to come along. Curtis nodded and took the flyer and followed. A lady’s voice, saying that was bullshit because she’d been there all night long, got cut off when the door closed behind him.
The man in the suit didn’t look back to see that he was still following. That made Curtis feel okay about him. It wasn’t too warm anymore. They went in a room with brown carpet that was so thin it was as hard as the concrete it covered. The walls were cinder blocks painted glossy grey like pigeons and all pocked up. There was a metal table bolted to the floor in the middle of the room with a microphone standing up on it. The man said he was Detective Moore. He pulled out one of the two chairs. Curtis sat in the other.
He did the same thing with the flyer then—unfolded it, carefully because the creases were thin like tissue, and made the kids stare up at the policeman. He said it was him that did it.
“So you said.” Moore took out a notebook and wrote something on the top of a blank page. His knuckles were hairy. “What’s your full name?”
Curtis gave it.
“Thirty one, about.”
“From around here?”
“Dauphin up by 16th. My whole life.”
Curtis pressed his lips together, pulled them in between his front teeth and bit down, not hard. Moore looked up from the notebook. Curtis licked his lips like that’s what he’d wanted to do. He put his hand over the faces on the flyer, said, “It was me. Put em in the river.”
Moore leaned back. He was skinny with pointy hunched shoulders. His clothes were too big. The collar of his shirt was buttoned to the throat with still enough room between skin and cloth for a couple fat fingers. His neck was raw and bumpy from shaving, his cheeks sunken and shadowed to the color of the insides of McNuggets. The hair on his head was short and thin enough to see that his scalp had a boiled-red look to it. He squinted a little. “Do you know what you are saying?”
The looks and the questions, like he didn’t know what he was doing, made Curtis mad. He got angry at himself too. Never go to the cops.
Never. His dad had told him that the first time after a bunch of older kids had wanted to start something. Walking home on Girard from school in seventh grade three boys started yelling. “Yo retard.” “We talking to you.” “Stop motherfucker.” He did when they got in front of him. They backed him up against a brick wall that scraped his jacket. The three surrounded him. He didn’t look up, didn’t have to to know who they were. “Nigga smell like piss,” the one in the middle said, spitting it. “You piss yoself?” A hand smacked him hard in the ear, the flat palm making suction that popped once loud inside his head then fizzed like soda. His hat fell off and the wind took it into the street. He pushed off the wall to go after it and six hands held him where he was. “Not til we say.” They yanked his backpack off his shoulder and held it upside down, unzipped. Papers drifted to the ground and scattered on the sidewalk. One caught on a telephone pole, hugging it like a notice for a missing dog. Jolly Ranchers fell out of the bag and the boys crushed them under their sneakers. The autobiography of Malcolm X he was never going to read got kicked in the gutter and soaked in brown water. They started in on his jacket. “Empty them pockets.” He crossed his arms around his chest. Fingers dug into his wrists. They tugged on the collar and pulled at the pockets. Fabric ripped. Curtis dropped his hands to his sides and got spun around as the jacket came off. Wind cut through his shirt and went into his blood. They laughed. “Lookit them stains.”
A girl pushing a stroller walked by. Curtis looked her in the eyes. She looked at him, then away quick. She didn’t slow down. The three boys turned to watch her walk in her tight white jeans. One sucked his teeth. Another said something about making more babies. They grabbed themselves like they had to pee. And Curtis took off. He ran north a block and turned on 15th. He heard them coming. They weren’t yelling. Just their feet, fast and light on the pavement. He went down Flora and into the first row house with no door, hoping to go through and out the other side onto Girard. But it was boarded up in the back. He pulled on a piece of wood but it didn’t budge. He couldn’t feel his fingers anymore. And they were in the house now, not even breathing hard. They didn’t say anything, just surrounded him again and swung. He dropped down because he knew it’d be better that way, curled up, with his head covered. They stopped kicking after awhile and grabbed at his shirt. It tore off easy. They took his shoes. They said, “I aint touchin them pants.” They each kicked his one last time before leaving.
He waited a minute in the silence with his eyes shut tight, then got up and started home. On Cabot Street an old cop riding alone pulled over so the front wheel was on the sidewalk. “Come on” was all he said. He let Curtis ride up front and turned the heat on all the way. “I suppose they got everything,” the cop said.
Curtis looked straight ahead, pointed when it was time to turn.
“You know em?” the cop asked.
Curtis nodded and said their names.
“I know their people,” the cop said, “not them though.”
Curtis pointed again. The car slowed to a stop in front of his place. The man put his coat over Curtis’s shoulders and walked him to the door.
His dad came out and pulled him in. “What he do?”
“Nothing,” the cop said. “Just had trouble with some boys is all. I can try and sort it if you want.”
His dad shook his head, took the coat off Curtis and handed it back. Then he shut the door hard.
Curtis had wanted to say something else to the man. He didn’t know what though.
His dad slapped him on the cheek and pushed him against the wall. “Never the police, boy. They come to this house it better be with a charge. Anyway else aint gone fly. You hear?”
“We handle shit on our own.” His finger was an inch from Curtis’s eye. “Who was it?”
Curtis said. He went to bed that night without eating.
His dad woke him sometime late. He stood beside the bed huffing and propped a pipe up against the wall. “They not going to the police neither. Watch.” In the soft yellow light from the street Curtis saw shiny wet spots on the pipe. In the morning they had dried to a kind of brown that was different from the rust. When he got home from school that afternoon it was gone. His ear still hurt.
And those boys crossed the street always when they saw him. One limped. One’s arm swung loose. One twitched. But Curtis didn’t feel any better or any safer.
To Detective Moore he said, “I know cause I did it. Now you know too.”
Moore said, “And I want you to tell me all about it. Do you care if I record what you say?”
Curtis shook his head.
“I also need to bring another officer in, just for a second set of ears. You mind?” Moore got up and left the room when Curtis said he didn’t.
He took off his coat while he waited. He got bored quick and his left leg bounced. He thought about having no place and both legs started going at once. His knees knocked against the underside of the table. The noise made for something else in the room.
Moore came back followed by a man dressed like a cop. “This is Officer Bess. He’s here just to listen.”
Curtis’s legs stopped.
Bess dragged a plastic chair behind him and put it in the corner, took a seat after Moore did, and started picking at his nails. He didn’t look at Curtis. Moore pushed a button beside the microphone. A light glowed red. He spoke for a long time about Curtis coming here on his own, not because anybody made him, and about Curtis talking because he wanted to, not because police asked him. When he was finally done he asked Curtis if all he’d said was true.
“I need you to say it.”
Curtis said it.
Moore put one fingertip on the flyer and said, “You’re here about Tyrese Brown and Omar Gibbon. Correct?”
“I’m the one done it.”
Moore looked down at his notepad. “Three years ago. Where?”
“Fairmont Park. By the river.”
Moore sighed, said, “Can you maybe tell it like you’d tell a story?”
Bess looked down at his feet and shook his head.
Curtis wiped his forehead with his sleeve. He took a deep breath and made his hand into fists under the table. He thought about the shows he used to watch on the TV. He had been sitting in front of it when his dad pulled the cord out of the wall. Curtis hadn’t said anything, hadn’t moved. His dad carried the TV out of the house, banging it against the wall as he opened the front door, and took it down to the corner. When he came back cussing about cheap motherfuckers, Curtis was still sitting in the same place, still staring straight ahead at the hole in the room where the TV had been. He’d never know how the episode ended.
The detective cleared his throat.
Curtis said, “It was cold like now. Light out still. I’d went to the store. Somebody throw away a bunch a bread so I took it and went to give it to the ducks. They quackin and scootin around and peckin at each other to get at what I give em. And this one starts throwing rocks.” He tapped his finger on the flyer in the middle of Tyrese Brown’s face. “The other one laugh when a duck got hit. They all flew off. But I don’t say nothing. Just walk on down the trail to go where the ducks go cause I still got more bread. It’s colder and dark now and I can’t find em but the boys follow me. They throwin rocks at me now. This under the bridge for the trains. I put the all the bread in the water cause I don’t care when they hittin me with rocks and laughin. That bridge made a rock, got real big ones all on the ground. So I throw some at them cause they started it. Hit that laughin one first in his eye and he go quiet. That one that started it just stand there lookin at his friend so I get up real close before I hit him too. I stayed for them to get up cause I know it’s bad even though it aint my fault but they didn’t move. So I put em in the water.”
Moore said, “Were they still alive?”
“Could you tell if they were still alive when they were in the water? Moving? Breathing? Anything?”
“I don’t know yet. It might. Think hard. You see any bubbles?”
Cutis didn’t know what his answer might mean. It made him nervous. He waited until he knew he couldn’t anymore and finally said, “Yeah.”
He’d thrown the bag of bread in the water but wanted it back when he saw some more ducks. It was plastic, full of air, bobbing away from him on the surface like a little ugly balloon. He found a long stick and reached with it. Bending forward with his arms stretched out all the way still wasn’t enough. The end of the stick dropped in the water, making ripples that pushed the bread farther. He stepped out onto a rock. It was slick and his foot slipped off with a splash. He was leaned forward so far he had to put his other foot in the water so as not to fall all the way in. The cold snatched the breath from him. He backed out fast and fell on his ass in the mud. The wet soaked through his jeans and the cold moved from his middle to cover the rest of him. The bag was letting out air as the bread sunk.
He moved up the bank on his hands and knees and started walking. His shoes made squishy sounds. It was all dark by the time he made it back to the street. He couldn’t feel his feet and he stumbled sometimes on the broken sidewalk. On Diamond he walked through a crowd of whores in short skirts and cracked leather jackets. They leaned into car windows and showed their panties to guys on stoops. A vacant’s second floor was burning on 25th. Kids stood around in the street and stared up at the flames that pushed out broken windows and caught on the overhanging roof. Blind dumb pigeons rose up with the smoke. Curtis stopped to watch them scatter and cry and shit. His head tilted back as far as it’d go, his mouth hung open, and he smiled at them. The cold of being still pushed him on. A paddy wagon and three patrol cars blocked up the intersection of 19th and Diamond. The wagon got loaded down with boys fast and it drove off with the three cars following. Curtis didn’t even slow. He turned left up 16th. At Tanner Elementary a lookout leaning on the wall painted bright blue and red and yellow got in his way. He had on a knit hat with loose threads and gloves with the fingers cut off. He put a hand up and asked Curtis what he wanted in a high crackly voice. He was maybe thirteen. Curtis pointed down the block, said, “My house.” The words came out shaky through clicking teeth. The kid gave some kind of wave, asked Curtis what he was waiting on, then leaned back against the wall. The dealer was in the middle of the block under a busted street light wearing a fat black bubble coat with a fur-lined hood pulled up and cinched. Without looking up he said, “Keep moving, fat man.”
When he got inside it felt at first like it was as cold as the outside. Then the warm came. It made all of him shake and twitch and every small move made a sharp hurt. He didn’t hear his dad come down the steps. Curtis jumped when he yelled, “Fuck you been?” His voice was low and thick and hard. He was at the bottom of the steps, panting. His chest swelled and his shoulders rose. “I sent you for cigarettes and you come back hours after all dirty and shit. Fuck’s wrong with you, boy?” He undid his belt and it made that hissing sound as he pulled it free of the pant loops. He brought the strap down on Curtis’s shoulders, across his neck, his cheek. “I asked you a question.” He stretched the belt out and looped the end he’d been hitting him with around his knuckles. He swung the buckle over his left shoulder and brought it down on Curtis’s right leg, then switched sides. The blows were hot. He couldn’t remember getting the cigarettes. Everything in the day already felt so long past it might as well never have happened. When his dad stopped he ran up the stairs. In his room he dropped onto his mattress and covered his eyes. The front door slammed and his dad’s cussing faded.
He didn’t know how much time had passed before the door opened and closed again, softer now. He was still in bed. The mud on his pants was dry and flaky. His socks were wet and his shoes too tight. He just didn’t want to move. He heard his dad stumble on the steps, stop, light a cigarette, breathe in deep and out slow, and start up the stairs again. He was at the doorway and said, “Curtis?” His voice still sounded thick like there was a bubble in his throat.
Curtis knew he wasn’t the angry kind of high anymore, knew he’d got to that sad loving kind now. Either way made Curtis the same kind of scared.
His dad got on his knees at the foot of the bed and started pulling on his wet laces. “What you done?” he said. The shoes made sucking sounds coming off. His socks peeled away. It felt so good he didn’t care about anything. He told about the ducks and said he was sorry. His dad stood and crushed the cigarette out on the floor. He sniffled, wiped his nose with a hand. Then he crawled on to the bed and put his arm around Curtis. “I don’t know what’s gonna come of you,” he said. The words already had a half-sleep sound to them. He put his face in Curtis’s coat. His arm relaxed and his breathing changed. Curtis stared into the dark corner of the room and listened to his father sleep. He was heavy and warm against him.
Curtis was folded over now with his elbow on the metal table and his face down in the crook of his arm, so tired all of sudden his thoughts just stopped. The Detective Moore tapped his pen on the table and said, “Stick with me, just a bit longer.”
He lifted his head and wiped some crust from his eyes.
Officer Bess shifted in his seat and looked at his watch when Curtis looked at him.
Moore said, “Did anyone other than the boys see you at the water?”
Curtis shook his head.
Moore pointed at the microphone.
Curtis said, “No.”
“Did you tell anybody about what happened?”
“Not then or ever until today?”
“Til today.” He put his head back down on his arm.
“So why now?”
He lifted his shoulders up in a small shrug and waited for Moore to tell him to say it out loud. He didn’t though. There was a little click and the whirr of the tape recorder stopped.
“Jus cause,” he said into his sleeve. He closed his eyes, making everything go black.
Probably wasn’t dark outside anymore. But when it still was he’d gotten out of bed to use the bathroom and seen his dad’s door was open. Light from candle flames flicked and jumped on the walls in the hall. He looked in the room. His dad was sitting up on the bare mattress with his back to the wall. The leather belt with twenty years of teeth marks was across his lap. Two candles burning down to nubs stood in shot glasses beside the bed. His eyes were open and staring at the place in wall were the plaster had crumpled off and the brick showed. He didn’t have a shirt on. Throw up was drying in the little bit of hair he had on his chest. Curtis coughed into his hand and when nothing happened he said, “Pop?” He stepped in the room slowly, lightly, to blow out the candles. He felt something like emptiness when he got close. He pulled the sheet up to cover his dad and his fingers brushed against cold cold skin. He shivered and straightened and just stood there looking down for a while.
Then he went to the other side of the mattress and sat. His weight made his dad shift and slide sideway down the wall until his head hit the floor. Curtis didn’t try to sit him back up. He stayed there for maybe an hour. Some of the street lights turned themselves off. His dad’s guts made gurgling noises and a heavy bad smell made Curtis have to go. He went his dad’s pockets and pulled out a wadded up dollar bill and a quarter.
Between the candles that had gone out on their own was an old silver Zippo lighter his dad had had forever. He flipped the lid and rolled the wheel. It sparked and lit the first time. He laid it on its side on the mattress gentle so it wouldn’t go out. The flame pulsed like it was trying to grab hold of something. Then it did. Black oily smoke coiled up and the burning mixed with the other smell. He went downstairs, put on his shoes and tied them tight, buttoned his coat all the way to the neck, left the door open when he stepped outside, and started walking east. He stopped at the McDonald’s and waited for them to open. He was the first one there. With the dollar and quarter he got a hash brown that he ate while he walked.
“Just because,” Detective Moore repeated. He tapped on the table again and said to Bess, “Keep him separate while I call the courthouse.”
A hand was on Curtis’s shoulder. He looked up at the man in uniform and stood slow. He was led past the bullpen where a hundred eyes watched him, then past other rooms like the one he’d been in so long. They went down a narrow stairway with little uneven steps to a hallway with six heavy metal doors in a row on the right and a smooth wall of concrete on the left. Bess stopped at the first open door and pointed inside.
It was a six-by-eight with no windows. Curtis went in and folded his coat lengthwise first and then into a nice square. He placed it at the foot of the cot. He sat to untie his shoes and then put them side-by-side underneath his bed with the toes pointing out. He took off his socks and stuck one in each shoe. He rubbed between his toes and looked at Bess who was just standing there watching. Curtis said, “Can I get a TV?”
The cop said, “You won’t be here long.”
“Well, but when I get were I’m stayin, can I have a TV?”
13 May, 2015
When Brin Lambert started her first Regimen, she began to have visions. Unlike other dieters, who hallucinated slices of black forest cake or supersized French fries, Brin, in the fever of hunger, saw Jesus. The more she gave up—sugar, fat, dairy, carbs—the more elaborate the visions became. Neighbors and co-workers took notice of her transformation, complimenting her new figure and beatific glow. In a matter of months, she went from a mediocre real estate agent to the firm’s top saleswoman. With the extra income, she bought a bigger house in a better neighborhood, a 4-2 with a small above-ground swimming pool for her daughter, Laney.
For the first time in her life, Brin felt beautiful. Often, she would stand in front of the deep freeze in the garage, staring at the freezer-burned bacon and ice cream bars and frozen lasagnas that she had been careful to save in the move, as a reminder. There, she would weep from gratitude that she no longer weighed two hundred and thirty seven pounds, that she could, for the first time in her adult life, wear pants. Moments like these, she felt powerful sense of duty to share her message with others, so that they, too, could be freed from the bondage of food.
Six months later, with a proper ad campaign that included radio and television spots, purchased with the commission from the last house she sold, Brin started the Feast of Love church. People came from outlying towns and Plano proper, obese mothers and fathers and children seeking Brin’s cure. Even before the TV spots, they had heard of it from Brin’s realtor friends, who had started the Regimen and never felt or looked better. As word of the church’s successes spread well beyond the Dallas metro area, Brin appeared on Larry King Live and on the cover of Texas Monthly, and parishioners began to call her Brin Lambert, Lamb of God.
Because of this, Laney Lambert often found it difficult to call Brin mother. Laney was unnerved by her mother’s rapturous sheen and the flagrant emotion that came along with it. The Texas Monthly cover featured a picture of Brin looking arachnid as she sat folded on a chair. Above her, the headline read: “Feast of Love, or Fasting to Death?” The article came out just after Laney’s father, Brin’s first husband, had nearly died thirty-one weeks into a year-long fast. Water in the mornings and evenings, a cup of apple cider vinegar mixed with half a cup of honey at midday. Gradually, he had grown pungent, vinegar steaming off him in the July heat. Laney could barely bring herself to hug him for fear of the sour wavelets of moisture, a fact that shamed her after he was hospitalized. He left them soon after and now lived with a new family outside Tulsa. Sometimes, she still missed him, but she never told Brin.
Under scrutiny after the debacle with the first husband, Brin modified the Regimen, but only slightly. Privately, she was convinced that he had failed because he hadn’t truly believed. She had only to look at the pews spilling over with happy, skinny people to know that the church was a success story. And when that wasn’t enough, she pulled out the issue of Forbes magazine in which she came in second after Joel Osteen on the list of wealthiest Christian motivational speakers.
The church celebrated its five-year anniversary by releasing a special edition line of nutritional products and giving every congregant a voucher for any Feast of Love item sold in the gift shop. Soon thereafter, Brin remarried, a tall, God-fearing man named Corson. They agreed she should keep her first married name, because Schifferdecker hardly leant itself to puns. Brin and her family moved again, this time to a stately stone mansion with a long driveway that encircled a fountain and a topiary maze in the spacious backyard.
It was in one of the mansion’s seven bathrooms that Laney, fifteen, now stood, examining her body in the mirror. She had small breasts, more suggestion than flesh, but she liked what she saw. She touched her flat stomach, could practically feel it puckering with hunger. Sometimes, the pain got so bad she felt she would fold up like a tent.
She pulled open the bottom drawer of the bathroom cabinet, fumbled around for what she’d hidden there—a small tin of frizz-control pomade that smelled of sickly sweet green apples. Her stomach burbled. Scooping a gob of clear green gel onto her fingers, she brought it close to her nose, then licked it off. But there was no hint of the apples or sugar she smelled. She spat it into the sink.
Downstairs, a door slammed.
“Elaine?” Brin called up from the base of the spiral staircase. “Are you home?”
“Yes, mother,” Laney shouted. She threw on a robe, then took the steps two at a time. She would have to increase her aerobic output if she hoped to keep her new breasts from getting obscene. Sometimes when they passed a large-bosomed woman, Brin sighed quietly and told Laney that only weak-willed women let food dictate their body shape. “Laney,” she would say. “Do you think our Lord would give a woman breasts so big they would give her back pain? A woman’s breasts are one hundred percent fat. If those women would only come to a retreat or try one of our Full Souls cleanses, then Double D cups wouldn’t be such an epidemic.” Brin’s own breasts formed two triangular teabags beneath her oversized shirts.
When Laney arrived in the kitchen, she stood silently in the doorway for a moment, watching her mother unpack a bag of groceries. Brin Lambert, she thought. Her mother filled her with awe, and not a little fear. When Brin stood up, Laney could see the vertebrae moving under her mother’s thin shirt.
Brin noticed her and said, “Laney dear, come here and give Mother a hug.” Laney approached, reaching tentatively around Brin’s mid-section. Laney felt Brin’s long arms coil around her waist, the hands at once caressing and inspecting. When Brin pulled back, she gave Laney a little pinch where her hip started its outward curve. Ouch, thought Laney. Their eyes met.
“You’re glowing, sweetheart,” Brin said. “Have you just cleansed?”
“Not today,” Laney said, thinking guiltily of the pomade.
“If we could capture that flush in your cheeks and turn it into some sort of powder or cream blusher, women would buy it by the pound. We could call it…” She paused, and Laney held her breath, wary of interrupting a moment of illumination. “…Prince of Peach Blush. You could be the spokesmodel. A woman whose body reflects the respect she has for the instrument God gave her.” She took Laney’s chin between her fingers. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of the way take care of yourself. Your body is a prayer, I tell you. A prayer!”
Brin pulled a tiny notepad from her purse and jotted the blush name down.
“What have you had to eat today?”
“Oh good,” Brin said. “Good.”
As she helped unpack and put away groceries, Laney thought about the calories in the banana; eighty, according to a Weight Watchers calorie guide that she’d found in the West Plano High cafeteria. If Brin knew that Laney was counting calories, she’d be livid. It was against church doctrine. A few years earlier, when Laney had first learned of the concept of burning calories from a friend’s dieting mother, she had asked her friend’s pinched, gray-skinned mother where the burned calories went. The woman had taken a long drag on her cigarette and said, They go to feed the hungry children in Africa.
“How was the Trial of Will, mother?” Laney asked.
“Tough,” Brin said. “Always tough, always a blessed lesson in restraint. Golden calves at every turn. But all of them got through it with divine strength, praise Jesus. Even Bob Taylor, though Edith Pickler caught him hovering in the packaged foods aisle, holding a box of donuts. She said the licentiousness in his gaze was just shocking.”
“Licentiousness?” Laney asked.
“Depravity, honey. God hates it.” Brin paused and looked ceiling-ward. “Laney darling, aren’t you excited to meet Jesus one day? To look upon His perfect beauty?”
Laney nodded yes, but the truth was, she didn’t like to think about it, because it meant thinking about death. “Poor Mr. Taylor,” Laney said, remembering the time that she and Hannah Best had, out of curiosity, gotten drunk off of Mr. Best’s bourbon, then walked two miles to the country store, purchased a box of Entenmanns’s crumb-topped donuts, and finished the entire thing before they got home, the powdered sugar sticking to their gums like glue.
“Well, Bob won’t advance if he stays at his current weight. But he knows the consequences. He must choose his own path. Feast of Love is not a good fit for everyone.”
“Because they’re fat?”
“No, Laney. Heavy people are just sinners in search of grace, and we help them find that grace. But sinners who keep on sinning, that’s another matter altogether. The Bible teaches us that some people cannot be steered away from the Golden Calf. And the Lord smote those people, did he not?”
“Are you going to smote Bob?”
“Smite, honey. And no, only God can smite. But I may have to excommunicate him.”
Laney wondered if she could be excommunicated for the Weight Watchers calorie guide or the pedometer or the Vogue article crumpled in her bedside dresser in which Beyonce lauded the effects of the cranberry juice-flax seed-cayenne pepper diet. Laney was sorry if her behavior disappointed God, but she was sure He’d understand her methods were a means to an end.
Her stomach growled loudly. “I’m going over to Hannah’s for a Supper Meditation,” she said. Was it her imagination, or did the lie burn a little on her tongue?
“Fine, but we’ll eat at six, sharp. Hurry back.”
As she pulled out of the garage, Laney recalled her own Trial of Will advancement ceremony from last year. Her step-father, Corson, said she was too young, but her mother, tall and august as a Corinthian column, said, “Dear, I hardly think you are the moral authority.”
By that point, Corson had just started to noticeably flesh out, and later, at the advancement ceremony that followed each Trial, Brin burned with righteousness as she delivered the sermon:
“I ask you, Feast of Love congregation, IS IT or IS IT NOT a BLESSING to be FREE of scales and calories and exercise and obsessive thoughts of FOOD? To give your body and soul over to HE WHO KNOWS YOU BEST, HE WHO CAN BRING YOU PEACE?”
A thousand congregants met her questions with a roar and uplifted, waving arms. On the huge television screens that projected her face to the furthest corner of the expansive church, Brin’s eyes gleamed.
“Or would you RATHER be back where you WERE, waiting for the next GODLESS CELEBRITY to tell you how to LOOK GOOD IN A BIKINI in TWO WEEKS?”
She stood triumphantly beside the lectern, her headset microphone feeding back ever so slightly, giving an electronic twang to her Texas drawl. The stage lights transformed her blonde highlights into a shining corona.
“Feast of Love congregants, I ask you, to whom do you ENTRUST your TEMPLE? Kirstie Alley? Oprah? Anna Nicole Smith?” At this, she paused and grinned at the shouts of No, Lord, No!, letting her flock become frenzied before ending the ceremony with her favorite line: “How about THIS for a celebrity SPOKESperson, AMERICA? THE LORD JESUS CHRIST!”
Laney steered towards the main road that divided the city, a weary stretch of highway lined with brightly-colored but cheerless fast food places. Laney felt sorry for Corson. When he had first joined their family, he’d been muscular and handsome, self-assured in the way of athletic men, and Brin showed him off to all her friends. She daubed on perfume and teased up her hair extra high and stiff before they left on dates. And Laney’s mother was magnetic: beautiful, confident, and suddenly wealthy. Together she and Corson looked like prom queen and king. But then they had married and within a year, Corson started to sneak chicken nuggets and Ho-Hos out to his workbench in the garage. When Laney found a splayed cardboard burger box crushed at the bottom of the trash, she had covered it up with paper towels, trying to protect Corson. But after a while, he couldn’t hide it anymore.
Laney shifted into the turn lane and cut across the road at a break in traffic, turning into the Whataburger parking lot. She pulled around back so the car wouldn’t be visible from the highway. Even though the BMW was a discreet gray and could be mistaken for any number of sedans in the area, she didn’t want to risk Brin’s questions if a nosey congregant saw her there. As she cut the engine, her hands trembled. The orange glow of the sign’s giant “W” fell across the dashboard. Clutching five dollars, she got out and locked the car. From the large vents next to the kitchen, thick steam reeking of fried food poured out. She hoped the smell wouldn’t linger in her hair. Through the glass door, she could see Marshall Barrett smiling. Tyler, the older boy he worked with, was moving his hands as he talked, eyebrows rising and falling as he shook his head dramatically. The dining area was empty, and when she opened the door, both boys looked over.
“Hey there, Lambert,” Marshall said. “Been waiting for you, babe.”
“Hi Marshall,” she said. “Hey, Tyler.” She flipped her hand up in a small, self-conscious wave. She loved it when Marshall called her babe. It sounded so adult. “How’s the burger business?”
“Pretty good,” Tyler said. “Not all of us are as pious as y’all Lamberts.” He thumped his belly.
“You look like you could use a bacon double yourself, girl,” Marshall said. “Got to give me at least a little something to hold on to.”
Now he was teasing, but in a way she liked. He reached out and put his hand over hers on the counter. She shivered. A Mexican woman walked in with a small child, so Laney stepped back to let the boys work.
When she had turned thirteen and got her period, Brin told her that if she let boys touch her before she was married, her skin would break out in a rash. She said it was God’s way of exposing the sin of Lust, just like fat was His way of exposing the sin of Gluttony. The first time Marshall had touched her—rubbing the back of her neck, up down, up down, up down, so slowly—they were at the last football game of the year. With the rain coming down like shards of cold glass and the players’ white helmets streaked brown with mud and the sound of tubas low and victorious from the band section, she’d arched away from his touch, though it had felt so good. When she got home, she rushed to the bathroom, half expecting to see her skin bump and pucker before her eyes. But all she saw were goose bumps, the pale hairs on her neck stiff with electricity.
Laney watched as the woman gathered her food and her child and left.
“Man, it’s boring as fuck around here on Sundays,” Tyler said.
“Got a preacher’s daughter here,” Marshall said, smiling. “Mind yourself, Ty.”
Tyler rolled his eyes. Inhaling quietly, Laney ordered a kid’s meal and handed Marshall the five dollar bill. When he gave her the change, he took hold of her hand and squeezed it around the quarters until it hurt, but in a good way.
“Enjoy that burger, ok?” He tossed some extra condiments into the bag. “See you at school tomorrow.”
Outside, the street lamps formed a chain of orange discs melting into one another. For a moment, Laney didn’t think about food. She didn’t count calories. She closed her eyes and thought of Marshall’s hand on hers. After weeks of hunger, she felt full.
From the road, she heard the blast of a horn. She blinked, straightened up, and walked towards the car. When she passed the trashcan, she jammed the unopened burger bag into the hole.
“Corson, didn’t you hear me?” Brin called. “Dinner’s ready.”
She stood in the doorway to the kitchen, backlit by its rows of expensive spotlights. He pulled himself up out of the chair, pelvis first, his knees popping loudly under his substantial weight. He did not like being fat. After enjoying women’s attention for most of his life, starting when he was thirteen and first poured himself into a spandex football uniform, he did not much care for his exile from female notice. But the weight, which originally resulted from unhappiness, now made him weirdly proud, his love handles a revolt against Brin’s despotism.
On the dining room table, a roasted chicken sat in a pool of melted butter, its skin flecked with rosemary. There were whipped red potatoes and a row of fat white asparagus lining the silver tray that Brin’s mother had given them for their wedding. For Corson, Sunday dinners were a torment. Brin took care to make everything look perfect, though they weren’t supposed to eat more than what could fit in their palm. The rest, they donated to the soup kitchen.
“Mother, this looks delicious,” Laney said, glancing at the clock and noticing with relief that she was on time.
“Elaine.” Brin looked horrified.
“I’m sorry Mother,” Laney said, realizing her mistake. “I…I was distracted.”
“Reveling in earthly pleasure will only hinder your faith, you know that.”
“Brin, she said she was sorry,” Corson said.
“Repentance is a fine thing, but you know what’s finer? Discipline.”
“If you like, I can just drive this over to the soup kitchen right now,” he said, gesturing toward the table. “Why wait until the end of the meal if we’re just going to pretend it’s not here?”
He stuffed his napkin under his plate. As they sat in silence, Brin carved the chicken. Corson and Laney watched its juices pool near the blade of the knife with each determined saw.
“Laney, I’m sorry,” Brin said. “But I must follow Church guidelines in this situation.”
“Aw, Brin,” Corson started, before Brin interrupted.
“A supper offense warrants a water week. I want you to think about what you’ve done, and I want you to pray extra hard while you have the advantage of hunger’s clarity.”
“Yes, mother,” Laney said. “Thank you.”
Laney got up and left the room, her sneakers noiseless on the carpet, her smile broadening, unseen, as she walked away. A water week would work faster than any diet.
As she rinsed the dishes, Brin watched her husband. Corson was slouched in a corduroy chair watching reruns of Press Your Luck on the Game Show Network. She couldn’t stop staring at his elbows, the way the folds of fat made them look like little faces puffing out of his sleeves. There was no way around it. Corson Lambert was fat. She could see his veins crystallizing with sugar, his body’s unused fuel yellowing to oleaginous fat, thickening as it crawled towards his heart. She had tried everything to get him right with the Lord again. Extra meditation, even a prayer retreat during which he was permitted only water and an occasional Choco-Cherry Love Wafer, when fainting seemed a possibility. She wanted so badly to save him from himself; she had done it for thousands of other people, herself included. How could her own husband continually avoid redemption? Brin knew the Corson situation was getting dire. He was a walking advertisement for sin. But what could she do about it? She closed her eyes and ran her fingers along the raised pink rosebuds rimming the plate she had just washed. When she opened them, Corson stood at the kitchen island.
“I’m going to Peaches,” he said. “Please come. Share a slice of rhubarb pie with me. Please?”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“I’m told you used to love that place.”
She hesitated, thinking about the deliciously sour pie, granular with sugar. She had loved Peaches and their rhubarb pie. She had loved it, and other things, too much. It was why she’d had to sacrifice. That’s what you did to have a good life.
“You should pray to God to release you from your cravings, Corson.”
“Oh, for goodness sake. God made rhubarb, Brin. He gave us sugar and eggs and wheat and milk. He gave us the brains to put it together and make pie!”
“I’ll continue to pray for you to become free, Corson,” Brin said, drying her hands on a dishtowel. “Goodnight.”
Upstairs, Laney sat in bed, entering the day’s meals in the food journal she kept in her closet, beneath the shoe rack. No dinner meant she had finished out the day well under the calorie limit.
A knock at the door and Corson’s muffled voice.
“Come in,” she said, shoving the journal under her quilted bedcover.
He peeked around the door. “Laney honey, you want to go to Peaches with me? Come on, girl. There’s something I need to tell you.”
His face was round and sad, his pale cheeks so fleshy it looked like his lips had to fight to form words. Laney folded her hands in her lap and stared at them. “Maybe you oughta do the Water Week with me.” She waited for him to acquiesce, or get angry, but he did neither. He just said he was worried about her, that she was skin and bones and needed a proper meal. And then he walked over to the side of her bed, knelt down so he could look her in the face, then wrapped her in his huge arms. She closed her eyes and let him press her head against his shoulder. She had always liked Corson, even after he got fat.
“Sweet girl,” he said. “Sweet Laney girl.”
The following Sunday, Brin watched Corson slide onto the pine bench closest to the church stage. His shadow swallowed Laney so that Brin could only see her daughter’s pale eyes and dark nostrils. He hadn’t taken a meal with the family since their fight about Peaches, and he came home smelling of fried chicken every night. But Brin had held her tongue because she knew that this level of personal discord required something stronger than nagging.
The crowd rippled with movement as congregants hugged and shook hands and laughed. Look at the abundant happiness, she thought. How dare Corson bring his gnashing, tireless teeth and grease-spattered tie here, among the flock?
Tapping the microphone, Brin silenced the audience. She loved that moment before speech, so pregnant with possibility. They were all waiting on her words.
“My blessed friends,” she said. A few heads nodded as murmurs of affirmation moved through the room.
“Every Sunday, I stand before you and offer my love and assistance to you on your quest to live a life right in the eyes of our Lord. I hope I have helped you. When you’ve been in that dark place, where God seems far away.”
“YES, Bless you!” A balding man shouted from his place towards the back of the room.
“Thank you.” She bit her lip, looked down, nodded her head. “But today, I need your help. I am asking you to stand beside me in my hour of need. Are you willing to stand beside me today?”
“YES!” Their collective reply echoed off the stone walls of the church. Brin breathed deeply. Yes. Today, the Spirit was there. She glanced at Corson, who sat with his ankles crossed, looking uneasy. I’m coming for you baby, she thought. Ready or not. She clipped her microphone to her collar and walked to the edge of the stage, following the stairs down to her family’s bench. She stopped in front of Corson, who kept his eyes fixed on the ground.
“Today, my blessed friends, I am filled up with the Spirit,” she said, voice rising. “I feel it in my bones. I am alive! The Lord is here!”
She raised both hands and the hall burst out in applause, a waterfall of amens spilling from the uppermost benches. A few people jumped to their feet.
“My problem today, blessed friends, is that I love too much. I love my husband too much. I am not going to stand here and watch him turn himself over to the devil!”
At this point, as she had predicted, Corson stood up and took a step toward the door. But this was how much she loved him: she would not allow him to leave. As had been planned prior to the service, Bob Taylor and Grady Wahler stood up from the bench behind Corson and took him firmly by the shoulders.
“Get your hands off me,” Corson said. He shook free from their grip, but the two men grabbed him again, harder this time.
Brin knew she had to work quickly. “Pray with me now! Lord, I feel you here in this room. I know You’ve come to save this man. He is good but plagued by evil urges. Help to free him from these urges. Free his mind, free his heart. Re-dedicate him to you, O Lord! Help him value the body with which You have blessed him.”
She reached out both hands towards the struggling Corson, whose head whipped this way and that like a tethered mustang. She placed her hands firmly on his forehead, threading her fingers into his hair at the roots and pulling tight. She needed to sustain the physical connection, to give the Spirit enough time to move through her fingers and into his scalp, down deep into his brain, deeper still into his heart. She counted one two three four five before Corson let out a roar, then stepped hard on Grady’s left foot, elbowed Bob in the stomach, and lumbered up the aisle towards the door. As he passed by, congregants shrank from him as if he were contagious.
Let him go, thought Brin. She had succeeded in laying hands. The rest was up to God. “Thank you, witnesses!” She cried. “Praise Jesus!” She glanced around the room. A single tear streaked down her flushed cheek. Ecstasy, these moments. People exclaimed. They danced. They sang. Brin skipped back up the steps onto the stage, clasped her hands over her heart, and did a small, spontaneous bow.
When Brin arrived home, she nearly stumbled over Corson, who sat on the floor with his back against the cabinets.
“I want a divorce,” he said.
“I said I want a divorce,” he said.
She saw her reflection, orange, distorted, in the copper pots which hung from the kitchen ceiling.
“What?” She’d heard him, but it was a reflex.
“You’re lucky I don’t claim spousal abuse, after that show you put on today. And all those fasts. The damned berry cleanses that turned my shit pink.”
No, she thought. Absolutely not. Brin Lambert could not be twice divorced. Better to be married to a fat man than not at all.
“Stop,” he said. “I’m weary. You exhaust me. I thought I could do it. Or maybe I thought you’d lighten up a little after we got married. But you know there’s no room for me in your plan anymore.”
“You’re rushing this,” she said. “Why don’t we wait and see how the Spirit moves you?”
“If you think that being miserable for three years counts as rushing, then yes, by all means, I’m rushing my ass out the door.”
She felt her throat go dry. Steadying herself against the counter, she glanced at the knife drawer. She had the urge to run him through—to puncture his fat, unappreciative gut and ribbon him up into neat filets that she could store next to the bacon in the deep freeze. Clenching her jaw, closing her eyes, she said a quick prayer begging forgiveness.
“Very well, Corson,” she said. “I can’t control you. But I wish you the very best, I really do.”
“It’s like I was your accountant or something.” He turned and went upstairs while she stuck fast to the floor, unable to move. Finally, after she heard the swish of the front door closing behind him, she retreated into her bedroom, and further, into her closet. She plugged in the rotating fan and lay flat on her back under the rows of tailored suits that she had collected from years of public speaking. Hours passed and she fell asleep. That night, she dreamed of Jesus. He was so beautiful, his body lean and well-muscled, his eyes kindly and wise. When she finally dared to look up at him, he took her face between her hands and kissed her long and hard. The next morning, she woke flushed and confused, heart thundering. Could a dream be sacrilegious? But it had been so wonderful, that kiss!
She stumbled down the stairs and ran outside, expecting to find Corson’s truck back in the garage, but there was only a large oil spot in its place. On the other side of the garage, his workbench sagged in the middle from where his bulk had rested on it so many evenings. She noticed that he’d taken his toolbox with him, along with the equipment that usually hung on the wall over his head—handsaws and sandpaper and gleaming drill bits.
Opening the garage door, she stepped out into the humid morning. A whippoorwill called from the rosemary bush in the herb garden she kept by the side of the driveway. She moved towards the garden. Pushing aside the leaves of a tomato plant, she plucked a small fruit from the vine, felt its face smooth as a baby. She tightened her hand around it until it burst, its insides wet against her palm.
Later that day, Laney returned home to find Brin still kneeling in the dirt of her herb garden. She had pulled up all the plants at the roots. Her mother announced that Corson had left them. Laney wondered where Corson would stay that night. Once, when they had passed Happy Buddha on their way home from church, Corson had told her it would be his last supper if the Lord gave him any forewarning. She imagined him there now, ordering a plate of the hot oil dumplings, curling up to sleep beneath the red paper dragons propped on the Formica dining tables.
“Why couldn’t he see the glory of the world he was being offered?” Brin asked, sifting soil through her fingers. “All that glory, right in front of him, and he turned away.”
She scooped the ruined plants together, smelling the lemony basil leaves, the piney rosemary. She held a branch of oregano tight in her fist. She had liked the look of them outside her house, their perfect, tiny leaves and the immaculate white flowers that turned up on the untrimmed stalks. She thought of the lasagna her mother had made every Sunday, its browned crust like a protective shell, the tender noodles and bright red sauce beneath it, flecked with dried herbs. After church, the family—cousins, uncles, some neighbors—took seconds and thirds until it was all gone, washing it down with Coke or root beer, the TV on in the background, some football game. The whole house smelling of burnt cheese. The sloppy chaos of that life. Brin tipped her head forward so her chin touched her chest; she closed her eyes and listened to the silence of her hovering daughter, her absent husband.
At school the next day, Laney felt eerily alert. It was the seventh and final day of the fast. It was as if being emptied of food allowed her to be filled up with everything else—facts about the Whiskey Rebellion, special triangles, whole passages of Lord of the Flies catching and sticking in her gray matter like bluebottles to fly tape. She nearly cried when Mrs. Smith read the passage about Piggy falling to his death on the rocks. Piggy and his ass-mar. How could people be so cruel, she wondered. People younger than she was. Her mother would say it was because Piggy was fat, and being fat meant he was weak, and that people reacted cruelly to perceived weakness. Laney felt like that wasn’t what the author had in mind when wrote about Piggy’s brains being dashed on the rocks; that he hadn’t meant to be punitive. She looked out the window and watched the tops of the live oaks rustling, their leaves waxy in the late spring sunlight.
The bell rang, reverberating inside her ribcage. Leaving the classroom, she let herself be pushed down the hallway by the crowd of students. She smelled someone’s peppermint gum, the lavender sweetness of a clean cotton shirt. Out the door, down the steps that led away from the rotunda and out to the student parking lot, one step, another, then another. The sky was a bright May blue, the sun cutting a direct line to her eyes. She stopped, closed her lids against it. She thought of her father, skeletal and small in his hospital bed. In the white light of the Texas sun, Laney felt him there with her. How much she had missed him in the first years after he’d left, like the insane hunger in the early days of a fast. Now she just felt empty.
She heard Marshall’s voice behind her.
“Babe? You ok?”
She turned to him.
“No, I don’t think I am,” she said. She was so dizzy. She swayed, then fell into him.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Laney, what’s wrong with you?”
She wrapped her arms around his neck. Then she opened her mouth wide and pressed her tongue and then her teeth hard against the cords of his neck. He cried out, but even then, she didn’t let go.
3 July, 2014
by Grant Gerald Miller