When I meet the five-hundred-pound man he’s sitting on a hospital bed wearing jeans and a t-shirt. He’s graying, balding, and looks to be about sixty, the same age as my father.
I clear my throat and say hello.
He squints up at me.
“Missy,” he says, “there’s not enough fat on you to fry bacon.”
It’s hard to decide how to react to those comments. I’m five-foot-six and eighty pounds, so most people wonder why I’m still alive. Because I’m tired and trying to be pleasant I give the fat man a white paper gown and ask if he could put it on while I leave the room.
“I’ll need two of them,” he says, “one for each side and one for the middle.”
I see he’s not kidding, get two more paper gowns from a closet near the bathroom and tell him I’ll be back in a moment to get his blood pressure and a blood sample.
I work the night shift, eleven to seven, in the intensive care nursery, but I have to do a double shift this week, fill in for a friend who works in the ward with gastric bypass patients from seven to three. I don’t get any sympathy when I complain to the residents, those doctors-in-training who work thirty-hour shifts, but it’s still a long day.
“Call me Mr. Chicken,” says the fat man when I strap on the blood pressure cuff. “You know how I got to be this size? For years I was a competitive eater. Corn dogs, cheesecake, popcorn, baked beans, pizza, and chicken wings. I ate it all and ate it fast. Then I got old. The fingers didn’t work so well. I lost my edge.” He pats his gut. “Course my stomach was still demanding.”
I imagine him stuffing slice after slice of pizza into his mouth and cringe. I hate feeling too full. He beams at my reaction, keeps talking.
“Now the doctor says I have to make my stomach smaller or I’ll die. This stomach is who I am, missy, it’s been my livelihood, but now it’s going to kill me if I don’t lose weight.” He pauses and blinks at me. “How the hell do you keep alive, anyway?”
“Twenty boxes of chocolate a day,” I say. “It all goes to my hips.” I smirk at him. But sometimes I wonder how my body sustains itself with toothpick legs and chopstick arms. I eat as much as normal people.
“Somebody needs to teach you how to really eat,” Mr. Chicken says, “fatten up those limbs.” He rings my wrist with his forefinger and thumb, a soft and oddly gentle bracelet. It feels too parental. I want to shake off his hand, but I don’t because Mr. Chicken looks at me with soft eyes, compassion and interest rather than disgust. Most people either can’t bear to see at me or stare too long.
My mother died three days after I was born. My father bottle-fed me formula while walking in tight circles around the bakery where he and my grandparents worked. The bakery where my mother had frosted wedding cakes for ten years. I was raised in that bakery, woke at two in the morning when my father and grandparents began their day.
My earliest memories are of heat, being three years old and sitting in a booster seat in the rear of the kitchen, watching my father and grandparents wave at me as they rushed from the ovens to the front counter to the metal cooling racks, pausing to give me sweet rolls and cookies and cupcakes. They worried over me with food because I did not have normal toddler fat, but their hugs were brief because they had to keep working, waiting on customers and ovens. Even when they could pause to give me attention, I refused anything more than a short embrace, fussed because I knew an oven timer was buzzing or a customer was waiting at the front counter. I didn’t want to be a bother. I knew my father and grandparents were so busy because there should have been four pairs of hands instead of three.
When I wasn’t in that kitchen I was cold. So was my father. He was thin, but not so bad as me. In the evenings we sat side by side on the couch, shivering under layers of quilts.
After work I walk three blocks from the hospital to the bakery.
“Have a good day?” my father says.
He kisses my cheek with cool lips but doesn’t wait for an answer; another tray is coming out of the oven. My grandfather stuffs two bakery bags in my hands. He is still working even though he is almost eighty and can’t carry full trays of donuts and cookies, but he shapes loaves, frost rolls, and minds the register.
I stand in the back of the kitchen for a couple moments to breathe in the warmth, hold it in my lungs, but it’s gone by the time I’ve walked two blocks to my apartment. I rest the white bags on the counter until evening when I take them to work, arrange pastries on trays at the nurses’ station and in the room where parents whose babies are in the neonatal nursery sit to chat and hope and grieve.
Late at night, when no one else is around, I want to open the incubators and touch the babies, their grasping hands and bloated stomachs. The babies are attached to a tangle of wires and tubes that monitor their heart rate and blood pressure and give them drugs intravenously. They look so tiny, so lost, it is hard to resist the temptation to take them out of their small warm boxes, cradle them in my arms. But I know my touch would only make them cold.
The day after I meet Mr. Chicken he has to fast in preparation for the following day’s surgery. He’s very cranky by the time I arrive to check his vital signs.
“They’re going to wear me down to nothing before I get the operation, missy,” he says. “Run to the cafeteria and get me something to eat.”
“There can’t be anything in your stomach before surgery, Mr. Chicken,” I say. “The surgeons don’t want nasty surprises.”
“They’re gonna get some nasty surprises if I don’t get some food soon,” mutters Mr. Chicken. “I’ll stage a takeover of the nurses’ lounge or wherever you ladies keep your lunches.”
My stomach growls because I haven’t had lunch, either.
“There you go, missy.” Mr Chicken grabs my hand. “You need to eat same as me.” He looks me up and down. “Probably more.”
I leave Mr. Chicken’s room to attend to the patient in the next room. Two people walking down the hall — a middle-aged wife and her husband perhaps? — slow down and stare at me. Their gaze makes my fingers feel colder. This is why I work at night, to avoid the proliferation of eyes.
After work I go to my father’s small house and we make dinner. I care for my father when I can because he is often weary, does a lot of heavy lifting and the strain wears him. We eat together before I go back to my apartment for bed.
“You shouldn’t do this,” he says. “You’re working longer hours than me.”
“It’s okay,” I say because this schedule will only last for a couple more days, and because the purple moons beneath his eyes are darker than mine. My father has always worked for two. have to remind him to slow down, though I know he won’t listen.
In the intensive care nursery I do heel sticks, take a little blood from each baby’s foot to make sure they are getting enough oxygen but not too much. The babies squirm a little, but most don’t cry. Too small. Too weak. Too tired.
I remember seeing a picture of an old-time freak show, a skeleton woman like me standing beside one of the first incubators, her thin, protective hand on the glass. Inside the clear box was a little girl baby in a white dress. No hospital had been willing to support the radical idea of incubators, so the inventor doctor took them to sideshows, exhibited little babies like toys in a store display window. In that picture, the skeleton woman’s eyes were hard as bone. You could see her looking back and forth from the baby to the crowd. I knew she stood there every day beside those tiny babies. She stared back at the people who whispered how she looked like death. She stared back at the people who wondered if the baby was merely a doll. She was there to protect them. I wish I had that sort of courage, could stare back at people who stared at me. I wish I could do more to protect the babies.
When I arrive at Mr. Chicken’s room at nine in the morning he is still waiting, fasting. His blood count was too low to perform the gastric bypass earlier, so his doctor ordered medication and hopes to perform surgery the next day.
“I’m gonna take a bite out of the bed soon,” says Mr. Chicken when I refill his water glass.
I clock out at three-thirty in the afternoon, had to stay late and catch up on paperwork. I start to trudge home, but on my way through the parking lot I find Mr. Chicken waddling past rows of cars.
“I’m leaving, missy,” he says. “Me and my stomach need some grub. I changed my mind. Gonna keep the damn thing.” He’s perspiring, smells of sugar and sweat.
“Mr. Chicken,” I say, trying to grab the car keys from his hand with my thin fingers, “you’re not in a state to drive. You’ve just been fasting.”
“Fine then, missy,” he says, handing me the keys, “you drive.”
“I’ve been up for sixteen hours,” I say. “I was walking home.”
“Then I’ll drive,” he says, taking the keys back. “I’m fine, missy, got enough padding in my rear to live off for a week.” He opens the door of a blue Lincoln Towncar with the front seat pushed all the way back. I’m not sure how he manages to shoehorn himself in, but he rests his stomach on the wheel like it helps him steer. Mr. Chicken stares at me then glances to the passenger seat.
“You’re coming, missy,” he says, “we’re going to get food.” He smiles a tired smile. His eyes are soft. Parental. He knows what it’s like to be stared at.
“I have to get home,” I say.
“Get in,” he says, holding out his hand to me. “Real food, you need some real food. I don’t know what the hell you’ve been eating. Spaghetti noodles and slim jims. Maybe licorice ropes. You need to get some meat on you. We’ll go to Big Wilson’s and I’ll buy you a good meal. It’s been too long since I taught someone how to really eat.”
I don’t know why I get into his car. Stupid. But I’m exhausted. My logic is muddled. I’m trained to care for people. I must care for Mr. Chicken. I have to help him whittle his body down to a manageable size. He can’t leave the hospital alone. If I go with him I can make him turn around, convince him to return after we get dinner. When he’s full Mr. Chicken will be more reasonable. He’ll understand the surgery is necessary for him to stay alive.
I slide in the passenger door, put on the seatbelt. Mr. Chicken hums as he drives. The car is at a bit of a diagonal, slopes toward his side, and it smells of fried things. I glance at him, worried because he needs drastic treatment, but Mr. Chicken doesn’t realize this. He radiates heat like a small sun. It is a sort of comfort after working all day in the chill of the hospital.
We drive for ten minutes. Twenty minutes. A half hour.
Mr. Chicken tells me his wife left him when he hit four hundred pounds. He says she didn’t understand the art of eating, how it’s an endurance sport, how the twentieth slice of pizza can be like the twentieth mile in a marathon. Mr. Chicken took his son out to eat when he was little, but his wife didn’t like it, thought it was unhealthy.
“I was training him for eating,” says Mr. Chicken. “He had the talent even when he was a kid. I knew he was going to be a big guy like me, but he left when the wife did. I kept busy after that. Had girlfriends on the competitive eating circuit. All big women, big eaters.”
I fidget. Mr. Chicken must have been one of those fathers who doom their kids to heart disease. I hate parents like that. What does his son look like now?
Mr. Chicken keeps driving. I get a little worried. Have I been kidnapped by a five-hundred-pound man?
“Where are we going?” I say.
“To Big Wilson’s,” he says. “It takes a while, but it’s worth it. That’s the place where I took my son, you know. He’s thirty-five now, maybe close to your age. I think he has a couple kids–”
“I can’t be out too long,” I say. “I have to make sure my father gets dinner. Someone has to look after him.”
“We’ll take him leftovers,” says Mr. Chicken. “Don’t worry about it, missy. Worry has worn you down to the bone. I can tell.”
We’ve been driving for an hour. At least we’re staying on main highways. At least he is large and I am lithe, could escape if I needed to. Is there enough money in my purse for cab fare?
Mr. Chicken watches me. “Hold your skinny horses,” he says. “We’re almost there.”
We get to Big Wilson’s a little before five-thirty. It’s a diner, white and shoebox-shaped with a big red neon Big Wilson’s sign and minivans parked around it like flower petals. Mr. Chicken wrests himself out of the car, walks around to the passenger side so he can grab my hand and waddle me to the restaurant door. He wheezes and I tense, ready for him to collapse, ready to start CPR.
A thin man with white hair and veins that twine around his arms greets us. He’s maybe eighty years old. He grips Mr. Chicken’s thick hand and shakes it up and down so hard the fat on Mr. Chicken’s arm sways like a dancer’s hips.
“Haven’t see you in months. Where you been?” says the old man.
“I’ve been doing time in the hospital,” says Mr. Chicken. “Today I liberated myself and brought a friend to meet you. This girl needs some real food. Missy, this is Mr. Wilson.”
Mr. Wilson reaches out his hand and I extend mine to shake, but he grabs my wrist instead and puts his fingers around it.
“God love ya, lady,” he says, “have you eaten anything these past ten years? You’re gonna get a sundae on the house.”
Mr. Chicken drags me to a table, puts two small plastic chairs side by side and sits on both of them, wheezing just a bit from his dash. I glance around the restaurant and see other people who are almost but not quite as large as him. I sit beside Mr. Chicken, across from a relatively slim elderly woman and her husband.
“You folks want to share some food?” Mr. Chicken says.
They nod. There are handshakes all around. The older man is Floyd. He wears a baseball cap from a seed company. The elderly lady with a cottonball poof of hair is Betty. The restaurant is like Mr. Chicken’s car — small and warm and close. I slip my teal blouse off my shoulders, reveal the white tank top underneath. Floyd and Betty both smile at me and wrinkle concerned noses at the sight of my collarbones.
“We’re here to fatten my friend up,” says Mr. Chicken. When the waiter comes to our table, Mr. Chicken orders a cheeseburger and fries and onion rings. While we wait for our food, Betty tells us about their grandchildren. Floyd tells us about their miniature daschunds. I tell them about my job working with premature babies. After a while they don’t look at me like they’re concerned I might faint at any minute.
It takes a half hour for the server to bring our food—a plate with a cheeseburger that’s about two feet in diameter. I’m so surprised I can’t breathe. The burger must weight fifteen pounds. There’s maybe nine pounds of meat, who knows how many slices of cheese and tomato, and a whole head of lettuce leaves on top. It comes with a bread knife to cut it. The gallon buckets of fries and onion rings are right behind.
“The breaded fish sandwiches are really good, too,” says Mr. Chicken as he cuts slices of cheeseburger for everyone. “Eight pounds of flaked cod.”
Mr. Chicken places a wedge of cheeseburger on my paper plate, adds a handful of fries, one of onion rings, and slathers them with ketchup before setting the plate in front of me and handing me a napkin.
“Complete strangers come here, share a meal, and end up exchanging Christmas cards,” says Mr. Chicken.
At the table we have to sit close, partly because it’s not very big and partly because Mr. Chicken is very big. We bump knees and elbows, but it’s not uncomfortable. Mr. Chicken eats delicately, tearing of bites of bun and meat between his thumb and forefinger.
“I’m learning to make it last, missy,” he says, “that’s what my doctor told me to do, not wolf everything down.” Still he consumes a third of the burger and half of the fries and onion rings. Seeing him eat so much reminds me that I need to get him back to the hospital. I worry over my father and what he might be eating, wish he were here to share the meal since I can barely finish what’s on my plate. Betty touches my hand across the table and tells me to eat more. Mr. Wilson brings out the ice cream sundae–twenty scoops of vanilla ice cream with a jar of hot fudge sauce, a jar of caramel sauce, a whole can of whipped cream, and a maraschino cherry on top. At the end of the meal there is a bulge in my stomach that looks like an olive on a toothpick. I have never been this full, felt this sick and happy at the same time.
We finish the meal at seven, spend another five minutes wrapping up leftovers and paying for the food.
“If my kid were here, were could have polished off everything,” says Mr. Chicken.
I hug Betty and Floyd before we leave, get their phone number because at the moment it seems like I might want to call them someday. As we lumber to the car Mr. Chicken is sweating and I have heartburn, a pain in my chest near my throat. I imagine he feels just as bad. Mr. Chicken needs to get that pressure of weight off his body. His knees and ankles must ache something awful.
Mr. Chicken pulls his car out of the parking lot, but instead of turning back south, where we came from, he keeps driving north. There isn’t much out here, just the cafe and cornfields and occasional gas station.
“We have to get back to the hospital,” I say, but Mr. Chicken keeps driving.
“Not yet,” he says.
“You need to get back in bed,” I say, “and I have to be to work in four hours. I’m exhausted.”
“Then sleep,” he says. “Call in sick. You look half sick anyway. You need time to let that cheeseburger settle on your bones.”
“We need to go back,” I repeat more loudly. “You need to have surgery. It could be a life and death matter.”
Mr. Chicken keeps driving.
At the next stop sign I unbuckle my seatbelt, open the passenger door, get out and start walking alongside a ditch, back to Big Wilson’s where I figure there must be a phone.
“Where are you going?” Mr. Chicken calls out the door.
“To the hospital,” I yell. “Since it doesn’t look like you’re going to take me there. I can’t make you get surgery, but I have to do my job.”
He makes a U-turn and follows me.
“Don’t be silly, missy,” he calls from the far side of the road. “Come on. We’ll get you home soon enough.”
The night air is chilly compared to the car. I shiver a little.
“It’s a good six miles back to Big Wilson’s,” he says. “You shouldn’t be walking that far, missy, not as beat as you are.”
I’m so tired I’m dizzy, but I keep plodding beside the ditch. Mr. Chicken patiently follows, driving in the left lane with the hazard lights on. I stumble once or twice and am afraid I’ll teeter into the ditch. After twenty minutes I look both ways and cross the street, get back into the car.
Mr. Chicken smiles at me, pats my knee, and does another U-turn.
“I thought we were going back to town,” I say, my hand on the door handle. “I’m getting out again.”
“Calm down, missy,” he says. “I’m not going to hurt you. I fed you, remember? We won’t be much longer. Ten minutes. I promise.”
The car is warm and I’m so tired.
I dream I’m at work, clutching a Styrofoam cup of coffee and looking over the rows of incubators. I wonder if I could open one of the incubator doors, wonder if I could touch the babies and not chill them. I leave the coffee cup at the nurses’ station, walk to an incubator, touch the clear plastic cube. In my dream my hands are still warm. I can give that heat to the babies who are like me, too small. I dream I can make their sparse bodies fill out so they are plump and healthy.
I jerk awake when the car stops.
We’re parked in the driveway of a small white house. Mr. Chicken unbuckles his seatbelt, gets out of the car.
“We have to get back to the hospital,” I say, but there’s no force behind the words. The house reminds me of the one my dad and I lived in when I was little, boxy and prefabricated.
“This is the house we bought when we were first married,” says Mr. Chicken. “We had a good twenty years here, me and the wife and kid. It was cozy. We fit real nice.”
He gets out of the car and walks around to my side, opens the door.
“Mr. Chicken,” I say, “you’re in bad shape. You need help.”
“I told you I don’t want it, missy.” He grabs my hand, pulls me out of my seat. I think about resisting but let him tow me along, worry the people who own the house will come out and yell at us and I’ll need to explain Mr. Chicken, ask the homeowners to call an ambulance and take us both back to the hospital.
Mr. Chicken and I waddle through the grass, around the house, where we find a ten-foot-high wooden swing set.
“I built that for my boy,” he says, “when he was just two years old. I was two hundred and seventy-five pounds then.”
A light flicks on in the living room. Behind a sliding glass door a woman watches us. Mr. Chicken smiles and waves. I wave, too. The woman stares, head cocked, doesn’t move. I guess a five-hundred-pound man and a seventy-pound woman standing by her swing set looks too strange to be threatening.
Mr. Chicken places his hand on the swing set frame and takes a deep breath. He is smiling. I am still full, but not uncomfortable anymore.
“Sit on a swing, missy,” he says.
I do, grabbing the ropes tight. Mr. Chicken pushes me with his large soft hands, higher and higher until I feel like I could loop the bar. The woman keeps watching. Mr. Chicken stops pushing, leans against the wooden frame of the swing set and I can feel the shift in the structure, the tilt from his weight.
I don’t know which would be worse–to be confined to a boulder of a body, or the hell of half-cup portions and vitamin pills for the rest of his life. After the surgery he’d never want to go back to Big Wilson’s. It would be too painful.
I swing to a stop and it’s nearly dark, but the air doesn’t feel cold.
Together we walk out of the backyard. My watch reads eight-thirty. At least when we get back into the car Mr. Chicken turns us south so we’re heading home, heading to the hospital. Outside the night is navy blue, broken by the occasional streetlamp. The car is even warmer than before, smells of sugar and chocolate. Mr. Chicken’s nose whistles rhythmically as he breathes.
I wake up when we bump over a curb into the driveway of another small house. It’s too dark to see the color.
“I need to get to work,” I say. “Drop me off. I won’t miss much of my shift.”
“Nothing doing, missy,” he says. “You’re too tired. You could hurt somebody. Give ‘Ëœem the wrong drug or something.”
I think of the babies, fifteen of them who are under my care, their fragile bodies and grasping hands.
“You need to come with me,” I say.
Mr. Chicken gets out, stumbles a little. He looks back at me.
“I’m doing what I’m doing, missy,” he says. “This is my pad. We’re not trespassing or anything.”
“I’m not coming,” I say. “I need to get to work.”
“I told you, call and tell them you’re sick.”
I feel sick.
“I can’t,” I say. My stomach and my head are both full. I grip the dashboard until he comes over to the passenger side door, tugs on my arm with his thick hand.
“You’re beat.” His shoulders slump.
“I’m not moving until you take me back to work,” I say.
“Have it your way.” He waddles toward the house. I stay in the car as it loses its warmth, becomes cool as the night. I get colder and less belligerent, slog to his front door and end up sitting on the couch in Mr. Chicken’s living room as he lumbers into the kitchen. I hear him clinking bowls, opening and shutting cupboards, whirring electric eggbeaters. There are pictures on the mantel, plump men and women and kids. I wonder who they are.
Ten minutes later he comes back in the living room with two bowls and gives me one. Raw chocolate chip cookie dough.
“I know you had dessert earlier,” he says, sitting beside me, “but this is real dessert. Eat a bowl of this every day and you’ll be plump as a four-year-old kid in no time. The egg is good for your hair.”
“I don’t like raw cookie dough,” I say.
“Nonsense,” he says, “everyone likes raw cookie dough. My kid and I liked dough better than the cookies.”
“Not me,” I say, “it’s too gritty. The egg can give you salmonella. I’m a nurse. I’m supposed to warn people about these things.”
“Now the beauty of raw cookie dough,” says Mr. Chicken, “is that you can taste each separate part. The butter and white sugar and brown sugar and egg and flour and vanilla and chocolate chips. Once you bake them, you can’t tell one part from the other.” He takes a glob of raw cookie dough on his spoon, puts it in his mouth, closes his eyes in pleasure. “You don’t even have to chew it much,” he says after he swallows.
“It’s disgusting,” I say.
“It isn’t,” he says, leaning over and taking the spoon out of my bowl. “You don’t have to eat a lot on your first bite,” he says, aiming the spoon for my mouth.
I keep my lips tightly closed.
“Come on,” he says, “just a little bit. It won’t hurt you.” His eyes are calm, crinkle at me encouragingly.
I open my mouth and accept the spoonful of dough, roll it around on my tongue, feel the sandy texture of the sugar, the chalkiness of the flour, the sweetness of the vanilla and chocolate. It isn’t as bad as I remembered. Mr. Chicken eats a second spoonful from his bowl and gives me another small spoonful from mine, back and forth.
I think of the skeleton woman from the carnival picture, the tiny baby she guarded from those gawking crowds. I know that every night she opened the door of the incubator and touched the baby’s head with her thin fingers. She wanted to make sure the baby was still breathing, still living. She wanted to touch the baby’s delicate skin as a mother would. She knew she could care for the baby because she understood frailty, because they had the same human skin.
Mr. Chicken cradles the spoon with his thick fingers, holds it to my lips just so, and when I open my mouth he slides the cookie dough in carefully.
“There we go,” he says. “Now this is real food. Real eating.”
His hand trembles a little. He waits until I draw back, leave the spoon clean, before eating another bite of dough from his own bowl.
You wouldn’t think such large hands could work so delicately. I fold my own hands in my lap, feel a slight warmth in my fingertips.