What you need is to return to that day twenty-something years ago and kick the fat guy out of your mom’s living room. That morning she set up a table for you along the curb in front of your house with two dozen blueberry muffins so you could have a muffin stand. You’d never heard of a kid with a muffin stand, but your mom said they were great muffins and she was sure you’d sell a lot. You agreed that they were great muffins, but you knew she wanted to get you outside since her fat boyfriend was coming over and you didn’t like him. He smelled of onions and looked at you like you were a puppy that just peed on the rug.
You didn’t mind that your parents had divorced and your dad moved to Georgia. You liked spending winter vacation in Atlanta, and when your parents were married, dinners involved either screaming or long, itchy silences.
Your mother’s new boyfriend, however, was not an improvement.
You sat at your card table muffin stand with your hands folded behind your small metal cash box. You tried to look professional, but it was boring as hell. You remember thinking that clearly, because hell was one of the words you mother wished you didn’t know.
After twenty minutes with no business you wondered when you’d get your first sale and if you’d have to wait until people went on lunch break. Then a blue station wagon pulled into the driveway. A guy in a suit and tie jumped out and said he’d buy all your muffins because he was supposed to bring something for the breakfast meeting at work.
If you let him buy all the muffins, go to Option A.
If you raised the price and tried to get more money, go to Option B.
A. You were happy to sell him all two dozen muffins because you could cross the street to Frankie’s house and hang out with him and his older brother Mike. Frankie wasn’t your favorite person, but your Mom said he and Mike were juvenile delinquents and a bad influence. That was the main reason you were at his house so much Frankie, that and the huge skateboard ramp they had in the backyard. You and Frankie careened up and down the ramp on his bike, picking up as much speed as you could, but then Frankie dared you to launch the bike and yourself up and over the top of the ramp. You couldn’t refuse him. It sounded like an awesome idea until you came down on the concrete walkway behind the ramp, bashing your head on the cement.
You spent two weeks in the hospital with a concussion, and blame the accident for your tendency to become desperately attached to things. It must have shoved a few nodes around in your brain. You weren’t a clingy child until you came home from the hospital and birthed a need for a security towel and a stuffed rhinoceros named Bud and a lucky rabbit’s foot.
Your mother went to the opposite end of the spectrum. She’s had a constant stream of boyfriends that she uses like chewing gum, sometimes two in one month. You’ve seen her latest guy for fifteen minutes-he’s much younger than your mom, paints houses, and has dark hair like a modern-day gypsy. He’s pretty cute and you’d date him if he didn’t seem like the love-’em-and-leave-’em type, the kind of guy your mother seeks and you can’t stand.
But now you’re concerned with more important things than romantic relationships, namely your sick cat. You won’t let her die, though she’s cost you two boyfriends. They said you showered too much attention and money her, but you’re sure they were jealous.
Your cat is sixteen, diabetic, arthritic, and needs a bunch of medications. You got her when you were fourteen and she was ten weeks old. She’s the most patient creature on earth. You can hug her and cry on her and wipe your eyes on her fur and she sits there looking placid. You can’t let her die. Ever.
If you take your cat to your mother’s for babysitting and to see if her boyfriend is around, go to option F.
If you take your cat to the vet for more medications, go to Option G.
G. Your cat even looks placid as you tuck her in the carrier. She’s been coughing lately, weak little kitty coughs, and it makes you worried. You explain this to the vet. She listens to your cat’s heart and says your cat needs yet another kind of medication.
“The drug will keep her around for a while longer,” says the vet, “but it’s expensive and will have some nasty side effects. She’ll lose most of her bladder control.” The vet strokes your cat slowly and doesn’t look at you. “You might consider letting her go.”
You want to scream at the vet that she doesn’t understand, but your cat coughs twice. You peer down at her, know her fur is dirty and matted because she can’t clean herself as well as she used to. She doesn’t move a lot, just from her bed to her food dish to her water dish, but you love to pick her up and sit with her on the couch. She purrs and eats treats from your hand.
But if she feels like shit she won’t be able to tell you. Cats are too good at hiding pain.
If you decide the vet is right and you should say good-bye to your kitty, go to Option E.
If you decide to get the medication for your cat, go to Option F.
E. What? Are you crazy? You can’t let your cat die. Ever.
Go to Option F.
F. You whip out your credit card to save your cat, buy drugs to fix her heart and blood pressure and whatever else is wrong. You take her home and cuddle on the couch, watching TV. You don’t want to leave her alone when you go to work, so you take her to your mother’s house instead.
Your mother sits at the kitchen table breakfasting on dry toast and chamomile tea. She always eats like she has the flu, but claims it’s her delicate stomach. She’s clipping coupons, an act that’s somehow fulfilling. You don’t question it though your mother’s purse is a nest of coupons that expired five years ago. Your mom agrees to look after your cat while you’re at work, even smiles at you over her coupon pile. You think she’s lost weight over the past few years, become disturbingly skinny.
If you’re worried about your mother’s health, go to Option H
If you know she’ll ignore whatever warnings you give her, go to Option I.
H. You’re about to say something to your mother about her weight when your cat starts coughing. These aren’t her normal coughs, but loud hacks that makes her sound like she might cough up a lung. You try to take her out of her cat carrier but she shakes too violently for you to manage.
You tell your mother to call the vet, peer in the carrier while you hear your mother yell at the receptionist: “I don’t know what’s going on, dammit, but this poor cat is spasming in my kitchen and my daughter is freaking out and–”
That’s when you cat stops coughing. That’s when your cat is still. That’s when you know she’s not there anymore. You let out a wail that makes your mother say “Oh fuck” for what might be the first time in her life. She slams down the phone and collapses beside you on the floor, hugging you tight like she thinks your heart might fall on the pink ceramic tile.
Your mother pulls you back to a sitting position so you’re not crouched with your head halfway in the carrier. She rocks you with a determination you didn’t know existed in her frail arms. You cry. She calls into work for you and says there’s been a death in the family and you won’t be in a for a few days.
Your mother takes your cat out of the carrier and wraps her in a towel and washes the carrier with hot water in the bathtub and makes you cinnamon toast with a lot of butter and sugar like she did when you were little and needed to be cheered up. You huddle on the couch wrapped in a quilt, feeling thoroughly eight years old. Your mother brings the plate and you think her face and arms looked more rounded, like they did when you were young.
I. After lunch your mother calls you at work to say your kitty died. She wrapped the body in a towel and put it in a shoebox. She says she could help you bury the cat, but she has a date tonight.
“I could cancel,” she says, but it doesn’t sound like she wants to.
You tell her not to worry about it.
After work you go to your mother’s empty house and find the shoebox on the kitchen table. There’s a note from your mother saying you can bury the cat in the front yard beside the roses. You want to look at your cat again but don’t have the heart to, so you just dig the hole.
When you’re finished with the burial you go inside and sit at your mom’s kitchen table and eat two stale powdered sugar donuts. You go to the fridge for milk, and ponder how the front of your mom’s refrigerator is disturbingly white. There are no pictures, pizza place coupons, or grocery lists. Just white metal. Her whole house is like that. Plain white. It feels blank and oppressive.
Because it’s Friday and you don’t know what to do but cry, you get in your car and drive sixteen hours to see your dad in Georgia. He’s plump and happy and hasn’t had a girlfriend since he split with your mom. He sends you nice birthday and Christmas gifts, calls you every week, and when he finds you standing on his porch ready to keel over, he hustles you inside to the guest bedroom. You sleep until eight at night, then he takes you out for Italian. You cry on your baked ziti and he pats your back. Your dad bought you that cat, and knew you loved it.
“It’s okay, honey,” he says. “Get those tears out of your system.”
You hug your dad. He’s terrifically happy and well-adjusted and loves living alone in his two-bedroom house. He says it took a long time for him to figure out he’s not the marrying type, but now he’s so content that you feel betrayed. He’s not rejecting you, though it feels that way.
After dinner your dad takes you out for ice cream and asks if you want a new cat. You say yes, but not right now. You mush your spoon in your hot caramel sundae and wonder if your mom is on a date another boyfriend. You realize you don’t care. The boyfriend won’t matter. Do her boyfriends ever realize that? Do they care about being dumped so quickly, or do they shrug your mom off like she shrugs them off? How very fucking awful.
You dad touches your hand across the table. “Is your ice cream okay? Did you want to order something different?”
You shake your head and stuff a spoonful of ice cream in your mouth. You want to be more sure of this decision, this sundae, than you have ever been of anything in your entire life.
B. You said the price just went up to a dollar a muffin. The guy muttered about crook kids and how everyone was a cutthroat, but he bought a dozen muffins so you had a dozen left. You were happy with that since you didn’t have anything better to do than sell muffins.
That day you made more money than you ever had before, so perhaps it’s logical that you ended up working in a bakery. It pays more than other jobs you’ve had, like babysitting the kid in the wheelchair. You pushed him to the park and played checkers and got very strong. That job paid more than the time you spent working at the ice cream parlor, where you got the best biceps ever, but every day after work you wanted to go home and eat a huge steak.
Those jobs kept you active and trim. The bakery job has been bad for your waistline, since you get to eat all the day-old cookies and donuts you want. Part of that is to relieve the stress of working paycheck to paycheck, and worrying about your car payment and monthly rent. To earn more money you’d need a college degree, and you don’t have the funds or time or stamina to sit in a classroom full of people ten years younger than you. The other problem is your best friend owns the bakery, thinks you do a great job at the front counter, and loves how you frost cookies and rolls.
On the bright side, your cat likes your lap much more now that you’re soft, and she spends long periods of time cuddling with you after work. Your father says you were always too spindly for your own good, and you look much better since you have meat on your bones.
But you don’t have a boyfriend, which is part of the reason why weight loss has become a compulsion for you. At least thinking about it. You’re making another pointless vow to go cold turkey on sugar cookies when the fat lady and skeleton man walk into the bakery. The fat lady must be about sixty, the same age as your mother but four times her size. She wears a white satin dress and looks like a moving mound of whipped cream. The thin man appears to be made of chopsticks and tissue paper, and sports a tux that could fit a scarecrow. He smiles and asks for three dozen chocolate chocolate chip cookies and three dozen peanut butter cookies.
“We were just married,” says the fat lady. “I thought wedding cookies would be nicer than wedding cake.”
You load their arms with bags of cookies. The fat lady moves with the grace of a parade float as she takes the thin man’s hand and steers him out of the bakery.
If the incident made you more worried about your weight, go to Option C.
If the incident made you feel like a beanpole, go to Option D.
C. The fat lady was elegant, yet reminded you of your worried mother and the history of heart disease on her side of the family. She’s always been a slim woman and lost weight with age, gaining sharp knees and elbows, but she had a heart attack six months ago. The doctors say her arteries are genetically disposed to clog.
Your mother is in physical therapy and didn’t have lasting damage, but the incident made her freak out about your weight. You’ve absorbed her fears, so seeing the fat lady sends you into a near-panic. How could someone weigh so much? Could you be that size someday? But your dad Georgia adds a sheen of butter to everything he cooks, and is a healthy candidate for a shopping mall Santa. Your mother is a beanpole with cardiac disease. You figure this will all come down to whose genes you received in the heredity lotto.
You dwell on the fat lady all afternoon, but when you get home and peer at yourself in the full-length mirror on your bedroom door, you think you look small. That’s never happened before. You don’t feel bad about the second cookie you had at lunch today. You don’t feel bad about the extra spoonful of mashed potatoes you have when you go to your mother’s house for dinner, though she looks at you with hard eyes. She didn’t remarry after divorcing your father, says she isn’t the marrying type, but she doesn’t have many friends. You worry she’s lonely.
You think about her when the fat lady comes in the next day for more cookies. She pants when she reaches the counter, but smiles and says, “My knees and ankles don’t like me much anymore, but what can I do?” The fat lady orders two dozen sour cream sugar cookies. She’s so happy. So unlike your mother.
The fat lady reminds you of your stepmother, a sweet woman with wide hips who golfs and makes lemon bars and decorated your father’s house in teal and violet. She and your dad give you plane tickets for Christmas and make huge meals and take you out dancing to clubs where they bounce with you around on the floor.
You’ve known you were graceless since the age of seven when you begged your mother to enroll you in ballet lessons. You wanted to wear ballet shoes and a filmy skirt and be beautiful, but you begged her to get out of the classes even faster. Your feet didn’t obey you or your teacher, which started an ongoing war with your disobedient body. Your father and stepmother don’t take excuses, say you’re a great dancer and beautiful beautiful, beautiful. They send you home with gifts in your suitcase and three more pounds hugging your hips.
Your mother is content to stew during the holidays, says she doesn’t care if you go to Georgia, and you worry she’s being honest. The one time you tried to take her to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, she said she’d have an awful time because heights made her nauseated. She used to be sweet and enjoy summers on the shore of Lake Michigan. You’re not sure how a thin, mean, woman replaced that mother.
She comes to the bakery to bring you a lunch salad when you’re chatting with the fat lady. Your mother’s eyes get so wide they encompass her whole face.
“How did you get that large?” she says to the fat woman.
You close your eyes and wish the ovens would combust and burn all three of you in a sugary inferno.
If you drag your mother out of the bakery, go to Option J.
If you’re too mortified to move, go to Option K.
K. “It was quite an accomplishment,” says the fat lady. “I spent thirty years preening this body during my sideshow career.” You’re not sure if she’s joking. Your mother continues to gape. The fat lady takes a sour cream cookie out of her bag, places it gently in your mother’s mouth, and lifts her chin with one finger so her lips close around the cookie.
“They’re very good,” says the fat lady. “I’ve always said a fresh cookie has certain medicinal qualities.” You can’t see your mother’s reaction because a woman wearing a white blouse and short pink skirt buzzes into the bakery and orders three dozen peanut butter cookies.
“I have some serious kissing up to do so I don’t lose my job,” she says.
When you turn back to your mother and the fat lady, your mother is chewing. She’s not smiling. She’s not crying. She’s staring at the remainder of the cookie in her right hand. She used to make a lot of cookies, but she hasn’t eaten a cookie in six months even though the doctors told her that sweets in moderation were fine. The fat lady hands you a cookie, then she takes one for herself. You all eat. For seven more minutes, nothing else has to be said.
D. You give yourself a once-over in the mirror in back of the bakery and feel like you could be in commercials for athletic footwear. You’re even happier when the fat lady returns two days later and orders a dozen oatmeal raisin cookies. She sits at one of the tables near the front window and enjoys half of them while waving at passers-by. The fat lady says hello to all your customers. After watching her for two hours from behind the front counter, her body looks perfectly normal to you.
Your best friend/boss does not share this opinion.
“She’s giving people second thoughts about buying cookies,” she says to you after work. “She’s like an advertisement for a weight loss program. The next time she comes in, tell her there’s a time limit on the tables. I don’t want her hurting my business.”
But you love the fat lady. She says your cookies are the best she’s ever tasted. This is why you “forget” to tell her about table time limits. It’s a crazy idea, anyway. Sometimes the fat lady brings her skeleton man husband along, and he eats as many cookies as she does.
“Calories don’t stick to me,” he says you bag another dozen chocolate chip cookies for them to take home. “I always have to eat.”
You nod while feeling terribly envious. The thin man’s voice is sweet, but as wispy as his body. Your best friend/boss likes him even less than she likes the fat woman, says emaciated people make customers lose their appetites.
You say that the fat lady and thin man don’t seem to be hurting daily receipts.
She harrumphs and mutters they buy enough to make up for lost business.
You don’t see why this is a bad thing.
She says that the next time the fat lady comes into the bakery, you should kick her out.
You fret over this moral dilemma all evening, lamenting as your cat sits on your lap and you both eat peanut butter cookies. You love your best friend and the fat lady, and you don’t want to choose between them.
If you decide to ignore your friend’s wishes or let her do the kicking, go to Option L.
If you decide to employ an odd strategy involving your mother, go to Option M.
L. The next day when the fat lady comes in, your boss looks at you and you look back at your boss and ask the fat lady what she’d like. While you wrap a dozen chocolate chip cookies and a dozen molasses cookies, she tells you a company in California invented a process to turn carbon from the human body into a diamond after someone dies.
“I wonder how many carats a five-hundred-pound woman would be,” she says, her teeth glistening as she takes the white bakery box from your hands.
“You were supposed to kick her out,” hisses your best friend/boss.
You shrug. Acting as a bouncer is not part of your job description, so she’ll need to screen the customers herself. This is a brash move on your part, but she doesn’t want to kick people out of the bakery herself. Your boss stalks back into the kitchen muttering about insubordination, she but doesn’t bug you about the fat lady again.
J. You drag your mother out of the bakery with as much grace as you can muster. Your mother crosses her arms and pouts, but standing in the sunlight makes you aware of the skeletal hollows of her cheeks. She’ll starve herself to death with boredom and silence. Your mother already smells of old paper, and her hands are always dry. Every day her body must feel a little less like a living thing and more like balsa wood. She could blow away at any moment. You hug her tight to cement her to the ground, rock back and forth as she makes small strangled sounds like she’s trying to talk but can’t. You drag her back into the bakery. You and the fat lady will feed her medicinal cookies to fill out her cheeks and strengthen her fingers and make her feet want to stay planted on the earth.
M. The next morning you call your mother and ask her to stop by the bakery for a visit around lunchtime. She arrives right before the fat lady, a sour skeleton to counteract the fat lady’s cream puff cheer. Your boss looks even less impressed with your mother than she is with the fat lady, but you’re not sure where all these model bakery customers who aren’t too fat or thin and have the right temperament are supposed to come from.
Your mother gives a hard lecture on good nutrition to anyone who will listen, while the fat lady buys cookies and tells everyone to have a lovely day. She’s so insistent about it that your boss grumbles back to the kitchen and your mother sighs and leaves, weary of her search for converts. You eat a few cookies with the fat lady and think the day is getting lovelier as you go along.