He runs on by at noon and Loverboy goes loop-da-loop. Set your clocks. Some days he doesn't come, though, and I'm like: stick with the program, mister.
He’s a part of my routine now. Mornings I drag up from bed and settle onto the Comfortable Couch with a box of donuts -- orange-frosties, or chocolate-jellies, whatever -- and turn on the tube. Hello! I can’t tell these tan smiley faces apart anymore, joking about what’s new in the world. Joshing each other like they’re best friends.
Then Jenny and Rachel. Rachel had a couple of Big Girls on the other day. Big big girls. Bigger'n me. On a bench, probably weren't any chairs wide enough to fit them. I'm like: I’ve been there, sister. Only thing is, they looked light as balloons up on the TV, like they could float off the screen if it got too hot in there. One blonde, the other redhead. Sisters, might of been twins. The blonde one looked like me in a mirror, last time I checked. It was spooky, all right. Ratty curls up top, little-bitty pig eyes behind the glasses. No neck, chin inside the chin. Orange knit top with no sleeves, arms pale, funny-colored, blue and green patches. Purple stretch pants down to the flip-flops. Walmart Twofers. Gunboats. Fat fingers, metal hanging from the ears, that wheezing sound, whatever.
The two of them were talking about how no man in the world would love them and how they didn't care anymore. They held hands as they talked. They squeezed each other's hand when someone would say something mean. Like some lady called in and truthed them bad. You ought to be ashamed. You aren't beautiful, she's saying. You're nothing but big fat slobs. You eat too much, that's your problem. People booed but she can't hear them, just keeps squawking. I'm like: Ah, cram it, lady. What do you know, anyway? Hello! Get a brain and a pair of ears. I would have called too but something's wrong with the phone, probably.
I put the TV next to the window a while back so the sun won't interfere with the screen. Now I get a good view of the road without even getting off the Comfortable Couch. It's one of those dirt roads that goes in both directions for a long, long ways. Maybe it doesn't ever stop, just keeps on going till one or the other hits water. That's what Papa used to say he was going do someday: go on down the road till he hit water. Never made it, though. There's a mountain you can see with snow on top till summer. Called Mount Peace. What a name! Like I get any peace around here. Everybody yakking. On the TV or whatever.
I set things up a particular way in the living room because let's face it, like I told Cathy, I really live in my living room. I go through my bedroom and the kitchen and the bathroom like I'm a ghost and only come back alive again in the living room. Cathy said I should paint the walls a cheerful color, since I spend so much time there. Like yellow or white, she said. But I never did. After a while, I stopped seeing the green. Besides, the walls don't keep out the noise from next door, the bumping and grinding. These little speeches they make. Or Loverboy, the little white lapdog they got, yellow eyes, never shuts up, yipping and yapping all day and all night. Pees on the stoop, too. Red paint's starting to fade to pink, landlord was saying. Hello!
He and she: they're sort of nerds. Papa'd call them hippies. Him with a brown beard, little round granny glasses, her with black hair covering half her face, no bra most of the time. No wonder he gets so excited. They teach down to the elementary school. The Murchisons, Don and Donna. They said they didn't plan it that way, but that's their names. Perfect. I bet they never truth each other. Too much in love.
I told Cathy about Don and Donna and Loverboy and the wall and she suggested posters, maybe of my favorite TV characters or the inspirational type. So I got one of these cuddly bears, koalas or whatever, you know, with the ring around the eyes, looks like a fat raccoon. Well this one is hanging from a tree and looks real cute and it says on the bottom, "Brrr...Baby it's cold outside." After a while, I stopped seeing that too.
He made me laugh the first time I saw him last spring. I know it's mean to say so, but he really did. Was around the first of April. I’m watching "The Price is Right" and the announcer says "Come on down!" to some blonde stick in a black turtleneck, and Loverboy starts yapping up a storm next door. Then I see this big guy go huffing and puffing past my window and the first thing, I'm like: Jesus he's too damn fat to be doing that. I mean, he looks like: Somebody Slim-Fast me, quick! Redhead, big bald spot, pink skin. Had on one of these jogging outfits you see, sweat pants and the sweatshirt with the hood. Only they looked like kid clothes on him. I can't believe the belly he's carrying around with him. It flopped over the front and sides of his stretch pants and shook up and down as he ran, if you want to call what he was doing running. I'm like: I can run as fast as him. He took little tiptoe steps, and kept his shoulders back and his back stiff, like he was afraid of breaking something vital. His head was bobbing up and down like he was saying yes to everything as he was going along. Otherwise he didn't look too jolly. Sweat pouring from him. His arms chugging back and forth, moving faster than his feet. I mean, he was just pathetic. Hello! Like I said, and I hate to say it, but he made me laugh.
He didn't come back the next day or the next day so I kind of forgot about him. Then Loverboy starts up and there he is again, out my window. Same thing: huffing and puffing, like he was hurting bad and about to have a heart attack. In fact I thought about what it would be like if he had a heart attack right there and keeled over in front of my house. I put a hand up to my own heart and felt it pounding away real loud just watching that jogging man. Got scared for myself.
It was a bad spring, all right, without him adding to it. Mama called from Tallahassee one night and told me there'd been an accident out on the road. That Frisky had died. She didn't suffer any, she said, but I don't believe it. You always suffer when you die. Otherwise, you wouldn't be dead.
At one time, that cat was the only thing in the world I cared about, or who cared about me, unless you count Mama or Cathy, which I don't, for obvious reasons. Yeah, all right, it was stupid to think about flying all the way down to Florida to bury a cat and of course that's what Mama said. But I told her that it wouldn't have happened if she hadn't moved down there and taken Frisky with her. I could hear her trying not to get mad on the phone. She never did like to argue. Her face gets all sick looking, like she's going to pass out. Hair gets frizzy, I don't know.
Then I went loop-da-loop for a while. Cathy tried out a new drug on me, starts with A, I can't remember. Don't want to remember, cause it didn't work right. Made things worse till she changed it. For one, I couldn't tell all the time if I was hot or cold because it gave me the sweats but also the chills. I'd pace around the house for hours, wringing my hands. Wore the floorboards right down till there was a pale spot on the wood by the doorway to the kitchen that's still there. I don't like to look at it but sometimes I’ve got no choice. I wanted to walk right out of my skin. I thought I might if I kept pacing. Around and around and around, this snickering and whispers from a thousand voices like squealing bats. Then the worst: I started thinking about these razors again. Everything reminded me of the razor blades. Like the sound of a razor blade on a chalkboard or a razor blade on the tiles on the counter or what it would be like if you were made to chew on a razor blade. The whole world was sinking in. Slicing. Slitting open. Bleeding blood, oozing pus and whatall. The only way I could stop thinking about it was to make something hurt. I bit down on my fingers hard, and the pain would make me forget the razors. I would scratch the skin of my arm until it burned red. Like that Bernard, big baldheaded fellow on the ward who'd scratch his scalp until the blood flowed down the sides of his face. Said he didn't even know he was doing it. After a while, they made him wear gloves all the time. But he still did it at night. I think he was trying to dig down to finally get at what was ailing his brain.
There was this fly buzzing in Cathy's office window the day I told her about the chills and all. The fly was aiming to get back out into the sun, kept falling back on the sill, trying again. Went once around the room, looking for an opening. Buzzed along the white walls, the pictures of sailboats and sunflowers, the papers pressed under glass, the box of hankies, the Sorry game, the fat books leaning against each other up on the shelves. Cathy sat legs crossed in her easy chair like with a basketball under her blue dress, hair in a brown bun, cheeks flushed, red lipstick. Side effects, she says, they were just normal and they'd go away after awhile.
She was pregnant for the second time. I'm like: I’ve never been pregnant but I'm twice as fat as her. Then I'm like: maybe she’s not listening so good today.
I say: "There’s nothing normal about these chills I'm having."
Her mouth moved before she spoke: "They'll go away, Eloise. Trust me." Closed her mouth, sighed a big sigh.
I didn't tell her about the razorblades. One time, this was years ago, I mentioned a butcher knife I kept thinking about. She got all on red alert, like she hadn't really been listening up to then and started asking me these questions I didn't feel like answering. I guess she was afraid I was going to do something bad again. I started to sweat and made up lies to make it seem like no big deal. It must have worked because after a while she started to relax and go back on auto-pilot. Since then, I keep those little things to myself.
All through the summer, while the trees outside the window filled up with leaves, and the snow melted on top of Mount Peace, he kept coming back almost every noontime, past my house, only now with shorts and t-shirt. I'd watch him work from my Comfortable Couch, while Loverboy had a hissy out on the porch. After a while I began to notice that something strange was happening to the jogging man: he was starting to lose some of that poundage. Even his belly was starting to shrink. He still didn't look too jolly but no more of that herky-jerky, keel-over-and-die stuff. He's breathing just fine now. Running smoother and smoother. Gliding. In fact, if I could have asked that jogging man one question it would've been: when's it stop hurting so much, to try and change yourself like that?
I asked Cathy about that once and she said, "It never stops hurting, Eloise. The secret is, you just learn how to cope with the pain." That's why I take the medications, she says, why I go see her. I'm like: but if the pain never ever stops, then there’s no hope for anything. But I keep my mouth shut because deep down I know she's right. I've tried changing, but I'm like: nobody's going to notice anyhow if I do or I don't. I'm the only one in the whole wide world who gives a care. And what do I care?
Some days as I'm watching the jogging man go by, I'm like: who's he put up with all that pain and effort for? Can't be doing it just for himself. Nobody loves himself that much. Or hates himself. Somebody must have truthed him. Maybe his boss told him to take off thirty pounds or else. Maybe some girlfriend. Some skinny woman who got tired of feeling his big belly on top of her, told him to lose or cruise. Myself, I don't know if I'd do it for some man.
Papa was the handsomest man I ever knew. Tall and lean. Always wore blue work clothes and a white t-shirt underneath. Only thing he was vain about was the little pompadour he wore at the front of his hair, kept it oiled and stiff with hair cream, even after it started turning gray. He was stronger than he looked, too. Hand split a hundred cords of firewood every year. Undid frozen or rusted waterpipes with just a blowtorch and a wrench. Pulled cars out of snowbanks with just a winch. Always had a cigarette in his mouth, though, which is what they say killed him, though it’s not true. Toward the end, he got mean as a rattlesnake. Stopped kissing me when he got home or to night-night. Used to truth me around the clock. "I didn't work thirty years just to raise a circus freak," or "Luise, I oughta go buy a couple of hogs to raise along side of you, keep all three of you in the barn, feed you slop in a trough," or "No wonder you ain't got any boyfriends. No man'll look at you twice and I don’t blame them."
Mama would say something about me being loop-da-loop. Voice quiet, like she doesn't really mean it. Thanks Mom. My stomach knotted.
He'd put down his fork and knife without taking a bite. Wouldn't pick 'em up again after. "All that's beside the point. Let's stick to the facts, not this psychology bull. Her problem is she eats too much. Look at her! She's a disgrace! Even her cousin Doreen waited till her first baby before she got so fat. If I had the money I'd send her off to the Fat Farm."
Then around the first snow that fall, Papa's coughing got real bad, night and day. Couldn't haul wood any more, then his plumbing work went. His clothes began to bag out. Thin as a celery stick. Bad looks whenever he saw me now, like live electrical wires going out from his eyes to mine. He'd truth me bad without using words. Then one afternoon out chopping wood in the back forty with the triangular mall, went down like he was shot and never rose up again. Ticker seized up, they said.
But I'm like: It's me put on all that weight he lost. Fatter I got, the skinnier he got. Over those wires, maybe.
For weeks after he died, I couldn’t stop truthing myself. Day after day after day. Then one night I sat in the bathtub and used one of his shaving blades to stop the voices. But I did it the wrong way. Mama called 911. A month later, when they took the bandages off of my wrists, I was scared my hands would fall off.
Things reached a crisis around here last Saturday morning. Kid's cartoons on the tube. I'm on the Comfortable Couch. I hear scroonching all morning from Don and Donna, bumping, moaning, knocking. Then the jogging man comes by. Loverboy takes up yapping. Then it stops. A white streak tears across the lawn, out into the road. Next thing, Loverboy is hanging from the guy's leg, off his shin. Red bursts. The guy is screaming and kicking. He goes down, bellows, blood pouring. He throws Loverboy off, but that mutt is persistent, yellow eyes gleaming, teeth out and sharp. They stare each other down in the road. I get up off the Comfortable Couch, stand by the bay window to watch the action.
Don and Donna come running, him with no shirt, pulling up his jeans, her in a blue robe, buttoning it up. "Loverboy!" Don yells, like he’s been betrayed or something. He pulls the mutt by the collar, shakes him a little.
The jogging man is still loop-da-loop, though. He yells at Don. I can’t hear what he says but I can smell his outrage, the unfairness he's feeling, steaming off him.
Don and Donna ignore him, too busy with Loverboy, holding and scolding. They’re too shy, but the jogging man doesn't see that. He turns Don around by the shoulder, like he's gonna punch him out. Don flinches, backs up, mouth and brown beard up and down. Loverboy is wriggling in Donna's arms. She and Don turn their backs on the guy, walk toward the porch.
He’s like he can't believe it. He yells at them and flaps his arms. Don and Donna keep moving, though, not fast, but like they aren't thinking of stopping.
Then the jogging man looks my way. Sees me through the bay window. His eyes flash and like now there's a wire that stretches between me and him. Telephone wire, high wire, whatever. Taut and tight, black-like. Points at me, another wire off his finger. Then he's shortening the distance of the wires, off the road, onto the lawn.
I hear his words as he gets closer: "I got a witness. She's a witness. Saw the whole thing. Saw your dog bite me. This is a public road. She's my witness." Words splash onto Don and Donna's backs, like paint. They're moving, just hoping to get out of the downpour.
Now it's my turn.
He pounds on my door. It's the one in front I don't use but he doesn't know that. Doesn't know anything about me. Pounding, pounding. I'm like: break the damn door down, why don’t you? I’m too scared to move.
"Lady, lady!" he's bawling like a kid, "I know you're in there. You saw what happened. I just want to talk to you, just for a minute."
I don't dare move from in front of the bay window. Then there he is on the other side of the glass, a foot away from me. His head comes up to my chest. I'm amazed, looking down on him, so close I could reach out my hand and touch him, if it wasn't for the glass. Freckles through the hair on top of his head. Blue marble eyes floating, tiny orange mustache, Red Sox t-shirt, tan shorts, pink and hairy legs. Mostly, though, I'm like: no sign of that belly. He's small as a boy now.
He looks up at me, like he hasn't really seen me before. Eyes widen. We're frozen statues. Behind those blue eyes, though, I see something moving around, flickering, snickering, a dark shadow of something: pain, maybe. Fear and pain. Then I'm like: he's been trying to run away from it, but he can't, no matter how fast he runs.
I want to tell him: I didn’t mean to truth you like that, mister. I didn’t mean to hurt you. But the starch is already gone from him. He looks down at his feet. Without another peep, he runs off across the lawn, down the road again, without a backward glance. Cut those wires and gone.
Mama's been saying in her letters lately that I’ve got to face up to my problems but I'm like: I’ve been facing them my whole life. What's left to face? But I know what she means. Cathy's given up on that angle. I don't think she's got any long-range plan for me anymore. Lately, when I'm with her, we're just drifting.
He's been back every day, though. Runs on the far edge of the road now and carries a big stick, like he means to use it if I ever get near him. But I just sit on the Comfortable Couch and watch him go by. Then the TV says "So long for now!" and he's out of there.