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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Rocket's Burger Shack, Story #5

[This is the fifth story I've posted of my ten-story cycle. To read others, use the search bar and ask for "burger shack," and they should turn up. I've revised this story considerably, so if there are contradictions in it, please let me know. Thank you.]

How Bob Became Tiny©

      Unlike other breakfast customers at Rocket’s Burger Shack, the regulars or those stopping for the first and possibly only time, Bob never pretended that eating was a casual, secondary activity in his life. Invariably he sat with his back to the television, carried no book or laptop computer, and walked right by the racks of free newspapers without a glance. He was at the Burger Shack to eat. One look at him was enough to tell anyone that, so why pretend otherwise. He was hardly noisy or aggressive—quite diffident, really—but some facts were too big to be gotten around, and his size was one of those facts.

      He usually came near the end of the morning rush, since all his life, even as a toddler of no more than the usual toddler chubbiness, he had hated getting out of bed, extricating himself from the cocoon of sheets and blankets to expose his sleep-warm body to cooler air. To have to stand up when he so much preferred lying down (or, later in the day on the sofa, leaning into the cushion of his mother’s arms) was torture, and his mother found her child’s passion for sleep natural. “He’s just a baby,” she replied when her husband asked if the boy was going to spend his life in bed. She added, “Where does he have to go?”

It was Bob’s father’s idea to bribe little his son out of bed with cookies. Chunky chocolate chip worked best, but the child would wander sleepily out to the kitchen, trailing his blanket, for peanut butter cookies if peanut butter were what the morning had to offer.

His father in those days was an active young man, a “man’s man,” as his mother fondly phrased it. She addressed him “Butch” or “Spike.” His body was lean and hard, his short hair spiked into a crew cut, and he wore t-shirts that showed off every muscle. His wife, by contrast, was pillowy. Not a mountain of a woman, just a “short stack.” That was one of her husband’s pet names for her, a nod to her love of pancakes, though no one had ever known her to be content with less than a full order.

They were mysteriously, even comically unalike, his parents. The longer Bob was in the world, the deeper grew this mystery. What had brought his mother and father together? What kept them together? When they were young, and he was very little, he remembered the two of them laughing and tickling and pinching and mock-wrestling, a little movie of a memory he saw in his mind through crib slats and an open bedroom door. He couldn’t say when the laughter had died away and his childhood became quiet.

From the beginning, he took after his mother. Sedentary, from the sofa or the backseat of the car, he looked over her doughy forearm at pictures in her magazines, holding his breath over and over to see what would be revealed next, in the moment when she moistened her fingertip on her tongue and slowly, languorously, almost reluctantly, turned the page. Hers were magazines devoted to recipes, often picturing chocolate layer cakes or plates of cookies on the cover. Inside were more and more mouth-watering images. Bob learned to point eagerly to pictures he wanted her to clip out. “We’re planning menus,” his mother told his father, who laughed the first few times and later shrugged and turned away. Besides magazines, Bob enjoyed watched television with his mother. He would burrow into the sofa cushions and his mother’s pillowy side and lose himself in the moving images on the screen that demanded nothing of him. His mother liked game shows best. The abstraction of monetary prizes was lost on the boy, but he could appreciate the shout, “A brand-new refrigerator!” and he had a hazy respect for the idea of winning, which always went with the prizes. His father played softball and was happiest when his team won. Bob grasped the vague notion of winning as something good.

He began to put on extra weight before grade school, but his mother, a large woman herself, saw nothing unnatural in having a “chunky” son, and she liked having a child who was her “best friend.” When his father’s softball team from work had a game, Bob and his mother rode along to the field to watch, but Bob’s dad parked their car at the end of the bleachers—they had special permission, his wife’s size making it impossible for her to sit on the bleachers--where they could watch from the car. Bob cuddled close to her in the backseat, and they made up for what they missed of the game itself with bags of popcorn, large containers of soft drinks, candy bars, and hot dogs. Gradually, without articulating the knowledge out loud or even to himself, Bob realized that winning, for him, would always be vicarious.

      Then came the hell of school. His torment started when he had to walk from home to the bus stop. His father left for work an hour earlier than the school bus came by, and even if she’d had a car his mother wouldn’t have gotten dressed and out the door herself to drive him to the corner. “Growing boys need their exercise,” she said complacently, putting another couple slices of bread in the toaster for herself as Bob shuffled unhappily out the back door. The bus stop corner was only three doors down from their house, but Bob had never been a walker, and then there was standing at the corner, which was boring and uncomfortable, with nowhere to sit and nothing to eat. Climbing onto the bus when it finally came was a slow, puffing affair for him, too. On his lucky days the other kids were too busy screaming and laughing at each other to pay attention to him; on his unlucky days he was center stage, an unwilling entertainer.

      “It’s the zoo stop! The hippo is getting on! Look out—the bus is tipping over!”

      He learned that if he grinned back the faces lost some of their viciousness. They, the normal ones, still made fun of him but only in passing, not circling for the kill as if he were the main event in a primitive blood sport. Without his resistance, in other words, the cruelty remained casual and bearable. Once inside his grade school classroom, with a mother-like teacher in charge, he was safe from the worst indignities.

      Middle school brought new agonies, with noisy, rowdy, jostling hallways to be navigated between classes. Worse, he no longer fit behind the standard desk with its attached seat and had to sit instead at a special separate table in the back of the room. These tables were not in the rooms initially but had to be brought in just for him. “Tiny,” the kids started calling him about that time. Oddly, Bob didn’t mind the nickname. He had never had a nickname before and had always envied boys called Buzz or Shorty, the way his mother called his father Butch or Spike. “The kids at school call me Tiny,” he would say modestly when meeting someone who asked his name. It made him feel like “one of the kids,” someone who belonged rather than a freak set apart by nature and society.

      The school system had a good music program in those days, and he started learning the tuba in seventh grade. Finding all that breath and pushing it through the big horn wasn’t easy, but he persevered, and by high school he had a place in the concert band, along with the status conferred by a band uniform. It was a big high school, but everyone knew Tiny. He had finally arrived. He was somebody. There was still hell to pay, of course. Concert band members were automatically members of marching band, also, and marching was torture. Red-faced and sweating in the handsome blue of his enormous uniform, thighs chafed, feet sore, shoulders aching, Tiny willingly submitted and paid the price. It was worth it to be a teenager in a uniform, belonging to an elite group.

      “Hey, party tonight!”

      The buzz went around in the band room before the game, heightening the sense of anticipation that made the air taut and singing.

First chair of the clarinet section was Gloria, a shining golden girl with cornsilk hair and a laugh like a bell. Serious now, she sounded the tuning note for the others. We follow her, Tiny thought. She gives the note, and it’s up to us to match it. She puts us together for Mr. Stone, and all he has to do is keep us together. Keep us together. The words in his head wanted to take him down another mental path, but he dared not follow. Instead he concentrated on adjusting the strap that made holding his horn possible at all, grateful as always that Mr. Stone insisted on memorization so the players didn’t have to worry about sheet music holders.

      Now as Gloria was pushing past him with her quick smile and her “Sorry!” she stopped suddenly. “Tiny, did you hear about the party? You should come. It’s at Steve’s house.” She whirled away to take her place farther up in the formation. Tiny Bob caught his breath for a moment before letting it out again, raggedly.

      Somehow he got through the half-time performance and called his mother to tell her not to pick him up after the game, assuring her that he would get a ride home after the band party. (It took a while for her to understand such a novel situation.) Then he nerved himself up to ask one of the other band members with a car for a ride to the party. Mel cocked a dubious eyebrow but shrugged and said, “Sure. My bus has big seats.” Mel’s “bus” was an aged Cadillac, and Tiny had the back all to himself, with Mel and Ted, a couple of trumpet players, in front.

      The basement at Steve’s house was dark, lit only by candles and lava lamps. Records played rock music. A commercial-size cooler with cans of cold pop yawned invitingly open at the bottom of the stairs, and at intervals big bowls of popcorn appeared at the top, passed down by a brigade of willing hands.

      “Hey, Tiny! You made it!” He made his way through the crowd with ponderous determination, his heart beating like the band’s big bass drum. “Wasn’t that the coolest game?” Gloria trilled. “Did you see Charlie’s touchdown? I could not believe it!”

      Tiny Bob nodded eagerly. “It was great!” he agreed. “Wouldn’t be a game without the band, though,” he added, giving her a nod of appreciation at the same time he was complimenting himself, signaling that the two of them shared a common cause.

      “Tiny, you know Marilyn and Pauline? We call Pauline ‘Pooh-bah.’ You know, I don’t know your real name?”

      “Tiny’s fine. That’s what people call me.” He felt beads of sweat gathering into streams and rolling down the side of his face, and he tried not to notice the way the other two girls were staring at him, curiosity fighting repulsion on their faces. Instead he focused on Gloria, whose smile seemed genuine.

      Marilyn and Pooh-bah soon drifted away (“I need another pop,” Marilyn said by way of explanation, and Pooh-bah flicked her hand casually as if to say “Bye!”), and Gloria leaned forward to say earnestly to Tiny, “Can you sort of stick by me tonight? There’s this guy I don’t want to be alone with, but he’s been coming after me all week. Do you mind?”

      No, he didn’t mind at all. It felt a little bit like a demotion, given his earlier interpretation of the unbelievable invitation, but wasn’t he still in line? She had taken notice of him, for whatever reason. Now she was asking a favor, a favor that necessitated his remaining in her presence. Things could be worse. Hell, things always had been worse, his whole life!

      “Who is it? Someone in the band?”
      “No, it’s Steve’s cousin. He’s like some hoodlum from Chicago or something.” She rolled her eyes and laughed her bell-like laugh. “You can be my knight in shining armor and protect me from the villain!”

      He knew she was only teasing, but his skin prickled in excitement and anxiety. Remembering a roll of Lifesavers in his pocket, he pulled it out and offered her one. She pried loose the cherry red ring from the end of the paper roll and popped it into her mouth with a smile. A minute later the candy smell of her breath mingled sweetly with the fresh shampoo odor of her hair, and Tiny was in heaven.

Mel and Ted wandered over and asked, a bit sarcastically, if they were interrupting a “private party,” and Gloria said no, they were welcome to hang out but that she was with Tiny tonight, so “Don’t get your hopes up!”

      That, it turned out, was as exciting as the evening ever got, but it was more to dream about than he had ever dreamed of dreaming, and he lived on the dreams for months. One time, in the spring of the following year, he found a pink rosebud on the ground by the school door, fallen from who-knows-what corsage or bouquet, and with great effort he managed to bend down and pick it up. During band hour, he offered it to Gloria with a shy smile. “Why, thank you, Tiny!” she exclaimed in surprise, adding solemnly but with a little flirtatious hint, “I’ll treasure it.” When he saw her later in the day, she still had the rosebud, its stem pinched between her fingers so that the bud rode atop her hand like the stone on a ring. But the next day Mel had his arm around her in a corner of the band room, and Tiny knew he’d never had a chance.

      How long ago was all that? Forty years or so? He wondered where she was now and if she had a happy life.

      After high school, thanks largely to the little attentions from Gloria, Tiny entered the world with just enough confidence to smile and speak to strangers, and that, along with his high school diploma, decent though not outstanding grades and a couple of lukewarm letters of recommendation from teachers (the band leader noted Tiny’s loyalty and “esprit de corps”), landed him a low-paying, entry-level job at a local radio station. He was the after-midnight host. He took telephone requests and played music for callers. If no one called in requests, he made them up. Sometimes, heart pounding at his own audacity, he would say something like, “And this next song goes out to Gloria, the sweetest girl in the world, from the guy who will never forget her.” The sky didn’t fall. There was no urgent ringing of the station phone with a distraught female voice on the other end, shrieking at him to desist. Nothing. His heart stopped pounding, and his dedications to Gloria—not that anyone else noticed--became a weekly feature of the show. There were other callers who made regular requests, and the Gloria dedications sounded no different from the others. The job was made to order for Tiny. It involved no walking or exertion, and it didn’t matter how he looked. He was a disembodied voice in the night, a soothing voice, an auditory lighthouse for ships lost at sea. It was a solitary existence, true, but he was used to being alone, and by imagining other solitary people awake at night, unable to sleep, suffering from countless anxieties and unfulfilled dreams, each of them tuning in from a lonely room to the comfort of his voice, he found meaning in what he did. The station was happy with him, too. He received small but regular raises in pay, and once again, as in high school band, he belonged to something larger than himself.

He could have happily held that job for the rest of his life, but after he’d been there five or six years the station wanted all its on-air “personalities” to start making public appearances, and at a little over 400 pounds now, Tiny couldn’t see riding to shopping mall parking lots in the station’s gaudy little trailer. He tried to talk to the station manager, citing his years of service. The manager shook his head sadly and agreed that Tiny had been good in the job and that the station would be sorry to lose him. There wasn’t anything much after that. He tried the other radio station in town without success. Driving to another town was out of the question: he couldn’t sit behind the wheel that long.

He did a couple stints of telemarketing. People hiring were eager to have his radio voice on their side, but it never worked out for long. Tiny was too inclined to let his calls be taken over by the people he was calling. Lonely and desperate for a listener himself, he empathized with them and let them talk on and on about their pets, their missing social security checks, the price of their prescription medicine, problems with taxes, arthritis, sleeplessness and in-laws. He made vague, comforting murmurs in reply, and sometimes, in gratitude, they would buy what he was supposed to be selling, but that didn’t happen often enough, and his calls lasted too long for him to rack up good sales numbers. His last phone sales job, three years before, had lasted less than two weeks. It was ages now since he’d qualified for unemployment benefits. Fortunately, living with his parents meant he had no expenses, and his mother gave him a secret allowance (secret from his father) so he wasn’t a complete prisoner.

He often dreamed of his radio days and woke surprised, after each such dream, to remember that that life was over.

He came to Rocket’s for breakfast every morning he could cook up some excuse to take his father’s car. His mother colluded with him, telling his father that Tiny needed to pick up things for her at the pharmacy or grocery store. He’d had to sell his own car after losing the radio job and had lost his health insurance at the same time. Now, with one failed stomach-stapling surgery behind him, he couldn’t afford another operation, couldn’t seem to lose weight without surgery, couldn’t find work and could no longer do much of anything, anyway. His only hope was to qualify for disability before he landed in the emergency room. Meanwhile he came to Rocket’s for their biggest breakfast, the Galactica, and then drove across town to a different Rocket’s for another Galactica before returning home to have lunch with his mother. Most of his day was spent eating. He couldn’t give reasons for it. The urgency that drove him was nothing he could explain.

      Once he went to a weight loss clinic and sat around a circle with other overweight and obese men and women. They were all supposed to tell the stories of why they ate so much and how they suffered because of the eating and because they couldn’t stop. Several cried when it was their turn to speak. Tiny couldn’t put together a story. “I don’t know,” he kept saying. “I’ve always been like this. My mom’s like this, too.” Various group members wanted to hear more about his mother and his relationship with her, while others asked if his father had loved him. At one point Tiny had to choke back a powerful impulse to say, “There was this girl once--.” He managed to keep the words stuffed inside. In the end he lost twenty-seven pounds at the clinic and regained over thirty during his first month back home.

      He could have ordered two or three breakfasts at once rather than driving from one fast food restaurant to another, but he had reasons for not doing that. It was true he had to sit at one of the special booths with handicap access, and even behind the table there was no hiding his size, but still, eating a single breakfast (albeit the largest one on the menu) seemed like something a normal person would do, and he wanted to seem as normal as possible. Every time the door opened and someone new came in, he looked up quickly before lowering his head again to the food in front of him. He kept his head down until the door opened again, but he couldn’t help looking up whenever he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Because you never knew who might walk in.

      He knew the odds of ever seeing her again were slim. She probably lived hundreds of miles away, in a different state. Still, she might come home to visit her parents if they still lived in town. He didn’t know if they did or not. He could have looked in the phone book but held back: if that door was closed, he didn’t want to know. She could be the one to look in the phone book for him, he reasoned. Not many kids from high school still lived with their parents, he knew, but still, she might call his folks just to find out where he was. A girl that nice was sure to remember her old friends.


Helen said...

Moving story. Your writing is rich with detail and I'm impressed at how easily you put the reader into the heads of your characters -- even whe they're dogs, as in one of your earlier stores.

P. J. Grath said...

I'm happy that you felt you were in this character's head. I feel that I'm there when I'm writing. These people are very real to me. The dog, too.

BB-Idaho said...

Now I feel guilty about taking the newspaper over to the golden arches for my frequent 6 AM 'big breakfast! It IS embarrassing to
hear the counter person ask,
"..the usual?)

P. J. Grath said...

BB, there is no need for guilt. Thanks for reading!

Dawn said...

I'm catching up! Can't figure out how these are all going to tie together though....need to read more! :)

P. J. Grath said...

I'd be surprised if you could predict the tenth from any that precede it--or any of them by earlier ones.