Mother spent $700 on a treadmill “from Santa” that I will never use. I won’t walk three blocks when I actually want to get somewhere, much less run three miles on a strip of black rubber only to end up where I started out in the first place. Aunt Mary gave me two stupid diet books and three tickets for the upcoming conference at Columbia State called “Healing the Fat Girl Within” (I’m sensing a theme here). Normally, I’m not a materialistic sort of person, but let’s just say this was one disappointing Christmas.
At least Miss Bertha gave me something thoughtful, a complete collection of Emily Dickinson poems (so far my favorite is I’m Nobody!), and Grandma Georgia sent money.
Still, all I really needed was to be stricken with some mysterious thyroid condition, a really good one that would cause me to wake up and weigh 120 pounds. Instead of experiencing a newsworthy miracle, however, I spent the holiday in sweat pants, with Mother and Aunt Mary nagging me to please change clothes. I refused, citing the whole comfort and joy argument. The truth was I had outgrown even my fat clothes. It was either sweatpants or nothing.
Once I’d wolfed down enough turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie to choke a horse, I loosened the string in the waistband and plopped down at the computer. Consumed by overeater’s guilt, I browsed the Internet and gazed zombie-eyed at the countless and mostly expensive ways a person might lose weight (how pathetic to be thinking about this on Christmas night). According to a doctor on one website, “losing weight can be even harder than treating cancer.” This uplifting little tidbit was enough to catapult me straight back to the kitchen for two more cups of eggnog—right before bed. When I woke up the next morning, I didn’t even have to step on the scale. Still snuggled beneath my bedcovers, I could feel those new pounds clinging to my thighs like koala bears on a eucalyptus tree. The day after Christmas should get its very own italicized title on the calendar: December 26—the Most Depressing Day of the Year. With Christmas officially over, I knew there was nothing left to anticipate but the endless gloom of winter, nothing to look forward to except devouring the secret lovers stashed under my bed—Mr. Hershey, Mr. Reese’s, and Mr. M&M. I’m convinced Mother must have secret powers because just as I was about to rip open the bag, the phone rang. “What are you doing, Rosie?” she asked accusingly. “Have you used your treadmill yet? There’s a new box of Special K in the pantry. They have that weight loss plan, you know.”
“Mmm, almost as yummy as packaging peanuts,” I replied.
“I’m just calling because we need you at the shop today after all, Rosie,” said Mother, ignoring my sarcasm. “I want you to take down the Christmas tree. It’s a fire hazard. All dried out and messy needles everywhere.” Translation: Mother couldn’t take the thought of me eating and watching talk shows all afternoon, so she’s dragging me into work. “Miss Bertha’ll be over to pick you up in a few, okay?” She said it like it was a question, as if I actually had a choice in the matter.
“Okay,” I said, annoyed. It’s not even New Year’s Eve, and I already have to rip down the last semblance of festivity and celebration—and hope. If it were up to me, I’d leave the tree up all year, but Mother had to shove the manicure station into the closet just to make room for it, and with so many parties right around the corner for New Year’s, clients are clawing (ha-ha) for manicures. Mother isn’t about to swap good business sense for sentimentality. At least there’s time for half an Oprah rerun and a few “diet” Reese’s cups (they’re bite-sized instead of regular).
Several hundred calories later, Miss Bertha picked me up, and since the salon is only a mile or two from my house, we arrived within minutes. Mother was giving Hilda May Brunson blond highlights, and four old ladies from the Hopewell Baptist Church, a.k.a. the Quilters, were sitting under hair driers, clucking like noisy hens. I was humming “Blue Christmas” (the Elvis version) softly to myself and carefully taking ornaments off the sad, dried-out little tree. Everything was thumping along at the barely tolerable level when I heard Miss Bertha say, “Oh, Lordy, here she comes.” I looked up, and filling Heavenly Hair’s entire plate glass win a stack of paper plates wrapped in pink-tinted cellophane, her sausage-sized knuckle rapping the glass for someone to help her with the door. I had no other choice; I was forced to let her in.
“Hey, there, Rosemary, I got you some delicious treats today, darlin’!” Snort, snort. Big Hee Haw laugh. “You’ll have to wait till Richard shaves my neck real quick, though. You got time to shave my neck, don’t you, Richard?” Richard nodded politely, although I knew for a fact he hated shaving necks, especially Mrs. McCutchin’s. “Reckon you can wait that long to get your hands on my goodies, Rosemary?” Snort, snort.
Suddenly, I realized Mrs. McCutchin was actually waiting for my reply. “Oh . . . um . . . sure,” I mumbled. The Quilters gaped. Hilda May Brunson pursed her thin, judgmental lips together. When you’re normal-sized, no one cares what you eat; when you’re fat, it’s everybody’s business.
It took Richard several minutes to shear Mrs. McCutchin like a sheep, and by the time he finished, the Quilters and Hilda May Brunson were standing by the front counter.
“Rosemary!” Mrs. McCutchin called. “Can you help me get some-a this scratchy hair off my back? I won’t let Richard put his manly hands up my blouse!” Snort, snort. Cackle. (Richard does not have manly hands. In fact, nothing much about him is manly.)
Richard mouthed a Thank you, God at the ceiling and rolled his eyes. “Okay,” I said, and prayed that the Quilters and Hilda May Brunson would leave before Mrs. McCutchin made another giant fuss over the sweets. Slowly, I brushed the stubby black hairs off her barn-sized back.
“Hurry, sugar pie! Willy Ray and me and the boys is gonna try to make it to Catfish Campus before the rush,” Mrs. McCutchin scolded, and then, with everybody listening, she said IT: “Rosemary, I swear you look more like me ever day. Why, I b’lieve they got you and my little Willy Ray, Jr., mixed up at that hospital. Honey, you are built just exactly like I was at your age.”
Heat ran up my face like a scared cat up a tree. The numbers of my morning weigh-in flashed through my brain: 1-9-0. Mrs. McCutchin wasn’t a pound under 300.
The next thing I knew, Mrs. McCutchin was trying to pry herself out of the chair. Richard took one side, and I took the other. Somehow, even without the Jaws of Life, we managed to free her and stand her on her feet again. Mrs. McCutchin eyed the heap of treat-covered plates stacked on the worn linoleum and heaved her body forward to grab them. Her polyester skirt hiked up, revealing knee-highs with varicose-veiny fat bulging over. Her pendulous bosom swung in front of her face. Joints crunched. Her cheeks turned a dangerous shade of high-blood-pressure red, and layers of forehead and face and chin and neck pulled toward the ground. For a second, I wondered if Mrs. Periwinkle McCutchin might just turn inside out.
When she was miraculously upright again, the tight little salon expanded with relief. Mrs. McCutchin turned toward me and held up the pile of goodies. I shifted my eyes away from her and caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror (the whole salon is nothing but mirrors, unfortunately). It was then that I saw exactly what Mrs. McCutchin was talking about—the resemblance. It wasn’t her imagination. It was real.
“I brought tea cakes and blondies and sand tarts just for you, Rosemary!” she went on. “You don’t even have to share. And the Piggly Wiggly had pink cellophane. Ain’t that the cutest thang!” She grinned proudly and tried to hand me the festive little plates.
All eyes were on me. Every single person in the salon was waiting for my response. In private, I have absolutely no willpower, but in public I wasn’t about to fail. “I don’t want those things,” I said, my voice small and childish. And cold.
“Pardon?” asked Mrs. McCutchin.
“I said I don’t want them!” Before Mrs. McCutchin could reply or cry, I raced off to the back room and left her standing there, humiliated. It was like shunning Little Debbie or slapping Sara Lee.
According to one of the books Aunt Mary gave me, a person has to be willing to eat differently even if it hurts people’s feelings or causes conflict. I guess today I did both, although I was so upset about wounding a woman who has been nothing but nice to me my whole entire life, I came home and ate four chocolate bars and two bags of cheese curls. Not only am I fat, I’m stupid, too.
Excerpted from Artichoke's Heart by Suzanne Supplee
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