Image credit/Scott Wong
“All the fat is the Lord’s.” –Leviticus 3:16
We parked our van at a trailhead on one side of a very busy road, which many here consider the local Autobahn for gamblers and gravel trucks. Crossing it, even with traffic stopped, takes nerve, and it’s not a place for people who hate being scrutinized. The crosswalk, wide as a runway and just as long, feels more like a catwalk, and it’s not a good idea to make eye contact with drivers you have forced to a grinding stop on your behalf. Most have gone from eighty to zero in 3.2 seconds, and if you happen to look at them, you can feel the scorn seeping from their eyes.
From the small parking lot, we followed a sidewalk to a crossing signal, which Karen pushed with her elbow as cars whooshed by, leaving us awash in exhaust. It was mid-February, cool and misty above the river bottom, and as we waited, I zipped-up my bright yellow windbreaker: so highly visible, so easy to ridicule. Hold on, my children have said. Let me get my sunglasses. Ha, ha, ha.
I have grown more round in the last two years, so the knock could be as much about my luminosity as it is about my, well, shape.
“Hold the keys,” Karen said.
A friend once told me that in my yellow windbreaker, I look like a construction worker. I thought of this as we began to pass through the crosswalk and I saw, piloting a gravel truck big as a battleship, a hard-hatted man in a fluorescent yellow vest. Put sleeves on it and we’d be, as my daughters say, twinning. My sense, even from a fair distance, was that this gravel truck driver was none too happy with having to stop for us. Maybe it was the hissing airbrake or the way his big rig rattled to a halt. At my core, I am non confrontational and hate to inconvenience people. Were I able, I would have waved the gravel truck driver through the intersection. After you, I’d have said. I didn’t like that he had to stop for us, especially when his pursuit was clearly more pressing than our own. But I don’t make the rules, I just follow them, and at that moment, the walk signal was in our favor, counting down and calling us forward. Not that it made any difference, but I broke into an apologetic jog, which I think is a nice gesture, especially when accompanied by a sheepish grin, a nod, or a casual salute, anything that says, Thank you for stopping and not plowing over me in the crosswalk. Karen jogged alongside me and together, we were like two people finding their seats in a dark, crowded theater: Pardon us. Excuse us. So sorry.
We passed before a genial cyclist in bib tights, who had unclipped and stood perched on his free leg. Then there were two young Asian men in a lowered Acura, a vehicle equipped with purple hover lights and a thumping bass that radiated through the asphalt, up my ankles, and into my knees. (My knees, lighter on cartilage now, have become a conduit for all earthly vibration, reminding me daily that the body promises nothing.)
Last, we reached the gravel truck driver who, because of his freight, had suffered the greatest insult at our crossing. I probably should have simply jogged along, but I felt especially penitent that morning. Maybe it was the sunlight knifing through a sage oak and parting the mist like a revelation. I wanted reconciliation with this stranger, some kind of acknowledgement from him that we were copacetic and there was no ill will. It’s an odd insecurity, especially for someone my age, but I still want people to like me, even people I don’t know. I want to leave a favorable impression with others, which is why I looked into the cab at the gravel truck driver, whose forehead had creases all the way across, and mouthed the words Thank you.
This was the point at which things got weird.
Rather than nod back to me, which is what most people would do as a kind of concession, the gravel truck driver responded to my Thank you by seeming to mouth words of his own, words that will forever remain trapped in the cab of that truck. Now, I can’t be one-hundred percent sure here–lipreading is a dubious art, after all–but as his narrowed eyes bore into me, I could swear he said the words, with as much spite as he could muster, Mr. Porky Sunshine.
Oh my God, I thought. Where did that come from? Surely, I was mistaken. I mean, really, has that three-word sequence ever once been uttered, in any language, in the history of human speech? Mr. Porky Sunshine? Obviously, he said something else. Perhaps he was absentmindedly singing the words to a song on country radio, or reprising a conversation he’d just had with a coworker at the quarry. Or perhaps he spat something far more insidious and less cartoony. I will never really know what he said, so for the purposes of this memory, Mr. Porky Sunshine will have to do.
At that moment I was disarmed, and I nearly stopped in the crosswalk right in front of the gravel truck’s moth-clogged grille.
“What are you doing?” Karen said. She took me by the hand and pulled me along.
I was flummoxed. Mr. Porky Sunshine? Was he calling me “Fat yellow man”?
It seems preposterous to me now, but as Karen tugged me through the crosswalk, I found myself feeling gravely insulted on both my wardrobe and my weight. I am now in my fifties. Am I really so insecure about my appearance that I could think a gravel truck driver, on a cold, misty February morning, would actually call me Mr. Porky Sunshine?
I suppose I am that insecure. I wish I weren’t, but I am, which is the reason Karen and I were at the trailhead that morning in the first place. Something had to be done. I’d been sitting on my ass for a year, during which time I had managed to nurture to health a gut like a child’s swim tube and a whiskered croak sac under my chin. Standing nude, if I look straight down my torso, I cannot see my toes for my stomach, and my once slender face (believe me, I’ve seen pictures), has lost all sense of angularity and character. From my shoulders up, I look like a thumb.
A sad state of affairs, indeed, one that has left me wanting to stay hidden.
“Are you alright?” Karen said.
“Fine,” I said. “It’s nothing.”
We stood on a paved mainstem trail popular with joggers and dog walkers and families with small children, which from one end to the other measures 7.7 miles, more if you count its seemingly interminable offshoots. From the starting point, the path snaked through a broad swath of dry grasses before hooking into a descending artery, which we took on principle alone. This road-less-traveled we believed separated us from the day-strollers and coffee-walkers, whose recreation we privately derided and diminished for its lack of vigor. Not us, boy. We were there to sweat that day, something that should have come easily for me thanks to my yellow windbreaker and a few extra pounds. To make weight on my junior high wrestling team, I ran the track wearing a trash bag and sweated off three pounds in a day. Nearly forty years later, I was hoping for the same kind of result. Once quite slim, I have filled out, as my mother would have said, which is only a compliment for a scrawny teenage boy grown broad in the shoulders. For a middle-age man, it’s a euphemism for you’ve gotten fat.
The goal that day was five miles, Karen said, with an elevation gain of a staggering 239 feet, a climb I knew would sadly tax me. Nevertheless, I synced my Fitbit with my phone and we were off.
The path dropped us into a swale below the ridge. There were eroded mounds cut with narrow mountain bike trails and cavernous peekaboo holes for ground squirrels. Above our heads, a kestrel perched on a wire called klee! klee! klee! and to our left, a lone egret foraged the grasses which, after a few days of rain, had become a tiny marsh.
“Must be something in there to eat,” Karen said.
Later, I looked this up: insects, lizards, snails, and worms. On the parkway trust website, these creepy-crawlies go by more scientific names, but for the purposes of consumption, they need only be known as insects, lizards, snails, and worms. The egret proceeded despondently on cautious limbs, its long, slow neck dipping and rising like an oil derrick. Inches from the tips of our toes, a cottontail scooted into the brush. I thought of Brer Rabbit: Please, oh please, don’t throw me into the briar patch!
“Bunny!” Karen said.
A hundred yards east of us, on the other side of the road, workers scaled the sprawling, massive skeleton of what would soon be a luxury apartment village. They hollered in Spanish over the din of a thousand hammers, solemnly knocking. As we walked and descended into the river bottom, the noise faded, but not entirely. Soon enough, it was replaced by birdsong and the sound of my own heavy breathing. I was tired already.
“You got this,” Karen said.
We picked up the pace and pumped our arms. My heart rate climbed quickly to 107 bpm, according to my Fitbit. Karen likes to talk when we walk, and that morning, she mentioned off-handedly that we were not allowed to sacrifice a bull with crushed testicles. I said I would make sure not to do that. I would see to it that our bull’s testicles were full and complete, without defect.
Talk like this isn’t as strange as it might seem. Karen and I had been reading Leviticus as part of our Bible-in-a-year plan, so for a short time we’d made a game of applying our modern conversations to ancient times. As she left for the grocery store, for example, I would remind Karen to buy hyssop and a cud-chewing animal with split hooves, things like that. When one of us sneezed or defecated, we were ceremonially unclean. My walk through the Old Testament was pretty eye-opening, in fact. There is some crazy stuff in there, such as God’s admonitions against defiling corpses and sleeping with your father’s wife. Odd that ancient Israel needed to be told such things, but rules are rules. Here’s one more: People having sex with animals were put to death, along with the animals, which is a shame for the animals, who were just grazing the fields, minding their own cud-chewing business. First they were defiled, then they were slaughtered. Where was the justice in that?
Karen said the same rule about crushed testicles applied to goats.
“Interesting,” I said. “Good thing we don’t have any goats.”
It was at that point we buttonholed around a bend in the trail, which opened to dense brush, a few remote buildings, and a series of interconnected quarry ponds sequestered behind razor wire and oleander, both there to prevent the city’s best and brightest from swimming illicitly in the turquoise filth.
Karen said the whole production looked like a place to hide aliens.
It’s not like I sat around for a year doing nothing. I was a passably good husband and father, and I did the things that passably good husbands and fathers do. I worked, for one. True, it was from home, but I still worked. I also helped my daughters with college applications and my son with research papers. I shopped online, cooked on a grill, and emptied the dishwasher. I called-in prescriptions, unclogged rain gutters, strung Christmas lights, and–when feeling really adventurous–I took our dogs to the groomer. I watched Netflix with Karen, drank some wine, ranted at election coverage, and snuggled. I even bought a treadmill, set it up in our bedroom, and walked while watching four seasons of Breaking Bad. (Crazy stuff there, too, but still not as crazy as the Old Testament.)
Oh yeah, and I wrote. I managed to publish two essays, one short story, and a memoir over the course of the year. You could say I spent the time using my voice to try and help humanity just a tiny bit, which Anne Lamott calls “a sort of missionary thing,” you know, offering our gifts to help others in small ways. As writers, that is our enterprise; most of us don’t write to make the world a shittier place. (There may be a joke about politicians in there somewhere, but it isn’t mine to tell.) When you think of it that way, my year in corpulence wasn’t totally wasted.
Alas, however, while I did all these useful and mostly imperceptible things, I ate and drank until I was uncomfortably full. I didn’t have an off-switch, which I’m told is pretty common for folks who eat to mitigate anxiety. And, as I’m sure it was for most people, it was an anxious year for me. I worried constantly about germs. I worried about the money I had and the money I didn’t have. I worried about my family, about my twin daughters mostly, and how the loss of a traditional first-year college experience might impact their spirit and mood. (On the flip side, I worried about how that same thing, with my college-age daughters living at home, would impact mine.) More broadly, though, I worried about line graphs on the evening news, about workforce layoffs, about prodigious egos and corruption and extremism. I worried about what would become of us all.
I also worried about an abrupt end to my life. Selfish, yes, but a worry nonetheless. I consider myself a man of faith, but that doesn’t mean I am ready to die.
I have asthma, which isn’t the end of the world, but when paired with just the right pathogen, it could be, at least for me. The more my lungs whistled, the more worried I became. There were days I felt I was breathing wet pebbles and still, even now, my sodden coughing prompts Karen to glare at me across a room. (I have been to a doctor and taken the right pills, and I still cough, so this is just how it appears to be for me.) I grew lethargic, found simple motion (e.g., getting out of bed) difficult, and everywhere I looked, I saw death hidden in plain sight. It was as though everything around me was suddenly, entirely, appearing in black light. Door handles, teaspoons, debit cards; they became seething and fluorescent and alive with micro death.
Of course, I worried that the world would run out of disinfectant.
In our house, my neuroses were on full display, sometimes comic, mostly not. My daughters, home from harmless outings, got the antiseptic treatment. Did you wash your hands? Did you wear a mask? I imagined their clothes crawling with plague, their shoe bottoms coated with disease. I was so worried about what they may have picked up out there that I withheld from them really important things like time and affection.
Karen saw all of this and told me I had to do better, which is what really good wives do for their passably good husbands.
But I didn’t do better. Not even close. What I did instead was turn to cheese at every meal and Frosted Mini Wheats before bed. I renounced fruits and vegetables as too difficult to prepare, slathered Nutella on a bagel and called it protein, and hid entire tubes of Pringles from my children so they wouldn’t eat them all. I slept a lot more, often retiring to our bedroom after Jeopardy! (to read, I said), only to pop a couple melatonin and drift off to Alexa’s lullaby of ocean waves crashing an invisible shore. (Often, I woke up 12 hours later.) My stomach constantly churned so I put Pepto on an Amazon subscribe-and-save, drinking it straight from the bottle like a diet shake. I graduated to double-XL in just about everything, gave birth to man boobs (my son calls them “moobs”), and gained twenty-seven pounds.
I’m ashamed about all of it, especially the part about hiding Pringles.
Imagine a simple line graph: the red line trending up is my weight gain, while the blue line, trending down, is my creativity. The two cross somewhere just after the launch of my memoir, but they were on a collision course well before that.
“You should write a novel about a summer camp,” Karen said.
It was mile three and we had been talking over ideas for what has become amorphously understood as “the next thing.” The next thing is the thing after the previous thing, which for me is a second book to follow the first. For writers, working on the next thing is critically important to staving off the depression that comes with finishing the previous thing. My editor in Texas said that every writer he knows will finish one thing and get right to work on the next. Often, the two overlap. “I don’t know any writers who stop at one book,” he said. Naturally, because I didn’t have a next thing, I worried over this. In particular, I worried the well had run dry and that every next thing I attempted to write would just suck.
On our walk, I paused several times to take pictures of my surroundings. Any hope of a next thing counted on me paying more attention. This irked Karen, who thought I was dogging it. “Can we just go?” she said.
“I am in a collection phase,” I said. “I need to look around.”
As if on cue, a brown leaf, shaped like an arrowhead, floated along a jetstream above me.
“Collect away,” Karen said. She walked ahead, never quite leaving me, and I took some more pictures: Here’s one of a sign bolted to a post: “Killdeer scratch their feet in gravel and lay their eggs right out on the open ground.” Here’s another, hanging from a strand of barbed wire: “DANGER – MINE SITE – NO TRESPASSING.” And a third: “Caddis Fly larvae live in a special case made from their own glue.”
I put my phone away and thought I’d take my exercise more seriously, but not before I found one more sign: “Great Horned Owls often build their nests in tree holes.” This was attached to a hollow concrete cylinder fashioned into a tree trunk with holes for children to poke their tender faces through and call, “H’hoo, H’hoo, H’hoo.” With that one behind me, Karen and I continued on the trail around a cattail marsh with its fringe of damp mud and collection of wet, slippery boulders. Where there was water, there were groupings of coots and mallards. Just off the shore, there was a tiny amphitheater carved into the earth with a small, level stage where a docent might stand.
This river bottom education center, designed for school children, worked just as nicely for a late-to-the party writer collecting bits for what might come next, if anything.
“I guess I could do that,” I said. “I could write a novel about a summer camp.”
Karen has brought this up before because it would fall under the category of writing what I know. I have spent more than two decades at a summer camp and have years of experience with the culture, not to mention the woods and its shy deer and shooting stars and sweatshirts that smell of campfire smoke. Maybe a derivative reunion story, then (Think: The Big Chill meets Indian Summer), where former campers return as adults, smoke a bunch of weed, and ask themselves big, cheerful questions: Who were we? Who are we? Who will we become? These are people familiar with fear and regret: a carefree bachelor, a recent widow, a successful but lonely businesswoman, a failed writer. (In a reunion story, there always has to be a failed writer.)
“You should,” Karen said. “You should write about a summer camp.” As she spoke, a dull ache emerged in my left hip. I sighed, audibly. “Or, not,” she said.
“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s my hip. Must be the beginnings of osteoarthritis.” I knew this word because, if I ever stayed awake long enough, I caught all commercials on Wheel of Fortune.
“Stop,” Karen said.
What she meant was, Stop acting so old.
I was sweating, my forehead cooling, my hair growing damp under my cap. I unzipped my yellow windbreaker half-way and tugged at the fabric to make it billow. We were walking uphill, nearing four miles at just over a sixteen-minute pace, which I could feel most distinctly in my shins. My heart rate stayed consistent around 110 bpm. Ahead, a young mother and father approached with six children in tow. Each child, all different ages and none older than middle school, held a yellow pencil and a piece of white paper. They squabbled like buffleheads. I immediately thought homeschool since Mom and her girls wore matching skirts that in a former life were most likely curtains. Mom didn’t call her children by name; instead, she said things like “Be kind to Sister,” and “Help Brother lace his shoe.” For a moment, I questioned my position in time and space, wondering if I’d dropped onto a midwestern prairie in a Willa Cather novel.
The boys, just two of them, wore t-shirts under sweater vests. They were the ones parting most readily from the group, scavenging grasses and chasing squirrels and black beatles into the scrub brush. There were bickerings among the children over who would lead the string of them, over who would stand before the signs first, and the mother–dour and pale and so very fatigued–said that turns would be taken, one child at every sign. There must be no crowding, quiet hands, respect for brothers and sisters. The father–a thin, seemingly humble man with a broad, flat nose and hair in ragged, flyaway curls–trailed behind with his chin down and his hands stuffed into his hip pockets. The cuffs of his trousers were frayed badly over old leather shoes. Though I am sure he loved his family–at times, probably adored them–this man projected a pressing need for relief. I felt for him, and as our paths crossed, he looked up and we regarded one another the way men in the Secret Society of Fatherhood do, with a quick, simple nod and a subtle pursing of the lips. From the older to the younger, it’s a look that says, I understand you and it’s going to be okay. It’s a look that says, One day, when you manage to eat again, you will fill out quite nicely, just like me.
“I don’t miss those days,” I said.
Karen said, “I don’t, but I do,” and as I considered that, I conceded to feeling the same way; I do miss my little people, very much.
Beyond us, the big family stopped. They stood in a pod at the entrance to the cattail pond, where all of them craned their necks to admire a turkey vulture in flight. We were a few hundred yards apart, and I watched them. It was an odd, distorted aspect, the vulture seeming so big and the children so small. The brain goes to Hitchcock films in a moment like that. I heard Mother say the word “wingspan” and I imagined a quick lesson from her in which she put that great length from tip to tip into perspective: somewhere between five and six feet, as long as Father is tall!
Just as quickly, the children scrambled like marbles, an apt metaphor, I suppose, for what happens as they age. Mother chased after the youngest and most vulnerable while Father remained still, staring into the sky. The vulture was gone by now, so Father had to be looking at or for something else, maybe a vapor trail, maybe a lightning bolt, maybe for something divine and prophetic, maybe for the gathered clouds to become a plague of frogs.
Back at the top, Karen and I found a bench dedicated to a dead benefactor and sat down to rest. Four and a quarter miles, one hour, seven minutes, 15’59” pace, and 654 calories burned, roughly equivalent to three bowls of Frosted Mini Wheats with milk or six tablespoons of Nutella. I’d have liked to have made it five miles, but I’d worked up a heat rash that forced me into bowleggedness and made basic human comfort impossible. Still, I was satisfied, and I said so.
“Good for you,” Karen said.
As we walked back to the van, through the crosswalk, I thought some more about the next thing. I thought I’d better worry over the first thing first, which at that point was taking better care of myself. Months prior, after I published an essay, an old friend from high school sent me a text message and said he’d read the piece. He didn’t say anything in his text about the writing or the story, which detailed a treacherous eleven-mile hike in the mountains with my family. Instead, he lectured me about my weight (he “text-tured” me?), which I had mentioned in the essay: Not to be an ass or anything, he wrote. But you of all people should know to take better care of yourself. It was the “you of all people” that got to me, as it was a reference to my mother and her forty-year decline, for which I had a private and painful front row seat, much of which I chronicled in my memoir.
I was angry. Thank you, I wrote back. But you are being an ass.
There is, now, some concession in this, which I acknowledged the day Karen and I took that short walk on a long path, specifically at that moment we sat on the bench afterward and were able to see, from a vulture’s eye view, the route we had traveled. The sun by now was out in full and the wind had picked up so the tops of the quarry ponds were stippled with whitecaps and sparkles of natural light. Had you been there, you would have seen what I saw: white clouds, blue sky, green grasses, black earth. You would have seen long-winged birds in soaring Vs. Had you looked close enough, on the islands within the ponds, you would have seen the egrets swiveling their rangy necks, all of them huddled together in a giant knot of white feathers. You would have seen a line of crepe myrtles in early pink bloom. You would have seen as well the meandering path and its circumlocutions, the way it bent itself around hillocks, curving and disappearing and reappearing, at times empty, at other times full and quite alive, directing the aimless and peripatetic, guiding the way for wandering families.