"Hey, Fat Boy!"
"Hi, Porker! Want some cake?"
"Yo, Tubbolard! What's shakin' -- besides the ground?"
Toby Parker trudged across the playground to the corner of the schoolhouse, his head slouched in his chest, his timorous eyes narrowed as he tried to ignore the taunts, teases, and titters that his classmates tossed at him. It was a task that he had learned to master as the school year wound down, and a shell had formed over his flabby skin, providing him with a sturdy shield to deflect their diatribes. But as thick as his defense had grown, though, the daily barrage of barbs still managed to lash through the layers and sting his every nerve.
Squeezing into the crook of his corner fortress, Toby leaned against the brick wall and opened the pages of the spine-creased copy of The Golden Compass tucked in his hand. He used the silent words of his favorite book to drown out the taunts, and his fears began to disappear in the mystical world they painted. In his mind's eye he pictured himself just as princely perfect as the kids in his book: thin and agile and confident, with a circle of kindly friends who never gave thought to his faults.
No sooner had Toby dashed to the safety of his corner than the bell rang, pulling him out of his perfect world. Nervously his eyes flicked away from the pages of acceptance to see the kids in the schoolyard charging toward him. Pushing himself flat against the wall, Toby tried like an insecure chameleon to camouflage himself from the slanderous stampede.
"Hey, Porker, whatcha waitin' for?" Tommy Gaines sneered at him. "Afraid you can't get through the door?"
"School's startin', Tubby!" Becki Simpson waved her bony arm at him. "Time to roll to class!"
Matt Brookens tagged Toby's shoulder. "Maybe he's hopin' the ice cream man will swing by before the last bell!"
Closing his eyes and his ears, Toby waited until the last lingers of laughter had lifted and the last of his classmates had filed into the building. Clutching his book, he pulled himself from the wall and shuffled behind them.
"Hey, Tubbolard, you didn't take all the food, didja?"
"Forget it, Fatso! You ain't sittin' next to me! You might eat my lunch, too!"
"Bring out another chair! We need extra room for Tubby Porker!"
Carrying his tray of corn dog, tater tots, and pears in one hand and The Golden Compass in the other, Toby lumbered across the cafeteria. In the cement-walled room, the incessant taunts were a bit harder to drown out. Head scrunched, Toby made his way through the maze as quickly as he could and settled in a plastic orange chair at an empty table in the corner. Hunching over his plate, he grabbed a handful of tater tots and stuffed them into his mouth as he opened his paperback.
"Look out! Here comes Tubby Porker!"
"Check out how slow he walks!"
"We should move to the back so we won't tip over when he gets on!"
Toby shuffled across the playground and up to the school bus parked at the edge of the schoolyard. With a huff, he climbed the three steps and, turning himself sideways, made his way down the narrow aisle.
"You're not sitting next to me, Porker!" Amy Kennedy glared at Toby. "I won't have no room to breathe!"
"You ain't sittin' here, neither!" Bobby Peterson stuck out his tongue. "I don't want your smelly belly hangin' in my lap!"
Toby persisted in his slanted shuffle until he reached the half-seat at the very back of the bus. He scrunched behind the chair in front of him, pressing his ear into the cushion. With his book balanced on his knees, he opened the pages and rejoined his world of unconditional acceptance.
"Mom, why do kids at school always have to make fun of me?"
"Oh, Sweetie, no one makes fun of you!" Joni plopped a scoop of scalloped potatoes onto Toby's plate. "What could there possibly be for them to make fun of?"
"I dunno," Toby shrugged one shoulder and dug his fork into his potatoes. "I always try to be nice to everyone, but they all still call me names."
"What kinds of names?" She added another scoop to the pile.
"Like Fatso and Tubby." He watched as the potatoes avalanched over his gravy-smothered meatloaf. "I never done nothin' to them. Why do they have to be like that?"
"They only call you names 'cause they're jealous of you, Honey." Joni smiled as she handed him the saltshaker. "They know you've got a good heart and would never call them names back."
"Christ, stop fillin' the kid's head with crap!" At the head of the table, Chris looked up from his own overloaded plate. "It's your own fault you get called Fatso all the time! If you got up off your lazy ass and did some exercise to burn off that belly they wouldn't make fun of you!"
Toby's head drooped, a pummel of tears surging behind his eyes. For all his effort to gain immunity from his classmates' teasing, he still found himself vulnerable to his own father's undisguised disgust. Moving his fork ever so lightly, he pushed the potatoes away from the flooding gravy.
"Maybe we oughta send you to fat camp this summer instead of Lake of the Ozarks." Chris shoved a load of meatloaf into his mouth. "Maybe that'll straighten you out."
"Don't listen to him, Sweetie." Joni filled her son's glass with cherry cola. "You don't need to go to fat camp. You're just fine the way you are."
"So why does everyone make fun of me, then?" Toby slid a glazed carrot into his mouth, chewing slower than normal for fear his jaws would set loose his tears.
After a second helping of meatloaf and a third helping of carrots and a dessert of chocolate-peanut-butter pie, Toby offered to help his mother with the dishes. He dried the plates and utensils, struggling to find soothing answers to abrasive questions. Why do I have to be so fat? He reached for a plate still caked with gravy and cheese sauce. Why can't I find some way to be skinny so everyone will like me? The kids in my book can make things disappear, so why can't I make my belly disappear?
"Oh, sweetie, I haven't washed that one yet!" Joni snatched the plate from his hand just as he was about to swipe the dishcloth over it. "You look a little tired. Why don't you go to your room and watch some TV before you do your homework?"
Toby draped the dishcloth over the edge of the counter and headed for his bedroom, making his way down the hallway as quickly as he did through school earlier that day. The difference was that, instead of his favorite paperback, he carried in his hand his mother's biggest and sharpest carving knife.
Toby closed his door tight. He turned to the mirror above his dresser and took off his brand-new Jurassic Park t- shirt. He gazed at his corpulent middle, his eyes rounding every roll and tracing every veiny stretch mark then coming to a stop at the folds overlapping his jeans. Everyone's right. I am a big fat whale. The muscles in his face pulled away, allowing the tears to gush over his cheeks.
Grasping the handle tight, Toby gored the carving knife into his stomach and began slicing away the overindulgent layers that had long smothered his confidence.
"Oh, my god! Toby! What have you done?"
"H-he's going to be alrightisn't he? He has to be alright!"
"God, he's lost so much blood! I-I don't think there's---"
"---anything we can do, Mrs. Parker. I'm sorry." Doctor Craig sucked in a huff as he brought his bulky chest and shoulders upright. "I honestly don't believe he's ever going to come out of it." He gazed at the skin-and-bones middle- aged man piled in the bed below him like a bundle of sticks.
"I, I know, Doctor." Sitting beside the bed, Joni leaned her beefy hand against her temple and nodded. "I suppose I was just foolishly praying for a miracle."
"There's never anything foolish about praying for miracles, Mrs. Parker." Smiling, the doctor placed his hand on her arm. "I'll go get the release papers for you to sign." He turned away from her and left the room.
Joni stared at the body before her, kept barely alive by artificial vivacity. I'm doing the right thing. I know I am. She swallowed a sob. It's my fault he's here in the first place. If only I had filled his ego instead of his plate, this would never have hap---
"Oh, my god!" Joni's strained eyes swelled with foregone hope.
"Mommy?" the man in the bed repeated. "Where am I?"
"Oh, god, Toby!" She tried to stand up, but the leverage of overworked gravity pulled her back down. Mustering her strength, she forced herself to her feet. "I'm here, Toby." She took hold of her son's hand. "I'm here."
"I feel so tall, " Toby's eyelids fluttered. "What happened?"
"You've been asleep for a very long time, Honey." Joni's sob worked its way back up her throat. "I didn't think you were ever going to wake up."
"Why wouldn't I wake up? I got school tomorrow."
"Mrs. Parker, I just need you to---" Doctor Craig stepped back into the room.
"Toby!" He looked at Joni, then at Toby, then back at Joni again, his ruffled jaw sinking lower and lower into his chest. "I, I don't believe it!"
"I don't believe it, either, Doctor," Joni shifted her gaze to meet his, "but I guess you were right. It's never foolish to pray for miracles!"
After a refreshing sleepless night, Toby Parker found himself filled with enough energy to shift from his long-prone position to a livelier pose. With his knees hiked to his chin and his wrist resting on top of them, he aimed the remote at the small television mounted to the wall. He surfed the channels like a blind man who'd regained his sight, astounded by the newness of the images yet confused by the messages they conveyed.
"Hey, there!" The duty nurse stepped into the room, a bright smile on her chubby face. "Looks like you're starting to get some of your strength back!"
Toby glanced at her sideways. "Oh, it's you."
"Gee, don't get so excited!"
"I thought you were my mom."
"You're mom will be here soon. Visiting hours don't start for a couple minutes." The nurse looked at the television. "Ahh, you're a Big and the Beautiful fan, too, huh? So, have you figured out who's screwing and slapping who today?"
"Huh?" Toby glanced at the grossly overweight man and woman arguing on the screen. "Oh, I just left the TV on this channel." He scowled. "I thought soap opera people were supposed to be skinny and pretty?"
"Skinny and pretty? Since when does being skinny make you pretty?"
"That's what all the kids at school say. They say fat people are ugly."
"Well, I don't know what kind of school you go to, but those kids have got it all wrong!" The nurse sneered at him. "It's you anorexic people who make life ugly!" Turning sharply on her heel, she marched out of the room.
"Good morning, Becki," Joni shifted sideways in the doorway to make room for her. "How's he doing today?"
"Oh, he's just peachy!" The nurse squeezed past her. "Although he sure has a helluva lot of catching up to do!" She headed off down the hallway.
Joni walked up to Toby's bed, a plastic grocery sack in her hand. "Hi, Honey! How are you feeling?"
As anxious as he had been to see her, Toby didn't acknowledge her. His eyes were glued to the television as he tried to fathom what Nurse Becki had said.
"You're looking so much better today!" Joni leaned against the bed, her free hand grasping the headboard for support. "You'll look even more better once you get some solid food in your tummy!"
"Mom, when's Dad coming to see me?" Toby finally looked at his mother. The distance in his tone was as haunting as the vacancy in his eyes.
A look of pain wrinkled Joni's face. "Daddy, Daddy's gone, sweetie. He died almost fifteen years ago."
"Died?" Toby scowled. "He's too young to die, isn't he?"
"No one's ever too young to die." She smiled sadly. "Your daddy had a heart attack. The doctor said it was because his temper pushed his blood pressure up too high. Your Aunt Gretchen seems to think it was his weight that did it, but she only says that 'cause she's never been able to gain weight herself. Ever since we were little she could eat and eat and she'd never put an ounce. I always used to be so jealous of her, but now she's the one who's jealous of me. I'm big and beautiful and she's still a homely beanpole." Joni slid a stack of comic books and paperbacks out of the sack. "Here," She handed them to Toby. "I brought you some books. I know how you love those X-Men comics, so I went to the mall and picked up a whole bunch of 'em for you!"
"Thanks." Toby dropped the remote on the bed and took the stack from her. With nimble fingers, he rifled through the comics. Why are all the X-Men fat? He scowled again. Super-heroes aren't supposed to be fat. They can't fly if they're fat. Sighing, he tossed the books aside.
"What's wrong?" Joni frowned. "Don't you like them?"
"They're, they're not the same as I remember."
"I know, Honey, I know." She picked up his yellowed copy of The Golden Compass and handed it to him. "What about this? You used to carry this one around with you all the time. I used to have to pry it out of your hands after you fell asleep reading it." She slipped the paperback into his hand.
Toby felt the book tucked in his palm, and the memories of unconditional acceptance came rushing back to him. His fingers caressing the cover, he closed his eyes. In his mind's reawakened eye he saw himself as the prince of perfection, loved for who he was by more friends than he could ever count.
"You just lay back and read and relax." Joni turned off the TV. "I'll go down to the cafeteria and bring you back the biggest ice cream sundae I can find!" She ruffled his brittle, graying hair. "We need to start putting some meat back on your bones, you skinny Minnie, you!"
Toby opened his eyes and watched his mother lumber out of the room. Outside the open doorway, activity in the hospital bustled along its usual frenetic pace. All the doctors and nurses, all the patients and guests that rushed by looked as fleshy and round as Toby used to be -- some of them even more so.
"It's you anorexic people who make life
ugly!" Nurse Becki's words broke through Toby's gaunt
skin, stinging the delicate nerves underneath. He turned on his side
and lay back down. With his back to the door, he opened the faded
pages of his paperback.
© 2004 Edward Beekman-Myers, all rights reserved
appears here by permission