Otis scarfed down meatloaf at the Golden Corral before he went home for the day.

He was obese. He loved the buffets in Milwaukee, eating at those “All-You-Can-Eat” joints in furtive necessity on most days, like today, after he left work. He knew if he’d only eat dinner at home with his wife Fay he’d become afflicted with a dreadful anxiety that’d haunt him all night. Otis cut at his meatloaf but he noticed, across the buffet, three women sitting together. One woman—she was huge like Otis—gawked at him in cruelty and the others jeered at him.

The big woman said, “Look at that fat ass eat,” and the women erupted in laughter.

Otis took a doleful bite of meatloaf but the women continued to chortle him so he began to eat for them. He shoveled the meat and potatoes and the sweet rolls into his mouth. The food smeared his face. There were bread crumbs and gravy everywhere. Otis chewed the food with an absurd fury and he chugged his Pepsi with a feral passion until each woman lost her catty smirk. After that, Otis finished eating in a solemn quiet, then he paid the bill and went home for dinner.

 

Otis smelled the greasy fried chicken when he entered the foyer at home.

“You’re late,” she hollered from the living room. “I already ate.”

Otis sighed, shrugging off his jacket as he moseyed into the living room.

Fay was sprawled out in the recliner watching Lost. Her body had exploded to a horrific size after Bruce, her sister Maxine’s now ex-husband, had filed for a divorce a year ago. When she hit four hundred pounds, her feet swelled to the size of grapefruits so she quit her salesclerk job at Walgreens and began to work at home as a telemarketer. Otis had supported Fay in all of this. He’d not forgotten how their love had blossomed out of the cruel indignities they’d come to bear together. “I’m going to diet,” Otis said. He tossed his jacket onto the couch. “We both—”

“My show’s on,” Fay said. She was rubbing scented lotion on her feet.

Otis yanked off his shirt. He said, “I’m serious.” He said, “Really…”

“Otis Francis Brown,” she ragged, then turned on the floor lamp.

“See that?” he said. He grabbed a pasty roll of stomach flab. “I’m sick of it.”

 

It rained all morning at work the following day so Otis took an early lunch break. He was a sales associate at Meyer’s Automotive. Otis sat in the breakroom as he munched on a protein bar and sipped on a Tazo. He’d read an article last night on WebMD, when Fay binged Lost, about the metabolic benefits of tea. Otis drank the Tazo again and Brother Saul, a coworker, lumbered into the breakroom chomping on a red apple.  “I’m on that Atkins diet,” Otis said.

Brother Saul took a bite of fruit. “Just eat raw foods and exercise,” he said.

Brother Saul was a fit, gregarious sixty-five-year-old man who’d been a street preacher in the Ozarks during the 1980s. He’d told Otis his story several times how he’d been forced to abandon his calling because he and six of his followers founded The Church of Mystical Love professing communal marriage. It didn’t take long for panic to spread through the small towns. The pontoon boat that was docked on the Black River and served as their temple was set on fire and Brother Saul was beaten and tossed on a bus that dumped him in Milwaukee’s old Northside a day later.

Lightning struck and the lights went out and when they returned, Otis saw granola crumbs scattered like bird feed on his stomach. He’d learned as a boy his body served as a spectacle of appalling wonder for the crude. Otis remembered his father Frank always called him “fatso,” as a kid. So when Clara, another coworker, entered the breakroom he folded his pudgy arms over his belly. She was a Cajun who’d moved to Milwaukee from New Orleans last year.

Clara poured herself a cup of Folger’s in the kitchenette and said, “Hi, guys.”

Brother Saul winked at Otis after Clara had walked out of the breakroom.

“What?” Otis said and Brother Saul chuckled and ate more apple as he went to his office.

Otis wanted to fanaticize about Clara but he and Fay had taken each other’s virginity only seven years ago. There was a cherished loyalty in this act. So he closed his eyes and imagined making love to Clara with Brother Saul’s trim body. He tried to see what Brother Saul would’ve seen and he tried to feel what Brother Saul would’ve felt. But still, Otis failed. He stood, hustling to the kitchenette to find food that he could bury his carnal guilt with. Otis opened the refrigerator and he rummaged through the shelves but lightning struck, and the lights left again.

 

It began. Otis ate a diet primarily of raw fruits and root vegetables and every morning he jogged two miles across his neighborhood in Sherman Park. At the end of each week, Otis tracked his weight on a digital scale. He’d lost one hundred pounds over six months and in October he and Fay underwent health exams. Otis’s cholesterol was down. His blood pressure read: 120/75.

Months passed. Otis worked at his diet and exercise regimen, but he never felt satisfied. He’d never run far enough and he’d never eat healthy enough foods. Some nights, Fay locked herself in the bathroom, and Otis would sit outside the door and talk to her about a time where they’d diet together. He chatted about days they’d take beach vacations to Cancun. “I disgust you,” she’d yell and when Fay spat vile drivel like that, Otis became restless. So he’d leave.

Otis would cruise the Villard Avenue in remorse, gazing at the smoggy glow of the industrial wasteland. He’d stare at the decayed steel factories with their towering flue stacks pumping funnels of ethereal smoke into the dark sky. Otis would glare at the lights of that dead city and be reminded of his own dark loneliness. Fay was right. Everything was different: When she slept in, he woke early. When he ate figs for lunch, she ate Hardee’s cheeseburgers.

Everything changed. Clara and Traci, the receptionist, praised Otis’s lean figure and Brother Saul even took a renewed interest in him. He’d take Otis to the old Northside for lunch to eat vegan tacos at Paco’s next to the old Handi-Mart where prostitutes loitered. One day, as Otis and Brother Saul left Paco’s, they witnessed a man toss hot coffee at a prostitute. “Those women are judged to real despair,” Brother Saul said nodding. “I can tell you this. I can say it. I believe those women know more about the suffering soul than any goddamn man of the cloth.”

On Thursday, Brother Saul invited Otis to Happy Hour at TGI Friday’s downtown.

“I don’t know,” Otis said, recalling how Fay had wept in the bathroom last night.

“Clara’s coming,” Brother Saul said. He said, “You’ve earned this.”

“Yeah?” Otis said. He hesitated, but then pulled his iPhone out from his 501s.

“Come on, amigo,” Brother Saul said.

Otis texted Fay: “Working late,” and Brother Saul grinned like a shit-eating possum.

 

Otis and Brother Saul huddled at the bar in the crowded TGI Friday’s and Clara sat on a tall stool in between them. Brother Saul and Clara were drinking pilsners, but Otis was swigging on bourbon since he’d read in Men’s Health liquor was a low-calorie beverage. He was drunk, attempting to listen to Clara gossip about Traci. She told Otis and Brother Saul that Traci left her most recent boyfriend, Roy, because she’d found out he peddled meth to kids behind a Rally’s on the Southside. Clara leaned over to show Otis a Facebook picture of Roy on her iPhone. “He has a belly tattoo,” she laughed and Otis thought her breath smelled like a fart. She said, “It’s a fucking rabbit,” and Otis nudged closer so he could sniff her mouth. “He’s a loser,” she sassed.

“He’s a lard ass,” Brother Saul added after studying the picture of Roy.

“Jesus,” Clara said, frowning hard. She said, “Don’t be a jerk.”

You look great,” he said to Otis. “How much weight you lost now?”

“One hundred seventy pounds,” Otis said, patting his stomach. He smiled.

“You’re so thin,” Clara said. She touched Otis’s hollow cheek.

“Too bad you’re married,” Brother Saul joked. “We need sex. The church—”

“You sound like a stoned teenager,” Clara said.

Brother Saul was playing with his drink. He said, “He who walks with—”

“Please,” Clara heckled. “Don’t make me vomit.”

“Fine,” he said. He finished the last swig of his pilsner then left.

“We should go, too,” Clara said after Brother Saul had gone. “It’s late.”

 

Otis followed Clara out of TGI Fridays and to her Nissan parked on Tenth Street.

Clara unlocked the car doors. “Get in,” she said.

“Sure,” Otis said as they scuttled into the car. Clara turned on the radio.

“Can you drive?” she asked as she tuned-in a station.

“Yeah,” he said. His iPhone buzzed and when he saw it was Fay, he pressed “silent.”

It began to rain and Otis sat with both of his hands cupped over his knees.

“My Girl,” played on the radio. When it ended, Clara said, “I’ll take you home.”

“I think Fay hates me. Or maybe I hate Fay,” he said.

Lightning flashed and for a moment, Otis saw black sky and rolling clouds in the East.

Clara reached over the armrest and took Otis’s hand then held it. She was talking about her divorce and how she’d felt anger and confusion towards her ex for some time but Otis wasn’t able to concentrate. His heart pounded like a bass drum as the rain slammed the windshield and the thunder rumbled above the riverfront. He stared at their embraced hands—hers dark and his light—and he felt a sublime ecstasy from their touch. So Otis took a breath. He closed his eyes.

“Clare,” he said then lurched over the armrest and kissed her and grabbed her breast.

“What,” she yelled. She slapped Otis. “Get out,” she screamed.

“Oh God,” he said. He opened the door and the rain drenched him. “I am so—”

“Shut the door,” she demanded and when he did, she sped off.

Otis ran in the storm to his Impala that was parked a block over.

“Idiot,” Otis yelled. He leapt in his car and started it then moved the gearshift to Drive.

 

Otis sulked into the house at 11:45 p.m. He tumbled through the kitchen, belching a dollop of hot bile in his mouth. He moved down the dark hallway. He went to the bedroom. Fay was sitting in the dark in the bed. The TV was on. Otis said, “I’m sorry,” as he set his iPhone on the nightstand. He peeled off his wet clothes and he climbed into the bed. “I went to TGI Fridays with Brother Saul,” Otis confessed. “I drank.” He said, “I’m a shit. Clara and I. We—”

“What?” Fay said. She pushed at Otis. “You reek. You reek. You reeeeeek.”

Otis reached for her hand. “We need to talk. I messed up.”

“Talk?” Fay said and slapped him. She kicked him off the bed.

Otis stood. His face creased ugly. He yelled, “You fat ass. You fat ass.”

Fay pulled on her wedding ring but her finger was too thick. She wept, “Go.”

Otis exploded out of the bedroom and stormed naked through the house. In the kitchen, he saw a box of Twinkies sitting on the table. He opened it. He grabbed a yellow sponge cake and he slung the Twinkie against the wall then tore the box to pieces. Otis kicked a loose Twinkie across the tiles and as he stomped on the others that scattered the floor, he felt good.

Otis drifted to the living room. He laid down on the couch and sprawled out naked in the dark. He thought about Fay—her fat face and her fat body—wallowing in the bed. He rolled to his side and began to think about Clara. He touched his slim and weak body while picturing that he was touching Clara’s body. He let his tired eyes close. Then he passed out into a black sleep.

 

The next morning, Otis woke in a fog of remorse lying on the cold living room floor.

“Fay?” he said. He staggered to the bedroom, but the bed was empty.

Otis looked in the bathroom. He noticed that Fay’s toothbrush and foot lotions were gone. He rushed to the closet and found her clothes were missing as well. He stood naked in the bedroom, gazing in a numb shock at the empty wire hangers that dangled off the closet rail. Then he remembered. He’d called Fay that terrible name last night. He felt sick. He grabbed his iPhone off the nightstand and when he called Fay, there was no answer. He called her again but the call went to voicemail. On the third call, Otis left a message: “I’m sorry,” he said.

It was 10:00 a.m. In a fluster, Otis chucked on the damp clothes he’d left in a pile on the bedroom floor the night before. He scampered to the Impala in the garage. Then he sped to Yankee Hill where Maxine rented an apartment above a laundromat. Otis parked behind Fay’s Jeep. He banged on the door and he pushed the call button, but there was no answer. So Otis shuffled on the street. He looked up at the second floor and saw Fay at the window. “Fay,” he shouted but she closed the drapes. Otis got in his car. He called her. “Please,” he groveled in the voicemail. He brewed and he hit the dashboard. He said, “Fine,” then he started the car. “Fine.”

Otis drove the I-94. When his iPhone rang, he grabbed at it in a flurry hoping it’d be Fay. He looked at the caller ID but it read: “Brother Saul,” and Otis tossed the iPhone onto the floorboard as shame burned through his body like a death fever. When Otis looked in the rearview mirror, he was struck with alarm. He looked frail. His face was pallid and his eyes were lost in dark circles. His anxieties clustered into a knot of ravenous hunger in his gut. He drove with focus and tried to ignore the McDonald’s and Hardee’s billboards. His hunger grew and so did his desperation. Otis stomped on the accelerator and drove to Southside and he pulled off at the West Greenfield Exit. There were rundown buildings everywhere. There was an old bank with a maple tree growing out of its dilapidated roof and the bricks were covered in graffiti.

Otis cruised past Pink Kitty’s that flashed in bright lights. He stopped at an intersection and watched a man lick dried soda off a Redbox outside of a Family Dollar. The man turned, lifted his coat, then thumbed a red boil on his chest. Otis turned and sped down the road to the fish market that Brother Saul had taken him to a few weeks ago, but it was closed. So he pulled into the Handi-Mart parking lot where a group of prostitutes were smoking cigarettes.

When Otis parked, he rolled down his window. A prostitute sang, “Hey, baby.”

“Hi,” Otis said, then pointed at the obese one. “Hello,” he said.

The woman trotted to the car. “Call me, Birdie,” she said. “What you want?”

Otis was shaking so he grabbed the steering wheel. “Everything?” he said.

“Three hundred dollars,” Birdie said. When Otis nodded, she flopped into the car and he motored off.

***

Otis shut the window blinds in the dingy Motel 6 room and then he handed the three hundred dollars to Birdie that he’d withdrawn from the ATM in the lobby after paying for the room. He watched her shake off her fur coat. She wore a red skirt and black high boots. She began to undress Otis. “Ok,” he said as Birdie unbuttoned his shirt. When she tried to pull off his Levis, he stopped her. “Wait,” Otis said. “Wait.” He zipped his jeans and he buckled his belt. He said, “Hold on.”

“Daddy?” Birdie said. She shot him a grave look. “What. We. Gonna. Do?”

“Will you undress?” Otis asked.

Birdie shimmied off her skirt and then unlaced her boots. “Like this?” she said as she rolled the soiled stockings down her beefy legs. “Daddy?” she said, slipping off her bra. She held her breasts in her hands, the left breast twice the size as the right, and again, she said, “Daddy?” She smiled and her teeth were stained the shade of burnt caramel. Birdie said, “Touch me,” and Otis dropped to his bony knees and he set his gaunt hands on her saggy and uneven breasts.

When Otis hugged Birdie, she cradled his head in her portly hands. “There,” she said and Otis held onto her as he shuddered in bitter solace, knowing that he’d go back to Fay. He’d go back to her today and tomorrow and the day after that. He’d do that. He’d make it right with her no matter what the cost. “There,” Birdie said in a whisper. She said, “There,” and Otis sank into Birdie’s kind embrace as the mire of a familiar sorrow settled into the marrow of his very bones.

***

Jarrett Kaufman is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at the University of Louisiana. He has been awarded scholarships from the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, the Cambridge Writers Workshop, and the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has won numerous literary awards, including the Mary Mackey Fiction Award, the Tennessee Williams Short Story Award, the Missouri Writers Guild President’s Award for Fiction, and the Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize. His stories have been published in over a dozen literary journals. Most recently, his work has been published in or is forthcoming in The Saint Ann’s Review, Fiction Southeast, and Another Chicago Magazine. His work has also been anthologized in The Storyteller Magazine, Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, and Short Story America.

He won the AWC 2021 Terry Kay Prize for Fiction for his story, “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Photo by Faisal Waheed on Unsplash

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