By Natalie Helberg
Linda was a fat chic’s name. I always knew it was a fat chic’s name but it was my name: what choice did I have but to accept it? I wasn’t always fat. Days long gone, of course, but I remember when shopping wasn’t a big deal, when I didn’t need a handicap sticker to walk into a store, when the scornful looks of people didn’t bore into my back long after I’d walked past them. Looks and whispers that would always haunt me.
I heard the whispers before I noticed the display of canned tomatoes I’d just knocked over. There was a loud crash, a toppling of hundreds of cans, the hissing sound as some of them split open, spewing their red, liquid, stickiness, but I only heard the whispers of the people around me. Of course I had to live in a small Midwestern college town. No, I couldn’t have settled in the big city where my fat ass would merely be as anonymous as the cat I lived with. That would have been too simple and such a far stretch from who I was that I laughed out loud. “She’s laughing, her fat ass knocks over three-hundred cans of tomatoes and she laughs.” I heard Amelia Bernheart, mother to my daughter’s best friend, whisper to Tina Delaney, my neighbor. Did they think that as well as being fat I was also deaf? I turned around quickly trying to maintain some sense of dignity when my foot slipped on some of the tomato muck that was quickly spreading across the floor. There was nothing for me to do…
“Ahhhhhggggghhhh…NOOOO… help… me…” I screamed at the top of my lungs. My voice pierced through the small grocery store as I reached out. My hand grabbed a section of shelf containing coffee beans and tea. Why I had thought it would hold my three-hundred fifty plus pounds I’ll never know. The shelf broke free in my hand as my weight came down around me. I landed with a violent quake in a pile of smashed tomato cans, coffee beans and loose teas coming down around me, landing in my hair. The store was silent. There was nothing but a few coffee beans pinging off the shelf and one lone tomato can rolling at the end of the aisle stopping with a thud against another still intact shelf.
I sat there crying, my left ankle in pain, knowing that in the wet, slippery mess I would never be able to heave myself up. What was I going to do? Amelia looked at me with disgust in her eyes. She spoke first. “God, no wonder Andrew left you. Wait until he hears about this.” Could people really be that cruel? Did they think I chose to be this fat? Were they really that small minded that they couldn’t see the pain and anguish I lived in every day.
Yes, actually they were…
Through the haze of tomatoes and coffee beans I could see people starting to move. They went around me, one of the grocery boys mopping up the mess of tomatoes but no one helped me. No one even offered. As if I’d have let them try to help “Fat Linda” up off the floor of Gibbon’s Grocery. I was still crying, big shaking cries, my shoulders moving up and down as I sobbed on the floor, the smell of stewed tomatoes, Jamaican coffee beans and green teas starting to create such an odor that I was ready to vomit. It occurred to me in the fall that I may have also urinated on myself. But God wouldn’t be that cruel would he?
“Oh my God, Mom! … What happened? Why are you on the floor, oh my God, why?” I heard Gabby’s teen angst through my tears and embarrassment. Gabby would help me, my own daughter was here now, she could figure out how to get me up.
“I had a little fall honey, no big deal; I just need some help getting up.” I attempted to get off of the ground.
“Don’t move…just don’t…” Gabby said to me in a tone of such disgust that I stopped, my ass halfway off the ground, my hand supporting my stomach as it jiggled around me.
“But…” I fumbled on my words. Why didn’t she want me to get up? I couldn’t sit her all afternoon. The grocery boys were coming closer with their mops and old Mr. Gibbons was approaching.
“Linda Vogt, little Linda, not to so little anymore, eh?” Mr. Gibbons spoke in a cheery voice. He was such a nice man. He didn’t spend much time at the store anymore but when he did an air of happiness permeated the store much like the fresh baked goods that I never could resist. There was no malice in his voice; he wouldn’t be cruel to me like the rest of this po-dunk town had been. “Well now…” he said thoughtfully and scratched his chin much like Santa Claus would. “How are we going to get you out of that mess? I don’t know about you but I never heard of a tomato bath being good for anything except getting rid of skunk smell.” And he laughed a big booming reassuring laugh and for an instant I didn’t feel so alone.
“She can’t get up, Mr. Gibbons, can’t you see how fat she is. Why she’s probably the one that knocked the cans over, she’s so gross!” Gabby spoke over me, through me and around me all at the same time. Her tone of voice was so much like her father’s that it was all I could do to not burst out into another round of sobbing and tears. Oh dear God, my own daughter hated me too. My own little girl, the last of my children to even maintain some contact with me. I knew I couldn’t count Jacob, that wasn’t his fault, but Jonathon…
“Linda?” I looked up to see Andrew approaching. I couldn’t take it anymore. They were all here. Between Andrew, Gabby, Amelia, Mr. Gibbons, the neighbors, and what felt like the whole town of Marion, Iowa, I was surrounded by people that hated me. I heaved myself up. Where I found the strength I’ll never know, how I didn’t slip back down into the tomato, coffee bean and tea infested mess I can’t figure out but I didn’t.
I stood up on what I was pretty sure was a broken ankle, used the shopping cart for support, and started to hobble out of the aisle. They all stood there, their jaws dropped in disbelief. I heard Amelia laughing, “God, I thought we were going to have to get one of the boys out here with a forklift. ” Thankfully, no one else said anything.
I saw Gabby shaking her head at Andrew furiously and whispering loudly, “No! Please, you have to tell her I can’t.” Andrew came up behind me; I sucked in my breath, how often had he touched me that way in the past? “Linda, wait… we need to talk.”
By this time I was sure I’d pissed on myself… at least the tomato sauce covered up any other wet splotches on my disfigured body. I was a mess and he wanted to talk to me. I kept walking. “Linda, don’t walk away…” He grabbed my arm. “WE NEED TO TALK, NOW!” Andrew, my sweet Andrew who rarely raised his voice was yelling at me, as I dripped piss, tomato juice and coffee grounds; my long, thick, once beautiful hair covered in goop, my face streaked with tears, my pride wounded beyond anything I’d felt in a long time. The fat of my stomach peering out slightly as my shirt hitched itself into my waistband but I wasn’t stopping. They could come to my house, he could call me, hell just have that damn lawyer that handled our divorce call me. Better yet, why not just have that skinny, college bitch he was now dating come over and “TALK TO ME!”
I knew I was ridiculous looking. I knew my life was pitiful and yes, even disgusting by most standards. I knew I’d gotten lost in a well of depression, self-pitying, self-deprecating behaviors. I also knew I could not stop. I knew that the loss of Jacob was not something I’d ever come back from. Slipping and falling into a pile of tomato cans was disturbing to say the least. However, nothing would ever feel like it did that day they lowered my baby, mine and James’ baby into that ground… the baby Andrew loved as much as he’d loved me, never once questioning his place in Jacob’s life, never once belittling the only little boy James would ever have, the little boy he’d never know. I’d lost James, then Jacob, Andrew, Jonathon, my entire life was reduced to boxes of Hostess Cupcakes and frozen pizzas by the freezer full… Gabby was next. It was only a matter of time.
I looked at Andrew, pleading with him with the blue eyes he’d once said “were like pools of everlasting comfort…” I moved my arm away from his. “Not here Andrew, come by the house in an hour, let me collect myself, please.”
I said this last word with strength. I looked over to the group of people now staring at us, my daughter, anger in her eyes, arms folded across her chest, tapping her foot, little sprays of tomato juice shooting onto Amelia’s red leather penny loafers, none of them noticing any of this, too intent on my humiliation.
Andrew backed away, looked over at the assembly mocking me… quietly he said, “Okay Linda, yes, later, I’ll be by later… this isn’t a social call, it’s…” He hesitated, looking at my intently… “It’s business…” He looked at Gabby his voice trailing off.
“Gabby…” I sputtered everything with Gabby and custody was settled, she was just 15, she was the only one I had left… “Gabby… okay…Gabby…” The crowd staring at us was too much for me. I knew I’d regret him coming into our home later but better on my turf than theirs. “Okay, I’ll see you later.”
With my head held high I walked out of the grocery store, leaving my cart at the front, not buying anything, knowing from now on I’d venture an hour away into Des Moines, to a large chain store where I’d never run into anyone I knew again and if I knocked something over it wouldn’t matter who saw me… Fat Linda… Linda was always a fat chic’s name… that was me, that was I, who else could it be?