By Natalie Helberg
I always knew Linda was a fat chic’s name. For as long as I could remember the name Linda was associated with fat women; big women who dressed in moo-moo’s and smelled like moth balls. How I arrived at this knowledge I cannot fathom but in my head if I was named Linda, which I was, I would someday be fat. And I was…
I spent most of my youth and teen years fighting against this idea. Exercise, running and swimming became my hobbies. I grew up in a small college town, full of innocent college fun. It was the 1970’s but a college town in Midwestern United States didn’t have much turmoil. We didn’t have protests, drugs weren’t all that prominent and the craziest thing to happen was when Old Man Crumpet set his barn on fire because the new horses he’d just bought weren’t providing baby calves for him to train into race horses. I have no idea why after years of being a cattle farmer he suddenly wanted to train thoroughbreds and truthfully I didn’t care much but I enjoyed the story. I was a happy person, I studied, I did great in school and there was no way I was going to school anywhere but the University. My father taught there, I’d go there for nothing, I’d be unequivocally accepted. There wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind where I belonged.
Now many years later, Fat Linda belonged far less than she’d ever thought possible. Her daddy had been gone for many years. Dead from a massive heart attack. She should have known better when he could barely breathe carrying baby James up that hill… still he kept eating those liverwurst and cheese sandwiches and now she too was following suit. Not quite 5 foot 3 inches tall and a grotesquely plump four hundred and fifty-eight pounds. She knew four hundred and fifty-eight pounds was a lot for anyone to weigh let alone a woman who was thirty-eight years old, very short and came from a family ripe with heart disease… still… it was her life…
She remembered the day her size 12 blue jeans no longer fit. It was on her twenty-sixth birthday about a year after her beloved daddy’s death. She hadn’t realized they were slowly getting tighter she just thought that they were shrinking. She bent down to tie Jonathon’s shoe lace and the rear end had split open and the button popped off. Jonathon laughed. “Mommy’s pants broke” he said in his cute little five year old voice. Then they both laughed; on the inside though Linda wasn’t laughing. When Andrew came home that night, Jonathon repeated his earlier words “Mommy’s pants broke.” And Andrew laughed also while patting her on the rear. “That’s okay, Mommy needs new pants.” Than in her ear he whispered “It’s okay babe I like something to grab onto.” Linda knew it was supposed to make her feel better except that it only made her feel worse. She went shopping the next day shocked to discover that her once size 12 blue jeans were now a snug size 14. She bought the jeans and went home to cry, determined to stop the weight gain right then and there.
She never let anyone know she was upset at the size of her jeans she just went ahead and raised her brood, all the while eating more Hagen Daaz and fewer apples, trying to exercise, if she could find the time. But then James got sick… that was just an excuse though; if only she had listened to her doctor when she reached a size 18. He had said to her “Linda, no one else is going to tell you this but you’re on your way to unhealthy weight; unhealthy physically and mentally. Let’s set you up with a dietitian before your heart suffers or worse yet you get diabetes. I don’t have to remind you about your father now do I?” Linda nodded and promised she would see the dietitian and start walking to pick Jonathon up from school. She didn’t though. In fact she didn’t go back to the doctors. She wouldn’t return to the doctors for almost a decade. Not until she passed out at the supermarket, over an hour away, and they had to call ambulance because no one knew her or knew what else to do. That was at three hundred seventy five pounds and here she was one year and eighty-three pounds later.
The phone was ringing. Linda didn’t feel like answering it. She didn’t want to talk about Jonathon’s college fund or how sixteen year old Gabby was getting on with her father and his new wife. She didn’t want to hear about her mother’s gout or how her dad would still be here if he had just did what the doctor said. She just wanted to sit down with her little black terrier Bauer and watch old “Friends” reruns, pretend she was Jennifer Aniston and eat her bag of Oreo’s, drink her gallon of milk. She smiled fondly at Bauer, “You don’t care how fat I get? Do you buddy?” Bauer, her only companion, her last friend, the only one left to love her.
As if wanting to be remembered, Bauer nudged her feet. “Hey there buddy, I know it’s time for you to go out. Let the momma get up first.” Linda managed to heave herself up out of the sofa and with her cane she stumbled to the back door. “Come on boy, let’s go.” Bauer went outside while Linda struggled to catch her breath while leaning on the washing machine. It had been ten months now since Linda had gone outside. She had a man come to mow the lawn, like she’d had since Andrew had left her. It had been four years and it was still hard by the time Andrew finally left she was too fat to mow the lawn. So instead of trying to lose some weight she just hired the guy next door who ran a lawn service from his home. It was convenient. Every Tuesday he came to mow the lawn and she left a check in the mailbox. She always made sure the envelope was in the box long before he came so she didn’t have to talk to him. Eight months ago when she hit three hundred seventy pounds she hired the neighbor’s son to take out the garbage on Wednesday nights and enclosed his earnings in an envelope which she left in the back door for him. She had a cleaning lady and she still did some things for herself, she could wipe up the table and do small amounts of dishes. It wasn’t always easy but she attempted to do as much for her and Gabby as she could and she still wanted a clean home just because she was fat didn’t mean she was dirty. Food was easy, the local grocery store had finally developed a delivery service for its homebound patients and Linda signed up for it. After the tomato incident and fainting at the far away grocery store, Linda had no interest in going shopping.
She was well taken care of by her neighbors. Andrew still had to pay her alimony; she made sure of that when he finally filed for divorce and her at home job provided well for her. True stuffing mailers wasn’t what she had dreamed of long ago but then ago neither was getting fat.
Linda found it hard to believe that people didn’t mind being fat. Oh sure she watched Oprah and Ricki Lake and she saw all those people who said they were happy being fat and that they wouldn’t change for anything… but she didn’t believe them. She hated being fat. She would rather she die than be fat. But she was catholic and you didn’t kill yourself so she wouldn’t kill herself she would just go on getting fatter until she blew up. She knew happiness was now an illusion. It just wasn’t…
“Oh God Damn telephone quit fucking ringing. What do you want?” Linda was in a real mood and she didn’t want to be disturbed. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing though. “Fine, I’ll get it.” She had finally settled down for the evening and she hated having to move out of her chair. Her cordless phone finally died about four months ago and she just wouldn’t leave the house to get another one. She struggled up again, knocking over her little table with the milk and cookies on it in the process. “Damn, Damn, Damn” she said knowing it would take her half an hour to clean it up.
“Hello” she said breathlessly. “Mom?” The voice inquired anxiously over the phone. It was her baby girl Gabby. The little girl she had fought so hard to have and who was taken away from her by Andrew nine months ago because he was afraid of what being with her would do to Gabby’s self-image. As if Linda had done anything except build that child’s self- image up, and give her every art, music, and gym class the park district had to offer. True Linda didn’t go to parent teacher night anymore and true she had trouble driving Gabby around. But one little accident didn’t make you an unfit mother. Oh God what did her little girl want? After living with Andrew and Barbara for two months Gabby quit coming around every day. After three months it dwindled to twice a week. After nine months Linda was lucky to get a phone call now and then. And to think that for sixteen years she had supported that child, she had given that girl everything. It was just this damn weight. He had taken her away after the second grocery store incident. After she couldn’t, no wouldn’t leave the house anymore. But she made sure Gabby was taken care of. She hired a driver to get Gabby to all of her activities. She took on extra mailings, she still cooked for Gabby. Every afternoon at about three o’clock she would begin cooking dinner all, at that time, three hundred pounds of her. She made sure the child was up on her homework and she phoned the teachers at school once a week to check on her progress just because she couldn’t leave the house didn’t mean she couldn’t take care of her baby. Jonathon had left a long time ago. In fact he had gone with Andrew in the divorce. She had topped the scales at two hundred ninety pounds then and was finding it impossible to lose weight, if she had even tried, she didn’t really know… She’d never forget Andrew’s whiny commentary though:
“Linda, I’m sorry I just can’t watch you do this to yourself anymore. You need something to make you stop eating. You need some motivation, inspiration and serious medical help because if you keep going like this well… I just can’t watch it. You won’t help yourself and it is beyond my help. I thought two hundred pounds was bad but now it’s almost three hundred pounds. You’re barely thirty four Linda… and your father’s heart…” He didn’t finish and Linda just cried as he walked out of the door. He was kind to her much kinder than their fourteen year old son Jonathon. “You’re a fat bitch and I don’t care how much weight you lose, you’ll never be my mother again.” Linda had cried for days and days but Gabby stayed with her
and she wanted to be there for Gabby. No matter how fat she was, she was still going to be a good mother. And for three years she hardly gained any weight at all. Only about twenty pounds but than last year after the super markets and losing Gabby, well you could hardly blame her. It was all over the newspapers and she was the butt of the little town she had grown to love and…
“Mom? Mom? Are you there?” Gabby’s voice was frantic. She sounded hysterical. What was the matter? “Gab, yes I’m here baby. Stop crying…” “Oh mom, thank god you’re home I was afraid you would be gone.” Linda had to stop herself from laughing where would she go but Gabby couldn’t possibly know she hadn’t left the house in a year now. “Yes dear I’m here what do you need.” Linda was afraid that she needed a ride and she didn’t know how she would get in the car but she would. She would break that court order and get her baby back, get her home at once. Never mind the courts she’d fight them… damn that Andrew, damn her asshole lawyer of a brother, damn herself. “Oh thank god, thank god…” Gabby was getting more hysterical by the minute and Linda wasn’t sure what to do. Should she go right to her, should she let her talk some more?
‘Be calm Linda’ she said to herself. “Okay Gabby, tell me what’s wrong. Where are you, I’ll get there as soon as I can. Come on baby.” Linda tried to keep her voice steady. “Oh mom it’s awful… I’m at the hospital. Can you come now…?” “Hospital? Baby what happened to you? Are you okay.” “Mom, it’s… it’s oh mom just get here I can’t tell you oh it’s awful, downtown, cars… the downtown hospital… the only one here… hurry mom.”
Gabby was speaking in circles and Linda couldn’t understand her anymore and suddenly there was a dial tone. “Oh God… Gabby come on Gabby!” Linda just let the phone hang in her hand. Hospital downtown… the only hospital in all of Vogt, Iowa. Okay clothes… hair… there wasn’t time for a shower but Linda made sure that no matter how fat she got she still had good hygiene. Her hair was another story. It had been well over two years since she’d had a real hair cut at the beauty salon. When she broke the chair the last time she didn’t go back. She paid for the chair but she never went back; she was mortified that her three hundred pounds bent the frame on the sturdiest chairs she knew of. Instead she just used little cuticle shears to trim her bangs every few months. The result was a long mess of knots that she had trouble combing because her arms were too heavy to lift. She looked in the bathroom mirror and almost cried. But no, Gabby needed her it was no time to cry. ‘Okay Linda, bun.’ It took ten minutes but she managed to get her hair into a bun and as she looked at herself she realized she just looked fat but not scary anymore. She washed her face and dusted it with powder no time for make-up. Not that she had much anymore but she always kept a little just in case… Okay she hobbled over to the key rack and retrieved her keys. She had a big car. After all she was still driving and going out a year ago and she was over three hundred pounds by then so maybe she could still get in at four hundred fifty pounds. But would it start?
She made her way to the car; thirty minutes since Gabby had called would she be in time? She still had gas in her car. Was it safe to drive on year old gas? No time to think about that. Just get in and drive! The seat of the Cadillac was custom made and she realized that she just barely fit in it. The seat was already as far back as it would go and her stomach hit the steering wheel but if she just… ‘Thank God’ she said to herself after tilting the steering wheel up a little it was just enough so that she could breathe. The car turned over a few times and then sputtered… and like magic it came to life. ‘Oh thank God I have a garage.’ Linda realized that she was talking to herself out of nervousness but that was okay… as long as no one heard her. She was an expert at backing out of the driveway without having to turn around in her seat and within seconds she was on the way to Vogt Memorial to see her daughter… for the first time in almost a year.
The lights of the hospital lit up the entire town of Vogt and Linda could see the entrance sign before she even turned on the street. Linda pulled her car into a handicap parking spot, glad that she had finally given in and applied for handicap parking privileges. She hated to think of herself as handicapped but walking even a few steps was sheer hell for Linda. It took five minutes to finally pull herself out of the car and when she did all she could do was stand alongside the door. She took a deep breath and mustered up all of her latent energy and began the short distance to the emergency room.
She looked down at her watch, almost an hour since Gabby had called her; would she be angry because it took her so long? She walked through the door of the emergency room searching for Gabby. She was so red faced and sweating that the emergency room attendant thought she was there for help. “Hang on to me ma’am; we’ll get you a seat are you having chest pains? Do we need to put you through rush triage.” This was exactly why Linda didn’t go out anymore. No matter where she went she huffed and puffed and people thought she was dying. It made it very hard to get anything done. She didn’t want to be rude but she had to find Gabby. “No, No you have it wrong. I’m okay. My daughter called me…” Linda tried to speak calmly but she was getting upset. It had been an hour now and she couldn’t find Gabby and now this nurse was trying to admit her for Christ’s sake. She wouldn’t crumble now; no she would remain as composed as she could.
She wiped her brow with a handkerchief, “Please let me go, I am fine, I have to find my daughter, she’s here, in trouble possibly, she called me…” Finally she was allowed to walk away and look for her baby. She was really starting to worry when Gabby walked out of the double doors, her head bent against her father’s shoulder, Barbara softly patting her arm. Linda hid as best she could; hoping they wouldn’t see her. Why was Andrew here? Had Gabby called him because she wasn’t there quick enough? Gabby wasn’t hysterical but she was still sniffling. They stopped in front of her, their backs toward her so they couldn’t actually see her. Should she say something? Gabby began to talk. “But dad, I called mom, she said she was coming. I have to wait for her… she’ll wonder where I am.” She sounded so sweet, her baby girl, such a lady. Andrew spoke next. “Listen Gabby, I’m going to say this to you because you’re becoming a woman now. You can understand things that even a year ago you wouldn’t have.” Linda held her breath was he going to talk about her… what was he going to tell their little girl? “Your mom is a very sick woman. She has a sickness they don’t know how to cure.” Gabby began to sniffle louder. Oh God Linda thought Gabby wasn’t ready for this. “Is mom going to die?” She sounded so innocent. “Yes, eventually she will honey. Not for a while yet but someday she will kill herself from this sickness.” “But she’s my mom, she can’t die… she needs me… she… she…” Gabby began to weep again and Linda wanted to reach out and grasp her in a hug. ‘She needs a hug’ thought Linda. Linda didn’t move though she just stayed in her little corner, as best a fat woman can stay in corner but she couldn’t let Andrew see her. “Okay, Okay, Gabby… no, no don’t cry. I’m sorry honey, it’s all right, she’s not going to die…” Andrew was so warm and kind to his daughter, so filled with compassion for her pain that Linda had to fight the tears.
“Gabby, honey listen to me… your mom loves you. I know she does but she is fighting a battle that she cannot win and you must understand that you can’t call her like a regular daughter calls her mother.” Andrew paused. Linda recognized the pause, she knew that his eyebrows were knitted together trying to find the right words. He was never unkind when talking about Linda and for that Linda was grateful. “Your mom couldn’t get here tonight if she wanted too. She’s… well she’s too… she’s just… it’s just that your mom…” Linda was part furious part sickened. They thought that she couldn’t get to her baby well she would show them. She would get them all. As she struggled to think about the words to say, Gabby burst into full blown tears. “Say it dad, just say it she’s too fat… she’s too fat to help me anymore…” And with that Gabby ran out of the hospital and Andrew just hung his head. Barbara spoke next, calmly but without emotion almost coldly, “Andrew she’s just a child, she wants her mommy.” “I know Barbara but her mommy’s gone forever.” Andrew grabbed Barbara’s hand and they slowly walked out of the hospital. Linda heard Andrew speaking “Linda loved those kids with everything she had but well after James it was just too much…” “You can’t blame yourself Andrew…” Barbara began but by that time they were too far away for Linda to hear anymore and with a great cry she fell into a nearby chair.
Andrew and Barbara found Gabby sitting there, the tears finally drying on her face. “Come on baby, let’s get you home. Grudgingly and mostly because she couldn’t do anything else Gabby let herself be led away from the hospital. As they walked to their car, Gabby spotted a flash of green. “It’s mom’s car, she’s here, we have to go find her…” Gabby ran to the Cadillac her faith restored in her mother but only for a moment. “Gabby come on honey it’s not mom, look those are handicap license plates and your mom’s plates read ‘FNEWOMN’. But you’re right it is the same kind of car.” “Maybe mom got handicap plates; you know it was hard for her walk around. But you wouldn’t know how hard it is for her to walk would you?” Gabby couldn’t help but let the comment in, she was just so mad and sad and everything in between. Andrew didn’t say another word but just took Gabby’s hand and led her to their car. Gabby was sure it was her mom’s car. Mom never lied to her well not really… Gabby didn’t fight though. She was too tired to fight with her dad and Barbara. She just sat down in the new BMW and fell asleep as they drove towards home.
Linda saw the BMW leave the parking lot. She saw Andrew driving it and Barbara looking quite prim and proper as they passed the front window. She thought maybe they would see the big fat lady just sitting there but they didn’t, they just kept driving. Linda felt the tears sliding down her face. First her son rejects her and then her daughter falls apart because her mom is too fat to be there for her. Linda couldn’t stop the great big weeping sobs, as she wept, her life came flooding back; her marriage, her sons, her daughter, her dad, her mom, her business, her failures. She knew she was a fat loser and she knew that like Andrew said she would just end up killing herself in time. She didn’t know how to stop eating though… she just didn’t know how to forget or forgive it all.
It took Linda some time but she finally got up out of the hospital chair, she saw the indentation of her body on the seat and gave a sigh. She was so heavy she pushed all of the cushioning down. She hoped that in time it would come back if not they would have to replace it. Should she leave her name just in case? No, maybe she could just come back and see if the cushioning resumed it’s prior bounce. No she knew she’d never make a casual call here. She would write them a letter. It would be easier than having to explain it now. Plus, her face was such a mess and her hair was starting to fall out of it’s bun. Better to just leave then to have to talk to anyone, to have anyone actually see or recognize her.
Linda hobbled out to the car. Her cane scrapping the floor and her great heaving body moved with it. Her body jiggled like Jell-O as she shuffled through the emergency room door. Linda was so concentrated on getting to her car that she didn’t see the group of kids coming into the ER and as she tripped she heard them say “Hey Fatso ever hear of Jenny Craig!” Linda managed to barely regain her balance by grabbing onto the handle of the bench but not before the group of kids began laughing. “Hey I think it’s that lady that was the cover of the Vogt Cattler last year… hey lady didn’t you figure it out… your husband likes skinny chicks.” And they walked into the ER laughing at Linda’s expense for what seemed like a very long time…
She made it out to car before she burst into tears again. She knew they were just kids but for God’s sake she was a fat lady, shouldn’t they respect their elders, hadn’t their parents taught them better? She couldn’t help it, their words hurt badly. They ate at her very soul the way she ate through a pizza. The thought of pizza cheered her up slightly. She looked at her watch though and realized that it was far too late for the only good pizza place in town to be open. She also realized that she wouldn’t be able to get a pizza because that would mean actually getting in and out of her car again to go inside and order it and wait for it. If she had to wait long eventually someone would see her size and make a crack about it and she couldn’t handle that again, not tonight.
She would go to the White Castle. Until they built the hospital Linda had no idea what a White Castle was. She discovered though that they were the greatest little hamburgers one could ever want. With onions, mustard and one pickle topping a two inch by inch square patty; a person could eat a dozen White Castles and still have room for fried chicken rings, mozzarella sticks and the greatest onion rings one could ever hope for; Linda knew this because that was her favorite order. The greatest thing about White Castles though was the fact that no matter how big or how small the town they were located in was, they were open twenty four hours a day, 364 days a year. Of course since she hadn’t left the house in almost a year she’d been unable to get the real thing. They had the frozen hamburgers that she sometimes ordered from the grocery store but they weren’t the same. Boy was she glad she remembered to put money in her wallet, since she was out she would stock up.
Stock up she did! Driving through the White Castle parking lot at 1 o’clock in the morning, the four hundred and fifty-eight pound lady who didn’t really need any more White Castle’s ordered two hundred cheeseburgers. She ordered fifty large orders of onion rings, knowing that she could refry them in her fry daddy and they would taste just like they did tonight. She ordered chicken rings and mozzarella sticks and double White Castles. Altogether Linda spent a whopping two-hundred and fifty dollars at a fast food joint where a family of six could dine for fewer than fifteen dollars. The poor guy in the drive through didn’t know what to do with that many twenties and his manager asked Linda if she would mind waiting; it would take them awhile. Linda didn’t mind waiting but she did make them give her an order of chicken rings and ten cheeseburgers and a large shake to munch on while she waited. She waited for forty-five minutes and when the order was ready, the chicken rings and cheeseburgers were gone. Linda wore a smile of contentment on her face and as she left the parking lot she knew no hamburgers would ever taste this good again. The manager and employees just stared as Linda’s Cadillac pulled into traffic, they would never forget this night. Nor would they forget the fat lady who ordered hundreds of White Castles and a Diet Coke to wash it all down with on the way home. It was almost a miracle that they were able to make them all. It would be an even bigger miracle if Linda lived long enough to eat them all…