Earl Johnson awoke to the sound of birdsong and children playing outside in the street right below his bedroom window. He had opened the window sometime during the hot night and the warm morning air now swirled about his room in gentle undulations, stirring a page of an opened magazine, moving the necktie that hung like a snake’s skin from the hook on the door. He blinked his eyes several times and yawned. He stayed in bed and stared at the cracks in the ceiling, observed their aged and unchanged configuration for the thousandth time: the limb of an alien arachnid to the left, the hump of a sorcerer’s nose over on the right, the vertical slit of a woman’s sex there beside the light fixture. He licked his dry lips and scratched the broad expanse of his soft belly. He set his large feet flat on the twist of linen at the foot of his bed and brought his knees up together like the peaks of two tiny mountains. He arched his lower back up off the mattress a few inches and farted. He then dropped his legs forward again and the bed shook and what was still in his belly from the night before sloshed around wetly.
Earl Johnson did not move anything more than his eyelids for the next fifteen minutes. His heartbeat thumped in his ears. His breath came down into his lungs in deep slow pulls, stayed for a few seconds, then left from his nostrils in long controlled streams, that to Earl, sounded vexed and so damn final.
The children continued to play outside. He could no longer hear the birds calling for the traffic that had begun to stir. It was Saturday morning and last night Earl had gone out on a date with Marilyn Carver. Marilyn worked with Earl’s sister, Ellen, at Burke and Wood Advertising, where Ellen worked in the sales department. Ellen called Earl earlier in the week and talked nonstop for nearly half an hour about Marilyn Carver, the latest girl in a long run of recent temp girls employed at Burke and Wood, and about what a perfect companion she would make for Earl. Earl tried to tell his sister once again that he was not seeking a companion, but every time he began to talk, Ellen increased her volume and talked right over him as she had done since he could recall.
Ellen was the eldest of six children in the Johnson family, with Earl being the youngest and the only male. There was Ellen, Darleen, Roberta, Georgette and Madison. Lloyd and Elizabeth Johnson had doggedly created this large brood over the years, now retired they lived in a small house by a wide slow-moving river in the southern part of the state. Earl had not seen his parents in well over a year. Two of his siblings, Ellen and Georgette, lived in the same town as Earl and this twosome he saw with reluctant regularity. His other sisters he had not seen in nearly five years. Out of the Johnson clan, only Ellen and Earl were still single. Aware of his proclivity for solitude and isolation, yet choosing to ignore it entirely, Ellen insisted on catching up with her only brother once a week, either at his apartment or downtown after work on Friday afternoons for a coffee or preferably something stronger.
At such assignations Earl would sit awkwardly in the lightweight plastic chairs that seemed to be the standard furniture in every downtown eatery. Having little confidence in the strength of their design he would fidget about nervously while Ellen chatted on and on about places and people Earl had no interest in knowing anything about. Georgette would occasionally show up to these brief sojourns, a cigarette ostentatiously clamped in an anachronistic long black holder between the gloved fingers of her left hand, her small dog poking its dumb head out from the opening of the Gucci purse she insisted on placing on the table for all to see. She would nod with blatant disinterest as her still unmarried and much less successful sister talked and talked, and she would say not one word to her brother, which suited Earl just fine. He would simply sit there, stewing silently in his own sweat and discomfort in a chair that gripped his fleshy ass like a mighty fist, watching as his sister’s silly little dog strained to break free from its pricey jail, a desire Earl alone knew better than most.
But Georgette’s flashy appearance was thankfully an anomaly; mostly it was just Earl and Ellen on Friday afternoons. And even though Earl had little desire to connect with his family, he complied with Ellen’s wishes for a weekly get together. Ellen, the one member of the Johnson family who seemed to have a hold on Earl he could neither resist nor explain.
Earl cupped his hands over his mouth and exhaled. His breath was stale. Glistening tributaries of sweat pooled in the numerous folds of his flesh and tickled when they broke their banks and blossomed across the mass of smooth flesh in a delicate southward flow. He wiggled a fingertip in the cup of his bellybutton and it came away wet. So he had acquiesced, had allowed his sister to bask once again in the glory of her trite manipulations. What of it? Who cares? Maybe she was right. Maybe he really did need to come out into the light a little more often. To date. To converse. To socialize, goddamnit. And so, after her dull loquaciousness finally ran its course, Earl agreed to Ellen’s demands and went out on a date with Marilyn Carver.
A truck rumbled along the street outside his window and once it passed Earl could hear the children shouting and cussing and running after it. There was a smash of glass. The audible smack of flesh on flesh. Laughter, shrill and caustic. The bop bop bop of a ball bouncing on the sidewalk. An old voice calling out in a foreign tongue. A young voice answering in English. More laughter. Earl sat up and groaned. His head hurt and a rash had developed overnight beneath his right breast. He cupped the heavy mound of flesh and raised it, dropped his head to get a better look, but could see no more than a few fine tendrils of red spreading across the skin beneath the round warm mass of himself. He looked to the other breast. Breast? Was that truly what they were? Yet no child could ever hope to suckle from them. Breast. He did not know. The other was clear, no red rash, just the bright shine of sweat that dribbled steadily from beneath the dark lip of folded flesh. He looked down at his huge stomach, touched the soft stretch of so much skin, traced the smooth marks that had always been there, always would be, forever expanding and scarring as he still continued to grow. He could not see his genitals, could barely see them when he stood. He sat whenever he peed, just like a girl. Erections and nocturnal expulsions still occurred on occasion, but he rarely partook consciously in their pleasurable cause, awakening instead to a hint of sensual recollection, a faint trace of quick and familiar delight, flakes of dry semen to be later discovered and scraped away with a fingernail.
On the edge of the bed he stayed, his boxer shorts bunched up tight in the maw of the pressured center that fell between his two monolithic thighs, each coated with sparse clusters of leg fur and mottled swaths of pinkish flesh. Along the inseams of these tremendous limbs ran dark veins, thick as the tails of city rats, and a splotchy abundance of bruise-like discoloration; not a bit of it registering as desired goods, not to Earl’s mind anyway. Not to anyone else’s, surely. Certainly not to Marilyn Carver, poor woman.
He stood and plucked Indonesian-made fabric from the heated fissures of himself, hooked his thumbs under the broad elasticized band of his underwear and heard it gasp as warm air quickly flowed along the gap he made. His thumbs rubbed at the gnarled flesh there, a crisscross pattern of rugged indentations, as if he had been branded painlessly in his sleep.
They met at a bar down by the waterfront, one suggested by Ellen of course. Earl got there early, found a table by the window, ordered himself a dark ale and a side of French fries while he waited. He nodded to the various eyes that could not avoid him, the smirks and shaking heads, the abundance of disgust that always crawled its way to him like a reptilian foe. He waited just the same, taking comfort from the warm food and sips of cool ale, and in his challenged heart he hoped she would not show, hoped he would never have to talk to anyone ever again; not to his sisters, not to his parents, and not to the unknown public living all around him, regarding him with utmost contempt, laughing as he passed them by, their wordless exclamations as deafening to Earl as a stampede of wild horses.
He was halfway through his second ale and had finished all the French fries when Marilyn showed up. Though he was ready to leave at the end of his first drink, he had remained. A young woman with dark curly hair had taken to the small stage near the entrance not long after he arrived, and with only her voice and an acoustic guitar, began making the most hauntingly lyrical music Earl had ever heard. Her voice was clear and strong, drifting sweetly above the constant murmur of the other patrons, whose relentless chatter Earl found to be an unforgivable act of disrespect. Could they not hear the beautiful music? Were they oblivious to everything in the world but themselves? The songs made Earl feel sad and somewhat drained, but he did not want them to end. The young singer was just beginning her third song when Earl realized a woman was standing beside his table, looking at him. How long she had been there, he did not know, but he did know who she was from the detailed description Ellen had given him earlier in the day: a somewhat short and plumpish woman in her mid-thirties, blonde shoulder-length hair, black-framed eyeglasses, blue eyes and excellent teeth. Earl smiled and slid clumsily from his stool, catching it behind him as it began to teeter forward. He held out his other hand and Marilyn took it in one of her own, giving it a gentle squeeze. Sweat had pooled under Earl’s arms and across his belly and above the small of his broad back. The young woman kept singing and Earl darted his eyes to the left of Marilyn so he could still see the stage, still see the maker of such wonderful song. Marilyn said something and Earl nodded without knowing what was said. Marilyn then looked toward the stage and then back at Earl. She set her small unobtrusive purse on the table and scooted herself onto a stool. It dawned on Earl only moments later that he had been standing directly in front of Marilyn, this woman he was here to meet and to whom he had not yet said so much as a single word, blocking her view of the singer onstage; in fact, blocking her view of everything that lay beyond his massive sweat-stained back. He felt suddenly awful, sick and terrible, just as rude as the customers he had privately chided only minutes before. He recovered himself as best he could, apologized profusely, smiled incessantly without cause, attempted hopelessly to shrink himself a little by slouching at the table and keeping his wet beefy hands and forearms in his lap. He nodded like a great dumb bird, smiled and nodded, baring teeth in need of professional care, dabbed at his lips with the trembling tip of his tongue, strained to hear what Marilyn was saying with one ear, whilst listening to the rhapsodic melodies with the other. He felt the invasive glare from a hundred pairs of eyes staring out at him from impenetrable bubbles of self-importance, heard the vile and hateful thoughts that brewed behind those eyes as if they were his own, nodded some more, observed the woman sitting with him, but only briefly, like a face staring out at him from inside a moving train. He then curled up deep inside himself, found the darkest spot he knew, a familiar safe place, and stayed there.
He stood from his bed and moved to the window. Pain spread through him like the radiance of sudden light in a dark woods. He knew there was much more to think about from last night. Images came to him in unwanted flashes, each embossed with guilt and truculent self-loathing. He knew he was being exceptionally hard on himself, knew he had done Marilyn no physical harm, would not have been intentionally rude, as such intention was never his way, but he knew just the same, the night had failed entirely because of him, and like a small vessel tethered to the stern of a much larger ship, Earl had cut the rope and set this poor woman adrift, without so much as knowing a notable thing about her.
At the window he looked down and watched the children at play, the neighborhood mix of ragtag offspring: boys without shirts and shoes, girls with thick clumps of matted hair and dirty sleeveless dresses. Earl saw the scabs on nearly every knee and elbow, on some of the faces too. And he saw the old people as well, they were there, slouched on wooden boxes in the cool of shaded doorways, leaning out from kitchen windows with their leathery arms folded and their grey-haired heads nodding slowly and steadily, as if to reassure themselves that life was still occurring all around them, no matter how uninvolved they themselves were with it.
Earl wiped a band of sweat from his neck and the warming air lightly touched his great mass. He thought again of the singer and of her songs, those sweet lamentations he longed to hear once more. Then he thought of Marilyn Carver. She had ordered herself a salad and a glass of red wine, and at some point during a break in the music, Earl had become aware of this fact, had watched as her small mouth worked on the dark leafy greens, smiled at the little sips of red liquid she took, and all the while saying nothing to her, nor she a word to him. What was so wrong with him that this was not uncommon? Why in god’s name did he allow himself to be subjugated by Ellen’s irksome persistence?
In the open window he stood, his feet already sore, the bones that held his bulk stressed beyond the abilities of their design, his doctor had harangued him for years now, move more, eat less! Move! Move move move! But he rarely moved more than he had to, hated exercise of any kind, had not lost himself in the heat of a shared lust in nearly fifteen years, and that he had paid for.
Some of the children had seen him now, standing in his window, they pointed and laughed, called to their other friends, and soon a small crowd gathered to watch.
At some point the “date” had simply ended. Marilyn only had two glasses of red wine, and the second she barely sipped from. Earl on the other hand had ordered another three ales, and then started in on the scotch. He sat there morose and reticent beyond belief. The singer ended her performance to a smattering of indifferent applause, but not from Earl. He leapt up on quivering legs and stood clapping with his hands above his head, whooping and hollering, his great sweaty bulk rippling from the effort. The singer nodded his way once and then was gone. Someone shouted something at him and a wave of laughter erupted. Earl was suddenly incensed, and drunk enough to spill blood. He dropped his arms and clenched his hands into tight destructive fists. He glared all around the room. Someone brushed past him. He swung his spinning head and tried to focus as Marilyn quickly walked out of the bar and into the night, her image fading rapidly from view. He sat down again, heavily, breathing like a great laboring beast on the plains of Africa. His hand found his glass and he began to drink once more, and when he could not find his way back into the dark safety of himself, he paid the bill and left.
He looked down to see the children laughing and pointing, but he did not care about that. The sun was warm and felt so good on his skin. He suddenly wanted its warmth on every available part of his body, so he took off his shorts and dropped them on the floor. The laughter suddenly increased and merged with shrieks and joyful yells. Earl knew it was because of him of course; anyone would laugh at an immensely fat man standing naked in his bedroom window. Earl knew he would laugh too. He might not point, but he would certainly laugh, if only inwardly. The telephone rang on the bedside table behind him. Earl looked to see if he could see it actually vibrating as it rang, but he could not, of course. The phone was too solid and the vibrations too imperceptible to be seen from such a distance. Earl could not imagine the word imperceptible ever being applied to himself. This thought made him smile as he held onto the window sill and lifted his foot. He knew Marilyn Carver would not be the one calling. He knew it would be Ellen, and he knew she would either already know all about last night, or she would be calling to hear about it from him. Either way, Earl had no desire to talk to his sister or anyone else. It was the sun he wanted right now, and only that. He sat on the window ledge with his right leg hanging down outside, the blood rushing to his foot. The wood pressed against his testicles and pinched the loose flesh of his ass. More laughter came to him. He licked his top lip, it was warm and salty. The phone continued to ring. He looked down at the upturned faces and smiled. He waved. A young girl waved back and then got thumped on the arm by a boy next to her. The world is an undeniably cruel place, thought Earl.
With some difficulty he brought his left leg up and out and hung it beside the other. He wriggled himself forward slightly so that the sill pressed into the middle of his huge ass and he achieved some sense of balance. He ducked his head down beneath the bottom frame of the upper window and brought it out fully into the warm and bright morning. Now every part of him but his ass and back were exposed to the soft and gentle warmth. He drummed his heels lightly against the bricks. He leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees and cupped his chin with his hands and looked down. The crowd quieted. He watched a man talk to another man and then watched that man suddenly run off. He saw three old women standing in exactly the same pose, one hand over their mouths, the other shading their eyes. He was only five floors up, but he could see everything. He wanted the sun’s warmth to find its way down beneath the heavy layers of flesh and to touch his genitals. But he knew it would not happen. There was more traffic now.
Some of the cars had stopped and people were getting out of them and looking up and pointing at him. People just could not stop themselves. They had always stared at him. Always. He felt bad for Marilyn. They must have said some words together last night, but he could not recall a single one. The phone stopped ringing, but it would ring again, he knew it would ring again. One thing about Ellen, she was no quitter.
F.X. JAMES is the pen name of an oddball British expat writing from the plains of South Dakota. When he’s not dissolving in the midst of a savage summer or fattening up for the next brutal winter, he’s writing poems and stories and drinking too much dark ale. He has had words published in the laughing dog, into the teeth of the wind, Icon, Illuminations, Art Times, Amoskeag, Iconoclast, Yawp, The Rambunctious Review, Vagabond City, The Dying Goose, Empty Sink Publishing, Milo Review, The Bangalore Review, and other magazines.