Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
 print preview


The fat man takes the chopsticks up in both his hands. He stirs the wasabi into his puddle of soy sauce.

“Had you ever seen anyone eat an avocado like that?”

The younger, thinner man takes his pair of sticks in his deft right hand and plucks up a piece of Spider Roll. “Never. It was something. Do you think he’ll meet us?”

“It depends on Joy, doesn’t it?”

“I’ve never met her,” says the younger man.

“I keep forgetting,” says the fat man. He mauls the Super Crunch. “She’s just lovely. I could eat her up with a spoon.”

“Do tell.”

“She’s wispy,” says the fat man. “And brilliant. I don’t know what she’s doing with him.”

“He’s brilliant, too.”

“Historians aren’t brilliant,” says the fat man. He is chewing now. “They’re dull.”

“He didn’t eat that avocado dully. I’ve never seen anyone eat an avocado like that.”

“Well, it’s not any nevermind to me. I hope he comes. I hope he brings her because she’s a delight.”

The two men chew large hunks of rice and fish while their suppers cook. They are the only patrons in the restaurant. It has rained. A humid summertime rain. The evening sky is gunmetal blue. The fat man sits at an angle that allows him a view of the large, dormant football stadium. Everything has a bombed out, empty feeling. The one waitress in the restaurant comes to fill their water glasses.

“I think I’ll have another glass of wine. Another for you?”


And they eat their fish and drink their wine and wait for the other man to show himself. Halfway through their curried duck, they decide he is not coming. This gives the fat man carte blanche.

“I guess I can say it now,” he says. “I think there’s trouble in that relationship.”

“Which relationship?”

“His and hers,” he says.

“How can you know? They just moved here. He hasn’t even started the semester.”

“Tonight’s not the first night I’ve had him to the porch for drinks,” says the fat man.

“They’ve both been over several times. Cooked them dinner once.”

“Well aren’t you the one-man neighborhood welcoming committee.”

“You don’t live alone in a house like mine and not entertain.”

“And we’re all lucky you take such a magnanimous stance on the matter.”

The fat man ignores the thin man’s cheeky tone. He lunges for a forkful of duck, chews with purpose for a while, and then spits this out: “I know people. I’m an excellent judge of character, and I can tell you that those two are not happy.”

“I can’t think of anyone who is,” says the young man. “Anybody who’ll pick up and move here is running from something.”

“From Old Virginia, no less,” says the fat man.

“Oh good God, why on earth would they leave there for here?” The young man swirls the last of his second glass of wine and downs it.

“I think it’s a man.”



“You just want everybody to be gay.”

“I know people.”


They do not have the Thai ice cream for dessert. Instead, they settle the bill and wander across the street to the windowless, gray bar pocked with staples from long-gone flyers advertising cover bands. Inside, it is infested with graduate students—humanities types, who should be reading something or other, or grading bad undergraduate papers. The fat man bellies up to the bar and orders a gin and tonic; the young, thin man gets a bottle of pissy light beer. They both sip and eye the darts competition. After a long silence between them, the fat man starts in again.

“Once, she told me a secret,” he says. “About him.”

“You’re ruining him for me,” says the young man. “How can I give him a fair shake when I hear all this gossip before I even get to know him?”

“It’s not gossip. It’s the truth.”

“Gossip has nothing to do with whether it’s true. It’s a sentiment.”

“Do you want to hear it or not?”

“You’re going to tell me either way, so just out with it.”

“He cries. All the time. Brushing his teeth. Driving to the pharmacy. After sex. There’s not a situation he won’t cry in.”

The young man pauses with the bottle at his lips. He seems unsure of what to say. The fat man continues.

“I told her a lot of women would kill to have a man who could cry. Do you want to know what she said? I found it very interesting.”

“Tell me.”

“She said that no woman looks at a man with half as much respect after she’s seen him cry.”

“She said that?” asks the young man. “Good Christ, she’s a ballbuster.”

“I know. You wouldn’t have thought to hear something like that from her. Wispy. Those intelligent spectacles. It’s simply not her politics. And do you want to know the worst thing?”

“There’s something worse?”

“Oh yes, much worse,” says the fat man. “He heard her.”

The young man blanches, horrified.

“I know,” says the fat man, “I know. It was all I could do to pull the situation together. He’d been in the bathroom and was just standing at the screen door. Who knows how long he’d been there, but I knew from the way his shoulders drooped that he’d heard enough.”

“What on earth did you do?”

“Refilled drinks. And made a bunch of noise doing it. I think I talked about juniper berries. I felt sure he was going to cry right then. Thank God in Heaven he didn’t. I don’t think I could have had them back if he did.”

“God,” says the young man. “What did she do?”

“Smiled a kind of smirk and when he came to sit down next to her, she patted him on the leg as if it never happened. Or maybe precisely because it did.”

The two men look at each other. One starts giggling, and the other can’t help himself.


Outside, the men begin their walk home. The evening is hot from the moisture in the air, and the fat man must unbutton the top three buttons on his damp oxford shirt. He limps just slightly and he is full of food and drink. The young man has to be careful not to outpace his companion. They slowly pass two more bars, a coffee shop. Once they amble past the filling station, they make it to the fringes of the fat man’s neighborhood. The houses are old and stately. Inside, warm lights wash over good wood, antique Tabriz and Najafabads.

“These places aren’t just houses,” says the tiring fat man. “They’re homes.”

“You sound like a Realtor.”

“I would’ve been a good one,” the fat man says. “I know people.”

There is something slightly different to the ordinary evening smell of burning rubber from the tire factory across the river. It is more smoky, more pleasant. The fat man attributes this aloud to the moisture in the air. The thin man disagrees silently. It is something else he can’t yet place. They walk on, past more houses that are homes, down this street and that one. Soon they hear the huge screech of sirens. The smoke smell is more pronounced.

“Hurry,” says the fat man, “something’s on fire in the neighborhood.”

“Easier said than done,” says the younger man.

The fat man ignores him and picks up the pace as best he can. Really there is no increase in pace—just a few more wiggles and gyrations as he pumps his arms in a faux hustle. There are more sirens and before long, they see the smoke. Large, billowing gray mounds of it.

“Oh God, not my house,” yelps the fat man. “Goddamn it, I live for that house!”

“I’ll run ahead,” says the younger man.

“What good does that do me?” asks the fat man.

“I’ll find out which house it is and I’ll run back.”

“Fine, do whatever you want. I’m going as fast as I can.”

“If you had a phone  . . . ”

“For Christ’s sake, don’t be ridiculous. We’re talking about a matter of seconds. A minute at most. A cellular telephone at a time like this. Who on earth could I call?”

He lets the thought trail off because he can see, up ahead, a police car has blocked off the road.

“Good Lord, there’s no way through. We’ll have to find another way.”

They circle back around and hit the main thoroughfare, shuffle down the long strip that leads into and out of town, and finally make it to the fat man’s street, several blocks away from his house. More sirens blare, and at the tree line down the road, the sky is a hazy orange.

“My poor cat,” says the fat man.

“Calm down,” the younger man says. “There are dozens of houses on this street.”

“I just know it. I can feel it. Like a part of me is gone.”

They push ahead, and for all the younger man’s reassurances, the fire does seem to be coming from the general vicinity of the fat man’s beloved house. The young man pictures all the careful clutter—the stacks of good, thick books, the nicknacks and trinkets. Such just-so accumulation can never be replaced. They make their way closer to the commotion that is brewing around several houses on either side of the fire. The young man feels a drier, warmer rush of air on his face. Up this close, they both see quite clearly that it is not, in fact, the fat man’s house that is on fire. For one thing, the fire is coming from the left-hand side of the street—almost directly across from the fat man’s house. The fat man lets out a little sound from deep in his throat—a faint but exultant sigh. Then the two of them begin to calculate: if it isn’t the fat man’s house, whose is it?

“I see Joy,” says the fat man. He picks up the pace—this time legitimately—, points vaguely. The young man hangs back, letting his companion lead the way. He sees a woman, tall, slender, and a dog pacing nervously at her feet. She is crouched over at the waist, her hands cupped together at her heart. Her body convulses in a familiar rhythm. Soon they are close enough to hear her. She is not just sobbing. She is giving herself over to something. The fire, perhaps. She is letting herself become unraveled in the face of the warm, orange light. A firefighter stands near her, halfway comforting her. Neighbors are everywhere, taking in the grand and awesome display. A burning house, a woman outside watching her home burn. She could not be more beautiful. The dog whines nervously. The fat man stops next to another man who holds a pad.

“Where is he?”

“He’s in there,” says the man. “Cops say he put the dog in the car with a note. Booby trapped the place so no one can go in after him.”

“Good God,” says the fat man. His chest is heaving from the exertion. “Sweet Jesus.”

Absently, the fat man walks to his own house. His young companion follows him up the steps and onto the porch. They both sit on the swing, but the fat man pops up.

“I need a drink.”

He pulls a bottle from the small refrigerator in the corner of the porch and, hands shaking, pours gin into a plastic cup. He doesn’t bother asking his companion if he’d like to join him. Instead he opens the front door to the house and clucks for the cat to come and sit with him. The house across the street still burns and the firefighters mainly let it go—it’s too far gone—dousing a ring around it to keep it from spreading to the other houses. The two men watch as the wailing woman is taken away in an ambulance.

“I can’t fathom this,” says the fat man. “This is too much.”

“He was in your kitchen not three hours ago.”

“Don’t remind me,” he says. “It’s just too much. I’m sorry. I have to go in.”

“Of course.”

“You can sit there all night if you want. I just need to go in.”

“Yes, I understand. I’ll be going in a minute.”

“Do what you want,” says the fat man, and he scoops up the cat and his gin, and he shuffles to the door.

“Excuse me.” It is the man with the pad, standing at the screen. “I couldn’t help but overhear. The sound carries off your porch. Did you say you had the man in your house earlier? I’m with the News.”

“He was wonderful, a brilliant mind,” says the fat man. “Quote me on that. ‘He was wonderful, a brilliant mind.’”

“Any idea why he would do something like this? Did he say anything this evening?”

“He was in excellent spirits,” says the fat man. “Such a gentle man. He had the world to live for. A treasure for a wife. I know people, and I know what a treasure that girl is. My heart goes out to her. You can quote that, too.” He gives the man his name, excuses himself, and is gone with a snap of the porch light.

But everything is lit up now. The reporter turns around on the stoop but doesn’t leave. He watches the fire, as does the young man who sits on the porch swing, the heat of the fire warming their faces. A young woman—a neighbor in the duplex several doors away—has been charged with the dog. The young man watches her use her boyfriend’s belt to form a makeshift leash. The dog is skittish and small. It ducks and feints and whines. Finally she abandons the plan and takes the animal up in her arms.

“You wonder what the dog knows,” says the reporter.

This is what the young man sees and hears before he heads off into what will become the first in a series of restless nights: a young woman with a stricken look, surprised to have a dog in her arms but intent on doing something to help, not sure whether to laugh or cry when the dog licks her chin. He sees the girl and her beau and the dog walk quickly down the street. The reporter, slowly at first and then quicker, follows. The thin young man doesn’t turn to watch him go. He doesn’t have to. He just stares into the burning house and the flashing, silent fire truck lights. Soon there is a small but persistent knock-knock-knock in the direction of the duplex. It reverberates once and then again and still another time and then it dies away.  

return to top