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Forks In The Road

A lover of rich food became obese. Rejected by a girl, he could have decided to curb his eating habits; instead, he took refuge in comfort food. Later in life, a woman who showed an interest in him led to his redemption. Obesity is a common affliction today and this fiction piece shows two reactions to rejection: one is negative, the other positive. To those who are conflicted, this story offers a moment of hope.

Floyd Tubman, a rotund twenty-eight-year-old who lived with his widowed mother, gazed at the huge cheeseburger on the greasy paper plate in the refrigerator, next to the half-eaten salami and gigantic bowl of potato salad, plus, upon jerking open the freezer, the ice cream, and was lost in thought. He had come to the moment of truth: would he decide to change destructive habits in favor of a more fulfilling life?

Images of his childhood danced on the screen of his mind’s eye. He envisioned his fifth birthday party with all his friends and their good-natured shoving, yelling, and laughing. They were happy just being with each other. That was the day little Floyd had his first cheeseburger. Dessert, of course, was a big hunk of the birthday cake, which was constructed of a huge mass of chocolate-infused buttery batter, encased in a thick vanilla frosting, crowned with whipped cream and candied maraschino cherries. His mother plunked two big scoops of chocolate ice cream on the plate right against the cake. This serving was a veritable monument to the pleasures of cholesterol and its three supporting pillars: sugar, carbohydrates, and trans fats. Floyd was a skinny kid, so his parents always plied him with high-caloric foods, hoping he would “fill out.”

His fifth birthday party effected a great change in the little lad. He sank his teeth into the bun, the pickle, the onion, the tomato slice, the cheese, the juicy meat, the ketchup, and felt a voracious lust to cram the whole savory concoction into his mouth at once, but discovered it was futile. Floyd knew half of it would smear onto his face, which is not where he wished it to go. He contented himself with a bite-by-bite enjoyment of the treat. The boy chewed slowly, eyes closed in ecstasy, steadily, tasting the burger’s contents as it blended with his saliva, rolled around on his tongue, then glided down to his stomach, producing a feeling of sublime contentment. One half hour later he attacked dessert: the ambrosia that constituted the luscious cake. His parents were amazed and delighted. Finally, the little lad had an appetite.

As he grew, his appetite grew even faster. Floyd was never content with just two burgers, two portions of French fries, followed by a piece of some gooey hunk of sugary carbs. The food not only served as nourishment, more than he needed, but perversely acted as an appetizer for yet more of the same. His appetite branched out; no longer satisfied with a mere cheeseburger, he discovered salami, heavenly, garlicky, savory salami.

He no longer had time to devote to both his consumption of rich foods and the enjoyment of physical activities. He no longer spent time running or jumping to catch a ball. As he grew, his friends played with bat and ball in a vacant lot, engaged in street hockey on roller skates. His non-participation resulted in the loss of friends, loss of social life but the gaining of pounds. He didn’t notice this loss and was unconcerned about the weight.

As a teenager, the lack of social life no longer mattered very much, since those friends began sitting at home as well, playing electronic games, listening to music, or chatting for hours on smart phones and Facebook. They, too, became sedentary and were almost as socially isolated as Floyd, unless one counts Facebook “friends” as true friends. They, too, started to increase in weight, but not nearly as much as he. At the age of fifteen he weighed 300 pounds, although he measured only five foot eight.

Something else happened at the age of fifteen: he managed to tear his attention away from the magical world of electronic delights and his true love — food — to notice the opposite sex. His former friends had already discovered girls long before he did. The other boys were, in fact, crazy about the adolescent temptresses. In class, Floyd’s attention had often wandered from the subject matter to visions of meats of various kinds — potatoes fried, baked, and puréed plus pasta with marinara or Alfredo; salami as well as cakes; candies and pies. Recently, his fantasies about the girls in his class — especially three of them — competed with those victuals-oriented daydreams. One of those three young ladies in particular set him to fantasizing about her: the beauteous Tracy.

Tracy Beaulac, cheerleader captain, began to replace his dreams of mountains of meat; potatoes and gravy; and even his mental images of ice cream, chocolate syrup and Black Forest Cherry cake. There was a struggle between the two objects of Floyd’s affection, but dark-eyed, dark-haired, voluptuous Tracy began to edge cuisine to the sidelines. Simultaneously, as a corollary to this process, Floyd’s weight miraculously began to decrease. His appetite was not as demanding when thoughts of Tracy took up residence in his mind.

One fateful day, the young man found his courage, girded up his loins, so to speak, and — heart pounding, hands cold and clammy, practically panting — approached lovely Tracy from behind, tapped her on the shoulder, and stammered, “H-hi, Tracy.”

The girl, startled for a moment, turned to see who had poked and then greeted her. Her eyebrows flew up when she saw him. She frowned and mumbled, “Oh, hi, uhhh….”

Floyd, disconcerted by her not even knowing his name, completed her sentence for her, “Floyd.”

“Right: Floyd. So…?” She stared at him, wondering what he wanted of her. An awkward silence ensued while he tried to think of how to begin the conversation. Finally, after a minute that seemed like a month, perspiration on his brow, underarms dampening, he said, “Uh, look, Tracy, I was wondering if you, um, if you would want to, uh….”

Tracy placed her hands on her hips and said, “Is there something you wanted to say, Lloyd?” She did not say this warmly, or even with curiosity, but in a tone usually reserved for telling someone, Would you bug the hell off, you unspeakable creep.

“Floyd.” He corrected her, in a barely audible voice, as he stared at the floor.

“What?” she demanded.

He looked into her eyes — those chocolatey eyes shrouded by lush black eyelashes —cleared his throat, and said, “Floyd, not Lloyd. My name is Floyd.” He forced a smile.

She rolled her eyes and grumbled, “Whatever.”

She immediately followed this with, “So, what do you want?” Her tone unmistakably suggested, What in heaven’s name could a lump like you possibly want from gorgeous me?

Once in the fray, he could not just cut and run, even though his heart was beating at warp speed and his hands felt as though they were turning blue. He answered, breathing raggedly, his words rapidly pushing and tripping over each other, “Tracy, would you like to go to the cineplex with me on Saturday night?”

Floyd could not help noticing the look of horror suddenly etched on her beautiful face. She barked, “No!” turned, and flounced off.

He stood there, like a fire hydrant that detects a pack of dogs heading straight for it. His face reddened, his fists clenched, and his eyes squeezed shut to press back the tears.

Floyd was certain he knew the reason for the rejection: his weight. This painful conversation created a fork in the road of Floyd’s life. He could have made a concerted effort to go on a diet and get some exercise. He could have. He did not. His attitude was, I can never go through that kind of agony again. I have to face facts: No girl would want to go out with me. I’m a monster.

“Fat Man,” by Kazimir Malevich

To console himself after this resounding defeat, Floyd took refuge in comfort foods. He increased his intake of delicious, saliva-inducing foodstuffs. He attacked the provisions with knife, fork and spoon, as though these utensils were weapons of war, and demolished his luscious foes by consuming them. By age eighteen, he had grown one half inch in height but now weighed 350 pounds.

After graduation, Floyd had applied for jobs such as a sales clerk in a shoe store, and in a bakery. The experience was for him too reminiscent of Tracy’s rebuff. He was rejected by the shoe store manager because the man could see that Floyd could not bend at the waist sufficiently to put potential customers’ shoes on or off. When he had dejectedly retreated from the bakery, he overheard the boss say to his wife, “Hire him? Ha! That one would eat up all the profits.”

Floyd admitted to himself that the baker was probably correct. He could not stand the temptation of working for eight hours surrounded by the wonderful aroma of bread baking and the sight of rich, calory-laden cakes, pies, sticky buns, and cookies. Smelling those heavenly smells, seeing those delectable goodies, his mouth watered, and it was all he could do to restrain himself from purchasing those wonderful sticky buns and rushing home to butter them before scarfing them down. But he managed to deny himself the pleasure, when he thought of the cash he would have had to pay the very man who had just so insultingly refused him employment. Floyd fled the store, internally raging at himself for being a glutton. He realized there was no way he could be on his feet most of the day without suffering heavy fatigue. And he knew it was because of his weight.

As was his custom after suffering the blow of rejection — which he felt was a psychological flipping of the bird — he retreated to his mother’s kitchen. This was an emergency. He needed some sustenance in a hurry, no time for cooking. He rushed around the kitchen; seeing there was no more salami or even baloney in the fridge, he cursed, slammed the fridge door shut. Then, frantically searching the cupboards, found the jar of peanut butter, a jar of orange marmalade, a jar of grape jelly, and the box of raisins. Then he hunted for the bread needed for a sandwich. Oh, God, they were out of bread! He cursed again, got a spoon, sat down and with the speed borne of desperation, ate the peanut butter, the marmalade, the grape jelly, and the raisins right from their containers, proceeding from left to right and back from right to left. When the contents of the raisin box and of all those jars were gone, his feeding frenzy ended. He took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair to relax and digest.

***

When he reached his twentieth year, Floyd finally managed to be hired by the Out of the Box company, a manufacturer of cardboard boxes. Now weighing about 450 or 500 pounds — he couldn’t know for sure, because there were no bathroom scales that went that high — the company furnished him — but no other employee — with a chair at the assembly line. The work was boring, monotonous, but it paid something. As he worked on the cardboard sheets, folding one after another, his fingers moving on automatic pilot, he daydreamed of porter house steaks, mashed potatoes inundated in deep, rich gravy, pork chops, short ribs, loaded baked potatoes, followed by strawberry ice cream swimming in hot fudge, surmounted by walnuts, sprinkles, and some fat cherries. All these mental scenes produced rivers of saliva.

In between these daydreams, Floyd continually glanced at the wall clock, mentally urging the hands to move faster, so he could leave and hunt down some nourishment. When his shift was over, he would walk as fast as possible, which was not at all fast, to get home and open the refrigerator. Some days he could not wait that long and would pop into MacDonald’s to order two Big Macs with three servings of French fries.

***

One rainy day in 2020, a few months after his twenty-eighth birthday, another position opened because an elderly employee had retired. The spot was filled by Katey Morgan, an attractive woman of thirty-two, whose job it was to apply the glue. Katey was a gregarious woman. She loved to chat with everyone, and since she stood on the production line right next to Floyd, she immediately began a conversation with him.

“Weather’s pretty bad, don’t you think?”

The voice broke his concentration on food. He turned in Katey’s direction, blinked, and said, “Uh, what?”

She smiled, “The weather…I said it’s pretty bad, isn’t it?”

He liked her smile, and he saw she had a pretty face and dirty-blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. “Um, I guess so. I really hadn’t noticed.” His fingers continued working the cardboard, but he kept gazing at her face. It was a nice face, he decided.

“You hadn’t noticed? My gosh! You must be a deep thinker.” She chuckled.

Why does she think I’m a deep thinker? “Who, me? A deep thinker?” He noticed she really had a great smile.

“Well, you know, I mean if you didn’t notice that heavy rain and terrific winds tossing it at you like a cold shower….” She laughed good-naturedly.

He smiled, something he hadn’t done in a very long time. “Oh, right.” He thought for a moment, trying to come up with an interesting observation. “Right,” he laughed, something else he had not done in ages. “But I bring a bar of soap with me in this kind of weather. You know, so I can take a shower while walking to work.”

“Yeah, right, ha!” He noticed she was still smiling. “Listen,” she said, “when it’s quitting time today, how about going for a cup of coffee at the coffee shop downstairs?”

Floyd was shocked. He never would have expected anyone to ask him to have coffee, or anything, but especially an attractive woman. After a pause, he recovered and found his tongue. “Yeah, sure, that would be nice.”

They had coffee and snacks. Hers was one prune Danish pastry while he devoured two jelly doughnuts. He felt like having at least one more but restrained himself in order not to seem greedy in front of Katey. As they, mostly she, chatted very amiably, Floyd learned Katey was a widow of two years and had a six-year-old daughter. He noticed that this woman spoke, not only with mouth and vocal cords, but with her hands, eyes, her entire body. Floyd was captivated by her face, her musical voice, her animation.

“Seated fat clown,” by Pablo Picasso

***

When Floyd arrived home, he immediately opened the fridge and gazed at the huge cheeseburger on the greasy paper plate next to the half-eaten salami and gigantic bowl of potato salad, plus, upon jerking open the freezer, the ice cream, and was lost in thought.

He had enough of seeing those baleful images of his unhappy past, starting with his fifth birthday party, and focused on the present. “Oh, yes, yes, yes.” He saw that blessed quart of Haagen-Dazs midnight cookies and cream ice cream, next to a partially finished white chocolate raspberry truffle ice cream, all these items batting their metaphorical eyelashes at him. Despite his resolve, his hands shot out immediately, in a Pavlov’s-dog-type of learned response. His right hand tightened around the salami while his left seized the midnight cookies and cream in a death grip.

Suddenly, he froze, hands still on the meat and ice cream. What the hell am I doing? Then, he thought of the incident with Tracy so long ago. “No, not this time,” he told himself. Floyd determined to take the right branch of the fork in the road. He unclenched his fingers and withdrew his hands from the refrigerator, in as swift a recoil as though his fingers had touched a red-hot iron, then slammed the door shut. He stood there for a moment, pensive, and thought of Katey. He walked over to the peanut jar, scooped up one handful of the contents, tossed them into his mouth, then opened the container of prunes, stuffed two of those in with the peanuts, and started chomping on the combination, thinking, just a little something to give me the energy to walk the two blocks to the store, put on his raincoat and hat, and strode out the door.

When Floyd arrived at the supermarket, he stopped for a moment to catch his breath. He thought, I walked only two blocks, just slightly faster than my usual pace, and here I am, out of breath. Not good. He lumbered over to the cereals department, studied the ingredients listed on the boxes and selected a box of Kellogg’s All Bran Buds and a carton of Kashi GoLean, trudged to the yogurt department, studied the small print ingredient descriptions and finally picked up a few containers of a fat-free, plain yogurt.

When he arrived home, he put the package on the kitchen table, extracted the yogurts from the bag, and carried them to the fridge. When he opened the door, there crouched in ambush the salami, wafting the tempting aroma of garlic at him, the bowl of potato salad, plus the juicy cheeseburger. After ripping open the freezer section, there sat that sweet, buttery, cake-like ice cream, food of the gods. He could taste all those luscious delights in his mind’s mouth. He felt as though the burger, salami, potato salad, and ice cream were seductively, naughtily, breathily whispering in his ear, “Come on, big boy, you know you want us.”  

He hesitated, gazed longingly at these delectable clumps of heaven, and felt a powerful urge to take them out and tear into them with wild abandon. But he held his breath, closed his eyes, and remembered how he had to stop to catch his breath when he arrived at the supermarket. Then he thought of Katey, wonderful Katey. He opened his eyes, seized the ice cream containers, the burger, the potato salad, and the salami, hurried over to his across-the-hall neighbors, a family of mother, father, and four little ones. When the woman answered the door, he extended the food to her, saying, “Here, Mrs. Collins, I’m cutting down.”


Clark Zlotchew is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Spanish and literature in Spanish language, Emeritus.  Zlotchew has had  17 books published, 14 of them in his academic fields, but 3 of them consist of his fiction:  Two espionage/thriller novels and an award-winning collection of his short stories, Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties (Comfort Publishing).  Newer work of his has appeared in literary journals of the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, Germany, South Africa, India and Ireland from 2016 through 2020.  Earlier fiction of his has appeared in his Spanish versions in Latin America, while over 70 scholarly articles of his have appeared in Spanish and in English in learned journals on five continents. Zlotchew’s non-fiction account of life in Cuba in 1958, a year before Castro’s revolution gained victory, “Cuba on the Brink: 1957-1958,” appeared in Soft Cartel, 5-15-2018.

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