They say that overweight people are jolly. I’m not sure of the identity of this knowledgeable creature called they, who says so much about so many things, but my friend Ron can be classified as one of this merry band of portly souls. Except that…. But I’ll be coming to that in due time. For now, I’ll say he sometimes has his jovial moments, and I thought of him as a jolly old soul who loved his food and drink and knew how to enjoy life. But there was an evening when I saw a different side of him.
We were seated in a booth at Davey’s Delectable Diner, an old-fashioned eatery on route twenty, a few miles outside of Erie, PA, awaiting our orders. Ron had to push the table toward me a couple of inches in order to squeeze into the seat. A homey aroma of pot roast wafted through the air, making my mouth water. I closed my eyes for a few seconds and found myself back in my grandmother’s kitchen. The brief, comforting moment of nostalgia was dispelled by a voice issuing from the harsh here and now.
“So,” Ron informed me, pointing a fork at my nose, “I was sitting on my front steps, minding my own business, when this Ramón character wandered over and said he’d like to put an end to our petty grievances — his words — with each other, and try to be good neighbors.”
“Great!” I said.
He continued, “So, I told him to go to hell because I had no interest in making friends with a lowlife like him. And the guy acted like he was offended or something. Screw him, I say.”
Ron uttered that last sentence with such volume and intensity, that people at adjoining tables and booths stopped eating, forks suspended between table and lips, and shifted widened eyes in our direction. All conversation in the diner halted. In the deafening silence of those moments, you could hear a pin drop. Or rather, you could literally hear a knife and fork drop. Loudly. It made me uncomfortable.
I resumed our conversation, but almost in a whisper. “But this is a neighbor you’ve been having trouble with for years now,” I pointed out, “and who now offers to push the reset button, so to speak. Peace is a good thing.”
Ron flashed me a condescending smirk, as though he pitied me for my naiveté. He peeled open one of those little containers of marmalade stacked next to the salt, pepper, ketchup, and sugar, and used his teaspoon to extract the contents and deliver them to his mouth. “Look,” he explained, “the guy has made me miserable for the last four years with his loud music at all hours, when decent people are trying to sleep.”
“And you called the police a few times to come and….”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…. And what did the cops do? I’ll tell you: they said he was not breaking any laws, because the music was not that loud. The police are useless. Worse than useless. They made me the bad guy, probably for interrupting their doughnut scarfing.”
“Well, you’ve called them quite a few times, about different neighbors, and….”
“Yeah,” he interrupted, “for good reasons. Kids tramping through my backyard, dogs barking and crapping on my lawn…. Another neighbor gave me the finger, and called me lard-ass when I told him his property was a disgrace to the neighborhood, with its un-mowed, weed-filled lawn and that toilet bowl filled with wilting flowers in front of his house….” Ron’s wrinkled brow suddenly smoothed out, as his frown morphed into a mischievous smirk. The smirk blossomed into a grin. He was beaming with delight, and confided, “So, one night, I stole across his lawn and left a present in that stupid toilet bowl, an offering to the porcelain god.” He chuckled.
“Wait, what? No. You…what?!”
He smiled. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you know what I mean.” He burst out with a peal of laughter that made our nearest neighbors snap their heads in our direction. “This time,” he continued, “they called the cops. Ha! But there were no witnesses, so there was no way to prove I was the masked avenger.” He closed his eyes, cupped his chin in his hand, and added, “But then, he, the guy next door, told the cops to do a DNA test. Uh, oh! Not good. I started to sweat, thought maybe I’d had it, but the cops, lazy bastards that they are, just wrinkled their noses in disgust at the guy.
“One cop said, ‘Yeah, we’ll be sure to do that, and send it to the FBI.’ The cop’s voice dripped with sarcasm. I tell you, I breathed a sigh of relief. Hadn’t thought of the DNA possibility.” He scowled. “Modern science: Gotta love it. For once, the laziness of the local Department of Doughnut Consumption worked in my favor.” His eyes twinkled as he chortled and beamed at me. He was definitely merry.
I wanted to say what a stupid, disgusting, vile thing he had done, but, non-judgmental peacemaker that I am, I held my peace. Yet, as you might well imagine, that story of his did not exactly sharpen my appetite. My mouth ceased its watering. I started to think that my friend was not a very admirable citizen. Not to mention: somewhat weird.
Ron continued. “And the neighbors across the street, in the summer, when their windows and mine are wide open, they holler and scream obscenities at each other. What a family! And when I yelled at them to tone it down, they all screamed freaking obscenities at me, and called me terrible things, nasty things. All good reasons for complaining and calling the cops. Right? Right. How can I live with all that going on? I can’t. But the cops always take their side. The police are no good; they’re all corrupt. They’d sell their mothers for a bag of glazed doughnuts.”
He suddenly looked at his watch and shifted gears. “Hey, we’ve been here a half hour already. I’m starvin’ like Marvin. I could eat the freaking napkins. Where is that ditzy waitress with our orders?” He turned his head in all directions, looking for our server.
I checked my watch and saw that he was right. But I said, “Ron, look at the bright side. If she had come back in five minutes with the food, that would mean they had the stuff lying around, already cooked, under a heat lamp, getting stale or rotten, waiting for customers to order. This way, we know it’s fresh from the fridge….”
“Or frozen from the freezer.”
Undeterred, I pressed on, “…Okay, then they unfroze it and started to cook it after we ordered. That’s a good thing.” I smiled encouragingly.
Ron looked at me, shook his head, and emitted a deep sigh. “Wow, you really are a Pollyanna. Unfroze it, you say? You think that’s a good thing? Defrosted food is inferior food. It never tastes as good as fresh food.” He thought for a couple of seconds, and added, “Besides, the delay could also mean they had to search through the garbage cans for yesterday’s refuse, then maybe hose it down to remove the contamination, before they could re-cook it or warm it up, to bring it to us poor suckers.”
I must admit, the image conjured up by his last statement was so comical it made me laugh. He looked at me, and even he had to laugh. I didn’t know what to say to that, but at that very moment, fortunately, the server, a woman probably in her mid-forties, stopped to smooth down the white apron she wore over her green blouse and black slacks. She looked up and marched toward our table, an encouraging smile on her lips, bearing a tray of life-sustaining victuals. The aroma made my mouth water. She turned her head to smile at each one of us as she placed our orders in front of us. I smiled back. Ron frowned, looked down with narrowed eyes to scrutinize his dish as though searching for some imperfection.
The waitress solicitously asked, “Do you fellas need anything else for now?”
I smiled and said, “No, thanks.”
Ron, in silence, kept examining his dish.
She said, “Anything else you need, just give me a wave,” and strode toward the kitchen.
I picked up my BLT on wheat toast and chomped into it. Delicious. I savored the juices of the wonderfully-fatty-salty bacon, the crunchy lettuce, the tomatoey tomato and the nutty flavor of the toasted wheat all blended in one luscious mélange as I rolled them over my tongue and swallowed. Still, the wonderful aroma of Ron’s salmon and fries made me wonder if I should have ordered the same. Thou shalt not covet, I told myself. The grass is always greener.
Ron finally looked up from his plate, and said, “Look at the fries.” He picked up a few with his fingertips and let them dribble down to the heap. “That’s half the amount I should get.” He scowled, clicked his tongue, and added, “And look at these vegetables.”
I looked. I saw cauliflower, sliced carrots, broccoli and zucchini. “What?” I asked.
“These are overcooked.” He speared a section of cauliflower and pointed it at my face. “And the cauliflower should be steamed, but this is not steamed.”
I was tempted to say, “But I am,” but restrained myself and merely shrugged.
He took a huge bite of the salmon and while ferociously chewing, said, “This salmon is too dry. Overcooked. Not at all juicy.”
He caught sight of our server, who was carrying a tray bearing six heavy-looking dishes loaded with piles of food, and snapped his fingers at her.
She briefly cut her eyes toward him and panted, “Yes, sir, just wait until I take this tray to that table up there, and I’ll be back in a jiffy.” She smiled briefly and proceeded to her next table.
“Hmmmph…. How do you like that?” he muttered. “Some waitress.”
The server actually did return in what I think was a jiffy, although I’m not sure of the official time lapse of a jiffy. But it was less than a minute. Possibly less than a half minute.
She smiled and said, “Yes, sir, how can I help you?”
He grimaced, pointed to the empty space on his plate where the French fries had been, and said, “The amount of fries you brought me was about half of what it should be, and,” he added with an air of authority,” I’ve been here quite a few times and have always gotten double the amount I got today.”
The server stared at the vacant section of his plate which by now was, of course, totally bereft of French fries.
Ron pointed at the offending fish, and grumbled, “And, tell the cook this salmon is too dry. I was expecting it to be moist, and juicy, but it’s not. It’s dry and…unjuicy.”
“Yes, sir, I’ll take this back, tell the chef, and bring another one.” She attempted to remove the rejected plate, but he seized her wrist, beamed a ferocious smile at her, and murmured, “Oh, that’s all right. You don’t have to bother. Just leave it here; it’s not in the way.” His tone was extremely gentle.
“But it’s no trouble….”
“No, no, really, now. Don’t trouble yourself.” Ron shoved the dish closer to the window, out of her reach. The server shrugged, rubbed her wrist and turned to go.
I thought that was odd. Why would he want his place cluttered up by the spurned plate? I couldn’t imagine. I asked, “What the heck do you want that plate in your way for?”
As the server retreated, he called after her, “And don’t forget to bring more fries.” He turned to me and said, “Huh? Oh, I didn’t want to burden her any more than necessary. You know how I am: always thinking of the other guy.”
He put his hands together and twiddled his thumbs. Suddenly, he looked up at me and smiled. “Got a new neighbor a month ago. Remember the house I told you about, where the assholes lived who played loud music at all hours? Well, they’re gone. So far, the new guy — Marvin — his wife and two kids have been pretty good neighbors. So far,” he emphasized. He frowned, paused to think, then smiled, and continued, “No loud music. In fact, after 10:00 PM, the lights are out, and the place is quiet as can be. The kids are both well-mannered; whenever they talk to me, they even call me sir. Good people.”
“Glad to hear that, Ron. You must feel really good about that.”
He scrunched up his face. “Well, yes and no.”
Of course, I wearily thought, here we go. I started to say something about how everyone has some kind of foible, but he cut me off before I reached the word foible.
“I’ve had a few conversations with the guy,” he said, “always started by him, of course. The first time was when I was down on my knees in my vegetable garden planting cucumbers. Now the man could see me working up a sweat in the blazing sun, but what does he do? He walks right up my driveway and steps onto my backyard grass and starts to talk! Who gave him permission to come onto my property? You see a fella hard at work, in the blazing-freaking sun, you know the man wants to get the work done so he can pop back into his air-conditioned house, or onto the lawn chair in the shade of a tree, sip on a nice cold lemonade or a frosty beer, or a freaking ice cream!” Ron’s voice was increasing in volume, his face flushed. “So, there I am, a freaking captive audience, in the blazing freaking sun, feeling like a lighted wax candle, dripping from the heat, melting away…. And guess what fascinating subject the genius was talking about. Go ahead, guess.”
I began to say, “Well, I can’t imag….”
He broke in with, “I’ll tell you. The weather. The freaking damn weather! I already knew it was ninety-five freaking degrees. I was sweating gallons, working in the hellacious heat. Who the hell needs him to tell me it’s hotter than a damned sauna.” Ron’s face was turning dangerously red as he threw himself into the description of the momentous event.
“Hey, Ron, take it easy, we’re in this nice air-conditioned diner, and, well, feel the cool.”
He unclenched his fists, removed them from the table and settled back into the plush seat. He took a deep breath. A good sign. Maybe now we could talk about something more interesting, more uplifting.
He sighed and continued his jeremiad: “…and the guy never shuts up. I mean, he just goes on and on in a freaking monotone and doesn’t let me get a word in edgewise. Every time I try to say something, he cuts me off and drones away on some boring subject like maybe some books he’s been reading, authors like Stephen King or Ernest Hemingway, or Tom Clancy, or Philip Rothberg, or….”
This time I interrupted. “That’s Philip Roth,” I told him.
I clarified that I had given him the correct name of the writer.
He glared at me, and said, “Whatever.” He shrugged and went on, “Anyway, who the hell are Stephen Kinky, Ernest freaking Hemingturd, Peeping Tom Clanky or Phil Rotgut? And who gives a flying….” His voice trailed off. He took another huge mouthful of the juiceless salmon, chewed and swallowed. I glanced at his plate and noticed only half of that salmon was left.
He continued, “So, I wanted to change the conversation, if I had to have one with him, to some movies, interesting stuff, great actors like Vin Diesel or Sylvester Stallone, but the man kept cutting me off when I tried to contribute to the conversation.”
“Yes,” I said, “that can be really annoying.” I strained heroically not to roll my eyes or smirk.
Actually, I did not get as far as the word “annoying,” because when I pronounced the word really, he smashed his fist down on the table, making the plates and water glasses dance, as he bellowed, “AND!” with such vehemence that once more our fellow diners snapped their heads in our direction and froze for a couple of seconds. “And,” he repeated, a bit more modulated, “the jerk picked a plum off my tree — my own freaking plum tree! — while we were talking, mind you, and proceeded to eat it. Right in my face! What freaking nerve, what cojones this guy has. Who does that? Can you imagine? He steals a freaking plum from my freaking tree, right in front of me as though it was okay.”
“Well….” I started to say.
“No, no, it’s not okay. You don’t do things like that. And right in my freaking face!”
The waitress returned, preceded by the wonderful fragrance of broiled salmon, after only five minutes that seemed like five hours, no, five days. She bore another dish of the pink-fleshed fish, veggies and a Mount Everest of French fries. “Here you are, sir,” she said. She turned and headed for a newly-arrived party of four.
Ron poked at the salmon, speared a hunk of it and shoved it into his mouth. He looked at me, and while chewing vigorously, complained, “This salmon smells fishy.” He wrinkled his nose.
I restrained myself from pointing out that after all, it was a fish.
He continued, “And it’s just as dry as that other one over there.”
I had this tremendous urge to take my glass of water and empty it on his salmon, while telling him it was no longer dry. But, I controlled myself. I simply stared at him.
He then forked and ate some of the vegetables, frowned, and pronounced the vegetables to be practically raw. That, however, did not put the slightest crimp in his frenzied demolition of this inferior repast.
“Well, Ron,” I reasoned, “Come on; this diner is not some fancy Paris bistro with a famous French chef and fawning waiters and prices to match. In fact….” I was going to add that the prices were not only very reasonable, but in fact were extremely low, and the food was good, solid, homey food, and how you can’t expect haute cuisine in this diner-like eatery, but he cut me off. Again. Naturally.
He leaned across the table, stared into my eyes, and intoned, “Yes, but, after all, it is a freaking restaurant, isn’t it?”
I could not argue with his logic; it was, indeed, a restaurant. I didn’t know about the freaking part, but I didn’t belabor the point. I had finished my BLT on wheat toast, and a feeling of contentment washed over me.
I observed that Ron had finished every last morsel of food on his plate. Adding to my contentment was the fact that he had not picked up his dish and licked it clean. As it was, the other patrons nervously glanced at us from time to time, probably to see if the two of us were going to start a riot and perhaps trash the place. But, of course, that’s merely conjecture. I was becoming too self-conscious.
Ron grandly belched with contentment, then put the empty plate to the side while moving the original order of dry salmon and overcooked vegetables and minimalistic French fries (now a void containing no French-fries) to a position of honor: directly in front of him. He then set to with a vengeance. I stared at him in disbelief.
Suddenly, he looked up, still chewing voraciously, and grumbled, “What!”
I said, “You’re eating the other dish, too?”
He raised his eyebrows and said, “Well, yes of course. They would only toss the food into the garbage. That would be a terrible waste.” He put a look on his face that I can describe only as holy, or even saintly, and intoned, “Besides, wasting food is a sin, nothing less than a sin, especially when you think of how many people in the world are starving to death every single day.” He eloquently belched a string of small belchettes.
Ron was right, of course. I couldn’t argue with those truths, but I was amazed at his lack of embarrassment at having scored two dinners for the price of one. I thought, He really is a merry trencherman.
Our server approached and placed our separate bills on the table. She said, “No rush. Stay as long as you like, gentlemen.” She smoothed her apron and walked back to the kitchen.
I looked at her retreating figure, then turned to Ron. “Now, Ron, you have to admit she’s a very good waitress.”
He sneered, “Very good?” He shrugged. “She’s a waitress, and all she did was what a waitress is supposed to do.”
“Yes, but some servers aren’t as attentive or pleasant as she is.”
Another sneer. “You think she’s so great? Why don’t you marry her?”
I thought, Now, that’s a strange thing to say. “Well,” I answered, “for one thing, my wife wouldn’t go for that. Besides polygamy is illegal.”
He thought for a moment, then, “So take them both to Saudi Arabia.”
“Hey,” I said, “one mother-in-law is enough. Can’t imagine what it’d be like with two. And,” I began, “you wouldn’t know this, of course, never having been married, but one mother-in-law is enough of a pain….” I stopped in the middle of my sentence.
Something strange and unsettling was taking place right before my eyes. From the time I mentioned his never having married, I thought I saw his eyes fill with moisture. Then, elbows on the table, he rested his head in his hands and kept silent for a while. After a few seconds, his body began to tremble, and I heard muffled sounds issuing from his hidden face. My God! My friend was sobbing. Right there in the diner!
I was alarmed, and said, “Ron, for heaven’s sake, what’s the matter?”
He sobbed some more, then lifted his flushed face away from his hands and stared at me. Finally, eyes afloat in liquid, he stopped blubbering and took a deep breath. Tears, beginning to overflow and trace rivulets down his cheeks. He said, “Sorry to have you see this, but I just couldn’t help it.”
“But why? What happened?”
He exhaled sharply and grimaced. “Good question: What happened. My life is what happened.” He looked down at the table and shook his head. “Look at me,” he said, “I’m the fat man in the circus. I’m listed as MO by my former doctor.”
He sighed. “It means morbidly obese. And I am. I know it. And it’s affecting my health, I know that too.”
I stared at him, not knowing what to say.
He continued, “People think I eat too much, and the wrong things. That’s true, of course, but it’s also my metabolism. Look at me.”
I didn’t have to look; I knew what he looked like.
He said, “I’m fifty years old. You mentioned that I’ve never been married. True, so true. I don’t have a girlfriend, never did. What woman would look twice at me? Friends? You’re really the only friend I have. I have my mother, of course, but no social life. Nobody likes a fat man. They think being overweight means we care only about ourselves, and we’re selfish. I don’t think I’m selfish. “
I said, “No, Ron, you’re not selfish at all.”
That was true; he was not selfish. In fact, as far as his means allowed, he had a generous spirit. He always sent me a card on my birthday, one to my wife on hers, and to us both on holidays. He even brought little gifts on those occasions. My wife and I reciprocated too, of course. But it was no great sacrifice for us. We’ve had him at the house for dinner with us many times over the years and have taken him out to restaurants. Because we recognized his generous soul, his good will toward us. We like the guy. These thoughts, borne of his saying he was not selfish, came pouring through my mind. I felt a keen sense of shame at having regarded him with condescension.
Ron nodded and continued, “My brother and cousins avoid me. They’re embarrassed by my appearance. They say I’m too negative about life. But that’s how life seems to me. My life, anyway. The only pleasure I have in life is food. Yes, food. Comfort food. I guess that’s why I expect the food in a restaurant to be perfect, and the service to be top notch. Food has become the most important thing in my whole life. If I had loads of money, I’d go to the best restaurants. But I don’t have any money.”
“Ron,” I said, “you could get a job in a store….”
He laughed. “Yeah,” his tone was sarcastic, “they’re going to hire me, can’t wait to snap me up.”
Very gently, I asked, “Well, why not?”
“Look at me. I’d scare the customers away.” He folded his arms and stared into space.
When we left the diner, I picked up his check with mine and started to walk toward the cashier.
“You don’t need to do that,” he protested, holding his hand out for the bill.
“Hey,” I said, “no big deal.”
He nodded and mumbled, “Okay, thanks.”
He stood off to one side as I paid, looking down at the floor. He took some tissues from his back pocket, dabbed at his eyes and blew his nose. From that day forward, the odor of broiled salmon upsets me. I prefer the aroma of pot roast the way my grandma broiled it.
Clark Zlotchew is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Spanish and literature in Spanish language, Emeritus. Only three of Zlotchew’s 17 books consist of his fiction: Two espionage/thriller novels and an award-winning collection of his short stories. Newer work of his has appeared in Crossways Literary Magazine, Baily’s Beads, The Fictional Café and many other literary journals in the U.S., Australia, U.K., Germany, South Africa, India, and Ireland from 2016 through 2021. Earlier fiction of his has appeared in his Spanish versions in Latin America. Over 70 scholarly articles of his have appeared in Spanish and in English in learned journals on five continents. www.clarkzlotchew.com