For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns… –Wisdom 9:15
There is a man who lives in midtown whose nickname is Poundcake.
He is extraordinarily fat.
He lives in a brown and white shotgun apartment on Montauk Street, but he has lately been thinking of relocating, for no other reason than that the narrow parameters of the little place are becoming too tight for poor, fat old Poundcake.
To get an idea of his appearance, it might help to recall certain relics of prehistoric art, as old as 25,000 B.C., that have been recovered in Europe. They are little four inch long statuettes of very round, chubby women with spherical heads and stumpy necks. One is from Germany, and is called the “Venus” of Willendorf. She started off as a small round stone with a natural hole in it that evidently looked like a bellybutton to some prehistoric artist who then proceeded to carve a corpulent figure to go with it.
That (if one dares to think of it) is how Poundcake O’Connell looks naked, standing in front of the mirror in his ever-shrinking bedroom in the morning, before pulling on an immense pair of tropical boxers, his black house slippers, and his tent-sized blue bathrobe, and going off to work in the den doing at-home telemarketing sales.
He stands there looking at himself—or, rather, as much of himself as the mirror can contain. He looks swollen, like a giant puffer fish, staring back at his big, round swollen head. He is nearly forty years old at present, but he has looked like this since his late teens.
He used to feel outrage and shock over it. That would motivate him for a little bit, and he would throw away the Krispy Kreme doughnuts and the Milk Duds. For a few nights he would do a cartoonish imitation of a person doing push-ups and leg lifts. Sadly, if one can imagine for a moment a six foot newborn infant working its arms and legs the way babies do when they are trying to roll over, then one gets some idea of how Poundcake looks exercising. As for the doughnuts and the candy, it was never long before they found their way back like sneaky mice; one could just throw open a cupboard and there they would be.
In time, he resigned himself to the way he was. He never started liking it, of course. No, he just figured this was the way it was, so screw it. His most Herculean efforts produced only droplets of improvement, so why keep struggling?
Now, as he observes himself, his outrage expresses itself as no more than the tiny twang of a rubber band way back in the wayest backs of his brain, and his more conscious parts are simply numb on the issue.
The city never looked finer. Philodendrons and palm fronds flutter in the April breeze, and bright pink petunias, hung from the neighbor’s porch, crowd over the sides of their planters like they think they could pop off and fly away like finches.
Cars pull out of driveways and ease on to work. Through the blinds, Poundcake sees them go. He does not like cars, because they don’t make them big enough anymore. It seems like cars are just getting smaller all the time, probably because of those Japanese car manufacturers, and the Japanese are smaller than Americans on average.
Anyway, time for me to get to work. Blue robe and black slippers dragging ponderously over the hardwood floors, he moves from his bedroom towards the front of the apartment. As is the case with many old duplexes, that means going through the kitchen. There he pours himself a seventy-two ounce mug of coca-cola and procures two cream-filled, chocolate covered, glazed doughnuts, the shape of each baring a striking resemblance, in shape and quality, to Poundcake himself. Sometimes he thinks he really ought to eat a more balanced breakfast, but he’s just never really very hungry in the morning.
He sets down his great balloon body on a heavily cushioned backless stool and reaches for the newest lists that have come through the fax machine. With big, jumbo hot dog fingers he gingerly tears the fax free and places it beside the phone. He dons a headset, and begins his daily routine.
He got this job two years ago. He felt pretty lucky about it, too: seven dollars an hour plus commission; sweet solitude, away from judgmental office workers. He takes breaks whenever he wants; theoretically, he doesn’t even have to work at all today if the mood strikes him—just as long as a certain minimum of calls and sales are made by the end of each week. Of course, he never does take a day off, because he enjoys getting commissions. But it is vaguely comforting knowing that he could take a day off, if he wanted.
So Poundcake calls and calls and calls all day long. A couple of the lists are cold calls, which means a lot of hang-ups and “not interested’s”. The other list is the most exciting, because they are previous customers, and thus might be more easily convinced to buy.
He calls and calls. Central to his endeavors are the bowls placed within close reach: bowls of popcorn, bowls of M&M’s. He takes occasional breaks to refill his seventy-two ounce mug. In this way, by sitting on that backless stool all the livelong day, and consuming the chips and the M&M’s and the coke in between the brief, sterile telephone calls, Poundcake gets fatter and rounder. And sometimes, at rare points, he hears that rubber band twang way back in the wayest backs of his brain.
But then, really, what’s the big deal? This is just the way it goes. Not everybody’s born skinny. And not everyone’s born to be around people all the time, either. It’s just lucky that he was able to find a job that suited his unique type so well!
He calls some more, and the buttons on his computer keyboard develop a film of grease from his hot dog fingers, and so much coke has caused a dull headache, and so many people just hang up or say “not interested,” while others feel compelled to act interested even though they are almost desperate to disconnect themselves from Poundcake.
Outside, those April winds from angel’s horns spill through oak tree branches, and the Spanish moss wafts like old men’s beards in a swimming pool. Bright white cumulus clouds sail high above, protecting frolicking thrushes in flight from being dazzled by too much sun.
A mockingbird alights on a palm frond outside Poundcake’s window. It cocks its head and looks in quizzically at the huge, spherical man talking into a headset. Poundcake’s girth seems to take up the whole room. Blinds are drawn and barely louvered, and only a desk lamp burns. No light, no space. And in that cramped, dark place Poundcake grows more obese with every passing second.
Mockingbirds are flippant, and on observing Poundcake it thinks, “Thank God that’s not me!” It is just about to fly away when the One Whom it just acknowledged speaks to it.
“Rest a moment, little bird. Don’t go yet.”
Animals always do what God tells them to do, and never question Him, because it never occurs to them to do such a thing. The mockingbird just cocks its head and listens to the Creator speaking gently with a voice only it can hear.
Through the window, Poundcake continues talking and eating, oblivious to what is going on outside.
Having received its instructions, the mockingbird adjusts its grip on the palm branch, making sure it is balanced and comfortable before beginning. Fixing one, bright gimlet eye on its portly charge, it makes a sound like a squirrel—that repetitive squawking sound that squirrels make when they spy a cat sneaking around, up to no good. The mockingbird learned this call when it was still just a hatchling.
Poundcake is preoccupied with his calls, and he does not hear it.
Maybe something with more treble in it, thinks the mockingbird. It sounds its best ambulance siren, high and warbling. Poundcake glances out the window momentarily with an expression of irritation at the sudden piercing trill disturbing his sales pitch.
Undaunted, the mockingbird wheedles Poundcake with the bark of the Irish setter down the street, though from the little feathered imitator it sounds like a dog on helium.
Giant Poundcake is unfazed.
The call goes back to an ambulance siren, and alternates between that and the dog, and a sparrow, and a train whistle, and a big set of wind chimes that dangle from the eaves of a house over on Lafayette Street. Poundcake simply does not respond to any of it. Birdsong is such a commonplace element in the fabric of sound in our daily lives that the mockingbird’s desperate efforts to distinguish itself are to no avail. On top of it all, Poundcake is very busy getting fatter and selling light bulbs made by blind people to housewives who feel it would be cruel to say “no thank you.”
The broad white stripe on its gray feathers flashes brilliantly as the mockingbird flutters in place to vent its frustration. Its taloned toes clamp tight to its perch and it sucks a cupful of air into its downy chest, and then releases it at the window. It comes out like the stabbing two-finger whistle of an Atlanta Braves fan. Poundcake still does not respond. He crosses off a name on his faxed list and sucks M&M chocolate off of his thumb.
The mockingbird’s long flat tail feather vibrates. Impossible!
Of course it does not occur to it to quit or ask God why He would shoulder it with such a troublesome burden, because animals are not that way. They do not have that liberty—they just do what is expected of them. Its next action, therefore, is simply the logical one. Like a feathery rocket it flies itself right into the window.
That gets Poundcake’s attention. Like a huge walrus, he rises off the creaking stool and trundles to the window as fast as he can. He tugs the cord down and the blinds go up. Sunlight brightens the room, and Poundcake squints.
He does not know what made that calamitous thud on his window, but he examines the glass carefully for cracks. There are none, but in the process he gets a view of the ground outside, and down there in the crabgrass and the clover he sees a dazed and stupefied mockingbird.
Well, look at that, he thinks.
He has no pets. He had a cat once, a year ago, but it slipped out the door while a Fed Ex man was delivering a package, and Poundcake was too slow to catch it. He never saw that cat again. As for human contact, there is little. He avoids the family and their sanctimonious diatribes concerning his weight problem.
His normal human need for interaction with living things and a latent compassion that has not been exercised in ten years fizzes up in his overworked heart. Just fizz, at first. He gazes at the mockingbird as it deliriously turns over on its belly and tries to steady itself.
It’ll probably fly away any second, Poundcake thinks.
It does not. Its neck is broken, and it is close to asphyxiation. Its whole body is numb from the shock.
The fizz in Poundcake’s heart bubbles up more, but not like coke fizz, more like tonic water, more pure. It starts to flood the heart chambers.
The front door creaks open. Poundcake’s house slippers scrape across the brick porch. The smooth pine steps buckle beneath each brontosaurus tread.
Across the street, old Mrs.Gangle peeps out of her window. “My land,” she croaks at the sight of her big, fat wrecking ball of a neighbor in a blue bathrobe, waddling around to the side of his duplex. She cackles with West Witch glee when he trips over a stray coil of garden hose and topples into the bushes.
Like the blob in that old sci-fi movie, Poundcake finds himself enmeshed in ferns and monkey grass and camellia branches. He lies on his back wiggling like Kafka’s beetle-man in Metamorphosis, and his legs sting with scratches.
With a mighty effort he gets his leg out of a hedge and he pulls himself to a sitting position. Now he looks like a Buddha statue. He rubs the back of his round, bald head and picks grass off of his blubbery cheeks.
He realizes the mockingbird is right there, in the grass in front of him. It is not moving. Before it was at least squirming some, but now it is totally still.
Poundcake pokes it with a stick. It does not move.
Most of the fizz Poundcake had previously felt in his heart had gone with his trip on the hose. He now mumbles about how he had gone to all the trouble to come out here, with the bushes and the bugs, to help this crazy bird, and now it’s just dead, and there’s no way it could be just seventy-six degrees like the weatherman said because it is too, too hot…
Poundcake winces at the sudden low, rich sound, and at the name no one has called him for years.
His eyes bug out of his head and he heaves himself to his feet. He stares up, looking for the speaker, but sees only the white clouds sailing along and pine tree branches waving at him. He has a sudden overpowering impulse to escape back into his small, dark house. He tightens the cord of his bathrobe and wrings his hands indecisively.
“Don’t go,” says the voice. “Stay and listen.”
Poundcake pauses, curious, dubious, and hungry, too. “What do you want?”
“I want you to come back to me. Your spirit is fat and immobile, but that is not the way I intended for you to be.”
The rawness of the statement shocks Poundcake out of his disbelief into indignation.
“How can you say that? I can’t help it! It’s my nature—so shut up!” He stops abruptly, and scans his surroundings. “I must be losing my mind! Who am I talking to? Where are you? You’re some prankster! You won’t feel so funny when I squash your head!”
“Paul. Be calm. Listen.”
He peers into the trees and runs his gaze along the rooftops, looking for a college kid with a megaphone. If he can keep him talking then he will eventually locate him.
“So I’m too fat for you, eh? Well, since it’s in my nature to be so, then I guess that makes it your fault, huh?”
“You have grown heavy on the inside. I mean for all of my children to be weightless.”
Something about the tone and quality of this statement gets to him. He frowns, and resumes wringing his hands. Sweat is building up on his forehead, and some kind of bug is buzzing his ears.
“Look, I can’t take it out here any longer. I’m hot, and I’ve got scratches on my leg. I’m just going to go back inside, and you can talk to me in there…”
“Do not go back inside. You will not be able to hear me. Stay, and listen.”
“Well, why can’t I hear you inside?”
“That’s the place you made. You do not allow me to go there, and I respect your wish. That is why I sent my messenger: to draw you out.”
He looks down at the mockingbird. It lies as silent as a tomb.
“What, him? He’s dead. You just let him die?”
“He did my will, to save you from yourself.”
Poundcake is now just plain uncomfortable in every way. He no longer feels doubt about Whom he is speaking with; his senses are unanimous: it couldn’t be more genuine if he was Charlton Heston. It all makes him feel even hotter and sweatier, and embarrassed because he is so terribly fat and God is looking right at him. He hangs his head and begins to inch back towards the front of the house.
“I should go now. I’ve got work, and…I’ll just go back inside. Maybe I’ll start a new diet…”
“You will fail. You will lose your weight only if you put your trust in me.”
“But look at me! I’m gigantic! I’m a blimp! Do you know how unbelievably hard it will be to try to lose weight now? It seems smarter to just go along the best I can. I’ll die someday, and then I’ll be free…”
“No. Then it will be too late. You must begin now.”
Poundcake sighs heavily. “You mean exercise? Low fat, low salt intake, Slim-fasts and all of that?”
“Change your heart. Trust me.”
Poundcake’s gaze lingers on the mockingbird.
“He trusted you…”
From out of the north a strong wind blows along the side of the brown and white duplex, bending the weeds and tall grasses and tousling the pines. It whistles under the eaves and makes Poundcake’s bathrobe cord flap like a puppy dog tail. With that wind he begins hearing words inside now: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for a friend…”
The mockingbird’s feathers rustle in the air currents. Poundcake realizes suddenly that this is not only the effect of the wind. The gray and white wings are moving and stretching! A little leg kicks, and then its whole body flips and it stands up, tilting its head curiously. With a sharp burst it flutters into the air, and lands on the green palm branch it had been on before. Its gimlet eyes gleam. It puffs up its chest and begins to sing.
The voice continues: “Trust me, Paul. I will slowly, in time, bring you to the freedom that your heart desires. It will not happen quickly, and it will not be easy. Sometimes you’ll think you’ve toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly spent your strength, but I will make you free…”
Bewildered, Paul “Poundcake” O’Connell stands there looking up, his mouth open. His forehead is still glazed with sweat, and sweat pools in the dark pits of his rotund arms, even though it really is only seventy-six degrees. Breezes eddy around him and among the lush green foliage and delicate wildflowers, and there in all that beauty He finds himself heavy, repulsive, a horror to nature and heaven. He thinks, “But this is what I am. How can I ever really be anything else?”
A north wind blows again. The mockingbird takes flight, leaving the palm frond swaying. Its wings beat the air and like a shot he ascends to the heavens, where the snow-colored clouds flow over the clean blue sky. It soon just becomes a dot, reeling through the highest atmosphere.
Across the street, Mrs. Gangle glances out her window to see if her big, fat sperm whale of a neighbor has recovered from his highly entertaining tumble. What she sees makes her croak so hard she nearly dislodges her false teeth.
Poundcake, like a blue hot air balloon, is rising gently off the ground. He gets a few feet up and his black house slippers fall off, so his plump toes dangle freely. Mrs. Gangle watches in shock as the speed of Poundcake’s ascent increases, taking him right up through the pine tree branches. The blue bathrobe gets peeled off somewhere in there, and the tropical boxer shorts soon after, and they both come fluttering back down to earth. But not Poundcake: he is a speeding pink gum bubble racing towards the clouds.
For the first time since he was a little child, Paul knows what it is to feel weightless. His distended belly feels light as air, and his fleshy arms are no heavier than first prize blue ribbons. He had been so completely trapped inside his mountainous body, he knows it now—what a waste! What a crime! He had spent his whole life feeding his will, and yet his will had died, and its bloated, dead remains had weighed him down for twenty years. But now this! This effortless soaring, swimming on air currents and racing the birds! This is what he wanted!
He is allowed to swirl and tumble through the clouds for an hour, and for that hour the long, boyish grin of rapture never leaves his face. When the hour is done, he floats gently down, and his toes settle deep into the grass. It is sad to feel his weight again and to know he would be stuck with it for awhile. But he is hopeful now. He had no hope at all an hour ago.
With tears of joy on his bulbous cheeks, and little chuckles escaping his lips, he gathers up his blue bathrobe and searches in the weeds for his slippers. He finds one, but gives up on the other, and gives up on the tropical boxers, and does not care anyway. Like an emperor penguin he waddles cheerfully out of the underbrush, noting with poignant admiration the camellia blossoms, and the big, fat bumblebees which, according to science, should theoretically not be able to fly.
Mrs. Gangle ducks back from the window when Paul gives her a friendly wave on his way back up the porch steps, even though she knows he saw her.
“That fat bullfrog has finally popped his cork,” she mumbles. She is dissatisfied with this assessment, though. She shuffles off to the kitchen to consider it over a gin on the rocks, minus the rocks.
by Dan Lord, 2010