When Darla got down to three hundred and sixty pounds, her friend Mildred threw her a party. They were the only ones there and split a huge birthday cake. The next morning, Darla had weighed herself. Three hundred and sixty-five pounds, the scale had said. “Shit,” she’d replied.
She sits on a stool behind a counter. Taps at the plastic over the lottery tickets. The man who walks in wears a suit, a laptop bag over his shoulder. He picks up a bag of chips and puts them on the counter.
Darla rings him in. He leaves.
She taps on the plastic. Shifts on the stool and wonders if she should sneak out for a smoke.
A day later, the man in the suit comes in again. “Hi,” he says.
“No chips?” she asks. He’s thin, tall. Almost looks like an athlete. The suit is crisp and says ‘I’m a professional’.
“Was thinking about cigarettes.”
“Thinking about them won’t get you anywhere,” she says.
“Got any recommendations?”
Darla feels ridiculous sitting down talking to him. She gets up. “I don’t smoke,” she lies.
They stand there and stare at each other. He looks like he needs to be somewhere. She feels like she wants to sit on the stool again. Darla picks a pack of cigarettes. He hands over a card to pay for it. Then he’s gone.
Three days straight, she thinks, as he walks in again. His car is in front of the door: it’s silver and has a symbol on the curved hood that she’s never seen before.
“Ran out of food at home,” he announces, as he walks the aisles. “Haven’t eaten all day.”
“Chips, pepperettes, a loaf of bread and a jar of jam aren’t proper foods,” she says.
“In a pinch, they’ll do. And this is a pinch. Do you live around here?” he asks, putting the food on the counter.
“That would make a lot of sense, wouldn’t it?”
He smiles. When he presents his pay card, she spies his first name: Walter.
“Got a bag?” he asks.
“That costs extra.” She gives him one anyway and helps him bag his dinner.
In Mildred’s world, the only way to watch a horror movie is to put it on mute and play a self-help tape in the background. That way, she avoids the verbal cues that make the movie that much more terrible while letting the adrenaline open up her brain to better receive the audio advice, usually given by a bored man who occasionally breaks into hysterics.
Darla is watching the movie. The self-help speaker is talking about making money as a day trader. On the screen, a lady is turning off lights in her basement. It’s getting darker down there. She moves to the stairs and starts to climb. The darkness oozes behind her, following, and just as she gets halfway up and almost into the light from the doorway, the self-help guy growls a warning about stock options that makes Darla start.
“Ah no!” screams Mildred. She’s eating from a bucket of ice cream.
Darla has a spoon too, but she’s only had one bite. The spoon is on Mildred’s coffee table, staring at her. “I think I need a smoke.”
“That’s bad for you!” says Mildred.
Darla thinks about Walter. She thinks about the lady in the movie, who never made it to the doorway – the darkness tripped her up and dragged her into the cold. Three days straight he’s come in to the corner store, she wants to tell Mildred. But it’s too ridiculous to talk about. It’s more ridiculous than the monster in the movie. It’s more ridiculous than thin little middle-aged Mildred who eats at least a bucket of ice cream a week and never gets fat. It’s even more ridiculous than the voice on the speaker, telling her that she can be rich inside half a year, if only she commits herself to a life of buying more tapes.
It’s Saturday. People don’t come into convenience stores on Saturday. They have better things to do.
The day passes. Darla sits on the stool. She weighed herself this morning: three hundred and seventy two pounds. She picks out a scratch ticket and uses a quarter to play the game. It’s a winner: ten bucks. She takes the bill from the cash register and tucks it into her pocket, but then remembers that she didn’t pay for the ticket in the first place. She puts the ten dollars back into the register. It’s the least she can do.
Walter comes in at four o’clock. He’s wearing a cyclist’s outfit, sunglasses. He looks so fit that Darla wants to suck on a fire extinguisher. He’s sweating.
He puts his hands on the counter. “It would make sense that we live around here.”
“Some within biking distance. But I don’t bike.”
“That’s okay. You sold me cigarettes but I don’t smoke.”
“I do,” she confesses. “On my breaks.”
“Got any recommendations?”
“Yeah, don’t smoke.”
“Okay. But do you like to bike?” he asks.
“I don’t have a bike.”
“But you know how to do it, right?”
“That’s a bold assumption.”
“How do you get home?” he asks.
She stares at him. “You’re not going to buy anything today, are you?”
He’s still sweating. Takes the sunglasses off and puts them on the counter.
Sunday is shortened hours. Hardly anyone comes in. Darla stands outside and smokes. The sun is beating on her.
A silver car glides into the parking spot. It hardly makes a noise. When the door closes, it makes a sound like a spaceship might if it clipped a wing on the moon.
“Told you I smoked,” she says. He can see all of her today: all three hundred and seventy three pounds. “Generic brand. Cheap but spunky.”
“I like cheap but spunky.” He’s wearing a suit, no tie.
“Back from church?”
“It’s more of a custom than a religious thing,” he admits. “Can I have a cigarette?”
She has four left, and hands him one. He stands next to her and leans against the glass of the store. She lights the cigarette for him and tells him to take a drag but not to inhale. He does anyway, and goes pale, coughing.
“These are bad for you,” he squeaks, gagging.
“The worst. What kind of car is that?”
“The type that gets you from A to B. Should I inhale this time?”
“It’s your lungs,” she says. He inhales deeply this time and coughs so hard that tears come to his eyes. He laughs through his coughing fit. A hand finds its way to her wrist, for balance. It clamps on and holds her like he means it. She wants to pat his knuckle. Reach down into his lungs and extract the smoke he foolishly sequestered there.
“I don’t think I can finish this,” he admits, holding out the cigarette.
She takes it from him. His lips have been on it. She looks at him and as he watches, puts the cigarette into her mouth. Takes a puff and squeezes it out through her nose. “You’re pretty lame.”
“At least I have a car.”
“The bus does fine for me,” she says.
“Must mean that you live near here if you’re bussing it.”
“That’s a bold assumption.”
“Listen,” he says, wiping his eyes of tears, “I need some dinner. You got anything healthy in there for me to eat?”
“Not that I’ve noticed. Grocery stores are open on Sunday these days, though.”
“This place is a lot closer.”
They stand there in the beating sun. On the road, cars pass, a long line going left and right. Down the street and up the street, all the same: buildings and sunshine, road dust and terrified little animals trying to cross from one side to the other. Civilization honks a horn. Darla takes a drag.
Monday afternoon feels like it should be storming. Darla’s on her stool when Walter comes in. He’s got a bunch of flowers in his hand.
“Little early for quitting work,” she notes. “Nice flowers. Once you pick them, they start to die you know.”
“May as well enjoy your life while you got it. How was the bus this morning?”
“Riveting. A little kid threw up on the chair behind me. I’m pretty sure he missed me but all I smell is vomit.”
“You could smoke the smell away.”
She rolls her eyes. “You’re such a rookie. Flowers for your girlfriend? Secretary? Mom?”
“For you,” he says, and puts them down on the counter.
She’s standing. The flowers are five different colours. All different lengths, spans, smells.
“Like them?” he asks, after a while.
“I can’t accept those.”
“Is that some kind of corner store rule?”
She’s staring at him. She weighed herself in the morning: three hundred and sixty eight pounds. She was planning on buying ice cream from the store for Mildred. Because Mildred likes ice cream. Can eat a whole bucket without it ever showing.
She takes a breath. “What are you doing?”
He blinks. “What do you mean what am I doing?”
“Why would you give me flowers like this?”
“Is there another way to do it?”
The smell of them is around her: it’s the smell of a park, from when she was seven and saw a fish jump out of a stream. She’d sat against a tree, waiting for that fish to appear again, and the long wait on the way to nothing had filled itself up with the smell of nearby flowers, five different colours, maybe more.
“He drives a silver sports car, bikes a lot and goes to church,” she tells Mildred.
“And he’s how good-looking?” she asks.
Darla describes him again. The television is on, muted, but no self-help audio book is playing today. “He’s come in six days straight now. Do you think it’s some kind of game?”
“Maybe he’s doing some kind of dare. You know, make a fat girl fall for you.”
Mildred shakes her head. “No way.”
“You don’t even know him!”
Mildred turns to her. She has the milkiest green eyes. The splotchiest red hair. Married twice and avowed to never go that route again, she’s told Darla several times that she believes she’s actually a lesbian, hence the reason to never go near men. During the days, she sells insurance. During the nights, she lawn bowls and watches horror movies she can’t usually stand. Says it makes her feel alive.
Now she’s staring.
“What’s the problem?” asks Darla.
“You think he’s playing with you or something?”
“He has to be.”
“Why would you believe that?”
“Is there another explanation?” demands Darla.
“Yeah,” says Mildred, shaking her head, “the obvious one.”
When Walter comes in, there’s a line-up at the counter. He wanders around, picking up this and that. The line-up gets shorter. The cash register rings.
When everyone is gone, he comes to the counter. “A carton of cigarettes please.”
“You should really avoid that habit. We have these tasty gums that can wean you off.”
But he insists, so she drops a carton on the counter.
“Flowers still alive?” he asks. “I mean, not dead yet?”
“They’re healthy enough,” she returns. Then she takes a breath, “Would you have dinner with me tonight?”
“Only if you tell me where you live,” he returns.
“That’s really creepy. Have you ever watched a horror movie?”
“Can’t stand the things,” he says. “Anyway, yes to dinner. How about we bike there together?”
“I don’t have a bike. Buses are much faster.”
“Then let’s take the bus. What time do you close the store?”
She stares at him. He’s in a black suit, red striped tie. It looks like he shaved ten minutes ago and put something in his hair to keep it in place. Sunlight is streaming into the corner store: the glass lets it in like it’s a robber, free to do as it pleases, take whatever it wants, eat all it pleases, use the bathroom if it needs. There’s a carton of cigarettes on the counter. It’s a really bad habit, she thinks. Really bad.
“Right now,” she says. “I close right now.”
The bus rattles. He’s sitting next to her. Bum-to-bum, she likes to think.
“You don’t have to hold on so tight,” she says, of his hands on the bar in front of him. “Buses are generally a safe way to travel.”
“Why no seat belts, though?”
“The reason is physics?”
“Yes, everything is physics,” she says. “The bus is physics. You and me are physics.”
He looks over. “You and me are not physics.”
There are people on the bus, and Darla catches them looking their way. Usually, she’s not noticeable, just another bum in a seat. But today they care. She shakes her head. The bus rattles over a pothole and she feels herself jumping into the air.
They stop three blocks from her apartment building. There’s a barbeque restaurant smoking the street in front of them. They find a table on the patio and order onion rings.
“What are you going to do with that carton?” she asks, of the cigarettes he’s been carrying in a bag.
“I’m going to get better at smoking so that we can smoke together.”
“That’s really stupid.”
He shrugs. “Or really really smart. Ever consider that?”
“They make your teeth yellow. Corrupt your lungs. Give you diseases. There’s no safe level of use. Just look at the packets: there’s photos of what could happen to you.”
The onion rings arrive. Then pulled pork sandwiches and two cold beers. He talks about how it’s possible to rent bikes. She talks about that time in high school when she broke her collar bone sliding down a fire pole. When they’re done, the street is full of people. They’re everywhere.
“You left your car at the corner store,” she tells him.
“Think it’s safe there?”
“Not particularly. Want to meet my friend Mildred?”
“Is she interesting? Witty?”
“She’s a redheaded wannabe-lesbian who has a hedgehog for a pet.”
“I hate hedgehogs!”
She leads him down the road. People stare. They always stare, thinks Darla. When they cross the road, people in cars watch them. On the other side, she sees their reflection in a shop window.
At the apartment building, she taps an elevator button. They’re alone.
“You look like you want to ask something,” he says.
“It’s a burning question.”
“I have a few of my own.”
“Is that so?” she says. “Maybe you should write them down and confirm that they’re really pressing.”
On the twelfth floor, they walk to Mildred’s place. When she opens the door, her hair is like a volcano spewing chunks of styrofoam at a dirty river. “Holy shit, I’m not prepared for this.”
“I’m Walter,” he says, extending a hand. “Please don’t introduce me to your hedgehog. I won’t stand for that.”
“Hedgehogs are nice!” she stammers. She glances at Dalra. “Just about to start the movie. Did you explain…”
Mildred sighs. “Come on in.”
They sit on the couch and the television comes to life. The cold open plays over the sound of a voice talking about how to deal with menopause.
“I think I’ve heard this one before,” says Walter, and Mildred laughs. She brings popcorn. Then they eat ice cream.
During the movie, Walter sits straight. At the scarier parts, he looks off to the side, as though some element of menopause has caught his attention and he needs to learn more. When the movie’s finished, Darla takes him out to the balcony and tells him to open the carton of cigarettes.
“Like this,” she explains, showing him how to inhale and to breathe out. He practices on an unlit cigarette before she lights it for him.
This time, he doesn’t cough. Doesn’t tear up. A smile comes to his lips, like he actually likes it.
“Biking,” she says. “I’ve done that before, somewhere along the line. And you claim that it’s possible to rent these things?”
“We have the technology.”
“It’s not the technology I’m worried about. Seems to me that you’re quite good at it. I’m so-so.”
“Are you?” he asks, looking at her. “Are you so-so?”
She keeps his gaze. “This doesn’t make any sense, you know. Me and you here, me teaching you to smoke on Mildred’s balcony. Us having dinner together. Watching a horror movie over an explanation on menopause. You refusing to see the hedgehog.” That morning, Darla had weighed herself: three hundred and seventy pounds even. She’d stepped on the scale five times, the same weight each time. She’d called her mother and run hyper through a list of the things happening in her life. She’d eaten oatmeal from the pot, caught a fly in a glass and released it twelve stories above the street. Stubbed her toe on the elevator door because it just hadn’t opened fast enough. “This just isn’t normal, Walter. I’m sorry, but it’s not.”
“It isn’t?” he asks, as though it’s as plain as the smoke coming out his mouth, the halting uncertain puffs that somehow find a way to stay together as they wander over the street far below, where people walk and dream, sometimes aware of the good things right in front of them. And sometimes not.