Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lost and Found, by Natasha Fondren

The New Year’s Eve party had grown small. The music rocked on, but the DJ had retired, letting a playlist do his work for a handful of diehards who still danced under the spinning disco ball. A few children were left, screaming and running around the empty tables.

He sat alone in the next room, where the shy and the uncool and the too cool had escaped to, where there was less pressure to have fun.

He should gather his family, make polite goodbyes. But he sat, slumped on the couch, staring at his belly. It was obscene. When had it gotten so big? The music’s vibrations rippled through the mound of fat, and he imagined it wobbled a little with each beat.

It sat on his frame like a blinking neon sign: fat, failure, fat, failure, fat, failure.

Was a time he’d had muscles there. Abs. If he went way back, he could remember a six-pack, back from when he’d broken the school record for discus.

His throwing arm twitched, as if it remembered the sport it hadn’t played for twenty-five years. He closed his eyes, and he could feel the discus tucked under his hand, the step-step-step, spin-spin-spin, and then the exhilaration as he released the discus, watched it fly down the field.

He’d been a winner, then. Second in the state. Silver trophy and everything. The determination had been easy; the focus, second nature. The strength had required little effort.

He looked down at his arm, almost expecting to see the brawny muscles once again, but his arm hung limply from his shoulder, thick and flabby.

If he’d never gone to the bathroom—or the “little boy’s room,” as he’d quipped to those in the castoff room—he’d be having a good time with his kids right now, maybe chasing them around the empty tables as the wait staff cleaned up the party.

After he did his business, he headed towards the doorway, timing his exit so he’d be zipped up before he emerged, but he was still wrestling with it when he walked into the hallway. Damn thing was stuck. He ducked behind an unlit Christmas tree, grunting and puffing and tugging.

“He’s let himself go,” he heard. He froze, somehow instantly knowing his boss was talking about him. His fingers hovered over his prick. Or, as his wife called it, The Man.

“Johnny has no one to blame but himself,” she said.

His co-worker laughed. “Did you see that stupid hat he’s wearing?”

His boss’s boss had put the damned paper hat on his head. Show some company spirit, he’d said.

“Gotta cover that bald head with something. We’re firing him Monday,” his boss said. “I waited until after the holidays.”

As if this were a kindness, now that he’d spent the next two months’ salary on Christmas presents, Christmas parties, Christmas dinners, Christmas dresses, Christmas decorations, Christmas pictures, and even a Christmas outfit for the dog, for fuck’s sake.

Like a loser, he hid behind the tree. Twenty fucking years at the company. Fired. Because he’d “let himself go.”

After they were gone, he stumbled out to the party room, still numb. Stood dumbly as the employees got in a circle and announced their New Year’s resolutions, one by one. Some made it a joke, and everyone laughed. Some made suck-up-to-the-man resolutions, but everyone clapped and cheered anyway.

When they got to him, he couldn’t speak. He’d prepared. He’d planned his resolution carefully.

Fired, fired, fired.

Let himself go.

His boss prompted, “Johnny? What’s your resolution?” There was a mocking tone in her voice, as if everyone was in on the joke that he was getting the ax on Monday.

The pink slip.

The elastic on the party hat dug into the folds of his double chin. His wife glanced up from the game she was playing with their little boy.

What would she think when she found out?

The countdown began. Twenty, nineteen, eighteen, and now everyone was counting and clapping. Three, two, one, and the room erupted into Auld Lang Syne and hugs and cheering and toasting. Confetti swirled through the air; kids screamed and jumped up and down.

He stood alone, his zipper still down.

***

At one, his wife rounded up the kids, brought them to their father in the cold, bright room. He embarrassed her. He could see it on her face, the way she looked him up and down, then looked away so he wouldn’t see the disgust.

She hadn’t married him. She’d married the athlete she’d met in college. She’d married the ambitious go-getter who’d nailed his first interview and gotten the entry-level position all his friends envied, the man who burned with ambition and had success written all over him.

Now he embarrassed her.

At least he’d finally gotten the zipper up. His belly lifted as he breathed in, round and almost firm. Then he sighed, and it flattened, spilling over his sides.

All the best of himself, all gone.

He glumly stared at his belly. It was like the fat was a cancer, a huge tumor.

Fat, failure, fat, failure, fat, failure.

“Daddy! Daddy!”

He couldn’t even meet his daughter’s eyes. She jumped on his lap anyway, forcing a grunt from him. He absently stroked her hair, tucked it behind her ear.

She poked his belly. She pushed it with both hands, and it shloshed back and forth in wide waves.

He blinked fast, hoping his face wouldn’t crumple. He started to apologize for it. “Sweetheart, I’m—”

She giggled. She kissed him on the cheek, then rested her head on his offending belly, draping her arms in a hug that didn’t even reach halfway around his waist.

“It’s a pillow of pudding!” She laughed and squeezed, making it slosh again.

His son tried to squeeze on, but there wasn’t enough room. “I want Daddy’s pillow!”

“Wait for your turn,” his wife said.

And then his face did crumple. But he was laughing, too.

15 comments:

Jude Hardin said...

He sat alone in the next room, where the shy and the uncool and the too cool had escaped to, where there was less pressure to have fun.

Love that!

Great story, Natahsa. Very insightful. I think you really nailed how an aging man in that position might feel.

Melanie Avila said...

I really like how you've taken HIS perspective and made him sympathetic. You've nailed the disgust you can feel for yourself when things don't go the way you want -- whether it's physically or what have you.

Because you did such a wonderful job with this whole piece, I felt the very last sentence detracts from the mood you've set.

Erica Orloff said...

This just about made me cry. Really emotional and powerful, I thought.

Can I also say I thought you did an extraordinary job with the senses--sounds, rhythms of sounds, and touchs (the squishy belly). A few words to paint such a strong, emotive scene.

A couple of times, I thought you were leading me too much as a reader, and telling me what I should think. One spot was "Like a loser, he hid behind the tree." I didn't think you needed "Like a loser." I thought let me just figure out the shame he feels.

But the minor "tells" aside, I thought this was REALLY, REALLY, really strong. Great!!!!

Natasha Fondren said...

Thanks, Jude! I was pretty depressed when I wrote it, and it was funny how the worse off I made him, the better I felt. Weird.

Natasha Fondren said...

Melanie, I was uncomfortable with the ending, too. I felt like there should have been something at the beginning to stitch to the ending. Plus, yeah, I couldn't figure an ending. Yeah, good point, completely agree. Must think on that.

Natasha Fondren said...

Thanks, Erica! *blushes*

Yeah, I'd meant those to be more of a deeper third, as a statement of how he views himself. I'd had two more, but on re-read, I thought the same thing as you for the first two. Must delete the last two! I don't think they're needed at all.

LurkerMonkey said...

Natasha,

Nice! As always, I find it interesting the major themes that run through the various stories. Of the five people who wrote this time, you and me both saw humiliation. And you did such a good job at inhabiting the character.

I loved a few things in particular: your visceral descriptions of his viscera at some point began to disgust and embarrass me, which means it worked beautifully; I thought his recognition of his wife's disgust was just heart-wrenching; the fat failure fat failure repetition was great; and the abject humiliation of standing in a circle with his zipper down is just cringe-worthy.

I kind of agree about the last line. It would have still worked for me without it ...

Edie Ramer said...

Natasha, I felt for him. I wanted it to turn out to be a mistake and someone else was going to be fired instead. If that was your intention, it worked with me.

Natasha Fondren said...

Thanks, Jon! Thought I knew what visceral was, but had to go look up viscera. :-) I love that sentence, LOL! I was a bit worried the zipper thing was overkill.

Yeah, the ending isn't meshing for me. But would it work just to lop off the last sentence? I wasn't convinced the next-to-last or the one before that worked as much of an ending, either...

Natasha Fondren said...

Aww, sorry, Edie. :-) He still gets fired. I guess I was thinking that the things we hate about ourselves are not as disgusting to others as they are to ourselves, that they might even be what others love about us. And I guess I was doing some poking at the way our society seems to pair success with weight, which is sorta mind-boggling to me.

Merry Monteleone said...

Natasha,

This was really well-rendered. About halfway through, I started wondering where it was going, he knows he's getting the axe before they know he knows... my mind automatically went for ways to get even - sinking the company, shooting his boss.

Ah, well, I'm a sucker for a happy ending that way :-)

I like the way you ended it though. Especially the way he interacts with his daughter.

Melanie Avila said...

I think if you dropped the last sentence it makes his situation even more desperate -- there's no hint of happiness in him even though his children clearly love him. It's like that just makes it worse for him because he doesn't feel deserving.

Natasha Fondren said...

Oh YES, Merry! Now you've got my mind going. Revenge can be so fun, LOL! I'd love to see his boss get her comeuppance. Or maybe especially the boss's friend.

Thanks! :-)

Natasha Fondren said...

Melanie, that's making sense. I'm thinking I tried to force a happy ending, but a happy ending is not quite realistic in so short a story, and particularly in so short a time with this man. Maybe just the sliver of hope is good enough, leaving readers to imagine the rest of the story and hope that the MC eventually gets that he's loved and has worth?

Charles Gramlich said...

terribly sad and yet kind. Very real, this one.