(Below is S. E. Sciortino's Big Time. More fiction, by John Thompson, in the print version of The White Crow, available for $2.50 ppd from Osric Publishing.)
Big Timeby S. E. Sciortino
What is honor?
Yeah, Hal's a great guy, but he's a little odd. If he was a car he'd be an old fashioned boxy family economy model, like a Ford Fairlane, or the old Rambler American my father drove away in. He's a square peg in a round world. But hey, viva the difference, right?
Say you're walking down the street and you decide to hit the pizza joint on the other side. Will Hal just cut across the street? Nope. The man won't jaywalk. We could be in the middle of the block, with the place right across the street, and he'll walk to the corner. You believe that? He drives me crazy. I can yell at him all I want about what a jerk he is, how it's a waste of time, but he just gets this odd grin, walks up to the corner and waits for the light. Always crosses at the corner. Always waits for the light. All my noise doesn't make any difference. I always end up standing outside, waiting for him.
"Christ!" I say, "You act like the street's a friggin' spreadsheet or something! Live a little! Jaywalk! Just do it!"
"Can't trust the cabbies," he says.
"Oh! Come on, Mister Clean, Mister Never-in-Between, take a walk on the wild side!" I tell him.
Don't get me wrong. I think Hal's a great guy. He's a little weird, I know, but he's my best friend. When somebody's your best friend you don't sweat the small stuff. But his getting married, that's tough. It's especially tough when you're sure your best friend is making a mistake. Hal and I work at the same place. He's in accounting and I'm in sales. Kay works there too. Kay is who he's going to marry.
I don't understand. He's got his whole life in front of him and he wants to throw it away and get married. Yeah, crazy.
Don't get me wrong. Kay's a good kid—a great kid in a way—but she's fat. Not in-your-face-disgusting-fat, but she is fat. I think Hal could do a lot better, but he won't listen. He just smiles that dink smile and looks at his knees, or the blotter on his desk, or the Sports Illustrated calendar I gave him that's on the wall of his cubicle. Anything but the face of the person who is talking to him.
I hate that. What does he think he knows? Something I don't? I doubt that. I doubt that very much, my friend.
I couldn't marry a woman I thought was fat. No way.
I told him. What are friends for? I told him.
"Hal," I said, "What's your hurry? You're only twenty-eight. Live a little, shop around, have some fun. I know Kay's a great kid, but she's a little heavy, you've got to admit. If she's fat now, what do you think she'll look like in ten years? You gotta consider these things."
"Mark my word," I said. "That butt will spread faster than a good rumor once you get hitched to it. Believe me. I know the type."
My mother's been fat for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I think if she hadn't been so fat maybe my father never would have taken off like he did. I mean, you can't really blame him, totally.
You know what Hal says to me? "You're fat," he says. Of course, he smiles when he says it. Hal's Howdy Doody smile; can't wipe it off.
"What?" I say, "I'm a big guy. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm big, not fat. There's a huge difference."
I know he's only joking anyway. He just says it because he knows it gets me going. I get excited sometimes, a little overexcited maybe, I start talking loud and fast. People like to get me going. I can be a riot when I get going.
But this fat boy stuff, I mean come on. I mean I played football in college—of course I'm a big guy. What do you expect? There's nothing wrong with that. It's different for guys. A guy can be big and still look good. Ain't nothin' wrong with a big guy. Big is—well, I don't want to say that if you're not big you're not a man—I don't want to say that at all—but big is more manly in a lot of ways.
Don't get me wrong, I don't mean like macho manly. I'm not into that stuff. Actually, I think I'm pretty sensitive compared to a lot of guys. Not faggoty, pussy-whipped sensitive, but—you know—I understand feelings. I got them, you got them. Yeah, I know that. I just don't—you know—wear them on my sleeve. It doesn't do anybody any good if you do anyway. It just embarrasses everybody. I mean, it's embarrassing. I think it's embarrassing when a guy gets all slobbery. I hate that.
And anyway, I still work out, I'm still in good shape. And since I work out, I eat what I want. What's wrong with that? So I like to eat. It fits my active lifestyle. And really, my job practically requires it—you know, dining with clients and associates. Not that I have to do that too much yet—which is just as well, because half of the clients are stuck-up flaming assholes anyway. I talk to the jerk-offs all day on the phone. I drag my ass around to their offices and catch them sneaking out to lunch when they know I'm waiting out there, trying to make time with their stupid, stuck-up fucking receptionists. You talk, and talk, and talk. Then they tell you yes, yeah, sure, or maybe—and then when nothing happens you call back and somebody else says no, or not right now, or whatever.
But really, it's different for guys. Lots of women like big.
Women don't get big though. They just get fat.
So here he is, all set to marry this chunky monkey, and for what? I mean, Hal's my friend, but he's already a little on the dull side. What's going to happen to him when he gets married?
I think they want kids too. Great. Kids spit up that milky shit on your jacket, keep you up all night. You have to watch them all the time, so they don't die or something, can't hardly go out to eat anymore, stupid ruined vacations to stupid places the kid doesn't even care about. I've never been to Disney World, and I don't care if I never go. When are they going to have some fun after they get married?
Never, I bet.
I always thought life was something you go after full tilt, like in football. In football, when they snap the ball you kick it into overdrive, and everybody just keeps busting it up until the play's blown dead. You give it every last thing you've got, and you never let up. That's how I learned it. A lot of ways, that's what's got me this far in life. Put me through school when there wasn't a prayer for me any other way, that's for sure. When my old man left he didn't leave nothin' behind, believe me.
Don't get me wrong. I think Kay's a great kid. I know, because I've had to spend a lot of time with her since Hal's my best friend. She's got a nice smile, real nice eyes, and she's easy to talk to, not like a lot of girls you meet. She's not stuck-up or phony, like a lot of women out there. You don't have to treat her like a princess all the time either. I'm not saying she can't be nice to be with, I'm just saying I wouldn't be so fucking crazy as to go so far as marry her. I'm just saying she's all right, in spite of her size.
Like, a couple of weeks ago we all went up to Vermont for a weekend. It was Hal's idea. He's the one who really likes to ski. You can't get him off the slopes. Me, I can take it or leave it. Aprés ski now, that's another matter. I don't think Kay cares for skiing that much either. I think she just went to please Hal. Every day Kay and I would make a few runs and head for the lodge to warm up. We spent more time in there drinking cocoa than we did out skiing. We just would sit in the sun by this big window, squinting to find Hal in the crowd on the slopes, and talking. Kay's got a real good sense of humor, and she's a real laugher, a nice laugh. It's easy, the way we joke with each other and all.
On the other hand, Hal's sense of humor is a little odd. Not stitched together quite right. Kind of like seconds at Sears Surplus, you know? (Geez, Mom shopped there so much when I was a kid I thought "Imperfect" was a brand name.) For instance, sometimes I think it's only with me that Hal won't cross the street. That he does it to me because he thinks my yelling is funny. Sometimes, when I know he's leaving the building, I watch from the window, just to see if I can catch him cutting across the street. But so far I never have.
Anyway, that weekend Kay and I sat there in the sun, drinking hot cocoa, or maybe I'd have an Irish coffee, and we actually ended up telling each other our whole life stories. I know all about how she wasn't happy in high school, and didn't get dates, and couldn't wait to get out of there and go to a college where nobody knew her. And it's true, college is a place where you can get a fresh start, make some friends, build up a little self-confidence.
But let me tell you, ski vacations are actually a waste of time if you don't like the cold. It's true that at night we'd go out to a good restaurant, which usually I like, but up there they almost always have this rustic shit, dark wood with old saw blades and candlelight which can make you go blind. I guess they think acting like there's no electricity makes it more romantic somehow, but I like to see what I'm eating. Of course, when Kay would talk I could see Hal looking at her like there was nobody else in the place besides the two of them, so obviously it was working on that poor fool. I had to look down at my plate. Poor guy. If he could only see what a fool he was making of himself with that Romeo and Juliet routine. With a girl that fat. I'd try to pay attention, but I couldn't hardly focus in that crappy light. I hated it. All those candles on the wall behind her kept shining like halos, hurting my eyes. So I squinted at my plate, trying to cut around the fat on the prime rib, even though I'd lost my appetite. I ended up stuffing myself later on peanuts at the bar.
But I just don't think they're really right for each other, and that's not just because she fat. Don't get me wrong, she is fat, but she's pretty good-looking otherwise. I bet if she lost ten, twenty pounds she'd be worth a look—not that that's likely to happen, if I know my women. But Hal, he's crazy. He says he doesn't care about that. He thinks kindness is the most important thing in a woman. He actually said that. Is that another of his jokes? Kindness? I'll bet he'll have a wild time in the sack with that. A kind, fat girl. Great. My mother is kind, big deal.
Still, he's my friend, and if he wants to make a mistake I'll still stand by him. I'll probably end up the best man. And if he wants to take himself out of circulation like that, and go home every night and sit in front of the TV with Kay instead of partying with the gang, that's fine. I'll have fun on my own, the hell with Hal. I can still have a hell of a time, even if Hal wants to buy a farm in Dullsville. I go out, I make friends easy.
Of course, every once in a while you run into some asshole. Some drunken asshole at a bar who doesn't have any consideration. Or some fuck who's just spoiling to show what a big man he is to his girl or his friends and gets pushy, or makes some rude comments which you can't accept.
Actually, that's how Hal and I got to be friends. It was a Friday, and a big crowd from work had gone down to this sports bar, the Side Lines, to watch the Knicks' playoff game. The place was pretty packed, and there was a bunch of us crowded around the bar. Hal was on the outside of our bunch, and he got bounced backward on a big play into this creep who was sitting at a table eating, and Hal accidentally spills a little beer on the guy. Hal's not too big, and maybe this guy thought he could get away with something on account of that, so he stands up and dumps his soup on Hal.
I cold-cocked the guy. One punch.
Hal got this burn on his neck—you'd think they wouldn't serve soup so hot, he should sue 'em like that old lady did McDonald's—and I took him to get it looked at.
Since then we've been real good friends, and usually if we're out together and somebody does something or gets out of hand, I don't have to do anything because Hal's really good at making a guy be reasonable. He can talk them down out of the trouble they're about to get in.
Of course, I'm standing right there all the time, which I don't think hurts.
But there was this one flamer said something to Kay. It was last Wednesday—hump day—and we were at the Side Lines again. He was looking at Kay out of the corner of his eye, and I didn't hear the whole thing, and I'm still not sure if he was talking about her or actually talking to her, and she wasn't exactly looking at him, but I'm sure she heard him. And I definitely heard him say "fat bitch," and I don't put up with that kind of impolite talk about somebody I know, so I grabbed him and asked him to apologize. We were both on the floor before anybody knew what was happening.
Hal had to take me to the emergency room that time.
"Why, Artie, why?" he asked me when the doctor left. I could hardly see him, my eyes were swelled so. I thought he was going to yell at me then, get mad at me for the first time, but instead he made a sort of laugh that never left his throat. "They're just words," he said. "People don't even know what they're saying half the time. They don't even know what half the words they say mean, if they mean anything. Half the time they're just sounds we make to let each other know we're there. Like dogs barking, dogs outside on chains. Or maybe we make the sounds to prove it to ourselves, so we know we're there. But you can't make a punching bag out of words. They're air, Artie. Air."
I could hardly stand to open my mouth, because the guy had broken a tooth and—kind of ironical—air was driving the nerve crazy. I would have explained that to him better if it hadn't hurt so, but I just said, "No. Words are things, they mean things. No. They do things. People use them."
He shrugged me off. No, he did. He shrugged me off. I hate that.
"The bottom line," he said. "The bottom line is that it doesn't matter. You've got a big heart inside there, I know that, but you let your emotions . . . . It's easier, life's easier, if you don't let it eat you up, don't let it upset you so much."
Let what upset me? Life? Life doesn't upset me. Assholes do. I stayed out of work the rest of the week.
I think Kay feels bad. She's been real nice about it. Not that I think she's thankful or anything, although I think she would be thankful if there were anything to be thankful for, but of course there isn't. Why should she be? I would have done the same thing for practically any woman, and I think she knows that, appreciates that. You just can't let people get away with that sort of stuff. She says she never heard the guy say anything, which I don't know whether or not that's true. She asked me what it was he said, but I wouldn't tell her. If she really didn't hear, I'm not going to tell her.
Just air, my ass.
Like a storm is just air, like a hurricane. Like you could tell people knocked dead by a bomb concussion, by a friggin' nuclear explosion, "It's just air." You can make a cyclone out of words, raise the dead. They say people use words to conjure spirits, devils, all sorts of things. String enough of them together, you could build a regular Wall of China, pile them in a tower to reach the friggin' moon, twist 'em into rope that'll hang a man.
Say, "I do," and there you go, it's done. See what I mean?
I can't see it, though. You won't find me throwing the prime of my life away getting married. Life is too good to waste, you know what I mean? Just do it. Don't let anybody get in your way. You only get in the game once, and I'm out for fun, big time.
Crowright 2001 Osric Publishing. Last updated 09.16.2001