Fat of Life #1: Firms, every time obese employees eat doughnuts, you lose cash. Send the message that you want portly workers to pony up more insurance bucks.
—from Macon Lute, Comptroller, Federal Alliance To Surcharge Obesity / F.A.T.S.O.
At eight a.m. Candace Bright arrives at her job at the Nickel Savings Bank and switches on the treadmill desk behind her teller’s window. She clips a pedometer to her waistband, ready to step-n-stride while counting money for the day’s transactions, when Adelle Kidd, the bank’s manager, comes in for Candace’s blood pressure, yelling, “Where’s the extra-large cuff?” Adelle tuts and shakes her head as she screens Candace’s cholesterol. After Candace steps off the scale, Adelle says, “Still way over BMI. I’m having a convo with HR about you.”
At first, Candace Bright thought it was bias—privacy, lifestyle, big-boned—surely, some kind of discrimination. Select employees at Nickel received letters about it in the mail:
Dear Mr. / Ms. CANDACE BRIGHT:
We are pleased to announce that all associates who are over BMI (body mass index) are invited to participate In The Thick Of Things Program! We’ll pair you with a Courage Coach from Healthy Weigh who is completing her / his certification in courage. So, come to the table (but only bring your problems!) and let your coach, MAX FULLER, help you brave up to slim down.
Nickel Savings Bank Management
P.S. Failure to meet BMI standard at the end of your six month grace period will carry hefty surcharges and rehabilitation.
“Surcharge!” she’d grumbled. It didn’t seem to Candace like a bank could get away with it. And the idea of her coworkers knowing her weight was humiliating, though she viewed herself as sturdy, all-brawn-and-no-flab. Candace popped some pistachios into her mouth for their calming magnesium and fumed about the inequity, the indignity. She complained to Ma, “Unheard of, unprecedented, unfair.”
Ma said, “Candace, you were my responsibility until I became yours. I can’t afford Nickel to surcharge you.”
“Ma, if they do, I’ll sue.”
“Take ‘em to the cleaners!” Ma said. “We gotta pay down my credit cards.”
Then the courage coach walked up to her wicket.
Coach Fuller’s a peculiar name for a courage coach, she thought when he handed her his business card. Fuller is why I need a coach in the first place. She thinks of him as simply, “the coach.”
The coach has a strong face, chiseled, toned, with a chin so square it makes Candace conjure up saltines. He reminds her of her father and grandfather, two people she loved very much.
“Are you my client?” he’d asked that first day.
“Are you blind?” Adelle’d said. She sank her incisors into Candace’s metaphorical ankle and went on. “That locker over there? That’s her lunchbox.”
Eggplant-shaped Candace, her face rubied with shame, sucked in her stomach under her high-waisted jumper and followed the coach to the break room.
The coach is in his forties, ten years or so older than Candace, with fine hair, a trim physique and no wedding band, only the memory of one on his tan ring finger. He tells Candace he’s been assigned to her for the six month grace period to assist her in losing pounds. In the beginning, six months sounded like a long time, but now, three months down, Candace needs the coach to meet speed squat goals and measure portions with her, the way Adelle needs her blood pressure cuffs and scale to show everyone she’s in charge.
Increasingly, Candace’s ability to be her own task master has been slipping. She kicks butt in booty class, blanches kale, imagining the deep hatchings around the coach’s eyes, the angle of his chin as he listens to her. His presence incites a natural high. She wants to put some part of him in her mouth, an appetizer before the main course she longs for; she’s so bored with self-service.
The coach is scheduled for a visit in two days, and Candace wants to graduate by then to overweight from obese. So when she steps onto her treadmill desk this morning and hears that Adelle’s brought in tempeh nicoise, she feels happy about the new potatoes and olives but sad about the starch and carbs.
“Lovely surprise,” Candace says. “I’ll taste just a smidgen.”
“Candy! Ha!” Adelle snorts.
Candace waits until the break room’s empty before toweling off and fingering a tempeh. She is savoring her first nibble when Adelle barges in, pink with glee.
Adelle fills her work hours with a steady diet of ass-chewing for anyone over-BMI. Like most of the small-minded managers at Nickel, she holds false beliefs about the stout—they’re stupid, sickly, sleepy, sloppy. Candace would be afraid of her if Adelle wasn’t such an ignoramus. Shouldn’t pea brains be surcharged?
Now Adelle, thumbs digging into her narrow waist, grins over the break room counter, the pleats around her pale lips putting Candace in mind of cupcake liners. Skin flakes off her face and hands, convincing Candace the woman’s dehydrated. Candace could share one of her age-proofing remedies, that the zeaxanthin in sugar snap peas moisturize while also reducing pores; she could command, “Cut it out,” a stab at de-fanging young old Adelle with her flat-cheeked face and bum, her bones brittle as pretzels, her gold jewelry that accounts for half her weight. Lately, Candace has the worrisome perception that she’s inflating, even as, weirdly, parts of her have started to shrivel. Her concentration flops belly-up each workday when her pedometer nears the three-mile mark. Her self-esteem sinks lower than a bear market whenever she thinks about the cash deducted from her pay if she doesn’t meet BMI at the end of her grace period. When she faces Adelle, she breathes deeply, drawing on her subpar confidence.
“The coach is coming in a couple of days. What I eat is between him and me.”
“Yup!” Adelle chortles.
Beyond the two women, the bank is alive with guffaws.
At Nickel, all over-BMI associates have been told they cost the bank thousands more in healthcare compared to their thin counterparts. To save on insurance, managers monitor their employees’ health by foisting snack rules on everyone: Think Outside the Bag—No Eating from Packages; Choose Wisely—No Treats Allowed at Desks; by replacing vending machine chips and candy with couscous, tabouli, soy jerky; by stringing up banners everywhere: Veggie-up; Grains For Brains; Say No to Cankles—Use the Stairs; by pestering workers to sign up for classes—Bar Barians before eight, Warrior Mania during lunch, Greco-Roman Wrestling at quitting time; and by installing a treadmill desk in Candace’s teller’s cubicle. “You’ll shed girth while cashing checks,” Adelle said. “You’ll wake up, burn energy. Fortify your immunity, whittle down, upgrade your looks.”
Rainey Boggs, Candace’s neighboring teller who is also over-BMI, had handrails installed on her treadmill desk, since walking as she worked made her dizzy, tripped her up. While Candace doesn’t need handrails, she does endure a rash from perpetually soggy armpits, and the blisters on every toe, never allowed to heal, give off an unpleasant odor. Sometimes she hears Rainey snuffle asthmatically between customers and has to refrain from breaking into the weeps herself. Candace misses the loud happiness of the Toasty Buns Club she dropped out of. She took great pleasure in firing up the grill for dear friends and creating entire meals inside a poke of pita.
It’s possible to walk across America while working at your treadmill desk! the brochure advertises. Find out! Take a virtual journey! Candace feels like a hamster on a wheel when she walks while working, which is another reason she frequently turns her desk off. But the coach is coming soon and she knows her adipose will melt like warm butter on rye only if she treads at least ten thousand steps a day. “You’re racking up the miles,” he’d praised after her first week on the desk. “Atta girl!” He’d patted her shoulder for a job well done.
At the time, she’d smiled with pride.
But after three months of itchy patches and painful swellings, racking up the miles keeps getting tougher.
“Tempeh fingers / Make pounds linger,” Adelle sings, and then saws one finger atop the other. “Now get back to work.”
Adelle removes a mango cream pie recipe from her locker and places it on the health mindfulness board. “Breaking the bank” is what it’s called in the Nickel Code of Conduct. Candace unpins dessert recipes whenever she sees them, but today Adelle says, “It calls for tofu and soymilk, very wholesome.”
Candace gives Adelle a bitter glare and returns to her treadmill. She won’t waste any more time on her. She has to get thin for Ma, for the coach.
Fat of Life #2: Corporations, the porkers among us have few if any rights when it comes to hiring, firing, or promotion. Do not hesitate to creep further and further into the personal lives of the rotund and punish them for being unfit.
—from Les Bacon, Legal Counsel, Federal Alliance To Surcharge Obesity / F.A.T.S.O.
There is a full pastry case at the front of the coffee shop and a bowl of chocolate mints on the counter. Waves of perfume roll through the room, oatmeal cookies? Butterscotch? On the table at her booth is a mug of black coffee. Rainbows bloom on the wall as afternoon sunlight penetrates a beveled window. On the seat beside her is the recipe booklet, Cry Uncle!, that Nickel provides for its workers.
Candace scans the pages for a dish she thinks the coach might like, something they could prepare after today’s appointment and compare notes on next time. Polenta? Broccoli-almond patties? There’s not much that’s appealing. She earmarks both entries and then studies the ingredient list for chilled beet soup. Beets give her the shivers. She closes the booklet, hoping he’ll pass on beets.
The coach and Candace occasionally meet off-site during her lunch hour, which is against code. She enjoys their subterfuge.
When at first she didn’t lose any heft, Candace chalked it up to new muscle bulk. She was relieved when the coach began helping her “From the inside out,” as he’d put it and gave her a mantra: “Someday / Someway / I’ll vaporize / My tush / Hey!” She has basted her skull with the coach’s voice, made a home for him in there, a safe nook cozy as this café booth, a place for secret rendezvous.
She invents beverage recipes to tantalize him and embeds them inside the booklet, Passion with Rum, Kiwi Kiss Julep that calls for lots of bourbon, and then excuses herself to the ladies’ room. When she returns, the drunken concoction has always been excised, a paper corner sticking out of the smiling coach’s shirt pocket.
During one appointment, the coach gave her a smoothie recipe, tea-licious, that called for one-fourth cup lemon sorbet. She thinks this means the coach cares about her, too. Now whenever she combines tea and sorbet in a blender, Candace bawls. She has to blink fast, flinging away the tears, to keep her longing from getting the best of her. She aches for him the way her teeth ache after a thorough flossing.
And then about two weeks ago, Candace noticed her beverage inserts getting replaced with drug leaflets. Even before her over-BMI designation, Candace has always preferred organic remedies—vitamin E in walnuts to erase under-eye circles, compounds in avocados to boost collagen and plump up fine lines. “The fat substitute olestra causes flatus discharge, Ms. Bright,” her doctor had cautioned after she inquired about aids to weight loss. “And let’s not forget the Fen-phen debacle.” Once Candace realized the coach was recommending medication, she felt uneasy yet charmed. She’s read about appetite suppressants, digestive inhibitors, and hormonal manipulation. Still, she tells herself, the right prescription might be her ticket to the at-, or dare she aspire, under-BMI status she yearns for.
Candace is fortunate. Some of the other over-BMIs are harassed by their courage coaches. She’d overheard Rainey Boggs’ coach criticize her slowness on her treadmill: “Hop to and hop off those extra pounds,” which set Rainey to mea culpa-ing and mewling. But Rainey let him go after he told her twenty pounds of extra weight was like carrying around octuplets and a c-section was way overdue.
So far, Nickel Savings Bank has appraised courage coaching a triumph.
After Candace blows on her coffee to cool it, she sits back, closes her eyes and chants, “Someday / Someway / I’ll vaporize…”
When Candace first came to work at Nickel, she had no banking experience and started as a teller, but she wanted to move into sales or customer service to earn more money. Instead of handling loan payments and making small talk, she wanted to interact with customers in depth, offer them free checking, free Virtual Wallets, GPS, Fruit of the Loom. She’d been passed over many times for these positions. But soon, once she meets BMI, she feels sure a promotion will come her way.
The coach will be here in a few minutes so Candace wavers between tucking in a Sunset Sipper with equal parts tequila, triple sec, and cointreau, or a Bloody Orange that calls for a cup of gin. She wonders what the coach does with her recipes, if he tries them, shares them with friends, or tosses them out. She fantasizes them sharing a brandy-soaked aperitif together.
At last, she sees him park outside the coffee shop, drop money into a meter. When he reaches the door, she feels her heart’s precise place, its full size come wonderfully alive inside her chest.
“Freshen your cup?” The coach is beside her table, holding her with his voice.
Candace swallows her breath mint. She runs her fingers through her hair, tucking strands behind both ears, “Your C-do, C for charming,” her dad and granddad used to tease. “Sure,” she says and hands over her cup.
“How goes it, Cand?” He grins, sitting opposite her in their cozy booth, dumping cream and sugar into his brew.
“Capital!” Candace says happily, but judging from the lift of his eyebrows, he doesn’t get her joke.
Today the coach is wearing a polo shirt over tennis shorts and shoes, all in white, that show off his healthy glow. He always dresses in business attire at their Nickel appointments. On other coffee shop days, he’s worn muscle shirts and tight workout pants. Once, he showed up in swim trunks and flip-flops. Not a ripple or dimple on the guy.
“What’d you think, Cand?” The coach rolls back his shirtsleeve and flexes his bicep. The skin there is pale, and in the middle of his muscle is a ferret sporting Olympic Gold. Candace doesn’t want to like the tattoo but she does. The rodent’s necklace throbs with each pump of the coach’s arm.
“Next, you’ll show up sporting an all-terrain vehicle,” Candace laughs.
She’s pleased today he’s in one of his happier moods. Some days he just sips his coffee, stiff as biscotti, while Candace reports from her food journal and pedometer chart. Once he cancelled. On that afternoon, Candace stared at the pastries and mints in the coffee shop and felt herself shrink to a desiccated hull.
The coach pulls his sleeve down. He settles back into the booth, and they spend the next few minutes playing a round of Portion Distortion—the coach’s favorite game. “A cup of coffee twenty years ago was eight ounces and forty-five calories. How many calories do you think are in today’s coffee?” he says.
She looks at her cup. Zero? Then at his. “Triple that?” she says.
“Try seven times! Guess how long you have to walk to burn those calories?”
“Too long.” She’s admiring the sharp corners of his chin.
“How much over BMI are you still, Cand? Thirty?” he says. “Run five-k a day, seven days a week, there’s a slim chance you’ll beat the surcharge. Bike twice that every day, ditto.”
Candace used to enjoy swimming laps at the Y a few evenings a week after work, but treadmilling fatigues her so she stopped her membership. Sure, she jogs, bikes on weekends, though she’d rather regale her Toasty Buns friends with her culinary flair as she tomahawks chicken breasts, dips them in mole sauce, grills them golden brown and then offers up a miracle of transubstantiation wrapped in ciabatta rolls, peppered and warm. Such joy! Thinking about it now makes her want to cry, it was so good.
“Say, let’s cut to the cake, Cand,” the coach quips, interrupting Candace’s thoughts. “Are you ready for my secret weapon? The new, safer Achieva!”
Ever since Candace confided Ma’s credit card red ink, the coach began slipping information about pills inside Cry Uncle!, specifically fliers on metabolism. This is the first time he’s spoken up. His sincerity is endearing. He understands that diet and exercise have never been her real problem. At times, Adelle moos at her or teases, “Fatkins, is there anything you haven’t eaten yet today?” Worse, are the cat-callers: “Yo mamma so fat, she fell in love and broke it.” She knows these taunts are meant to motivate her to lose weight, but she pretends not to hear them. Though it feels worse somehow when people avoid her.
The coach reaches for a brochure in his pocket. They both stare down at the word “Achieva.”
“You’d be part of a study,” the coach says, his voice doctor-gentle, “that way nobody at Nickel will be the wiser.”
The coach runs his finger under the words: “New Improved Achieva targets the magic receptor that burns fat faster. Join the lucky people in the test group. So far, safety data looks good.”
Candace lets this marinate for a while. Keeping the drug a secret from Nickel is titillating, but taking an unapproved drug that’s struck out once already isn’t. She places the cook booklet over the leaflet and excuses herself to the restroom. When she returns, every wall rainbow has faded and a brown bottle is on the table.
The coach rolls up his sleeve and again flexes his ferret. “Go for your gold, Cand. Let me and Achieva help you reach your BMI. Can you imagine Adelle complimenting you on how good you look?”
“I’m not sure.” Candace gives him a watered-down smile. The coach does have a way of eloquently stating his case.
“You don’t have much time left,” the coach says. “Which reminds me, look at the time. Gotta go. Take the pills?”
Candace pages through Cry Uncle! and sees her Bloody Orange recipe is still where she inserted it. Even with paying off Ma’s debt, she can afford a few surcharges while working to weigh-in at-BMI. If she could, she would put the kibosh on Achieva and tell him: Coach, we have all the time in the world. On the other hand, if letting myself get experimented on will help you see that as clearly as I do, well then, all right.
“Okay,” she says, “I’ll take the pills.”
Fat of Life #3: Enterprises, obesity jumps from worker to worker, even over lengthy distances. End the infection now. Cut ties with chunkers and safeguard your work environment.
—from Tru Lee Macabre, Scientist of Social Contagion, Federal Alliance To Surcharge Obesity / F.A.T.S.O.
Today is Tooty Fruity Tuesday at Nickel. In the break room is a smorgasbord of food porn: pineapple meatballs, lime gelatin, prune crisp, banana punch. Candace intended to contribute a bowl of blueberries for the tranquilizing effect of their benzodiazepines, but she’s been feeling dizzy lately, probably from the insomnia Achieva has brought on. Still, she jogged to the market after work yesterday to select a few pounds of the darkest berries, until the tremors in her hands progressed to outright shaking. She gave up and trudged home.
“Re-route your tongue, Candy,” Adelle says when she sees Candace scanning the potluck. “Gotta pay to play.”
I couldn’t play today if I wanted to, Candace could say because, while her tremors have subsided, her symptoms have spread from her nerves to her gastro-intestines and now, in the words of Achieva’s leaflet, she suffers from fecal incontinence. “No Tooty Fruity for me,” Candace says and stutter-steps like a windup duck to the restroom.
“Achieva brings thinner peace,” Candace breathes. After washing her hands, she splashes cold water on her face and stands before the mirror. She hears the coach down the hall bantering with the lunchtime employee. Feeling like a lone sardine in a can, she wants to press his square-chinned head to her chest. Sometimes she has to resist the urge to lecture him on the proper way to help the over-BMI. Sure, she’s within twenty pounds of avoiding the surcharge, but she’s never looked or felt shittier in her life. She groans at her crappy joke. Bosses today don’t know the first thing about obesity, she thinks. She wants her success to benefit the coach, but she wishes she could explain to the Nickel fat cats what she has known for a long time, that obesity is not a disease. It’s many things and one of them is genes. “Achieva brings,” she breathes, “thinner peace,” then she locks herself inside the stall once more.
As if part-bat and gifted with echo location, Candace intuits Adelle standing close to the coach in the break room, her bejeweled belt winking at him, daring him, luring him to circle her svelte waist with his arm. She discerns Adelle sighing as she sucks a meatball from a fondue fork and then swipes a finger over the edge of her lip, slides the finger inside her mouth, and licks.
Candace, her anxious heart propelling her feet, heads to the break room for a cup of peppermint tea, the best antidote she knows for gastro-distress. She could masticate that Adelle, but brutality isn’t on her bill of fare. If she’d slept better, if her tremors hadn’t returned, if her intestines were settled, Candace’s legs might not have buckled like a faulty folding table when Adelle backs out of the room and into her. Instead, she spills through the door and nearly lands on the floor.
“Whatev’,” Adelle gripes, a big tub of assertiveness soured to nasty.
“Cand?” the coach says, oblivious to Adelle’s gaffe. “Careful,” he snaps. He helps her to a chair then turns to follow the bank manager.
As far back as her grandfather’s passing, followed by her dad’s shortly after, Candace has felt tongue-tied around men. Since attaining over-BMI status, she’s become tight as a trussed hen. But she can feel the cheesy words forming in her heart: Coach, you are my savings, my bull market, my certificate of deposit.
What comes out is: “I’m still over-BMI.”
The coach pauses, one foot out the door. He wheels around and comes to stand beside her, his eyes restless as her Sassy Ginger Ale Punch.
“Neurosurgery.” His voice takes on a hardboiled tone. The skin around Candace’s eyes pinks then goes red. A lament rises from her like the last squeeze from a catsup bottle.
“On your brain’s lateral hypothalamus,” he expounds, his sharp chin cutting off her breath with each word. Candace wants to gulp all the air in the room. She eyes the flabby gelatin in a nearby dish, imagines lobotomizing it.
“LH brings on hunger. The surgery destroys hunger centers.” His voice is ice in her veins. She holds her own hand, fingering and kneading it.
“The procedure’s in the research phase. I know someone. I’ll set you up.” He leaves the break room calling, “Adelle? Adelle?”
Candace wants to stick a fondue fork in her eye as she says to no one, “I crave Toasty Buns.”
She lowers her head to the tabletop and daydreams Savvy Sangria, a drink that calls for Pinot Noir. She shakes the mix with ice, pours it into cocktail glasses, adds twists of lemon peel and cherries, and serves the coach. In the background, a dozen friends chat away while chopping onions, Rolfing butter into raw fish, rolling fillets around bowls of herbed horseradish, barbecuing feats of alchemy. Candace, always drawn to the cadence of cooking work, so much more gratifying than performing repetitive banking business, can’t enjoy it this time. She sits in the break room still as a stroke victim, her stomach roiling. In her imagination, she sees the coach sipping his Sangria, mouthing, “You hit BMI or I get axed.” His words pierce the very heart of her brain.
When she was a girl, watching Ma tackle stuffed flank steaks was stunning. Ma would whack the steaks into pink slabs, spoon onions over each one, reel them as if they were jelly rolls, fasten them with wood picks, and lace them with string. Knifing through the sauce would uncork an aromatic gush of tomatoes and green peppers that seeped across the plate to melt into potato pancakes. It was such a comfort. Now Candace rouses herself. It’s nearly quitting time. As she returns to her cubicle, the overhead light goes out. All around her, desk lamps switch off until Candace is left treading alone in the gloom.
Patty Houston teaches creative writing and composition at the University of Cincinnati. Recently, her work has appeared in The Louisville Review, Oxford American, The Fiddlehead, Witness, Santa Monica Review, and other journals. Her novel Strange Alliances is in search of a good home. She is at work on a second novel.