Post Road Magazine #25

The Eater

Vivian Lawry

She wheeled down the sidewalk, concentrating on the cracked, uneven cement. Her pinched face, her muscular forearms—every fiber of her thin body—bent to the task of getting from the library back to her house without mishap. Wisps of brown hair, escaped from her ponytail, stuck to her damp forehead and neck.

No one in the town knew much about her, not even her age. She could be twenty-five or thirty-five—or even older. They pigeonholed her as the crippled girl who lived up the hill, in the white house that had belonged to her parents before an eighteen-wheeler flattened their Subaru. She was seldom seen, and when she wheeled to the post office or the grocery, she said only what was necessary to get her business done. Townspeople who thought about her at all wondered how she paid her bills. But mostly they just didn't think about her. She had no known employment.

As the crippled girl wheeled past, a woman in over-stretched maroon stretch pants and a gray sweatshirt bounded off the porch of a nearby house and plopped a big stainless steel pot into the crippled girl's lap. "Here," the woman said. The crippled girl looked up, wide-eyed, speechless. The woman laughed. "It's soup," she said, turning away.

The crippled girl watched the woman's retreating back. She wondered why the woman would give her soup, and whether it was tainted. She considered leaving the pot on the sidewalk, but recoiled from such rudeness—the woman looked really nice. The crippled girl strained to keep the soup from sloshing into her lap as she wheeled up the hill, cursing the extra effort.

That night, the woman's husband said, "This morning you were crying in your beer, and tonight you're happy as a pig in shit. What happened to you?"

"You know I don't have beer in the morning," she protested. "And nothing happened to me. I did a good deed and I'm happy about it."

"You're not exactly a good-deeds sort of person, Midge."

Midge shrugged. "I made a big pot of spinach soup for your lunch. When you said you weren't coming home, I came within an inch of throwing it out. I was in that kind of mood."

"Now, Midge, don't go off on me about that. I told you I had to work." Midge shrugged again. "Whatever. I looked out the window and saw that crippled girl wheeling by, and I thought, why not give it to someone needy?" Midge smiled. "When I put that soup pot in her lap, she looked fit to be tied! It made me laugh. She called, you know, and said how good it was, and thanked me and all. I've been feeling good ever since. Calm."

Over coffee and cake the next afternoon, Midge told her neighbor the story of the soup. Her neighbor said, "That was a mighty Christian thing to do. My spirits could use a little lift, too. Maybe I'll take her a piece of this chocolate cake." She did take cake to the crippled girl, and came away feeling self-satisfied and cheerful.

Midge's neighbor told her cousin, who took sticky buns to the crippled girl. The cousin told her brother, who took barbecued pork. Word of people feeling good—euphoric, even—after feeding the crippled girl flashed through the town on smiles and laughter. More and more people took food to her. The crippled girl was happy for the first time in her life. Before, the only people who paid attention to her were the schoolboys who made a game of poking sticks in the spokes of her wheelchair. Now all sorts of people came right to her house, bringing gifts of food. Sometimes they even stopped to talk to her—about the weather, maybe, or the misfortunes of their lives. Soon she was eating a dozen times a day.

Some people reasoned that if feeding the crippled girl in general was good, feeding her specific foods would be better. The track team ran relays, bringing offerings of red meat daily, hoping for strength and vigor. They had a winning season. When measles swept through the local grade school, people brought onions: pearl onions, yellow onions, white onions, red onions, green onions, and Vidalia onions—creamed, raw, sautéed, pickled, and boiled. When the measles epidemic passed, people breathed a sigh of relief and talked about having warded off the plague. Native American maidens about to be married brought ears of red corn. During the flu season, the crippled girl noticed a sharp increase in garlic offerings. And the townspeople noticed a sharp drop in bronchitis, colds, rheumatism, and all sorts of lung trouble. People wishing for prosperity brought tomatoes in all their variations. An eighty-three-year-old man who'd just married a twenty-eight-year-old woman brought asparagus and oysters—garnished with onions, eggs, and caviar—every week for four months, and then nothing for seven months. When he returned, he brought jellies, both sweet and savory. He smiled broadly, and leaned close to the crippled girl's ear. "I was hoping you would eat these, to help ease my wife's delivery." And always there were apples. Everyone knew about an apple a day.

But mostly people brought whatever was handy, and that seemed to work, too. Everyone was happy. The police logged a quarterly report in which domestic violence, assault, battery, murder, rape, and hate crimes of all sorts were zero. Good Samaritan Hospital was practically deserted. People said it was a miracle. The local druggist lost big profits as sales of Zoloft, Paxil, Trazadone, Carafate, Zantac, and Nexium plummeted. But he took mulled cider to the crippled girl and didn't really mind the lost income.

The Catholic priest called on the crippled girl, part of his duty to comfort the sick and needy. He was new to the parish and he approached this task in a low mood, his stomach churning. He took her a basket of fruit, just to be cordial. After thirty minutes with the crippled girl, he left feeling sanguine, his stomach easy. He said, "She reminds me of Saint Job, the patron invoked against depression and ulcers."

One of his parishioners said, "What about Agricola of Avignon? He's the patron invoked against misfortune, for good weather and bountiful harvests, and against plagues and epidemics. My corn crop's the best ever."

Another said, "Saint Rita's invoked against sickness and bodily ills of all sorts, and in desperate situations—against domestic abuse and sterility, loneliness and marital problems. My health has never been better! I think the crippled girl is more like Saint Rita."

The religious started calling the crippled girl Agricola Rita Job. Their friends and neighbors took up the fashion.

"My name is Maggie Hubbard," she protested. But no one could seem to remember that name.

Agricola Rita Job gained weight. The people of the town bought new clothes for her. Over time, the styles drifted toward fat-lady clothes, loose and flowing, often black because, as everyone knows, black is the most slimming color. Her neck disappeared, leaving her head perched atop a flesh pyramid. She became so obese that one day she got stuck in her wheelchair. Too humiliated to call neighbors for help, she just sat there, tears cascading over her fat face and dripping off her ripple of chins. Midge's neighbor came by with a plate of brownies and immediately called for help. Pulling her out of the chair and heaving her into bed required six strong men and two ladies from the church. Rolls of fat bulged around her torso like a stack of truck tires.

After that, she tried to refuse the food offerings. The townspeople first cajoled and then harangued. The mayor came to her house. He said, "For once in your life, you're a contributing member of society. When people feed you, good things happen and bad things stop. All you have to do is eat. And you say you don't want to? What kind of person are you?" Agricola Rita Job picked up her knife and fork, tears glinting in her eyes. The mayor patted her hand and said, "There, there. If you need to go anywhere, we'll organize a stretcher and ambulance service."

At six hundred pounds, Agricola Rita Job was confined to her bed— custom built, steel-reinforced, paid for by town taxes. Her stomach got so heavy that it cut off circulation to her legs when she sat, and so she lay in bed twenty-four hours a day, every day. The people of the town cheerfully tended her every need on a schedule set by the mayor's office, monitored by the police department: bath and shampoo every other day, manicure and pedicure weekly, alcohol massage daily. They spoke often of their acts of Christian charity, not always out of earshot of Agricola Rita Job. The town was such a happy place to live that no one left. Friends and family moved in. The population grew. Many hands made light work, and no one even thought of Agricola Rita Job unless they were scheduled for duty—or found themselves anxious or abused, stressed or depressed, ill or infertile. Agricola Rita Job thought a great deal, though, mostly about the difference between their acts of Christian charity and acts of true kindness.

When Agricola Rita Job had been immobile for eight years, her health and her spirits had sunk so low that she had difficulty even acknowledging the visitors who brought food. But she had a smile for those who brought wine, bourbon, or gin. One night she drank so much that she threw up four times in two hours. She retched so hard that she popped the blood vessels in her left eye, leaving it half covered in blood. She turned her bloodied eye to the wall when a fat young woman waddled in, a shopping bag in each hand. The young woman dumped the bags on Agricola Rita Job's bed: Chex Mix, green olives, cheddar cheese and crackers, a jar of peanut butter and another of raspberry jam, a wedge of gouda, a loaf of multigrain bread, a box of Krispy Kreme donuts, a pound of butter, bags of potato chips, cheese puffs, and tortilla chips. Also two vials of Vicodin. She said, "These are my gross excesses. Can you eat my pain?" A tear seeped from Agricola Rita Job's bloodshot eye. She picked up the bag of tortilla chips. She was eating the box of donuts when the TV showed a commercial seeking donations for starving children in Ethiopia. She thought, Envy is a horrible emotion, and stuffed another donut into her bulging cheeks.

When Agricola Rita Job's weight approached twelve hundred pounds—when she was eight feet wide, and a bath required two to five attendants (depending on their strength) and took ninety minutes— Maggie Hubbard's very being felt smothered under that mountain of flesh. She swallowed all of the pain pills in her nightstand drawer, plus the Vicodin left by the fat teen. Her weight absorbed what should have been a lethal dose and she slept for two days. When she woke, her doctor stood at her bedside, administering pure oxygen. "I don't know why you bothered to try to kill yourself. You'll die soon enough anyway. You're committing suicide with a fork." He shook his head. "There's nothing I can do for you."

The minister of the Unitarian Church—a slim young woman with shiny hair and liquid brown eyes—came to offer comfort. She took one fat hand in both of hers and said, "Why did you do it?"

Agricola Rita Job shrugged one shoulder. The slight movement rippled through her flesh. The sheet over her stomach rose and fell as if on an ocean wave. "I don't think anyone on earth feels more hopeless and worthless than I do."

"Maggie Hubbard, you are a creature of God. Not trash. Don't throw your life away."

Maggie sobbed. "No one has called me Maggie Hubbard in years." She gasped for breath—great gurgling gasps that turned her face crimson.

The minister attached Maggie's breathing apparatus. She said, "I'll leave you to rest now. But I'll come back soon." When she departed, instead of food, she left behind Richard Simmons workout tapes and a diet plan.

At first, Maggie ignored the videos and the eating plan. But after a couple of weeks, she started watching the tapes. Richard's perky encouragement—the way he seemed to be looking right at her—soon had her clapping along. When the Unitarian minister came by again, Maggie said, "Clapping's the only movement I can do." The minister came back the next day with twoand five-pound Heavy Hands weights, and a book on how to use them. Maggie read the book, took up the weights, and embraced the diet plan. Over the following year, she lost 420 pounds.

When the people of the town found their food offerings mostly untouched, they grew anxious. They brought chocolates and muffins, lamb stew and salmon patties, goat cheese and brie, apples and pears in greater quantities than ever before, begging, bullying, and cajoling her to eat. A mother of five young children came by with a pineapple upsidedown cake, asking for help: "I'm afraid I might hit my children." Agricola Rita Job ate a small piece of cake. She could not deny the truly tragic— like this mother of five. But mostly she didn't eat. Ice cream crystallized in the freezer. Bananas turned brown on the counter. Soup congealed on the stove.

The summer Agricola Rita Job's weight dropped toward two hundred pounds, she was again thin enough and strong enough to go out in her wheelchair. She had not been out of her house in over ten years. The sun on her face made her smile. She was so happy to be out in the world again that she didn't mind—at least, not much—when schoolboys shouted, "Here's the crippled girl!" and ran after her, poking sticks through the spokes of her wheels just like before.

But in the days that followed, she found that no one in the town talked to her anymore. The grocer bagged her purchases in silence. Midge hastened down a side street when she saw Maggie coming her way. Women in the park turned their backs when she wheeled past. The minister of the Unitarian Church was transferred and no one came to Maggie's house. She stopped trying to talk to people on the street, stopped leaving phone messages, and after awhile, she went out as seldom as possible. Her life was what it had been before she became Agricola Rita Job, except that she felt lonelier than ever.

That fall, a sniper started shooting people at random. The attacks went on for weeks. People dashed from their cars to the shelter of buildings, avoided gas stations, parking lots, and bus stops. In the midst of all this, the local meteorologist predicted a long season of hurricane winds and flooding. The townspeople grew angry. They told each other, "This is her fault—Agricola Rita Job. She isn't doing her job."

They sent unsigned postcards asking, "How can you be so selfish?" and "We thought we could trust you."

They left anonymous messages on her answering machine: "You could stop the carnage, if you would."

Groups gathered outside her window, waving signs and chanting, "Eat, damn it! Eat!"

And every day they brought food. They filled all the tables, counters, and cupboards, stacking containers on the floor. Soon there was barely a path wide enough to walk through the boxes and baskets and bags. Maggie could not maneuver her wheelchair, and so she lay all day in bed, surrounded by mountains of food. She could not move without mashing bananas, crumbling cookies, or spilling cider. Anxious townspeople slipped into her room, urging her to eat. They wept and wailed, "Why are you doing this to us?" until Agricola Rita Job picked up her fork again. A tiny white-haired woman said, "Here, let me help," and spooned chocolate pudding into Agricola Rita Job's mouth, patting her lips with a paper napkin after each bite.

Agricola Rita Job's stomach capacity wasn't what it used to be. When she wept, a truck driver handed her a pink Kleenex. Midge squeezed her hand and said, "There, there. I read that if you massage your stomach a little, every twenty minutes or so, you can eat twice as much." Agricola Rita Job looked at the people crowded into her room and did her best. As her weight and her capacity returned, the hurricanes ended and the flood waters abated. No one believed it was coincidental.

People smiled at her again. They chatted with her while she ate. They patted her shoulder. And when Maggie found lifting her ham-like arms above her head too strenuous, they brushed her hair and braided it into two long pigtails.

One afternoon, at the height of the sniper panic, Midge said, "The weather's gorgeous again—just like I told you it would be. Now you need to do something about the sniper. Eat just a little bit more and you can get rid of the sniper, too."

That afternoon, Agricola Rita Job ate a pound of liver fried with bacon, mushrooms, onions, and sherry; two pounds of kidneys; a half pound of steak with mashed potatoes and gravy; a pound of cheese, half cheddar and half bleu; a dozen oysters; twelve ounces of grilled salmon; six lamb chops; two eggs with two thick slices of bread, toasted; a platter of pasta primavera with shrimp; one cauliflower, ten peaches, four pears, two apples, four bananas; two pounds each of plums, carrots, and grapes; half a pound of Belgian chocolates, and two glasses of milk. Whereupon her stomach burst and she died of massive systemic infection. When the medical examiner pronounced Maggie Hubbard dead, Midge wailed, "She hadn't even tasted my bean soup with ham!"

Carpenters built the coffin around her. A local construction company knocked down one wall of her house and brought in heavy equipment to lift the coffin out. It was so big that it had to be hauled by one of those trucks with a wide-load banner, police cars with flashing lights before and aft. Thousands of people crowded the cemetery, weeping and wailing and trampling acres of graves. Midge was there, wearing black stretch pants and an oversized faux suede shirt. A small girl, maybe eight, asked Midge if she was pregnant.

Agricola Rita Job's grave took two cemetery plots. A forklift lowered the coffin into the yawning hole. Standing by the open pit, the priest said, "We've lost a saint, but do not despair. Miracles happen every day. Remember that happiness is a state of mind. The Lord will provide."

The mayor whispered to Midge, "I hope so."

Leaving the cemetery, Midge was shot by the sniper, only a flesh wound. Her husband's coworkers sent a basket of fruit to the hospital and her neighbor sent a box of candy. The day she arrived home, Midge found a pot of potato soup simmering on her stove and a three-layer chocolate cake on the counter.

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