It's a cold, drizzly January day as I stare longingly at the produce stand, seduced by a voluptuous green pepper. I gently pick it up and fondle its smooth roundness. Without thinking, I grab a plastic bag from a nearby dispenser, snap it open and drop the pepper inside. I know I shouldn't have. My lower intestine has warned me for months that it doesn't much care for green peppers anymore, which says a lot about getting older—another wrinkle in time when retirement is looking down the barrel at a gigantic target pinned right between my eyes. Other men-over-sixty would be planning their next big fishing trip, or booking a vacation in Tibet. Some redo their basements, turning them into home theaters where they watch endless hours of football and Bruce Willis movies on DVDs. And there are even a few who, by most current news accounts, turn out to be serial killers.
Me, I'm just thinking about my next meal. Food has always been my strength and my salvation, a constant companion since I was a kid. I can tell you it wasn't a very pleasant time growing up. I was thin as a rail, gangly, all arms and legs. I was laughed at, made fun of, and generally humiliated the entire time I attended school. I still remember the taunts as if they occurred yesterday. Instinctively I knew what I had to do: Thanks to a gallon or two of ice cream here and a few all-the-way pizzas there, it didn't take long before I began to add some meat to my pitiful frame. By the time I'd graduated from high school, I had ballooned to well over two hundred pounds. At sixty-two, I'm still growing. Last time I stepped on the scale I was tipping it at a whopping three hundred ninety-eight pounds.
Truth is, I'm a fat man and always have been. My doctor has tried to convince me that dieting and regular exercise will add another ten years to my life. But what is life without loaded baked potatoes dripping in parmesan cheese and sour cream, and medium rare porterhouse steaks smothered in mushrooms and onions? Not much, I can tell you that. If I died tomorrow, I'd do so knowing that I had ingested three dozen steamed oysters and a gallon of dark beer which I most certainly will have accomplished by seven o'clock this evening.
As a certified gastronome—some may even say, glutton—I'm well aware of the risk one takes when devouring more than forty-five hundred calories a day. It's just that I need to eat a good, solid breakfast that generally includes three or four fried eggs and a quarter-pound of bacon. Sometimes I'll fry up a dozen or so hush puppies and a large scoop or two of hash browns, just to round out the meal. By lunch I'm usually ready for something quick, but filling—say, maybe a Big Mac or two and a jumbo order of fries. Of course, I realize that I can't help but load on the pounds with this kind of diet, but frankly, after all these years, I've become quite comfortable inside my corpulent self. Sometimes I feel as though there were two of me, Siamese twins entwined within my own massive body. A psychotherapist friend of mine once told me that it was normal for those who are obese to feel like they were two people rolled into one. I'm not sure if he was joking, but the analogy is correct.
I was married once—a sudden kind of thing, spur of the moment so to speak. I met her on the boardwalk at Asbury Park, on the Jersey Shore. She was big and bosomy, and she loved cotton candy and salt water taffies. The first night I took her back to my place, we attempted to make love. We rolled around trying to connect and laughed until we cried. We knew then and there we were destined to be together. The next day we found a justice of the peace in a little hole-in-the-wall chapel near the penny arcade. For five bucks we became husband and wife. We didn't think much about where we would live—her place or mine—but since we both rented it was decided that we would move in with my mother who was amenable as long as we paid our rent and cleaned up after ourselves.
The relationship between my wife and my mother was tentative at best and I quickly realized that they were completely incompatible. They barely spoke to one another except to utter occasional unflattering remarks. My mother would often declare that my wife wasn't good enough for me, and my wife would accuse her of being an overbearing shrew. It didn't take long for them to dislike each other with such immensity that I often thought I might have to step between the two of them; the bickering never ended. It wasn't that my wife resented having to live with my mother, it was the fact that more than anything in the world I relished the succulent home-cooked meals my mother would prepare even into her late seventies. Except for an occasional lapse of an ingredient or two, her veal lasagna was impeccable. Her last gut-filling faire for the record was a hearty meal of crispy catfish filets, garlic mashed potatoes and collard greens steeped in a ham hock broth. She still had the spatula in her hand when she fell to the kitchen floor with a fatal heart attack.
From that moment on my relationship with my wife changed dramatically. We barely spoke from the time we arose in the morning until we sat together in my mother's sunroom, perusing the afternoon paper. When she finally left me, I felt such great relief that I added another full-course meal to my day, incorporating many of my mother's original recipes.
It's now getting close to suppertime as I toss a package of stuffed portabella mushrooms into the wire cart and meander through the grocery store. My eyes glaze over as I study the ingredients from the labels of at least a dozen different boxes of frozen, family-size meals. I try to eliminate anything that contains peppers, onions, chili powder, or monosodium glutamate (though the latter has often been a part of many of my fondest foods).
Stopping at the beer cooler, I contemplate the selection and am instantly reminded of one of my favorite eateries. I leave the cart in mid aisle and head out the door without making a single purchase. Thirty minutes later, I'm sitting at the bar of Kwan's Seafood Palace ordering a second draft of dark beer just before my oysters arrive.
"Here ya go, Mr. Gorman." Tony, the bartender, sets the platter of steaming seafood in front of me and grabs my glass mug for a refill. He wears a perpetual smile and he's always ready with a joke or two.
"Hey, you know how many compulsive bartenders it takes to serve a draft beer?" he asks with a grin.
"How many?" I bite.
"Seven—one to yank the handle and six to wipe up after him." Tony chuckles to himself as he sets the beer in front of me then heads for another thirsty customer at the end of the bar.
I quickly tuck the white paper towel that passes for a napkin under my chin and begin to lift the steaming mollusks to my mouth, sucking them down in between hefty swallows of the cold amber brew. I don't know if it's the briny smell of the place, or the way the oysters slide effortlessly down my throat, but god-almighty I truly feel an affinity with the sea. If I had my life to live over I'd be a fisherman netting hundreds of pounds of seafood every day. Then in my auxiliary career as chef at a fine restaurant, I'd bake, fry, grill, boil or steam my catch-of-the-day into a mouthwatering feast of mammoth proportions. And it wouldn't matter to me if not a single customer showed up—I'd simply sit down at the biggest table and put away as much food as possible until I was completely satisfied. Food is my life. There's a good chance it'll be the death of me as well.
I leave a twenty-dollar bill with the check on the bar. I'm certain the tip is generous enough—Tony has never complained, at least not to my face. I swallow the last drop of beer and struggle to get up from the bar. I feel a little sluggish, more than usual perhaps. Apparently my body's not listening to my brain telling it to move. I take a couple of quick breaths before sliding off the bar stool. I manage to stumble through the crowded tables and out the front door, my feet like heavy clumps of clay. I stagger to the street feeling light-headed, a sudden tightness in my chest, things getting a bit foggy. My knees start to buckle—I can no longer control my body as I crumple to the sidewalk. I feel like I'm watching a movie in slow motion, the weight of my body blurring each frame as I fall.
Lying here on the cold concrete, I'm vaguely aware of gathering faces staring at me. Someone bends down to touch me. Someone else makes an urgent call on a cell phone. I am losing all sense of time, drifting into a dream, my mind filling with childhood scenes that seem insufferably real—voices of the past so crystal clear I can almost touch them, every detail more defined than I had even remembered. If this is death, then I am certain I've found the answer to life: We are but a blip in time, here to deposit a memory—to leave a stamp, a taste, a fragment of human spirit that lives on in those we leave behind. A distant murmur of voices melds into white noise. Flashing lights slowly morph into a red blur. I feel a sense of relief, hopeful even. I try to smile.
BIO: Howard Reeves is a freelance writer with a background in advertising, corporate communications and screenwriting. Currently his professional time is split between corporate writing that helps to pay the bills and short stories that satisfy his creative soul. Howard resides near Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Cheryl. "Death in the First Person" is his first published short story.