Steven Anthony George is a poet and short story writer who resides in Fairmont, WV, USA. His work has appeared in several online and print journals, including Cleaver Magazine and Buried Letter Press. His work has also been included in two anthologies, Diner Stories; Off the Menu, and Twice Upon A Time: Fairytale, Folklore, & Myth. Reimagined & Remastered.


The Infirmary

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

At ten. 140 lbs.

Once, at a time when I was smaller, I explored an enchanted kingdom in the few acres of woodland behind our house, where the sunlight dripping down through the leaves danced on my shoulders and hands. The silver birches were the ghosts of nymphs with violets at their feet. The mockingbirds sung morning melodies as I lay on the ground buried in the cool, dry leaves.

Fairy princesses giggled in the deep brush, stopping to smell the honeysuckles there. Twigs snapped beneath their feet as they walked hand-in-hand with garlands of daisies in their hair. They stooped to pick the berries of the meadow and the juice reddened their lips. The squirrels chattered in the treetops. Damsels with narrow waists in gowns of black, white, and red carried bouquets. They peered at me from the stone wall, teasing and daring me to join them.

On the other side of the wall, if I followed it to the end, was an abandoned cottage nearly consumed by vines. I often slipped inside through the back door, which was not boarded shut. The interior smelled of old paper and wet earth. Rust stained the kitchen sink. I furnished it with a pair of chairs stolen from home. I decorated it with pictures from my room, and there I played house and practiced dramatic readings.

I remember the blue floral shift dress and gold hoop earrings my mother wore the day she remarried on the back porch, where roses climbed a trellis. I picked several for a bouquet as a barefoot flower girl. She still had friends then who visited for watermelon lemonade. I have no memory of my real father living with us. I was too young when he left. I know from my mother only that he was a drunk and that he ran with strange women. After they divorced, I saw him on occasional weekends, then only on Christmas. By the time my mother began seeing other men, and most of them were kind, I did not see him at all.   

350 lbs.

The light came on with the opening of the refrigerator door.

Mother coughed and considered for a moment the contents of various plastic storage containers. She thought she should ask before heating something and bringing it in. Instead, she picked up the magazine clippings from the kitchen table and fetched a roll of tape from a drawer. She opened the door to the bedroom and set the pictures down on top of the table that was already littered with cosmetics. She then threw open the heavy floral drapes over the window near the head of the bed.

Smells musty in here,” she said lifting the sash with effort. “You oughta’ keep the window open for a while.”

The air is nice, but just be sure to shut it when it’s dark,” said Pixie from edge of the bed, while searching the radio for a better channel.

You can’t do that?”

It’s getting hard for me now and it sticks.” Pixie stopped on a Joni Mitchell song that was just ending.

I found a couple more pictures when I was lookin’ through the old magazines in the attic,” Mother said, taping the pictures to two bare spaces still available on the wall.

Oh, thank you, Mother.”

They looked like pageant winners, anyways. Do you rec’nize ‘em?”

Yes!” shouted Pixie, bouncing and pointing to the spot on the wall. “That’s Helen Morgan, Miss Wales, Miss World of 1974 for only four days before she resigned!”

She then pointed further down to the other new picture. “And that’s Terri Utley, the first Miss USA from Arkansas.”

I picked a good one then,” Mother said, as she looked over the collection. “An’ what’s she do now, Pixie?”

I don’t know.” Pixie lifted her legs onto the bed and laid herself back.

Oh, their playin’ that song!” Mother said as soon as she recognized the guitar intro, and she then turned up the radio half of the way.

Pixie’s eyes deadened and her lids had drooped. She turned her head away toward the opposite wall.

Is she still alive?” Mother asked.

Pixie sighed and then asked as if with great effort, “Who alive?”

The Miss Arkansas.”

Oh! Oh yes, she’s not very old,” Pixie said with the slight shrug.

Mother began to sing with the radio.

Who called to say ‘Come dance with me’ and mamana na nanana….”

Pixie rolled over on the bed and turned the radio off.

Pixie,” Mother admonished, “that’s a pretty song.”

It’s not at all pretty,” Pixie said and rolled back over. “I think I’m just going to go to sleep.” 

Mother walked the perimeter of the bed, tucked in the sheets where they were slipping out, and then walked around back to the right. 

You hungry?” she then asked.

I shouldn’t eat again already, Mother,” Pixie said, as she tugged on an eyelash. “I need to take these off.”

You should eat somethin’. You didn’t eat since breakfast.”

I know, but I don’t want to yet. Later.”

You’ll get yourself sick again.”

Pixie buried her face inside her elbow.

Je essaie tellement d’être bon,” she said.

Don’t,” Mother said and then brought Pixie’s arm back down on the bed.

The false lashes from her left eye had stuck to her arm.

You still ‘member some French from school!” Mother said and then let loose a violent cough. “You had a few friends ya brought home couple times to practice with, I think.”

Pixie’s eyes searched the left wall ─ blondes, so many blondes had won. Pixie wondered if Mother would bleach her hair. “Just one. Just one. One time.”        

A boy once, I think,” Mother said.

Pixie reached out her arms to nothing and then dropped them back down.

Mother looked at Pixie’s face for a minute in silence, then shook her head.

How are you feeling, Mother? Worse?”

I’m fine. It’s just a cough.”

But you’ve gotten thinner as well. You should make an appointment with the doctor at least.” 

I’m just old,” Mother said. “There’s no medicine for that.” She coughed again, and then smiled, lost in thought for a moment, “’Cept some rest ─ of course, the smokin’ don’t help.

You should stop now.”

I like smokin’, like you like your milkshakes,” Mother said. “And speakin’ of that, let me make a sandwich, at least. I can use the leftovers and heat somethin’ up.”  

What will happen?”

What do you mean, Bug?”

If something happens to you. What will happen then?” Pixie asked, and then searched the walls for the friendliest face to latch onto for a minute.

Her eyes paused on Kate Shindle—one raven-haired beauty pinning a tiara on another. She was an actress, Pixie thought. She still is, probably, though not famous. She was on Broadway a couple of times. 

You mean if I die?” Mother sat down at the side of the bed.  

No, no!” said Pixie, startled, then putting her hand on Mother’s arm, “But you might have to stay in the hospital.”

Well, I’m not if I don’t go to the doctor and I’m not goin’ to.”

But what if you do?” Pixie insisted, and glanced again at Kate’s crowning.

Ralph will still be here.”

I do’t think he likes me at all, Mother,” Pixie said, looking away. 

Don’t be silly. He loves you like you were his own.”   

Mother reached down to fix a stray lock of hair from Pixie’s head that had fallen out of the decorative comb of crystals, plated brass, and freshwater pearls, and onto the pillow.

You shouldn’t spen’ all your time watchin’ TV and readin’ magazines,” Mother said and then began to stroke Pixie’s hair. “’Member when you used to take walks in the woods?”

Again, Pixie’s eyes scanned the walls.

Why, that one night,” Mother continued, “you were out there late and in the pouring rain. I was worried sick, but I guess Ralph found ya.”

Pixie propped herself up and saw at her reflection in the large mirror over the dressing table. She froze.

Can we take that mirror out?” she asked, turning toward the window. “Please?”

I s’pose we could.”

The reflection is such a distraction when I watch the videos.” Pixie explained, shifting herself to the other end of the bed. “I move and I can see myself move. It feels like there’s someone else in the room.”

It’s heavy, but I can get Ralph to carry it out prob’ly. Maybe we could put it in the dining room.”

Pixie only stared off to the left side of the room. Again, she briefly reached her arms out. “As soon as I am hungry, I will let you know.”

Mother took an extra length of tape from the dispenser and attached one of the older pictures more securely.

Oh, could you find the hand mirror for me? I prefer to keep that close by so I can put makeup on.” Pixie pointed to the table next to the bed. “It’s right over there.”

Mother coughed again and looked across the dressing table for a glimmer of light thrown back from the lamp among the nail polish, cosmetics, lotions, and scents.

Can’t you reach it yourself?” Mother asked. “I can’t see it.”

My arms won’t go that way anymore,” Pixie said.

I know you don’t think so, but Ralph does care ‘bout you, ya know.” Mother searched the table. “He always worked hard so you have pretty things.”

That reminds me! The 1990 Miss America came in yesterday and I didn’t even watch it yet!”

You didn’t? Well, I put it in for ya,” Mother said.

Debbye Turner won. She was only the third Black Miss America and the first from Missouri. Oh, and she lived in Arkansas for a while.”

And here’s the mirror,” Mother said as she placed it on the bed next to her. “It’s right here. Don’t roll over on it.”   

Pixie aimed the remote control toward the video player and pressed the play button.

I guess we’re done now,” said Mother and then returned to the kitchen.

450 lbs.

Why did God make the insects change themselves from one form to another? Why do they begin as a worm, crawling and eating and crawling and eating, and after, it goes to sleep for a little while and wakes up as something different ─ sometimes something beautiful, like when the caterpillar turns into the butterfly? It’s for reproduction, I think. As the worm, it doesn’t do more than eat and store up energy; then, as a fly, it travels far and wide to find a mate. That’s why one part is crawling and the other part is flying. It can’t fly to find a mate and to find food at the same time; it would die from exhaustion or maybe never find another, because it’s too far away, but instead it does one and then the other, which is a perfect plan.

When I was in school, Mother wanted me to see rich boys, the kind of boys who played lacrosse, but they would never talk to me. If I passed a boy a note, he would read it and laugh and show it to others to laugh with him. I could read their joke lines as they glanced at me. They wanted girls with parents who had game rooms and big screen TVs like theirs had, girls with clear skin, straight teeth, and cheekbones, cheerleaders with waists, or debate team girls who would be accepted to expensive schools and have babies that nannies would watch, while they went out to fundraising lunches. So, after a while, I stopped going out much.

Public school makes becoming what we wish to be more difficult, though it should be easier. Everyone cares about how you look. I was never like that, even before. Many people change their attitudes, their gestures, and their whole personalities so they can be accepted by that strange miniature society, but eating something made me feel better. When you are young, life is like theatre. It’s simpler if your identity is a number on a ribbon or a State on a sash. People will even remember your State or your Country more than they remember your face and nearly always more than they remember your name.

It began with fingers inside me, so I know happiness cannot be found at home, even in your own bedroom, but a little distraction is useful at times, especially when you want to cry more often than not. You can stay in your room to find supports though, if you allow them in ─ beautiful friends who live glamorous lives that you should be living, but they’ll share it with you. They’re generous and kind. They wave to you and smile. They’re ambassadors of joy who have listening ears. They kneel down to speak sweetly to little children. You can see their points of view, because they are universal. They seem untouched. They are the closest to perfection a girl can get, because they are judged to be so, and it’s no easy job to be beautiful. A girl has to work at it, to practice the best way to walk and to speak, and to learn to make her hair and face just so, to struggle against the easier, middle road that could lead her down to drudgery.

550 lbs.

Characters:

Ralph, a rugged rustic, aged about fifty.

Pixie, a morbidly obese woman of about thirty, played by a thin, pretty woman of twenty.

(Enter Ralph SL, dressed in black. He switches on light.)

(Pixie is asleep. Food containers litter the table next to her bed.)

Ralph: That’s that.

Pixie: (Startled awake) What?

Ralph: People was askin’ ‘bout ya.

Pixie: Oh, I didn’t think they’d miss me.

Ralph: You been damn hard to miss.

Pixie: (Looks to walls, panicked) The pictures are gone! You took them down!

Ralph: Goddam right I took ‘em down. They’d start a fire. (Snapping fingers). Old, dried-up paper goes up just like that.

Pixie: NO! NO!

Ralph: You got bigger worries.

Pixie: (Screaming) NOOOO!

Ralph: Shut the hell up! Neighbors down the road be hearin’. They talk ‘nough as it is.

(Pixie buries her face inside her elbow.)

Ralph: How you gonna breathe like that?

Pixie: (Putting her arm down) Hard breathing anyway.

Ralph: Who’s gonna take care of your shittin’ and pissin’ and bleedin’ now?

Pixie: (Looking off R) I don’t know. (Feebly) A nurse?

Ralph: You payin’ for a goddam nurse?

Pixie: No.

Ralph: C’mon, look at you. (Ralph circles bed) Look at you, Pixie. Ya know what you’re up to now?

Pixie: I’m okay. I’m big; I’m not broken.

Ralph: Who you think’s gonna take care of you now? I’m callin’ the hospital. They can take care of it.

(Pixie looks away from Ralph)

Ralph: You’re thirty-the fuck-what next month? Too damn old for that Miss America shit.

Pixie: I need the light off! Use the little lamp!

Ralph: (Stopping L of Pixie) When’s the las’ time you got outta bed? When’s the las’ time you could get yer ass out the goddam bed? You cou’n’t go to your own mama’s funeral!

(Pixie’s eyes search the room)

Pixie: Nothing to see!

Ralph: I’m gettin’ you a doctor.

Pixie: No. I’m okay.

Ralph: You ain’t left this room in six months.

Pixie: (Voice rising) I’m just used to it!

Ralph: (Pulling bed sheet back) If you can git up, then you git up!

Pixie: Stop!

Ralph: Git up!

(Pixie begins to sob)

Ralph: C’mon roll yer ass over and git the fuck up!

Pixie: (Fixing her hair) If I could get up and out of this bed and walk around the room (Pixie sits up at the side of the bed, then stands), I would keep walking right on across the stage and down the catwalk in my gown (Pixie spins) designed just for me – in white, the most winning color. I’d smile, showing my perfect teeth, and wave to the people. They love me!

Ralph: (Pointing to his head) You need to be looked at upstairs, too.

Pixie: I believe an education is important for all children and more money should certainly be spent on schools. So many get so little out of the current system and today’s students are our future.

Ralph: (Circling bed) You look like someone dropped a goddam ball o’ Silly Putty offa the roof onto concrete.

Pixie: (Pantomiming) I’d hold the hands of my fellow contestants, my eyes closed. They’ve been such good friends. Here’s an embrace for each of the runners-up.

(Ralph continues to speak toward the bed)

Ralph: I worked hard for twenty years so you could feed yer fat face and so yer mama could buy you make-up to look pretty for me. You ain’t never worked a day in your life.

Pixie: Which means our new Miss Universe is Pixie Yarbrough, Miss USA!

Ralph: All you ever done is lay up in that goddam bed and eat and let your momma take care o’ you.

(Pixie’s holds the “tiara” in place as it is pinned into her hair.)

Pixie: Oh, my… Oh, the roses are beautiful!

Ralph: Ain’t no man want you. Aint’ nothing’d fuck that.

(Pixie returns to the bed and lies down.)

Pixie: (Holds “tiara” in place) It sparkles so much in the lights, like a hundred flashbulbs going off.

Ralph: You couldn’t give that shit away now.

Pixie: Everything, everything I always imagined.

At thirteen. 180 lbs.

Like animals in the forest, I mewled for sweets to touch to my lips. Like animals in the forest, we were tugging and scratching. There was a boy with arms and hands and we were speaking French. We were animals and speaking French as the sun filtered its golds through the canopy and, like a faun, I danced a short while on a stump of an oak. You wanted to see more, so I fluttered my eyelashes and undid my clasps. You pulled me down onto the litter of leaves and, like the animals, we whispered in whining tones as the smell of wet twigs from a distance flowed over us.

Like animals in the forest, other boys followed and tried to kiss me with their tongues, or did not kiss me at all, as I sat exhausted on a dead, toppled trunk. They wondered why it did not break. Maybe it was broken, but no, it was broken and even more broken now. The joke of all jokes is in the irony and repetition. So they laughed and retold it.

A storm moved in. It darkened within minutes, as if the night came crawling between the trees, and you or one of you, like animals in the forest, had something from inside me in your hand. I screamed like a badger in a snare as you squeezed me between your fingers. It hurt, but I had no tears, because it was touch.

They set the traps down when you’re weakest and the rain began to pour down. So I carried myself with effort along the wall to its end, to my abandoned little cottage, then passed through the kitchen and up the stairs into the bedroom where the wallpaper was peeling ─ the same paper I took home to make decoupage pictures in my room. I laid myself on the greasy old mattress, after pushing the door shut. Its rusted hinges squealed with a scrape across the floor. This was the last day I ever went out there. The roof leaked in through the ceiling in every room, pinging and splashing, or else forever after I could have happily fallen asleep.

After a few minutes, I heard a cautious knock at the door and I shivered. I stayed where I laid (Lay? Yes.) and whispered, “Come on in. Yes, you might as well. You might as well.”

THE END