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MELINDA BLOOM-MITTWOCH, NÉE PROVOUCHEZ
The last time her body hadn’t been thought of as more than a poke-able and prod-able inconvenience—her face subjected to the disapproval of pink-lapeled Avon saleswomen, her feet too big to fit in the right pair of stilettos, her fat resistant to herb diets and massage belts and reducing creams—Melinda Provouchez had been a child of six. She would run up and down the little hill in front of her house, ten times, thirty times, out of breath and eager to conquer her territory. The hill sloped into a drainage ditch she pretended was a moat surrounding a castle. At night she watched the moon shine a long, white tongue down the length of Lake Erie and she thought about the big fish she knew lived down there with the lamplight growing out of its head. How could she harpoon it? She went to sleep dreaming of squirrels driving through the nighttime streets in cars they’d built out of acorns, sticks, and leaves. She drew pictures of her house and family and they vibrated with color. She showed them to her teacher at school, who wrote to her parents: Melinda has a very promising intellect and imagination.
When she was seven, her grandpa had poked her thigh during Christmas dinner and asked if maybe she shouldn’t have that second helping of pecan pie. He’d never touched her before—they waved instead of hugging, she curtsied instead of kissing him on the cheek. He was sitting next to her and stuck his finger in her thigh’s pale flesh, bare because she wore a stiff taffeta dress with layers of tulle underneath that made the hem ride up high past her knee. She looked up in panic but saw that everyone was laughing, her cousins, uncles, aunts, father, and mother. Only her grandma wore her grave, semipermanent mask of judgment: “Should you be treating her that way, Walter?” To which her mother responded: “Well, there’s some truth to it.”
So as she grew and came to understand who she was, where she was, and the other people around her, Melinda bore in mind the fact that there was some truth to it. Some truth she should be ashamed about. Her father was a well-respected man in the Lakewood community and in other parts of Cleveland, a supervisor at a factory where vinyl siding was manufactured for use in construction. He had a square neck exactly the width of his head and wanted sons, was irritated with Melinda until her little brother, Tommy, arrived a few days before her eighth birthday. Melinda’s mother was less impatient, less boy-obsessed, but also less inclined to assert her opinions. If she agreed, then something “could be right,” or “rang a bell.” If she disagreed, she “didn’t know.” She was full figured, wore belted skirts and scooped-neck dresses like Elizabeth Taylor. Melinda’s father seemed proud of how her mother looked, made a point of taking her out to the Italian restaurant in town on Thursdays—his one-day weekend—to show her off. Melinda had to spend this time holding a swaddled, frequently croupy Tommy and watching Gunsmoke on the couch while some knock-kneed babysitter talked to her varsity-letter boyfriend on the phone, interrupting her conversation only to complain to Melinda that the volume was turned up too loud. For whatever it was worth, Melinda also thought her mother had gorgeous proportions.
But when Melinda was thirteen, her mother’s waist began to fill out. Her chin sagged and her breasts slackened. She ate two waffles with peanut butter and syrup every morning. Melinda didn’t know why this was happening, and she also knew it was nothing to speak about. Their sunny house by the lake seemed darker, its rooms capable of being folded up and stored away like the hastily painted Nativity backdrops in the basement of their church. Her father began to stay out drinking with union members on Thursdays. Instead of fried chicken and Jell-O, her mother made Melinda and Tommy “healthy” dinners: green beans and ashen-colored meat loaves with a quarter-inch crust of ketchup baked on top. Dust motes appeared in every room, orbiting the yellowing spheres of her mother’s milk glass lamps. Only Tommy, stumbling happily around in his fire-truck rompers, seemed to have no idea that something was going on. Melinda shook him off whenever he came to her with his plastic baggies of cowboys and Indians, telling him it wasn’t a good time to play.
Something was happening to Melinda, too. Her father had inherited a book of German fairy tales, which she often paged through. She couldn’t understand any of the words, but the pictures were horrific: a boy with severed thumbs, women in fancy ball gowns cutting off their toes to fit into a slipper. The worst was of a girl screaming while locusts swarmed from her mouth. Melinda kept the book under her bed and studied the words above the girl’s picture: Das junge Frauenzimmer. She was too scared to ask her father what it meant. Her body had begun to creak and gasp and ache involuntarily—when she went to sleep, insects walked the lining of her stomach. The twitchy vibrato of a tight muscle was a locust batting its wings. The pain in her chest, the itchiness at her nipples: locust babies hatching from their eggs.
By Melinda’s sophomore year of high school, her mother weighed two hundred and fifty pounds and rarely left the house. She cooked only pastas in heavy cream sauce and three-cheese casseroles. She let Melinda and Tommy drink Coke and orange juice instead of water in the middle of the night. At dinner—which even Tommy understood to be a difficult but necessary time—Melinda’s father told her mother that she should be careful of her health. He eventually let it slip that people were talking about her. Melinda’s mother did something she’d only done once before in Melinda’s memory, on the day she’d said “Well, there’s some truth to it”: she folded her hands in front of her and stated an opinion.
“So what if they are?”
“So what if they are?” Melinda’s father repeated, then looked at Tommy, who kept his head down and shoveled in his spaghetti. “So what if they are?” her father said again, and looked from Melinda’s mother to Melinda.
Melinda, grown from a chubby child into a well-proportioned girl, chest buzzing with tension, looked at her father to confirm what she knew she would do anyway, which was agree with him. “Well, you should be ashamed,” Melinda said. “If people are gossiping about you because of how you look.”
Melinda’s father pointed his fork at her and nodded vigorously. “Exactly!” he said. “Exactly!”
After that, Melinda’s mother began to concede territory in their dark house to Melinda. She didn’t knock on her bedroom door now at all—not to tell her about dinner, not to say good night—and never again turned on the TV in the family room while Melinda was reading. She hugged Melinda, but only if Melinda initiated the hug, and she stopped kissing Melinda on the cheek. For her part, Melinda ate less of her mother’s fatty meals, stayed out on school nights with her boyfriend (to hold hands and smoke his father’s cigarettes), and echoed her father’s comments about her mother’s weight. As her mother vacuumed the rug in the foyer, bent forward so her massive buttocks were vulnerable to Melinda’s inspection, Melinda wondered if she shouldn’t give second thought to that diet her father had mentioned. When her mother took a peppermint from the candy dish, Melinda asked her if she should be eating that. Melinda’s grandmother had always said that a good child was seen and not heard. But now Melinda thought it was better to be heard and not seen: a beautiful, airy specter coaching her mother out of her sad life. A potential agent of change.
Once Melinda woke and caught her mother eating in the middle of the night. She’d baked a pie that afternoon and only Tommy had eaten a piece, complimenting her on its sweetness. Melinda had declined her mother’s offer: she had an audition for the school play the next day, and she didn’t want to ruin her complexion with sugar. Preaudition jitters had roused her from sleep, and she had gone downstairs for a glass of water.
And there was her mother in the dark, wearing her sack of a nightgown, licking the cherries from the fingers of her left hand as she scooped the pie crust with a fork in her right. Melinda flipped on the light.
Her mother looked at Melinda as though she’d just awakened from a dream. “What time is it?”
“Twelve oh seven,” Melinda said.
“Hm,” she said, and returned her focus to her plate. Melinda watched in revulsion as her mother raised the gooey contents of her fork to her lips, watched her swallow and sigh with pleasure. She went to the table and grabbed the fork from her mother’s hand.
“Stop,” Melinda said. “You weigh more than Dad.”
Melinda had never seen this face on her mother before—wide eyes, a hurt and trembling lower lip—and wondered why she’d taken so long to show it to Melinda. She chewed the remaining pie in her mouth, made her face apelike by running her tongue over her top row of teeth. Then she scooped the rest of the pie with her hand and took another bite. Melinda grabbed the plate and pitched the remains into the garbage.
“Stop it,” Melinda said.
Melinda’s mother looked at her, chewing still. Her mother had cried at Rock Hudson movies, cried when Tommy “graduated” from nursery school, cried when her father hit a squirrel with the car—it would make plenty of sense for her mother to cry now. But she just kept chewing. She swallowed and crossed her plush wrists in front of her.
“Well, I don’t know,” she said. “It’ll be hell for you someday, too.”
Melinda ran from the room as though hexed. She hid under her sheets, hugging her knees. Her insides hummed with newly hatched bugs.
During her junior year of high school, Melinda underwent a growth spurt that made long, fat flippers of her feet and left a rash of pimples on her back. Her stomach swelled with fluid several days in advance of her period, with the result that she spent two weeks out of every month rotating among three cable-knit pullovers. She broke up with her boyfriend in the summer, and in the fall she took first place in the science fair for a project on laboratory behavior in dogs. Her father observed that she had a “brain for data” and asked her if she had considered becoming a secretary in an engineering firm. Tommy developed the obnoxious habit of reaching under her pullovers to tickle her stomach and telling her she needed to “reduce.” When she asked him if it had anything to do with their mother, he shook his head and said he was just worried about her health. She applied to colleges, and Kent State offered her an academic scholarship. Her father drove her to campus on move-in day, singlehandedly carrying her heavy leather trunk up three flights of stairs to her dorm room.
At Kent State, Melinda monitored her body carefully. She ate only salads in the dining hall, drinking water whenever she felt hungry for something other than leafy greens. She had never been skinny, exactly, but she had never been fat, either: if she was careful, she could remain well proportioned, with hips and breasts that were frequently the envy of her suitemates. Eager to escape the suburban bread box of her childhood, she fell in with the hippie crowd, drinking dandelion wine and cheap beer, smoking grass in dorm basements, complaining about Nixon and Vietnam and “containing communism”—the pigs in the White House thought anything that wasn’t capitalism could be sealed away like soggy leftovers. She kissed Jamie, who was leaving to join the Black Panthers. She participated in two hunger strikes to protest US imperialism. She met Leland.
Although most people in his circle were anarchists, he was the closest thing they had to a leader: a philosophy major and self-proclaimed “thinker.” He always had drugs; people bought grass and magic mushrooms off him all the time. He walked around shirtless and barefoot, skipped half his classes but aced his finals. He was never not high, preferred turning on to going to protests, but he always managed to show up in time for the most exciting part of anything. Melinda thought his tastes ran more toward the tiny types on campus, but she’d thought wrong. He was obsessed with the way she danced, which she herself had always found awkward and kidlike. He called her “Sandra Dee from outer space.” They dropped acid and she gave it up to him then, in his dorm bed, beams of light shooting out the soles of her feet. They started dating officially after that. She sent a photo of the two of them to her parents and mentioned that Leland had German heritage—which her father would approve of—but didn’t mention that he was a Jew. Her mother wrote back: You two make such a handsome couple. Melinda nodded proudly at the compliment, ignoring the hot hint of guilt at the back of her neck. Her mother was right. They made a very handsome couple.
Nearly a hundred pounds heavier than her mother had been at her heaviest, Melinda watched as Leland Jr. slept in an industrial twin bed at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, where he’d been hospitalized for three weeks following what doctors were saying had been a psychotic break. From what Melinda understood, he’d been touring a pharmaceutical factory, Cisco Drugs, someplace he had to be for work, and right in the middle of the tour he’d started hallucinating. He’d attacked the CEO (who had promised not to press charges) and slapped—or maybe punched, she didn’t want to think about it too much—his own wife in the face. And, several minutes ago, he’d fallen asleep midconversation from some tranquilizers he’d been administered before Melinda started talking with him. Why they gave him the tranquilizers in the middle of the day—especially when she’d read on the Internet that tranquilizers could trigger catatonia, for which schizophrenics were apparently at risk—remained a mystery to her, and she didn’t bother asking the nurses and doctors who spoke to her loudly if they deigned to speak to her at all, treating her as if she knew less about her son than they did. “Ma’am, your son is receiving the best care we can give him,” one nurse told her, “and it makes it harder to provide him with that care when family members take their frustration out on us.” They had taken a different approach with Melinda’s daughter-in-law, Jocelyn. Patient, poreless, thin, doctors at least “understood her concern,” and referred her to some hotline she could call for 24/7 support.
Her son had used his brief window of lucidity to discuss practical matters with her: whether people at work knew where he was, whether his front yard had been watered, whether Melinda wanted to leave the hotel and stay at their house. Melinda told him that was generous, but what she really wanted was to be closer to him, and going all the way out to River Forest and back every day without a car was a hike—It’s just the train to the green line to a bus, Mom. In reality, she’d wanted to avoid the anxiety going on at her son’s house: she’d spent an afternoon there when she’d first arrived in Chicago, Jocelyn rushing over to help Melinda every time she wanted to stand up or sit down, declining Melinda’s offer to cook and instead ordering two sixty-five-dollar prepared vegan meals, spending two hours speaking with her lawyer on the phone. The hospital bill would be massive, she had said between calls, and they’d found some foreign substance in Leland Jr.’s bloodstream.
“It could be that the little brother and his friend poisoned him, and that triggered something.” Jocelyn’s young mind was already furred over with theories, Melinda could tell. “They’ve just been expelled for possession.”
“Are you sure that’s what it was?” Melinda asked, not particularly wanting to think about the little brother. The little half brother. “Have you talked to the doctors about how this kind of thing starts?”
But Jocelyn was now looking at the keypad of the only noncellular phone in the house, whispering to herself as though she were alone. “I shouldn’t have pressured him like that. There was too much bad blood in the family. I should’ve seen this coming.”
Her son wasn’t sleeping, exactly—he was unrestfully unconscious. His jaw grinding was audible and his eyelids fluttered every few seconds in a way that made him look possessed. She flipped her phone open and saw that she had no new texts from Alvin—although that made sense, since he had a meeting with the school board. She closed her phone. Leland Jr. probably wanted her visiting hours to be over anyway. She mentally prepared herself for the walk from the hospital to the hotel, the sports bar where the college kids had accosted her earlier that day, already drunk at noon, pelting her with wadded-up napkins and asking if she knew what BBW stood for. She would call Alvin when she got to the hotel and give him the update he’d requested. She’d leave a long voice mail.
Leland Jr. grunted. She looked over at him and his eyes were open. He mewled like a child.
“Sweetie,” she said. He didn’t respond, which sent a horrible shock of adrenaline through her body. “Sweetie,” she said again. “Leland.”
He began to tremble.
He looked at her. “Mom.”
“What is it?”
She held his hand. He blinked a tear down his cheek. His voice was not his own.
“Mom, I’m a bad man.”
“No! No, no. Oh, sweetie, no. Mr. Campbell said he forgives you.”
“It’s worse than that.”
“And so does Jocelyn. They know you weren’t in your right mind.”
“It’s even worse than that.”
“What could be worse than that?”
Melinda blinked, watching him. He was the little boy with the gap between his teeth whom she’d failed to protect from his father. He was waking up in the middle of the night calling out to her, begging her to play “Desperado.” He was always so nervous—he hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep since 1979. That was probably why he’d gotten sick.
“I’m sorry,” she said, shuddering with the realization that everything had been her fault.
He shook his head. “Mom, this isn’t about that.”
“It’s about the briefcase.”
“Mom,” he whined, “stop pretending.”
Copyright © 2018 by Rebekah Frumkin