By Karen Brode
“If I ate as much as Pete, no telling how big I would be!” Winnie said as she cut into her sausage pattie. She had put one pattie on her plate and Pete had two. I watched Pete dip his triangle of toast into his fried egg and silently eat.
“It’s just not fair the way he eats, and look at him! He loses weight so easily, and I can’t lose no matter what I do,” she said. Pete looked at me wryly over the rim of his glasses but said nothing. He was spreading peach preserves on his toast.
Winnie ate a small piece of sausage daintily and chewed slowly. She had read that eating slowly made you feel full more quickly. She had squeezed all the grease out of the sausage pattie with a paper towel. She picked up a small forkful of scrambled egg whites without salt or butter, and put them in her mouth reluctantly. Pete was wiping up the runny egg yolk with a piece of toast.
Pete wore his brown jumpsuit and was getting ready to work in the yard. Winnie got up from the table and headed to the sink with the dishes.
“I can’t eat anything!” she said. “If I even look at food, I gain weight! I wish I was like Pete. Why can’t I be like Pete?”
While she was raking the food out of the plates into the trash, she ate the rest of Pete’s toast and egg yolk. There was a little sausage left on his plate, too, and she didn’t like to waste food.
I felt sorry for her because she wanted to be thin, and she suffered more than most people did with their weight. She was embarrassed and ashamed of the way she looked. She felt that she was unacceptable in society looking the way she did. She was apologetic about her appearance. I wasn’t sure how much she weighed, but once I had seen the scale go past 200 when she was standing on it. She quickly got off it when she realized I was in the room. Pete weighed 150.
“Oh, that’s with all his clothes on and soaking wet,” she would say, as if Pete’s weight was a personal affront to her.
When she went to the beauty shop, she told the hair-dresser to cut it short, real short. She wanted me to have short hair, too. Short hair was easier to fix. My neck felt naked at first, and I thought I looked strange with very short hair, but as time went by, it seemed okay. My mother used to try to grow my hair long when I was a little girl, but even in those days, she got irritated with my hair and talked about rats back there. I reached up my hand to see if there were really rats in my hair. Hair-brushing time was a time I dreaded, and it often ended in my tears. So, it was okay with my mother to keep my hair short and manageable, especially since she had gone to work, and no longer had time to try to fix my hair.
Winnie’s house was pier and beam. It had been built back in the early 1900’s. It was the house her parents had lived in for most of their marriage. When she walked across the living room floor, the floorboards shook and the lamp on the table rocked. She was often in a hurry when she got up, and didn’t take time to walk daintily across the floor. She walked hard and heavy and there were times I thought the lamp would turn over, but it never did.
That same morning, she decided to go for a walk. I said I would go with her. She walked down the gravel road toward the river. She had a place in mind that she walked to, a special tree, and then she would turn around and walk back. It was about a mile. Winnie started down the road, and I ran to catch up with her.
“How can you stand to run on this gravel with no shoes?” she asked as I caught up with her.
I had forgotten my shoes. The gravel was rough but it didn’t hurt my feet. I skipped along in front of Winnie and then turned around to wait for her to catch up.
“I wish I had your energy,” Winnie said. “I don’t know why energy is wasted on young people. You need it so much more when you’re old!”
“You’re not old,” I told her. “How old are you?”
“I’ll be 50 in November. Back when I was a child, 50 year old women were very old. A lot of people didn’t even make it to 50.”
And then, she hung her head, and I knew she was thinking about my father who had not made it to 50. I didn’t want Winnie to be sad on this sunshiny June morning.
“Watch this!” I said, as I did a cartwheel. Winnie watched and smiled as I did cartwheels and showed her an interesting rock I found. It was flecked with gold and silver. “Do you think it’s real gold?” I asked.
Winnie smiled and said, “Who knows?”
When we got back to the house, it was 10:30, and she sat down in her recliner with a Tab soft drink. She wrapped a paper towel around it to absorb the condensation. A game show was on television, and Winnie and I guessed the prices of the items that were displayed on the game show.
Then, it was time to start lunch. She was proud of herself because she had stayed on her diet all morning, and had also gone for a walk. She fried some chicken for Pete and me, but for herself, she put a piece of chicken in the oven to bake. I could tell it was a great sacrifice for Winnie to give up fried chicken. She made mashed potatoes with butter for Pete and me, and for herself she baked a potato. It seemed to me that she made a big production of carrying her plate to the table and sadly cutting into her baked potato. She didn’t even eat any bread. Winnie was clearly suffering.
I wished that she wasn’t so miserable about being heavy. I wished she could be skinny like me. I had never been fat. Momma had told me that I only weighed 5 pounds when I was born, and I had to be put in an incubator at the hospital for a few days before they could bring me home. She said Daddy could hold me in only one of his hands.
Winnie had finished her baked potato and baked chicken breast with no seasonings. She looked up often at Pete slathering his bread with butter, but she quickly looked back to her own plate and resigned herself to eating bland food and not much of it. You could tell that she was thinking more and more about how terribly unfair it all was, and she seemed to direct her anger at Pete for being thin.
“I sure wish I could have a cat,” I said as I poked at my mashed potatoes.
“Cats are nasty animals,” said Winnie. “Aunt Emma has at least four of them in her house, and everytime you go there, you can smell them!”
Why did Aunt Emma’s cats have to be brought up just because I wanted one cat?
“Cats are cleaner than dogs,” I mumbled. She stared at me, but didn’t say anything.
Pete got up and raked his plate into a bowl of scraps. Winnie had cut up some cantaloupes for later, and the potato peels were mixed in with the rinds. It was my job to take the bowl of scraps out to the slop bucket on the back porch. Surprisingly, it smelled pretty good. She kept the slop bucket so that she could feed their chickens. There was a chicken house out by the back fence. It was also my job to collect the eggs from the chickens every morning. I didn’t like going into the chicken yard because the chickens got excited and flew at me sometimes. I don’t think they liked me feeling under them to see if they had laid any eggs.
I took the lid off the slop bucket, and poured the cantaloupe rinds and potato peels into it. It was hot on the back porch and the cicadas sang their heat song as the afternoon warmed up.
After Winnie did the dishes, she shut the door between the living room and the rest of her house, and turned on the air conditioner. By then, she had begun to sweat, so she had another Tab. Tab didn’t have any calories, so it was okay. She got out her crochet and started working on a lacy tablecloth using delicate crochet thread that wasn’t exactly white. It looked dirty, and I asked her what color it was. She said it was ecru, and I said the word over and over, ecru – ecru – ecru. It didn’t sound like a color. It sounded more like a name for a shell. I laid down on the couch and thought of what color the days of the week were Sunday was red, Monday was yellow, Tuesday was blue, Wednesday was green, Thursday was purple, Friday was….
“What is a nine letter word for smart?” Pete asked, as he looked up from his crossword puzzle book.
Winnie said, “I know, let’s see if Karen knows.” I thought and thought. Finally, Winnie said, “Brilliant.”
“Oh yes, that fits,” Pete said.
Winnie’s programs blared on through the afternoon. They only received one channel on their television, and one soap opera family faded into another one. Finally, at three, Popeye cartoons came on. I moved over into the chair closer to the television to watch Popeye. I felt more like I was at home then. I was often lonely at Winnie’s house, and I missed being at my house. Lots of times, I wanted to go back home even though I had agreed to visit Winnie’s for the weekend.
I tried not to be any trouble. I knew that I was enough trouble to everyone already just being alive.
“You remind me so much of Momma,” Winnie said as she turned my dress right side out and re-hung it in the closet. “I used to have to re-hang Momma’s dresses in the closet, too. Why can’t you just hang your clothes up right the first time?”
“You look like Momma, too. You’ve got her big pretty brown eyes.”
It was time for supper, and her stomach was growling. She had gone to the scale not long before supper just to check, but not really expecting to have lost any weight. Sure enough, she had gained a pound! It reinforced how hopeless it was for her to try to lose weight.
Pete was having cereal for supper, and Winnie asked if I wanted a sandwich or cereal? I wanted a jelly sandwich. She made herself a peanut butter and banana sandwich. At first, I had thought the combination sounded as if it didn’t go together, but after I tried it, it wasn’t so bad. She ended up having two sandwiches and then she had two bowls of ice cream. She had dieted all day and gained a pound. There was no use in her trying to lose weight.
It was time to take my shower. She let me take a shower first because I went to bed earlier. I stepped gingerly into the shower and checked for spiders. Then, I turned the hot and cold water on to try to mix it to be warm. The shower hose hung loosely in the shower and I pulled the shower curtain closed. I picked up the shower hose, and it came off. Suddenly, water was whooshing out of the shower head at the top of the shower. I panicked wondering what I would do if Winnie and Pete got mad at me. Things seemed so tenuous for me. I was seven years old, and my mother had to work, and staying with Winnie and Pete was better than staying with people I didn’t know. I didn’t want to make them mad! I knew that they didn’t have to keep me, didn’t have to love me or take care of me. They were old and they had been married and by themselves a long time. I’m sure they weren’t happy to have a little kid in their house as much as I was.
I tried to put the shower hose back on but it kept falling off. Each time it fell, there was a loud thud as it hit the shower floor. Finally, I sponged myself clean with a washcloth and put the shower hose back on the shower head. This wasn’t my house! If I broke things, they might never want me to come back.
I put my pajamas on. They were summer pajamas made from seersucker which didn’t sound like a fabric as much as an insect to me. Seersucker. Winnie liked to make things from seersucker. It was such a cool fabric, she said. I put the towel back up on the rack and tried to make the bathroom look as if I hadn’t used it. I felt that since I was pretty much an intrusion, the least I could do is not be any more trouble than I absolutely had to be.
Winnie was in the kitchen with her beige gown and robe on. It was a pegnoir outfit. I had stared at that word when she bought it. It was another of those words that didn’t sound like it was spelled, like lingerie.
She was barefoot and she had her head leaned back taking her nitroglycerin pill. I looked at her, and started crying. She was so trusting, so good to me, and I had broken her shower!
She put her glass down, and asked what was wrong? I told her that I thought I had broken her shower, and I hadn’t meant to, the shower hose had just come off in my hands and I hadn’t known how to put it back on. It was such a relief to just tell her what had happened.
Winnie hugged me and said, “It’s just an old shower hose. Pete can put it back on or we can get another one! It’s not anything to cry about!”
I held onto her and cried a little more. It was so good to know that she loved me, and wasn’t mad at me.
Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.