A dreadful numbness had swallowed Ian Ipsum’s body from the waist down. Though his eyes had been open for an hour, he had not yet moved. Falling asleep in his creaky office chair had not been the most brilliant of ideas. The luminous glow of his computer’s monitor lit his plump face, his disheveled mass of pavement-black hair, his unshaven chin and gullet. Before nodding off, he’d reached page six of six in his Internet job search. He’d found nothing
Ian looked down at his bulging gut, which, with every breath he took, forced the retractable keyboard shelf back under the wooden desk. He looked at his thighs—big, white, hairy whale thighs that never seemed to grow smaller, no matter how many miles he logged on his exercise bike. Ian shook his head in disgust and gripped the armrests of his chair to push himself up. He whimpered, then gritted his teeth as he strained to stand. Sweat trickled down his forehead, down the bridge of his nose. He trudged across the worn taupe carpet of his one-bedroom apartment, toward the kitchen, to make something to eat.
He wheezed as he went. The apartment’s previous occupant had been a six-packs-a-day smoker. She’d succumbed to emphysema on the living room carpet a week before Ian had moved in. There was still a bloodstain there, where old Mrs. Davis had coughed up what was left of her last cancerous lung. Ian’s mother had covered the spot with a potted fern when they moved him in, but the plant had perished within a week and every replacement that he’d picked up from the K-Mart down the street had wilted away as well.
The walls and carpet had absorbed every puff Mrs. Davis had ever taken, and seemed reluctant to let go of her memory. Ian and his mother had attacked the apartment with Febreze—sixteen bottles of it—and it had done nothing. Pine tree air fresheners, the kind you bought out of vending machines at the car wash—they hung on multi-colored pushpins. And he owned no fewer than a dozen Glade Plug-Ins. Each and every electrical outlet in the place had been co-opted.
The apartment building, a retrofitted Victorian sided with rotting gray cedar shingles, sat in the armpit of the Merrimack Valley, a tiny patch of wooded, swampy flatland on the border of Lowell and Dracut, Massachusetts. The building was a part of quiet, suburban Dracut by zip code only. The dank building, its pothole-infested parking lot, and the deafening gangsta’ rap that poured out of the neighbors’ crack dens—that was Lowell, the city, the slum his parents, who lived in the upper-class suburb of Chelmsford, had always warned him about. The building wasn’t connected to a fire department in either town. If it were set ablaze, it was up to the residents themselves to call into town and request their rescue.
Ian’s stomach rumbled in protest as he gathered the ingredients for his meal—the vile protein shake prescribed to aid in his weight loss campaign. From the refrigerator, he brought a half-empty bottle of high-pulp orange juice and a small packet of the orange-flavored fish-oil supplement he’d scoured the Merrimack Valley for an hour and a half to find. From the cupboard above the sink, where he used to store family-sized boxes of Twinkies and Devil Dogs, he took a massive canister of whey protein and a thin tube of powdered fiber. Neither Ian, nor his tongue or stomach, were looking forward to this. But he had begun to reap rewards from the prescription. He was down to two hundred and ninety pounds. Progress sure didn’t taste good, but it was progress just the same.
Besides, the ice cream truck was on its way and he didn’t have a moment in which to dilly-dally. The truck arrived at the same time every afternoon, parking outside his window and belching its music across the small basin in which his apartment building sat, the notes of ‘Turkey in the Straw’ bouncing off the surrounding hills. Ian needed to get something into his belly before it arrived to play the part of pied piper, before it tried again to lure him outside, away from progress—before it stopped his forward motion with mounds of rocky road.
The phone rang as Ian was pouring orange juice into the blender. He stepped across his cramped kitchen and picked the cordless up off its cradle on the wall. “Hello,” said Ian.
“Hello,” came his father’s voice. “You just wake up?”
“I’ve been up an hour,” Ian told him, scooping powdered whey protein into the mix.
“It’s noon. You got up at eleven?”
“I was up late,” Ian explained, sealing the whey protein canister and searching the countertop for his measuring spoons.
“Doing what? Looking at porn?”
“Looking for a job, Dad. You know I work better at night.”
“Sitting at your computer staring at the damned Internet all night is not work. If you really want a job you need to get your ass out of bed on time and you need to get out there and hit the streets. Pound the pavement. Knock on doors. Make phone calls when people are actually in the office.” His father paused, sighed. “You’re hopeless you know…”
Ian said nothing. He poured four tablespoons of fiber supplement into the heap of powder and juice. He knew that his father wasn’t through with his diatribe.
“…and you’ve wasted two years of your life away out there in California, pursuing some ridiculous dream, only to come home broke and filch off your mother some more. Do you have any idea how much of our savings she’s wasted on you? On your damned apartment? On that phone line you’re using to cruise the triple-x sites all night long? Do you have any idea what kinds of lies she’s been telling to hide it from me?”
Ian ripped open the small packet of fish oil supplement and squeezed the thick orange paste into the blender. His father continued, but he wasn’t listening. Ian put the top on his blender and pressed his finger down upon its button. The machine growled to life, its grinding racket filling the room. Ian could no longer hear a word his father was saying. And for the first time all morning, he smiled.
When he’d graduated from Kimball College with a theater degree two years ago, his father had told him to take advantage of the thriving job market while he could. Ian had dreams of moving to Hollywood, of making it big, and his father apparently felt it was his duty to temper those dreams with harsh doses of reality. For a graduation present, he’d bought Ian biographies of James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and a book on the Black Dahlia murder case, and he’d dog-eared the sections that described each horribly tragic death. Ian’s mother, who was more supportive—or simply less disapproving—bought him a plane ticket. He flew from Manchester, New Hampshire into LAX two weeks later.
But the highest Ian had ever made it on the Hollywood food chain was when he served as a seat-filler at the Academy Awards, sitting beside Maria Shriver while Arnold Schwarzenegger, he presumed, was taking a dump. Dad, he was now willing to admit, had probably been right.
The whole of his middle contracted around the empty cavern of his stomach. Ian doubled over and held on to the counter’s edge to keep from collapsing. All that was left in him was acid and bile, and it had begun a swift, determined march up his esophagus. Ian turned the blender off and pulled a tall glass out of the strainer.
His father was still ranting. “…focus and determination, Ian. That’s what it’s about—focus and determination. You don’t want to be fat forever, do you?”
Ian mumbled, “No, Dad.” He poured the shake into his glass.
“All right. That’s a start.”
Ian heard the ice cream truck making its approach, descending the hill into his wooded and swampy dead end. Ian grimaced and stumbled towards the kitchen window, phone in one hand and shake in the other. Aftershocks rippled from behind his bellybutton into his thick love handles. He hadn’t sipped from his drink yet. It splashed over and slipped down the sides of the glass.
“Ian? Are you listening to me?”
The truck’s music blared as it pulled up to the edge of the forest opposite Ian’s building.
“I’m listening, Dad. It’s just that this ice cream truck—”
“An ice cream truck? You’re pathetic, Ian. You’re—”
“Who cares if I’m overweight, Dad? Who fucking cares?” Ian snapped. “I could still be the next Chris Farley, the next John Candy.”
“Yeah, maybe. But John Candy was funny. You’re just fat.”
Ian shrieked and hurled the phone across the small room. It made a crunch and left a blackened dent in the wall, then fell, bounced, and snapped in half. The battery pack popped out and skidded across the faux-linoleum flooring, sliding underneath the refrigerator. Ian threw his shake towards the sink and missed. It hit the wall and shattered, glass and orange slime crafting a fluorescent Rorschach. The next-door neighbor banged on the common wall.