By John Tavares
Gasping, David called from the telephone in the hospital emergency department. After three attempts, he remembered his niece’s cell phone number. Coughing, he called Sofia at the gym, where she freelanced occasionally as a physical fitness trainer. But she turned off her cellphone until coffee break at Comida when she checked her e-mails and messages. Then, David, trembling, reached her at the supermarket, where she worked as a cashier. “Michael,” he gasped, “suffered a massive heart attack. He’s dead.”
Their boss collapsed behind the wheel of his Cadillac outside Dryden before his luxury sports utility vehicle collided with a short school bus, transporting exceptional, disabled, and challenged students, an education assistant, a teacher, and the driver.
David drove his own black Escalade behind his closest friend on the Trans-Canada highway. Michael and David travelled separately in their matching black Cadillac SUVs for the hour-long drive southwards along the northern highway from Beaverbrook to Dryden. Michael delivered the accounting data for the supermarket on printouts and external hard-drives to the accountant, since his business was being audited, while David shopped for a new meat grinder and sausage maker at the restaurant supplies store before he visited the used bookstore for a wild game and fish cookbook.
David could not help feeling responsible; he basted and barbecued the huge rib-eye steak he served the owner of Comida before they made the road trip. “The steak helped kill him,” he muttered to Sofia. “And I’m so big and fat I couldn’t rescue anyone trapped in the bus.”
David remembered Michael commenting favourably on the enormous size of the steak, complimenting the succulence of the rarely cooked red meat. He called the tender steak dripping blood and greasy juices his heart attack meal. While they chatted about Sofia ribbing her Uncle David about diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol, Michael joked, “If I die, I die on a full stomach.” David uncorked a huge bottle of homemade blueberry wine, which he fermented and brewed from fresh, wild blueberries he handpicked in the bushes around the municipal airport and the golf course. He poured his cousin a glass, but Michael ended up helping himself to several additional tall glasses of the potent homemade blueberry wine. After Michael consulted his accountant, investment advisor, and lawyer, they agreed to meet at the Dairy Queen for ice cream cones and sundaes. Then they intended to visit the nightclub to watch the exotic dancers, where they would share a few beers and mixed drinks while planning a summer fishing trip and a fall hunting trip on Lac Suel.
Instead, David came across flaming wreckage, the aftermath of the collision between his cousin’s SUV and the short bus, strewn across the highway. David tried to help, attempting to pull the burning bodies of physically and mentally disabled bodies trapped in the bus. Despite his persistent efforts, smashing through glass with his bare clenched fists, pulling aside wreckage, the flames, twisted metal, and small explosions from firecrackers and fireworks in a student’s backpack as well as his immense size prevented him from rescuing victims. Instead, he held the hand of a screaming education assistant, as they awaited a fire extinguisher and a fire truck, but he was forced to release her hand as her body was trapped between the seats of the crushed bus and the flames grew more intense. Later, he mentioned to Sofia a more vivid, recurring memory of the accident was the smell of burning clothes and roasting flesh.
While the paramedics treated Michael, whose hearts and lungs stopped, David returned to the short bus to try to help. Each time he approached close he was forced to retreat, but he lunged back again to the wreckage, trying to rescue a few victims. The flames were fierce, impenetrable. He breathed hard and his girth prevented him from squeezing through the smashed folding door to rescue passengers, struggling to survive, trapped inside the crushed short bus. His weight made movement difficult in the confined space beside the flaming vehicle flipped on its side. The flames singed his eyebrows and the hair on his thick arms and burned his hands. The noxious fumes and smoke caused him to cough and hack uncontrollably.
The fiery motor vehicle crash killed six students and an education assistant, recently graduated from university with an education degree and aspiring to become a full-time teacher, and the hapless driver. Another student and a teacher were seriously injured.
Later, the regional coroner asked Doctor West to perform an autopsy on Michael. In the sterile autopsy room, Doctor West found Michael’s stomach huge, immense, larger than any he observed before. Michael was gorged with meat, vegetables, potatoes, freshly baked bread, and wine. The wine dripped and trickled from his stomach into the drains and catch basins in the autopsy room for an incredulous amount of time. Doctor West couldn’t believe the contents of his stomach—the quantity of wine and half-digested food his stomach, huge, bloated, contained. Doctor West shared the information with Sofia on their next date and with David during his next medical appointment. He commented the large meal may have triggered a heart attack after virtually complete blockage in a major coronary artery.
David envisioned the last drop of homemade sauce, the fat and cholesterol from the steak seeping into Michael’s coronary arteries. The sticky deposits completely occluded the blood and oxygen supply at a crucial moment. His heart attack disabled him as he passed a tractor-trailer and pulp truck on the westbound lane ahead of the school bus on the eastbound lane of Trans-Canada highway between Wabigoon and Dinorwic. David expressed relief to Sofia the newspapers reported no mention of alcohol playing a role in the crash, although he couldn’t see how that was feasible or possible.
David couldn’t help but feel responsibility for the accident. Not only did he grieve Michael’s death, but he felt depressed and forlorn. He took a few days off work as a butcher at Comida. Indeed, the whole food store workforce took a few days leave, since the supermarket decided to close its doors and business to commemorate the death of its owner, the son of the original founder of Comida.
A few days after Michael was killed, Sofia drove her Uncle David on his birthday in his own black Cadillac SUV to the clothing optional beach. After David stripped down to his thong and a beach towel, Sofia, wearing a bikini, strolled alongside him through the trail and sand down to the public beach. Even though friends expected her at a private beach party, she decided to keep him company, since she worried about him, especially when she saw he carried to the lake shoreline a Bible. He urged her to leave for her own beach party and insisted she borrow his vehicle, so he could walk home, hiking the recreation trail back into town. She stayed with him, sipping a pomegranate juice.
Wearing only his tight thong, he waded into the lake. He stood in the water, reading a Bible, while she wondered dreamily about the beach party with her friends. Meanwhile, he could not think of any particularly relevant passage and instead merely started reading the Bible at random. He brought several beer and drank them as he, in his skin tight, skimpy thong, stood on the hot sandy beach. He suddenly felt conscious of his thong, which delighted and thrilled women, who complimented him on his looks and physique, even though he tipped the scales at over three hundred pounds. Women said he looked sexy, but he retorted he was fat. Still, they insisted he looked appealing in his thong. If they thought he was sexy, though, why was he still single, with no woman to date?
Anyway, he could not help noticing the middle-aged men strutting on the beach. As he read the Bible, a pregnant women in a bikini complimented his looks, saying he wore his weight well. He nodded his head, but realized the shamelessness of his thong was the main attraction. If he had the appreciation and admiration of women, he constantly reminded himself, he certainly had nothing to show for it, like a girlfriend or wife. Even though he was middle-aged, he hadn’t dated since high school. As a teenager, he was not popular and was actually skinny before he began to put on weight. Contemplating the reality of his life, the loss of his best friend, and how food replaced many human relationships in his life, he started feeling self-pity.
“These men,” he said, “with their large houses and well-tended yards and gardens and cottages, their thick waistlines and arms and legs—they’re full of themselves, literally and figuratively.” Sofia was not certain with whom he was speaking and looked around the beach, filled with SUVs, beer, well stocked picnic coolers. “They’ve never lived outside of Beaverbrook, but brag about jobs they’re barely qualified for, jobs they got through friends and relatives. They boast about their large houses, investments, how much money they earn, the size of their RRSPs, and how the poor are leeches on the welfare state. I doubt they care much about anything beyond their beers and bank statement—forget the environment, social justice, public health.”
Sofia could not believe what she was hearing; her uncle hardly ever complained about anything and his opinions were rarely political. Then he commented he could not help noticing their enormous size, bulging guts, huge stomachs, large waistlines, but he admitted his gut was the biggest of all, massive in girth and height, although he faced strong competition among these smug middle-aged beer-swillers.
As he continued to read the Bible, several locals came up and offered their condolences on the death of Michael. Realizing something was amiss, he waded into the water, and drifted and swam, all three hundred pounds of him. He luxuriated in the soothing sensation of the water on his overheated and sunburnt body and waded even deeper into the lake. As the pages curled and leather binding of the bible grew wet, David immersed himself in the cool water of the lake on the hot sunny day. He threw the Bible to shore and floated on his back. As he loved to do during those hots days during the summer, when he had his vacation from the Comida food store, he swam in the cool lake water, with the hot sun on his body. He thought he could simply drift on his back, and join Michael across the stretch and realm of the unknown universe.
He thought he could release himself, as he remembered the huge steak, dripping with fat, blood, and spicy sauce he served Michael. He visualized the fat and cholesterol clogging Michael’s arteries, depriving him of oxygen and blood, suffocating his vital organs, and, ultimately, causing the major car crash on the Trans-Canada Highway outside of Dryden. He thought he needed redemption.
After the accident, as he remembered the burned and charred flesh, the smell of human bodies and clothes consumed by fierce fire, he quickly grew tired and even nauseated of butchering and chopping up the carcasses of steer and pigs. Slicing through the skin, meat, and fat he started to vomit. Sawing through the gristle, splitting and sawing through tendon and bone, cutting through the innards, and cartilage of the pork, beef, lamb, he grew nauseous. Hunters and tourist outfitters even brought wild game like moose, whitetail deer, and black bear into the butcher shop at Comida food store for him to dress and prepare. As he dressed and prepared the meat he was sickened again, a phenomenon which never occurred before; butchering meat never nauseated him in the past, he said.
“Now you know why I’m a vegetarian,” Sofia replied.
Still, he was preoccupied with the car accident, the collision on the Trans-Canada highway, and the aftermath, and the memory constantly recurred. He learned to keep handy a plastic garbage pail, which he lined with several industrial strength garbage bags, when waves of nausea and an involuntary reaction of repulsion overtook his senses. His hands soaked in blood, clenching intestines, and entrails, he soon felt overwhelmed with nausea. Carving the head of a freshly slaughtered pig, he grew weary of the butchery. He started to lose weight as he repeatedly remembered the carnage on the highway, the death of Michael, the students, education assistant, and driver in the highway accident. Even as he prepared a meal at home, he became repelled and repulsed by the sight and smell of red meat, pork, and even fish. When he stepped on the bathroom scale, to weigh a parcel, he discovered for the first time in at least a few decades he lost a not inconsiderable amount of weight.
He started surviving on simple sandwiches, pure peanut butter and whole wheat bread, fruit, apples, oranges, pears, kiwis, and nuts, peanuts, almonds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and yoghurt. He developed a fetish for wild cherry flavoured yoghurt, artificially sweetened. Soon he ate the low fat dairy by the pint, blending in granola or plant based protein powder with no cholesterol. He started losing significant amounts of weight.
Six months after Michael died—or after he killed him, he guiltily told Sofia over glasses of wine—a manager approached him in the butcher shop after he finished wiping vomitus from the corners of his mouth in the staff washroom. He tossed his bloodied and vomit splattered white apron into the laundry bin in the locker room.
The manager praised his weight loss. Then he asked him if he wanted to join an ownership group to buy the food store, with its virtual monopoly on food retailing in Beaverbrook. The leveraged buyout, a multi-million dollar deal, would make him wealthy. The investment group would line up bank financing for him, if he continued working as the butcher and managed the meat department.
David paused and explained he could not handle the butcher shop. He would like to take an equity stake in the store, but he was literally sick and tired of working around the meat, fish, and sausages, and poultry; it reminded him of the carnage, bloodshed, roasting flesh, at the accident where Michael died. The sight of the carcasses and beef and slaughtered turkeys and chickens made him nauseous, queasy, and ill. He dreaded what might happen if he worked on slaughtered game.
He feared he could not work another day around blood and guts.
That sounded like a deal killer, Hans warned, since protein contributed a substantial part of the store profits. He would have to consult with the others investors.
Days later, Hans returned and shook his head. “The amigos want you to work behind the meat counter, or you’re out, no partnership.”
David decided to make a counterproposal: in this, the only supermarket in their hometown of Beaverbrook, he would start a health food section, with a few aisles devoted to products and brands with high margins like vitamins and over the counter drugs, a department that would upgrade and improve the store’s appeal among both millennials and baby boomers. Hans loved the idea and promised to talk with the rest of the group interested in buying the food store from Michael’s estate.
He spoke to Sofia about helping him create a healthy lifestyles section. When Hans returned, he reached out his hand and smiled. He said the proposed partners loved the idea, since they believed it would greatly enhance revenues and increase profit margins. So Hans agreed, the partners group agreed, and David agreed.
They shook hands in agreement and signed the legal documents and contracts on the marked lines at a sunset barbecue on the lakeshore. With an investment from bank loans at favourable interest rates, David became one of the new co-owners of the new Comida. And so he and Sofia built up the health food section with the help of his personal library of books on health foods, supplements, vitamins, and over the counter and prescription drugs.
He exchanged books and information with Sofia, who tried to educate him in living a consciously healthy lifestyle, about nutritious food. They built up a single shelf with aspirin and over the counter medications, mainly cough syrup and painkillers, into a three-aisle section. They stocked the counters with health supplements, vitamins, sweeteners, fibre, herbal remedies, antioxidants and caffeine free teas and coffee, low calorie food, diet aids, body building supplements, liquid protein, diabetes supplies, hypoallergic soaps and wipes, and fragrant free laundry supplies and allergy remedies, among other products. The healthy lifestyle section became the most profitable part of the store.
For a while, Sofia talked about returning to college. He encouraged her to think about a career as a pharmacist and even offered to pay her tuition. So she decided to train in the profession of pharmacy, and they agreed once she finished college the Comida food store would add a prescription pharmacy. After four years at the University of Manitoba, Sofia became a pharmacist.
Meanwhile, Sofia tried to persuade him to quit coffee drinking. In the past, he was morbidly obese; now she feared he suffered an eating disorder. She saw coffee kept him wired and worried he used caffeine as a stimulant and appetite suppressant, substituting food and higher calorie beverages for coffee. He insisted he loved the perk and pick-me-up and taste of coffee. She even showed him a cellphone picture of him jovially tipping the scales inside the butcher shop at Comida at three hundred pounds. She also kept on her smartphone a few pictures of him standing at the beach, essentially naked except for his thong. His immense flesh and thong attracted pretty young women, who insisted on posing beside him, wearing their own revealing bikinis, but his corpulent three hundred pound figure dwarfed their petite frames and figures.
She estimated, from the time of his birthday, after the traffic accident that killed Michael, in a few back of envelope calculations, when he first lost his appetite, he lost a pound a week, and his weight loss never stopped. The last time she took him to the gym, for cardio on the stationary bicycle, stair-climber, treadmill, and Nordic machine, she insisted he weigh himself. He weighed one hundred and thirty pounds on a five foot, seven inch frame. A considerable gradual weight loss over two years, she concluded, and his weight loss needed to stop.
After he suffered a painful bout of chest pains, she tried to reassure him he wasn’t suffering a heart attack—only experiencing indigestion or heartburn. To regain his strength and improve his cardiovascular health, he took up long distance running. She noticed his weight only kept going down. She started jogging alongside him since she gained weight recently and wanted to improve her figure. She tried to encourage him to eat more protein and carbohydrates to replace the energy he lost, but he grimaced and pursed his lips.
In another year, he became the Northwestern Ontario regional champion marathon runner in his age group. He weighed one hundred and fifteen pounds. When a partner made an offer to buy him out, his share in the store was worth approximately a million dollars. Unable to think how he would live his life without his work in the health aisles and his investment in the supermarket, he rejected the bid over glasses of carrot juice.
He ran like a maniac, Sofia thought, until he was skin and bone. He set age group records in the marathon on long weekends and managed the Comida health food section during weekdays. She wondered if he would ever stop losing weight, but his body mass finally stabilized when he was pure lean muscle. She worried he had turned into a fanatical dieter.
On the civic holiday, the last day of the locally ballyhooed blueberry festival, he collapsed on the fitness trail near the finish line during the marathon. Sofia, who had been running alongside him, went into a panic. A kilometre from the finish line, she managed to calm herself and started delivering chest compressions, but, having run a marathon, her hands and thin arms soon ached and tired. By the time the ambulance arrived, surrounded by three teen cyclists who showed no knowledge of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, he had no sign of life, no pulse or respirations.
Later, Sofia waded into the lake, scattered her uncle’s ashes along the lakeshore, and rinsed her face with the cool water. When she turned around, she felt jarred. Her family physician, sitting on a beach towel, his naked toes digging the sand, beckoned her towards him.
Doctor West pushed aside his khaki trousers, adjusted his short, tight fitting Speedos, which lumped and bundled around his trim midsection, and took off his short sleeve shirt, revealing his hairy, muscular chest. “Are you scattering your uncle’s ashes?”
“How did you know?”
“You’re certainly not emptying an ashtray because I know you don’t smoke.” Doctor West sheltered his gaze from the relentless gaze of the sun and donned his sunglasses. “What else could it be?”
“What else could it be? Don’t you mean who?” Knowing he was vulnerable to temptation, she squatted beside him in her bikini, her breasts inches from his face. She felt comfortable being so close to him because she slept with him, and, in the pharmacy at the Comida supermarket patiently, she patiently sorted through his messy prescription writing habits.
Then, uncertain if she wanted a rational answer from him, or if she needed to talk with somebody, or if she needed to share her pain, she started to needle him, interrogating him about her uncle’s death.
“Sofia, he was in his early fifties. When he was in his late forties, I remember, he tipped the scales at three hundred pounds. He had dangerous hypertension, but he laughed the condition off as benign. These health issues don’t resolve overnight, even with dramatic weight loss. In fact, they can create new problems, and the last time I saw him he had hypotension and low body temperature.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because he was my patient, not yours, and he was competent, and wanted his privacy.”
“He was mentally ill, and I was his next of kin. I’m even listed that way.”
“Sofia, I’m not certain of his definitive diagnosis. But he was a middle-aged man, with a medical history, who weighed one hundred and ten pounds. He was dehydrated and had just jogged—what?—over twenty miles and had a mile or two to the finish line. He was exhausted. He died a very natural death.”
About the Author
Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. His education includes graduation from 2-year GAS at Humber College in Etobicoke with concentration in psychology (1993), 3-year journalism at Centennial College in East York (1996), and the Specialized Honors BA in English from York University in North York (2012). His writings have been published in various magazines and literary journals. Set of his short stories has been broadcasted at the Sioux Lookout’s CBLS/CBQW radio.