The Fiction

If That’s All There Is

From the Winter, 2017–2018, issue 

(No. 40)

Illustration by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

Archibald was already fucking one fat girl when he began to fuck another on the side. Now he was fucking two: Beth and Brita. Or was it Bertha? Anyway, two fat girls. He even began to think he could make a little money out of it. Like maybe he could write a book. There would be chapters like: “Do Not Underestimate the Power of Despair” and “Low Self-Esteem is Your Friend!”

Archibald’s father’s wife, Edna, with whom he’d also fornicated on occasion, felt the whole thing was a disgrace. While in the back seat of a moving cab, she raised Archibald’s head from between her legs and told him so.

“Those fat girls are going to eat you alive, Archibald,” she said, her voice sludgy with Klonopin and Grand Marnier. “Just like that show.”

“What show?” Archibald asked, grabbing a Virginia Slims from her purse and lighting it.

“No smoke in here!” the cabbie called from the front seat. “I told you last time, this not a motel!”

“The show,” Edna said, lighting one too.

She attempted to pull up her gold stirrup pants, then gave up and let them fall back down around her ankles.

“You know, the one that’s on late at night? Where the fat women throw chairs at each other? Mom loves it. Don’t you, Mom?”

“I love what?” her mother called from the front passenger seat.

“No smoke! No smoke in here!”

“Calm down . . . Jesus?” Edna said, squinting at the name on the cabbie’s licence. “Look, I’ll blow out the window. See?”

“What do I love?’ her mother called again, worriedly.

“You probably shouldn’t have brought your mother,” Archibald said.

“Well, I couldn’t leave her alone with your father. Not in her condition. Not in his condition.” Edna leaned into the front passenger seat and placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder. “You know the show, Mom. Where the fat women throw chairs. You never miss it.”

“You smoke in here, you get out!”

“Oh, yes!” her mother said, the knowledge at last dawning on her face. “I just love that show. I never miss it.”

Fat Girl One

Archibald stumbled into the sexual arrangement with the first fat girl much like he would an after-hours bar following a tequila bender. It was how he stumbled into most sexual arrangements: the one with Edna, the one with Joyce, the Korean dwarf, and Anne, the morose vegan with long silver hair who worked at his local video store.

He’d spent the evening after his shift at Bert’s Bookstore as he often did, in the back seat of a cab with Edna, chasing Klonopin with Absolut. At Edna’s request, he’d gone down on her twice, though it was all a bit hazy and tricky, what with the narrowness of the back seat, and Jesus watching from the rear-view mirror and Edna’s skin-tight suede slacks, the unbuttoning of which required a team effort. Afterwards, she’d laid comatose on his chest, pulling drags off a Virginia Slims and singing “Is That All There Is.” Intermittently, she told him about the time before she married Archibald’s father, when she’d been a jazz singer working days at a florist and her life was pure and filled with hope. After she passed out, Archibald took a roll of bills from her purse, gave some to Jesus and pocketed the rest along with some cigarettes, the Absolut, and an unlabeled bottle of pills, which he popped on the long walk home.

He was feeling pretty good when he got there. Like maybe he might even hook one of his chromatic harmonicas to an amp and jam along to some Davis or Toots. Or wail along to some calypso on his steel drums. Most likely he would just turn on the blinking chili-pepper lights that adorned his basement walls—the ones he’d dared Edna to steal from the outside façade of a Mexican restaurant—sit on his green paisley chair, with the burn stain on it, which he lifted from a neighbour’s curb one morning on trash day, and blow on his kazoo. The more he thought about it, the more he felt like tonight was a kazoo night.

Archibald was on his way to the kitchen to find a mixer for the vodka, when he saw one of his five housemates, Bertha, in the common room, crying. Or was it Brenda? All he knew about her was that she lived on the fifth floor, worked at the Y as some sort of swim teacher, and owned a dachshund puppy she liked to bathe in the evenings. In fact, the only communication he’d ever had with her were vague grunts of recognition when he went into the washroom for his evening shower just as she was coming out with the wet dog wriggling under her arm, both of them reeking of floral soap.

Still, he couldn’t just let her cry like that. He’d attempt to console her. Well, what is it to console, really? What he did was sit beside her on the lopsided futon, imagining her churning butter, naked, while she recalled what happened in a tremulous voice.

“It was h-h-horrible,” she said.

He should have guessed bad date from her outfit, which had a lot of rhinestone swirls in it, and her hair, which was bubble-flipped. Both the bubble flip and the rhinestones clashed a little with her grief, making it somewhat absurd and amusing to behold. Archibald dug the bubble flip though.

“Horrible, huh?”

Apparently, her “date” had taken her to a seafood buffet, then masturbated under the table while watching her eat a plateful of shrimp. It didn’t take her long to figure out he was masturbating, because he’d begun to sweat and gasp and it looked like he was doing something furious down there.

“Freaks,” Bertha finished, grabbing a Kleenex from the cozied tissue box. “Sometimes I think that all there is out there is freaks. For me, at least.”

“Well,” Archibald said, pulling a joint from his shirt pocket, “you know what they say, Bertha.”

Brita. What do they say?”

“‘If that’s all there is, let’s break out the booze and have a ball.’ It’s like that song. You know the one. By Peggy Lee?”

She shook her head.

“Sure you do.”

He tried to sing a few bars, but it was hard with all that cotton in his mouth.

“Anyway, you get the idea. Like me? I used to play jazz guitar. But then because of this tendonitis in my arm, I had to start playing harmonica. I hated them at first, but after a while, I got used to them. Then I sort of got into them. Now?” he smiled, “I’m a harmonica man all the way.”

“So . . . what are you saying? That I’ll get used to freaks?”

“Sure,” Archibald said. “Not that you don’t deserve better, Bertha,” he added with an eye on her expansive cleavage. “No question.”

“How do you know? You don’t even know me.”

“I know you wash your dog too much,” Archibald said.

At this, Bertha began to cry harder.

“I know you like to decorate,” he offered, waving a hand around at the dollar-store frippery she’d affixed to every cracked, scuffed surface of the common room: the cozied tissue box, the lady-shaped lamp, the bowls of potpourri he’d once mistaken for mixed nuts.

“I know you teach coffin dodgers how to doggie paddle,” he added. “Probably do a decent job of it too.”

“I’m a lifeguard.”

“And I’ll bet no one’s drowned on your watch.”

“No,” she conceded.

“Want to know something about me?”

“Um . . .”

He leaned in and whispered: “I can’t even swim.”

“Well, it’s easy for fat people,” she said, matter-of-factly. “We float.”

“Float,” he repeated dreamily. And the image of Bertha floating, perhaps in a too-tight two-piece, either polka dotted or sailor themed, came irresistibly into his mind. Desire flared up in him like an ulcer. He eyed her, from her overly coiffed hair to her small stocking feet.

“I like your bubble flip, Bertha.”

“Brita.”

“Right.”

Sleeping with Bertha was more pleasurable than he’d expected it to be. It was like finding that bar you stumbled into by default was not only open after hours, but that the bartender knew how to make a few half-decent drinks. He nicknamed her Squirt, because of a neat little trick she could do during orgasm that he had heard of but never witnessed first-hand. Archibald found the sincerity and the depth of her desire for him, a desire that nearly broke the bed, amusing but also undeniably erotic. Indeed, she’d opened up a whole new world for him. A jiggling, fleshy world, humid with want and desperation, and it was fun to kill a quarter of an hour or two rolling around in it with her. On the subway to work the next day, a Tupperware container full of some weird fat-girl salad she’d made him tucked under his arm, he found himself noticing women of a heavier girth. And maybe this was crazy, but he felt these women were noticing him too. It was as if they could smell it on him: he had scaled one of their kind, like a mountain. Which meant, of course, that he could scale another.

Fat Girl Two

Beth was a clinically depressed French literature major who worked with Archibald at the Special Orders desk evenings and weekends. Her bra was a no-prisoners affair with thick, gun-metal-coloured straps that cut deeply into the flesh of her shoulders. It was seeing her bra through a gap in her shirt buttons that got Archibald thinking a little more about Beth. He enjoyed watching her bend her bulk to pick up crates of books, and he enjoyed even more seeing how flushed her cheeks became from this exertion. He found himself becoming aroused by her lumbering walk, the suicidal air with which she answered the phone, the strength in her thick arms, which could easily haul stacks of books.

“Need any help there, Beth?”

“Nope.”

“You’re a champ,” he grinned.

Beth flushed deeply, then went back to frowning into a book called Enabling Romance: A Guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships for People with Disabilities. He continued to eye her appreciatively and without apology. She was prettier than Brita. Better shaped, too, like a bass. Poor Brita carried it all in the gut and backside.

Enabling Romance, huh?” Archibald said, reading off the title. “Sounds like a page turner.”

Not looking up from her book, Beth said: “So, Edna sang ‘Is That All There Is’ into the general voice mailbox again last night.”

“Oh man, really?”

Archibald smiled. Edna had been doing this a lot lately. Ever since that one night he’d visited her and his father, and his father had inexplicably left the living room to go upstairs and fondle his instruments for the evening, leaving Edna and Archibald alone and embittered enough to drunkenly fondle each other. Though it had been a bleak, brief union—doggie style, on the velour couch, with Edna’s senile ninety-year-old mother watching and muttering joyfully from the La-Z-Boy—Edna couldn’t leave him alone after that night. She’d get drunk, lock herself in the bathroom with her keyboard and a cordless phone, then call the bookstore, singing Peggy Lee songs until the voice mail cut her off. She called the bookstore because Archibald was often without a phone due to unpaid bills, so where else was she going to call? Also, because she was insane.

“She came by earlier, demanding to see you,” Beth told him. “Didn’t believe me when I said you weren’t in today. Called me a liar.”

“Jesus,” Archibald said.

“There was this old lady with her. She must have been, like, a hundred. She kept giggling like she was senile or something.”

“Lucille. Her mother. She is senile. Great gal, though.”

He told Beth how he learned about Lucille during an overnight visit to his father’s one Christmas, when he’d snuck in to Edna’s bedroom late at night, hoping to get lucky. When Archibald realized Edna shared a bed with her mother, he’d attempted to back out, but Edna had encouraged him to go for it all the same. He had, but then the old woman woke up about halfway through, crying, “Oh dear! Oh dear!” At that point, Archibald had been ready to quit, but Edna insisted he keep going.

Beth stared at him, her mouth and eyes wide open.

“You didn’t keep going . . . did you?”

“Sure,” Archibald said. “I mean, it was awkward. I almost couldn’t. Thought for sure I’d never be able to look Lucille in the eye again. That it’d be, you know, weird after that. But what do you know? The next morning, she just smiled at me across the breakfast table and told me she was the world’s oldest teenager. Didn’t remember a thing.”

“Maybe she was pretending she hadn’t remembered to spare you both the embarrassment of how much of a prick you are,” Beth said.

“Maybe,” Archibald smiled. “Or maybe she got a kick out of being a spectator.”

“You’re sick,” Beth said, shaking her head, but there was a half-smile in her eyes when she said it. They began to talk more after that.

Archibald assumed Beth had many dates, many admirers. He was surprised to discover that, actually, she did not. Her “boyfriend” was a fortysomething quadriplegic living in Irvine, California, whom she met on the Internet though their shared enthusiasm for the novels of Marguerite Duras. Currently she was saving up money to go visit him.

Beth showed Archibald a picture of him.

“He used to be a pretty big-deal soap-opera star in the seventies,” she said. “Until this one night in Maui after doing too much coke, he just climbed up a forty-foot palm tree and jumped.”

Archibald stared noncommittally at the picture of a broad-faced man in a wheelchair, with crinkly Malibu blue eyes and Hasselhoff curls. The man wore a biker jacket.

“He’s got a mullet,” Archibald said.

“He does not,” Beth said, snatching the picture back.

“Does too. You know, Beth, I don’t see why a very attractive girl like you would have to go all the way to Irvine to get half laid by a paralyzed dude twice your age. Especially when there are men right here who like you a lot and who would do a hell of a better job of it.”

“Oh yeah? Like who?”

She was trying to sound indifferent and challenging, but there was a note of interest in her voice.

“Fergie’s got a thing for you,” he said, referring to Howard Ferguson, their co-worker, an obese man with a bristly moustache who walked with a cane due to a childhood bout of polio. Fergie was currently doing archival research on a book about the naughty nuns of Italian cinema and was deeply in lust with Beth. Archibald figured if he started with Fergie, he’d look pretty good by comparison.

“Fergie?” she repeated, a little sadly. He knew she had a thing for Chris, the half-Indian boy with the Viking physique who worked in New Age and thought he was the next Aleister Crowley. Chris would often come up to Beth’s desk and the two of them would chat about Yeats, Baudelaire, and other people in whom Archibald was not interested. Chris maybe did like Beth a little, but Archibald knew he’d never do anything about it.

“There are things I’ve thought of doing to you, for instance,” he added, staring at his computer screen.

“Like what?”

He took a red pen and printed the word “cunnilingus” on one of those small scraps of paper they used to note titles of books a customer wanted ordered. He folded it up and handed it to her. A customer approached the desk just then, so it was only out of the corner of his eye that he saw her reaction. The curtain of dark hair obscured her face, but her neck and chest were now covered with blotchy red patches.

“I’m sorry,” she said, after the customer had gone. “I just can’t.”

She handed him back the note.

“It’s not a ring, Beth,” Archibald said, trying to smile. “Just consider it an open invitation.”

He decided to put Beth out of his mind; after all, one fat girl seemed more than enough. But the workday seemed dreary without the mild flirtation to look forward to. The next day, on the subway, he took a bunch of downers he’d stolen from Edna’s purse to get through his shift.

He was in the midst of a serious high, scarfing down Bertha’s banana nut bread in a sort of dream, his thoughts trickling from his brain like treacle, when Beth approached him in the break room.

“So I was thinking about your offer yesterday?”

“Offer?”

Through the treacle, he recalled the note.

“Oh right. Offer.”

“I was thinking it was really rude of me to just brush you off like that.”

“No worries.”

“Anyway, I was thinking that maybe, you know, we could. Not do the note, obviously. But go for coffee?”

Coffee. He smiled.

“Well you know, Beth, who doesn’t love a cup of joe?”

They had the coffee, then quickly went into a nearby park where he went down on her twice between some evergreen shrubs. He was surprised, even a little disappointed, to discover Beth was considerably thinner than she appeared in her uniform. He was surprised also at his disappointment. She came very loudly and gratefully, screaming a muffled “I love you” into his neck during the second orgasm, which surprised him even more.

“I’m going to break up with Blake,” she announced, afterwards.

“Who?”

Blake. My boyfriend?”

“Oh right. The wheelchair guy. You sure? I don’t mind sharing you. Especially with a paralyzed dude you’ll hardly ever see.”

“Well I mind. It wouldn’t be fair to him.”

“Only if you mind,” Archibald said.

Two Fat Girls

Fucking two fat girls didn’t require much time management or stealth. After work, Archibald would find a park to fuck Beth in, or he would fuck her in her apartment, and then he would go home and fuck Bertha, once, maybe twice. He taught them both how to play a song on the same toy harmonica. He taught Beth “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and Bertha “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Brita was a faster study than Beth, but Beth looked hotter playing it naked. Overall, it was a deeply erotic time for Archibald. He’d been with two women before, and knew how to work that sort of arrangement. But with the fat girls the whole thing felt bigger, riskier, more unwieldy somehow. All that fleshy want festering on either side of town. It became clear that he was the centre of their respective universes—not some side thing, but the centre—a fact that deeply amused and aroused him.

He had a knack for pleasuring them, making them feel good about themselves, something they each confessed to him they’d never really experienced, and something they’d both been quietly craving from the world for a long time. Archibald enjoyed the perks of their gratitude. His fridge shelf—which usually contained only an industrial-size jar of generic-brand peanut butter—was now full to bursting with Bertha’s casseroles and baked goods and mayonnaise-y salads. On his newly repaired harmonica (courtesy of Bertha), he wailed along to the limited edition recordings of Coltrane and Davis Beth would buy him. He smoked the menthols pilfered from Beth’s purse, downed the ancient liqueurs taken from Bertha’s grandmother’s hutch, popped the Prozac prescribed to Beth for her depression, and helped himself to the dime bags of pot she kept in her freezer. He lay beneath his chili-pepper lights and got so stoned that in his mind he would mash Beth and Bertha into one big fat girl, and he would roll around with this mammoth woman on his crud-covered carpet, in near mystical bliss.

“What do you mean you’d like to but you can’t?” Edna said, when he refused to go out for their usual cab ride.

“I’m helping them with their self-esteem. I’m winning hearts and minds here.”

“Better watch it, Archibald,” Edna said. “Soon they’ll start throwing chairs. I told you, it’s like that TV show.”

“Haven’t seen it.”

Though the image of chair-wielding fat girls wasn’t entirely unpleasant, Archibald decided to let go of Bertha. Much as he enjoyed the hot weight of her want and witnessing the depths it made her sink to, he didn’t like how her dog always had to be a part of things. How he always yipped outside the door when they were fucking. How she baked him little dog treats and bought him all these little dog sweaters. Besides, Beth more than satisfied him sexually. He especially enjoyed her severe bouts of near catatonic despair, the way she’d lie on her blue duvet-ed bed like a fat, drowned Ophelia, murmuring bleakly about literature. He liked her prescription drugs and her pot too.

When he broke the news to Bertha in the common room, she cried so hard she used every Kleenex in the cozied box and Archibald had to walk up five flights of stairs to the bathroom to get her a roll of toilet paper so rough and cheap it chafed your ass. He watched her blow her nose repeatedly with a wad from this roll, feeling the corners of his mouth twitch into an unholy smile.

“I’m sorry,” she hiccupped. “I just wasn’t”—more tears—“expecting this.”

He cut it to her straight: “I just feel like there’s no give and take, you know?”

She nodded. She was wearing one of those outfits she’d bought from a discount plus-size store at the nearby mall, this bright blue shiny thing edged with lace on steroids. He found himself becoming aroused by the way the ridiculous, cheap frills crackled as she wept.

“Is there”—more sobs—“someone else?”

“Yes,” he said, biting on his grin, “But! She’s not as pretty as you.”

“Is she . . . thin?”

Archibald smiled.

“She’s like you. Maybe a little thinner.”

Bertha cried some more, and seeing her cheap plus-size lingerie bristle with each cry, seeing her blow her nose repeatedly into the cheap toilet paper, and seeing her intermittently gulp wine from the bottle she’d bought to surprise him, was all so erotic to him that he began slowly but surely to approach her. She smacked him, but not as hard as he knew she could have, which he took to be promising. He kissed her hands and the fleshy backs of her knees and each of her freshly painted toes. At last, she lay back on the couch, sniffling, while he performed a conciliatory cunnilingus. She came despite herself. In his peripheral vision he saw Ling, the math major from the third floor, pad into the kitchen to make one of his weird ramen noodle variations. Upon seeing Archibald and Brita, Ling made some disgusted grunts. Archibald waved to him from between her shuddering legs.

The next day he told Bertha he would tell Beth it was over. But then, at work, Beth was wearing some sort of tank top that made her breasts pop, so he decided he’d go home with her anyway. Beth was a friend, was what he’d tell Brita. Bertha wasn’t the boss of him was what he told himself, as he ran his hands over Beth’s breasts on the subway back to her apartment, a despicable display that made many people tsk.

“People are watching,” Beth whispered.

“People should mind their own business.” Archibald said.

After making out with Beth awhile on her bed, Archibald began to teach her about jazz. Now this was pure charity. Beth’s room was a poster shrine to Tori Amos and other sad vagina music. He played her “Is That All There Is.” Knowing Beth dug philosophy, he explained to her how this song echoed his philosophy. How it said, bleakly and beautifully, everything he felt about life: that it was shit, and that to roll around in it drunk and naked with the one nearby was the best anyone could hope for. Anyone who thought there was anything more was fooling themselves. Beth listened with a stoned smile.

For a long time, the ringing of the telephone just seemed a part of the music.

“LaChute,” Beth said, squinting at the caller display on her phone. “Don’t know who that could be.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar to Archibald, but when he couldn’t remember why, he just zoned back out to the tunes. It was a good part in the song, so he didn’t notice when Beth answered the phone. Nor that she’d left to use the phone in the living room. Nor that she was gone an awful long time. He pulled out his harmonica and began playing along to the music. He was really wailing on the thing by the time Beth came back, wearing a housecoat patterned with googlie-eyed bats and looking very grave. She did not come back and join him in bed, but chose instead to sit at her desk chair. He stopped playing, a little irritated.

“What?”

“A woman named Brita just phoned. She says you’re sleeping with her. Are you?”

“LaChute,” he said. And then remembered it was the last name of Bertha’s French-Canadian best friend. Bertha must have called from her place.

“Shit.”

Beth threw a cat-shaped cup at him, which crashed to the floor and made her cats run howling out of the room.

“I was descending to sleep with you, you know that? I was descending, asshole! And you cheat on me?! And now you’re smiling?! What the fuck is wrong with you?”

But he couldn’t help the grin that slid over his face. The godawful truth was there was something vaguely arousing about this scene, just as there had been something vaguely arousing about Bertha’s sadness. He felt a semi-erection salute this anger of Beth’s, which had caused her housecoat to fall open and her breasts to slide around under her black camisole like great humpback whales under the ocean’s surface.

“Just, you’re hot when you’re pissed, that’s all,” he said.

Red patches bloomed all over Beth’s décolletage. She threw a stapler at him and missed. She began to cry.

He kneeled at her feet, not yet daring to take her hands.

“I never deserved you, Beth. I knew that. I count myself lucky that I was able to be with you at all. About Bertha—”

“Brita.”

“She’s a nice girl, sure. But really, I just started sleeping with her because, well, I was lonely and she was lonely and I felt bad for her, all by herself on the fifth floor. I’m all she has, you know. As a friend, as a lover. She’s got this dog she washes every night. You wouldn’t believe it. But you’re the one I wanted. And I’m really pissed at myself for ruining my chances here.”

He said things along these lines for a while, while Beth smoked a cigarette. He noticed her hands had begun to shake. He kissed them; she flinched a little, but she let him. When he began to gently kiss the sides of her knees, gently pushing them apart. He expected her to say, “Get out. Get out now.” That’s what he expected. But she just sat there limp, letting him.

Archibald stayed out so late fucking Beth he missed the subway and had to walk home, where he knew Bertha would be waiting. It was precisely this expectation that made him walk more slowly, that made him take his sweet whistling time. When he arrived, he found her sitting in the common room with the yipping dachshund wriggling in her arms, like a demon-possessed sausage.

“I’m moving out,” she announced. “I’ve already started to look for apartments.”

“O.K.,” he said, knowing she wouldn’t.

Archibald swore to both of them he’d be faithful. He swore on two different harmonicas. He swore on the mother he never called who was dying of kidney failure in a hospital in Kingston. He continued to fuck both of them on a regular basis in the hopes of being caught a second time.

But though he suspected both of them knew, neither confronted him. Each seemed to be purposefully in denial of the other’s existence. And in that denial, both girls had begun to grow rather sickly. Beth began to get dizzy spells and started to take a lot of sick days. The doctor had told her the dizziness was being caused by panic attacks and prescribed anti-anxiety meds that killed her sex drive. Archibald would visit her after work, and find her in bed in her Ophelia pose, listening to Norwegian dark wave.

“I’m dying,” she told him.

He got in bed with her, and together they listened to sad songs and popped her pills.

Bertha began to lose weight in odd places and her hair began to fall out in clumps. In the shower, he encountered great balls of dirty blond tangles mingled with the short black dachshund hairs.

At first he wondered why they bothered to stick around. Then he figured it out. Aside from some failed Internet dates and the coffin dodgers who flirted with her when she taught aquafit, who was ever going to fuck Bertha besides him. And Beth? Maybe Beth had a shot before, but she’d gained quite a bit of weight while with Archibald. She was almost the size of Bertha now. Probably he was all there was for Beth now too.

More and more he found himself thinking of Edna. Her absence of flesh. Her boozy desire that often flatlined into unconsciousness or indifference, which turned on and off like a flickering light. He fondly recalled her small, high breasts, so different from the cumbersome flesh tears that fell from the hunched chests of both fat girls.

It was with those breasts in mind that Archibald called her up.

“What?” her tone was miffed, but he could hear the bend in it.

“Hey, can you get away for the night? Come see me?”

Through the phone, he could hear the plaintive sound of his father’s trumpet bleeding Chet Baker down from the attic.

“Thought you had your hands full over there, Archibald.”

“You know what they say about handfuls.”

“No. Tell me what they say.”

“They’re—”

“Never mind, I know what they say. I’ll be there in a couple of hours. Can you wait?”

He considered this: Bertha would likely be coming home in a few hours from her girlfriend’s. Beth had already called him twice in a panic about some new anti-anxiety meds she was taking. She was worried she might have an adverse reaction and wanted him to come over and be with her in case she needed to go to the emergency room.

“I don’t know if I can wait too long,” Archibald told Edna.

While he waited for Edna, Archibald took the last few anti-anxiety meds he’d borrowed from Beth. He turned on his chili-pepper lights. He put on Peggy Lee. He sat down in his burn-stained chair with a half-empty bottle of Slovenian pear liqueur from Bertha’s grandmother’s hutch. His phone began to ring. LaChute. Then Beth. Then LaChute again. He took it off the hook. If they called each other up, so much the better.

By the time both girls showed up in his basement, Archibald had finished the liqueur and blacked out on a bottle of strawberry wine Bertha had brought back as a souvenir from a trip to Prince Edward Island with her sister.

When he came to, he was disappointed to see the fight had already taken place. The chili-pepper lights had been torn off the wall. His records were strewn all over the floor. It was just like his dream, really, except instead of wearing too-tight two-pieces and wrestling in a jam-like substance, they were wearing long black coats and calling each other “cunt.” Clearly some information had been shared while he’d been out cold, some phone calls placed.

Seeing them like this, hot tears sliding down their cheeks as they threatened each other with violence, the erotic possibilities of being with two fat girls at once fully presented themselves.

“Ladies,” he called from his chair, through a mouthful of cotton. He was about to say much more when Bertha threw a harmonica at him, hitting him right in the mouth.

After that, everything acquired a hazy, dream-like pacing. Both girls rushed toward him. Sobby apologies. Beth dialing for a cab. A blood-covered Bertha dabbing tenderly at his mouth with her Addition Elle cardigan. The fat girls dragging him up the stairs like pallbearers. How he felt like he was flying and actually said “Wee!” a few times. Being led through the common room where he encountered Ling, who made a disgusted noise from the kitchen doorway. Being at last able to use his knowledge of Ling’s secret hard-on for Anne of Green Gables.

“Hey, Ling, How’s Road to Avonlea?”

Archibald pretending to jerk off. Ling turning pink. Ling screaming.

“You pig! You pig fucker!”

Archibald replying, “I a pig fucker?” snorting so hard, the blood bubbled from his nose and pooled into his mouth. The fat girls pulling him away, making conciliatory murmurs, managing to get him out the door and into the waiting cab, while Ling wielded a dirty frying pan over his head like a cowboy’s lasso. Archibald weeping with laughter, the blood trickling hotly down his chin.

By the time Archibald got into the cab, the pain had begun to rage across his face like an out-of-control fire. He was cognizant only of the fact that he was between them, their vast flanks compressing him on either side like the bookends of an accordion, an instrument he had always felt too expensive and cumbersome to play.

The cab driver looked a lot like the one who had driven Archibald and Edna around on their jaunts. What was his name again? Jesus?

“Hey there, Jesus,” Archibald said. “Sorry about all the fucking in the back seat. Not that I’m sure you didn’t enjoy the show, you know? In fact, pay up, Jesus. Pay up!”

Because of the blood filling his mouth, Archibald words were near-incomprehensible babble. Jesus looked at him through the rear-view mirror, confused. Then Archibald saw on the licence that the cabbie’s name was Gary.

“Shit, Gary,” Archibald said. Then he passed out.

He woke to find a triage nurse doing violence to the fire in his face and the fat girls nowhere to be seen.

“I came in wi two, uh, women,” Archibald said to the nurse. He was going to say “fat women,” but seeing that the nurse was rather large, he stopped himself.

“Cafeteria. Said they’d be back in a bit.”

“Ow! Fuh. D’you have to make it tho tie?”

“I don’t have to,” the nurse said.

“Wher’th my harmonka?”

“Relax, it’s not like you’ll be playing it anytime soon. Have a seat in the waiting room. We’ll call you. It’ll be a while.”

“Can I uth your phone?”

Archibald was sitting brooding in the waiting room when Edna came through the E.R. doors, her mother muttering after. They negotiated his escape with little protest from the nurse.

“Didn’t I tell you those girls would eat you alive?” Edna said on the cab drive home.

“I wath trying to win hearth and mindth.”

“Shh.”

Beth and Bertha, of course, would demand further explanation. There would be many more tears, many more dark nights. Archibald considered this, but he also considered how lovely it was to lie in the lap of this good, small-breasted woman, his father’s wife, while she hummed songs in a voice thick with love and Klonopin and other substances, and ran her chipped red nails through his widow’s peak.

“Thith ith like old timeth.”

“Yeah,” Edna said.

By the time they reached his father’s house, the phone was ringing like an angry question. Could be Beth. Or Bertha. Or both. Perhaps they’d become allies. He pictured it. The two of them in the hospital cafeteria, eating Jell-O and exchanging mutual miseries.

“Your father’s out cold in the attic,” Edna said, positioning Archibald on the couch. “I’ll go get some stuff for that cut,” she said, pouring him a Scotch. “Maybe we should have kept you in the hospital. It’s still bleeding pretty bad.”

Archibald opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a fresh gush of blood.

Lucille was seated in the La-Z-Boy, watching a ludicrously loud television. Though it was June, she was wearing a sweater decorated with Christmas trees. From his reclined position on the couch, Archibald waved to her.

“I’m the world’s oldest teenager,” she shouted over the volume and the ringing telephone.

“I know it, Luthille,” Archibald yelled.

More blood pooled down his chin. He turned to look at the TV screen.

“What are we wathing here?”

“I love this show. This is my program.”

The television was tuned to what looked like a talk show gone awry. On a stage strewn with overturned chairs, two fat girls in stretch pants were screaming and strangling each other. They would have killed each other, Archibald was certain, if two big, bald men in black polo shirts hadn’t suddenly appeared from the wings and separated them. Along the bottom of the screen was a caption that read “i cheated on you with your best friend!” The camera then panned to a fatherly looking man in a suit whom Archibald assumed was the host. He weaved through the whooping, stamping audience, shaking his head and smiling sadly at the awful humanity of it all.

“Jethuth, what the hell ith thith?” he asked, looking to Lucille. When she didn’t reply, he turned once more to the screen.

One of the fat girls had broken loose from security and had the other girl in a headlock. Behind them, between their abandoned, overturned chairs, a thin, weaselly looking man sat serenely. He watched as security separated the fat girls again. He watched them claw and kick the air helplessly. He watched and he smiled, like violence and misery were his porn. When he suddenly smiled wide at something one of the fat girls was screaming, he revealed a missing incisor.

With his tongue, Archibald poked around on the left side of his mouth. Feeling the raw gaping hole where his tooth had been, he suddenly began to sweat. He attempted to down the Scotch, but it spilled out of his mouth, making his skin burn like hell.

“Mind thanging the thannel Luthille?”

“I love what?”

“Thange thannel.”

“What do I love?”

He hurled his drink at the television, missing it by a mile.

“Fuh!” he shouted, causing more hot blood to gush down his face as he whimpered in pain.

He threw the bottle of Scotch after it, which also missed the TV. Instead, it hit one of Edna’s Royal Doulton figurines, the one of a Victorian man and woman curtseying to each other, making it crumble to the carpet.

He sunk his head back against the velour couch, and woefully watched the screen. Over the bleeped screams of the fat girls and the unrelenting ringing, Lucille muttered and hummed some terrible, baleful tune about falling to pieces. It wasn’t jazz, so Archibald didn’t know it.

Mona Awad won the Amazon.ca Best First Novel Award for her debut novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, which was also short-listed for the Giller Prize. Last updated, winter, 2017–2018.
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