After dinner Louise watches Jeopardy, while Helen reads the Star. This is the Popular Culture segment of the day, and they look forward to it. Louise and Helen have been roommates for two years, during which time Louise has ballooned from 140 generous pounds to 185 gross ones. Every evening, as soon as they’ve finished their coffee, Louise says, “Now why did I eat so much? Can you tell me that? Why did I stuff myself?” Helen busily stacks dishes while Louise sits there and groans. Helen doesn’t think Louise actually wants a reply, at least not the one she would give her if she let the words come.
Since Louise cooked, as she does every night, Helen cleans up. That’s their fair-is-fair deal.
“You’re so lucky that you don’t have to hold down a job and can hang out at home all day,” Louise tells Helen.
“Oh, yeah,” says Helen. “Real lucky. I’m just the luckiest person I know.”
Louise loves her own cooking. She enjoys deciding what they will eat. She calls Helen from the office and reads off a shopping list. Then Helen phones the market and has them deliver. If she were able, Helen would go to the store herself, walking home with the heavy bags hanging off her hands. If only she were able to do something as simple as that, she’d feel like a million bucks.
Under the category of Comedians for $400, the answer is “In film he played the grandson of Frankenstein and younger brother of Sherlock Holmes.”
“Who is Gene Wilder?” Louise shouts at the TV.
Under Italians for $600: “On his second voyage, he introduced wheat to the new world.”
“Who is Christopher Columbus?” Louise is pleased with herself. If she went on Jeopardy she’d be a five-time champion for sure.
“Listen to this story in the Star” says Helen. “‘Stranded for four days in a blizzard with only potato chip crumbs for food and a disposable lighter for warmth, two sisters huddled together in a snowy tomb they had dug for themselves, desperately clinging to life.’ There’s a drawing, too, check this out, of the two sisters in the glow of their Bic. It looks like a religious painting.” Helen passes the paper to Louise, who snorts appreciatively.
“All they got was minor frostbite,” says Helen.
“Lucky,” says Louise, going back to Jeopardy for the final question. The category was Rivers.
Helen’s show is Wheel of Fortune. She loves that big wheel spinning around and how on good nights the contestants cheer each other on. “Come on, $1,000. Come on, $1,000.” It’s a warm, homey show.
“You know,” says Helen thoughtfully. “I liked Wheel better in the old days when there were rooms of hideous furniture you had to buy with your winnings. What a scam that was, getting stuck with truckloads of junk that companies had donated in exchange for free plugs. But it was wonderful because everyone ended up happy—the show, the contestants, the manufacturers. How often does that happen? Now that they mostly give away cash it’s not as good. But then, what is?”
A Pizza Hut commercial flashes onto the screen. A little monster jumps up and down on a pizza box, making frazzled fast-forward sounds.
“Ooo,” moans Louise. “I want some pizza.”
Helen can feel the dinner Louise made grinding in her stomach. This is her least favorite part of living with Louise, this obsession with food every waking minute of the day and night.
“I could go for a chocolate bar,” says Louise.
“If we had one in the house, which we don’t,” says Helen.
“Yeah. Too bad. Well, maybe I’ll just have another taste of that yummy chocolate cake.” Louise pushes herself up from her chair and grunts into the kitchen, returning with a gooey wad on a dessert plate.
“Gotta satisfy the urge,” she says.
The mere talk of food, let alone this sight, so soon after dinner makes Helen queasy.
“Listen,” she says. “Do you think we can concentrate on something, anything, besides food?”
“Oh,” says Louise, looking up from her plate. “I forgot this bothers you. I’m sorry, honey. I really am. I’ll just down this, and that will be that.”
But Helen knows better. Within minutes Louise will be talking again about food. She can’t help herself.
“You know,” says Louise, sticking her tongue between the fork tines to lick off every last taste, “I was never this way until I stopped smoking. Maybe I should start again.”
Helen doesn’t say anything. She can’t understand why anyone would choose to turn themselves into a freak. If it had been up to her, which it hadn’t been, she wouldn’t have.
“Ever feel like you’ve been run over by a truck?” Helen likes to say. “Well, I was.” It’s a convenient witticism, and also the truth.
Three summers ago, she was peddling her bike down a not too busy road, when a speeding truck came around the bend and tossed her into the sky. Now her spine is as curved as that road. One hip is higher than the other, and her head is permanently tilted on her neck at a sharp angle. This is how she came to be lucky enough to get to stay home all day. She can’t walk far or sit in a desk chair. The pain knocks her out. Even at home she has to do special exercises every few hours. The settlement she made with the truck company covers her for life, if, that is, she doesn’t live too high on the hog. Given her temperament, that doesn’t seem to be an issue she’ll have to confront. Louise calls her Sour Dough. She says she’s waiting for Helen to rise.
“Like a phoenix,” Helen says without humor.
“Like a pumping, humping human,” Louise replies.
“You mean like you,” Helen says, and she’s not kidding either.
Louise can hardly get halfway down the block without huffing like the little engine that could, but amazingly, she does get to the office every morning by nine, and she’s proud of that accomplishment. It’s not easy, and Helen of all people should realize how much it hurts to know you’re not front desk material anymore, that your rolls of fat do not represent the company’s lean, hard image. That’s why they’ve transferred her to a room with no windows where her fingers are the lightest angels on the keyboard, skipping for hours at a speed no one passing by can believe.
Louise just sits there and types and types, staring at the computer screen. When she takes a break, she laughs so easily that people like to pause for a visit. They bring her small gifts—tiny stuffed animals, snapshots, and especially snacks. Louise isn’t interested in being the jolly fat person. She’s just trying to get by.
At nine the doorbell gives its wheezy ding-dong.
“Are you expecting anyone?” Louise asks. This is only a ploy to get Helen to answer the door. Louise doesn’t feel like getting up; neither does Helen. Whoever it is, they’re here to see Louise. The doorbell doesn’t ring for Helen.
“It’s for you,” Helen says, and watches as Louise slowly disengages her wide hips from between the chair’s arms. “It’s probably Alvin.”
“Or the Christian Scientists come to save our souls,” says Louise.
It is Alvin who looks like a birch tree blazing at sunset. Alvin is 6’4", and weighs about 145. His shoulder length hair is shiny silver, and his skin is very pale. Faded jeans run up his highway of legs, and a purple T-shirt covers his bony chest. A matching purple clip with a seashell design holds the hair back from his face. His white Keds are sprinkled with rose-colored blotches from when he dyed his rug with Rit.
“Well, good evening, my dears.” Alvin is from Texas, and his voice still twangs even after years up north. “How are you faring tonight? A lovely night, isn’t it?”
Sometimes Helen can’t stand being around Alvin. He’s not dumb and he is amusing, but he’s livelier than her mood can often bear.
“Well now, how can you two sit in front of that boob tube on such a glorious night? Now tell me that, just tell me, will you?” Louise is grinning like the full moon. She adores her friend Alvin.
“What should we do?” Louise asks, suddenly bursting with energy. “Should we go out for ice cream?”
“We could do that,” says Alvin.
“I’m not going out,” says Helen.
“Well, we can’t leave you here, Princess Leia, on this hostile planet.” Alvin calls Helen Princess Leia because, he says, she’s a stubborn bitch like the bitch in Star Wars. This secretly pleases Helen. She thought Princess Leia was all right.
“We’ll bring you back a dish. What flavor do you want?” Helen can see twin ice cream cones dancing in Louise’s eyes.
“No, no ice cream tonight,” Alvin decides. “Besides, what I really came here to do is play you this glorious new cassette.”
He turns the sound off the TV, but leaves the picture on. Against a background of dance music blasting from the stereo speakers, Helen watches a suburban family fight their “Descent Into Hell” on the 8:00 movie.
“Can you believe this?” Alvin squeals. He’s shimmying around the room. Inspired, Louise rises from her chair and joins him on the floor. Helen soon
realizes that the live entertainment in her living room beats what’s on TV by a mile. They look extraordinary dancing together, this tall, anorexic man and his dumbo partner. Helen begins tapping her toes and beating time on her knees.
Then before she realizes what’s happening to her, Alvin sidesteps over and swoops her out of her seat. “Dance with me, darling.” Her mouth is still grinning, but her eyes show anger, and beneath that, terror. But Alvin, much stronger than he appears, ignores her eyes and lifts her feet onto his. He wraps his long arms around her body so she’s standing almost straight, and as if she were one of those cloth dance dolls you strap to your shoes, he sweeps her around the living room, humming over her head. Louise gives a few large whoops.
Helen feels like she’s flying. She hasn’t danced, not once, since the accident. She closes her eyes against the lights and the furniture, imagining herself on another planet, one with no gravity, where a damaged body doesn’t keep your heart from soaring. Her heart is soaring. The music taps against her skin. Come in, she sings, come in. When Alvin finally drops her into a soft seat, she’s dizzy and out of breath.
“Well, wasn’t that something,” says Alvin. “Miss Helen, thank you for that dance.” He bows from the waist, her gracious partner. She gives him a brave salute.
As her breath comes back, Helen’s body announces that she’ll pay for that small bit of freedom. Already sharp messages are shooting up her spine to the base of her neck. Shit, she thinks, nothing comes for free. She excuses herself and limps to her bedroom where she undresses with her back to the mirror.
In the warm tub, she lets her head go under and holds it there for as long as she can. Then leaning against her special tub pillow, Helen tries to ignore the throbbing pain. To move her mind away, she recreates her favorite Wheel of Fortune: A man who has not won a single game finally racks up $1,800. He has to spin one final time before he can solve the puzzle. “Come on, trip to Rio,” he screams at the wheel, but the damned thing stops on Bankrupt. “Oh, I’m sorry,” says Pat Sajak. But before the next person leans over to spin, the camera pans to the man’s face, a panorama of helplessness and disappointment centered on this moment of bad luck.
What Helen particularly likes is that the man didn’t even try to pretend, the way people usually do, that the loss was okay with him. Hey, I enjoyed being here, Pat. This man simply stood there looking glum and angry until the end of the show. Helen thinks he should have gotten a prize for emotional honesty.
Helen feels very clean when she steps out of the bath. She eases into bed with a book, electrically adjusting the bed’s back and leg controls. It’s one of those hospital-type contraptions they advertise on late-night TV. You can sleep curled like a pretzel if that does the trick.
She doesn’t want to think about dancing with Alvin, but she can’t help herself. It was so delicious, to be held again, to feel freed from her body. Maybe Louise is right, at least partly. Maybe tomorrow, slowly, she’ll make her way to the store. She can pick out the food herself and then have it delivered. They say you can ignore physical pain if you really want to.
She begins to think organizing thoughts: Well now, it’s a good thing I washed my hair. I’ll have to iron a blouse in the morning. But if I’m going to be ambitious tomorrow, I’d better get my rest.
She touches her clean hair. It’s still quite damp. She fluffs it with her fingertips, enjoying how full it feels. It’s always been her best asset, that thick hair of hers.
She reads her book, stopping again to check how her hair is coming out. It’s not. It just won’t dry. Her eyes want to close.
“Damn it,” she says out loud. “Why won’t you cooperate?” A spasm shoots up her side. She curses once more and turns out the light, adjusts the bed for what she hopes will be a deep, deep sleep.
—Cheri Fein is working on a novel. “Wheel of Fortune” is the the title story of her collection.