winter coat

String Bean

“Thin people shouldn’t talk about their weight. It always sounds like bragging.”*

A few years ago, at a party I hosted, an acquaintance— all six-foot three, 235 pounds of him— leaned down to me and said, “Look at you! You’re just a wisp of a thing.” He meant it as a compliment, but I couldn’t stop old insecurities from flushing my face. I felt like every jock I went to high school with somehow crawled through 20 years of space/time continuum to slam me up against my own refrigerator.

I am a thin man. That’s not bragging. I have always been self-conscious about being “too skinny.” It sounds weird now in these times of skinny jeans and moob jobs and size-zero male models, but I grew up when “skinny” was a put-down. It meant frail and nerdy. Thin guys were called weakling or twig or string bean. And everywhere we looked in the media of the 1990s we saw powerful bodies like Mark Wahlberg’s and Tyson Beckford’s with arms the same size as their thighs and shoulders that angled out from their waists at impossibly wide vees.

“Everyone likes to hear how thin they look.”

Not long after that party, I went to the doctor for weird feelings in my extremities. Tests were done and a specialist informed me that I was pre-diabetic. She gave me no prescriptions; she wanted to see how I fared without them. Instead, she handed me a tri-fold pamphlet with an illustration of what good eating habits look like: half a plate of vegetables, a slice of meat that could fit in your palm, and either an apple or a dollop of mashed potatoes. It looked meager. She told me to cut out carbs and sweets, to eat more greens and less starch. No sugar or white rice and exercise more. In other words, the string bean was on a diet.

“Man, when you turn sideways, you disappear.”

Of course, I followed her orders: I started ordering Amstel Lights (the beer with the fewest carbs) at bars. I ignored the looks on waitresses’ faces when I quizzed them about low-carb fare. I secretly put back the cake and donuts that well-meaning co-workers brought to my desk. When friends offered to “fatten me up,” I laughed politely. I became known as a health nut, and swallowed the anger I felt due to my prescribed eating habits. They couldn’t know I’d kill for a heaping bowl of pasta, or a sandwich with regular fucking slices of bread. I kept my mouth shut about why I ate the way I did because I knew they would say exactly what I hated to hear: “But you’re so thin.” As if being thin made me invincible.

Around Easter this year, I started feeling thirsty all the time. Like an unrelenting fill-a-swimming pool-with-unsweetened-iced-tea-and-I-will-either-drink-my-way-out-or-drown kind of thirst. I waited for the thirst to pass, finally seeing a doctor when it was either that or clawing my throat out. As the doctor handed over a prescription to manage the diabetes symptoms, she nonchalantly added, “One of the side effects is weight loss.” I’m not sure what sound I let out, but her subsequent concern demanded an explanation.

“Look at me,” I huffed, motioning with my open hands from my chest to my waist. “People tease me about being blown out to sea by a strong wind. I just started gaining back the weight I lost after quitting carbs on your orders, and now you’re telling me I have to start all over again?”

“Oh, poor skinny dude. Can’t gain weight. Boo-hoo.”

I know. There are so many worse diagnoses to hear. I’m lucky to live in a time and place where I can manage my symptoms with a pill. But this just happened. The ink has barely dried on the prescription bottle. I need a day (or six) to wallow in my frustration. I need to tell people that “thin” is not a synonym for “healthy.”

*The italic sentences in this essay are direct quotes from various people at various times in my life.

nebula

Sleep Cycles

I fell through a cloud last night,
piffed then sluiced
through cumulocirrus fields—
puffs of smoke
strung gray and then white again

I looked to the night beyond,
orb-eyed, past
the cuneiform I’d cut,
(whistling air)
saw Castor and Pollux guard

wet nebulas strewn like poor
Zeus’s babes
that wandered Olympus bare
Stars shift shape:
my Gemini folded back

to cloth, to my bedclothes’ jet
fabric sheen
Polaris, the cad, stretched out
(closet, clock)
and up to make walls, then spun

a vortex to fan me dry
Bed again—
tucked tight as a diving suit
(humming) and
I fell through a cloud last night

The Perch Act

I was naked and still dripping bath water when my boss fired me from the Sells Floto circus.

* * * * *

Luke and I were in the practice tent, using a mirror to check our opening form. See, after I raise my hands above my head, Luke uses them as a base to lift himself up from behind me—to the audience it looks like he’s on an invisible elevator. But then he pivots his torso so it’s perpendicular, then he swings his hips up quick so they’re over his head. With his arms fully extended, energy zipping through us, he uncurls his legs from the jackknife position he’s in and locks into a beautiful hand stand. His pale feet hover over us a second like seagulls.

That day Luke was favoring his right side and I told him so. He adjusted, then refolded his waist, rounded his shoulders—the pendulum of his legs swung out once above my head—until his feet and nose were both pointing straight ahead. That’s called the Cat’s Cradle. Only, during the last few shows he’d been sagging, toes pointing down toward the ring curb, so that’s what we were checking when Trinka, the gaffer, the boss man, the Pole with the Mole, stormed in.

“Money,” Trinka chuffed. “Tomorrow,” and he flung something white near my feet.

I wobbled, causing Luke to do the same, and the next thing I knew we were coming down. I threw Luke left, asked if he was alright, heard him say he was, and grabbed the litter at my feet: invoices, for our new banners. I anticipated some cost in moving from the kid shows to the ring—new gear, greasing the advance men, that sort of thing—but I didn’t count on paying for advertising. Still, Trinka was known among the troupers as a decent man, so I figured probably everybody paid for their own paper. “Raise your legs higher, Lucas, you look a mess up there.” The rounded esses of Trinka’s accent and the sound of his receding steps softened the barb.

“What’s eating him?” Luke was standing, patting dust off his legs.

“Search me. He’s right though. Let’s try that again.”

The rest of that night was unremarkable. The process of setting up a new site is the same no matter where we go. We were just outside St. Louis, near what they’re calling the Dust Bowl, so, more hatless and haggard townies than usual were wandering through camp asking for jobs. None of them interrupted our dinner. Luke and I ate our fish and succotash in silence, both of us listening to the roars and whinnies of the ring stock being unloaded. Both of us looking forward to bed.

* * * * *

When I came out the next morning, our papers were waiting for an autograph outside our tent. Scarlet and dusty words blazed across the top:

*PASTOR & COLLICKS*

The names were complete pocky, of course, a scheme thought up by Trinka to sell us as the celestial twins come down to Earth. The men performing a perch act underneath the words only slightly resembled Luke and me. It was our second set: the one where I balance one leg of a chair on my head as Luke sits in it, juggling.

We warmed up, then moved on to a few run-throughs of the show. Afterward, I heated up some water and settled into the washtub. Luke had gone to get some food and eventually came in carrying a cooked chicken. Wasn’t long before he was stripped and in the tub with me saying something coy about saving water. I guess we were careless that day, our good fortune clouding our judgment. And that was the second precarious position Trinka stormed in on. No knock. No shout. Just Trinka’s mole punctuating a sneer.

“I expect you out by noon.” His voice was flat.

Forgetting myself, I stood up and ruined any chance of furnishing another explanation. Trinka turned his gaze. “Let us stay,” I said, “and I promise you we’ll make you a very rich man.”

“Out!” he yelled over his shoulder, “both of you.” And he was gone.


This story was written for yeah write’s Focus on Fiction series. Click the badge above to see other submissions.

Another story with these characters is here.

And just so I can find them again:
The video I watched to describe the act accurately.
The circus slang guide I used.
The book notes I read that sparked the idea.

The Flight Between Worlds

Two low-flying owls hurtled toward us, so white they glittered in the fog. We heard the susurrus of their wings before talons shattered our windshield. Stunned, all we could do was let them shuttle us— faster than lightning— into our next lives.

Apartment Full of Trees

Follow me to furloughed
fields, to cities fitted
‘round a sea less salty.
S’there we’ll start our garden.

I’ll blast far ‘neath flagstone
for you; till a trillion
seedlings strewn by starlight;
foster future forests.

This is my first attempt at a drottkvaett for April’s poetry slam. Read more great fiction and poetry by clicking the badge above!

Aperture

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Walking down the street— my head cloudy with argument—a low hum descended upon me like the rrrrmh of a plane passing overhead. Around me, empty storefronts huddled together for warmth on this, the first chilly evening in October. How could a city street be so dark? I looked above me. A thick canopy of oak leaves blocked all but a sliver of light. The trees on either side of the street seemed to be reaching out, as if still consoling one another after the trauma of being separated.

Ahead, a single light illuminated one side of several oak trunks. I jaywalked and found the aperture of an open doorway. The contrast between my dark neighborhood and the beacon made me feel like one of those innocent characters in books—Alice or Meg Murry or the Pevensie children— who encounters a portal to another world. A syncopated shadow blocked the light for milliseconds at a time. I could just make out a sign above the door; it read Jodo Shinshu Temple.

Inside the upended rectangle I saw the profiles of three men wearing bright red robes with orange trim. They raised their arms parallel to the parquet floor and turned a slow circle. Their hems gently rose away from their sandals. The men turned again and my eyes rose to their faces. Six half-moons and three slashes of a comet’s tail— closed eyes, pursed lips. I continued listening and watching as they danced. Their turns seemed random to me, but their synchronicity never faltered.

“Excuse me.” A woman brushed past me on the sidewalk. I hadn’t realized I’d stopped walking, but of course I had. I mumbled something embarrassed and apologetic, but it didn’t matter. She was gone. She may as well have entered a portal herself. I turned my back to the door so I could walk across the street. Somehow, putting it between the men and me made me feel less disrespectful. I waited for a car to go by and then I crossed. Mid-stride, I heard an exclamation of surprise, then the hum abruptly stopped.

When I turned around, one of the men was leaning out beyond the threshold with his cupped hands out in front of him. After a beat, he unclasped, releasing a small bird from his palm. It glided to one of the oak branches somewhere far above my head. No longer able to distinguish bird from shadow, I lowered my head toward the doorway: to ask the man about the bird or the humming or the meaning of Jodo Shinshu, but he had already ducked back inside.

I couldn’t just abandon such an inexpressibly meaningful occurrence, so when the humming started up again, I walked to one of the oak trunks and placed both hands on the dappled bark. Just for a second. Then I went straight home.