20050906

Under Fat City


Mitch was supposed to meet Tonya’s friend underneath the bleachers at the next “football” game. Mitch thought he was joking. He casually started to suggest meeting in his own apartment, but the guy cut him off, laughing through his teeth like a snake. Ssss, ssss, ssss.

“No way, man,” he said. “See you under Fat City.”

“It just doesn’t seem like the kind of place…” stammered Mitch. “I mean, are we even allowed to…you know…”

“You’ll have to sneak in,” said Tonya’s friend. “It won’t be difficult.”

“Surely we can find a better…”

“It’s not that I don’t trust you. That’s just where I’m going to be. It’s safe. And try to get there before half-time,” said Tonya’s friend. “It will be harder after half-time. Trust me.” And then he hung up. The crunch was still ringing in Mitch’s ears the next day when he put on a checkered muffler and a pair of shades and got on the bus downtown to the stadium.

It all started when Tonya came in to work on Monday. Tonya and Mitch shared an office down at the Department of Weights and Measures. Mitch was the night shift, and Tonya did the day.

Mitch had fallen asleep on the floor next to the big soft fake plant, and when he first saw Tonya he thought it was some sort of perverse fever dream. She kicked open the door to the grimy, wood-paneled cubby like she was trying to scare away spooks and cat burglars. She flashed Mitch a grin that lit up her whole face like a mushroom cloud, and then collapsed into the lone government-issue steel-and-plastic wingback.

This wasn’t Tonya, thought Mitch. This was her evil twin.

“Holy shit, do I feel great,” said Tonya, still smiling.

“You must have had quite a weekend,” said Mitch. Tonya just looked at him and brayed hard, round laughter. Mitch was absolutely certain that he had never heard her laugh before.

“It was a weekend you wouldn’t believe,” she said. “I’m a completely new person. The whole world is fresh to me, and I can honestly say that I am totally ready for whatever it will bring. Come on world! Give it to me!” she shouted, thrusting her pelvis at Mitch, her hem clinging high on her thighs, her eyes shut. Mitch nervously got to his feet. This was a woman whose proudest achievement thus far was her complete collection of Anis Merchant’s Crisis Era anti-meat posters. They were cool posters…and they did a lot of good…but, come on! Who was this person? She was wearing black lipstick, of all things! She had on a skirt! Her legs were shaved!

“What the hell happened to you?” asked Mitch, hugging himself. Checkered flannel hung from his bony wrists and curtained his now nervous fingers.

“Do you really want to know?” she asked, sizing Mitch up. “I can’t keep it a secret. Not from you.”

Mitch shrugged.

“I had meat, Mitch. I ate a big bloody hamburger, and it was perfect. It was so good. You wouldn’t believe. YOU WOULDN’T BELIEVE!” she shouted, yelling at the ceiling.

Mitch’s mouth dropped open in a horrified hole of pure, unleavened shock.

“But…but…” said Mitch.

She dropped her gaze and stared hard at Mitch. Her kohl black daggers carved right into his shiny blue pillows. Mitch lost himself and shut up. He swallowed and leaned against the desk for support.

“I know what you are thinking, but this is different. You have to try it. It’s…god…it’s like you wouldn’t believe. I feel so strong. So hale and happy. I’ve got a whole cooler full, but you’ll have to get your own.”

She leapt out of her chair and circled Mitch like she was a dog and he was a treed cat.

“See, I’ve got this friend, and he’s become a Cloner. Strictly underground, of course. He’s supplying to a couple of cops and they protect him. But that’s because he’s doing something really different,” said Tonya. “I wasn’t going to do it – no way, not in a million years – but he has this method. This new, different thing he’s doing. He’s not like the Cloners who work for us. I promise. I feel perfectly normal. I feel wonderful. Why would I lie?”

“But you know what meat does! Any meat!” shouted Mitch, finally finding his voice. “You are going to turn into one of them, now. You are going to get Fat. Well, that’s fucking lovely. You won’t be the first friend I’ve lost. It’s already starting, isn’t it?”

“Be quiet, Mitchy,” said Tonya, stretching a leg out underneath Mitch’s crotch and rubbing the inside of his leg. “Just listen. This guy…my friend…he’s doing something that’s never been tried before. It’s so simple, really. Such a good idea. It’s going to sound strange at first, but just think about it.”

She leaned forward and grabbed Mitch’s head like she was going to kiss him. Instead, she whispered in his ear. She grinned. Mitch frowned. Mitch had to sit down. Tonya settled on one corner of the desk, swinging her legs playfully in the air, looking at him with a scheming smile.

“Give me his phone number,” said Mitch. Tonya squealed prettily and got out an index card from their desk drawer.

It seemed so easy then. But Tonya didn’t say anything about having to go to a “football” game.

Nevertheless, here was his stop. Mitch tightened his muffler, tried to look invisible, and then rang the bus bell.

Regular people didn’t get off in the Fat District unless they had a damn good reason. This was where curious little boys and girls could get eaten if they weren’t careful. You heard stories all the time.

The bus came to a screeching, belching halt. Mitch got off. The driver peeled out at a dangerously high speed as soon as his feet hit the ground. The other passengers stared at him through the windows as they passed, their noses flat against the glass.

The line of Fat stretched from the stadium gates all the way to the street. They were shuffling forward in ground pounding lockstep, a blue ticket pooching out of the folds on the backs of each of their massive and immobile hands. Who had stuffed them in there? Mitch couldn’t say.

Mitch stealthily scampered to the back of the line, unseen. Un-smelled. He felt like a rat getting in behind a slew of earth-moving dump trucks. The line moved desperately slowly, but there was plenty of time before the game even started. He had time to think.

No one knew what had made the meat go bad. The plague had started when Mitch was only a boy, and he had watched the whole world turn before his very eyes. It happened overnight – between meals, in places. Most died in the initial onslaught. India seized brutal control of the East and started executing Fat bodies with ruthless, regimented precision. In the West, things went more slowly, but still reached the same ineluctable end.

Mitch had been lucky: his parents had raised him strict vegetarian. They sold healing crystals out of the back of a van. They said the plague was caused by Earth fighting back against human pride. Scientists muttered something about coprophagia.

Whatever had done it, meat was the worst kind of poison now. The disease could be triggered by a single bite. It started first in the extremities. The feet and hands swelled into grotesque digital melons. The plague crept up the arms, popping up veins like ropes and linking joints like sausage casings. The torso slowly inflated into a grotesque and roiling pouch that made a person’s head pop up off their neck like a button on a tight shirt. A person could grow a foot in size due to the upward pressure.

The head went last, and with it the brain. The skin of the cheeks and forehead expanded like a marshmallow in a vacuum chamber, and a person started to lose the ability to speak or think. His vocal cords and brain cells were just too fat. A victim began constantly chewing on the inside of his bulging mouth, blood and drool pouring down the creases in his jowls and pooling on his convex chest. It was merciful that the process went quickly. If it had taken any longer than a month or two, the remnant wouldn’t have been able to watch without going insane from despair.

As it was, some people still couldn’t deal with killing off their Fat friends and relatives. If they were poor, they didn’t have a choice. The Fat would eat everything they owned and then go after them and their neighbors. Eventually, they had to make the phone call or pick up the shot gun.

But the rich had a different solution. In America, they managed to pass legislation creating a Fat district in every town, a place where (for a substantial room and board fee) the city took care of the Fat friends and relatives of the wealthy and made sure they were groomed, fed, and protected. They didn’t breed, so the size of each district had dwindled over the years. In Mitch’s town, it was just the stadium and a few outlying streets. The Fat would only eat flesh and, since animals weren’t raised or slaughtered anymore for fear of infection, the government hired Cloners to feed these human livestock on genetically engineered vat meat.

Meat that Mitch helped package and weigh. But he could never taste it. No matter how good, how RIGHT it seemed. And Mitch had never chosen vegetarianism voluntarily. Quite the opposite.

Since he could remember, Mitch dreamed about meat; read books about meat; tried every meat substitute science could produce. Nothing really satisfied. He would wake up in the middle of the night with his blanket in his mouth, thrashing around on his own rug and howling, the back of his throat parched for blood. It wasn’t fair. The other animals -- the other carnivores – were not affected. Every time he saw a cat with a mouse under his paws he wanted to kick it.

He had to give this a go. So he could know. So he could die without wondering.

The line finally made its way to the gates and the Fat in front of Mitch was scanned and processed by the guard – an anemic looking man in a black suit. His nametag said “F. Gass.”

Gass looked at Mitch and pursed his lips. Mitch thought he had a kind face.

“Can I help you, son?” he asked.

“I’m supposed to meet somebody here,” said Mitch, sighing. He just wasn’t very sneaky. Never had been.

“Are you, now?” said Gass. “I tell you. That’s a bit unusual. You’ll have a hard time finding a place to sit. And I can’t imagine that you’ll enjoy the show.”

“I’m supposed to meet him under the bleachers,” said Mitch.

Gass leaned against the railing that composed his perch.

“And just how do you think you are going to get down there?” asked Gass.

“I don’t know,” said Mitch. “I’m supposed to sneak down there. How much does a ticket to the game even cost?”

“It’s not cheap,” said Gass. “No sir.”

Mitch pulled out his wallet. Gass licked his lips. He handed the man a stack of bills.

“If you can tell me where to go, Mr. Gass, that would just be great,” said Mitch. “I have to admit that I’m out of my element here.”

“Call me Frog or don’t call me at all,” he said while counting the bills. “Just keep heading around the outside edge in the shadows. When you see a blue door without handles, push it in as far as it will go and hold it for a few seconds. It should pop open when you back off.”

“Thank you,” said Mitch, walking through the checkpoint.

Evidently, the game was beginning. All of the Fat bodies had taken their seats. Mitch wasn’t sure how they knew where to go, but he figured that they had been coming here so often that it was more conditioning than anything. The halls inside the stadium were empty, but Mitch could hear the grunts and cheers from the bleachers, where body pushed next to body like muffins in an egg carton.

As Mitch passed an open area, he could see the field below. The game had begun. Cardboard cutouts on swivel tracks moved along the arid, rocky ground between the white paint that specified line markers. They did some sort of coordinated aeronautic maneuver. There was a whoosh of shuffling paper. A blinking light that signified the ball passed between them, there was a whistle, and then they regrouped as they marched down the field.

Every play was met with choking moans and screams of satisfaction.

While the Fat were distracted by the game, Government officials gingerly moved around them in the stands and took measurements, made notes, performed experiments, and counted heads. Big band music played on a tape loop. Nobody kept score.

Mitch found the blue door to which Gass had directed him and popped it open as instructed. Behind was a long stairwell. Mitch made sure there was enough light shining from in between the seat slats to see, and climbed down, letting the door close on him.

Underneath the bleachers was a cavernous junk depository that housed the detritus of countless years of discarded consumption from the pre-plague days. Bottles, cardboard trays, foam fingers, beer cans, plastic nacho containers, old magazines, old clothes, and auto parts were stacked in a waist-high mash that was held together by the pungent epoxy of years of vomit, sweat, and old soda.

From the stairs there was a tunnel through the garbage. Seeing no alternative, Mitch began to walk through it. He didn’t get very far before somebody yelled at him. It was a high and tuneful roar. He turned to find a smiling face in the dark decay.

The man was regular fat – not mutant Fat. He was in a wheelchair, and his round face and body were put in stark contrast by his shriveled, malformed legs. He was wearing a bandana around his head and had about three days worth of beard stubble on his pleasantly round jaw. He wheeled forward in the gloom, and then back again after getting a good look at Mitch.

“You are probably looking for me,” he said.

“You are Tonya’s friend?”

“I’m your friend now,” he said. “If you’ve got the money.” He grinned. He had no teeth. Mitch opened his wallet and took out the rest of his cash. It was turning out to be a pretty expensive day.

“I’ve got the money,” said Mitch. “Is this going to hurt?”

“It shouldn’t,” said the man. “I’ve never had any complaints.”

“I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bring anything. A urine sample, or something,” said Mitch.

“Just your own self,” said the man, gesturing to a steel cooler. It was empty -- except for floating ice -- and surrounded by the corpses of twenty young beer cans. “Have a seat while I get everything ready.”

“How long have you been doing this?” asked Mitch.

“Since the technology was available,” he said. “It was the first thing that popped into my head, if you can believe that. It’s all I eat.”

“So you’re a…”

“That’s right,” said the man. “I’m completely Megan.”

He assembled a syringe from a compartment underneath his chair. He put a thumb up in front of his eye, squinted at it, and then did a few sums on a calculator attached to his armrest.

“I’m going to make you up something SPECIAL,” he said. “Something premium. I like the look of you.”

Mitch’s mouth went dry as the man calibrated the syringe, pushing in the plunger and flicking the needle.

“Give me your arm,” he said. Mitch dutifully held his arm out and the man grabbed his wrist. He shoved the needle into his bicep and drew forth a tube full of blood.

“Jesus,” said Mitch.

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” said the man. “It never stops being fun.”

The man started wheeling away, the syringe held high in his hand like a torch.

“This is so freaking illegal it’s ridiculous,” he said, cackling.

“Why here?” asked Mitch.

“I like to hide my operation in plain sight. Follow me. And bring that cooler with you.”

Mitch dumped the cooler, picked it up, and let the man lead him deeper into the rubble.

On and on they went, going at least a quarter of the way around the stadium, tunneling ploddingly through zig-zag tracks. The cheers grew louder and closer together. Periodically, Mitch looked up into the bleachers above. All he could see was gyrating flesh – the distended, light-pole sized calves of the poor, Fat fans.

“Hold on, hold on,” said the man after awhile, coming to a sudden stop. “Listen. Half-time.”

He was right. There was a piercing air-horn and the people in the stadium started moaning more loudly and stamping their feet in rhythmic flux. There was a tang in the air. Something new. Mitch held his head up and breathed deeply.

“What is it?” he asked. “What are they doing?”

“It’s special feeding privileges,” he said. “Go on. You should look. It’s a new thing they are trying. Some day they will sell video tapes, probably. It’s wild.”

Mitch crossed his arms, tickled his own elbows, and walked over to the bleacher canopy. He put his eyes up to the slats and peered through between the now ripping, stomping legs. Mitch wiped his mouth. The field was empty.

From one of the gates, there came a panicked lowing. A group of scientists in sealed plastic body stockings and cowboy hats came riding out of the gate on little tractors. Tethered to the back on orange canvas ropes were fifty different grazing mammals of various shapes and sizes. There were all kinds – from the domestic to the exotic. Cows, horses, giraffes, bison. Each of them had a pink plastic bag tied over their heads with thick black X’s where their eyes were.

The scientists spread out into a circle and covered the field, herding the animals into the center. As soon as the animals came out, the audience took to their feet and started to pulse and shift, moshing together and jumping up and down. One Fat leapt over the side and started waddling at the animals, his grasping arms outstretched. A scientist aimed a rifle and shot him dead. The others were momentarily cowed, but quickly resumed their passionate squawking.

The scientists all cut the tethers at the same time and rode back out of the gate in single file. There was a moment’s pause. And then the stadium walls folded down and the Fat ran out onto the field screaming, salivating, and trampling each other. Mitch watched as a giraffe was grabbed and stretched, and a Fat took a big bite out of the neck. The giraffe bucked and kicked, landing a few shots, but he didn’t last. Blood plumed out from its center like a crimson geyser. Mitch turned away, sick to his stomach. The noise was deafening.

“Still want to do this?” asked the man.

“I don’t know,” said Mitch.

“It’s never too late to back out,” he said. “Of course, I WILL keep your money.”

Mitch cocked his head to the side, breathed deep, and sighed.

“I still want to do it,” he said.

“Good,” said the man, whipping a red cloak off of a glistening steel box against one junk wall. “Because here we are. It should only be a few minutes now.”

The man started punching buttons. The box was shaped like a juke box and had a grate on top that was now ejecting a wispy cloud of steam. Mitch followed a glistening tube with his eyes that led out of the box and connected to a large porcelain tub.

“That’s where the gravy goes,” said the man without turning around. “Wait for it.”

He carefully inserted the syringe full of Mitch’s claret into a blinking orifice. He depressed the plunger and then wheeled over to join Mitch at the tub, leaving the syringe hanging.

All Mitch could hear was chewing and mooing as the tub started to fill with blood and grey goo, like a backed-up kitchen sink. Waves bubbled and collided on the rippling surface. He peered closer.

“I’m throwing in a couple of special steaks,” said the man. “I’m putting in trace amounts of fluid from your own neocortex. It should give them a pleasant hallucinogenic effect. I usually charge triple for those. I can get one hot for you, if you’d like.”

“That would be great,” said Mitch, squinting into the grey bath. The man wheeled over to a pile of clutter and pulled down a grill on a tripod, a bag of charcoal, and a carton of lighter fluid. He started a fire.

Mitch leaned over the tub and ran his index finger along the surface. He made a slime trail and then examined the gloop on the pallet of his finger.

“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you. Sometimes it does crazy things,” said the man, fanning the flames on the grill with the lid.

Mitch rubbed the sticky oatmeal between his fingers. He could already feel bits of gristle beginning to form. He rubbed the slop on his pants and then put his hands in his pockets.

As he watched, something strange began to happen to the boiling crud. A curving shape began to form and rise up out of the slime like a surfacing submarine.

“It’s doing something,” said Mitch. “Does that mean its getting ready?”

The man wheeled over to sit next to him.

The shape was joined by a flat, broad plane above and a chewing cavity below. Wrinkles and pocks ringed the lunar landscape. As Mitch watched, two blinking spheres joined the geometry and slowly resolved themselves into fully articulated eyes. The features drained. The mirror polished itself. It was his very own face forming in the tub. Mitch could even see the scar at the temple where he had fallen off of a moped when he was twenty. The bust was perfect. No artist could have done better. The mouth worked and struggled and belched grey filth. Fingertips formed next to the face.

“Is this normal?” asked Mitch.

“It happens,” said the man. “Cool, huh?”

The mouth made a noise like a straining baby. The eyes went wide.

“Help me,” said the meat creature.

The two men exchanged glances. The man was smiling. Mitch was not.

“Can you do something?” asked Mitch as a hand started to rise from the surface of the tub. Fingers curled into a claw and made a clumsy swipe at Mitch’s shirt. He stepped back, out of the way.

“Does it bother you?” asked the man. “It will just be another second.”

Mitch leaned forward, frowning. The creature started to scream. It sounded a good deal like the last bleats of the animals that had taken the half-time feeding field. The man in the wheelchair turned back to tend the fire, and the grey goop started to pinken. Before Mitch’s eyes, it started to form globules and veiny pockets, cutting itself into chunks about the size of poodles or terriers. The creature was torn apart. It collapsed into a neatly organized stack of steaks, fillets, patties, and joists. Mitch breathed a sigh of relief.

“Start loading that into your cooler,” said the man, leaning over Mitch’s shoulder and stabbing a new pink continent with a long fork. “I’ll fry you up one of these bad boys.”

Mitch did as he was told. The smell was overwhelming as the man grilled him his first meat. It was ingenious. He would be eating himself. It was pure. No plague. It was like biting a toenail, or choking back phlegm. Evidently, Mother Nature approved.

After he was finished loading the cooler, Mitch closed the lid and wiped drool from his chin with his shirtsleeve.

“All done,” said the man, holding out the steak on the fork. “I suggest you take off fairly soon, however. The Fat sleep after they eat. They pile together on the field like a bunch of beach balls. But when they wake up, they are cranky. You don’t want to be around for that.”

Mitch pulled a chunk of meat off of the fork with his fingers. He stuffed it into his mouth. He chewed. He swallowed. He grabbed the rest and made a plate out of his shirt for it.

Maybe it was the hallucinogens. Maybe it was being under Fat City. Maybe it was his whole deprived life coming back to punch him in his gut bucket. But it was strong and harsh and good. Wild-eyed, he flailed around in the junk as if searching for something. He stumbled over to the bleacher slats and peeked through.

Sure enough, the Fat had finished gorging and their bodies were piled together in the afternoon sun like fish dredged up from the bottom of the sea and dumped on the deck of a trawler. Mitch rubbed his eyes and watched them.

The bodies started to rise into the air as if plucked. Slowly, like reverse feathers, the bodies crept toward the sky, seesawing back and forth and riding the currents of air. The sky was pulling them up. The planet was done with them.

This was the hallucinogenic steak, thought Mitch. It had to be. One Fat man turned lazy circles like a filigreed whale riding currents under the sea, his useless arms like little propellers. Mitch ate and ate.

Finally, Mitch looked over his shoulder at the man, fell to his haunches, and pointed at the sky. The man just nodded.

“How is it?” asked the man with a condescending smirk.

“It’s wonderful,” said Mitch through a sloppy mouthful of his own tainted rump.

The man cackled.

“Masturbation used to be illegal, too,” he said. “Self-abuse. Then came all those diseases from prostitutes, and people started teaching a different way. Things are always changing.”

Now it was Mitch’s turn to nod. He jumped and landed on his hands. He rolled in the dirt and danced to his own inner drums. Then he howled, long and low. Rooo! The man clapped for him, laughing like a snake. Ssss, ssss, ssss. Yum!

1 comment:

Todd said...

Is this from your archives?

It has so many little... I won't say "errors," but slight inconsistencies...

It has so many little missteps that, for me, it all adds up to something that I wouldn't have finished had I not previously read some really cool stories by the same author.

And I didn't get but 300 words into "Kid Breaks Loose" at the mall or whatever it's called before giving up.

I'm still trying, Justin, but I feel like these two were written when you were still an apprentice. Also, that vegetarianism and environmentalism are politically "hot" topics has nothing to do with my distaste for "Under the bleachers." The idea of regenerating oneself for meat actually sounds kinda plausible, kinda cool; it just seemed overly-contrived in the beginning, too cryptic.

I'm not a professional reviewer, so don't look for my comments to be perfect. I spend tons of energy on my stuff; this is your stuff, it's up to you to make it great every time and for me to just sit back and enjoy.