Fiction by Jensen Whelan

I was conceived, my father tells me on his better days, at the peak of a three-day wine bender that ended January 2, 1976. That was before he became the heaviest man in the Western United States, and my mother, Rose, the lightest.

Rose started shrinking just after I was born. Dad was always big but my conception seemed to affect him, too. He ballooned, doubling in weight while I sat in the womb. Rose said that was when Dad started to grow taller, too, hitting his head in doorways and brushing the ceiling with his hair.

By September of the following year, in time for my first birthday, Rose was the size of a thin carnival prize teddy bear, and Dad was like a buffalo.

People lose weight and put it on, so no one was too concerned about Rose's sudden loss and Dad's sudden gain. But when Rose, who had been taller than average before motherhood, began shrinking so noticeably, people became worried. The Samuelsons from church brought meals. Rose shrunk six and a half inches in protest.

"You should try to eat a little more, sweetie," Dad started telling her. Over the years, as he grew and grew, this became one of his favorite sayings. At first it sounded like genuine concern, but slowly, as Dad's size reached mythic proportions, it became a kind of plea to join him. "You should try to eat a little more," he'd say.

To which Rose always responded, "And you should try to eat a little less."

Dad was really able to put it away. He even won one of those eating contests where he got a $50 steak for free after finishing it in less than an hour. Then he smiled sweetly and said to Rose, "If you'd ordered anything, dear, I could have eaten that, too."

Rose stopped eating altogether by the time I was 10. By April of that year she was less than half of her original size. Dad, on the other hand, picking up where Rose left off, was a gluttonous mess. His snacking alone threatened to bankrupt the family savings, so three days after my 13th birthday, I went to work at the local butcher shop.

Rose called it the murder factory, and Dad called it the abattoir.

The butcher, Mr. Browning, gave me the title of apprentice. Basically, this meant that I hosed down the back room. Mr. Browning was a kind man. He knew about my family's problems and often sent small cuts of meat or a couple of sausages home with me at the end of day. "Make sure your mother eats this," he'd say. Dad would consume the meat not fifteen minutes after I got home.

We celebrated my 18th birthday in Dad’s study because he'd gotten so big that he couldn’t leave the room. He gave me a loud clap on the back and a glass of whiskey that tasted like fire.

Rose made a cake. A chocolate one with small, pink roses spaced evenly around the base connected by a swirling line of green icing. She kissed my cheek and presented me with a travel guide to Paris.

"Ah, the city of great pleasures," Dad said when he saw the title of the book. "Plenty of food, plenty of wine, and tall, beautiful women."

"A place to learn something new," Rose said, her voice tiny. "And you can't even leave the house, much less fit on an airplane, so how would you know?"

The autumn I turned 21, Rose began to disappear altogether. I'd come home from the butcher shop on a Monday, for example, expecting to find Rose sitting in her regular spot in front of the television, but I wouldn’t see her until later in the week. If I asked her about it, she'd tell me the same thing every time, "I've been around. Right here in my usual place."

Dad didn't seem concerned that his wife was disappearing. When I asked him about it, he told me to mind my own business. He was so large by this time that we had the local carpenter knock out the wall between Dad's study and the master bedroom.

The last time I saw Rose was on my half birthday in March. Before that I hadn't seen her in over two months.

"Rose," I said, "how're things?"

"I've been having some problems getting in and out of my chair and my bed. Everything seems to be growing. The furniture is starting to remind me of your father, always getting bigger."

I went to the attic and brought down my childhood furniture. When I looked in on Rose before turning in that night, I saw her drifting off to sleep in the stunted bed that Dad had made for me the year I started kindergarten. The nightlight cast Rose's shadow on the wall. I watched as the shadow got smaller and smaller, until finally, like putting out a cigarette in a pitch dark room, it disappeared. I never told Dad, and he never asked.

Soon, Dad's weight started to crack the foundation of the house. The city, concerned about the water pipes beneath the property, moved him into a care facility.

With both parents gone, I couldn't find a reason to stay in the house. I quit my job at the butcher's, raided the stash of money that Dad kept in his study. I had planned to go to Paris, maybe put Rose's book to good use.

I made it as far as Milwaukee and stopped.

Dad tells me his new home is comfortable. They've put him on a diet and he's getting smaller. I read in the newspaper that there's a man challenging Dad's title. Daily, the headlines follow the man's progress. I'm following the story to see if the man eclipses Dad's size. Sometimes, I wonder if there isn't a woman somewhere else, moving in the opposite direction, on track to steal Rose's title, too.

Jensen Whelan's writing has appeared or soon will at Eyeshot, Identity Theory, Perfectland, Surgery of Modern Warfare, Pindeldyboz and elsewhere. He lives in Stockholm for the fine weather.

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