portion of Z.Z. Boone artwork

Z.Z. Boone

People hate me because I’m fat. I know this by instinct. It’s an instinct overweight—in my case slightly obese—people have.

My mother, a cashier at Milk ‘n’ Such, disagrees. “People don’t hate you because you’re fat,” she says. “People are repulsed by you because you’re fat. They hate you because you have no personality.” Well, fuck her. I don’t watch much TV, but the last time I saw Jeopardy I don’t recall seeing her dumb ass behind one of the podiums.

My father, before he left last year, had a different take. “On the inside,” he used to tell me, “we’re all movie stars.” He was a car mechanic who could never get his hands clean, so he spent a good portion of his life wearing gloves. He was fat, like me. He’s in Florida now, but every couple of weeks he’ll send me a letter with some cash and instruct me not to let my mother get her hooks on it. Unless I miss my guess, he got a good look at what he married, thought to himself I have to bang that for the rest of my life? and was gone.

Annmarie Shotz is to ugly what I am to fat. Dandruff, acne, breath that constantly smells like cheese left on a shelf too long. She and her entire family—including a grandma who lives with them and looks like she already died but didn’t tell anyone—are members of some rat’s ass religion that believes everything that happens is God’s will and nobody better screw with it. As a result, when Annmarie broke her leg in sixth grade gym, her parents refused to take her to a doctor. They just let the leg heal by itself and now, thanks to that genius move, she walks like she’s going upstairs but only with one side of her body. The other kids in school have nicknamed her “Hopscotch,” but she’s my only friend and therefore the rest of the world can go scratch.

Annmarie is constantly on my back about going to church with her, but no one in my family’s ever been much on religion. For the most part, they believe in the healing powers of alcohol, the salvation offered by a plate of spaghetti with white clam sauce.

Being a high school senior sucks just slightly less than not being one. At least the end is in sight, if you catch my meaning. Annmarie and I—thanks to her stepfather—both have jobs lined up with Cablevision after we graduate, so the future is ours, as they say. We’ll probably even get an apartment together as soon as the positive cash flow thing kicks in, and on my way out the door I’ll give my mother the hugest Italian salute she’s ever seen.

All this is why the Bernard Murphy thing had to be taken care of.

Bernard Murphy transferred to Oakham back in September. He has the largest head I’ve ever seen on a human; I can’t image a hat anywhere in the world made to fit a melon like that. He was a definite freak—the kind even retards laugh at—and he brought along the weirdest lunches, like canned ravioli and leftover lamb chops with mint jelly. Everybody ignored him, which seemed fine with old Bernard, except sometime around December Mr. Hoppe, our American dynamics teacher, broke the entire class down into ten teams of two. It was our term project and counted for forty percent of our final grade. I was paired with “Mousie” Caruso, a brainy girl with a voice like the right side of a harmonica, while Annmarie got Bernard Murphy. We were all given a point to argue for the debate: “Should Minors Be Tried as Adults for Adult Crimes?” Mousie and I pulled “the juvenile brain is not yet fully developed,” while Annmarie and Pumpkin Head’s was “rehabilitation vs. recidivism.”

The point I’m trying to make is that it was during this time that things began to change. Whether it was in the library, or in study hall, or at one of their two houses, I can’t say. All I know is that one day Annmarie comes into school and her breath smells like cinnamon, and she got makeup covering the pimples, and her shoulders are flake free.

“What happened to you?” I ask her.

“Nothing,” she says.

“You’re all girlie,” I say.

“So?” she says.

“So what happened with the whole ‘God’s will’ deal?” I say.

“Maybe this is God’s will,” she tells me.

She smiles, then turns and walks away, but that’s OK. I’m aware of the score. I’m aware because Friday nights, which are when we did our mall crawl together, have been spent—in her words—“working on the project.” Saturday afternoons, days we looked forward to going to Castle Rock Park and goofing on the little kids, gone. Even when I’d call her on the phone. Always too busy. Always “working on the project.” Which leaves me guess where? Sitting at home with my finger in the air because it’s a little too chubby to go anyplace else. The real ball-breaker, though, happens one day in April. The senior class trip is announced—a bus trip to Rye Playland in May—and boy/girl couples start to form. This, for many people, represents a last shot at high school romance. That magical ferris wheel ride where somebody’s hand goes inside your t-shirt and maybe you even wind up with a prom date. Stranger things have happened.

Annmarie and I had discussed this for at least a year and vowed that wherever the senior trip took us, we’d go together. Call us lesbos. Say we’re losers. Just don’t say it to our faces unless you want to be on your hands and knees feeling around for your teeth.

Except, whoa. Wait a minute. Annmarie, now the Queen of Smiles, stops me at my locker and announces that Bernard Murphy has asked her if she’ll go with him.

“What did you say?” I ask, as if I need an answer.

“I said yes.”


“You and me can do something special another time,” she tells me.

“Like what?”

“We’ll think of something,” she says. “My church is having Bible Days in June and maybe we can go to that.”

“Bible Days?”

“It’s like a county fair with a New Testament theme,” she says, and all I can picture is a bunch of people walking around dressed like apostles.

So I do what has to be done. For the next few days I keep a close eye on Bernard. One morning when I see him come out of the main office and post something on the school bulletin board, I read it as soon as he leaves.

Guinea Pigs 4 Sale—$5, it says, and on the bottom of the page are all these carefully cut fringes of paper with his phone number on each one.

I call Bernard the next morning—it’s a Saturday, my mother’s day off, and she’s already eyeing up the booze cabinet—and arrange to go over to his house. I ask my mother if I can borrow the car and she tells me only if I bring it back with a full tank of gas. Right before I leave I shower with gardenia body wash, put on a skirt and blouse, brush my hair, and Google “guinea pigs” on the computer.

When I get to the house, Bernard’s dad, who’s wearing a bathrobe with a leather belt holding it closed, directs me to his room. He could have saved his breath; the stink of the place is indication enough.

Inside it’s worse. A bed and dresser squeezed among multi-level cages, canisters of food, cellophane-wrapped sacks of hay, boxes of fruit-flavored vitamin drops. The second I enter, the guinea pigs—like starving prisoners in lockdown—rush to the front of their cages and squeal like torture victims. There seems to be hundreds of them, some standing against the bars on hind legs, others climbing over those already there.

“They think it’s time to eat,” Bernard says.

Well, this is creepy, I think to myself, but I just say, “Of course.”

“So what do you know about our friends the Cavia porcellus?” Bernard asks me as he opens one of the cages and takes out a black and white one.

“I know they’re rodents,” I say, trying not to look at their wretched swollen faces.

“Is that all?” he says.

I suck it up, walk over to Bernard, and scratch the head of the guinea pig he holds.

“I also know that the species is indigenous to the Andian region of South America, and that they were revered—as both a food source and an ingredient in medicinal potients—by the Moche civilization in ancient Peru.”

“Wow,” Bernard says, impressed. “That’s not exactly what I’d call common knowledge.”

“Did you know that the first Queen Elizabeth kept one as a pet?” I ask.

“She did?” Bernard asks.

I nod, walk over, close his bedroom door.

“Can I ask you a question?” I say.


“If you had to describe a guinea pig in one word, what would it be?’

Bernard thinks hard on this.

“Maybe … ‘industrious,’” he says.

“Mine would be …” I bite my lower lip as if I haven’t prepared for this. “Sexy.”

Bernard swallows on this and I watch his Adam’s apple rise and fall like a grain elevator. He puts the guinea pig back in its cage.

“So how’s things with Annmarie?” I ask.

“Good,” he says. “She’s coming over later to work on the project.”

“She taking care of your needs?”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s religious,” I say. “I just hope that’s not getting in the way of taking care of your needs.”

We stare at one other.

“You should dress up more,” Bernard says as he approaches me. “It makes you look a lot more … glamorous.”

According to the digital clock on the dresser, it’s 11:22. By 11:35 I’ve agreed to buy a guinea pig. By 11:50 we’re sitting side-by-side on Bernard’s bed. I don’t know what time it is when his pants come down—my back is to the dresser at that point—but it can’t be much past lunchtime.

When I leave, Bernard gives me a plastic sandwich bag filled with green, rod-shaped pellets. Some guinea pig food to get me started. He’s picked out a brown, lemon-sized animal with a white band around its middle and put it into a cardboard carrier with air holes and pink hearts stenciled on it. He tells me its name is Tucker, but I can call it whatever I want.

Bernard, for whatever reason, seems sullen and guilty. He even refuses to take my five bucks.

On the drive home I think about setting the guinea pig loose in the woods, but I’m afraid some crazy PETA person might see me and the next thing you know I’m up on voluntary rodent slaughter charges. Instead, I park in our driveway, go into the garage, dig around, and find an old rusting bird cage that I don’t even remember.

On the way to my room I have to pass my mother who’s watching The World Series of Pinochle on TV. She’s been drinking vodka and cleaning the house—always a deadly combination.

“Your friend just called,” she tells me without looking over.

“Which friend?” I ask.

“Take a wild guess, Miss Popularity,” she says.

I ignore this obvious shot because, quite frankly, who has time? I had planned to call Annmarie later in the day, but now it looks as if the beans might have to be spilled a little sooner.

“What’s with the box and the cage?” she asks

“Kid in my class,” I tell her. “I’m taking care of her canary.”

“Just what I need,” she says. “One more birdbrain.”

I figure I’ll break it to her something like this: You’re boyfriend is a creep, I’ll say. He had sex with me.

Annmarie will be upset and make all sorts of accusations.

Hey, I’ll say. Don’t blame me. It wasn’t my dick that went into his mouth.

At this point, Annmarie will break into tears and I’ll comfort her and point out that it was a mistake to ever let anybody come between us. A mistake that we’ll never make again.

But the actual phone call doesn’t go that way.

“Bernard called me,” Annmarie says.

“And?” I ask, leaning back on the headboard of my bed.

“He told me everything.”

She sounds almost frighteningly calm.

“Can I tell you my side?” I ask.

“You don’t need to,” she tells me. And then she adds, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

I picture her with this sickeningly sweet smile on her face.

“You did nothing wrong,” she says. “You simply followed the guidance of a higher power.”

“I gave him a blowjob,” I say.

“You gave him a spiritual wake-up call,” she says. “He feels terrible. Hollowed out. In need.”

“He does?”

“And guess what? He now wants to go to church with me so we can seek answers together. It’s exactly what I’ve been praying for.”

Annmarie tells me a few more things, but I’m not listening. What I am doing is seeing it all—the job with Cablevision, the apartment together, the bending over and telling my mother to pucker up—flying out the door faster than my father did.

“Praise God,” Annmarie says just before she hangs up.

“Praise God,” I say, simply because I can’t think of anything else.

From the living room I hear my mother yell, “Do you have the peanut butter in there?!”

“NO!” I bellow back as loud as I can.

I get up from my bed, take the guinea pig from the cardboard box, and put it into the bird cage. It looks pathetic. I’ll get it something better at PetSmart, maybe one of those habitats with the plastic tubes it can run through. And I’ll feed it. Not too much, just enough. Because if there’s one thing I don’t want, it’s some bloated rodent, staring out with bulging eyes, wondering if it’s time to eat again.

I come from an Italian family where everyone is overweight. (“Good morning, have a cannoli,” is not an uncommon greeting.) About a year ago, when my eleven-year-old daughter saw me in a pair of bikini underpants and asked what was up with “the thong,” I decided to diet for the first time in my life. “Fat” comes from that endlessly unpleasant experience.

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